Sunday, June 01, 2008

School's Out!

If you're not interested in my education posts, you may want to skip this one. It's a long reflection on the school year that's more therapeutic for me than informative for you.

There's nothing like the last day of the school year to make me relax. On Friday, I had the whole day to work without students, whose last day was Thursday. I had all my paperwork, grading, and inventory done by 9:00 AM. We are supposed to use the whole day to get done what I finished in an hour and a half. I had done most of the work already because I had so much to do afterward.

First, I was partially responsible for the end-of-year cookout. Our technology teacher, Larry Kiefer, built a grill out of a half barrel and the frame of a broken rolling table a couple of years ago, and we use it to grill hamburgers, brats, and hot dogs at the opening and closing of each school year. In the past we've gotten our meats frozen from Gordon Food Service, and neither Larry nor I were satisfied with the results. So this year, I put in an order at our local butcher shop, DC Meats in Osceola. Not only did I save our principal $50 because they gave me restaurant rates, but the meat was fresh. They divided the hamburger into 1/4 pound patties, and even parboiled the brats for us at no extra charge. The cookout was a tremendous success, and nothing brings us all together like sharing food. We have some outstanding cooks on our staff, some of them having been raised by formerly Amish and currently Mennonite parents who taught their kids how to cook old school. So when we have a carry-in, it's a feast. We had to say goodbye to one staff member, and tears were shed and shared.

After lunch, I had to move every single thing in my room. I'm moving rooms again for the second time in three years, as we are going back to the team concept in our school. We used to have block scheduling with teaching teams and it was extremely effective. Essentially, one teacher from each of the four core subjects, math, language arts, science, and social studies, were aligned with each other, so that they shared a common pool of students. If students had math first period, they would travel together to science second period, then to social studies third period, and finally to language arts fourth period. If a teacher needed extra time with a class, all one had to do was poke a head into the next teacher's classroom and ask for it. We had common planning time, during which we could talk about our students, checking to see if there were common behavior problems that could be solved with a conference call to the parents. It was very effective in both learning and discipline. So naturally the school system took it away.

The problem with the block scheduling was that it is expensive. The shared preparation period was costing the school too much. Teachers were given ninety minutes a day to prepare for cooperative and interdisciplinary lessons and it was decided that it was costing too much, especially since there were groups of teachers not utilizing the time properly. We were also switching to a trimester schedule to match the high school that we feed into. So three years ago, we departmentalized, essentially becoming a junior high school. And now team teaching is back. The kids won't be blocked together, so that part of the strategy is gone. But we will have a shared group of students and 60 minutes to prepare interdisciplinary lessons. So like with an underfunded federal law that shall remain No Child Left Behind, we are being asked to do more with less. They just waited three years before taking away 30 minutes of prep time. And to top it all off, the high school we are aligned with is going back to semesters in two years, so our schedule is going to have to change again after next year. Regardless, this team system will be much more effective because the discipline in the classroom will keep more kids in the classroom. There will be fewer in-school suspensions and out of school suspensions and that means more butts in the seats.

So I spent the entire afternoon moving everything I could lift (and that's everything except my desk and file cabinet) into my new classroom. I didn't have to walk on Friday, because by the end of the day, I had perspired through my clothes. But by the end of the day, I felt like I had earned a four-day break.

Looking back on the school year, I am not satisfied with how it went at all. Even after 21 years, I am still looking for ways to make my class run better. One thing I will be doing differently next year is having my students use mechanical pencils exclusively. I used wood pencils this year, but went through two electric pencil sharpeners. The cost of the wood pencils was lower, but the cost of two pencil sharpeners more than made up the difference. Sharpening pencils loudly is too disruptive, anyway. Next year I will also be putting my students in small groups again, called pods. There will be a pod leader in each one, who will be given additional responsibilities like passing out papers and distributing calculators and dry-erase boards and whatever else the pod needs. The pod leader will also be helping me to monitor student progress. There are arguments that say that these jobs negatively influence the leading students' own learning, but I disagree. Nothing solidifies understanding like explaining it to someone else. If anything, it will help them to learn on a deeper level than before. The pod leader will be rewarded for the extra responsibility with additional privileges for their troubles. The first pod leaders will be determined by RIT scores on the NWEA levels test from the previous spring, but could be replaced depending on behavior and continued academic success.

Another modification to my classes next year will be the keeping of a notebook. I am not even going to distribute the joke of a textbook that we use. Our textbook for pre-algebra is actually more difficult than the textbook they use to teach the same class in high school. As an example, the teaching of solving single-step equations in our textbook is done all in one day. Solving by addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are all one day's instruction. In the high school book, it's done one operation per day with more specific attention paid to checking one's work. Now when you have adolescents making a transition from Piaget's concrete operational stage to the formal operational stage of development, do you make things easier or harder for them to do so? I will provide examples for the students to keep in their notebooks, and if they are absent, they will be required to copy someone else's notes. I will stamp each student's notebook with my Yoda stamper when I approve of their note taking while the pod leader will record their participation points for the day.

Participation points will be given and recorded each day based on the following criteria: attendance (including punctuality), bringing a notebook and taking notes, bringing a mechanical pencil, bringing the workbook where we will be doing most of our work, and bringing the planner that the school provides. If a student's absence is excused, they will be given full points. If it is not excused, or the student is suspended, they will lose the points. These points will be a small part of the overall grade, but could certainly make the difference between a C+ and a B-.

My classes will also be doing a five-question cumulative review to start each class period, targeting areas in which they are weak and reinforcing skills that they need to be successful in what we are currently doing. We had an in-service on this concept last year, which was one of the few useful days I spent outside the classroom in such meetings. I think it really needs to be done for students who come unprepared for pre-algebra.

I'm still uncertain what to do about homework. There must be motivation for students to do homework correctly and yet not fear for getting problems wrong. In the past, my students have mistaken this thought for having no concern whether they did it correctly or not. I'll be working on that this summer.

The new school year is ten weeks away, but I'm more ready for the next year than I've ever been before at this point.

1 comment:

Big D said...

If I remember correctly, the Penn middle and elementary schools simply gave credit for turning in the homework and then I believe some bonus points if it was correct.

Yet, the two girls in school failed to turn in homework so often that they were both disciplined twice. They even did the homework much of the time it wasn't being turned in, they simply "forgot."

If you figure out a good way to motivate the kids you teach on homework, let me know. I'd like to light a fire under these two to get them to improve their personal attitudes towards schooling. While the eldest is entering high school and showing good improvement, I'll take any ideas I can get.