The End of Institute

A single day at institute can fee incredibly long, but the entire five weeks goes by like the high speed train that whips through a busy platform, leaving only the shuddering of people and buildings in its wake.

I said good-bye to my fifth grade students last Friday. They have one glorious month of summer left before most go off to new middle schools around Houston. Meanwhile, I have a month left to prepare to be a fifth grade science teacher, a proposition both daunting and exciting.

There are both successes to celebrate as well as failures to learn from in my experience with the fifth graders of summer institute.

One huge success is the growth of four students who met over 100% of their growth goals this summer in math and science. At the beginning of the summer, we tested our students in math and science using questions garnered from previously released state exams. We then had sixteen instructional days of opportunity to help fill in the gaps in our student’s understanding. At the end, we retested them to find the quantitative difference our teaching made in their understanding of the material. It was very powerful to see the improvement that some students made over the course of four short weeks.

However, the flip side of success were the students who did not progress according to our end of institute assessment, and this was especially evident in reading. Although I recorded improvement in the reading abilities of our most struggling students, they struggled with the final text, both in fluency and in comprehension. I leave with mixed feelings about how we supported the students this summer when it comes to literacy.

Upon reflection, I think that there are three key areas of growth I need to focus on as I enter my regional classroom.

(1) Tracking student growth and leveraging it with the students, the parents, and myself. Although I included assessments for each objective I taught this past summer, and backwards planned from them, I did not use the results of those assessments purposefully. More often than not the assessments sat in my bag, ungraded, for almost a week. Instead, I vow to grade assessments the day they are given, and to enter them into a class tracker so that I know whether or not my class mastered the objective with an average of 80% on the assessment. I vow to share these results with the students in the form of class averages and class mastery, but also in the form of individual trackers so that my students know where they stand, can be invested in their own growth, and know how to seek resources that will help them strengthen what is weak.

(2) Becoming a master of my content so that I can help students internalize enduring understandings of the material. Literacy was difficult for me to teach because I did not understand how to break down what it meant to be a good reader. It wasn’t until I picked the brains of some master fifth grade literacy teachers did I get a better understanding of the subject and how to teach it. However, by that time, two weeks had already gone by, two weeks where limited student learning was occurring. Now I have two years to really master fifth grade science content. That means knowing the content myself, seeing the different patterns in that pool of knowledge, being able to align fifth grade content with lower elementary and upper elementary content, being able to align fifth grade science standards with college readiness standards, and most importantly, how to break it down for my students. Throughout this year, I will be absorbing as much as possible about fifth grade science from from professional development sessions, textbooks, master teachers, you name it.

(3) Pacing my lessons so that students have the time to practice, practice, practice. My students over Institute succeeded when I gave them adequate time to master the objective through constant and consistent practice. However, when my lesson didn’t move fast enough, or when I let the class become disruptive, or when I wasted time because a procedure was not down pat, I lost valuable practice time and my students’ learning suffered. Going into my classroom I will invest in time-saving procedures such as how to get science materials quickly and safely, motivate 100% of my students to be engaged 100% of the time, and plan carefully to maximize student practice time.

Institute. It was tough. It’s over. And I come out a better teacher because of it.

Note: This was written on July 23rd, 2010, a week after institute ended, but finished on August 7th, 2010. New entries that cover the missing time period are upcoming.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Kelly Lack says:

    Deborah, it sounds like you’ve learned a lot about your current strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, and I admire your enthusiasm and your willingness to use your experience at the Institute to look for and identify ways to become an even more effective instructor in the upcoming academic year. I wish you the best of luck, and I look forward to reading about how it goes.

  2. Jenny Hsi says:

    Deborah this is awesome. Best of luck for the new school year!

  3. Anu says:

    Yay, congrats on finishing Institute! As a potential TFA-er, I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on your blog to see how everything’s going. I’ll also be interested to see how UbD is working out for you, since I’ve learned the theory but not applied it much yet.

    You say you’ll be absorbing as much as possible about fifth grade science from “professional development sessions, textbooks, master teachers, you name it.” How about from your students? I’ve been doing some tutoring this summer, and I’ve found that some of the best pools of knowledge for how to teach are my own students, particularly the ones who scored well from the beginning or showed large score improvements. Finding out how they conceptualize the subject helps me rewind my years of engineering training and get a peek into the minds of my 10th graders. One of the most useful techniques I learned in my teacher training this summer was “throwing it back to the class”: if you don’t know how to answer a question, let one of your brightest kids answer it! Most likely, it’ll be more understandable to the rest of the class than any explanation you give, and it gives you valuable insight into how your kids conceptualize the subject. Did you find this was useful at Institute as well?

    I’ll be surveying all my students who have shown the most score improvement after my class ends to ask them what they found most useful, so that I can collect best practices and use them for future students. They’ve been my most valuable teaching resource so far!

    1. debryc says:

      Anu, this is fantastic. To be honest, I was not thinking about learning directly from my students at all when I was writing point #2. But, you are completely right! No one knows better, the mind of a 10-year-old, then another 10-year-old. I have been using “throwing it back to the class” as a way to check for understanding, but now I will be much more purposeful about also using it as a way for students to learn from one another and for me to learn from them!

      In fact, one of my areas of growth as a teacher will definitely be learning how to release responsibility to my students so that they will walk out of my class as independent learners. I need to remember as a teacher that the most important person in the room is not the teacher, but each and every single student, and that it is each student’s understanding that ultimately matters most.

    2. Anu says:

      Absolutely! One of the biggest things I need to improve on is very similar: as I alluded to earlier, I need to learn to get past my years of education, understand what my students’ preconceptions and prior knowledge are, and use that – rather than my own knowledge – as a foundation for their learning. My first 10th grade class was horrible because I didn’t recognize this, but now I’m getting better: pre-test, pre-test, pre-test!

      I also found that tutoring or meeting individually with students on the side helps to give me a better idea of the prior knowledge of the age group I’m working with, and helps me elicit good, honest feedback.

      Looking forward to hearing more of your insights into teaching! I’m going to pick your brains about cold calling at some point, because I’ve found it SO effective this summer!

    3. debryc says:

      Cold calling is my absolute favorite. I will be sure to write a post about it! And, I’d love to here everyone’s ideas on that, too.

  4. Anu says:

    Also, I LOVE your point #3. I found that the more I demonstrated to my students that I was invested in their education – by grading promptly, meeting with them individually, offering office hours, setting high expectations, being prepared, moving quickly – the more THEY were invested in my class!

  5. Richard Fan says:

    Congrats Deborah! You’ve done so well thus far.

    You sound like a veteran teacher already… I assume the institute is more rigorous than the military boot camp training? 😛

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