PSSA Week & March 19-March 23

Last week was PSSA week. Due to new rules regarding who can administer the PSSA, the other MAT interns and I spent the week in the cafeteria, monitoring the students who came late to school. When the PSSA’s were over, I taught a little bit, but honestly, most of my classes met in the afternoon after I had to leave to be back to Pitt on time.

Needless to say, when it came time for the PSSA’s to finally conclude this past Tuesday, I had a hard time getting back into teaching mode. However, I got myself back into the swing of things as I introduced our next novel to the class: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. We first read a short story–also written by Mildred Taylor and featuring the same cast of characters as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry–called “Song of the Trees”. Both stories are set during the Great Depression in Mississippi, and both stories are about the Logan family, an African American family who owns and works their own land. A lot of my students weren’t sure why the characters in “Song of the Trees” who were white were so unkind and disrespectful to the Logan family–I knew I had to build some prior knowledge for my students.

Today I took them to the lab to explore the Jim Crow laws on PBS.org, an interactive website through which they could explore the specific laws and tensions between African Americans and Caucasians during this time period. Students were amazed that some of these events happened, and that the laws were so unfair towards African Americans. I walked around the lab, challenging my students to look at each state’s laws, specifically Mississippi’s, and how that might affect the novel. We were then able to use this website to talk about the tensions in an objective and constructive way. I believe that now my students will be able to take this knowledge and apply it to the novel, developing a deeper understanding of the events and historical context of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

I’m excited to begin the novel, and I hope that my students will enjoy the book as much as I am so far.

-Sarah Perlmutter

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March 5-March 9

With only a week until the PSSA’s, I decided that my lesson plans this week would focus on PSSA eligible content areas.

I began the week with a mystery solving activity to practice noticing details, making inferences, understanding characters, and drawing conclusions. The students LOVED this activity, and afterward we had a really meaningful conversation about how we can use these skills while taking the PSSA.

The next day, we focused on theme, tone, main idea, and text organization through exploring learning stations for each area of eligible content. I thought that this would be a great activity for them, but it was difficult to make sure they were on task. My reflection question from this activity is, how can I ensure that all students are on task and essentially be everywhere at once, without actually being everywhere at once? I suppose the eyes in the back of my head will grow in with time, but how can I speed up this process?

I faced these same questions when doing our next activity focusing on eligible content terms (simile, metaphor, plot, conflict, etc.). I want to differentiate their learning and allow students to interact with the information at their own speed, but how can I encourage this without also encouraging off task behavior? I gave students work to complete at each station, and with our PSSA term scavenger hunt. Perhaps what I need to work on next is setting high expectations, and making the purpose of the activity as clear as possible. I feel as though I did that, but I always need to formatively assess my students to make sure that the purposes are clear for them as well.

On a happier note, this was the first week that I felt really, truly comfortable in front of both classes. I’ve gotten to know the new class, and I am beginning to understand how they learn and who they are as people. I feel as though we are on the right path, and that the rest of the year will be enjoyable and productive. Of course, my plans didn’t go perfectly, but we are getting there and I feel that I have their attention. I think that they have finally embraced me as their teacher, and that they finally trust that I will make learning fun and engaging as long as they allow me to.

Next week we take the PSSA’s. I hope that I’ve prepared them. Cross your fingers for us! 🙂

-Sarah Perlmutter

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February 27-March 3

This week we began our PSSA unit, and man, did it put the kids to sleep. I wanted to make sure I was covering all of the necessary content, so we followed the PSSA unit lesson plans to a T. I was happy to see that even for going over the basics of test taking strategies, the students remained relatively calm and respectful. Next week, I’d like to get the students up and interacting with various stations for eligible content, to both help them practice for the PSSA and help them relax before the big test.

One of my students today asked me why we bother with school after the PSSA if we go to school so that we can pass the PSSA test. I’m pretty sure I said “No… no no no no no…. No, that’s not the purpose of school” about 5 times. It saddened me to hear that that’s the impression these tests are leaving on students today. School is meant to give students an opportunity to explore the world around them, to interact with different content areas, and to prepare students for the world outside the classroom. After the PSSA is over, I am sure I will have to find a way to stress this to my students, and will probably have to fight harder to keep them engaged and ready to learn. 

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February 20-February 24

This week my students turned in their 2nd attempts at critical response essays on poetry. I went over the format for them, I went over how to analyze poems, I created class sample essays, and I looked at a variety of thesis statements. Before the due date, I told the kids that I wanted their efforts, that I wanted to be inspired by their essays. Finally, the time came last night for me to sit down and read their final drafts. I crossed my fingers and leafed through the pages of the first project.

Time after time, I read over an essay, and smiled, tears nearly coming to my eyes– they did it. They wrote, for 7th graders, excellent papers. There were topic sentences, clear thesis statements, correctly cired quotations, and analysis! My goodness, there was finally analysis! I remembered the drafts that each student had turned in for their last critical response 5 paragraph essay at the end of the 3rd unit, and every single 4th unit essay showed significant improvement.

Yes, some were still short. Yes, all of them are no where near anything I would have turned in during my late high school days. But some (some) were essays I might have turned in in 9th grade, and I couldn’t help but be proud. I had taught these students a format of essay that they would inevitably use in the future, for which they would now be ready. I know that many of my students came to me as strong writers, but many others have shown incredible improvement even just from September until now. I know I can’t take all the credit, the credit is certainly all theirs, but I feel that I can sleep with a smile on my face knowing that these students, this group, has benefitted from my being their teacher.

I know that there will be papers turned in late that don’t make me so excited, but I also know that despite sometimes feeling insecure about how I am actually benefitting these students, here I have concrete evidence. If you look at their papers from the beginning of the year and then looked at these essays, my friends, you would see it: Clear improvement. That’s something I can’t argue with myself about, and I bet that if all of us MAT’s and student teachers out there did the same, we will all feel much better about our role in  our classrooms.

This semester had begun chaotically, but I think that this was just the little burst of confidence that I needed as we get into job hunting season. So for this week, despite any of the struggles we had in the classroom (although the participation policy seems to be really working well and students are beginning to respond much better to me in the new class), or any frustrations with the PSSA’s (mock testing was this week), I’m going to focus on this positive piece of my week: My students’ writing.

-Sarah Perlmutter

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February 13-February 17

Week four with the new class.

The week began with me starting the new participation policy, and the first couple of days, students lost a lot of points. However, when they began to see that I was serious about it and that it wasn’t going to go away, they began to be more careful with their behavior in class. I was fortunate to be sending home progress reports this week as well, so I included mid-week scores on the sheets (along with a note to parents, letting them know that the score on the sheet could be improved depending on their students’ participation). Since then, the class has been–overall–much more prepared for learning. I’ve also started stopping to wait for students to stop talking more often (my mentor’s suggestion–she has been so helpful with helping me manage the new class this week), and this has become a gentle reminder for them to calm down. The past two days, I’ve been able to finish my lessons without any outbursts and have actually been able to have a little fun with them. I will certainly be continuing this policy, as it’s been helpful so far and continuing it will show the students that I am consistent with my expectations, and I hope that we’re on a permanent uphill trend.

It may have also helped that I chaperoned a field trip for students who made honor roll to Fun Fest in Harmarville. Students were surprised to see me–their teacher who may not have seemed like a real person yet–bowling, dancing to the music, and playing laser tag along side them. A student in my intervention class, one who can be particularly hard to reach, was bragging to the other students today about how I was on his team for laser tag and how we won. It was good to know that the field trip helped them realize that I’m a person, too. I think this will help with discipline: It’s a lot harder to be rude and mean to a teacher who is human.

We will see how the year progresses. To be honest, at the beginning of this week, I was totally warn out: I didn’t have any idea what I would or even could do to help the new class listen to me, and the participation policy didn’t seem to be helping much Monday and Tuesday. But today I feel good. I’m leaving the school today feeling like we might be off to a good start.

Let’s see what next week will bring…

 

-Sarah Perlmutter

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February 6-February 10

As I conclude my third week with the new class, I realize that I have sooo much further to go with them. They still don’t listen to me, but I see that there are things I could definitely do to help the situation.

Starting on Monday, we will begin a debit system for participation. Each week, every student will start with 20 participation points. Students can maintain these 20 points by constructively contributing to class. Students will lose points for disruptive behavior or not participating. I have some students who are VERY quiet, so for them, I am hoping this will encourage them to participate. If not, but they are still doing their classwork, I will be sure to try to supplement the points they would lose from not participating during discussions by looking at their classwork or asking them to write something additional during the discussion to capture their thoughts. Students who lose points from disruptive behavior will hopefully stop taking away from instruction time, and will hopefully be encouraged to make up the points lost by participating constructively. I will have students sign a paper stating that they understand, should their parents become distressed, and I will also be sure to call the parents of students who have low participation points by Wednesday so that their student can attempt to make them up. I’m excited about this new change, I’m really hoping it will work.

On Monday, I will also finally be creating classroom rules for the new class. I’m hoping that this will help the students understand what my expectations and what their peers expectations are for class time.

In next week’s post, I will update on the progress on these new initiatives.

Crossing my fingers!

-Sarah Perlmutter

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February 1-February 3, 2012

It’s funny that this was the week of our presentations for Seminar, because this was the week during which it really hit me how important formative assessment and literacy community are in my classroom.

My literacy community project involved producing word clouds from original poems that the students wrote about themselves. This project allowed my students to express themselves, and to take ownership of their poems (their literacy practice). I posted the completed word clouds around the room last week after they had completed them, and this week I asked the students to examine the word clouds for similarities and differences in order to write a poem about our classroom community.

Now– I don’t know if this was a bad day, or if our prior team meeting had put the students in a wierd mood, but the average response to this prompt was: “What if I have nothing good to say about our class?”

“You have nothing good to say about our class at all?”

“Not really.”

Needless to say I was disappointed. There I was, thinking we had this awesome classroom community of learners and readers and writers, while they were feeling the opposite. Before they left I sat them down and–trying not to take their comments personally–talked with them about how they can choose to see the good in life or they can choose to see the bad. I asked them to look at their poems: If the poem they had written was overly negative, I asked them to try to see the class in a positive light and revise. I can’t force them to like the class, but I can reinforce to them that whining and complaining aren’t helpful.

Here’s where formative assessment comes in: I began asking myself that night, “Where did I go wrong?” Of course there are some things in my classroom that I can’t control, but there ARE things that I can, things that I was afraid they might have been reacting to with their negativity. I gave my students a survey for my teaching to see how THEY have been seeing my work at the school. I made sure to tell them not to be afraid to write honestly, because anything they would write that would be negative would help me learn. When I got the papers back, many students gave me high marks for caring about their learning, for welcoming them into the class, and for grading them fairly. However, many students gave me lower points (like 3’s or 4’s instead of 5’s) for checking for their understanding, and for explaining concepts well.

So here’s where I am at the end of the week: I need to find a way to illuminate the positive in our classroom, I need to work on my during lesson formative assessments to check for understanding, and I need to think through what I want to say so that my explanations are clear enough for my students.

Either way, when I created our “community word cloud”, the message is positive. Hopefully now that all of their thoughts are condensed into a few key words, my students can begin seeing what a great class they really are.

-Sarah Perlmutter

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