Opportunities

This entry is going to be just a little different from the norm. I had a great opportunity this week and I wanted to share it. I was invited to be on a committee that is part of the test development cycle for the state teacher examinations. The part of the cycle that I was involved in was the standard setting (deciding cut scores/passing scores) for the English Language Skills and Essay subtests for the General Knowledge exam.

There were 33 of us on the committee. Most participants were classroom teachers, 6-12, teaching some form of English (9-12, AP, etc.). There were a few instructional coaches and curriculum supervisors, but I was the only person who directly worked with any sort of assessment department. The exam contract is with Pearson, but I’m pretty sure the people who were in charge of the day were from the DOE. I think I’ll take this moment to remind everyone I live in Florida, so for me this was a trip up to Tallahassee. And I’d just like to give a shout of praise out to the DOE for having convenient, free parking at their facility. Which is more than I can say for my district’s main administrative building. Even though we’re one of the top 10 largest districts in the country. But I digress.

We started the day by taking the 40-question, multiple-choice ELS exam. No one got a perfect score (which should tell you something about the quality of the exam…), but I felt pretty good that I got 39 right. Then we went through, question by question, and did a judgment score on a scale of 1-10. The idea here was to think of the examinees that would be in the subset of just barely qualifying to be a successful passing teacher. We would expect them to pass (whatever standard we ended up setting) the entire test, but just by the skin of their teeth. Then, we looked at each item individually and judged what percent of that population would get that item correct. We did this independently. But then they ran our data and we got to see the distribution of “scores” and the median as well. We were able to compare our judgments to the judgments of the group and we were given the performance data from the actual administration of the exam. It was the data from the first time the test had been administered.

What I found extremely interesting was that our (as a whole) group rating was significantly higher than the actual performance on the exam. For example, the median rating on a question might have been an 8, which meant that we would expect 71-80% of that subset group would answer that question correctly, but the same question might have actually only had a 60% passing rate – or worse. There were only a few (as in 5 or less) items where our median rating was the same or lower than the actual performance. We did that twice and then based on that data we gave our opinion on the score that we thought should be the passing score. What was really interesting is how group (mostly – I was an outlier for the most part) seemed to judge the items from an English teacher point of view rather than remembering that people of all backgrounds take the test. Because it is a General Knowledge test, no matter what subject or level you want to teach, you take this test and have to pass all the subtests (there is also a Math and one other – Science or maybe Social Studies). No one could seem to understand why their ratings were so much higher than the actual performance. They seemed so caught up in every teacher absolutely having to know all these rules of grammar and conventions that they couldn’t see the forest through the trees.

It was really difficult for me to decide on a passing score. I was torn between whether or not to have a standard that was so high that the people who pass would have a strong grasp of English language skills or to make the passing rate low enough that people who were probably decent enough to be teachers could get into the classroom, even if they were a little weak on the grammar. It was like deciding between quality and quantity. And then I had to keep in mind that an examinee could take the exam as many times as he/she wanted (had to pay, of course, but there was no limit on attempts). So do I make it a more challenging passing score so that the people who really wanted to pass so they would go back and study harder and learn more of the rules. It was a real dilemma for me, knowing that my decision would impact thousands of people’s careers. Obviously my decision wasn’t final, but our data was going to be presented to the Commissioner of Education as recommendations.

I’m curious – what direction do you go? Quality or quantity? And keep in mind that I would never set it low enough that a complete moron could get through, I was just thinking about those people who were planning on teaching math, science, or social studies – subject areas that don’t routinely teach (or even need) the intricacies of grammar and conventions.

Deciding on the essay cut score was a little easier, because no matter what subject one teaches, writing is an important component – even just technical writing. So I felt more comfortable setting a challenging passing score for that subtest.

So. Tell me. What do you think a reasonable passing score (percentage) for an English language skills exam should be? Quality or quantity?

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Making Fan Fiction Cool

If you were to find any of the hundreds of students I’ve taught over the last decade and ask them to tell you one thing about me, I’d wager a hefty sum that the most popular response would be, “She LOVES Harry Potter!” I was notorious for using Harry Potter examples for nearly everything I introduced: all the literary terms, plot devices, archetypes…you name it, I found a way to relate it to Harry Potter. I would always issue a challenge at the beginning of the year that no student could ask me a question about the Harry Potter books that I would not know the answer to. I only failed that test one time in ten years. Eventually, my students would learn that I am an avid reader and writer of Harry Potter fan fiction. The other die-hard HP fans would think this was the coolest thing ever and demand to read my works, which I would oblige them (the appropriate ones, anyway). The majority of my students, however, thought that reading and writing fan-fictions was just about the dumbest, nerdiest, most ridiculous thing they’d ever heard of.

So I decided to teach them a lesson.

I not only write fan fiction material, but I also have original works that I have been developing for many, many years. One of these is a young adult fiction novel (it’s a coming-of-age piece, really well done, if I do say so myself…the novel and accompanying unit is available in my TpT store – the novel is titled “Purple Storm” – but enough of the product plug). Once I had finally finished it and had gone through several rounds of revisions and edits, I decided to read it to my students. They absolutely loved it! When it was over, they were all disappointed and wanted to know what happened to several of the characters. They knew I had written it, so they implored me to continue writing the story. I told them that I was done and there wouldn’t be any more added on to the story. I then asked them if they wanted to write more for the story – things that happened to characters after the story ended. My students’ eyes lit up and they squealed with joy! “Yes! Oh, Miss, could we do that? I mean, you’d let us do that?” I explained that my work was my own, but I couldn’t stop anyone from writing things about it, as long as they didn’t try to make any money off of it. Once I was sure they were all gung-ho on writing their own parts to my work, I dropped the bomb.

“You want to write what happens next? What you think should happen next? That, ladies and gentlemen, is fan fiction.”

Boo-yah. The looks on their faces were pretty priceless. I had lots of requests to read my HP fan fictions after that. It was a good day.

Encourage your students to write fan fictions. It’s such a good way to develop creativity and writing skills. In fact, I challenge you to write your own fan fictions. And find some good ones to read. They’re out there. I’m partial to the HP universe, of course, but others exist.

You might surprise yourself…

Here is a link to my novel, published on Amazon (for both Kindle as an ebook and available in paperback).

purple storm

Purple Storm novel unit

Instant Gratification

I think most people like instant gratification. It’s nice not to have to wait for something to happen. Patience isn’t many peoples’ strong suit. This used to be a problem for me while teaching. I would give a direction and expect my students to follow it right away. In fact, one of my rules was to follow directions the first time they’re given. This did not usually happen, though. I found myself repeating the directions several times in just a minute or two because my students did not immediately do what I asked. This was especially problematic for my “challenging” students. The ones who didn’t want to do any work. The ones who wore their hoodies up even though it was against dress code. The ones who just wanted to put their heads down and sleep. I found myself getting into power struggles with these students because I would ask them to do something and they wouldn’t do it right away and so I’d ask again (in a more frustrated tone) and it would escalate from there, sometimes resulting in the student just walking out of class.

This was not working. I knew I had to try something else. Throughout my years as a teacher, I’ve had to take more than one professional development course that stressed the importance of ‘wait time’. When you ask a question during a discussion, you have to give several seconds of wait time for students to process the question and formulate an answer. One day I had the epiphany that if I was expected to have wait time for academic questions, shouldn’t I have it for directions, too? What would happen if I gave a direction and simply waited longer before repeating myself? I decided to give it a try.

Magic. I noticed immediately that this was effective. My students who would have otherwise been belligerent and confrontational were not any longer. I gave my directive (please take off your hood) and I just waited. (And while I waited, I went about my business, teaching class as usual.) Sometimes I waited a lot longer than I wanted to, but I waited. And the vast majority of the time, the student eventually complied. Maybe it was because they wanted to wait long enough for the other students to forget I’d asked them to do it, so when they did it, it would seem like their own idea. Who knows? The point is, I dramatically reduced the behavior problems in my room because I simply gave my students the freedom to work on their own timetable.

Side note: I have a two-year-old son, and I have found this works really well with him, too. It requires a LOT of patience on my part, but I avoid frustration and power struggles with him. Sometimes it takes more time than I think I have, but then I think about the time a struggle or tantrum would take and I realize it’s a great pay off. I ask (put your bat down, please) and I wait. And I wait. And sometimes I ask one more time gently. And I wait. And then, on his own timetable, he does it. And life is good.

Proofs

I have often heard that people either like Algebra or Geometry, but not (usually) both. This was true for me. I have also heard that boys tend to like Algebra and girls tend to like Geometry. Not sure why this is, or if it is even true, but it certainly wasn’t for me. I absolutely detested Geometry. It was so boring to me. I (no joke) would sit in the back of the room with headphones on and I don’t think I ever got less than a 95 on any test or assignment. Fortunately, my teacher left me alone. And this is weird because Algebra was SO hard for me. You’d think that I would have liked the easier subject, but…for some reason, I just couldn’t stand Geometry. Looking back, I think it was because of the proofs. I thought it was absolutely ridiculous that I had to memorize all the postulates and theorems and list them out every time I solved a problem. You didn’t have to do that in Algebra.

Until I worked with Suzanne. My second teaching position in Las Vegas, NV had me working with an amazing math teacher, Suzanne. We both taught 8th grade Algebra I Honors. She mandated that her students use proofs when solving equations. At first, I thought this was so crazy (okay, okay, I thought it was stupid) because this wasn’t Geometry, folks, it was Algebra! There are no postulates or theorems! But there are rules, and she had her students write down each and every one they followed as they went through solving a problem. The result? Students made fewer errors and they understood the reasoning behind their work.

For example, let’s say a student had to solve the equation x + 3 = 9. The student would show the work subtracting 3 from each side and then justify it with the zero pairs rule (3 – 3 = 0, so x = 6). Other rules they might use would be the commutative properties, additive properties, identity properties, distributive properties, FOIL, etc. It took more time for students to do their work, but it also forced them to slow down so they made fewer mistakes.

My middle school algebraic Power Point lessons all employ this method of solving equations. Most of my Power Points are Common Core-aligned. I also have non-algebraic lessons (measurement, Geometry, basic arithmetic, etc.). Head on over to my store and check them out!