Monday, March 28, 2011

Aligning (myself) to the standards

UPDATE: Fixed the Kohn link.

Here's yet another "grad-school-response-turned-blog-post":

Here is the assignment:
Classroom Activity:  With your students, identify a state standard the class needs to achieve within the year.  Next, identify what the smaller goals (or benchmarks) the students will need to be able to achieve in order to meet the standard.  As a group, brainstorm ways that the class is addressing this through classroom activities, assessments and student performance. Finally, make a plus delta chart and group the brainstormed ideas according to their effectiveness, in two separate vertical columns. The Plus/Delta chart gives students the opportunity to share what they thought was good about an activity (plus) and what they would change in order to improve the activity (delta). 
Writing Activity: Write an informal one-half page reflection on the classroom activity assignment by answering these three questions (cut and paste the questions and answers into the body of an e-mail and send to your instructor).

  1. What did I realize that I am doing well regarding curriculum alignment and assessment?
  2. What could I do more effectively based upon the students’ responses?
  3. How would utilizing the “backward design” approach align lesson plans and assessments?

Include in your reflection, any new ideas and/ or significant insights you gained from the modules and websites.
To be honest, I did not do this activity with my students. The main reason? I am currently caught up in pushing my juniors to excel on the Regents, the NY state ELA assessment in high school. I don’t have the time to sit them down and ask how they feel about the standards, etc. I can predict their answer: A) whatever, we don’t care or B) what are standards?

I found Alfie Kohn’s article to be the most interesting, informative, and thought-provoking, and that is the one Must See site that goes against all the others...he argues for the vaguest possible standards, and I tend to agree. While I respect the need to ensure that as many children as possible receive an equitable education, I do not like the rigid conformity being imposed upon us as teachers. So far, no has told me which book to teach and which not to. If I “miss” a book one year (i.e. The Great Gatsby last year), no one slaps my wrist. I consider myself lucky.

The current NY state standards are quite vague (at the top level). They focus on listening, reading, writing and speaking for a variety of purposes (there are 4 total). Of course, each one has A LOT of “sub-standards” (the irony in the pun is too good to pass up). But, on that top level, I can say that I “align” myself with those standards. For instance, during a structured group work activity, students ARE, in fact, speaking and listening for social interaction. And, by writing a compare/contrast essay, students ARE, in fact, reading and writing for critical analysis and evaluation.

But how do you “assess” speaking for social interaction? I mean, it’s part of my job, but no one tests the students on how well they communicate with their peers.

I’m only partially serious here - I don’t expect to have to grade student conversations - in fact, if I had to, I might just vomit. But the case remains...how do you assess these standards? Let’s look ahead to next year: the Common Core College and Career Readiness standards (the alliteration is SO c-c-c-cool). We are being told that we have to start modifying our curricula to meet this new set of “national” standards (not all states have climbed aboard this crazy train yet). And the best part? No one knows what the test looks like yet.

Now, the standardized test purist may argue that is a good thing - your job is to ensure the student meets a particular benchmark at a particular time in his or her life - and you don’t need a test to do that. Sure. Of course not. Thank you, Bill Gates.

Let’s jump back to the Regents exam - the main essay (and now the only one) is called the Critical Lens essay. Students are given a quote which they must interpret, choose two works they have read (not necessarily in school), and discuss how each work fits with their interpretation of the quotes. Oh, and did I mention the need to focus on the use and effect of literary techniques?

The essay is tough, but I’m not sure it’s good. First: there is little interaction between the texts - most students write a 4 paragraph essay (intro, body, body, conclusion). Second: when will students ever write this essay again? I have a BA and an MA in English, and I have NEVER had to write that sort of essay, asking to focus on that type of detail, without supporting materials (the primary or secondary texts, at a minimum).

And, dare I ask: how is a standard maintained when each student can choose different texts? How do you objectively assess that? The simple answer is you don’t. A previous administrator once informed us we should not be spending more than 1 minute per essay, as they had only allotted us 3 hours to grade 800 essays. Yeah. THAT sounds objective.

So, back to the question of HOW I “align” myself - I do my damndest to ensure my students have the skills they will need to pass the test. We do the sample essays, peer reviews (with them using the scoring booklets), format reviews, etc. But I also want them to learn beyond the test. So I do a lot of creative work, different types of essays, etc. I cannot justify teaching ONE type of essay, for I do not have ONE type of student.

Now, I CAN see using this sort of activity in the beginning of the school year. It makes sense to me to introduce the standards at that point and create a class “checklist” of sorts to keep track of class progress. That would be helpful in getting students involved and would be great to keep referring back (and/or adjusting) as the year passes by. That is something I could see myself utilizing next September, especially as we embrace (lovingly?) the Common Core standards - at a minimum, I will be able to remind myself of what the standards are.

And, for backwards design - I have already started purchasing books on that topic. I plan to use part of my summer to see if I can re-invigorate my lesson planning (it is a bit stale right now) and take advantage of that research. It makes sense to me in the abstract, but I need to make it real. I need to rethink a lesson and see what I really want, and what I am really asking.