Letting Students Grapple: Formative Assessment

Editor’s Note: Math teachers across the country are learning about the power of formative assessment in their classrooms. In this video series, we bring you an opportunity to see formative assessment in action, with the help of math consultant Ann Shannon and resources from the Mathematics Assessment Project (MAP). Ann provided the initial training for teachers in Kentucky’s Kenton County on how to implement MAP and frameworks from the Math Design Collaborative. She observed teachers in the classroom, gave real-time feedback, helped facilitate the after school meetings to analyze student work, and helped build capacity in the district so that the work would be sustainable.

As teachers, sometimes we talk too much. We might do more of the telling, and have kids do less of the doing. Personally, I’ve always been someone who loves explaining things to people, so as a teacher this was an easy trap to fall into. I might get halfway through a unit of study, sense that my students are struggling, and decide that the best way to solve their misconceptions was to talk even more. Telling them what to do seemed easier, faster, and more direct. But in fact, that was my own misconception! Sometimes, the best way to help our students is to subtly guide them through their own struggles.

In our series Engaging Students with Productive Struggles, we took you inside two middle school math classrooms that are using formative assessment to do just that. We saw seventh graders deepening their understanding of proportional relationships, and eighth graders tackling the work of linear equations. Now in this new set of videos, we visit Meghan Mekita’s geometry classroom to watch her tenth graders deepen their understanding of transformations.

In these four videos, you’ll see Meghan’s students engaging in a formative assessment lesson that addresses their misconceptions and moves them forward in their learning.

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Checking For Understanding with Formative Assessments

As teachers, we all know what it feels like to grade a pile of tests and discover the unsettling truth that our students did not perform as well as we had hoped or predicted. For instance, after three of four weeks of teaching the Pythagorean Theorem, we find out that most of our students can’t consistently identify the hypotenuse of a right triangle.

For years this was a frustration while teaching high school Algebra and Geometry. Adopting daily exit tickets to assess more frequently only solved some of my problems. I still needed to more deeply understand my students’ misconceptions, and I wanted students to be in the habit of explaining what they were thinking.

Lessons from the Mathematics Assessment Project (MAP) turned out to be the perfect way for me to check for understanding in my Geometry class. Two-thirds of the way through a unit, I will spend about 90 minutes working with my students on a Formative Assessment Lesson (FAL). FALs are excellent pre-written lessons on different mathematical topics for grades 7-12, with materials included. Find the website here. Ninety-minute lessons can be found under the “Lessons” tab. There are shorter formative assessments under the “Tasks” tab. Every FAL requires students to work on rigorous problems with a partner who is equally matched for that skill. There is very little teacher talk time on FAL day. During that time, I’ll listen to students debating with their partners, and collect data from their written work. After the FAL is complete, I adjust my teaching for the remainder of the unit based on what I learned: I can increase the rigor to ensure I am challenging them, and I can address their misunderstandings.

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Does This Lesson Make Me Look Fat?

I’m sure that I’m not the only teacher who has had this thought. Hesitant to videotape myself teaching because I was self conscious; afraid that my peer coach would not be able to see past what the morning rain had done to my hair. Worried that I would be judged. Judged on my physical appearance. Judged on my motives for wanting to be videotaped. Judged for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of my teaching or the quality of my soul. At that point, I just had to slap myself a little bit and say, “Get Over It!” Watching a video of yourself teaching is one of the best ways to get an authentic view of you in your classroom. It is an opportunity for true reflection that will make you a more effective teacher, and that’s the only thing that matters! If you’re still in pause mode, here are a few words of advice to help you move forward.

Stop Procrastinating and Just Do It

Just like anything that’s uncomfortable but ultimately good for you, there will be the urge to come up with every reason why you shouldn’t do it. Find a reason TO do it. If you’re having a hard time mustering up the courage, pretend you’re a cowboy from the old West: Bite the bullet and press the record button.


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The Best Way to Teach Mindset? Model It!

Often times as educators, we are asked to incorporate something into our instruction that we might not necessarily understand or know how to teach. We might get a short professional development session on the topic, a little drive-by PD action, and then there is an expectation to implement the content with little to no further support. Sound familiar? When put into these types of situations, teachers have a choice: the more challenging “figure out how to make it work” approach, or the more easily abandoned “this is an obstacle I don’t want to overcome” method. Which path do you choose?

This scenario represents two types of mindsets found in schools, with adults and with students. More and more, teachers are being asked to not only support the growth mindset of their learners, but also explicitly teach the associated skills. Carol Dweck’s video on growth mindset clearly illustrates why students need these skills, but where should teachers begin? The answer is to start with yourself.

When was the last time that, as a teaching professional, you pushed yourself outside of your comfort zone? When did you last engage the mindset skills needed to take ownership of your own learning? Isn’t that really what we’re asking students to do when engaging in deeper learning? Do you remember how hard it can be to learn something new, and have the persistence to continue that learning over a long period of time? Better yet, wouldn’t it be great if there were a tool to help you remember?


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Crank on the Spotlight!

There’s No Escaping It. There’s a Movement Happening.
Welcome to The Big Tent!

Quietly over the past two years, there has been a movement afoot. The movement has been sparked by a desire to help teachers find more time to collaborate, more opportunities to see each other’s practice, and most importantly, work together in their schools and districts to improve practice for the benefit of their students.

We recently launched this new blog, The Big Tent. The Big Tent aims to shine the spotlight on teacher leaders, coaches, administrators, and teachers who are working together to improve teacher practice in innovative ways. In The Big Tent we will bring their stories to light!


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Boosting Your Practice: Anytime is a Good Time With These 12 Tips

Now that we’re getting back into the groove of the classroom, it can be a good opportunity to try some new things, improve on the old, and reignite your classroom vision. With help from Instructional Coach Katie Lyons, I’ve come up with a list of quick adjustments to your practice that will have big payoffs:

1. Revamp classroom management: Do you have some classroom management loose ends? Take some time to hash out those situations with your students and revisit classroom expectations. Together with the students, form new expectations if necessary, and the consequences for not meeting them.

2. Get organized: Are ungraded papers cluttering your desk? Create an organization system that is easy to manage. If you don’t have them already, create a file folder for each student. Have three baskets available on your desk for papers returned, papers that need to be graded, and papers that need to be filed.

Boost Your Practice

REBOOT Reflections: 5 Lessons for Staying Sound

I’m good at projects, at taking on the next new challenge. I’m energized when I start something new, and tend to give myself entirely to whatever venture is in front of me. In short, I’m either “all in” or “not at all.”  Teaching, great teaching, is an act of complete presence. An act of sustaining that complete presence. An act that accrues a special kind of exhaustion. My 5-Day Reboot reminded me that falling into funks may be a normal passage for hectic lives, but a concentrated restart leads to more conscientious living. Reflecting on my own reboot has given me five lessons for staying sound.

Lesson #1: Don’t Forego the Physical

I’m one of those teachers who can’t really plan for the new school year until my room is organized, arranged, in order. I’m one of those people who works through a stressful situation by creating some clean physical space first. For me, the physical makes way for the cognitive. It’s easy to forego the physical, and sleep is always my first victim. Of course, this leads to being less productive and to being less healthy. I’m not proud to admit that I have to actually work at sleeping. Really work at it. Partially because of how I’m wired, partially because the work is never finished, partially because I have a tough time saying no. Regardless of why, I learned that the doorway to de-funk must be constructed of sleep, exercise, and healthy choices.

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Being Brave While Getting Better Together

It’s easier to be brave when you’re not alone. — Amy Poehler in Yes Please

We have a lot in common with improvisational artists, like Amy. We both create and rise to the challenge of our next performance. More significant is what we both do innately, in the moment –– take in the evidence of our impact on the audience and adjust, redirect, and try again, with subtle (or not so) pivots toward greater levels of impact. It’s in these moments we are our most vulnerable and courageous.

A similar idea has emerged in our field, as we listen to what every single post- professional development survey captures — we need to learn from each other, about our classrooms, in real time, or whenever it’s convenient; information that’s personalized, relevant, important.


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7 Tips for Successful Collaboration

Who We Are and What We Do

We are National Board Certified Teachers who have been collaborative partners for almost a decade at Oceanside High School in New York. Our collaboration works because we’re working together towards a common goal: helping our students reach their fullest potential. We teach two integrated sections of ninth grade Honors English and Social Studies, where our students move as a cohort between our classes, giving them an experience that illustrates how English and Social Studies are related by providing them with the opportunity to read text deeply, and link themes occurring across both classrooms. In addition, we team teach a Conference class where students delve deeper into the humanities, exploring concepts that link us all in the human experience.

Every year we have the opportunity to teach grades other than the ninth grade integrated program, and we choose to stay together. We love working together to mold new entrants into high school, teaching them the skills they’ll need for high school, college, and career success, while we encourage each other to be the best teachers we can be.

The following seven tips come from our decade of experience working together as collaborative partners.

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Classroom Management: Is It Okay to Let It Go?

New Teacher Survival Guide

Most new teachers plan to create calm and productive classrooms. But as we all know, things don’t always go as planned. When I observe new teachers, I often see them using a great selection of classroom management tools: counting down, waiting for all students’ attention, giving consequences, reminding the class of the class agreements… and on and on.

But sometimes when teachers are so focused on classroom management, entire lesson periods are spent trying to get students on task. This is exhausting for both teachers and students — teachers never get a chance to truly teach, and students never get a chance to learn the content.

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