Teaching: A Community Approach

95% of having a successful classroom where student learning consistently occurs, where students feel safe, respected and valued is based on community.

Well… I don’t actually have any quantitative data to support that figure. But, qualitatively speaking, based on my experience, I would stand by that statement 100%. Brain research clearly demonstrates that students who do not feel safe, be it physically or emotionally, are in ‘survival mode’ their brains have turned off all unnecessary elements in order to focus on those that will help them cope with the current unsafe situation around them.

For this reason I make it my goal to do my best to make sure that in my classroom all students feel welcome, safe, and protected from outside forces. Honestly, and unfortunately, there are times when this does not occur. A snide remark from a peer, teasing, picking, or making fun of what some says or does. It doesn’t matter how I handle or deal with the comment or situation, the damage is done. The individual being picked on or teased has been demeaned, most likely feels like dirt and just wants to crawl inside his or herself and hide.

This is the worst part of teaching. I know first hand the feelings these comments cause. The extended impacts, the self-doubt and disrespect for one’s self. And, every time one of these situations occur I try to A) facilitate the repair of the student who may have been impact as well as B) try to have the antagonist see the situation from the others perspective. How would the comment make them feel. But again, the damage is done.

So, how can we prevent these situation from occurring the first place? Community.

Building community is an important process in developing a successful learning environment. From starting day 1 discussing classroom norms, to promoting respectful and positive behavior throughout the school year. And, a few weeks ago I had the chance to do just that. A group of 3 students put together this fantastic yet a bit unorthodox plan, a plan that would play a huge role in developing our classes community. Little did we know.

Background:1. On Fridays one of my College Preparation Biology classes has study hall in my classroom. 2. Throughout the week three guys had been scheming. 3. The same plan got shut down on Thursday in a history class.

What was the plan you ask? One student brought in a panini machine, another a loaf of white bread and a stick of butter, and the third a pound of american cheese (orange). Grilled cheese.

When the students walked in with their equipment I was hesitant at first, but then I thought what’s the worst that could happen. They had just completed in a big project the day before. They deserved a day to be teenagers and just make some grill cheese sandwiches. They were shocked and amazed when I approved their idea (though I did make them setup across the room from and lab equipment and storage cupboards).

It was the best 40 minutes of my week, and I would guess some of theirs as well. So, as everyone circled around watching, chatting, and laughing, the scent of warm melting butter engulfed the classroom. As each sandwich finished it was split and handed out and eventually most students, those who dared, were enjoying a nice Biology lab snack. It was a few minutes of the day when no one was worrying about popularity or status, but just purely enjoying life and the unexpected turn of events.

I’m glad the fire alarm didn’t get set off, but even if it had, I wouldn’t have regretted it, and I would have taken full responsibility. The group of 2o students that were in my room that day are better for it, and so am I. One of my own strongest memories from high school is making venison and eggs in a frying pan, on a hot plate, in chemistry class, my junior year (Thanks, Mr. Kelsey). It’s no wonder I let some  cheese sandwiches be grilled, I come by it honestly.

So, my advice to teachers out there is to do those things that help build community. Some days you just need to stop and smell the butter… or whatever the case may be. Most things important to be learned and experienced aren’t going to come from the pages of a text book. Once the community is built the rest will come.

P.S. It was the best grilled cheese I’ve ever had… in a Biology lab.

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What’s Wrong with NECAP Testing

For those of you unfamiliar with NECAP testing, it is the New England Common Assessment Program. A standardized test that aims to assess student proficiency in reading, writing, math and science in Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine. It is scored on a scale of 1-4 based on proficiency at meeting grade level expectations. 4 being proficient with distinction, 3 being proficient, 2 is partially proficient and finally a 1 is substantially below proficient.

Being a science teacher I have only worked with, and experienced the NECAP Science test. So, the following is based on my experiences proctoring and analyzing data collected from the NECAP Science exam.

There are 4 main problems I have with the NECAP test:

1. The Breadth is too Wide

The exam is taken by 8th graders and again as 11th graders. This means that in 11th grade students are taking a science test based on 3 years of content. In my school the average student would have taken Physical and Earth science , Biology, and Chemistry in 9th, 10th and 11th grades, respectfully.

That’s a whole lot of science to expect students to remember, especially given that the questions do not focus on the big, over-arching ideas from those branches of science. Instead, they focus on  specific scientific factoids that you remember or your don’t. Basing student proficiency in science on 60 or so questions from 3 years of content is ludicrous, and unfair to our students.

From my own experience flipping through the exam last year there were several chemistry questions about reactions and chemical bonding that I’m not sure I would have answered correctly, even with extensive post-high school scientific study.

The test covers too much content and the focus is too specific. It’s like trying to understand the whole universe with one telescope.

2. Little Depth of Knowledge

As I previously mentioned the majority of the test focuses on the ability to recall a specific fact about a topic, with a huge library of possible scientific topics to choose from. This means that students who are good at recall and can pull out those facts, filed away long ago, will do great; however, students that are not as successful at remembering just where the equation for photosynthesis got stored in their brain 1.5 years ago will not be quite so successful.

Beyond this, the test does little to assess higher order thinking, like hypothesizing, designing experiments and conducting them, or and making judgements and evaluating the validity of that hypothesis. Processes from levels 5 and 6 of Bloom’s Taxonomy, creating and evaluating. Instead the test focuses on remembering, describing, and solving, levels 1-3.

This is frustrating because science is about using the scientific method, inquiry, to learn and solve problems. In my classroom especially, I put a strong focus into teaching students how to think scientifically. Learning how to develop a hypothesis and then design and conduct an experiment. From there we can then analyze the results of that experiment and make judgements on the validity of our hypothesis by drawing conclusions. All higher order thinking skills, levels 5 and 6 according to Bloom, and none are adequately assessed by NECAP.

I may not have remembered the answer to a NECAP question about chemistry, even as a science teacher, but I’ll tell you, I’ve learned the skills to find out the correct answer. Which skills are more important to have? Which skills are more important to assess in our students?

3. There is No Motivation

NECAP test scores have no impact on students’ ability to obtain course credit, graduate, go to college or get a job. There is no motivation. No reward for putting your best effort in and no punishment for making doodles all over the test instead of answering the questions.

So, how can we expect to get students best efforts and accurate results when we demand that they spend three days, taking 2-4 hours of standardized tests a day, without any way of showing them that we value their time and best effort because the nature of the test has no value in their life.

When you have parents telling students “not to worry about the tests”, “don’t work too hard”, they “don’t matter to you” (all things student have told me) then why would we expect a full effort. Yes, there are those students that are intrinsically motivated to excel at all things they are exposed; however, this in not all of our students. If we want to get a the best effort from students we have to motivate them to do so, just like any other aspect of life.

4. It is Standardized.

The problem I have will all standardized tests is that students don’t have standardized brains. I know that each and every one of my students comes from a different home life, school back ground, support system, even genetic make-up (I am a Biologist after all). So, they are not going to learn in a standardized way. As a result I don’t teach each student the same, I don’t interact with all students in the same way, and I especially don’t assess students’ learning in the same manner.

So, why then, if all students learn differently, would we base the progress of student learning and school performance on one type of assessment. We should not.

We need an alternative.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that schools and teachers should be held accountable for student learning; however, NECAP is not the right tool. For the reasons outlined above I believe NECAP does not present an adequate portrayal of student learning and does not present adequate evidence of the hard work, time, and dedication I know that I put into teaching my students every day, and assume my colleagues do as well.

Though, as a Vermonter and Red Sox fan, a piece of me dies saying this: perharps we should take a page out of New York’s book and look at their Regents Exams. From what I understand, they are standardized yearly exams that specifically test the  content of the course the student was enrolled in that year. For instance taking a Biology Regents Exam are you take Biology (brilliant!). The results of which are directly connected to achieving a regents diploma at graduation. Both narrowing the breadth of the exam and attaching student ownership to the results.

This still is not perfect though. It would still be a standardized test, and would most likely rely on assessing lower order thinking, testing primarily recall ability. Though it would take out a few strong variables. But do we really need all students to pass the same test? Does that test what they have actually learned and taken away from a class?

Perhaps the science fairs that so many schools put on should be connected to assessing student learning in science. Having a nationally or regionally standardize form for assessing students ability to develop, test, and evaluate hypotheses. This would allow for the assessment of recall and basic facts in the background information, while also assessing higher order thinking. This form of assessment would also be broad and open-ended enough that students with a variety of cognitive, motor and communication abilities could perform the task in a differentiated manner. I think I’m on to something! More on this later.

Whatever the tool is, we need to find a new one. A way to assess students and to judge the success of our schools other than a standardized test that sets all but a small window of students up for failure from the start. I don’t have the solution, but I’m working on it.