This is Not a Test- José Vilson Part 1

It has been really hard to focus on my thoughts and reading when others have already posted on this with my book group.  I want to get my thoughts out there first before I am swayed by others insights



At first it took me a little while to understand José and his writing style.  In fact, I reread this part about 4 times.  He blends what he wants you tell you with many different stories and accounts in his life which sometimes convoluted his message (at least to me).  Since I have spent the past 12 years teaching on a public school on a reservation, he has my attention when he talks about teacher perceived behaviors versus actual student ones.  I have often wondered how many teachers have dealt with student in the same way before they walk into my door.  Students who have great ideas on how to do mathematics have been hammered by the rules.  Students are so ingrained on drill and kill that they are unwilling for months to work openly on a problem that I have not previously demonstrated a solution path.  In my class I have students who feel that they are unable to work on math because I do not send a textbook home with each of them every day (I have a classroom set only, and usually that is for reference).  They also feel that they are not learning mathematics because they are not doing problems 1-72 from each section.  They can’t see that being presented a situation where they ask questions themselves, work in groups, refine their work and defend their answers are teaching them as much as a worksheet.

Many of my students are of mixed nationality as well,  so hearing his account on how he feels like he is never welcome in either of his parent’s culture really spoke to me.  When I look at my classroom, I only see kids.  I don’t break down nationality, and try real hard not to break them down by behaviors (but I will happen, I normally have to check myself every 2 months on this behavior).  When he talks about the “lazy” comment his teacher makes to him, it makes me more conscientious of what off hand comments I may say in class.  I also respect that we all need to be heard, no matter what our opinions are.  This is something I stress in our classroom- that every idea is valid and needs attention.  One thing that really surprises my students is when we pick up their ideas (and others think it is wrong) and run with them, usually resulting in a correct solution.  It starts to change how they think about their education up until now and increases their confidence about their abilities.

Please Put Your Pencils Down:

This section kicks off our favorite subject, testing.  Not just end of year testing, but progression/monitoring testing.  Once again José flips back and forth between his inner self and teacher self (it looks like I will need to get used to this).  He flips back and forth in this section about testing and school opportunities- especially charter schools.  I have not had contact with charters, although we have 3 in our area, I have always been in a public school- both professionally and as a student.  I can relate to his framing of “the only school” since in my rural home there was only one option.  There is a lot of local investment in this setting, a single school really pulls together a community.  Of course, there are problems with that type of setting (mostly meeting student needs and physical needs- location/distance), but what would it be like if we were able to support structures big enough to house all students in one location, no matter what their needs?  What kind of impact would that have on the community and learning?

José then goes back to giving this assessment test.  He gives us the typical student responses (that we all have experiences), as well as how he (and most of us) handle this situation professionally, as well as his (and ours) internal thoughts.  Testing fatigue is a problem, progression testing is taxing on teachers, students as well as data protocol members.  It seems like we all are starting to move into a common belief that understanding of mathematics is as important as obtaining a correct answer- yet our testing methods do not reflect this.  There are many of us who comment on this via Twitter or our Blogs, why has that message not been heard?  What can we do to change this for all students?  How can we measure student learning in a way that allows them flexibility in thought and answers but is accessible for data interpretation?  Those are questions we need to answer.

Can It Be That It Was All So Simple Then?:

This was a insight to the atmosphere José experiences in school.  He also mused, like I have, whether things seemed so easy back then because the pressure of assessments were not existent.  Teachers taught, students learned (some more than others), and there never was the question of the quality of education.  Quality of education is a very large topic, and we are still collectively struggling to properly define it in mathematics.  While I believe we need to have some common benchmarks so we can be reasonably assured of any student’s given mathematical skills, I am still not satisfied with our assessment methods that are in place to measure these benchmarks.  José also relates how teachers are creatures of their own education, they tend to present in the ways they learned.  This does need to change.  Our students have totally different home and social experiences than we did.  In order to meet student’s needs, we need to know about them.  I agree with José that is does unlock some barriers to student involvement when you bring their topics into the classroom.  Every year, during the first couple of days I have student fill out an “All About Me” that gives me some insight about the students and how to tailor my instruction to help capture interest.  José then goes into student tracking, a process that is still very debated in my school.  Students learn the best from their peers, how can we expect our “lower” (I really hate this term, how do we accurately define a lower student?) students to be successful if they have the concept that they are in the “dumb” class?  We do send this message all the time.  Instead of splitting students into groups, perhaps one hour of the day is an elective where students are grouped by instructional needs.  Even with this model, you have the feeling of smart and dumb groups- would there be an effective way to offer an student picked elective that could address student’s academic needs or is an RTI model the best?

Band of Brothers:

In this chapter José mentions the years that he was the most inspired- the middle school years at Nativity.  He remembers how they gave him experiences he may not otherwise experience and pushed them to use their gifts to better themselves.  I hope we all experience this at some point, that we learn about ourselves and our strengths.  Many teachers strive to recreate these atmospheres in our classroom, hoping to bring our students the same successes.  This is a great goal, as long as we also realize that we need to inspire our students according to their strengths, not ones imposed onto them by us.

What Happened:

Hey teacher, teacher

Tell me how do you respond to students?

And refresh the page and restart the memory?

Respark the soul and rebuild the energy?

We stopped the ignorance, we killed the enemies…

José wonders if this verse by Slick Rick is a framework for pedagogy.  Do teachers reflect enough and know how to connect with their students?  Are they educating or schooling their students?  I agree with José that education should be a process where teachers, students and parents work together to help future citizens succeed and become a positive contributor to general society.  He talks about how there have been successful people who did not pursue education, but that was because they did not feel connected to their learning or educators.  Education has become a tough profession, we need to be able to connect to a very diverse population that makes up our class.  We have the responsibility to ensure that we are offering our students the best education according to their needs so they have the best chance to be successful.

Negotiating My Own Skin:

This chapter probably has struck me the most, because teaching 8th grade, students really struggle with finding themselves.  By the time students are in our 8th grade, they are the top of the Middle School- but they also start getting a taste of high school through elective classes and sports.  This starts a whole new dynamic with the students as they are now trying to create a new identity to present to older students and peers to align with for support.  One thing that alleviates this to some degree is the fact that we are THE school, students do not have to worry about which high school they will choose, unless they decide to open enroll to another district.  One big difference between my student’s issues and José- there is no classroom where dialect for minorities is an issue.  Our white population is so small in fact (less than 5%) that in most cases, the minority dialect is the one that students emulate.

I am also deeply saddened by José’s tale about the councilor, in our school we are fortunate to have a good staff on hand for students, and classroom teachers empathize with students.  There are some student issues I take care of by talking one-on-one with a student outside in the hall, and there are others where I let the student know that I am concerned, but I have to refer them to a professional (and they are seen within the day).  When I read this I realized that I may have to change how I approach certain issues, there are deeply seeded cultural trauma within the community- and even though I am aware of it I did try to not dwell upon those issues but teach students how to deal with their current issues.  That is a mistake since many of their current issues take root at the home where this cultural trauma resides.

I hope that I am one of those teachers who create a positive experience for our students, I try to encourage students to think to their futures and give them opportunities to explore options they will have once they are done with high school.  I am always open to ideas others may have on how I could improve myself in this area.

It’s Not About A Salary:

This chapter talks about the disparity of minority teachers in education, as well as the lack of male educators.  As a non-minority male teacher, I always try to really connect with my students.  I realize that this may take longer than it would if I was a minority, but I also hope that I make a positive difference and connection for these students.  I have had students tell me “what do you care, you won’t see us or care about us after this year.”  That comment really spoke to me about how students perceive their elementary teachers.  I started out in high school, where I would see students for four years.  I constantly kept in contact, asking how classes were going, home lives- if I could help them in any way.  At first students were a little put off by my efforts, and from that one comment I can see why.  After a year, students began to see where I was coming from, that I really did care when I would ask “Who has seen ____?  She has been gone for 2 days and I am worried about her.”  When I was moved to the middle school, I was worried about this- but I kept going to the high school to talk with my old colleagues and make sure vertical alignment of curriculum was going well.  This (and coaching) allowed me to maintain those relationships, I have been very blessed to have old students come up to me to talk about how things have gone for them- and usually they give me insight to current or future students I will have.  I agree with the statement that it’s not about salary, for me it’s about the students- plain and simple.

The Answer:

This chapter also connected with me.  When I started college I wanted to be in engineering/computer science.  I also had a class that basically forced me out of the field- operating systems.  It was partially the teacher and partially my own disinterest in the class.  I had two previous classes, assembly being one, that I loved.  I was a debugger- I can get lost in code, looking for the errors and fixing it.  One of the criteria of our assembly assignments was space, so we would get the program working, then dig into the code to see where we could blend lines to create a smaller more efficient program.  I loved it, I spent hours in the lab trying to condense my code- usually I was the best programmer on that account.  After OS pushed me away from CS, I started to look at my mathematics homework in the same way.  What could I do to get the right answer?  Was there a better way?  More efficient?  I started applying my Assembly habits to my mathematics and loved it.  That is why I connect with process teaching, am confident in CCSS, and believe I can connect with students.  I look at mathematics a different way now than when I was a student in high school.  Although I didn’t have the cultural barrier José did through school, I too had to find myself and my path.  We all have, and we have chosen the most important one.


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