Semester 2, Week 9: Walking the Middle School Track

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This week I decided to step outside my classroom during lunchtime and walk on the track. After I eat my yogurt, I have about twenty minutes left in which to walk, and one day it suddenly seemed like what I needed to be doing. The first day I went around once, and unsure about the time, I stopped. The next day, two little boys came into the room at just the time for me to go out, so I invited them to join me. They did, and we went around once. Once has become twice, and on Friday the boys and the school counselor joined me. It’s a good time to think or talk about things other than the classroom and what I am or am not accomplishing in there. Lately it doesn’t seem like much is happening in the way of learning, and it is pretty disheartening.

There is drama, always plenty of that, and comedy in abundance. But despite how long we work on something, or how creative I am in presenting and practicing it, when it comes to assessing the learning that has taken place, I am disappointed. Lately I have come to wonder about the sort of student that the current wave of testing and retesting has created. In at least the grades 1 – 8 teachers are mandated to follow pacing guides (I know, I’ve talked about that ad nauseum), and adopted curriculum. The pacing guide for my grade really packs a lot into each week. One or two stories, a couple of grammar lessons and spelling and vocab lessons each week. Each includes something to read, whether it is a story or an article or just instructions. And each is accompanied by some sort of worksheet or sheets which many teachers cling to like gospel. And I get that, really I do. The material they represent is part of what we are expected to teach, and to cram so much in each week and do it in a new and creative way would require a great deal of prep outside of the classroom. Hours of it, in fact. So rather than do that and not even be sure we’ve “covered” all the material, the worksheets seem like a sure thing. We are constantly encouraged to use other strategies like “Think, Pair Share,” as though it is a panacea. But we also are forced to collaborate and compare standards met and unmet every single week. The pressure is on, and I think everyone is still trying to figure out how to meet all the requirements. And the adopted curriculum with its worksheets and complicated instructions is the approved medium. So it gets used, even though we are pushed to not use it so much. HELP!

I try to go beyond worksheets, and think what I’m teaching will be clearer and more interesting to my students. More effective at teaching them the intended concept. And maybe sometimes it is, but often, way too often it is not. Last week I spent three days, 6 hours, on the language and form of persuasion. We read about it, role played it, designed our own arguments and then mapped a simple essay we read together from the back of the textbook on a simple map I devised. Yet when I had them identify the claim, support opposition statements in another essay as a little quiz, no one seemed to remember what I meant by “claim.”

When I give them a worksheet, they don’t question it. They sit down and try to do it, bring it to me for approval or corrections and redo it. Usually they hand it in, although all too many are left inside the desks, and they ask me for another copy when they notice later they have not received a grade on it. Often they squirrel around and play, not handing in anything at all, and those they ask to make up when they see zeros on their grade check. I’m finally getting wise to that and tell them that if their work is not handed in on a squirrely day they will NOT be given the opportunity to make it up. Unless I meet with parents and they give me that long-suffering look, at which time I’ll offer anything they want to save their kid from himself. I feel guilty and like an inadequate teacher every time I pull out one of those worksheets. I don’t want anyone to know that I’ve used them. I try to use them in a creative way, but they are worksheets. Hello!! They are worksheets.

So, bottom line, have we created a generation of “worksheet kids,” who expect that format of teaching and don’t know how to respond to anything different? Worse yet, have we become worksheet teachers, unable to figure out anything better? I wonder. Think I’ll go out and take a turn around the track and think about it.

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