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I Have Been to the Mountain


Crushed it.

It’s 11:44 am on Monday, June 4, 2007, and I am done, baby. Flying high. I feel so good after speed-typing through six half hour essays that I’m sitting at my keyboard in the man zone to write a seventh, just to capture the moment. After a year plus of what has at times felt like biblical agony, I planted my flag in the summit this morning. And now I can truly say, I have been to the mountain.

Here’s the blow by blow. Last night I cleansed myself mentally and spiritually by not drinking alcohol (okay, I had a slight hangover from a friend’s 40th the day before), and watching the second to last episode of the Sopranos. Tony and I both fell asleep clutching shotguns to our chests, ready for the final showdown. Oh yeah, before bed a thought struck me, based on good advice from JC on the comment board, so I went down to the computer to look up BICS and CALPs, the stages of English Language Learners’ language acquisition.

Woke up this morning feeling strangely at ease. Instead of reading the morning paper as I normally do when I walk my dog, I studied a single note card on which I’d written the ELL stuff and the six types of questions. For each, I ran down a few talking points: for a comparison to a non-print text, I figured I’d use a Duke Ellington tune or some other piece of music, as I often do in class; for analyzing a kid’s reading, I reminded myself that meaning is constructed by a series of experiences, etc.

The main thing I told myself, as per feedback on the two (I admit, crappy) practice essays I’ve published here: they’re kids, not questions. In other words, I vowed that instead of mechanically paraphrasing the question (for example if asked to “identify and discuss weaknesses, and provide strategies for correction”), I would respond in a genuine fashion, as if I were really addressing a kid in my class. Sounds simple, but I was distracted by the trees.

Guess what? It worked. I found the good in the student responses before pulling out the ugly, just like I would when commenting on a real paper; the million repetitions of “I really like how you.... but this would be stronger if...” finally paid off. This approach felt natural, and let me address the questions from where I really live, as a teacher. To heck with handcuffs, my flying fingers were telling me. Show what you know-- talk about what you do every day in your class, what you’ve been working on for the past fifteen years (did I just say fifteen?). In the immortal words of Bootsy Collins, P-Funk bassist, I freed my ass and my mind followed.

Back to the blow by blow. As I was leaving the house, a remarkable thing happened. A bird’s nest in the hanging flower basket on our front porch had three chicks in it. We’ve been watching with the boys every day, seeing the eggs first, then the eyes-shut chicks, noting comings and goings of the wren mom and dad. Well, this morning as I was leaving, I swear to god, they fledged. We saw two of the three chicks actually fly out from amidst the purple blossoms into the great big world right before our eyes.

That got me to the testing center, where I had a few moments of bureaucratic angst (what would an NBPTS outing be without it?). First was hand copying a paragraph (NOT printing it, the directions insisted) that said I really, really, really won’t cheat on this test or tell anybody what was on it. The low point, though, was once I had settled in front of the screen and began clicking through the tutorial. I reached window six, demonstrating the use of the back arrow, and couldn’t figure out how to get past it. For a few desperate looking glass moments I was stuck clicking back to go forward and forward to go back. (The test attendant came over and moved me along well before I would have begun cackling maniacally.)

From there, I got it on. There were three minutes of anxiety at the end of the first question when I realized there was a second prompt and I had only responded to the first. After that, I understood that I had to click through each prompt and hit the back button (oh, that’s what it was for) to do the whole question. Mechanics under my belt, I could focus on the questions, and that’s what I did.

Foxes were everywhere. One popped up on a writing sample, and another became my non-print text. Actually, I wrote about a fox hat from my travels in rural Alaska. Somehow, it seemed the perfect prop when discussing how I’d get kids interested in a passage written by a Native American author who contemplated her reality versus Hollywood's versions of Indians. (I don’t want to say more for fear of breaking the “I swear I won’t tell what was on this test” clause.)

BICS and CALPs came in handy, and writer’s workshop, and a generous dash of “HOW does it make you FEEL?” During my break I stretched and splashed water on my face, and before I knew it... I was walking out into the sun. A free man. A teacher man.

And so here I am, at the end of a trek I began on February 16, 2006, with these two questions: Am I nuts? Can I do it? I ended that first post by saying I was climbing this NBPTS mountain because it’s there.

It’s still standing, but now I can answer both questions with a resounding yes, whether I get the initials or not. That mountain? Call me crazy, but after all this work, the view from the top isn't what matters most. Turns out, it was all about the journey.



Thank you so much for posting this message after your test today. Mine is tomorrow and I am studying STILL but trying to relax and most importantly, to remember to just be myself on the assessment test.

Thanks for the last minute tips...I think I will take you up on them!

I stumbled upon this blog a few days ago while I was preparing for my assessment center exercises, and it's been a real comfort to me. Thanks for this post; I appreciate your confident stance and the last-minute tips. I hope your sense of acceptance and accomplishment rubs off as well!

This may be your best post yet! Glad to see that you did your best to "picture the child in the flesh" and "not on paper". Enjoy your summer! Brenda NBCT

Emmet --

I wish I had encountered your blog earlier! Your recent posts have been a great help, but I still have a few questions (if you haven't mentally checked out of the office, so to speak). I'm scheduled to take my assessment center "exercises" on the 12th, and have been trying to put in a few hours of preparation each day since last week -- the last day of school. I suffer from test anxiety on timed exams, and found my hands shaking when I practiced a timed response to a sample prompt this morning. The results were even more unsettling, as I didn't finish. I spent too much time composing, and not enough time actually throwing down points. On your blog, someone suggested bullet points instead of paragraphs. You also mentioned that you responded as if you were talking to a student rather than answering a question. Does that refer to just your mindset, or your language, as well? Did you actually use 2nd person and speak TO the student?

Clearly, I'm a nervous wreck. I'd love to derive strength and a smooth groove from the P-Funk, but I'm not feeling very groovy. In fact, the "groove" I normally have in my room of 11th and 12th graders seems to evaporate as soon as I'm on camera or under the scorer's eye. I think more practice in the next few days will help, but need more prompts. There are only TWO available on the nbpts site (from what I can tell); are any available for the other four exercises?

Any further suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Oh -- and congratulations on your completion of the process! You seem like an incredibly motivated and inspiring teacher.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with all of us. Your commentary has been both helpful and amusing...

Hi Sarah- To clarify, I did NOT use 2nd person. My point was, act like I'm responding to real (my own) students work in thinking through the answers, rather than responding in a kind of cold, detached way. As to more prompts, not sure where to find them, I'm sorry to say. I was surprised I could only see two also. Check out the six types of questions, I guess. And dust off the vinyl. Good luck!

Sarah: I've spent lots of time searching for more sample questions and haven't found any. What I would suggest is: take the prompts and substitute a different piece of literature or a different student response and try to respond to it. For example, on the question that asks you to find a non-print text whose theme corresponds to the theme of the text you are given, substitute in a random poem you've taught, figure out the theme, and brainstorm a movie/song/painting with a similar theme. As for nerves: keep timing yourself. Give yourself 1/2 hour to answer a question until you can do it. I've heard from several people not to worry about writing an essay - just get your ideas down. A hard concept for us English teachers.

Congrats Emmet! You're the man, dude. With all that brain-numbing pedagogy, not to mention two reams of NBPTS source and supplemental study materials...all that is now in the rear view mirror...you can look forward to a sunny summer and await the day, when you too, will receive that e-mail from the Promised Land. On that day your fingers may not be as swift, but you must touch the magical key to reveal your final scores. If you're nervous, you can always start gathering student writing and reading samples for Entry 1 in the fall :)

For the newbies to the site, and especially for those who will be completing the Assessment Center, what others have already said is true. As Emmet did, create a framework that you can easily utilize, and likely one that is consistent with your communication style. For Emmet, it was getting into the zone with the mindset..."this is my student, and this is how I would respond..." For "bullet points" I used asterisks * to list phrases from the text provided to support and give examples. Emmet, I trust you will be a genuine Olympic NBPTS marathon runner, one who experiences the "thrill of victory," rather than the "agony of defeat." I have really appreciated the journal of your journey.

Well done! I remember the assessment center being the worst part of this process. My hands shook so much I had trouble typing responses. I'd also advise future applicants to work on as many different computers as you can. Just the strangeness and antiquity of the keyboard at the center can be daunting. If you think you feel great now, wait until you log on to the computer in November to see if you passed......it will take your breath away! I ran down the hall jumping up and down, close to tears when I found out in 2002. Best of luck to you!

After all of these years in the classroom-and taking the Nationals, do you think it was worth it?

I just discovered your blog! Enjoyed your posts, Emmett.

From your journey, I can predict you will make it.

I assessed for a couple of years. To comfort those who have yet to take the test, here are a few last minute tips. Study the rubric. For each section, take a sheet of paper and break down the Level 4 rubric. To earn a top score, what must you do? You can see the different sections of the rubric and will be able to predict which ones will have two and which will have three parts to the questions. Here is the best pattern: answer the question, provide evidence, and then, analyze. Avoid writing long, complex essays or straying off the prompt. It is not a writing contest. Spelling does not count. You can make lists and respond in fragments. Give the answer to the assessor “on a silver platter”.

Assessing is a difficult but rewarding activity. When a 4 came to me, I wanted to stand up and cheer. What differentiated a 4 from other submissions? It answered all parts of the prompt completely, the strategies or techniques were significant, it provided accurate examples from the text to support the candidate’s assertions, and the analysis was spot on. This person used clear, simple language and his or her love for teaching was evident. You could tell. (PS- Emmett, if you wrote your responses the way you write your blog entries, you will receive high scores.)

The assessors enjoy wonderful writing as much as the next person, but have a stressful (timed) job to do. It was frustrating to wade through extraneous prose to get to the candidate's answer. If the prompt says to offer two significant strategies, offer two, not seven. The assessors are trained to review the first two- much like assessment in the video entries. Video entries will be turned off after 15 minutes. Follow directions.

Relax. There is a fellow teacher staring into that computer who wants to give top scores to those candidates whose responses merit them. One assessor was dismissed from my training before the live scoring started because she kept coming in too low on the seed cases. The trainer patiently explained that candidates are not being judged by their typing skills. He admonished her to ignore the typos and find the evidence of success. She complained that English teachers should be help to a higher standard- writing in complete sentences and paragraphs, etc. She was dismissed after two days. We continued assessing minus one but felt assured that the NBCT process had integrity and that the candidates’ need for accurate and appropriate assessing had been considered.


Oh, Emmet! Congratulations! My assessment is tomorrow, and this blog has been my saving grace. Thank you, and thank you for all the wonderful advice from other NBCTs, candidates, and assessors!
Much love,
Beth from VB

You do have to be careful about not revealing the test questions and/or how you answered them. I am a mentor and test security is very important. I applaud your efforts for completing this process- I did it with a friend and we had no funding help. Yes, it is all about the process- and how you answer the questions will be different from someone else even in your same certificate area. Your years of experience, professional development- all those interplay as you take your tests. Good luck in November/December when the scores are revealed!

I really enjoyed your post, and I heartily agree -- it's the journey and not the destination that matters! This was my 8th year of teaching Enrichment (gifted ed) in Elementary school, and my specialty area is Middle Childhood Generalist.
The assessment was somewhat easier than I expected, so I hope I was on target. Only time will tell! I don't even think I'll be upset if I have to redo some parts, as I know much more what to expect and I think I'll be able to hit it "dead on" as you said.
But if anyone is reading this and still considering whether to commit to getting National Board Certification -- I'd say "Yes", because you'll come out of knowing much more about yourself as a teacher!
I'll keep my fingers crossed - for all of us in Nov/Dec.! And I'll be sure to keep reading your blog!

Emmett, you are truly crazy, welcome to the club.

I'm skeptical about the so-called "peer-review" of the portfolios. I have first-hand knowledge that some of these reviewers are not highly-qualified teachers. The stakes are getting higher as the cost of the program increases also. I think this national board is getting saavy to the fact that a lot of money can be made by making teachers retake the test again and again. There's a stinky political motive cropping up that I am not comfortable with.

To be fair, I was myself, a candidate a year ago and FAILED every single subset of the "test." I was shocked! I thought there must have been some mistake! I am rated as a highly-qualified teacher and conduct research on literacy through a nationally-recognized university in a major city.

After my failure, I thought I would make more of contribution pursuing a Ph.D. and that is what I'll do.

I just wish the National Board people would be more focused somehow on the great things people do without relying on a rubric that sits in the hands of the inexperienced.

okay let me comment here

Great blog, Emmett. Thanks for cutting all the bs and honestly describing the process. I'm going after my NBPTS this year and I think much of what is in this blog still applies - answers more questions than anything else I've read or seen. This should be required reading for ELA NBPTS candidates.

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