Thursday, September 1, 2016

Test #1 (Day 13)

My home state of California was admitted the 31st state in the union on September 9th, 1850. Many states celebrate a special holiday called Admission Day, to commemorate the day that they were admitted to the union, and California is no exception.

Admission Day is theoretically, a holiday with no school. But having no school on September 9th is a bit awkward, especially under the Labor Day Start Calendar. Imagine a year when Labor Day is on its latest possible date, the 7th, So Monday would be Labor Day holiday, Tuesday the first day of school, and then Wednesday the Admission Day holiday! Even in a year such as this one, with Labor Day on the 5th, we'd have a three-day first week, Tuesday through Thursday.

So Admission Day has been redefined as the Friday before Labor Day. I'd argue that defining it as the Tuesday after Labor Day would be more logical, since that would be closer to the 9th, while the Friday before Labor Day is sometimes in August. But under the current definition, schools with Labor Day Starts would have their offices closed the Friday before the first day of school -- which goes largely unnoticed.

But now many California schools are moving towards the Early Start Calendar. The LAUSD, whose calendar my charter school largely follows, has a four-day weekend from Admission Day to Labor Day, meaning that today is the last day before the holiday.

Some California districts cheat and declare "Admission Day" to be nowhere near September. I know at least two districts that use "Admission Day" to add an extra day to spring break -- for example Good Friday in a district that takes the week after Easter off, or Easter Monday in a district that takes the week before Easter off.

By the way, I'm not sure how prevalent closing schools on Admission Days in other states is. For example, five states (Vermont, Ohio, Maine, Florida, and Nebraska) have Admission Days during the first half of March. A holiday at that point would be welcome to break up the long block between President's Day and Easter. Yet I wasn't able to find a school closed on Admission Day in any of those states.

Since tomorrow is Admission Day, I give the first test to my eighth graders today, as part of the plan I mentioned earlier on the blog to rotate tests among the three grades. The test is supposed to have nine questions on speed/velocity (worth 10 points each) and the other ten questions coming from the Next Generation Science Standards, as a sort of benchmark (worth 1 point each), just like last week's Benchmark Tests. But unfortunately, the test turns out to be a disaster. Students are completely confused as to how to answer the speed questions.

By the way, I took the questions from the following website:

As you can see, the questions are straightforward -- all the students had to do is divide each distance by each time to find the answer -- and the distance is always given before the time. So why did my students have so much trouble with the test?

Well, let's reflect back on the week I had. Monday was coding, and on Tuesday the students built the mousetrap cars from the Illinois State text. And the mousetrap car project bled into Wednesday -- and somewhat into today as well. And I gave the test today knowing that there's no school tomorrow. So the students hardly had any actual practice calculating speeds and velocity before today's test.

I think back to why I came up with the idea of testing the eighth graders the third week of school. It all goes back to my student teaching, when I had two preps, Algebra I and Algebra II. My Algebra II students took their first test during the third week of school, with Algebra I taking their first test a week later. It wasn't planned this way, but it ended up being that Algebra II was tested every third week of school, with Algebra I taking a test a week after Algebra II did. So as soon as I found out I had three preps, I immediately came up with a testing schedule where I would rotate tests, quizzes, and Dren Quizzes among the three grades. The main idea was that I wouldn't have to grade tests for all three grade levels the same weekend.

But as I think about it more, I realize that all of the reasons I came up with for rotating the testing schedule are no longer applicable. First, even with my classes continuing to grow, I still have far fewer students than I would at a public school, so I shouldn't have compared student teaching at a public school to teaching at a charter school. Second, I obviously didn't take Monday coding into consideration when I came up with the plan. Third, I didn't take into account the fact that I have a support staff aide to help me grade papers, so grading all three grade levels isn't an issue. Usually, she can grade for two of my classes before she leaves, so I have only one class I need to grade. Fourth, I knew that I'd be teaching out of the Illinois State text which is full of projects, yet I didn't truly consider how these projects would affect my teaching and assessing.

When I met the Illinois State curriculum developers as part of training week, they pointed out that these projects are meant to motivate students who would be turned off by a traditional text. Yet the Illinois State text doesn't begin Learning Module 1 with the students building mousetrap cars. Instead the text has the students fill out charts. First the columns are labeled "Column 1," "Column 2," and "Column 3," and the students are supposed to discover that the first column divided by the second column is the third column (but not many did). Then another chart is given with the headings now changed to "Distance," "Time," and "Speed." It's not until after those charts are given that the students are instructed to build the cars.

On Tuesday, it took half the period -- all the way until my music break -- to fill out the charts. I recall one student who struggled to fill out the charts and was completely unmotivated. She put her head down during my music break and groaned afterward when I was trying to explain what the next part of the project was -- until she found out that it was building mousetrap cars. I could tell that she enjoyed the building part of the project. But this appeared to be the opposite of what the Illinois State developers had told us -- that the exciting part of the project was supposed to come first!

And of course all that time wasted on completing the charts meant that there was less time for the students to finish the cars. This meant that car building continued into Wednesday -- meaning that there was less time for the students to roll them down the ramp and measure their speed. So the students didn't practice calculating speeds much before Thursday's test.

If I could do this whole week over again, how would I teach it? Of course, at this point a traditionalist would tell me just to drop the project and have the students calculate speeds over and over again until they got it. But that's not what I believe I should have done -- the students, after all, were motivated to build the cars, so the idea is to extend that motivation into the calculation.

Here's what the ideal week would have looked like:

Monday -- Coding -- I have no power to change that.
Tuesday -- Just have the students build the mousetrap cars. Ignore the charts that the Illinois State text insists be completed before the construction. This is an 80-minute block and the Illinois State text states that the construction should take one approximately 50-minute period. (Yeah, but did they take filling in the charts into consideration?) So the students should have more than enough time to finish the construction.
Wednesday -- Now start looking at the charts. To motivate the students, I could offer a participation point to the first student who discovers the pattern among the columns. (Actually, my school offers something called "Scholar Dollars" to the best students, and so I have folded my participation points system into the Scholar Dollars.) The offer of a Scholar Dollar might be sufficient to get the students to keep looking at the charts until they figure them out. After changing the columns to "Distance," "Time," and "Speed," I could say, "If only there were something in this room that we could move to measure its speed," in the hopes that the students answer, "Mousetrap cars!"
Thursday -- By now the students have been calculating speeds, so they might be able to perform well on the test. Still, it's probably better not to give the test today. Instead, I could give just a quiz -- or better yet, a Dren Quiz. If I had only one prep, my first assessment would be the Dren Quiz -- the whole idea of starting with anything other than a Dren Quiz was merely to stagger the tests. Since the first Dren Quiz (on the 10's times tables) would be so fast, there would be plenty of time left to finish the mousetrap car project if they needed it.

There are still a few issues with the events of this week. After the students complain that they don't know how to calculate speed, I point out that I did give them several opportunities to figure out speed during the week, including the Warm-Ups. The problem, though, is that many students didn't actually calculate any speeds during the week -- instead, they merely wrote down the date, since my Warm-Up questions follow the Theoni Pappas pattern.

When I first came up with the idea of having the answer always be the date, I already knew that some students would try to get away with just writing the date. My rationalization was that I require the students to write down the intermediate steps -- the date, then, was a self-check to make sure that the students are on the right track. The problem, though, is that calculating speed is a one-step process, so there are no intermediate steps, unless I forced the students to do long division or something rather than use a calculator.

I notice that the Illinois State text actually provides some Warm-Up questions (online). I might have the students work on these instead -- the answer will then almost never just be the date. I could return to giving questions where the answer is the date in October -- by which point the students will be working on more multi-step problems.

By the way, I'm not the only teacher who tried making the date into a math problem (teacher, so I'm not referring to Pappas herself). The following link is to a teacher who uses the date this way:

This post is dated 2009. I thought I saw another teacher do the same sometime last month, but as usual I can't find the link when I need to.

Here's the other issue -- so far, I've only mentioned my eighth grade class. Well, today I let my younger classes attempt the mousetrap cars, and they do, with mixed success. Actually, my sixth graders perform the construction better than my seventh graders -- but this is most likely because I actually give the sixth graders a Dren Quiz, while I give my seventh graders a general quiz.

This gives the sixth graders more time for construction, but there's still one problem. Recall that on Dren Quizzes, any grade less than a "A" (or 45 out of 50) is a failing grade. One of my sixth graders is upset when she finds out that she has failed the Dren Quiz. Her problem is that she continued to write 10 times 10 as 110, and this question appears five times. I say that six mistakes is failing -- and her sixth mistake is when she writes 10 times 5 as 5. She tells me that she makes this error because she feels under pressure by the other students, who want her to hurry up so that they can begin the mousetrap cars! She begs me to let her retake the Dren Quiz right away -- but unfortunately, my policy is that she will retake her 10's Dren Quiz in three weeks, when the other students move on to the 2's Dren Quiz. Anyway, there might still be a problem with giving Dren Quizzes on project days.

It might have been possible to let all three grades build mousetrap cars simultaneously. Originally, I saw the three boxes of mousetrap cars and thought that each box contained one car, which is why I had my smallest class, the eighth graders, work on them first. But each box actually contained enough material for six cars! I probably should have opened one of the boxes on Monday night, but I hadn't because, again, I'd thought there was only one car in the box and I didn't want to lose any pieces by opening the box.

Instead, I opened all three boxes during the eighth grade class -- and because of this, many of the tiny washers and other pieces got lost. We contacted Illinois State, who told us that it was OK to have the eighth graders take their cars apart so that the younger students could rebuild them. This would mean that the best strategy would have been to have just one class build them first. But again, if I'd opened only one box in each grade, the parts might not have gotten lost -- meaning that I could have had all three grades work at the same time after all.

In the end, I'm trying to figure out what to do about next week. Next week, the eighth graders are scheduled to have a Dren Quiz, the seventh graders a test, and the sixth graders a general quiz. But after seeing the eighth graders struggle, I now wonder whether it's best just to scrap the whole idea of staggering the tests and just assess all three grades at the same time -- especially through the first four Learning Modules of the Illinois State text, which is the same for all three grades.

Of course, this means that I will have changed my mind yet again -- which can only confuse the readers of this blog. But I am a teacher, and so my priority is helping students learn. Given a choice between frustrating my blog readers and frustrating my students, I will always choose to frustrate my blog readers. And so if I write something (such as an assessment schedule) and I see that my students learn better when I do something else, I will contradict what I write on the blog and do what appears to be best for my students.

Happy Admission Day and Labor Day! My next post will be on, Tuesday, September 6th.

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