Key Peninsula Middle School, Lakbay, Wash.
A Teachers’ Work
“Mrs. Borders, my cat has been losing weight and sleeps all of the time. We are taking her to the vet tomorrow and I’m really scared.” These words were shared with me by Kasha, a teary-eyed 6th grade student in my first period science class last week.
I thought, “Wow, it is only 8:15 and I just spent an hour working with my colleagues to understand and talk about the upcoming Smarter Balanced field testing; called the kitchen to let them know I was sending two students down to pick up breakfast because their bus was late; carried strawberries, dishwashing soap, and ice in from my car in the pouring rain for a DNA extraction lab; answered a slew of emails from parents and colleagues; and more. All before the first moment of instruction.
Am I unusual in the multiple demands on my time? No. Many teachers relate to the multiple roles and many requests for time. So, what was most important at this moment? Kasha’s cat. I knew that the higher standards afforded by Common Core State Standards (CCSS) can only happen if the teacher-student relationship is solid. Like all teachers, I genuinely care about my students and their lives, so I talked with Kasha about her cat and helped her focus on the upcoming learning in class.
Does Common Core Really Matter for Science?
As a science teacher, it might seem at first glance that implementing Common Core and participating in the Smarter Balanced field testing this spring are just two more things to add to my already busy schedule. And, it might also seem like since the standards are sorted into English Language Arts/Literacy and Math shifts, that the standards and field testing are superficial for my teaching assignment. Not so on both counts.
So, the CCSS aren’t a superficial addition to the scope of my teaching assignment -- they are a crucial support for enabling me to do my job at a higher level. A pleasant surprise is that our journey into CCSS has strengthened my relationship with my ELA and math colleagues. In fact, my colleagues are beyond thrilled that content teachers are partnering with them in a whole new way.
Do We Really Need the Smarter Balanced Field Tests?
What about the Smarter Balanced field testing instead of administering the regular state exams? Won’t this add time to my schedule while not adding value? Isn’t this something that will just affect my ELA and math colleagues? After all, they are being evaluated, right? I entertained these thoughts and concluded, again, not so.
While I am not in denial about the increasing demands that teachers are facing on a daily basis, I do know that this particular addition will support me in doing my job --- a classroom science teacher who is part of a larger team. As far as future Common Core test scores and how the scores will be a part of teacher evaluations, states must get this right in terms of balancing the importance of student growth scores while ensuring that teachers are supported in improving instruction and are not penalized for factors out of their control. I currently teach 8th grade science in Washington state, which is a state-tested subject and I am cognizant of the test score/teacher evaluation conversation. This very issue is a separate blog item on its own!
A Team Effort
By being part of a school team that is familiarizing my students with the Smarter Balanced field tests and ensuring that they are comfortable with this new level of testing, I can see the anxiety for students and teachers decrease. When the Common Core-aligned assessments are given in 2014-2015, I am looking forward to learning from the results and using these results to improve my science instruction. Any science teacher will tell you that a “student’s ability to read carefully and grasp information, arguments, ideas and details based on text evidence” is crucial for scientific understanding.
For example, if a student is going to engage in discourse with classmates about a current science discovery, the understanding of that discovery is paramount and is achieved through careful attention to the text. Likewise, my students must be able to communicate their understanding of science through speaking skills grounded in text. Recently, my 8th grade students designed a lab to “prove” one of Newton’s Laws. They needed to be able to grasp academic vocabulary (e.g., “unbalanced force”) and cite evidence from their data in order to support their claim.
Elevating the Whole Child with CCSS
Some of my close colleagues across the country have expressed the sentiment that it is too simplistic to assume that teachers are just teaching academics and are missing the focus on the whole child with the emphasis on testing. We fill in the role of parent, nurse, counselor, fix-it person, social worker and more during our day. Some of my students face heartbreaking challenges and struggle to even be able to come to school, while others are blessed with strong support systems. I must meet the needs of all of them.
I wholeheartedly agree with teaching the whole child --- the Kashas and their cats must be at the heart of our teaching. It is for Kasha and the rest of my students that I am supporting CCSS and field testing. If I can provide higher standards, a clearer focus on what my students should be able to do, and a desire to use testing results to improve teaching and learning --- while maintaining focus on the uniqueness of each of my students -- I am supporting the whole child.
I know that the road to higher standards, while likely not smooth nor easy, will ultimately result in a more equitable education experience for all. And Kasha’s cat? She has a case of tapeworm, which I learned about in graphic detail. Ah, the unbridled honesty of a 6th grader who has ultimate trust in her teacher. And as her teacher, I know that I must teach the whole child and do my best to offer her the opportunity to learn at a higher standard.
Dr. Kareen Borders is a 7th-8th grade science teacher and NASA Explorer School Team Lead at Key Peninsula Middle School in Lakbay, Wash., near Gig Harbor. She recently finished a one-year term as a Regional Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.