Saturday, August 30, 2014

The First Days

Last week I spent two days in district committee meetings preparing for the start of a new school year. When I heard a colleague describe her plans for the opening of school, I thought her objective to test all students' reading with an assessment in the first three days was hyperbolic. I was certain she was trying to be humorous, maybe poking fun at the way we sometimes are overzealous about collecting student data with many assessment measures. But this week I was chatting with her during our workshop days, and found that was precisely her intent for our first three days: Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessments (FPBA) and writing prompts for all!

Granted her instructional context is slightly exceptional because she is looping with her class this year, but I found this goal to be absolutely startling! I was taken aback as my mind imagined the tone being set around students' performance levels and measurement from day one. Her rationale was to get to know the students and set goals for them. On the other side of those first three days and looking back now, I learned about my students, too, and not with an assessment.

My mindset going into the school year was to make my students my highest priority of study in these first few weeks. I have always felt strongly about building relationships with students, considering relationships to be critical to my success as a teacher. This guiding belief was reinforced for me in reflecting on sessions with Kathy Collins, Sara Ahmed, and Linda Rief at Heinemann's Teacher Tour. All three presenters promoted the importance of student-centered work in today's classrooms.
In the first three days, my students have created and started sharing identity maps (Thank you, Sara), played community building games, attempted the Marshmallow Tower challenge (we'll be trying again), prepared and presented skits, and discussed read alouds and what they mean to us.

I learned Alex's passion is rocks and I can connect with her by finding her real ways to learn more about rocks and purposes for sharing.
I learned Lissa likes to garden (something I cannot do!).
I learned Steph eats, sleeps, and breathes One Direction.
I learned my students can't get enough of Jerry Palotta's Who Would Win series. Cassie is hungry for more Babymouse, Lee is into Percy Jackson, and book orders make them all squeal.
I learned Luke has a leader growing inside of him, and Michelle has exceptional patience and tolerance.
I learned Brittany is artistic, Scott is athletic, and Alan is musical.
I learned my students are sponges when it comes to read aloud and they just can't get enough.
I learned they really want to learn and master that most tricky operation: division.
I learned they expect kindness and helpfulness from one another and want classmates who look out for each other.
I learned their stamina for independent work needs developing, their cooperative skills are reasonably strong, and--more than anything--they want to do well.

I learned countless things about my students--families, interests, likes and dislikes, traits--and none of those came from an FPBA. 

There will be a time and place to assess reading comprehension, evaluate their writing, and rank their computational fluency. Those are important informants to my instruction and tools for monitoring student progress. But those will be meaningless and lack student interest and investment without establishing a community for learning first. My students need to see that they are the reason I'm here. They need evidence that I'm interested in them, what they are about, the people they are. From day one, I want my words and actions to tell students
Hey, this place is YOURS.
This thing called learning is a shared responsibility.
You're important--I want to know about YOU.

My classroom is about more than attaining a score on a trimester rubric... My classroom is about growing and improving, helping students discovering who they are and becoming who they want to be. Assessments alone will not equip me for what I need to be their teacher.

At the onset of our new school year, I'm on the lookout for what makes them smile, laugh, grow excited, and feel tense. So for now, MY FPBA kit can collect a little more summer dust while I listen and observe and discover my students.

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