17 January 2009

Elementary Educators: Raise Your Voice

To my elementary educator peeps, I need your help.

Suppose that you were expected to teach more science during your already overloaded school day. This expectation was coupled with the promise that if you do this, another item would be removed from your responsibility (or you could have something you needed/wanted for your classroom). What would that one thing be?

This is reminiscent of the negotiations I blogged about a few weeks ago. If the state expects teachers to increase something, then it should offer that expectation in trade for something else. Tell me, teachers, what is your number one choice? Less than 120 minutes a day for reading? More planning time? Is there a professional resource that would like...or a particular assignment you have that should go away? What would make your classroom life nicer---or at least nice enough that you would be willing to take on more science instruction?

If you have an idea to share, please leave it in the comments or send me an e-mail. This is not a drill. Your answers may well be used as the basis for some changes in the state. I have another question to post in a couple of days about scheduling and the use of specialists. Keep your thinking caps on for me.


Angela Watson said...

Interesting topic. While I can think of many trade-offs I would enjoy in exchange for teaching more science (specifically, increased pay and additional planning time), it seems logical that the trade-off would have to involve teaching LESS of some other subject.

I would rather decrease the amount of time we spend on writing instruction (45 minutes a day). Most of the year, we spend this time focusing on narrative essays, which is a NOT a real-life skill for most kids. (When was the last time the average adult composed a fictional story, just for the heck of it?). However, since composing narratives is a part of our state standardized test in 4th grade, guess what we teach?

That time could be better spent on many other things, and in the particular scenario you're proposing, one of those things would be science. Helping kids understand the world around them and interpret nonfiction texts about scientific topics is exciting and meaningful. I'd love to have more time for it.

Michaele Sommerville said...

Though I don't live in the same state, I don't know that I'd trade one thing for another...give me quality science (and the time to teach it) along with a full time aide. An aide for my room only (presently I share an aide).

Call me greedy.

The Science Goddess said...

Angela---Writing is evidence of thinking, and I do think it could be used more intentionally. Many schools here also insist on an hour of writing (and narrative, at that) four days per week. Interesting idea you have.

Michaele---I wondered if anyone would mention aides/paraeducators. I think that could be a viable path not just for science, but for learning in general.

Jenny said...

Like Michaele I'm not willing to give anything up. I teach an hour of writing and at least an hour of reading and math each everyday and I wouldn't trade it. However, I would love some paid time to really explore my science and social studies standards deeply in order to plan ways to integrate them into my math and language arts blocks more. I still want time for just science and social studies as well, but I think the integration would be really helpful. I just don't have the time to get it all together.

kristin said...

interesting stuff!

i am a preschool teacher/director and my husband is high school biology (in kansas!!!!).

eager to read more.


organized chaos said...

id like to have more resources on how to incorporate science into language arts and math. i wont lie- reading, writing and math have to be a priority at a school like mine. but that doesnt mean they have to be taught in isolation. how can we combine them to teach two at once?I

teacherninja said...

Axe spelling and grammar in the lower grades and make grammar open-book only in high school.

Jane said...

I'm a parent, but I have a suggestion. Stop spend most of the school day repeating what my child already knows. That would free up plenty of time to teach her the science and history that she doesn't know.

From what I have seen, if classes were made up of kids with reasonably close skill levels (e.g. less than three grade level spread between highest and lowest skill level) there would be more time to teach. It has to take more teacher time to teach a classroom with five grade levels in reading than one with three.


Jenny said...

@Jane On the risk of heading way off topic, I think your idea, while wonderful in theory, fails in reality. One reason is that grouping students by reading levels will most likely still leave you with a wide range of abilities in math, writing, science, social studies, etc. Plus, even grouping by reading levels becomes problematic as children progress more quickly or slowly throughout the school year and the gaps grow. You also hit the concerns of tracking children and not allowing them to excel. Grouping students is a challenging thing to do well under the best of circumstances and the only way it truly works is if groups are fluid and flexible.

Jane said...

@Jenny. How about grouping kids by their skill levels in math, writing, science, social studies, reading etc? Putting kids in a heterogenous classroom is a way to keep kids from progressing. If a kid doesn't have access to materials they don't already know, it is difficult for them to learn at school.

At that point, school become fairly bad daycare.

And, there is a fair bit of wasted time in the day that could be put to good use.

Grouping students by skill level may be hard but effective. Grouping kids by age may be easy, but for high level kids, it is not an efficient use of their time.

Jenny said...

@Jane Valid question. Would you suggest that kids rotate through different teachers based on their skill level for different subjects? That's one option. A lot of time is lost in transition during each day if you do so. You also lose a lot of opportunities to make important connections across subject areas when you have multiple teachers working with students throughout the day.

My biggest concern with this is the ongoing assessment and flexible grouping of children. We did this in math for several years and found that it wasn't helping our students. We would preassess students for a given strand in math (fractions, geometry, etc) and group them. At the end of the unit we did a final assessment and then preassessed for the next unit. If they hadn't been successful in the previous unit it was unlikely anyone would do remediation for them because they had moved on to a new unit and, possibly, a new teacher. If we didn't do continual assessments we risked students falling through the cracks. It's very, very difficult to make those sorts of groupings really effective for everyone.

I don't mean to suggest that our current method of grouping students is the best option. I'm not completely convinced that it is. I'm just not totally sold on grouping by ability. I don't know what the answer is.

Jane said...


One way to handle the groupings would be to give children the end of the week exam (for reading, language arts, math, etc) on Monday. The kids who score above some benchmark (e.g. 85%) would go off to the science specialist or art specialist or history specialist or somewhere useful. The kids who score below the benchmark stay in the classroom and work on the material.

I don't know that you can measure ability in a meaningful manner. I suspect that no matter what someone's ability is, if they don't have the requesite background material, they can't access the curriculum. For example, no matter how smart someone is, they can't jump into a Japanese literature class without knowledge of written and spoken Japanese.

However, we can measure skills. If someone knows how to count to 100, they don't need to spend the next four months practicing counting to 100. If someone can read Harry Potter novels, they don't need to sit in class going through the second grade open court monstrosity.

They need to learn things they don't already know.

Maybe there aren't groupings that are effective for everyone, but the hetergenous grouping seem to be bad for most.

It has been a disaster for my children. My oldest child has learned not to pay attention in class. She reads novels all day. My middle child has learned that children of a specific ethnic group are dumb. My youngest thinks that school is where you goof off with your friends.

I have also seen how awful the heterogenous grouping is for my friend's son with a learning disability. He sits in class all day struggling. He knows he is at the bottom of the class, and so do all the other kids. He asks in class why he can't read his books and my daughter can read her novels. The teacher doesn't have anywhere near the time to deal with both kids.

It is hard to see that there would a solution that is worse for the low and high kids than the current heterogenous groupings.

Jenny said...

@Jane What you describe sounds awful. The first graders in my classroom who can count to 100 are not spending their time doing so anymore. They've moved on to more challenging math activities. One girl in my class is reading far above her peers; she has special assignments and activities to meet her needs. It is a challenge to meet the needs of a variety of learners, but it's not impossible and it's what should be happening in every classroom in our country. The fact that it isn't is depressing.

Jane said...

It is awful, but this is the reality. My middle child started kindergarten knowing how to count 100. She has been practicing that thru kindergarten, first grade and second grade. Fortunately, we have a diagnosis and a 504 plan for her. We brought up that fact that she has known how to count to 100 for three year in her 504 meeting this year. Fortunately, she was also acting up in class (isn't that a horrible thing to be grateful for?) when this sort of review was going on. We were able to point out that her 504 calls for her to have challenging instruction.

The special ed specialist justified our child having to review material she has known for year by the fact that some third graders dont' know how to count to 100.

I guess my point is that there are terrible abuses that go on with heterogenous groupings.

Jenny said...

@Jane "I guess my point is that there are terrible abuses that go on with heterogenous groupings." I agree. I just think that homogenous groupings wouldn't fix those abuses. The problem is so much larger. Sadly.

@Science Goddess Thanks for your patience with this discussion. It's been fascinating and enlightening for me.