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.