A Powerful Question to Help Students Think Through the Puzzle

Getting students to the point where they talk about deeper topics than who did what or where can be a challenge.  For less than confident readers, they don’t trust that they do know how to put the puzzle of a text and their thoughts together.

In her Book Love adult summer book club, I learned from teacher, author, and literacy wonder-woman, Penny Kittle  a simple and powerful question that she says is her favorite.  “What’s worth talking about here?

Initially, some of my eighth graders were confused — there weren’t any of the familiar words in the question.  Where were the words author, text, evidence, character, infer?  Lots of blank stares came up to me as students filled in their reading log via Google Forms.  I knew this was a new type of question for them, and I also knew they were ready for it.  Purposefully I had not given a mini-lesson on how to answer this.  I was intentionally using this question as my formative assessment.

Individually, I framed the question, “What’s worth talking about here?”  from the idea that if he or she was leading a small group discussion, what would be the topic the student would begin with. This was enough for some to go on and answer.  And as should be true — since all of our students learn differently — some students needed more explanation so we talked through his/her text using character, setting, and plot.  As anticipated, some did not need any explanation which is what I found while conferencing with each student.  A few of my middle schoolers had been able to respond to the question on their own without my help. And based on their reading conferences, as always I  monitored and then adjusted the puzzle of my lesson and timing for the day.

Regardless of how quickly each student caught on, it’s true, this is a great question! Whether it is used as a written reflection about their independent choice novel or during a class discussion about an article that we read together, this deep question gets kids thinking.  As a teacher, “What’s worth talking about here?” tells me who understands the fiction or nonfiction they are reading.

Sometimes it is the simplest words that give us the most information and the pieces fall together more easily.

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