Planning for school has taken up most of my days. I've read a few good books on teaching and the stuff TFA has us doing is quite helpful. Essentially, it's alot of backwards planning. We first take our standards and make them easier to understand. Luckily, the science standards are quite thorough and explicit. We then figure out the assessment for each standard--ie how each student will show us that he or she mastered that objective. At the same time, we create a "big goal" for the students, which has a qualitative and quantitative component. The quantitative component is a statement of the measurable achievement we will accomplish at the end of the year. For example, moving all students an average of 1.5 to 2 grade levels in reading or all students mastering 80% or more of the objectives. This goal is usually assessed through a standardized test or other assessment that measures the students' mastery of objectives.
As a blessing and a curse, I don't have a standardized test to prep my students for at the end of the year (8th grade science is not yet tested in Arkansas--last year was a pilot year for 7th grade science testing, though). This means that I get to create my own final assessment; however, the test may not have as much meaning for my students due to the fact that it won't decide if they go on to the next grade level. Of course, I still have to come up with ways to motivate them to take the test seriously. My plans right now are to use questions from the NY Regents tests that are aligned to my standards. NY Regents tests are quite rigorous and unique in that in addition to multiple choice questions students are asked free response questions. My only modification will be to add a few lines under each multiple choice question to ask for an explanation/justification for each answer. I don't believe that circling 1 out of 4 choices on a question shows mastery of the material; I want to see the thought process behind the answer choice as that will show how the student arrived at the answer. It will also drive home the point that all answers (especially in science) need to be justified with reasons. All of my tests leading up to the final one will have this component as this will be an expectation I will have throughout the year.
The qualitative part of the big goal is the more fun part--we get to say what the students will actually get out of "8th grade science." Part of putting this together was creating "essential understandings" for our subject matter. "Essential understandings" are the key points/questions a subject asks in order to carry out its method of inquiry. To put it a better way, "what are the questions that this field asks?" and "what is the whole point of this field?" Not to brag, but for once the philosophy major had a direct application to my work. The idea behind this part of the big goal is that if we get our students to understand the "essential understandings," then they'll have an easier time understanding the reason behind why we are learning the subject matter of "8th grade science" or any other subject. Some of mine are:
- Science gives us a way to support what we believe with good evidence. If other good evidence comes along that goes against what we believe, we have to change our minds.
- Structure determines function (what something is made of determines how it works)
- How can I understand the world through my 5 senses and my brain?
- What is the pattern that is developing?
- Given these results, what is going to happen next?
The rest of my preparation has been the preparation of a diagnostic test to give at the beginning of the school year. For some subjects it's easier to give a diagnostic test than others (such as cumulative ones like calculus or Spanish). For 8th grade science, where the students get a quick survey of life, physical, and earth sciences, my diagnostic is focused more on skills than knowledge that the students bring. The test focuses on number skills like probability and fractions (we get to do Punnett squares in our life sciences section), measurement, and reading graphs. The test also focuses on basic understandings of science and inferences--students are asked to supply definitions for "hypothesis" and "laws" (among other terms) and to read a scientific passage and draw certain inferences. I know it sounds like the students are tested a great deal under any given TFA teacher, but at least there's a reason. I have to know where my students are when they enter my classroom and where they are when they leave. In order to get feedback on what they are learning and what I'm teaching, then I have to have some method to determine this. I can't read minds. Furthermore, each test or "assessment" doesn't have to be a 50 question MC test. As long as the assessment is objective driven, I have many ways of assessment available (such as short essay responses, lab reports, etc.). I'm sure I can go on at length for more of what I've done, but I'll stop here. I don't feel too scared about the first year due to much of this prep work.