Tuesday, May 31, 2011

STAR light STAR bright....I wish they may, I wish they might...get most of the answers right

Oh yes! The worst two weeks of every year, STAR testing. For any of you who may not know, this is California's policy makers finding a way to stress out even the youngest of students. It's our version of standardized testing. Now I understand the need for it. Really, I do. It's important to be able to tell the world "see they are learning". Or wait, it's important to tell the world "see we are holding those uneducated educators accountable". Hmmm....now I'm not really sure why we have these lovely little tests...oh that's right, to show that students are learning the state standards.

When I first taught, I worked with older children. They were old enough for me to say "Rock it out! Do your best! If you mess up, then hey it's only a snapshot. You are more than a number." For some strange reason it didn't occur to me that in moving to teach the little people, that my standard response would not work. Little people are naturally intimidated by assessments. They have not yet perfected the "F is for fantastic" mantra and most still want to do well, generally speaking. I was unprepared as we sat down to take our practice tests. I read the directions, they began, and all was well. Then it happened....sniffles. First here, then there, then...like a plague...EVERYWHERE! What is going on here? Is this some sort of reaction to the secret ninga dust bunnies that lurk in our room? No, that can't be it. They could not all possibly be fighting bats in their caves, right? No the booger bandit could not be waiting to emerge. Then it became worse, there was sniffling, and whimpering! I looked around the room in total shock. I was staring at some sort of natural disaster and I was frozen. What is wrong with them? So quickly and quietly I made my way around the room to assess. Were they holding their stomachs? Sitting in a puddle of the dreaded pee pee? No and no. They were crying. Most of them were crying. Now why pray tell were these little people crying?  They were crying because they were afraid. The problem was, I had no idea why they were afraid. Were they fearful that "someone" would know that they did not do their best? Or that they guessed on a question here or there? No. As a later, much needed, discussion would reveal, they were far more mature than I ever realized. They were afraid of failure.  The amazing part was that, they knew they would never see this test again, that it was a one shot deal and yet they were still afraid. As the conversation progressed, I sat listening and transformed into the student as they began to teach me about their learned test anxiety.

That conversation was a major turning point for me. To hear eight and nine year-olds clearly articulate the redundant feel of defeat that they encountered as they progressed through the test, was an awakening. Of course they were afraid, heck they didn't even understand half the questions on the test. Far be it from me to ask them to actually answer these dreaded little demonic inquiries. It must be scary to be in their position. At that age most of them are still deeply invested in pleasing adults and the joy of learning. So to have your entire classroom transform into a sterile environment, and your usually goofy animated teacher turn into a robot spitting out directions must be a real shocker! So I decided from that point on, I was going to set it up to change as little as possible. That's right folks, there will be no resources on my walls (because then we don't have to cover them up). We have no silly little ankle-biter alphabets, no never ending number line, and certainly none of those "If you don't know how to think, here's how" posters. I changed everything! I reformatted all of my assessments so that the testing conditions would be the same, created "assessment rituals" that would be used throughout the year, and encouraged them to become excited about the opportunity to "show off their awesomeness".

OMG was that a boatload of work! Surprisingly enough I had to answer about a zillion questions about my new found decorating practices. To a certain extent I'm quite sure that I offended a rather fossil-minded professional at my school when I refused to make use of sound cards. The idea that I would not give them a resource was apparently mind-boggling! The thing was, in my mind I was giving them a resource. I was forcing them to think for themselves, and darn it if there was a moment when they needed to look up the spelling of a word or sound, then they could find that information in the reference section of our classroom.

It's been four years now and I have to say that the majority of the test anxiety has completely disappeared. It's still the most fantastically boring experience of the year for all parties involved, but we survive without the tears. That's enough to make me try to walk the coals with them every time.

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