Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Younger

I just had a birthday and I am feeling simultaneously old and reflective. I got to see some old friends who reminded me of how dumb I think I was when I was younger (They kindly didn’t tell me I was dumb. I just remembered).

Things I wish I knew when I was younger:
  • Charging stupid things on credit cards will make them cost much more in the long run.
  • Not checking your pockets before you do laundry can destroy half your wardrobe in one shot.
  • Show up at work on time. It makes everyone’s life easier.
  • You may think everyone is watching you. They probably aren’t. It’s not actually about you (or me).
  • Oatmeal that has dried onto a dish is really hard to remove. Wash the dishes.
  • Don’t take sides when your two friends break up.
  • Second chances are wonderful.
  • The harder you work, the more “luck” you have.

Here are things  I have learned from other, brilliant teachers, that I wish I could have used in my classroom:
  • Don’t grade every piece of paper that a kid touches. You’ll spend all your time grading and not enough time planning.
  • Put your bathroom pass on a lanyard. Otherwise -- where does a kid PUT the pass when he or she is using the bathroom? Ewwwww.....
  • Explicitly teach your students how to do stuff. Don’t just assume they know how to write or discuss or head their papers.
  • Have stuff for the kid who didn’t bring anything. That way, he or she can learn more with less argument.
  • Kids can get smarter. Treat them like they can get smarter (not like they’re just “dumb” for life)
  • The person doing the talking is the person doing the thinking.
  • When monitoring student work, read what they’re writing.

That last one sounds a little silly. “OF COURSE I read what they’re writing.”, you want to say to me. “I walk around my class monitoring every day, whenever they do independent or small-group work!”

Ah. I did too. But did you know that there are THREE kinds of monitoring? And I regularly did two -- but rarely did the third?

Boy. Hindsight is 20/20
  1. Monitoring for engagement: Checking to see if your kids are engaged. Everyday, you walk around the room and scan those cute faces to see if your kids are “with you”. To see if they are engaged in the learning. I did this. Probably not quite enough, but I wasn’t bad.
  2. Monitoring for compliance: I have to admit, I was pretty good at this. Every period, I walked around the room to see if kids were doing what they were supposed to. I had a shoulder-tap or a verbal reminder or a pep-talk for any kid who wasn’t completing his or her work. I rocked this one.
  3. Monitoring for understanding: I feel dumb for saying this, but I really didn’t do this often. This is where you walk around the room, but instead of seeing if kids are doing what they need to do, you are checking to see what they’re writing or saying and you SEE IF THEY GOT IT.

It’s so obvious -- and I rarely did it.

It’s just a type of formative assessment that requires the LEAST additional teacher work or effort (hooray!)
It really doesn’t take any more effort than the other two. Most good teachers are already doing the first two. But I freely admit that I rarely monitored for understanding.

What does it look like?
  1. Walk around the room
  2. Read what they write
  1. Listen to what they say.
  2. Did they get it or not?
  3. Adjust instruction from there.

*Small caveat-- they have to be doing something higher-thinking-level than  recall. It’s hard to tell if they “struggle” with recall. They really have to be writing or talking about something that doesn’t have one correct answer, like a summary, comparison, choice, or whatever.

Just like checking my pants pockets would have saved a TON of clothes (darn that chapstick in my pocket!), monitoring for understanding every day would have saved me a TON of time teaching more directly to where my kids were in their understanding of the content.

I know you do a lot of formative assessment at the end of the period -- exit tickets, summaries, scale reflections,etc. But sometimes, the end of the period is TOO LATE.

I challenge you to do this at least one time a period. Most of you don’t have to change your actual behavior (since you already monitor for engagement or compliance/completion). If you teach block (or if you’re an over-achiever), try it twice a period.

Check for understanding. Then, adjust or adapt your instruction.

  • Do your kids already get it? Great! Move on to the next activity or topic.
  • Are your kids lost? Quick! Stop them now and reteach or reinforce or remediate.
  • Are SOME kids lost and SOME kids fine? Split them into groups. Let the kids who “get it” move on or practice their learning. Take the kids who don’t get it and reteach it.

I wish I had known this. It would have saved me an insane amount of time that I wasn’t teaching what my kids actually needed.

Did you ever destroy a whole load of laundry by not checking the pockets? What else do you know now that you didn’t know when you were young and foolish?

Can you tell the difference in your instruction when you monitor for UNDERSTANDING instead of monitoring for engagement or compliance?

As always, I love to hear! Email me at


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

How Will I Know?

Happy (I-made-it-up) Formative Assessment Month!

Image result for bee girl blind melonI was the kind of kid who was forever putting on shows for whoever I could con into watching.  Dance routines, plays, synchronized swimming with my best buddy.

I realize this explains a lot about my personality to some of you who just went “Yup. I can see that”.

I went through a huge Whitney Houston phase one spring in late elementary school. I had a dance routine to every song on the Whitney cassette tape. I think I literally wore it out.

One of my favorites was “How Will I Know?”. If you aren't  familiar, the lyrics to this piece of pop perfection ask “how will I know” if he (a boy) really loves me?”

As a fourth grader, I had no idea how a person would know if a boy liked her. This was a definite mystery to me, so I could really wonder along with Whitney Houston.

As a teacher, my “How Will I Know?” question is less about dance routines and boys -- and MORE about what my students are learning.

Seriously -- how DO we know? We could wait until we give  (and GRADE) a quiz....

But I would argue that that would be too late. I need to know now -- THIS CLASS PERIOD -- how well my students are mastering the material. Otherwise, how can I adapt my lesson?

One more strategy for you to try with formative assessment is this -- Text Graffiti.

It works like this.
  1. Find something you’re going to teach. Maybe it’s a quote or excerpt. Maybe it’s an image. Maybe it’s a map. Maybe it’s just a phrase to get them thinking.
  2. Actually, find a couple of those. Maybe 4 or  5 for your class?
    1. For example, for the “key figures of the colonial era” you can have a stimulus for each of four different colonial figures.
3. Now, write or gluestick those stimuli to a piece of chart paper, in the middle.
4. Put a big question or some directions on the top
5. Have your kids go around at the BEGINNING of class in one color of pen or marker and write what they know about the topic.
6. Then, teach your stuff. You know, the way you do.
7. At the end of that chunk of content, have the kids go around in a DIFFERENT color and write on the chart paper what they LEARNED. They can draw arrows or connect to other pieces from before.

There are a couple of benefits (other than getting the kids up and moving)
  • First, you can see where the kids are at the beginning of the lesson, like a pretest, but more creative and flexible.  You can adjust your instruction from there.
  • Second, you can see the progress they made during class from ‘first-color” “before-learning” to “second color” “just-learned-it”
  • Third, you just have  to LOOK and adjust your instruction there, in the moment. You don’t have to GRADE ANYTHING (hooray!)
  • Finally, you can see whether, overall, your class mastered the content. Did they get it or not? You can learn a lot about how the lesson (or lesson chunk) went if they all wrote the same thing, or if they all threw out “important” vocab terms without explaining them, or if they were just as lost at the end as they were in the beginning.

Try this as ANOTHER formative assessment strategy. See what they know when they walk into your class -- and what they know after your instruction.

Bonus -- it may actually make you feel good to see what they learned. Or it may tell you exactly how to tweak your next bit of instruction so you can get your kids just that little bit further.

The more you know (about how your lesson went) ... the more THEY know (about your content).

All this needs is chart paper and markers or something. You can even do it on your board if you don't have chart paper (just take a picture of it at the end to refer to later).

What do you think? Are you up for ANOTHER formative Assessment strategy? Try this one and let me know how it goes. As always, I love to hear about your formative assessment -- and your love of Whitney. Email me at

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Trucks and Formative Assessment

Did you know that September is National Formative Assessment Month?
(I totally just made that up. But I think I’ll make a mini-series of Wednesday emails on Formative Assessment ideas for the rest of the month....)

My two year old is obsessed with trucks. Particularly, construction trucks. You probably don’t know that there are some dads on Youtube who have cashed in on the toddler love of trucks and written songs -- with trucky music videos about all different kinds of trucks. There are thirty videos these guys have made.

Thirty. Different. Truck. Songs.

Seriously. And you all wonder why I listen to the Hamilton soundtrack whenever I get the chance...

And despite my pledge to not be the parent who throws a screen in front of her kids... well, let’s just say that our whole family has learned the words to every one of those dang truck songs.

And my two year old is such a sponge! He might still throw a complete fit about who-knows-what, but he is learning more about trucks all the time.

And so am I. Because of these Youtube dads, my two year old and I now know what feller bunchers and concrete boom pumps are.

My husband and I were marvelling at our recent knowledge acquisition recently. Our conversation went like this.

“I used to think there were, like four or five kinds of construction trucks. Who knew there were so many?”

“Turns out there are over a dozen -- that my two year old knows. Real engineers and construction folks probably know even more!”

“How is it that my two year old is teaching me about something other than Elmo?”

And this reminded me of a wonderful strategy for formative assessment. It’s called  ”I used to think ... but now I know...”

Remember, formative assessment is a way to see if your kids are getting it, if they are understanding the learning target. Formative assessment is so we don’t wait until “the test” to see if our kids are with us, or if they’re lost. When we get tired of the same exit slips and “whiparounds”, we need new ideas to mix it up in our formative assessment.

“I used to think ... but now I know ...” is a strategy that works just as it sounds like it would.

At the end of a task, an activity, or a lesson segment,  ask kids to take out a sheet of paper. You can maybe even have them just draw a line under their “so-far” writing and write to the prompt based on the task, activity, or lesson segment:

I used to think ...  
But now I know ...

This is a routine for reflecting on how and why our thinking has changed. This strategy comes from the Harvard Visible Thinking routines. They believe that if we make student thinking visible, we can better foster students intellectual development. The idea of visible thinking helps to make concrete what a thoughtful classroom might look like.

All we have to do is plan to put it in a stopping point or a transition point, explain it, and ask students to complete the two sentence starters -- about content from that day or lesson.

For example:
I used to think that there were three or four types of construction trucks.
But now I know that there are at least twelve that all have different jobs on the construction site: dump trucks, cement mixers, excavators, front end loaders, crane trucks, graders, backhoes, road rollers, concrete boom pumps, forklifts, bulldozers, and scrapers.

So simple. It’s a great way to do several things at once
  • Formative assess how well students have grasped the content in a mid-lesson (or “so-far”) point in order to adapt the next step of the lesson.
  • Help students identify and articulate errors in logic or reasoning (Marzano DQ:3 Element 18)
  • Help students track and reflect on their progress.

We KNOW we’re supposed to use formative assessment regularly, every day. We KNOW we’re supposed to use it to inform our instruction -- to make in-the-moment decisions about where to go next in your teaching. We KNOW we should take that formative assessment and decide whether to move forward or back up in instruction.

But we don’t always know HOW to do this.

So here’s a strategy for reflective formatively assessing: “I used to think ... but now I know ...”

Try it and let me know how it goes. Is this a strategy worth using regularly? How will/did you use it? And ... can you figure out what a feller buncher does? As always, email me at

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Hermine and Time

I hope you survived the weather last week!

As I “hunkered down” for Tropical Storm Hermine, with the roads into and out of my neighborhood flooded (but not our actual house or yard, thank goodness), I was transported back in time.

When I was in 7th grade, our Social Studies course was Florida History or Florida Studies or something. I remember very clearly having some Florida map project where we had to color the 67 Florida counties by population.

Being a poor judge of time (and vastly overestimating my skills), I waited until the last minute. Literally, I waited until the day before to start, ignoring my teacher’s daily reminders to work on it.

You know how this story goes. At 10 pm the night before, I realized that I only had 22 counties done and would never get it done in time. I wasn’t ready to pull an actual all-nighter at age 12.

I went to bed, resigned to a really bad grade, or maybe, if I was lucky, a deadline extension in exchange for points off.

I awoke to a Hurricane Day! A Glorious, No-school Hurricane Day (actually a tropical storm day),

I was given a second chance and I promised the Weather Gods that I wouldn’t waste it. I worked that whole Hurricane Day and turned in a beautiful map the next day.

I thought about that a lot last week as I was, again, given the gift of unexpected extra time.

All day Thursday and Friday, I cleaned my house, played with my kids, hung some pictures I had been meaning to hang, pulled some weeds in between rain bands, and cleaned out a closet. I also worked on a family photo album and did some online shopping. All things I wouldn’t have had time for on a normal week.

As teachers, we all know the frustration of not enough time. There are benchmarks to teach, pacing to keep up with, remediation to fit in, review to facilitate... and no one has increased our class time hours to keep up with the increased demands.

I will encourage you to look for those elusive minutes in a pretty regular place -- your bellwork.

Our science colleagues (and plenty of others) are really big on the 10-70-20 idea of class time. Meaning
  • 10% of your class time on Bellwork
  • 70% of your class time on The Lesson
  • 20% of your class time time on Wrap-Up and formative assessment

I would encourage you to time yourself in a couple of classes. Give one kid (who usually is done early or who needs a special job to stay focused) a timer and have him or her time how long each part of the lesson takes: your bellwork, your main-part of the lesson, and your wrap-up

Then, I challenge you to see if your bellwork really takes 10 percent of your class time.

If you have traditional 45-minute class periods, that should be only 4-5 minutes, from start to finish.

If you have block periods, that should take 8-9 minutes.

Time it. With a stopwatch, a phone, or

Seriously! That really isn’t much time. In my class, bellwork was easily 10-15 minutes, sometimes creeping up toward 20!!

I really think if we are tighter with our bellwork/intro times, we will feel like I did in the 7th grade -- blessed by More Time. You may not get your house (or classroom) cleaned, your yard weeded, or your Florida Counties appropriately colored, but you will get those extra couple of minutes to teach, exhale, and confirm the learning.

Use those precious recaptured minutes to see if your kids actually learned what you want them to have learned. Use those reconquered minutes to have  your students tell YOU what they have learned.

You might just learn something good -- that they DID get it. Or that they need more help. Either way, you have more and better info to reteach, reinforce, or remediate if necessary.

See if you can grant yourself More Time. Your students don’t need ten or fifteen (or twenty) minutes of bellwork. Take a few minutes from there and see if that can help you do more of what you need to do.

As always, I love to hear from you. Did you time your bellworks? How were your times? Did you find a way to take some of that time and use it for a better purpose? Let me know!