The Herons ventured out on the Oregon Trail on Thursday. Well, actually, we loaded our wagons on Thursday and set out on Friday. We had a few spare hours in the schedule before May Day - not enough for a full blown theme but enough for a short exploration and Cathy found a simulation about the Oregon Trail that was a perfect fit for our schedule. It very quickly became apparent that the Herons were not going to stick to my plan.
The book said, "students fill out supply list - 10 minutes" As soon as they sat down to the task, requests began to pour in. "Michelle, where is that diary entry about the supplies they took?" (I had read a few primary sources during the introduction." "Michelle, do we have any books about this? We need to do some research." "Michelle, could you find a list of the most common names of 1846? I want to name my character accurately." "Michelle, can I go to the art room?" "Why?" "We need some big pieces of paper to make our wagon...and then we'll make our supplies." "What kind of fashions would they have worn?" "Why does it only let you buy oxen? I thought there were mules and horses, too." "Can we buy extra salt so we can preserve our buffalo?" I glanced ahead in the teacher's script - there were just dichotomous questions, simple "yes" or "no." I doubted if salting the buffalo would be an option...but it was such a good idea. I heartily endorsed it. When progressive education works it feels like this - students are seeking out the information you hoped they would learn. They feel a need for information and see its purpose. During independent reading I asked if anyone wanted to read through a great web resource Cathy had found that had a lot of information about life on the Oregon Trail. Hands shot up and I had to make seven extra copies.
The next day the students tackled their first question - to start out early from Independence or to wait and go out with the crowd. That question was pretty straight forward. Those who waited had enough grass for their oxen. Those who left early had to return to Independence and got penalized a week. "Wait, so we're starting out later? Can we pick up some of the supplies that the other wagons have thrown out because they were too heavy? We read that in our research." I thought that sounded fair enough - I told them they found some bedding and a tent.
But the second decision is where things really started to go off script. Students were asked if they wanted to camp and rest by Alcove Spring or continue on because it was in the middle several tribes' territory. "Our research said most tribes were friendly -- we'll camp," one team announced. "Didn't you say that most wagons had water barrels? We'll fill our barrels with water and continue -- we don't want to get stuck in blizzards in the mountains." I looked at my book - "camp" or "move on" were the two options. No mention of barrels - but the kids were right, we had found descriptions of wagons that said they had water barrels.
The barrels got me thinking. We just took the MCAs - tests that are supposed to measure what our kids have learned so we can tell how our schools are doing. But the tests are woefully inadequate to measure what our kids have learned. They are constructed like this role play I xeroxed from the book - simple choices to simplistic questions. But in real life we need people who are not just choosing from among 4 options but are creating new options. That's the learning we should be measuring - how do you analyze a problem? How do you find resources? How do you synthesize? How do you communicate? That's the learning that matters. Our students are asked to choose A or B when we really want to create thinkers who see a better way - A and a half.
I could go on (the draft of this blog did just that for several more paragraphs). I'll spare you a rant. But I hope you'll pause whenever you read an article or see a story that uses "performance on standardized tests" and "measuring learning in the classroom" interchangeably. Most often reporters (and politicians) will say "high performing" when, actually, the school is "high scoring on standardized tests."
In the end - I wish we could design an efficient, fair, cheap test that would tell us which kids would linger too long at the spring at the beginning of the Oregon trail and get caught in a blizzard later, which would charge forward and die of cholera when they drank from muddy puddles along the trail, and which would fill their barrels with water, consult maps to see where they should cross the river safely, and talk to other pioneers to learn from their experiences (of course one of the Herons realized that the Robins are ahead of us in the simulation and would have some good advice.) I'd prefer to be traveling this road with the those students - as long as the wagon wasn't made of paper.
Map image is from this very cool map: http://www.nps.gov/oreg/planyourvisit/upload/HFC%20OREG_map2007a.pdf