Monday, June 20, 2011

First Reflections


At the conclusion of a school year, it's natural and professional to look back at what you did right, what you did wrong, and what can be improved.  An honest reflection of our practices is the one of the most powerful tools we have in improving our craft as teachers.  Below are some things I've thought about in the past few days, now that I'm on summer vacation.

Here's what the standardized testing data says:  84% (16 out of 19) of my students passed the state reading test.  One student missed passing by one question.  The same student had passed in 4th grade by one question.  100% of my students passed the state writing test.  I was slightly surprised and very happy about that.  It's not a surprise that all of my math students passed the math test, but 2 students fell from "advanced" in 4th grade to "proficient" in 5th grade.

I've been pretty vocal (or whatever the blog equivalent is) about the evils of standardized testing.  The way we use tests to evaluate teachers, judge schools, and drive every aspect of our school day from recess to pedagogy has been devastating to our educational system.  However, standardized tests do have a small purpose in education.  Using the data generated to see students' strengths and weaknesses, and then help those students overcome their weaknesses has been done successfully for decades.  State assessments don't measure what's most important, but the data they generate shouldn't be totally ignored.

This year I think I did a good job at expanding my use of technology to effectively teach collaboration and creativity.  Our class wiki received over 15,000 hits during this school year alone and now has had visitors from 122 countries.  Most of those hits came from people searching Google or Bing for information and getting it from the content my students created.  That's a pretty powerful thing for a bunch of 10 and 11 year olds in a tiny town in Pennsylvania.

I demanded more critical thinking from my math class and saw more learning from this group than any other math class I've taught.  The results on the math final exam were excellent (all but one student scored a 91 or higher), but what really exited me was the one question I gave them after the final was over.  It basically asked, "Joe Smith ran his best mile in 6 minutes.  Later that month he ran his first 26 mile marathon.  How long did the marathon take him?"  Almost every one of my students resisted the urge to multiply 6 by 26 and added on time to account for fatigue.  They thought about the problem instead of just manipulating numbers.  (Thanks to Dan Meyer for that problem.)

As the Head Teacher in the building, I'm proud of the way our discipline program has continued to evolve and the leadership role that I've been allowed to take.  Our office discipline referrals fell 30.1% from last year.

I'm extremely proud of some successes that I've had with students in tough situations and personal triumphs that I've seen in some of our students in different aspects of their lives that I can't mention here.  If you are a teacher, you can imagine the types of situations to which I refer.

I continue to feel unsatisfied, however, with my pedagogical practices when I'm with my reading class.  I love teaching math and American history.  I can't say the same for reading, and I think that comes across to my students more than it should.  In math, I have the confidence to let the textbooks gather dust while I focus on good teaching and learning.  In reading, I don't have that same confidence.  I'm hesitant to stray from the textbook, although at the end of the year I used our wiki to create book clubs based on interest that went very, very well.  You can see the results here.

Since I am well aware that the best way to teach reading is in the content areas, I'm a bit disappointed in myself that I did less direct reading instruction this year within American History that I've done in the past.  Those subjects had a lot more separation between them than I would have liked.

I need to get better with passing control in the classroom to my students.  This is difficult for me.  I want my students to be able to work the way adults do.  Right now I'm typing in a comfy chair with my feet up.  Most of the time when I read it's while relaxing on the couch or lying on the floor.  When I do my taxes, I usually have a snack and a can of diet soda next to me.  But in my classroom, I demand that my students sit in those ridiculously uncomfortable blue plastic chairs for much too long.  They may have the snack they brought only at 9:30.  I think my students would learn more if I gave them more freedom, but I've found that hard to do.