Tuesday, September 12, 2006

New Beginnings, for real

This year is unique for many of us because we have no data on our new students. Since the state exam scores have yet to arrive, the students are blank slates to us. No previous information to start the year. Our kids are just names, since we're getting them from other schools. At least the grades above us can talk to teachers in the building.

At first, it worried me. I was anxious, fretting about, "What kind of kids am I getting? How will I group them? Do I have a 'real' high-level class this year?" Like a good NCLB automaton, I didn't know what to do when faced with the prospect of real students without meaningless numbers assigned to them.

Fortunately, I quickly realized the stupidity of that line of thinking.

Actually, when I thought about it, it was liberating! We've got these kids, and their names are all we know about them. We truly have no agenda in meeting them, we have no preconceived notions of what they can or cannot do.

It's strange--we actually have to evaluate the students in class to figure out where they are! Wow. We get to know them as learners, not as numbers.

As I may have mentioned, our year is beginning with assessment benchmark tests, to find out exactly where the kids are right now. I've never done that before. I had just sort of gotten a general sense, over time in class, about where the kids were. Nothing specific for more than a handful of students.

Our principal has spearheaded an effort in data-driven instruction, through record-keeping by the teachers, in an assessment notebook. It's a *lot* of time and work, and sometimes it's a pain the behind, especially when we are told we have a deadline or other expectation. You know, getting tests graded and scores recorded.

I was called into a meeting the other day to discuss my 'exemplary' notebook, and I made sure to tell the principal and the official people several things: most of the things in a notebook like this are already in the teacher's head; it's just a matter of writing things down. But knowing that I had all these pages to fill--one for each student, as streamlined as I could make it--encouraged me to pay more attention to each child and their ability. I wrote down test scores and types of questions missed. I wrote down differentiated groupings or extra work assigned based on those scores. I wrote down reading conference information, when I had time for a reading conference.

But I also wrote down real student things. Like all teachers, I get to know the kids as people, not just test-takers or homework-doers. So I like to write down the kind of book a kid loves, or whether they are shy. I wrote down special, impressive, or troubling things they did in their homework or in class. When they had to read poems, I kept track of their public speaking ability.

I tried to get that idea across to the bigwigs obsessed with data: it's not just numbers, it's not just tests. We have to use everything we see in the kid.

So this year, with this freedom from preconceptions, as I read the students' work, I'm already filling in the sheets, with strengths and weaknesses. I'm reading the work as always, but with a more critical eye, and I'm making an effort to keep track of it in writing.

Patterns have emerged very quickly. It's only been a handful of days I've seen these kids (and I got three new ones and lost another today), but already I'm upset because they seem to just not get anything. Their skill level seems really low, almost across the board.

My second homework assignment was to write one page about your family's culture. The directions included: describe it, give interesting facts and details, and tell what you like about it.

Almost all the students handed in papers with no paragraph breaks, and no sense of organization.
Six students plagiarized.
A handful have no grasp of basic spelling and/or punctuation.
A bigger handful have no grasp of sentence structure.
Nearly all of them write in very simple, short sentences.
Several kids in each class have a writing voice.
Too many kids (not a ton, but any is too many) did the "Hi, my name is..."
One kid SIGNED his essay! "Sincerely, A." !?

God, it was *really* depressing.

But! I know where they are! They're nearly all below grade level, but at least I know. I can work with that. I'm keeping track of these patterns, in writing. It really makes clear the exact way I need to adapt and plan lessons and work.

I'm already planning some hands-on activities for paragraph writing. Something akin to pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. You know, "pin the sentence on the paragraph it belongs with." Sentence strips and construction paper will be involved.

As a kind of before/after experiment, for the weekend assignment (write a one-page essay about yourself) I made sure to include this phrase: "Use paragraphs to organize your ideas."

I wasn't sure what to expect with the results. They were definitely better; some of the ones who wrote big chunks did successfully use paragraphs *and* use them correctly. Sadly, many more divided their random facts into paragraph chunks.

So another lesson that needs to be really explicit is to take an idea and develop it. And make it interesting.

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