Monday, February 23, 2015

Spelling Test Liberation

Let me begin this post by apologizing to my former high school students for giving them rote vocabulary tests.  Though I tried to do better than simply having them take home the words for the unit, memorize them, and spit back definitions on weekly tests, I know that I never figured out how to teach vocabulary in a meaningful way.  So I'm sorry.

I've become even more aware of my failings as a teacher of vocabulary over the last 18 months as my own children have begun the weekly spelling ritual.  Since the beginning of first grade, they have received a list of words on Monday, and over the week, they (and by default, I) have spent the week drilling, killing, and (hopefully) learning the spellings.  They usually do pretty well on the Friday tests, but the process is arduous.  I get frustrated that they don't know how to study on their own.  They, I'm sure, get frustrated with their teacher-mom - who has no idea how to teach them.

We've tried sounding words out, writing them 5 times each, creating mnemonics, and breaking the list down into manageable parts for each day of the week.  We created a routine that we followed daily, and we practiced spelling in the car while we waited for the bus and while we drove to after school activities.  Despite all our efforts, by Thursday night, we were still struggling to spell the words correctly on a practice test.  Furthermore, even though they did well on their Friday tests at school, they did not actually learn how to spell the words.  They performed for the test but often misspelled the same words in their writing afterward.  Most importantly, I was driving the ship, not them, and they were not learning how to learn.  It was exhausting and frustrating, and it was casting negativity on much of the limited time that we spend together in the evening.

A few weeks ago my daughter introduced a new challenge into the spelling routine.  "Mama," she said, "If I get everything right this week, can I have breakfast in bed?"  I looked at her for only a second before I answered.  She is a learner who is highly motivated by external rewards, and she had defined her own motivation.

"How about if you get everything right two weeks in a row, you get breakfast in bed for the entire weekend?"  I replied.  Her smile sealed the deal, and I extended the offer to her brother.

For two weeks both kids were highly engaged in their own spelling study.  They seemed to listen to me when we discussed how to break down words, and I was less frustrated.  Both of them earned their reward.  I told them the deal was available for ANY time they earned two perfect scores in a week.  I thought I was free of the spelling test noose.

Until the next week.  When they slid back into their same routines and I became "mean mommy" again as we struggled to learn to spell before the end of the week.

Then on a Tuesday when we found ourselves with an extra two hours in the morning due to a school delay, I asked the kids to take out their flash cards (our newest attempt to develop independent study skills).  I was tired.  It was the second day in a row that I had to juggle work commitments due to weather cancellations, and the last thing I wanted to do was to jump into the angst of spelling.  As the kids brought their index cards to the kitchen table, the idea hit me.  The iPad.  There has to be an app that can take my place in this process.

I searched.  I found it.  I downloaded it.  We played with it, and I am now free of the spelling test noose!

For the last two weeks my kids have used the app to learn their words.  Without question they study their spelling list, and in fact, they kind of enjoy doing so.  This past Friday, they both got perfect scores on their tests, and my only effort was in giving them their Thursday night practice test.

During that trial test my daughter zoomed through her words.  I watched her effortlessly spell without stumbling once.  After the test, when we high-fived for a perfect paper, I asked, "Did the iPad help?"

"Oh yes," she exclaimed, and then she went on to describe to me her process over the week for learning the words.  It was a process that she had created, a process that I had no part in coaching.  She had developed study skills, and she was very aware of what she did that led to her success.

These things - self monitoring, metacognitive awareness, reflection - these are the pillars of independent learning.  I'm not sure why it took me so long to imagine the iPad (rather than me) as a facilitator in this process.  I know that it was, in part, my modeling strategies that allowed my daughter to adopt her own study skills, but it was the technology - perhaps the gamification - that engaged her enough to move forward in her development as a learner.

We no longer spend our limited time together drilling and killing their spelling words.  I am liberated.  And I'm pretty sure that next weekend, I'm going to be on the hook for breakfast in bed.

Spelling Test by FunExam

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Savoring a Moment

I dreaded looking at the online discussion forum for my town this morning.  The space started as a place to share school news, and it has evolved over the last few years into a place to ask questions and to get recommendations.  Feedback is almost instantaneous, and in this way, the forum epitomizes the good connections that can come from the Internet.

Increasingly, however, comments in the forum have turned sour, and quite regularly, posts publicly criticize our local government, special interest groups, individuals who take non-conformist views - and our local schools.  I am very much in favor of healthy debate in public spaces, but the derogatory remarks against our schools based solely on opinion and not on facts has taken its toll on many of us who monitor the site.  In fact, a friend was so dejected that she created a new forum, one where we celebrate our students, teachers, and administrators, rather than cutting them down.

Despite my growing frustration with the forum, I continue to find valuable information in it, and so I continue to read.  And today I knew that I would read critique of the district's decision to delay opening.  I didn't want to read the rants, yet I knew I needed to do so.  I knew that I needed to respond.

I do not envy the decisions that our school leaders make on a daily basis to provide a quality education to our children.  They navigate a path that is filled with political land mines as they determine the best course for both the safety and education of our children.  This winter has been especially challenging as they are faced with dire weather forecasts that promise to bring dangerous conditions to our area nearly every week.

We have not had school on a Monday since January 5.  My daughter has her media and tech class every other Monday, so she hasn't had formal instruction in this area since early December!  I know that our school leaders want her - and all of her peers - in class.  These adults do not want to stay home, sitting snuggly on the couch and watching the news (as one person on the community forum suggested).  They make the best decisions that they can with the data that they have.  And I support every call they have made, even when the weather forecasters have gotten it wrong, and in hindsight, we could have gone to school.

These "could have" days are frustrating for parents, especially parents who work.  Over the last few weeks, my husband and I have had to strategically plan which of us could stay home if the kids had a delay or a closing.  It has become a regular negotiation in our Sunday evening conversations, and yes, it is difficult.  Our work is important to us.  It is important to the people we serve.  But ultimately, our children come first.

So in reflecting on these "could have" days, I am thankful that our local school leaders have cared enough about their employees and students to consider their safety above all else.  I am also thankful that Web 2.0 has allowed me to (1) hold virtual classes and conference electronically with my students, (2) participate in virtual meetings with my colleagues, and (3) be productive at home.  But more importantly, I am thankful that I had some extra time to spend with my kids and to watch their creative minds work.

We are almost to the halfway point of rearing them, and I'm trying to savor as many of these moments as I can.