At the school where I taught for my first three years, I taught seventh and eighth grade each year. My seventh graders would move on to become my eighth graders the following year, so I taught them for a wonderful two years in a row.  (This was only true for English classes at the school for some reason.)

By the time my students reached eighth grade, we already knew each other well.  We did not have to spend a few months testing each other and building trust.  By eighth grade, my students also had formed a strong group dynamic and knew how to work together.  I remember one September a new student lined up for my class as an eighth grader. I saw her groan when she saw one of the school’s most troublesome students, Maurice, enter the line for the class.  Her friend said to her in Spanish, “Don’t worry, he doesn’t act out in English class.” I attribute this to the fact that we had already developed a positive group dynamic in the class; Maurice felt comfortable in the environment we had worked for a whole year to create.

My second-year students were also accustomed to the type of assignments I designed. They knew I would ask them to reflect on their experiences, and they knew what that meant. They were also accustomed to drawing their own conclusions from their experiences, and listening to the ideas of their classmates, rather than constantly deferring to me for the “correct” response.  This gave them great confidence in their work.

They also had been through my “Whole Novels” program for an entire year.  Without going into great detail here, this method has students reading a number of whole class novels almost entirely on their own and then coming together to discuss them in student-centered seminars.  Each novel builds on the previous one in complexity, but similar themes run through them all.  By 8th grade, my students know how this process works and how rewarding it is.  They trust my choice of novels because they recognize that nothing in my curriculum is random and everything is connected and carefully planned with them in mind.  They take pride in formulating their own opinions and interpretations of the book and look forward to expressing them in discussions.

Recently, I’ve been wondering why my 8th grade students at my new school, whom I meet for the first time in September, seem to have less confidence in their own reading and their own thinking than my old 8th graders did.  Although my new students actually have higher literacy skills than my previous ones, they struggle more to trust their own thinking, to relate positively to one another, and to take on challenges.  There are many possible reasons for this, but I’m certain that part of it is because they have not–as my old students did–spent seventh grade building a foundation as a group, with me as their leader, for our work this year.  Much of the work I used to do with my seventh graders now has to be done in the first half of the school year with my current eighth graders.  It’s still rewarding and I see a lot of progress, but the net effect seems to be less than when I looped.

Enter the NY State ELA Test.  It is given every year in January, after just 4 months of eighth grade.  I have always resisted “teaching to the test,” preferring to think that good teaching is good teaching, and if my students are learning, they will perform well on the test.  Well, many do, but there has been a lot of variation over the years.  In four years of testing every January (I haven’t gotten the results for this year yet), there were two classes that made huge, startling gains.  By now you can probably guess which classes those were–the two 8th grade classes I had taught the year before as seventh graders.

My conclusion at the moment is that it takes time to see the long term results of teaching that is designed around deep learning.  Four months is not enough to see the long term benefits of the work, at least on the standardized test.  It requires a substantial work on the social-emotional level (that includes their understanding of what learning is and how they do it), both for students individually and for the group as a whole.  Though conceptual, experience-based learning may require more time for students to arrive at a particular skill or idea, once they do reach it, I believe their level of understanding or mastery of an objective is much higher and long-lasting, because they have discovered it for themselves.

So what I believe is good teaching is not good teaching as far as the state test is concerned, when I only have 4 months to prepare.  The good news, it would seem, is that with one year plus four months, good teaching begins to pay off quite a lot on the state test.

Are there shortcuts? After seeing last year’s scores, I’ll admit, this year I spent a good month and a half before the test preparing my students–hard core–for the type of formulaic responses and tricks they’d need to excel on it. I felt good about it at the time.  But now, I’m watching them struggling to dig in to a challenging novel, and I’m thinking again.  We broke up the flow of the year for that test. More significantly, I broke the commitment I had to helping them as critical thinkers, readers, and writers, in favor of standardization of thinking. Sure, it was only a month and a half, but as my father once said, “Whatever doesn’t help hurts.”  I see now, we are paying for this decision.

Maybe looping is the way to go.  I’d imagine most teachers and students would benefit from this, especially in the middle school years, because you don’t have to spend the first few moths of the year getting to know one another, building trust, and assessing academic needs.  You can say hello, and take off full speed.

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