Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why I love Common Core

When my son Jack was in kindergarten, he had an amazing teacher.  I"ll call her VB. She used a marvelous routine she called "Plan-Do-Review."   Every day the students would plan how they wanted to spend their morning, and write it up (plan).  This is kindergarten, so emergent literacy, of course!  Here is Jack's from early December:

VB would make notes - correct the spelling of "pirate" for example - and then the kids would play (do)!   When that time was over, VB would gather the class around one child or team, and they would explain what they'd done.  Not just what they planned, but how it turned out, and what decisions they made along the way.  Then the other children were allowed to ask questions, and then they were allowed to make comments (review).  In the case of Jack's pirate ship, it was built from blocks.  He spent several days building various things with blocks, until one day one of the other children said, "That one block looks like a slingshot."  The next day, the same little cluster of kids used a rubber band and the Y block, and spent the morning knocking over their block constructions.  His Plan sheet says, "Can I play angry birds?"

All in all, it was a fabulously fun experience for the kids, but also terrific for their cognitive development.  As the year went on, their Plan part got more elaborate - they learned punctuation and the difference between a period and question mark.  They learned possessives, and numerals, and proper nouns, and it all showed up on their Plan sheets.  The Do-ing was fabulous, too.  They learned to collaborate, to share, to imagine.  And the Review part - they learned to speak in front of people, to articulate their processes, and to share ideas. 

This process addresses - among others - Common Core Standard W.K.5 "With guidance and support from adults, respond to questions and suggestions from peers and add details to strengthen writing as needed."  It is age appropriate, provides guidance, and allows for growth.

I was intrigued last week to see a talk given by Dr. Megan Koschnick.   She's not wrong about children and their developmental phases, but about minute 19, something caught my eye.  Dr. Koschnick was discussing the exact standard I've cited above, and imagines the implementation in this way:

This little kindergartner, is the little adult, right? Is going to hold this board meeting, where she’s going to present her writing, she’s going to elicit feedback from her peers, and then she’s going to take that criticism -“feedback”[air quotes hers] - back to the writing table and she’s going to edit her work to include details and strengthen her writing based on the suggestions of other people. ...  anybody who's had kids is like "what? that's not going to happen."

She then goes on to say that this is unrealistic and, in her professional opinion, will lead to "loss of creativity, frustration, possibly conflict, and lots of tears."  She probably is right ... except that it doesn't have to be that way.      I have read a lot of stuff about common core that makes me angry, but this frankly made me sad.  It made me sad that a simple standard, the student will "respond to questions and suggestions from peers" - that I had seen executed so fabulously - could be carried out in such a horribly destructive fashion.

Teaching can be done well, and can be done not well.  Common Core can be done well, and can be done not well.  Do it well! 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

I never, not ever...

When I was in college, we played a game called, "I never..." When it was your turn, you said something that you've never done - I've never kissed a boy on the first date, or I've never been to Colorado - and anyone who had done it would take a drink.

We played a version last summer at church camp. We had one-too-few chairs (musical chairs-style) and the person in the middle would claim something - I've never run a marathon - and anyone who had would have to jump up and find a new seat.  The slowpoke who didn't get a new seat had to be the next "caller."

Tuesday we played with my algebra students.  We had learned polynomial vocab on Monday, so Tuesday I put them all in a circle and gave everybody a polynomial.  I would say, get up and move if you are a binomial! ... if your leading coefficient is 2! ... if you're a quadratic!  What ensued what raucous fun!  Those 8th graders wrestled and played like kindergarteners.  We laughed and shouted and cheered.

What surprised me, though, was how much real learning was happening.  I had expected it to be a diversion, another way to get those vocabulary words out there, but was impressed by how much it actually helped.  Kids would say, "wait, wait, am I a binomial?" or (not surprisingly) they'd tell on each other, "Kaylan was supposed to move!" I could ask, "why do you say so?" and then "Kaylan, care to defend yourself?" MP3, folks!!!

Real-world activity? Umm, no. High engagement? Most definitely.

On Wednesday, I tried to grab a restroom break between second and third period, and when I walked into my classroom they had moved the tables and put the chairs in a circle.  They were shouting out questions and answers - one girl would yell "binomial!" and everyone would yell back "two terms!" I was so touched, I scrambled to come up with a way to keep playing.  I grabbed a sharpie and a stack of index cards and gave everybody either a constant, or a single variable raised to some exponent.  I reminded them about factors of a number, and then gave a quick defintion of factors of monomials.

First we did a few rounds where I'd write a monomial on a white board, and you had to jump up if you were holding a factor. Then I started writing two monomials, and you would jump up if you had a common factor. After each round, I would have all the people who were holding factors stand up. We'd confirm, and them we'd decide whose cards comprised the Greatest Common Monomial.  What had been a review and reinforcing exercise yesterday had become a teaching exercise today. And it was just as fun the second time!

My daughter is in that class, and just to be mean I gave her "1" on the second day. It was fun watching the kids notice that she was getting up every time and tying to work out why. One boy raised his hand and said, "is there a case when Kate's the only one who gets up?" You could really see the wheels turning!

I stopped the game for a few minutes to re-group and give examples of factoring GCMonomials from polynomials.  We factored a multi-variable monomial from a trinomial, and they started murmuring about how easy it was, when would I get to the hard stuff?  I was pleased with how accessible they found the whole thing.

I'm a big believer that fun and engaging aren't the same thing, but this game really was both.  I also contend that this game didn't actually have anything that put the concepts in context, or any of the other edu-trends, but it did reinforce the skills in a motivating way. I am genuinely curious to see how the summative assessments turn out for this. I'm also more than a little worried about how to ever live up to this week!