Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Principles of Successful Assessment

Fair Isn’t Always Equal….this is the most recent book our ID PLC is studying at the moment. It has some really good points and ideas in it that make so much sense as a teacher. Fair isn’t always equal- and that really needs to be considered when looking at students achievement in a differentiated classroom. Below is a quick summary of Chapter 3 which focuses on assessments. To be honest with you- if I had to do the following for every assessment that I made in class I think I would have to quit teaching….
Chapter 3: Principles of Successful Assessment in the Differentiated Classroom
This chapter focuses on how to use assessments in a differentiated classroom. It also goes into detail about the 3 different types of assessments- pre-assessment, formative assessment and summative assessment. According to Wormeli, a teacher should really focus their energies on creating formative assessments. These are basically check points though out your unit to ensure your students are learning the material.  Another concept that I found interesting is Wormeli also says that teachers should provide students with the summative assessment prior to beginning the lesson. Generally the summative assessment is the “unit test” or major project associated with the unit. Authentic assessment should be varied and collected over a period of time. A student, just as a teacher, may be having an off day and their entire major grade should not be based on one assignment they must complete on a single day.
Assessment guides the practice in a differentiated classroom and you should always design your lessons with the end in mind. Students should know what to expect….not wonder- “will this be on the test?” Lesson objectives should be clear and based on essential and enduring knowledge (EEK). EEKs should be prioritized in 3 different categories: Essential, highly desirable and desirable and teachers should work with their colleagues to reflect on what is considered E, HD, or D.
According to Wormeli, there are 12 basic steps for creating a successful differentiated classroom. They are as follows:
1. Identify your EEKs
2. Identify students with unique needs
3. Design formative and summative assessments (write them out)
4. Design and deliver your pre assessment based on your summative assessment and EEKs
5. Make adjustments when necessary
6. Design learning experiences based on the information gathered from pre assessments
7. Run a mental tape of each step in the lesson sequence to make sure things make sense
8. Review your plan with a colleague
9. Obtain or create material needed for this lesson
10. Conduct the lesson
11. Evaluate the lesson’s success with the students. What worked and didn’t work?
12. Record advice for yourself on any changes that need to be made so you can adjust your lesson for future delivery
And on that note….differentiated classrooms provide multiple options in a hierarchy of challenge, from concrete to abstract, structured to open ended, single faceted to multi faceted. You may have multiple versions of the same lesson to present to the different groups of your students. It is important to also remember that good assessment advances learning, not just document it and is authentic to the learning experiences- which means the assessments are similar to what the students experienced during the lesson.

Friday, March 9, 2012


The second chapter of Fair Isn’t Always Equal is on “mastery,” which I initially thought was an odd place to begin a book.  We’re beginning with the end?  How does that make sense?  However, as Wormeli explains, mastery isn’t just about the end product or assessment.  It’s about having clear goals and objectives at the outset of the lesson of what we want our students to learn.  You can’t measure student comprehension without first knowing what is important for them to take away from the instruction.

Before becoming a librarian, my last year in the classroom I taught Pre-AP English I.  I wasn’t thrilled about taking on a new subject, having always been a middle school English teacher.  I knew the 7th and 8th grade literature and had my trusty lessons already set.  Moving up to high school was like starting all over again.  “Don’t worry,” I was told. “The previous 9th grade English teacher will leave you her binder of what she did.  That should help you out.”   Over the summer I lugged home all her binders and folders, as well as her worn copies of Julius Caesar, Lord of the Flies, and other novels I hadn’t read since I was in high school myself.  Spreading everything out on my kitchen table, I settled in to begin tackling 9th grade lesson planning.  What I found was shocking and heartbreaking.  All I found in her binders were copies of tests and quizzes.  These tests were also mostly comprehension level, multiple choice tests, with very little to indicate higher level thinking.  There were no lessons.  No objectives.  At our charter school we had no curriculum outside of the TEKS, so you can imagine my shock upon realizing I was going to have to teach English I completely from scratch.

“So we have to read Julius Caesar.  So what????  What are they supposed to learn?”  This is what I asked myself repeatedly as I sifted through the mostly non-helpful materials. 

I share this anecdote because Wormeli is exactly right.  You cannot plan assessment without first asking yourself, “What is important for them to learn?” 

Now then, what does mastery look like?  It is NOT rote memorization (such as memorizing dates, or – in the case of Julius Caesar – having students memorize and recite the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech).  It is also not just following steps as directed by the teacher in the case of a science lab, for example.  No, Wormeli says that:

Students really understand a topic when… they can explain it, interpret it for others or other situations, apply it, acknowledge and explore alternative perspectives on the topic, experience empathy for the topic, and accurately identify and reflect on their own self-knowledge regarding the topic.

Our author says that the best practices in mastery involve multiple assignments and using benchmarks to chart student progress over a period of time.  I think this also ties back nicely to our previous book, Teaching Digital Natives, which tells us that when partnering with students in project-based learning, there should be multiple “checkpoints” along the way as we guide them to the final product. 

Again, thinking back to my first few years in teaching, I remember going crazy being up to my ears in essays.  My problem was that I was trying to grade each essay for everything: spelling, grammar, interpretation of prompt, etc…  My local Starbucks and I got to be quite good friends as I spent hours and hours there grading English essays.  I don't know if it was the caffeine high, but it finally clicked.  What am I really looking for in assigning a written response?  What do I want to see if they understand?  If it’s just application of vocabulary words in an expository format, then that’s what should be graded.  If I’m using an AP scale to judge interpretation of the question, then that’s what should be graded.  It made my life so much easier to have clear objectives from the beginning.  In our charter school, we were truly inclusion-based.  Everyone was thrown into one big pot, if you will.  My Pre-AP students were in the same class as my autistic student.  A challenge?  You bet.  But in defining my learning objectives for each group I could differentiate my assessments and how I graded them to match their levels.  The title of our book is right on target: Fair isn't always equal.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Fair Isn't Always Equal but it is Differentiated

"Life is never fair, and perhaps that is a good thing for most of us it is not." 
~Oscar Wilde

Purchase here
Life isn't fair.  Wish I had a dollar for every time I heard that.

I was intrigued by the title of the book but I have to confess my school district purchased this book for me a long time ago and I have yet to read it.  It might have seemed fun but not exciting enough for me to take it home and I am a bit that has to say something.

Assessment didn't sing to me.  It sounds like a test.  Test are clearly not fun but this is what the book club I picked it up and dusted it off to have a go.

More confessions- My principal told us that this book was the center of strife and controversy.  I teach history that was music to my ears.  I read the first chapter already.  It was not what I thought it would be. (So far that is the a common theme for our PLC choices). I thought a lovely whip about writing perfect test or rubrics. What I found in this introductory chapter is an interesting methodical approach to assessing the progress of learning in your classroom.It is not a one size fits all band aid but is instead a challenge for teachers to realize that their beliefs about assessment drives their teaching systems.  

What struck me in the first chapter is the dedication to the defining what differentiation is, looks like and feels like. He points out that differentiation doesn't make learning easier it puts the learner on level footing to proceed on their learning journey.

I think the safest way to sum it all up is to show the news footage of the Limping penguin.

Differentiation is giving students the scaffolding to overcome themselves to continue on the path to knowledge. Just like that little guy, they may need a special shoe, glasses, that special seat, or  translator. If the ending outcome is them learning by having those aids does it cheapen their education? I don't think so. 

What are your thoughts? Please feel free to share your initial personal grading philosophy or how you look at differentiation in the comments below. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

One Partnering Project under my belt

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Waist deep in the swamp is no place to think about a nap. For the last six weeks my students and I have been in the middle of our own adventure into the partnering experiment. Anything new is cumbersome, awkward really.  Every step forward feels heavy and like there wasn't any progress being made.  The vision up ahead is foggy.  There are tons of questions and no real answers until they are revealed through experience. Not a comfortable place to be for teachers.

Back story:
For the last six weeks the students have been emerged in a project like no other that I have ever done...class documentaries. Each class is in charge of a different unique industry. The classes are divided into production teams each with different responsibilities. (The layout is linked here.)  It was a rocky start neither of us, student nor teacher could figure out how we fit in this relationship. Things started to get better after some practice

Weekly update:
The classes started the week all in very different places.  Some were close to being finished with filming, while some had not started filming.  Some had worked out very clear lines of command, while others all tried to be the boss, or all tried to say someone else was in charge. No matter where they started this week they did make huge gains.  Film footage was shot, voice overs recorded, and interviews were given making it a very productive week for all of us and the videos are all coming together.  

We did run into several bumps along the road this week.  We had one day of power outages where the surges in the power knocked out the breaker and the person that knows which breaker goes where has been out all week.  Work was interrupted for a full day because the students had to do their mandatory 8th grade registration. And then in one class they have it set up so one person has been taking all of the footage and putting it on his computer and he was out for two days.  Nice.  Despite all of it we progressed.  

Friday was a looking like it was going to be a dead day for over half the students.  The film and edit teams are working like crazy monkeys but the rest of them are starting to get to the point where they don't have anything to do. 

 I decided that during our class meetings we would be a little metacognative before we started the day.  I asked them to be completely honest about the project.  I told them this was the first time I did a project like this and wanted to know feedback so I could make it more successful for the coming years. I asked them to tell me the positives and negatives for this project. 

Positives: (According to the students.  In as close a I can remember their actual words...I might have cleaned up their grammar...a little.)
  • "We get to work together. Like everyone of us in the class has a job and we had to talk to each other to get answers and get our own work done." 
  • "It was like we were in the real world working on a project.  You know we had a job and we had to divide it up in order to get it done."
  • "We had to use technology to complete our project and it wasn't just some stupid PowerPoint."
  • "I never have been able to do something like this before it was cool to be able to set my own daily goals because I could see what I had to do and what I got done each day."
  • "It was cool see that some of my classmates could do stuff, like with technology or acting and they were really good."
Positives...according to me
  • They were genuinely learning.  The third week into the project they had to take a test (I had to have major grades) and the portion of the test that covered their industry they scored in the 90th percentile where as the portion that they learned the traditional way (notes and such) was pretty hit or miss.  
  • They went deeper into the subject than I would have ever gone.  Because of interest, and their need to make the video's more interesting they were researching non-stop for three weeks and were loving it. You could see a clear level of confidence as they became masters of their topics through the level of their own conversations and decisions in the video making process.  
  • I worried about the rigor of their research initially but once those that tried to be a bit lazier got their information to their peers they were told to keep looking. Peer pressure used for good, not evil.  Now I can securely say that many of the students know way more than me in their topics and that I am completely comfortable with that. It is a little strange...that doesn't bother me.  I know many teachers love being the ones to know the most in their classroom.  It is a burden I was comfortable in giving them.
  • I love how they learned more than stuff in this lesson.  They had to master scheduling, organizing groups of people, communication of ideas to peers, different types of technology and making them communicate, the workings of storytelling, the power of camera angles in relating a story, communicating with professionals outside the world of education and working with people they would have never chosen to work with if given the opportunity. The list goes on.  Now did they master all of these...some students did.  But each student did step outside of their comfort zone and learned some part of these. 
It was not all unicorns, rainbows and cotton candy in my classroom.  There would be days where I would not want to come back, or for that matter enter my classroom. But they would be overshadowed by the good days. Their list of negatives were interesting...because I could see the same problems that they did and I think I could have given them some prior support if I had suspected the situation would have come up. 

Negatives: (according to the students.)
  • Directors- They were the ones chosen to be the main leader for the class project.  They were charged with passing out assignments, they were the ones that made sure we had a clear story arc and the ultimate ones in charge of how the story looks. 
    • "Some people thought that they were going to do all the work and we didn't have a clear idea of what to do."  
    • "Some people wanted to be the ones to be in control of everything so they wouldn't give anyone else some stuff to do."
    • "Some directors didn't say much and we did whatever we wanted to."  
To fix this: I think next time when they are in the first week of research I will start the meetings with the directors to coach them on ways to organize groups of people.  And I will give them different leadership techniques that they can employ with different types of people.  

It will be good also for them to have contact with other directors to discuss problems and concerns. I will try to nourish this relationship with a forum for them, and by encouraging them to text each other.  I may try to give them different texting activities to help them become more comfortable with contacting one another.
  • "Some people walked around and pretended to work but didn't do anything."
To fix this: Out of my 160 students I know of 3 that fall into this category.  And honestly they did do their research.  They wrote and did what their groups told them to do but when it was get to the stage where students were trying to tie up loose ends and get everything finished these guys felt really comfortable doing nothing.
    • Their grade is a 360 degree review.  (I grade them, they grade themselves, and the groups they assigned themselves grade them.)  I am pretty sure this will be the most fair assessment of what they did in class and will catch those that were not proactive in getting work done.  
    • I think next time I will also have assignments set aside for them to do if not working.  Alternate assignments that will take a day that I can hand out after so many redirections that will show learning and will keep them working.  
  • "Technology doesn't always work.  We didn't have any of it for a while and then we struggled to get files converted so it would work."
To fix this: Is there a fix?  I think this is another good lesson to learn...sometimes stuff doesn't work like you think it should.  It is okay, there are other ways to get things done and it is all part of the learning. 

At the end of the class meetings I asked them if they liked learning this way...not necessarily with documentaries but with projects where they all worked together to achieve a bigger goal.  The response was an overwhelming "YES!!!"  I have to say I said "yes" too.  

So while the editing teams worked on putting the story together the rest of the classes sat and brainstormed what we knew about the Civil Rights movement and Government.  We made a master list on the board of ideas for our future project.  

Next week we will be putting all that information together as we plan what we have coming.  We will need discussions about the criteria for our next project. And will create the rubric together.  

With this project under my belt I am excited about the future.  Parts of this project created a ridiculous amount of work for me.  Like when I had to create test for them.  That meant 6 different test, not to mention three types of modified test and answer keys.  Whooo weee...exhausting...but so worth it.  Next time I think I will keep a binder for the classes to help keep up with all of the different keys, and extra copies of test and such because my desk is a forest of different piles of paper.And daily grades had to be carefully planned out because sometimes their daily work wouldn't result in a would be a scene or film footage. 

Even though the new experience felt at times like we were trying to jog in a swamp I will do this again, and I can't wait to see how our newest book, Fair Isn't Always Equal, will add to our experience. 

Have you ever done a partner project or used project based learning?  I would love to hear about your experience. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Technology and Partnering

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Reading Prensky book, Teaching Digital Natives, has certainly opened my eyes to the direction classrooms are taking. It has also made me aware that in my own classroom I am not even close to accomplishing this.  The first few chapters of his book talk about moving toward the Partnering Pedagogy and how to reach this point. One of the eye opening topics he writes about is making your subject real not just relevant to the students. To accomplish this it’s important to know your students and their passions so we as teachers can relate our subjects to their lives. Just because I am passionate about history does not mean my students are (and especially with history they are not) so I have to figure out a way to make it real for them. This is really where I am struggling. With 160 students how am I suppose to know their passions?

To make history meaningful (or whichever subject you teach), Prensky suggest asking the students- “How do you want to learn this information? Help me create a lesson that will reach you.” To me handing over my “power” in that area is terrifying. But there are so many resources available to our students and they have much more knowledge in some areas then I do, it’s a shame not to allow myself to learn from them as well.
One resource available to the students I have include technology. I know not every school or districts are as fortunate as we are- so using technology to teach may be more difficult. Technology is definitely an area where my students could teach me a few things.  I like the comment Prensky makes, “Teachers need to know what technologies are available, not necessarily how to use it. Regardless, of what technology you have available you should allow your students to utilize it. That being said it’s also important to not use technology just for the sake of using technology.  My understanding of the role of the teacher in regards to using technology in your class are as follows: 1) Point out to the students what is available, 2) monitor while the students work, 3) encourage students to use different technologies, and 4) point out the pitfalls and mistakes made by students (such as reliable and unreliable sites). 

I am hoping to start my journey to creating a technology enriched classroom with the idea of the partnering pedagogy. I am anxious to learn my student’s passions and how they want to learn and apply that to my class room…. We will see how successful I am. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Iteration really does work

Definition of Iteration-The repetition of a process or utterance. 
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Practice makes perfect. Right? That was what my mother used to always say. I would try to explain that I was not meant to do housework because I lacked the skill and attention to detail that it required. She never flinched, didn't even lift her head from the book she was reading, "Well, you need more practice then!  Get in there." For me, those words still are associated with the smell of bleach and soft scrub.

Marc Presky, talks about the importance of practice for both the student and the teacher in the partnering relationship.  Maybe he and my mom were right.

I have been submerged in the full partnering experiment for the last three weeks.  The first week was tough on both of us, student and teacher.  They were learning to research and kept trying to search instead.  We were both frustrated with their progress. Last week I was starting to see the light. After several student led discussions they were finally in their production groups and deciding their own lessons, and work load.  I was surprised the depth of their research and the kinds of conversations that they were engaging in as teams and as a class.  It took everything in my being to keep my mouth shut and let them learn as a group together finding the answer instead of jumping in there and giving it to them.

This week was amazing!  As a class they are independently finding information that their TEKS require and discussing the information with the other groups putting it in their videos without me saying a word.  Students that were initially extremely upset at not being in the groups that they wanted have come up to me and apologized for their reluctance and are thanking me for talking them out of the alternate assignment.

I did have one of my more bright classes hit a huge road bump. On our block day together they discovered that when everyone tries to be in charge nothing gets completed and working to work doesn't achieve the goal.  We had a couple of class discussions about what the goal is and what responsibility that we all have to each other and to our goal. It was humbling but they made a huge comeback the next day.

My class periods are now in a predictable hum.  We have our beginning meeting.  Students check in with me to discuss their daily goals.  Groups check in and run out of the room to other places to film or to call possible "historical experts" for interviews. Groups might be gathered around tables building the town of Crush.Texas out of Legos to re-enact a train crash.  Others are on computers, laptops or phones researching and writing scripts.  A small trio will be around a microphone reading their scripts creating their voice overs.  They are moving furniture draping walls with green curtains and acting out scenes as three to four cameras record their progress.  Others will be watching and offering ideas to improve the scene or shot.  Class lights flicker and everyone knows, "Quiet on the set!" Class time goes fast.  Before they know it I am calling them to clean up and get out their calendars so we can have our class meeting.

Class meetings have been a huge part of this experiment.  At the beginning and end of each class we discuss what our goals are and what we need to do to achieve them. In these class meetings we look at our productivity, our due dates, and what we learned from a day of work.  I haven't utilized this type of meta-cognitive discussion in class before.  I was surprised to see how much the students like these and look forward to them.  It is a time to validate what they have learned to celebrate individual/team/class successes, strategize how to be more effective for the coming days.  It is also a way for me as the coach to lead the team and discuss behaviors that we need to support or correct to be more productive.

We have two more weeks left of this project and I have to say I will be sad to see it end.  I am not sure what our next step together will be.  I know I don't want the partnering to end, they have learned too much for us to make this an isolated event.  We have been practicing it for almost 30 days and are finally getting  perfect  better at it.

Maybe I should ask them.  See how they want to learn about the next unit, for our next 30 days.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Making it Real - Not Just Relevant

One of the more eye-opening things I've learned from my PLC experience is the value of making learning real for my students. Of course, we as teachers always try to make our students' learning authentic, make it relevant, make it meaningful to their lives, and they’ll be more likely to get it. But to make it real goes even further. According to Prensky, "real means that there is a perceived connection by the students...between what they are learning and their ability to use that learning to do something useful in the world." Wow. The whole reason I love teaching middle school is because I just might have an impact on who that kid is eventually going to be. Imagine if I can also impact what that kid is eventually going to do in the world.

Natalie’s story in the video is an amazing one and her message is clear. Find what inspires you and chase it. As teachers, not only do we have the ability but we have the opportunity to help our students find inspiration and use it to change the world. It doesn’t have to be an act of huge proportions like Natalie’s – it can be something as simple as getting others to recycle. I don’t know one student that wouldn’t want to do something useful in the world. Maybe they just don’t know how. Shouldn’t we teach them?