Monday, March 9, 2015

A String of Pearls: Reforming Enrichment Block at ELJHS


As I have discussed in earlier posts, my school has undergone a significant reform this school year. We have, among other things, implemented a school-wide Intervention/Enrichment program. Some students are placed in interventions and the remainder select from available enrichments. To prepare for this, we met as grade-level subject groups (ie: Math 9, ELA 7) last year to identify essential outcomes, scope and sequence, and develop common assessments. We approached this complex task with a Ready-Fire-Aim mindset, since we did not know what our final product should look like.

As humanities teachers we struggled with this, much as we had previously struggled with creating common course outlines and common exams. We naturally resist attempts to standardize our teaching practice, as that tends to take the humanity out of humanities. Moreover, the ELA curriculum is not designed to utilize a common scope and sequence. It is primarily skill-based, and does not lend itself to easy unit-based teaching. Structurally, we met as grade-level subject groups but we now place students in interventions as one large "humanities" group. This means that much of our work last year, while a valuable analysis of our essential outcomes, has not been used to select and develop our interventions and enrichments. Finally, we did not know how many interventions we would be running, so we did not know how many common assessments to develop. All of this has led to a situation this year where we wish we could go back and plan for our tutorial time again.

As we contemplate the way forward, I think it is beneficial to start with a clearer plan of what we hope to accomplish. Last year we did not know what kind of sandbox we would be playing in; now we do. Rather than Ready-Fire-Aim, it is time for a Ready-Aim-Fire approach. In his recent essay, Noam Chomsky (2014) described two models of education:

"One image of education was that it should be like a vessel that is filled with, say, water. That’s what we call these days “teaching to test”: you pour water into the vessel and then the vessel returns the water. But it’s a pretty leaky vessel, as all of us who went through school experienced, since you could memorize something for an exam that you had no interest in to pass an exam and a week later you forgot what the course was about. The vessel model these days is called “no child left behind,” “teaching to test,” “race to top,” whatever the name may be, and similar things in universities. Enlightenment thinkers opposed that model."

"The other model was described as laying out a string along which the student progresses in his or her own way under his or her own initiative, maybe moving the string, maybe deciding to go somewhere else, maybe raising questions. Laying out the string means imposing some degree of structure. So an educational program, whatever it may be, a course on physics or something, isn’t going to be just anything goes; it has a certain structure. But the goal of it is for the student to acquire the capacity to inquire, to create, to innovate, to challenge—that’s education."

I would like to implement an approach that is much closer to the second method described by Chomsky. Basically, our humanities group would sit down and decide upon seven common assessments which would assess the essential outcomes of language arts using social studies content (when possible). Based on the results of this assessment, students would be placed in interventions or select an enrichment. Every student in would complete these keystone assessments, and they would become the cornerstones of our gradebooks. This allows for an element of standardization without sacrificing the unique learning experiences being offered in each humanities classroom.

This could happen in a variety of ways. I have provided one possible method describing how this might work in the image below:


The common assessments are represented by the white circles, the interventions are the lower boxes, and the enrichments could be the upper boxes. This means that a student would have a variety of options at their grade level. If they do not show success through the common assessment then they would be placed in the corresponding intervention. If they demonstrated satisfactory skills in the assessment and would like to complete an enriched project using these skills, then they might sign up for the corresponding enrichment project. If they would prefer to have more time to complete their classwork, they might sign up for grade-level guided help.

Essentially, each common assessment would represent one pearl on the string. This pearl would evaluate a collection of essential outcomes grouped together in a single cross-curricular project. Success with each pearl could be the criteria for placement in interventions, enrichments, or guided help.

Even with this possible plan, I still have several questions:
  • Where does Social Studies assessment come into play here? Will we utilize our common assessments in Social Studies as well, since many of them will be driven by social studies concepts?
  • How will we meet the needs of students whose skills are so low that they will not benefit from the grade-level intervention?
  • How might we promote enrichment opportunities as enjoyable projects rather than extra work?
  • How might we promote our interventions as positive, when the lack of student choice for them will lead to students thinking of them in a negative manner?
  • Would a "Student Convention" at the start of the year be a good way to introduce students to the various types of interventions, enrichments, and guided help options?

Chomsky, N. (2014). How America's Great University System Is Being Destroyed. Alternet.