Fasten Your Seatbelts…..

It’s going to be a bumpy night.” I love this quote from “All About Eve”; and coming straight from Bette Davis’ mouth – well you can imagine the delivery.

The more thinking is done about the implementation of the new mathematics curriculum frameworks – the Common Core – the more it becomes apparent that this is going to be a major, that is MAJOR, implementation.

Looking at it from a third grade teacher perspective – students will come to third grade with near mastery, if not mastery, of place value AND mastery (that is spelled out) of addition and subtraction facts — all of them.  Historically, that has not been the case; students coming to third grade often have a shaky grasp of place value and most definitely we spend lots of the beginning of the year on addition & subtraction facts. Honestly, there are some children who do not leave THIRD grade having memorized/mastered these facts.  That’s a post for another day though.

What this means to me is that, for the next year – or possibly two – we will straddle two grade levels of work. It is clear what the expectations of students leaving third grade and going to fourth are. (Click here to download the PDF or Word version); but there will also be some catching up to do for second graders coming in to third this September.  I’m sure other teachers at grade levels above and below my own grade level will feel the same.

And to add to the pressure, by 2014 the Spring testing will have completely transitioned to the new Common Core standards. Here’s a link to DESE’s plan to transition test items.  In other words, transition quickly and get working on mastery of the new standards.

Will we be ready – I sure hope so. Because not only will there be new standards to be responsible for, the test results will be linked to my own evaluation as a teacher.

I have a feeling that fastening my seatbelt isn’t going to be much help here.

Daily Five and Math

This year I’ve made an attempt to follow the “Sisters” in implementing the Daily Five and the Literacy Cafe. So far, I’m happy with what is starting to take shape. Conferencing is more focused. Tracking those kids who need more than a once a month reading conference, keeping kids accountable through the Literacy Cafe Menu, all are clearly going to be helpful when presenting a case at an RTI meeting.

Now if the Daily Five can help me with getting to those students who need some extra one-to-one support, maybe it can help with meeting the needs of students in mathematics.  The Sisters are way ahead of me on this one — the Math Daily Five provides a way to organize “guided mathematics”.  In my classroom, the five categories that I’m playing with are: Math Fact Drills, Landmark Math Games, Exploring Data, Problem Solving, and Featured Activity.  The math fact activities are games – electronic and otherwise – that provide fluency practice in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  Landmark Games are the “go to” games we teach throughout our third grade Investigations in Number, Data, and Space units and include games like “Close to 100/1000”, “Capture on a 300 Chart” and “Fraction Cookies”. Exploring Data is a new category — our school has identified interpreting, representing, and constructing data as a focus for this year. Activities in these categories will provide students with activities for practice. I want my students to solve problems in context and I have been providing a problem for students to solve and later share solutions in this category. Finally, in the Featured Activity category, we will work on explorations that accompany the launches for the daily Investigations lesson.

I want to keep the launches down to about 15 minutes – whether it’s a model launch or a discussion. This isn’t easy for me. But by limiting my talk, and getting kids actively involved in activities while I meet with smaller needs-based groups, we should be able to make some progress toward students meeting Grade 3 Math Standards.

Will it be noisy? I’m sure it will be. Just like the Daily Five and Literacy Cafe, I’ll need to build students’ stamina for staying on task. But in the end it should be worth the time it will take – hopefully we can work smarter not longer.

The older I get, the more things stay the same

Summer hiatus is a challenge for me ; I am compulsively obsessed with education. However, this summer I have made an effort and, until today, have left my pile of things to consider in a far corner of our spare bedroom.

This week, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved implementation of the National Standards. Standard based education – and the testing that goes with it – is nothing new. We’ve been working with standards for years. The new standards – like it or lump it – will be tied to testing and most likely funding. Isn’t that the SOSDD?

There seems to have been a lot of debate about the merits of adopting the National Standards in Massachusetts. I don’t know for sure because 1) teachers are seldom invited to be part of the debates, and 2) most of this happened in the Spring when teachers are too busy with actual teaching to engage in investigations of new standards.  That would leave the politicos and “think tanks” to debate the merits. And despite the predictions of watering down the education (and testing!) of students, the Board adopted the National Standards.

So, we in Massachusetts, have something new to consider. As a grade level Math Lead, I downloaded the National Mathematics Standards for my grade level (thereby breaking my summer hiatus) and to be honest, they seem to be exactly what we focused on with just the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks . This is hardly a surprise. The Massachusetts Mathematics Frameworks have historically been based on National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Standards and, if what one reads in news outlets is correct, the National Standards are heavily influenced by the Massachusetts Frameworks.

Some who oppose(d) the adoption of the National Standards have predicted that this will mark the end of MCAS testing. Puh-leeze. If a single high-stakes do-or-die test is done away with in this state, I’ll fall off my chair. MCAS or something resembling it (and possibly dictated by the Feds) is here to stay. For those who think that a single test tells whether or not a child has a good education, whether or not a teacher is qualified, whether or not real estate can fetch top dollar because students score well (oops, let that little piece of sarcasm slip), relax! We can and will continue to spend inordinate amounts of time testing the students.

So what is all the uproar about? Maybe I’m missing something, but what I’ve seen doesn’t appear to be education Armageddon.

What would be fair?

This week I was asked at a Team Meeting what I thought about particular student’s participation in MCAS (this student has serious health issues which limit school participation). Was there an alternate way to assess this student that would enable us to know what had been achieved?

And that got me thinking about what I really feel about MCAS, this 4-day brain drain.

I get that standardized testing and MCAS is a part of teaching now. I get that teachers need to be help accountable for teaching the state (and now federal) standards. Honestly, watching my student navigate the Mathematics tests this past week made me realize that there are some weaknesses in the curriculum that was delivered. My teaching will be informed by my students’ performance on the test — a test which, by the way, I thought was reasonable.

What I don’t understand is how one high-stakes test can serve as the ultimate measure of my students’ achievement, particularly when more than half of my students are English Language Learners. Six and a quarter hours of correctly spoken and written English each day can only go so far – the vocabulary that English speakers take for granted is daunting for many of my students.

And before anyone’s shorts are tied in a knot about second languages, let me say that I wish those who disparage people whose first language is not English tried to take that test in another language that they were in the process of learning. My experience in learning a second language, a Romance and therefore related language, was and is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever encountered. I think if you attempted an important reading/writing task in a second language, you too might be hanging onto new vocabulary by the tips of your fingernails. I’m not advocating for abandoning the goal of performing in English — that is the language of business in this country and therefore, the way to economic success — I’m just saying cut these English speaking/writing “toddlers” a little slack on the high stakes tests.

What would be fair? Well for one thing, look at my students’ growth over the year. We have data for that – Fountas Pinnell Benchmarks, SRI Reading tests, Writing Portfolios, and district-wide Math assessments. Consider these as well as the MCAS when commenting on my students’ achievement. Look at the Massachusetts Growth data — are we making progress? Is it just at a slower rate than the students in more affluent, parent-involved suburbs?

We need to look at a more complete picture of our students before pointing fingers of blame at educators. Nothing in education is black and white – we aren’t producing widgets on an assembly line. To know what students know and don’t know, we need to dig deeply. Standardized state testing should be just one item to consider.

Asking Questions, Forming Equations

Some part of the ARRA money allocated to the Lowell Schools is being used to give teachers time to look at assessments and collect data about how our students best learn.  Grade level teams and cross-grade level data teams have formed since late summer all with the purpose of methodically looking at our assessment data and making decision about what to do next.  We use the ORID protocols to analyze our data while the mechanism for assessment of our own teaching is the process of Learning Walks.

My grade level, Grade 3, has been contemplating a mathematics inquiry that will help us improve our instruction and, ultimately our students’ learnings.  The development of the question has taken us in a circuitous route through methods for comprehending a particular operational skill (multiplication) to the question we’ve agreed upon this morning: What does best practice look like when we are teaching our students to generate or identify a correctly constructed equation matching a word problem situation.

We’ve noticed that our students, particularly our ELLs, meet the standards for whole number computation.  However, many students, regardless of whether or not they are ELLs or native speakers, cannot for the life of them select a reasonable equation to match the word or story problem.  This is critical mass for our kids — the bulk of the MCAS testing that will take place in the Spring requires students to decipher story problems in just this way.

Those of us who have a strong background in Constructivism dislike the very idea of teaching students “key” phrases:  for example, in all means to use an addition equation. Personally I feel that there are other ways to get kids to comprehend the problem and generate equations from their understandings.  I want my students to visualize the events in a story and be able to logically create an equation that will get them to an answer.

But what about of kids who have so many language issues that visualizing is not a strength? Is there another, better way? The data analysis tells us there has to be – at least with the students we are currently working with. As my colleagues and I work through this cycle of inquiry, we will be peeling away our preconceptions; this can be pretty scary.

Our next meeting will begin the process of researching what might work with our students, and maybe, we’ll invent something new.  Now that would be something!

A New Old Project

Tonight, my colleague Colleen Turco and I shared our new and improved third grade mathematics curriculum with our peers as part of our course final. The more I work on curriculum — and I’ve been at it since 1987 — the more I realize that nothing is every really “finished”. Curriculum is a fluid as the students who populate our classrooms from year to year. Can we ever consider something done? I doubt it.

This project was started nearly a year ago when Colleen and I realized that following the Investigations in Number, Data and Space curriculum strictly left us little time to develop number sense or conversation about mathematics. We also came to the realization that the timing of the units left our students with little time to learn the math facts, multiplication and division, expected in computation. With these things in mind, we spent the summer pulling apart the curriculum and reordering units in a way that seems to make sense for our student population.

Additionally, Colleen, who is our school’s Math Resource Teacher and who knows the big picture like no one else can, made sure we had addressed all the third grade standards in the Massachusetts framework. Working together, we’ve pulled in lessons and resources from many different places (Math Solutions – THANK YOU!) which we felt supported the philosophy of mathematics teaching, yet improved upon, supported, or revisited the curriculum framework.

Now that we’ve developed this document, or plan if you will, and implemented it on a pilot basis in my classroom, Colleen and I are ready to roll it out to the rest of my grade level team — and adjust it. Already I have a list of things that need tweaking.

Our first attempt at making sense out of the mathematics curriculum feels pretty good; although I do have an eye on the standardized testing which I hope will show some improvement over prior years.

We hope any readers of this blog — if you are out there — will offer up suggestions for materials or lessons that will enhance our work in progress.