Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tough Puzzle!

My class, my assistants and I have dubbed this the "hardest puzzle in the world."  It's not, of course.  But it IS a very challenging 750 piece puzzle.

I like to have a puzzle table with an ongoing puzzle set up in my room.  It's a nice anchor activity for my students when they finish work and it also lets me integrate some team building and cooperation conversations throughout the day.  It's also nice to hear the students start to compliment each other when they find pieces and the picture starts to come together.

This particular puzzle was intended to be finished by December.  We finished it the first of May!  There was a period of time when they students really weren't motivated or interested in going back to it because it was so hard.

I was stuck.  Do I take it down and start a new one or push through it?

Luckily, I have the most wonderful paraprofessionals in the world! One day one of them encouraged a student to go over and put one piece in "the hardest puzzle in the world."   He did and then was congratulated for helping us with the "hardest puzzle in the world."  That threw down the challenge and regained the kids' interest in the puzzle.  They started talking about finishing the "hardest puzzle in the world" and actually started to enjoy the challenge of it again.  The crazy thing had been up for so long in the classroom all kinds of pieces were now missing (which made it even harder!)

I'm glad we finished it (to the best of our ability with all those missing pieces.)  It gave them a sense of accomplishment and pride.  They even asked if I would take their picture by "the hardest puzzle in the world."  It also gave us some funny conversation and teasing....they asked me to "Please, never buy another puzzle from Goodwill."  :-)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

My heart is breaking......

My heart is breaking for my students.  We received our FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) scores back today.  In my self-contained class of thirteen third grade students with special needs, one student participated in the alternate assessment, two students passed the FCAT (yay!) and the other ten failed the FCAT reading portion. 

My heart is breaking for them because they have worked so hard this year.  My assistants and I spent the entire year talking to them about their:
  • gains in our SuccessMaker Computer Lab
  • successes in being able to take AR tests independently
  • sight words they knew at the beginning of the year versus the number of sight words they know now
  • gains in their oral reading fluency probes and how many words correct per minute they can read
  • reading selection tests and how they have improved
  • robust vocabulary grades and how they have improved 
  • ability to read by themselves for twenty minutes without any help
I have all of this data that shows their growth and their progress towards IEP goals, but none of it is reflected or documented on FCAT.   In my heart I know it matters.  I know that data is important and it keeps my students and me going.  It gives us the proof that they are learning and moving forward.  But as it relates to FCAT, it feels as if it doesn't matter.

Tomorrow I have to sit down with ten students and tell them they failed. Six of those ten students now face a mandatory retention in third grade.  (Of course I won't use the word failed, keep reading to see how I plan to explain this to the kids.)  The other four who don't face mandatory retention had already been retained once and have intensive instruction in reading, so they meet the eligibility criteria to waive the mandatory retention and can move on to fourth grade.

This is such a frustration for me!  All of my students have been through a comprehensive, individualized series of standardized assessments to show their academic levels and their processing strengths and challenges.  Many of the students in my self-contained class are significantly below grade level norms.  If they were not, they would probably not need my setting.  Since I have a whole year of classroom data and a whole stack of individualized, standardized  assessments that document their current levels of performance, why do we continue to force them to take grade level standardized tests?

I do not have a problem with FCAT.  I think it gathers an important piece of information for us.  And to be perfectly honest, if I had a choice, I would have recommended six of my students take the FCAT because these students were systematically moving through and showing success on below level third grade materials.  I thought they deserved a shot at it (and of those six, two passed and the other four who failed, actually came pretty close to the cut score for passing.  They might be able to pass the Stanford 10 when they get a chance at that next week.)

However, I do have a problem repetitively administering a test that continues to document failure rather than success.  I had six other students who just do not yet have the skills to pass a third grade level skills test.  I don't have the answer to this problem.  If we never give them the opportunity to test in the actual testing situation, we seem to be tracking them for a special diploma. 

How would they be able to pass the high school test if they never experience it in elementary or middle school?  But, if all of a student's experiences with a test result in failure, how confident will s/he be going into the high school test?  What are those failing experiences teaching?  Are they really preparing a student to pass?

It just seems to me that we should be able to match the standardized testing environment, format and language to a test that is based on the skills a child was actually able to systematically learn and master throughout the year. 

By this I mean, I wish my third graders who are reading at a mid-first grade reading level could take a standardized test that is off-level normed.  I wish they could be assessed on the first grade reading skills.  Over time, this would actually show their growth, rather than continue to show that they have failed a grade level test.  I know, it's a big wish.

So now I'm gearing up for tomorrow.  It's our Reading Celebration Day at school (how ironic!) and at one point during the day, I need to have individual conferences with all of my students to discuss their FCAT results. 

My plan is to show them their developmental score and explain this to them. 
  • I'll remind them that tests give teachers more information about what we need to teach.  
  • I'll remind them that this was their first time taking FCAT and now next year we will really be able to see how their developmental score improves.  Just like we saw how their SM score improved throughout the year and their mastered sight words improved throughout the year.  
  • I'll remind them how proud I am of their hard work and all of the goals they have mastered this year.  
  • I'll remind them that they are readers!  
But, my heart will be breaking just a little bit with each student conference.........

photo courtesy of MicroSoft Clip Art

Monday, May 14, 2012

Silent Reading Procedures

I like having my students practice sustained silent reading.  So often in special education classes we are so focused on providing direct instruction and therapies, managing interventions or collecting data; it seems like we forget that students need to be able to choose their own literature and read on their own!

My goal for my students this year was for them to be able to choose their own book and read silently (or at least quietly in a whisper) and independently for 20 minutes.  Since three of my third grade students started the school year with reading levels below beginning first grade, we obviously had to provide some structure and scaffolding to help them reach this goal.

The first thing you see labeled in this picture is the "book bucket."  It is a simple plastic box purchased at Big Lots for about $2.  Each student in my room has their own personal book bucket.  Within this book bucket we store the child's whisper phone, their sight word rings and Reading A-Z books at their individual levels.

I chose to start our sustained silent reading with book buckets because it was an organizational system that we had previously taught the students in my class.  They all had their book buckets and had spent individual reading time with my assistants and me reading the material within.  I knew that every child could independently read more than 90% of the material in their book bucket.

The first day I introduced silent reading time, I didn't give them many choices.  I asked them all to get their book buckets out on their desks.  They were allowed to read anything that was in their book bucket.  I then set a screen timer for 5 minutes on the Active Board.  We use a free download like this.  I challenged them to see if the entire class could read silently until the timer beeped and cut this grid so that it showed only 10 squares and glued it to a piece of green construction paper with the phrase "We can read silently for 5 minutes."  They were all required to read for 5 minutes out of their book buckets.  When they successfully read for 5 minutes, we put a sticker towards the class goal.  After they reached that goal of reading silently for 5 minutes on ten different opportunities, we congratulated them and told them how proud we were of them and that they were ready for a new goal.

After we met that goal, I made another simple grid and set the screen timer for 7 minutes.  When we met that goal, I bumped them progressively to 10 minutes, 12 minutes, 15 minutes and then finally 20 minutes.

As they showed they could manage the silent reading, I loosened up on the control a little bit.  I would let them choose three books from our classroom library or their library books.  (Remember while some of my students are reading chapter books, I still have a group reading first grade level books.  I needed them to have enough material that would keep them reading for the full 20 minutes.)

A little bit after that, I loosened up the control even more and allowed them to find personal space in the classroom with a laundry basket, a throw pillow or a throw blanket.

Through each little step, I wanted them to maintain their sustained reading but gradually have it become something that they enjoyed and got to choose rather than something I imposed on them.  I'm hoping that this will help them to view themselves as readers and ultimately read for leisure rather than just for work.