Action Research Project
Action Research Project
"What can I do to create a classroom where students are
comfortable and confident sharing their learning?"
Working in a “traditional” school setting, where an emphasis of memorization and rote learning is the focus, students are prone to developing apathy and indifference towards their experiences in the classroom. Becoming an active participant along with classmates, is not only uncharted territory, but can also be an anxiety inducing and sometimes stressful experience. In this action research project students’ voices shaped and developed a classroom that allowed students to feel comfortable and confident with sharing their learning with their peers in a multitude of ways.
This paper presents findings from surveys, one-on-one interviews, and written reflections from students from Finney Elementary, a K-6 school part of the Chula Vista Elementary School District. Their truth and unbridled honesty have led us on a journey to redefine what a “traditional” 6th grade classroom could look like. We have discovered the importance of building stronger student-to-student relationships, promoting a better sense of trust and dependency amongst peers. Another important finding is based on changing the way students view and feel about work, using a protocol of critiquing work; students were able to develop a sense of pride and craftsmanship, thus allowing them to gain the confidence to share their work with their peers.
When I first started teaching, I felt like I was fumbling around my practice, wanting to do well by providing my students an exceptional experience, but always struggling to find the right pedagogical strategies. I started strong, like most new young teachers, full of enthusiasm, staying late, and working through the weekends. But as the first few years past, I changed. My practice was largely influenced by a stranger I didn’t know to well during that time, NCLB. I first felt the pressures of raising my students’ test scores during my second year of teaching. After we received the data from our end of the year California Standards Test (CST), my principal pulled me into her office. The lack of significant math growth was pointed out to me, along with a talk about raising the level of my teaching. From that point on that’s when I started to change, to change into a teacher that I never wanted to become, to change to a teacher that focused his year on the preparation for the CSTs.
I continued my practice with the slow poison of the NCLB running through my veins. I wasn’t alone. Cynical conversations found themselves in the shadows of our school. New and veteran teachers together, started to change the good, by replacing it with text books full of scripted curriculums. Our craft had become a list of instructions, a how-to-book, void of the creativity and innovation that was once there. In an honest conversation with my wife about the teacher I had become, she disclosed to me that if she were a parent at my school, she wouldn’t want her child to be enrolled in my class. Ouch! Her brutal honesty woke me up; during the following months I spent some time in deep reflection and created a plan for revision to bring me back to my roots. But my new path was littered with roadblocks. Tightly wound schedules prevented me from teaching away from the textbooks my district heavily relied upon. Constant assessments married us to a traditional way of teaching, and any dissention from it with signs of dropping test scores, prompted closer looks from administrators.
The need for change had become the focus in which I immersed myself with, looking for different avenues to cut corners or all together break the rules. I was on a vigilant search for promising practices. What I found was that the years of traditional learning had become ingrained in our students, resulting in a lack voice, independence, and problem-solving skills. A feeling of apathy has spread amongst our students; they have become disconnected throughout the years, their assignments void of any relevancy to their own lives. Preparation had been focused on the type of questions the students were going to face on the next assessment, and not on the development of critical thinkers or productive citizens. School for our students have become a breeding ground for the mundane and boring, while our copy machines continue to gasp for air from the abuse it receives during its daily routine of producing worksheets.
Little did I know that help was around the corner, and after an application and an interview, I found myself attending my first course with the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. At first, I was deeply overwhelmed by the energy and enthusiasm that poured out of our classroom doors, but I have found that my work with HTH has had a profound effect on my teaching craft. For the first time in eight years, I was working with a cohort of teachers whose common goals were teaching kids to become reflective citizens who connected their lives with the real world through authentic relevant projects. Real change for my students and me had started to happen.
The catalyst that launched our transformation is a complex yet beautifully balanced practice called Project Based Learning (PBL). A neophyte to this type of teaching, I tried to wade through my confusion and misconceptions of what it was, and how it should be implemented. One of the beauties of the HTH Teacher Leadership Program is the balance of HTH and non-HTH teachers. I was able to seek support from those who are constantly engaged within this world, and also from those who share my same “fierce wonderings”.
My initial thought about PBL was that it was just like my past practices with projects, the result of a culminating activity. But after reading some literature by Ron Berger on crafting “Beautiful Work”, and engaging in meaningful conversations with my colleagues from HTH, I realized that PBL is much more than students creating. The real value lies in the process.
New curiosities had surfaced regarding the implications of how Project-Based Learning influences students who come from a traditional approach to learning. With a heavy concentration on test prep, coupled with a regiment of bi-quarterly summative assessments, the students at my site have been inundated with traditional rote learning, always pushed to get ready for the next test. The complexities and independent nature of PBL had left my students confused, looking for me to fix the problem for them, and to give them a structure for them to work and think. As I reflected on these initial struggles, I was reminded that I am battling against 6 years of traditional teaching and learning. Since I have added PBL to my curriculum, I have discovered that the majority of my students continued to struggle with finding their voices. Being asked to articulate their thoughts and to reflect on their learning was completely foreign to their understanding. Together they struggled to speak with complete thoughts and complete sentences, and their journals were void of personal reflections. It is within these struggles where my fierce wondering was born: What can I do to create a classroom where students feel comfortable and confident sharing their learning? The revolution of PBL has brought about a change to how my students connect their lives with their learning, but the lack of the ability to hold academic conversations, leave my students frustrated not being able to communicate their thoughts and ideas. It is my hope that this research will provide my school with strategies and data that will assist our efforts to make learning relevant and to teach our student how to take command of their learning and language, providing them with skills that will carry them through their middle and high school, and college years.
School and District Setting
This study was implemented in a “traditional” public school 6th grade classroom at Myrtle S. Finney Elementary. Finney School is part of the Chula Vista Elementary School District (CVESD), which is the largest K-6 district in the state of California. CVESD was established in 1892 and is located in the southern most county of the state. The district services approximately 318,148 residents in Chula Vista, Bonita, Sunnyside, and South San Diego, covering a total of 103 square miles. Because of the decline in the housing market, the district’s growth has hit a plateau, and is currently holding at 44 schools. Building plans for new schools are now on hold waiting for the demand to increase. Enrollment for each school is based on zone placement, with an option given to parents for zone or Program-Improvement transfer. The district provides services for a diverse population. All the schools in the district maintain at least a 20 to 1 student-teacher ratio in the primary grades, with a 31 to 1 ratio in the upper grades. Finney School’s ethnicity percentages is close to the district demographics, but because the location of the school is within a mile and a half of the US/Mexico border, there is a predominate percentage of students coming from a Hispanic or Latino background as seen in the table below:
* All tables provided from the School Accountability Report Card, 2008
Due to the large percentage of Hispanic or Latino students at Finney School, more than half of the students are English Language Learners, which is 16 percent higher than the district’s average. Approximately 58 percent of the student population at Finney School also qualify for Free or Reduced meals. Parent involvement at school is very minimal, and has shown a steady decline for the past three years. Many of the Finney School parents are working double shifts or overtime to help their families through economic hardships, leaving involvement and school activities at the bottom of the priority list.
Recently the school district has celebrated success with the three-year growth of the district’s Academic Performance Index (API), resulting in a 2007-2008 score of 811, placing CVESD among the highest performing school districts in San Diego. Finney School has also celebrated recent achievement in jumping 46 API points surpassing the state average for the first time.
But even though Finney School has shown great achievement within their test scores, struggles continue to remain with raising their California Standards Test (CST) scores to match those of the district. More than half of the students in grades 2nd through 6th are scoring below proficiency in the English-Language Arts section of the CST and a little over half of the students are scoring proficient or above in the Mathematics section.
Finney School’s mission is to educate students in order that they:
- Learn skills necessary to develop their best possible selves and a positive attitude toward others.
- Develop enthusiasm for lifelong learning.
- Develop the basic academic and technological skills necessary to live a productive life.
- Develop personal concern for preservation of natural and human-made resources
- Develop physically, intellectually, and morally
A wide variety of programs are in place to meet the needs of all the students. A few of the these programs include a Second Language Education Program placing a Spanish-speaking teacher at each grade level, one full day severely handicapped special education class, a Resource Specialist Program, and a half day special education preschool class. Predominate Instruction at Finney School is based on a traditional approach relaying heavily on district adopted curriculum provided by educational publishers. Textbooks and workbooks for each subject area are provided by the publishers, along with scripted teacher resource books for instruction and delivery. A large focus has been placed on writing and reading instruction, leaving little time for social studies, science, and physical and fine arts education.
Implementation of this study took place in a mainstream 6th grade classroom, where a few students were pulled out for additional services according to their Individualized Education Program (IEP). The demographic make-up varies from year to year, but an emphasis on classroom balance is practiced, insuring equity and equality for students and teachers. The class make-up for this study was well balanced with 3 students with IEPs, 7 GATE students, and an equal amount of High, Medium, and Low students as leveled according to CST results and District Local Measure Assessments. Curriculum was rooted off of the California State Standards, using implementation through district-adopted textbooks. 31 students were grouped into six heterogeneous tribes, using Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence inventories.
Project-Based Learning (PBL) was first introduced after the second week of school. Students experienced one five-week project, with emphasis in Science or Social Studies, each quarter of this study, while several smaller projects were also placed throughout. Students were each given an Inquiry Journal to record their thoughts about the successes, challenges, and frustrations they experienced through the process of their project work. Focus of this classroom was placed on providing the students a nontraditional education, relaying heavily on Project-Based Learning, Socratic Seminars, and developing connections with our community and the world. The experiences were new for all students. This study was aimed to investigate the affects of various strategies to assist students with personal reflection, and raising their confidence with sharing their learning with an audience.
Selected student voices
Using inquiry journals, a beginning of the year survey, and various assessment data, I collected student voices whose work I followed throughout this investigation. Throughout the study, it was important for me to collect data from each student. This allowed me to make classroom decisions based on the overall voice from the entire class. I conducted multiple one-on-one interviews with various students to further my understanding of the effectiveness of strategies used.