Monday, September 26, 2016

Let's Take a Breath

Let's all take a breath.  In through the nose and out through the mouth. Breathe. Repeat. Without the daily full team meetings, and the new schedule that has teachers teaching five periods a day, I sense that many of you are uncomfortable. The dis-ease of the staff is almost palpable.

Right now what we need to do is to model what we want our students to do. We always want our students to see their learning holistically and not as isolated knowledge.  We want them to be able to globalize their learning and to be able to apply it in new situations.

We have more than 540 years of teaching experience. We only have three weeks of experience with this new schedule and these new students. What we need to do is to globalize our experience to meet these new challenges. What we must  avoid at all costs is what Daniel Kahneman calls heuristic judgment. (2011) According to Kahneman, when a person or organization has a problem that they don't know how to solve, they turn it into a problem they can solve. Put another way, if you view every problem as a nail, the only tool you ever need is a hammer. Our challenge is to have the discipline to collaboratively find new solutions to new problems.

We need to keep the reasons why we are doing this fresh in our minds at all times. The only way to ensure our students can achieve at high levels is to increase the amount of instructional minutes and their opportunity to learn. Let's face it, teaching five periods a day is much more stressful than teaching four periods and workshop block. Add to that change having to teach in two grade levels, and for some people, teaching multiple content areas in two grade levels. That much change without the stability and comfort of a daily team meetings creates even more stress.  It's a significant adjustment, but it is absolutely the right thing to do for our students.

For far too long the annual apples and oranges  comparisons between Pawcatuck Middle, a Title I School, and that other middle school has discounted the great work we do here. My personal goal is to have a school where demographics doesn’t equal destiny, and right now we are on the cusp of greatness.

For the first time,  three out of four grade levels either met or exceeded the scores for English Language Arts of that other middle school in our region.  That is awesome. Let me say that another way -- Pawcatuck Middle School’s ELA achievement led the district for half of all students in the district’s middle schools. Perhaps even better than that, the gap between the two middle school’s students scoring at the highest level was closer than it ever has been before. Even in grade 8 ELA, where the overall gap at level 3 and above was 6 points lower than district average, we only missed district average at level 4 by 3 points. Three percentage points for that cohort of students is only two students. Two. We are making good progress in math too. Our seventh grade led the district in math by a wide margin. Even in eighth grade, where some of the numbers didn’t match up well, 31 percent of our students achieved level 3, which was right on district average.

That's quite an accomplishment for a Title I school. We know what our obstacles and challenges are with our demographics. For our teachers to achieve these results is nothing short of outstanding.  It's one of the many reasons why I don't want to work in any other middle school. We do good work here, and we achieve  results while taking really good care of our students.

We need to look at all of our problems and solve them creatively and keep moving forward by increasing opportunity to learn and protecting instructional minutes every opportunity we get.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

New Year's Revolution?

In keeping with the practices of good journalism, I'm not going to bury the lead. Here it is -- In the next few weeks we will be working together to change the workshop block into graded classes in reading, writing, and math. Students will be grouped homogeneously for these classes based on the Star360 data, and the Star360 instructional planning reports will drive the lessons. We will implement this change with the semester switch on January 25th.

Back in the fall, the Board of Education made some strong statements about the disparity in the SBAC scores, and student achievement in general, between the two middle schools. In the administrative meetings that followed, we had a great deal of discussion about how the number of teachers on a grade level team effect the number of instructional minutes that students spend in graded content classes. There is no magic in the concept that more instructional time produces more student learning. Higher test scores are a natural consequence of more instructional minutes per school day. I was directed to increase the number of graded instructional minutes, as part of the plan to reduce the disparity in student achievement. It was made clear that we can't sit in those same meetings next year without having taken steps in a new direction.

When there is a 5-teacher team, students are scheduled into 5 periods: math, science, social studies, LA, and an additional language arts class that focuses on writing. In this model every student gets all 5 of these classes every day. Here at Pawcatuck, with only 4 teachers or less per grade level, we have been scheduling 4 academic classes per day plus workshop.

The workshop here has its merits. Pawcatuck Middle School has a disproportionate number of students who receive supports. The workshop model has allowed us to offer a variety of remediation efforts without pulling these students out of academic or survey classes. Many of the teachers here have created wonderful, creative, and challenging enrichment activities for our higher performing students during workshop. With only 3-4 teachers in a team, there is no way to have all of the students in that grade have the same class for that 5th academic period. Workshop solved that problem.

I have created a framework for the plan to change workshop, but we need to collaborate to make it work. The framework places students into two types of classes, foundations and topics. In math and language arts, the foundational classes will have three levels. The levels will be  taught by a special education teacher, Title I tutor, or content teacher for students in the Urgent Intervention, Intervention, and On Watch groups respectively. Students in the At/Above Benchmark groups in both math and language arts will be scheduled with social studies and science teachers for "topics" classes. The focus of these classes will be non-fiction reading and writing in those subjects. We will be meeting together to further develop this plan. Nothing is written in stone yet, and I look forward to everyone contributing their ideas.

To make this work, we will have to make a few technical adjustments to the period schedule, changing the workshop in some grades from 60 minutes to a standard 50 minute class. Change is hard. I hate to make schedule changes midstream, but is an opportunity to take a step forward in student achievement that we can't afford not to take.

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Paw Prints by Timothy B. Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.