Student learning. Whose responsibility is it anyway? Unfortunately, this question can cause a lot of finger pointing. Parents may point to teachers. At the same time, teachers point to students.
Let’s look in on Ms. Sneed, our favorite fourth grade teacher. Unfortunately, her students were struggling. Why couldn’t they convert customary measures? She’d shown them how to do it every day for a week! Why weren’t their parents helping at home? Ms. Sneed put her head in her hands and sighed deeply.
Oh well. No time to think of it this morning. Once again, it was time for early morning PD at her school. Ms. Sneed grabbed a pad of paper and a pen. Then she headed down to the library for the meeting.
Teacher Responsibility for Student Learning
“Staff, today we’ll watch a video,” said the principal. “The topic is teacher responsibility for student learning.”
A few teachers groaned. “Why does it always fall back on us?” complained one colleague.
Ms. Sneed grimaced. Unbelievable. Then she dutifully picked up her pen and began to take notes.
At the end of the video, the principal asked the staff to explain what they learned. He typed their takeaways, which appeared on the large screen:
Suddenly, Ms. Sneed had an ah-ha moment. Maybe she was the reason her kids were struggling with measurement.
Planning Instruction Affects Student Learning
The next morning, during her reflection time, Ms. Sneed thought about customary conversions. Maybe she needed to try some new strategies. Wait. Maybe her kids weren’t even ready!
Ms. Sneed thought about prerequisite skills her students needed. Sure, they needed to multiply and divide. They could do that. But converting inches and feet required multiplying and dividing by 12. No, they couldn’t do that. And converting ounces and pounds required multiplying and dividing by 16. Oh no!
So how could she move her students from Point A to Point B? They only possessed rudimentary computation skills.
Ms. Sneed still had a few minutes before leaving for work. She ran to her computer and googled the standard for her grade level:
4.MD.1 -Know relative sizes of measurement units within one system of units including km, m, cm; kg, g; lb, oz.; l, ml; hr, min, sec. Within a single system of measurement, express measurements in a larger unit in terms of a smaller unit. Record measurement equivalents in a two-column table. For example, know that 1 ft is 12 times as long as 1 in. Express the length of a 4 ft snake as 48 in. Generate a conversion table for feet and inches listing the number pairs (1, 12), (2, 24), (3, 36), …
What? That’s not the way her math series taught it! What on earth was a conversion table? She googled that too and found a unit on Teachers pay Teachers. After quickly downloading it and printing it, she headed for school.
Scaffolding Makes Learning Possible
When Ms. Sneed arrived in her classroom, she flipped through the customary conversion unit. Her eyes fell on a two-column table, and she shook her head. “Of course. Patterning. This way the kids don’t need to know how to multiply or divide by two-digit numbers. And they won’t mix the two up either.” Evidently, the folks who wrote the CCSS understood the need for scaffolding. Evidently, the folks who wrote her textbook did not.
She headed to the copy machine with pages of customary conversion for length. Today, they would try two-column tables.
As the kids got ready for math class, Ms. Sneed announced, “We haven’t had a lot of luck converting inches and feet. So we’re going to try something new.” She paused for a minute as she distributed the papers. “First, you’ll fill in the table on the left. You can use it to complete most of the problems. Some numbers are larger than what you will write in the table. Therefore, you’ll need to use a different strategy for those. Let’s work with seat partners today. That way, you can support one another.”
As the kids set to work, Ms. Sneed was surprised that no one had their hand up. She walked around and listened.
“Hey look, you just keep adding twelve.”
“This is lots easier than what we were doing yesterday.”
“Have you gotten to the bigger numbers yet?”
“Yeah, but you can just add the numbers from the table together to find the answer.”
Mrs. Sneed closed her eyes, shrugged up her shoulders, and smiled. Thank goodness.
Background Knowledge Affects Student Learning
After school, Ms. Sneed planned her lesson for customary capacity. Her mind wandered to how kids learn. What kinds of concrete experiences had they had? When she was a kid, she learned by baking with her mom. She doubted, however, that many of her students did much of this. Yep, the kids probably needed to get their hands on some measurement tools.
Ms. Sneed quickly erased her math plans for the day and headed to her cabinet. At the very back, she found what she was looking for. Out came the dusty containers: cups, pints, quarts, and gallons.
When math began, Ms. Sneed asked her students to measure water. In teams, they found out how many cups were in a pint. Then they worked on pints to quarts. Finally, they measured the number of quarts in a gallon.
“We’re not done yet,” said Ms. Sneed. “Please find out how many cups are in a quart and in a gallon. Oh yeah, and how many pints are in a gallon.”
Water covered the kids’ desks. The floor even got a little wet. But in the end, the kids were smiling – and they had the background knowledge they needed.
After everything was cleaned up, Ms. Sneed asked students to construct Gallon Man. They happily cut and pasted, building conceptual knowledge of measurement.
Communication with Parents Affects Student Learning
Within a few days, most kids mastered the two-column table. A few still struggled, however. Ms. Sneed decided to send a note to their parents. Hopefully, they could provide a little support at home.
After reading what she had typed, Ms. Sneed scratched her head. “Wait a minute,” she murmured to herself. She jumped up and walked to her old filing cabinet. Ms. Sneed pulled out a tattered folder. Two shabby sheets of paper were tucked inside.
Years ago, her teaching mentor had shared Estimation Station with her. “This fun little activity helps kids conceptualize units of measurement,” Mrs. Brown had said. At the time, Ms. Sneed thought it was frivolous. Indeed, she thought it was something her students should already know. Not any more. Tomorrow, her kids would start this activity. This teacher was taking responsibility for student learning!
What You Can Do to Improve Student Learning in Your Classroom
As usual, the principal sent an email about that week’s professional development. Each teacher was required to answer this question: What can you do to improve student learning in your classroom?
For Ms. Sneed, the answer was easy. After all, she’d just lived it! She quickly typed her response:
- Reflect on student struggles. Strive to understand the root of the problem.
- Consider readiness, including skills and background knowledge.
- Know your standards (or at least look them up).
- Remember to scaffold. In other words, take kids from where they are to where you want them to be.
- Engage students in meaningful activities.
- Consider how you can enlist parent support.
The Buck Stops Here
Students are responsible for their own learning. Parents are responsible for their children’s learning. But ultimately, all learning begins with the teacher. It’s up to us to make it happen.
Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.