Skills, Rigor & Interest for our Students…Another Part of the Puzzle

One of the puzzle pieces in the classroom is finding effective units to teach students so that they can learn a skill, and teachers can still provide rigor while engaging students.  I wrote this unit of study for close reading to be used in grade 7 or 8 a few years ago when I worked with LearnZillion.  One of the things I love about this unit is that it uses the short story named A JURY OF HER PEERS as well as the play version titled, TRIFLES.  The author, Susan Glaspell, created an interesting alignment between these two pieces of literature which in turn creates a good example for compare and contrast. 

I read a few years ago that if a student can compare and contrast and then move into writing the same, they are able to adapt their writing skills elsewhere more efficiently. This seems to be true from my own experiences. Getting students to understand compare and contrast, however, can be somewhat difficult.  Using my unit of study with Susan Glaspell’s writing creates that reading and writing scenario.

Kelly Gallagher, a respected researcher and educator, has written extensively about “writing through the literature.”  This entails writing throughout the time of reading and not just waiting to write after students finish a text.  Often this lack of writing through literature is a puzzle piece that is missing in the comprehension for many students.  This is where compare and contrast comes in. It is not just an organizer looking at the two parts of comparison and contrast, it is looking at how the parts come to the whole in a piece of writing — even a short piece of writing — similar to how the pieces of a puzzle start to make the puzzle look like the entire picture. Comparing even a little bit at a time and then adding contrasting a little bit at a time all the while reading the literature is what is helpful for students. 

So by using this unit, teachers can accomplish multiple skills and goals:  Close reading, compare and contrast, and writing through the literature.  Of course, most importantly what comes out of this unit is that students improve their reading comprehension as well as their writing.

These texts are not easy, and at first I was questioned as to whether or not 7th and 8th graders could access this fiction.  One of the shifts from the CCSS  — of which I am a Connecticut and National Core Advocate  — is the expectation of rigor and depth not breadth.  The A JURY OF HER PEERS and TRIFLES unit was written with the idea that this required teacher instruction and guidance in order that middle school students can deal with the advanced stories and depth of knowledge. Before publishing, LearnZillion requires all work to be vetted; in fact this formal unit is based on one that I used in a five-level differentiated classroom. You will see the scaffolding within the written materials.  And for clarification, LearnZillion vets all of their writers prior to accepting them as part of the LearnZillion team. 

 The last piece of the puzzle in any classroom is to keep the student’s interest. If a student is not interested, they are not engaged. Although the stories take place in the early 1900s, and some people would say present students cannot relate to that time period, but Glaspell’s characters are rich, and the plot is full of twists and turns.  My students really enjoyed the readings.

So I provide you with a piece of the puzzle for your classroom! 

Formative Assessment — Why Don’t Teachers Use It More Often?

Slide courtesy of Great Schools Partnership


Before I moved out of the classroom to become a coach and RtI instructor, I had “data grades.” My students got used to the idea that these numbers in the grade book didn’t count toward their final grade for the trimester but were information for both of us — the student and me. Little did I know that actually I was recording formative assessment data! I just knew that this was helpful information that let me understand whether or not my students grasped concepts and who I needed to re-teach, who needed review, and which students could move on. Ahh — light bulb — another form of differentiation!**

To many educators, data has become a dirty word; I don’t happen to think so. I see the value of how it gives us information — good and bad — and how it also sometimes doesn’t add up. That’s where formative assessment comes in — another piece of data.

Not all formative assessments have to be recorded. A quick show of hands, listening to student’s conversation, reading student work, 3 minute teacher-student conferences, or an exit ticket don’t have to be formally graded. This idea of not grading everything is often a hard idea for teachers to get used to.

In the past, everything was graded! If we didn’t grade it, what use was it. Students still ask, and it drives my peers and me nuts, “Is this graded”? I frequently hear, “If I don’t grade it, they won’t do a good job.” I disagree. Once students get used to formative assessments, they help them too, then “our kids” will put forth equally strong effort whether the task has a mark in the grade book or not. Key here is sharing the formative assessment with them. When students know the purpose of their learning, why they are doing a task, and how it leads to the end, we teachers get buy in.

I have been lucky enough to be part of my school’s committee for a partially funded grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The purpose of the grant, through the New England Secondary School Consortium and managed by Great School Partnership, is to further the implementation of mastery-based grading and personalized learning in our school. What I have learned over the past 4 years working with Great Schools Partnership is that instruction goes nowhere for our without formative assessment.

In my Tier 2 RtI classes, I give mini lessons and then a formative assessment. For those of my students who get it, they can move on to show their knowledge through practice, and for those who need more help, they work with me until the concept clarity is stronger. It works the same way in the regular classroom: Instruction moves forward according to the formative assessment. Throughout the period/block I am assessing whether or not my students are learning. Formative assessment doesn’t just occur once a day otherwise the kids could be working down the wrong path. It is my job as a teacher to help them stay on track and keep their learning on target.

By using these formative assessments, I am meeting the needs of my learners whether it is in a class of 25-30 students or in a room of 5-8. The children reflect on their learning and measure their own comprehension, share it with me, and I check it.

My plan for the next minutes and days are based on the progress students have presently made. I cannot forge ahead if students are not learning the present skills, and that is what educators have done for years: Keep moving without checking knowledge. Periodic quizzes and unit tests have their places, but only when students are ready for them, and that may very well not have been when the teacher thought it was going to be.

We have to pay attention to our students; we can’t move on with a unit plan if they don’t get it! And this all leads to personalized learning a topic soon to come. In the meantime, put formative assessments into action.

**If you are interested, below is the link to a professional development session I put together as Chairman of the English Department for our teachers to connect differentiation and formative assessment.

Formative Assessment as Differentiation Part 1