Edulastic: Authentic M-STEP Prep

Formative Assessment Literacy & Technology Oakland Writing Project

M-Step-Logo_473059_7With test prep season beginning and the M-STEP looming, teachers can become frustrated because there are not many M-STEP released items to use with students, in order to help them practice the item types. The items that are released are likely not related to the content being taught at the time, and, therefore, feel very out of context and inauthentic to students.  

I recently came across a web tool called Edulastic that helps address this problem. Edulastic allows teachers to create assessments that mimic the look and feel of the M-STEP; they include online, technology-enhanced formative, interim, benchmark, and summative assessments. Some of the features of Edulastic include:

  • Instant and real-time data on student performance, in the form of many types of reports
  • The ability for teachers to create their own technology-enhanced items (30+ question types, including embedded multimedia items)
  • Google Classroom syncing
  • An item bank of over 80,000 standards-aligned items, some of which are user created, and some of which are from verified sources, like SBAC and PARCC
  • Free account for teachers; districts can purchase a district account with more features

Linking Test Prep with Coursework

Edulastic’s data reporting seems to be very robust and could benefit teachers and students in the long run. But the web tool’s immediate benefit to teachers is that it allows them to create technology-enhanced questions about the content they are teaching at any given time. Instead of teachers giving a traditional multiple choice test, Edulastic can help teachers mimic M-STEP style in any test at any time, with items like hot text, editing a passage, drag and drop, matching tables, re-sequencing, and more.

Below you will see a few comparisons of what M-STEP released items look like compared with what teachers can create with Edulastic. M-STEP is on the left, and Edulastic is on the right. You can click the paired images to enlarge them in a new window.

Sentence Response: students select a sentence(s) from a passage to answer a question

Sentence Response Item

Passage Based: students read a passage and answer questions about it

Passage Based Item

Multiple Select: students must select more than one answer option

Multiple Select Item

Multimedia Embedded: video or audio is included

Multimedia Embedded Item

Matching Tables: students select features in a table

Matching Tables Item

Essay/Constructed Response: students must type a response to the question

Essay/Constructed Response Item

Being able to create these types of questions for any content means that test preparation doesn’t have to be decontextualized and something “extra” we have to fit in. Instead, this practice can happen at anytime throughout the year on any given assessment. Rather than kids’ having to learn to navigate new types of questions shortly before taking a high-stakes assessment, they can practice all year. Not to mention that these question types often require a higher level of thinking, so they are more than just test prep–they are good assessment practices.

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PM Jianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is the ELA Curriculum Coordinator for the West Bloomfield School District. Prior to this role, she was a middle school ELA and Title 1 teacher. She is a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and is an Oakland Writing Project Teacher Leader. Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan. She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine School Library Connection.

Podcast #17 Formative Assessment: A Conversation with Dylan Wiliam

Formative Assessment News Podcasts Professional Learning Research & Theory

Dylan Wiliam is a world-renowned educational leader and researcher, specializing in teacher development and formative assessment. On today’s podcast, Dylan shares the key aspects of formative assessment. He offers his thoughts on teacher development. And he shares some practical ideas to consider for your teaching.

In addition to hearing Dylan speak about formative assessment and learning, there are some useful links included below.

On Feb 1, 2017, Dylan will be speaking at Oakland Schools. The workshop will focus on embedding formative assessment into daily practice. You can learn more about this workshop, and you can register for the event, by visiting this page.

Additional Links

The Dylan Wiliam website

Practical Ideas for Formative Assessment

Classroom Assessment Minute by Minute

Listen to this podcast on iTunes

 

 

A Nanobot of Sugar

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_116283283Our annual return-to-school professional development this year was a lovely buffet of technology-themed mini-workshops to help us navigate the ever-expanding realm of ed tech. The PD was well received, and it also got me thinking.  

I’ve never been a technology skeptic, nor does technology make me uneasy.  That being said, I’ve also rarely been the type to let any particular app or site or device really transform my classroom in any particular way. I adore Google Classroom and the entire suite of Google work tools (Docs, Slides, etc.), but I still think of them as supplements to my normal curriculum and pedagogy, as opposed to transformative additions (though Google Docs comes close with regard to writers workshops).  

A Nanobot of Sugar

Lately, though, I’ve started to realize that tiny doses of technology here and there have a pretty transformative impact on how we help our kids. I’m not offering this up as a revelation, but it’s worth thinking about what kids need in an English class and how we deliver it to them. Virtual and augmented reality are knocking at the door–Pokemon and PlayStation have already invited them in!–so we’d do well to think about what roles technology has performed well in inside our classrooms.

I’d encourage you to slow down your busy lesson planning routine to take similar stock of how and where you’re implementing technology.

To Infinity and Beyond: Traditional Assessments

Here are a few tech forays I’ve made into advanced approaches to very traditional English stuff.

Reading comprehension. My old failing in this arena was my continual insistence that students demonstrate their comprehension in written form. As I began to trust graded discussions more, I discovered how many students actually had a rather robust knowledge of the texts we were reading. These students, though, lacked the writing sophistication to express that knowledge in the only way I had been allowing them to.  

Oh, the irony, technology, you sly dog! It turns out, given a “safe space” where kids are typing (also known as “writing”) to each other–instead of to me–they suddenly reveal that very sophistication in their writing that I had found lacking.  

Technology is the key. In class I’m really fond of GoSoapBox, which allows for things like instant polling in addition to longer responses. It will also provide a printable transcript of any conversation the class produces. Google Classroom has similar features, but apps with a polling feature allow for some very interesting on-the-spot data: turns out kids get pretty honest when they’re provided a formative (absolutely key) and anonymous virtual space to share their thoughts.

Writing Feedback

I’ve written at length about the joys of audio feedback, which I began exploring last year using turnitin.com. This year I may explore other apps that provide kids a verbal walkthrough of their writing. My frustration has been that technology in this case was only addressing one side of the process–it’s great that I can talk to kids about their final product, but it seems almost MORE important for them to talk to ME.

toplogo2xEnter “Flipgrid,” a new app I discovered at a conference recently (thanks, AssisTechKnow!) that allows students to respond to a prompt with 90 seconds of video. If I can give them three minutes of summary about what I thought of their writing, it seems reasonable that they could give me half that amount in reflection on some area of the rubric I ask them to consider more closely. We’ll see how this turns out, but I’m surmising that speaking into a camera lens might have a sobering effect that traditional forms of reflection (“Fill out this self-reflection sheet–and be honest!”) simply do not.  

Exit Slips

Exit slips involve a bit more application of the same technology I’ve mentioned above, at least for now. I think Join.Me will play a role here too, eventually, allowing my students to share to the classroom’s center screen right from their seats. For now, though, I’m looking at smaller ways to gather fast, impactful formative data from my kids.

Right now it’s mostly online discussion or polling spaces, but there are apps out there that will allow kids to, say, take a photo of a page in their book and then annotate it with a drawing tool before submitting it to me on their way out the door. Imagine the usefulness of snippets of focused annotation from a struggling reader in response to a question–without having to photocopy a thing!

Like I said–nothing groundbreaking. Worth thinking about though: Are you using technology to fill gaps or to rethink failures…or are you just using it because it’s all the rage? I, for one, welcome our robot overlords…but that’s because I feel pretty good about all the toys they’ve brought.

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Data is the New Bacon

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

data-miningOver the summer, the literacy researcher Nell Duke tweeted that she saw a shirt that said “Data is the new bacon.”

Both she and I are vegetarians, but I can understand the sentiment. In the education world, data is king–for better or worse. I think this shirt was trying to say that data is everywhere, and everyone loves it (just like bacon). But we should also be careful, because like bacon, too much data can be bad for your health.

In my new role as ELA Curriculum Coordinator for my district, I am responsible for our continuous school/district improvement initiatives, and our multi-tiered systems of support. These two areas, in particular, require data in order to make instructional decisions, progress monitor, and reflect on those decisions.

Why Use a Data Protocol?

In our district, we use a data protocol modeled after Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton’s book, Got Data? Now What? For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a data protocol is a structured way to look at and talk about data. As such, they help shape our conversations, which in turn helps shape our thinking. A data protocol, in particular, allows us to talk about data in a safe and structured way that brings all voices into the conversation.

When thinking about data, it’s useful to get out of the mindset that data has to be numbers. Data sets can represent anything you want to think deeply about. Take, for example, a new data warehouse that we rolled out at the beginning of the year. This is an online repository for data on student demographics, assessments, behaviors, and so forth; it maintains all the data in one place, and allows various reports to be run from that data.

This warehouse turned out to be a good data set for our teachers. After teachers received training in the data protocol, they used the data warehouse platform itself as a data set to be analyzed.

Intellectual “Hang Time”

shutterstock_125340167I am an avid practitioner of yoga, and often my yoga teachers will tell the class to stay in the pose, to give it some “hang time” before we move onto the next pose. That’s the hard part, though. When it’s hard and you want to get out, that’s where the work happens. The same is true when talking about data–the power is in our ability to give ourselves intellectual “hang time.”

A data protocol allows us to do this. It also prevents us from moving too quickly to judgment and action, or from looking at too much data at once (the “too much bacon is detrimental” stuff).

I coach a Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators team in my district, and I recently had the amazing opportunity to attend a workshop facilitated by Bruce Wellman, which was called “Using Data to Mediate Thinking.” Throughout the day, Wellman reiterated that power and deep understanding emerge only when we’ve allowed ourselves the time to observe the data without evaluation and just be uncertain, because “uncertainty is the foundation of inquiry and research.”

The Three Phases

Wellman and Lipton’s data protocol is broken into three phases:

  • Activating and Engaging. This is where participants bring experiences and expectations to the surface and voice predictions and assumptions about the data.
  • Exploring and Discovering. This is where groups analyze the data. It is a time for observation without judgment. This is where that intellectual “hang time” really comes into play, as groups must resist the urge to jump to conclusions and try to take action.
  • Organizing and Integrating. This is where groups identify areas of concerns, determine causation, and begin developing theories of action.

Like bacon, data is great, but too much of it or rushing through it can be a problem and won’t yield the solutions we need to improve teaching and learning. Allowing ourselves a dedicated time and way of talking about data can help us resist those tendencies.

screenshot-2014-09-26-at-12-44-07-pmJianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is the ELA Curriculum Coordinator for the West Bloomfield School District. Prior to this role, she was a middle school ELA and Title 1 teacher. She is a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and is an Oakland Writing Project Teacher Leader. Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan. She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine School Library Connection.

Meeting Students Where They Write

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
Student blogs

Student blogs. Click for a larger image.

Many of my students claim that they “don’t write,” even though those same students wear blisters on their thumbs from texting and tweeting. Texting, 140 characters, commenting, blogging–these are all forms of our students’ writing, and they’re ones we can leverage.

The first step in this shift has to be mine. I have to respect what students are already writing.

It’s tempting to dismiss 140 characters or email or texting as minor forms of communication. But it’s also easy to use those forms to discuss argument or voice, or any of the other things I want my students to be great at. In fact, it’s easy to find plenty of people doing more of this kind of writing than published writers–real writing lives in the wilds of the real world.

Look at email or texts, and what you’ll find are arguments made with passion, humor, evidence–all kinds of evidence used all kinds of ways, all in writing. The trick is looking for it, and in being more flexible in what I consider a final product.

Social Media as Assessment

A recent conversation with a group of colleagues revealed that we have doubts about what we are asking our students to produce as summative products. I think we all can agree that the day of the five-paragraph essay has come and gone, and that ACT writing is really only useful when someone takes the test.

But what about the final essay? Is it time to reconsider the worth of the polished, final draft?

Now, I’m not in favor of abandoning polished drafts, but in expanding our influence over other forms of writing, by valuing them in our practice. Let’s infiltrate the places where our students are already doing writing they care about, and let’s help them do it better.

Take a  quick tour of student blogs and you’ll find a rich environment of writing and argument. My students have been writing on Tumblr for some time. I went there because I found that a decent number of students were using the platform to talk about things that interest them.

As a bonus, Tumblr is a great place to look at visual arguments and voice. Most of my students like to offer opinions about things they care about. Their phones are full of examples of this. So they need openings to develop their ideas, allowing them to write about what they care about. Here again, blogging platforms like Tumblr are a great place to work.

Look at where people, who are not writers, write in “real life.” Almost everyone I know spends a fair amount of their professional lives writing. They use email, texts, and tweets to make arguments in writing. This reminds me how, once upon a time, we treated letter writing as an art. In fact, I remember studying a set of memos for the writer’s technique. So is it unreasonable to treat the 21st century’s Johnson and Boswells with less respect?

Turning Theory into Practice

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 12.13.59 PM

A student proposal. Click to view a larger image.

So what does this look like in practice?

For one, before I let my students do almost any “big” project or writing, I ask them to write me a proposal. They have to tell me why they think it’s worth doing, how they’ll go about it, and how they’ll measure the success of the work.

This kind of writing lets me see how well their skills are developing. Even though it doesn’t meet the definition of final draft, doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. A writer who can write a proposal is probably making clear, effective arguments in writing.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 12.27.01 PM

Annotations, Google Doc. Click for a larger image.

In addition to proposal writing, it’s important to create and use places where students can use the skills they develop, in ways that mirror the writing they already do. I like to use genius.com or to set up a backchannel using a shared Google Doc.

These both work well to promote discussions about how to use evidence, because students have to link their ideas directly to the text they’re annotating. These tools also tend to support precision and economy in language. The students understand that the audience isn’t going to wade through a “wall of text” to get to good argument.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 12.25.01 PM

Annotations, genius.com. Click for a larger image.

To many of my students, writing is something that they “don’t do.” But that’s because they have mostly only seen it held captive in textbooks and assignments.

But if they see it in the wild–blogs, texts, online–and with permission from their teachers, they’ll see themselves as part of that writing life.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Introduction to Formative Assessment

writing 3-5HOW to REGISTER

Audience: teachers in all content areas and grades

Format: six hours of self-paced, online modules; to be used individually or with PLCs, departments or teams.

Description:

The Introduction to Formative Assessment course contains six modules. The first is an introduction to the five strategies of formative assessment, and the subsequent modules provide a deeper exploration of each of the five. Each module is designed to take an hour to complete, excluding the optional activities.

In the course’s six modules you will:

  • complete reflections on your own teaching practice and where you stand with formative assessment,
  • watch presentations and videos,
  • read texts,
  • take short quizzes, and
  • brainstorm ideas for implementing these strategies in your classroom.

You will learn about:

  • the five strategies of formative assessment,
  • clarifying and sharing learning intentions,
  • providing effective feedback to students,
  • engineering effective discussions and tasks,
  • activating students as learning resources for one another, and
  • activating students as owners of their own learning.

SCECHs: available – 6 hours

Consultant Contact: les.howard@oakland.k12.mi.us

The Value of Reading Conferences

Formative Assessment Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
IMG_3665

Notes from a reader’s conference

Feedback is a part of every great formative assessment. And a lot has been written about how to give effective and meaningful feedback.

But nothing has solidified the effectiveness of meaningful feedback for me more than the daily conversations I now have with my two-and-a-half-year-old. She is constantly refining her understanding of syntax and semantics, solidifying her understanding of the world around her, and building her self-esteem–all through the words that we exchange.

These kinds of conversations with readers–hearing their thinking and asking them to clarify what they mean–help them in the moment of their understanding. Nothing is a more powerful tool for student learning and growth.

Conference Starting Points

Everything I learned about reading workshops and conferences started with Nancie Atwell and Lucy Calkins. They are the workshop gurus that you should turn to for all of your burning questions. But even if you aren’t ready to jump into a workshop, you can still use conferences in your classroom.

The basic structure of a reading conference is:

  1. Gather data about the reader
  2. Compliment the reader
  3. Teach the reader something new
  4. Jot notes about the reader’s thinking and how you pushed him/her; plan your follow up

In a conference, you can use questions to get at the heart of a reader’s confusion or difficulty:

  • What questions do you have as you are reading?
  • What in the text makes you think that?
  • I noticed… I wonder…?
Response Journal 2

A response journal entry

Depending on the student, I might have them read part of their book aloud to me, and then ask them a question. I may also read their response journal over their shoulder, and then ask them a question about it, or ask a big question (What is the theme of your book?). From here, I can scaffold if they aren’t getting to this (What are some of the important moments of your book? What are some things that the characters are learning?). In a conference, I can also look back at an exit ticket and ask students to clarify what they meant by something they wrote.

Logistics

In a good week, I could confer with five students a day. So I would usually allow myself two weeks to get to each student in a class. Sometimes I would have to make daily quick returns to those needy students until they got on track. So, three students a day, over the course of two weeks, is 30 students. This translates to 15 minutes of reading or independent practice that the other students are working on, while you make your rounds conferring with each student for three to five minutes.

While planning conferences, I would meet with students randomly. If there were a pattern, my students would become complacent. And I liked to keep them on their toes.

It’s important to note, too, that conferring has its own special way of keeping students on task. You are among the students. And your proximity to them makes them stay focused. You can move to different sides of the room between conferences, when you are taking notes, and therefore can quell whispers.

IMG_3664Another benefit: your notes are a cheat sheet. Doctors take notes, in order to help them remember what they talked about, what’s happening in your personal history, and why you are there. Teachers can do the same thing. I’ve used a clipboard with student names, and I’ve also used my iPad with Evernote and a page for each student. (A sample note is listed on the left.)

Even if you aren’t using a workshop model, you can incorporate conferring with readers. (But, no matter the grade level you teach, you should really consider workshops! You can learn more about workshops HERE or HERE or HERE or HERE and especially HERE.) You can do so while students are working on whole-class novel reading or working on questions or starting their homework.

The Benefits

Conferring really helped me to become an effective teacher. I was connecting with students on a personal level and felt like I knew each and every one of them like never before. Students were also held accountable for their reading and thinking, and started to take more ownership over their own learning. And by meeting with students individually and then talking to the class as a whole group about emergent patterns and provocative statements, I was able to help connect readers and create community.

Caroline Thompson

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for 12 years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University.  She lives in Berkley with her husband and their 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

Standards-Based Grading (Part 1)

Consultants' Corner Formative Assessment Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_297479735For the next two years, I will be part of the Galileo Leadership Consortium, which works to advance teacher leadership. In this role, I am asked to learn that I can do better for the profession.

Sometimes all we have to realize is that we only have to know that we can do better. And one of the things that the consortium believes we can do better is grading. We believe that grading doesn’t have to be punitive, and that it can actually relay information about what a child has learned. To help you understand and implement these beliefs, I will share the information I have learned from experts, and how I have used that learning in my 8th grade Language Arts classroom.

Wormeli’s Views of Grading

The first expert I encountered was Rick Wormeli. He is best known for his research on 21st-century teaching practices. Five minutes into a day with him, though, and you realize that he has used all of the research that he presents.

From Wormeli, I learned three things:

  • Teachers are ethically responsible for the grades which they report.

This means that grades that are padded—with scores for neatness, following directions, turning work in on time—are grades that do not represent the amount of learning the student has achieved.

  • Grades should accurately report the amount of mastery that a student has on the standards of that subject.

This means that an A in Language Arts represents that the student has achieved an A level of mastery in the reading and writing of narrative, argument, and information. An A level of mastery is typically coined by the terms “Exceeding Mastery.”

  • Assessments should be connected to standards.

This means that all activities that we ask of students should be related to the learning they should be achieving. So, every assessment should be connected to a standard, so the student’s grade can reflect the achievement of that standard.

What This Looks Like in My Classroom

So, what does standards-based grading mean in literacy instruction, and what does this look like in my classroom?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have some experiences that I will share.

Shift 1: I connect daily lessons to standards, and present these connections to students.amy 1

At the beginning of each lesson, I name my teaching point. Students and I refer to our Self-Evaluation Standards page (you can click on the thumbnail image to the right). On this page, we underline key words and compare how our work achieved that standard. As you can see, the columns represent achievement levels. Students can mark a date and a level they think they achieved. From here, students can see their growth towards achieving each standard.

Shift 2: For every standard that I teach to kids, I create a rubric of achievement.amy 2

I share the rubrics with kids along with exemplars (thumbnail on the right) of each achievement level. Students can see where their work aligns with that of their peers and the way work should look. The rubric and examples help kids to work to meet the standards.

Shift 3: I insist that students walk away each day having learned something.

In order to quantify this, I have started giving quick and varied formative assessments. For one amy 3concept, it may be a post-it of key terms, with verbal descriptive feedback. For another concept, it may be written descriptive feedback about how to move forward in achieving a standard (an example is on the right). For any assessment, students may re-try the work, in order to show more learning. This helps kids learn and apply the material, but it also shows them that they are active learners, and learners who are successful.

Every day in my classroom looks a little different. And I am using different strategies to reach all of my learners. But in doing so, I know what standard that students have achieved and what standard they are working on. We also have a great community that wants to work and grow and show their best work. And all this came from three small shifts.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

The Tumblr Experiment, Part 3: Blogging as Formative Assessment

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

This is part 3 in a series. Parts 1 and 2 explored the in-class use of Tumblr, a blogging platform, as an exercise in writing for an authentic audience. You can read part 1 and part 2 online.

tumblr-logoAs the Tumblr experiment progresses, I’m faced with a difficult question about evaluation and feedbackWhat is a good measure of a writer’s success?

The answer, I believe, lies in whether a writer has achieved his or her purpose. This approach forces my students to really think about what they’re trying to accomplish. Yes, I get the obvious student response: “Trying to get an A.” But as we move deeper into the experiment, I’m finding that students are beginning to see other possible purposes. Tumblr is a space in which they can deliberately pursue an idea in writing. It’s also a place to take risks, both in what we think and how we want to write. Still, how do I encourage risks in writing without promoting ones that appeal to me?

This isn’t easy territory for evaluation.

I want this to be formative, but I don’t want my students to write for me or for points. At the same time, I do want them to know that I’m watching, steering us toward writing a solid essay. That said, the essay is really just one aspect of this larger project, whose goal is to produce authentic writing and voices, while developing rhetorical dexterity. 

Screen shot 2015-02-03 at 8.01.59 PM

A Good Exchange

Using their blogs as a lens on the class, we discuss what kind of writing students are noticing–reblogs and responses–and bring that back to the classroom, where we can talk about why certain posts are creating more action than others. We’ve begun to notice that success often comes down to the writer’s awareness of audience. One student, for example, blogged about a piece of music and was rewarded with a lot of attention and discussion. When we talked about it in class, the writer said that he knew that his friends liked music, and he was betting that if he could draw them in, he’d draw others with the same interest as well.

You can picture me clapping my hands, because isn’t this exactly how real writers–really anyone who produces any kind of product–think? 

The students were all good writers. But as we talked through their writing choices, it became clear that some of these writers valued their own choices over those that appealed to their Tumblr audiences. Some prefered not to “cater” to the audience. This led to a discussion of different rhetorical moves that might attract a different audience–or alienate an audience.

For me, the real value lies in the conversation about purposes–whether, as writers, they’re achieving their purposes. That’s the rhetorical triangle in action, with real consequences.

Screen shot 2015-02-03 at 7.35.51 PM

As a formative task, this works to let me see how we’re doing without being intrusive. Is what I think I’m teaching actually sticking to my students? Did it show up in the writing? If it is, great, but if not, I can see it before the essays come in, make adjustments, and revisit topics. We’ve talked technique and SOAPs and audience, of course, but always as an abstraction, very rarely as a practical “thing” we do as writers, choices we make on purpose. It’s this pivot from abstraction to “real” that’s important with the Tumblr experiment.

By moving students students out of the static model of traditional instruction, and into an environment that has entirely new and changing demands, I’m looking for a way to change them from people who write for me into people who write more authentically. The feedback that they’re getting from their audience–each other and me–is more valuable because it’s authentic, connected to their own goals as writers, and is rewarded by people whose opinions they value–each other, not just me.

 

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Triathlon Swimming & Formative Assessment

Consultants' Corner Formative Assessment Professional Learning Research & Theory

I titled this blog post not to try and get your attention, well, all right, partly to get your attention, but really because I have been struggling with the swim leg of a triathlon. Floundering is perhaps more accurate description. At the same time, I became enthralled with the possibilities of formative assessment. Later you will see how I linked the two.

shutterstock_154806206For my first triathlon, actually my only triathlon, I swam with a snorkel. Yes, you are allowed to do so, however you can not win. Being the disciplined athlete I am I was unencumbered by this restriction as I wheezed around the course.

Another indignity; triathlons start in waves. The Elites begin first and, as field thins and the triathletes thicken, the older folk start last. You may be surprised to learn that I am neither an Elite triathlete, nor extremely youthful. Consequently I started from behind and fought to maintain this stellar ranking.

There is another indignity in a triathlon. They write your age on your leg. This does not worry me, I saw it more as an explanation of my performance. However, it is embarrassing to be passed on the run, by a pair of calves boldly emblazoned with the number 74!

To be honest I finished about midway between the Elites and the DNF’s. (Did Not Finish). I wanted to do another tri,  faster and sans snorkel. Enter formative assessment, if it works for kids, it should work for me, and hopefully before I am 74. Formative assessment could help,  it was unlikely to harm my performance, what did I have to lose?

The Theory
Let me clarify what I mean by formative assessment. From my understanding, it is a planned process where one assesses where the learner is in terms of learning (triathlon swimming in this instance). Based on the assessment/s, the instruction continues as is or is modified.

There are three questions that focus the formative assessment process:
1.Where are you going?
2. Where are you now?
3. What do you do to close the gap?

And then there is evidence that the learner (me) is making progress toward the goal.

There is also feedback. which, since I am too tight to pay for a coach, I am going to provide that feedback to myself. This brings to mind a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” A bird-walk but you may see the relevance.

The Practice
shutterstock_113167474Swimming is challenging for me. If the swim leg of a sprint triathlon was 50 yards, I would be fine, but it is not. It is 1/2 mile, which is a long, long way for me. The ride and the run are OK; note I did not say easy, or enjoyable.

Back to the swim.

I have purchased flippers, snorkel, goggles, hand paddles, and even a clicky belt thing that gives feedback (with an annoying click) when you roll your hips. (I do like my toys). I have read books, studied videos, and crawled the web for tips and insight. I have had lessons, (see I am not that tight), and I have practiced in a pool and in a lake.

I practiced body rolling, arm strokes, getting my butt up, and bi-lateral breathing. I am better than I was. (I once read a T-shirt that said, “The older I get, the better I was.” I agree with the sentiment, but digress.)

So why am I not much, much better at swimming by now?

Formative Assessment Insights
Here is what I am learning, thanks to formative assessment insights:

1. I do reflect on my swimming skills ( I use the latter term rather loosely!).
2. I found I check how I am going quite regularly. I even make a mental note of my performance. In most cases, I think I should do a little more of this, say breathing, and a little less of that, say sinking.
3. I do understand the learning progressions needed to swim that distance.
4. I have clarified my learning intentions.

However, I think I need to look more deeply (an unintended pun).

Dylan Wiliam proposed five strategies for formative assessment:

1. Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success.
2. Engineering and eliciting effective evidence of learning.
3. Providing feedback that moves learning forward.
4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another.
5. Activating learners as owners of their own learning.

OK, I’ve got #1 and #5. For me, #4 is hard ‘cause it is just me. So that leaves #2 and #3.

I do get some evidence courtesy of an expensive, and thankfully waterproof, Garmin watch. I can tell lap times, distance, and stroke rate. But … so what?

This evidence is also feedback, but it is limited and after the fact. I have to download it on the computer to get it. What I need is in the moment feedback. I know I could pay for this, but we have been here before. I am too cheap, so let’s move on. I still need feedback.

Interestingly, I just realized the pool gives me feedback, like when I swallow water instead of breathing air, which does make me think about the quality of feedback.

I am highly motivated. I have found that the possibility of drowning is great motivation, but I am hesitant to recommend it as an educational strategy.

What I am beginning to see is that if I address the three focus questions of formative assessment:
1. Where am I going?
2. Where am I now?
3. How do I close the gap?
It is evident that it is quality feedback that moves me forward, that links #1 and #2 to achieve #3. It is the ability to provide quality feedback, in the moment, based on evidence, that is most helpful.

What have I learned?
Well, I think Wiliam’s Five Strategies help me think about learning, be it for triathlons or teaching literacy. The three focus questions are pivotal to implementing the strategies.

Once the direction is known, then it is time to determine what sort of evidence is needed to ascertain progress towards the destination and when each piece of evidence is relevant. Evidence and feedback often appear related at this point.

For example, the number of strokes it takes to get to the end of the pool is useful to know. However, feedback on form while actually swimming with the form of a sunken log, is far more helpful. Effective feedback is what is needed, at that moment, to move me forward (not downward).  It is the immediacy of the adjustment which underscores a central tenet of formative assessment: formative assessment changes the learning while it is still malleable. James Popham‘s definition of formative assessment is:  “Formative assessment is a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they’re currently doing.”

shutterstock_158438201Effective feedback, grounded in where the learner is in the moment, is critical. It would be helpful, though not always essential, to have feedback from peers and/or a more knowledgeable other. However, in the end, it is the learner’s (my) responsibility for success. Interestingly, this raises the issue of goal setting, which is something for another day.

In the end, Wiliam’s Five Formative Assessment Strategies embedded in the three Formative Assessment Questions, provide an effective learning framework that works as well for triathlons as literacy.

So to put this in a growth mindset, which is pivotal to formative assessment, I can’t swim 1/2 a mile comfortably, YET.

Les HowardPrior to coming to Oakland Schools in 2004, Les Howard worked as an independent consultant across the United States based in San Francisco. Les came to California in 1994 to help establish Reading Recovery in California. He has been an educator for almost 40 years, almost 20 years in Australia. During this time he has been an elementary teacher, assistant principal, and literacy consultant and district literacy coordinator. Les is also a trained Ontological Coach.  He believes coaching is a powerful process that empowers educators. He loves being outdoors and loves bicycling hiking, paddling, triathlons and adventure races, and trying to tire out his border collie. He and his wife enjoy traveling and camping.