Winston Churchill Visits the Valley

March 29, 2016

Today, I watched the kids write personal essays on one page of lined paper that got shipped to Austin to be graded by adults who don’t know them. It was their writing STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness), for which they’ve been preparing intensely over the past few weeks. I didn’t even teach reading last week - they came to my room and worked on grammar, punctuation, and those one-page essays. 

I love the times when I get to see them write. In the ideal world, in the world that will be every other year I teach, I would learn all about them through their reading and their responses to what they read. This year, simply getting them to read has been hard enough. I know what books they’ll choose but I don’t know what they want to be when they grow up or what their favorite places are or who their best friend is. When they write essays, I can peer over their shoulders and into their minds. 

(Would you like to know what they wrote about today?….I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you, or the State of TX would kill me). 

When the test ended, the reality of teaching reading again came back to me. We have five weeks before our STAAR to do so much. Forgive me for the mess below:

I would be lying if I didn’t say that this year has been a struggle. I don’t feel capable anymore of stringing together elegant sentences, crisp nouns and verbs with a pearl of observation at the end. In some ways, I feel this is a good thing. My teacher voice and vision are stronger, and what I see and say in my classroom feel more like my job than a weird and intense journalistic experience. At the same time, I feel like some part of my vision and drive has gone missing. Today I think I am remembering to get it back. 

At the beginning of March, my students took their third district benchmark test in reading. We had been preparing for it like they were just preparing for their writing STAAR - after-school tutoring, practice passages, testing strategies, silent reading time. My jaw was clenched and the students were sad, and frustrated, and mean. I was doing what I had been determined not to do. Blinded by the hope of good test results, I turned my classroom into a black hole: a place where positive energy and fun went to die, unless you were one of those students who takes negative energy and grows into a chirpingly menacing side-comment machine. (Editor’s note, one month later: this may be an exaggeration. Leaving in for accuracy as to emotions at time of initial composition). 

Many of my students worked hard and many of them saw a lot of growth on that benchmark test. Many of them, however, especially those who consistently misbehaved in class, stayed put or decreased their scores. We showed growth from the second benchmark, but we scored below the district average of 74% passing. I felt disappointed. I went to a boxing class that night and accidentally bruised and blistered my hands so that they shook when I packed my lunch before bed. That’s what the scores felt like: despite so much hard work and so much love for my students, I got beat up. It felt like a reflection on me and the motivation I seemed to have failed to give my kids. It is, in many ways. (See below, "Charlotte learns to suck it up”).

Over spring break, I had started dreaming again. We need to turn them into readers, I thought. I forgot that part! I was trying to make test-takers! I'll spend my whole class period reading books with them! They’ll write connections and summaries on sticky notes in books that they choose! I’ll have them write a book report! That’s how I learned to read, in my suburban private day school and at my house full of books! Of course it’s the way in this place that is so entirely different!

Reality sank in today when I met with my grade team and our principal. Five weeks isn’t that long. It’s not impossible to make kids the sort of readers I want them to be - joyful and analytical and independent - within that time, but they also have a lot of multiple choice questions to learn how to answer. And if they don’t pass this test, they can’t go to 5th grade. 

So the wonderful writing teacher will be turning her writing block into a reading block so that the kids get double doses of reading. I was given a calendar to fill in - two unmastered TEKs, or objectives (SWBAT sequence and summarize important events in a work of fiction, maintaining meaning and order) to re-teach per day. Clear assessments each day so I can submit daily data on each kids’ strengths and weakness. And the principal has brought in a third, experienced teacher who will be working with me in my classroom to further concentrate our focus and help me get the kids motivated. 

It all sort of threw me for a loop, and this afternoon, sticking away the folding chairs in the hallway after our meeting, I realized: I am taking this personally! I have an ego! It’s bruised! I don’t know what to do! I feel paralyzed and scared! Let me continue thinking about idealistic ways to get them reading!

Running before sunset, things become clearer. The pendulum swings from stubborn dreaming to practical action, mostly. I start to work through the wreckage of a first year teacher’s work - what new can be created, and what else will have to be tweaked and salvaged at this point in the year? Maybe we do just need to get them practicing test passage after test passage. I can move my energy from planning theoretically awesome, overly-complicated lessons into being enthusiastic every single hour of every single day. A good salesperson can sell an empty plastic cup - maybe I can make a passage entitled “Building a Better Sandcastle” more nail-bitingly fascinating than the last scene of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I drove home in enough of a daze that I listened to the droning ads on KTEX. Pulling onto my street, a weird British accent woke me up. I choked up suddenly because that voice was Winston Churchill’s, Nonna’s idol, and he was saying:

“Never, never, never give up”….

I pulled into my driveway. Breeze stirred the palm trees in a pink sky. The ad ended. Anincongruous accent and incongruous associations in a housing development near Mexico. Good words are always relevant. I put my car in park and got to work.