It's that lovely time again - test prep season, especially with PARCC right around the corner. 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 tests could 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 if 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.
Solving the great homework debate - is homework helpful or harmful? Use family homework projects as the perfect compromise.
For years now I have struggled with how to make homework more meaningful and less work for me. I've read the studies that ask the question "Is homework helpful or harmful?" and have found the results inconclusive. I still believe students need to be working on educational content outside of the classroom. We have them for such a limited number of hours. Students need to know that learning continues outside of the classroom. They need to make connections and not see it as an isolated event they have to get through.
However, as a parent I also ask myself regularly "How is homework affecting family time?" Sometimes the family discussions and after school activities ARE more valuable than time spent on homework. Sometimes these family led learning sessions provide all of the learning and connections students need. However, in some families these activities are not happening. So how do I guarantee all of my kiddos work on learning activities at home, but don't get stressed out?
This year, my solution has been family homework projects. There is NO nightly homework turned in in my classroom. My students are still required to read for twenty minutes a night and practice their multiplication facts. They record this on a weekly log and turn it in on Fridays.
However, the bulk of our homework is monthly homework projects. I started out with book report projects for English or ELA 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. Homework 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 a 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.
Politicians say that class size doesn't matter. They say that the class size data shows that what the teacher does is more important than the number of students in your room. Any teacher can tell you that this isn't true. Here is my true life story about why and how class size matters in students' success.
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 using as many differentiated instructional strategies 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 of a class size reduction, 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 receive 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?
With a larger class size, 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 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 receive less of a push. They spend more time helping other students and less time exploring their own interests. Lower achieving students receive 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 and this really doesn't do the needs of our students justice..
Calmer, more peaceful classrooms:
Students who have behavior problems often behave worse in larger classrooms because they can't have the attention they need when they are just beginning to be distracted. This causes bigger behaviors than you would see in a classroom with less students because it's harder to "nip it in the bud".
There are also more students in the classroom, meaning that there are more chances of one of those students providing a student with a history of misbehavior with a trigger or distraction for their behavior. Students who have focus problems receive 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, in classrooms with a big class size, we spend more time "managing" behaviors and less them teaching which leads to louder, less peaceful classrooms and can often spiral into additional behaviors.
Interest Based Learning:
In addition to less time for differentation to meet the needs of our students, we have less time for differentiation to meet the interests of our students. 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 in the class means the more interests to connect to and generally the less connections that are 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. These conversations clued me in to my students interests and this knowledge helped me to build connections for students with the books we were reading. I was able to buy books that were of interest to students and findz other ways to allow students to see their own interests in the curriculum.
Access to Technology and Learning Tools:
I have the same amount of technology in my room this year as last year, but we get less use of it. Why? Because now there are 24 students vying for those 4 devices instead of 16. In order to rotate students through, we would need 6 rotations instead of 4. This means that technology tends to be available for those early finishers or to help struggling students better access the curriculum. This means that technology is not something everyone touches every day. The same is true for any other centers or learning activities. Unless you have a one to one setup for technology or other resources, students will spend a lot more time waiting for the technology than using the technology when you have more students in the classroom.
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 from managing behaviors, we are less engaged with our students and we are less likely to listen to their problems. More students means 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. This personal connection can make a world of difference to our students and we should have the time and energy to give that connection to our students!
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 class sizes 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 millionaire 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 curriculum that is 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!
Get to Know Your Students Better: Top 10 Strategies that Go Beyond the Beginning of the Year Ice Breakers
At the beginning of the school year, most teachers spend the first two days on ice breaker games and getting to know you questions. Then they jump into curriculum and forget that getting to know our students is the key to teaching.
Getting to know our students is a key to building positive relations and to being able to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of each student. The more we know about our students, the better we can fit our instruction to their levels, their interests, their background knowledge and their needs. Fitting our instruction to our students - instead of trying to force our students to fit into our instruction allows us to make more of an impact on our students' education and on their lives.
There are so many ways to get to know your students better, not just at the beginning of the year, but all year long. Here are the 10 getting to know you strategies I use every year:
1.) Have conversations with the students and their parents. Especially at the beginning of the year, it's important to start conversations and to listen when the kiddos and their parents tell you stories about their life or giving you little snipets of information. Sometimes these pieces of information will be the key to helping you know how to help your students succeed.
2.) Get to know your students' goals. This year I started out the year with my Long Term Goals Sheet, where I asked students to work with their parents and think about where they want to be in 5 years, in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years. It was a great way to get to know my students on a new and different level. Hearing their college and career aspirations made each of these students so much more real to me. Now the student who wants to fix computers is a "tech support helper" who I have introduced to code.org and the student who wants to travel to multiple countries is reading books about those countries and studying French on Duolingo.com. Knowing who the students want to be when they are an adult, even if they're only in 3rd grade now, allows me to break into their interest levels in a completely different way.
3.) Read their writing. The way that a student responds to a writing prompt says so much about the student. For example my students are currently writing narrative stories about a picture of a girl falling off of a swing. The stories I got range from a first person narrative where the main character helps a girl who falls off a swing and wins an instant friend; to a story where aliens were purposely breaking the swing each time the main character sits on it. In between, I also got a story where the main character's mother fell in love with the doctor who helped her and one story where the girl was pushed on purpose and the pusher got a large punishment. Reading each of these stories with my students helped me to better understand their background knowledge and their viewpoint as well as their writing ability. I often use my Genre Writing Journals as a way to give the entire class the same prompt.
4.) Ask students to visualize stories. Last year I demonstrated to my students how much background knowledge plays a part in the pictures they visualize. I read them two stories that I wrote, which were almost identical, about families that were having dinner. One story took place in Morocco where the family was eating couscous. The other story took place in New Mexico where the family was eating enchiladas. While I read each story, the students drew pictures of what they were visualizing. Then we looked at photographs of a family in Morocco eating couscous and a family in New Mexico eating enchiladas. The pictures the students drew of the family in New Mexico (where we live) were very close to photograph we looked at, but the ones they drew of the family in Morocco were not close at all. Background knowledge affects what we can visualize. So as often as possible let students draw pictures of the stories they read. How they visualize the story will sometimes surprise you, but will often give you good information about their own background!
5.) Use turn and talks about their home life. Morning meetings are a great way to get to know your students. Often during morning meetings I will ask students to turn and talk to a neighbor about a topic, what they did over the weekend, their favorite food, the pets they own, a time they were scared, etc. etc. Then I let the students report out about what their friends told them. You get interesting information about both students this way, because what the person reporting hears as important is often something that relates to their own life!
6.) Allow time for Genius Projects or Passion Projects. Ask your students "If you could learn about anything, what would it be?" Their answers will be telling enough, but then give the students time to plan out and work on genius projects. Watching them work on these projects will tell you a lot about their commitment, their work ethic and their interest level. Genius projects in my room often lead to new read alouds, writing prompts, math scenarios and science experiments because I know better what will connect to my students' learning.
7.) Find Vocabulary Connections. One of my favorite ways to get to know my kiddos background knowledge is to discuss vocabulary with them. When I ask them for a definition or sentence for a vocabulary word, their background knowledge comes spilling out. Hut is a great word for this. Most students will tell me "Oh, like Pizza Hut", a few will say "Like the little houses in Africa", but my favorite was the one student who told me you mean like "hut, hut, hut in football?". Background knowledge, it just spills out, doesn't it? You might want to use my vocabulary graphs as a basis for some of your vocabulary conversations, the connections students make are great.
8.) Challenge students to an activity that you think may frustrate them. Watching students be frustrated can be an eye opener. It's always interesting to me to see "smart" kids hit a brick wall with something new and difficult, while kids who struggle often spend a lot of time trying to get to the answer before they give up because they are used to the struggle. Not only do frustration triggers tell us a lot about students, but watching students handle those frustrations tell us a lot about students. Once we know where students get frustrated and how they handle frustrations, we can better help students manage frustrations. We will also know how and when to support students so that they can either avoid certain frustrations or deal better with frustrations when they happen.
9.) Monitor group work. Students often work differently in a group than they do independently. Some students will automatically lead, some will automatically follow, some are peacemakers and some will respond negatively to other students. As you walk around and monitor your groups you will see how students react to each other. Then, mix up the groups and watch again because students often respond differently to different group dynamics differently.
10.) Incorporate activities that are not "normal" school subjects. Recess, PE, art, music, computer skills, cooking, sewing, nature skills - anytime that I incorporate these things into my lessons I see a completely different side of my kids. Students who often struggle will come out of their shell during a cooking lesson or run faster in the race than anyone else. Students who are the top of the class often get frustrated or scared to try new things. These activities remind us to think about our students as a "whole person" instead of just as a student.
As a teacher, I have always tried to communicate a lot with my students' parents. I have a class website with a blog feature where I keep a weekly log of what we are working on in class. I have open conversation with my parents via e-mail and phone calls. However this year I started on a team that uses Class Dojo and I have been so impressed at how much Class Dojo has increased my parent communications.
I know that Class Dojo is not a new website. I know many teachers who use it effectively as a way to help students monitor their behavior by giving out positive and negative dojo points. However, one of my favorite features of Class Dojo isn't the student points. It's not even the instant message with my students' parents (although that's been great for parent communication too!)
My favorite feature is the Class Stories section. This provides teachers with something similar to a Facebook newsfeed about what's going on in class. During the day, I take at least one picture of what is going on. Then, during planning or at the end of the day, I post the picture with a caption that prompts parents to ask their children something. For example after reading the second chapter of The Case of the Gasping Garbage, I asked the parents to ask their students what made the garbage gasp. I have had great feedback from the parents on posts like this. The parents like knowing what's going on, but they also like having specific questions to ask their children that go beyond "What did you do at school today?"
In addition, I can take pictures of important forms that have gone home and post them to the story as a way to remind parents of things that are coming home before they even get there. This helps a lot with papers that get "lost" on the way home from school.
Do you use Class Dojo in your classroom? Do you have any secrets to using it to increase class communication? Let's learn from each other, leave a comment so we can all use this app to the fullest!
Sign Up for Monthly News Releases