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

 

 

 

The Other Part of the Writing Process — The First Part

So many times teachers wonder why kids can’t write.  “We’ve taught them.”  “We’ve showed them.”  “They just aren’t doing it.”  “Why don’t they get it?”  As a teacher coach I frequently hear these comments not only from English teachers but from social studies, science, and even math educators.

The problem  is students aren’t given enough time to think and process before writing.  Yes, we give them pre-formed organizers, but those don’t work for every student.  Let’s talk about that in a moment.

The bigger issue as I was discussing this week with a literacy-minded science teacher — and those are hard to come by — is that students need to be able to think and play with a topic in their minds on their own before we ask them to put pen to paper.

We push them into writing without trying to grasp ideas on their own. Thinking gives the brain an opportunity to get adjusted and absorb some of what they have just heard or read.  

Students are so used to immediately being ready to respond that in my own classes or when I’m modeling for other teachers I frequently have to remind students to wait and think.  When arms are in the air thinking has stopped. In a world of immediate action, our students are used to fast action.  Hands up right away means kids are only thinking about what they are going to say — they are not still playing with the concepts in their minds.  They are missing that depth of thought.  Teachers need to push for depth; only if we push them will they become used to thinking and searching more deeply for answers — not the first response that pops into their head.

After that minute or two of thinking and even jotting  a note or two — not sentences — about the topic, students need to further process.  

Then when students have the opportunity to turn & talk, speak with their elbow buddy, or share with a partner or or small group, this interaction provides an opportunity for validation and hopefully an “aha” moment of concept realization.  It adds additional thoughts to help them think through their own conclusions. But they have to have that moment of introspection  or they just rely on the others for answers.  

Share-outs are perfect formative assessment time.  The teacher gathers information on each student’s contribution — or lack thereof — as well as the insight that is shared with their peers.  

For the student who struggles in a subject area a sentence starter might help them think on their own.  But  they still have to have that deliberation time to consider  the subject.  We do our learners a disservice when we force them into writing before they are prepared.  

 

Why aren’t reading strategies taught more often?

As a young reader, I was totally confused.  If you are interested you can read about my reading issues in a past blog.  But more importantly and on topic for today, my comprehension only turned a corner once I slowly came to realize that if I could picture the story in my head, I understood the book or short story much better!  NO TEACHER HAD EVER TOLD ME TO DO THAT!  I was always told here are the sounds and words, read.  Somehow, Puff, Dick, and Jane were supposed to magically make it all come together.  It didn’t.  Reading was a puzzle that couldn’t come together for me for years and years.

Reading strategies come naturally to good readers, but those are only a portion of the population.  I wasn’t in that lucky community of good readers, and none of my teachers ever taught me any reading strategies.

So once the puzzle piece of visualization took form, I had to constantly  remind myself to “see” the characters.  It was frustrating; I read slowly which often caused me to have to re-read because I missed details.  By the way, that is another misconception by many people:  Re-reading is not the comprehension cure-all.  Sometimes re-reading is useful but not every time.  But when I did live through the frustration to find the detail that helped me visualize a character or location, the story started to become real.  It was amazing how this picture in my head so quickly impacted my willingness to read.  I had no idea that this was what I was supposed to do!

Hence my passion and dedication to teaching all students — regardless of their ability — reading strategies.  I cannot emphasize how critical these puzzle pieces are to reading comprehension.

When I work with struggling readers now, they are frequently stumped that visualizing a text is something they should do.   Most of my students have no idea what the word means let alone how to go about it. When I suggest that some day it can come naturally to them, they think I’m nuts.  So we begin — whether it is grade 6 or 7 or 8 — using markers and paper:  Listening to a short text, I read to them and they draw a sketch of what they see in their mind.  Students are often worried about their artistic ability. I remind them of our purpose:  We are practicing visualizing the text.  As a former co-teacher of mine, A. Warner, told me, “It is making mental movies in your head of what you read.”

Visualizing is probably the most powerful puzzle piece; however, the other 13 strategies are just as important.  The list can be overwhelming, but little by little I whittle away working with my students to help them learn and apply each one.  I have them not only learn the term, but what it means.  If they can’t explain it, they can’t use it.  We practice the reading strategies over and over with independent and class texts — including defining them so students are clear what they are doing.  Some students have already mastered some of the skills so they move on to other strategies.  After all, good teachers differentiate for the needs of the student — even when it comes to the use of reading strategies.

So why aren’t reading strategies taught more often?  One part of the puzzle is that secondary English teachers are not taught to be “reading” teachers.  Reading specialists know to overtly teach reading strategies, but not all students work with the reading specialists.   Colleges don’t emphasize reading strategies in methods classes.  Take a hint universities; this needs to be added! Many teachers are already good readers.  Again, it is true that reading strategies come naturally to good readers — without cognitively working at it, they apply the strategies as they read.  However, in my family alone, I estimate one-half to two-thirds are actually good readers — not everyone.  I am a self-made good reader.  There are more of us out there, but it is a painful journey.

In this new school year, my goal of my second year as a literacy/instructional coach is to help teachers implement reading strategies in their classrooms.  A few instructors were willing to do so last year, and they were impressed with the results.  It is only with the support of the classroom teachers that students will apply the strategies so frequently that they become ingrained and a natural part of reading.  Then the puzzle of reading becomes whole for them too.

The following strategies list is one that I have accumulated over time.   I cannot name any one source; I have adapted it multiple times from what I’ve learned from my own experiences and from working with my students.

READING STRATEGIES THAT WORK FOR ALL READERS (with fiction and nonfiction)

  • Draw Inferences   —  Put clues together to figure out what the author means
  • Create VisualizationsSee the plot or article info in your mind – make mental movies
  • Ask Questions  — Ask why characters/people act the way they do – ask why author included information in the text
  • Determine ImportanceFigure out what is important in the story/article and what is not
  • Clarify  — Be clear about what is going on in the story/article with details & without – Ask am I understanding the story?????????  Be sure you know what is going on before reading on.  Don’t be confused — be clear!
  • Retell and SummarizeRetelling is being able to tell main ideas as well as essential lesser ideas; whereas summarizing is telling just the main ideas of the text
  • Construct Connections – Connect to another text including movies, poems, TV, cartoons, books, etc. as well as something heard about, something in friend’s/family’s life (text to text and text to world)
  • Monitor and Adjust ComprehensionPay attention if you understand or not or if you got info wrong, you correct it
  • Make PredictionsDecide what you think is going to happen in a book based on info/clues you read – making a hypothesis about the book — then you have to clarify if you have correctly predicted
  • Adjust Fluency Rate – Change how fast or slow you read based on what is going on in the book and on your understanding
  • Use Vocabulary — Figure out word meanings based on other words & events in story/article (use context clues) without using the dictionary unless you absolutely have to do so
  • Chunk phrasesRead phrases and chunks of words at a time — not reading individual words which slows down readers
  • Speak with intonationWhen reading, read with emotion not like a robot; read as if you are the character speaking
  • Analyze and critiqueAnalyze the author’s writing and why he or she wrote and created the people/scenes as he/she did; critique how the author’s work and words impacts the story

 

Conferencing with Writers

Nanci Atwell:  The middle school guru who was one of many to revolutionize writing for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  I  first learned about writing conferences after reading her book, IN THE MIDDLE.  Her concepts sold me on what was possible with students. The teacher meeting with students to talk about what they were writing, how their writing was going, the pitfalls, the high notes, and the struggles. Wow!  Where could the text be improved as well as what were the strengths?  Was the writing ready to be polished?  Was the voice, tone, and word choice appropriate to the audience? All of this occurred over multiple conversations between the adult and child. I kept thinking if only I had had these opportunities as a student, perhaps I would have been a better student writer!

At the time, I was teaching part-time with adults and teens working toward their GEDs.  Obviously these were not the pre-teens Atwell referenced in her book, but when applied to my own students, the conferencing still worked.  More importantly, it positively impacted my student’s learning!

When I moved to the middle school classroom a few years later, I eagerly applied more of Atwell’s techniques; her book was my “bible”.  It served me well!  The most important puzzle piece that I used from Atwell continued to be the student-teacher conference.

The beauty of conferencing that so many teachers don’t understand — and is now part of my job as a coach — is that the teacher gets to know who their students are.  Writing is a powerful tool; that is a pretty well-known fact.  Students can be verbally shy but willing to write.  However, sometimes getting to know them comes from what you  pry out of them in order to help improve their writing. Each student deals with writing differently.  Writing is a puzzle to many students, but conferencing helps them start to see where the pieces fit together.  For some it takes longer than others; after all, everyone can see the puzzle come together at different rates and in different ways.

I’ve seen teachers silently write notes/comments in a student’s documents without any student interaction and call it conferencing.  Objection!  There has to be a conversation, and these discussions cannot be one-sided or the teacher is not facilitating; he or she is dictating.  The entire point of conferencing has been lost if that is the case.  Everyone has their piece in the puzzle — both student and teacher.

At first I tried to help my writers repair every part of their writing:  Editing and revising.  What a mistake!  A student meeting with me would last for 30 minutes — that didn’t work too well with 25-30 students in a class.  After more research about writing workshop where conferencing is paramount, and reading from experts such as Ralph Fletcher, Jim Burke, Laura Robb, and the other middle school guru Kylene Beers, I learned to fine-tune my facilitating and have students take more responsibility for their work.

In some ways this can feel as if the puzzle pieces are upside down.  Students have come to expect that teachers will provide answers; many kids are not thinking for themselves.  They can’t put those puzzle pieces together:  Not because they are unskilled, but because they are used to parents, relatives, coaches, siblings and teachers, telling them where each piece fits.

My students now chose what 1 or 2 elements they want to talk about based on the rubric.  This was a big change both for the students and for me. Focusing in on a few things in our conference, though and getting them correct, helped those skills follow through to the next writing.  DEPTH NOT BREADTH:  This is the center piece to the conferencing puzzle.

So, here is my writing workshop puzzle amended from the writers named above and many others.  It works for me, and I’ve seen it work in similar ways for my team teachers.

  1. Introducing the writing task based on the literature and have students explain it
  2. Providing a clear rubric that is written so students understand it and can explain it — better yet have the students create the rubric
  3. Planning in some form which works best for each individual student
  4. Teacher tracking — spreadsheets works best for me — where each student is in the writing process
  5. Conferencing
  6. Drafting
  7. Tracking the process
  8. Conferencing
  9. Drafting
  10. Peer conferencing
  11. Tracking
  12. Conferencing
  13. Drafting

Do you see a pattern to the puzzle?

Without a doubt, conferencing takes time, management — for the teacher and the students, patience — for the teacher and the students, the willingness to release control to students, and planning.  It’s messy. But the outcomes are worth it.