Prevailing Winds in Education: How the SBAC Sets Us Back

I have been planning my spring unit in STREAM. Barring any monumental surprises, we will wrap up windmill designing and start our GPS unit.

I have a nice segue in mind. Provided IMG_0770with handheld anemometers and GPS devices, students will create a wind map of our campus. We’ll run latitude and longitude lines across a map of the school grounds and plot wind vectors on the grid. We’ll test under a  variety of conditions, analyze our findings, and decide where, if we were to put our three-foot inventions on the property, they would be most effective.

A student is waiting for his GPS to locate satellites.

A student is waiting for his GPS to locate satellites.

Now for the logistics. If students work in teams of five, we’ll have enough anemometers and only a few will have to share GPS units. We’re not going to walk the grounds as one big clump of humanity, so I’ll need three or four volunteer adults for the middle school classes. We’ll be able to collect data for the whole campus in a single block; groups will “own” the section they cover; and I’ll be able to hold them accountable. We’ll also need computers to upload our data in a 21st Century manner. We’ll use the Internet to see how our valley campus wind readings compare to the wind on the hilltops around us, the wind on the ridge that runs through the county, and the wind in larger world. Computers will be key as we progress in our GPS unit, and therein lies the problem.

This spring, when all teachers would be sharing the computers for meaningful projects that would represent the culmination of a year’s learning, we will be headed off at the pass by the SBAC. This new standardized test will appropriate all of our school computer resources so that every 8th and 11th grader can be subjected to more than eight hours of interrogation. For about two weeks, there will be a mad scramble for the few computers the SBAC hasn’t commandeered.

There is so much wrong with the SBAC it should be hard to know where to start. Thankfully, the name itself rolls out a red carpet. I ask you: if you were given the entire alphabet to create an acronym that tens—maybe hundreds—of millions of people were going to use on a regular basis, would you be able to come up with something better? Probably.

The very name of SBAC makes it a bitter pill to swallow. Imagine an organization contracted to come up with a new test to replace one that (almost) everyone despises. They take on this task in an era when forward thinking educators receive standing ovations as they call for innovation, quality teamwork, and strength-based education to carry greater significance in our schools. But after millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours, the group comes out with a product that is referred to as SBAC, pronounced “Essback.” Are these the folks that are going to usher education to meet the needs of the people in the new economy, with these calls for creativity and innovation? Was creativity modeled or engaged when they came up with the word Essback? God help us.

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Our learning intention for the GPS unit. Standardized testing is all about data collection and analysis, and I get that, and understand its utility. But there are more creative ways to assess our students’ knowledge.

But there’s more. This acrid acronym stands for this: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. (Maybe it was the best they could do, though I suspect if it was their best, it would have stood for Smartest Balanced Assessment Consortium.) The use of the comparative adjective “smarter” serves as a constant reminder of what came before. And the test that came before was deemed, by and large, to stink. So it is named SBAC, and each time we say it, we can remember that is a smarter than its predecessor, which stunk. Great: we can feel good about the SBAC as long as we’re looking backward. The S might as well have stood for Shortsighted. It feels SBACwards, not future-oriented. Hopefully it won’t be long before the people we voted into power realize this.

For now, I have this spring to figure out. There’s nothing wrong, really, with recording our DSC_0384field data the old-fashioned way, on paper, with pencil. It might even be good to help the students improve penmanship. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the wind will soon be blowing in a more promising direction.

What is STREAM?

S: Science  T: Technology  R: Readin’ and wRitin’  E: Engineering  A: Arts and design     M: Math

STREAM is a problem-solving, team-skills teaching, strength-based learning class. If there is only one thing students get out of the class, it is an understanding of the utility of the design cycle. We refer to the design cycle at least once a week.

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STREAM is a class where students are encouraged to take a stab at ideas. If a solution doesn’t work out, they try something different. If the solution works, they tweak what could be done better, and test again. In STREAM, tests aren’t given by the teacher, tests are designed (with guidance from the teacher) and carried out by the student. How else can we hope to teach the design cycle if we rush on to the next project before students implement what they have learned?

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First attempt at one team’s paper table is tested to failure. All teams watch and take notes.

Paper Table, third time through the design cycle.

Paper Table, third time through the design cycle.

If there is a second thing a student pulls from STREAM, it is that everyone has something to bring to the table. Within each team of kids, students choose roles that suit their interests, strengths, and abilities (a separate post about team roles, later). I love the acronym STREAM, because in this class, students find their flow.

Projects this year have been:

GPS:    Map the school grounds. Create a human compass rose on the playing fields. Create a geo-cache treasure hunt for another team. Provide local data to our State Center for Geographic Information.

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The essential question behind our GPS unit

            Alternator: Given magnets and copper wire, design a working alternator.

Windmills: Given a generator, make a windmill that will power a light bulb.

Logo: Create a professional-looking logo for the STREAM class.

Paper Table: PBS Design Squad idea (see their website for this awesome project).  Given 8 sheets of paper, one roll of tape, and a manila folder, students must build a table to hold a heavy book.

Journaling: Every student must keep a journal. Students write for the first five minutes of each block. They reflect on and critique past work. They envision and plan future work. In lieu of vocab quizzes, they use and underline proper terms associated with the project concepts.

A third take-away? Resourcefulness. Fourth? Innovation and agency. Students learn that they are adaptable problem-solvers. Sometimes I surreptitiously place essential materials around the room, and they are only available to teams that spot them and ask. Other times, students have to go dumpster diving. I provide very few clues and almost no direct answers. Kids are welcome to ask other teachers, check the internet, as local experts, and even other teams.

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Students use GPS devices to map school grounds.

Facts and step-by-step instructions are only a skillful internet search away. In the best light, this information is no more than potential energy, and students need to be given the skills to unlock it. STREAM is intended to build the habits and self-perceptions that allow students to be agentive with this knowledge—to be doers.

STREAM is a kinetic class in which energy, in the form of gathered information, flows.

Structural Engineering… and Middle School Life

When I teach vocabulary, for any subject, I try to have students use each word in a way that is individually meaningful. In my middle school STREAM class, vocabulary can range from simple discussions about the difference between “are” and “our,” to elements and principles of design terms, to engineering terms.

My lunch-time class is small, but challenging. More than sixty percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch; a number of them have warnings right on their electronic attendance record that they are to have no contact, ever, with a parent or some other relative. They are my “most likely to…” group—to wander the halls, to end up on the 7th or 8th grade Core list of students to discuss, to pick a fight, to show up in class after lunch without having eaten because they didn’t like the offering. Still, I was surprised when I went over the structural engineering terms in advance of our paper table unit.

The engineering vocab is a great way to bring teamwork conversation into the class. I usually love it. “Who’s got a good idea what stress means?” I ask.

“You want your definition, or my definition?” a student asks.

“Yours, of course… as long as it has appropriate words.”

“Stress,” he says, “is when you wake up at four in the morning because your baby sister is crying, and you have to get her to go back to sleep before she wakes up your little brother. Stress is when you know if your little sister wakes up your mother, or your mother’s boyfriend, they’ll be really mad at you. It’s when you know that if you don’t get her to sleep, you won’t sleep, and then your teachers will be really mad at you because you fall asleep in their classes, or because you have to stand and move around to stay awake. Stress is knowing all this and knowing that you can’t let your little sister know your stressed, because if you do, she’ll never fall back asleep.”

Whew. I lean on the white board. I’ve heard about this kid’s situation. “That sounds incredibly stressful. Yeah. Especially for someone your age.” The kid is twelve.

Another student raises his hand. “Stress is when you have too much homework and when you just want to sleep, but your mother’s mad at you because you lost your winter coat and a bunch of other stuff. It’s when you feel like everything is coming down on your shoulders.”

Nearly everyone shares some definition of stress, and it’s all in the same vein. But there are parallels to be made.

I draw two pictures on the board.

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“Based on what you all shared, which of these pictures looks to be the most stressful?” I ask. The answer is unanimous.

I alter the pictures.

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“Which of these figures would you rather have come down on your arm? Which is going to break the skin?” Again, unanimous. I ask why.

And so, the kids themselves come up with the best definition of stress. A definition that fits both engineering, and life.

In another class, as we discussed trusses, cross-bracing, right angles, and support against fatigue, the students spontaneously broke out into a 7th-grade rendition of Bill Wither’s song “Lean on Me.”

These opportunities can best be seized if teachers are not rushing to cover material for a test, if administrators value creativity, and if all constituents of the school recognize the need to teach the whole child.

We only cover definitions for compression and compressive strength. I don’t have it in me to cover tension with this group today. We’ll get to that and the remaining eleven words next class.