Friday, February 20, 2009

A Lesson on Writing Portfolios for Legislators

The following is the text of a letter sent on Tuesday to state Sen. Dan Kelly, one of the chief opponents of the writing portfolio component of the CATS testing program. The writer is Ricki Rosenberg, a former Cassidy teacher who now teaches at Picadome Elementary School in the Courier-Journal:

Nice job, Ricki.
...I am well aware that many teachers in Kentucky would like to see portfolios disappear. Teaching writing is hard work and teaching fourth-grade writing is even harder. But does that mean we should get rid of it? Of course not! It just means we have to train fourth-grade teachers better. We need to find fourth-grade teachers who are passionate about writing instruction and who believe in its value. Having trained writing coaches in elementary schools will give the entire staff more confidence and ability to teach writing, which will then create a quality schoolwide writing program.

Over the past 15 years, several changes have been made to the Writing Portfolio. First, we used to require six pieces from fourth-grade students; now we require three. If the students come to fourth grade with a background in writing, and writing is taught with enthusiasm each day, then completing Writing Portfolios will not be too strenuous for both students and teachers. This is a realistic, manageable and appropriate assessment.

As time goes on, I believe that our writing instruction has improved and our expectations have increased. ...If a subject is not assessed, it will not be taught as thoroughly and with the same rigor.

With less commitment to writing, students will also have less chance for introspection, analysis and synthesis, all skills to promote higher-order thinking. ... Doing a 90-minute on-demand prompt does not allow for true introspection, analysis and peer review.

As adults, we often write something and let it sit for a day or two before revising it and also share it with a peer to receive feedback. This cannot happen for a child during the on-demand portion of the test, thus making it less like a real-world experience.

Some educators believe that if we remove the Writing Portfolio and increase the weight of the on-demand portion of our assessment, teachers will still teach writing rigorously. However, on-demand only addresses the writing of articles and persuasive letters. I am certain we will eventually see an end to personal narratives, memoirs, short stories and poetry. This would be a real tragedy for our students.

In addition, on-demand is a contrived prompt that is not authentic to students' real lives. ...Student choice is essential for motivating children to have a true, authentic reason for writing.

... I hope you consider my request to keep the Writing Portfolio so that Kentucky children will continue to think at higher levels and proceed forward instead of remaining at status quo.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I also watched this video and and thought there were some good points about how the testing constraints negatively impact teaching writing.

So it seems a bit of a Catch-22:
If it's not tested, all teachers won't teach it
the testing regulations tie many teachers' hands making for less effective instruction

How could the testing regulations be changed to eliminate this dilemma?

Anonymous said...

Please...Richard! Rick's afraid he will loose his out-of-the-classroom position (i.e., writing consultant). Let him take his skills acquired at who knows how many Fayette County Schools- and KDE-sponsored training days (always held on days school is in session) and return to the classroom to teach and lower the teacher-pupil ratio at Picadome Elementary School.

Richard Day said...

Anonymous, you clearly don't know Ricki Rosenberg.

Ha ha ha. That's the funniest comment I've read in a while. Do you just make stuff up and hope you're right?

Ricki can buy and sell me about five times over - plus you too, I'll bet. It's not about a job for Ricki, I promise you.

Something you ought to acknowledge about Kentucky teachers....many of them are doing an important job they love and believe in deeply. Ricki understands first-hand what works with kids and I'd count myself fortunate to have her teach my grandchildren any day.

Her opinions are her own and carry the added benefit of being from someone who has actually worked successfully to improve writing skills among Kentucky children. Sen Kelly is going to do what he's going to do but he impresses me as someone who will at least listen respectfully. It is a mistake to doubt Ricki's sincerity.

BTW, prior to Cassidy, I seem to recall Ricki had some private school teaching background - TLS maybe - but don't hold me to that. She has a special place in her heart for kids in need and is the kind of teacher who wants to make a difference with her life.

I can certainly agree that many less resourceful teachers are concerned over recent job losses, and perhaps more on the horizon. That's just rational.

We're all concerned that job losses will lower quality instruction.

Anonymous said...

Well, I teach in a very poor rural area and I certainly do not share Ricki's belief. Please don't tell me that I need to be trained better. I am passionate about my work as an educator, but I was long before KERA. When you behave as an ostrich with your head in the sand on some of these issues regarding our testing system, then you need a reality check. Not every child comes with a strong value system, life experiences, or even a desire to learn. I already have my work cut out for me without all the other ridiculous demands of portfolios. How can they write when they can't even read?????

Richard Day said...

Sorry to hear that you think I've had my head in the sand. I try hard not to do that.

Reasonable folks can disagree about what's best when it comes to teaching writing and I understand the difficulties and frustrations that attend working with students.

But I hope you are not suggesting poor rural kids can't be taught, or that teaching only occurs when the students arrive with some set of values. Although, when the school and the parents are on the same team and students know that they are expected by their parents to learn, it is a huge advantage.

We must not only teach our students to read but also to write. The great teachers I've observed over the years do both simultaneously.

I have actually propsed a middle ground: