Making Connections

If there is an overriding theme I am sensing from teachers in general, it is a lack of connection between initiatives, programs, trainings, etc. It seems as if everything feels disjointed, fragmented, and they can’t pinpoint how one buzzword connects to the next buzzword. Through my own personal learning, I am beginning to see the ways in which our various educational initiatives in Ohio are coming together, but it has taken tremendous time and energy (two commodities most teachers don’t have at the end of the school day!) to have that understanding. When our teachers see these initiatives as disconnected and disjointed, they are left feeling like each new training is useless, each buzzword is a passing fad. We have to be explicit and clear in our own visions in order to gain buy-in from teachers and actually have an impact on teaching and learning.

Let’s start from the top.

Standards: In Ohio, all contents have “Ohio’s New Learning Standards.” The math and English “Ohio’s New Learning Standards” were actually written by a national group; the other contents were written in Ohio. Our new standards in all of the contents are…

    Less in number–Not pages and pages (or entire books!) of tables

    Broad–instead of tons of specific content (facts, content-specific bits of knowledge), they are general statements about knowledge. Whereas our old standards were a mile wide and an inch deep (lots of content, little depth), our new standards are much deeper and less expansive.

    Pushing students toTHINK ABOUT THEIR THINKING (a phrase you’ll see again in a minute!) All of the new content standards force students deeper into content and make them answer questions like, “HOW do you know that? Where is your evidence? Can you prove your answer?” They make students be more reflective about their learning.

Standards are what determine our curriculum, which is the “what” of what happens in our classrooms. In order to get to the what of teaching and learning, though, we have to clarify what the what is.

To do this, we have to unpack (or deconstruct) the standards. I think many teachers are currently or have recently sat in trainings on how to do this work, but if the product (creating a list of learning targets) is the goal of the training, then teachers may miss the importance of the work. The work of unpacking has to be connected to formative assessment. Deconstructing/Unpacking results in…

    Breaking down standards–Taking them from broad statements to specific skills students need.

    Learning Targets that allow for transparency. When you are working on a certain learning target on a certain day (one piece of helping students meet the standard), your students know what they need to concentrate on during the lesson. Teachers can model what it looks like when work meets the expectation, and students can emulate the model. They allow a common vocabulary between teacher and student.

    More importantly, though, doing this work with teams of teachers at grade levels allows teachers to better understand the skills students will have when they leave previous grades, and the skills they are expected to have when they continue beyond the teacher’s grade. This allows us to trust and respect the professionalism of the teachers before and after us because we know what our students learned (localized understanding of learning targets), and we can hold them more responsible for that learning.

Once we have clearly defined learning targets developed from broad statewide standards, we can begin shaping our formative instruction. Formative instructional practices can be informal (unplanned, natural, things teachers inherently do every minute in their classrooms) or formal (pre-planned, specific purposes), but they begin with learning targets. When planning a lesson, teachers should know what specific learning target(s) they really want students to practice; the fewer the targets, the better the focus. (Keep in mind, our learning targets come from our standards, so lessons should have an overarching standard and a specific learning target. Every lesson will address many standards and many learning targets, but have one/two in mind as your focus.)

The problem with formative assessment is that we are so used to assigning homework, assignments, tasks, etc. as our way of assessing student learning that it is hard for us to understand how to assess without the stacks and stacks of papers. It is my personal opinion that we should all work to make our lives easier by moving away from stacks of grading. What is the point? Why does a student need to practice a single skill 20 times in 20 different ways if s/he has already got it? That being said, formal and informal formative instructional practices can provide the same information in a quicker amount of time without any grading. Here are some ways you can assess learning targets in a classroom without a stack of papers to grade…

    Informal (what we do naturally)

      1. Observe
      2. Ask good questions (rapid-fire questions at the end of the period; use popsicle sticks to quickly check understanding; poll students)
      3. Look around and pay attention to the signals you’re getting from the kids
      4. Do a quick “thumbs up, thumbs down”
      5. Work one-on-one with students and talk about how they are answering questions/solving problems

    Formal (pre-planned)

      1. Use a tool such as Mastery Connect, which is free to teachers, to enter your learning targets and quickly (QUICKLY) assess student mastery of the target.
      2. Pre-plan a poll with Poll Everywhere
      3. Use an app like Socrative
      4. Use a student response clicker system
      5. Not feeling tech savvy? Try formal entrance/exit slips, collect an assignment and look at one task only

What I like about formative assessments is that using them well actually decreases your workload and improves student understanding. By making sure you are focused on one/two learning targets (that have been broken down from a specific standard), you can use formative instruction to pinpoint areas of student weakness. Maybe a student can’t master the standard because s/he doesn’t know one of the knowledge targets, or maybe s/he can’t do one of the reasoning targets.

Standards———->;Learning Targets———->;Formative Assessment

Formative assessments lead to summative assessments, the “end product” of a section of learning. Your summative assessment should address the knowledge and reasoning targets you focused on throughout the unit (for lack of a better term) of learning. Students should know what they will be tested on because they have been focused on and practicing the learning targets that will be assessed.

A good summative assessment should result in meaningful data that can inform your teaching practice. Rather than chalking off a question that a lot of students missed to student error, you can look at how you taught the standard and learning targets to which the item was aligned, pull formative data (if you wrote your observations down) from the lesson on that day, and judge the validity of the question and/or the lesson you gave. This whole process helps teachers grow as professionals, and it helps us move away from meaningless tests with arbitrary grades to more meaningful assessments of learning.

All of this reflection and craft-refining brings us to the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System and Resident Educator Program. Both of which are based on the Ohio Standards for the Teaching Profession (yes, seasoned teachers are being held to the same set of standard statements as brand new teachers). Both of which also rely on teachers creating their own SMART goals for the year.

Resident Educator is Ohio’s new residency program for teachers. It is a 4-year, intense program. First-year teachers are paired with a mentor (in a 1:1 ratio) and guided through all of the ins and outs of being an entry year teacher. The expectation in the first year is that mentors will help their mentees learn the ropes of the building, get acclimated into their jobs, deal with stress, etc. Additionally, though, they basically walk them through the topics I discussed above. Mentors in the first year help mentees choose two-three students to focus in on, and they use standards-based lessons, formative, and summative assessments to track those few students throughout the year. Through cycles of pre-observation, observation, and post-observation, mentors help mentees learn to reflect on how they know if their lesson was effective. (Again, using good, focused learning targets, and really formatively assessing helps these new teachers hone their skills).

Second year Resident Educators go a step further. Working in either a 1:1 mentor/mentee grouping, a co-teaching situation, or a cohort, second year REs move from focusing on a couple-few students to focusing on a whole class of students. Again, they are practicing to use standards-based lessons and formative and summative assessments to track learning and evidence of learning for that class. The cycles of pre-, observation, post- are repeated.

There isn’t much information yet on what years three and four look like, but we know the ultimate goal is to create teachers who are comfortable with using standards to build lessons, formatively and summatively assess using good assessments, and are comfortable with using and reflecting on the data. New teachers leave the program with the skills to think more deeply about why they do what they do when they are teaching and how they know students are learning as a result.

Similar to the Resident Educator program, the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System using a cyclical approach to pre-observation, observation, and post-observation communication to
ensure teachers (even seasoned ones) are planning standards-based lessons, using formative and summative assessments to instruct their teaching, and using data-based decision to inform their lessons. OTES, like the Resident Educator program, seeks to make teachers think more deeply about why they do what they do in teaching lessons and how they know students are learning as a result. (Sound familiar? 🙂 )

What’s with all this reflection and evidence stuff teachers have to do? Well, I’m glad you asked. Remember when I said the new standards are all about driving students deeper into content and making them THINK ABOUT THEIR THINKING? That idea pervades all of the major initiatives that are happening right now. How can we teach students to think more deeply, support their statements, be reflective, and think about their thinking if we aren’t doing the same thing?

In my opinion, the connectedness of all of this “stuff” amounts to better teaching and learning experiences. Educators become deeper practitioners, and students become deeper learners. Learning expectations are more transparent, and teachers and students have a common language. All the pieces fit, but we have to see the forest through the trees.

Best of luck.


One thought on “Making Connections

  1. Pingback: Making Connections--All districts and schools need to heed this call! #ccss #ccchat #teachereval #edchat #PD | Common Core Online |

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