29 August, 2013

I plan, you plan, we all plan for NAPLAN

Have I mentioned I am doing a Dip Ed? (or a Graduate Diploma of Teaching and Learning as it is now more grandiosely known). Well, I am. Not because I have been brow beaten by those who 2 or 3 years ago were berating librarians for stealing the jobs of teacher librarians or because I have to. Well, the why is a whole other post so I will ignore it for now. The point today is that I was asked to "Go to the NAPLAN website and complete the year 7 Language Conventions test.  What did you learn about your level of literacy?  How did you feel doing this test? How might your awareness of this test affect how you teach and what you look for in students' work?"

What follows is my answer and I thought it rather 'blogworthy'

Year 7 language conventions? Ha! I’m sorted with this one. Now, if you’d been asking me to do a NAPLAN on year 7 maths I would have had to fire up a few neurons which haven’t been used as much of late (see post 2 ed.).
I’m going to make a few tangential remarks on this one.
Firstly if I was your student and you were given my special needs documentation you would see that I am an ADHD kid whose language scores are rock bottom and whose maths scores are sky high (at least as far as the aptitude testing reports it). Yet in the classroom (and the subsequent ‘real world’) you would see that maths bores me while literature excites me. You would also as a teacher come to realise that part of the reason for this is that, while I know the conventions of language, I do not always choose to use them. But, add to this the fact that I am manifestly incapable of spelling.
As a school student, this was the bane of my existence. Picture a poor, put upon, year 4 boy whose face falls when it is time for the school-wide reading programme. Hates reading? Mmm, he won’t be alone there. No, in fact he loves reading, but at the start of year 4 has progressed well beyond the reading programme which is still engaging every other student in the school. So the school-wide programme becomes ‘school -1’ and this boy is instead sent to sit out on the front step (where he won’t disturb others) and to work on a remedial spelling programme. A remedial programme which fails utterly, perhaps because it is as dull as dishwater, perhaps because the student doesn’t care to spell, perhaps because the programme doesn’t address why he can’t spell? 
Whatever the reason I (who will stop referring to myself in the 3rd person now, as that is the behaviour of egotistical sportstars in post-match interviews)…
I keep on progressing through school without any marked improvement on spelling. Content that I am able to make myself understood but caring more about the idea I am caught in, than about the niceties of making it pretty to the eyes of society. As luck would have it though, I was born at a point where this would not cause me any issues at all. At the same time I hit the job-market and the university, technology gives me the spellcheck. At first this just allows me to fix things at the end, but with the introduction of the wiggly red line something changes. This line, in my peripheral vision, somehow shortcuts its way into my subconscious and over the period of a few years I found myself repeating my errors less. Words, which were once a mystery to me (like those with a proliferation of Cs, Ss or double Ss followed by a single C…) suddenly work.
Am I making a point here?
I hope so.

Standardised testing is a very good form of data gathering, but not on the micro level. Mmm, perhaps not on the macro either. Umm, somewhere in the middle is a sweet spot where the data is good. But if you use these tests to tell a kid language is not his thing, you might not be looking at the totality of the kid.
How does this affect my teaching? I am liable to take an English class and say “you are writing poetry, don’t interrupt your flow of ideas in order to make sure you are spelling things right”. I might be tempted to tell a history student that I will NOT be marking spelling in her essay (how many marks did I lose over the years because my ability to spell did not match my knowledge of Greek Mythology?). Will I therefore ignore spelling? I don’t think so, my students need to know how to make themselves understood. But I will not let a student’s lack of spelling make them believe they are not good at writing or at history nor will I make them recalcitrant to use unaccustomed words because the mundane ones are safe. I will also work to find the right tool for the student. This will mean doing things like: turning off the autocorrect so they need to look at a word before the computer fixes it; making sure the language settings on their computers are set on British English not US English; showing them how GOOGLE will suggest ways to spell a word if their own computer is stumped; I will give them thesauruses so that they can find exciting alternatives whose spelling makes sense to them; and I will make sure they know that there is always a way to get around whatever the test tells them, that they decide their destination not some computer-read piece of A4 that they need to mark with a 2B pencil.

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