Summers, Snow Days, Better Ways to Measure Student Progress

Snow Days Don’t Hurt Student Progress!

–a finding by Harvard Professor Joshua Goodman

The spring that I turned six, I learned how to ride a bike. Early that summer, I rode my boy_bike_street_375pxbicycle to the penny candy store. The quarters in my pocket covered the purchase of thirty fireballs at three for a nickel. I didn’t eat them. I pedaled back to our summer house, where I sold them two for a nickel to our guests and to my siblings, netting a profit of twenty-five cents, which I reinvested in my fledgling company. Very soon, I could no longer operate out of my pockets. I used an empty Kleenex Box, then an old sewing machine table to display my assorted candies.


 

My cousins, my brothers and sisters could rot their teeth from the following menu:

  •     Fireballs:        2 for 5¢
  •     Smarties:        2 for 5¢
  •     Bubble Gum: 3¢ (Bazooka or Double Bubble)
  •     Mary Janes:    3¢
  •     Bit-o-honey:   3¢
  •     Licorice:          5¢ (red or black, long shoestring variety)
  •     Bottle Caps:    5¢
  •     Charms’ Pops: 5¢ (Tootsie or blow)
  •     Candy Sticks:   7¢ (same price as the store, but I did not pass on my quantity      discount
  •  Asst, boxed:    10 – 20 ¢ (Hot Tamales, Jujyfruits, Junior Mints, Good~n~Plenty, Neccos, etc.)

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For a quarter each, I also managed to sell a few pieces of my art to doting older aunts and cousins. My work was drawn on lined, three-ring binder paper. I offered a dScreen Shot 2015-05-13 at 6.32.46 PMog’s face, a tree, and a pig. Also, I have a confession to make, and I hope my siblings and cousins will forgive me. The gum, Mary Janes, and Bit-o-honey cost me the same as the fireballs and SmScreen Shot 2015-05-13 at 6.29.52 PMarties, but I wanted a better profit margin.

Despite competition from my mother, who had hung art of a more professional quality around the house, and also offered healthier snacks, such as popcorn and carrot sticks, out of the kitchen, for free, I did quite well. I bought a Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 6.26.12 PMkite and an extra roll of twine with the profits. I also ate some of the profits. But at the end of the summer I opened my first bank account, number 235-16610, with ten dollars.


I run into a lot of people who say that kids don’t do that sort of thing these days. All kids do is text, game, watch videos. Those people are wrong. I see hundreds of kids every day, and they too have dreams and ideas that they act on, if they have the time. And then ‘those people’ say, no, given the time, the kids will just sit down and play video games. Perhaps, but I know a lot of kids who, of their own volition, are learning code, and are trying to write their own games, or their own apps… perhaps we should recognize that today’s $2.00 app may be the penny candy of the new generation, and these guys want in on the deal. But the system we adults have created does not allow the time, nor teach our students the habits of self-agency and resourcefulness that they need. Our present system focuses too much on test taking.

Which brings me back to snow days. (We hardly want to talk about those in May, but suffer on, please).

Test scores are the number one go-to for measuring student progress. I did not read Joshua Goodman’s study of snow days. I only read about the finding, cleverly reprinted on the weather page of our local paper. Test scores were the only measure for success listed in the article. If Professor Goodman went to neighborhoods to see the snow forts or the snowmen the kids built, or how the kids put into practice their intuitive knowledge of the inclined plane by sledding down the steep part of a hill and going back to the top by taking a gentler contour, the article didn’t mention it.

Maybe I’m in a confessing mood because it is a Sunday morning… but I have another. Stephanie Bilak, from second grade, if you are out there… I had a mind-block back then about the answer for 3 + 6. Despite having money in the bank, I was awfully anxious. So, I copied you. It was the last time I ever cheated, because where our wonderful teacher, Miss Napoleon, had written “Name:______,” I also copied you. I wrote down your name.

My point is that testing for math may tell how good of a test-taker one is, but at least in my case, it gives little hint at the capacity or inclination to apply the knowledge. Test-taking may have its place, but that place ought to be much smaller than we make it. Our most important assessments of teacher effectiveness and student learning are an accounting of how the students implement their knowledge in their own lives. In my case, I had been employing math all summer as I ran my store, but 3 + 6, on a piece of paper, simply felt entirely irrelevant.

What if, on a snow day, teachers didn’t stay at home, but spilled out into the streets to play with the kids? Imagine the math and science teachers explaining the whys of what the students are already discovering—such as the calculation that supports their finding that the 18-inch ball of the snowman’s belly weighs way, way more than twice as much the 9-inch ball they made for his head. Effective snow shoveling is a great example of levers and mechanical advantage.

For English and Social Studies teachers, there is nothing like unstructured play to help a person realize that they are part of the story of the human condition. A child in the snow may relate better to Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, Wilder’s epic blizzard in The Long Winter, the fierce cold of London’s To Build a Fire, Shackleton’s survival on the ice, and the miserable cold and deprivation of the French troops during their 1812 foray into Russia. The shared experience of cold and snow may be the best hook for student engagement many subjects. A vague awareness that some day, a question about these stories might prompt you to fill in the correct oval with a number two pencil, well. It teaches the unfortunate importance of obedience.

Although Stephanie Bilak wasn’t anywhere near me when I took the SATs, the GREs or the Military Officer’s Exam, I did well enough. But I want to share my career trajectory. When I became old enough, I got a summer job with the same family that ran the penny candy store, and developed a fondness for inventory control. On the side, I sold my artwork, which had advanced from line drawings to woodburnings and driftwood sculpture, at a local gallery. Two years after I graduated college, I joined the Navy as a supply officer. My military job was not all that different than pedaling candy and selling souvenirs on an island: I made sure that our ship had everything it needed to run: I was in charge of purchasing and planning for the food (I had moved up in the world from sugar to deep-fry). I oversaw the ship’s store, the vending machines, the barbershop, the laundry, the payroll, travel claims and shipboard purchasing contracts. I was in charge of about a hundred people. After my Navy stint, I went back to that summer town and opened a grocery store and wholesale business. My inventory suggested my maturity through its concentration of natural products. And, at one point, I employed more than 90% of the graduating class from the local school.

The business was remarkably successful, and well loved, but I sold it to free up time when my children were born. Afterward, what I really missed was working with kids. That is what led me to a second career in education.

There is, I am sure, a correlation between my passing the standardized tests and the relative success I have had. But the step by step cause and effect that has brought me to successful adulthood has had more to do with free time than with seat time. Seat time helped me learn that I had a very hard time sitting still. It was during my down time–snow days and summers–that I engrossed myself in projects and discovered my strengths.

If we moved more projects into our classrooms, perhaps the adverse effect of snow days on learning might actually materialize, and wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

 

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.

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.