On the Brink of the 2009 CSAPs

This morning I have a few extra minutes before leaving for school.  The administration has canceled all morning meetings for faculty so that we can be ready for the CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program) tests, which begin today.  NEVER on Mondays!  I’m trying not to be cynical, not to think too much about the implications of canceling meetings for these tests.  Trying not to dwell on the many many morning meetings that have prevented me from being adequately prepared for the lessons of the day—introducing the Periodic Table, for example.  Or organizing my notes so that I can tell the story of the History of Mathematics or setting up the rig that demonstrates the power of movable pulleys or the equipment needed to dissect frogs or the materials for introducing the concepts of phrases and clauses which, in a Montessori classroom, involves many small wooden parts.

So instead, I will review the present frames of mind of my special six students whose stories I have told in small vignettes through this school year.

Fourth grader Rosalee completed her February Portfolio late yesterday afternoon.  It described the work samples she had chosen in carefully written cursive.  Capital letters were in place, and a few periods—no commas, yet.  The sentences still lacked grammatical correctness, but the bold clear writing indicated that she had been thinking clearly about the reasons for her choices and that she felt confident she had done well.  She has been checking out lots of books from the library— silly, scary and amazing facts books; she has spent lots of time reading them with her friend and sometimes on her own.  She completed her first fraction workbook with help from me and from home; still wonders what decimal fractions are.  Yesterday morning I helped her through the steps of solving a challenging math problem that involved area, subtraction, reasoning, and explanation.  It was beyond her, but she patiently listened and tried to understand, I think.   Only three days ago did Rosalee pick up a CSAP math workbook designed to prepare students for the tests.  I have been inviting the students to work with me in small groups on the problems in the math book for about three weeks, but strictly on a voluntary basis.  Rosalee was always doing other things.  She did participate enthusiastically in my “statistics group,” which has been collecting data from the class and making bar graphs.

Fourth grader Mason has done several advanced math exercises in the past two months including the square of the trinomial (a + b + c) x (a + b + c), using numbers (200 + 30 + 4) x (200 + 30 + 4) rather than the algebraic representation, but understanding it well.  He, too, had difficulty understanding the multiple steps in reasoning about the area problem yesterday, but he listened to me and the group he was working with; and, in the end, he was able to help the group present the solution with understanding.  Later I showed him another set of materials that demonstrated area, and he quickly made the connections.  He has mainly focused on his reading (just completed the Harry Potter series and is onto another big book) and his writing, which has become less tedious work for him.  He has written several short reports with different friends and is proud of the cursive writing he has been doing in his journal where he throws in a Haiku poem from time to time.  Yesterday for the first time he asked if he could have a CSAP math workbook.  He worked for half an hour with it, and then he turned it back in to me.

Amanda, a fifth grader, has been working steadfastly as always, repeating geometric proofs and the squaring exercises with pegs (binomial and trinomial) diligently.  She is always enthusiastic about new lessons such as drawing equivalent rectangles or using materials to divide fractions; but when she leaves the materials behind and tries to solve a problem like the area problem of yesterday morning, she is not able to apply what she has been practicing.  She finds that frustrating and discouraging.  She needs lots more practice with all of the concrete representations that surround her in the classroom before she can use her slowly increasing mathematical understanding abstractly.  She loves grammar exercises such as diagramming sentences, and she has written a report or two since the winter holidays; but she mostly stays attached to the materials in her work.  Amanda has wanted no part of the workbooks that are provided to prepare for CSAPs.

Louis suddenly grasped the whole concept of squaring large numbers about a month ago, going quickly from squaring the binomial to the trinomial and the quadranomial.  He has continued to push the envelope for “new lessons,” so he has been calculating circumference and diameter with Pi, working with percentage, and delving into building compound molecules.  He has also been enthusiastic about working in the Math CSAP workbook, meeting with me a couple of times a week for the last three weeks and demonstrating that he can solve most of the problems at the fifth grade level without assistance.  He has written several nice essays as applications for middle schools; his sentence structure shows progress, but the spelling continues to be dismal.

Sixth grader Melissa is mostly about her friends and her jade plant which, happily, has turned into a careful study of its growth, systematic measuring and leaf counts; and with a friend, notes about the jade plant that seem to be turning very slowly into a report.  She doesn’t feel well many days.  In math she seemed to understand operations with mixed numbers without too much difficulty, but I wonder if she could solve a problem she hadn’t seen before without consulting a friend.  She has enjoyed the study of the Human Body, especially the coloring book.  She tends to go limp during math problem-solving sessions, suggesting to me that she has not really learned to think mathematically, to reason in the linear and systematic way required for solving math problems.  Her low energy is an impediment.  Pre-pubescent?

Jonas is lazy as ever.  Unless he is sitting beside me being challenged directly, he is off making sure that he continues to be the most popular boy in the class, working often on simple report subjects with younger boys.  He studies the Human Body, too, and enjoyed making a model of the human cell with a sixth grade girl, but in the end didn’t have the perseverance to label the model and make it a meaningful learning episode.  Nevertheless, when the sixth graders take a quiz on their Human Body studies, he always makes 90 or 95%  He quickly understood mixed number operations.  Yesterday he built a beautiful model of a rectangular prism and calculated the surface area—at my table and at my insistence.  When working with a problem-solving group in math, he just sits around until others solve the problem

And so we are poised for the CSAP first round this morning and afternnoon.  How well can they read and write?  I wonder if the test will tell us anything about that?  Of more interest to me will be what effect these two-plus weeks of testing will have on their learning trajectories.

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