Monthly Archives: October 2014

A Revolutionary Standardized Test?

A new test that will see if fourth graders will be ready for college? Wow! Great! Amazing!

That’s the promise I’m seeing as our former standardized test is being replaced by a new version this year. This, of course, is causing great trepidation and worry from pretty much everyone in the state, myself included. So much rides on state tests that you simply can’t ignore them.

What I find amusing is the concept that a standardized test will indicate whether or not a student is on a path towards being college and career ready. Is this actually possible? I’m doubtful. While I’m more than a decade removed from college, and I’m sure it’s changed a lot, these were the skills I remember being important to being successful in university classes:

– Responsibility – You had to read the assigned reading, despite all the distractions available. Sometimes you just had to shut out the outside world and read that book.

– Teamwork – The group project required communication among team members, and everyone had to do their part.

– Active Listening – If you were at a lecture with 300 other students, nobody was checking to see if you were listening. You had to do this on your own.

– Perseverance – Some weeks were crazy. You might have had four major assignments due on the same day. This overloaded feeling could either make you shut down or become more determined.

– Communication – Whether it was with professors, teaching assistants, or other students, you had to be able to communicate your questions, concerns, thoughts, and feelings.

These make students college and career ready – responsibility, teamwork, active listening, perseverance, communication, and many other I’m sure I’m leaving out. A standardized test measures none of these. I understand the function a standardized test serves, but let’s make sure we’re being real about what a standardized test is actually measuring.

The Homework Debate

Before I start, one caveat: I have absolutely no research to back up any claims here. Everything will be anecdotal.

Good. That part is over.

Recently, I participated in a spirited #edchat where proponents of the yes-homework and no-homework sides fervently made their cases. The debate was energized and, at some points, quite tense. Like after any great chat, my mind continued whirring long after the last comment.

I give students homework, and I will continue to do so. Here is why:

1. Homework provides practice. My homework consists of spelling and math practice. Students benefit from repetition in these two subjects. As the SpellBowl coach for ten years, I saw the value of having students write their words multiple times. I’m sure this is appalling to some educators, but it works. I’ve seen it many times. Math is often the same way. Practicing the content from class helps students do it automatically the next day.

2. Homework connects parents to my class. As a father of a second grader, I like to see homework because it gives me an idea of what she is working on in class. I can quickly see what she finishes confidently and what she needs to practice. It’s another communication tool between teacher and parent. In my classroom, I ask parents to check and help students correct homework, and I send home answer keys to help. This gives students a chance to have one-on-one attention as they practice.

3. I don’t buy the classic no-homework arguments. I’ve heard, “They’ll just copy,” “Their parents will do it,” and “They don’t turn it in anyway.” Are these statements true for some students? Yes. Does that mean we should eliminate this learning opportunity for all students just because some don’t do it correctly? Of course not. That would be like saying, “Well, everyone’s not going the speed limit, so we’ll just get rid of it.” Absurd.

4. Students have time. They do. If you’re giving a reasonable amount of homework (15-30 minutes), they have enough time. Now, that being said, in my classroom, students are expected to do their homework each night, but I don’t collect it until the week is over. This allows any student who has a wild night of dance lessons or football practice to catch up.

Again, no research, but it makes sense to me. What do you think?

Using Post-It Notes to Synthesize Learning

Over the years I have read many ideas about what to do with used sticky notes, and I’ve never liked any of those ideas. We use sticky notes to track our thinking during our Guided Reading groups, and when we finish a text and move to another, those old sticky notes just seem to collect dust.

However, those sticky notes document substantial amounts of thinking, often thinking that has been very meaningful. Sending them to the recycling bin didn’t seem to be a just fate for these insightful thoughts. As I was preparing for a reading group Thursday, I decided to run a session where we would use students’ sticky notes to reflect on our reading strategy from the week (questioning).

I had the students take their sticky notes and display them on paper like this:

post it note synthesizing

Then, at the bottom, I have this group a question stem, “Asking questions is important because…”

The answers and discussion from this simple activity were excellent. The students articulated, in just one sentence, all of our reading groups work for that week. This student’s answer reads, “Asking questions is important because they help you understand the story better. So you can see if your questions [are] answered later on in the story.” This student nailed it.

What I am most excited about this the flexibility of this approach. Any reading strategy at any time with any text could be used for this. Also, while the teacher would need to be ready for this discussion, no copying, laminating, or printing is necessary. Just the students’ previous work and a blank sheet of paper.

I look forward to using this throughout the year. What do you like to do most with students’ sticky notes?

What Do We Really Want Students to Remember?

I always wonder what students remember about fourth grade. Do they remember special events? Maybe Field Day? Maybe Market Day? Do they remember fields trips we took? Or perhaps something funny that happened?

This week one of my former students came back to see me, and I took the opportunity to ask this question. As a senior in high school, she was running a Creative Writing Club and was in our building to invite elementary students to participate in a three-day camp over our Fall Break. As her presentation ended, I surprised her by asking, “So, what do you remember most about fourth grade?”

Clearly caught off-guard, she had to think for a moment, before answering, “Probably having lots of reading time.”

My face lit up. I beamed with pride. I could even be described as glowing. We build up our independent reading time, reading as much as thirty minutes a day, because the best way to become a better reader is to read. My student choose books they enjoy and grow as readers through the year. I almost jumped out of my seat to give her a big hug.

As proud I was at that moment, I’ve had time to reflect, and these thoughts have been much more depressing. If what this young lady remembers most about fourth grade is the amount of reading time she had, then that means this was unusual in her school career. Her answer indicates no other teacher gave her the reading time she loved…not in middle school…not in high school. An entire host of teacher decided that doing other things were more important than spending time reading books she loved. Time to read simply didn’t exist.

While I loved her answer, I wish extensive reading time wasn’t a unique experience. I wish it was normal and not memorable. I wish she would have answered, “The field trips.”