Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
My fourth-grade daughter is a joy to be around, a good friend, and a well-behaved student. She loves to read and write, does her homework willingly, and has a great imagination. But she is a terrible speller. Honestly, we haven’t put much effort into it. When she has tests at school, she typically gets about half the words right, and we don’t make a fuss about it knowing she just isn’t great at straight-up memorization. She struggles with math facts, too, but she’s developed strategies to deal with that. This morning, she told me that she doesn’t like Fridays because it is spelling test day, but that once the test is over, her day is fine. So it is weighing on her. What can I do to help her? Is there any way to make those spelling words stick?
There are a multitude of strategies for spelling memorization, but the simple truth is that some human beings are excellent spellers, and some are not.
If your daughter wants to do well on these tests, I recommend a practice test at home on Monday so she can identify the words she can’t spell yet. Then she can spend her week focusing only on the words she doesn’t know. From there, it’s a matter of experimentation to see what works best. For some kids, writing each word multiple times is the solution. For others, flashcards and repetition works. For others, saying the spelling aloud is helpful. A few years ago, I had a student deny himself dessert for a week if he didn’t get a B or above on his spelling test. He got every word right for the rest of the year. The boy loved dessert.
An alternative solution: Adjust the expectations for your daughter. Acknowledge that some people are simply not as adept at spelling as others, and also acknowledge that spelling is a problem that will soon be mitigated for her by technology. Spell-check saves people every day. It saved me while writing this answer.
Rather than making an A or B the goal, make 51 percent the goal. Tell your daughter that spelling more than half of the words correctly will be fine in your eyes—and if you can get the teacher to agree to this new expectation, even better. Don’t require her to spend inordinate amounts of time on something as noncritical as spelling. Better to spend it reading a good book, memorizing multiplication facts, or playing outside.
In my class, I have students who shoot for 100 percent on their spelling tests every week, and they’ve got five additional “challenge words” to keep them working hard. I have other students whose goal is 65 percent, and they’re working just as hard, if not harder. It’s my acknowledgement that we are human beings with strengths and weaknesses. To me, spelling is not as critical as learning to read fluently, write well, multiply accurately, and speak with clarity.
I have heard that many teachers amass out-of-pocket expenses throughout the school year.
What can parents do to support you in this way? Should we pick up extra school supplies? Get a gift card to Michael’s or Target?
—Help Me Help You
Dear Help Me,
This is the best question I’ve received yet! Teachers in private and charter schools do not always have this problem, but teachers in publicly funded schools do not typically get a very large budget, if they get one at all. In public schools where I’ve worked, it was on an “Ask, and we’ll see” basis, which always resulted in a, “Sorry, nope.”
The first step is to ask your teacher if they need support. All schools have different policies, and it varies county by county. If your child’s teacher seems cagey about answering, chances are that there’s a policy preventing her from directly accepting donations. For instance, teachers at my editor’s public school can only accept two gifts a year per family, and those gifts have a $20 cap. Depending on what your school’s protocol is for receiving donations, all teachers have different preferences. Target and Amazon gift cards are always good choices (your teacher may even have an Amazon wish list). You can also ask them directly what supplies they need and buy them. (Grade-school teachers often need pencils/pens for the kids, paper, sanitizing wipes, etc.)
If your school has a strict policy that means the teacher cannot accept the sort of donations you’d like to give, you can go to school administrators and ask if there’s a parent-teacher budget to fulfill wish lists, or ask if you can start one. You can also contact your PTA president to see if the PTA can help. And if none of those are an option, do teachers a favor and buy everything on your beginning-of-the-year shopping list. Those are the items your child needs, and they are items teachers have to supply if your child doesn’t have them.
I am sympathetic to the fact that teachers need to assess students’ mastery of a subject. I am also sympathetic to my high school children’s stress at having six or seven quizzes or tests a week. What are some other ways teachers can identify what their students know without a seemingly never-ending stream of tests?
Yes, we do periodically need to assess students’ mastery of our content. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t! The key word, though, is periodically. I assume those six or seven assessments every week are spread across all of your children’s classes (I can’t imagine there’s a quiz every day), but nonetheless, it’s a lot. It has me wondering how high stakes these tests and quizzes can really be if they’re covering as little material as the frequency seems to imply.
Do your kids tend to be high achievers? Sometimes students who are deeply invested in their own performance struggle to maintain perspective, and they experience anxiety that is disproportionate to the gravity of the task they’ve been assigned. I might start by asking your kids about the content of these frequent quizzes and the impact on their overall grades to ascertain whether they’re putting undue stress on themselves.
Sometimes teachers opt for exams because they sound serious and official, and frankly, kids tend to respond to the import they suggest. (And of course, exams aren’t going anywhere; they need to be prepared test-takers to succeed in college.) However, you’re right that tests are far from the only choice. As an English teacher, analytical writing is the de facto mode of assessment in our curriculum. Formal discussions are another tool: They’re a requirement of the Common Core, a standard expectation in college, and can be an amazing way for kids to demonstrate and build real insight as they respond to each other’s ideas and questions.
Projects and presentations are a perennial favorite for many content areas, and they can work beautifully as long as the task is well-designed and assesses application of knowledge rather than acuity with glitter glue. (For example, an Earth science teacher I know recently concluded a unit on gems and minerals by assigning her students to design a piece of jewelry and write a defense of their choices based on the qualities of the gems they’d incorporated into the design. More out-of-the-box and engaging than a multiple-choice exam, yet still a rigorous demonstration of understanding!)
The thing is, though, all of these are summative assessments meant to evaluate and hold students accountable for their mastery of a significant instructional unit (or a benchmark point midway through). Whatever the modality, all serve the same function as a test.
I wish I had more information about the teachers’ use of formative assessments. Formative assessment is how teachers monitor students’ progress during the course of a unit: through discussion, observation and feedback on classwork tasks, and brief end-of-lesson assignments. It definitely can be graded, but it shouldn’t have your kids quaking in their shoes by any means.
Real quizzes and tests, by design, have to leave room for, y’know, teaching between them, and it again brings me back to why that doesn’t seem to be your kids’ experience. If it’s not a mindset or perception issue, then you could certainly reach out to the teachers in question to ask about the scheduling of these exams, and for suggestions in managing your kids’ stress levels. I hope they’ll have some insights for you.
What type of training do you get to address the needs of special education students in your mainstream classes?
—Special Training for Special Students
All undergraduate and graduate teacher training programs I know of require coursework in the foundations of teaching exceptional children (formerly “special education”). Obviously, EC teachers complete many more credits in that specialty.
After that, it depends. Mainstream teachers in my state have to complete eight continuing education units in different areas in order to renew their license every five years. For example, K–5 teachers need three credits in their subject area, three in literacy, and two in digital learning. Grade 6–12 teachers must complete three subject area credits, two digital learning credits, and three general credits, about which they often have some choice. (Schools and districts conduct ongoing professional development in areas they deem important, but teachers can also attend conferences or complete university coursework or online modules to fulfill credits.)
As an outsider looking at that breakdown, it might seem as if teachers don’t get any continuing EC training, but that’s not true. Those literacy or general credits may focus on how to teach students with learning disabilities or differences. Even the subject-area credits may cover how to help your struggling students succeed.
Much of my continuing education, especially in the last 10 years, has been about differentiation—how to adjust content (what students learn), process (how they learn), product (what they produce), and environment (where they learn) to meet the needs of diverse learners. That group includes, but is not limited to, exceptional children, English-language learners, academically and intellectually gifted students, and kids with ADHD or other conditions that might make the traditional school day difficult.
You may want to inquire with the teachers or administration at your child’s school about what professional development they have planned for the next year or School Improvement Plan cycle. If it seems like there’s a lack of support for a particular type of student, let them know.
One last thing: As is true for most people, teachers learn on the job. We’re trained to teach EC students by teaching EC students. We frequently engage in conversations with each other and our administrations about how to meet the needs of students who struggle. Many of us have the same types of conversations with students themselves. “What parts are you getting? What’s still difficult? How do you want to show me you’ve learned this material? How can I help?” Often, this kind is the best training of all.