March 5, 2016 - Michael Salinger

Sulfur Springs Middle School – TX

ssms001Everything is bigger in Texas!

Especially the hospitality. Sara and I have just returned from two jam-packed days working with students and teachers at Sulfur Springs Middle School – about 80 miles outside of Dallas. We were treated like rock stars!

Arriving at the hotel we found a gift basket that would have buckled the back of a longhorn steer loaded with goodies and souvenirs and a vase of yellow roses.

At school the cordiality continued – our hosts – Stephanie, Jennifer, Elizabeth and Mr. Couch kept us busy, but it was definitely a labor of love on our part. We were so welcomed and the students and teachers engaged with the lessons – even to the point where the teachers stayed after school to go over the work in the classroom and to discuss other strategies to implement.

What initially put us on the radar with this stellar bunch of educators was the fact that Sara has a couple of her poems included in the Texas State test – the big one at the end of 8th grade. After the poems are some multiple choice questions about the piece asking the students to determine the author’s intent in their use of various literary devices, maybe some symbolism – stuff like that.

So the teachers here thought – what better way to take a look at this than to bring in the author herself – right?

Sara and I couldn’t answer the questions. Think about it – the author of the pieces couldn’t say for sure which multiple-choice answer would be the best or in some cases whether any of the choices were even in the ballpark. The teachers at SSMS had assumed that the test writers had been in contact with the authors of the work used on the exam. Nope – Sara had no idea that her work was being used – the test writers buy the poem from the publisher and then the author receives a cut from that sale at the end of the year when royalties are paid.


So – actual author’s intent is not sought out. Rather, a test writer’s interpretation is used. Instead of asking kids to interpret the work they are reading using their own life experiences or to identify the literary devices used and to explain the effect they have on them as readers – the kids have to guess what some test writer – who shares probably no relevant life experiences with an eighth grader in Sulfur Springs, Texas – believes the piece is about. That whirring sound you hear is Louise Rosenblatt spinning in her grave.

Did you know a mother cow goes nuts when its calf is taken away? I didn’t until I talked with a student here as she used the image as a simile in a piece she was writing. I wonder if the test writer would be aware of this? If one wants to ask a relevant question one should be asking open-ended questions that allow the student to explain their reasoning – but then, open ended question answers need to be read for analysis, not just ticked off with an answer key or run through a bubble reader. The test givers might have to pay a skilled teacher to evaluate the answers and that would cut deeply into their profit margins. Hmmmm – that couldn’t be an issue could it?

But, I digress.

Every teacher we worked with was eager for his or her students to be thinking outside of those bubbles, and that’s what we did. Writing to improve and communicate understanding – not guessing what someone else thinks about a subject, but rather thinking and writing deeply.

Honestly – how many bubble tests have you taken since you left school? Why are we spending so much time preparing our kids for something they will most likely never do again once they enter the adult world?

I’ve got ideas on this but that’s for another blog down the road.


Thanks for the great visit Sulfur Springs – GO WILDCATS!

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“Sara and Michael bring infectious energy and joy leavened with deep knowledge of best practices in literacy to their work with children and teachers.” Ellin Keene – Author of Mosaic of Thought and The Teacher You Want to Be
“Sara and Michael bring magic, and a contagious love of words to both students and teachers alike!” Georgia Heard - Author of Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School More testimonials...