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Deaf District as Flagler Students Are Cheated Out of Dozens of Hours of Test Preparation

| January 29, 2012

fcat writing test jo ann nahirny florida schools

Even the image is an anachronism. (© FlaglerLive)

FlaglerLive is proud and excited to announce that Jo Ann Nahirny, a teacher at Matanzas High School and a past contributor, will be writing regular pieces from the trenches, reflecting on the challenges and experiences teachers and students face every day.

By Jo Ann Nahirny

Who the hell ever told you that you could write?

My college journalism instructor’s sole comment, scrawled in red across the top of  the first piece I  wrote for him as a freshman (in 1980) stung me deeply, the pain more intense than any physical injury I’d endured in my  18 years on  earth.

What does this old codger know anyway?  I asked myself.   After all, I’d graduated from high school as valedictorian a few months earlier, served as managing editor of my school newspaper and earned A’s in nearly every subject. And this short, gray-haired old fart had the gall to insinuate I couldn’t write?

Jo Ann Nahirni (© FlaglerLive)

Jo Ann Nahirny (© FlaglerLive)

Enraged, I clutched a drop form in my hand and marched to his office later that afternoon, to get his signature so I could withdraw from his class. Though the professor stood a head shorter than me (and I’m less than five-and-a-half feet tall), I trembled as I approached the door. Not even turning around to see who’d entered, he asked, “I assume you’re here for me to sign your drop form?”

“Yes, well, I was… I want …. um… What’s wrong with my writing, anyway?” I blurted out.

More than  30  years have elapsed since I posed that question, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about how grateful I am for not indignantly dropping Professor Conniff’s class, for listening to  what he had to say –and for realizing he had  so much to teach me. Ultimately, I enrolled in six of his writing courses as an undergraduate. It took me several years to fully implement the techniques I learned from this great man, a man who not only taught students how to write, but who practiced what he preached, authoring  several books and more than 1,000 magazine articles and short stories in Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, Better Homes and Gardens, Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, Good Housekeeping and many more.

The Nahirny Files:

These days, as I teach my own students at Matanzas High School how to write, I incorporate as much of what Jim Conniff taught me as possible into my own lessons. This much I know:  you can’t become an effective writer overnight. It takes time. A long time. Yet the Flagler County School district expects me and some other English teachers to teach tenth-graders how to write well in just five short weeks –at least well enough to earn a passing score on the FCAT Writing test,  which the state administers at the high school level only to sophomores.

Thanks to the “hybrid” schedule implemented at both high schools this school year, I just started teaching two class periods of English 2 to tenth-graders on January 24, when the second semester began.  I have exactly 24 class meetings to spend with these kids before they take the FCAT Writing test on February 28.  And if they can’t draft a reasonably well-developed persuasive or expository essay in 45 minutes, English teachers like me become the scapegoats. What likely won’t be blamed is an unusual schedule configuration requiring kids to take three classes all year long in traditional 46-minute periods, and four “block” classes of 81-minutes each, two per semester.

The Live Commentary

Why do we even have such a schedule?  You’ll hear different explanations based on whom you ask, but essentially, the schedule increased the number of classes high school teachers must teach from six to seven, resulting in those teachers also having to teach 25-35 additional students per year. This move, along with mandating that all teachers at the secondary level take their (already woefully short) planning period before or after the school day, rather than during the school day, allowed Flagler to reduce the total number of teachers needed. District officials say it saved millions of dollars.

But what’s the real cost of this “savings”?  The true costs will undoubtedly manifest themselves in the coming weeks, when high school students must take multiple standardized tests assessing their competency in various subject areas –when many of them haven’t even had the majority of the school year to cover all the material they’ll be tested on!

And this isn’t just happening to English teachers and their students, either. Those who teach biology and geometry are facing the same outrageous situation. Their students will be taking the state-mandated EOC (end of course) exams in biology in early May even though, for example, the biology course doesn’t actually end until June. Some teachers who just got their biology  and geometry students on January 24 as the second semester began must now cram a year’s worth of material into about 13  weeks of 81-minute classes, rather than cover it during nine months of daily  46-minute classes. You don’t have to be smarter than a fifth grader to calculate that the kids unfortunate enough to get stuck taking biology or geometry in the second semester will receive only about 90 hours of instruction before taking the end-of-course exam, while those who have the class as a traditional 46-minute period all year long will get about 110 hours of instruction prior to taking the exam.

Ditto for my students. Their friends who’ve been in an English 2 class since August in a standard,  46-minute  daily class period, have already had the opportunity to write, rewrite and edit nearly a dozen essays so far this school year. By the time the FCAT Writing test rolls around on February 28, these students will have had more than 80 hours of instructional class time to prepare.  However, the students who just came to me on January 24 will only have enough time to write a few essays prior to the  test,  and will have  received a mere 32 hours of instructional class time to prepare. Again, you don’t have to be smarter than a fifth grader to know whose scores will be better.

During the past two years, when my English classes met daily all year long, my students excelled on FCAT Writing, with 97% of them earning a passing score, and a good portion of those attaining a superior 5 or 6 (out of a maximum of 6). As part of the English 2 curriculum (in addition to covering grammar, vocabulary and literature)   I taught them about efficient planning, drafting, revising and editing. They learned how to interpret a writing prompt, how and why to consider their audience when writing, and how to use transitions to help paragraphs work together, reference one another and build to a larger point. We studied various sentence structures and discussed the importance of diction and syntax.  As I pointed out earlier: you can’t become an effective writer overnight. It takes time. A long time. But this year, with this schedule,  there  is no way I  can possibly  cover all  of these things in the scant 24, 81-minute class sessions before the test, and little to no time for my students to practice the techniques I’ll introduce.

School officials have been meeting over the last few weeks, trying to figure out whether to keep or  ditch the hybrid schedule which has created headaches for teachers, guidance counselors and students – and which even confounded, for a time, the electronic grade book, Skyward, which the Flagler County School District uses. Some decision-makers have asked high school teachers what we see as the benefits and shortcomings of the hybrid schedule – which, by the way, is the fourth different class schedule used between the two high schools in the past seven years.

More than 30 years ago, my journalism instructor gave me a message I didn’t want to hear.  Fortunately, I realized that teacher had something valuable to teach me. And so I listened.  Perhaps those who are now planning the 2012-2013 school year will  hear what their teachers have to say  –teachers who have a lot to teach them… if they’re willing to listen.

Jo Ann C. Nahirny, a 1985 graduate of Columbia University and a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches English at Matanzas High School in Palm Coast. Reach her by email here.

9 Responses for “Deaf District as Flagler Students Are Cheated Out of Dozens of Hours of Test Preparation”

  1. Another Opinion says:

    I get the math explained in this article. But both groups of students compared (those in a class all year & those just starting) aren’t learning skills from scratch. Each year of high school, they are expanding on the skills learned the previous year, even from middle school. Yes, the “skinny” group will have more practice time, but both groups are simply applying what they have learned to an exam. I would expect both groups to do well. In fact, the group “cramming” has the advantage of practicing all material in a shorter length of time, not having to rely on memory from August to pull skills & knowledge from so long ago. It’s got more to do with individual learning style than block vs. skinny as the author suggests.

    • A Student's Perspective says:

      If only that was really the case. However, high school biology, algebra, and geometry classes (the ones in which EOCs are required) are NOT all reviewing already-learned concepts. There is actually a great deal of new material to be covered in these classes, and an improbably small window of time in which to do so. The advantage of “cramming” that you have stated only works if all of the information that is on the test is actually covered, which is all but impossible when there is so much material and so little time. Second semester block classes began on January 24th. EOCs start toward the end of April, beginning in geometry, going through algebra, and ending with biology. As a student who has to deal with this inane schedule and worry about how to effectively learn 18 weeks of geometry–an entire semester of content–in around 13 weeks, (not counting holidays, inservice days, and midterms [which, all told, probably make up another week lost]), I can tell you that while taking EOCs in the middle of the semester may seem like an effective way to cover a lot of content quickly, it most definitely is not.

  2. some guy says:

    Yes this all for the F CAT teaching is not good for our kids. How can one test kids before the end of the classes??

  3. Helene says:

    Jo Ann C. Nahirny, you are my hero!

  4. Liana G says:

    My 10th grader is now on this block schedule and she prefers it because she feels she is gaining more classroom learning from the more in depth teaching than the skinny class normally allows. Students spend 15 minutes of a traditional 45 minutes class settling in and getting ready for class. So in essence, two 45 minutes classes really amount to 60 minutes of chopped up class time, whereas in an 81 minutes “block” class, students will get a fully uninterrupted 66 minutes of class time when the 15 minutes is taken out. My son was also exposed to both schedules and he too preferred the block schedule for the very same reason. For the kids who are really focused on learning, the block schedule works for them as it maximizes learning.

    For those students who were written off, ignored and shuffled through the system in their elementary years, they will continue to put their heads down on their desks and while away the time – which is what they are told to do in high school if they do not want to participate in class work. And can we blame them? How many of us tune out when we “don’t fully understand” what is going on (think politics)? I do. At least with a block schedule, these kids might actually attempt to learn/pay attention out of sheer boredom.

    Another plus my 10th grader is enjoying with the block schedule is that she now has time to actually read for pleasure now that her block English class is over. In her skinny English class, she was forced into speed reading in order to read a certain number of books and the experience had her hating it. Now she is back to enjoying her reading.

  5. nobody says:

    I guess everyone is going to fail once again. Teachers don’t know what they are teaching anyways. Parents, and other teachers will say different but the only on who knows what goes on in the classroom is the students. No one believes a teacher texts or sleeps and reads and chats in the middle of class when they should be teaching. I am basically giving up on trying to do work in school and don’t care about my grades if all the teachers are going to do is tell us stories about their past. It sad when a student has to ask the teacher to teach and get through a lesson. Their excuse for not teaching is that they don’t get paid enough. They get paid enough for getting off every holiday and full summer. Anyways teaching should be judged on how much money you get its the joy of helping a student and watching that student you help through life.

  6. MHS says:

    Liana, I don’t know what classes your children are taking but it does bot take 15 minutes to get ready unless those kids are chatting their mouths off. While it may seem shorter in the skinny classes now, in the long run you get much more time with those classes compared to the block classes who are rushing their students through material that they need to know.

  7. Liana G says:

    @ MHS

    …”but it does bot take 15 minutes to get ready unless those kids are chatting their mouths off”…

    MHS, show me a kid who does not like ‘chatting their mouths off” when in the company of folks they enjoy being with. For that matter, show me anyone who does not like chatting their mouths off when in the company of folks they enjoy being with. It’s human nature, we are social creatures. It’s the reason why Facebook, Twitter, and the comment sections on internet sites are so popular.

    My child is a pre IB 10th grade student and enjoys her block classes because, ACCORDING TO HER, she is getting more out of it. My son who recently graduated with a degree in environmental engineering said he too preferred the block classes for the very same reason – he got more out of those classes. Teaching a block class would require effort on the part of an ineffective teacher to keep students engaged and motivated.

    @Nobody – I wish I could like your comment multiple times. Believe me, I have seen some of what you’ve seen and heard what you’ve heard. Hang in there, you would make a very good teacher :)

  8. Mike from Lake County says:

    As a former writer and editor who retired to teach, I couldn’t agree more with your point that teaching writing takes time and careful attention. The curriculum for general English classes these days works against that. Since many or most Florida high schools no longer offer speech or humanities, electives have been cut to pay for test-prep courses, and Florida is so far behind in teaching Internet research, all manner of subjects have been dumped into the English curriculum. An English teacher today must cover literature, grammar, vocabulary development, film, reading comprehension, speech, visual literacy, information literacy – and, oh yes, composition. Decades of budget cuts turned language arts into a dumping ground. Florida education policy is meant to create bubble-test robots, not creative thinkers and writers. Every time a student succeeds it is because a teacher cared enough to buck the system and teach deeply.

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