Freedom to Teach

The last two weeks I have been down the black hole of report cards, immersed in grades, comments and discussions with my partner teacher about the progress of our students and where to go next. I’ve also been a leader on a committee that is creating our District’s new Standards Based report card that will reflect our implementation of Common Core and a new 1-4 grading rubric. In short, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about assessing students – how it’s done, how it’s shared with parents, students and teachers; and what it means for those fourth graders that sit in my classroom every day.

This year California teachers and students were given a rare and precious gift. The California Legislature chose to opt out of the State testing that typically happens in April, in order to prevent students from having to experience a ‘double testing’ regimen of STAR plus the new Smarter Balanced pilot tests.

I like to think of myself as a teacher who does not ‘teach to the test’. I look at the standards and plan my curriculum accordingly. I teach what I think students need, based on where they come in to my class, and where I want them to be by June. I give them academic and emotional support. I try to share some life lessons along with my reading and writing lessons. I have high standards for my students – I want them to soar academically and socially. And I am fortunate to have an Administrator who supports me.

But not having the STAR test looming over our heads this year has taught me an important lesson. It changed the way I teach. This year I took more risks, I tried different strategies, I took more TIME. I focused on what I really wanted my students to get out of fourth grade, without worrying about whether I had covered every way they could be asked about a particular aspect of writing strategies and conventions. We had more book talks, more partner work, more book clubs. I finally started my long-planned but never implemented Breakfast with Books Club. I did ‘close reading’, but with texts that I knew the students would be drawn to (every single copy of The False Prince has been checked out of our school library since we read closely from the first chapter last week). My overarching goal was for this group of students ( at least 40% of whom came to me reading below grade level) was to get them excited about reading. To teach them the joy, fear, excitement and grief that can be found in the lines of a text. To make connections with characters and authors and to share their love of reading with each other.

As I assess my students at the end of second trimester, I feel very positive about where we are. Monday mornings are filled with conversations about books we’ve read over the weekend. I hear students randomly discussing characters and plots from books during their free time. Spontaneous book clubs have sprung up as kids share their love of Harry Potter and the Stranded Series of books. They are reading for pleasure and knowledge. And in the end, this is what I wanted. Are they ready to take the Smarter Balanced test? I’ll know in May when we take the pilot. But from what I’ve seen and read so far from other Districts, we will most likely do very poorly. However, in my mind, my students have already succeeded.

I am not an anti-testing advocate. I believe we need ways to assess our students – but we need multiple measures. No single test should define the way we teach. And I’m especially concerned about the money and industry that has sprung up around testing our students. For myself, this year has been enlightening. I am a different teacher when April isn’t looming as ‘testing month’, and I like what I’ve learned.

Having the freedom to teach has indeed been a precious gift.

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The Art of Reflection

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As 2013 draws to a close, I’m reflecting on my teaching practice and Thinking about how my year has gone so far. I know that in our job, it is so easy to focus on what we haven’t done – there’s never enough time, always too much curriculum to cover, and one more read aloud we really want to fit in. But this school year one of my Resolutions was to focus on the positive when I reflect – to know there’s always further to go, but to make sure I take the time to look backwards at how far we’ve come.

This year I have made an effort to institute regular reflection times in my classroom. At the end of each month, students fill out a reflection sheet, giving them the opportunity to think about their successes, where they would like to focus for the coming month, and how my teaching partner and I can help them. I have really enjoyed reading these reflections which I adapted from Pernille Ripp’s blog (here). I love the insights I’m getting into what students enjoy and what they have found challenging over the month. (I also love how many of them ask me for more reading time :). They take the reflections very seriously and their insights into the workings of our classroom and their own learning processes are both informative and poignant. One question asks students what they would like to focus on for next month and I’m impressed that so many of my fourth graders make choices that I would have chosen for them based on where they are both academically and socially. Sometimes I don’t think we give our students enough opportunities to reflect on where they are, how far they’ve come and where they want to go. With the reams of data we are asked to collect and interpret, it’s easy to lose track of the students behind the numbers. It is my firm belief that taking the time to do this kind of activity provides just as many valuable insights into how we can help our students as any standardized test does.

These monthly reflections have been a way for me to do some self-assessment too. What has been successful? What has stuck with my students? What are they still unsure of? What do I need to re-visit?

I’m looking forward to re-starting the school year on January 6. I love that both teachers and students have these two weeks to rest, reflect, and recharge. I can’t wait to get back into my classroom and talk about what we read over break, share how far we’ve come since August, and set goals for the rest of our school year. We will celebrate our successes together and hopefully create a feeling of trust and support for our future goals. Nothing would make me happier than to see my students working together to achieve our classroom goals and being there to support each other with their individual goals. In fact, I’m looking forward to asking them how we can do this. I know they will undoubtedly come up with ideas that I would not have thought about.

Here is My challenge to you as you return to your classrooms next week:
1. Write three things you are proud of achieving in your classroom so far this year (could be as big as implementing a program like readers’ workshop, or it could be as ‘small’ as making a perfect book recommendation for that reluctant reader. Take five minutes to pat yourself on the back and celebrate your successes.

2. Write three things you want to focus on in your teaching practice from January-June. It might be reading a professional book, implementing some new technology in your classroom, or re-working your reading conferences.

3. Now, ask your students to do the same. Give them the opportunity to reflect on their learning and set goals for the future. Then make sure you revisit them regularly (once a month) so they can see their progress. Of course if this is the first time you’ve done anything like this, you’ll need to provide plenty of scaffolding for your students. Generate some lists of curriculum areas and behavioral goals together, and provide them with some sentence starters. Keep goals specific and attainable for example “I will read three books by the end of January” rather than “I will become a better reader”.

Enjoy the rest of your break and I wish you all the best for 2014.