There are a lot of assessment decisions that we have no control over. There are assessments required by the state, there are assessments required by the district and there are assessments required by the school. It is so easy to get wrapped up in lamenting these assessments that we sometimes forget that we have control over the way that we assess our students in our own classrooms. We have control over the way that we take notes on our students, the way that we track our students day to day progress, the way that we look at what are students are able to do and the way that we look for areas where they need help. The formative assessments that we use every minute of the day are often left up to us.
And these formative assessments have so much power. Every time we assess a child, it speaks volumes to that child about what we value. It tells a child whether we value his ability to simply give us the answer that we want to hear or whether we care more about his ability to think deeply about a text he has just read. It tells a child whether his teacher thinks it is important that he can remember small facts from an article or use an article to better understand the world around him. Every time we ask a child a question or take notes on what a child can do, we are sending that child a message about what we value.
With that idea in mind, I have started to redo my reading conference note taking sheet. As I looked back at the note taking form that I used last year, I see that most of the writing that I was doing was about what book the child was reading, what was happening in that book and what goal I gave the child to work on as he or she was reading. It’s not that I think that this note taking sheet was harming the children in any way, it’s just that it doesn’t line up with what I value.
Yes, I think it is important that a child is able to synthesize the events of a book and retell them to me in a concise summary. But I don’t think that it is nearly as important as a child being able to tell me what the book he is reading makes him think about. I needed to create a form that left more space for me to notice the kind of thinking that a child is doing about his text, give that thinking a name, and point it out to the child so that he knows it is important and will be more likely to do it again in the future. I needed more space to write down if I notice that a child is rooting for one of the characters, or if a child is showing empathy for a character, or if a child is using a character’s actions to better understand the actions of a person in his own life, or if a child is noticing that an author is making a certain choice in her writing style. Therefore, on my new form, I am leaving a large amount of space to notice a child’s thinking, name a child’s thinking and then share those observations with the child so that he recognizes the importance of what he is doing.
In addition, I believe it is important for me to set specific goals for a child to work on as he reads a text. I believe these goals should come from what a child is already doing or starting to do and they should be goals that help a child to better understand what he is reading. However, I believe that it is more important for me to help children learn to set these reading goals for themselves. In fact, that is the premise for my action research this year. Therefore, on my new form, I am creating a space for reading goals and I am creating a space to mark whether these goals are teacher created or student created. By hope is that, over time, I will be able to see the students’ reading goals shift from being primarily teacher-created to primarily student-created. If there is a spot on the conference from to mark this distinction, students will see that ultimately, I want these goals to be something that they create based on their genuine curiosities and observations. After writing down the goal, my plan is to have the student repeat the goal to me in his own words and then write the goal down in his reading journal where he will then be working towards accomplishing this goal.
I believe that having goals is important for students, but I believe that it is even more important to have a plan for how students will keep track of the work they are doing in order to meet these goals. So I have created a spot to write down the student’s plan for keeping track of their work on their reading goal. For example, if a child decides that he wants to look for how the main character feels differently about his mother than he feels about his father, we might decide that the best way to do that is to create a chart where mother is written in one column and father is written in the other. And every time there is a moment in the text that shows how he feels about his mother or father, the child might write down that evidence in his chart. He might then leave space under the chart to write down what this evidence helps him to better understand about the relationship the main character has with his mother and the relationship the main character has with his father. Without having this specific plan, I have seen children create great goals that are never carried through because the child has no idea how to actually begin working towards this goal. If we can create a plan together during a conference, then the child will see that I value his ideas for how to work on a goal as much as I value him being able to set a goal in the first place. It excites me to think about the kinds of plans that the kids will start to come up with.
I believe that working toward a goal is important, but I believe that it is even more important for students to share their work with their classmates in order to show their deep understandings and in order to inspire other students to work towards similar goals in the future. I believe that when students share the work they are doing, their classmates are much more likely to try to replicate that level of work. So on the new form, I am creating a spot to write down when a student might be ready to share his or her work with the class. Again, leaving a spot for this, shows the student that I value the work he is planning to do and the work that he is doing so much that I want to make sure to schedule a time for him to share this work with the class. Again, I am excited about the possibilities that this creates for each child to become the teacher in our classroom.
So here is the form that I have so far:
It is far from perfect and I would love any ideas or suggestions that you might have.
We get so used to using the assessments that we have because they are there. It is easy to use the same forms year after year because they do a good enough job in gathering information. However, when we really stop to think about what we value and then make adjustments to our assessments so that they truly show our students what we value, then our assessments will begin to create better learning opportunities for our children. And, whether we remember it always or not, seeing where our students are and then pushing our students to new places is really the whole purpose of assessments in the first place.