Saturday, October 25, 2014

Texting in the Classroom

I have written often about how pitiful the technology resources are at my school - not that administrators don't work to stretch every single resource and get as much usage as they can.  The county simply doesn't supply the needed resources.  We're on a list somewhere to be updated at some time, but in the meantime...  So often I have a lesson planned and can't get on Youtube or the Internet is down or whatever - seems like there are always more problems than solutions.  Our Media Specialist, who works tirelessly to keep everything going and helping us find solutions, is amazing, but the resources simply aren't there.  I do have four land computers that are old, but they work as student stations and a laptop for my desk. I am thankful for those.  However, I do not have wireless, so even though I have my own ipad, I can't get wireless and I'm really not allowed to use it anyway - rules about not using your own stuff, because...  there's a long list (most of it probably justifiable). 

Anyway, we have been struggling with ways to take anecdotal notes in Writing, Reading and Math and even Behavior with two teachers and a Special Education teacher all servicing the same students.  We've used lots of systems over the years - notebook (it's too inconvenient to keep one notebook for several teachers), sticky notes (they fall off over time and they still go into one notebook so you can't see the last note that was written), individual notebooks for each student at their desks (they get so ratty by the end of the year and there's really not enough room at their tables), stickers (they aren't  big enough for everything I want to write), and on and on and on.  Nothing has really been very efficient... until...  we found an app!

Although we can't get a signal on our iphones in much of our building, we are able to get a signal in our classroom because our room is on an outside wall, so one piece of technology that I can use is my iphone (although technically, I am not suppose to use personal devices).  For two years we have been using an app called Confer (we have had some recent syncing problems, but it was flawless for the first year, and I'm sure it will be again).  It was developed by a Nationally Board Certified Teacher - imagine that?!  A teacher with a solution! This app allows each of us to take notes during the day and then to sync at the end of the day and get each other's notes.  So, if I'm working with a child tomorrow, I will know that my co-teacher worked on conventions today during a writing conference or that the ESE teacher worked through a total melt down with a child yesterday in her room so I need to reinforce a specific behavior today.  We have very little time in our packed schedule to actually talk to each other about all the little conversations we have with children or all our noticings or wondering about specific children but this is a way we can keep in touch and keep a record of the progress students are making.

I never really thought to explain to the kids what I was doing while I was taking notes, so today one of the children asked me who I texted all day on my phone!  I wonder how many adults or other teachers have wondered through my class and asked the same question?!  I quickly pulled up my notes on this particular child so he could see what I was doing, but for anyone that has peeked into the classroom and seen us "texting," we really are taking notes!

Stop by.  I'd love to share what we are doing!  LOL!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Is anybody in charge out there?

Sometimes it is hard for me to understand what the decision makers are thinking when decisions are made. One recent decision really has me scratching my head.

Our county has put a lot of eggs in one basket.  The basket is a computer program called iReady.  Not only is it being used for progress monitoring in Reading and Math but also will be used this year to monitor many teachers' progress with their students.  That score along with a teacher's evaluation and professional development plan will be used to decide if a teacher is "highly effective" and  theoretically will eventually be linked to teacher pay, so... this computer program becomes pretty important.  I don't really think the program was ever designed to be used in this way, but that's probably a different blog!

As I have been working on rewriting assessments with some of my first grade peers, we have been trying to align test questions with what we anticipate will be on the state's FSA (state's high stake assessment),  our curriculum, and this iReady computer program - all things with accountability attached.  It is impossible to see an alignment.

Recently the county gave us iReady "cut" scores to make decisions.  If a child received below a certain cut score they were to be administered a DAR, an instrument that breaks down reading skills in simpler parts. This assessment allows a teacher to pinpoint exactly what the problem might be so that interventions might be targeted - a sound goal - but the cut score is too high (although nobody is asking teachers!)  In my class 22 of 35 students, 63%, were identified as needing this extra assessment which also assumes extra intervention is needed.  Fourteen of those 22 are reading at the level expected for this time of year according to the DRA (a long used and reliable measure of reading levels) and 19 are making "Satisfactory" in Reading this nine weeks on their report cards (6 have S+ and 3 have E's!)  This is common across our grade level.  According to this cut score, I would have well over half of the students in my class in need of extra intervention, Tier 2. Really? 

Is it really necessary for me to spend about three weeks of reading instructional time to give these students a test that will tell me nothing?  Is it necessary for me to spend time each week giving these students Tier 2 intervention when they don't need it, so that I don't have enough time to provide the intensive intervention where it is really needed? Maybe the decision makers will figure out the problem... eventually... after all the instructional time has been wasted?  I can only scratch my head and ask, "What are they thinking?"

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Follow the Bend in the Road

As we decided on our first standards-based bulletin board for the year, our Reading Coach, Melanie Holtsman, challenged us to take the lessons that we were teaching in Lucy Calkins' New Units of Study and to demonstrate the students' work as a result of some of the lessons.  It was an idea we had never presented before on a bulletin board so, of course, the challenge was interesting.  I'm always up for a challenge! Normally we like to take a finished genre of writing and show all the ways that a student has used what they have learned but on this board Melanie wanted us to look at student work after each lesson. We decided to accept the challenge with our bulletin board tied to our Wizard of Oz theme, Follow the Bend in the Road.

This was the "task" and standard.

This year First Grade has embraced the new Writing Units of Study written by the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College under the direction of Lucy Calkins.  We are teaching this “Small Moments” Narrative unit for the first time.

As we opened our first days of Writing Workshop we reminded students of all that they loved about writing in Kindergarten and we welcomed them into a new year’s writing as authors.  We talked about their writing “muscles” and all the books that they were going to write!  We established the rituals and routines of the Workshop.
The lessons displayed on this bulletin board only address the first “bend” in the narrative unit.  The “bend” is like the first set of mini-lessons that go together.  The students stopped at this bend and celebrated their writing, before beginning the next leg of the journey.

Write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure. 

We looked at four different lessons.  This is a sample of an Introduction, the student work and the commentary from one of those lessons.

Translation: One time I went to my cousin's. It was my first time catching a lizard's tail. It was moving. My mom was there. I put it in the grass and my sister was there.  I went (back) in the afternoon. Then her lizard got stuck in the bush. Then I held the lizard's tail. Then I went to go wash my hands.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Pendulum Swings Too Far

Last week someone called and asked if I would be interested in writing an editorial piece about testing, especially in light of the FAIR kindergarten testing in Florida being halted, Lee County pulling out of the state's testing program and a Kindergarten teacher putting her job on the line and refusing to give the FAIR test because she thought it was developmentally inappropriate.  I think the caller was looking for a more "balanced," positive spin on the testing environment saying that the public was getting lots of misinformation.

I'm not really sure what the message is that the public is getting, but I do understand, only too well, the message that teachers are getting.  I am so disappointed in the state of Florida's recent FAIR debacle.  There was a time when we gave the FAIR three times a year in Kindergarten and looked forward to the information that we were given.  The test was fairly quick and gave really pertinent information.  I could quickly, within the first month of school, pinpoint the students that were going to need extra support during the first trimester of Kindergarten.  I  could especially identify students who were going to need an extra boost of that all-important phonemic awareness.  Then at the mid-term I could monitor the success of my interventions and prescribe another round of small group instruction, if needed.  The testing monitored and drove my instruction.  I'm not sure what happened, but the test that Kindergarten teachers were asked to give this year was too long (it took 25-45 minutes per student and had to be given individually which cost teachers very valuable instructional time in those beginning days and weeks), was not ready to start in the time frame given, and depended on students' computer skills that at that early age are non-existent.  Of course, that's just one test.

Last year our county started the year saying that kindergarten teachers were going to give a Reading, Math and Science baseline and final exam and then quarterly tests to monitor progress.  I think we were even supposed to give a baseline and final exam in PE, Art, and Music.  Any Kindergarten teacher knew from the beginning that that was absolutely ridiculous because most of those had to be given individually and there aren't enough hours in the day.  Of course the initial outcry from kindergarten teachers wasn't enough to stop the initial round of testing.  What do teachers know? It took several weeks of that lunacy before the county backed off most of those requirements and decided to only require a baseline and final in Reading and Math but by then that group of children had missed almost six weeks of initial instruction.

So this year, all of those tests in Kindergarten are gone... and instead we have new computer-based Reading and Math assessments.  I think the cut scores are more guess than Science, as this program is only a few years old, without much in the way of proven results.  Professional development in using the program has been spotty and depends on an infrastructure that is non-existence, at least at my school.  Just getting all the students tested initially is a massive undertaking with 1300 students and one computer lab, a logistical nightmare.  Even the login for our youngster learners is unreasonable, taking us about 30 minutes in the computer lab to just get everyone signed on to begin the testing!  After the assessment, the program itself is suppose to be daily but we were told to try to get students on Reading twice a week and Math twice a week for about 30 minutes.  I have three computer stations in my room for 36 children.  There is no way that can happen, but nonetheless, all the apples are being put in that basket.  Recently we were given a cut score for the Reading portion of the computer program and told that all students below the cut score had to have the individual DAR, which means 22 of my 36 children need this more intensive test.  Really?  In order to get that test done (which again has to be done individually) I will be giving up individual conferring, guided reading and small group reading instruction for about three weeks, giving an additional test to half the students that don't need it.

I could go on and on about unimaginable testing decisions being made at both the state and local levels.  The truth of the matter is that even in this environment I believe wholeheartedly in accountability.  I am a diagnostic prescriptive teacher.  I use both formative and summative data every single day to make decisions about what I am going to teach tomorrow.  I get it, but what is being done in the name of accountability across this state right now is ludicrous.  I applauded the teacher who put her job on the line and drew a line in the sand and said. "Enough!"  I wonder if we will ever come to the day when teachers are at the table so that their voices may be heard on this all important issue?

Needless to say, I won't be writing that editorial, putting a "positive" spin on the public's misinformation.