Thursday, April 24, 2014

That Moment When You Know Your Lesson was a Win

This week, we started an interdisciplinary unit that our literacy team developed with the 7th grade science team.  Our students read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle, one of my favorites! In English class, we get to focus on elements of writing, like tone, mood, style, and syntax.  Because science helps us out by doing a lot of in-class reading, we're really able to dig in to the text and do some close reading and analysis.  In science, students study the solar system and discuss the ways that science fiction bends the rules of true scientific fact.  Overall, I think the kids really enjoy this unit, and it's definitely one of the teaching highlights of my year.

Yesterday, my lesson focused on descriptive language.  We began the lesson by looking at a passage from a new book I'm reading, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender Here's the passage:

After analyzing this passage together and discussing the use of sensory imagery to create a full experience for the reader, students used a QR Code to access a Padlet wall, where they posted pictures of descriptive passages from chapter 3 of A Wrinkle in Time. We used the Padlet wall examples to discuss the various ways that authors use language to create imagery.  Finally, my students used theses model passages to write their own descriptive paragraphs.  They could write about anything they wanted, real or imagined.  The only direction I gave them was to be descriptive without using "fluffy" language or using too many words.  Below are some of the passages they wrote:

The corner of Maple Street was alive with fragrances.  Kids would congregate outside to see who would get the treats.  When the door opened, the heavy fragrances of fresh flour and strawberry icing and the vivid clinks of the cash register polluted the air. Kids were bribing their parents for one more scrumptious treat that made their mouths water.  The sound of the unfolding of brightly decorated candy wrappers was heard by all ages.  Through the glass, you could see the heat of the freshly made dessert all waiting for the kids.

The alley is a great place to get hurt.  Rats eating out of the trash; fire in barrels. Homeless people hug the wall for comfort. Gangs looking for trouble and store owners ready for anything. Trash litters the alley floor, leaving only an unhealthy habitat. 

Serene and beautiful, calm and quiet.  The woods call, as the wind talks to the slightly swaying trees. A babbling brook teaming with life, gently sounds as it flows over the rocks. You can smell the flowers from the not-so-far away meadow.  They smell sour and sweet. The colony of bees buzzes, for the honey is sweet, but the journey is treacherous. The shapes of fish blocked by the fading shadows of the weeping willows, a place tucked inside a land dotted by river bends.

The dusty baseball field is old. The bases are worn and battered from all the sliding.  The spotlights are cracked and losing their light. Three bats, all dented, lay against a rusty metal fence. The lights shut off as the sun sets after a long day at the ballpark. 

In the afternoons, I go to a place of peace and quiet.  It is a place with two softhearted people who love to help search for requests.  It's a place with the smell of wood and paper, and a hint of coconut pie.  When I look around, I see people sitting in bean bags, enjoying themselves.  I see people touching the smooth texture of words.  I sometimes hear people whispering to themselves, or the bubbling of the fish tank filled with goldfish swimming while their fins glitter in the light.  The place I go to is the amazing library. 

As she stood on the ledge, she could feel the cold steel of her foot blade pressing up against the bottom of her smooth baby soft skin.  She could smell the polluted air of the big city.  She could hear the planes soaring high in the jet streams, and the task force rushing up the stairs ready to fire the 300 degree metal shells into her cold, weak body.  Blood dripping slowly from her wounds.  Slowly she leans forward and dives, the wind rushing over her, and the dark shirt she got on a  warm Christmas morning flapping in the wind. Then, right before she hits the ground, she wakes up in her safe bed. 

What I love about each of these paragraphs is that they're so different.  You can see a little slice of each student's personality in the way that they craft their writing.  What I loved about this lesson was that each student was totally engaged in the process.  They worked hard to search for strong examples of description because they wanted to post the best pictures on the board.  They took their time and revised their writing because they wanted to make it on my blog.  In this case, technology wasn't the center of the lesson; beautifully crafted writing was.  Instead the technology served to create an authentic audience in each step of the lesson, and that's just the way it should be.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reflections on Benchmark Week

Well, we all survived ACTAAP testing last week.  The children worked hard and checked their work and did their best each day, and every afternoon we celebrated their hard work and success.  I even danced in a teacher talent show.  Despite all the efforts of our school to make the week as "fun," or at least as bearable, as possible, I struggle every year with my feelings about standardized testing.  In fact, I was in a terrible, negative mood during my last two weeks of work.  Standardized testing makes me feel like a sell-out.  I feel like I'm compromising my beliefs as an educator, my beliefs about what makes a good classroom learning environment, and my beliefs about how we can best assess students' progress and knowledge.

On one hand, I firmly believe that a standardized test cannot and will not yield the most accurate measure of my students' success.  It's also the furthest thing from authentic.  Yes, adults have to take standardized tests to enter some professions; teachers take the Praxis; doctors and therapists take board exams.  But once we all enter the work force, no one is going to ask us to fill in a bubble sheet during the work day.  I would rather my kids be measured by the way they can authentically apply their knowledge and skills, not by how they can regurgitate information.

At the same time, I want my kids to feel successful, and knowing that they could be labeled "Basic" isn't going to make them feel great.  While I want my classroom instruction to be authentic, inquiry-based, and student-led, I also feel the need to give in to the culture of testing that is so prevalent in our society.  It's difficult to reconcile these two lines of thought.  I fully supported my students this week in their work.  I did everything I could to pump them up and get them excited, and I want their performance to reflect well on my school and on my instruction.  Most of all, I want them to know that I'm proud of them.

But in spite of all that, there's a part of me that feels like sticking it to the man, like telling the children that this is just one big week of data collection, and I'm over it.  My students are unique, intelligent, wonderful individuals.  Each of them is more than a student ID number and a test score, and I hope that our education system can someday move to a system of accountability that celebrates their different learning styles and needs and honors the professionalism and craft of teachers.  For now, we made it through another year of standardized testing.  Time to focus on finishing out the year with our science fiction unit.  Looking forward to another week of teaching and learning!