January Report and Looking Down the Second Semester Road

January, the first month of the second semester at Denison Montessori Elementary School, has ended.  It began on the seventh, a week into the month because of the way the Holidays fell this year and because the DPS powers that be who create the calendar decided to give the teachers two days (for something) before the students returned.  Our principal scheduled about half that time for discussions of “how to teach writing better,” and gave us the other day to prepare our classrooms.  And so, on Wednesday, January 7th, we began the second term.

As always the children needed several days to climb back into the routines.  In my class I left the little holiday tree up with lots of presents underneath that the students had brought–and wrapped— to equip the classroom for the second half of the year.  I had requested colored pencils and disposable cameras and cap erasers and tissues ( for upcoming runny noses).  The children had enjoyed wrapping the supplies they had brought and placed the packages under the little tree, so there was a pile of new supplies to unwrap that first day back, and other closure activities of the first- semester’s work.  By Thursday we were writing goals for the next year and finding old projects that could be completed.  A class meeting resulted in some new suggestions for improving behavior and daily routines.  Friday morning, as usual, the students had art and gym specials,  so there was one brief hour to work before lunch, recess, and then an afternoon of play—with new holiday toys they had brought to share.  Somewhere in those first three days back we began to work on geography, in anticipation of the National Geography Bee competition that is held schoolwide in the upper grades during January.

The second week of January was awkwardly punctuated with a “late start” day on Wednesday.  A new experiment with the calendar for DPS,  four late start days have been scheduled during second semester to provide additional time for Professional Development.  Our morning was devoted to scoring student essays at every level.  Students arrived at noon, in time for lunch and recess before trying to resume teaching and learning at 1:15 pm.  They were unhappy that the late start had meant missing their gym period, one of only two during the week.  Several students didn’t come because their parents weren’t able to arrange for them to meet the bus half way through the day.  On the other more normal days of the second school week of January, I began several “expert” groups, inviting children to become experts in something that interested them a great deal, areas they had targeted for growth in their writing of second semester goals.  I met daily with expert groups in spelling, physical geography, statistics, and CSAP math.

The latter group was preparation for the Colorado State Assessment of Performance tests that will take place all over Colorado in March.  Many workbooks have been designed to improve performance on these tests, and a set of these  workbooks in both math and reading are distributed by the district for every student in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades—every year.  Rumors informed me that several teachers had pretty much set aside the regular curriculum to use these test preparation workbooks for the two months preceding the CSAPs in March.  Having stored most of last year’s workbooks in the hallway outside my classroom, I decided to make this kind of guided test preparation available to the students.  Five fifth graders attended the first meeting to become CSAP math experts, and they have continued to work steadily through its pages for the month of January.

One is Louis, who has become a math addict.  He has requested lessons in advanced area work, in squaring and square root, in percentage and ratio work; and I am responding as quickly as possible with those lessons.  He attends the CSAP math lessons enthusiastically, always bringing the assigned work completed, though occasionally incorrect.  There seems to be a need to “get the workbook done.”

In addition to the meetings of  expert groups the first full week of Janaury, I tried to invite more geography work through informal competitions with old National Geographic Bee questions and lots of map displays.  Students used them as reference for making their own maps, and we had some good discussions of hot spots on the world map like Gaza and Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.

Week three of January began with MLK, Jr.’s National Holiday.  Then followed the inauguration of Barack Obama, which we watched at school together as a class, and most watched with great interest.  Many spent the afternoon making poems and collages of the inauguration, a few works of great art.  Wednesday began, as usual with art and gym specials, so the week’s official teaching and learning events began at 11:00 am on Wednesday morning.  Meeting expert groups, the first readings of a script for an MLK play, and afternoon Geography Bee classroom competition made for a busy 2 and 1/2 day week.

Week four of Janaury.  The schoolwide Geography Bee was Monday afternoon.  The Sixth graders began their Human Body unit, a traditional “final-semester treat” in the classroom (The lessons come with a coloring book .)  Expert groups continued along with Biology study groups in Animal Classification, Animal Physiology, Plant Classification, and the Atoms study group, which began building compounds with manipulatives, a very popular work. As part of Animal Classification, Mason completed a wonderful report on eagles with a friend, his best composition work thus far.  He has decided to be a geologist and is enthusiastic about the Physical Geography we are doing in the expert group.  He spends time often at the microscope, but also seems interested in fraction operations and the square of the binomial.

Amanda completed a report about the Rose family, preceded last week by a report on Florida.  She makes a bar graph or a line graph every other day.  Those other days she creates a geometric proof, often ones she has done before, but neater, with better connections and mathematical explanations.  She embraced the binomial squaring work the first three weeks of January and was excited to attend a lesson about the trinomial on Wednesday.  By Friday I noticed she was looking askance at others doing it, perhaps not sure she really understood.  I must help her through another one or two examples.

Rosalee is busy cultivating friendships, but often by doing “projects” together.  Currently the project is a report on MLK, Jr.  Before that it was a report on Jaguars.  She signed up for expert spelling, which seems to be way over her head, but she scored pretty well on the first test of 50 expert words.  Next week she was sick and forgot about homework.  She joined the statistics expert group at my suggestion and may be understanding how information can be represented on a bar graph.

Melissa has appeared to work competently through the first Algebra workbook, mostly about integers, but seems to be getting a lot of help at home. (Workbook math is usually restricted to homework!)  In class she is struggling with division and operations with mixed numbers, especially now with the addition and subtraction of unlike denominators.  Her primary interest, outside of her sixth grade compatriots, is writing a report on the jade plant, partly an outcome of Plant Classification lessons, and partly because the jade plant she started in fourth grade has started to grow vigorously.

Jonas continues to sail through all assignments, mixed number operations abstracted easily, a report on the Inca civilization of middle school quality, an understanding of valence and molecular bonding.  His primary interest is in drawing, so the illustrations for the Inca report were paramount, his drawings of compound molecules are careful, and his Human Body workbook is becoming a work of art in its color choice and careful detail.  He often helps his two best friends who understand much less quickly; and he entertains everyone in his sphere of influence, which is sometimes his table, but often half the room.  His Algebra workbook, the homework follow-up to integer lessons in the classroom, languishes half-finished from week to week.  Although he could easily be an expert speller, he opted for the short-styled 15-word spelling exercises, also homework.

And so we stand at the end of the first month of the second semester, looking down the tunnel to that ending date in May.  It occurred to me several days ago that I could predict with reasonable accuracy exactly what will happen in my classroom in those four months.  February will begin with Literature Study groups because it is Black History Month and because historical fiction is a good way to promote interest in the study of American History (our purported history theme for this year.)  I’ll start meeting the Literature Study Groups once a week and daily try to further stimulate their imaginations by investigating what is pictured on our new American History Timeline  (from Dr. Larry Schaefer at Lake Country School in Minneapolis.)  Midweek, however, there will be presentations  about our two-day excursion to Balarat, an outdoor education facility of the Denver Public Schools, one presentation for the children and another in the evening for parents.  Thursday and Friday we will try to do some teaching and learning despite the excitement of the approaching overnight.  The second week of February will begin with the excursion, will continue with mild exhaustion and some writing about the experience, and then it will be over with two mornings of art and gym squeezed in (our weekly specials).  The third week of February begins with a holiday for Presidents’ Day followed by a Parent Conference Day, another week that begins on Wednesday, two mornings of specials, and perhaps a nod to the Presidents we honored on Monday.  Maybe we will have time that week to think and talk and write about the presidents chosen by Larry on the American History Timeline.

Did I forget Valentine’s Day?  And another “Late Start” Day?  Teaching/learning time, that offical kind, will be a scavenger hunt in February.

March will be consumed by the CSAP assessments.  Because our school has mixed grade levels in each classroom, it takes almost a month for each teacher to properly administer the test to all her students, even though all sixth graders are handed off to the librarian to “streamline” the testing.  The whole school will be in chaos because everyone’s schedule of everything is changed.  The last month of March is Spring Break.

April will be the best chance for some teaching and learning, but we will have to recover any momentum generated in February.  Five weeks is a long time in between lessons and learning.  Perhaps we will be able to work on American History projects, regain some of our enthusiasm for squaring and square root, reengage with area and volume in geometry, remember how much fun it was learning to diagram sentences, get back to geography.  But there will also be the beginning of a parade of spring events—the Book Fair, auditions for the Shakespeare Festival, a field trip to the Botanic Gardens for the Plant Classification group, and news, good and bad, about which of our sixth graders have been accepted to preferred Middle Schools.

May events include Field Day, the Sixth Grade trip, the final field trip (to the Zoo) for the fourth and fifth graders, the Shakespeare Festival,  and probably the last round of the Benchmark Tests—the last wasted week for assessments.

The Sixth Graders will return from their week in the mountains on May21st, half will be absent from exhaustion on Friday, they’ll return for Graduation practice Monday and by Tuesday night we will be playing the Commencement theme.

Knowing all of this as I do, partly because I have been a teacher for more than 40 years, and at this school for 8, I must admit that there will be lots of learning taking place in the second semester, but that most of it will be part of the hidden curriculum rather than the explicit one.  Students will be learning what is important by the way we assign their time to one event or another, by the way we talk and think about reserving 5 weeks for assessment (and perhaps even more, given the explicit preparation for tests), by the casualness with which we will interrupt their explorations of the formation of gorges, the marvels of square root, or the intricacies of sentence diagrams.  We will be teaching and they will be learning many things.  Is this the intentional or the unintentional curriculum?  I wonder.

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