Monday, May 19, 2008

I've been thinking a lot about the arbitrary-ness of education lately. It seems so many of the "professional educational" decisions we as teachers make about our students are more based on gut instinct and personal preferences than anything else.

In these days of increased accountability, the call for standards-based grading/assessment, the constant pressure of high-stakes testing and the ever-present urging of teachers to solve the problems of today's youths, logic would say we are far from arbitrary in our decisions, basing them on data, results, and solid evidence of our original intent and the end result.

Unfortunately, I see the polar opposite in daily practice, my own included.

Grading is volatile topic. Too often, teachers grade students on participation, attendance, cooperation, or simply whether or not the student is "liked". Standards-based grading can eliminate the bias of grades, but the move to these can be complex and confusing for students and parents, as well as teachers. It can also be a time-consuming task for teachers already overloaded.

Other pushes in grades lean towards forgiving missing or extremely low grades and not assigning any grade below a preset cutoff, such as 50%. From this article in the Las Vegas Sun, "Advocates of the more generous policy that makes 50 the minimum F say it is intended to give weaker students a better chance of passing. It is aimed at keeping them from being prematurely doomed by the numbers that are behind report card letter grades," it can be gleaned that even this policy is not hard and fast accurate, at least mathematically speaking. While I agree with the policy in theory, I find it even more difficult to explain to other educators and parents than standards-based grades.

Lucy scores a 52% on her test. Lucy obviously is struggling with the material. In theory, she has mastered 52% of what she should have learned. Pretty straight forward, right? Then comes along Robbie who was less than concerned about his test, knowing the lower grade to be recorded would be a 50% anyway, so Robbie doodles around the edges, attempts a few answers, scores a legitimate 28%, but in the grade program, a 50% shows up. Do we know anymore about what Robbie really can do, what Robbie actually learned than we did before when had he known the true score would be recorded, he might have put forth more effort?

Granted these are extreme cases, but most teachers in today's public schools would shake their heads in agreement of the likelihood of such a scenario.

Past the arbitrary-ness of grades, we can move into the discipline arena. We are planning for our annual 7th grade camp, a 3 day outdoor education experience. Who goes and who gets left behind is always another arbitrary event in education. Most students are going, pure and simple. Camp is intended to be all-inclusive and an honest attempt to allow all to attend is truly made. However, each year there is at least one hard-core, frequent flyer to the office, who simply cannot go along, for his/her own safety or that of others. No one seems to doubt the legitimacy of this decision, not even the student.

But then.... the arbitrary fairies start circling the toadstools. Billy and Joey got in a food fight in the cafeteria. Billy is a model student. Joey, well, not so model, but the decision made must apply to both, so.. OK, let them go. Then Maya and Lacey get into a pushing match in the hall, resulting in Megan getting knocked to the ground and her glasses getting broken. Megan's parents are irate, and Maya and Lacey get suspended. They are both semi-frequent fliers anyway, and the teachers think camp would most likely be more pleasant without them along anyway. And on the story goes, as student by student, decisions are made, without a clean cut plan.

While camp decisions are being made, schedules for next year are being put together also. As the 7th grade math teacher in our district, I am caught up in the drama of which incoming 7th graders should be placed in pre-algebra and which should take simple 7th grade general math. Then I am to also sort and sift my own 7th graders into their 8th grade class, either pre-algebra or algebra.

Too many things way on my mind as I write names in columns. Susie was in pre-algebra this year, and did OK, but is she really ready for algebra in the fall? Mom is a high school math teacher and really expects Susie to be in the highest group, but Susie doesn't like math and would be quite content to coast along in the lower group. Her scores on the placement test are borderline. Knowing Mom's expectations, I feel pressured to recommend her into algebra. But then there is Mickey, who was in regular math this year, not terribly motivated, but extremely gifted in math. His score on the placement test tops Susie by a good 10%, even though he was in a less-accelerated program this year. I know in my heart that Mickey could manage algebra in the fall, but I also know he won't complete his homework regularly, will be disruptive in class, and won't fit into the mold of the 8th grade teacher's idea of an algebra student. I also know there are only so many spots available in algebra. How do I decide Susie or Mickey for that chair?

I don't have a solution; I wish I did. I just feel pulled in all directions by the ever-constant decisions pressed upon me daily. How do I justify my choices to students and parents, and to myself at 2 a.m. while I lay awake contemplating my dilemma? Is it OK that education is not always black and white straight line, but more a gray wavering snail trail through muck?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

As the school year winds down and the kids get more and more antsy, and I feel the pressures to FINISH everything, the challenge is ever-more present to find ways to engage and motivate students to meet objectives. One of the grade level content expectations I have always struggled with getting across to students is inverse relationships. While I will acknowledge we do not have a firm understanding of the ins and outs of what these are, my kids really "GET" the idea at a basic level.

First we looked at side lengths of a rectangle with a fixed area. This was interesting since we had already looked at fixed perimeters and considering the difference in how fixed area and perimeter affect side lengths forced them to think in ways they usually don't. Our first task was a 48 square foot garden which I had purchased mulch for. We generated a table of possible whole number side lengths and graphed them. Very cool! Students then did the same exercise with a 60 square foot area. That laid the ground work.

Then today, I gave each partner group a card with a service on it and a total amount of money to be earned. (ex. Earn $250 mowing lawns) They then generated a table of possible combinations. (ex. Mow 250 lawns @ $1 a piece, or mow 1 lawn @ $250, or 10 @ $25, etc..) They graphed their combinations on a HUGE piece of graph paper, and then added an arrow at what they thought was their best, most reasonable choice. These were then hung on the board and each partnership explained their graph and choice to class. We finished up by talking about how an inverse relationship would look if negative numbers were included.

I am impressed they were able to write their equations, complete their tables and graph their points. It was overall, a cool activity!

Tomorrow, is GLAD(grade level assessement device) day. YUCK! This is only a 30 question online assessment from our ISD but it really seems like a waste of a day of class. I am curious to compare their pre and post test scores though.

The days are winding down and I am going to be sad to see most of them move on to 8th grade!

Friday, May 02, 2008

We never did make it outside for Shadow Rendering. Sometimes Mother Nature has other plans. First day I attempted it, the sun was darting back and forth from cloud to cloud, with no predictability at all. Then the weather turned nasty, rain, snow, cold and icky even on the sunny days.

Now I have been gone for 3 days with my husband's surgery and I know I will be out at least one more day. I hate being gone for so long but unforeseen circumstances out of my control. I just hope the kids did what I left, which was easy, very easy, math worksheets on similar triangles, looking at corresponding sides, proving similarity with ASA, SSS, and SAS principles. Had I been in school, we would have done this in a much more fun, hands on approach, but the worksheets will "work" and are "sub proof" which was what I needed. Next week, they will start an end of year project/webquest. Our textbook series(Glencoe) actually has a great set of these I have never used. I decided to not assign a particular one but allow students to choose which of them they thought looked most appealing. I am also allowing them to work with a partner. I am curious to see how things go.

In the meantime, I am sitting in motel room, tired from 3 long days at the hospital, too pooped to even worry about whether kids really worked in my absence, what kind of behavior report to expect, or even what a mess I will have to take care of when I return. It just doesn't matter.....