Saturday, February 22, 2014

Thinking about Formative Assessment

Last Sunday NCTE held an amazing chat hosted by Franki Sibberson and Antero Garcia on formative assessment. I’m embarrassed to share that it has only been in the last four years that I have even thought about formative assessment. While my elementary education program was good, there are definite gaps in my learning. We talked a lot about assessing students, but it was never broken down into formative and summative assessments. It was only in getting my second masters to be an administrator that I heard the two terms. Wow. I remember sitting in the class thinking of how powerful it was. I clearly remember reflecting that so much focus is on the summative assessment when, in my mind, formative is the critical piece.

I am now constantly reflecting on assessment in my classroom. Sure we have the “big” assessments that loom over us – ISATs (our state test), benchmarks, etc. – but in my mind they don’t create the picture of who the children are that fill my room. It is the daily assessments that do. This week I reflected on all of the ways that I “assessed” my students and what those assessments told me. I thought I would share just a few here today.

Status of the Class
In reading class we begin each day the same. Kids enter, pull out their assignment book, and fill it out. One student walks the room and initials each book to ensure it is filled out while I call out their names. They tell me what book they are reading and what page they are on. (I began this after reading IN THE MIDDLE from Atwell.) This is just a quick check in to see where my students are in their books. What I love is the comments:

Owen checking in with Bomb by Sheinkin told me his page number and said, “You were right, I love this book.” Several kids immediately swiveled in their seats to check it out.

Leah shouted her page number for Paperboy and said, “When am I going to learn his name? This is making me crazy.” The kids who had read it began to whisper excitedly.

Madi looked up from When the Butterflies Came and said her page number before looking back at the book. Lexi and Sari looked at her and then me, “She’s at the part!!” Madi looked up and grinned.

The buzz of excitement, the titles being shared, the comments about books let me gauge the pulse of our reading community.

Read Aloud
My three reading classes meet for fifty-five minutes each. In my mind, that time is far too short. As a result, I don’t do novel length read alouds often. (Novel length read alouds are read by homeroom teachers instead.) For my current poetry unit, however, I do. Sharon Creech’s Hate That Cat gives me the opportunity to teach figurative language embedded in a text that they love. It works beautifully for this purpose and the kids love it. On Wednesday I was reading to them and we reached a poem that said,

This is just to say
That Skitter McKitter has run away.

In all three classes a gasp rose from the collective group, a clear sign of engagement. When I finished the poem, I closed the book. That was our stopping point in each class so we could finish on Thursday and take our unit test (summative assessment) on Friday. The outcry that rose upon the book being closed made me smile. Many comments were shared about how I left them at a cliffhanger. As we moved to independent reading and conferring, I heard whispered conversations – would Creech let Jack’s cat leave and not return? Someone said no, she wouldn’t be that mean. Another child said, “But remember Sky…” J These kids are invested in the book and it is amazing.

I teach six students each day in our reading intervention class. We do a variety of things – work with short texts, check out websites like Wonderopolis, read alouds, work with fluency and comprehension, etc. Friday was one of those days you dread as a teacher. I didn’t feel great before school, but thought I’d be fine. I arrived at school and knew that I had been wrong. My stomach was rolling, by lunch I had a slight fever. At that point I knew that I just needed to push through. By the time I could get a sub, it would be time to go home. With that thought, my RTI class came in.

I looked at them and confessed, I felt horrible. I didn’t think I could teach an entire lesson. I asked each to grab an iPad and said I thought we could work on reading comprehension. I wanted them to think of a topic they were interested in – any topic. For the next 15 minutes they were to research that topic and monitor their comprehension. When they learned something they thought they would want to share with us, they needed to jot it down so they could remember it later.

What followed was possibly the most amazing fifteen minutes of RTI this year. Each child was beyond engaged. They researched a variety of topics, from Kazu Kibuishi to whether cheerleading is considered a sport.

They were far from silent, shouting out cool facts as they went and having conversations as they read. The text they were reading was far above their reading level, yet they all were understanding what they read. I sat back, tears pricking at the corners of my eyes, and was amazed. When I called time they immediately began to buzz about the information they learned. Several shared that one article led them to another, and another. My favorite comment came from Simon (who previously did not enjoy reading),
While I had created the lesson on the spot as a time filler when I couldn’t “teach”, I gleaned more formative assessment data than I had ever dreamed. When engaged with a subject matter that was important to them, all six students were highly successful readers. When allowed to talk without reminders for quiet, without admonishments to get back to their reading, they deepened their comprehension. Amazing.

Formative assessment is part of our daily lives in our classrooms. If you would like to continue your thinking on it, please check out NCTE’s amazing position statement on it HERE

Also, be sure to check out Franki Sibberson's blog, A Year of Reading, for more posts about formative assessment next week. I think this is a conversation we need to continue.