Friday, January 2, 2015

There is Cause for Rejoicing Here

It's the one thing people harp on: The Test.

That cap fit a record 297 kids this year
Don't get us wrong, we could talk about our program and our kids all day long. The two of us can recite our yearly participation numbers by heart - 221, 188, 281, 297 (!!!!) - we have dozens of emails from grateful parents saved in special files on our computers at work. We have letters from our cherubs tucked away in desk drawers. We have stacks of sticky notes written in a sort of CRL-shorthand because, when amazing moments come up, we do whatever we can to document them. We could tell you how much we talk about books, how many texts and phone calls we exchange weekly, and how often we plan, thinking of nothing but our kids.  We could tell you all that and more.  But is that what people ask us about?  Nope.  People want to know about The Test.

Message received!  Test-curious folk, read on.

Here's the gist:

This year, we took more time than ever preparing our questions; perhaps that's why we believed in them so. We knew they were good, so we stood by them. Non-fiction text presented its own challenges for us this time around, and we relied heavily on open-ended, opinion-type queries. We wrote the questions over the course of six months, and vetted them in front of committees of adults and children. We ordered the questions chronologically and then sorted them into categories (and yes, each test had one from each category.) We watched every movie trailer and read the Wikipedia entries. We generated over one hundred questions, which resulted in 3-4 different tests per day. We used visual prompts this year for the first time. The tests were good. Really good.

Eight tests for the final Draft Day
Though it's easy for us to become defensive when people have questions about The Test, we understand their curiosity. Mary and I have known for years that our test-phobic culture stems not from our kiddos, but from the adults in their lives. And we have story after story to prove it. It's the adults who get nervous; the adults who wish it would go away. In our little corner of the world, we have sought to spread a new mantra: "Tests are not to trick you! They are an opportunity for you to celebrate your success!" Seriously, how many of you have clicked on a Facebook test and then posted your score, exclaiming: "I know my '80s sitcom trivia!" "I'm a 100% grammar nerd!" "I am a Tolkien WIZARD!"
Proud 7th grader on 12/22

Our kids devoted days, weeks, maybe months to reading a book (and a challenging one!) that was optional.

Why would we ever want to rob our children of that glory?

While we can't boast that our tests are perfect, we can claim pure, positive intentions, and a darn flipping exceptional record. The Test isn't going anywhere. It's good. It's a cornerstone of what we do. And you know who loves it? The kids. And it's because of them that we are so confident it The Test's brilliance.

This year, it was The Test that gave us and our readers multiple moments of pure, unadulterated joy.

More than ever, we were swamped by kids who approached the testing table over and over again saying, "That was fun! Can I do another one?" We indulged the little maniacs when we could but on busy days, we had to swat them away.

We watched kids barrel out of the cafeteria with broad grins, nervous hands, and jittery feet. We exchanged silent smiles on days when our table was flooded with Special Education students. We bore witness as our readers surveyed the scene and selected their test with care. If they came toward us and said, "Oh my gosh, I'm so afraid. I'm gonna fail, I know it" we sent them back. "No no no! You approach this table with confidence! Now let me hear you say 'I can do this!'" and only after they obliged the CRL, gave that positive affirmation and laughed, did we let them continue forward.

For the first time, we had kids tell us, "I'm already All In! but I want to prove it some more!"

Clarifying questions, jingling all the way
Child after child requested copies of the quiz for their parents. Erin once walked in on a social studies class after the teacher had apparently challenged his students: "Go ahead, ask me anything about UNBROKEN!" Unfortunately, he had a lot of readers in that room who delighted in stumping him. Their questions were insane - How many days did Mac stay alive on the raft? - but some knew the answers. Let's just say it's a good thing we don't leave the questions up to the kids.

We had a crew of 8th graders hang around the testing table day after day, ready to hi-5 readers as they finished. Mary had entire classes applaud when a nervous 6th grader came to her room for a 1:1 test. Of course he passed.

We had students approach us on non-testing days (good thing the CRL can write an assessment on a piece of scrap paper in about sixty seconds.)

With our hi-5-er on 12/22
We had students request testing during our respective lunch duties. Erin obliged once, sat a boy in front of a test at an empty table, and then watched as a crew of 8th graders gathered around to support their comrade, saying "You got this!" Minutes later, six adolescent boys erupted in hoots and back-smacks when their buddy passed.
(Hi.  Mary here.  As I was reading Erin's notes, I had to ask her, "Is this story really about you?  Or is this me?  It's you?  REALLY? The EXACT same thing happened to me during 7th grade lunch duty!")

More times than we can count, we asked a lingering middle, "Do you need a test?" to which he or she would reply, "No, I'm just here to cheer!"

Our prize for favorite story this year goes to the Murphy family. Their 8th grade son is a 3-peat and their 6th grade daughter was going All In! for the first time. Several weeks ago, Erin got a panicked phone call from Mrs. Murphy, saying her daughter "had tried and failed." Mom knew her daughter Jessie had read UNBROKEN, but she struggles with reading, and this book was way above her level. She was afraid the failure would make her daughter give up. She explained how this book had spurred Jessie's interest in non-fiction and had taught her more about the World War II era than she ever knew. Mrs. Murphy sang the praises of All In! but her daughter had come home in tears. Mom admitted she didn't see the point to the assessment and wondered why we had to test the kids at all. Erin explained that her daughter had been quite close to passing and was confident that, given another shot the next day, she believed Jessie would pass just fine. She explained the CRL Philosophy of The Power of the Test. Jessie had invested her time and read a book on her own. She deserved to have that moment of celebration. We were not going to rob this child of a chance to experience her accomplishment. If she read the book, we'd be able to tell and she would earn her way in. Sure enough, that young lady did pass - with flying colors - the very next day and Erin left a jubilant message on the Murphy family answering machine announcing the good news.

Several days later, Erin ran into Mrs. Murphy at a local store. When she caught Erin's eye, Mrs. Murphy opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came. Instead, she wrapped Erin in a hug and began to cry. "Thank you, Miss O'Leary. I can't tell you what you've done for my daughter. She was SO proud of herself! You should have seen her when she got off the bus - she was practically dancing! You turned the entire assessment thing around for me, you know. I didn't understand it, but to hear you explain it as a chance to succeed and then to see Jessie's face...You were right! I am just so grateful for what you two do." She then explained that she had played the voice message for the entire family, much to her daughter's delight. Mr. Murphy, who is perhaps unaccustomed to the celebratory decibel level of the CRL asked, "Who talks like that?" Their son, well known to the both of us, said, "That's them, Dad. That's how they talk! They're so positive, that's just how they are."

Finishing the race
After more laughter and yet another hug, parent and teacher parted. Mrs. Murphy headed to her car and then turned with one last comment, "Thank You. My daughter will never forget this."