Posts Tagged ‘national standards’

That famous pendulum

I think I’ve found a real benefit in being an older teacher.  Finally.

I had my revelation at one of those big teacher meetings the other day. You know the ones I mean, where the Curriculum Coordinators try to explain the new standards and new testing that we will all be faced with soon, and where all the classroom teachers moan and complain.

We looked at the switchover in math first.  If you aren’t a teacher you might not realize that the federal education department has created National Standards for our curriculum, and states are being “encouraged” to adopt those standards. In other words, the feds will take money away from schools that don’t teach what they tell us to teach when they tell us to teach it.

These new standards are a bit amusing for some of us, because about a dozen years ago when we were introduced to the brand spanking new “Massachusetts Curriculum Standards”, we all reacted by saying that the math standards were far too rigorous and not nearly deep enough.  We knew that it made no sense to try to teach fractions in the second grade, knowing that we would need to reteach them in third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades before they could be fully understood by young minds.  We explained our concerns to those in charge; we answered surveys, we wrote letters, we participated in various round table discussed.  We were ignored.

For the past ten or so years, we have used a strategy called “spiraling” to teach math concepts. Introduce it, talk about it, practice for three days, then move on to the next idea. But don’t worry if you don’t understand it, honey.  You’ll see it again next year. And the year after that! We were told that “research” supported this approach to math. Our fear that the curriculum was “a mile wide and an inch deep”  was brushed aside and we were given nice shiny new math books.  State testing reflected the state standards, and so every year we desperately tried to cram in number sense, multiplication of whole numbers and decimals, positive and negative integers, graphing, measurement, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions and decimals, long division, probability and measurement.  Teachers called it the “fly by” approach.

Now here we are, after having spent thousands upon thousands of education dollars on teacher training, new books, new materials and those damn tests, and guess what?!? 

New research shows that our curriculum is “a mile wide and an inch deep”.   The suits in charge have apparently researched the educational practices of countries that routinely score higher than America on standardized tests, and found that those countries move more slowly and make sure that the children fully grasp each concept before moving on.

Kinda sorta EXACTLY like what we did before the introduction of the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.

Bear in mind, this is only the math piece of the school day.

Want to hear about reading? We’re being pushed hard by those in charge to teach reading only by using texts which are at the instructional reading level of the students.  Kids need to read material that is just right for them; it must stretch their skills but not frustrate them.  Logical, right?  AND, there’s “research” to support the idea!

But…..a lot of us seasoned teachers also realize that sometimes kids need to stretch their wings and just read what everyone else is reading so that they feel accomplished. Some students feel a sense of failure when places in leveled reading groups. Sometimes a child learns a huge amount by taking part in a full class discussion of a book that is either below or above his “instructional level”. I have seen struggling students make powerful inferences and connections to great books like “Number the Stars” or “The City of Ember”.  They probably didn’t understand every word or phrase, but because they took part in whole class activities, they learned about strong imagery, point of view, symbolism and historical context. We know that this is good teaching practice, but we won’t be allowed to do it any more.

I realized at the meeting, as I listened to the explanations about all of these changes, that all of this is nothing more than the swinging back of the educational pendulum.  When I was a young teacher, I often heard the older troops complaining about new ideas, and then lamenting when we were returned to the older ideas.  This was often the point where the older teacher felt compelled to retire, or when she would sink into quiet rebellion and earn a reputation as “not a team player”.

For me, though, the pendulum has created a sense of amusement and freedom.  I remember when everyone was taught in “groups” based on skill level.  I remember being in the “Gemini” group and looking down on the poor souls who were relegated to the “Apollo” group.  I remember when homogeneous groupings were considered passe, and everyone embraced heterogeneous and flexible groupings; no more levels! Now we’re back to the levels.  Back and forth, forth and back.   The same goes on with the math, broader curriculum vs deeper understanding.  Back and forth, forth and back.

And here is why I feel that this is a gift.

I’m old.  I don’t care!  The truth is, there is no one “right way” that fits every child, every teacher, every classroom, every school.  There will be kids who thrive most in one model, and kids who thrive more easily in another.  I will take the new books, use the new materials, use the new buzzwords, but I won’t go into a panic over any of it.   I know, you see, that good teaching means adjusting everything every day. It means being flexible, explaining in new ways, and having a shifting pace.

I know that teaching is about encouragement. Its about challenge and support.  Teaching is about igniting a spark of curiosity and giving kids the tools to satisfy that curiosity.  I can spiral or not spiral, level texts or not level texts, speed up or slow down.  Call them frameworks, strands, clusters, goals or gobbldygook.  I’m going to keep on doing what I do best. I’m going to keep having fun with my class and I’m going to keep on reaching each child the best way that I can, pendulum or no pendulum.

It’s good to be old!

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