Week 1: So What Do They Really Know?

This summer, I followed the Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute. A variety of amazing authors posted on their blog each week and readers were asked to respond in the comments. If the wealth of information shared in the blog posts wasn't enough of a reason to follow, anyone that shared a comment each week was entered into a drawing to win five (5, people!!) Stenhouse titles.

I was a lucky winner (yes, I did a happy book dance when I found out) and Cris Tovani's So What Do They Really Know? was one of the books I requested.

I could not be more pleased with my selection! After reading the first few chapters, I realized I wanted to share what I was reading with some of my teacher friends. And this little bloggy book study was born. This week I reread chapters 1 & 2, highlighting the points that stood out to me.

Chapter One
Here's a favorite quote from the first two chapters (found in chapter one):
"Teachers don't need any more numerical 'data.' What they need is validation to use the data that matters most--like student work and student talk--to help them figure out next steps for the learners in their educational care."
I connect to this book on several levels -- her sour taste for assessment along with the desire to really know her students quickly grabbed my interest. I feel exactly the same way. But I do like that right away she lets the reader know she doesn't feel like assessment deserves all the blame:
"I realized that assessment wasn't the enemy; it was the way it was being used to judge and punish instead of inform and help educators get smarter about teaching and learning."
 I also thought her comparison between multiple choice tests and open-ended questions was spot on! Just because a student can ace a multiple choice test does not mean they know the material. I think the same is true in reverse. Who hasn't been completely bewildered or frustrated when a student bombs a test over material they know?

If you know me at all, you've probably seen my eye-rolling sneer when the topic of standardized testing comes up. I abhor the district benchmarks, grumble about the STAAR, and shake my head at any assessment that barely skims the surface of what my students know and the progress they have made from where we began. I really identified with Tovani's thoughts on how she had mostly ignored the assessments she was forced to give, even while feeling it wasn't the best way to handle things. I often feel the same way. Finding a balance between the standardized testing students must take and my personal feelings on assessment is a difficult thing for me!

Chapter one ended with our first challenge -- write and define your definition of assessment. Again, this really challenges my over-analytic brain to make some concrete decisions! But if I have to put it in words, this is my working definition of assessment: any interaction or work example that shows a picture of what a student knows and understands at a given time. This can include what seems like an infinite number of possibilities. Audio clips, video, photographs, written work, blog posts ... really, anything that I can use to inform me on where my student is and what they need from me to grow -- that's assessment.

Chapter Two
You guys! I had a hard time narrowing down my favorite quote from this chapter, but here you go:

"When I know my students well, I am a better teacher."

This chapter involved a lot of fist pumping and excited book waving about in the air. I may have read sections to my husband and then stared at him all doe-eyed expecting him to engage me in deep, meaningful conversation about the importance of getting to know your students.

This did not happen.

Instead, I'll share here, because I know you guys will be much more excited. First of all, you need to know that I have been using the Conversation Calendars for about a month in my classroom. I love them! I started out letting students just write to me about anything they wanted. I was a little nervous, thinking they might not give me much to work with. I mean, I'm no Cris Tovani -- maybe those calendars are magical in her classroom, but in mine they were just going to be extra paper littering my classroom floor.

But wow -- I mean, honestly. Without the calendars, I wouldn't have learned that one of my students blames herself for her parents divorce. I wouldn't know the struggles one of them has every day with a difficult sibling. I wouldn't know many things. And they might not know how much I care. But every Tuesday and Thursday we write back and forth to each other and learn about one another and become a tighter community. It's golden. I just love it. Have I mentioned that already?

A couple weeks ago, I started asking them to write to me about the read aloud we're doing in collaboration with The Global Read Aloud. We're reading The One and Only Ivan and this is a book that practically begs for hours of rich discussion. It doesn't matter how much we discuss in class, everyone always has more to share. So we are sharing through the calendar and I am learning so much about them as people and as readers -- I know who is grasping the deeper themes and who is paying attention to word choice and figurative language. I can tell which of them could benefit from some note taking as I read (sticky notes, sketches, word captures, whatever works) and which do better to just sit and listen. It is  a magical thing, but not just in Tovani's room. It's working in mine, too. When we finish this book, I'll have students start responding to their own reading. I'm excited to see where that leads us.

I feel strongly that student-teacher relationships make all the difference in the success of every student. Brain research tells us that all humans need to be enveloped in a safe environment for learning to take place. I work hard to make my students feel secure enough to take risks and explore learning.

The challenges in this chapter really stuck with me. It's so important that we show our students that we see them -- not just that they are a body in our classroom, but that we acknowledge their importance in the universe, and we respond to it.

Tovani's student surveys seem like a great way to let students know that you are invested in their success.  Next week I plan to ask my students what they believe their role is as a reader. What do they think about all the reading we do? What importance do they put in it? I'm interested in those answers.

The challenge at the end of chapter two also included asking readers to make a list of student needs and to-do's. In my Evernote app, each student has a notebook with a list like this (created after my first read of this chapter). I love having this in the app, because anytime I learn something new about a student I can use my phone to enter new info into their note. Before reading about this, I always thought getting to know my students was something I was pretty good at. But having this ongoing list keeps it at the front of my mind, and I find I'm learning more about my students than ever before.

Next Week
For next week, read chapters three and four and be ready to share some more reflections!

1 comment:

  1. So I just completed reading chapters one and two of Tovani's book and am thinking that all of this makes sense to me. It is so clear that our students provide with an abundance of data everyday, yet moat teachers ignore that data in order to pay attention the "scores" provided by someone or or something that does does not the students. My big question is---why???? But I already know the answer to that for many teachers---- they do not own their curriculum. They follow the curriculum rather than own it. When you follow the curriculum, you allow others to "tell" you what to do. When you own the curriculum, you are able to manipulate it so that it works for the advantage of the students.

    You learn your students's needs, you study he curriculum, you determine what you think is the critical information, then you determine the bet way to address all of those things. It is a lot of brain work, but then you can be an observer as your students take various kinds of ownership of their learning.

    To me, this is the fun part because I get to learn, too. That means I don't have to know everything, which is such a relief! I love that I am still learning after all of these years in teaching.

    Assessment should be about determining what someone knows so that you know what the individual needs to learn, not to know what they already know.