Monthly Archives: February 2013

what are they learning and how do you know?

what’s going on?


Is this, perhaps, the most important question for new teachers? Not only are the students are learning, the teacher must have verifiable proof that they are learning. It seems like it would be useful to think of teaching like a scientific experiment. What am I teaching them? What is the procedure? What observations and data do I need? Was my lesson good?  Continue onward!


Now that I am left to my own devices while my master teacher is off on an adventure, I need to be really serious about how I know the students are learning. Glazed over looks doesn’t count. Nodding heads doesn’t count. Projects count. Writing counts. Discussions? They help to inform, and there are standards on speaking, but for math, science, etc. I need more varied data.


This week I’ll be teaching a little of everything. I’m still teaching my SS unit dubbed American Foundations. I’ll be teaching small groups literacy. I’ll be teaching math (and observed again!). I’ll be doing morning and afternoon routines. By golly, I’ll be doing almost everything, but that’s just the way the week will work out. For SS, last week I collected good data using a MCT and discussion. That will help me plan this week. For math, I’m a little lost because of the week on/week off schedule. What are we learning? Geometry. What exactly? I’ll find out. For literacy, we’ll be following a direct instruction model with a gradual release of responsibility. That means the students will have to show me (written?) that they can do the task (drawing conclusions). It’ll be a busy week, especially with finals. I’ll just have to take it day by day.

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i’ve got to admit it’s getting better


Like John T. Spencer was in his first year, I wanted some real assessments, or hard data. I wanted to know where every student was at. I did it with… wait for it… a multiple choice test. Yes, I used the dreaded, MCT (I don’t believe that’s a real acronym). I did it with a twist. The whole class took at the same time, using electronic voting, but then we talked after each question. In real time (and later in an Excel spread sheet) I could see who answered correctly, how long it took them, plus I could see as a whole class what was still stumping them.


I also made the test myself. It was only 8 questions, but I want them to be meaningful. Each question prompted a good discussion. A lot of the questions had more than one right answer, but I was looking for the best answer. Since this was still a formative assessment (the summative assessment will be a project), if I were to put it on a final test, the MCT would allow room to explain your answer.


The question that nearly everyone got wrong:


Slavery increased in America due to:

a. Demand for cheap labor

b. Introduction of guns as a trade good in West Africa


There were two other options, but I don’t remember what they were. Those two options caused all of the arguing. It’s where we spent most of our time arguing/discussing. Most thought slavery increased because guns allowed different tribes to capture more slaves, BUT only one student said that without demand from America, there would be no incentive to take slaves. Either way, this question could produce a hearty essay, even for someone in high school. I just thought it was amazing to see the detailed and inquisitive discussion from a single multiple choice question.


P.S. Why the raccoon? They’re my favorite animal. Plus, they’re really smart. They learn and apply new skills. They’re crafty. And they wash their hands. Who can hate on that?

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“fixing” bad schools


Usually headlines like The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools on the New York Times and other establishments are some long winded ideas from people who aren’t teachers, or who look at models that wouldn’t fit the whole country, but every once in a while, an article get it right.


It looked at a typical inner city, diverse, and poor community in Union City, New Jersey. The difference is that the school in question is not private, a lottery choice school, charter, but rather a public elementary school. The school has raised expectations, given oversight to teachers, valued early to late education, and looking at the student as a whole individual who needs cultivating. To some people, this may seem bizarre  dangerous, or unattainable country wide, but that’s wrong.


Already with the influx of teachers nationwide connecting to each other more than any other time in history (blogging, twitter, et al), common core standards being adopted, and a better understanding of what testing does and doesn’t do, schools have never had a greater opportunity to rise. Some of the ideas aren’t new, even perhaps a century old (Dewey), but a growing teacher community can start to adopt these standards together. Expectations need to raise. Critical thinking and higher orders of expression need to be cultivated.


I have been lucky to work in a classroom that gives me such freedom to teach – but still follow standards. It’s by no means a challenge to take the droll textbook and connect it to the lives of the students. Sometimes it’s challenging conceptually for both parties (teaching about slavery, number systems other than base 10, understanding what a hypothesis is and how to form one, determining theme, mood and tone) but the benefits are endless.



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