Assessment and lack thereof

Assessment for learning has always been seen as one of the most important tasks of my job by me. Without knowing what my students already know and can do, I can’t plan anything. No meaningful learning activities,… and I can’t provide support and opportunities for learning if I don’t know where my students are.

The levels of assessment are huge…. assessment of knowledge, social skills, skills in general, and much more is important for any teacher.

But as I’m completing a module on assessment, I’m doubtful about how much assessment is really taking place in schools. How do we ENSURE that assessment happens in the classrooms and for every student? What do your schools do? What is assessment to you?

Where do we learn?

The classroom is traditionally the place where learning takes place. This is, of course, not true anymore. But where does learning take place in this days and age, for the children at my school, ….

  • at home?
  • outside?
  • everywhere?
  • worldwide?

The answer would have been easier for me when I was still a PYP teacher. And even as a class teacher in Germany this wouldn’t have bothered me so much. But I’m wondering where my students really think their learning takes place. I often hear them say something along these lines:

  • learning is stupid
  • i don’t want to learn
  • I hate school

Which is not what I want to hear. For them, learning means school, and school means many challenges. But what about their learning outside these four walls they call the classroom? What about the experiences that we don’t officially count as learning? Why don’t we make them more aware of this?

Learning is everywhere and can be anything: Something to take back to school and beyond next week!

 

Where is their curiosity?

I know I’m spoilt. I know that most of my previous schools where exceptional, esp. in the pedagogic approach (IB schools in particular). But I wasn’t prepared for this.

I’m at a high school in a very socially challenged area. The school form, a less academic secondary school, is threatened with closure, the school deals with being understaffed. The students come from a variety of backgrounds, but mainly families with little educational background (and interest), unemployment and more often than one would like see (not that we want to see this at all) major problems such as abuse, etc.

I teach grades 5, 7, 8 and 9. The upper grades were my main worry, but to be honest, they seem fine. What really shocked me is…. that grade 5 is full of kids with no natural curiosity… with a fully loaded hatred for school and everything that goes with it. A grade full of kids that think that learning is “stupid”.

Where do you go from there? How do you hook these kids? How do not end up in the “open your books on page 5”  dilema?

That’s another thing… all my other classes have been trained to “work by the book”,…. how do you open this up?

Challenges!

Relevance dilemma – what will become of it

The suggestions to my previous posts were great. I was able to take the half term break and take a step back. Now I feel slightly different and ready to start the new week tomorrow. With grade 10. With the boys.

What bugs me still is the fact that I have no lessons planned. I have an idea. I have objectives, but I haven’t (as I often don’t) go a mapped out plan. I will have to see where it goes and… go from there. Planning like this still makes me uneasy at times, esp. now that I’m working in a less “progressive” school.

Tomorrow we will embark on the so-called pre-assessment stage then. I already know my students’ level of English, but I don’t know there knowledge and interests about traveling. I have a PYP Unit Planner open to help me focus my planning, but I also know that it is not quite the right thing to use for my 10th grade, 2 lessons per week English planning.

Seeing as we are back from the first break of the year, I will use the opportunity to:

– see if students traveled anywhere and where
– use a map (online and offline) to map where we have all been in our lives
– introduce some relevant vocabulary
– find out where students would like to travel
– find out what students think is important about the places where they travel
– find out their travel “experience” level

I am so thankful that Maggie mentioned this idea. I have already looked into booking the computer room and using a whole range of sources there. I am curious to see if my students are willing to build their own repertoire of vocabulary by using websites, etc.

I aim to make them use their own “vocab log” where they will mark down important words to them. I aim to make them use travel blogs, experience websites, hotel and airline websites, maps, streetview to see places in detail and so on.

I’m excited about this. And hopefully this is the first step in a better direction!

Relevance of what we teach

I find myself in a dilemma. I firmly believe that teaching what is relevant to our students is important. Sometimes the relevance might be abstract and “far away”, like when we learn to problem-solve. But I have always tried to make everything as relevant to the group and individual I teach, as possible.

In an inquiry-based approach, students will lead inquiry if you let them, and they by taking control, it will be relevant to them. Basing the teaching/content/theme on a concept that has “global relevance”, it becomes meaningful to them, and to the overall aim of, well, probably international education. But then, all education is somehow international.

Let me get back to the point. My own class is not the problem here. With them, I still stay very close to my believes and my approach matches my educational philosophy. What I really struggle with is teaching English (EAL) in grades 8 and 10. I teach them for 90 (and some for 180) min a week.
I want to focus on grade 10. Their level of English is beginners, absolute beginners. In special schools, teaching English has only just become important and my school has not followed any curriculum, order or guidelines. While these would have to be individualized anyway, a general “overview” would be great.
Every week I am faced with a group that:

  • is partly working hard on being accepted in society (as a special school student) and on finding a job for less than a year from now
  • is partly not interested in anything, and only comes to school because it is a legal requirement
  • is partly planning on going on unemployment benefits as soon as they leave school (and most likely will stay there)
  • probably won’t require the use of English at one part in their life
  • has no interest in the typical beginners materials, which is either made for adults, or for children
  • has no basis of English to work with
  • are at the height of puberty (15/16)

I find this an incredibly hard list to work with. I have no idea where to start (though I started weeks ago, but reflecting on that, I feel I haven’t made a start). Where do I begin, where do I want to go with them? What can I do to make English slightly relevant to my students? Where do I start to find the relevance for them?

 

The Setting

Being in a new school is always exciting and challenging, and this year has been no different. I’m in a completely new terrain though, so I feel the need to update you on my new setting, so-to-speak.

My school is a special school for children with learning disabilities (severe ones, so that children usually “fail” in the regular system). The disability range is rather broad and fluid though.

I have taken over a year 5/6 class with another teacher and we currently have 14 students. We are only in the class together for 4 lessons a week, but it is good to know we are working together even if we are not. The way we have arranged this so far is that while we both cover all subjects in a manner of speaking, my focus is English, Math and Art and her focus is German and Social Studies/Science. I have taken over the idea of working on a “big idea” (quite like a central idea in the PYP) based around concepts for a certain amount of time. So far, it is rather “interdisciplinary” approach, but it is, in my opinion, already quite well established in the class.

On top of teaching my class, I also teach grades 8 and 10, in a number of combinations.  I have the grade 8 girls for sex ed, a mixed grade 8 class (there is grade 8a and 8b, and they are mixed up) for English and once I have grade 8a for English as well. Can you imagine how that is for planning? Yeah…

In grade 10 I have a boys and a girls group and I teach English in those groups.

So far, those classes have been my main challenge, as they are way out of my comfort zone. But, I have to admit that I love working with them as well. One of the perks of a special school is that I get to work across the age range. I am still unsure what I think of excluding some children from the state school system (but a post on this will inevitably follow), but the educational approach is SO MUCH BETTER. There is time for development, time for creativity and generally a lot less “have-to-do”s. The curriculum is barely a framework and the knowledge component is hard to define, as students are all capable of different things. I currently have students in my class that are working with numbers up to 20, some work up to 100 and others beyond 1000. It’s hard work, but seemingly I have sussed this out with Math.

 

Reflection on my state school experience, and the start of something new

My previous post was full of hope for many posts about my new school. But I was overwhelmed with the events at my school. Not necessarily in a bad way, but there was not a lot of freedom for me or my beliefs.

The primary school I was at was very traditional, and as I took over responsibility for English in grade 2, I was busy setting up a non-existent curriculum and trying to live with the fact that we were unrelated to anything else going on in the school. I guess it wasn’t a PYP school, and I was so used to having my own class and using a trans-disciplinary approach, that teaching in this way was rather unfulfilling and clashing with my own ideals.

During the time I was supporting class teachers, I was shocked by the amount of textbook and workbook work… the fact that first graders who were naturally so curious and excited, were quickly turned into “page-turners”, kids who wanted to be done with the phonics workbook first, or who didn’t want to be bothered at all.

I am not trying to blame anyone. I guess I could have stuck around to try and change things. But when the end of the school year approached, I was still not sure if my contract was to be extended. And so I looked for a place better suited for my educational philosophy.

In German state systems, there are primary and secondary schools, but also special (needs) education schools. The special ed schools are divided into the following categories:

  • social and emotional development
  • learning disabilities
  • hearing
  • seeing
  • language/linguistic development
  • physical disabilities
The core difference is, that class sizes are much smaller and that students are not taught to a strict curriculum, but an individual approach. Just as special ed is everywhere in this world, I assume.
When I started applying for openings, I decided to give it a go. And now I am finding myself a few hours away from my first proper school conference at a special ed school for learning disabilities.
I will be mainly placed in grade 5/6 (mixed grade) with another teacher, and taking on the main responsibility in that class for Maths and English. I will also be teaching English in grades 7, 8 and 10.
Needless to say, I’m nervous and excited. But I hope to settle in soon, to be able to stick to my belief that inquiry-based learning is the way forward and to find out how this will work in this particular school.