Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Eye of the Storm and the Aftermath

Trying to articulate the reality inside a school during the absolute peak of testing season is best described as flying inside the eye of a storm. There is the blur and glimpse of things you recognize and know - a snapshot of an inquiry project in a younger grade where testing is less. A brief moment where I see shoeboxes inside a classroom and I know that they are working on dioramas every second they aren't testing. But, I can't stay to view the process because I am pulling a child for a one on one test - there are always more tests to be given. I am pulled back into the eye of the storm.

There is that repeat conversation I hear in the hallway as children see adults who use to routinely be in their classrooms, such as myself. The conversation goes like this as the child says, "Why aren't you coming to work with us anymore?" The adult replies something like, "I can't anymore, my schedule has changed." Or, "I can't anymore, I have to give this test to children now." When I am asked this question I always follow up with an explanation of how I miss them and how I want to come in but I can't because I am required to give this test. I say that I don't want to give the test.  That is all followed by some anger, guilt, shame and helplessness because I can't change this right now as much as I want to. For many of these children it's just one more abandonment, one more time they've seen a person or society, not show up. And I'm part of it.

But the eye of the storm rages on. I have to leave the child in the hallway and I have to walk to a new class with my box of the "other" tests. I have somehow become the manager of data for READ Act children. READ Act children are children designated as failures under the READ Act crafted by our legislators who know nothing about the reality inside our schools. Once upon a time I was what is termed a "teaching partner" also known as a literacy coach - although I despise that title "coach." But, long story short,  I got to co-teach with teachers, pull small groups and work alongside classrooms to support instruction and help our school achieve our dream of truly becoming an inquiry-based democratic school. I worked one on one with children and supported them in seeing their immense strengths and talents and just how darn amazing they all are. But those days are gone.

In the eye of the storm I landed in this new space where I carry a box and I administer a test called PALS. I must administer it because I was "trained" to give it and many teachers still do not know how to do it. Also, the teachers are so busy giving PARCC and DRA2 that they don't have time to give it. All testing is due by May 8th. I am in charge of reminding teachers of May 8th.

Many times I get kicked out of my office because another test is going on in there - such as the PARCC, which I have refused to administer. But, it did little good to refuse because there is always another test to administer, as you can see.  When children are not taking PARCC I can give them the PALS test. Now I stand in the aftermath of a storm - when PARCC is not being administered there is always a new hellish test to bring forward - in my case, it is PALS.  If PARCC is being administered in my office, I must carry everything with me - my lunch, my bag of notebooks and student supplies should I get to do something worth doing. I refuse to give PALS to children if they are taking PARCC that day so I continually must examine the calendar to see where to go next. I carry my PALS kit like a doctor paying home visits. And then of course there is my coffee in hand to keep me awake during these hours of testing and finally my laptop. I juggle all of it and carry it all from room to room as we stand on our last leg in this final rage of the storm that ends on May 8th. The data must be in by that date.  No excuses. No exceptions. I continually must dig into data programs to see which children are in need of the PALS assessments. We find errors. Some are listed as needing PALS and don't. Others should be on a READ plan (which can declare third grade retention if children do not hit benchmark numbers on PALS and DRA2) and they aren't. Others are on the verge of qualifying for a READ plan and you feel the fear rise up in your body as you pray that they hit the right reading "level" to avoid this plan. Others can exit READ and I feel like I saved them from hell. I give a special thanks to the universe when I exit a child from this god forsaken READ plan and I curse the legislators who created such a monster to harm my children while placing me as an accomplice.

Sometimes in the aftermath of a storm a structure will crash down. The aftermath can be the most dangerous time. Things will crumble unexpectedly or an electric wire will suddenly ignite a fire as folks wander through to see - what is left? What remains? We're still looking for those glimpses of something we recognize. Something we can grab onto and remember what the reality of public education should like and we are continually planning how to get it back. 

During this aftermath I must serve as that electric wire, or that trigger to crumble a building. You see, when the children are done PARCC testing, truly in the eye of the storm, they think they are done. They think it's over. But it's not. They must get pulled back in by me or by their teacher to take the PALS or the DRA2 or the Mondo Oral language or the math assessments. I am that unfortunate disaster that arrives, box in hand, during the aftermath. I pull them back into the storm while they are in the midst of that work on a diorama.  It all appears perfectly innocent to any bystander. It's simply a test that asks a child to read words, to read a passage, perhaps to tell me their letter sounds or blend or segment a word. Absolute innocence as I sit on the floor out in the hallway with a child while I punch away at my computer and the child obediently answers the questions. No one would recognize it for the danger it represents, except myself and other teachers, who know the READ Act and who know why I am there.

So let's see what that building looks like as it crumbles with us inside and how a teacher might try to help the child escape this aftermath. This is how PALS works. It expects no knowledge from the teacher to determine the child's abilities. It is truly a listen and click system where online I click what the child said or did. The PALS system requires you to start at grade level and bumps you up or down depending on how the child does. Right now we only administer PALS to READ Act students - these are students who have been labeled as failing by our state legislators who created and voted for this law - so we will clearly put the blame where blame belongs  - point the finger at the legislators.  When I begin the test, it starts at grade level and bumps them down, because as I said before, they have already been labeled as failures. This is how the structure crumbles.  A child reads a fourth grade word list. They fail. It bumps them down to third. They fail. It bumps them down to second. I attempt to figure out a way to make this process somewhat doable, you know - you try to rationalize how torturing these children can be not a big deal, normal, as inside I am panicking as I know where this is headed and I know what part I am playing. I figure out ways to game the system a bit to avoid the absolute crushing of a child's soul as it continues to bump the child down. Now we are at the first grade list. Then Preprimer. The child is failing. 

Suddenly we arrive at Humpty Dumpty. This is when the absolute insanity and terror arrive and no longer can I even begin to hang on by a thread of normalcy. The PALS system tells me what to do. I read it in horror. I must have this ten year old read Humpty Dumpty with me. We could go into all sorts of discussions here about racism, children at the age of ten who struggle with reading and why, nursery rhymes for white children, discussions of how we can take down the READ Act, and perhaps at this point you are saying, Peggy, walk away and refuse to do it. But save those discussions for another day because right now I am face to face with a ten year old and must administer the final blow of the test that confirms the child's failure. The child does not know the Humpty Dumpty rhyme as the child did not grow up hearing this rhyme. PALS demands all sorts of things that I, as a teacher, am not supposed to consider or THINK about doing or not doing - I am not in charge - PALS is - this is suppose to make my life easier and I am suppose to embrace it.  I am suppose to move forward with "fidelity." That is how corporate education reform works. Fidelity to fail children and humiliate them, abandon them, and have them look at you thinking, I thought you were with me?  Corporate education reform demands that we teachers act as traitors to our children as we place them in situations which we know will prove them to be failures, using racist and culturally biased tests that discriminate against them.  This is the aftermath. The child finishes PARCC and I arrive. They thought it was over. It is not. And it appears it will never be over unless the parents continue to rise up and refuse.

In my head I am trying to use teacher judgment and decision-making as I maneuver through the online world of PALS. I want to start on the word list that I know is this child's independent level. That makes sense right?  And then I want to move up to the instructional level.  But it insists that I start at a level I know is frustration for this child.  It will be necessary to game the system to avoid watching the child crumble in front of me.  This is the deep dark work of the ugliness of high stakes testing that pushes teachers to potentially cheat. Will I go to jail if I zeroed out the fourth grade list rather than listen to the child say "I don't know" on 20 words? Will I go to jail because I refuse to use the flashing screen component where the word appears and the child must quickly say the word or say I don't know as I must click seconds later to go to the next word? What about the fluency component? A child who reads the PALS 5th grade reading passage slowly and with comprehension gets bumped down to third grade because she doesn't read fast enough. Let's imagine for a minute that a teacher gamed the system and turned off the fluency timer when this additional horror was discovered. Will this teacher go to jail?

Perhaps you laugh at these scenarios. I don't. As I explained the complexities of PALS to various friends the first thing that was asked was, if one should, perhaps, game the system - is that cheating - meaning - you could go to jail?  Why would one - a person who is not a teacher or working in the public schools -  ask that? One word. Atlanta. A message to teachers everywhere. Punishment will be handed out. 

Perhaps folks think this is nothing. But you weren't there when the child stopped in the middle of a passage and said, am I doing okay? Do you want me to read faster? Children know high stakes and they know how to game the system too. It doesn't matter if they comprehend, speed is key. You weren't there when the child fumbled on Humpty Dumpty and you weren't there when a ten year old child was required to read four word lists, a book that was clearly designed for kindergarten and finally was forced to blend and segment words and tell me their letter sounds. You weren't there when the child said the words loudly at first and then in a mumbled whisper at the end as she felt the failure.  You weren't there when ten assessments and an hour later I finally could let the child go back to the class.  You weren't there for the aftermath.  You weren't there trying to figure out how to ease the pain. So much for refusing to administer the PARCC.  The hell has seeped into every crevice of our building and the aftermath is never ending.

Perhaps this blog post makes no sense. I am not sure I can make sense of the eye of the storm or the aftermath. If you are not there, as our dear legislators are not, there is no way to truly feel it.

I end my day by visiting a classroom where inquiry is hopping and buzzing; a  younger grade where the harm felt is a little bit less.  I think of the tired expression on the children's faces when I pulled them for testing PALS. I think of the one child who did well and will exit the READ plan. Just one. And now I look at these children engaged in inquiry and loving every second of learning and my breath catches and I fear I might cry. That's the moment in the aftermath of a storm where you see your child's doll, and you hold her back as she tries to go run for it and pull it from the rubble, where danger still might lurk. 

I try to think with clarity these days about how this will look next year and what I will do. What will my next step be in rebuilding public schools?  The test and punish system is destroying us and it is close to completion.  Complete and utter destruction at such deep levels within the psyches of children and teachers who live it day by day. The conditioning to comply and accept failure has become normal and unquestioned. The ability to come out and breathe when there is a moment of true learning becomes increasingly more difficult to enjoy or truly believe in - because it is all a fraud as we wait for the next test and punish moment. I counted approximately 7 weeks max this year where I felt that I was engaged in true teaching and students were engaged and uninterrupted so that they could truly learn. It is no wonder we are tired, foggy and untrusting of any person, program or entity that comes into our building and proclaims they are here to help us, the so-called failing turnaround school.  We are anything but failing - we are fighters.  It is no wonder I feel immense anger towards those with privilege who continue to allow their children to take these tests. It is no wonder that I listen with rage as teachers in districts with wealthy zipcodes talk to me about how they only have one meeting once a month and they rarely have to administer READ Act assessments because most of their children come from homes with food and plentiful books.

Many teachers in schools of high poverty are fighters - we are growing stronger by the day. We are gearing up and quietly planning underground, together, to reclaim our public schools. It is no wonder that we look at the legislators and just laugh at this point at the absolute absurdity of their political theater. We continue to devise our own secret plans to tear down this madness using strategies and techniques that could indeed get us fired. It is no wonder that we turn to the parents to help us and truly beg them to refuse these tests for their children. We are tired of being required to carry out the crimes of the legislators. Just six days left. May 8th. After May 8th I can breathe and crawl out of the rubble and begin again.  This time I'm not alone. We are planning. Underground. Quietly planning. Waiting for the aftermath to end. 

1 comment:

  1. Peggy, you make perfect sense and this took my breath away. It disgusts me that the publishers of these tests have no clue how children should be assessed in a manner that provides information to knowledgeable teachers without harming children. I know that you have the ability to listen to a child read and know how to support that child. The obsession with "data" and the reduction of children to numbers and levels is a crime. Any test that requires assessing at the frustration level first is abusive. Although it hurts your heart to administer this test, you have done a great service by sharing the details of this assessment so others can understand what is happening in our schools and will hopefully join you in this fight. Thank you for sharing this. You are an inspiration!