Saturday, April 9, 2016

An Open Letter to NYS Commissioner of Education Elia

Dear Commissioner Elia,

I am a veteran elementary school teacher, having just completed my 30th year of teaching in 2015.  I am now a teacher for the gifted and talented students in my school, as well as the lead teacher for PLTW, our new science program.  I have won multiple awards for global projects, co-written a book on blogging, and teach classes on Universal Design for Learning, Project Based Learning, Responsive Classroom and using Web 2.0 tools.  I work hard to keep the learning fresh, becoming a Google Certified Innovator, an Edmodo ambassador, and a BrainPop Certified Educator, among other titles.  

I am telling you about myself to let you know that I love what I do, love working with children, love helping other teachers, and take my profession very seriously.  I truly believe that my purpose in life is to help make the world a better place and I am here to help children learn how to make peace, work cooperatively, and feel that their lives matter.  I have always felt that, in elementary school, our main job is to help students learn to love learning, love school, and love themselves.  Curriculum comes second.

I work on Long Island, in the Herricks School District.  It is a high stakes district that always tops the lists of best schools, highest scores, etc.  And I know, working in Herricks, how to help my students reach those heights, while still loving school. Until testing time.

This past week, we gave the NYS ELA test to 300+ 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students in our school. We shut down programs and classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in order to accommodate the requirements of the students testing.  You see, this year, in order to make things "less stressful" for our students, you chose to make the test an untimed test.  The results were scary and very stressful. Let me explain.

First, the test itself is stressful for children.  There were questions on the fifth grade exam that I had difficulty answering.  Teachers were debating the multiple choice answers, since there were many that had two choices, one being slightly better than the other.  If teachers have difficulty with the test, imagine how the 10 year old children felt looking at these questions.

Also, the children, on day 3, were asked to write two essays.  Two!  Who writes two essays in one day, much less one right after the other?  Couldn't we figure out if they could write well after the one essay they wrote on day 2?  Did we really need a third day to figure this out?

Second, the test is useless.  Teachers cannot use it to revise their instruction since we don't get scores back until August or September, when we no longer have those children.  And when we do get the scores back, they are meaningless, since we no longer have the test to see what the types of questions were.  And, you decided (rightly so, in my opinion) that we would not use this test to assess teachers. So, if the test does not inform instruction and does not assess teachers, what is the point?

Third, the timing.  When we had 90 minutes for this test, it was stressful and difficult for some children to finish.  But they mostly did ok.  With an unlimited time, we had children working for over 4 hours!  There were gifted children who are notorious perfectionists, writing 4 page essays and spending an hour on just the planning page (which, incidently was left out of the test).  There were special education children who would get stuck on a question and just stop, waiting for inspiration. And, with unlimited time to do so, would sit for 30 minutes doing absolutely nothing but worrying.

So what was my role this year?  Since I am no longer a classroom teacher, I did not have a class to proctor so I filled in where I was needed.  I proctored one day for a fifth grade teacher who was out for the day.  But mostly, I spent my time with the children who worked beyond 2 hours.  You see, after 2 hours, I picked up all the children who were still not done and brought them to my room to complete the test.  This allowed the rest of the class to move around, make noise, and relax. On Thursday, the two essay day, there were so many children taking more than 2 hours that we filled up two classrooms with those students.

In my room, in the meantime, I had children crying because they couldn't answer questions, worried because they were taking so long, upset because they were missing lunch and recess to complete the exam.  This was not "less stressful" by any means.  Less stressful might have been cutting the test down to two days or giving the children more developmentally appropriate questions to answer or giving the test at the end of the year, after all the curriculum has been taught, instead of in April, so the teachers have to rush curriculum to get children ready, or not giving this test at all and finding a better way to evaluate learning throughout the year.

Commissioner Elia, I am hopeful that things will change next year.  This is not what I became a teacher for.  I work hard to make my students love coming to school.  Nobody loved coming in last week, not the students, nor the teachers, nor the administrators, nor the parents.  I am hopeful that, since you claimed you would opt your own children out, you understand the ineffectiveness and uselessness of the NYS ELA test.  Please reconsider this test next year.  There has to be a better way.  Ask teachers.  We know how to evaluate our students and our teachers.

Lisa Parisi, teacher

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Starting Over

This year I started a new job.  I'm still a teacher (not sure that will ever change) but now I am no longer a classroom teacher.  My new position is two-fold.  I am the teacher for gifted and talented 4th and 5th graders in my school and the Lead Teacher for PLTW, a STEM science program.

I started training for PLTW (Project Lead the Way) last year.  This program was designed for high school and middle school students.  This is the first year they are bringing it to the elementary school and my district signed on. 

What I love about this program is that it is a project-based learning program focused on engineering design.  It uses iPads and other technology to teach children how to think, plan, design, and follow through on activities surrounding engineering, biomedicine, and technology.  It is my job to help the teachers learn how to use the program and how to use PBL.  This mostly means helping the teachers learn to let go and let the children be successful.  It is very exciting to see it all come together.

The gifted program in district is a pull-out program that is being entirely revamped within the next few years.  For now, there is one Gemini teacher in each elementary building and we are planning humanities lessons and activities for our students, designed around the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

So what has all this change meant for me?  Lots of learning, lots of laughs, lots of tears.

1. I am so grateful to be out of the classroom and away from all the testing.  I had gotten to a point where, after 30 years, I just couldn't do it anymore.  I felt guilty having to give the tests, guilty planning for them, guilty taking away time from more important activities, like connecting with online classes.  I am just glad not to have to think about it anymore.

2. I have a much more open schedule than ever before.  I see each group of students twice a week and the rest of the time is set aside for PLTW.  This means I do not greet children as they walk into the building and do not let them go at the end of the day. It means I do not take much work home with me on the weekends. It means I have more time to walk into classrooms and see what everyone else is doing.  It means I have more time to give assistance to others.  This I love but it did take some getting used to.

I do not have my own class of children.  Yes, I work with my Gemini students and see them each week.  And, yes, I use Responsive Classroom still and we are a community.  But it isn't the same as having your own class.  I miss that.

4. All of the children in the building know who I am.  This I love!  I have been in all the classrooms, watching and assisting with science lessons.  The children get excited when I walk in - "Are we doing PLTW now?"  And I get lots of hellos in the hallway.

5. I get to visit kindergarten when I need a break.  Kindergarten has to be the hardest grade of all to teach.  But, oh those children are so wonderful.  I walk in to hugs and stories and tugs to come to their area and see what they are doing.  I love when I walk in and a random child comes to me to tell me about his new puppy or show me her boo boo.  It's a nice break from the chaos of dealing with two new programs in district.

6. I am learning to be a team player with a team I have never worked with before and who are not in my building.  It is very much like being a team member in an online collaboration.  You always have to be thinking about the other members of the team but, ultimately, you are on your own.  Very strange.  This is the most difficult for me to deal with.

7. I have been working much more with administration.  This is very new to me.  I am the liason between the teachers and the administration with regard to PLTW.  And, while I have always had a good relationship with my principal, I am learning some new things.  I am learning more about the big picture in the district.  It's no longer just about my kids.  Now it's also about PR and parents and other teachers and the Board of Education and, oh yes, the kids. I keep them in the picture always.

8. It's hard getting global projects going.  I don't see my students enough to work on a project so I "borrow" the students from the class next door.  I have been dragging my colleague and friend, the next door fourth grade teacher, into projects.  So far she has done postcards from around the country, has started blogging, and is starting If You Learned Here.  I love that she is willing, even as she worries about the timing involved in it all.  

It hasn't all been easy but I really do love this new job.  Next year should be much easier.  And, for now, I am enjoying the ride.  What are you doing this year that is new?