In March, I bought a plant from a local nursery. It had a ruffled rainbow of flowers - red, orange, yellow, and pink - sprouting from one root system, colors nestled between brown and green succulent leaves. It's a native plant, the farmer told me; doesn't need much water, can withstand sun and heat. Nevertheless, a few weeks after I brought it home, I thought I had killed it. The first flowers fell; news ones still hadn't sprouted. I left it outside on our patio as April brought 90, 100, 105 degree days.
The heat has been rising; the past month or so has been testing season, five weeks of bootcamp for teachers and students alike. We're preparing for the state tests that determine our school's rating and our district's money and our students' passing to the next grade. Despite the stress of these tests, the preparation period can bring amazing gains. You figure out how to push things. You have no time to waste so classes become urgent, efficient, joyfully competitive, even just joyful on the best days. I've found trackers to be an essential tool for guiding and encouraging student achievement. I track my kids' growth, their behavior points on ClassDojo, and their percent passing by class and post it in real time on a big scoreboard in the middle of the classroom. They come into class fired up to beat the class before them and shriek with excitement if they win. On their own, they track their daily exit tickets, their weekly tests, the number of words that they've read, and whether or not they've completed their in-class assignments. The last is my favorite tracker. If they finish their work, I give them a sticker on a star for that day. I want them to know that effort, above all, is rewarded. On Fridays, a sticker on all five stars means ice cream and extra playground time. Just two children have left trackers incomplete over the past month. As a grade, our reading scores, which were low in March, have improved by one measure by 20%.
But man, a month is a long time to be tracking a child's every move. A month is a long time to read nothing but test passages, no matter how many rounds of jeopardy or "prove it" we play. A month is a long time to quantify learning, to put percentages on understanding, to calculate comprehension to the decimal. The kids were dragging this week. I was dragging this week. Then I made a mistake. I forgot to make this week's copy of the star trackers for completed work. So I scrambled. I gave them blank paper and planned to plop the stickers down. But in a fourth grade classroom, paper isn't blank for long. They started sketching and doodling on the sly, in between multiple choice questions. Some drew their own five stars; I started seeing hearts, triangles, emojis, Gatorade signs, basketballs, trolls. Today, there were full-color envelopes with bubble-letter names and a zoo of different animals, each with a designated circle for the sticker. In my last of four classes, as I prepared to review the same story for the fourth time of the day, I marveled at the creativity sticking out from under black and white testing packets.
And just like that, I came home to find my little plant blooming again on the patio, a pink, a red, and an orange flower under leaves I thought had already shriveled dry.