Editor's note: This is part three in a multi-part series. Please see part one here and part two here. Courtney is a teacher at Narragansett Elementary School in Gorham, Maine.
Like many districts that have adopted national standards, the performance indicators (PIs) we use in the Gorham School district require students to deepen their understanding of both content and craft. This is particularly true in our writing PIs, which require that students write for various “tasks, purposes and audiences.” I have begun to hone my skills in creating supplemental writing materials to use as formative assessments or instructional tools with my students. The versatility of the materials I’ve created allows me to scaffold student learning, and to assess formatively when it seems appropriate or necessary. The information I have collected from students has helped me to track their learning and, therefore, has informed my teaching. After some trial and error I see three premises that ground my work. The first premise is that these tools inform my instruction, the second is that these tools are designed to assess as well as to provide feedback, and the third is that these tools promote self-directedness through reflection and goal setting.
Premise 1: Inform Instruction
My materials each utilize universal design elements which make them accessible to all students. I consistently use graphic organizers to help students formulate ideas, and organize those ideas in a way that is prescribed to a given task, purpose and audience (i.e. narrative writing, informational writing, or opinion writing). One of the five key aspects of differentiation as outlined by Carol Ann Tomlinson is effective classroom management. Tomlinson explains that, “we have to learn as teachers to lead and manage a classroom in which it’s possible for more than one thing at a time to happen” (Tomlinson, “Five Key Aspects of Differentiated Instruction”). This is what I strive to do during my writer’s workshop time with students because writing is a process and students very often are doing different things at the same time.
I found that my students better understood and therefore more easily attained the learning targets when they used the tools I had developed for informational writing. I was able to have all my students work on different tasks simultaneously, but with the same targets in mind. I believe that because the targets were clear and the learning activities were explicitly linked to the targets, many different types of learners were able to use these materials successfully.
Premise 2: Assess and Provide Feedback
Feedback is an essential part of the learning process and of assessment. First, students use the instructional tools I have created to help them plan and execute their writing task. I give them informal teacher feedback and they give one another informal peer feedback along the way. I support these processes with checklists for peer to peer feedback, teacher to student feedback and student to self feedback/reflection. At the core of giving and receiving feedback are three essential rules, “be kind, be specific, and be helpful” (Berger 138). By creating a culture where we honor these three rules, my students and I build a constructive writing community, committed to making writing better.
Therefore, the formative assessments I’ve created support different kinds of feedback including opportunities for both interpersonal and intra-personal feedback. The interpersonal formative assessments (i.e. peer to peer and teacher to student) foster discussion and allow students to think about their “next steps” based on the feedback they receive. The intra-personal formative assessment is aimed at self-reflection, whereby the student re-reads their piece and completes a checklist. In this formative assessment, students identify “next steps” based on a personal assessment of the final piece of writing. This idea of self-reflection and setting of “next steps” leads me to my third and final premise.
Premise 3: Promote Self-Reflection and Goal Setting
“Next steps” refer to what students need to do in order to improve their writing after having had a discussion about it or have reflected on it individually. By building in a variety of assessments for my genre units, I hope to build a culture of learning where reflection and feedback become second-nature. In order to foster self-reflective skills teachers should identify the learning targets, use strong work samples and offer regular feedback (Stiggins 245). These strategies have become cornerstones of my practice.
I support the creation of a classroom culture centered around self reflection by offering a safe and constructive place to learn. My students are privy to the learning targets which are posted in the classroom and displayed on each of the instructional tools I have created. In Leaders of their Own Learning, Ron Berger defines “student - engaged assessment” as a process where students take ownership of their work and drive the development of their writing. Striving for student ownership is precisely what I have worked toward most recently in my own classroom.
The above three premises have helped me shape and focus my practice. Creating tools that promote self-directedness, assess student understanding, provide effective feedback, and inform my instruction have moved me closer to a Proficiency-Based system of teaching and learning. I hope that wherever you are at in your understanding of PBE, that you are able to find how it links to your practice and what you can do to make it work better for you and your students.
Berger, Ron. Leaders of Their Own Learning. John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2014.
Stiggins, Arter, Chappuis, and Chappuis, Classroom Assessment for Student
Learning. Pearson Education, Inc., 2012.
Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Five Key Aspects of Differentiated Instruction.”
YouTube, uploaded by suzzleQ, Feb 15, 2016,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TRGl3iXoAE. Accessed Mar. 23, 2018.
Tomlinson, Carol Ann. The Differentiated Classroom. Association for
Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2014.