Simple Formative Assessment

By Jonathon Medeiros

“Question your most dearly held beliefs.” Puanani Burgess teaches this as a way to help us build community. Questioning our beliefs, especially those we hold most dear, helps us to understand why we believe what we do, helps us to discover when our beliefs need to change, when they are holding us back, when they are counterproductive. The interrogation of our beliefs should be commonplace. We should go through this life assuming we can learn, change, grow. Too often, we prefer the opposite, shoring up our ideas, walling them off from potential questioning. 

Our large systems, like public schools, are purpose built to function on a set of “unquestionable” beliefs, beliefs so unquestionable as to be rendered invisible. Often we do not even know we are clutching to a belief, they way we do not always notice that we are breathing.

Over this strange year, we have been faced with many hardships, many forced changes, many problems to face down. But also, this year has been full of countless opportunities to question our beliefs about school, about what school is, what it is for, how learning happens and why. We’ve had the opportunity to struggle with questions of attendance, of late policies, of where and when and how to hold classes, how to encourage learning, to encourage growth, and how to measure it, if we should even try to measure it. Those of us willing to grapple with these questions, to interrogate our old beliefs, have come away with new answers, with new perspectives, with more energy and safer, more effective and inclusive classes.

One question I grappled with was how to track student growth when I can’t see students in person regularly. I think the most effective formative assessments are simple, frequent, useful to the student, and repetitive. We learn by working and part of my job, even when assessing learning, is to make sure students are always pushing themselves, still learning and growing. Assessment should be part of the learning work that students do, not something that is done to them. 

Assessment should be part of the learning work that students do, not something that is done to them. 

So, I decided to just ask my students one simple question: What did you learn this week? I am not sure students are used to being asked this question, but it is a powerful self reflective tool, a way for students to prod and track their own learning, as well as a perfect way for me to see the students’ growth while giving regular, purposeful, useful feedback.

The question forces self reflection, allows students to dive into and identify what they are learning, how they are growing, and why. But it is flexible and can be tailored as needed. I can focus on developing writing skills. I can focus on speaking skills by having them record their responses. I can be extremely targeted and focus on supporting ideas with evidence or I can zoom out and simply focus on writing fluency.

The key is students are doing the work, investigating their own learning, mulling it over, finding pride and excitement in their own growth, particularly as the year goes on, so I can see their growth but the assessment doesn’t interrupt the learning.

Jonathon Medeiros has been teaching and learning about Language Arts and rhetoric for fifteen years with students on Kauaʻi. He frequently writes about education policy and is the former director of the Kauaʻi Teacher Fellowship. Jonathon enjoys building things, surfing, and spending time with his wife and daughters. He believes in teaching his students that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you’d erase yourself. Follow Jonathon on Twitter – @jonmedeiros or at jonathonmedeiros.com

Digital or Print: Putting Readers in the Driver’s Seat

By Molly Berger

Getting students to engage with their reading, to read deeply as we say, has always been a multifaceted challenge. Now we add one more complication: the impact of digital texts on comprehension. The issue is driving much research and is frequently debated. However, the question should not be whether print or digital is better, because our students will be reading both. It should be, “How do we read well in any format?”

Goal setting and the metacognitive and reflective questions in the ERWC Assignment Template lend themselves to delving into this issue with students because they put the student in the driver’s seat. It is up to the individual to determine what works best for them. Additionally, to help students in determining this, we must ask the students two questions:

How do you read best?

            and then,

How do you know this?

While students may be able to voice their preferences, few have truly explored their options or can articulate how or why it works for them. Most simply read when the teacher says to. Others pretend to read and wait for the class discussion to get the gist of the assignment. So how do we develop student motivation and skill to be self-directed readers? How do we become the warm demanders that both expect and support this?

I shouldn’t be but always am surprised by the students’ ability to solve their own learning challenges. My role is to present them with options and guide them in finding what works best for them. Modeling strategies and allowing students time to share with each other what works gives them the opportunity to understand themselves as learners, which results in self-knowledge and a lasting impact.

Consider these strategies and let the students tell you what works from there.

Manipulating Text

One of the strongest assets of digital texts is the ability to manipulate the way we see it. From font size and background color to layout and design, students can choose what helps them focus and comprehend. Modeling this process is key as some students may choose what they think looks good compared to what actually helps them read. For example, they may love creative fonts such as Edwardian Script or Curlz MT, but these will most likely be difficult to read in longer texts. Have them set criteria for how they will know their design choice works best and then experiment. Have them consider

  • Background color: decrease the contrast of print and background.
  • Font size: find the just right size
  • White space: manage by line spacing

Ebook devices or apps have reader choices for this. Web browsers allow for increasing of font size but note the reader view features explained below for further options.

Managing Distractions

Our students are so used to advertising and links in their reading that they may not even see them as distractions. Modeling how to eliminate advertising and when to open a link or skip it, can focus their attention on this.

  • Block pop-ups: Check the security section of whichever browser you are using. (Search for block popups in Chrome or whichever browser you use.)
  • Open the reader view:  This feature will take out the advertising, pictures, buttons, etc. (This is in the title bar of Firefox and Explorer and is an extension in Chrome.) Reader view also changes the font and background. Click here for an example of reader view.
  • Determine when to click or not click a link: Have the students consider if following a link will help their comprehension or interrupt it. Model this with examples of how some links may clarify meaning as with definitions and how others can lead us completely off track. Have the students develop their own guide for whether to click while they read, after they read, or not at all.
  • Practice highlighting and notetaking: Whether it is one of many apps or browser extensions available (Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep, etc.), a note taker in an ebook or whether students simple copy and paste the text into a Word or Google doc, getting adept at highlighting and notetaking will boost student comprehension and retention of what they read.

Ultimately, the success of comprehending digital or print texts derives not only from skill but from students accepting their role in their learning. If we want our students to be able to dip their “oar into the water” (They Say, I Say,  Graff and Birkenstein) in rhetorical reading, discussion and writing, then they need to see themselves as connected readers (Connected Reading, Turner and Hicks) who make decisions on how they read well based on their own experience.

Molly Berger is a secondary English teacher currently working as an English Language Arts specialist and program coordinator at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia, Washington. As a Washington lead for the ERWC i3 Grant, she has served on the ERWC Steering Committee, supported Washington teachers as a coach and workshop presenter, and written modules.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 4th edition. W.W. Norton, 2018.

Turner, Kristin Hawley and Troy Hicks. Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World. National Council of Teachers of English, 2015.

Getting Ahead of Falling Behind

By Carol Jago

Carol Jago

In a recent poll by Common Sense Media, 59% of teenagers said that online learning is “worse” than in-school learning. Although it is always difficult to know what students mean by “worse” and “much worse,” it seems they prefer learning in-person to learning on a screen. Along with missing the social aspects of school, 61% of respondents report that they are worried about falling behind academically.

I wondered how these students calculated what it meant to “fall behind” and how many of them were doing anything on their own to prevent academic stagnation.

I don’t want to pretend that many students possess the creative genius of Pratchett or Westover’s tenacity, but I do believe students’ capacity for independent learning can be and needs to be nurtured.  Too many teenagers equate learning with seat time, believing that as long as they take the quizzes, turn in the papers, and earn credit for a course, they are acquiring an education. Unfortunately, we teachers are substantially responsible for this false assumption. When all we demand is compliance, students fail to develop the intellectual muscles they need to learn on their own.

An autodidact is a person who is largely self-taught. Such individuals typically possess an enormous thirst for learning and often find school tedious, confident as they are in their ability to learn on their own. Terry Pratchett, whose fantasy novels have sold over eighty-five million copies never attended university and said he felt sorry for anyone who had. Ray Bradbury insisted that his education took place in the library reading, reading, reading. The late great playwright August Wilson dropped out of school in ninth grade but continued to learn by spending long hours reading in the Pittsburgh public library. And then there is Tara Westover’s story from Educated.

What if the educational chaos of the current school year could be turned to education’s long-term advantage? What if we embraced the goal of building students’ independent learning muscles? What if students began to realize that they actually enjoyed reading about what interested them? What if they felt the desire to write about what they were reading? You probably think I am in cloud cuckoo-land, but we find ourselves in circumstances ideally suited to independent study.

I have always found that when students want or need to know something their inner autodidact springs to life. Consider the technological skills today’s teenagers possess, the complicated video games they play, the song lyrics they know by heart, none of which they learned in class. Students are able. They are just not practiced at initiating the process of learning when it comes to schoolwork. Let’s turn the tables on young people worried about falling behind by challenging them to accept responsibility for their own education.

Resources for organizing an inquiry-based classroom abound, but maybe the simplest and best approach is to ask:

  • What do you want to learn?
  • How can I help?

At a time when traditional classroom protocols seem to be in constant flux, let’s work toward nurturing the autodidact within ourselves and in our students. Learning shouldn’t stop when the bell rings or the Zoom meeting ends.

Carol Jago is a long-time high school English teacher and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is the author of The Book in Question: Why and How Reading Is in Crisis. You can contact her at cjago@caroljago.com.