I hope I am not being too radical and out-of-the box saying this, but I think assessment just gets in the way of teaching sometimes. It just seems like we pull out that seed so much now, wondering why it hasn't grown, don't we? And with all the assessment options in the world, what is an "85%" reader anyway? Actually, the whole grading system boggles me. Who made up the scale we use in the first place? (e.g., 8-point range for a "B" and 5-point range for a "D", 69-point range for an "F"). So many thoughts come to mind...
- How do you assess that written piece that deals with grandma's death when it is plagued with conventional errors? And that child that is reading on a first grade level in the fourth grade...but is making steady gains.
- How do we assess such an internal process as reading anyhow?
All these questions on a Saturday morning deserve some answers. I'd like to share what seems to work in my classroom.
For New Readers
I use a spawn of the workshop model and the Daily Five in my room. It allows me to teach more each day, while developmentally doing it in small spurts. This is supported by brain research, which tells us that we have a 15-minute block to teach something before we start to lose our kids.
To Assess or Not Assess? That is Not My Question
One of the benefits of having multiple reading and writing mini-lessons is an abundance of formal and informal assessment opportunities. With four mini-lessons a day, that equals twenty opportunities to assess your students. I usually record two grades per subject each week. Even on a busy event week, I don't find it challenging to determine which skills or strategies I will assess for the grade-book. So, when I get asked about grades I seem pretty laid-back with my response because it's not something I worry about too much.
I will say, however, that I do take time on Sunday evening to carefully consider what might be assessed and graded each week for all subject areas. For example, if I am introducing a skill or strategy on Monday, assessing the skill or strategy shouldn't occur until later in the week. I also try to balance the type of assessment that may go home for a grade. For example, if I am looking at the whole week in reading, I might consider one assignment that uses a rubric to assess a reading reflection with another assessment that is more traditional in nature. Taking different learning styles into account, I think this is a good thing. It also prevents me from losing my mind. Grading one type of assessment gets B-O-R-I-N-G...I suspect it is the same for my kids.
Conference Assessment: It's For Me...Not You So Much (Sorry Parents)
I'm a pretty large supporter of conferencing and balancing in one-on-one time with each student, but I have come to the conclusion that it is for me more than anyone else. It's where the meat of my assessment comes from, but you won't see that reflected as a grade in that green book. And you won't see my attempt to turn my notes into a formal grade or report anymore. I'll explain why.
Several years in my profession I took the time to write down my anecdotal notes from individual conferences for parents each week. I desperately wanted to share all the things I was noticing about each child with their family and started my profession with a conference summary on each newsletter every week. While good intentions were in place, I found it hard to communicate this quickly and effectively. This is when I realized that parents do not always understand reading jargon. So when you write specific comments such as "Reading with more intonation" in your conference log, you find yourself summarizing more and more until statements are broad and generic for parents (ex- reading like he is talking/fluently). I was just wearing myself out with all these generic summaries and knew there was a better way to make use of my time. On to plan "B".
This lead to a couple of failed ideas... first, there was the triplicate notebook idea. I could just write, rip, and send away my assessment notes during conferences. Right? But that idea got in the way for organization and just seemed silly and expensive. This lead to the computer notebook idea... I could just write, save, and send/print my notes. But then running records got in the way and again, it seemed absurd to bring a computer into a conference meeting. Then there was the idea of photocopying my reading and writing conference notes for parents. But then that idea got in the way of my "real" notes, as I cautiously wrote notes out for parents to understand, giving me less time to work with their child. And has anyone seen my cursive anyway? It might be mistaken for an ancient lost language of the past. It's not pretty. Which lead me to plan "E" where a rubric was used. Circling progress seemed great, but again, it was lengthy and impersonal. I found myself doubting whether student X was incorporating reading strategies "all the time" versus "most of the time". I was just burning my rubber. I finally stopped the insanity and realized - this is for me! Me. I'll write my notes as sloppy as I like them and report progress when it feels right. Case solved.
I add this to your thoughts on assessment because I still consider this the number one source of assessment in my classroom. It is during this one-on-one time that I really understand what students are working on and how they have grown as a reader and a writer. I just can't emphasize how important this time and form of assessment is for me. It helps me assess whole group needs. It helps me assess individual needs. It even helps me assess and follow-up with previous requests (ex- Is the student incorporating paragraphs in their writing based on last week's conversation). It just doesn't fit in a grade book to me anymore, and it doesn't have to make it home. Overall, it doesn't matter to anyone but me.
The "Overrated" Time/Practice Factor
Another thought to consider when we talk about assessment of reading and writing in a workshop model is time. The analogy of comparing reading and writing to learning to play a sport is over-used, but it does make sense. To become better at baseball, we expect to practice, many times "messing up", but to practice and practice until it feels natural to us. And, we expect someone to be coaching us and encouraging us along the way. It's not surprising to hear how much time is devoted to practice in the athletic world. It is surprising to see how little time is devoted for readers to practice reading and writers to practice writing in our rooms. Do we allow time to "mess up" before we assess?
I fear that we don't follow this process for our readers and writers enough or all the time. We teach the skill, assess it immediately, and move on. This would be equivalent to saying, "Okay, you hold the bat like this. Watch me kiddos. Okay, got it? (No pause). Good. Now you hold it, all right. You are holding it slightly wrong. I am giving you 83%. Better luck next time. Next up is hitting the ball." With a little bit of time and follow-up support, one more session even, the results could be different. And if the child is holding the bat incorrectly and you are ready to move on to hitting the ball...well, you understand where I am going with this. And using this analogy, I think sometimes the workshop model gets a bad-wrap. The misconception is that the child is just free to experiment and try out baseball all day. I think it is closer to having a personal coach watch along the side. And coaches coach by providing motivation and feedback. They might even call you out on something they know you should be able to do. Hence, the time spent for individual conferences and whole group instruction.
With all this in mind, I try my very best to give the time needed to allow my students to incorporate, try out, receive feedback, then assess. The example I give parents is, I can teach quotation marks and hand off a worksheet immediately. Students know exactly what to look for, and I can quickly grade it and record it. It doesn't really tell me anything. However, I can then open up their writer's notebook and really tell you if they know how to use quotation marks correctly. I'd rather use student writing to give feedback, give time for improvements, and use an authentic piece of writing to assess it later.
Assessment Strategies That Work
- I avoid forced incorporation of taught skills in writing. A good (actually bad) example would be having my students incorporate 20 descriptive adjectives in their writing. Like Jane Yolen sits there and counts out her adjectives when she writes. Preposterous! Forced adjectives in writing sounds like just that - forced.
- I try to teach grammar in context. I often do this by photocopying an article or passage from a book. We go through it and ask ourselves, "What is the author doing? Why are they doing it? Can we try it in our writing?" I distinctly remember learning conventions by noticing how author's used it in a book as a child. Might as well learn from the experts.
- I only assess what has been taught when looking at a written piece. It might sound like this, "Go back through your writer's notebook. Focus on editing skill V and skill N. We have worked on those skills carefully for the past three weeks. Make corrections and place a post-it note in your book. Have it ready for me to look at during our conference time this week." Then I assess only skill V and N. With a rubric, this is quickly completed.
- I have used a craft search before as a grade. For example, take a book you are reading. Record four examples that demonstrate strategy/skill X. Give me the book title and page number. Tell me why you think the author incorporates this strategy/skill in writing before turning your work in.
- We make rubrics together. It is simple but relevant. I try to balance out form, convention, and content for assessment. Using a scale of 1-5, students grade their own writing with the class-created scale before I do the same. Conventions never account for more than 4-5 skills. I focus on what has been taught recently. The other skills, I leave to my conferences to support. It also gives credit to the student who writes a strong story of a dying grandmother through form and content, but allows us to show that conventions gets in the way of the message/memory.
- For conferences, I informally use the two stars, one wish method to record two standards the student is doing well, and one standard to improve on. I use it as a guide to make consistent growth throughout the year.
- For reading comprehension and skills, I incorporate the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model. First, watch me. Now, let's try it together. Now, I'll watch you do it. If it is a discussion on inferring while we read, an assessment might include a written reflection on their thoughts about what is going to happen next with a read-aloud.
- At the beginning of the year, I do rely on a reading workshop rubric by Barbara Orehovec, Revisiting the Reading Workshop: Management, Mini-Lessons, & Strategies. It is published under Scholastic. It allows me to assess reading stamina/focus as well as selection of appropriate books. These habits are concerns at the beginning of the year, which can be successfully assessed and converted to a numerical grade using this book, helping secure a successful year of reading.
- I don't let assessment get in the way of reading. I make assessments quick and relevant. If an assignment is going to take 25 minutes to complete a worksheet, I have just robbed that student of time reading. I don't fill in the reading block with "stuff". The important thing is that my students have the time to read - every day.
- I like the resource book, Assessing Comprehension Thinking Strategies, by Ellin Keene because it provides leveled reading passages and comprehension assessment that doesn't smell, feel, or taste like a worksheet. Ellin Keene is the author of Mosaics of Thought. For anyone who struggles with the idea of assessing comprehension strategies, this is a great start.
Q & A With Angela
Q 1: I'm wondering what format you finally found best for storing YOUR notes from conferences? I've gone through a slew of stages myself and have finally settled on a simple binder with tabs for each student. It works, but always feels bulky and too formal for my conferences. Thanks! - 4th Grade Teacher.
A: Oh, I am with you. I have tried it ALL! This year alone I have tried many methods, switching from 6 weeks to 6 weeks. At the moment, my favorite is using the Reader's Notebook by Fountas and Pinnell (I have a photo on most blogs regarding conferences). You can purchase tabs from a stationary store that attach (for each student). I like this because it also has a built in tab for guided reading. It's all pretty tiny and comfortable.
When I have used a notebook, which was most of last year, I recommend those rubbery, soft covers that they have on the market. It's almost flimsy looking but you could take things in and out of the notebook and also add folders to place items in it (e.g., Guided reading list/F &P chart). I did transfer everything over to two notebooks for last year's group. I am not sure why I am holding on to them, but I am. Hope that helps... -Angela.
Q 2: Thanks for the response. I was actually referring to your own anecdotal notes that you take during conferences regarding the students "two stars, one wish" and whatever other notes you might take about the conference for yourself. — 4th Grade Teacher.
A: Hello again - I did write about my conference notebooks that I keep for my notes during reader's and writer's workshop conferences. A simple notebook or the current use of blank pages in a purchased Reader's Notebook (by Heinemann) is this year's plan. I happened to go into my closet yesterday, which is a scary thought, and found a hard- bound ledger looking book. My notebook was giant with pockets and tabs galore. It did, however, contain EVERYTHING - which is great for help. I've just tried so many things, that I am not sure I will ever find the "right" thing for me.-Angela