“Are we taking a test?” Leah’s eyes were wide, and she was breathing heavily after running in from the playground. Nine of her fourth grade peers came scrambling behind her, hurriedly rummaging for pencils from their desks before lining up in the hall.
I can understand Leah’s reason for the question. Since the start of the school year, she has taken no less than four district mandated assessments in order to be placed in the appropriate instructional environment—and that’s just in reading. Because I’m her ESL teacher, I administer most of those tests in small group settings. Still, it concerned me that her automatic association with me was testing, particularly because I know this student has testing anxiety. Unlike her older brother who has excelled academically, she has struggled throughout school and spends much of the time overwhelmed by the grade level tasks she is expected to accomplish.
This time, though, I was not pulling fourth grade for testing. I was pulling them for their first day of writer’s workshop. We read Marla Frazee’s Roller Coaster and shared stories about our experiences that were both exciting and frightening. Instead of looks of distress or disengagement, students were smiling, laughing, and waving their hands in the air for their chance to talk. They were connecting to the text, but more importantly, they were connecting to each other.
Over the course of the next week, they selected and personalized their journals and began recording their “best” and “worst” lists (thanks to Aimee Buckner’s Notebook Know How). It was thrilling to see my most emotionally disengaged student physically hug his new Marvel Comic Superhero journal. Another “easily distracted” boy added 25 events to his best list at home, even though it was not an official homework assignment. Two “non-readers” wrote me messages outside of class, following my directions to fold the page and write “please read” if they wanted to draw my attention to something they had written. All of the “irresponsible” students took their notebooks home and remembered to bring them back the next day. And this was only the first week!
This year ushered in a new era for my district. We are now in School Improvement Year 2 under No Child Left Behind, specifically because of TCAP scores within the ELL subgroup. Because of this, all ELL teachers are required to follow a scripted reading program for students who are “at risk.” After a month of implementing this program, I hate to admit that I’m pleasantly surprised. The stories are high interest, the oral vocabulary component is engaging, and the comprehension skills are relatively well aligned. Though some of my friends in the NWP may cringe when they read this, I must confess that the scripted program is not bad. But I haven’t seen any child physically hug the basal reader, even though the glossy photographs are intended to make it look like a magazine. Not one student has begged me to take her workbook home to complete extra practice. And even though my students are actively engaged in discussion, the only time they laugh is when we momentarily get “off task.” No, the scripted program isn’t bad, but it’s not really good either.
What is bad is that the reading programs we are being told to follow “with fidelity” leave no room for the really good. Writer’s workshop is being squeezed out of the curriculum. Because of the new schedule, I only have 30 minutes a day that is not scripted. Though I teach kindergarten through fifth grade, fourth grade is the only group that will have the luxury of daily writing. The other groups get writing instruction once a week, if we don’t have a field trip, assembly, holiday, snow day, or the ubiquitous test day. What haunts me is how I might have to answer the next child who comes running in from the playground.
“Are we taking a test?”