Saturday, March 18, 2017

It's time to rethink pacing guides

"Learning isn't supposed to be fun," declared a student one day. Shocked, and a little sad, I struggled for a moment with how to respond. How did we get here? I have always prided myself on making school interesting and learning fun. It has taken me some time to really process that. How could we possibly reach a point where a student declares that learning is not supposed to be fun.

"Mommy, I didn't finish my math because it was too stressful," said my first grader as I spoke to her on the phone this week. I suggested she talk to her teacher. She replied, "but we have a test today." Why is my first grader so stressed about her math learning that she shuts down in the midst of homework. Why does my first grader even have homework?

My #TeacherMom sense has been off the charts. What I do as a teacher impacts the way I parent my children through their schooling, their homework, their struggles, and their successes. What I do as a mom impacts some of the things I do as a teacher. How I design certain assignments, instruct my students, and how I guide them through their learning. I have often described myself as a Facilitator of Learning, rather than saying, "I am a teacher." Interestingly, during a keynote address at the 2017 CUE National Conference, George Couros suggested we do not describe ourselves in a single manner, but cover all aspects of what we do. I am more than a Facilitator of Learning. I am more than a TeacherMom. I am more. And so are my students.

Over the past few months, I have looked at pacing guides and the perceptions educators have of them. After my son struggled to keep up, I inquired about whether a pacing guide was in place. I was informed that "a very rigorous pacing guide" was followed by teachers. This stopped me in my tracks. Was this a good thing? I am not expected to follow a pacing guide, but I am familiar with the material that I need to cover between the first and last days of school. Currently, to cover percents (in their various forms), I have worked with my students on guiding them through a project in which they learned about the stock markets. I have taught them how to calculate percentages, but in the context of real world applications.This is important for a number of reasons. The top of my list is the age-old question, "when will I use this in life?"

If students can see real world applications for the things we teach, then they will take a stronger personal interest. If we make things personal and interesting, they will want to learn what we teach. If we stick to rigorous pacing guides, worksheets, and practices of drill-and-kill, they will lose interest and struggle to keep up with what we teach. I say this as a teacher, and as a mom. When my son was two-years-old, he already demonstrated a strong interest in math. He pointed out patterns and counted in multiple languages. As Jo Boaler pointed out in her keynote address at CUE National Conference on March 16, "No one is born a 'math person.'" My son had this strong interest and rapid development in mathematics because he found it interesting. Did we do math flashcards with him daily? No. He watched "Team Umizoomi" and loved the way the show made things interesting. Developing his math abilities was the result of relating to what the show covered and finding it interesting. "Mom, I got As and Bs in math in kindergarten, first, and second. Now I get Cs," he said to me just this week. In fact, he went on to say he's afraid he will ultimately end up getting Ds and Fs. He almost sounded as if he found that possibility to be inevitable. My heart shattered. This boy loves math and has a lot of ability in it. He just doesn't work the problem "fast enough."

"Speed does not equate with intelligence," Boaler said Thursday.

That is worth repeating: "Speed does not equate with intelligence."

 So, why do we grade based on a student's ability to complete a set number of problems in a set number of time? There has to be more because, as Boaler said, "speed isn't working." We need to foster growth and innovator mindsets. This is the the theme of this week's CUE National Conference. There is a reason why I did not get this post written as soon as I had responses to my Pacing Guides Survey. I see now that the reason is, I needed to be in this environment and hear the things I am hearing here and now to put this all together.

Fifty-percent of respondents to my survey said that pacing guides hinder student achievement. Fifty-percent also indicated that pacing guides help instruction. How exactly is this possible? If pacing guides hinder student achievement, then are they really helping instruction? While I understand that aspects of instruction may be positively impacted by having pacing guides in place, if students fall short of reaching goals or learning, then there is a gap that we must close.Our students deserve better. Perhaps a guideline for what should and can be covered can remain in place without a full, "rigorous" pacing guide. I understand that teachers want to have an idea of what they should cover, but we cannot sacrifice student achievement and creativity in the process. There has to be a better way. When a first grader shuts down because she is too stressed by the math homework, the problem is not the student. The problem is the pressure put on the students to perform in a certain manner within a certain time.

If we all have to be on the same page in the same book on the same day at the same time, we are forgetting a very, very important thing. Every student is unique. Every student deserves an opportunity to succeed. One respondent said, "When you have kids that are extremely low or even high, pacing guides are useless. It doesn't matter that I should be teaching fractions, if they can't understand whole numbers. The same is true for high kids, if they already know it why should I make them do it again." This is key. Instead of teaching to a test, or a pacing guide, we need to teach students and address their individual needs. I understand that teaching individual students becomes more difficult when you have between 30 and 50 students in a classroom. However, surely we can find a way to prioritize our students and make learning a fun, engaging experience. From a survey respondent, "I believe behaviors could be better if the teacher could pace to students needs. When the student is not understanding then they act out."

In regards to the impact on classroom management, another respondent said, "The more rigid the pacing guide the harder management was." Another said, "I look at them more as a true guide now than I did early on in career and now let my students learning set more of the tone, speed and direction."

The consensus among educators who responded to the survey also seems to include that pacing guides severely limit the possibility of student creativity. If a student feels limited or rushed, the student will likely not produce their best work. Ask yourself this very important question: Is the goal to cram in as much information as we can in a short amount of time or is our goal to teach our students and guide them through this journey?

Given that most pacing guides come from the top down and are implemented at the district level, it certainly poses some difficulty for teachers. This will not change overnight. In the meantime, we can attempt to be a positive force in working toward change. I hope that more administrators have a chance to take a good strong look at what works best for students and adjust course accordingly. Something has to give at some point.

For now, we as teachers can try to do what we can in our own classrooms to nurture creativity and foster ideas that will lead our students in the direction of attaining success. I am thankful to be in a place where I can have students making investments, calculating tips, creating book trailers, and spreading their creative wings as they learn to fly and will one day soar. Every so often a student may question as to why we have decided to make learning engaging and fun, but ultimately they will see the benefits for themselves and one day, we may actually do away with the thinking that learning should be "boring." We will minimize stress for the first graders struggling to get their math homework done and we will go beyond the standard fourth grade mission project when implementing PBL in upper elementary classrooms. Folks, there is more to life than speeding through some math problems and answering questions at the end of a section of reading. See what your students need and guide them accordingly. Foster creativity whenever you can. Take learning to new levels. Our students deserve our best so they can achieve their best.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Last call for pacing guide thoughts

Please take a few moments to respond to these brief questions about pacing guides. Your responses are greatly appreciated. Please share with other educators, as well.