It’s Thursday and I am home from school with 2 sick boys who are fighting the flu… Unexpected day home from school means that, between loading a movie on cable and cooking lunch, Mom is celebrating an unexpected 7 hours free for planning. Sorry you’re sick, boys, but, “Whoo-hoo!!”
Free time also leaves time for reflection, and impetus for this week’s post: how discovery (or re-discovery) of 3 great resources took a well-planned week from great to fabulous.
This “Three for Thursday” post shares 3 great resources for you to use, then I walk through how I applied them in my own classes. If any of these resources or examples resound with you, if you have similar links you want to share or if you want more resources like this, please share your thoughts in the comments.
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3 Great Resources
I’ve been at my school for 4 years now, but took over a new grade and different subject matter last spring, so frequently find myself planning completely new lessons. Between the new grade, recently rewritten (fab) curriculum and an increased focus on differentiation, not to mention my own curiosity, it’s really common for me to be writing plans for new projects. New is great.
But, well, there’s always the “test pancake” truth: it can take that first implementation of a new lesson to discover its weaknesses. Nothing is worse than getting to the end of a great project but seeing all the, “It would have been even better if…”
I re-discovered this great “Project Based Learning Essential Elements Checklist” on Pinterest today, and it was perfect timing. I’m partway through implementing a new project that is going better than I could have expected — but even then, the checklist helped me discover where I might have missed opportunities.
The checklist has you assess your project plans, asking questions to evaluate how well you have addressed these essential elements for learning from projects: focus on significant content, develop 21st Century skills, engage in in-depth inquiry, organize tasks around a driving question, establish a need to know, encourage voice and choice, incorporate revision and reflection, and include a public audience.
Applying this evaluation before implementing the lesson allows you to bypass the “test pancake” stage so that students achieve genuine learning outcomes, with interest, rigor and depth.
Whether you are working from a standards-based curriculum or are simply differentiating to work with a struggling student, teachers find lots of reasons students need the opportunity to retake a test or redo an assignment. A request for retest might come from a student or parent, or you may identify a need for retesting of missed concepts based on data or observations. One of the challenges becomes how to manage the individual needs. The value of retesting isn’t in repeating the assessment; the goal is to identify obstacles, reteach concepts where necessary, and give the student strategies to reflect and learn from whatever went wrong. The student who forgot to study has one strategy to conquer, while the student with gaps in prior grammar instruction has different skills to address.
It was perfect timing for me to come across this tweet during #sbgchat on Twitter last night:
— Julie Giese (@juliejgiese) October 3, 2013
Reading the article’s 12 steps had me linking back through a few examples of forms for Request to Retest that I’d pinned on Pinterest.
A key for success is that a Request to Retest form gives the student a process for reflecting on their gaps in understanding of a concept, as well as what learning strategies are or are not working. The student then takes ownership of what they could do to improve learning for the new assessment and proposes the date for doing so.
A variation in formats is whether only the student signs the request (upper middle school and high school) or if a parent might sign also, to be kept in the loop of where a student is expressing gaps in learning. Or, say, lack of time to complete assignments after sports or due to an illness, or other concerns.
So you evaluated the project, kids completed it and retested if necessary. Done deal. Or is it?
In teaching writing, one of the valuable steps we always tried to work in was periodic portfolio reflections, to give students a mindful time to observe their attention to targeted concepts, growth in abilities and goals for future work. “Reflection” also showed up along with revision in the “essential elements” of project-based learning in #1, above. But, in a busy schedule, this is an easily overlooked step if you don’t have an effective tool ready for students to use. In writing classes, we worked to have portfolio reflection forms that a student could use to assess specific styles of writing. But what about projects?
Heart goes pitter pat: I absolutely fell in love with this Taxonomy of Reflection by Peter Pappas, which walks kids through a series of questions that build deeper and deeper absorption of the learning their completed activity demonstrated. Click through to his post explaining his whole concept.
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How Did These 3 Make My Week Sing?
What my students are working on:
In science, my objective for the last 2 weeks has been to transition from the diversity of cells, to introducing the 7 levels of scientific classification of life (you know: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species). Great. Basic strategy: film clips and teaching the mnemonic “King Philip came over for good spaghetti.” Blah.
Lightbulb: I told my 5th graders to read the lesson and then, by Monday, bring in 5 stuffed animals from home. In our first class, they formed groups (their choice), tossed the animals between them and imagined they were a team of scientists who’d just discovered these unknown species on a deserted island. They had to be real animals (say, not a long-haired glitter-corn), but they were supposed to imagine they were discovering them for the first time, and trying to figure out what they were and what other animals they were related to by observing the animal traits their book told them scientists use for classification.
Clearly, the kids were having a blast sorting their stuffies, and measurable lists were amassing in their interactive notebooks of the traits they “observed,” like diet, environment, means of movement, response to stimuli, live/egg birth, etc. Next step: back at their seats, animals stowed, they now shifted to pairs and selected the best 4-5 animals they would use to research online to find the actual 7 levels of classification for the real species. The field observations in their notebooks serve as formative assessments, and each pair, team or individual (their choice) is then producing a poster that displays 4-6 animals in columns, with a picture, scientific naming, and those described traits as a summative assessment. In doing so, they are drawing connections to how similar/different naming reflects the similarities and differences they observed between the species they are presenting.
It was a project that was going better than I could have hoped. But: (1) I still had a handful of students who hadn’t done well on the cells quiz from the week before, so needed reteaching/retesting. And, (2) as well as the project is going, I don’t want to get to the end of it have that moment of thinking, “Shoot, I wish I’d…. to get more out of it.”
So here is how I used the 3 tools:
1. Using the checklist for project-based learning helped me really test how thorough my planning had been in designing the project.
Some examples of what I learned: Evaluating with the checklist affirmed that the project would help kids practice and demonstrate understanding of scientific classification, and offered measurable opportunities for formative and summative assessment. It affirmed that the activities would test and develop their understanding more deeply than book-based question-and-answer or films alone would have. Students were clearly collaborating, communicating and otherwise practicing healthy 21st century learning strategies. Their excitement throughout the activity affirmed the value of letting them choose the animals they used (rather than other sorting activities, like sorting shoes), and students were productive and effective in choosing working partners and the scope of their final product (I was surprised how effective, not lazy, they were in deciding the best number of animals they would review on their final poster). Challenges in the project pushed them to revise and discover gaps in their understanding, which is good.
But one weakness I noticed is that, in a rush to use their notebooks to move on to research, I was limited in how much feedback I could give them between steps. This is one of my overall challenges for this year: to consistently work to provide frequent and timely feedback for students to build deeper learning. Reviewing their field observations and requesting revision prior to the online step would be good. I should also have asked students to print and submit their typed lists of scientific names prior to the weekend, so I’d have time for making more thorough comments before moving to the final project next week. As it is, I may have to provide feedback on the run during work time — good, but not as good. The checklist also has me evaluating whether or not students clearly perceive the “need to know.” I think the activity demonstrates why the levels of classification help scientists understand animals better, but the checklist provoked me to have students write that connection at some point, in their journals or as a question on a final assessment.
2. Coming across that Request to Retake gave me a fabulous tool for managing the needs of those students needing to retest on the prior “cells” lesson. It helped me focus my intentions in retesting and gave me a venue for having the students reflect on what happened and what they will do (or need) to improve understanding of the concepts. I am still hovering between a long and short version of the form, but think this will be a permanent tool in my differentiation toolbox throughout the year.
3. The taxonomy for reflection is like icing on the cake: it will be a great final step to the project. While the students will clearly remember that they had fun playing with stuffed animals in class, and they may be happy with how their posters turn out, taking them through the taxonomy of questions will get them to reflect on what they actually did, how well it went, what they could do next with the information, how what they learned was important, and how they might use it again.
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What About You?
How has your teaching week gone, or what resources are you most excited about this week? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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- More on social media: Twitter 101 for Teachers: Steps for Getting Started on Twitter
- What are you reading this summer? Check out Teacher’s Summer Reading List 2013