Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What Grade Level Are You Really Teaching?

Gabe (my 4th grader) was working on a project for school last night.  I remember the days of projects in school.  I always struggled with how bad my handwriting looked or if I was going to meet the teacher's expectations.  Of course, back in my day, we didn't have scoring guides to help us figure out what to do.  It was much more vague.  

Gabe had a scoring guide for this project.  What was the project?  A timeline.  He was asked to create a timeline with at least 10 events from his life.  He was being graded on neatness, spelling and grammar, capitalization and punctuation, dates being in correct format, among a few other things.  Not a bad project, except for a few minor problems.  

My concern about the project began with repetition.  In 3rd grade, Gabe had been asked to create a personal timeline.  As far as Gabe and I could tell, there were only two differences between the assignments.  This one required him to use specific dates, rather than just month and year.  And this one required 10 events, whereas last year's project only required 5 or 6.  I was so frustrated.  Why was he being asked to do the same project all over again?  What new learning was taking place in this classroom?  I was prepared to email that teacher and tell her to think about why her students might not be putting a lot of effort into the project.  I know of a few students who used some of the same pictures and events on their 4th grade project as they did on their 3rd grade project.  Does anyone else see anything wrong with this picture?  Wait...it gets worse.

This morning, I was prepared to email the teacher about my irritation with the assignment.  I should insert a side note here:  I try really hard to keep myself from coaching my son's teachers.  I know that they don't really appreciate my attempts to make them better teachers. (Imagine that!) I just come across as some crazy parent who thinks she knows it all and knows how to teach their students.  I may be that crazy parent, and I sure don't know how difficult it must be to teach 25 little 4th graders, but I do know what makes a good teacher.  And I know that doing the same project two years in a row is what makes kids get bored with school and start to become discipline problems.

Whoops.  I wandered off there for a minute and forgot to get to the best (actually worst) part of this whole situation.  Before writing the teacher and ranting, I decided that I should probably check the standards and see if the timeline was a 4th grade standard that last year's teacher just decided to teach early.  (I am a high school math teacher, who is currently coaching in a middle school.  I had no clue what the 4th grade standards were.)  Hang on to your hats, because this is where it gets really good.  

Here is Indiana's 4th grade standard regarding timelines:

4.1.15   Create and interpret timelines that show relationships among people, events, and movements in the history of Indiana. (Individuals, Society, and Culture)

Where is the part in that about his personal timeline?  Gosh, for that matter, I don't think that I can recall Gabe ever talking about cultures or people in Indiana.  I do remember a state map towards the beginning of the year.  I decided to check the 3rd grade standard.

3.1.5   Create simple timelines that identify important events in various regions of the state.

Regions of the state?  We are in southern Indiana.  I guess last year's timeline wasn't even supposed to be a personal timeline.  Well, maybe personal timelines are not in the standards.  Maybe they are something that the teacher likes to throw in to help the students make a personal connection to the timelines about our state.  I decided to keep digging though.  What was the 2nd grade standard?

2.1.5   Develop a simple timeline of important events in the history of the school and/or community.

Okay, I do remember Gabe doing something like that.  I thought it was simply because the school he attended in 2nd grade was closing and they were looking at its history.  It could be, but it was a perfect tie-in to the standards.  Surely 1st grade isn't where the personal timeline comes into the standards.  Is it?

1.1.8   Develop a simple timeline of important events in the student's life.

Did I read that correctly?  Is my 4th grade son doing a project, for the second time I might add, that is a 1st grade standard?!?!?!?!?  I am sure you can imagine the feelings that raged through me as I read this.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  You have got to be kidding me.  Do I have a right to be upset?  Am I upset because I am an educational coach, who tries to help teachers improve student achievement?  Or am I upset because my son is not getting a 4th grade social studies education?  Probably a little of both.  

When it is the teacher/coach in me that is upset, I can usually count on my husband to bring me back to reality.  He has a way of calming me and helping me remember that I cannot coach Gabe's teachers and to let most things go.  Not this time!  He wasn't too happy about it either.  His words were, "I can't stand busy work." Wow!  Is that what the assignment was?  Was it busy work?  Was it that the teacher didn't really know her grade level standards?  What was it?

I don't know what the reasoning behind the assignment was, but I will be talking to the principal about it.  I feel that it is my job, as a parent, to hold my children's school accountable for teaching the standards at grade level.  Differentiation for students who need it is absolutely acceptable.  Assigning a 1st grade-level assignment to the entire 4th grade is not acceptable.  Absolutely not!

Here are a few resources that I like about standards-based teaching/learning:

We have to stop teaching things just because we think it would be a fun activity. I am all for fun activities that engage students in the work, but make it grade-level appropriate.  And what about the parents that didn't look up the standard and find out that this is a 1st-grade level assignment?  They are trusting the school to teach the standards that the state has deemed appropriate for each grade level.  How would they know that this wasn't an appropriate assignment?  Well, one way is to bring back those standards-based report cards that we saw in Kindergarten and 1st grade.  
Most parents assume that the A or the B that their child brings home means that their child is learning and doing well.  And it usually does.  But does it mean that their child is learning what is expected of him at that grade level?  A standards-based report card would show the parent exactly what the child is expected to learn and what progress the child has made towards reaching that goal.  I'll save standards-based grading for another post.  

The point here is this. What grade level are you really teaching my child?  Because, you see, my son is in 4th grade and deserves to be taught 4th grade material.  He's ready for it.  He yearns for it.  And, Gabe, he's not just someone's child.  He's my child!

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