It's that lovely time again - test prep season. Because apparently the monthly iStation test, the three times a year NWEA/MAP test and the curriculum's unit tests are not enough to inform me as a teacher who in my class needs help. (Never mind the fact that as a teacher, I can tell you who is struggling with what simply by reading with them or working through a math problem with them.) Now, they need to prove their proficiency on the PARCC test. Whatever. I normally don't care. I don't like standardized tests, and I've written before about how the time we spend testing (and prepping) for standardized testscould be better spent elsewhere. But, I don't normally feel as resentful of the tests as I do with PARCC.
This is only my second year administering the PARCC, as I was homeschooling and teaching overseas when Common Core and PARCC came into fruition. (And let me say I'm actually a fan of the idea behind a common set of standards and a common test, I'm just not a fan of THIS test). This is also the first year I really looked deeply at the "proficiency report". I was astonished to realize, by using the NWEA to PARCC relationship scale, that the PARCC is set up so that students must be ahead of the pack in order to be considered "proficient". The NWEA is a norm referenced test which allows us to compare our students to the thousands of other students who take the same test (My students at an international school in Morocco took the same test.) and see if they are doing better or worse than the average. PARCC is a standards based test which only tests is students can do exactly as they are asked, which as a side note wouldn't be a bad thing except that PARCC overtests certain standards (such as the ability to write an essay comparing and contrasting two texts or the ability to find one specific quote in a story that justifies your answer to a question) and undertests other standards (such as determining the point of view of the author or using text conventions).
Now, the word proficient means that someone is competent. It means they can do what we ask of them, but maybe not go above and beyond. It's equivalent to "average", but apparently not on the PARCC. According to the NWEA's website, in order for a student to be proficient on the PARCC, they have to be scoring in the 65th percentile or better in 2nd grade. By 8th grade, they have to be scoring in the 75th percentile. This means that only the top 1/3 to 1/4 of students will be considered "proficient". Let that sink in for a second, we are purposely telling the majority of our students that they are not proficient.
This means that the majority of students who score at the "average" score on NWEA/MAP will score "approaching proficiency" on PARCC. This, in my mind, changes "proficient" from meaning "average" to meaning "perfect" or at least "advanced". We are expecting perfection, or at least advanced skills, out of every students and then telling them that even if they achieve this, they're only average. How defeating is that? Additionally, this means that struggling students will never reach the "proficient" level. They will grow up their entire life feeling they aren't good enough.
Now I'm all for realistic goals and high expectations. I DO NOT believe in giving students gold stars just for showing up. I think that students need to be pushed to read harder and more challenging texts and to think critically in math. But I also believe in developmentally appropriate activities. The PARCC texts and questions are not developmentally appropriate. It's like asking a Kindergartener to read a chapter book. Just because a few Kindergarteners can read chapter books doesn't mean that everyone should be able to, or that they should be looked down on if they can't. And if our students don't score well on the PARCC, they will be told they aren't good enough. They aren't proficient.
And because I'm their teacher, if they aren't proficient, it's my fault. My evaluation will be linked to their scores. So we are expecting perfect students and perfect teachers. Gee, I wonder why morale is so low in our schools.
I'm not sure how to change the system without personally creating a more fair assessment, but I do feel if we all stand up and say this system makes no sense, then we can work towards a better future for our students. In the meantime, I have told my students that all I expect out of them is their personal best (especially since I won't see the scores for the test until they are no longer my student). I refuse to stress out my students (or myself) over a test that expects perfection out of 3rd graders.
Do you get sick of grading homework? Do you worry about it becoming monotonous? For years now I have struggled with how to make homework more meaningful. This year, I have found a homework format that I love. My students are still required to read for twenty minutes a night and log their reading either on a reading log or using Google Classroom. However, in addition, they work on monthly projects. I started out with book report projects and then started alternating these with math projects. For each project, the students are given a suggested timeline and all of the necessary pieces so that their parents don't need to buy anything, unless they want to. I check in with the kiddos once or twice during the month and then on the last day of the month the kids present their projects to the class. This system has worked wonderfully and here are just a few of the benefits I've seen:
1.) The projects are meaningful. Projects give students a chance to connect deeper to a topic or subject than they can through a worksheet or a list of questions. Through our book reports, I have watched my students dig deeper into a book than they ever would with a list of close read questions. They get involved with the characters and the plot. Through the math projects, the kids have made connections to real world math. During our holiday recipe project, the kids went out to the store with their parents and took pictures of store labels. They got in the kitchen and did real measuring, and figured out the reasoning behind elapsed time.
2.) The projects are easily differentiated. Because the book reports are genre based, they can be done with books on any level. This means that most of the time I can find a book on each child's level making it easier for them to complete the appropriate project. For the math projects, the students are in control of many aspects making them able to work at their own level. For example, during our holiday shopping project one student used a Sears catalog and simply tore pictures out while another shopped the internet using three different stores. The projects can be made simpler or more challenging depending on the needs of the students.
3.) The parents get involved. So often we worry about parents being under or over involved when it comes to homework. For underinvolved parents, I have found that projects draw parents in because they are more fun and because there is generally no "right way" to complete them. However, I have also found that the overinvolved parents aren't doing the projects for the students, but instead pushing them to add detail or find another way to make it better. And all in all parents involved in schoolwork means that parents know what the children are learning and what the children are capable of. Both of these are benefits in my book!
4.) The kids enjoy being an expert and presenting. The kids LOVE presenting their projects. It's their favorite day of the month. At the beginning of the year, a few were very nervous about getting up in front of the class, but now that they've done it four or five times, it's easy peasy. They are building their public speaking skills. They are building their confidence. And they are sharing their work, which is the most important part. The rest of the class is learning from their project, and they are learning about how to give good critiques as we share "glows and grows" after each presentation.
5.) There is very little grading. One day a month I grade homework. I sit with the kids' rubrics while they are presenting and put together 2 grades. One grade uses the project rubrics. I don't actually put this grade in my gradebook, but it gives the students feedback on their work. The second grade is a quick review of their public speaking. This one goes in my gradebook. Both grades are done while the kids are presenting, and I'm done! I love it!
6.) They use time efficiently. Last year we reviewed homework every single day. For at least 20 minutes. This year, I take one morning and month. It's easy and simple. Plus, most of these projects are things I was doing in class last year, so I don't have to spend additional classtime on projects either. Win-win!
7.) They help teach time management. From the first project, the kids learned that they could either wait to the last minute and have a hard time, or they could use Mrs. Raki's timeline and have it easier. For book reports, I have students read the book one week, complete the story map the second week(which gives slow readers this second week to finish the book if needed) and then spend two weeks on the project. The first week I suggest as a plan and gather supplies week and the second week as a creation week. In addition to helping the students, the parents like that if they have sports one night or piano another, they can skip the homework and do it when it works for their family. Many of the parents have had time management discussions with their children too, so it helps to have everyone on board.
8.) They are helping the kids learn about different presentation techniques. No matter how artsy you are, five posters in a row will wear you out. So one of our class agreements is that each project of a certain subject has to be presented differently. So, if you made a poster for your mystery book report, you shouldn't be making one for your information book report or your historical fiction book report. The same for dioramas, etc. Now I have allowed overlap between the book reports and the math projects, but a poster about a mystery book and a poster about a recipe you cooked are quite different beasts. As students watch each others' presentations, they have gotten bolder with their techniques. They have used new techniques because they saw someone else in class try that. For our mystery book report, I had one student try out Google Slides. For our holiday recipe project, half the class used it. Incidentally, the student who had started with Google Slides had moved on to using Powtoon!
If you haven't tried a homework project, I would suggest you do. The results are incredible. For a starting point, try out some of my math projects or book reports, the formats are simple and will help guide you and your kiddos through the projects.
This year has been challenging me. I feel tired faster. I'm having a harder time keeping up with planning and grading. I'm not doing as much differentiation as I usually do. It's taking me longer to cover certain topics and there are so many "extras" we haven't done yet that I normally have introduced by this time of the year.
I couldn't figure out why I was having a harder time until my husband made a comment the other day. He said "You're trying to do everything you did for a class of 16, but now you have 24." This was a great "aha!" moment for me. He's absolutely right. Last year I was able to do a lot with my students and a lot more for my students because there were less of them. Eight kids may not seem like much, but when you're trying to differentiate for the specific needs of your students, fitting eight more students into small groups and one-on-one conferences can really throw you off, even if some of them recieve special services with other teachers.
Last year I taught at a charter school in a different part of town. There were less "extra" services available to me in the way of specialists and support teachers. However, my class sizes were kept drastically smaller. This year I have moved to a "regular public school" to be closer to home. I'm not knocking the school at all. The teachers I work with are fabulous and administration is very helpful. We have quite a few specialists and support teachers. However, because of our budget, the class sizes are bigger. I have 24 kids in my class. 24 kids with different levels, different needs and different backgrounds. I've had quite a few people tell me I have a "small class". I guess when the some classes have 27 - 30 kids, that's true. It's all about perspective, isn't it? But of course my previous experience has given me a different perspective too. And it's this perspective that got me thinking:
What do we give up in order to teach a larger class? Or more specifically, what do the students give up?
I have less time for one-on-one conferences. I have less time for small group reading and small group math. Of course this means that as a teacher, I often prioritize and those with the greatest needs. This means that if a student has greater abilities, they don't get as much of my attention. Additionally, these higher achieving students are also used as peer tutors and asked to help other students out, often taking on an almost grown up role. When I had a smaller class, I worked on novel studies with these higher achieving students and I didn't rely on them as much as peer tutors. They got a much more equal share of my attention.
In larger classrooms, higher achieving students recieve less of a push. They spend more time helping other students and less time exploring their own interests. Lower achieving students recieve less individualized instruction. They spend more time being helped by students and less time being helped by a teacher. Overall, we tend to "teach to the middle" more in larger classrooms.
Calmer, more peaceful classrooms:
Students who have behavior problems often behave worse in larger classrooms because they can't have the attention when they are beginning to be distracted. There are also more students in the classroom, meaning that there are more chances of one of those students providing them with a trigger or distraction for their behavior. Students who have focus problems recieve less help in staying focused. Instead of having one child who might need some light reminders, I have multiple students with checklists on their desks. Because of this, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Students who can skate by without making a fuss often get very little help because we spend so much time dealing with the student who is turning our classroom upside down. Additionally, we spend more time "managing" behaviors and less them teaching which leads to louder, less peaceful classrooms.
Interest based learning:
In addition to less time for differentation due to needs, we have less time for differentiation due to interest. Even though studies show that students learn more when they can connect their own interests and background knowledge to the curriculum, most students do not get a chance to see their own interests mirrored in the curriculum. When we have small class sizes, we get to know our students and their interests and we make connections for them. The more kids means the more interests and the less connections made. Unless a students is extremely vocal about a certain interest, we as teachers may not even know to make a connection. However, in a small class, there was time for conversations and this led to me building up connections for students, buying books that were over interest to students and finding other ways to allow students to see their own interests in the curriculum.
Our students need us not just as teachers, but as mentors. They need to know they can come to us with a problem and feel like we're listening. They need to know that we care. When we are tired, we are less engaged with our students and less likely to listen to their problems. More students mean that teachers are more tired and less engaged. There are also more problems, and a wider range of problems, for teachers to listen to. This means that in larger classes, we often lose that personal connection that allows students to know that we care for them.
Now I'm going to have some teachers read this post and say "I've taught a class of 30 for years and I differentiate and give individual attention!" And they won't be lying. Teachers are an amazing group. We do the impossible because we strive to treat a class of 30 in the same way that we would treat a class of 10. I know that I still try each and every day to give each and every child my undivided attention. We differentiate and we find ways to make miracles happen. But I've also taught a class of 10 and know that the attention and differentiation I give my current class of 24 is not the same as I was able to give my class of 10.
Of course as teachers we have little control over the number of students they place in our classroom. Often the numbers go up for reasons that are out of even our administrators' controls: shifts in school district lines, emergencies that cause people to move from one area to another (I got an extra 6 kids during the aftermath of Huricane Katrina.), or budget cuts happen. Teachers "make it work" because that's our job. That doesn't mean we don't go home exhausted because of our effort and it doesn't mean that just because we "can" teach a class of 30 that we "should" teach a class of 30.
In my perfect world we would look at what students are losing in these larger classes and prioritize our students' learning over whatever fancy new tool the military is getting or what great tax cut is going to bring a new millionare business into our state. In fact, in my perfect world I would put less kids per classroom and take the money to afford it from the billions we spend on standardized testing and curriculums that are not developmentally appropriate. But alas I don't run the world, so for now, I will just make my point that size does matter, especially if it's class size!
Stephanie from Forever in Fifth Grade does a monthly link up about the new and wonderful things going on for teacher bloggers. It's been awhile since I've participated, but I've missed being a part of it. So, here is this month's show and tell post:
Show and Tell #1 - They have poured cement! In March we purchased an acre of land in New Mexico with a wonderful view. We are very slowly getting ready to build a house on this land. This weekend they came out and poured the cement for our house.
Show and Tell #2 - I've added Google Classroom documents to my 3rd grade internet scavenger hunts. This year my students have access to Google Classroom for the first time. In order to make my life easier, I have taken all of my 3rd grade internet scavenger hunts and created a Google Documents version. This allows me to quickly assign the scavenger hunts to them within the Google Classroom. I have passed this innovation to my customers as well, by updating all of my 3rd grade internet scavenger hunts on my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Hopefully I can get the other grade levels updated this week as well.
Show and Tell #3 - The balloons have arrived! The first two weeks in October are always fun in Albuquerque, because it's Balloon Fiesta! Balloon Fiesta is an international hot air balloon ralley which brings in hundreds of hot air balloons. Where we live we regularly see five to ten balloons in the air on a weekend morning, but this week while driving to work we have seen hundreds of balloons each morning. The view has been amazing!
So that's what's been keeping me busy lately. Stop by Forever in Fifth Grade to see what is keeping other teacher bloggers busy. If you have something great keeping you busy, please feel free to leave me a comment here!
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