Assessment and lack thereof

Assessment for learning has always been seen as one of the most important tasks of my job by me. Without knowing what my students already know and can do, I can’t plan anything. No meaningful learning activities,… and I can’t provide support and opportunities for learning if I don’t know where my students are.

The levels of assessment are huge…. assessment of knowledge, social skills, skills in general, and much more is important for any teacher.

But as I’m completing a module on assessment, I’m doubtful about how much assessment is really taking place in schools. How do we ENSURE that assessment happens in the classrooms and for every student? What do your schools do? What is assessment to you?

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Using portfolios effectively

I posted this on the IB Online Curriculum Center Forum, but so far I had no replies. I would really treasure your input!

I am struggling a bit with making portfolios a meaningful and integrated part in my classroom.

We just started the year and have used portfolios at the beginning to establish some goals for the term. The purpose is to refer back to those goals all the time. We also added some work samples in already, but it felt more like an unrelated exercise.

How do people integrate portfolios so they become a part of learning?

The wish to inspire reading….

I have just come across this wonderful blog post by Nancy Ehrlich on her blog Nancy Teaches. She reflected on how she used to do book projects. Interesting to see how these monthly reading projects required a lot of work on her part (choosing the genre, and book possibly, working out the learning outcomes and setting assignments). A lot of the reading comprehension tasks asking for creative responses in glue and glitter.

Nancy, you have opened my eyes to something else I should be aware of this year: how I work on my reading in class. Teaching 7 year-olds (Grade 3) will mean my students are a lot younger than my previous classes.

I’m glad I already know that my school does not believe in reading programs. When I started teaching at an international school, the reading programs in place were obligatory in my first year. Oxford Reading Tree, followed by a New Zealand series Sunshine Books. Children had to take those books out for a week, and got to choose a library book. So, there was some choice, but I never got quite into it.
After all, at my previous school reading was by choice!

In my second year of international teaching, the reading levels in my class were so diverse, I decided to make everyone a “free reader”. The books were now there choice! And my class was a class of avid readers last year. Not only that, they started to bring in books from home, swapping them between each other and reporting back on what is worth reading, and what isn’t. Those un-assessed reading activities were easy to observe, but even the assessed reading (by choice) was amazing!

However, I do need to work on assessing reading comprehension more. And Nancy’s ideas are just eye-opening. I want to have a classroom of choice, where students take responsibility for their own learning and can explore various areas to express themselves. Without the dread!
Thanks Nancy! Another example of how your PLN keeps you on your feet!

Photo credit: Book-Color Histogram by Patrick Gage. Creative Common licence.

Portfolios and student-led conferences

Tomorrow starts the week before the student-led conferences at our school. These conferences are a very important part of the PYP. During these conferences, the students talk about their learning with their parents, and as a result, reflect on their learning and become aware of their achievements throughout the year.

As PYP Coordinator, I meet with the parents before the conferences to introduce them to the concept, and to help them to become a confident part of the student-led conference. It is surprising how worried some of them are to ask the wrong questions, and to “mess up”. Not that they can. My main point for those meetings is: Stay positive!

I have had parents telling their children that a specific work sample “should not be in a portfolio”, because it didn’t have neat handwriting. But that is not the point. Handwriting was not the focus of that particular piece of work, and the comment ruined the rest of that particular conference. It made me realize though, that parents often need more guidance than we think. It was also that particular mum who later came to me and asked “what did I do wrong?”. She had obviously noticed that the conference was not anyone expected, in particular not her and her child. We went through the conference again and she quickly noticed. I was very happy to have her in another conference and it was so different.

What happens next week is something I need to get better at though. We have put samples of work into our portfolios throughout the year. However, it is “selection” and reflection time and as part of that we will rip the portfolio apart and put it back together. I try not to get too involved, as student choice is crucial, in my opinion. However, I will make sure the students know why they have chosen to share a particular piece of work.

Another important aspects of these conferences is that the teacher takes the backseat. We are in the room, but we are not so much part of the conference itself. In fact, I happily facilitate a little, but I also make sure that parents know this is not a teacher-parent, or three-way conference in any way.
For me the advantage is that I get to listen to the children reflecting on their learning with someone other than me. It comes in handy just before report time, to get me focused on every single one of them.

So next week will be a week full of reflection, organizing and also a time to be proud of what we have done so far!

Update on planning Math with the PYP Unit Planner

The update is not just on actually planning with it, but it is also on a much more focused inquiry-based teaching and learning approach in stand-alone Maths teaching.

Our focus for this planner are decimals/fractional numbers and place value. I used the Sample planner from the new Math Scope and Sequence ┬ádocuments (IB PYP, on the OCC) to help me with mine. I used some of their suggested activities, but the main focus here was really the backwards planning process. Knowing the objective, acceptable evidence of understanding and all of a sudden, the “activities” lose their focus. You become more flexible, and in my opinion, much more tuned in to the needs of the children in your class.

The difficult thing I find is the mixed age group I have. I teach a combined Grade 3/4 class, so at the moment the children are between 8 and 10 years old. Not only that, but developmentally, they are quite spread out too. Which, in my opinion, will also happen in a single-grade classroom. The point here is, that for teaching about place value, fractional numbers and in particular decimals, you really have to become creative. For example: One student in my class who joined this year has just started with the concept of place value and fractional numbers. She knows simple fractions, and decimals she only knows from money. For someone like this, my planner is not suitable. Given she is the only one, I find that I can cater to her needs, but to document this in the planner is quite difficult (esp. since this really is about the introduction and exploration of decimals). And what about those children whose parents taught them even percentages at home? They seem to be quite happy to be learning about decimals despite “having done them before”. This I put down to the fact that a lot of very ambitious home teaching is missing out on looking at real understanding and developing key strategies.

Back to the point of the planner. It helped me to become much more flexible. I planned a few key learning experiences for the first week, which just ended, and the reflection on it is quite positive. We achieved much more than originally planned. We still all work at different levels, but there is definitely a good development of the central idea going on. And that is important to me. What I do now is looking at the developmental Math scope and sequence, to find the levels or phases that the different students work on. That way I use the document for assessment (for learning), as it will then inform further planning. (My class is now out for 10 days, that is why I can plan this in peace and quiet next week).

Strategies and activities that were really successful last week were:

– Human number line: Students all got a number (whole number, decimals smaller and greater than one) and had to organize themselves into a human number line. Definitely good development of social skills and thinking skills here.

– Place Value dice game: Making the smallest and the largest numbers out of the digits that were rolled with the dice. They had to explain their strategies for success to younger children.

I also found that the students are much more receptive to difficult concepts when taken out of the more traditional classroom teaching. Just changing the scene, like going outside, will make a huge difference. Standing, instead of sitting, interacting in a “fun” way. Glad the weather is good for us to be out (getting too hot inside at times now).

What I still find hard is getting students to ask their own questions. Teacher questions in Maths, as well as the central idea and lines of inquiry, do not spark the same student questions as our units of inquiry. I wonder why that is?

PYP Scope and Sequence documents, assessment, recording and planning for teaching and learning

The title is long! But it really is a bit of a complex problem we are trying to solve at our school at the moment.

The PYP released new scope and sequence documents for Language and Maths in Feb 2009, and for The Arts and PSPE in November 2009. At the moment my school is focusing on the Language and Maths scope and sequence documents still.
As a result of implementing them, we discontinued our original curriculum mapping, as we found that this was not in line with the new documents. Now we are asking ourselves about how to use the scope and sequence documents effectively to inform teaching and learning, and for recording.

What have schools done?

Our current thinking is a spreadsheet arranged in phases that will allow us to map out the students’ individual development.

I think this is an important part of the implementation of the new scope and sequence documents, and so far I have had no feedback from anyone who has implemented them yet. So lets talk about it!

Time flies….

It’s been a good start to the new year and the kids have all settled back in now. We are back into full swing.

The worrying thing is that I have not made any progression on the reports, but being back in school has given me more food for thought, so this is a good thing. I have seen their work again with my own eyes, heard their questions and wondering and it has been great. Amazing what we can forget over just a short break.

A worrying question though was “Why don’t we ever sit a test?”, AND “Can we have spelling tests?” AND the statement that “the work I do every day with my mum is harder”!
Why is it that parents feel the need to do work at home with their kids at a year level higher than they actually are. All parents have just recently commented on how happy they are and how confident they are in the programme. So they do extra work? Are they so afraid of pending moves abroad / to a different country?
I admit, this frustrates me. The same as the question about testing! We don’t do tests in the traditional sense, we don’t have grades. We assess! And we assess for learning…. formative assessment is the best way to inform my teaching and learning. ┬áSummative assessment, which we use too, is still not testing and sitting an exam, but more authentic….

I can tell I’m rambling, so I will put the thoughts to bed and rest now. I hope you are all well!