Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What Messages Are You Sending?

An interesting question was once posed to a group of mathematics and science teachers at a conference that I was attending. “What do your students think is important to you?” This became the topic of much discussion and reflective thinking as teachers pondered what they truly communicated to their students by their words and actions in the classroom. Some teachers thought about the time they spent making sure that students work is organized, written legibly, and turned in to the correct location. Others admitted that neatness was not as important as correct answers and that they were not as concerned about student work being well organized. Many different thoughts were shared within the group, but the central theme of the discussion was that students’ attitudes reflect the attitudes modeled by teachers and parents. Parents and teachers are the most significant figures in a child’s education. We pass on many of our attitudes, intentionally or not, to children in our care. These may be good or bad attitudes and we may not even realize how these attitudes are being transmitted. Consider what your response is when your child seeks help with a math problem. Do you take a quick glance and tell your child that you have been out of school too long and don’t remember how to solve the problem? Do you tell him/her that you don’t know because you didn’t have to do that math in school? Do you sit down with your student(s) to search the textbook or other resources and persist until you both understand the concept? What is your attitude toward homework? What is your attitude about your student’s grades? Do they understand that you feel it important that they do well? Do you feel that it is important to be on time? When confronted with situations such as those name above, our actions transmit, and in turn transfer, our attitudes toward various subjects. If you aren’t willing to try to solve a problem that your child is being asked to solve, you may be communicating that you do not feel it is important to persist until you understand the concept. The look on your face may show that you feel that the task is painful or unimportant. In an interesting study, researchers found that college students preparing to become elementary school teachers had the highest levels of mathematics anxiety in comparison to all other college majors. Most of these students will soon become teachers who spend the minimum amount of time required on mathematics content and do so without enthusiasm. This attitude is communicated to their students and, coupled with less-than-enthusiastic attitudes displayed by parents, may become detrimental to mathematics skills development. Another attitude that seems to be more and more prevalent in American schools is that all school work should be easy. In a recent study that compared Japanese, German, and American students researchers found that while Japanese and German students expect math and science classes to be difficult and to require a significant amount of time and effort to gain proficiency, American students felt that these courses should be simple and take no more than a short time to complete. If the class wasn’t “fun,” or if the students didn’t “get” the concept immediately, it was perceived to be the fault of the teacher. These attitudes work against many of the principles driving education. Persistence in solving problems, employing a variety of strategies, and other educational goals are undermined by this attitude. One of the biggest challenges that we face at Sorenson’s Ranch School is overcoming this tendency for students to want everything to be “fun” and “easy.” Our competency-based advancement requires initiative and persistence on the part of our students. Many struggle with these aspects as they begin their stay with us. Over time, particularly as they get closer to graduation, initiative and persistence become more a part of our students’ daily endeavors. Without exception, those students who become better at self-motivation and persistance, do better as they re-integrate into their families, schools, and jobs post-SRS.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Professional Learning Communities

Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) have been a hot topic in education for at least the last decade. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what they are, how they are supposed to function, and what they are supposed to accomplish. Here at Sorenson’s Ranch School, we have realized that even though our best efforts have always been exerted toward helping our students learn academic curricula as well as more appropriate strategies for living, without a formal structure and dedicated time to focus on specified goals, the real purposes of PLC’s are not accomplished. In short, effective PLC’s don’t just happen. They must be planned and monitored for success to follow. What exactly is a PLC? A PLC is a group of individuals who want to learn to be better at what they do. Any type of business can benefit from the formation of PLC’s, but because of the isolated nature of what teachers do (we almost never teach in front of our colleagues), PLC’s can be particularly effective in education. Simply put, PLC’s provide a venue for teachers to talk about the nuts and bolts of educating. Research has shown that when teachers get together and talk about the craft of teaching – what works and what doesn’t in various classroom environments – teaching improves. How is a PLC supposed to function? A PLC meeting is not a time to discuss disruptive student behaviors, plan faculty parties, or work out the details of scheduling conflicts. All of these issues are valid and appropriate topics for discussion at the proper time and place, but PLC meetings must focus on a narrower set of topics. We must ask and answer the right questions in order to have our PLC meeting time be as productive as possible. What is it, exactly, that we want our students to learn? Can we coordinate our teaching such that concepts learned in one class are reinforced in another class? What, precisely, are we going to do if we begin to see evidence that our students are not learning the things we have agreed upon as critical? Questions such as these tend to focus educators’ attention and concentrate their efforts on actions that directly benefit students. What should we expect to accomplish through the formation and use of a PLC? The answer to this question will vary depending on the environment in which the PLC is formed. In education, the effects of a properly functioning PLC should be observed in measurable ways such as increases in student test scores, increases in graduation rates, and increases in the number of students pursuing education beyond high school. By using data to track student performance, teachers are able to see if their efforts in PLC meetings are yielding the results they want. Because of the nature of our student body, Sorenson’s Ranch School teachers have a specialized set of challenges. Our PLC meetings help us to focus our efforts on those teaching strategies that will allow us to optimize the learning of our students while they attend our school despite whatever unique circumstances may have hampered their progress in the past.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mastery Learning at Sorenson's Ranch

​At Sorenson’s Ranch School we use Mastery learning, which is a process where students are allowed to use a personalized process for learning. Students are encouraged to reflect on elements of the curriculum as they are exposed to them and then integrate these things, enhancing what they already know. Mastery learning tends to be a more effective option for moderate to lower functioning students who struggle to keep up in a traditional class setting. Students are allowed to complete assigned work over a period of time, while often having to maintain minimal benchmarks of completion. ​Mastery learning is also generally more versatile in a students’ ability to demonstrate mastery of a topic or concept. Instructional concepts as well as assessments are usually varied so that students can “display” their knowledge in a variety of ways. Portfolios, drawings, papers, posters and other projects are examples of alternative assessments. Master learning affords the student the ability to, often by requirement, rework assignments and assessments until they demonstrate satisfactory levels of comprehension and can therefore move on to additional concepts and/or material. Mastery learning is the preferred method of academic instruction in non-traditional, or special purpose schools. This type of instruction is more accommodating for institutions with an open-entry, open-exit type of enrollment. ​One of the challenges we face with the use of mastery learning is motivation. The concept and premise of mastery learning seems noble enough, but students are obviously more effective if they are motivated to take advantage of what can often be a slower process of learning. Students’ who are moderate to lower functioning academically, can quickly become lazy about learning and use the slower process as an excuse for why they “can’t learn”. This is usually due to the student putting off assignments that need to be completed until they do not have sufficient time, and/or desire to finish. It can come from the student lacking the necessary desire to complete the assigned work. It can stem from past academic failures or old habits that the student feels may get them out of some of the required work. It also however, can come from an honest inability to understand concepts or the ability to attach new learning to information that was previously learned. ​I think it is safe to say that that mastery learning could also be termed “patient learning” as it allows for a more personal process for learning. There are of course, both problems and benefits of this type of learning. When not properly utilized students can actually fall farther behind their peers in academic instruction with mastery learning in a given time period. When applied properly mastery learning provides a viable option for many students who find it hard to keep up with the normal academic flow or time table of a traditional school setting. Mastery learning can boost the confidence of some students who have historically demonstrated difficulties in learning, further motivating them to want to learn. ​At Sorenson’s Ranch School we have learned that Mastery learning is a good fit for the students we enroll in our program. We feel that this type of learning is adaptable by our teachers to meet the various academic needs of our diverse student body. We are most often able to help students catch up to appropriate grade level instruction and experience general academic success, which many of our students have not had in the past.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Language Arts At Sorenson's Ranch School

The Language Arts classes at Sorenson’s Ranch School are continuing to follow the Common Core curriculum as they learn how to become better writers through use of the writing process and the Six Traits of Writing. By understanding the efficacy of each step of the writing process, students continue to strengthen their ability to plan, write, revise, and publish content-rich, thoughtful essays. During this process, students focus on the Six Traits of writing so that their writing becomes more focused to a specific purpose and provides excellent reasoning backed by research. The Common Core is addressed as students: 1. Learn to develop good writing habits through frequent reading and writing. 2. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence. 3. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. 4. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. 5. Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences. 6. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking; demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Mind Mapping for Research and Notes

There are several different methods for taking notes. In college, this author used the Harvard method almost exclusively. This author hadn’t learned any other methods for taking notes, and it seemed to work okay. Usually when taking notes, people end up with pages of detail on each specific sub-topic. However, there is not any overall picture of how these bits of information fit together in the main topic or with each other. This article will discuss a method for taking notes that will overcome this shortcoming of traditional note taking. This form of taking notes is called Mind Mapping, Concept Mapping, Spray Diagrams, or Spider Diagrams. Note: “Mind Map” is a trademark of the Buzan Organization (www.buzan.com). There is no association between Sorenson’s Ranch School and Buzan. Mind Maps were developed by Tony Buzan. They are useful for brainstorming, summarizing, consolidating, studying, memorizing, and thinking through information. Drawing a mind map is simple. Write the main topic in the center of a page, and circle it. Then, draw lines out from the main topic and write sub-topics on the lines. More detail can be added to the sub-topics by drawing further lines out from the primary sub-topics. Effective mind maps can be drawn by using single words/simple phrases, printing words, using colors to differentiate separate ideas from one another, and linking sub-topics with lines to show relationships between them. Working as a teacher in a high school/middle school environment such as Sorenson’s Ranch School makes Mind Mapping especially useful to help students who don’t organize information well. This method of note taking makes a huge improvement in retention of information and reduces frustration with learning about subjects in classes, in this author’s experience. Mind maps generally take up one side of one page, and are meant to make associations, as well as generate new ideas. Students can also add to a mind map once new information is discovered on the topic. So, start with a new subject you are interested in researching, and start mind mapping.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Proper Teaching in the Classroom Involving the Scientific Method

I always try to incorporate the scientific method into my classroom teaching. Let’s take a research report for example. Students always ask me what the steps are for writing a research report. I then respond stating the scientific method steps which flow like this: 1) State the problem (Find a problem to solve) 2) Collect data and research the problem 3) Form a hypothesis 4) Test the hypothesis 5) Come to a conclusion about the problem 6) State whether it has been solved or not (Theory step) Take the following example for instance. Suppose a baseball player breaks his bat at baseball practice. At this point, he obviously has a problem. He needs a new bat! He then begins to ask his coaches about what bats are the best bats to hit with. He also goes to the local sporting goods place and asks about the best bats. He also searches the internet for the best bats and then formulates that the Demarini T6 bat is the best. The coaches also mentioned that the Easton Stealth was a good bat. To test these bats, he then approaches the sporting goods owner and asks if he could use the two demo models. He takes 100 swings with the Demarini and hits 5 home runs, 10 doubles, and 7 triples while at practice. He then swings 100 times with the Easton Stealth and hits 4 home runs, 6 triples, and 7 doubles. He also notes that he likes the feel of the Demarini much more. He then draws a conclusion that the Demarini is better and forms a theory, that until proven false will mean that he will purchase and use the Demarini. I then explain that this problem solving method can be used with any problem in life that students may encounter. As students become better at recognizing and applying the steps of the scientific method, this technique taught in the classroom will make life much easier for students in the future.