10 November 2007

Spatial Reasoning

I was recently reminded of the following story via The Big Fresh newsletter:

A child was asked to clean up her room before her mother arrived home from a trip. The girl threw dozens of little items in her toy box---Legos, trinkets, Matchbox cars. She then placed larger items on top---dolls, boxed puzzles, games---only to find that the lid of the toy box wouldn't shut. Her father came in to help, and explained, "You need to take everything out. Always put the largest items in first. The small items will fit around the large items."

If we make the story a metaphor for both space and time in our classrooms, how many of us teachers have our classrooms so full of the small things that the larger ones are pushed out?

I've been thinking about this on two different scales. The first is more of a macroscopic interest take on life, as I try to juggle dissertation, grad school classes, teaching, taking care of the house, and maintaining some semblance of a personal life. I wish I could discretely lump each of those into a category of either "big thing" or "small thing," but I just can't. So much is context dependent. Their relative sizes change with my priorities for the day or week. Do I have anything due for my grad school class? If not, that's a small item for the week. Are my lessons plans done for my classes? Oops, not quite...I guess that makes them something big at the moment.

On a very different scale, I've been working on the big and small of grading. The biggest thing to fit into the box is student learning. I think maybe it always has been The Big Idea, but I didn't treat it as such. Like the girl putting away her toys, I didn't always choose the largest item to put in first. Instead, I got distracted by other things that I thought were big: late work, no retakes on tests, using zeros to punish lazy kids. The reality is that those all represent "small stuff," and I'm just not sweating the small stuff anymore. It isn't to say that academic behaviors aren't important, just that they don't receive the lion's share of my attention. I see a lot of my colleagues frothing at the mouth over late work...and I just think "Why?" Why would I want to expend all that energy fussing over late work? Aren't the kids better served if I use that same time and attention to help them improve their learning? If a student has been sick for several days and grades are due---I can assign them an "incomplete" on the report card instead of inserting zeros as placeholders. Kids can show me their learning when they're healthy and ready to focus.

Some of my colleagues marvel that I'm farther ahead in the book than they are. I shake my head. If the big things in the curriculum are the standards, then those get placed in my classroom first. I understand how tempting it is to want to squeeze in all of the small things of biology first---there are so many great ideas to explore. I just can't do that anymore. First things first: Get the kids ready to meet the standards.

I look around my school and think about what other teachers are choosing as their priorities for time and energy. (One of these days, I'm going to remember to take my camera to school and take pictures of the posters and sayings about grades teachers are putting up. It hurts to read them.) While I can't agree with many of the choices I see being made, I can also recognize that I have had different needs over the course of my career. There's been some ebb and flow in terms of the size of the objects we need to manage within our walls. Our spatial reasoning changes---and hopefully improves---with experience, because I can't believe that the enormity of our task has changed.


Mr. McNamar said...

Science Goddess,
When I moved to Connecticut, I decided that I would really try to focus on student learning as opposed to the other details. However, even with a no penalaty for late work policy and a verbalized belief that every assignment is important, the first quarter average for all of my five classes was a 58%.
I love the theory, but how do you make the theory work when your students haven't matured enough to see the "big" things in their own academic life?

The Science Goddess said...

I think a no late work policy is just one part of the answer. I don't use averages anymore and have revamped some other pieces of the grading puzzle. My kids and I seem to making this work and the dynamics in the classroom are positive. They have the power over their own grades. I mostly have plain jane sophomores---some of whom are incredibly immature. I can't claim that they all see the big things in their own academic lives, just within my classroom.