Monday, January 20, 2014

Change can be a good thing

I'm halfway through year five of teaching and my oh my have things changed.

For the most part, I see the changes as a good thing.  I know to truly see a program or strategy's effectiveness, it should be consistent within a school for several years to be able to accurately measure growth.  That's something we're working on at our school.

When I started teaching, we followed a scripted reading program with weekly spelling tests and a story of the week.  I taught comprehension strategies, sort of, but we were expected to abide by the book.  I thought I was doing pretty well following the structure and doing the same things as the other teachers in my grade level.

This blind, naive attitude only lasted a few months and (with administrative approval), I'd completely abandoned the scripted program by my second year. I don't do well with scripted programs anyway.

I brought additional challenges upon myself by having to find meaningful content, but at least during my second year I was teaching standards and not just a story.  My students were becoming more engaged and I was enjoying teaching more.

By year three, I was feeling more confident in the classroom.  I'd finished my masters degree and my Teach for America obligation. I had taken a lot of district trainings and was on a task force to unwrap the (at the time, new) Common Core State Standards.  There were still lots of extra demands on me to find the materials I needed to teach with and lots of long weekends preparing.  I was also in conflict with veteran teachers in my grade level who were unwilling to try new strategies and envied my successes in the classroom.

Year four brought more confidence and a partner.  I was no longer pitted me against the grade level, but rather me and my ally against the veteran teachers.  Slowly but surely, our students rose to our high expectations and outperformed the others simply because we weren't teaching a bland, scripted program.  We were teaching (and reteaching) the standards with a variety of strategies.  Not all of them worked, but our students were rarely bored.  Their high levels of engagement translated into higher test scores due to what I believe was their interest in learning. 

Year five: my dream team.  I work with three other fifth grade teachers and my special education co-teacher.  We are on the same page 95% of the time and always supporting one another.  None of us follow a scripted reading program with a new story a week.  No one gives a spelling test with 20 words that students had to memorize over the week and regurgitate on Friday.

No no, I think we do something much, much better.  

We teach a weekly, grade-level phonics skill with explicit phonics.  We teach the patterns, practice sorting by sounds, encode and decode with text, then on Friday give them a quick formative assessment with five words to see if they can apply the skill.  I don't want to see if they can memorize basic facts, I want to see if they an apply their knowledge of word parts to spelling unfamiliar words because that's a much more true assessment of whether or not they got the skill.

For math, we are using the Investigations program which is far superior to what we previously used.  Based on over eighty years of research and partnership with NCTM, the program has students discovering math concepts through manipulation and discourse, which provides for a more meaningful understanding of mathematics.  They are constantly building their number sense through Number Talks and math games that rely on critical thinking.

For reading, we're loosely following another school district's pacing guide because it draws heavily from mentor text that is rigorous, engaging and within an appropriate lexile level.  Before choosing to go with their plans as our backbone, we read through their plans, double checked that all standards were covered and added in our own notes.  I think it's going fairly well.

We don't give a weekly reading test (thank goodness!).  Instead, we give a monthly one with longer reading passages (to build their stamina) with questions that cover several standards.  I'm not testing how much they remember of a story we'd read together and discussed in class five times (because at that point, it was regurgitation, not knowledge).  We're testing how well they can independently apply the skills we've been working on in whole and small groups to the unfamiliar passage.

I look back at my first year in the classroom and have the overwhelming urge to apologize to that group of students. 

 I did the best I could with what I had, but I would never go back to that way of teaching.  I would never rely on worksheets and a story of the week.  That's not what helps students learn.

As an educator, I'm constantly trying to learn new strategies and implement them in my classroom.  While this highly reflective process can be a tad frustrating when things don't go as planned, I think that learning and trying new things is far better than repeating the same thing over and over again.

In the past five years, I've implemented interactive notebooks and Number Talks.  I do explicit phonics three times a day (whole group and both small groups).  I have students interact with technology rather than me being the sole one to create things.  I have centers and literature circles with novels, something I didn't even attempt until my second year.  I've learned how to do the CORE phonics assessment to see where students break down phonetically and the DRA to determine their reading levels. (Although it's time consuming, I much prefer it to the old diagnostic tests I had to give!).  We're using mentor text for reading and writing, doing mini-lessons and having students publish drafts both on the computers and the iPads.  It's been a tough, uphill battle and I'm proud of the new things I've learned.  I'm appreciative of the trainings I received at my school, from my district and from outside educational entities.

I'm saddened by teachers who are scared or unwilling to try new strategies.  I don't have the same bunch of kids I did when I first started five years ago, so why should I teach the same lesson the same way?

(Poor Harry Potter, subjected to the old ways of teaching)

Change can mean better instruction for students.  Change can mean more engaging, thoughtful, purposeful, driven lessons.  Change can mean teachers have more flexibility and students have more opportunities to collaborate with their peers on projects and activities, rather than just sitting quietly and working independently. Change can bring joy back into the classroom.  I'm not saying every aspect of education needs to change nor that all change should be blindly accepted because that's no good either.  However, if change brings about higher student performance and helps create more critical, thoughtful, passionate young scholars, why not give it a try?

Change can be a good thing.  

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