Digging Deeper to Better Inform Your Literacy Instruction @StenhousePub #litessentials

As a reading interventionist, I am required to administer a universal screening tool to kindergarten through second grade students three times per school year.  Screening tools are considered an important part of Response to Intervention (RTI)/Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS).  The idea is that when we screen all students we are able to see the impact of our instruction and identify students who are not progressing at the same rate as their on-grade level peers.

Regie Routman, in her book Literacy Essentials:  Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners, writes that information from assessments should “improve the quality of teaching and learning” (p. 312).  Most universal screening tools are not able to give specific diagnostic information that can inform our instruction.  In order to effectively plan for intervention services, we need to use other tools to help us to dig deeper to find out more specific information about the strengths and needs of our struggling readers.

The following are some of the skills frequently tested on screening tools and what I do to gather more information.

Letter Sounds

Rather than relying solely on an assessment that times students as they attempt to quickly make letter sounds, I like to administer a dictated sentence.  A dictated sentence allows me to see how the child works with sounds within a more authentic task.  A dictated sentence also allows me to see what the child understands regarding concepts about print such as writing left to right, top to bottom, putting spaces between words, etc.

Nonsense Words

I am not going to go into the many reasons why assessing students using nonsense words is utter nonsense in this post.  I will say that I want all of the interactions children have with text to be meaningful.  To take a closer look at how students are able to use their letter-sound knowledge and problem solve unknown words, I find that taking a running record while the student reads an authentic text to be very useful.

Timed Reading Passages

Timed reading passages are supposed to be a measure of fluency but let me be clear- they are not.  They measure the speed of the reading and neglect all other areas of fluency.  Some major flaws with timed reading passages are:

  • they do not value meaningful comments made by the child or productive problem-solving, multiple attempts (perseverance)
  • they send the message that reading is about speed not meaning
  • they under-value other important dimensions of fluency such as intonation, reading the punctuation marks, and reading in meaningful phrases
  • they can falsely inflate the number of students in need of support

While listening to a student read I observe and jot down anecdotal notes about how their reading sounds valuing all of the dimensions of fluency.

In regards to standardized testing Regie feels that there are two larger issues at hand:

  • Lack of trust of teachers leading to a need for “accountability”
  • Standardized tests lead to big bucks for companies

I worry that our assessing and focus on isolated skills sends students mixed messages.

“Not to be minimized, an overemphasis on isolated skills, teaching-to-the-test often crowds out teaching for understanding.” 

~ Regie Routman, p. 312

Standardized tests can lead to many problems:

  • Teaching to the test despite knowledge of best practices
  • Unfair distribution of services – services directed to those students who are closest to passing the test, rather than those who need it most
  • “Quick fix” programs that focus on skills, not meaning, to be followed with fidelity

I think that we need to ask ourselves what our priorities are for our students.

Do we want students who might be able to speed read, decode like a pro, but have no true value for reading?

or

Do we want students who love reading and always engage with text in a meaningful way?

Frequent on-going formative assessments that are based on students’ needs and interests can inform daily instruction and improve student learning.  To be effective teachers we need to be observing, questioning, and responding to students’ needs as we teach.

Please re-think practices like teaching to the test!!  I am just astounded by the amount of test prep materials available on websites like Teachers Pay Teachers.  There are actually worksheets available for early readers to practice reading nonsense words and even practice speed reading passages galore.  Our students need us to teach with a sense of urgency and not waste precious time with these purposeless tasks.  I promise you that an increased amount of authentic purposeful reading and writing (along with intentional & thoughtful teaching) will help your students to enjoy reading and writing and be career and college ready.

While universal screening tools are considered an important component of RTI/MTSS,  most commercial screening tools will not go deep enough to inform your instruction.  Our students are counting on us to dig deeper past the numbers and fancy graphs.  Take a moment to consider how you might take a closer look at your students’ reading and writing by providing them with more authentic tasks.  Daily formative assessments will allow us to teach responsively while addressing each of our student’s needs.  When thinking about assessments keep Regie’s words in mind,

“Our assessment mindset needs to be this:  instruction and assessment must go hand in hand, and they must improve the quality of teaching and learning.  Question any assessment that does not ultimately benefit the learner” (p. 312).

 

Action Research and the Art of Knowing Our Students #NCTE15

What happens when student data doesn’t agree with what you think you know, especially about a student’s reading skills and dispositions?

It’s a situation that happens often in schools. We get quantitative results back from a reading screener that doesn’t seem to jive with what we see every day in classrooms. For example, a student shows high ability in reading, yet continues to stick with those easy readers and resists challenging himself or herself with more complex literature. Or the flip: A student has trouble passing that next benchmark, but is able to comprehend a book above his or her reading level range.

Here’s the thing: The test tests what it tests. The assessment is not to blame. In fact, blame should be out of the equation when having professional conversations about how to best respond to students who are not experiencing a level of success as expected. The solution is not in the assessment itself, but in differentiating the types of assessments we are using, questioning the types of data we are collecting, and organizing and analyzing the various data points to make sense of what’s actually happening with our students’ learning lives.

Differentiating the Assessments

It’s interesting how reading, a discipline far removed from the world of mathematics, is constantly quantified when attempting to assess readers’ abilities. Words correct per minute, how many comprehension questions answered correctly, and number of pages read are most often referenced when analyzing and discussing student progress. This data is not bad to have, but if it is all we have, then we paint an incomplete picture of our students as readers.

Think about yourself as a reader. What motivates you to read? I doubt you give yourself a quiz or count the number of words you read correctly on a page after completing a book. Lifelong readers are active assessors of their own reading. They use data, but not the type of data that we normally associate with the term. For example, readers will often rate books once they have finished them on Amazon and Goodreads. They also add a short review about the book on these online forums. The audience that technology provides for readers’ responses is a strong motivator. No one requires these independent readers to rate and review these books, but they do it anyway.

There is little reason why these authentic assessments cannot occur in today’s classrooms. One tool for students to rate and review books is Biblionasium (www.biblionasium.com). It’s like Goodreads for kids. Students can keep track of what they’ve read, what they want to read, and find books recommended by other young readers. It’s a safe and fun reading community for kids.

Yes, this is data. That data isn’t always a number still seems like a shocker for too many educators. To help, teacher practitioners should ask smart questions about the information coming at them to make better sense of where their students are at in their learning journeys.

Questioning the Data

Data such as reading lists and reading community interactions can be very informative, so long as we are reading the information in the right way.

Asking questions related to our practice can help guide our inquiries. For example, are students self-selecting books on their own more readily over time? Also, are they relying more on peers and less on the teacher in their book selection? In addition, are the books being read increasing in complexity throughout the year? All of these qualitative measures of reading disposition can directly relate to quantitative reading achievement scores, informing the teacher with a more comprehensive look at their literacy lives.

Organizing and Analyzing the Data

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Students filling out reading motivation surveys via Google Forms and Chromebooks

I recently had our K-5 teachers administer reading motivation surveys with all of our students. The results have been illuminating for me, as I have entered them into spreadsheets.

Our plan is to position this qualitative data side-by-side with our fall screener data. The goal is to find patterns and trends as we compare and contrast these different data points, often called “triangulation” (Landrigan and Mulligan, 2013). Actually, the goal is not triangulation, but responding to the data and making instructional adjustments during the school year. This makes these assessments truly formative and for learning.

Is the time and energy worth it?

I hope so – I spent the better part of an afternoon at school today entering students’ responses to questions such as “What kind of reader are you?”, “How do you feel about reading with others?”, and “Do you like to read when you have free time?” (Marinek et al, 2015). The information collecting and organizing has been informative in itself. While it takes time, by transcribing students’ responses, I am learning so much about their reading lives. I hope that through this process of differentiating, questioning, and organizing and analyzing student reading data, both quantitative and qualitative, we will know our students better and become better teachers for our efforts.

References

Landrigan, C. & Mullligan, T. (2013). Assessment in Perspective: Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse.

Marinak, B. A., Malloy, J. B., Gambrell L. B., & Mazzoni, S. A. (July/August, 2015). Me and My Reading Profile: A Tool for Assessing Early Reading Motivation. The Reading Teacher, (69)1, 51-62.


Attending the NCTE Annual Convention in Minneapolis this year? Join Karen Terlecky, Clare Landrigan, Tammy Mulligan and me as we share our experiences and specific strategies in conducting action research in today’s classrooms. See the following flyer for more information.

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(Re)Defining Student Engagement

“The best evidence for student engagement is what students are saying and doing as a consequence of what the teacher does, or has done, or has planned.” – Charlotte Danielson

This past week I conducted instructional walks in ten different classrooms. Using only paper and pen, I wrote observations describing ten distinct teaching styles. These initial visits have confirmed what I have known for several years of experience as a school principal and teacher evaluator: Engagement in learning happens most frequently and deeply when students are actively involved in instruction.

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photo credit: IMG_6414 via photopin (license)

Engagement (student involvement in instruction) can be described in a variety of ways. I think too often engagement is exclusively predefined by educators as “hands on”, “students doing more talking than the teacher”, or “active”. These descriptors may all be key indicators of engagement. But the definition should not stop there.

For example, I was the fortunate observer of a math lesson that would seem to run counter to this pattern, at least at first glance. The learning target: Demonstrate multiple ways to solve multiple digit addition problems. The teacher, who already modeled a few problems by working through them in front of students on the document camera, asked if there were three students willing to show their peers one of three ways to solve a given problem. Several hands shot up. Once selected, the three volunteers headed to the board.

The rest of the class was directed to also try one of the three methods at their desks. As some students completed the problem before others, the teacher, who was roaming around the room doing spot checks and providing quick feedback, announced, “If you solved it one way, why not try it another way?” Every student who was ready took her up on the challenge. This option gave other students more time to work.

Once the students at the front of the room were done with their work, they went back to their desks. Their faces beamed with pride. The teacher went over the process with the whole group: “Yes, you regrouped here…the place value alignments are accurate…” The teacher also asked the rest of the class to show their work on their dry erase boards with their partner sitting next to them. “Did your method work just as well as your partner’s? Talk about that.” They did.

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photo credit: UF Keene-Flint Classroom Desks Windows via photopin (license)

We in education talk so much about engagement in concert with terms like “collaboration”, “technology”, and “passion”. Is this where the best learning takes place? Sometimes, maybe even often, but certainly not always. For example, I can have passion about something, but if I don’t put the necessary time, thought, and energy into developing the skills and understandings related to it, then it is merely a hobby and possibly not worth knowing well. One passion of mine is writing. If I didn’t sit down and “do the work”, I’d have nothing but half-developed ideas floating around in my mind.

It’s important that we take the concept of engagement and rethink its meaning, as it has been defined within the context of today’s classroom. Consider:

  • If students had been left to their own devices and allowed to work in loose groups, what guarantee would the teacher have that everyone was developing a better understanding while this collaboration was happening?
  • Speaking of devices, kids could certainly have seen some worked problems online prior to class, and then provided more time during class for the teacher to work with students who needed the support. But could we be assured that every student watched the recorded instruction actively and without distraction?
  • As a former middle level mathematics teacher myself, I know how challenging it can be to instill a sense of passion for the subject. By including the students in the instructional responsibilities, everyone had a stake in the process and the outcomes. Passion is then connected with purpose and community.

I call on all school leaders, myself included, to put aside our biases and misconceptions regarding student engagement, as we engage in our own learning experiences during our frequent visits to classrooms. When classrooms that are set up in rows of desks are described as “tombstones”, we make unfair generalizations of a teacher’s abilities to educate their students. When we document the lack of technology integration in a lesson that has no need for it, we show our bias toward a maximalist approach to digital learning. When we find a quiet classroom, it may be inaccurate to assume that learning isn’t occurring. Let our student actions and dispositions guide our professional assessments.

Six Ways to Use Class Dojo for Meaningful Learning

If you haven’t already seen it, check out the video below by RSA Animate. It summarizes the excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink.

In summary, rewards work for low cognitive level work, while autonomy, purpose, and mastery work better for complex tasks. Why do I bring this up? For whatever reason, there has been a lot of chatter lately on Twitter about student motivation and engagement. Some of it has revolved around the app Classroom Dojo. It is a student management tool that allows a teacher to track student behaviors, both positive and negative. There has been a spectrum of opinions expressed, from “This is a great tool to help kids learn!” to “Make it work within your classroom” to “I wouldn’t use it on my pets”.

I am somewhere in the middle on this debate. I don’t like how the developers have set it up to be a) rewards-driven, b) based on a deficit-model, and c) visible to all learners. I can understand people’s problem with it when you consider these reasons. At the same time, lots of teachers seem to use it. There must be some redeeming value to Classroom Dojo. It is a tool for assessment. When used appropriately, formative assessment is an essential practice in any learning environment.

Here are six ways I think teachers could use Classroom Dojo in meaningful ways that can positively impact student learning. I have orgazined them in pairs under three different levels of classroom environments we might see in schools: compliance, awareness, and engagement.

Compliance (Teacher Assessing Students’ Behaviors)

  • Teaching School Routines

Sometimes we need compliance in schools. These are our nonnegotiables. One area is teaching students how to conduct themselves in school. This includes walking quietly in the hallways, not interrupting others, and eating politely. Classroom Dojo can be used in the beginning of the school year to reinforce the behaviors we teach students. These behaviors require low levels of cognition, but are vital to sustaining a quality learning environment.

  • Individual Behavior Charts

While I don’t believe students’ ups and downs should be displayed for all to see, certain students require more specfic and frequent feedback than the rest of the school population. Classroom Dojo allows the user to edit the look fors and modify them for specific users. Once student and teacher agree on the ground rules for improving specific behaviors, they can work together to monitor these by assigning points for what is done well and areas of improvement. A goal of so many points is set to achieve each day. Feedback and goal setting are highly motivating.

Awareness (Teacher and Students Assessing Content)

  • Student Response System

I am sure there are other tools out there for this purpose, but Classroom Dojo is free and super easy to use. If the class assigned descriptors for the positives and negatives based on an activity, a teacher could use Classroom Dojo as a formative assessment tool. For example, the class is studying different forms of life. The teacher could post an image of a living thing, say a butterfly, and state, “True or False: This is a mammal.” Students respond with a positive (True) or negative (False) point. The teacher can quickly scan the desktop, assess who doesn’t understand, and direct students to turn and talk with their neighbor to explain their thinking and clear up confusion.

  • Assessing Student Writing

Teachers often have student papers saved from previous years. A great activity for teaching writing is to assess these papers based on a rubric. First, enter both positive and negative criteria for writing into Classroom Dojo. Next, pass around or display a piece of writing. Then, have students assess it based on the criteria discussed. The final score could serve as the overall assessment for that piece. This can lead to powerful conversations about the writing’s quality both among students and as a whole class.

Engagement (Students Assessing Themselves, With Teacher’s Guidance)

  • Reflecting on One’s Own Work

Take that same criteria described previously, and have students apply it to their own piece of writing. This could work nicely in the workshop model. The teacher can rove around the room while students work on their writing independently with a device on hand. The teacher can look at his/her desktop and quickly help students whose scores reflect frustration. @carrion_creates on Twitter suggested using Classroom ID numbers to keep this feedback confidential.

  • Self-Assessing Group Work

Collaborative learning is highly motivating and has a strong impact on student learning. If a classroom uses collaborative learning, such as literature circles or project-based learning, one avatar can be assigned to each group. Criteria for quality group work is established beforehand. Students are then directed to assess their actions while they work. One student can be the “moderator”, with the task of reminding the group every so often to stop and assess how they are doing toward their learning target. Again, the teacher can use this data to formatively assess a group’s progress and make instructional changes while the learning is occuring, instead of afterward.

What pluses and minuses do you see with Classroom Dojo? Please share in the comments.

Examples of Practice: Using iPads to Document Student Work

I just finished reading aloud The One and Only Ivan to 4th graders. We participated in the Global Read Aloud, where schools from all over the country and world heard the same story. Classrooms connected through Edmodo. It was a very innovative way to communicate with other learners about topics related to the story, such as gorillas, the author, and special projects classrooms were doing.

One project that caught my classroom teacher’s eye was a writing project posted by another teacher on Edmodo.

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She took this unique idea and made it her own with her students. Students picked an object that Ruby might have wondered about, and then answered her hypothetical question with an answer as if they were Ivan responding.

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All of their responses were posted on a bulletin board in the hallway.

So where does an iPad come in? I took photos of some of their writing. After cropping them with Snapseed, I pulled some of these photos into another app called Frame Magic. You can choose several different frames to create a collage of all of the students’ work in a matter of minutes.

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What’s great about Frame Magic is I can share this collage through a variety of online tools, such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. As well, I can embed the photo onto a blog post like I did here. Parents and educators in other schools and districts can now see what excellent writers our students are!

Instructional Walkthrough Template

(This is what I am sending to my Instructional Leadership Team to discuss on Tuesday. We previously had discussed measuring levels of instruction occurring in classrooms with a simple tally sheet.)
I have given some thought to tallying how frequently components of the Optimal Learning Model are observed in classrooms. First, my understanding of how we are being assessed in 2014 has changed. Narrative feedback is welcomed. Also, I think I might feel like a bean counter, breaking down the teaching process into a series of boxes to be checked. And I don’t know what you would get out of it as a teacher. Therefore, I am proposing a second draft. Here is a snapshot of it: Tally
I will still try to track how often a teacher is using different levels of the Optimal Learning Model. As you know, one of our goals is to make sure the students are doing the work and therefore the learning. The difference will be, I will spend more than just a minute in each classroom. This should allow me to see a more comprehensive slice of instruction.

I will enter the data in a spreadsheet. The data we aggregate and share with the building will be anonymous as planned. My initial goal is to observe around three to four teachers per day as unplanned visits.

Observations
I want teachers to be able to receive immediate, formative feedback that helps them think about their practice, recognize what they do well and consider how they can continue to grow as educators. Right now, I plan to choose one or more areas of focus on the left and circle it/them. In the blank space, I will write a narrative of what I observe in the classroom. It will be objective in nature. I may also post open ended questions about the instruction. The purpose of the questions would be to help the teacher reflect on what they do and why they do it. This process should be positive and constructive in nature.

My Comments
After I email each teacher the completed instructional walk form and then touch base with them afterward, I plan to make a few comments on the bottom for myself and what I saw. This would be similar to how you might write down observations after conferring with a reader. I don’t plan to share these in the form I email to the teacher. These are primarily for my reflection process. However, if a teacher ever wanted to see what I had written in the comments box, I would be happy to share what I wrote with him or her.

Where to go from here? I suggest you take a look at the form through two different lenses: That of the teacher being observed and the observer. Let me know your thoughts on Tuesday.

Writing Apps for Principals and Coaches

There are so many apps out there for different purposes when using the iPad. It is exciting and daunting at the same time. Specifically for writing about instruction observed in the classroom, a few apps at first glance seem to be great tools for providing feedback for staff and documenting evidence of learning.

Evernote (free)

What I like best about this tool is a) you can document what you observe audibly, visually and by typing, and b) this information can be accessed anywhere. What would this look like? Maybe you are doing instructional walkthroughs. A checklist of four main areas focusing on teacher and student language could be the template. After checking off what you see, language used by students and the teacher can be typed up to record more qualitative feedback. In addition, a photo of what you are seeing related to classroom dialogue could be taken with your iPad and added to the note. Once completed, the entire note can be emailed to the teacher or shared during a subsequent discussion. Simple instructions on how to create a checklist can be found here.

When you want to find a note, they are organized by notebooks or by tags for easy searching.

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There are a few limitations I see with using Evernote for this purpose. First, I cannot find a way to easily export the checklist data to an Excel form. If you are looking for trends over time, it would be hard to use this data in Evernote’s format. Using Google Forms might be a better tool for this purpose. If there is a way to do this, my guess is either Bec Spink or Rob van Nood would have the answer.

Second, I wish there was a way to actually write using a stylus within Evernote, which leads into…

Penultimate ($0.99)

This app allows the user to write in notebooks using a finger or a stylus (I recommend a stylus such as Bamboo to avoid the smudges on the screen). You can write, sketch and erase plus add a picture in notebooks. Multiple notebooks can be created for individual classrooms. To share and read these notebooks, you can either email them out as a PDF or open them in another app such as GoodReader, iBooks or Kindle reader. More importantly, books or single pages can be sent to Evernote as their own note. What this means is you could combine your writing, text, audio and visuals all in one note on Evernote, albeit with a few preliminary steps. Check out this link on how to export Penultimate notebooks to Evernote using an iPad.

Notability ($0.99)

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If you want to keep things simple and be able to house audio, visuals, text and writing all in one file when documenting classroom activities, Notability is the way to go. What it has that Evernote doesn’t is the ability to sketch and write within the note as well as typing text, adding visuals and recording sound. Also, the layout and controls are more user-friendly than Evernote and Penultimate. Notebooks are color coded and the notes themselves seem to be easier to read.

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What could be improved with Notability is the ability to share notes with others. Right now, you can upload notes to Dropbox, but the audio and the rest of the note end up as two separate files. In addition, to share a note with audio right from Notability via email is difficult because the memory size of the audio may be too large. Evernote is better in this area because you can share notes as a web link. It stays as one file.

Conclusions

If you are just starting out, like me, in documenting learning experiences in the classroom, Notability may be the best choice. I know one school district in Wisconsin uses this app to document the amount of time ELL students are given to talk with peers about their understanding. However, if sharing notes is essential to the walkthrough and coaching process, Evernote + Penultimate would be the best tool. The ability to have access to these notes from anywhere is also key. In addition, Evernote just acquired Penultimate. If these two apps eventually meld into one, it might be the perfect tool for principals and coaches to write on the iPad.