Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Student Achievement Best Practices: A Perspective From Home Schooling

Student Achievement Best Practices

By Jennifer McMahon, National Board Certified Literacy Specialist, Founding Director of Literacy for Humanity

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image courtesy of literacyforhumanity.org
As a literacy specialist, I always tried to have very clear goals for my students. As a matter of student achievement best practices, I used running records and comprehension checks to keep track of progress, but even with small groups of students, I found myself moving them through their leveled books without always being sure every student had mastered every skill.  My students always made progress, so developing a new approach didn't seem that important. My perspective on teaching changed this year, though, when I started homeschooling one of my own children.

We made the decision to home school our youngest son after he had a very rough beginning to his school year.  Since it was intended only as a temporary arrangement (the remainder of the year) we used the school district's curriculum and Common Core as our guide.  I wanted to make sure my "school time" with my son was productive, so I pre-assessed him before introducing any new topic.  Sometimes this was a discussion, other times it was a written pre-test or a writing assignment.  I kept track of what he already knew and compared it with what he still needed to know.  Then, I explicitly taught him anything he didn't know.  I reassessed him after teaching and either moved on to the next goal (if he grasped the concept) or retaught the material in a new way, assessing all along until he was proficient.  Since I only had one child's achievement to focus on, I could easily make sure my lessons were tailored to fit his needs.  Using this approach, my son showed mastery of an entire year's curriculum in three months.
This made me truly reevaluate what we do in a public school all year long.

How could I thoroughly cover every subject area in a quarter of the time?  Simple. I focused instruction on the areas of most importance.  The curriculum told me what my son needed to know, understand, and be able to do.  My pre-assessments told me which of those goals I needed to focus on, and I was unwilling to move forward until I made sure he was proficient.  If he didn't understand something, I used every teaching technique in my repertoire to make sure he learned the concept.

After thinking about my homeschooling experience, I decided to see if a similar process might work with my reading students. I began by changing my mindset.  My goal as a teacher is to make sure every student of mine is able to achieve every learning standard.  Even though they are grouped together, I need to think of them as individuals.  With this in mind, I created a checklist/observation sheet for each of my students.   For every grade-level, I listed the learning goals/curriculum.  Next to each goal, I have a space for pre-assessments, a space for teaching points, and a space for post-assessments.  I have these in a loose-leaf binder (although I hope to leverage technology for this in the future).  Creating the recording sheets is an initial investment of time, but the benefits are worth the preparation time.  With my recording sheets handy, I pre-assess my students before I teach anything.  I do this "homeschooling style." Many times it is a quick check around the table or a conversation to determine what my students already know.  Individual dry erase boards are great for this. I can ask them to write the vowel sounds they hear, for example, and can quickly determine if a student needs more assistance with short vowels or if they are ready to move on to vowel combinations.  I record all of this information on my student sheets and then can design my lessons to meet each student's needs.  I can also share this information with classroom teachers, so we can work together to meet students' goals.

By using an individualized approach, my daily lessons look a bit different.  I am still using leveled texts and mini-lessons, but I am differentiating my lessons in order to reach each student.  Sometimes this means pulling a student aside during a reading conference to teach and reteach a particular point.  I have found I am spending more time on what my students really need to know and less time on the skills and strategies they have already grasped.  With individual student achievement at the forefront of my mind, I have found all of my students are moving forward and making progress.

During our homeschooling adventure, I came to appreciate a few ideas that helped transform my teaching:
  1. Have high standards for every student.  I was not willing to let my son move on until I was certain he understood and was fully proficient.  As an educator, it is important to have this same drive and set of high standards for every student.
  2. Use every moment as a teachable moment.  Every conversation "counts" in the world of homeschooling.  It was a great reminder that every discussion or interaction in the classroom should also be thought of in that way.  Truly getting to know kids by making personal connections is one of the best ways to assess what students know and what they need to know.
  3. Learning should be joyful.  My son reminded me of this idea.  It can sometimes get lost in the world of standardized tests and continual assessment, but it is important.  I worked very hard to think of creative and engaging ways to present concepts and skills.  I worked just as hard to make sure my assessments were authentic and meaningful.  There are many ways besides a paper and pencil exam for students to show what they know.
  4. Rich life experiences help build students' background knowledge and allow them to make connections.  The importance of these experiences cannot be underestimated.  Students who have had the opportunity to study the sky or make a barometer or visit an aquarium are going to more accurately visualize when they read about stars, weather, or aquatic animals.  They are also going to be able to make personal connections between their experiences and their reading.  These connections will lead to deeper comprehension.  While it isn't practical to take a field trip every week with a class of students, it is possible to focus on offering hands on activities, building background through discussions, pictures, and realia, and taking the time to help students make connections.
While homeschooling is not for everyone, there are definitely aspects of the homeschooling philosophy that can be borrowed by classroom teachers for student achievement best practices. Viewing each student as an individual and creating individualized learning plans based on the needs of students can have a significant impact on student achievement.

Jennifer McMahon is a National Board Certified Literacy Specialist at Brooks Hill School in Fairport, NY.  A mother of four, Jennifer is a passionate educator and student advocate.  She is also the founding director of the new non-profit organization Literacy for Humanity. Watch it take shape at www.literacyforhumanity.org.

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtfully written, Jennifer. If all teachers would feel that "learning should be joyful", it would certainly make a difference in attitudes as well as achievement. Good, insightful ideas here. Thanks for sharing!