Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP Testing) Year 1

  I just finished my first year of MAP testing. It's the first year that Bainbridge Island School District is doing it as a whole. We tested the Math test 3 times and I handled proctoring it for each of my classes. I want to share some of my feelings regarding it here for others who have the data or are considering using the test.
  For those not familiar with MAP testing it is a pretty good test as far as tests go. Students are asked 52 questions and the computer adjusts difficulty to find the sweet spot for what students are able to answer successfully. Students are asked questions that are more and more difficult as they continue get them right, and easier questions as they get them wrong. Ideally it should be able to successfully place a student's score within a few points and compare it to national averages to see where they rank.
  Normal grade level increases are approximately 6 points per grade though the results change a bit year after year. The intent of this is that the test remains somewhat static so that students see growth in the academic area, rather than taking a test in which the bar to pass is simply raised each year. As we are all too familiar with the thought that if I couldn't jump 5'6 last year, I probably can't jump 5'8 this year. MAP allows students to display what they know on a continual year over year scale focuses more on their advancement from last year or last test, rather than how high they jumped compared to everyone else.

My Results

  Looking at my homeroom my students averaged just over a 6 point increase with a range of -6 to +16 points between fall and spring tests. The test projects a 6 point increase for students and it exactly matches what I found, sort of. Much in kind with statistics, no student experienced a 6 point gain exactly. The problem with this data is not it's use globally, but it's application locally.
  From a school wide perspective, this means that I averaged a years worth of growth from my students in the area of mathematics. On some levels I have to consider this success. I stepped into a teaching role five days before the start of the year with a curriculum I was totally unfamiliar with and managed to pull off an average growth from my students. Increases were also fairly evenly distributed across the spectrum with some students with very low scores in fall increasing significantly as well as some students with very high scores initially improving as much as 12 points. Statistically speaking, I've been a successful teacher.

What do these results mean?

  Where things change are from the individual perspective, which is what each parent will see when the results are sent home. An average of 6 means that approximately as many students showed average growth as the number that did not. How will parents feel seeing that their student advanced half a grade for a years worth of work? This data will be used to judge teachers, if only by the teachers themselves. Is this really a fair way to do so?
  Of course a student with a six point loss didn't lose a year of knowledge, just as a student with a 16 point gain didn't suddenly advance their understanding from a 6th to a 9th grade level in mathematics. In other classes I've seen 12 to 14 point losses. Disappointing sure. But it doesn't really mean too much other than the student had a bad day. Now a student who, year after year, continues to show no advancement could become cause for concern. Also there's a good feeling when a student makes a noticeable gain and maintains it over time. But on an individual level, these scores are thin string of data points that don't really indicate much to me as a teacher, or possibly as a parent.

  There's continual fear of testing becoming a method to evaluate teacher success. While the Washington State MSP would be a travesty in this role, I'm not sure that MAP solves this issue either. The fact that I have scores of 75 students will help average out inconsistencies. But using MAP as a basis, I'm an average teacher. I think we'll find that most teachers are average teachers. Those who truly increase scores are probably focusing more on the kinds of questions that boost scores on the test, regardless of the students enjoyment and engagement.

  Again, this comes to the question of "what does good teaching look like?" I don't know the entire answer to that question but I'm pretty sure that it doesn't look like high test scores.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Role of Technology in Curriculum

  I've been giving a lot of thought to the nature of teaching technology. This is becoming especially pertinent as I move into a technology integration and support role in my new position on Lopez Island. However, even before this, as I was attending the NCCE (Northwest Council for Computer Educators) conference and interviewing for said position, I have begun to discover how much what we teach is controlled by the teacher's interests.
  I don't mean this in a negative way, by any means. When I moved into my current room which belonged to a much beloved math teacher, I noticed the walls were adorned with a significant amount of hockey paraphernalia. He even had a classroom management tool in which a slider moved a hockey figure from the scoring side to the defending side of the ice, presumably to match if the classroom was meeting it's goals of being quiet and working hard. His class sign was taped to a hockey stick. I thought, "This man loves him some hockey."
  Now this is a totally fine method of engaging the classroom in an exciting and interesting way. I'm sure it is totally successful for him to manage student behavior. However, when I took over the room, the hockey had to go. Not that I have anything against hockey, at least, not any more than any other professional sport which I despise like the costly drain on humanity that they are. But I am not a hockey guy. I couldn't possibly teach with hockey as my vehicle.

Three versions of 6th grade Social Studies

  A friend from my masters cohort named David Hunter has a kick-starter project going right now that is totally worth taking a look at. He's using a zombie apocalypse scenario to teach the basic concepts of the "Beginnings of Civilization" portion of 6th grade social studies. He calls this Zombie-Based Learning. I'll be honest, after having taught 6th grade social studies from a textbook during student teaching, this sounds pretty awesome. It's something that I feel the majority of my 6th graders would be interested in and those who aren't would be fewer than basic textbook style learning. His project is almost funded twice over and he's looking to put it up on open source sharing so anyone can use it. This is cool. (You don't have to watch the whole video, it's 25 minutes long.)
  But wait, before I jump onto the zombie style social studies there's a teacher in the mid west that's using Civilization (the video game) to teach the same concept. Now I love me some Civ. I especially love the early game where you decide where to start and build your first couple of cities. Once you get past that I'm less interested in developing nuclear technologies, but the early stages are awesome. And I can totally see how this works as the game does a great job mimicking concepts such as proximity to water, type of land and so on. You can hear more from this teacher on his podcast at Edreach called edGamer. Clearly awesome.
  But the fun doesn't stop there. At a teacher named Lucas Gillispie is doing the same thing through minecraft. He's having students decide where to settle, build a society, divide labor, and deal with property ownership issues in a virtual realm. This is totally inclusive Beginnings of Civilization. The students are actually starting a civilization of sorts and dealing with the interpersonal issues that are sure to come. These are a number of ways that technology are being used in the same subject.
  Now on my 6th grade team we have a wonderful teacher that handles social studies. She uses a number of physical diorama type projects having students build a pharaoh's tomb, a Sumerian city, tablets, cubes, and tons of other cool physical objects. Students get hands on to try to picture what it would look like, then use basic hands on manipulation to create things to replicate these items from the past. Still, another very cool way to study 6th grade social studies. The only difference between the previous three teachers and my team teacher is that the others are under 40, and she is over 60.

Who should be teaching what?

  When I attended the NCCE I discovered a number of fantastic tools but the one that really stuck with me was called wevideo. I'll talk about that particular tool more in a later post once I've finished the experience of using it with my students. However, it'll suffice to say that it's a free online video editing tool. Free is the magic word in public education. Of all the tools I saw at the conference, this was the one I was most interested in. Why? Well I happen to have a bachelors degree in Film and Digital Media Production. This is the tool I need to bring something I love to any students, anywhere. I began planning immediately to bring it into my classroom.
  All of the teachers above have taken something they enjoy or find interesting and adapted it to be the medium for their teaching. As I look over the list of methods of teaching 6th grade social studies above I'm, first off, amazed with the options. They're really all great. I feel that with considerable investment I could teach any one of them and students would learn the necessary material. What I can't do is say that anyone of them is better than another.
  When I think about the veteran teacher on my team jumping into any of the "game based" learning options, I have some doubts. But she's already using a number of advanced tools that I haven't even checked out like Essay Scorer and Study Island to have more technology in her teaching. While I doubt her level of interest in zombies could sell zombie based learning to the students, if she wanted to she could definitely incorporate civilization into her curriculum. But she probably doesn't want to (I haven't actually asked her).
  Perhaps more importantly, she doesn't need to. She has a way of teaching that is engaging, hands on, project based, and detailed. Technology isn't a big part of it in the same way it is for Lucas Gillispie. It isn't as hip as David Hunter's zombies apocalypse. But it still works well. While there may be some side of me that wants to push everyone into a game based teaching and learning, it's simply not necessary to insure student learning.

Style or Substance

  Every teacher has a style. Four teachers teaching the same lesson will teach it four different ways. They'll incorporate their own experiences from their own life, they'll include misconceptions that previous students have encountered, they'll adapt it to meet their perceptions of the students that they currently have in front of them. Some may be more fun, some may be more interesting, some may help cement the information more. But with technology in the picture, what is the goal?
  I was asked in my interview on Lopez Island what are the three things every student should leave k-12 education with as far as technology goes. My answer was this:
1) International-internet citizenship
  An understanding of how to behave on the internet, how the internet behaves, and how to make use of the availability of a world-wide source of information.
2) No fear
  Fear is paralyzing. The fear of breaking technology is one of the major things that stop people from trying something new. If the fear of failing stops us from taking a step, we have failed to fear and learned nothing.
3) How to buy and set up a computer
  This probably plays into the fear aspect, but I feel that students need to understand the basic components of a computer in order to make a decision about which one they should use. Questions like hard drive space, RAM, video cards and, of course, how to set the basic thing up, connect to the internet, set up a home network. If they can do these things, the lack of fear will drive them to everything else.

  In the end, technology is a medium, just like paper and pencil, an art canvas, a lump of clay, or a block of granite. The medium must serve the artist. A writer has no use for a rock just as a sculptor has no use for strip of film. Each teacher must find a medium that they are comfortable with. They don't need to create the medium and generally best off adapting a readily available medium for their own use. But so long as they are comfortable with the medium and students are comfortable with the medium, they can use it to reach their students.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Typing vs Writing

  So today I took one of my most distracting classes into the library for writing. They're working on their final draft of their choice of one of the essays we've written in this unit. It's their choice of a review or a personal story. I gave each back with suggestions for improvement and and grades for two of the standards areas on the report card: "Writing - Conventions and Grammar" and "Writing - Style, Organization, and Content". I didn't mark up their papers pointing out mistakes. Each student received between three and five sentences of feedback consisting of a positive comment and areas I'd like see work differently.
  Writing in class, with this group in particular, has always been a challenge. They're distracted, talking, and frequently off task. The normal free write time that I give my classes at the beginning of the period, which can last up to 15 minutes with other classes, usually has to get cut off at 10 with this group. Even the fact that working on their essays in class will prevent future homework doesn't often get them quietly working away in class. The best days from a writing perspective is when someone in the class gets into major trouble, gets sent out of class, and everyone else is too frightened to talk. I can't say how good their writing is on these days, but at least they're writing.
  However, we're in the library today, and after settling in it's dead quiet. I hear the clicking of keyboards, I've had a couple of questions, and but otherwise nothing but silence and progress. Perhaps most amusing is the set up in the room which I would never permit in the classroom. Each row of computers consists of all boys or all girls with several of the loudest most off task students sitting right next to each other. But their performance is flawless. I see a few conversations crop up about spelling, sentence structure, and I couldn't be happier.
  The question I'm forced to ask is if this is a product of the computer, assignment, library space, or some other unknown factor. The class is down about 6 students today, several of the usual distracters are absent. But enough are here that Math was it's usual struggle to stay on task. The absences don't seem to be the cause.
  I remember back to my teacher education time I spent in a high school "Digitools" classroom in a not so glorious part of Tacoma High School. There the same silenced hush came over the students when they were working at the computer. These were students who were more talkative and generally off task than my group of 6th grade Bainbridge Islanders. But when the computers were the task at hand, their focus was much better and they were working on the assigned work, even when the assigned work was painfully boring.
  Now I know that there are huge amounts of unnecessary computer education. I saw students being trained to write a memo. A memo doesn't really exist any more; it's called a global email. The work that these students are doing on the computer is really no more interesting than if the work was hand written in class. It's no more relevant or less relevant than every book report they've been required to write. It's just being done on a computer.
  As an interesting comparison, I can't write. I like to think that the last good writing I did was back in high school scratching down poetry in a spiral notebook. I probably did some decent writing in college on an exam or two, though most of my professors never rewarded me with fantastic grades because of it. If I have a creative idea I can talk about it or I can type. Boy, oh, boy, can I type.
  My current estimation put me at about 140 words per minute. I can probably think just a hair faster than that so my typing can generally keep up with my thinking. The fact that the space bar on my work computer has been a little touchy has slowed me down substantially and caused significant frustration. But my creative medium is typing. I've basically been typing as long as I've been writing. For most of my students, this is even more true. My daughter could type her name before she could write it. Typing it only required finding five keys on a keyboard. Writing it requires hundreds of muscle control motions.
  Could it be that the keyboard is the natural form in which these students can write, create, and interact? Is this engagement just a novelty of being out of the classroom or could I achieve it in the classroom if I could provide a 1 to 1 ratio of computers to students? Or is this just a random alteration in morale that will fade tomorrow once they're further along on their final draft?

Report from 1 day later...

Things were not the same the next day. However, engagement was still much higher than sitting writing in the classroom ever was with this group. I guess technology can't solve all our problems. But it can make a significant difference.