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It’s official.

The chocolate milk debate  as a test writing prompt is dead in Connecticut to all grade levels.choclate-milk

Yes, that old stalwart, “Should there be chocolate milk in schools?” offered to students as a standardized writing prompt was made null and void with one stroke from Governor Malloy’s pen. According to Hartford Courant, (6/12/14) Malloy Veto Keeps Chocolate Milk On School Lunch Menus,

“to the vast relief of school kids, nutritionists, milk producers and lawmakers, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy used his veto power Thursday to kill a bill that would have banned chocolate milk sales in Connecticut schools.” 

Apparently, the same nutritional charts, editorials, and endorsements from dairy groups organized in packets and given to students from grades 3-11 to teach how to incorporate evidence in a fake persuasive argument under testing conditions was convincing enough to have real CT residents make a persuasive argument for legislators. To show his solidarity with the people, Governor Malloy quaffed down a container of chocolate milk before vetoing a bill that would have banned the sale of chocolate milk in schools.

Standardly, the writing prompt is addressed in English/Language Arts (ELA) class in elementary schools, but in middle and high schools, a persuasive essay is often the responsibility of the social studies teacher. The assumption here is that the skill of persuasion requires research and the incorporation of evidence, both taught in social studies classes. In contrast, ELA classes are dedicated to the analysis of literature through essays using a range of skills: identifying author’s craft, identifying author’s purpose, editing, and revising. The responsibilities for the writing portion of an exam are divided between the ELA classes for the literary analysis essay and the social studies classes for the persuasive essay. This design is intended to promote an interdisciplinary effort, but it is an intellectually dishonest division of labor.

ELA teachers have choices to prepare students for standardized tests using ELA content (literature and grammar) to improve skills. Math and science teachers are also tied to their disciplines’ content in order for their students to be prepared.  Social studies is the only core discipline with the test-prompt disconnect.

So, what topics might test creators design to replace the infamous chocolate milk debate prompt? Before test creators start manufacturing new and silly debates, there is a window of opportunity where attention could be brought to this disconnect between content and testing in writing. Here is the moment where social studies teachers should point out to test creators the topics from their curriculum that could be developed into writing prompts. Here is a foot in the door for the National Council for the Social Studies to introduce writing prompts that complement their content. For example, there could be prompts about Egyptian culture, prompts on the American Revolution, or prompts about trade routes and river based communities. Too often, social studies teachers must devote class time to topics unrelated to curriculum.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Field Test given this past spring (2014) to 11th graders was about the use of social media by journalists. When they took the test, I overheard the following exchange:

“Of course they use social media,” grumbled one student, “who is going to stop them?”
“Do they think they are ‘cool’ because they mentioned Twitter?” countered another.

Previous standardized test writing prompts (in Connecticut, the CMT and CAPT) for high school and middle school have been devoted to asking students to write persuasively on the age students should be able to drive; whether wolves should be allowed in Yellowstone National Park or not; whether to permit the random drug testing of high school students; and whether there should be uniforms required in schools.

Please notice that none of these aforementioned prompts are directly related to the content in any social studies curricula. Furthermore, the sources prepared as a database for students to use as evidence in responding to these are packets with newspaper opinion columns or polls, and statistical charts; there is no serious research required.

Here is the moment when social studies teachers and curriculum leaders need to point out how academically dishonest the writing prompt is on a standardized test as a measure of their instruction in their discipline. No longer should the content of social studies be abandoned for inauthentic debate.

The glass in Connecticut is half-full now that students can have chocolate milk in schools. Time for test creators to empty out the silly writing prompts that have maddened social studies teachers for years.

Time to choose content over chocolate.


Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 11.16.51 AMNot so long ago, 11th grade was a great year of high school. The pre-adolescent fog had lifted, and the label of “sophomore,” literally “wise-fool,” gave way to the less insulting “junior.” Academic challenges and social opportunities for 16 and 17 years olds increased as students sought driver’s permits/licenses, employment or internships in an area of interest. Students in this stage of late adolescence could express interest in their future plans, be it school or work.

Yet, the downside to junior year had always been college entrance exams, and so, junior year had typically been spent in preparation for the SAT or ACT. When to take these exams had always been up to the student who paid a base price $51/SAT or $36.50/ACT for the privilege of spending hours testing in a supervised room and weeks in anguish waiting for the results. Because a college accepts the best score, some students could choose to take the test many times as scores generally improve with repetition.

Beginning in 2015, however, junior students must prepare for another exam in order to measure their learning using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The two federally funded testing consortiums, Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) have selected 11th grade to determine the how college and career ready a student is in English/Language Arts and Math.

The result of this choice is that 11th grade students will be taking the traditional college entrance exam (SAT or ACT) on their own as an indicator of their college preparedness. In addition, they will take another state-mandated exam, either the SBAC or the PARRC, that also measures their college and career readiness. While the SAT or ACT is voluntary, the SBAC or PARRC will be administered during the school day, using 8.5 hours of instructional time.

Adding to these series of tests lined up for junior year are the Advanced Placement exams. There are many 11th grade students who opt to take Advanced Placement courses in a variety of disciplines either to gain college credit for a course or to indicate to college application officers an academic interest in college level material. These exams are also administered during the school day during the first weeks of May, each taking 4 hours to complete.

One more possible test to add to this list might be the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB test) which, according to the website Today’s Military,  is given to more than half of all high schools nationwide to students in grade 10th, 11th or 12th, although 10th graders cannot use their scores for enlistment eligibility.

The end result is that junior year has gradually become the year of testing, especially from the months of March through June, and all this testing is cutting into valuable instructional time. When students enter 11th grade, they have completed many pre-requisites for more advanced academic classes, and they can tailor their academic program with electives, should electives be offered. For example, a student’s success with required courses in math and science can inform his or her choices in economics, accounting, pre-calculus, Algebra II, chemistry, physics, or Anatomy and Physiology. Junior year has traditionally been a student’s greatest opportunity to improve a GPA before making college applications, so time spent learning is valuable. In contrast, time spent in mandated testing robs each student of classroom instruction time in content areas.

In taking academic time to schedule exams, schools can select their exam (2 concurrent) weeks for performance and non-performance task testing.  The twelve week period (excluding blackout dates) from March through June is the nationwide current target for the SBAC exams, and schools that choose an “early window” (March-April) will lose instructional time before the Advanced Placement exams which are given in May. Mixed (grades 11th & 12th) Advanced Placement classes will be impacted during scheduled SBACs as well because teachers can only review past materials instead of progressing with new topics in a content area. Given these circumstances, what district would ever choose an early testing window?  Most schools should opt for the “later window” (May) in order to allow 11th grade AP students to take the college credit exam before having to take (another) exam that determines their college and career readiness. Ironically, the barrage of tests that juniors must now complete to determine their “college and career readiness” is leaving them with less and less academic time to become college and career ready.

Perhaps the only fun remaining for 11th graders is the tradition of the junior prom. Except proms are usually held between late April and early June, when -you guessed it- there could be testing.

The English I Honors teacher in my department recently suffered a serious concussion; no reading or writing for several weeks. Her classes must go on, however, and the new unit on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is next in the curriculum.  A long term substitute is scheduled for next week, and the students could easily read the novel before her arrival.

Moreover, there is a packet of information and worksheets in the file cabinet with background information on the 1930s and the author, John Steinbeck. The practice of providing such a lengthy introduction, however, is associated with “over-teaching”, a practice now discouraged in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. In statewide tests students will have to meet the standards of the Common Core, and they will encounter texts from many different sources. The recommendation is that students should practice “close reading” where they can independently mine the language of the text for meaning:

“Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally” (ELA Common Core)

The 9th graders could be staggering indeed; they have just completed a unit on Greek tragedy using Oedipus the King. Some students might suffer whiplash in the jump from 5th Century BCE Ancient Greece to 20th Century California in the Salinas Valley. There needed to be a powerful “bridge” to prepare students for this leap in time and ensuing debate between free will and fate.  What could be accomplished without the teacher directed lecture, especially if the teacher is not available? What format could saturate students in an environment of the 1930s?

A few minutes of research on YouTube provided an answer; I could have a substitute show students several versions of the Bing Crosby’s song recording of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s anthem for the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

The historical accuracy of some of the photos in this first rendition may be questionable, but the message of an average man’s struggle to find employment in the early 1930s is made very clear. The second version below is a sing-a-long-version that is particularly good as a karaoke opportunity. After watching the first version, all students sang along, some with more gusto than others, following Crosby’s cadence in the second version:

After singing, the students reviewed the lyrics:

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”

lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

These lyrics provided students an opportunity to “close read” the context of the Great Depression, particularly in the lyrics “Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell” and “Half a million boots went slogging through Hell.” While they understood that after the stock market crash there were unemployed men who had helped in the building of railroads and towers, more than one student made the connection that there are currently soldiers who have returned from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan who have not found employment either. Their brief discussion was enough to set up Steinbeck’s tale of Lennie and George, who share a dream of finding employment to be independent farmers raising rabbits.

Once the background was established, students could then read the novel independently, the way the Common Core recommends in the reading standards. Additionally, the long-term substitute can now complete the leap from classical to contemporary tragedy without having to dwell on historical context. The only downside might be getting rid of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”… a song-worm now in their brains!

I teach English in a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) school, and that means that there is  wireless for all kinds of devices: notebooks, Kindles, laptops, and phones. Internet access is also open for social media sites, except Facebook, since many teachers use them for resources or to communicate with students. There is a school policy  requiring a 7″ screen on a device for classroom use, but students access their cell phones throughout the day.

Once class has begun, students can be online for tasks assigned by a teacher. What is not surprising is that, like students of previous generations, they might drift. For example, while their parents may have passed notes on bits of paper, this generation texts their notes. Their phones are a continuous source of temptation, the same way that their phones will be a temptation in the real world when they leave school. Educators recognize that students must be trained in the effective and appropriate use of technology, yet, with the exponential changes in the use of technology in education, educators may not know or practice the best strategies.

Students, however, often develop best practices in the use of technology themselves. Students can surprise us.

The good example of this sort of surprise is the message of recent holiday ad by Apple. In the ad, a Christmas family reunion begins with the arrival of a family including a teenager preoccupied with his iPhone.  He looks to be missing out on all the festivities: the sled-riding, the cookie-decorating, the dinners, the snowman-building (although he does have the carrot for a snowman’s nose in his pocket). But, on Christmas morning he presents his family with a video he has filmed to celebrate the reunion. In a twist of perception, the video shows that he has not been distracted by the phone; he has recorded and edited all the family events in making the “Harris Family Holiday”. He even makes Grandma cry in gratitude.

The short commercial is brilliantly cast; the teenager looks like any one of a number of my students. His head is constantly bent over the glowing screen; he looks up only briefly to acknowledge a word or gesture thrown in his direction. He could be in my classroom…so is he an example of the distracted  student or is he an example of creativity in my classroom?

The commercial is both an attempt to sell iPhones as well as justify the perception of distraction. “You are mistaken,” Apple is telling the viewer, “the iPhone is not a distraction; the iPhone is a tool.” In an advertising paradox, Apple is telling the truth…the iPhone is both.

I have witnessed students in my class be completely distracted by the cell phone  and other digital tools. I have also witnessed them use these tools to complete assignments beyond my expectations. I have been as surprised as the family in the holiday video. 

Perhaps the most important lesson from Apple is that the “every-teenager” featured in the commercial does the video on his own. There is no assignment. The video is his gift to his family. His choice to use this particular tool for a specific purpose illustrates the goal of a 21st Century education. The commercial also provides teachers with an example of a student practicing 21st Century skills.

The word surprise is derived from the past participle of Old French surprendre meaning “to overtake”. There is no surprise that Apple’s promotion of the iPhone in this commercial overtakes the heart in an attempt to overtake the competitive cell phone market. There should be no surprise that a cell phone is already in most students’ pockets or book bags. Those cell phones need not overtake the classroom if educators encourage their use as a tool and let the students surprise us with what they can do.

brainwith contentThis winter, I am discontented. I see less of the “click” of recognition in a student’s eyes when he or she “knows something”. At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy (“old-fashioned person,” 1871, American English, of uncertain origin), my students used to come to class pre-loaded with information; they had a predictable set of stories in their brains. These were often fairy tales such as Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk or folktales such as Rip Van Winkle or Johnny Appleseed. And speaking of apple seed, students used to know many of the Biblical stories as well. They may have been misinformed that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was an apple and did not know that they could thank John Milton’s Paradise Lost for that substitution, but at the very least students used to be familiar with the Garden of Eden stories, the genesis of multiple allusions.

Today’s students’ lack of content, specifically story content, means that a good deal of class time is spent on a “back story” so they can better understand all the allusions or references in a particular text. Allusions are critical to understanding almost anything taught in English: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bronte, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Steinbeck, etc. For example, our 10th grade is beginning Beowulf this week, and we read the Burton Raffel’s translation. He opens with the monster Grendel down in his cave howling at the sound of men singing the song of creation. Grendel swears vengeance against the “Almighty” for the exile of his ancestor Cain:

He was spawned in that slime,
Conceived by a pair of those monsters born
Of Cain, murderous creatures banished
By God, punished forever for the crime
Of Abel’s death.

“Can anyone tell me who Cain or Abel is?” we ask.
This year, only two out of 27 students had any idea about the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s relationship to Grendel is part of the monster’s motivation, and so we were forced to do a little “Bible as literature” storytelling. Unfortunately, the number of students who have no information about the most basic Old Testament stories, which happen to be the same stories in Torah and the Koran, grows every year.

Fortunately, we are a 1:1 district and our students are equipped to quickly use their devices to learn who Cain and Abel are, so we can stop and have them quickly research any allusion, but this immediate research on a digital device disrupts the flow of the story of Beowulf. Moreover, the need to constantly look up information ultimately turns every text into a hyper-text.

This constant researching could be reflected in measuring the lack of information our students have when they approach a task. Last December (2012), the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study were released and, despite significant improvements,  students in the United States did not rank as high as did students from other countries. The results were discussed at a forum at the Washington Post where  David Conley, CEO of the Education Policy Improvement Center noted,

“One of the great ironies is that we are headed into an age where students can get almost any piece of information off their phones, yet, what we are doing is getting more and more information into their heads. The goal is to go beyond that and make them understand that they have to own their own learning.” (Conley, Ed Policy Improvement Center)

I agree; students need to own content for successful recall and application. I have no objection to students improving their research skills; even Wikipedia is acceptable for quick textual reference research, but students must understand the content in their brains in order to apply that information when they encounter a text. Employing content and applying information is different from employing the skill of accessing information. Owning content is critical to understanding an author’s use of allusions or references. Owning content contributes to fluid reading and better understanding. However, not all owned content is equal.

My admiration for the plethora of animated cartoon sources that do provide story content with a modernized twist is a bit mixed. For example, the popular Shrek series is riddled with storybook allusions. Unfortunately, students often do not understand allusions in these modern re-tellings as parodies. Students need to be disavowed from a belief that Puss ‘n Boots is fat and wears a pink bow or that Snow White is very proud and vain. One could argue the same modernized treatment was done for the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales which have been made more palatable and child-friendly. However, these gruesome original stories were the allusions for writers in earlier centuries. When the Common Core State Standards suggested reading list is filled with the literature and informational texts from centuries past, the recently released cartoon parodies of the originals may not be particularly helpful in understanding these allusions.

While the students today are exposed to information from a myriad of sources, they need to own information to be educated. Students need content, stories and information that they understand, to apply to a text or problem without relying on a digital device. So, this winter, the heightened level of my discontent is measured by the increase of fingering for information on devices. I miss the light that would go off in the students’ eyes when they “knew something,” particularly if that “something” was a story.

I miss content.