The Write Stuff

In Jennifer Serravallo’s The Reading Strategies book, she says “You could ask a student to read a short text or whole book and jot responses as she reads, or you could read aloud to her and ask her to do the same thing. For younger students whose writing abilities may not give a full picture of how well they understand, it’s important to ask questions during conferences and to listen to their conversations about characters with their peers.” (p. 163)

The test pushers at mClass/Amplify should take note. Writing ability MAY NOT GIVE A FULL PICTURE of how well a student understands what s/he reads.

Oh, Look! TICKET!

Found in a blog comment here.

“I think the problem is that we ask, “What do we want our kids to learn?” from this assignment, strategy, etc., but we often fail to ask “What do they actually learn?”


Do I want my kids to focus on actively getting involved during a lesson or do I want them focused on earning tickets for sitting still, not calling out, keeping their eyes on their own paper, doing their work, etc.

I would have included “paying attention” on that list, but as soon as a “reward” ticket is dropped on someone’s desk, the ticket becomes the focus and attention is gone. I dare you to show me the excited kinder who can ignore a ticket placed on his/her table or that of a friend.

As soon as the focus is on the ticket, the lesson learned by the kids is not “Hey, if I don’t call out or if I sit still or if I do whatever that kid did to get a ticket, I’ll get one, too!” The lesson really is like a dog and a squirrel. “Oh, LOOK! TICKET!!! TICKET! TICKET! TICKET!”

The lesson this teacher learns is “It’s not worth disrupting my lessons and/or creating some convoluted procedure to teach little kids what-to-do-if-teacher-puts-a-ticket-on-my-table-that-does-not-take-my-mind-off-the-lesson-even-though-TICKET!!!! because:

1. I want an involved, excited, participatory, focused group of kids.

2. Praise and attention trump tickets every day of the week.

3. Tickets make kids crave more tickets, not more learning.

4. Alfie Kohn

This is a test

Choose which student scored higher overall on their End of Year (EOY) mClass benchmark tests. 

Student 1

Book level C (benchmark goal for kindergarten is level D)

Retell: 3/3 points

Sight words: 39

Letter identification: 27/one minute

Phoneme segmentation: 27/one minute (goal 40)

Nonsense word fluency: 31 sounds/one minute (goal 28)

Student 2 

Book level: RB (equivalent to level A – tests “reading behaviors” She can indicate title, use left-right directionality, use return sweep, maintain language pattern and use of picture support. She cannot track print with 1:1 matching).

Retell: Not a task at this level.

Sight words: 1 – the word I

Letter identification: 47/one minute

Phoneme segmentation: 12/one minute

Nonsense word fluency: 41 sounds/one minute

Your score

If you chose student 1, you failed this test.

Student 2 had a composite score of 100 and student 1 had a composite score of 84. Student 2 ended the year in the yellow zone (The Composite Score indicates the student will likely need Strategic Support). Student 1 ended the year in the red zone (The Composite Score indicates the student will likely need Intensive Support). The parenthetical statements are direct quotes from mClass/Amplify.

What the tests don’t tell you.

Student 1 has spoken English his entire life. He has been in my kindergarten class since the first day last August. He hasn’t missed any school days, nor has he ever been tardy. He has a huge vocabulary, but he has difficulty with processing his thoughts. Student 1 works on these issues with a speech therapist on a weekly basis. He takes his time when he sounds out words. He thinks before he speaks. He is a careful, capable, excited reader. Student 1 gets very confused by phoneme segmentation task due to his processing issue. He seems to be unable to remember the word as it is told to him. The word “metal” might be segmented as /m/ /ar/ /k/ /er/. When the task is slowed down and the words are repeated to him several times, he is fully capable of segmenting each word correctly.

Student 2 speaks very little English. Her native language is Hmong and that is the only language spoken in her home. She enrolled in our school at the end of January after attending kindergarten in a different district. She has missed many days of school and is significantly late at least 2 out of every 5 days of school. Student 2 has very little English vocabulary. She has much difficulty articulating her needs and responses to questions, even with lots of help. She is happy student, but does not like doing any school work. As an aside, she can only count to 5 despite working extensively on counting for the past several months. Student 2 does know the sound that each alphabet letter makes and this has helped her to succeed at letter naming and nonsense word tasks. She does not yet attempt to sound out words. Segmenting is impossible for this student even if the task is slowed down. She hears first sounds and nothing beyond the first sound. This is typical of the early emergent stage of reading development.

All of those things that the tests don’t tell you is what I know about my students. I didn’t need mClass tests – benchmark and/or progress monitoring – to tell me any of this. I know these things because i know my students. I talk to them. I watch them. I talk to them some more. I try strategies with them. I adjust what we do to meet their needs. And we read LOTS of books together.

Is Student 2 a better reader? Not yet.

Do both these students need support as readers? Of course, they do!

Is this a contest between my students? Not at all.

Do these scores say anything about me as a teacher when the results are so utterly ridiculous? My state says, yes, they define me.

School improvement 

The school Improvement plan (SIP) at my school has a major section about communication. We are trying to improve the ways that we share information with the parents of our kids and with other members of the school community at large, collectively referred to in the SIP as “stakeholders.”

I think this whole communication thing went awry the minute we co-opted that term from the business world. We are a school family, not a board of directors and a group of stakeholders.

But we are a dysfunctional family. Most of the staff mistrusts and maligns parents at every turn. And it’s likely that the reverse is also true. Can’t say that I blame them. 

Do we really believe that robo-calls, even if they are delivered in cheerful voices, will unite this school family? Do we really believe that classroom newsletters and the rare newsletter from administration will override the deeply rooted divide between the school and parents? Do we really believe that parents are unaware of the disdain with which most staff treat parents out of earshot?

If we do not trust our parents we will never unite this school family. If we disrespect them behind their backs, our school will never improve our relationships with the people who we need to have standing with us.

The prevailing attitude is that parents don’t care.

The reality is that our kids’ parents, grandparents and guardians care deeply. They may forget to sign planners, to pull papers out of book bags or to read newsletters. They may not be able to attend school functions or join the PTO. They may send a sick kid to school, forget a bagged lunch on field trip days or drop their kid off early. They may be working two jobs or weird hours or who knows what is going on in their home or the shelter in which they are living. 

I met a mom earlier this year who described her reality to me. She happened to walk in on a home visit I was making to a family living in a housing project. When I told her I was a teacher, she said that her child had attended our school and had moved onto middle school. Then she erupted, “I know they think we don’t care about our kids and about education over there, but we do. We don’t have cars, we don’t have school supplies at home, we have trouble helping our kids with homework that we don’t understand and some of us can’t read.” She was eloquent and passionate. And I apologized to her on behalf of our staff.

Why can’t we give parents and others caregivers the benefit of the doubt? Why can’t we begin with trust? Why can’t we use compassion instead of accusation? 

We must believe that each member of our school family is doing the best s/he can with what s/he has available and that each individual cares deeply about the success of each and every child in our school. Only then will we be able to effectively communicate with our school family and work toward the united goal of improving our school.

Size matters

30 days. That’s all I have left with this unbelievable class. Thirty short days.

This year has been astounding. Only 16 kids. Ten plus six. That will never happen again. Or so I’ve been told.

One would think that since this fluke of low numbers and an additional teacher on the team helped us to finally feel like we were making a difference in each little life, instead of just jumping from one fire to the next, that someone in authority would insist on doing whatever possible to continue this small-class trend next year.

Don’t count on it. Or so I’ve been told.

Last year I had 24. That’s two small, 4-kid groups more than I had this year. That’s MANY fewer hours of time that had to be shared with MANY more kids. Longer times waiting in lines outside bathrooms. Longer times waiting in line in the cafeteria. Longer times waiting for teacher to answer every question, tie every shoe, finish every mandatory assessment. Less time for each child to have their individual needs acknowledged, much less met.

Same expectations this year. Same sorts of kids from the same neighborhoods. Same poverty. Same delays.

But remarkably, or rather NOT remarkably, the kids are learning more this year.

Quelle surprise. Who could have imagined this?

But, gosh, let’s not continue this magnificent successful trend next year. Let’s shoot ourselves in the foot and return to the days of waiting. Waiting for someone to admit that class size matters.


This year my class is the youngest I’ve ever had. Half of them will turn six between June and late July. Age and development don’t always walk hand-in-glove, but this year I’m definitely seeing a correlation.

I’ll call her June-bug. Much cuter than one of these.

A real June bug, not to be confused with my June-bug.

June-bug seemed to be in a fog from the very first day of school when she was barely 5 +2 months old. She had never been to preschool, which is not a terrible thing. June-bug. didn’t know any of her letters by name or sound. She couldn’t count. Numbers and letters were interspersed in her mind. Show her a numeral 2 and she might call it a T and 2 minutes later, she might call it an F.

She would give me confused looks when I pointed out words as I read to her or numbers as I counted objects for her. Her constant puzzled expression made me always picture her with a permanent question mark above her head which said “I have no idea” as well as “teacher has no idea either!”

I took her to my school’s intervention team (the dreaded RTI – Response to Intervention decision-makers). I told them that no matter how much time I spent with her alone or in small groups, June-bug was not making progress as defined by the equally dreaded (by me) mClass tests.

I mentioned that I didn’t feel that these tests were a good picture of this developmentally unready for school child, and that maybe we could just wait for her to catch up (although in my mind I didn’t think she’d catch up this year). Waiting is not much approved in the rush-to-judgment schools of today. Definitely not approved in mine. The team agreed to allow me to continue my interventions in the classroom. I think they did this because they were overloaded with other kids and because I was willing to postpone judgment.

So back to the drawing board. I decided to stop pushing. New intervention strategy: Encourage mom and dad to just read to her. LOTS. No pressure. No sight words. No “which letter is this?” Just read every night.

And in school I helped her with the things that confused her, gave her simpler tasks and stopped pressuring her. I encouraged her to play with her friends. Socialization is important. Role models are important.

Many of the other kids had started writing words with invented spelling and June-bug seemed interested, but her efforts were always just chicken scratches. She would show me her white board and say, “Look what I wrote!” She believed she was writing and I was not going to discourage her. One day she sat in front of our word wall and copied a bunch of words. I read them to her and she repeated them after me. She believed she was reading. She memorized a couple of sight words using hand signals that we made up to accompany them.

But the question mark was still poised above her head and mine.

Then last week I taught our class a song from Heidisongs called How Do You Sound It Out (and yes, you can call this an endorsement, but I’m not selling anything). And something clicked. Or maybe it was just time.

June-bug started sounding out two and three sound words. She took her time with each try and was getting most of them right. I celebrated with her and with the class. I told mom at car-rider pick up that June-bug was reading LOTS of new words. She was delighted.

And today we were doing a worksheet as a formative assessment (don’t judge). It was an old Frank Schaffer thing with line drawings above beginning sounds with lines for the medial vowel and final consonant. Two weeks ago, this would have been an impossible task for June-bug to do alone. Today, I was helping other kids with it and I was quite distracted. The sound of many kids quietly singing the Sound It Out song as they wrote made for lovely, peaceful background music.

Suddenly June-bug was at my elbow.

“Mrs! I wrote these words by myself and I didn’t need any help!”

I’ve heard this before and I looked at her encouragingly, hopeful that she’d gotten some of them right. I’d praise her no matter what.

Then I looked at the paper. Every single one was spelled correctly. One backward b, but EVERY SINGLE ONE WAS SPELLED CORRECTLY.

I grabbed her in a hug and praised her up and down. “You wrote ALL those words BY YOURSELF! You knew you could do it and you did it.”

I took her by the hand and went to the closet where my very part-time assistant was teaching a group of third graders.

“Mrs T, I hate to bother your group, but…” And we showed her June-bug’s paper.

She looked up and said, “I’m going to cry” as she grabbed June-bug in a bear hug or a bug hug, in point of fact.

I said, “You know sometimes we just have to wait until the June-bug is ready.”

She replied, “Or maybe you really are that good.”

No way. This was June-bug every step of the way. I just had to give her time and opportunity.

Then we called mom at work to share the good news. June-bug told mom that she wrote all her words all by herself and then she read them into the phone.

Yeah. I cried some more.

bad teacher

I’m bad.

Bad at pretending that my kindergarteners’ issues don’t matter.

Bad at pretending that their test scores do matter.

Bad at distancing myself from my kids.

Bad at distancing myself from their families.

Bad at separating my school life from my home life.

Bad at keeping my opinions to myself.

Bad at ignoring solid research and best practices.

Bad at preventing my eyes from rolling during professional development sessions and meetings.

Bad at believing that I can eliminate the effects of poverty by teaching “better.”

Bad at following a developmentally inappropriate curriculum designed by non-teachers.

Bad at believing that teachers are bad no matter what the media, the government or our administrators tell me.

I’m bad at all those things.

But I’m a really good teacher.