Category Archives: problems with society

Teaching Tuesday: AP Scores

AP scores were released at the end of last week. As usual, I was on edge all day. My student scores did not get released until 8 pm, so I watched the message boards as teachers across the country posted their reactions long before I got even a hint about how well my students did on the test. My nerves were up even higher than usual since Trevor Packer’s (the head of College Board’s AP program) tweeted with the score breakdowns almost a week before we got to see our scores. When I saw AP Lang had 57.4% of students who got a 3, 4 or 5, it got me wondering how my students compared.

Even though I shouldn’t, I can’t help but compare my student’s AP scores with the national scores. I also find myself comparing their scores with the scores other students at our school get on completely different AP tests, which is really quite ridiculous. I know I shouldn’t feel inferior when I see my own school tweeting about how wonderful it is that 95% of our AP Spanish students got a 3, 4, or 5 on the test. I should not let that diminish how well my students did or make me think less of myself as a teacher, but at some point, it always does.

My AP Lang students did not do as well on the test as the AP Spanish students did. It’s pretty hard to. But, 78% of my students got a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. However, no one in the district is tweeting about it. This is more than a little discouraging. Especially since last year, despite the fact that 82% of my kids got a 3, 4 or 5 on the Lang test, I was not one of the teachers recognized for having a history of excellent AP scores–even though my AP Lang score has never fallen below 78% and one year all of them got a 3, 4 or 5.

Now, I realize that neither 78% or 82% sound anywhere near as impressive as 95%. However, this year, 88% of all students who took the AP Spanish test (60,000 kids worldwide) got a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. Last year, 89% of the kids who took the test got a 3, 4 or 5 on it. That means, that students at my school did 7% better than the national average this year and 9% better last year (there was a 100% rate last year). This is impressive, however, this year just under 600,000 students worldwide took the AP Lang test. That is ten times as many kids as AP Spanish. Of those nearly 600,000 kids, 57% scored a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. Last year, nearly the same number of kids took the Lang test and 55% of them got a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. My students did 21% better on the test this year and 27% better on the test last year than the national average, which I think is darn impressive and worthy of celebration.

I also had nearly twice as many students take the AP Lang exam as took the AP Spanish exam.

Do I think I’m a better teacher than our AP Spanish teacher? Absolutely not. She is an amazing teacher. Those kids work to earn those scores and both she and her students should be celebrated and congratulated. But so should mine.

And that’s where I get hung up, even though I know I shouldn’t. When I first saw my student scores, before I’d seen the scores of anyone else in my building, I was pretty happy with my kids. Six of my kids got 5’s, six got 4’s and no one got a 1. My kids did 21% better than the national average. Fourteen of my students improved their AP Lang score (from their AP Lit score last year) an entire point. Two of my students improved 2 whole points. That is HUGE progress and a cause for celebration.

But then I saw those AP Spanish scores, the tweets from the school and the message of congratulations on the school website just for that class and it got me down. I wanted to send emails to everyone in my administration office as well as the district administration office explaining just how awesome it is that 78% of our kids got a 3, 4 or 5 on the AP Lang test and why it is every bit as impressive, and maybe even more impressive, as that 95%. I also wanted to include Packer’s message that unlike all the other AP tests, “the knowledge/skills measured by this exam [AP Lang] have a very strong relationship to overall college success.” On the test that specifically measures all those skills kids need to be college ready, our school not only got an impressive 78% of kids with great scores, but those scores are 21% above the national average. We should be shouting this from the rooftop because our kids are amazing and they will succeed!

Instead, I wrote an email to my students and told them how proud I was of them. I told them not to be disappointed if their score was not quite what they hoped for. I reminded them of all they accomplished and how amazing they are. I wished them luck next year, which I seriously doubt they will need. Because even if the district isn’t singing their praises and bragging about them, they are all going off prepared for college. Even the 22% who got a 2 on the exam are not going to struggle in college. They may  have to work a little harder, but they are all going to be ok.

And I have to keep telling myself that that is what really matters. Not a number on a website.


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Free Reading Friday: My Favorite Thing is Monsters

FMy Favorite Thing is Monstersascinating, disturbing, graphic, beautiful. These are the first words that come to mind when I think about Emil Ferris’s graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

I love how Ferris uses the idea of monsters to frame Karen’s story. Karen’s obsession with monsters and the little differences between dangerous and wonderful monsters is intriguing. It also tells readers so much about Karen, her experiences and how she not only thinks society views her, but how she views society. I think it is even more interesting when compared to Ferris’s use of gods and goddesses to explore Anka’s upsetting storyline. After all, who are the gods and monsters in our world? What sets them apart from the mortals? And who is truly dangerous?

Ferris creates increasingly compelling characters not only in Anka and Karen, but also in Diego and Franklin. They are all heartbreakingly real, flawed, dangerous and vulnerable.

And, if the great storyline isn’t enough, the artwork is simply epic. It is hauntingly beautiful. I love the way Ferris incorporates her renditions of actual paintings which hang in the Art Institute of Chicago (one of my favorite places) into the story. I adore the way Karen “falls” into the paintings in order to find more meaning in her life and to help her solve the mystery surrounding Anka’s death.

The only thing I don’t love is that the second volume of the story is not yet out. Ferris leaves the audience with some huge unanswered (if hinted at) questions. I want more!

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Free Reading Friday:Flawed

FlawedFlawed by Cecelia Ahern is yet another dystopian piece of YA literature that has found itself onto my shelf. It’s starting to feel like this is the only genre of YA being put out lately. Given all the problems currently facing our world, I get why the genre is so popular. I saw a great meme online the other day basically telling older generations that they cannot be surprised that a generation of kids raised on Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen and Tris are standing up, speaking their minds and rallying for change.

While I know a lot of “adults” would like to dismiss these young voices and pretend they are too ignorant and uniformed to really know what they are talking about, I fear those same adults are going to be greatly put out when they realized just how smart, informed and motivated today’s youth are. Literature is a powerful tool and these kids and young adults have grown up with literary heroes who have shown them time and time again that they can stand up not only to adults, but to unjust governments. Their literary heroes topple worlds. Is it any surprise they want to as well?

My latest read, Flawed, is a book with a clear message. In case the reader happens to miss it, Ahern even lays it out in the acknowledgments: “None of us are perfect. Let us not pretend that we are. Let us not be afraid that we’re not. Let us not label others and pretend we are not the same. Let us all know that to be human is to be flawed, and let us learn from every mistake made so we don’t make them again.”

While this message definitely rings true in this book and I think this is Ahern’s main message, the way she goes about delivering it speaks volumes to issues currently playing out in our world. Celestine North, the main character, lives in a world where people who are judged to have “flaws” in their moral character are literally branded and forced to live almost like modern day lepers. In addition to the government, which creates and enforces criminal code, Celestine’s world also has a Guild, whose job it is to enforce morality to ensure everyone in society is perfect. Those who step out of line from the morals deemed acceptable by society are tried, found guilty (only one person has ever escaped a guilty verdict) and are shunned by society. The shunning goes so deep, that giving any kind of aid to a Flawed person is a mark of being flawed.

The Flawed have visible brands, have special seats on public transportation, are not allowed to keep their children, can have only one luxury item a week, must eat a completely bland diet, cannot leave the country, have curfews and have to check in with what is basically a parole officer (called Whistleblowers) for the rest of their lives. In short, although they have committed no actual crimes, those who are deemed morally flawed are treated worse than criminals who get to serve their time and move on.

In the reinvention of public shaming that has come with the invention of social media, this system of being forever punished for moral failures seems a scary reality.

The book focuses on the corruption of the Guild and how one voice, and not surprisingly, the voice of a teenage girl, could expose that corruption and bring an end to it.

This is the first book in the series and I enjoyed it. There is definitely better dystopian lit out there, but considering all of the very public debates over morality and the way politicians are trying to force their morality on the world, I think it is a very timely and very interesting idea to explore. I think teenagers will relate to it and enjoy Celestine’s story.

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Free Reading Friday: Before the Devil Breaks You

Before the Devil Breaks YouBefore the Devil Breaks You by Libba Bray has me torn. Part of me is seriously disappointed that I didn’t get all the answers I was seeking. The other part is thrilled that this series is going beyond trilogy.

When I was given this book for Christmas, I assumed it was the last of a trilogy, so I started it expecting closure. As I neared page 500 though, I realized there was no way it could wrap up and there would have to be more.

The first book in the series, The Diviners, is one of my favorites. Because the series is by Libba Bray, I assumed it would be YA fiction, as everything else I’ve read by her is. However, this series takes a much darker turn and has slightly older characters, which I think takes it out of the YA sphere. It’s hard for me to quite categorize. Supernatural thriller might be the closest I can get. No matter how it is categorized, I loved the first book.

Book 2, Lair of Dreams, was good, but I found myself struggling through it at times. Not because it was complicated, but because it got dense at times in a way I found boring at times.

Number 3 completely makes up for it though.

This chapter of the journey gives even greater insight into Evie, Sam, Theta, Ling, Memphis and Henry, although Theta, Memphis, Evie and Sam get a lot more time. This seems fair as Ling and Henry were the real focus of book 2.

This book goes into more detail about the nefarious Project Buffalo. Readers learn more about the fates of Evie’s brother James, Sam’s mother Miriam and the potentially evil Bill Johnson.

The big bad in this book is the King of Crows. He is diabolical and ready to destroy not just the Diviners, but the entire world. This book offers powerful glimpses of him, but I have a feeling Bray will show us his true evil in the next installment.

This book does leave readers burying some well-known characters. It also leaves the majority of the characters in true peril…which is a great place for the next book to pick up.

One of the reasons I love this book so much is that it brings to light some of the truly ugly pieces of outer country’s history, which are frightening parallels to what is going on today in our country. The pursuit of eugenics and the idea of purifying blood to make better Americans by getting rid of inferior races is not only a realistic portrayal of our past, but also a scary look into where some of our disturbing current beliefs about immigrants are.

In addition, Bray brings up the idea of what makes a patriot. All too often the term patriot gets used to justify horrific actions and beliefs and Bray explores just how dangerous this term can be and how grossly it can be manipulated.

I think this book is a perfect reflection of what is going on politically in America right now. If we don’t learn from our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them. This book reminds readers of this.

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Teaching Tuesday: AP review sessions

The AP tests are almost upon us and it seems like every morning I walk into the building nearly an hour before school starts to see bleary-eyed students heading zombie-like toward classrooms where dedicated AP teachers are holding review sessions.  I’ve witnessed this spectacle just about every morning for the last two months. It seems that as soon as we returned from spring break, many an AP teacher started cramming their classrooms in order to help their students cram for the big tests.

When I first started teaching, I too held these sessions. Since nearly every other AP teacher was holding them, I thought I was bound to do it as well. I’d hurry in to my classroom minutes before students started coming in, pass out some practice materials (poetry, excerpts from short stories and novels, writing prompts, etc) and we’d spend about 30 minutes talking our way through those materials.

It was difficult to accomplish anything as an AP timed essay takes at least 40 minutes to deconstruct and write. This meant we never got through an essay in one sitting. Even the shorter multiple choice passages and questions were hard to get through in that time as I wanted kids to take those apart as well and really focus on deconstructing the passage, the questions and the answers. This meant that most of my review sessions were actually a series of 2 or 3 sessions. In theory this would not have been an issue, but since students are not required to come to review sessions, one session 15 kids would show up. The next, only 12 would be there. Of course, they wouldn’t necessarily be the same 12 who were at the last session, so I was having to either stop to let them catch up or move on, leaving them a bit behind. At the next session I might have 14 kids, but at least one of them was bound to be a kid who hadn’t been to the first two.

After three years, I stopped holding review sessions.

Unlike many other AP disciplines, it’s very hard to study for either the AP Lit or the AP Lang exam. Both of these courses are completely skills based. Memorizing literary terms or rhetorical devices won’t really help them on the test. There are no important dates/historical time periods to memorize and know the direct impact of. There aren’t equations to memorize and solve for. There aren’t irregular verbs to conjugate.

My test requires students to read critically, analyze what they’ve read and answer questions based on that analysis. It also requires them to read critically, analyze what they’ve read and then write articulate, well-organized essays based on that analysis. These are skills we practice every single day in class, and not ones that work well with the drill and cram method. No matter how many books or short stories or poems or essays they read, there is little chance that anything they’ve read in the course of the year will actually show up on the exam itself.

Still, for the first time in nearly 10 years, I gave in to nervous juniors and scheduled three review sessions, which I planned to devote to one poem and set of multiple choice questions over that poem.

Sure enough, I had the same problems this year that I’d had in the past. And I have little hope that these sessions will really improve their performance on the test or help them understand the questions on the test any better. They’ve already practiced and practiced and practiced these skills. I think my students would have been better served sleeping in those extra 30 minutes. I know they don’t get nearly enough sleep as it is.

I’m not saying that review sessions are not beneficial in other disciplines. I’m not even implying that other teachers of Lit and Lang can’t find success with them. I haven’t seen the benefit of them for my students, so next year I’m going to be firm and NOT give in to review sessions.

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Teaching Tuesday: headphones

Students with cellphones and headphones are the current bane of my existence. At the start of this school year, our principal always reminds kids of the school rules. This year, a new rule was added: students are not allowed to wear headphones while walking in the hallways or in the classroom unless permitted by a teacher.

Now, this may seem arbitrary or like another way schools are restricting student “freedoms,” but the rule was actually put in place as a safety precaution. Far too many kids were messing with their phones and not paying attention to where they were going, which meant hallway collisions, which meant arguments and fights. AND kids weren’t able to hear announcements or teachers trying to talk to them.

I know this may still not sound like that big of a safety concern, but on Thursday, we had a lock down drill during 1st block. A students, who had gotten to school late had his headphones in and his music was so loud, that despite the fact that no one was in the hallway, he couldn’t hear the principal announcing the drill. He was in his own little world, just slowly dancing his way to class. The hallways were empty, but a teacher who has first period prep was sweeping the halls to make sure everyone was getting to a safety location for the drill. She called out to the student, who couldn’t hear her, and ended up having to speed walk to catch up to him, tap him on the shoulder and tell him there was a drill going on. He had no idea.

Because he didn’t have tiny earbuds in. He had gigantic Beats by Dre-style headphones on and as far as he was concerned there was nothing but him and his music around. Had it been a real emergency and not a drill, who knows what would have happened.

After the drill, our principal came over the announcements again, thanked the kids for their cooperation and reminded them of the cellphone/headphone rule. Without calling the kid out, he reminded them why headphones are an issue and why we do not allow them.

And yet, by the time I was in the hallway during passing period between 1st and 2nd block, I saw multiple students in the hallway, earbuds/headphones in, just cruising to their next destination. I told each one I saw to take their headphones out and they each looked at me like I was crazy.

On Friday I decided to do a little research. I kept track of every kid who I talked to about cellphones or headphones during they day. Between the hours of 10:00-2:05 pm (I didn’t talk to anyone before first block or after last block since technically the rule is only in place during school hours), I told 27 kids to either take headphones off their ears or put their cellphones away. So, in four hours, I was able to talk to 27 kids violating the rule, which is just about 7 an hour.

Of those 27 kids, only 8 of them were violating the rule during my 30 minute lunch duty. The other 19 were kids I saw in the hallway between classes. Five of the 27 couldn’t hear me the first time I asked them to remove headphones (not because I was too far away or too quiet–I am NEVER too quiet). I actually had to tap those 5 students on the shoulder to ask them to remove their headphones. Three of them got rather snotty with me, but complied (one went so far as to throw a hand up at me and say “whatever”).

Not a single one of them was one of my students.

And this doesn’t count the kids I saw with phones or headphones who I could not get to because they were too far down the hallway or turned into a classroom or bathroom before I reached them. I’d estimate the number of kids I saw violating the policy during those 4 hours (again, just one day after they were reminded of the policy) was probably double the number I talked to.

This coming week I plan on tracking this again. My principal is all about data, so I plan to give him some.

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Free Reading Friday: Ringer

ringer 2I definitely enjoyed Ringer, the sequel to Replica by Lauren Oliver. Just like Replica, this is a flipped book. This time, however, the reader starts with Gemma’s story. It’s probably no shock that despite his promises to reform, Gemma’s father is still the treacherous business man who’s willing to do anything to forward his agenda, including selling out Lyra and Caelum. It should also come as no surprise to anyone who read Replica that Gemma and Pete go off to find Lyra and Caelum to warn them about the danger they are in and as is characteristic for them, arrive just a bit too late.

This time around Gemma gets to experience the world of a Replica, the world she was technically born to. Taken out of her ivory tower and forced to live in an abandoned airport with hundreds of other Replicas, far too many of whom share her face, she gets a better understanding of Lyra’s life and what her life should have been. She also gets tangled up with the seemingly innocent Calliope.

On the flip side, Lyra finds herself once more running from the dreaded Suits. She finds what she thinks is a life line with her former doctor, but as is true of most things in this series, nothing is quite what it appears to be. Especially not for a girl who has grown up thinking she is a clone.

RingerLike many books that deal with human cloning, Oliver’s work brings up the ethical questions about how far science should be allowed to go. I particularly liked her portrayal of Doctor O’Donnell, a scientist who clearly believes everything she is doing is for the betterment of society. O’Donnell believes the ends justify the means and that the advance of science is worth the cost of human lives, especially because she is able to detach herself from the real humanity of those lives being taken.

This book also takes an interesting look at a problem I first really examined when I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks–should scientists be able to use biological components without permission from the people they are taken from, especially if they profit from them. Is it right for pieces of people to be licensed, replicated and sold off?

Personally I find these topics fascinating. And while answering these questions is not the central purpose of the novel, I like the fact that Oliver is introducing these questions to YA readers because the current generation of YA readers will no doubt have to make some of these very hard ethical calls in their lifetime.

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