As I spend my last days of summer vacation in my classroom preparing for the start of my 25th new school year, I find myself reflecting on past classes, curriculum changes and my beliefs about education. I find it frustrating that the driving forces throughout my career have been reform movements and increased accountability systems requiring students to be tested and assessed on a regular basis throughout the school year. Last year’s class picture is still on the board, and looking at the children’s beautiful smiles I can’t help but wonder how they will adjust to 4th grade. They were a diverse group, with strong personalities, playful behaviour and divergent learning needs. They were from several states in India, mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Russia and Vietnam, as well as English only speaking children from the United States. The time available for us to engage in meaningful conversations about our cultures, our perspectives on different topics, and experiences, was limited, leaving me feeling that I need more time with them before welcoming a new group of students.
The intensity of the transition to this new high stakes assessment was such that, upon reflection, for the first time, more of my time was spent focused on curriculum and test preparation than on building relationships with students and listening to their input on their own learning
A big focus during last school year was the first full implementation of the new computer based assessment program (SBAC) designed to assess progress towards the newest reform movement, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The intensity of the transition to this new high stakes assessment was such that, upon reflection, for the first time, more of my time was spent focused on curriculum and test preparation than on building relationships with students and listening to their input on their own learning. I have always believed that relationship is the most important ingredient for a successful learning community, yet as I look at last year’s class picture, I can tell you more about which technology skill was tricky for each learner, or upon which aspect of the mechanics of reading each needs focused attention, than their interests, motivations, and understandings.
The district in which I work is currently classified as a Program Improvement district because our disaggregated data show that our students identified as English Language Learners (ELL) are not making adequate yearly progress as measured by state testing. Our school had to create a school-wide language Lab session in our daily schedule in which students were grouped by English language arts proficiency for 30 minutes of focused instruction. Beginning in Kindergarten students change classes and teachers during this time, necessitating at least 10 additional minutes each session for transition throughout the campus.
In addition to this, last year, my third grade class had approximately four hours a week assigned to working in the computer lab or with Chromebooks to improve touch typing and computer navigation skills in anticipation of the new testing regime. In previous years, my third graders spent only one hour a week developing these skills. Even our professional development sessions throughout the year were focused on improving student performance and teaching skills necessary for test taking on the computer.
In this era of high stakes testing and competition for the highest scores, the voice of the learner seems to be silenced
It seems that curriculum and assessment are now even more central to the education process, as opposed to a learner centred model, which the language of the CCSS hinted at to me. Throughout my career, of course time has been spent looking at data and making informed decisions about instructional needs, but recently, I feel that instruction is something done to students and for students, not with students. In this era of high stakes testing and competition for the highest scores, the voice of the learner seems to be silenced.
Intriguing to me is that the CCSS calls for students to interact deeply with a wide variety of texts. Proponents and critics of the CCSS argue that the standards do not explicitly detail how they are to be implemented, which is a big shift from the often scripted curriculum popular in schools during the No Child Left Behind era. This has the potentiality to provide the opportunity to find out from learners how the process of engaging with text is working or not working for them. Students are also expected to engage in meaningful conversations about text with adults and peers. In response to this, the research project I plan puts the learner at the heart of the process, and their voices and perspectives will be captured using a variety of methods. The children are tested and assessed enough.
Providing opportunities to interact with texts in English and teaching students strategies for working with texts is only part of the process. In order for these experiences to be meaningful, understanding what is meaningful to each learner has to be a part of the process. Gaining insight into the processes students are employing to engage with text can only come from the students themselves, if the reciprocity between children and text is to be genuine and meaningful. Paying attention to children’s words will help us to co-construct meaning and build authentic interaction with texts together. Capturing student voice using video, conversations, journals, and art can only deepen the process and contribute to meaningful relationships between learners, adults, and texts.
Hopefully, this time next year, I will not be left looking at a class picture and wondering about conversations left unspoken and the understandings we all missed out on and how that perspective could have enriched our learning.