Wednesday, April 8, 2009

fun, but was it measurable?

i have to admit that grad school has been changing the way i look at education a bit. i don't know if that's a good thing, and i don't think i fully realized it until i decided to give my kiddos a test during intersession.

a test!! during intersession!! what kind of cruel teacher would do such a thing? i knew it was evil but once the idea came to me i couldn't move past it. i wanted to know what they learned, or if they'd learned anything at all. whether or not our county is going to keep our intersessions is up in the air right now and i guess part of me wanted to have something tangible to know whether or not it actually gives us a change in academic performance (see below for background).

also, i'll admit, part of this idea was for my own sanity. since my class was scrapbooking we make a HUGE mess. other teachers would walk into my room and i could tell from their faces and how they quickly back-tracked out of the room that they thought i was crazy. it looked like i had no control, i know. i promise i did- i'd structured the class to give them control of their own learning- true organized chaos if you will, but in the end, it was organized. still, after two weeks of "oh my" whenever someone walked into the room i felt i needed to justify my class, if only to myself.

so i created a quick "challenge" (with first graders if you say anything in a deep voice like a tv announcer they'll buy it. the second graders fully knew what i was doing and called it a test- the first graders gave them evil looks and said, "no! it's a challenge!" this is why i love first grade.

i taught a scrapbooking class and my goal had been to cover:
-measurement- inches vs centimeters
-shapes- square vs rectangle
-line of symmetry & symetrical objects
-fractions- whole, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8
-locating virginia on a map of the us
-locating the us on a map of the world

it sounds fairly basic but after all, it is intersession.

i found that they did in fact learn something. i was shocked actually. i expected to be disappointed.

my morning class, the one that i spent all of my time yelling at, lecturing about behavior, and the one i limited our activities because we just couldn't handle doing more, actually did the best on the "challenge". i was amazed. they were very proud of themselves and when we went over the "challenge" they told me they hadn't known the information before. (of course since i didn't do a pretest i don't know how true that is).

my afternoon class did well on the math aspects but all identified canada as the united states. (clearly i messed up my teaching at some point in that one!) sadly i feel i can't really count my afternoon class papers because when i was trying to fix other children's scrapbooks one little boy proudly went around and tried to tell everyone the answers because he was so happy he had learned them. so, i know for that little one he learned something. for the others, well, i just can't say for sure.

so i left feeling content that yes, they have a better grasp of fractions, measurement, and map skills than when they came to me, but i also realize that part of this just doesn't matter. so many of the kiddos in my afternoon class had very weak english skills. what mattered more than anything else was the fact that they had two weeks to practice their english. we played games that made them use their english using descriptive words. they wrote their puppet plays that made them use their english. and in a way, that was more important than learning the cold facts they might forget.

and my morning class, the ones that were holy terrors but somehow learned something? those kids needed to feel successful in something. they learned to manage a project for two weeks, make decisions for themselves about how they would manage their time, and worked independently on creative tasks that in the end they could be proud of. and that seems more important than learning those cold facts too.

this seems to be the heart of the education debate. did i need to have a test to measure what my students learned during intersession? there is no simple way to measure the skills they learned of managing an independent project, but it was fairly easy for me to put together a test to give me tangible evidence. so what is more valuable? the test results or the larger outcomes? which should i be held accountable for?

luckily for me and my school, what i can say about all this is that intersession itself is valuable and not a waste of school funding.

**** our school is on a modified calendar so we start in july and have two week breaks throughout the school year, ending in june with the regular calendar schools in our county. during those two week breaks the students can pay a very small fee and come to school to attend intersession. each student gets to take two classes, a morning class and an afternoon class. as teachers we have the option to teach for extra pay but we do not have to. we bring in teachers from the community as well so the students get to have "experts" teach classes on plants, etc.
because intersession is a large extra cost on the school district (supplies, teacher pay, six extra weeks of busing) our school district is considering eliminating it. while they realize it is valuable to our students they also feel they just can't afford it. we are still waiting for the final budget approval to know whether or not we'll be year-round next year. there are only seven schools that have this calendar in our large county. i also believe it was brilliantly insightful of the old superintendent to recognize that the communities in our large school district are not the same and that they need different structures to be successful. having only 7 year-round schools is not easy on anybody and creates more paperwork for everyone in the long run, but is also very worth while to those students. i don't think many school districts open themselves up to having different models in different schools and i appreciate that ours did (and i hope they wont be changing that!!)

i support keeping our calendar even if we do not have intersession (partly because i hope that one day the money will be back and we can put intersession back in place, partly because i'm terrified of our kiddos staying home over the summer without us, and partly because i feel the community will step up and supply intersession-like classes for families that need day care. they'll be more expensive but i think that is better than the full summer to themselves. ) however, this is not an option and they will either take away intersession and our calendar or let us keep it at least one more year. keep your fingers crossed for us!!

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