Assessing the Assessments
Published on September 9, 2012 by Sara Foss

My friend Molly, who teaches seventh grade, has written a blog post on her preferred method for assessing her students. Hint: It's not a state mandated exam.

Here's an excerpt from her post:

"I have always started the year with my students with a writing assessment to determine the kinds of skills they have. It contains no multiple-choice questions; there is no scan-tron sheet to bubble in. It consists of only one direction and requires some loose-leaf and a writing utensil.  I simply ask each student to create a piece of writing and turn it in at the end of class. The only wrong way to fulfill this task is to turn in a blank piece of paper.  Students almost always look at me as if this is a trick. I can really do whatever I want? Any question they may ask is met with a shrug of my shoulders and the response, "What do you think?"  After a few minutes, everyone has zeroed in on that sheet of loose-leaf and begins to fill it up. The room gets very quiet and we all enter what my friend and colleague refers to as "the writing zone."  It is a feeling that I relish in my classroom.

You might ask what it is exactly I learn from something that can elicit so many different types of responses. The knowledge I gain about my students as writers is profound. The assessing begins immediately for me as I can see just by my observations, who began writing immediately, who took their time before beginning to write, and those who were clearly frustrated. This year was actually the first year in all my years of giving this assessment that I did not have to give any additional help to someone who just didn't know where to begin. I can see by glancing over their shoulders and seeing what direction they went those who are comfortable with writing and those who might be more unsure of themselves. I learn who might have a lower stamina when it comes to writing for an extended amount of time and for who writing is clearly a pleasure. And this is all before I have collected a single page or read any of their drafts. You can imagine the kinds of things I learn when I actually read their writing: clarity of ideas, paragraphing, spelling, mechanics, etc.  Not to mention some of the personal information they choose to include.

Now this is clearly not something I could "score" in the traditional sense. For it is not about points. Rather, it is about getting to know my students, assessing where their skills are at, and making a plan for the year that will work on areas that students struggle with and build upon their strengths (for I have new students each year, which means my teaching must adapt to those in front of me). Having a team of 116 students demands that I figure these things out sooner rather than later as it can be a daunting task to find one-on-one time with each in the course of the first month.  This piece of writing serves as an initial conversation with each individual student as we move forward and work on making them a stronger, more confident writer."

Click here to read more.

Class and Poverty Matter
Published on December 12, 2011 by Sara Foss

One of the things I always baffling about any discussion of how to improve low-performing schools is the fact that poverty is hardly ever mentioned. There's a lot of talk of classroom size, and teachers, and whether charter schools would help, but you rarely hear anyone seriously consider the impact of poverty on student achievement. As my friend Hanna once asked, "Shouldn't we really be talking about the parents?" My feeling is

Now a New York Times op-ed is asking the same thing, pointing to data showing that the achievement gap between children from high-and low-income families over the last 50 years and now far exceeds the gap between white and black students.

The op-ed notes:

"Results of the 2009 reading tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment show that, among 15-year-olds in the United States and the 13 countries whose students outperformed ours, students with lower economic and social status had far lower test scores than their more advantaged counterparts within every country. Can anyone credibly believe that the mediocre overall performance of American students on international tests is unrelated to the fact that one-fifth of American children live in poverty?

Yet federal education policy seems blind to all this. No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face. The legislation did, to be sure, specify that subgroups — defined by income, minority status and proficiency in English — must meet the same achievement standard. But it did so only to make sure that schools did not ignore their disadvantaged students — not to help them address the challenges they carry with them into the classroom."

Of course, my feeling is that nobody wants to talk about poverty because poverty is a big huge problem, and if you wanted to fix it you'd have to discuss really sensitive topics, like why the cost of pretty much everything has been increasing at a much faster pace than wages, and why unemployment in minority communities is so much higher than it is in white communities. It's easier to argue about merit pay and teacher's unions than talk about poverty, and that's why we hear so much less about poverty, even though it's the source of most our trouble.

The Age of Overparenting
Published on December 11, 2011 by Sara Foss

Boston Magazine has an article on overparenting, one of my favorite topics. I don't have kids, so I probably shouldn't criticize the way people parent. But I've been pretty amazed by the schedules some of the children I know maintain. These schedules rival my high school schedule. Which is crazy. Does a five-year-old really need to be doing a structured activity every single day? When I was five, I played in the yard and with my toys. I've also noticed that parents spend a great deal of time playing with their kids, and are really reluctant to let them out of their sight. This leads to totally ridiculous situations, like the controversy in a local school district over whether kids should be allowed to ride their bikes to school. Of course they should! But some worry it's too dangerous.

Anyway, the Boston Magazine is pretty good.

You can read it here.

Greatest Toys Ever
Published on December 1, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at Wired magazine, GeekDad lists the five greatest toys of all time.

I've played with all of them!

Finding Your Bully
Published on September 27, 2011 by Sara Foss

Salon has started a new series that I find rather interesting. The online publication is inviting readers to get in touch with "someone who made your life miserable as a kid," interview them, and write about it for Open Salon. In the first post, writer Steve Almond talks to former classmate Sean Lynden, who made his life miserable in the eighth grade.

Here's an excerpt:

"I hadn't seen Sean since our high school graduation, nearly 30 years ago. I'd gone on to become a writer and teacher in the Boston area. All I knew about him was that he still lived in California and worked for a venture capital firm. I was certain that he'd decline my request. But I'd underestimated him. He wrote back:

Hey Steve -- happy to talk. Your story is interesting as I honestly don't remember that. Then again, given human nature I find it easy to believe that I may have forgotten or purged a memory where I was the villain.

A few days later, we talked by phone. What follows is an abridged version of our conversation. (I've changed a few names, at Sean's request.)

So, like I said, I wanted to talk about this brief, intense period of time when -- and I realize this is a memory, so it's totally subjective -- but it felt like you really hated me.


Yeah. It was mostly in this metal shop class we took together.

I definitely remember taking that metal shop class in eighth grade. And I was thinking about it, since you sent that original email, and I do remember being in a relationship with someone where I was the bully or the dominant, because I remember feeling that. But I never would have put two and two together and thought it was you.

I had this sense of being totally frozen out. And it was clear, or it seemed clear to me, that you were calling the shots. You were the alpha of that group.

It's funny you would say that, because this was around the time that Billy Dempsey entered the picture --

Yeah, I remember Billy coming up to me at the lockers, I think you were there for this, and threatening to kick my ass.

I don't remember that, but it wouldn't surprise me. The thing is, we had this very tortured relationship where I spent the entire time trying to prove myself to him. Billy was athletically more gifted than me and he was fearless and willing to get into fights with anybody, whereas I always saw myself as an egghead nerd. So it's quite possible, I could easily see, if there was an opportunity for me to prove to Billy that I was his equal in terms of being the macho guy I would have grabbed at it."

The interview goes on for a while, and it's pretty compelling. I've always wondered what bullies are thinking. Like, what motivates them to get up in the morning and be mean to other kids for no apparent reason? In any case, Almond's interview provides some clues.

Speaking to Rubes
Published on September 20, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby often wonders who college professors aren't more actively involved in trying to educate the public about the important issues of the day. On Tuesday, he suggested that "it's easy to be disinformed because of the professors. Has any group failed you more reliably over the past several decades? As more and more parts of our public discourse have been seized by disinformation, you could always count on the professors to stay away from the field of battle. No explanation or clarification was likely to come from their refined aeries!"

Academia is one of those institutions that I have wildly mixed feelings about. On one hand, I usually like academics, because they tend to be smart and thoughtful. On the other hand, I'm frequently amazed at their tunnel vision - they really seem to think their doctoral research is important, an attitude often accompanied by a failure to understand or care about the problems concerning working class Americans.

Somerby points to a New Yorker article about New York Times columnist and prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, in which reporter Larissa McFarquhar describes how Krugman's academic friends tried to discourage him from writing for a newspaper, saying it was a waste of time. According to the article, "Krugman cared about his academic reputation more than anything else. If he started writing for a newspaper, would his colleagues think he’d become a pseudo-economist, a former economist, a vapid policy entrepreneur like Lester Thurow? Lester Thurow had become known in certain circles as Less Than Thorough. It was hard to imagine what mean nickname could be made out of Paul Krugman, but what if someone came up with one? Could he take it?" Somerby considers this a pretty interesting reaction from Krugman's fellow professors, and sarcastically asks, "Why would any Serious Person want to write a mere newspaper column? Why would any serious person want to speak to the rubes?"

I've run into this attitude more than once, particularly from writerly types. Journalism is hack work, newspaper writing isn't real writing, blah blah blah. Better to toil away in a creative writing master's program than go out and write something that tens of thousands of people, perhaps more, will read.

Of course, new Census data shows that the only people currently seeing wage gains are those with advanced degrees. Which might help explain academia's relative unconcern about wage stagnation and other issues affecting workers.

On Being Bullied
Published on September 11, 2011 by Sara Foss

After learning of the 2010 suicide of Phoebe Prince, a bullying victim in Massachusetts, young adult fiction writer Carrie Jones began reaching out to other writers to share their own bullying stories. The result is a new anthology, titled "Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories."

Bullying is an interesting subject, and one close to my heart. Some time back, I decided to mention the fact that I had been bullied in school in one of my columns, and I feel like the world would be a better place if more adults spoke honestly about what it was like to be bullied as children. There's no shame in being bullied, but bullying victims often do feel shamed, and if more people "came out" as bullying victims, it might go a long way toward destigmitazing the issue. Because what you usually get is a bunch of adults blathering away about creating an anti-bullying culture, which is a great idea, but seldom discussed in a way that acknowledges actual experience.

Anyway, here's a link to an NPR interview with Jones and anthology contributors Eric Luper and Carolyn Mackler.