Authentic Education

The Cell Project and Mitosis Essay

Over the past few weeks, I have had the pleasure of working with my daughter on her fifth grade cell project that will be due on Monday. At the beginning of the month, she brought home her assignment along with a “standards-based” rubric that detailed the expectations for the project and gave us a clear set of goals to shoot for.

The plant cell should have all 12 parts of the cell clearly labeled, accurately placed, and originally presented. (This is rubric-speak for showing us the cell and making it pretty.)

In addition, as we are on the standard’s-based grade scale now, her teacher made it clear that in order to be considered for a “4-Exceeds Standards,” students should write a 2-3 page essay on the “Mitosis” process. Thanks to her excellent teachers who still, miraculously, find time in their ridiculous pacing guides to work in actual learning.

Standards-Based Grading

I haven’t written much about the “standards-based” grading scale for several reasons. First and foremost is simply that any grading scale has strengths and weaknesses, and a 1-4 based scale where the top score is considered a 3, and a 4 requires additional work/understanding by the student is as good or bad as any other grading system.

The primary complaint that I have about the system is that it was being changed and implemented for completely arbitrary reasons. There was no evidence offered for why the 100 point grading system wasn’t adequate. (It could have easily fit a “standards based report card.) There was nearly no training offered to teachers allowing them to understand the new system before having to implement it. The presentation by Steven Miller on August 28th was long on hype and hyperbolic claims and short on clear implementation details.

Which is exactly why Wardynski put him in charge of implementing it. Cheerleaders aren’t usually known for their critical thinking ability, and Wardynski is too insecure to surround himself with those who will question him. (To all my cheerleading friends, I’m not trying to be offensive. I’m simply pointing out that a cheerleader’s job isn’t to question the play that the team just ran.)

Yet good teachers adapt to ill-conceived policies that are forced on them by politicians and cheerleaders who have no clue what education is. And so, my girl’s teacher took this system and ran with it, offering clear details on exactly what would be required for a “Meeting Standards” grade and an “Exceeding Standards” grade.

She even managed to nuance it into something other than a pass/fail grading system.

Suffice it to say, good teachers find ways to make pointless administrative changes work for their students. They’ve been doing it in America for most of the past century.

And that’s what the Cell Project is all about. Finding a way to make education work despite the restrictions placed on educators by people who hate education.

Writing: Comprehensive, Individualized Evaluation

I’ve mentioned here before that, thanks to Wardynski’s self-aggrandizing 1:1 digital initiative and insistence that teachers teach to the test above all (so much so that teachers are regularly asked between the monthly scheduled tests administered during the school year, “How often are you administering the practice tests?”), my daughter did not complete a single writing assignment during neither her third nor fourth grade years.

This despite being at or near the top of her class, grade, and district since she was in Kindergarten. This despite having written several reports in first grade and second grade.

She wasn’t being required to write in school. So much for the three “Rs.” Now we’re down to just two.

Since it was clear that no one in Merts nor on the Board of Education seemed to give a damn about this huge deficiency in my daughter’s education, I went straight to her teachers during the first week of school to see if they could supplement some of the writing assignments I was giving her at home.

They assured me that she would be writing during fifth grade, and I’m grateful to say that she has.

This writing assignment on “Mitosis” is just the most recent example. But it’s an excellent one.

After my girl finished her report, she asked me to look over it with her. So we started working our way through it, reading it out loud together, and we came to a sentence in the Prophase stage that read, “The nuclear membrane disappears, and the centrioles make proteins called spindle fibers.”

As it has been nearly 40 years since I did my own “cell project,” and as I haven’t really thought about the parts of a cell since then, I asked, “What are spindle fibers, and what do they do?”

She looked up at me and said, “I don’t really know. Let me look it up.

And I Exploded With Pride

I’ve endless reasons to be proud of my girl. She’s smart, beautiful, funny, and frankly the kindest, gentlest, and most loving girl I’ve ever known. We take no credit for this; she came this way.

But at that moment, I nearly exploded with pride.

So, after spending a month working on her cell project, after struggling for the past week to put it together in just the right and most creative way she knew how, after spending her entire Saturday morning finishing her final draft of her essay, she was still interested in learning even more about her subject.

This is the miracle of using writing as a form of assessment. This is the miracle of asking questions.

And it is the polar opposite of the endless standardized tests that Wardynski continues to abuse our children with. Most of our students take a standardized test or a practice standardized test every single week. This leaves no time to do anything other than prepare for the test.

And this test preparation does nothing to help our students find a love of learning.

Standardized Testing Kills Educational Opportunities

The reason that this project and my girl’s essay were able to lead to such a fantastic teachable moment on this Saturday morning is simple: I could read and assess her comprehension of the material since the results of her work were right in front of me. I could, in other words, ask her a simple question about her work. 

When was the last time you were allowed to see the questions that your child got correct or wrong on any of the endless standardized tests that she’s required to take?

When was the last time you even saw your child’s individual scores on these tests? The district has formally administered the SchoolNet Benchmark to every student at least twice this school year. Do you know how your child scored? Do you know have any idea what those scores mean?

I’m going to go ahead and let everyone know that the answer is no. Parents are not legally allowed to review their child’s answers on the test. They’re protected by Pearson’s copyright, and we can’t see them.

Do you realize just how absurd that is?

This means that you are not ever going to be able to review what your child has produced and ask a simple question like, “What are spindle fibers?”

You’re never going to watch your daughter’s face light up with pleasure, on a Saturday morning, when she can look at you and say, “They’re the things that split the chromosomes apart.”

Authentic education requires that people who care about students be allowed to ask questions about the student’s work.

Education cannot be standardized, made uniform, or pounded into the form of a “golf ball” like some, who lack any understanding of education, might wish. And it’s a hell of a lot more important than protecting a foreign company’s copyright.

And so I say thank you to our fifth grade teachers for going above and beyond the prescribed pedagogy, for pushing our students to pursue questions where they lead, for knowing that authentic education rarely follows a predetermined pacing guide, for refusing to give up on education when some idiot asks how often you’re administering a practice test.

There are still people here who care about education. They’re just not the ones in charge or on the board.

One final thought. What do you think my daughter will remember when she’s helping her child with her cell project (40 or 50 years from now, please): the standardized tests she took or her own cell project?

My money ain’t on the test.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. This post is just one MORE reason why this teacher appreciates you so much! What can “they” say when we practice what we preach? Actions are much more powerful than words on a standardized test.

  2. In 1988, I taught third grade at the Academy for Science and Foreign Language. In those days, teachers were encouraged to implement innovative, individualized, continuous-progress strategies with hands-on applications.
    One project my students have done every year for all these decades is to make models of water molecules using mini-marshmallows, Spice Drops, and toothpicks to represent neutrons, protons, electrons, and bonds.
    During that first year, I had kindergarten and first-grade students who spent each day in my classroom because they were working beyond grade level; and I was happy to provide accelerated progress for them.
    A few years ago, one of those first-grade students, who came to my third-grade classroom each day and is now an adult, earned his PhD in physics. His dissertation was on electrons and was, at least partly, inspired by the water molecules and sucrose molecules that we created back in the good old days, when teachers could teach authentically.
    You really do need to visit Mensa Kids Trek and the Kids Trek Learning Center. Kids Trek is free, open to the public, and geared for all ages. Children must have adult partners.
    If anyone is interested in Mensa Kids Trek, go to http://www.kidstrek.org; and/or email me at kidstrek@earthlink.net.
    Docendo discimus.

  3. It is total BS that a parent can’t see his child’s test results because Pearson “owns” the copyright. How else can parents know where their kids need help, help that they are obviously (see recent, abysmal 10th grade test results) not getting in the HSV City schools, even at the “good” schools.

    Email sent to McGinniss re.

    As a side note, it was encouraging to see the community participation at the first town hall on the proposed consent order. Also glad that the judge put a muzzle on Wardynski & the School Board, giving the public more time to speak.

  4. Russell, I just love you man, you hit the nail right on the head. Wardynski made a pack with the devil, (Pearson) and I don’t believe he’s man enough to say he’s wrong. The people that he surrounds himself with won’t tell him he’s wrong either.

    1. Gail, I agree with you, except for the part that Wardy surrounds himself with a certain group of people. That is true; but, also, he was brought into the Huntsville City School System by a corrupt establishment.

      1. The teachers in HCS had to fill out an online survey this week. There were several questions related to Pearson and its effectiveness. Hopefully, teachers weren’t too afraid to rate it truthfully. More importantly, I hope someone at the central office will take note of teachers’ opinions on the abysmal program being shoved on our system.

        1. During the final years of my teaching career, we had to complete surveys and turn them in at the office. Our responses were, allegedly, anonymous; but the secretary marked a number on our response that matched the number on the list she had.
          Several times the Nightmare of Montview would comment about specific answers that teachers had submitted “anonymously.” We became fearful of marking anything that might get him mad at us because he had such a volatile temper.
          Recently, there was an article in the newspaper about a survey that was conducted in the Huntsville City School System. The article said that several students had responded. The article also stated that no teacher responded to the survey.
          Is that a clue to the fear in the Huntsville City School System?
          I also have teacher friends and parents who write to me and talk to me in confidence about situations that are going on in the school system. They make sure I promise not to reveal who they are or what they said. What a heartbreaking change from the “teacher empowerment” approach that Ron Saunders encouraged many, many years ago.

  5. No greater truth than to say that teachers are working through ill formed policies made by politicians and Huntsville City Board of Education. Using standardized testing the way HSV CITY does is ignorance which is the opposite of knowledge which is why we have teachers in the classroom as opposed to military leaders/leader.I am reading a book called ITS ALL GOD .At the moment,the way I am trying to make sense of this standardized testing is that it is part of the evolution to awareness.Perhaps one day,our leaders will come to understand their ignorance is not listening to the voice of teachers and recognition that some issues such as home environment cannot be standardized and that humanity and common sense need to be part of the equation.Take from that what you may.You want to debate go for it.I don’t.Just stating my continuing revelation.

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