Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Everybody is a genius...

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.― Albert Einstein

There is a great deal of discussion happening around the country right now regarding testing and assessment in education. Both nationally and at the state level there is a fixation with standardized testing as the primary metric whereby we judge the success or failure of our students, our teachers and our schools. One can understand the allure. It is attractive, straightforward and easy to look at a test score to see if it goes up or down and then judge whether progress is made. Unfortunately, or in my mind fortunately, understanding a child is rarely that simple. Let's face it, kids can be messy in every sense of that word. For me that is part of the wonder of education and the primary reason I became an educator. Children are unique individuals whose background, upbringing and home-life dramatically impact how they learn. Yet we take them all as they come to us, care for them, and try our best to give them the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. That is what it truly means to be an educator. 

In much of the dialogue proliferating around the country today, testing and assessment have become, for many, dirty words. That is unfortunate because assessing student progress is what a good teacher does on a daily basis. It is how we determine both what a student has learned or mastered as well as how successful the teacher was in teaching the lesson. As a teacher, assessments often told me that the way I had taught a lesson was not successful in reaching my students, so therefor I needed to reteach and do so differently. Teaching is a process and assessment is a vital necessary piece of that process.

I would like to highlight here an assignment done by some of the 8th grade students and teachers at Paul R. Baird Middle School here in Ludlow. I do so in order to recognize the courage of our teachers in taking a risk to tackle such an ambitious project, to recognize the students for the excellence displayed in the end product, and demonstrate the power of a well crafted activity with an authentic assessment. 

The following is an explanation of the lesson from one of the teachers involved followed by the video created by one of the student groups:

It was a six-week, interdisciplinary project that was a collaborative effort between Michelle D'Amore (ELA), Beth Jarzabek (who teaches one ELA class), Diane Ogorzalek (Student Support), Jordan Funke (Library Media Specialist), and Laura O'Keefe (Grade 8 Social Studies). The students worked in groups of 1, 2, or 3 (per contest rules). The theme of this year's contest (it varies slightly from year to year) was “The Three Branches and You:"Tell a story that demonstrates how a policy, law, or action by either the executive, legislative, or judicial branch has affected you or your community. 

The first step was research, which included mini lessons on reliable sources and note-taking. The kids needed to choose a topic and then gather enough research so that they could not only define their issue and how it affects our community, but the various perspectives on it as well. (Another requirement was that they understand and illustrate diverse points of view). Once they completed the research phase, the students needed to find potential interviewees--people who were knowledgeable about or had experience with their topics, and who were willing to be interviewed. While the students reached most of their potential interviewees by email, some were contacted over the phone, or personally if the interviewee was someone the student already knew. The kids had to send the interviewees a list of questions in advance, and arrange the time of the interview (teacher guidance as needed). Mini-lessons on interview etiquette, recording equipment, and filming techniques were included. In the end, the kids interviewed education experts (teachers, school committee members, MTA president, superintendent, curriculum director, director of school food services), doctors, nurses, ACLU representatives, a public defender, a small business owner, police officers, two police chiefs, a cancer survivor and author, a graduate student, a professor, an anti-nuclear energy activist, and a member of the NRA, among others.

Another requirement was to find additional C-SPAN footage that supported their documentary in some way. Having head phones in the library for this part of the project was essential--kids spent days poring over news footage in order to find relevant supporting evidence. They also needed supplementary photographs, B roll, charts, diagrams, and other visuals that would help their viewers understand their message. Finally, they created story maps to help guide in the layout and editing of their documentary, a process that was much longer than we anticipated. While we experienced frustration along the way (students and teachers alike)!, overall the students practiced and gained so many invaluable skills--from conducting research and using technology to letter-writing and interview etiquette. 

 The project web site in case anyone else would like to replicate:

And I am happy to report that we placed!! We are so proud of all of them.

Click on the link below to view the results on one group's report on the Common Core:

At the conclusion of this project students reported being frustrated, challenged and discouraged at times. However, they pushed through those barriers and also reported being engaged, interested and excited about both the topic and the project. That is what education is about; not smoothing out the bumps for students, but teaching them to persevere in spite of difficulty and affording them the opportunity to learn in an engaging classroom environment. This lesson covered social studies, ELA and technology standards. Furthermore, students learned appropriate etiquette for contacting individuals for interviews, as well as scheduling and  performing those interviews. This is a lesson students will always remember and they built skills that they can use throughout the rest of their educational career and beyond.  This is a powerful example of an interdisciplinary collaborative lesson culminating in an authentic assessment to determine student mastery of the standards covered.

This lesson afforded students the opportunity to shine. However, a lesson like this takes time and time is one thing that is a premium for educators these days as they are forced to implement each subsequent new initiative that catches the eyes of our policy makers to "fix" public education. The end results of this project and assessment are difficult to reduce to a data point that will fit neatly into a chart. Yet the environment it created in the classroom was powerful, dynamic and energizing for students and staff.  Individualized instruction and assessment is hard, yet necessary, if we are going to give our children the skills necessary to succeed. As a nation, we need to break our fixation with measuring and proving what we are doing as educators, focusing instead on professional development and growth in order to improve our practice and create an educational environment that stimulates, challenges and engages the creative energies of today's student. After all, isn't THAT what we are truly striving to accomplish with our educational system? 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Supt. Gazda - I've read your blog for a long time and this is such a crucial issue right now. I am refusing the PARCC for my kids in Easthampton. I shared this post with my stop common core Facebook group. You really get to the heart of what working with students is about!