Monday, October 04, 2004

Just Another Manic Monday

The "Naked Egg" experiment worked brilliantly. The egg in corn syrup shrivelled up, and most of the other eggs swelled dramatically. We put eggs in water and various concentrations of salt. I sort of wish that we had done this experiment in two stages, the first the most dramatic - corn syrup and plain water - followed by a more nuanced experiment where the students would have designed an experiment to vary the concentration of salt or sugar and perhaps even measured the circumference of the egg before and after putting it in the solution. Regardless, the kids loved it, I loved it, and we'll see from their lab reports - due Wednesday - whether they understood what I taught them about osmosis well enough to explain their results. Tomorrow we are going to try to see osmosis at work in cells under the microscope.

PE was a minefield today. In one hour, I sent four kids to the nurse's office. Two fell and bruised their knees, one had a bad headache, and another - sent to escort another student to the nurse - decided she had a fever and stayed at the nurse's office! We were practicing dribbling and passing out in the (paved) schoolyard, and it was hard to keep the ball under control, and kids were dropping like flies. I would blow my whistle and tell them not to go faster than they could handle, but even trying to stay under control, they were tripping over the ball. I deeply wish we had a grassy field to play on.

After school we had our second 100-minute Professional Development session. Our Math Aussie led it; he asked us to consider our beliefs about intelligence, learning, and teaching, and think about the implications of our beliefs on our style of teaching. It's a worthy point, but I'm pretty sure I've sat through this exact same presentation before. I think all of us in the room already shared the Region's assumptions about intelligence and learning, and were ready to hear concrete suggestions for changing our classrooms and teaching to reflect these beliefs. We didn't get to that until the very end, unfortunately.

The Region wants us to focus on three things in our teaching. They come from a longer list of Principles of Learning, and they are the same three things we focused on last year. I was sort of hoping to move on to some of the others - to build on the work we did last year. Of course, it is completely possible to work on all the Principles on your own, but it would be nice to see the Region taking this to the next level. I have this sinking feeling that we will stick to the same three Principles until a new mayor is elected, at which point the whole thing will be thrown out and a new set of consultants hired. In any case, the Principles are pretty good, and the three we are working on are:
  • Academic Rigor in a Thinking Curriculum
  • Accountable Talk
  • Clear Expectations

We talked as a staff about what these mean.

I think our school does a pretty good job of establishing clear expectations, but I think this is an area where our new teachers still have a lot of room to grow. That is, I'm sure we all have room to grow, but especially our new teachers. We talked about developing rubrics for student projects, handing out assignment sheets, and providing examples of work that meets and exceeds the standards.

Just today, I told the eighth graders that some of them would be surprised by their grades on their Microscope Instruction Manuals, because even though they'd done fabulous work on the projects, they'd left out one or more sections listed in the assignment sheet. I told them I don't make assignment sheets for my own entertainment, and that this year I am really going to hold them to fulfilling the expectations outlined on the assignment sheet. Then I said that students who were unhappy with their grades could do the project again - this would be a third draft - for a higher grade. We'll see who takes me up on the offer. I tend to let kids keep trying on projects until they succeed or have had enough, and I think that hits on one of the other Principles of Learning, Organizing for Effort. Anyway, I handed out the assignment sheet for their lab report and gave them time to read it and ask questions, so hopefully this time they will use it as they write.

Accountable Talk is a bit harder to explain. It can be having kids discuss materials in small groups and stay on task. It can be having kids learn to respond to each other in a whole class discussion: "I agree with this part of what you said, but I disagree with this part because..." It can be having kids point to evidence in a text for their answer to a question. It can be expecting students to know & use the vocabulary of the discipline. And so on.

Academic Rigor is perhaps the most often discussed yet hardest to define of the three. To me, rigor means having a clear idea of what you want the students to learn and targeting instruction to that objective. It means including complexity and nuance in the curriculum. Too often, I hear frustrated teachers - especially beginning teachers, especially those in under-resourced schools - say that to get the kids to learn, they have to make everything really simple. I've always felt that removing the detail makes the material less interesting and decreases the opportunities for a student to connect new knowledge to prior knowledge. Rigor means challenging students to think, apply their knowledge, create something new, ask good questions, answer them....

After the PD session, we met briefly in subject teams. I had intended the Science Dept. to look at student work and talk about how we know that students are learning, and how the work they produce reflects the type of assignments we are giving. Mr. Richter and Mr. Kelvin have been giving the students large, unstructured assignments, like "Write a story about the lifecycle of a rock." It's a great idea, but the kids need more guidance than that! Mr. Richter found, in fact, that the stories fell into a few categories. Some kids wrote imaginative stories, but included no science. Others were very scientific, but not very creative. A few managed to be both creative and scientific. We talked briefly about how to get more of the kids to write stories that show that they understand the content while being creative in their writing.

Then we talked about a recent assignment Mr. Kelvin gave, where he asked the students to research Isaac Newton's Three Laws of Motion and write a 2-3 page essay about them. He had expected them to write a basic five paragraph essay, but few or none of the sixth graders knew how to do that, and he hadn't communicated his expectations to them very clearly. I told him about how our Social Studies teacher had walked the sixth graders through the process of writing a research paper two years ago, when they were in sixth grade. For the first paper, she gave them all the source material they needed, had them use a notetaking format in class, then write one paragraph each night for homework. Then she taught them about introductions, and had them write that at home, and the same thing for conclusions. Finally, they combined their work into one paper, and did yet another revision. Mr. Kelvin was mindboggled!

I remember that feeling, as a new teacher, that the number of steps required to get the kids from A to B was overwhelming -- but I know for sure that the only way that I get the quality of work that I want is by teaching them how to do it, one piece at a time, letting them try it, providing feedback, and then letting them revise their work. And then I assign something similar on a different topic, and go through the same process, each time leaving a bit more of the process up to the students, until they get to the point where they can do it on their own.

I'm in a much better mood. I'm still exhausted, but I got a little more sleep this weekend and caught up on laundry, work, etc., and cleaned my apartment, and relaxed and hung out with people I care about -- and the sun came out! -- and I'm no longer on such shaky ground. It's good to know your triggers and work on them. I am so much stronger now than I was four years ago.

PS. Speaking of shaky ground - check out Mount St. Helens on the Johnston Ridge Observatory Volcano Cam!

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