Monday, August 23, 2010

Informing Our Own Practice

Here we are at the end of summer, ready to take on a new school year. I have spent this summer doing a great deal of reading and reflecting.* After seeing my students’ standardized test scores**, my first reaction was to crawl under a rock and hide. But now I am looking at it differently.

Last year I did more to “improve test scores” than any previous year. My students spent a half hour per day on a computer program geared to increase standardized test scores. Really, this was an hour of test practice. Since only one half of my group could be on the program at once, my plan was to see small reading groups with the other half of the class. However, I spent every day having to leave my reading groups to troubleshoot computer problems. Reading groups became a distant memory. I chose instead to have students work on language arts and math test preparation activities. We worked on standardized test questions released by the state ad nauseum. In addition, I went over every single math chapter test with my students, most of which match the standardized test in format, to ensure students were ready for “the test.” I shudder to think of how much instructional time I lost, or I should say my students lost, by engaging in these types of activities.

Well, you know what happened. My scores tanked. Now, I know every group of students is different with different needs. But as I reflect on last year, I do not recognize myself as a teacher. Little by little, my professional practice has been violated and eroded by mandates and test scores. You figure it’s OK to give in a little bit. But a little bit here and a little bit there adds up to a boring, disengaging, meaningless curriculum. It stings. But looking in the mirror is what we need to do as professionals, and this is what I have done. Teachers cannot blame the students. We need to look at what we can do to improve our craft. It is important to point out that how we engage in this process is critical.

So what is the answer? I submit it is informing our own practice based upon our own research, reading, collaboration, and sharing. We need to engage in critical pedagogy – ask questions and ensure that what we do is rooted in what is truly best practice for students. I am very skeptical when I hear presenters say, “Research shows….” and then go on to spout off this and that in order to justify what they are presenting. What research? Conducted and commissioned by whom? Are we talking one or two studies, or the preponderance of studies? How recent is the research? Is this a new finding, or one that has existed for years? Are the studies quantitative or qualitative in nature? What is the size of the research group? How strong are the effects? OK, I could go on and on, but you get the idea. As teachers, it is our obligation to be critical and ask questions. We are being asked to change our practice – there had better be some damn good reasons why.

So what will change for me this year? First, I am going to return to teaching practices that I know are effective and grounded in solid research. Second, I plan on incorporating some new practices based upon the reading I have done this summer. Third, I am going to listen to my students to ensure theirs is an education guided by their voices, not by standardized testing. I am looking forward to a great year.

*Books I have read this summer:
Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades by Mary Cowhey
No More “I’m Done!” – Fostering Independent Writers in the Primary Grades by Jennifer Jacobson
Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Differentiated Instruction for Building Strategic, Independent Readers by Jennifer Serravallo
-Note: While the first two books state they are geared toward primary grades, I recommend them for every grade level. The examples given may be in primary classrooms, but the lessons and ideas can be utilized at every grade level.

** In the state of California, criterion-referenced tests are utilized instead of norm-referenced tests.

1 comment:

  1. I am a program specialist for devlopmentally disabled adults. I know that you are talking about primary grades but the philosophy is so important that it spans through more than just school. In my field there are so many hoops to jump through that there is more time given to meeting guidlines than actually interaction. Standards are an important thing because they keep us honest, but those of us who are already honest have to lessen our potential to meet someone elses lowest achievment. I have found that coloring outside the lines and following my heart has as much if not more potential than collecting data and following strict guildlines. It is a grand undertaking to find balance that works in the learner's best interest. I wish you the best.