Friday, January 29, 2010

Formative Assessment

This year, I am coaching a group of middle school and high school teachers to learn about and practice using formative assessment practices in the classroom. This initiative is being led by a group called Measured Progress and by the Michigan Department of Education. Measured Progress supplies us with coaches we can access through a ning and email. They also provide a study focus for each month and the resources to learn about the focus. I normally post about our formative assessment team meetings on the ning blog. But as that one requires an invite, I thought I should post here as well.

Once again, I am so impressed by my formative assessment team. We had our third meeting on January 22nd in the afternoon of a professional development day. It works so nicely when we can meet during our PD days and not have to worry about meshing schedules to meet after school, or dealing with the hassle of getting substitute teachers for a half day.

The focus for the meeting was descriptive feedback, so we began with a Chalk Talk using the guiding question: Why is providing descriptive feedback at the right time so effective? The comments noted by the team show that they have a good understanding of the purpose of descriptive feedback. We noted that one word that appeared many times in their chalk talk was immediate.

Next we discussed the Fisher and Frey article, Feed Up, Back, Forward, using the Making Meaning protocol. It was a great discussion, affirming what we've been working on with learning targets. There was discussion around the idea of language frames, with a high school language arts teacher asking about how she can learn more about or find examples of language frames. As the coach, I will do more research into this topic, but if anyone out there has ideas, please pass them along!!

We also discussed the point made in the article that the role of the teacher is to ask the right questions. It made a great segue into February's focus on questioning. Like many of the other teams have already mentioned, we are also ready to begin diving into the information as soon as it becomes available.

Every meeting, my team takes time to share one thing they have been working on or a strategy they have tried since the last meeting. This month we saw some great strategies applied in a variety of ways. The high school history teacher shared a geography project rubric that was generated by his students. What a great way to get students invested in their work!

Our high school English teacher shared some examples of a Frayer model that she used as a pre-assessment for a Greek mythology unit. She noted that it helped her focus her teaching by knowing what her students already knew and seeing where they may have misconceptions. She plans to use a sequential alphabet summary form to review the unit. We also offered her the idea to have the students complete another Frayer model and to have them analyze the learning they have accomplished through the unit.

Our fifth grade science teacher used chalk talk as a pre-reading activity for the circulatory system. After reading, the groups did another chalk talk and compared them to see how much they had learned through the reading. This teacher also shared a frustration that some students did not do as well as she expected on their summative assessment. The team discussed whether this was a problem with the test format or the students really not knowing the information. It was suggested that she use her summative assessment formatively, allowing students to go back, fix and restudy after she has added descriptive feedback. Then to give another summative assessment in a different format. Another suggestion was that she conference with those students who did poorly to give oral feedback and try to determine what might have happened in each situation.

The eighth grade social studies teacher was excited to share some collaborating he had done with the eighth grade language arts teacher on a writing piece. Working together, these teachers created a Self-Peer Edit Revision checklist. The checklist incorporated elements of good writing instruction, such as creating an interesting lead and having varied sentence structures. Using terminology of different disciplines across the curriculum will help our students have that transfer of knowledge.

The sixth grade social studies teacher was feeling frustration that she hadn't accomplished much in the way of formative assessment in the past month. But she shared some personal reflecting she had been doing in regards to the way she'd been teaching her social studies. It was fabulous the way she has been pushing her own thinking. She involved her students by having a class discussion about what they wanted to learn about the Western Hemisphere (part of 6th grade curriculum.) Fantastic! And yesterday, she and I sat down together to work on some learning targets for her Mexico unit and she made great progress.

Once again, I am so impressed by my team! We meet again on March 8; it's a teacher marking day so slated to be strictly time for teachers to work in their classrooms. But I think it shows the power of this team process, as well as the dedication by my team, that they want to take some time that day for our next meeting.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Remembering what is important...

The last couple of years have been hard on many middle schools in Michigan. Budgets have been slashed and teachers' jobs have been lost. These cuts can have a drastic impact on middle schools that attempt to operate under the true middle school model. Being able to implement common planning time, advisory periods, and an exploratory curriculum often means that middle schools are staff heavy.

My middle school was created in 1997, when the district built a new high school. The old high school had been a 7-12 building but would now house 5-8. The principal at the time decided if we were going to be a middle school, we were going to do it right. And we did! A comprehensive school reform grant allowed us to learn about the best structures and practices of a model middle school.

My school has not escaped the budget woes, and over the years, our staff numbers are down. We have managed to hang on to common planning time and we believe strongly that we teach CHILDREN not subjects. Yet many constraints had left us tired. This winter, with renewed energy and enthusiasm, the staff decided to revive a program that had been abandoned when changes in state testing times and other obligations and concerns made us feel too weighted down to continue.

The program was given that name SPARKS, which stands for Special Programs All Reaching Kids. Yes, we were in a crazy acronym phase when the program was developed! But really, despite its bulky full name, the program does have the power to spark interest and enthusiasm in both staff and students. It is a program that aligns with our values as a developmentally appropriate middle school with an exploratory curriculum and with a focus on students as individuals.

The goals of SPARKS are simple:
1. Give students a chance to participate in a skill or interest outside of the traditional curriculum.
2. Build relationships between students and staff by keeping groups small and class offerings anonymous.
3. Build relationships and mentorships between students by allowing mixed grade level groupings. (Our middle school is 5-8 and we usually keep very distinct and separate boundaries between 5-6 and 7-8.)

To achieve these goals, each teacher came up with a course offering and wrote a description. Students ranked their top three choices and were placed into a SPARKS class. In this current SPARKS session, we conducted our SPARKS classes on the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before winter break, from 2:00 to 3:00. Many staff members chose to offer courses in which the students would be creating projects that they could use as holiday gifts. Others were designed to showcase the interests and talents of staff. Some staff members worked together to provide unique experiences for our students. Everyone was so happy that we took the time to remember what is important with our kids: building relationships as we build new skills and interests. Please view the videos to see the fun our students had!