Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Evaluation is not Assessment

Every so often something appears on my Facebook page that makes me stop and think, and then think some more. Then there's something that makes me change my thinking or reminds me of something wonderful in Education that we have, perhaps, lost sight of

This letter from a UK primary school headmistress to one of her students is something I just cannot stop thinking about and reminds me of how we used to focus on the whole child in the assessment process and not just test results. 

This letter is so wonderful on so many levels. I can imagine this school Principal knows every student as well as she knows Charlie. She probably also knows every student's strengths and challenges and knows who they are as individuals. I can also imagine that this wonderful example of assessment runs deep in the school, that all the teachers and everyone else in the school shares this same level of caring for the well-being of each and every student.

The letter also implicitly acknowledges that while it's important to hold schools and teachers accountable there is great folly in using test scores as the only form of accountability. Tests, especially those scored externally, thousands of miles away, by people, or more likely machines, that do not know the students who completed them, give us a narrow band of information about a strudents level of knowledge or understanding relative to a specific predetermined piece of content. The soon-to-be-mandatory SBAC tests, for example, cannot distinguish between a student's knowledge and understanding of the test material and the students linguistic of technology skills required for completing the test.

And no matter what the folks at ETS say about the SBACS they are not assessments, they are evaluations and must remain a small part of the assessment process.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Engineering on a shoestring

 In my last entry I described the joy of using the Lego Wedo and Mindstorms sets to teach elementary school engineering skills as defined in the Next Generation Science and Engineering Standards .

However, you don't need to go to the expense of purchasing the Lego kits to teach perfectly good elementary school engineering skills.

 By way of introducing the concept of engineering in the elementary school we first distinguished it from science. This can be most easily done by looking at the origin of the questions or curiosities one might have when studying a situation.

 In science the questions or inquiry arise from the natural world;  how are rocks forms, what causes the seasons, what affects the time of a pendulum swing, how is  paper made?

 In engineering the questions or inquiry arise from how we use our scientific knowledge and understanding to solve problems, resolve issues or make life better.

 This implies that the study of science comes first. We can then use our new-found knowledge and understanding and make it more relevant and meaningful by applying it to an engineering situation.

 During GED695 we studied the science of a swinging pendulum and then used this knowledge to design a pendulum that swung once every second. Since all good engineering solutions need to be presented each group of students timed their pendulum to see who had made the most accurate one.

The prize went to Theresa and Monique; their pendulum swung precisely 30 times in 30 seconds exactly. 

 We also used a copy of the Sunday Free Press (free the following Monday) to construct the tallest towers we could that supported a small washer.


Ashley and Julie built an incredibly elegant one from floor to ceiling.

 Everyone, however, was successful in building a tower and realizing a great sense of achievement.

The capital outlay for these two engineering classes? $0

Engineering with Legos

At around 9:30 on the morning of July 8 I introduced the 13 students in my GED695 Teaching K - 8 Science and Engineering class to the world of Lego-based engineering. Nine of them chose the K - 5 Lego Wedo sets and 4 chose the 5 - 8 Lego Mindstorms. None of the students had ever seen these particular Lego kits before, most were nervous, a little anxious and wondering how on earth they would ever master building a Lego model and then programming it with their computer.

By 10:30 they were all proudly demonstrating how they had built and programmedeither the "Dancing Birds" Wedo model . By 12:30 they had all built and presented a model of their choice including those working with the more complex Mindstorm kits. They were amazed with their success and empowered by what they had achieved.

As a learning tool it is quite remarkable how Lego has scaffolded the task of building and programming a model built of Lego bricks that provides students with a learning experience they most likely have never never experienced before. To use a computer to control something attached to it externally by coding is an amazingly empowering activity. The coding process uses images and so is not language dependent (traditional language that is) so it's a great activity of students who are linguistically challenged or who are English Learners. 

The really neat thing about this experience was that three of the graduate students in the class brought their own children to take part in the activities

A real pioneer in the development of the engineering part of the elementary school curriculum is the Boston Museum of Science and Engineering and their Engineering is Elementary program.

Monday, July 14, 2014

K - 8 Science and Engineering

Every so often, as a teacher, you have a class of students that is quite unlike any other.There is something about the individual students, as well as the group as a whole, that makes one want to teach for ever. There's nothing quite like the feeling that you have been a part of creating a learning community where every individual  is genuinely interested in learning; the creation of a learning community that is supportive, challenging of ideas, enthusiastic about exploring new experiences and ideas, diligent yet with a genuine sense of caring for each individual in the class.

The class of fourth grade students I taught in 1975/6 was like this and I still remember almost all 34 of them. So too was the group of graduate students who comprised my teaching K - 8 Science and Engineering course this past two weeks. Meeting for three and a half hours a day, the course was an intense exploration of what it means to teach K - 8 science and engineering in a time of great change as we transition to the Next Generation Science Standards. We explored a variety of hands-on, minds-on science activities  involving pendulums, water drops, oil spills, finger prints and so on into which everyone threw themselves with great enthusiasm. We also explore the K - 8 engineering curriculum by building Lego Wedo and Mindstorm sets and programming them to do all sorts of wonderful actions.

For the theoretical background to the course I used Wynne Harlan's brilliant book, Primary Science; Taking the Plunge. This is such a wonderful book for inspiring students to teach science form a constructivist point of view; the way science and engineering should be taught,

The course concluded with a visit to the ECHO science center where we were introduced to ways in which the facilities at the Center could be integrated into a science unit through a field trip. So into the course were the students that they have agreed to meet at the ECHO center later this  week to complete their exploration of the resources available at the Center.

I feel so grateful to have been a part of this wonderful experience. Thank you to all those studets who took part in the course.     

Thursday, May 29, 2014

St. Matthias

Tomorrow, May 30, 2014, marks the final gathering of past students where I completed my undergraduate studies, the College of St. Matthias in Bristol England. The college opened in `853 and was one of the first in England designed specifically to train teachers. For over 100 years it trained women teachers to work in state run C. of E., as they were known, school (Church of England). I first attended the College in 1972, three years after it went co-ed, after training unsuccessfully to be a quantity surveyor. I decided I wanted to be a teacher after playing for several years on a mixed field hockey team that was comprised almost exclusively of primary school teachers, and what a fun-loving bunch they were.

I was accepted at the college to study primary education and geography. Even in those far off days primary (elementary) teachers were required to have an academic major. Throughout my four years there, three for a teaching certificate and one extra for a B.Ed., I was active in college politics, sports and music. I was the Public Relations Officer for the student body which meant that every week we had to publish the college paper called the Spectrum. We had to type it out on special carbon paper and then put it on a printing machine that we turned by hand; it was always a ruch to make the Friday noon deadline. We covered some pretty excitiing events during the time I was there such as a World Cup in 1970, several  student sit-ins and all sorts of sporting and music events.

Like most of us I look back on my college days with great happiness and now realize just how good a job the lecturers did in preparing us for a future in the world of teaching. Many of the beliefs and values I formed those 40-something years ago are still so applicable and important today. I keep up with many of my old college friends thro ugh social media and Ade George's Old Lags site as they have scattered around the world. Most are now retired but seem to have led happy working lives.

The college closed as a teacher training institution in the 1980s and became part of the University of the West of England. Within months the dear old halls of residence will be flattened to make way for a housing development but at least the historically listed buildings will be preserved as a Steiner school..  

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pennies, Fractals and Fifth Graders


What an incredible day we had at St. Mike's last Friday. Having seen the "Penny Arcade" in the local media, Joni Pecor, one of the the fifth grade teachers at Flynn Elementary School  in Burlington decided she wanted to bring the three fifth grade classes on a day-long  field trip to learn more. We started the day as a large group, 50 students and 10 adults, setting a focus for what they would be experiencing. I wanted to make sure that the students were learning the math embodied in the display and not just looking at pennies all day.

So the theme for the day was "seeing patterns and making connections". I had asked two incredible math teachers to help me out, Karyn Vogel, a BSD Math Coach, and Laura Sommariva,  a Colchester High School math teacher who had been a student in my grad maths course last semester.

Laura developed a one-hour class on fractals beginning with a virtual visit to the Fractal Foundation site. The students then went o to complete their own Sierpinski triangles using isometric graph paper or dividing up a a simple equilateral triangle on a piece of paper. They finished the activity making Sierpinski triangles out of pennies.

Karyn's class focused on number patterns such as the Fibonacci sequence and began with a Vi Hart video.  She then had them explore fir cones and various other natural things to explore the occurrence of the Fibonacci sequence in the natural world.

For my part, I held class in the hallway next to the "Penny Arcade" and explored the many different fractals and number patterns illustrated through the use of pennies stuck to the wall. The three fifth grade classes circulated around the three activities with a break in the morning and a break for lunch. We had planned for the students to spend their lunch break in the Teaching Gardens but a rainy day meant inside recess.

All in all it seems to have been a great day in which the students got to see how wonderfully creative and joyful learning about math can be. There were times we found it difficult to get the students to disengage from what they were doing so that they could move on.

Isn't that the way learning should be?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

To Sir With Love No More

For the five years I taught fourth grade in England before emigrating to the US in 1977 I was referred to by the students in my classes as "sir". At the time, and until this morning, I always saw it as a quick and easy way for students to get my attention or acknowledge me as their teacher. It never even crossed my mind that it was in any way "depressing or sexist" as has been described in an article on the BBC today. I must admit to being torn by the article. Part of me agrees that it could be construed as creating different levels of respect in school based on gender; something I would certainly not want to happen. But, the more I think about it the more it seems that the word "sir" is not being used in the sense of Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Alex Ferguson as the article suggests.

There's another use of the word that is less formal as in the way it is used in a store when you are customer. The feminine equivalent in this context is ma'am which I guess was used in schools as a way of addressing female teachers in years past. This clearly would not work today especially in the British culture. Neither would 'Dame" work which is the feminine equivalent of  'sir' in  its more refined definitive form; as in Dame Judi Dench. It clearly would not work to call female teachers 'dame'.

The other way to go to create equality would be to have students refer to male teachers  as "master", something I think was done during the nineteenth century in the UK. Or, perhaps 'mister' would work but then that has a bit of a pejorative feel, thanks to its use by children in literature.

As the article suggests, children could call teachers by their first names which may change the classroom dynamic quite significantly. They could also use teachers'  last name which could be quite difficult for teachers with multi-syllabic double-named last names. And then of course there is "teacher" but that has always seemed to be a sign of disrespect.

In the US we have always used last names, a last name initial as in Mr T, or a first name. "Sir" just would not work here, or probably anywhere else on Earth which makes me sort of selfishly wish that it didn't change because it is so uniquely British.