As a result of new legislation regarding education and teacher evaluation in Illinois, our building, along with our entire district and, hopefully, most of the state, has been working on establishing Student Growth Objectives that are used to guide instruction and give teachers a focus on at least one area of assessment throughout the year. There is a lot of “teacherese” built into this legislation, which is, of course, also mixed with “legalese,” making the overall goal difficult for non-teachers and non-politicians to unpack. In fact, they are difficult for teachers to unpack only because the language is new and unfamiliar, even within our profession.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time delving into the nitty-gritty of Student Growth Objectives (also known as SGOs, because we don’t have enough acronyms in our profession yet), but if you are interested there are some blogs that I personally recommend, especially Dr. Rich Voltz’s Ed Leadership Thoughts, which I found through my mum, who is a long-time school board member in Washington, Illinois, where I grew up. What I do want to acknowledge is the amazing growth my students have already made this year on the objective my fourth grade partner and I selected.
We looked over all of our learning standards and talked about the crucial skills that the fifth grade teachers have said the students must have in order to be ready for the next year. In the process of these conversations, we realised that many of our math standards tie into each other and the one skill that will tie directly to nearly all of the others in mutli-digit multiplication, specifically learning the two-digit by two-digit vertical algorithm (that is, the traditional way to multiply two two-digit numbers that almost all of us learned when we were in school).
In order to measure growth, we had to know where the students were at the start, so we developed a simple ten-problem quiz using a tool from math-aids.com and gave the quiz to all of our students. Of the 48 students we had at the time, only one student knew how to solve problems like these, and that student scored a 70%. Keep in mind that we had not done any teaching of this skill yet. The initial quiz was to determine where they were. Then we started teaching the unit, sometimes working with our own classes, sometimes by mixing the classes up into differentiated groups. There was a lot of teaching, practicing, teaching more, practicing more, and quick quizzes and assessments along the way to let us know what we still needed to do and who still needed more specialised help.
By the end of the first semester we had spent weeks on this skill (while teaching a lot of other things, too, of course) and decided it was time for a mid-year assessment. There was considerable growth, with about a third of the students scoring 80% or better and another third very close to the target. Time continued on, we continued to teach this skill along with other topics, and we continued to assess as we went along.
I gave my class another ten-question quiz today, much like the one we used at the beginning of the year, and was thrilled beyond words to see the noticeable growth in my students! I still have some who are struggling to master the algorithm, but many, many, many more not only know it, but can use it accurately and consistently! With slightly more than a quarter of the year left to go, I am feeling very confident about this skill. I don’t know that I will use the same growth objective next year due to some logistical problems, but I do feel more comfortable with setting growth objectives for each student and using these as a guide to improve my teaching practice.
We are getting down to the wire before ISAT week is upon us! Just four more days of school, a regular two-day weekend, and then we are starting! As I told my class this morning, we are definitely doing prep work for the test, but not in the traditional way. I am not giving my students practice tests, we aren’t honing our bubble sheet skills, and we aren’t stopping the regular sequence of classroom instruction to get ready for the exams. Instead, we are using this time to practice skills that are part of our learning targets anyway but will be helpful on the ISATs.
Today we started our week-long exploration of extended writing based on close reading of texts. We recently finished our fourth thematic unit in our reading series, and one of the wrap-up activities ties directly into this practice of reading closely and writing extensively. Before working independently, though, I reviewed some of the key concepts of these skills with the whole class.
We talked about the fact that nobody ever remembers every single detail from every single story they read, so it is important to read and then reread. We talked about marking important details related to the question while reading the first time and then skimming the text to find supporting details when reading a second or even third time. We focused on how important it is to write down or otherwise note the key details that related to the question.
Then I shared strategies for organising one’s thoughts. I pointed out that while I could give them printed graphic organisers now, I want them to think about ways they can make their own organisers on blank paper, whether Venn diagrams or T-charts or concept maps or just lists. And we also discussed how we can tie our own ideas and understanding to our responses as long as we can find evidence from the text to support them.
After reviewing all of the things we have talked about all year about writing in response to reading, it was time for the students to try it on their own. I gave them a full 45 minutes to review the stories, find evidence for their argument, plan, and write their responses. I gave notices of time as they worked and was really glad to see so many students pacing themselves appropriately. Some finished earlier than others, of course, but all took the writing task seriously. As papers were turned in, I looked over them and saw that most understood the task, some started but didn’t quite complete, and only a few need some more specific guidance on writing extensively on a topic. And though ISATs are less than a week away, we still have plenty of time before the end of the year to master this type of writing!
Continuing on the theme of mathematical thinking this week, I was reflecting upon an thought I had pondered a few weeks ago. (Yes, I realise that there is a lot of reference to thinking in that previous sentence. I do that. A lot.) I have been trying to figure out how to help my students learn how to successfully fail so that their mistakes become stepping stones to improvement instead of stumbling blocks that hinder them. I think we are making progress in this, although even the process has had its own ups and downs.
Teaching my students different ways to express their mathematical thinking led us to an interesting conversation today. I have repeatedly expressed that I want them to write down everything they are thinking as they are working through a problem so that I can see their thought processes. As we worked through a problem today, I asked students to tell me how they would solve it and why they would do the things they did. The first step a student suggested turned out to be incorrect. Instead of erasing everything and starting again, as another student suggested, I just noted that a step was incorrect and continued to record what was said to me. Later I had to cross something out as a student realised that what she had said was not really what she meant. We ended up filling the entire whiteboard easel with the various attempts at solving the problem before finally reaching a solution that met all of the parameters given.
Before setting the class free to work on their own, I asked them if the work shown was acceptable, even with the mistakes. They agreed that it was. I repeated what I have been saying throughout the year: It is absolutely okay to make a mistake and fix it later! It is absolutely okay to record all of your attempts at solving a problem! Doing so shows me that they are thinking about the problem, not just solving it. Problem solving, on its own, is simply not enough for our 21st century learning. It must be combined with critical thinking. And we are getting better at it!