Saturday, November 30, 2013

Is Digital "Real?": A Shift of Langage

My son loves Angry Birds. He plays the game on my iPad regularly. But his digital play often translates into building things--he uses the game as a springboard for his imagination. And so Jenga blocks and other toys and bits of junk become towers and castles for the Bad Piggies to command, and the Angry Birds swoop in to knock them down.

My brother-in-law--duly impressed with the boy's creative endeavors--asked him if he likes the "real" game of Angry Birds better. My son looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, and asked a wonderful, messy question: "Which one do you mean?"

Monday, November 25, 2013

Writing Good Test Questions

I have been thinking and writing a lot about assessment lately. My last post was basically a rant against unthinking assessment practices, and a challenge to all teachers (pointing the finger at myself here too) to be thoughtful in how they assess.

So how do we go about assessing thoughtfully?

In the curriculum and pedagogy courses I teach, we always spend some time talking about how to best assess students' learning. There are, of course, lots of ways to assess students, and the assessment vehicle you choose should match your goals of the assessment. Here are a few options we often discuss:
  • Sometimes observation is all you need--especially while you are teaching. Reading students' body English and facial expressions, keeping aware of the the kinds of questions they are asking, and noting the kind of responses they are giving in response to your questions are all good ways to assess students' thinking while teaching is ongoing, and gives you the opportunity to change course if needed.
  • Projects and performances are often valuable ways of having students apply their learning and demonstrate their proficiency at specific tasks or skills.
  • Conferences, interviews, and small group meetings can allow the teacher the chance to talk with students in an individual or comfortable group setting. This takes some planning and management; what is the rest of the class doing while you meet with the individual or small group? But I've found that hearing students explain their understanding firsthand is often one of the best ways to know what they know!
  • And, of course, tests and quizzes are still a key part of teachers' assessment strategies. In our current high-stakes, high-accountability school culture, outside testing pressures are often pretty significant. Some teachers argue that students need to take tests and quizzes just to practice, so they will feel comfortable and prepared for the high-stakes, state-mandated testing.

Image by COCOEN Daily Photos CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I always want to remind my students that tests and quizzes aren't the only way to assess, so I try to assign a variety of different kinds of assignments and projects to them in addition to tests and quizzes.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Moral Imperative of Assessment

I think this will be my last post from #AMLE2013, but you never know.

Rick Wormeli said something about assessment in the closing session I attended that has taken hold of me and keeps nagging at the back of my mind:

If you know that the child knows something, but the assessment vehicle you've chosen doesn't show it, you have a moral obligation to change it.

The phrase "moral obligation" has me. I totally agree. It's tantamount to malpractice as a teacher if you are sure a student has learned something and the assessment vehicle (test, quiz, project, essay, interview, debate, what-have-you) doesn't show their understanding of the content. We must change our assessment practices.

And of course, the question offered in response is, "How do I know that they know it, if they can't do X?"

C'mon, teacher.

If the first chance students have to show you what they know, understand, or are able to do is the final, summative're doing it wrong. 

Get to know your students.

Be actively involved in their learning.

Assess along the way.

Give descriptive feedback.

Stop grading for compliance--or the lack thereof.

Choose your assessment vehicles carefully.

Assess what you most highly value, not what is most easily measured!

To do any less is a moral failure for your students. 

And then you deserve the "F," not the kid.

Friday, November 15, 2013

We Are Really Bad at Grading

Teachers, you really should watch this short spot advertising a Canadian sit-com about a bad teacher. There are two truths I want to draw out of this.

Pretty funny, right? And perhaps a little too uncomfortably true?

Here are the two truths:

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Grading Group Work

I confess, I love this picture because it is so completely posed.
Image by Saad Faruque CC BY-SA 2.0
Teachers, do you use group work in your classroom? You should. There is pretty comprehensive literature on the benefits of collaboration and social learning. (Try googling "social learning theory," or "zone of proximal development," or "collaborative learning," or even "problem-based learning" to learn more.)

Over the years, I've used quite a lot of group interaction and collaboration in my teaching practice. When I taught junior high science, I regularly had students working with a partner, or even a small group as they conducted their lab activities. When I taught computers & media classes, we did many different collaborative projects to create media. Now, as a college instructor, I have a whole course that requires students to work as part of a team (we're trying to model what middle school teaching teams look like in practice.) In each case, students may learn from me as instructor, but they also learn from each other.

There are different strategies that can be employed to make students' learning more integral this way, but the problem always crops up for me with how to assess collaborative work. How do I fairly grade group work? Do all the students get the same grade? Is each graded on their individual contribution? How do I know who contributed what to the final product?

At the recent Association for Middle Level Education conference I attended, the idea of students learning collaboratively came up in several sessions, and in one session I gleaned this gem of an idea:

Don't grade group experiences...grade the takeaways from the group experience.

I'll just leave you to think about how that might look in your teaching practice. I know I'm reconsidering how I've thought about group work!

Monday, November 11, 2013

What Assessments Can You Tolerate?

In my last post, I wrote about a session I attended at the recent AMLE conference that was all about assessment, and how we can do it better by giving descriptive feedback, allowing students to act on this feedback, and to provide for (or at least allow for) multiple means of showing that they have met the standard. Rick Wormeli was the presenter, and he both challenged and affirmed my thinking about these topics.

Rick had quite a bit to share about what research indicates makes for effective assessment. (Hint: more formative assessment--not graded, but rich-in-feedback--and less summative assessment--which would be graded.) And, truth be told, since I've read quite a few things Rick has published, I wasn't at all surprised to hear him talking about this, and I really agreed with him.

But there was one thing Rick shared in this presentation that really resonated with me, and I've continued rolling this around and around in my head:

The question teachers need to ask is not
"What is the standard?"
It is "What evidence will we tolerate
for students to show their learning?"

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fish Climbing Trees: Assessment, Feedback, and Differentiation

One of the best sessions I had the chance to attend at the recent Association for Middle Level Education conference (#AMLE2013) was a session on formative assessment, summative judgment, and descriptive feedback presented by Rick Wormeli. In the session, Rick shared this cartoon, which I had seen before:

"For a fair selection, everybody has to take the same exam:
Please climb that tree."

The argument usually made by folks sharing this cartoon is that we should have different standards of assessment for different students, because the students are clearly unique individuals with different strengths and weaknesses and it isn't fair to hold them all to the same standards. Because it's not going to be any problem for the monkey to climb the tree, right? But how is the fish going to get up there? Or the elephant? Or even the dog?

Saturday, November 9, 2013


I've spent the past three days at the Association for Middle Level Education's annual conference. What a great time to connect with other educators who care deeply about excellent practices for teaching young adolescents! A colleague and I took ten of our students along on the trip; it was a great learning opportunity for them as well. As future middle school teachers, they had the chance to hear from other voices speaking the same things their professors are telling them: good confirmation!

I was privileged to present a session as well--my first time presenting at a national conference--and it was a great experience. I was also privileged to attend many sessions about topics near and dear to my heart within the realm of education: educational technology, differentiated instruction, formative assessment, teacher teaming, conversations about pedagogical practices, talented and gifted learners, and shifting school culture. Also, I got to meet several of my Twitterfriends face-to-face for the first time, including Rick Wormeli, who is actually kind of a big deal (not to mention a fantastic presenter!) but is also incredibly wise, humble, and personable, both in the large group and one-on-one.

I'm sure I'll have more posts in the coming days as I reflect on the new things I learned or had reaffirmed for me in the past few days. For now, just a couple of pictures...