15 May 2011

Unknown Territory

We're wrapping up field testing, and for the last few weeks, I have been knee-deep in first graders. It's a situation I can highly recommend. I learned a lot---perhaps more than they did---as we looked at data, technology, and health (!) from our different vantage points.

There are very few large-scale content assessments out there for primary students. In fact, in our state, there are none. And before you send me dirty emails about leaving these little ones alone, I'd like to point out that these assessments (a) will be completely optional and (b) are not high-stakes. You can read the one I'm referencing here, but the gist was this: students were given/read a letter from a parent who was worried about her son becoming sick at school (immediately after a trip to the library where there were some new books). Students then did some research about what makes people sick, graphed and analyzed some attendance data, and finally recorded a voicemail to the parent stating what they found out and providing some advice. We selected the health-related content because we knew that the K-2 span is replete with opportunities to discuss where not to put your fingers, how to cough/sneeze in a "friendly" way, and reminders to wash your hands. Why not connect with what is already happening in the classroom?

What did I learn from all of this?
  • The prompt needs some revision, but it is pitch-perfect. Kids totally buy it and are excited about the content. 
  • One teacher told me it was the first time all year that kids went home to talk about what happened in class and then came back to report. However, one teacher "ruined" the illusion that the prompt wasn't "real," and kids were pissed. We need to include more background for teachers on what it means to do a problem-based learning unit with a class. 
  • Another teacher mentioned that while she thought the data pieces would be over the heads of her wee ones (and they were for some), many of the kids who "got it" were her typical behavior problem children. She wondered if they had been bored and in need of a challenge. I can't speak to that, but I can say we were pretty demanding---15 data points to plot. And while all of the teachers had previous taught bar graphs with students, there were never more than 3 categories and no one had ever asked the kids what they thought the data meant. But you know, students did a pretty good job. We asked them to think---and they did.
  • There were fabulous misconceptions uncovered. The adults in the room were fascinated by all the things students shared. For example, one kid said that the student got sick because the author put germs on the books. (Why not? We tell kids the author wrote the book.) Many understood that germs could be transferred from one person to another, but thought that once a germ landed someplace, it was there forever. 
  • Most 6-year olds cannot read their own handwriting. I'm not sure what that surprises me...but it does.
  • Collaboration, even at the elementary level where there is a much more conducive environment, is still difficult. I had one teacher-librarian tell me that the 1st grade teacher refused to spend any class time supporting the math/graphing skills or engaging in discussions of personal hygiene with students because she already had her whole year all planned out. Fair enough, I think to say that things didn't fit with current units of study---but to say that for months in advance you knew what you were doing each day? Makes me think something else was going on.
  • Listening to dozens of 6-year olds explain their thinking will send you into a diabetic coma from the sheer delight of it all.
There will still be some things we will have to figure out at Rangefinding. These assessments are meant to be measures of what students do, and the challenge at primary (when it comes to technology), is that a lot of it is teacher-directed. Kids made some fabulous audio recordings, but not without a ton of assistance and direction. I think that's okay...the committee may think otherwise. The other part of that, however, is communicating to teachers that kids need to use the technology. We had a beautiful description written by a primary teacher that described all of the resources she pulled and activities she did with kids...and not a single one of the student products used technology. I know, part of it is accessibility...part of it is kids knowing what to do and having some practice. But some of it is also a shift in approach. All of these things are on our shoulders, however. Every teacher who participated gave it their all and did an incredible job with the draft materials.

In another 6 weeks, these assessments will be finalized and sent out into the great wide world. After nearly 2 years with this project, we're a little older and wiser, but there's still an awful lot of unknown territory to cover.

1 comment:

Hugh O'Donnell said...

You're way out of my zone, SG, but it all sounds very cool. We gotta listen to the kids, eh?