Oops I Did It Again – Reflections on mCLASS from a 1st Grade Teacher

mCLASS. To most outside of the world of teaching, this is just another one of those acronyms that goes in one ear and out the other. To those inside the world of teaching, it brings along a wide mix of feelings. For those unfamiliar, mCLASS is a literacy assessment tool that is mandated in all schools in North Carolina. It is administered on an ipad. The TRC component of mCLASS assesses a student’s ability to read different leveled texts through their accuracy and comprehension.

Teachers have seen many similar assessment tools over the years, but mCLASS goes one step further and assesses students’ comprehension not only orally but in written form. Students read a prompt without any assistance from the teacher, find evidence from the book to support their answer and respond to the question with specific details from the text. This falls right in long with Common Core’s initiative to go deeper and challenge students to be able to think critically about their reading.

Through my own experience with mCLASS and discussions with colleagues, I have come to realize that teachers have varying opinions about mCLASS. Some see it as just another assessment on the pendulum of change in education. Others see it as a great tool for measuring students’ reading abilities. Many are frustrated with the way it sets students back. Here are some of the basic pros and cons that I understand:

PROS

  1. mCLASS provides parent letters informing them about their student’s levels and ways that they can support them at home.
  2. mCLASS gives you some helpful information about a student’s reading profile and can help to target their needs in guided reading.
  3. When students move schools or districts, their assessment information can be accessed from their new school, helping to streamline information.

CONS

  1. Students are assessed way too often. The lowest students who need the most instructional time are being assessed the most.
  2. Some of the written response questions are not written on a student’s reading level. If they cannot read the question, they are automatically unable to sufficiently answer.
  3. Students’ answers are very harshly evaluated. Answers that I would consider acceptable do not pass according to the assessment rubrics.
  4. Students’ writing scores are not averaged. They may knock it out of the park on one question but if they miss one part on the second one, mCLASS will kick them back.

I am currently in a grad school class on Content Area Literacy. We were given a task to write a nonfiction narrative on numbers. Two peers and I decided to take a deeper look at some trends we have noticed with mCLASS results in our classrooms. We each teach either 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade. One common trend we noticed was that many high level readers drop significantly when being assessed on mCLASS. This is due to a lot of factors – whether it be the selection of leveled texts, the student’s ability to read the written comprehension questions or the amount of evidence needed to provide a sufficient answer. We decided to write a parody of “Oops I Did It Again” about our students’ experiences with mCLASS.

Here are the links to the video along with blog posts from my peers:

“Oops I Did It Again” – mCLASS Parody

2nd Grade Teacher’s Perspective

3rd Grade Teacher’s Perspective

As teachers, we will continue to monitor students’ reading progress and help them develop deeper comprehension skills, no matter the instrument. But even more than that, we recognize that students are more than just the numbers on a data sheet and recognizing their skills and areas to improve within and outside of assessments is the true mark of great teaching.

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Establishing a Knowledge Constructivist, Growth Mindset Community

I went to a meeting on Thursday for our district’s math leadership committee. I feel very honored to be a part of this as probably the youngest person on the team. I also feel that math is the content area that I feel least skilled at differentiating instruction and helping students to uncover their own learning so I am excited to discover new ways to enhance my math instruction and feedback.

A large part of our meeting was centered on growth mindset. Growth mindset is the belief that intelligence and personality can be developed rather than being ingrained character traits. Thus, there are no students who are “bad at math” or “just not readers”. Everyone is on a journey to discovering their own potential, which limits are unknown. This lies in contrast to a fixed mindset, which holds that one’s character, intelligence and creativity are static givens and that failure must be avoided at all costs. Most teachers and parents, whether they are aware of it or not, possess and engage with students in a fixed mindset. We need to change the way that we provide feedback to students, the way that we organize students into groups and the way that we model for students the benefits of failure and learning from mistakes.

Growth-v-FixedI never really felt a sense of failure until starting my first year of teaching. I don’t even think I was failing but with all of the pressures and demands that go into teaching, I felt like I was unable to accomplish all that I wanted and needed to be the best I could be for my students. At the age of 22, this was an experience that I did not know how to cope with. My health started to decline, I had major anxiety that still affects me even 4 years later and I began to hate going to work. I even remember driving home listening to The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” and thinking, “Surely death would be better than this life I am living right now.” As a person who had always experienced great success and loved going to school, I began to feel like I wasn’t even myself anymore. As a result of this experience, I feel strongly that students need to have many safe experiences with failure, starting from a very young age. Coupled with that needs to be direct instruction about why failure is good and what to do when it happens. This needs to come both from the teacher modeling and discussion about failure and what happens afterward.

Here is an interesting TED talk about the importance of being wrong: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QleRgTBMX88Picture 3So how do I begin to talk about this with first graders? I began to search for picture books that might broach this topic. I had a lot of trouble with finding a direct source that listed books so asked others for advice. With help from a peer (thanks Stephanie!), I found a list that included a book called Tillie and the Wall by Leo Lionni which talks about a mouse who wants to get to the other side of a wall and the process she takes to get there. Then I discovered a book called The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, which is the story of a girl who tries so hard to make an invention but experiences a lot of trial and failure in the process. As I continued to search on Amazon, I found more and more books that address the ideas of constructing knowledge and the growth mindset. I decided to make a BuzzFeed article that will help others identify books engaging in these topics. Here is the link: http://www.buzzfeed.com/lisamartin689/picture-books-to-teach-constructing-knowledge-and-1ue72.

Picture 2

I am really excited to try these books and have some great discussions this coming week! Stay tuned for another post about how it went!

Gamification – Finding Knowledge in Tech”knowledge”y

This weekend, my husband and I were out of town for the wedding of two close college friends in Winston-Salem. We decided to go up a night early to enjoy some peaceful time in the Western part of the state after all of the craziness of the first week back at school. On Saturday morning before the wedding, we had some extra time and decided to visit the campus of Wake Forest and find a cozy niche in the library to prepare for the coming week.

Wake Forest students work in the atrium of the Z. Smith Reynolds Library on Wednesday, November 16, 2011.I sat there amidst incredible architecture, countless books and reverent solitude ready to tackle the tasks at hand. This week in one of my grad school classes, our professor gave us a quest to design a video game and reflect on ways that we could use it in our classroom.  Yes you heard that right – a video game. As I manipulated the controls and tested my game, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself about what others were probably thinking who were working or passing by me. Wow – look at that girl – she is totally off task, wasting her time playing a video game that looks like something I used to play in elementary school. Why is she here in the library playing a game, instead of enjoying the beautiful weather outside or almost anything else that would be more interesting than sitting in a hushed library? I eagerly wished that I could shout out to all of those around me “You wouldn’t believe it but this is actually my coursework in grad school this week!” The astonishment that I knew would appear on their faces was almost too rich to resist.

I have found myself thinking about the assignments and quests in this class even when I am on my own leisure time or could be thinking about a million other things not involving work. The incorporation of gamification in this course invigorates my excitement about taking on a new quest, pushing myself further, even doing more work than is required of me. It is in fact somewhat addicting.

I have mused (and heard others talk) a lot recently about how dangerous the power of technology can be, especially on those as young as our students. Rarely am I out at a restaurant or a sporting event without seeing a myriad of ipads, iphones, tablets, etc. filling the places around me. I think there is an important balance here that we as a society have not yet successfully found. At the same time, I wonder what might happen if teachers began to use the power of technology to engage students in asking the questions and acquiring the content knowledge that they have been killing themselves to teach. What if we used technology as a source of power rather than a threat to students’ concentration?

Enter gamification. If you’re like me, this is a term that I had never heard before until recently. So since my class is based completely off of its structure, I decided to do a little research for myself about what gamification is, who’s doing it, why they are doing it and what it looks like in a classroom. I was astounded by how many results I found. Here are the results I found most interesting focusing solely on twitter results from the past 15 hours:

Storify on Gamification – https://storify.com/lisamlangford/gamification

I had NO idea that there was so much stir about gamification! I was blown away by the amount of information I was able to find about it in such a short amount of twitter time! Gamification appears to be very on the rise, not only in education but in marketing, healthcare, HR, etc. I started to feel like I missed the boat on something new and exciting happening all around me!

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For those skeptical about gamification, I totally understand your hesitation. At the same time, I would like to offer you some food for thought. As the saying goes, “if you can’t beat them, join them”. If teachers are feeling frustrated that technology is distracting their students from learning, maybe it’s time that we figure out a way to bring learning through technology. Perhaps it’s time for teachers themselves to embark on a new quest of learning and investigate the tool of gamification. I’m not saying that it’s this brand new thing that is going to fix all of the current issues with student success or education. I’m not saying there will not be issues to figure out. I’m just saying that maybe it’s worth a closer look.

Just Skimming the Surface

I remember one of our first class meetings this semester – if I remember correctly, it was the first – we were asked to take on the identity of a group of students. Some were 3’s – those students that performed right on average, right on grade level. Some were 2’s – those who were making growth but just needed a bit more of a push. Others were 1’s – those who just seemed to fall behind no matter what you tried. And then you had the 4’s – the high fliers – the ones who you are always finding the need to challenge further. When we were first introduced this task, I thought, “Oh I’ve got this in the bag. I am well acquainted with the traits of these students and what types of scenarios might land students in each category.” But as we went around and shared, I soon came to find that I had totally missed it. We cannot group students into academic levels and give them a set of traits that they all have in common. We cannot skim over them merely as a number and give them a prescribed set of learning strategies. No they are not a number. They are so much more than that. In fact, we should really learn to look at students without any numbers at all.

This is one of the things I learned most from reading Choice Words and Opening Minds. We need to stop evaluating students on proficiency – particularly on proficiency that is on an individual basis. And we need to start focusing on students’ processes. It’s not so much about where you are or where you’ve been but rather where you are going. It’s not really about how fast or direct you are going but rather that you are in some way going forward in your learning. Even after a semester of reflecting on these books, this still seems like an impossible task. This is likely because I was born into a world of fixed-performers. My parents and teachers told me that I was good at math and so I succeeded even under pressure. Other friends of mine were not so lucky and so they struggled in math all the way throughout their years as a student. Was it because they truly were not good at math or was it because their mindset was such that they didn’t believe they were? It’s impossible to know but after reading Johnston’s books, I learn toward the likelihood that it was their mindset rather than their ability that hindered them from achieving their potential.

I got into teaching because I wanted to help kids become good people. And really when I think about it, so much of what Johnston taught me in these books came down to that at its very core. Being a good listener, developing social imaginations with empathy, asking deep questions, considering others’ viewpoints, using words wisely, and the list goes on. It’s time for me to stop stressing over whether or not by students are learning everything that they are supposed to. It’s time instead for me to start focusing on whether or not my students are becoming the people they are meant to be. People who can teach their teachers. People who can question the status-quo. People who can change the world.

Getting Back to Basics

Sometimes I find myself overcome with questions: Why am I doing this? Why did I decide to become a teacher? Is it really worth all of the time I spend planning, preparing, agonizing about what’s happening with my kids? How am I ever going to help them learn everything they need to learn so that they’re ready for 2nd grade? Will I ever be good enough to be the teacher that my students deserve? It’s perhaps not surprising that once questions like this start, they can quickly spiral on and on until I feel like I should quit tomorrow.

But then I take a step back and think about what really drove me to become a teacher. What is teaching really about at its foundation? When you take away all of the paperwork and emails and politics, what is teaching at its core?

The final two chapters of Opening Minds address these very questions. Our most critical task as teachers is to help students unlock the skills that will enable them to become democratic citizens working collaboratively to positively impact our world. It’s so easy to forget this with all of the pressure of performance standards and testing benchmarks.

So where do we start? An important step is to stop thinking about kids individually and starting thinking about what they can accomplish collaboratively. Teaching kids to think with others show an increase in reasoning ability, comprehension, expressive language, creative thinking, examining assumptions, willingness to speak in public, willingness to listen to others’ ideas, frequency of supporting views with evidence, quality of interpersonal relationships, confidence, self-esteem, persistence, and supportive group interactions (pg. 97). Obviously with so much at stake, teaching kids to collaborate and to do it well is critical in our classrooms.

Showing kids what this look like is key as well as working with them to establish a set of community norms. Johnston provides the following example in chapter 8 (pg. 105):

1. Listen and respect each other’s ideas.

2. Everyone gets to be heard.

3. We give reasons when we agree or disagree, and we ask for reasons when people forget to give them.

4. Everyone is responsible for group decisions, so we try to agree.

Helping kids to see that this structure not only positively impacts them individually but also the class as a whole will spark their engagement and respect for others’ ideas.

Our society is in dire need of change. That change begins in our schools. It begins in our classrooms. We must help our students to pave the way toward valuing the collaboration of diverse individuals with different backgrounds, perspectives, and desires. Only then can we truly begin to make the world a better place where all people can move closer to their potential and therein find their purpose.

We’re ready. Our students are ready. Let’s do it!

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Empathy Matters.

 

Johnston’s next two chapters deal with students’ social and moral development. He notices that often times we as educators feel that these elements take away from the precious time that we need to teach children academics but that in reality they offer “concrete places for understanding different perspectives, understanding and managing emotions, learning strategies for negotiating social conflict, and asserting a commitment to fairness” (pg. 91).

These chapters really reminded me of a story that my dad recently emailed to me that offers a perfect example of the importance of considering alternative perspectives. It was too good not to share:

“This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person is me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, UK. I was a bit early for the train. I’d gotten the time of the train wrong. I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table. I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind. Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase. It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.

Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your cookies. You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know…But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do a clue in the newspaper, couldn’t do anything, and thought, what am I going to do?

In the end I though, Nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened. I took out a cookie for myself. I thought, That settled him. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie. Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice…” I mean, it doesn’t really work.

We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back.

A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my cookies. The thing I like particularly about this story is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been wandering around for the last quarter-century a perfectly ordinary guy who’s had the same exact story, only he doesn’t have the punch line.” (https://searchfortheperhaps.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/a-funny-story-about-perspective/)”.

This story really drives home the importance of considering others’ points of view but it amazes me how difficult this can be for children and adults alike. Johnston talks in detail about the importance of helping students develop social imagination so that they are able to consider others’ thoughts, feelings, and ideas. This can be done by opening students’ minds to a variety of different books, while engaging them in conversations like the ones previously addressed in this book. Students talking and listening to each other, while considering not only each others’ thoughts and opinions but also those of the characters in the book, help them to develop their own social imagination. “The more children recognize that others routinely have different perspectives – not just physical perspectives, but emotional, motivational, and cultural perspectives – the more developed they become socially and morally as well as intellectually” (pg. 73).

My husband recently had a conversation with a close friend about homeschooling. While I admit that perhaps homeschooling is the best option for a select group of students and/or parents, I cannot help but think that within it, something is missing. “The value of diversity in our classrooms, along with conversations that maximize the value of that diversity for intellectual, social, and moral development, can’t be overstated” (pg. 85). Herein lies the beauty in our public schools. In order for students to develop the authentic ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes” and display empathy for those unlike themselves requires getting to know people who are different and taking time to engage in conversations about topics that may spark disagreement. This is my job as their teacher: to create an environment where it is okay to disagree and where listening is just as important, if not more, than talking.

I think that if classrooms (including my own) embraced these conversations more rather than rushing though them to get to the next standard, we would be creating true change in the world in a way that people could solve more problems by listening and brainstorming solutions rather than settling on the fact that we will never all agree. I have totally caught myself when conflict arises thinking, “Ok let’s settle this quickly so that we can get back to more important things like learning”, all the while forgetting that students often learn more from the ability to solve conflicts that anything I may have planned for the day. From here on, I hope to look for opportunities to use these seemingly “time wasters” into intentional sparks for increasing students’ social and moral development. Academics matter, certainly. But empathy matters more.

Raising the Bar

Chapter 4 of Opening Minds was all about feedback. We, as teachers, give kids feedback daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute. But I wonder how often students feel like the person in this cartoon. “Good job on what?”, “Challenge yourself as a writer how?”, “I’m proud of you – why?” – these are just a few of the questions that I can imagine popping into students heads when their teacher uses one of a million types of generic feedback. Johnston talks about the importance of giving feedback that “focus[es] attention on specific features of the performances” (pg. 36). This is the responsibility not only of teachers but of students as well. I often feel frustrated as a teacher when I cannot get to everyone to provide constructive feedback right at the moment when would help most. Johnston promotes an intentional solution in reminding us that “much of the feedback children experience comes from their peers. We have to remember that we are not just giving students feedback; we are also teaching them to provide it” (pg. 36). This is HUGE! Learning how to give constructive feedback and in turn teaching our students to do the same can have lasting impacts on our classroom. I am excited to “raise the bar” by adopting a new mindset geared toward using intentional specific feedback without praise and helping my students learn to do the same.


Chapter 5

What is the same about all three of these photos? They are all taking place in a classroom. They all involve people talking. But I think most important is that all are taking place without the presence of a teacher. These images represent the essence of a dialogic classroom – “one in which there are lots of open questions and extended exchanges among students [… they are] classrooms in which there are multiple interpretations and perspectives – classrooms in which facts are considered in different contexts and in which people challenge each other’s views and conclusions” (pg. 52).

One of the parts I gained most from in this chapter was Johnston’s focus on the students, rather than the teacher, playing the key roles in and facilitating the conversation. He provides some helpful steps that a teacher can take to make this happen (pg. 55):

1. Ask open questions.

2. Give enough wait time for students to respond.

3. Do not judge children’s ideas.

4. Don’t specify who will be allowed to respond.

5. In each response, show that you take their ideas seriously and are listening to them.

6. When you want an idea to be considered, use tentativeness markers (“I’m wondering if…” “Could he…”) to show a degree of uncertainty and reduce positional authority.

These practices, along with teaching students to manage turn taking without a teacher’s direction are some goals that I want to work through in the last quarter of the year with my students. I think that by starting early – with my students only being in 1st grade – students will hopefully learn the marks of a dialogic classroom so that they can go on to express their ideas clearly and know that it’s okay to disagree. It’s time to raise the bar on our classroom dialogue.