Week 4: So What Do They Really Know?

So it's the end of week 4 and I've just wrapped up my reading of Tovani's So What Do They Really Know?

So much of this book resonated with me! I struggle daily with the decisions I make, especially now that I am in more of a traditional school that requires weekly percentage based grades be entered in an online grading book. I definitely miss the days when my narrative reports, portfolios, and mastery-based grading were the norm! But reading Tovani's book helped me to think about why my beliefs matter, and gave me the extra push I need to continue assessing and grading in a way that I feel accurately shows my learners' understanding and progress.

Here are some highlights that spoke to me from the last three chapters!

Chapter 5
Favorite quote:
The inability to annotate something related to the reading alerts learners that their minds have wandered, which gives them an opportunity to go back and reread before their thoughts stray to far from the text.
 There were several great quotes in this chapter, but this one in particular brought some important reflections about my own learners. Often, I find that they don't even seem to realize that they have checked out, let their mind wander, or are confused about the text. I've used annotations to look at mentor texts for writing, and when we look at a shared poem or other small text -- but not to the extent that I would like. In Tovani's classroom, she pairs an anchor text that the whole class reads with several shorter texts that students can choose from -- this is how she offers choice in her classroom. I'm still struggling to find a way to have more texts we can annotate together, as my learners are reading novels during their independent reading time. This is something I need to think through. I would love to offer more engaging texts to go alongside their Texas history textbook, but these have been difficult to find. One thing I think might work is offering texts that are companion pieces to the read alouds from class. We just finished Applegate's The One and Only Ivan, which appealed to everyone in class! During the reading, I found several articles about the real Ivan -- the gorilla the book is based on. We did annotate one of these texts together, which proved to be a wonderful learning experience. In the future, a little more forward planning could help me be better prepared to offer this type of companion piece texts -- and I can let them do some annotating on their own, after some modeling, of course! I'm eager to see how this works in my 4th grade classroom.

Chapter 6
Favorite quote:
Conferring is a talent that can take years to develop. Don't get discouraged, though. To kids, even a teacher who confers badly is better than one who doesn't do it at all.
This is a quote I want to pin in every teacher's classroom all around the globe. I can't even begin to recall the many conversations I have had with teachers of all grade and experience levels about the difficulties when conferring. They are afraid to say the wrong thing, not sure what to say, not sure how to be effective. But the truth is, any help is better than no help at all -- as long as we are mindful that the learner is a person first -- each of them deserves the same amount of kindness we would give a friend in the same situation. When I talk to a friend about a book or a piece of writing, I listen first and comment second. I nudge for more information. I encourage. I give a snippet of advice. And that's pretty much it.

That's how I think about conferring with learners, both as readers and writers. I want to know what they think, where they struggle, what questions they have, and where they want to go next. I can't know these things unless I am clued in to what they are thinking, and this means meeting with or offering feedback to my learners daily.  The "History of the Mob" graded social studies test that is shared on page 124 just about broke my heart. Whenever I sit and talk with a child, the most important thing in my mind is, "First, do no harm."

I often find myself guilty of something mentioned in this chapter, though. Not wanting to interrupt a reader that is "in the zone" I will look over his or her shoulder, see where they are in the reading and what they are writing, but not stop to talk. This is my area to work on! I also think I could use some purposeful thought when it comes to planning some mini-lesson time during conferences. I often bog myself down with worry about how to find time for mini-lessons on all the skills I feel are needed by my learners -- but I can reduce my own stress by doing some of these lessons as conferences with the students that need it most.

Chapter 7
"Grading is Killing Me" is such a fitting title for a chapter on grades! I feel this way all the time. I struggle with assigning numbers to writing, toil over how to best reflect the progress of my readers in a grade, and wind myself up into knots every time I sit down to grade. This chapter gave me some great points to remember as I plan for assessments and grading.

Favorite quote(s):
When the top consideration for grading is how easily it can be managed, we lose what matters most -- understanding and the ability to think critically.
Art Costa, founding director of the Institute for Habits of Mind, has said: "What was educationally significant but hard to measure has been replaced by what is educationally insignificant and easy to measure. So now we measure how well we've taught what isn't worth learning."
These two statements, along with the following information on how Tovani assigns grades throughout the year, were the exact words I needed to read this year. Learning matters. Growth matters. Understanding matters. And recording that progress in the most accurate way possible? Yeah, that matters too.

So when I'm questioned about my grading policies and beliefs, I'm pointing to these quotes. And I can tell anyone asking that I grade in the beginning of the year for how my learners "attempt and complete" the work. It was refreshing to read this section! I nearly flung the book at my husband and shouted, "I do this!! At the beginning of the year I was in tears and frustrated and this is what I came up with! Woohoo!"

Grading is still a struggle, and it will continue to be. But at least now I feel a little more confident about my practices. And I have a plan to carry me forward throughout the rest of the year.

Final Thoughts
Much of the material in this book is aimed at middle and high school teachers. With a little thought and creativity, I believe that these same principles work in the elementary classroom. In fact, Tovani herself says that many of her assessment beliefs came with her from her years in the elementary classroom.

I'm thankful I came across this book through the Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute. This school year is challenging everything I believe in -- I need a staple of strong mentor teachers to look to so that I can continue to say, "Yes! That's exactly why I am doing what I do!"

This is definitely a book I will go to again and again, whenever I find myself getting lost in the politics of school. We all need a little affirmation to keep us headed in the right direction. Encouragement isn't just for our learners -- we need it too!


  1. Glad to hear you've found such a useful book. Happy Reading!

  2. Fascinating. I need to see if I can find a copy of this book.

    Here's my It's Monday! What Are You Reading?! I hope you will stop by!

  3. Sounds like a very extraordinary book. Glad you're enjoying it.