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The Lost Art of the Implausible Multiple Choice Distractor*

board-361516_960_720By Nick McDaniels

*Note: Implausible Multiple Choice Distractors are not an art nor are they lost.

Sometimes, well, all the time, really, we in education, take assessments too seriously.  We research and practice writing the most effective multiple choice (or is it selected response?) answers (alternatives?). We add trial questions for next year’s test to this year’s test and we make sure that our data is as accurate (marketable?) as possible.  Of course, by we, I mean the corporate ed-reform testing giants and those complicit in their acts.

I, however, a run-of-the-mill classroom teacher and one of the fortunate few who still has the ability to write his own assessments, often try to deviate from the standardized-assessment norm. In fact, I’d say I regularly deviate by a few standard deviations from the standardized-assessment norm. But just because I think that standardized-assessment, the endless wave of question stems and A through D alternatives, is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of good public education, doesn’t mean that I think that all multiple-choice questions are evil. In fact, I employ multiple choice on many of my in-class assessments. But that’s not what this post is about, really.

This post is about finding a way to use multiple-choice assessments in classrooms without triggering the multiple-choice test fatigue which has befallen our young people. I have not found a fool-proof solution to making my multiple choice tests seem less painful, boring, etc…. But I do regularly employ a cardinal sin of multiple choice alternative creation. I seize an opportunity for a play on words, a joke, etc… as a throw-away answer in almost every test I create. And students regularly start laughing during my quizzes. Enjoying a test? What? How could this be? Because, perhaps, I stopped taking my own tests so seriously?

In throwing away an answer every now and again, I am reducing my student’s chance of getting that one question wrong by 25%. I’m not really providing that much of an advantage am I, on a 20 question quiz?

I encourage you, as a teacher, to find a way to bring some joy back to assessments. You can do it! Here’s a corny example from my last Constitutional Law quiz:

Which Constitutional Clause was utilized by the Supreme Court to radically expand Congressional power during the 20th Century?

  1. Necessary and Proper
  2. Commerce
  3. Supremacy
  4. Santa

And when the first student reached this question of the quiz, his belly shook like a bowl full of jelly. Not really. But he did smile. That’s more joy than we see during most assessments. Lighten up. Have fun. And throw an answer to the wind every now and again; a Nobel Prize winner once said that the answers are blowin’ there, anyway.

 

Riding in My Big Yellow Taxi

old_checker_cabBy Peggy Wuenstel

Joni Mitchell’s iconic song Big Yellow Taxi holds special meaning for me, especially this year. In addition to being that rarity, a song that has an excellent remake courtesy Counting Crows, it is a reminder to take stock of all those things we value. Contrary to the famous line, I do know what I’ve got before it’s gone. The beauty of planning ahead for retirement, promotion, or a job change is that the “going” is far enough away that you can reflect on what you have. This is it, the last 189.5 days of my full-time teaching life. (And 40 of them are already behind me at this posting.) It is the countdown of “last experiences,” back-to-school open house, Christmas program, report cards, snow day, etc. The vast majority of those things are not the ones I will happy to see go, but the things I am so grateful to have been a part of.

In this last year of blogging for the Marquette Educator, something else I will deeply miss, I plan to visit all of those treasures I know I have today. Some I’ll leave behind. Some I’ll pass on to others. Some I will never be able to part with and some are so much a part of me that I wouldn’t be able to extricate them if I tried.  My teaching team, the memories I will take with me as I leave the classroom, the daily positivity that surrounds a successful elementary school all made the list. I have made a promise to myself not to let remembering the past or planning for the future diminish my pleasure or purpose in completing this last year.

I’ve already begun tossing the old, the dated worksheets, the books that don’t inspire, the programs and materials that do not align with the research or contribute to best practices. This process is actually long overdue. In this digital age we teach differently than we have in the past, keeping things in computer files rather than hard copy. This winnowing requires examining the reasons why we are holding on to our” treasures.” Someone put in a lot of time and effort to make these materials. We had such fun when we taught this unit. We have always done it this way; it’s tradition.

I am also mindful and grateful that I have the opportunity to retire. Many of my students’ families may never have that opportunity.  Company loyalty, hiring and firing practices, maximizing profits and shareholder dividends all limit an employee’s options in remaining in an organization or career. Relocation for the job of a spouse, need to return to care for an ailing or aging parent or support a child for whom economic opportunity has not yet arrived also limit our chances for stability and advancement.

Longevity at a job is not always considered a plus on a résumé. My job has allowed me the freedom to grow, change settings, and feel that I make a difference in the same place and with the same extraordinary team (more about that next month). Many people in our society have no such opportunities. Isn’t this the primary role of education: creating in our students the set of skills and attitudes that prepare them for a successful future. That has been harder to envision in recent years. Even in these times when our teacher benefits and compensation are both reduced and uncertain, I am grateful that my situation allows for retirement.

I am working under a new superintendent this year, part of  the revolving door status quo in Wisconsin schools as school leaders relocate every few years as their jobs are less stable or satisfying than in my first years in education. These conditions make educators uncertain of district commitment to teacher benefits and alter labor relations. This will be the 5th administrator I have worked under in my 15-year tenure in my district.

I have remained in Whitewater twice as long as anywhere else  I have worked in my 34-year career because this district allowed me the opportunity for continual growth and reinvention. I worked part-time in between full-time bookends at the beginning and end of my career here. I explored opportunities with UW-Whitewater,Wisconsin’s DPI, and the Whitewater community. I had many chances and myriad encouragements to lead at the program, school, district, and state level. I always had the personal sense of moving forward, while many aspects of education (funding, public support, legislative decisions) seemed to be moving backward.

On my bulletin board (another future post) there is a reminder: “If you don’t like the direction of the wind, you can always adjust the sails.” I have been distressed about many of the directions that education has taken in Wisconsin in recent years, and it’s time to let someone else take the tack so that I can sail in calmer waters, enjoy the scenery, and slow the pace. Let the adventure begin, my big yellow taxi is waiting at the dock.

 

Does Spelling Matter?

spelling-998350_960_720By Stephanie Nicoletti

Does spelling matter? Do children learn proper grammar? Do children learn cursive anymore? It seems lately there is this concern about how children are learning writing and spelling skills, which is valid, but the answers to these questions are YES, OF COURSE! It just probably looks different than it used to and these important questions deserve an answer.

Learning to spell is a very difficult task because children are trying to use many different skills at once. When children are so focused on spelling every word exactly correct, the writing process gets slowed down. Many teachers, especially in the early grades, and including myself, encourage inventive spelling: the child makes his or her best guess on the spelling of the word. When a student asks, “Miss Nicoletti, how do you spell ‘because’?” I simply respond, “stretch through each sound of the word.” This practice is research-driven and when children use this method, their writing becomes more fluent with richer vocabulary.

Of course, in the older grades spelling does count, but most teachers have their students engage in a writing process. Correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar come in the final stages of the writing process. Spelling in the older grades comes last in the writing process for the same reason as the primary grades: focusing on spelling too much early on will limit the student’s flow of ideas and quality of writing.

So, do schools still even teach spelling then? Something that our district has implemented that I am particularly proud of is the use of the Words Their Way spelling program. To sum up: students are placed in “spelling groups” based on actual spelling patterns students need help with. When they are “tested” each week, we only look at the spelling pattern that they are focusing on, not the spelling of the whole word. This is a new type of thinking for parents and even teachers, this individualized program supports the research stated above while fostering reading and writing skills.

GORDIE IS SUCH A FOX!!! (or Why I read my childhood diary out loud in class!)


By Claudia Felske—
Last Thursday, I read my childhood journal out loud TO MY STUDENTS!  These were not the “Dea20161009_175024r Diary” scrawlings of an eight-year-old in a sparkly pink journal, secured by an adorably tiny lock. This was pure teen angst, an unfiltered look at my high school hangups.

My 15-year old self would have been mortified! In fact, one of my journal entries (November 13, 1985) confirms it: “I TOTALLY FREAKED OUT YESTERDAY!!! I thought this journal was gone! I would totally die if this got out!”

So why, 31 years later, did I (“totally”) betray the confidence of my 15-year-old self?

And what legitimate place, you may be wondering, does any of this have in my classroom?

Okay, fair question. My objective that day was to introduce my students to podcasting, as downloadeventually they’ll be recording their own podcasts. And since it was Homecoming week, the plan was to play for them Homecoming Ruined My Life, an episode detailing “The Esoteric Secrets of Adam Ruben” – an entertaining look at the awkward inner and outer life of a high schooler trying to get a date for Homecoming. It was an episode from Mortified, a podcast in which adults share “their most mortifying childhood artifacts (diaries, letters, lyrics, poems, home movies)… in front of total strangers.”  

This episode would, I reasoned, serve both as an introduction to podcasting and a direct tie to their lives (a sort of “It gets better” reminder to students on this Homecoming week, a week filled with excitement, rejection, angst, and the whole roller coaster in between).

Duly inspired by Adam Ruben’s confessional, the night before class, I journeyed through some of my own high school journals, earmarking the passages relating to Gordie, my high school crush, and my homecoming disappointments.

And so, in Freshman English, before Adam Ruben read from “The Esoteric Secrets of Adam Ruben,” I read to them from mine:

20161009_171428.jpg

I recited to my Freshmen confessions of my crush on Gordie, stress over homework and grades, my unhealthy fixation on losing 5 more pounds. As I did, I felt as vulnerable and sophomoric as I did back in 1985, and yes, a bit mortified. A classful of adolescent eyes were raptly fixed on me. There was a palpable mix of curiosity, surprise, and empathy in the air.

Why the intensity? Why were students glued, eyes and ears?

It turns out the private moments of teenage me were universal moments to my students decades later.  The word is authenticity.

To learn from us, students first need to see us as real people. When I read from my childhood journal, my students saw me as a real person who was once a self-conscious, conflicted, complicated teenager, not unlike themselves.

As an English teacher, I want words to do for my students what, looking back, they’ve done for me.  I want my students to use words to express themselves, to relate to others, to feel less alone, maybe even to read years from now, as adults looking back with a more gentle understanding of their younger selves and a greater empathy for the teens in their own lives. 

Not until my 24th year of teaching did I read my journal aloud in class—perhaps it required precisely that much time and distance for me to be comfortable doing so. What I do know is that taking that risk and stepping into that potentially mortifying moment, childhood journal in-hand, will now be another tool in my teaching repertoire.

Teacher take-aways?

  1. podcast-imageIf you have a childhood journal or assignment from when you were in school that you can relate to what your teaching, use it! 
  2. It’s tricky to mix the private and the personal in your classroom, but if bring your teenage vulnerabilities into the classroom, your students will respect you for it.
  3. Podcasts are an untapped goldmine for our classrooms across the curriculum. (More on that, I suspect, in a future blogpost).

The Power of Listening

heart-love-romance-valentine-mediumBy Sabrina Bartels

Middle school counselors had a hero in their midst this past week. Sycamore Middle School’s counselor, Molly Hudgens, made headlines when she was able to prevent a student from going on a shooting rampage.

Last week, a 14-year-old student entered the counseling office and spoke with Hudgens. As the conversation went on, Hudgens asked the student if he had a gun. He showed her the gun in his waistband. By the end of their 45-minute conversation, the student surrendered the weapon to Hudgens.

The whole story is simply amazing, but then came this quote from the sheriff: “He advised Ms. Hudgens he was going to kill some teachers and a police officer and not students. He came to her because he indicated she would be the only one to talk him out of it.”

This quote was so amazingly powerful for me. Here was a student with a lot on his mind, not unlike many middle school students. Here was a student who was going to act impulsively, again, much like other middle school students. But instead of going down a path that could’ve ended with a lot of lost lives, he went to the counselor. And that made all the difference.

I thought about this as I drove up north this weekend. Some days, I come home feeling like a failure. Those are the days when I wasn’t able to find a perfect solution to “fix” the problems that my students are encountering. If I had my way, I would have a magic wand that would automatically solve all my students’ worries, concerns, behaviors, and fears. All of my students would have homes to live in, food to eat, and friends who treat them well. No kid would be abused, neglected, bullied, or abandoned. But through this story, I realized that I don’t always need the perfect solution. Just because I can’t perfectly solve their problems doesn’t mean that I’m failing them as a counselor.

Molly Hudgens did an amazing thing. She listened. She empathized. She did all of the things we learned both through grad school and through real-life experience. But most importantly, she earned this student’s trust and respect. It was through this simple act (though it’s not necessarily easy to do this!) that she was able to prevent tragedy.

To me, this demonstrates the true power and strength of the relationships we create every single day. The little things that we may take for granted – all of the smiles and hugs and chats that we have with our students every single day – may be the exact things that make us heroes to our students. Those are the things our students treasure. Those are the things that make the difference.

Here’s to Molly Hudgens, a hero among school counselors! To read about her experience, click here.

Teachers be like…

a_teacher_talks_to_his_students_in_a_classroom_at_cathedral_high_school_in_new_ulm_minnesota-_the_town_is_a_county-_-_nara_-_558210By Nick McDaniels

There are a few great internet memes that float around occasionally with the caption “Teachers be like…” followed by a phrase or action that is indicative of teachers.  My favorite, “Teachers be like… I’ll wait until it’s quiet,” or some variation thereof, captioned over a skeleton sitting at a desk, captures a typical teacher classroom management technique whereby a teacher refuses to continue to instruct until students are paying attention.

To be meme-ified, means, in many ways, to be typical or indicative.  For me, and for my students, it just means that sometimes we teachers all say the same stuff and when captured in a meme, well… it’s just darn funny.

So I asked my students today to complete the phrase… “Teachers be like…” There were some good ones.

“… the bell doesn’t dismiss you, I do.”

“… I don’t have to be here, I choose to be here.”

“… I already got my degree…”

Google “Teachers be like.”  There are some great ones out there!

So this certainly begs the question, are these things we all really say?  Who cares?  It’s funny if enough of us do, and kids think it’s funny.

So I ask of you, in the comment section below, to tell what is your favorite, “Teachers be like…” saying or action?

It’s nice sometimes, when we want out students to be quiet, or not pack up before the bell rings, to at least be able to laugh at the ways we choose to cope out loud with these problems.

Trickle-down Privilege

bulldozer-1357600_960_720By Dhanya Nair

As I turned around a corner, I saw a lone seagull landing momentarily in the middle of an empty road, poised to take flight again. I also noticed a speeding car through the corner of my eye, and hoped the driver would slow down, as there was no traffic. But, to my immense horror, the driver crushed the bird and sped on. I paused and looked at that poor creature, it had no inkling its life would be snuffed out quite so suddenly. Roadkill is so common that we don’t spare a second thought for it. However, the dead seagull got me thinking about hierarchies in the world. As a mere bird, the poor gull had no moral authority over a human driving purposefully to some end. Its life was disposable and the motorist had exercised her/his human privilege by killing it.

Our ascendancy as humans over other species in this world is also a mark of our collective arrogance. The firm, unflinching belief that we matter the most. “Survival of the fittest” explains why we became the most dominant species, and we have used that theory to justify pseudo-meritocracies, colonialism, slavery, and pretty much any kind of exploitation and manipulation. As humans, we have decided who among our own gets the most and least amount of privilege; for instance, a citizen of a “First World” nation should have more privilege than a citizen of “Third World” nation. To me, it seems like the unwritten rule is for privilege to be trickle-down in nature. As humans, we are trained to conceptualize the world around us in the form of hierarchies and structures. It probably helps us navigate this immensely complex world in a relatively simple manner. Hence, the driver who killed the seagull was able to get to her/his destination without pausing to spare the bird’s life as she/he was secure in the knowledge that her/his moral right as a human was superior to the bird’s. The consequences of such automatic thinking make me shudder. Are we as humans condemned to bulldoze our way through the lives of some or the other creature or our fellow human beings?


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