Tuesday, April 30, 2013


New York state testing has come to an end this year.  The English Language Arts Test is mostly scored and teachers have moved on in their teaching of students.  Many of my teacher friends have delved into poetry writing to finish up the month of April.  The math test concluded on Friday with only make-ups to be completed in the first days of this week.

Many teachers I know have spent the past six weeks in a test writing/test taking mode.  Children had been practicing how to write for tests and how test writing is different than writing an essay or a narrative.  I helped to correct one of these tests and saw how well trained the students were as they supported text with evidence, using quotations from the text and citing the lines they were quoting.  Writing for the tests is very different from the writing done with their narrative, informational and even opinion texts—when the topic is something chosen with passion.  Gaining the knowledge to write in this manner, when the high-stakes expectation is to write in this manner—is important.  And yet it isn’t.  The students followed directions explicitly, citing two texts, restating the question and tying up the answer with a brief conclusion.  Their answers gave them the needed points and lacked passion or voice.  Learning to write in this manner gave them a skill for writing that will really only apply when the students take these kinds of assessments. 

In the wake of the test completion I have been reflecting on best instruction.  Recently I overheard one of my graduate students complaining about another class they were taking.  “The only thing that happens in that class is he lectures.  His class is so boring.”  As I observed third, fourth and fifth grade students as they were learning test prep, they were not being “talked at”.  They were spending much time writing in a formulaic way.  In both of these situations the learner was being told.
Sometimes being told is necessary in instruction.  It is direct.  It is explicit.  And there are some things in school and in life that we need to be told to do and how to do it.  But life and school, to be rich and engaging is based on inquiry and exploration.  Learners integrate knowledge through experience.  As I began to teach adults, a mentor of mine told me about the 10-2 principle, which basically means that for every 10 minutes of talking or lecturing that happens, the instructor needs to allow two minutes of time where the students engage in conversation or experiential learning so that they can integrate what was spoken.  Through the years, I have discovered that true learning happens more with a 2-10 principle.  Find the essence of what needs to be said, say it in short, succinct ways, then create experiences of learning and inquiry so that students can discover the essence of this learning on their own.  This is a messier way to teach and sometimes this type of teaching takes longer, but students own their learning in a much deeper way.  

One wise teacher once told me, "Students won't remember the lesson you taught where they listened and absorbed.  They may remember the lesson where you created a moment together."  Great learning builds memories!  Many years ago, at the end of a year of teaching fifth graders, I brought the students to our sharing circle so that we could highlight our fifth grade memories.  Memories of field trips, and humor, of working together and of building projects abound.  Not a mention of the English lesson where I talked about adjectives and their power or of the social studies lesson where we discussed immigration.  But there was mention of the poetry created that we displayed in the library and the day we came to school as immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.  Learning happens by experience.

Last week I visited a fifth grade classroom.  The teacher was beginning a unit on poetry.  She had many poems available for her students to read and explore and they were in inquiry groups discussing elements of writing that they were seeing.  They had their writers’ notebooks out, jotting ideas and lines for their poems.  They were deciding which poem they wanted to carry in their pocket for “Poetry in Your Pocket Day”.  They were having fun.   They were engaged.  They were learning.  

I am so glad the New York State tests are behind us for another year.  Viva la poetry! Viva l’experience!


  1. It is a good thing, but six weeks is a long time to 'tell' instead of show. I liked hearing your thoughts about this testing experience, Deborah.

  2. I totally agree, Linda. Glad we are moving on.

  3. Students have to own their learning, you are so right!