Monday, May 29, 2017

Post #2: Individual Pacing Through Centers

In elementary school, my county had a gifted program called FUTURA. Once a week, about forty fourth and fifth graders would be bussed over to a nearby school and do some slightly more challenging projects and activities. Much of what we did depended on which teacher we had (there were two), but the activities ranged from running a pretend think-tank company to doing various building challenges with household items to having a full-fledged, fully planned debate. We made body systems presentations using a shoebox and various household items as visuals, built bridges out of newspaper that could hold the weight equivalent of a bowling ball, and ran empires that had the goal of conquering the other empires in the class. I’ve never had an educational experience even close to as fulfilling as FUTURA, as unlike normal school, we solidified our concepts in physics and engineering by actually engineering a structure. My personal favorite time of the day, was what we called Centers. Centers was the one and a half to two hours built into the day where students could pursue learning whatever interested them, within certain parameters.
Essentially, in each class were a set of plastic crates lining a wall. In each crate were a series of file folders. You would choose a “center” that interested you, like maybe, Knights and Castles. Then, during the Centers block during the day, you go through the file folders in the plastic crates until all the activities for a certain level of a certain center. In the folders you would find every single instruction sheet and worksheet that you would need for a certain activity, and once they were all completed, you could either move on to the next level, or try a different center. Generally, there were two to three levels in each center, and once a center was fully completed, there was even an option for a “Create-Your-Own-Center” center. While there were a limited number of centers to pick from, the range of topics was huge. One might be able to pick Puzzler, a riddles, logic, and critical thinking center, WWII, a center on 1940’s battle strategy, technological advancements, and outcomes of different battles, or about twenty other choices.
Even though it was on a very small scale, I think this style of learning has many different advantages to it. First is the obvious one: choice. Students had the opportunity to choose what they wanted to learn based on what interested them, and/or possible future careers. A child that thought castles were obsolete and boring (like me) didn’t have to get beat over the head with endless serfs and throne rooms that had no practical application in being an aspiring physician. Instead, I could learn physics and the science behind rollercoasters or even make my own doctor center (which I did) since there wasn’t one available. At the Academy of Science in Loudoun County there is a saying: “do a few things greatly.” A centers style classroom would allow students to focus more on, and therefore become more proficient at the topics that interest them and be of the most use to them in the future.
The second advantage is pace. One would only move on to the next activity once proficiency in the current activity was reached, whether it took fifteen minutes or two classes. All the centers were self-paced and not dependent on the speed that your neighbor was completing it. Perfection cannot be rushed and one cannot achieve past perfection, so as soon as it is achieved is the optimal time to move forward, not sooner and not later. Also, a huge factor in this was levels. You would only be able to move up a difficulty if you could show that you could complete and understand the difficulty underneath, and of course, you would get there at your own pace. This is also great because the diagnostic is literally whether or not you were able to complete the previous course. This requires no testing and very little subjectiveness. Simply, was the previous level completed, was proficiency reached, and did you enjoy it?.
The last major advantage that will be covered is the fact that you had the option to create your own center. It’s pretty widely known that being able to teach a subject effectively is the greatest indicator that you understand it. Building your own center required extensive researching and spotless planning. Worksheets had to be very in depth while still allowing future students to be able to figure things out for themselves and activities had to be interesting, but purposeful. Often times, the necessity of being able to teach a subject well pushed me to learn it in more depth than I would have if I were to simply learn it from a center. It also gave me a lot more flexibility with exactly what I wanted to teach (and therefore learn). Yes, the learning was a lot less structured and less standardized, but I was learning what I felt like I needed to know, not something someone else decided I did.
FUTURA was a almost perfect environment for individual intellectual growth, with Centers being the capstone. It’s easy to picture how the centers could potentially work their way into regular school. What if classes weren’t separated by year or by semester, but levels that could be completed at the pace in which one can prove proficiency. A creative writer may take a little longer to get through Algebra 1 than a future theoretical physicist, but the physicist may not do as well in business. If you don’t understand an assignment, you keep pushing until you do, instead of failing a class and being pushed back an entire year before getting your next chance to prove that you do. And if someone can complete Chemistry in half of a school year, so be it, they can move on to AP Chem or Physics right away, instead of following a path that moves half as fast as would be best. This would be the ultimate individualization of learning and a great way to be able to allow students to move at their own pace without being tested to death. This would be a great way to untie the rope around our students’ ankles to allow them to run the race how they want to and not be limited or overkilled by the pace of their peers. This is similar to the method of teaching grammar used by Jeff Anderson in Mechanically Inclined. If a grammar rule came up consistently in students’ writings, it would then be addressed and worked on until it no longer appeared in their daily writing workshops. Generalizing students is what turns them into machines, when what we really need is people, and all the individual strengths of each.

Anderson, Jeff. Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer's Workshop. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2005. Print.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Post #1: Proper Diagnostics through Teaching Grammar

    A big focus in the teaching community is how to evaluate well. This is all well and good, but I believe we should start from the top. This doesn’t begin with teaching, this begins with knowing what to teach. Diagnostic assessments are an essential area of education that are often ignored or disregarded when it comes to discussing changes in the classroom, despite the fact that it is that is arguably the most skewed. Currently, diagnostics are mainly used as a way to gauge the amount a student learned throughout the year, even though it’s a necessary tool to be able to know what each student has to learn and already knows. In the rare occasions when it is indeed used for this purpose, it is simply used as class data and not for individual purposes. This is still standardizing the lesson for the class and is often taken with a grain of salt; only altering lesson plans slightly, maybe spending fifteen minutes less on a few topics each year. Diagnostics should be completed as new topics arise and should be more personalized by student, especially in an English classroom.
    In seventh grade, the English department had us take a one and a half hour diagnostic assessment every quarter. The purpose was to have a baseline for each teacher as to what topics needed a little more focus or review before the state administered standardized tests. It was also the biggest way for each teacher to gain pride points within the department. So at the beginning of every quarter, there would be an class set aside to taking a test that our teacher didn’t even use to change the lesson plans at all; he only administered it because he had to. Not only were the tests despicably boring and useless to the students, but they are also ineffective ways to test true understanding. Since the tests had no effect on our actual grades, some people didn’t take them seriously. Also, since they were multiple choice, students who did try could take very accurate guesses on questions that they didn’t actually know the answer to, which doesn’t in turn even test their knowledge but instead their pure intelligence. In short, not only are tests a somewhat counterproductive way to administer am English diagnostic, but they are often not used correctly or even without a real purpose.
    In Mechanically Inclined, Jeff Anderson is faced with the task of trying to incorporate grammar into his lesson plans. The problem lies in that each student is at different places in terms of sufficiency in grammar and mechanics. In response, his execution of teaching is very fluid, as his diagnostic is the writer’s workshops he has every class. There are several distinct advantages to using this method to personalize the material being taught:
Students who already know the rules don't get beat over the head with mindless worksheets and tests.
Students who are behind don't miss sequential steps in perfecting their rules and struggle more than they otherwise would have.
It's easy to decipher how close each student is to getting the rule and which direction they need to move. This is information that is nearly impossible to acquire from a test.
Writing also utilizes time to help make improvements while taking a test solely evaluates.
      There are also a few important components that need to be present. First is the diagnostic. Kids pick up English by hearing it happening around them, but sometimes the rules can get skewed a little. As a basic example, if a student hears the sentence, “I like to talk,” they assume that like is the correct conjugation of the verb to use. In most cases involving the present tense, this would be true. However, if the student consistently writes a sentence along the lines of, “He like to sleep,” consistently, then there's an obvious problem happening, and it's easy to decipher the root of where the problem is. It is already very important to make sure that students are writing regularly, and these writings can be used as the diagnostics needed as their frequency can help pinpoint whether the problem was real or a one time mistake. Now, from here there are a few paths that can be taken. If the problem is with this one student alone, explain the grammar or mechanic rule associated. Next, have them correct a handful of sentences involving the rule and rules that are related. Finally, have the student write their own example sentence or sentences to solidify their habitual use of the rule. They can also keep the sentences for future reference. Now, if the problem occurs several times within the class, a little bit of time can be taken at the beginning of the next class to address it. A similar approach will be taken, however this time, pick one to two good sentences to hang around the room for all students to use for reference. It's important to surround students with as much language as possible.
      Diagnostics are the most important step in getting students a more personalized education. Even so, at the current moment diagnostics are often misused or disregarded. Unlike tests, writings come straight from the heads of the students, making it easy to figure out what they really know. Though tests are good for generalizations, the finer details must be revealed through writing. And what a coincidence it is that the class in which the finer details are the most important is the English class. Other classes can get away with generalizations, but language, as an art, is something personal for each student and therefore is something that must be made more personal in schools. Different students will have difficulty or lack of knowledge in one set of rules, that another finds natural and vice versa. That is why it is so vital to ensure that diagnostics are more fluid and show what each student still needs to learn, not that they have already mastered.

Anderson, Jeff. Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style Into Writer's Workshop.
N.p.: Stenhouse, 2005. Print.