The Vague and the Specific

I walked into my classroom minimally prepared this morning. I pulled out an informational text activity I had prepped two weeks ago and made a summative assessment this morning for the math unit we just finished up. The one that comes with the curriculum was beyond their ability. In the few moments I had before I had to go grab them, I realized I didn't have a good explanation for why I had to remake the test.

I mean, it needed to be remade because they would have all been miserably frustrated, but why would they have been miserably frustrated? I had followed the curriculum, modified it when it needed to be, decided the pacing, and even supplemented it. They should be prepared for the culminating activity that is meant to assess what they have been taught. Maybe my failings as a teacher? I, for one, am always hesitant to exclude that, but I looked at this test and saw some issues. Half of the test involved a problem that required them to implement two concepts that they had only seen and practiced separately. It was more words, more numbers in the same problem. They would have gotten confused, so I modified it.

But what is the virtue in ramping up the difficulty on the text compared to the practice problems they have been given? My English language learners already struggle enough with word problems. Why add another layer of complexity/difficulty? I hope and work towards my students being able to apply what they learn to any context, to be able to wade through the distracting information and different formats. I would love for them to be able to sit there and systematically deconstruct the problem, to isolate the question and understand what information they had been given. But actually achieving that feels like trying to invade Russia in winter. 

So many of them consistently see two numbers in a word problem, look up at me with confusion and ask, "So do I add or take away?"

These kids I've gotten have already had four years of formal schooling. From what I can gather, by working with them and hearing the philosophies of their teachers before me, they have been taught to perform very specific tasks well. Like, "copy what I have up on the screen" specific. Our school's writing program is a good example--it is largely fill in the blank (First sentence: "Oh my! My elephant has ______ today"). Its almost as if we have collectively decided that we cant give them a ton of freedom in an activity and that they will not learn something unless they are given narrow direct instruction in a specific skill. 

Now I get this--they can have all their notes on the paper and the story complete as evidence that they learned. But could that inadvertently be the cause of why these kids don't readily transfer knowledge to other contexts like we hope? Is that why they can't recognize the problem they have been practicing concerning U.S. town populations in a word problem that deals with Disneyland tickets?

There is another side. Another option. 

I'm trying a different writing curriculum than the rest of the school. It's one that I feel encourages them to develop their own voice as writers by not offering a formula. They are asked to make a lot of their own choices as writers. They determine the course with some scaffolding such as a story arc, problems/solutions, ending strategy, but I never tell them where to put what. It feels free. And fun. It has life. But its scary, and there is failure. 

And maybe thats something that is figured out with time and experience--how to balance those two sides. It feels like they needed that direct and very specific lesson on quotation marks, but could lesson have been taught through reading, writing, or encountering the problem thats created when their aren't quotation marks in a piece of writing? 

We want children to think independently, to not stop in their tracks when they encounter a problem or question that is unfamiliar. We want them to develop perseverance, flexibility, and critical thinking. It seems like that happens by balancing the vague and specific. I think my class needs more of both.