A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Saturday, May 3, 2014

What Students Need to Know and Be Able to Do: Line Plots and Circle Graphs


Last year at this time, I had taken over a classroom from a master teacher who had been forced to go on bed rest far earlier than anyone had anticipated. Since this was Kari's second child, she had already, with the collaboration of a particularly strong team, had two years previously packaged her unit packages in a way that her methods could easily be copied, with certainty about what students needed to know and be able to do, and precisely aligned activities and materials. Kari's routines were easy to follow, or relax in some cases, because students knew what to expect. Kari had instilled essential problem solving habits. The students came to class prepared to learn.

Students knew how to "show their work:" on every problem, they identified keywords, drew diagrams or wrote a definition, and efficiently listed procedures exactly as Kari had instructed them. As an added benefit, Bill Specter, an ESOL specialist teamed with Kari, and Bill had a knack for helping students visualize essential vocabulary. I think it was Tony Robbins who once repeated, "when the student is ready, the master will appear,"  and having been nearly driven out of education on more than one occasion, teaching as if my life depended on it, which it did, I was prepared to take Kari's classes to levels nobody expected, myself included. Largely because of extreme differences in our personalities, and my relentless sense of desperation, last year, I was able to pull an unusual number struggling students out of the margins, some Kari had probably already written off, which is why Dr. P was willing to give me an opportunity to at least teach another year. A 93% passing rate with that population was a result nobody had expected. This year, with an even more challenging population, I will be lucky to get a 50% pass rate.

Kari is in the process of selling her house and is moving with her family to Jacksonville, which will be a difficult loss for our 6th grade math team to overcome next year. In our math department team meetings this year, I have not done much real collaborating, as the collaboration has mostly gone in one direction, in my case, with me being the beneficiary. Kari has reminded me all year that it is best to do "a few things well," which, although that directive was never really discussed last year, with my business background, I understood the value of focusing on doing a few things exceptionally well.

One of the fortunate things that happened last year was that, although the units were already constructed, I quickly ran out of written plans and was found I needed to make my own adjustments. Without outside interference, I was able to adjust pacing and repeat concepts over and over again in ways that I would not have been able to do otherwise. Without outside interference, I was also able to streamline. Needing to save time because learning new procedures always takes me so much time, I quickly eliminated any of Kari's management procedures that I felt were unnecessarily "anal." A relentless focus on "the bottom line," or closing the deal, colored every decision, the smartest of which was to spend several weeks focusing on teaching students how to interpret and construct circle graphs, line plots, and other numerical representations.

Will I have a role next year? Despite the letter I received announcing the tautological message that my one year contract would not be renewed, Dr. P has provided a number of direct hints and clues recently that indicate that he wants me to return and will be offering me a new contract. Almost none of my students passed state-testing in 5th grade. I am feeling better about my chances to significantly improve upon this number.

Ali, for example, had the lowest score in the entire 5th grade. By the eye test of work, Ali stands a strong chance of passing his state testing in Math, which would represent at least a 150 point gain. Based on feedback from a teacher who was scoring alternative assessment binders for US History to 1865 last weekend, Ali's social studies binder was viewed favorably. Dr. P asked me to think about using my summer to prepare for setting up binders for students for next year. He also told me that he thought there would be a place for me in the summer program. Last week, Mrs. English dropped in to observe as I prepared students for an assessment on Coordinate Points, and noted how well I was preparing students for their assessment, but with a note that I needed to work on keeping quiet and letting students process once I had gotten students working.

As the year has progressed and Special Education duties have subsided, my classroom instruction with my self-contained classes has become tighter since I have had more time to prepare in advance of launching units. With Kendall and Pedro routinely out of my class serving both in-school and out-of-school detention, and with a boost from end of year scheduled remediation blocks, the bulk of my behavioral distractions have been removed, and dealing with Kendall and Pedro prepared me for all of my easier cases. Administrators routinely acknowledge that I have some of the toughest classes in the school, but as I have learned from experience, the most difficult cases make me better.

Since, because of the pacing guide, the entire 6th grade rushed through Fraction, Decimal, and Percent conversions, not surprisingly the data shows that the entire 6th grade is weak when it comes to performing this critical skill. With Data, Statistics, and Probability being the final units before we shift to testing preparation, and since I know from looking at the testing blueprint that these final units will be heavily emphasized in state testing, I know what to do to prepare my students for the few things they need to do well: repetition, repetition, repetition of circle graphs, line plots, and other representations of data, which will give students a second look at skills they missed from earlier in the year.

Looking at the national educational data available on the link posted above, a stubborn 30% achievement gap exists between between typical students and the students I serve. Thus, realistically, the minimum standard I need to achieve is to enable a 60% passing rate for state testing, which at this point is a realistic target. I will be pounding circle graphs just like I did last year. Why mess with success?