Deeper Learning: Recapturing the Joy in Data Driven Schools

by Colleen A. Ruggieri

While recently contemplating why so many learners choose to use outside instructional supports (Internet articles, SparkNotes, etc.), to complete their school assignments, I decided to ask a few middle school, high school, and college students about their attitudes toward their homework and classroom assignments for all subject areas. Their responses were eye opening, problematic, and alarming. During our discussions, there were surprising commonalities in the responses between grade levels, all of which should be contemplated.

It is possible to get good grades without ever reading an assigned text. This seems exaggerated and impossible, but students at all grade levels convinced me that it could be true. One high school student shared her philosophy: “If you listen to your teacher, take notes, and read SparkNotes for a novel…or an online article for a government assignment, you can get an ‘A’ and pass the state tests. I don’t have time to actually read all of the books, but I still want to do well. I know it’s kind of cheating, but it works.” An important assessment issue associated with this approach is that there is no deeper learning occurring as students progress through school. Grades are providing false positives, as learners have not developed authentic skills for reading, analyzing, and synthesizing ideas.

Traditional, worksheet driven instruction no longer inspires learners. My personal experience with this student response came in my own household. My son, an active learner, was not completing his assignments. It was only after some serious investigation that my husband and I learned that he was folding up his worksheets and creating origami animals out of them. Of course, we were disappointed that he resorted to civil disobedience. However, we had to chuckle at his ingenious approach to avoiding the work. In the end, we had to sit him down and emphasize the importance of completing his work, even if was less than inspirational. We often wonder when kids lose their zest for learning. Worksheets can be authentic instructional tools, when used in moderation, but today’s students are different from those moving through classrooms twenty years ago. Students are living fast-paced, multitasking lives; successful teachers will find ways to engage their students through active learning.

bookLearners want to succeed; most define success by passing the tests and getting  good grades. It would be untruthful to tell any aspiring student that grades and test scores do not matter. In order to test my assertion, I took this concern into my college classroom, and assigned Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It is important to emphasize that I challenged my students to read the text—independently and without any notes beyond the text’s annotations—for themselves. To provide a comfort zone, I told them that I would not give them daily quizzes. Instead, I prepared response prompts, and I asked them to record their thoughts and analysis to each section, to the best of their ability. Many students shared that this was one of their first experiences of actually reading an assigned work. Some found the experience “overwhelming” and “daunting.” These were college seniors who had two weeks to read the two-hundred-and-twenty-four page text, and their mindset seems to be symptomatic of an educational system gone awry. However, by removing the layer of potentially punitive test scores during the reading process, most of my students actually tried to read the text and appreciate Walden on a level that went well beyond literal summarization.

Real Learning: What Can We Do? While processing all that I heard from students, I picked up a copy of Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. I appreciated the candid call for change in teaching practices: “Innovation is the lifeblood of progress. It is nursed and nurtured in the arms of failure; in collaboration; in creativity; in curiosity; in passion; in tenacity and grit and optimism” (Beers and Probst 107).  The authors note that educators begin their planning with the best of intentions. However, things change as instructors become too heavily focused on test scores. For example, computers—though potentially innovative tools—have led to the use of electronic worksheets. Ultimately, while we have written new standards for students, procedural practices must also change. With this in mind, here are a few suggestions:

Remember that test data is just one stroke on a student’s academic portrait. Test results are used for rating and ranking, and this reality creates stress for districts and teachers. However, it is important for parents, educators, and community members to realize that one digit does not a success or failure make. A deeper look at the data—and where it shows a need for improvement—should serve as a guide to greatness, rather than a punitive measure for denigrating a district’s efforts. Likewise, students should look at their own data in the same way. Teachers and parents should sit down with learners and discuss what type of snapshot the scores are providing about a student’s progress.

Rather than feeling the need to “cover the material,” educators must be supported in their efforts to drill down and design lessons for deeper learning. Spending more time on a challenging text—and giving students the time to read, think, and process what is in that document—will change the nature of instruction. Stress is a killer, and too many teachers and their classes feel like a hamster on a wheel; the quest to finish one task and begin another is exhausting and counterproductive. By allowing students to spend more time to read a challenging work, they won’t feel so defeated that they immediately look for its online summary. By avoiding the notion to “tell them what the text means,” teachers will bring back the joy of reading and allow their learners to discover the meaning for themselves.

Reading, writing, speaking and listening “for real” should be implemented in every classroom and in the home. Students want answers to life, and their questions should become part of the school curriculum. Districts and classrooms have approached this by adding essential questions to assignments (What are the dangers of racism? What is the true meaning of success?), and this must continue. Beers and Probst emphasize that we must stop using monologic questions—questions with only one right, or best answer (152). Instead, teaching students to appreciate the dialectical tensions that exist in the world will make them think deeply about solving problems. Students see dialogic questions as authentic, and they are much more willing to complete their assignments if they see real meaning in them. Parents who talk to their kids about such questions extend learning and make their children understand that what happens in a classroom is setting the stage for life.

Final Thoughts Standards and tests can be terrific tools for teaching and learning. However, it is important for everyone involved in students’ lives to see the bigger picture.  Data, used inappropriately, can be damaging and divisive. However, by transforming our approach to teaching and learning, and using data to inform our work, we will be helping learners to find their joy, understand why they are being asked to complete their assignments, and live fuller lives that transcend their years in school.

Work Cited:
Beers, Kyleen and Robert Probst. Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. Scholastic, 2017.

About the Author: Colleen Ruggieri, a recipient of The Martha Holden Jennings Foundation Master Teacher of Ohio award, has worked as a National Board Certified English Teacher. She is an English education professor at Ohio University, and she is a past-president of the Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts.

We’re all in this together: Reflections on assessment

by Tricia Ebner, M. Ed., NBCT

This past week I had the opportunity to attend the NCME Special Conference, ‘And the Twain Shall Meet,’ bringing together psychometricians and classroom educators. It was exciting and a bit intimidating to be sharing the same space with experts and researchers like Neil Kingston, Susan Brookhart, and Dale Whittington. From the opening panel discussion between Margaret Heritage and Neal Kingston to the final sessions Thursday afternoon, these three key ideas resonated throughout the conference.

1. We’re all in this together.

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the “us vs. them” trap, especially in this era of high-stakes testing. It’s easy to view those responsible for crafting large-scale summative assessments as people focused on writing complex test questions, focused on getting the data needed without considering the children taking the tests. Classroom educators eagerly study released test items, looking for those little nuances that might help them–and their students–unlock the secrets to better performance. Yet the world of educational measurement is concerned with student learning and works hard to ensure the measurement tools provide good information for teachers, students, parents, policymakers, and the community at large. Those writing and analyzing assessments are truly interested in student learning and growth. Psychometricians know that large-scale, standardized assessments are only one piece of the “puzzle” of a student’s learning profile. Yet they also know that providing good feedback through assessment data is important in helping students, parents, and teachers assemble that learning profile. Classroom teachers, administrators, and test developers are all on the same team, working together.
2. There are standards for classroom assessment, and they make a lot of sense.

9.17.17 blog post graphicTo be honest, I didn’t realize these standards existed. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit this. After all, we have standards for our content areas, standards for professional educators, standards for professional development. We really should have standards for classroom assessments–and we do. They were designed to be relevant and aligned to data collection, management, and use, and to provide feedback to students. The central question driving the development of these standards is critical: What makes good, effective classroom assessment? It’s a terrific question that deserves thoughtful discussion and reflection. (If you’re curious, the standards are available via Amazon.)

3. In all of our work, students are at the heart.

Whether we are focusing on crafting better formative assessments so that we can more directly, intentionally address specific needs, or we’re part of a team working on a major standardized test, we are ultimately doing this work because we care about students and their learning. This theme came through repeatedly, starting with the opening discussion between Dr. Neal Kingston and Margaret Heritage. In their discussion, looking at assessment from perspectives as psychometrician and classroom practitioner, they repeatedly stressed the reality that what we do is important for students. As we discussed the many challenges of assessment in education, it was clear that all of us are truly focused on the students. Ultimately, assessment is meant to help us uncover what students know and can do, so that we can continue to guide and support their learning and development.

Certainly, test developers and educators can learn a great deal from each other. As educators, we challenge our students to continue learning and growing. Now let’s challenge ourselves to deepen our knowledge of assessments, reflecting on how we can make use of the data more effectively and efficiently. Not only we will we benefit from this work, but the most important people in education will benefit: the students.

Five Misconceptions about State Assessments

by Dr. Bryan Drost & Tricia Ebner

As Ohio’s statewide testing window comes to a close, it’s a good time to think about the purposes and uses of Ohio’s assessments. While we realize that there is a ton of frustration regarding testing, we are also aware that there are a number of misconceptions regarding these assessments.  It is our hope that through this entry, you will lower frustration as you will be informed with accurate information regarding our accountability system and will continue to focus on the true purpose of the assessments: documenting students’ learning progress.

State assessments are diagnostic in nature. Honestly, the state assessments are summative. They are assessing students’ skills and understanding of the standards for the school year. This is one of the reasons they are administered in April and May; teachers need as much time as can be reasonably provided to work with their students on the work for the year.

That said, the assessments can certainly be used in a diagnostic way, by next year’s teachers. As a teacher, I use the assessment results in two ways. First, I reflect on my practice over the previous school year and look to see if there are gaps in students’ performance. If those gaps seem widespread, then I know I may need to look at how well I addressed those particular standards. This becomes a revision point for my instruction in the coming school year. Secondly, I look at my incoming students’ results to get a snapshot of their skills and understanding in April and May of the previous school year. I use this as one of many data points to help me determine my starting points with instruction in the coming year. Those are certainly diagnostic uses I have in the fall, looking at the previous spring’s assessments. However, the assessments are summative for the current school year.

 Kids do better on paper-pencil testing.  Over the last year, there has been quite the discussion regarding paper-pencil testing versus electronic testing, and any perceived differences with the format.  Misconception alert: these two studies on Ohio’s testing system (not New York’s, California’s, etc.) have shown that although there are some small differences at various grade levels, overall kids do just as well on paper as they do on the computer.  http://oh.portal.airast.org/ocba/wp-content/uploads/OST_Spring_2016_Mode_Comparability_Report.pdf; http://oh.portal.airast.org/ocba/wp-content/uploads/OST_Spring_2016_Mode_Comparability_Report.pdf

In some cases, the reverse has actually been researched to be true: “Mode constants identified in the lower grade math assessments indicated that math tests administered online were somewhat easier than when administered on paper.”

The data collected on students is being sold. The answer to this one is simple: no, it isn’t being sold. It’s against Ohio’s laws to sell information on students. In fact, the Ohio Department of Education doesn’t even see students’ names when testing information is collected. This is why students have to log into the assessment portals with their SSID, a numerical code. Administrators are not permitted to share student names with ODE; this is also a violation of state law. As an example, when I have had data appeals, I am specifically only allowed to share a student’s last name or their SSID, never both in communications.

The test changes significantly when the vendor changes. This misconception was at its height when Ohio moved from the PARCC assessment to the AIR and still seems to be circulating as value added data comes back into play next year with the expiration of Safe Harbor. To see the issue with this misconception, it’s important to understand how an assessment is constructed. A blueprint is developed based on standards and that is given to the assessment vendor. The blueprint specifically identifies the skills and understanding to be assessed in relationship to the standards. This means the vendor used to craft the assessment isn’t going to make a significant difference in the kinds of items, skills, or understanding assessed, unless the standards change. Think of it this way: cities have standards for the type of houses they are allowed to build; when a future homeowner purchases a blueprint from an architect, the blueprint is based on the standard. Change the contractor, and the house is still going to look extremely similar to any other home built using the same blueprint. In other words, if Ohio were to throw out AIR this year, we would still have a similar blueprint as the standards have not changed.

The writing of Ohio’s tests is secret, done by people in back rooms with trenchcoats and fedoras.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!  Each year, ODE in conjunction with AIR assembles a team of teachers, administrators, and other educators who write draft assessment questions.  These questions are then scrutinized many times.  After a decent chunk of questions is approved by the Content Advisory Committee, the questions are sent to the Sensitivity and Fairness group where discussion ensues related to bias, appropriateness for testing, as well as accessibility for all students.  Any questions that do not meet this group’s strict criteria are thrown out.  From here, questions have to be field tested; after data is collected on the questions, the testing groups meet again to ensure that the questions don’t have unintended bias.  Because of all of these steps, it can take upwards of two years for questions to appear on exams.  In other words, the questions that the team is writing this year, won’t appear for at least another two years. All of Ohio’s created questions must conform to high psychometric levels as well as meet Ohio’s guidelines for sensitivity and fairness.   

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the misconceptions, especially when we are anxiously awaiting this year’s results. It’s important to be mindful of these five critical facts about Ohio’s assessments. This can help us more clearly focus on the real goal of Ohio’s assessment system: documenting our students’ learning progress.

Discussion: A Powerful Tool in Learning and Life

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

There is a misconception that Ohio’s speaking and listening standards focus solely upon more formal speeches. However, the very first anchor standard in speaking and listening is: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. If we think about this from a practical perspective, this standard encompasses much of the speaking and listening student are likely to do not only in their academic lives, but throughout their careers as adults. Work across all kinds of fields in all kinds of contexts requires people to participate in discussions, whether it’s formal meetings or more informal, spur-of-the-moment problem-solving collaborations.

So considering all this, how do we as teachers help our students prepare for these kinds of activities? One of the most direct approaches we can take is a direct one: teach students the skills and strategies they need in group discussions. By taking a few minutes to break down the skills involved, model effective and ineffective behaviors, and then provide specific feedback to students, we can help them grow in their confidence and skills in this form of speaking and listening. Whatever subject area or grade level you teach, if you have your students participating in whole-class or small group discussions, you are helping students learn the skills and strategies they need for effective participation in discussions.

One approach to help students begin to see the behaviors necessary for effective group discussion are fishbowls. A fishbowl is a strategy that takes a single small group and places it in the middle of a larger circle. Those in the outer circle observe the discussion and behaviors of those in the inner circle. To make the expected behaviors really concrete, especially for younger learners, having a group model ineffective discussion behaviors can help them get a concrete picture of what not to do. Following that with a group modeling effective discussion behaviors is a great way of illustrating “Don’t do this; do that.”

Another strategy that helps students and teacher alike is the use of a checklist. A quick internet search will undoubtedly turn up several checklists. A checklist doesn’t have to be huge or elaborate. What are the two or three skills you’d like to see students focus upon in their group discussions? Put those onto a checklist, like this one I’ve used with my sixth graders. As students participate in their discussions, circulate and use the checklist to note what skills are being used effectively, and what might benefit from additional teaching and modeling.

Using checklists to monitor students’ progress in having effective discussions is useful in any content area. By making use of checklists, we can provide students with quick feedback and also make decisions about what to focus upon next. Whatever your content area or age group, consider using a checklist to monitor students’ skills the next time you have students working in a small-group or whole-class discussion.


Do you have a favorite discussion checklist to share? Contact us using the link below.


What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

 

It’s Not Over When the Testing is Done

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

Within the next few weeks, Ohio’s state assessments will be finished, and we will be in the last weeks of the school year. If you’re like many Ohio teachers, you’re considering the options for meaningful, engaging lessons and activities in these last weeks. After all, it really isn’t over once the state assessments are submitted. What can we do with our students that continues to build their skills and knowledge while keeping them focused and enthused as the weather warms and summer break beckons?pablo4.9.17

When I consider this situation, I like to ask myself a couple of questions:

  1. Which of the standards could I address in more depth? In answering this, I consider where my focus has been. During January, February, and March,I tend to put more emphasis on those standards I know will be included on Ohio’s state assessments. In English language arts, our writing tasks are focused on informational/expository writing and argument, since narrative writing isn’t included on the state assessment.
  2. What kinds of tasks and activities do my students really enjoy, not necessarily because they’re easy but because they’re appropriately engaging and challenging?

One of the most engaging activities I’ve done with my students is conducting mock trials. Working through the process of reading and analyzing witness statements, crafting questions, prepping witnesses, and writing opening statements and closing arguments is exciting, real–world kinds of tasks. The English language arts standards are embedded within these activities, too. For more information about mock trials, check out this blog post.

This kind of reflection and planning isn’t limited to English language arts. Consider these possibilities for mathematics, science, and social studies.

Math: Take the major work of the grade and craft a real-world kind of task involving the use of those skills and concepts. For several years, even before Ohio adopted our current learning standards, I had a colleague who loved presenting students with tasks that incorporated math into real-world situations. For example, she asked students to consider the costs of redecorating their bedrooms. Students were responsible for calculating area, the square feet needed of carpet or other flooring, the amount of paint it would take to change the color of the walls. They calculated the cost of baseboard and trim around windows. They also had to work within a budget. For several days, students almost seemed to ignore the adults in the room because they were so engrossed in planning out their ideal bedrooms.

Science: What kind of cooperative, hands-on project or experiment might engage students toward the end of the year? Projects like building and testing rockets made from two-liter pop bottles can be engaging and also practice team collaboration skills. In life sciences, students have imagined themselves discovering islands with a complete, self-contained ecosystem, filled with unusual, never-before-discovered plants and animals. Students practiced skills in the classification system, developing food webs and making plans for preservation of this fictional island. It is a terrific way to review some of the major concepts within life sciences.

Social Studies: What aspects of the year’s curriculum do you wish you could have spent more time investigating? What questions did the students have? My colleagues in social studies are getting ready to have their students investigate medieval history through some hands-on activities and creations, including manors. Or perhaps a simulation activity, like the mock trials described in language arts, could work.

Whatever your subject area, it’s worth considering how taking a more hands-on, project-oriented approach can be motivating and engaging for students as we hit these warm spring days. These kinds of activities synthesize the skills and concepts we’ve studied all year. It brings the learning together in a tangible way for students, and that’s a great note to close the year. After all, it’s over when the testing is done.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

 

Seeing is Understanding

by Tricia Ebner

When I have a chance to watch a little bit of TV, I often turn to HGTV. There is something about watching Drew and Jonathan Scott or Chip and Joanna Gaines describing the transformation of older, run-down homes into their clients’ “dream homes” that captivates me. Maybe it’s because I know without those computer animations, I simply couldn’t envision the promise those experts often see in older properties. It reminds me of the old adage claims that “Seeing is believing,” but sometimes I think it might be more accurately worded as “Seeing leads to understanding.”blog post graphic 3.20.17

This also applies to the changes we’ve seen in standards and assessments in Ohio in the past five years. When Ohio first began transitioning standards and assessments, one of the most frequently asked questions I heard was, “But what do these things look like?”  As we’ve become more practiced and experienced with our standards and assessments, our questions are becoming more refined. Now the questions are more likely to be focused on specific standards and how assessment questions get at the heart of those standards.

We can now easily see how standards look in assessment items by examining assessment items from a number of resources. In a recent meeting, we wanted to see how reading literature standard 7.3 in different items. (RL 7.3: Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact.) By using www.achievethecore.org’s search bar and typing in RL 7.3, we quickly found several assessments that included the standard. Looking at these items specifically tied to this standard helped us better understand the standard “in action” in assessments. Now we can use this understanding as we continue to develop our own assessment questions. Analyzing these items helped us identify the structure and vocabulary used in these kinds of questions.

Moving forward, we will continue to use the practice and released test items available on the testing pages of the Ohio Department of Education web site, along with the lessons and mini-assessments available on www.achievethecore.org. Having examples readily available means that the “renovations” I may need to make to my own lessons and assessments doesn’t have to be a guessing game, where I cross my fingers and hope for the best. Instead, just as the renovation experts on HGTV have computer simulations to help homeowners envisions changes to their structures, we have computer tools that can help us see how standards translated into assessment items can look. Indeed, seeing can lead to understanding.  

 

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

Three Simple Literacy Strategies for Test Preparation (and more)

by Tricia Ebner

As spring testing season approaches, teachers are reflecting on students’ progress and planning to address those skills and concepts that might need reinforcement. There are three simple ways every teacher can support the skills students need to use on their spring assessments, regardless of the content area.

  1. Review the importance of reading questions carefully. Sometimes skipping one little word makes all the difference between choosing the correct response and choosing a distractor. This is something we can practice with students throughout the year, on formative and summative assessments in our classes. Use think-alouds occasionally to show students how we can read and analyze what a question is saying, and how doing this helps us answer the question. Have students discuss questions in small groups, coming to consensus about what they have to do in order to answer the question. Taking a few minutes to utilize these strategies from time to time can reinforce these skills and encourage the habit of reading questions carefully.
  2. Require the use of evidence in responses. This is another universal skill and concept. The use of evidence is important in any subject area. When we require evidence to be used in supporting responses to questions, we’re encouraging and reinforcing the need for critical thinking and reasoning. (One tip here: number the paragraphs on any multiple-paragraph text you plan to have students read. This makes it easier for them to refer to specific evidence, whether it’s in a discussion or written response.) Asking for evidence doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding the question, “What does the text say that supports your response?” Some teachers require students to put the page number or paragraph number in parentheses behind their answers to questions as a means of encouraging students to verify their answers within the text.
  3. Use the Academic Word Finder to identify those vocabulary words students need to become comfortable with. This tool quickly finds those terms for you when you copy and paste text into it. By entering text, selecting the grade level at which the text will be read, and letting technology work its magic, you will soon have a list of vocabulary terms appropriate for readers at a variety of reading levels, also making it useful for differentiation. (To learn more about how the Academic Word Finder can be invaluable for differentiation check out this blog post.)

pablo-46

Incorporating these three simple steps can make a difference in our students’ learning, growth, and even confidence on assessments. Embedding practice in reading questions carefully, requiring evidence, and developing academic vocabulary throughout the year are universal skills for any grade level and subject area. Test preparation doesn’t have to be packets of questions or a couple of weeks of drills. When we incorporate strategies such as these, we’re preparing our students for learning, growth, and even the spring assessments.

 

Test Prep: Literacy Assessments

by Tricia Ebner

As we turn our calendars from January to February, one of our school-year realities begins to come into focus: the state assessments are on the horizon. This raises the annual question and dilemma for many of us: what is the best way to prepare our students for these assessments?

The answer is simple and complex, all at once. The best possible test-preparation we can give our students for the Ohio literacy assessments is solid, well-crafted, standards-aligned instruction and activities throughout the school year. After all, our assessments are based on nothing more and nothing less than Ohio’s standards. Having a laser focus, daily, on students’ needs and the standards and expectations of our content and grade level is optimum.

While this this is true, many of us still want to do something to reinforce test-taking skills and strategies. After all, we want to be sure our students can approach the assessment with confidence, not feeling nervousness over the testing platform or format. There are three simple strategies we can use to help our students become familiar with test and question format as well as the technology platform.

  • Give students frequent practice with questions designed in the same format as the state assessment. By taking a little bit of time to study how questions are structured, especially the multi-part questions and the technology-enhanced questions, we can craft the same format of questions for texts and skills we are currently addressing in our classrooms. Is there a critical vocabulary term in a piece your students will be reading soon? Why not craft a two-part question as a means of working with that word and also showing students how that kind of question might look on the spring assessment? If you have technology readily available, consider crafting these kinds of questions on a web site such as Edulastic, which gives students the technology practice as well as the question format practice. Another good strategy is having students work on their writing tasks on the computer, using whatever word-processing program is readily available.
  • Use released passages and items on occasion as a practice tool. I’m going to reveal my bias here: I am not a huge fan of test-prep packets. I resist spending a week on packets, with lessons focused day-in and day-out on passages and questions. Instead, I select a passage and question set that we then use for bell work over several days. My students have been much more willing to meaningfully engage in an analysis of a question or two at the beginning of class, and then move into our more routine work. I’ve also found that these “bite-sized” efforts tend to be better for my students who struggle with test anxiety. Usually we’ll work through two or three passages and related questions over the course of a few weeks. I always make sure we address a literature passage and a nonfiction passage that addresses the history/social studies or science/technology standards.
  • Use the practice test or half-length test. Putting the kids on the platform and having them work through released or practice items is also helpful. Personally, I don’t have my students keep a paper-and-pencil record of their responses; instead, I have them jot down the item numbers of questions that give them more difficulty, and then we “debrief” on the experience after everyone is finished. Again, I try to keep this activity low-risk and low-stress.pablo-41

 

Our statewide spring assessments are important in a number of ways, from students showing what they know and can do to building and district report cards and even our own teacher evaluations. When I keep specific test-preparation activities balanced with our routine class work, and I keep the activities low-risk and low-stress, we all approach the spring assessments with confidence. As a result, my students are more likely to give their best efforts and performance, and I will see more accurate data about what they know and can do, and what areas of instruction might need improvement for the next year. Keeping a balanced perspective on assessment keeps the focus on learning and growth, and that’s a win-win for everyone.

In case you missed it: the Ohio Department of Education announced on Friday, February 3, that it has released half-length practice tests on the Test Portal. You’ll find released items from the Spring 2016 assessment there as well.


How have you faced a lesson-planning challenge? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

Five Favorite Apps for ELA–and More

by Tricia Ebner

This year it happened: one-to-one computer access became part of my school district in grades 8-12, and computers became more easily accessible for other grades as well. In all three of my assigned grade levels (6-8), my students now have daily access to computers. When this was announced to us last spring, I was thrilled. This easy accessibility was going to make technology integration so much easier for me. Then reality struck: I needed to find technology-based tools that could help me more easily do what I wanted within my classroom.


pablo-31I’ve been keeping my eyes open to other teachers’ favorite apps and web sites, often checking out recommendations on Twitter. When I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve attended professional development sessions devoted to sharing apps useful for classrooms. My focus throughout this process has been on finding tools that will be useful for my students and me as we continue to learn and grow. My foundational principle has been that the app or web site must help us toward our goals; the technology is not a goal by itself. Then I consider three additional factors: privacy protection for my students, cost, and ease of use. When an app meets these criteria, I will try it within my classroom to see how successful it is with my students.

So far, I’ve discovered a number of apps that help my students and me with our work. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Padlet:  This free app allows me to set up virtual “bulletin boards” where students can respond to questions or post ideas for consideration. It’s a great springboard for class discussion. Sometimes I’ll use it to start class by posting a question or thought-provoking quote, and then individual students post their responses. At other times, I’ve used it after students have discussed a question in pairs or small groups. The groups craft a responses to the question, and then we can look at the various ideas when I project the page on our interactive white board. By keeping my Padlets secret, so that only those who have the link can participate, I am able to maintain student privacy.
  • Backchannel Chat: This has revolutionized certain activities in my classroom. I learned about this tool at the NCTE Convention in November, and since then I have used it with both sixth and eighth grades. In fishbowl discussions, this app allows those students in the outer circle to participate in a silent, virtual discussion, while those sitting in the inside circle conduct their verbal discussion. I’ve also used it while showing a video. When my eighth graders watched a filmed version of A Christmas Carol, I was able to pose questions encouraging them to consider why the director selected particular camera angles, lighting, or how an actor’s delivery of certain lines impacted the meaning of the words. We had these discussions in our Backchannel room, without interrupting the flow of the movie. One of my favorite features of this tool is that students who are normally reserved and quiet in whole-class discussions will often share terrific insights in the Backchannel. There is a free version, and the paid version ($15/year) provides some excellent additional tools to help manage the chat, including the ability to “mute” individual students and download a transcript of the chat.
  • Edulastic: This free tool provides a huge range of questions and question formats, making it a great way to design and use computer-based assessments. There are question banks aligned to standards, so that teachers can select items aligned to standards students have been addressing in their work. Teachers can also write their own items and note which standards are being addressed. There are four levels of privacy for questions, too, including private only to me (teacher), school, district, and public. This tool is being used more and more often for common assessments in my school. The question types available include tech-enhanced options, such as drag-and-drop and multiple-part questions. This is a great way to give students more regular experience with these kinds of assessment items, reducing the need for focused, dedicated test prep work around technology tools, because students are seeing these kinds of questions on assessments throughout the year.
  • PearDeck: This tool allows teachers to create interactive slide decks. It has revolutionized how I use slide shows, such as PowerPoint or Google slides. I can share information, ask questions, and even embed videos. Now I can present a skill or idea, and then I can have students practice it, so that I can conduct in-the-moment, real-time formative assessment that helps me decide upon next steps. There is a free level, which allows limited use, and a paid subscription level. (There is another tool available, called Nearpod, which has similar features and also includes a library of lessons for use, with free and paid membership levels.)
  • EDpuzzle: This free tool provides the ability to embed questions within videos. It makes watching videos more interactive and helps me see what students understand–and don’t understand–about video segments we watch. There are lessons available for use, and I can also make my own. It’s a great option for flipped instruction and self-paced activities because students can watch independently, and I can still track how well they understand what they understand the video and its information.

 

It’s worth noting that a none of these tools are focused exclusively on English language arts. These could be very useful in just about any class and subject. Using these tools has streamlined work in my classroom, making certain activities more efficient and giving me feedback faster. For example, I used to have students complete a paper chart comparing the Christmas Carol movie to the novel. Then I would take time to read through each chart and note individual student understanding. This year, with Backchannel Chat, I could ask questions and track student understanding in the moment. Tools like Peardeck and EDPuzzle make multimedia presentations much more interactive and engaging. Having regular one-to-one access isn’t a requirement for using these; there are creative ways of using these tools in a variety of settings. If you’re looking for technology tools to make work more efficient in your classroom, consider trying one of these.

Do you have favorite apps you use within your classroom? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

The Challenge of What Next

by Tricia Ebner

Even though it’s not the true middle of a the school year when the semester ends in mid-January, I’ve always viewed winter break as the midpoint in the year. I’ve found that this is a great time to pause and reflect on what my students have learned so far, and what we need to address in the coming months. It is sometimes easy to lose sight of the big picture of what students need to learn and be able to do by the end of the school year when we’re working on the more detailed parts of skills like research, reading informational text, and writing arguments. It’s not a good feeling to return to school in January wondering, “Are we working on the right things?”pablo-29

Taking some time in December and early January to reflect on what we’ve done so far and what we still need to address is critical. I have several resources to help me reflect on what my students have learned, where our demonstrated needs are, and what I need to be sure I address in the coming months.

  • Lesson plans: I use a lesson planning web site for writing up my weekly plans. This site enables me to access my plans anywhere, and it also allows me to conduct an “audit” of the standards I’ve focused upon. This helps me ensure I’m not overlooking standards.
  • Student performance on assignments and activities: Looking through student work samples and my anecdotal notes also gives me information about what’s going well and what needs attention. I often ask students for their thoughts, too, and they are usually honest about what they know and what they don’t know. Occasionally they will surprise me and say they don’t really know a concept or particular skill, when their work suggests they do. That tells me they aren’t yet confident, so I need to give them more opportunities to work with that and increase their confidence.
  • Progress monitoring information: I also use information from the benchmarking & progress monitoring assessments we use in my district. I appreciate having this “outside” perspective to provide another look at how my students are performing on particular skills.

 

This year I am seeing some results that have prompted me to consider changing my approach in the coming months. For example, the eighth graders I teach are generally performing well. There are no major gaps in our work so far. However, I am not seeing the kind of growth I want for them. This has prompted me to look carefully at the kinds of activities I’ve used in past years, and I’ve already eliminated one option, a literature-heavy unit, in favor of one that has a better balance of literature and informational text. I am now considering a couple of options I’ve never used before.

On the other hand, the growth I’ve seen in my seventh graders’ reading and vocabulary skills in the past quarter has been impressive. They have been focused on a unit that utilizes text sets and integrates academic vocabulary, reading, speaking, listening, and writing skills in a beautifully seamless way. Seeing how powerful this has been for the seventh graders has prompted me to consider how I might revamp activities in all of my classes to incorporate more text sets..

Over the winter break, I’ll spend time reading and making decisions about next steps for my students. I’ll get some plans sketched out, and in January, as my classes wrap up the second quarter and get ready to launch the third, I’ll continue reflecting on what student work is showing me about what we still need to learn. Taking time now to consider where we are and what we still need to do helps me ensure we’re addressing the standards and students’ needs, supporting their ongoing growth this year. A little time in reflection now can pay off in the months ahead.

For more information on using text sets, check out Char Shryock’s blog post found here.

Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.