PLCs To Do List: Question #4 and Pre-assessment

The infamous question number four. We all shudder. “What if our students already know the material we are planning to teach?” Already know it!?!?!? How could they! How dare they! They’re only 12! But the sad truth is that once in a blue moon, or, let’s face it, perhaps even more often than that, we do encounter students who already know much of the material we’ve planned on teaching them.

Unfortunately, teachers (myself included!) tend to do one of two things to these students. We either A) turn them into TA’s for our class, acting as helpers to the rest of the students (some people just call that free labor), or B) we ignore that they are bored, doodling in the back of class or getting into trouble because who wants to read Run, Spot, Run when you’re reading Gone with the Wind level stuff…. and we give them high marks on the tests that they ace without trying, and we pray that they don’t loose interest in school before they get to a subject that will actually challenge them.

Ok. Enough ranting. So what do we do about these poor, brilliant cherubs?

We pre-assess them.

Question number 4: What do we do if they already know it?

Take time in your PLC this week to build a pre-assessment together.  Pretty simple, but here are a few tips to get you going.

1. Decide if you want to do a whole-year pre-assessment that you would all give in August, or if you would rather build a pre-assessment for each unit. 

Benefits of a whole-year pre-assessment:

  • You can compare results from the beginning to the end of the year if you have your students take the pre-assessment again.
  • You can (obviously) identify those skills or objectives that students are already generally familiar with and break those up into learning groups. The kids that already know those items can work on something else during that time. Or, you may notice you will need to spend some time catching students up on pre-recs you thought they came in with.
  • You can pull similar questions from your final exam or your midterms. No need to reinvent the wheel. The kids won’t remember the questions when they get to the exam anyway.
  • This also might force you to make your exam before November/April. It is best practice to know where you’re going, eh?

Benefits of a unit-by-unit pre-assessment:

  • The pretest can be shorter and done as a “Do Now” the first class period of the unit.
  • You can more directly target your instruction and personalize it for certain students.
  • You can show the kids their progress really frequently. How cool to see where I was at the beginning of the unit compared to where I ended. (It merits some discussion in your PLC about whether or not you will show your students their scores on the pre-test. Some people argue this can be motivating, while others believe it can be depressing for students. I think it is all in how you use that information in conjunction with the kids. If you’re going to show them the scores, it’s better to involve them in tracking their progress).

2. Make a pre-test that every teacher in your subject and grade level could use.  Ideally, you’d make the pre-assessment together, drawing on the strengths of each teacher in the group.

Possible types of pre-assessment

  • Multiple choice or other objective test – This is good for data collection and comparison. It’s also a snap to grade.
  • Try the activity or skill  (ex. in PE have them actually try to throw a lacrosse ball. Where does the child go wrong? go right? Mark their work on the same rubric you’d use to grade them at the end of the lacrosse unit).
  • Written Essay. English teachers, you know this one is a great tool. History, science, math, have you tried this? What if you had students write an essay explaining some steps to a lab, or how to do a certain problem?
  • Self-Assessment 10-1 scale – I had students do this with our English skills at the beginning of one year. “How confident do you feel in your ability to write an analytical essay?” on a scale of 1-10. These are great for quick-and-dirty assessments, but they’re not so great in terms of validity. Kids can overrate or underrate their actual ability.
  • Any more ideas? list ’em in the comment box!

3. Other tips you need to know about pre-assessments

  • Pre-assessments are awesome formative assessments. As in, you need to use the data to inform what you do in class. Please don’t take time creating and giving a pre-assessment if you’re not going to look at and use the data.
  • Use PLC time to go over the data together or to “assess” the essays or other evidence together. Look for trends in the students areas of strength and weakness. Are all sixth graders coming into science without any idea about what the circulatory system does when you expected that they have that mastered by 5th grade? That can lead to a great vertical alignment meeting. Has every student who entered 8th grade really mastered the organization of a 5 paragraph essay, but you’ve planned to start with that concept? Why waste your time? Skip over that and move on to the next skill. Are your students spread out in understanding, with a smattering of smarties and a dash of novices and a few moderates all mixed in? Plan out some learning stations that might be leveled in one concept based on skill.
  • Give some sort of post-assessment. That can be an end of unit test, the exam, or another assessment, but cover the same skills and objectives as the pre-assessment. Then you’ll really have evidence of student learning. Did they learn what they were supposed to? This is the most satisfying part for teachers….its the, “YES! It worked!” part of your job that is so sweet. Enjoy it!
  •  Keep your pre-assessment short. You don’t have to test every skill multiple times. Just pick the ESSENTIALS. Like maybe the top 5. Otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed with data, and you won’t actually use the information well. Plus, you’ll be giving up a lot of time for something that has a diminishing rate of return in direct correlation to the longer it grows.
  • Last tip. Do not put your pre-assessment in the grade book. It is not a summative grade and should not impact their final score in your class. (Unless, however, Juanita has passed every single item on your whole-year pretest, and you think it would be best for her to move into a higher level of Math. In that case, Juanita gets an A in the class and skips ahead to the stuff that will actually make her furrow her brow.)

Any other tips about pre-assessments or building them? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Also, if you have any great examples of pre-assessments, I’d love for you to share. I’ll try to collect a few samples that I’ve made and attach them when I get a second. Happy PLC’ing.

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PLC’s: A To Do List (Intro)

One of my jobs at my school includes helping to facilitate our PLCs. For those of you not fluent in this acronym of the educational alphabet soup, PLC stands for Professional Learning Community. In lieu of going into the history of PLCs at our school (7 years strong now) or attempting the explanation of what a PLC is (The DuFours do that much better than I can), I’m going to get down to brass tacks. No more theory. Just the to do list. What would you do in a thriving PLC? I mean really do. On a daily basis. And I don’t just mean sit around and talk educational theory or share the ever dreaded “Well, what I do” stories –although both of those happen in PLC time far more than I think healthy. No. I’m going to give you some action.

Good PLC’s have four main goals. Really, PLC members should spend their time answering (through action and concrete results, in my opinion) the following four questions:

1) What do we want students to know?

2) How will we know they know it?

3) What do we do if they don’t know it?

4) What will we do if they already know it?

So in the next series of blog posts, I’m going to give activities, concrete results, or action steps that members of thriving PLCs should be taking to help answer these questions.

My audience for these posts chiefly consists of anyone who is in a PLC that isn’t working and wants to change something, anyone who is attempting to facilitate a PLC and doesn’t know what to do, or anyone who wants to start a PLC and needs some back-up juice for your proposal to the administration. Fair warning, these next posts might be a little irrelevant to anyone following who isn’t an educator or for those of you who are not interested in PLC work.

So if you’re intrigued, keep reading onto the next post. (I’ll link it here once I write it).

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Advice for My Son: Purpose


You won’t see purpose when you are young.

Much of life will be boring for you.

Much of life will be annoying.

Much of life will seem like it has no point.

I expect that before you are eighteen (and perhaps after) you will want to be playing Playstation 2 or Capture the Flag or doing anything else besides:

  • going to church
  • listening to your teachers lecture in school
  • talking with adults
  • sitting next to the kid you don’t know
  • attending family reunions
  • going to the opera, ballet, a play, a musical, or any other theatrical event
  • making a habit of visiting the doctor, the dermatologist, and the dentist once a year
  • eating your vegetables
  • reading
  • listening to the news

There are many activities that you must do as a child that you will find that you do not want to do. Some of these activities you will still not want to do when you are an adult. However, when you are an adult, you will at least be able to see the purpose and the value in them. Truly, some wisdom can only come from experience, exposure, and age.  I do not think you can be wise as a child except in how much you accept that fact.

And so, I write to you now, when you are one and a half and your strongest objection forms as a tantrum when you do not want to get into the carseat. Please remember–when you are a little bit older, and I am dragging you to church, to Uncle Palmer’s house, to visit your grandmother, to see a play, when I am forcing you to sit at the table the whole time during a family dinner– that these things are valuable. You just might not be able to see it yet.

And you will be glad you’ve done them. But only when you’re a little bit older.

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So What?

This morning I led a mindfulness class with a group of juniors. I love leading these classes because I gain just as much as participants do from the centering, stretching, breathing, and re-prioritizing exercises. We all need reminders about how to live mindfully.

One exercise I do to help align priorities is the “So What?” Game. Here is how it goes:

Leader: “So, Faith, tell me why you’re working so hard in school right now.”

Faith: “So I can get into a good college.”

Leader: “So what?”

Faith: “So that I can get a good job.”

Leader: “So what?”

Faith: “So that I can make a lot of money.”

Leader: “So what?”

Faith: Blank stare. Thinking time. Awkward pause. Then, “So that my family can be happy and healthy.”

Leader: “Faith, you can be happy and healthy right now.”

The progression that Faith just took is typical of what many, if not almost all, of my students would say. Faith’s final answer is pretty good. Being happy and healthy.  After the money answer, I’ve heard a range of other replies  running the gamut from, “so that I can do whatever I want” to “so I can please my parents” to “so that I can live the same lifestyle I live now” to “I don’t know.”

But here is what I’ve been thinking lately: wherever our students end up at the end of this “so what” game will be the driving force for their lives. No one I’ve asked so far has ever come up with “so that I can glorify God” or “so I can better help my neighbor” or “so I can change the world for the better.” Yet, as a parent, these three reasons along with living a “happy and healthy life” represent what I hope for my life and what I hope for my son’s life.  I’m curious about what kind of world we will be building if the driving force for our children revolves around making money.

Now, before you start calling me a “hippy” or assume that I’m bashing our educational system or believe that I’m heralding the 99%, let me reassure you.  Yes, it is important for students to get into a good college. But, I’d argue it is more important for them to get into the right college than the best college.

Yes, it is important to make a living off which you and your family can thrive. But I’d argue that when it comes to money, no matter how much you have, you’ll always want more.

Yes, people who have resources above the average leverage power in ways that can change the world. BUT, they only do change the world if their goal or purpose in life is more than getting rich.

So, parents and teachers, what is your “So What?” What do you hope drives your children? Your students?

What are some of the other reasons you want your child or your students to be in school? A few I can name:

School is a place to build life-long friendships and connections. Where you learn to interact with others.  School is a place where you discover a subject about which you are passionate. Where you learn the power of engaging deeply and the joy of knowledge. School is a place where you can learn to face challenges, overcome them with hard work and help, and feel the success of a difficult job well done.  School is a place to grow as a person, discover your identity, and build your character. School is a place where you can make mistakes and learn that mistakes aren’t the end of the world–they’re the beginning of an opportunity for growing.

Parents, teachers, please emphasize some of these other reasons with your children. Emphasize the so what? Because it seems like the message, the only message, our kids are hearing right now is that the reason they’re working in school is to make a lot of money once they graduate from a good college.

That is what I heard from my 6th graders when I asked them the open ended question, “why is school important?” It is what I heard from my 8th graders when I asked them about the purpose of what they’re doing in my Journalism class. It is what I’ve heard from 11th graders when I lead the mindfulness class this morning. I bet, if you go home and ask your child, “why do you go to school? Why should you work hard in school?” I know what their answer will be. Is that the answer, or the only answer, you’d wish for your child? For yourself?

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What Do Kids WANT to Study?

Facing a homeroom of fourteen boys the other day, I posed the question:

What would you want to study if you could make up your own class?

Here is a list of some of what they came up with:


Marine Biology

Saturday Night Live and Improv

Survival Class

Baseball hitting

Interestingly, all of these classes have real-life connection, immediately putting learning into context. Learning becomes relevant and practicable.

One problem with the “silos” in education is that subject-style learning tends to take learning out of real life context.

What we know about people is that they will learn anything if it helps them do something they want to do. Perhaps we need to re-think the way we categorize our learning, moving away from subjects and towards themes.

Think about the math you can learn in a programming class… or the science in a scuba diving marine biology course. Imagine the high level communication, literary, and public speaking skills a student would learn in an improv class that put on a “Saturday Night Live” type show for the school each week. The Survival Course could touch on every single subject matter– the math behind building a fort, the joy of reading alone, the biology of plants that are safe to eat, the chemistry of cleaning water. I could go on! Even the baseball hitting class provides awesome opportunities for Physical Education, Math skills with respect to angles and arcs, Physics in velocity, History of the sport of baseball and it’s cultural impacts globally and nationally, English in debating the steroid controversy… gosh! I wish I taught these classes!


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The First Day of Spring (CrossPost)

I am cross-posting here a blog entry that I wrote for my Environmental Writing Course today. If you have the time or inclination, please visit our class blog! 


Walking last night with my husband and son, my ears perked up to the sound of birds singing, chirping, warbling: sounds I had been missing since the long winter came down. With my ears engaged, my other senses started to perk up, too. My nose scented the freshness of daffodils popping up in yellow, social clumps. And, who doesn’t recognize the stench of the assaulting bradford pear? I peeled off my sweatshirt, enjoying the crispness of a transitional-season evening, and realized, pleased with the turn of events, that it was 6 pm and still light outside.

The light enabled me to take a closer look around. Small, tiny blooms, popped up everywhere. Redbuds and cherry trees and daffodils– the early, loud, exuberant first heralds of the Springtime–had awakened the more reluctant winter sleepers. Small, hard buds on the dogwood trees, azalea blossoms- still shut tight in their shells-starting to peek through the foliage, and blueberry bushes covered with the seeds of their future blossoms.

Spring is here! I wondered if my students had noticed, so today, the first day of Spring, we headed outdoors to photograph “Signs of Spring.” The following pictures show what they found. (all photo credits to my students who are writers on this blog.)

babbstaleyEllaerikVishanLeoKelsey and JulietrumanjderriknofilterSpringWeselmanAshleyArainshope zoeLaurenBisabellamicaylaLaralara,catherineTvickcatherine

To put this post into the context of climate change and our class, I recently received this email newsletter, prompting me to “Be a Citizen Scientist,”

Have you noticed your favorite flower (or most despised weed) sprouting a little earlier than it used to? Heard frogs calling sooner in the spring over the past few years? These trends could be linked to climate change, and scientists want your help in tracking them. The USA-National Phenology Network (USA-NPN), a group of government, academic, and citizen scientists, has started a new national program that will rely on volunteers to report their observations of flowering, fruiting, and other seasonal events that will help scientists get a more accurate picture of our changing planet.

So I started to wonder, how has my area changed in the last 20, 40, 100 years? Do we even have the data? The The USA-National Phenology Network program mentioned in the email above is soliciting volunteers to help track bloom times of plants. This type of study is called phenology, or “the study of recurring plant and animal life cycle events.”  I’ve decided to participate in the study by becoming an observer in the nature around me.  All I have to do is go outside 10 minutes a week and record what I see. What better way to enjoy Spring than to become a mindful observer of the nature right outside my door?

As someone who loves the environment, I will tell you that I lost heart a few days ago. When we polled our 8th grade Environmental Writing class about whether they would consider themselves to be “environmentalists,” a large percent of them indicated that they did not identify as environmentalists.  Part of me can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons our students don’t consider themselves to be environmentalists is that they’re not in touch with the outdoors. By 8th grade the majority of their classes take place inside, and after school they’re so scheduled with resume-building extra-curriculars and hours of homework, when would they have time to enjoy, appreciate, and build a love of nature?

So students, take this as a challenge. Get outside for at least 1 hour every day. Plant a garden. Whistle back to birds. Follow a trail of ants. Roll in the grass. Watch the clouds. Stomp in a rain puddle. Pluck a blackberry. You may find yourself to be an environmentalist after all. And I bet you’ll enjoy this Spring more than any other.


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School Should Be Like Yoga Class: The How

So my friend CajunCart, a beautiful writer and thinker and teacher (with her own blog), challenged me with this question after my last post about formative assessment and yoga:

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 9.05.45 AM

So, I responded that I’d write a post to address this question. I think there are lots of ways that teachers can do this, but I’ll just list below a few ideas I have.

One general idea to stick with, however, is that students should be the ones doing throughout most of the class and the teacher should be floating and helping throughout most of the class. If the teacher is talking/doing more than the students are–or if the student’s main job is to take notes (assuming note-taking is not the main learning goal, which, if it is, then note taking the whole time would be perfect!), then it will be much harder to implement a classroom with formative assessment.

In English, I actually have experience with this idea. I taught my 8th grade class in a much more traditional way last year when it came to assigning writing and “teaching” writing.

However, in my writing workshop class, my students are cranking out some amazing writing in the style that we might call “research paper.” Yet, these essays, on a public blog linked above, are not drudgery for the students or the teachers. Nor, by the way, are these essays terrible– which is what most other middle school research papers turn out to be. Here is why:

1) The students choose the subject of their writing. It must be tangentially related to the topic of our course, but other than that, they’re free to bring their own interests in. See post here about climate change and the olympics. Wow. Yes, a middle schooler wrote that. No, we did not give her a lib guide.

2) The students write on their own time, but then they bring a draft in for conference before they post to the blog. It is during these conferences (held for us in OH), that most of the really good writing learning gets done. (Note: If I were to use conferences outside of office hours, I would schedule time with students as they’re writing in my class. I would also refrain from scheduling papers to be turned in all on the same day. I’d make staggered deadlines for writing or I’d have the kids set their deadlines within a 1-2 week period so that I could give more individual feedback without the time crunch.)

3) Our students write in class almost every day for about a fourth of the class. It is, after all, a writing course. It makes sense that a good chunk of the time the kids would be, well, writing. We don’t always give feedback on this writing. In fact, we don’t give specific feedback on most of it, but we walk around the room and look over the shoulders of the students as they’re working, and every now and then we stop or comment on what they’ve said in these journal times.

The students get to practice, practice, practice. Moreover, we don’t give grades on the papers we conference over, so the pressure in conferences is zero. Yes, ultimately, at the marking period we grade their writing, but we’re lucky that our class is on a pass/fail reporting system so we can focus more on the learning the rest of the time and less on trying to “get enough grades in for the marking period.” A frightfully common problem for many teachers.

Assuming you teach in 55 minute classes (my suggestions would change entirely if you have longer blocks), a yoga-style math class might look like a mini-lesson at the beginning of the class (5 mins or less) and then 50 minutes of students working individually or in groups on the concept with the teacher floating around and helping. If you can work some real world application in, even better!

In Science, it looks like labs. Labs, Labs and more labs.

In Language it looks like the students in conversation in small groups in their specific language for the whole class while the teacher floats around, popping in to conversations and helping out. Or like Skype.

In PE it looks like yoga.:) They’ve mastered this art.

In History, where delving into historical content and facts often makes up a large portion of the class, it might mean focusing on driving questions like “How does geography impact history?” and then having students do research on their own or delve into a project of some sort in order to figure that out. Students will get the content when that is what they need to “get” in order to achieve a different goal. Rarely are students motivated by content alone, but give them a problem to solve, and by golly, they’ll ask you a million questions about the content.

I’d love to continue the conversation about different ways of achieving this type of classroom. All I know is that the more I teach like this, the more my students get better at what they’re learning.

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