Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What are we doing wrong in math?

Math instruction has been on my mind a lot in recent years. My school has done so much to learn about how to most effectively teach language arts that I have a lot of confidence in that area. However, I feel as though we have a lot to learn about math. I've come to the conclusion that my school is typical in this matter. As a society we do not have the most positive attitude towards math. It would be highly embarrassing as an adult to say that you can't read, but it is perfectly acceptable to say that you don't do math. Why is that? What message does this send to kids?

Because I feel so good about my instruction in writing and reading I keep looking for ways to make math more like those workshops. So far, I've had minimal success at best. I have come to one significant (I think) conclusion; in language arts we are teaching our students skills but in math we are teaching content. In language arts we teach students how to make connections as they read, how to organize a piece of writing, or how to write strong leads; skills they could use in any text they read or write. In math we teach students how to multiply or divide, but we limit the use of the skill to specific instances. Instead of teaching students to think like mathematicians we are teaching them to follow set rules. We teach students to be readers and writers. We should be doing the same in math.

I just don't have any idea how we do it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Text Type Units of Study

I've had the luck of working with our phenomenal reading teacher for two years now. She and I have co-taught reading, writing, and word study for two and a half hours a day. It has been the greatest learning experience of my career and more fun than one deserves to have at work. However, it will soon come to an end. She will move on to another classroom next year and I will go through severe withdrawal.

One of the things that I think has gone exceptionally well during these two years has been our text type units. I need to review them for myself in the hopes that I will remember how to do it on my own next year. We've taught our students how to write personal narratives, essays, and reports. We spend about one quarter on each unit. The first quarter we focus on writer's notebooks and the writing process.

At the beginning of a unit we immerse the students in the text type. We read aloud or do shared readings of multiple examples of the text type. After reading many we guide the students in developing a list of characteristics of the texts we have read (we still may not have named the text type). After creating a comprehensive, or at least significant, list we write one together as a class. This may take a couple of weeks. We plan, draft, revise, and edit it together.

The next step is a preassessment. Students spend one or two days writing their own text without any support from teachers. From these examples we are able to determine what areas of focus we need for the unit (leads, organization, homonyms, voice, paragraphing, etc.) It takes several days to really look over their preassessments, so during that time we do some writer's notebook lessons that support the text type (maybe interviews or notetaking ideas for reports, for example).

Finally, we begin teaching focus lessons to help students become better writers of the current text type. These lessons are based on our notes from their preassessments. Some lessons are for the entire class, other items are focused on guided writing groups of a few students, and some things are addressed through individual writing conferences. During this time students are independently writing about anything they wish.

Near the end of our focus lessons students being working on their "big game" text (thank you, phenomenal reading teacher!). In this text they should be considering all of the things we have been working on during the unit. For this text we will conference with them for revisions and edits and anything else they need. A date will be set for final completion (many finish early) and a date for a writing share with another class.

There are still some areas in which I want to improve my instruction during these text type units. One piece that is a challenge for me is sending students to look at mentor texts. I need to be sure that I have a plethora of examples and that students understand how to turn to mentor texts to help them improve their writing. It would also be beneficial to determine a way to streamline the shared writing of our example. It is a very important piece, but hugely time consuming. Next year will be challenging as I attempt to do all of this on my own. Fortunately, I've had the best teacher and learning experience possible.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Reading Recovery & the Miracles of Primary Education

First off, I have to say that I am an upper grade teacher. I have spent the last nine years in fourth or fifth grade. I love the students' independence, their ability to discuss topics at such a mature level, their sense of humor, and their attention spans. However, I'm becoming fascinated more and more with the little ones. Maybe it is because I have young children. Maybe I'm reverting (I did my student teaching in K and 2). Who knows? But this new interest led me to observe a reading recovery lesson last week.

Reading recovery, to the best of my knowledge, is designed for first graders who are having difficulty with reading and/or writing. They receive one-on-one instruction every day for 12-20 weeks from a specially trained teacher. I was so impressed with the lesson I observed. I must admit that I truly believe a lot of the credit goes to the teacher, as she is amazing. However, I think the structure of reading recovery deserves praise as well. The student did word work, reading, and writing in the span of half an hour. Reading recovery teachers (at least at our school) only work with four students at a time. They each do reading recovery half a day. To the uninitiated I'm sure that sounds like nothing, but those half hours are intense. What struck me the most was that the student was not only learning strategies and skills for reading and writing. While that is a huge part of the lesson, it is not all of it. The student was being forced to be a responsible learner. The teacher reminded the child of her jobs (check the endings as you read, use your thumbs to help with that) and pushed her to make sure she was correct (what can you do to check it, is that what you expect to see, are you right). In this way the student was responsible for making sense of her reading and writing. As teachers we are often in a rush and have such a strong desire to help students that we end up giving them the answers. Or, just as bad, we only question them when they are wrong. As a result, they assume they are wrong anytime we push them to check. This first grader was questioned throughout the lesson when she was right and wrong. She had to be sure she was understanding; no one was doing it for her. This is a critical life skill.

I so enjoyed this observation I'm going back this week!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Extremes of Standardized Testing

Our school began our spring, state-mandated, standardized tests yesterday. The first group of students to endure this challenge are our fourth graders. Yesterday's test was math, which is a marathon of questions. At the end of the day I asked one of the fourth grade teachers how it had gone. She said she had students at both extremes. I took this to mean students who took their time and took it seriously versus students who zipped through the test. That's not what she meant at all. She had one young woman who had been coming in everyday for the last week stressing out about things she could not remember how to do: adding decimals, finding the mean, the median, and the mode, etc. This student bawled for the first hour of the test necessitating a call to the testing coordinator because it was a disruption for other students. The other end of the spectrum was a student who took the test in another room in a small group. He fell asleep.

I'm not sure what these two examples suggest about our culture of testing. I think it can't be too good, though. As teachers we walk a fine line trying to be sure our students take the tests seriously without falling apart at the seams. Students begin taking these tests at the age of eight. That is awfully young to feel the burden of test scores. I worry that learning for the joy of learning will quickly be lost when we subject students to more and more standardized testing.

Monday, May 07, 2007

I saw a local high school's spring musical this weekend. The production was well done and we thoroughly enjoyed it. I was struck, however, by the extreme whiteness of the cast. I teach in an elementary school that is 15% white. I looked up the high school and it is 61% white. That doesn't seem so overwhelming, but in our area that is significant. This would have been simply an interesting observation except for a discussion I had later that afternoon.

Speaking with colleagues of my husband (college professors) about an acquaintance who is looking to relocate in the area, they said they had recommended this high school to him. I mentioned my experience and observation about the racial demographics. They seemed quite surprised by it. I was left with the sense that these individuals did not believe that the demographics played any role in the school's reputation, something which seems like an obvious factor to me. I agree that this high school is well respected, but I believe that its population is a part of that. Fewer than 10% of students there receive free or reduced lunches (for our school district almost 20% do). Almost 60% of students at my elementary school do. The high school we feed to is not as well respected, even though they had a principal for years who was award-winning and very highly thought of. Race and socio-economic levels are a large part of what determines a child's fate - in school and out.