Book Review: This is Not a Test

I had the pleasure of meeting the author, Jose Luis Vilson, at the Teacher Appreciation Luncheon with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Dr. Jill Biden in early May. While we introduced ourselves, Mr. Vilson shared with the group that he had recently published a book. Based on Jose’s charisma and strong views on education, I immediately knew I would want to read this book.

I came home from that luncheon and ordered the book on Amazon. I love Amazon because you can conveniently get almost anything delivered to your porch…and fast! I had failed to realize, unfortunately, that my mom’s previous home address – 45 minutes away from my front door – was listed as the delivery address from a previous order. When I put two and two together to find out that my copy was sitting on a some lucky new homeowner’s front porch, and not mine, I just looked at my husband and he exclaimed, “Road trip!” We pulled up to Mom’s old house and my book was still in the mailbox! (Whew! Crisis adverted.)

So, to start off, getting this book was neither convenient nor fast. Despite the unexpected time and energy it took to finally get the book, I had a feeling that it would all be worth the read.

I was right.

This is my first year as a middle school teacher. It is also my first year teaching in an underprivileged, urban school. On the one hand, I wish this book would have been available to me before I started my new teaching position this year – it would have taught me a great deal! That being said, I would not have fully appreciated nor valued Vilson’s take on (inner-city) public education before being thrust into the experience first-hand. Our experiences in urban school settings are different and they are real. Real to the point of surrealism. Our students experience hardships that middle-class suburbanites and rural folk cannot relate to on a personal level. These kids come to school with worries far greater than what our lawmakers expect of them on standardized tests. I guess I say all this to make the point that Vilson understands all of this and preaches it in his own unique teacher voice. His observations are quick and he calls it as he sees it. It was comforting to read his vignettes and realize that I’m not the only one who feels this way and that this struggle is universal. This retelling of his struggles and triumphs gives me hope that there is even more hope for our students and the communities that support them. We just need to raise our voices.

Anyways, back to the book. There were two chapters in this book that stood out to me the most:

1. White Noise (On Behalf of Ruben Redman) This chapter, about a young man in a classic scenario of “wrong place, wrong time,” gave me chills. I know many of my students could easily be victims of this same scenario, and it just isn’t right. And, of course, there is little you can do to prevent this from happening other than trying to influence our kids’ choices positively. Yet, we continue to pour our hearts into their educational lives and futures, hoping that our efforts can help magically lift them out of their life’s circumstances.

2. Where the Hustle Comes From What do you do with the student who can’t see past the drama at home – whether it be absent parents, lack of food, sketchy neighborhood, gangs or some other instability – to focus on school work? How do you reach him and make him realize that the time he puts in at school can create opportunities to lift him out of his neighborhood one day and provide him with the American Dream? How do you show him that, although you may look different on the outside you look much closer on the inside, and that you want nothing but the best for his future? Can you reach him? What can you do? Well, Vilson lists some excellent tips for educators in this chapter, including ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE and DON’T TRY TO CHANGE THEM, GET TO KNOW THEM.

Other points of Vilson’s that stuck out:

  • There is a clear-cut dichotomy between schooling and education. Education is for everyone. Schooling is not. (What Happened)
  • There will be times when you let your students down. Times get rough and it will happen, sooner or later. But don’t let it affect you. Learn from the experience, get back up, and try to do better the next day. (The Homeroom is a Home)
  • Students NEED to know that underneath that mask of professionalism, you are a compassionate human being who cares for them.  (God Got Jokes, Son)
  • Change in education starts with teachers, not with policy makers. (How to Drop the Mic)
  • Despite how hard you try, there may always be that 10% you cannot reach. [SIGH] (Every Day Above Ground is a Good One)

This book – now plagued with highlighter marks and jammed with make-shift Sticky Note bookmarks – will stay on my teacher’s desk next year as a reminder of why I teach and that, despite the many obstacles of NCLB, Race to the Top, Common Core, standardized testing, or any other asinine education policies they throw at me, I CAN and WILL make a difference in my students’ lives. I always thought this, but now I know because Mr. Vilson says so.

If you want a copy of Vilson’s book, you can visit his website: 

You can also purchase the book on Amazon:


On a scale of 1-5, I rated this book 5 stars on Goodreads and added it to my list of Favorites. Yes, it is really that good. 🙂


Mrs. Casto’s Day in D.C.

Approximately two weeks ago, I saw this on Twitter:


I thought to myself, Wow! That sounds like a great opportunity. There’s no way on this good, green Earth that I’ll ever be selected (because, really, who am I?), but I’ll apply anyway. I took a chance as well as about 10 minutes to apply on my iPhone while cooking dinner one night, pressed “Send,” and let out a big sigh at the thought of such an amazing opportunity.

Fast forward to a few days later, I received the following email from the White House’s Deputy Director of Digital Programs, Kasie Coccaro:


Whoa! They selected ME?! I just couldn’t believe it! One of my dreams of meeting the Secretary of Education was going to finally come true AND I was going to also tour the White House AND meet Dr. Biden…wow. Just, wow.

After just a few days of security-clearance and itinerary emails, the BIG DAY was here! I did most of my driving on the day before, and stayed overnight in a hotel near Fredericksburg, VA. (I didn’t get too much sleep because I was so excited!) I got up early with the intention of meeting a few of the other educators for breakfast (through the power of Social Media, we had prearranged a meet-up before our White House tour), however, DC traffic ruined those plans for me. I checked the time as I parked my car and realized I had just enough time to get to the tour check-in gate, so I decided to head straight for the WH.

After a very thorough security check-in process, I finally walked in the doors of the East Wing, where tour guides were escorting everyone to the South Lawn for a very “special event.” Had no idea what this could be, since the local news program that was on TV while I was getting ready said that President Obama was going to be in Arkansas that day visiting the towns struck by the latest tornadoes. Maybe we’d get to see the First Lady? Sasha and Malia?

After waiting in the corral and taking pictures for about 15 minutes, the president’s helicopter came flying straight at us from the south and landed 50 yards away right on the lawn! Everybody starts looking at each other and saying the same thing, Yeah, I think we’re going to see the President. And we sure did.

South Lawn
A view of the South Lawn from the White House
WH Selfie
I took several “selfies” on this trip, this one is in front of the White House
The Presidential Helicopter
President Obama
President Obama walking out to his helicopter in front of the White House. Waving to the President as he waves goodbye to all of us was such a neat experience!

After President Obama lifted off, and his helicopter – and escorting helicopters – were out of sight, we looked at our watches and phones. Wow! It is already 11:10 and we have to be at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (next door) at 11:20! Can you say, “shortest White House tour ever”? The dozen of us flew through the tour, glancing at this and peeking in to see that. Will I remember much of what I saw inside the house? Probably not. But having that experience on the South Lawn made it all worth it.

We got out of the tour and took a few more selfies in front of the White House:


And then it was time to head over to the Eisenhower Executive Building:


For those of you who don’t know (because I didn’t know) the Eisenhower Executive Office Building is where the VP and his staff work, in addition to several other White House department heads and operations. After another thorough security check-in process, we were given our official EEOB badges and made our way to Room 276. We walked in, charged our phones, and sat down to await the arrival of our first host, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Here, Secretary Duncan is listening very closely to our concerns about the lack of “great teachers” inside our schools and the flocks of amazing educators who are leaving the profession.


What makes a great teacher? “A combination of head and heart.” – Sec. Duncan


Duncan Group Shot
Group shot with Secretary Duncan. I am standing on my tippy-toes right in front of him!

After Secretary Arne Duncan left, we were visited by several other education advisors, including Eric Waldo, the FLOTUS’s Executive Director of the Reach Higher Initiative. He spoke to us about this program’s mission to expose students to college-related experiences early in an effort to ensure ALL students know they CAN go to college. We also met with Kumar Garg, the Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (he talked about spreading the word about Maker Spaces and joining the WH in the Maker Faire later this year), and Rory Brosius, the Deputy Director of Joining Forces (US Military family support program). 

Eric Waldo

After Rory left, it was time for lunch and a photo op with the Second Lady, Dr. Jill Biden! We walked down the hallway to her office, were formally introduced to her, and then took pictures. After we snapped a few photos in her office, we went back to grab our cute, boxed lunches, which included a choice of meat or veggie (I chose turkey) on a fresh, delicious piece of multigrain bread, a granny smith apple, chips, and my favorite, cookies! (Sorry, I can’t help it. I’m a foodie.)

This was probably the highlight of my professional career thus far. So cool!
Dr. Biden came to our luncheon to talk about teacher appreciation. She encouraged us to email her with ideas to lift up teachers!

Dr. Biden was on a tight schedule and couldn’t stay too long, unfortunately. The WH staff still had one surprise left for us, though! Since the rain had cleared, they invited us back to the White House lawn to visit the Obamas’ garden and meet one of the WH chefs!


The garden was THRIVING after the rain!
Chef Susie explaining the First Lady’s request to use honey, instead of sugar, in the foods at the WH. As a pastry chef, Susie and her team knew they would have to make their pastries and sweets as healthy as possible, so they installed a beehive on the WH property. This beehive is home to 60,000+ bees!

We took one last group photo before leaving the White House, and each other…



This day will be one that I will forever remember. I am so thankful that I was chosen to take part of this event with this amazing group of teachers. Not only did I have the opportunity to meet some historical leaders in the realm of US education, but I also learned a lot, and most importantly, I met some wonderful educators who have become the newest extension of my teacher-network. They are terrific professionals whom I admire and look forward to collaborating with in the future!

For more fun photos and details about our day, please check out this White House blog.