Monthly Archives: February 2014

Formative Assessment that Truly Informs Instruction


 Guest Blogger: Taylor Meredith

A few months ago my students and I were reading The One and Only Ivan. On page 216, we reached the line, “It was the difference between looking and truly looking.” We spent a lot of time discussing the implication of Katherine Applegate’s words.  Since that moment, those words have become more powerful than ever, and Jen’s post, The Proof is in the Pudding, Right?, pushed me to consider their importance in the context of the National Council of Teachers of English position statement.

 Item nine on the list of ten essential elements found in the NCTE position statement is:

 Includes feedback that is non-evaluative, specific, timely, and related to the learning goals, and that provides opportunities for the student to revise and improve work products and deepen understandings.

What is so important about feedback?

Not only does feedback provide us with formative data to guide our instruction, feedback is one of the key elements in allowing students to take ownership of their own work.  Feedback is the difference between fix and revise. Feedback is the difference between looking and truly looking.


Effective feedback is non-evaluative. Formative feedback is not the corrected exit ticket returned a few days later or the final comments on a writing rubric. Effective feedback allows for growth and improvement. It is recognition of where you’ve been and where you can go next (for both student AND teacher). After receiving feedback, students should revise or improve.  There is no finality in feedback, only opportunity. When non-evaluative feedback is a cultural norm in a classroom students can give themselves and one another feedback. Through watching playback of a book clubs discussion, partner work in Writing Workshop or meeting with a Professional Learning Network, students can own it!


                                                        This or That?

                                            Good job.

You located a lot of evidence supporting your idea that Ivan is lonely.

                                       Add more details.

Add more sensory details to your description of the first time you saw a gorilla at the zoo.

                                        Nice discussion.

Your group referenced the text to dig deeper into the text and grow new thinking when you discussed how Stella felt during Ruby’s arrival.

                                           Try again.

Consider the cause-and-effect structure of this paragraph and why the author might use this when explaining why Ivan dislikes humans.


I think Susan Brookhart and Connie Moss explain timely feedback best, “Students should get feedback while they are still mindful of the learning target and while there is still time for them to act on it.” (Brookhart & Moss, 2009) They call this student time the Golden Second Opportunity and without this, there is really no reason to give feedback. Without the opportunity to change or revise right away, why give any feedback at all? (Brookhart & Moss, 2012) Students need time to revise their work and we need time to evaluate our instruction.

This also supports the notion that effective feedback is almost always face-to-face. When is the best time for a student to look again at the words chosen by the author? Now. When is the best time for a student to revise an original answer after reading an “Aha” moment? Now.

Related to the learning goals

The best analogy I can think of is a recent trip to the dermatologist. I went to the dermatologist last week with the specific purpose of treating a scar on my arm. I showed her the scar, and then she offered me a sample of facial moisturizer, gave some advice on how to treat dry winter skin and then offered to write a prescription for a fine line and wrinkle cream (!?!). As I moved to leave I realized she never told me what to do about my scar. I got no feedback about my scar. I was given several other treatments and fixes but nothing related to the purpose of the visit. Without that feedback, my scar would not change or improve. When we give feedback for everything, nothing really improves. If we want information about our instruction, we need to look at the process or product based on the goal of the day. It is our responsibility to model this by narrowing our focus.  Even if you are looking at a page with multiple errors, resist the urge to comment on more than one thing.

 In The One and Only Ivan, when Julia truly looks at Ivan’s work, her thinking changes. She revises her original idea, thinks critically and creates something incredible. We look at student work everyday, but when we truly look the result is different.  Students are not only empowered to revise, improve work and deepen understandings but it models and fosters metacognition. When teacher and student think critically within this feedback loop the opportunities for learning are truly incredible.


Taylor Meredith teaches fifth grade in the Chicago area. She is a former New York City school teacher who believes in the power of exploration.

Follow Taylor on Twitter @ForFeedback



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The Five Stages of New


We all like new, don’t we? New movies, new books, new shoes.  For me, a new Sharpie brings unequivocal joy. With a new Sharpie in my hand I feel like I can conquer the world, or at least make a pretty fabulous chart.  Yes, we don’t just like new, we love it. That is until someone tells us to try something new in our classroom.  In that case, most of us are tempted to say no thank you. No thank you, NEW. I’ll stick with what’s working, because, well…it’s working!

There are absolute positives that exist within a unit or lesson that is well seasoned.  The teacher has reflected and fine tuned.  Problems are anticipated and planned for. The delivery is smooth and the content is tight.  I love the days when I walk into school knowing exactly how my day will unfold, knowing that I have a proven successful lesson ready to deliver to my students.

Then, there’s new.  New is messy. It’s unpredictable. New makes the control freak part of us just FREAK OUT!   But sometimes new is what our students need.  Sometimes new will speak to our students in a way that old can’t. New brings possibility, creativity, challenge, and ownership.


I’ve come to embrace new over the past few years. It’s never easy. Sometimes it completely fails. There are some times when I return to the old, because it was better. One thing I have learned is that NEW and I go through a series of predictable stages together.

Stage One : Discomfort

This book club packet is really cute and easy to grade.  Authentic? No.  It’s ok, though, they’ll like it. I’ll be able to tell if they read the book. Is that the point? Don’t I want more for them than just reading the book? Cue that nagging feeling that means I’m about to try something new.

Stage Two: Excitement

Book trailers? Students are using Animoto to make book trailers? This is amazing.   How have I not heard about this before? My students will love this! Imagine the conversations that will happen as they work through this project. Sold. Doing it. Telling everyone I know about this fabulous idea.  My enthusiasm is borderline annoying to my husband, my team, and any random person I see in the hallway.

Stage Three: Panic

What was I thinking with this? Things could go wrong. No, forget wrong. This could be a disaster.  Picturing computers freezing, 28 hands raised at the same time, and the sweet little girl at computer #12 yelling, “Mrs. Brittin! I was searching for pictures and something came up that my mom doesn’t want me to see!”

Stage Four: (This one could go one of two ways) Exhilaration or Disappointment

Hey, hey! This is working! They’re talking…the talk is good. Theme, mood, author’s voice. Yay! I love book trailers, and so do my students! 


Well, won’t do this again. 

Stage Five: Reflection

Why did this go wrong? What made this so successful? How can it be tweeked? How can I use feedback from students to plan better next time?

Maybe your experience with new is similar to mine, maybe it’s completely different. I do know that new is a lot easier when you share it with colleagues. I love that I work with teachers who are open to the possibilities, even though it’s uncomfortable at first. Hearing about eachother’s successes and failures makes all of us more willing to try, to change, to grow.

New doesn’t always turn out to be better, but sometimes it does.

Like my students’ Animoto book trailers 😉

Hatchet Book Trailer

Rules Book Trailer


This post is dedicated to my TEAM who tries new together every day.

~J Brittin


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Mining for Gems in Student Data

 Guest Blogger: Darla Salay

darla blog

One of my tasks this year as a curriculum supervisor was to help our district data team take the lead in their respective grade levels to create meaningful performance assessments. The purpose was to use the feedback to drive instruction and next steps with students. The conscientious group worked tirelessly to create PA’s for both reading and math for the school year, presented them to their teaching teams, and went about leading discussions on how to use the information after each data collection.

We were moving forward triumphantly, or so it seemed. But then, we hit a roadblock. The information we gathered from the math assessments was straightforward and providing, for the most part, a solid path for next steps in the classroom. The reading assessments. Not so much.

Knowing what I know about the teaching of reading, I can’t say that I was surprised. I had a nagging feeling that the usefulness of the reading data in the way we were creating it—namely, passages with fill-in-the-blank answers–would be limited.

Now, that’s not to say there is not a place for quick, fill-in-the blank PA’s that can gauge, for example, students’ ability to use context cues, identify main idea, or identify fact from opinion. The problem is, that is a relatively small piece of the puzzle in the overall picture of our students.

darla 4

The real work of formative assessment takes place day by day, by conferring with students, listening as they talk with peers, and noticing progress or areas for growth. That’s when we might learn that Sarah’s ability to inference helped her understand a character’s motivation. Or, we might learn that Abby is on the verge of identifying a complex metaphor in the text that will lift her to a distinctly higher level of critical thinking.

Case in point: I visited a fourth grade class recently and sat with a group reading Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo. As the group conferred, the topic of the character Rob and his reference to a “suitcase” kept resurfacing. Using the “again and again” strategy from Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, (2014), students wondered aloud why Rob kept referring to a piece of luggage. Here is a snippet of the conversation:

Abby: He kept bringing up the suitcase.

Teacher: So do you have an idea about what the suitcase means? Can we go back and find some places and see where he talks about the suitcase? And Abby, if you want, you can read (those parts) out loud.

Abby, reading from the text: “He kept the suitcase closed … He imagined himself in a suitcase too full … Sometimes he doesn’t want to keep it shut.”

 Me, to the group at the end of their conversation: So, did you get to the significance of the suitcase?

Students: Well, yea, we understood that Rob was shutting himself out.

Later, Abby would show that her understanding was much deeper than simply knowing that the character Rob was shutting himself out.

She blogged: A More deeper reason is that Rob always kept himself in a suitcase and didn’t let his emotions out. He was keeping his sadness low. Then he was sort of like the tiger when at the end he let his sadness rise like the tiger rose out of its cage.

So how does a teacher know what data to mine? There are probably as many ways to collect data as there are teachers, but I’ve found that thinking in terms of relevance and action can help.

For example, if the strategy you offered proved relevant in guiding the student to deeper understanding, that’s worth noting. In this case, we learned that rereading and prompting, helped Abby to think metaphorically, taking her ability to think critically to a higher level. Prompting and rereading were relevant for her.

If action is needed to move a student forward, that’s worth noting. This anecdotal data helps identify where the student’s current knowledge and skills are. From there, we can create a plan with the student to move to the next level of understanding.

So, while formative assessment comes in many forms, it also serves different purposes. One might say that the more traditional, fill-in-the blank performance assessments help determine a general direction for curriculum. However, conferring and listening in on student conversations provides the data that can propel students forward, changing the course of their reading lives.

Darla Salay is a current curriculum supervisor, a former literacy coach with the New Jersey Department of Education, and a frequent attendee at TCRWP’s coaching institutes.  Follow Darla on Twitter @DarlaSalay.


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The Proof is in the Pudding, Right?


Data.  As teachers we seem to be eating, breathing, and sleeping data. There is certainly more data in my file folders, filing cabinets, and online collection system than I know what to do with. Pre-tests, post-tests, performance tasks, and mock state testing data. I’m breaking out in a cold sweat just thinking about all of the numbers I should be crunching right now.  My professional reading tells me that data is good. Data is needed. Yet, there is always something in me that cheers whenever another teacher shakes her head and says, ” I don’t need data to tell me that this student gets it, and this one doesn’t.”  That feels so true, doesn’t it?

And there it is. The single biggest mistake that I have made over and over again.

There are a couple of reasons why that statement isn’t ringing true with me anymore, but before we delve into the many errors that I have made over the years, I want to distinguish between good data and useless data.


Teachers can spot useless data collection a mile away. It’s the premade test that you as the teacher had no hand in. It’s something that started in an office somewhere by people who have never seen the inside of the classroom. It’s the latest and greatest  “assessment kit” that will rock your world for the bargain price of $69.99. Never personal. Never useful. Never. Never. Never.

Also, let’s distinguish between summative and formative. This post will focus on the latter. Summative assessment at the end of a unit or a project is incredibly useful and necessary. The problem comes when we as teachers use that as our primary source of data.  The end result can give us important information, but there is a lot that it can’t tell us.

Maybe you’ve seen that post going around Pinterest that has about a dozen chocolate chip cookies all lined up.  They are all different consistencies, shapes, even colors.  Each is labeled with a reason why they look different. A what went wrong list, if you will. Too much flour. Baking soda instead of baking powder. Oil, not butter.  Just looking at each cookie I could tell that something was wrong. But, it is very unlikely that without those labels, I would have been able to diagnose how they got that way.

And that’s where formative assessment comes in.  Yes, the end product can tell us that the student did or didn’t “get it.”  But, what’s really important is the why, the how,  and the mistakes and successes along the way.

So, back to the mistake I keep making. I assume. I assume that I know when my class is with me and when they’re not. I assume that because I hear good talk about reading happening on the carpet, that will translate to good writing about reading later on. I admit that sometimes I pat myself on the back when the loudest voices in the conversation are saying all the right things.  I tell myself that the student who is off-task is a behavior issue.  The kid at table three who hasn’t picked up his pencil lacks motivation.  These are the false assumptions that have me scratching my head in surprise and disappointment when students don’t do as well as I’d hope on an end of unit task. These are the false assumptions that could use a little formative assessment to set them straight.


Exit tickets, checklists, post its…any quick way to see who “has it” at the end of the lesson and who doesn’t.   This is typically what we think of when we hear formative assessment.  But, just like the mounds of data sitting in my file folders right now, some of it turns out to be pretty useless.  One of the reasons for this may be that we do nothing with it.  Good data can help us quickly form strategy groups for the next day, set the agenda for a conference, and plan next steps in instruction.  Exit tickets that sit on my desk for a week, well…not so much.       Another way that I don’t realize data’s full potential is by leaving my students out of the process. Many times, I am the only one involved in the collection and interpretation.  True formative assessment demands to be student centered and driven.  The National Council of Teachers of English have released a position statement on formative assessment.  You can read the full document here, but let’s take a look at a section of page three that lists ten essential elements.

“Formative assessment:

1. Requires students to take responsibility for their own learning.

2. Communicates clear, specific learning goals.

3. Focuses on goals that represent valuable educational outcomes with applicability beyond the learning context.

4. Identifies the student’s current knowledge/skills and the necessary steps for reaching the desired goals.

5. Requires development of plans for attaining the desired goals.

6. Encourages students to self-monitor progress toward the learning goals.

7. Provides examples of learning goals including, when relevant, the specific grading criteria or rubrics that will be used to

evaluate the student’s work.

8. Provides frequent assessment, including peer and student self-assessment and assessment embedded within learning


9. Includes feedback that is non-evaluative, specific, timely, and related to the learning goals, and that provides

opportunities for the student to revise and improve work products and deepen understandings.

10. Promotes metacognition and reflection by students on their work.”

(NCTE, 2013)

So much of formative assessment needs to come back into the hands of the student. It isn’t just about my next steps as the teacher; it’s about my student understanding his next steps as the learner.  It’s about the process, the journey, and  all of the starts and stops along the way.

It would be possible to look at each of these ten elements and tell you how I’ve done it wrong in the past and what I plan to do from now on.  I’m pretty sure I can summarize everything pretty simply, though.  I haven’t been collecting nearly enough of the right type of data, and I haven’t been doing the right things with it.  I’m planning on changing that, and I know that I have a lot of patient mentors and thoughtful colleagues who will hash all of this out with me.

The proof is in the pudding is a pretty common adage.  And it’s partly true. Looking at the end result will definitely signal success or failure.  But, if we want that pudding to ever turn out differently, we’re going to need to be there from start to finish.  Assuming nothing. Taking notes. Giving feedback.  Demonstrating. And, eventually, putting it in the hands of the one who’s making it in the first place.

~ J Brittin


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“I’m Sorry.”


I feel like there are a lot of “MEs” when it comes to my teaching over the last twelve years. There was “Right out of college, I’m so happy to have a job,” me. Then there was “What was I thinking, I have no idea how to do this,” me.  After a while, I unfortunately turned into the  “ I’ve got this, I know what I’m doing,” me.  There was also “pre-mom”  and “mom with three kids” teacher me.  (Those two MEs are very different.) I can look back and see all of the different versions of myself. Some of them were good; some of them were disasters.

I’ve been in several conversations in my building and on Twitter over the last few weeks in which fellow educators have expressed the desire to apologize to former students. One person I talked to said that if his former students were in his class now, they wouldn’t even recognize him as the teacher they once knew. Others have noted that they aren’t even sure they were really teaching their students in those early years. When I think about my former students, there are a lot of apologies that run through my mind.

*I’m sorry I wasn’t a better listener when you were telling me why you couldn’t do your homework.

*I’m sorry about all of those book reports that required a certain amount of pages and chapters. (And I’m sorry for your parents too, who did most of those reports for you.)

*I’m sorry that I made you do so many fill in the blank worksheets.

*I’m  so sorry that I ever uttered the words, “Take out your science books and turn to page 31.”

*I’m sorry that I wasn’t being the personal reading coach and mentor that you needed.

*I’m really sorry that I red-penned your writing to death. Really really sorry about that one.

The list of apologies could really go on and on. But, as I’ve been turning this idea over in my mind during the last few days, I’m not sure that an I’m Sorry is really what we need.  If we’re growing as teachers, we are always going to have a long list of mistakes along the way.  And most of the time, the things we did that failed, led us to look for a new way, a better way.

I recently shared with a friend about the success that my book clubs are having this year. I’ve been so happy with the authentic conversations, excitement over the books, and the learning that is happening during meetings.  I had done book clubs in the past using rigid roles, task packets and strict protocol for discussion time.  They were totally lifeless. I knew it wasn’t working. I’d like to apologize to those students. I killed book clubs for them with all of my roles and rules. But, instead of I’m Sorry, I’m saying Thank You. Thank you for trying something with me, showing me it didn’t work, and giving me the motivation to look for a better way.

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Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.”  This is one of my favorite phrases that I say to my students during writing and reading conferences.  Shouldn’t this apply to us as teachers? The answer is YES.

So, I’m starting the new week with Thank You on my lips.  Thank you for all of the wrong turns along the way, because they continue to lead me to the right ones.

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It’s Monday, Finally.


I’ve been saying to myself every Monday that I need to get in on this whole “What Are You Reading?” extravaganza. And every Monday around 11pm, I look at the clock and my pillow and promise that I’ll do better next week. Well, just on the heels of a very inspiring Twitter chat discussing the importance of writing about reading, I am going all in with what I’ve been reading during the last month.

What I’m Reading

(from my classroom library)


Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

(Upper Elementary)

5/5 Stars

Fabulous. Period.

You can read the book synopsis here. This book will appeal to a number of different audiences for a variety of reasons. If your student is a gamer, he will love it. If your student knows a lot about authors and acclaimed literature, she will love it.  Action? Yep, it has that. Drama? That too. Do you have students who love a good mystery? This book is for them.  And for all the parents and teachers out there who shake their heads at the scandal of students not knowing the Dewey Decimal System any more, you’ll love it too.  There is nothing dark, nothing unsettling, nothing that makes you wonder if the book will be appropriate for every reader. It is pure fun the whole way through, and I cannot wait to introduce Mr. Lemoncello to my classroom library.


Counting By Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan

(Middle Grades)

5/5 Stars

I wasn’t sure how much I loved this book until I found myself crying through the last two chapters. Willow is a character that will be with me forever.


Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

(Upper Elementary/ MG)

5/5 Stars

When I started this book I thought, “Ughhh…this character is too bizarre. I won’t get into this.”  I can now say that weeks after finishing this book, I am still thinking about it.  I cannot imagine a middle grade student who wouldn’t be affected by the powerful messages woven into Spinelli’s story.  I would love to see our middle school use this as their One Book next summer.


A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean


(4/5 Stars)

Filled with emotion, heart, and truth.

What I’m Reading

(aloud to my students)


Rump by Liesl Shurtliff

(Upper Elementary)

5/5 Stars

I loved loved loved this book. It has been the perfect read aloud to reinforce Notice and Note Signposts with my students before they go off into their book clubs. Wonderful characters and themes make for great discussion, debatable ideas, and lots and lots of writing about reading!

(AND…Shurtliff said she would Skype with my class when we finished. Woot!)

What I’m in the Middle of Reading


Doll Bones by Holly Black


Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

(because everyone loves a good sequel!)

What I’m Reading Next

                       Monday4         Monday5

When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead


What I Read Just For Me


Divergent by Veronica Roth


4/5 Stars

Very entertaining. That’s exactly what I wanted when I downloaded this book! p>


The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

5/5 Stars

If self selected independent reading isn’t the backbone of your reading program yet, this is a must read! And even if you already know the value of individual reading plans, Donalyn will reignite a passion for reading and give you a renewed sense of the importance of establishing a reading community in your classrom.

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