Last year (’13-’14) to this year (’14-’15)
I’m not going to lie the school year of 2013-2014 was quite the doosy. Really-the good and bad came together. I spent the year very focused on getting to know the kids and their lives outside of school. Communicating that I cared and wanted to help them learn. Asking about what they liked to do in class and finding more of those types of activities. We had amazing repore with each other. However-their performance on summative assessments was dismal. The homework turn in rate was OK but the tests were bad. I tracked study techinques and made little progress in shifting how they prepared.
For the nine years prior I had pretty good final exam scores. Some years I had over 95% of students pass but more recently that was trending downward. 2013-2014 was the worst year I had ever had; 17% of students didn’t pass the exam and many did much worse than they had expected. I was furious and totally embarassed. In homeroom the last day when we handed out report cards I took things into my own hands, I began asking the students questions; did you like the class, did you feel like you learned, did you study, why didn’t you pass? The first three echoed what had already been analyzed in a survey students took but the final question was new. In the end, students said they loved the class and were glad they took it. They studied REALLY hard for the final (this response did vary greatly) BUT it was a hard test so they failed the final. I was shocked-you failed because it was hard (seriously there was a questions about washing your hands). This was the response every student gave me when asked about the exam. Even the kids who did well. The guy who got the highest score was convinced that ‘it was really hard’.
Fortionetly or unforturnately I had a busy first month of summer with conferences and work. I thought about those conversations but not to great length. I wrote down a few ideas I had picked up at various conferences for solving the ‘hard’ problem but truly there was no way around it: Chemistry is hard. As the summer wore on I began to perculate a new plan for the year. I had attended a few conferences which brough inspiration (NEA Empowered Educators Raise Your Hand Day and the Biennial Conference on Chemistry Education). Chris Baurer who spoke at our POGIL Regional Conference was the most helpful-he said you can’t let students accept that it is hard. You are responsible for setting the students up so that they can do it; and they can. People before them and people after them have done it. So should they. It will take focus and effort but it is totally doable. Bamm–that was my point for the upcoming year.
Ironically enough as I was in the process of forming how I was going to attack the next school year I got called into the principals office. This was the start of the second year for our principal. Needless to say he laid into me over how unacceptable the scores from the previous year were. He discussed the good things he saw when observing me but definitly questioned why my scores were so bad. When he was finished I stated two things: 1-in nine years of working here no one has ever said anything about my scores; good or bad. 2-I told him that I was aware (how could I not be) and laid out my 3 step plan and the pieces I had in place at that time.
Step 1: Focus on HOW
I did this stratigically. I wasn’t going to take pro-athletes; too shammy. Day 1 I asked students to write down something that they had done which, prior to doing it, they hadn’t thought they could. The answers varied from video games, to test scores, to sneaking out of the house. Then, I asked them how they were able to overcome the challenges they faced. Practices, hard work, lots of hours, some trickery. Lastly I talked about myself as a triathlete. I talked about key teachers, challenges they faced, how they overcame them. In the end, diligence and perservence was present in every response. Day 1=this is a challenging but not impossible class.
Step 2: Have a method to the madness
I archived/deleted all of my old files and began from scratch. I decided to flip my classroom. Students would watch a content related video jotting down 6-8 sentences about the concept while drawing a diagram that respresents the main points. The next day the students would come into class and use the knowledge they gained the night before to complete an activity that built upon it. Days I didn’t have a video for students would work on questions.
This was awesome. It gave the videos a purpose because students needed to use to the concepts. It held them accountable because if it wasn’t done they had no idea what was going on, which is frustrating. I collected and read the video summaries thoroughly. I strived for perfection and made sure that students were watching the entire thing by emphasizing what was in the end.
For the students that couldn’t access the video I gave them corresponding chapters in the book. This brough a great diversity of how the concepts were presented. Some kids even did both (note-for a few of the assignments I would award ‘bonus’ points for the comparison of the two but not for all).
Step 3: Teach them to study
Golly gee-this was a bit of a kicker. Candace had made an amazing list of objectives for the year that corresponded with questions. At the start of the year I gave these to kids one night for homework and they would do them. The next day I would do the answers on the board. I found that some kids would not do it and would just copy me. When asked, the same excuses began to fly ‘can’t find it in my notes/materials’, never learned it, etc…
Then I got the flu, you know the stomach flu like no other. On a review day no less. So-I gave the students time to work on it in class. Before taking the test they had to check with the key (which was online and they placed their initially at the bottom) and I would answer any questions. This was all done digitally. Low and behold-all students completed it. The sub said it was a great day and that the kids were engaged helping each other with questions and concepts. The test scores were higher than ever. Problem solved. We kept this for the rest of the year.
I also emphasized that now, more than ever, I needed the support of the administration. Don’t let kids drop the class because its hard, hold students accountable for their work. Help me be my best everyday. I reminded him that he didn’t need to be harder on me than I was. I’m not a slacker. I was shocked when he smiles, said ‘I’m glad you’ve thought about this’ and agreed to be on board.
Needless to say the 2013-2014 test scores have never come up again. 2014-2015 brought the highest results I’ve ever had. 100% passing, 30% mastery, and an average of an 81. But-in addition to the changes at the end of the year I gave kids an option; I final I wrote or the regents. Eight kids took the final I wrote, a few of which would have struggled on the regents.
From all of this I’ve learned sometimes we just need a little kick in the butt to help us consistently work at our potential. I’m curious to see what 2015-2016 brings.