On writing reports… There has to be a better way #rethinkreports

Today marks one of the best parts of term 4 for a teacher.

Finishing the first draft of reports.

Like most schools, the reports contain a mixture of check boxes and general statements in different subjects along with general comments and goals for the next year.

I started drafting my comments back in mid-April so to get to this point took a month. The reports then need to be proof-read, checked and the data entered into the learning management system.

That’s not counting the time in class I devote to assessing kids for the purposes of report writing and then analyzing those as sources of data.

It’s a lot of work.

And the worst part of the process?

By the time the reports are actually published in June, most of the statements will be out of date.

Each report represents months of work yet will be read for just 10-15 minutes. In an age where I can email, send pictures and videos to parents, I can’t help but wonder how effective reports are in furthering children’s learning.

The time that I could be devoting to creating interesting learning experiences and responding to needs is often swallowed up during report writing times on gathering data, analyzing it and then reporting back to parents.

There is one part of reporting I do enjoy, reflecting on how the child has progressed in the year in their learning and relationships. The problem with modern reports is that they keep getting longer as we break learning down into smaller and smaller fragments.

Are we losing more than we gain?

What if instead of pages of reporting there was just a paragraph and some examples of student learning through video, photos.

Is brief, more frequent, interaction preferable to the tomes we publish at the end of each semester?

Making inferences…

“Ms Stephanie, I think I’ve got a connection,” a little voice piped up. 

It was the last day of term, The class had just finished reading The One and Only Ivan. A fictional story of a real life gorilla who paints pictures to free his friend Ruby the elephant. I had just finished the last page.
Earlier in the week I had watched as this child had laboured over the inferencing questions in a PROBE reading assessment. The child had found the relevant bits of the story but just couldn’t make the link between the information on the assessment and the background knowledge to answer the questions correctly. Instead the child just kept reading out the relevant bits of text.
We would need to put effort into inferencing I thought.
“Well Ivan kind of reminds me of Mandela.”
My ears prick up. 
A few weeks ago the children had a Google Challenge featuring the South African leader. 
Like all great provocations there were more questions than the answers.
Why did Mandela go to jail?
How does a prisoner go to being president of a country? I thought only bad people went to prison.
People really weren’t allowed to go places because of their skin in South Africa?
“Tell us so more about that.” I wonder out loud.
“Well Ivan wanted to free Ruby the elephant just like Mandela wanted to help black people in South Africa to have a better life.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Ivan had to try really hard to tell people about Ruby drawing those pictures. People came and protested to free Ruby. They also freed him. Mandela wrote all those letters and people and protested to free him and people weren’t buying things made in South Africa so the government had to release him too.”
“Any more connections?” I hoped he’d make the link between Ivan’s domain and Robben Island prison, but quietly I was stunned.
I had never thought to make the connection. 
Another chimed in with that part of the puzzle and now the class are talking about Rosa Parks and inequality while I sit back and take it in.
I kept coming back to the Probe.
To be able to infer a child would need to use their own background knowledge as well as evidence from the text 
The book was selected as theme of collective action fitted nicely with the central idea of our Unit of Inquiry the Cultures ‘The opportunities in communities can be changed by the actions of others.’ Along with developing research and digital citizenship skills, the Google challenges were examples of people and events which demonstrated the central idea. Small little ideas were knitted together by the kids over a series of weeks.
On the other hand, the Probe was completely out of context. Standardized to ensure comparisons between children and used year on year. Yet if I hadn’t been watching other data, I would never thought of changing how to approach reading with this child.
I think my assessment maybe wrong,
I’m wondering if his fluency and decoding skills needed development in inferencing texts. Listening to the story enabled this child to think more deeply about the text. He had made several text to world connections backed up with evidence from the book. Was the mental effort of decoding and finding information what was holding reading back? 
Something to ponder next term…

Taking the text out of assessment for learning – Inforubrics

Formative assessment is a tricky beast. Rubrics are way to get the children reflecting and showing growth on their learning.

However they are often text heavy and written in teacher speak. This makes it hard for children to identify learning priorities and document how they have shifted in their learning.

Enter the inforubric.

A set of simple concepts and visuals from The Noun project to give children a starting off point for self-assessment.

image by author

Image by author

One of the downfalls of self-assessment is that it can be hard for the teacher to understand and for the children to remember why they made particular judgements.

Fortunately technology is making this process a lot easier.

When the children are finished colouring they grab their iPads and use DoodleCast to reflect on the choices they made. The beauty of doodlecast is that they can record their voice and draw on their infographic. The kids then use easy blogger junior  to upload the video to the blogfolio.

This evidence is powerful because it is the children explaining in their own voice the reasoning behind their judgements.

Over the course of this unit the children will use this rubric again. The original judgements remain but they can use doodlecast to show how they think their learning has changed.

As we meander towards the end of our unit the children will think more about their initial judgements.

How have they changed?

How have they proven learning?

What is their evidence for this?

They will use also the concepts to assess their knowledge of the central idea with a co-constructed unit.

Watch this space…

Playground collaboration 2/365 #blogaday

Yesterday I went to the playground with my friend and her two lovely young sons.

I took the boys for a ride on the basket swing, patiently waited their turn. The older kids playing on the swing immediately got up and helped lift the boys into the swing. Then they pushed the boys on the swing, learning their names, patiently responding to requests to go higher and when the time came to go, helped the boys out and said goodbye.

As I walked away with the younger boys, I thought about how little we value playground interactions unless there are school rules broken.

Yet by observing children at play we can really assess all those attitudes we say we are teaching. Because the true measure of what children learn in the classroom is how the kids treat each other when they think adults aren’t watching.

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How I built a culture of reading in my classroom

Sam Reading in Badlands

Image by CaptPiper used under creative commons licence

Of all the accomplishments I’ve made in my second term of teaching the one I am most proud of is building a reading culture in my class.

This may sound weird as most people seem to assume that geeks eschew books in favour of gadgets. While I have proclaimed my love for my iphone, I also understand the power of books.

There’s something magical about cracking the spine on a brand new book or the smell that comes from picking up a treasure found in the back of a second-hand bookstore. I know my own life has been enriched by reading. As a child I loved the Alex Quartet that my mother gave me for my 12th birthday while First they Killed my Father prompted me to visit Cambodia a  few years ago and thus began an obsession with that part of the world.

Towards the end of my course last year I felt woefully under-prepared to teach senior literacy when @Kathryntrask reviewed the Book Whisperer on her blog. I immediately requested a copy from the library and was entranced by the impassioned plea of Donalyn Miller for children to spend less time on busy work and more time reading student-selected books during classroom literacy blocks. The central thesis of  the book, teach the reader not the book, really resonated with me however I had no real idea how to implement this in a classroom which is where The Daily 5 and CAFE books come in.

The Daily 5 gave me some concrete classroom management strategies  in order to build the classroom environment which supports the student-selected reading. Each day my students spend time reading to themselves, buddy reading, listening to audio books and I also read a book a loud to the class. In short my literacy book is a text-rich environment in which the expectation is that students will read 30 books of their own selection before the end of the year.

As part of the challenge each week the students write a letter reflecting on their progress.  I’ve been amazed how many students are now starting to evaluate the texts they read. One mentioned how the Lemony Snicket series was great for finding wacky words while another decided that Roald Dahl’s rich vocabulary and imagination were the reason why his books were perennially popular.

As I read through the end of term reflections by my students, I was staggered by how many kids mentioned that they read more books in the last 10 weeks then they did in the entire of last year. Almost all of them have a better relationship with reading now then they did prior to beginning this term. But what has been most powerful is how many of my students have mentioned they’ve started reading a book based on a classmate’s recommendation.

I frequently overhear classroom conversations which are now peppered with what books kids are reading or giving opinions on books or authors. These side conversations are so rich in opinions on writing style, plot and characterization that I wish there was a way I could capture those conversations without intruding on my students. The most beautiful moment for me as a teacher was seeing a group of my Year 7 boys huddled together in the library sharing a book. So often we hear of boys in particular turning off reading in favour of computers yet  based on my limited experience boys will read if they are encouraged to and are given the tools to develop as readers.

I followed Donalyn’s recommendation of 40 books a school year which I reduced to 30 as my class started 1/4 of the way through the school year. Miller points out that this hefty target means that students need to always have a book on the go if they are going to succeed. Not all of my students completed 10 books this term but even just having a large target gave kids some success. One of my Year 8 boys who readily admitted to finishing only 2 books in the entire of last year read 8 books over the past 10 weeks including a 500 page tome from the CHERUB series which is a huge achievement for a dormant reader in such a short space of time.

As is inevitable when you set a target, in this case 10 books in 10 weeks, there were some short cuts taken by students looking for an easy way to meet the challenge. Even with the genre requirement, some kids were seeking out easy reads however within a few weeks boredom quickly set in and the students started selecting better fit books. This is where Daily 5’s I-PICK comes in because it starts to give kids a language to finding books that are a good fit for them.

Activities like speed dating where a pair of students introduce the book they’ve been reading to their classmate in 30 seconds before finding a new partner is a quick way for kids to find out about books. I was a bit iffy about introducing a class of 11/12 year olds to the term speed dating so called the activity speed sharing. The students didn’t buy the ‘speed sharing’ euphemism for very long and I learned an important lesson, just be upfront with the kids.

I have also found that book selection is something that requires teacher guidance and feedback. Last week I noticed one of my students had picked up his 10th Geronimo Stilton book. After a quick reminder from me about what his reading goal was, the student decided to select a more challenging book. For me as a teacher this is the kind of conversation I want to have with my student. I didn’t attack the student’s taste nor disparage the book, I simply guided the student back to his learning goals and let him make the decision.

There is a downside to all this reading.

My students are a lot more discerning with the texts I use during guided reading sessions and will tell me if they don’t think the text is a good fit.  I think this is a good problem to have; kids being able to articulate that the text isn’t working for them. Certainly I’m going to have to be a lot more careful in the future with what I put in front of my students as their identity as readers matures.

I’m very aware that intermediate school is really the last chance that kids ‘learn to read’ before they enter high school and they are assumed to be capable of reading to learn. As always, there’s a few students I’m worried about. I’ve also got this nagging feeling that I am not preparing my students for high school where they will be expected to read a set text.

Moreover the increased fluency of my readers and the enjoyment my students have for reading might not show up in the assessment data even though research  shows that reading for pleasure has immense long-term benefits not just for my students’  academic achievement but for them as people.

This term has been really challenging but I’m proud of my students. As I looked out over my class during Daily 5 last Thursday, I was amazed to see a quiet, purposeful classroom full of students on task when at that point in the term the kids should have been sliding into holiday mode.

What I’ve come to realize over the last 10 weeks is reading is a highly social activity. By giving my students time and space to read as well as share what they are reading with others, the kids have started to support their classmates’ reading progress not just in terms of book recommendations but also fluency, expression, comprehension and even vocabulary.  I doubt this would have happened if I had continued with the more traditional literacy programme where I chose the texts and my students time is filled up with ‘response’ activities that I tried during the previous term.

I’ve also realized that there isn’t much point in teaching kids reading strategies if I also didn’t give them authentic opportunities to practice them. I know some teachers see recreational reading as something that kids should be doing at home while school is for work. While I don’t dispute the huge role that parents have in supporting children’s reading, by devoting time in the literacy class for reading, I am telling my students that I think reading for pleasure is a worthwhile activity which needs to be supported.

There are some drawbacks to this sort of ‘free range’ reading programme. The biggest one is that it is very labour intensive.  Although rich in data, the reading notebooks take a lot longer to mark that the more traditional worksheets as I follow Donalyn’s example of writing a letter back to each student.

You also need to invest in books for your classroom library. Alongside our regular library trips, I’ve become adept at sourcing cheap books in bargain bins and Trade Me to have on hand in the classroom when the kids don’t have any or don’t like the book they selected. As a teacher I try read at least one young adult book a week in order to walk the talk with my kids as a reader and it’s the best professional reading I do all week.

I don’t consider myself a literacy guru by any stretch of the imagination. In reality my literacy block is merely a mediocre copy of the master teachers out there including the 2 sisters, @donalynbooks  and of course my wonderful PLN including @kathryntrask, @judykmck, @annekenn, @heymilly as well as @kathleen_morris and @kellyjordan82 whose ideas for teaching literacy I have shamelessly stolen.

Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge.

The unbearable lightness of making an OTJ on National Standards

Time of year where we are sending home statements about what our students learning goals for the year are. As these are reports going home, they must include a statement about National Standards and be in plain English. Personally I prefer my English in pink and purple polka dots but I digress.

I’ve had a number of problems National Standards in the past but now I’m having to make an overall teacher judgement about whether I think my kids will be at standard by the end of the year I’ve run into a huge set of ethical dilemmas.

There are a few kids in my classroom who without any real input from me are already at standard right now. If National Standards measure success, then what is our system telling the kids who are already there? You’re deemed to be at where you should for your age now put your feet up and watch the year go by. At the other end of the spectrum there are a few kids who even with a herculean effort are unlikely to be at standard by the end of the year. I can’t think of anything more demoralizing for a kid, or anyone really, then being told at the start of the year that even if pull out all the stops and work harder than they ever imagined, you’ll still be below standard at the end of the year.

Yes I realize that standards are supposed to be aspirational and I should have high expectations of all my students, but this needs to balanced by principles of honesty and fairness. Yet even the principle of honesty must be couched. When I hear of stories of children in tears about being labelled below standard and how distressing this must be for some kids and some parents I know I need to be careful when giving those cold hard facts. And it this judgement without context which is the reason why a lot of teachers loathe national standards.

Yet I realize that these feelings aren’t the same for parents.

Last school reporting season I watched my facebook feed light up with friends proudly mentioning that their kids are above National Standards to know that the standards do mean something to parents.  A safeguard that yes my kid is doing ok, or no my kid needs help.

But the parents aren’t the only people who read school reports.

As I’m writing my comments and making my judgements on these statements I’m very aware of my student audience.  That audience is the reason why I’ve spent more time this weekend worrying about whether or not the kids in my classroom will meet National Standard at the end of the year than I have on identifying their next learning steps or even planning for next week’s classes. In short I’ve spent more time worrying about where the kids are according National Standards than I have working out where they need to go and how we are going to get them there.

I know I shouldn’t over think these judgements but it is such a big call to stick a label on kid.

People outside of the education sector seem to assume that there is a definite line in the sand between the kids that are achieving or not.  However even with the wealth of assessment information my school has on each child I still feel like I am performing nano surgery with a sledge hammer when it comes to making a judgement on national standards for some children.

For a number of children the weight of the previous teacher judgements weights heavily on my mind especially if the evidence I have supports an entirely different conclusion from a child’s previous report. The previous teacher might well have made a mistake. I know despite asking for the advice of others, there will be kids I have made an error of judgement on. This doesn’t make them or me a bad teacher. In fact it doesn’t make us any different from any primary teacher in New Zealand.

Because the bigger mistake that has been made is thinking of learning as a product rather than a process. And it worries me greatly that these labels are detracting us from the conversations we need to be having over a child’s next learning step. Despite arguments to the contrary, assessment isn’t a science and should not be treated as such. A guide to be sure, but ultimately like all measures of the human mind entirely fallible by our innate individuality.

Weekly Reflection: More than the sum of their academic parts

I have students.

29 of them to be exact.

When people talk about raising class sizes as if just a couple of kids won’t make much more of a difference I wonder if they have ever actually experienced what is like to  mark and analyse the results of 29 students.  Don’t get me wrong I’m the sort of geek who loves playing around in e-asstle generating reports and find spending an evening entering the data oddly soothing after a busy day in the classroom.

However when it came to assessing my students’ writing samples I’ve spent hours reading and re-reading their work trying to get a fix on where the kids are at and trying to group them into ability groups.

Because I do so much writing I thought that would make the process easier. In fact I found it so much harder. I write mostly for pleasure and when faced with having to write something within a certain space of time ie. an exam or a work deadline any enjoyment I derive from writing goes straight out the window. And I know that for some students when they are  faced with having a directive from me, their teacher, asking them to write there will be a few that will struggle to say anything let alone anything profound in the time allowed to. It worries me that there may very well be a couple of kids who are brilliant writers but I’m missing them because of the pressure to produce something in the time allowed.

However what ultimately helped the most with making a call on the students writing wasn’t the rubrics but spending time  on a field trip with the students. That might sound counter-intuitive but spending time with the kids enabled me to see that little snippets of themselves that came through in their writing. The turns of phrases, how they talk. Some of those details I completely missed when I first read their work. Had I not had those interactions I might of missed those details of their writing and saw the students’ work only as writing levels rather than the product of emerging writers.

The further people get away from the classroom, the easier it is to reduce not only teaching and learning but the lives of children down to nothing more than a number on score.  The kids are so much more than that.  Yet how often do we hear people talk about raising academic achievement levels as if assessment is the master of our education system rather than the servant of teaching and learning.

Our understanding of what it is to be educated should not be based simply on what is present, but also on how the spaces between what is given are seen, named, unnamed, ignored. Because ultimately the kids are so much than the sum of their academic parts.

And when we see only the parts we miss the spaces in between.