Express Yourself

Be who you are and say how you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.
--Dr. Seuss

Friday, March 25, 2016

STAAR Writing-Ready...Or Not! (Refections of a Tired Fourth Grade Teacher)

It has been since February since I last posted. I know. Business and preparation have taken me away from my love of posting and blogging. I must say that I still post quite frequently on Face Book and Twitter. It is easier to post comments and photos that way. To post photos here, I need to upload the photos to my computer and then post. I could do it from my phone, but the screen is too small for my forty-something eyes. I also really want to take the time to revise and edit. For this reason and many others, I have not posted in quite sometime.  I apologize.

What has compelled me to write today?  I think that I am at a juncture where I can turn off all of my passion and intensity and get to writing. You see I have been in a whirlwind of testing, preparing documents and planning with colleagues, working Saturdays and spring breaks, after school grammar camps, and acquiring stomach viruses and several colds thathad developed into bronchitis. My plate has been extremely full and boy, how it runneth over! Today, I finally can sit down with a clear mind and write.

What has been constantly on my mind and heart?  My students and my school. Next Tuesday, my students and school will be embarking on a state test called the STAAR 4th Grade Writing. They will have four hours to answer 18 editing and revising multiple choice questions and write a composition on a 26-lined page. I believe that I have done everything in my power to prepare them to be successful. I have a group of 22 beautifully creative students. Over half of my class will take the test in English, and  less than half of my class will take the test in Spanish. Phew! Lots to do and manage.

Has it been easy? Yes, easy as having root canals on all of my teeth and crownings on the same day. Easy as building Rome from the ground up. Easy as peeling a thousand onions and then scratching my eye after seeding habaneros and jalapenos by hand.  Easy?  There is no such thing as easy when it comes to education. There is no such thing as  purple Nexuim pills. Nope. Easy does not run in my veins, nor do I subscribe to that channel.(I do, however, shop frequently at Staples.) But then again, nothing that is worthwhile is ever easy. The job that I choose to do is nothing short of ingenuity, creativity, dedication, efficiency, and roll-your-sleeves up- and-get-to-work-stinking-work. HARD WORK!

I love my students and school. Because of this love, I am 1,000 percent dedicated and devoted. I am all in, and there is not doubt about my allegiance. I have worked incessantly and fearlessly, along with my colleagues, creating plans, staff developing, developing Saturday camp curricula, Grammar Week Plans, (Please do not think that this week is the only week that my campus taught grammar. We coined the Grammar Week term as an after school additional review. We borrowed the term from Abydos Grammar Week.) and of course, going the extra mile of teaching daily, alongside some wonderful young writers.

I am a bilingual teacher. I have students in my class who are transitioning more and more each day from Spanish to English. When I say transitioning, I mean that they are becoming more bilingual and bi literate. By fourth grade, many of my students are becoming fully bilingual. As such, they will be taking the English Writing test. Other students are also transitioning, but they are not ready yet to be successful on an English Writing test. They will be taking the Spanish test and hopefully will do exceptionally well.

As you may know, there are discrepancies in English and Spanish. Some grammatical rules are the same, such as every sentence needs to begin with a capital letter,  verbs are needed to make a sentence a sentence, and all sentences have some type of end punctuation. But then there are the exceptions and differences such as in the conjugation of verbs. In English, you will always have the subject and verb mentioned in each sentence. (Unless it is an imperative sentence where the subject is assumed.) In Spanish, the subject is sometimes mentioned and other times no. The verb conjugation shows which person is speaking. Hablo for example has no subject mentioned. It could have, but doesn't have to have the subject mentioned. I know that the subject is Yo (first person singular) because of the verb conjugation that is particular to first person singular. In English, we write I speak. We don't write speak and automatically know who the subject might be. There are more differences as well.

When I began teaching 4th grade, I knew that it would be a balancing act between teaching Language Arts in both languages. I had to teach all of my students the grammatical structures of English and Spanish in about 7 months and show the format of the STAAR Test before they would take the state test. I will say that 100% of my students did not have the grammatical and syntactical structures remotely understood or even explored, before they walked through my classroom door. Two languages, two structures.
Now let's talk about spelling. There are so many exceptions in English and Spanish such as where to add the tilde or accent mark and not, when to use the b/c, h mudo (silent h), m/c, and z/s (singular and plural) among others. The English is just as daunting for the my emerging bilinguals. What about the irregular verbs, doubling of the consonants, changing y and adding ies, i before e except after c, the words with s/c, the silent words with silent letter such as know and knife, words with singular f changing to v when plural? Did I mention sentence combination, compound and complex sentence patterns? I haven't even scratched the surface. I am supposed to teach all of this in 7 months. Yepper, Skipper!

Previously, I had structured my class so that students would receive English Language Arts for a week. Then I would teach the following week in Spanish for Spanish Language Arts. I followed this pattern for a while. I realized that there wouldn't be enough time to cover all that I needed  for those testing in English and Spanish if I continued down this path. I changed course sometime in January.
I decided to teach my students in groups. (They had been taught in peer groups, one on one, and whole groups, but I had to change the group configurations,) Some skills they were taught whole group as mini lessons in either language, but the majority of the time, I worked in two groups. I worked with students testing in English and then in Spanish. The other students that were not working with me had work stations and projects to complete, as I worked with the others. Then I would switch groups and so on. Based on the data that I collected, it seemed to work, and I felt better about their progress. My English testers were progressing better than my Spanish testers. I knew I had to change some things around again.

In February, I changed course. My students required an even smaller group setting. I started working with 4 groups a day or so. I felt really great about their progress now and the personalized learning that these groupings provided me. The students made steady progress in  both languages.

During this time, I experienced the art of juggling again, but this time in greater depth. I had Spanish groups, with Spanish materials and then English groups with English materials. Each group had their particular needs beyond language. It felt like a whirlwind. Sometimes, when teaching, I would start writing in English and inadvertently write in Spanish and vice versa. My students laughed when they saw me do this. I said, "It is a good thing that you are a bilingual, because we are able to trans language and understand one another." I knew I was in the zone when this was happening. Bilinguals do this all the time. It is a natural way the brain works in a bilingual.  This juggling was a challenge, yet so very exciting! I loved it.

Some days, I was completely exhausted and ready to throw in the towel. Other days, the light bulbs were going off everywhere in my classroom. These flashes of brilliance were so bright that I had to invest in a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses.  Needless to say, it was and is like a roller coaster. Some days the students would wow me and other days I would feel my heart arrhythmia when they would forget some things. I, however, knew that this was going to happen. Roller coaster rides always happen this time of year.

The best thing about this ride is seeing the progress of my students. Holding onto hope and keeping it alive has served me well. I could not have renewed this hope and perseverance without the support of my team. Anytime I felt down, team members would give me encouraging words or make me laugh. Joking goes a long way. Either way, having someone to listen to me and share the load impacted me. It gave me the strength to keep my eyes on the prize--my students and their progress as writers and thinkers.

The great thing about my school (so far) is that my principal believes in me (us). She trusts my judgment and expertise. We had to take a writing benchmark at the beginning on November. It was an end of the year test containing 28 editing and revision questions and a writing sample. This same test was given to students in 4th grade the previous year at the end of March. An end of the year test was given to my students the first days of November. Of course they were not prepared as of yet. I had just began to teach expository writing a week before. (I was following the yearly road map.) I knew that my students were not going to do well, and I certainly had not done any format practice yet. My students, who had about 8 weeks of instruction, bombed this test. My principal looked over the data and asked my team to be reflective in our practice. She didn't ask us to buy a new product or follow a plan from outside of ourselves. She allowed us to see where we were and make our own decisions about what we needed to do. That is what I did. I convened with some of my teammates, made a plan, developed curricula, staff developed this curricula, made formative assessments (according to what I had taught and would be teaching), and monitored and adjusted. The majority of my work came from Abydos Learning, Gretchen Bernabei, Jeff Anderson, Ralph Fletcher, Tom Romano, William Zinsser, Lev Vygotsky, Steven Pinker, David Sousa, Nicholas Carr, Scott Barry Kaufman, Lucy Calkins, and a shared experience of 45 plus years. This process, to me, would be research in action.

I already knew why my students did not do well on the November benchmark. They needed more time. I also understood that the upcoming 2016 March test would be comprised of 18 multiple choice questions, dealing with grammar mostly and very little revision. Seventy per cent of the test was weighted in the multiple choice. I decided that I need to balance my teaching more with grammar in context. I had previously had taught mostly composition and could have worked a little closer with grammar. Making sure that this grammar didn't come from worksheets, was my priority. Worksheets, in my opinion, offer little engagement and have no stick factor. Stick factor refers to the way the brain processes information from working memory, to short term memory, to long term memory. In order for the brain to learn something, it needs two things. The brain needs concepts to be relevant and to make sense. I decided to have the students practice conversation around the different grammar rules and to use it immediately in their own writing. Thus you have met the brain's criteria of relevancy and making meaning...stick factor. I used ideas from Jerome Bruner and social interaction and Noden's Image Grammar. This all came to fruition in Gretchen Bernabei's Grammar Keepers. In addition to that, I used Jeff Anderson's Everyday Editing and Mechanically Inclined. The students went wild for all of this learning.  They were learning grammar and sentence combination in both languages. Talk about synapses popping and dendrites growing! Things were definitely moving and grooving.

Next Tuesday, my students will be taking the state writing test called STAAR. Next Tuesday, I will be on pins and needles, hoping that they will put all of what they have learned into practice. It is like watching my daughter go from training wheels to riding without guidance. It is scary. What if she falls down and hits her head? What if she doesn't look both ways when crossing the street? What if my students go blank and forget the doubling of the consonants or that you have to add a comma and an fanboy (coordinating conjunction) when combining sentences? What if they suffer from amnesia and forget that you can AAAWWWUBBISize sentences as well? What if they forget to add more details to their composition?  What if they forget that arbol has an accent or that botas is spelled with a b instead of v?  What if?  The ifs and the buts can kill a person. I won't let that happen to me because I  take comfort in knowing that I did everything, and I mean everything that is humanly possible, to prepare these precious  young writers to be successful in fourth grade and beyond. I keep thinking back when I provided feedback on a million stickies late into Sunday evening/Monday morning in the student's notebooks, the numerous small group conferences, and the one-on-one conversations. Are they all for naught? Itruly have done all that I can, and now it is time for my students to inch up to the edge of the nest and soar! I cannot wait until Tuesday...well, sort of.

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