Math teachers of older students sometimes struggle to get students to explain their thinking with evidence. It’s hard to get kids in the habit of talking about how they are thinking about a problem when they’ve had many years of instruction that focused on getting the “right answer.” That’s why educators are now trying to get students in the habit of explaining their thinking at a young age. The Teaching Channel captured kindergarten and first grade teachers pushing students to give evidence for their answers in situations where there are several ways to think about a problem.
Pattern recognition is a fundamental part of mathematics and kindergarteners are not too young to notice, compare and describe simple patterns. In this video, kindergarten teacher Donella Oleston describes how she had to back up and explain to these young learners what it means to “explain your thinking,” because at first students would only answer, “My brain told me so.” With practice, she says students have gotten to deeper levels of noticing, moving past the obvious and picking out more abstract similarities and differences between two pattern sets.
My computer rings and I feel the excitement bubbling up in my suburban Maryland classroom. My first-graders know a Mystery Skype game is about to start. They grab their supplies: large, laminated world maps, dry erase markers, and magnifying glasses — and join their team on the rug.
Aloud they wonder how many hints they will need to determine where the other children are and what clues they will share. In teams of four, my students formulate several questions to help them solve the mystery:
Are you in the northern or southern hemisphere?
Are you near an ocean?
Is it morning or afternoon for you?
Are you in a big continent?
What is your main language?
I turn on the Smart Board to begin the adventure. One by one, my students come to the webcam, introduce themselves, and ask questions in the order they’ve agreed to. Soon, my room is alive with the children’s chatter. Huddled over their maps, they eliminate continents and countries. Magnifying glasses come out. When the whole class thinks that they’ve figured out the other children’s location, they shout out: “Are you in Chile?”
They’re not correct, so they return to study their maps and ask more questions. Finally, my class solves the mystery, and the students in the other class take their turn.
This session, my class is meeting with a group of second-graders in a bilingual school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their native tongue is Spanish, but their English is wonderful. My students learn that even though their partners have strong accents, they can understand them if they concentrate. The children in Argentina squeal with delight when they discover we’re in North America, especially because they’ve never met children in the United States before. The two groups then chat about their areas, cultures, and schools. My students are shocked to discover that children in Argentina also trade Pokemon cards and play similar recess games. The two groups also discern differences in time zone, season, and continent during the conversation.
As a teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD, I continually find that Mystery Skype gives students valuable hands-on experience with world geography and helps them develop cross-cultural competency.
Mary-Catherine Irving’s first-graders participate in a Mystery Skype lesson. Credit: McDonogh School
A Window to the World
While many teachers view their Smart Board as a piece of technology to facilitate students’ computer and Internet use, I see it as a window to the world. As we meet children and adults on every continent this year, my students learn to collaborate, hone their communication skills, develop empathy, and enrich their problem-solving ability.
I started using Skype in my teaching in 2005, two years after the platform debuted. At the time my school was holding fundraisers to help a school in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. I reached out to a teacher, and our classes began to meet. We discussed local food, holidays, and our school communities. The video was often very pixilated, but the children’s idea exchanges revealed the power of these sessions. Our students became friends, and soon my class wanted to use Skype to share school events with their peers in New Orleans.
Skype’s potential as a teaching tool increased after Microsoft purchased the platform in 2011. Microsoft aims for teachers to learn and participate in a global community through activities such as Mystery Skype and virtual field trips. In addition, Microsoft educational consultants select guest speakers, ranging from engineers to authors to marine biologists, whom teachers vet to ensure productive learning for students. Today, more than 500,000 teachers and experts on all seven continents use Skype in the Classroom. More than 10 million students, speaking 64 languages, have seen other parts of the world in their classes through this technology.
Virtual Field Trips
I use Skype in the Classroom a great deal now. Typically, I’ll hold two or three sessions a month at various times in the day, during social studies, morning meeting, or lunch.
My first-graders have taken part in several virtual field trips, guided by guest speakers. Every two months, we take a gander through the platform and my students choose which experts to meet. As part of a unit on penguins, we met a penguin researcher outdoors in the middle of a rookery in Antarctica in December. Although my students know it’s cold in Antarctica, it was not until they met with Ms. Pennycook that they began to understand just how cold it is. They saw she had to wrap her laptop up in hand-warmers so it would not crash. She also showed them how desolate her home was while she conducted her research over several months.
Ms. Irving takes her students on a virtual field trip to Antarctica to learn about penguins. Credit: McDonogh School
In October, we met with a great white shark expert 30 feet underwater in a shark cage. Seeing sharks swimming around made my first-graders truly grasp their enormity.
First-graders learn about sharks in a virtual field trip in Ms. Irving’s class. Credit: McDonogh School
In November, we met with a paleontologist as he scaled a wall filled with dinosaur fossils in Utah. In each case, we never left the classroom.
Before each of these 45-minute sessions, I email with the experts to plan the lesson. I also show a video or read nonfiction to my students so they have sufficient background knowledge to ask meaningful questions. During Q&As, I am impressed with how seriously these experts treat my young students. When we were chatting with Ms. Pennycook in Antarctica, one student asked how the penguins know when to make the journey back to the rookery where they were born. She responded that scientists have not yet answered that question. She suggested my students read, learn math, and problem-solve with groups. Perhaps they would join her one day to answer that question.
My first-graders and I have virtually met some tougher circumstances this year as well. After Hurricane Matthew hit the Bahamas last fall, we connected with a teacher whose town in Nassau had been devastated. Initially we were only able to talk with the teacher by phone because the school was closed due to the conditions after the storm. My students raised money to help the class buy cleaning supplies by completing chores at home. When the school’s power was restored, her students met mine and described how they prepare for a storm of that magnitude and what it was like to live through it. We listened in awe.
Skype in the Classroom helps my students cultivate virtual pen pal relationships. For the past few years, my classes have had a relationship with students in Buenos Aires. We frequently hold morning meetings together, or meet to play games. Bilingual Simon Says and Rock, Paper, Scissors are favorites. During these sessions, the two groups teach one another poems, songs, and games from their countries. My students are now most avid Spanish students. Our Spanish teacher remarked that they are the only first-graders she has ever had who take notes, because they have a reason to learn the language.
My students are not the only ones building relationships abroad. I have tapped into a worldwide network of educators who are as passionate about bringing the world into their classrooms as I am. We frequently collaborate about teaching methods and content via Skype.
Over the years, I have developed some deep friendships. When my partner teacher in New Orleans had breast cancer, I supported her throughout her recovery. When my colleague in Argentina was contemplating changing schools, we Skyped at night to discuss her options. In fact, I have traveled to New Orleans, Mexico, and Argentina to visit teachers I had only met online, and hosted them when they came to visit. My colleague in Argentina stayed in my home for a month last winter, teaching with me and visiting other schools in Baltimore. I never could have imagined that I would make friends around the world with whom I would talk about my students, family, and life!
Many teachers wonder whether these virtual visits benefit them and their students. Looking back over my own experience, I realize that my students and I are more passionate about learning and our place in the world after connecting with others via Skype. During this school year, my students traveled more than 50,000 miles through Skype and my Smart Board.
My former student, Andrew, perfectly captured the significance of what he was learning this way: “Through Skype, I have talked with people all around the world. It makes me wonder if we all really do have a lot in common.”
Mary-Catherine Irving has taught first grade for 27 years. In 2016, she was selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator as well as a Skype Master Teacher. NAIS selected her as an Innovative Educator in 2011. In addition, she is a certified National Geographic Educator. She can be reached at Mirving@McDonogh.org to provide guidance if you wish to try bringing the world into your room.
Angie Thomas started writing her young-adult novel, “The Hate U Give,” in reaction to a fatal shooting that took place some 2,000 miles away. But to her it felt deeply personal.
Ms. Thomas was a college student in Jackson, Miss., when a white transit police officer shot Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old African-American man, on a train platform in Oakland, Calif., in 2009. She was shocked when some of her white classmates said he had probably deserved it. She responded with a short story about a teenage girl who is drawn to activism after a white officer shoots her childhood best friend.
That story grew into a 444-page novel, as shootings of unarmed young black men continued.
Ms. Thomas worried that no one would publish a young-adult novel about such a raw and polarizing subject. Instead, 13 publishers bid in a frenzied auction. Balzer & Bray bought it in a two-book deal, and Fox 2000 optioned the film rights.
When “The Hate U Give” came out last month, it became an instant critical and commercial hit, with more than 100,000 copies in print. The novel — one of several new children’s books that use fiction to address police shootings of unarmed black teenagers — debuted at the top of The New York Times’s Young Adult best-seller list, and has drawn ecstatic praise from critics, librarians, book sellers and prominent young-adult novelists. John Green, the author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” called the work “a stunning, brilliant, gut-wrenching novel that will be remembered as a classic of our time.”
“The Hate U Give,” which takes its title from a phrase coined by the rapper Tupac Shakur, is one of a cluster of young-adult novels that confront police brutality, racial profiling and the Black Lives Matter movement. Several are debut novels from young African-American writers who have turned to fiction as a form of activism, hoping that their stories can help frame and illuminate the persistence of racial injustice for young readers.
“For me, specifically for black teenagers, it’s a reflection of what we’re all facing right now,” said Jay Coles, a 21-year-old college student from Indianapolis, who sold his first novel, “Tyler Johnson Was Here,” to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers this year. Mr. Coles said he had started writing the book, which centers on a black teenager whose twin brother is shot by a police officer, as a way to process his depression and rage after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012.
This fall, Crown Books for Young Readers will publish Nic Stone’s debut novel, “Dear Martin,” about a black high school scholarship student at an Atlanta prep school who becomes a victim of racial profiling when an off-duty officer fires at him and his best friend during an argument at a traffic light.
In “Ghost Boys,” a middle-grade novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the ghost of a young black boy who was shot by a white police officer witnesses the aftermath of his death, and meets the ghosts of other black boys, including Emmett Till, the black teenager who was killed by white men in 1955. The novel, which Little, Brown Books for Young Readers will release next spring, was partly inspired by the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Teachers and librarians across the country have embraced the new body of children’s literature dealing with racial bias and injustice. Hundreds of schools and libraries have ordered copies of “The Hate U Give.” Other recent young-adult novels about violence against black teenagers, including Kekla Magoon’s “How It Went Down,” have been used in high school classrooms to talk about racial inequality.
Some educators see fiction as a particularly potent tool for engaging with volatile topics and instilling empathy in young readers.
“Kids have so many questions, and they want to engage on these topics,” said Deborah Taylor, a youth librarian in Baltimore. “We kind of shy away from the notion that this is a fact of life for our kids.”
The cluster of novels is also arriving at a moment when the children’s book industry is struggling to address the lack of diversity in the stories it publishes, and the scarcity of children’s books by African-American authors.
While the number of children’s books featuring African-American characters has grown in the last decade, the number of books by black authors has barely budged, according to data collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. Out of some 3,400 children’s books published in 2016, 278 featured black characters, up from 153 in 2006. But only 92 of those books were written by black authors, roughly the same number as a decade ago.
The epidemic of police violence against unarmed African-Americans has been well covered through nonfiction, in books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award, and Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.” But children’s book authors have only recently begun to tackle the subject in greater numbers.
“This isn’t a literary trend. This is an issue of our time,” said the novelist Jason Reynolds, who teamed up with Brendan Kiely to write “All American Boys,” a 2015 novel about an African-American teenager who is assaulted by an officer who mistakes him for a shoplifter at a bodega.
Over the last two years, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Kiely have visited more than 100 schools around the country, speaking to some 40,000 students about the book. Mr. Reynolds said they occasionally encountered resistance from nervous school administrators. Scheduled talks at a school in Newark and a young-adult literary festival in Texas were canceled over concerns about the politically charged topic, Mr. Reynolds said.
The overwhelmingly positive reception to “The Hate U Give” has stunned Ms. Thomas, 29, a former teenage rapper who worked as a church receptionist in Jackson while finishing her novel. “I knew that while the topic was timely, it was also controversial,” she said.
“I say, ‘It probably will make you uncomfortable,’” she said. “I’m not here to give you comfort.’”
As a bookworm growing up in a poor neighborhood in Jackson, Ms. Thomas didn’t have many literary role models. She tore through the Harry Potter books and other series at the library after school, but characters whose lives felt familiar to her were scarce.
“For me, hip-hop was a mirror when young-adult books were not,” she said. “I could see myself in a Nas song more than I could see myself in a book.”
In her first year at Belhaven University, she took a creative writing class, and felt out of place as the only black student in the classroom. One day, her professor asked students to talk about their travels over the summer. Ms. Thomas, who was raised by her single mother and grandmother, had never left Mississippi. When she got to her car in the parking lot, she cried.
But her professor encouraged her to draw on her own experience in her writing. “He told me that my stories, and the stories of people in my community, mattered,” she said. When she turned in the story about Starr, the narrator of “The Hate U Give,” he told her that she could turn it into a novel.
“The Hate U Give” takes place in a neighborhood modeled on the community Ms. Thomas grew up in, where drugs and gang violence were inescapable but people looked out for one another. Starr shares many of the author’s traits — she loves basketball and Tupac, and shuttles between two worlds: her affluent, mostly white private school and her impoverished neighborhood.
One night after a party, Starr watches as her friend, Khalil, is pulled over, shot and killed by a white police officer. She struggles with the risks of coming forward as a witness, as protests erupt in her neighborhood.
“I wanted to make this as personal as possible, so that people can understand why so many of us are so hurt and so angry,” Ms. Thomas said.
Since the book’s release on Feb. 28, Ms. Thomas has been touring the country, and has had emotional discussions with young readers. At an event in Jackson, a group of girls in middle school told her that they had never met an author who looked like them.
On a recent afternoon in Philadelphia, Ms. Thomas met with 41 teenagers from local schools who had gathered in a basement at a library. She wore a camouflage jacket covered with buttons bearing slogans like “Resist,” and put on a flower crown that one of the students had given her.
The students laughed when she described how she had to send her book editors links to the Urban Dictionary definition of “lit,” a slang term, and cheered when she told them that the novel was being adapted into a movie.
One student asked who inspired her to keep writing when she faced so many obstacles. A young man asked her about a central character modeled on Tupac. Others asked her about the challenges of writing about such a contentious topic.
“I want you to realize your voice matters,” she told the students. “Writing is a form of activism.”
In 1934, a young woman named Sara Pollard applied to Vassar College. In those days, parents were asked to fill out a questionnaire, and Sara’s father described her, truthfully, as “more a follower type than a leader.”
The school accepted Sara, explaining that it had enough leaders.
It’s hard to imagine this happening today. No father in his right mind (if the admissions office happened to ask him!) would admit that his child was a natural follower; few colleges would welcome one with open arms. Today we prize leadership skills above all, and nowhere more than in college admissions. As Penny Bach Evins, the head of St. Paul’s School for Girls, an independent school in Maryland, told me, “It seems as if higher ed is looking for alphas, but the doers and thinkers in our schools are not always in front leading.”
Harvard’s application informs students that its mission is “to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society.” Yale’s website advises applicants that it seeks “the leaders of their generation”; on Princeton’s site, “leadership activities” are first among equals on a list of characteristics for would-be students to showcase. Even Wesleyan, known for its artistic culture, was found by one study to evaluate applicants based on leadership potential.
If college admissions offices show us whom and what we value, then we seem to think that the ideal society is composed of Type A’s. This is perhaps unsurprising, even if these examples come from highly competitive institutions. It’s part of the American DNA to celebrate those who rise above the crowd. And in recent decades, the meteoric path to leadership of youthful garage- and dorm-dwellers, from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, has made king of the hill status seem possible for every 19-year-old. So now we have high school students vying to be president of as many clubs as they can. It’s no longer enough to be a member of the student council; now you have to run the school.
Yet a well-functioning student body — not to mention polity — also needs followers. It needs team players. And it needs those who go their own way.
It needs leaders who are called to service rather than to status.
Admissions officers will tell you that their quest for tomorrow’s leaders is based on a desire for positive impact, to make the world a better place. I think they mean what they say.
But many students I’ve spoken with read “leadership skills” as a code for authority and dominance and define leaders as those who “can order other people around.” And according to one prominent Ivy League professor, those students aren’t wrong; leadership, as defined by the admissions process, too often “seems to be restricted to political or business power.” She says admissions officers fail to define leadership as “making advances in solving mathematical problems” or “being the best poet of the century.”
Whatever the colleges’ intentions, the pressure to lead now defines and constricts our children’s adolescence. One young woman told me about her childhood as a happy and enthusiastic reader, student and cellist — until freshman year of high school, when “college applications loomed on the horizon, and suddenly, my every activity was held up against the holy grail of ‘leadership,’ ” she recalled. “And everyone knew,” she added, “that it was not the smart people, not the creative people, not the thoughtful people or decent human beings that scored the application letters and the scholarships, but the leaders. It seemed no activity or accomplishment meant squat unless it was somehow connected to leadership.”
This young woman tried to overhaul her personality so she would be selected for a prestigious leadership role as a “freshman mentor.” She made the cut, but was later kicked out of the program because she wasn’t outgoing enough. At the time, she was devastated. But it turned out that she’d been set free to discover her true calling, science. She started working after school with her genetics teacher, another behind-the-scenes soul. She published her first scientific paper when she was 18, and won the highest scholarship her university has to offer, majoring in biomedical engineering and cello.
Our elite schools overemphasize leadership partly because they’re preparing students for the corporate world, and they assume that this is what businesses need. But a discipline in organizational psychology, called “followership,” is gaining in popularity. Robert Kelley, a professor of management and organizational behavior, defined the term in a 1988 Harvard Business Review article, in which he listed the qualities of a good follower, including being committed to “a purpose, principle or person outside themselves” and being “courageous, honest and credible.” It’s an idea that the military has long taught.
Recently, other business thinkers have taken up this mantle. Some focus on the “romance of leadership” theory, which causes us to inaccurately attribute all of an organization’s success and failure to its leader, ignoring its legions of followers. Adam Grant, who has written several books on what drives people to succeed, says that the most frequent question he gets from readers is how to contribute when they’re not in charge but have a suggestion and want to be heard. “These are not questions asked by leaders,” he told me. “They’re fundamental questions of followership.”
Team players are also crucial. My sons are avid soccer players, so I spend a lot of time watching the “beautiful game.” The thing that makes it beautiful is not leadership, though an excellent coach is essential. Nor is it the swoosh of the ball in the goal, though winning is noisily celebrated. It is instead the intricate ballet of patterns and passes, of each player anticipating the other’s strengths and needs, each shining for the brief instant that he has the ball before passing it to a teammate or losing it to an opponent.
We also rely as a society, much more deeply than we realize, on the soloists who forge their own paths. We see those figures in all kinds of pursuits: in the sciences; in sports like tennis, track and figure skating; and in the arts. Art and science are about many things that make life worth living, but they are not, at their core, about leadership. Helen Vendler, a professor of English at Harvard, published an essay in which she encouraged the university to attract more artists and not expect them “to become leaders.” Some of those students will become leaders in the arts, she wrote — conducting an orchestra, working to reinstate the arts in schools — “but one can’t quite picture Baudelaire pursuing public service.”
Perhaps the biggest disservice done by the outsize glorification of “leadership skills” is to the practice of leadership itself — it hollows it out, it empties it of meaning. It attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve. It teaches students to be a leader for the sake of being in charge, rather than in the name of a cause or idea they care about deeply. The difference between the two states of mind is profound. The latter belongs to transformative leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi; the former to — well, we’ve all seen examples of this kind of leadership lately.
If this seems idealistic, consider the status quo: students jockeying for leadership positions as résumé padders. “They all want to be president of 50 clubs,” a faculty adviser at a New Jersey school told me. “They don’t even know what they’re running for.”
It doesn’t have to be this way.
What if we said to college applicants that the qualities we’re looking for are not leadership skills, but excellence, passion and a desire to contribute beyond the self? This framework would encompass exceptional team captains and class presidents. But it wouldn’t make leadership the be-all and end-all.
What if we said to our would-be leaders, “Take this role only if you care desperately about the issue at hand”?
And what if we were honest with ourselves about what we value? If we’re looking for the students and citizens most likely to attain wealth and power, let’s admit it. Then we can have a frank debate about whether that is a good idea.
But if instead we seek a society of caring, creative and committed people, and leaders who feel called to service rather than to stature, then we need to do a better job of making that clear.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: FEBRUARY 8, 2012 | UPDATED: JANUARY 8, 2016
Project-based learning (PBL) naturally lends itself to differentiated instruction. By design, it is student-centered, student-driven, and gives space for teachers to meet the needs of students in a variety of ways. PBL can allow for effective differentiation in assessment as well as daily management and instruction. PBL experts will tell you this, but I often hear teachers ask for real examples, specifics to help them contextualize what it “looks like” in the classroom. We all need to try out specific ideas and strategies to get our brains working in a different context. Here are some specific differentiation strategies to use during a PBL project.
1. Differentiate Through Teams
We all know that heterogeneous grouping works, but sometimes homogenous grouping can be an effective way to differentiate in a project. Sometimes in a novel- or literature-based PBL project, it might be appropriate to differentiate by grouping into reading level. That way, I can take groups that need intensive work and ensure they are getting the instruction they need. I think teaming should be intentional, and we need to know the “why” of how we structure teams. Are you differentiating for academic ability? Are you differentiating for collaboration skills? Are you differentiating for social-emotional purposes? Are you differentiating for passions? If you’re a designer or co-designer of a PBL project, teams can be an effective way to differentiate instruction.
2. Reflection and Goal Setting
Reflection is an essential component of PBL. Throughout the project, students should be reflecting on their work and setting goals for further learning. This is a great opportunity for them to set personalized learning goals and for you to target instruction specific to the goals they set. At specific milestones in a project, one teacher that I observed had students reflect on what they’d learned so far in math and science, and then create goal statements for what they still wanted to learn. The teacher then designed activities to support students in learning not only what they wanted, but also what they needed to know.
3. Mini-Lessons, Centers, and Resources
This is probably one of my favorites. In addition to being a great management strategy to prevent “time sucks” in class, mini-lessons and centers are a great way to differentiate instruction. Perhaps you offer mini-lessons or center work to support your students’ learning, or maybe you show students a variety of resources from which to learn, including videos, games, and readings. I know a teacher who has a well-oiled PBL machine of a classroom. Students move seamlessly from product work to learning stations, resources, and mini-lessons based on what they know. Students are so in tune with their learning that they are able to truly take ownership of it, and the teacher provides instruction without assumption. Not all students may need the mini-lesson, so you can offer or demand it for the students who will really benefit.
4. Voice and Choice in Products
Another essential component of PBL is student voice and choice, both in terms of what students produce and how they use their time. Specifically to products, you can allow students to show what they know in a variety of ways. From written components to artistic or theatrical, you can differentiate the ways that students are summatively assessed. Their passions actively come into play here. Again, it all depends on the standards that you’re assessing, but don’t let standards confine your thinking. Yes, you may have a written component if you’re assessing writing, but ask yourself, “How can I allow for voice and choice here?” Embrace possibilities for differentiated student summative products.
5. Differentiate Through Formative Assessments
Formative assessments can look the same for all students. They can also look different. We know that students can show what they’ve learned in different ways, as mentioned above in terms of products produced as summative assessment. In addition, as you check for understanding along the way, you can formatively assess in different ways when appropriate. Perhaps you are targeting collaboration in the project. You can differentiate a formative assessment of this through a variety of ways. Perhaps it’s an oral conference. Perhaps it’s a series of written responses. Perhaps it is a graphic organizer or collage. More importantly, these formative assessments allow you to differentiate the type of instruction needed as you “feed forward” in the project.
6. Balance Teamwork and Individual Work
Teamwork and collaboration occur regularly in a PBL project. We want to leverage collaboration as much as content. However, there are times when individual instruction and practice may be needed. You need to differentiate the learning environment because some students learn better on their own, and others learn better in a team. In fact, we all need time to process and think alone just as much as we need time to learn from our peers. Make sure to balance both so that you are supporting a collaborative environment while allowing time to meet students on an individual basis.
As you master the PBL process in your classroom, you will intuitively find ways to differentiate instruction for your students. You will design the project to scaffold content and skills in a variety of ways. You will create formative and summative assessments to allow for student passions and goals, and you will manage the process so that it allows you to meet students where they are and move them forward.
Please share some of your successful strategies with us!
A few years ago, formative assessment returned as a frequent topic of discussion in faculty meetings and professional development sessions. I started mulling it over — examining how I did it, how I used it, and how I saw students using it.
Like most teachers, I always knew there were things I could do better, but with formative assessment, I couldn’t really figure out what that was. I made a list of all the things I already engaged in on a regular basis:
Meetings with students about ongoing work
Writing extensive comments on student work related to specific learning goals
Peer work (editing, revising, commenting, and so on)
Good old-fashioned quizzes
Goal-setting activities at different points during the year
After some careful reflection, I realized I didn’t need to give more feedback, nor did I need a new formative feedback tool. The problem I faced with formative assessment, I realized, was that the students who needed that feedback the most were the ones not using it. It wasn’t a big group, but in each of my classes I could easily identify a few students who, no matter what I seemed to do, ignored all that formative work.
We needed to figure out why they weren’t using the formative feedback to improve their learning.
Those Google Doc comments on the project we were doing? William turned in a final draft that didn’t reflect any of the improvements I’d suggested. The one-on-one conference in which we talked about how to support an argument with evidence? Michelle didn’t do anything we talked about. The learning-check activities we did about common characteristics in urban civilization? Aaron clearly saw that he couldn’t explain them but seemingly did nothing to remedy the problem.
If I thought about it, it made me crazy, but at least now I knew where to focus. Other students were revising work, studying things they weren’t sure about, and practicing skills. These three weren’t, and the first thing I needed to do was find out why.
Helping Students Own the Process
In the next regular meeting I had with each student, I told each one that we needed to figure out why they weren’t using the formative feedback to improve their learning. The answers they gave weren’t all that surprising, when you think about it. William wasn’t actually sure where to begin or how to incorporate the suggestions I made. Michelle felt like it really wouldn’t make a difference because she just simply wasn’t a good writer. Aaron was somewhere in the middle; he often felt like it was too late to “fix” the problems because there was often too much to do.
This was a good start. Now it was time to formulate a plan.
I asked each student to commit to making one substantive change based on comments or our meeting discussion before they turned in their final draft of the project we were working on. Since the writing portion was in Google Docs, they decided that they would explain how they were following through on feedback in a comment to me.
We talked about how they could use their peer-conferencing and -editing sessions better by incorporating what they wanted to improve into their meeting with a partner. Though it seemed obvious to me, each student was kind of at a loss about how to do that. We settled on asking specific questions (“How can I __?,” “Where can I __?,” or “Is this a good place to __?”). Each student committed to writing down the questions they asked. I followed up on those conversations with a similar discussion and modeling before our next peer-editing session.
Michelle, who previously had never followed through on the ideas we talked about in conferences, decided to focus on her use of evidence. She partnered with another student and asked specifically where she should include her examples and facts. She had the examples and facts, but she just didn’t know where they really fit. I actually heard her say, “But how do I make it fit?” With me, she started asking if the evidence was convincing.
I had already tried to give William focused feedback, but in his first peer conference he asked whether he should work on transitions between ideas or on his introduction. (Remember, this was the guy whose idea of revision had always been clicking “resolve” on a Google Doc comment.) In his final comment response to me, he explained that once he saw the difference in the introduction, it “felt like it was a check-box done” and he could move on to other steps.
Aaron ended up doing something of a combination of William’s and Michelle’s strategies. He worked with me and another student to prioritize what he should work on and how to do it, but he also asked me, through a written comment, if it would be OK to “just focus on sentence structure this time?” He wanted to get that skill down before he worked on anything else. For the first time, I was seeing him address his “gaps,” so how could I not agree?
I made changes in what I did that pushed for more accountability from students but which also made me engage in more of a dialogue in my formative feedback.
What We Learned
In the end, the strategies the three of us agreed to seemed like something every student would benefit from. I made changes in what I did that pushed for more accountability from students but which also made me engage in more of a dialogue in my formative feedback. William, Aaron, and Michelle did not magically transform, but they (and my other students) definitely started to “feel formative” (as we now call it). That idea, that we are still taking shape and not yet fully formed, is what prompts real change.
But that is changing as evidence builds that taking brief activity breaks during the day helps children learn and be more attentive in class, and a growing number of programs designed to promote movement are being adopted in schools.
“We need to recognize that children are movement-based,” said Brian Gatens, the superintendent of schools in Emerson, N.J. “In schools, we sometimes are pushing against human nature in asking them to sit still and be quiet all the time.”
“We fall into this trap that if kids are at their desks with their heads down and are silent and writing, we think they are learning,” Mr. Gatens added. “But what we have found is that the active time used to energize your brain makes all those still moments better,” or more productive.
“Daily physical activity is an opportunity for the average school to become a high-performing school,” said Jesper Fritz, a doctoral student at Lund University and physician at the Skane University Hospital in Malmo who was the study’s lead author.
“Activity helps the brain in so many ways,” said James F. Sallis, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego, who has done research on the association between activity breaks and classroom behavior. “Activity stimulates more blood vessels in the brain to support more brain cells. And there is evidence that active kids do better on standardized tests and pay attention more in school.”
“Plus,” he added, “it makes kids want to come to school more — it’s fun to do these activities.”
But not all districts are embracing the trend of movement breaks.
“The bottom line is that with only six and a half hours during the day, our priority is academics,” said Tom Hernandez, the director of community relations for the Plainfield School District in Illinois, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. He said that under state law, the schools provide daily physical education classes and that teachers in the district find ways to give students time during the day to refresh and recharge.
“Kids aren’t meant to sit still all day and take in information,” said Steve Boyle, one of the co-founders of the National Association of Physical Literacy, which aims to bring movement into schools. “Adults aren’t wired that way either.”
Mr. Boyle’s association has introduced a series of three- to five-minute videos called “BrainErgizers” that are being used in schools and Boys and Girls Clubs in 15 states and in Canada, Mexico, Ireland and Australia, he said. A version of the program is available to schools at no charge.
The program is designed so that three to five times a day, teachers can set aside a few minutes for their students to watch a video and follow the cues given by the instructors. In one typical video, the instructors are college students of all shapes and sizes at the University of Connecticut who do a quick warm-up and then lead kids through a mini workout involving movements from several sports: baseball, basketball and a triathlon. That’s followed by a cool-down.
“At the end of the week, kids have gotten an hour or more worth of movement, and it’s all done in the classroom with no special equipment,” Mr. Boyle said. “We’re not looking to replace gym classes, we’re aiming to give kids more minutes of movement per week. And by introducing sports into the videos, giving kids a chance to try sports they may not have ever tried before.”
Julie Goldstein, principal of the Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., said her school has been using BrainErgizers since the spring of 2015.
It’s easy for the teachers to implement, and “easy for the students to follow,” Mrs. Goldstein said. She said the program has “helped them focus and bring up their energy level in the classroom.”
Scott McQuigg, chief executive and a co-founder of GoNoodle, a classroom movement program used in more than 60,000 elementary schools in the United States credits Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative with helping to bring movement and the health of children into the public consciousness.
“We call this the Movement movement,” Mr. McQuigg said. “If we invest three to five minutes for our kids to move in the classroom, we are actually going to optimize the next 45 minutes for learning. That small investment in time has such a big yield for teachers.”
“We have purposely not gone after this as an exercise program,” Mr. McQuigg said. “This is a digital generation that expects to be entertained, and we think we can do more good around getting them to move if they are entertained.”
For example, GoNoodle videos have kids running alongside their desks through a virtual obstacle course or following along with dance moves.
Joseph E. Donnelly, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said one of the good things about kids being more physically active in classrooms is that everyone is moving at the same time.
“In physical education classes, there is a lot of standing around, a lot of minutes of kids waiting to do an activity, and sometimes kids are only moving for about 15 minutes during a 50-minute class,” said Dr. Donnelly, who co-authored a statement on the effects of physical activity and academic achievement in children that was published last year by the American College of Sports Medicine. “If you do movement in class a few times a day, that can add up to at least an extra 60 minutes more of movement per week.”
Lindsay DiStefano, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, said the country is due for a major shift toward appreciating the benefits of physical activity in the classroom.
“In 1961, President Kennedy said school kids needed physical activity to thrive, but in the past 20 years, the pendulum has totally shifted the opposite way because schools are feeling the pressure to have students do well on standardized tests,” Ms. DiStefano said. “We are not thinking about the child as an entire person, how physical activity helps them cope with the stresses of school and actually benefits them in the classroom.”