Saturday, May 18, 2013

End of School Year for Me

To finish off my part in the school year yesterday, I had a combination 5/6 classroom.  It was the second day I was there.  Most of the day was entirely typical: he stole my pencil, she kicked my chair, I don't have a book to read, my computer doesn't get X, etc.  But, for math, which I enjoy, I knew many of the students were finished with the assignments they had been given for the two days.  So, I posed three additional challenges:  1) the 9 dots in a square problem (connect the dots with exactly 4 straight continuous lines, 2) show me a piece of paper with only one side, and 3) calculate the numbers 1 through 20, using exactly 4 4's and any operations you know (these kids knew +-*/^!and √). 

Most of the kids did not take part in the challenges - either because they still had work to do on their assignment or because they could pretend that they were working on their assignment and just socialize.  As long as they were pretending well, I didn't bother them.  But there were 3 boys who were fascinated by the challenges and 3 more who were very drawn to them, but a little wary about actually trying them.  I had a great time with the three and enjoyed the others.  At first, they were very frustrated that I refused to give them hints on how to solve the challenges.  One solved the 9 dot problem fairly quickly.  I couldn't tell if he had seen it before or just solved it easily.  The other two really struggled, but eventually got it.  There were several creative and pun-like answers to the paper with one side problem, but eventually two of them got it.  Those two also went on to try the 1 through 20 calculations and made significant progress. 

My fun was seeing them so motivated and eager.  One of the peripheral boys also wanted to see the solution to the paper problem, which I showed him at the end of class. 

Great fun and the reason why I sometimes really like this age student.  And it makes up for the horrid day I had on Tuesday with unruly and disrespectful 3rd graders. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

New (Old) Direction for Education

My grandmother was a teacher; my mother, who is now 98 years old was a teacher; I am a teacher.  In all these years of teaching, what have we seen?  Wave after wave of "educational reform".  The old was thrown out and the new brought in.  But is it better ... or just different?

The best wave I have seen was the federal push to develop outstanding curricula - BSCS Blue, Green, Yellow; Man a Course of Study; The Voyage of the Mimi, etc. I was in one of the classes that got to take BSCS Blue, when it was pretty new.  I also was a student when the New Math was the rage.  There is some marvelous curriculum out there.  As a sub, I have seen bits and pieces of some wonderful lessons - simulations of Columbus' voyages to the Americas, re-enactments of the American Revolutionary debates, with both sides represented.  But, far too often, these marvelous lessons are relegated to the back burners, because of the amount of curriculum that the teachers MUST cover.  What counts is the students' scores on the standardized tests.  Where are the wonderful lesson plans for diverse abilities?

Some people have mentioned that they have just about given up on schools, because it is so hard to agree on what SHOULD be done and not just what should NOT be done.  Fewer standardized tests, yes.  But, what instead? 

I have been thinking about what I saw working at a Montessori school. I sub mainly for 3rd grades through 6th grades and the Montessori school set up was such that the kids worked in 3 week time blocks with assignments in each subject area (some of which incorporated multiple areas). The students planned their days and worked on lessons with teacher-prepared materials. Occasionally, there was some whole group discussion, but most of the time, the kids worked individually, in pairs, or occasionally in groups of 3 or 4 on their own goals. The one exception was math, which was taught in groups of 7 or 8 students, with outliers taught individually by tutors. The teacher met with individual students, taught mini-lessons to small groups of students, or led discussions.

The biggest criticism I had of the arrangement (and I subbed there quite a bit) was that some of the materials could have been differentiated much more. The middle level of materials was great, but the materials for higher and lower ability students weren't as good. With the possibilities of computers allowing for wider ranges of materials to be available, I can actually see this model working. There were two rooms with a wide doorway between them, so kids could actually go back and forth between the rooms, especially for math. It was peaceful and work oriented. The kids really seemed to take responsibility for themselves and the one boy who didn't was guided into trying to make better choices.

There are quite a few lessons where working with someone makes the lesson much better.  Students in this Montessori classroom were frequently given introductory lessons about some topic, then given assignments that explored the topic in greater depth, with the unit culminating in presentations of products or large group discussions/debates.  Student groupings were varied and flexible.  

Interestingly, for me at least, was that there weren't any "specials" teachers.  There was an adult (teacher?) supervising the gym at set times, but students showed up in the gym any time during the time blocks, when they needed a break.  Each student was required to do some physical exercise several times a week, but it could take a wide variety of forms.  Art projects were supervised by the classroom teachers as part of the regular work.  I am not sure about music.

This arrangement might actually be an ideal one for me.  I like the ability to work with the kids all day, without the interruptions of switching classes.  I like knowing what individual students are doing in all of the areas of study.  I like the ability to integrate all of the arts into the curriculum.  I like many of the Montessori materials.  And I like the effects of the structure on the students.  They seemed responsible for their own behavior and learning.  They were considerate, even to subs.

But that is the only Montessori school I have worked in, so I don't know if it was unique, or if many of them are like that.  It would be interesting to find out - one of the advantages of substitute teaching.  If a job like that comes up, I will take it.