Wednesday, February 04, 2004

300,000 bottles of soda in the room... 299,999 bottles of soda...

One of my seventh grade classes is ahead of the other, so I gave them a challenge activity today: Figure out the volume of our classroom in liters. The ceilings in my school are incredibly high, so figuring out the height of the room required estimation. Some groups decided that the ceiling is 2 1/2 times the height of the door, and used that to estimate; others did tricky things with window panes, closets, chalkboard, etc. We also pretended that the room was a smooth, empty rectangular prism, rather than trying to account for the random ceiling beams and closets that decrease the volume of the room. Each group wrote out the steps they followed on chart paper, along with their final answer. Although some kids definitely did more work than others, they enjoyed this task a lot and engaged in it quite actively. All the estimates came out between 200,000-300,000 liters, which I think is fine considering the amount of estimation required. At the end of class, they shared their estimates, and I held up a one liter bottle and asked them to imagine 200,000 bottles just like that one.

For those grappling with the "Workshop Model" which the Dept. of Ed. wants us to implement in all our lessons, please note that this activity fit the model very well: a brief mini-lesson on converting cubic centimeters to milliliters, followed by a group activity applying that knowledge, followed by the sharing of results. Don't believe anyone who tells you that using the Workshop Model requires you to drastically change how you teach; most lessons can easily be adapted if they do not initially fit this model. I do hope they realize that some activities take more than one period, thus the mini-lesson-activity-sharing sequence might be expanded to cover three periods on consecutive days rather than fit in just one period.

And speaking of the Dept. of Ed. ... yesterday, a teacher from the school with which we share our building came to drop off a packet from the monthly regional science meeting. I can never attend these, since we are so small and it's not easy to cover classes when a teacher is absent. Anyway, this teacher is really helpful and always picks up an extra packet for me. Yesterday, she said, "And, the Region has decided to hold the Science Expo on March 25th." I just stood there, open-mouthed in... well, not in disbelief, because they do this kind of thing all the time, but still open-mouthed. Barely 6 weeks from now, we have to have finished our school Science Expo and be ready to present at the Regional Expo. Fantastic. I guess I should just be grateful they gave us this much warning, since 6 weeks is sort of generous compared to previous debacles. But I feel disrespected by this decision. Teachers plan. We plan and plan and PLAN. Plan, teacher, plan. So if I have a yearly plan - however rough - it seems very disrespectful of my professionalism to tell me out of the blue: Drop everything and start working on the science fair. Sure, I can do it. I can push the next unit to April and re-organize things. But it's still disrespectful. Furthermore, last year's Regional Science Expo was in late May or early June, so I had reason to assume that this year's would be as well. If they're going to change something like that, I feel they should decide by September on at least the month it will take place, so that I can incorporate it into my planning.

And speaking of the Region... I learned at my staff meeting on Monday that the Region is pushing for extra periods of Math and Communication Arts in all schools. This always comes at the expense of Social Studies and Science, because stuff like Art, Phys. Ed., and Health have already been squeezed out in most schools. I am teaching only 4 periods of science per week to my seventh graders this year, and I don't like it. The week is over almost as soon as it starts! With a quiz every second Friday, I feel like I hardly have time to review and help the kids who are struggling. In some schools, the kids get only 1 period of science per week! I guess I have been lucky; 4 is the fewest periods I've encountered personally. This is incredibly short-sighted and again, disrespectful of the work I do. It is short-sighted because, starting this year, the eighth graders have to take the state Intermediate Level Science Exam, and it COUNTS. The last few years were for practice, but from now on, it's the Real Thing. So, sacrifice science to raise those reading and math scores... but what are you going to do when the science and social studies scores stink??? And what are you going to do when a bunch of high school students fail their Regents exams because their teachers can't start with high school science, they have to start with all the stuff the kids missed in middle school and elementary school??? It's disrespectful because I put a lot of effort (as you may have noticed from the last few weeks' posts) into incorporating math and reading into my science lessons... but I get very little credit for that. Also, I don't know how they think they will recruit qualified science teachers if the message is that science is expendable!

And think about it from a student's perspective for a moment: You're a struggling reader or a struggling math student, and now, instead of 1 period a day of the class that stresses you out the most, you get two! Often two in a row, with the same teacher. And at the expense of the things that might well be your only enjoyable moments in school: art, music, science, phys. ed, etc. ... I realize kids need extra attention where they are having trouble, but there has to be a limit, and it can't be at the cost of other important things. If 5 periods a week isn't working, is 6 going to make the difference? That depends on what happens during the sixth hour... more of the same with the same teacher (who is, in all likelihood, ready to see some new faces by this point) and the same classmates... that doesn't seem like a recipe for success to me. Here's someone who agrees with me.

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