Sunday, October 23, 2016

Best of Frank Serafini: Assessment Windows

I have used the term “windows,” as many other educators have before me, to describe the assessment instruments used to generate information about the students in my class. I chose the term windows because it describes the importance of observation and the limited scope of any one assessment technique. Teachers “look through” these assessment windows at their students during actual literacy events. These assessments are observational guides, designed to hone teachers powers of observation and make their assessments more meaningful.
There is no single window, no single assessment, that provides access to the complete child. In other words, each window reveals information about a child as much as it conceals information. Each assessment window calls forth different aspects of a child’s behaviors, abilities and dispositions. It is only through the use of a variety of assessment windows that a more extensive understanding of a child’s literate abilities emerges.
When through a window, we often find a bit of reflection of ourselves bouncing back. It is the same with these assessment windows. As we generate information about our students, we also generate information about our teaching, our classroom and ourselves. For example, when we review the artifacts collected in our students’ portfolios (treasuries), we can reflect on what we have taught during the year, what has been given the most attention and possibly what was missing.
            In addition, I have chosen the term window because assessment windows, just like windows in the real world, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some windows offer us a wide view of the world and some only a small portal through which to observe the events around us. It is the same with our assessment windows. Let’s say you were going to buy a new house and you wanted to get a sense of what it was like, but your realtor was running late and all you could do was walk around the house and look through the windows. No single window would allow you to see everything inside the house. However, by walking around and looking through a variety of windows, from a variety of vantage points, you might be able to build up an understanding of what the house contained. Eventually, your realtor arrives and opens the door for you to enter the premises, wander around and get a better sense of what is actually in the house. This works great for home buying. Unfortunately, we cannot open the door and wander around in our students’ minds or their experiences. All we can do is look through the assessment windows we create to understand what they are doing, are able to do, and need more support in doing.
            I have also purposefully chosen to use the term “generate” rather than the terms “gather” or “collect” to describe the process by which information is produced utilizing these assessment windows. I chose the word generate because it describes how teachers actively select, observe, create and revise the information they use to make instructional decisions. This information does not come to us ready made, it is generated through the processes and instruments we select and the knowledge base we bring to the observed learning events. Different assessment windows generate different information. In other words, we are only able to see our students through the windows and opportunities we make available. Each window limits our view, and at the same time makes observation and generating information possible. Because of this, we need to be careful about the assessment windows and techniques we select because they determine in part how we come to know our students as readers.
Sources of Information
            In order to understand the variety of assessment windows we might utilize to generate information, we need to first consider the types of information that are available to the classroom teacher. In other words, what will we observe, where and when will we make our observations, what information is of value, and how does this information present itself? Basically, we have available to us the same types of information that qualitative researchers draw upon when conducting research studies. The three main sources of information we may draw upon to understand students’ literate abilities are:
  1. Artifacts – the products students create when reading and responding to what is being read. Anything tangible that can be collected and put in a portfolio is an artifact. For example, literature response notebook entries, charts, response activities, or book reviews are all types of artifacts.
  2. Observations – the notes we create by watching students engage in literate activities. For example, observing students’ responses during whole group read alouds, notes taken during a literature discussion, general observational notes about students’ reading preferences or selection of books, or notes taken when listening to a student read aloud.
  3. Interactions – the discussions and communications we have with students on a daily basis. Unlike observations, interactions require the teacher to interact with the student, rather than passively observe. This type of information is generated by asking particular questions from an interview protocol, or conducting daily “check-in conferences” with students. 
These sources of information are found in a variety of settings and provide the classroom teacher with the information necessary to make more effective decisions regarding instructional approaches, learning experiences and interventions. For example, we can observe students preparing to read, selecting a book and choosing to sit in a particular place to read. We can use a particular instrument to observe readers during the act of reading, or we can look at what they create when they have finished reading. The following chart (Figure 2.2) gives some examples of the types of questions teachers can ask about readers before, during, and after reading a text.

Sources of Information About Reading
1. Before Reading
What strategies do students use for selecting a text?
How does a student approach a text? (Do they skim through it? Read the title page? Look at the end pages and other peritextual information?)
Are students able to state their purposes for reading a particular text?
When and where do students choose to read?
2. During Reading
Does the student demonstrate immediate emotional reactions - laugh, cry etc.
Is the student able to code or mark important passages in the text during reading for further inquiry?
Is the student able to stop and this aloud during his or her reading? What does the student talk about?
As a student reads a text, what strategies does he or she employ? Is the student fluently reading, or is her or his reading choppy? Is the student able to adjust his or her rate of reading to ensure understanding?
3. After Reading:
Is a student able to talk about the text when finished? Can he or she paraphrase or summarize what has been read? Does the student draw inferences from the text?
Can students write a response entry in their literature response notebook?
Are students able to answer questions about what has been read?
Can students respond in other ways (write a book review, draw a picture, act ot the story) to what has been read?

We, as teachers, have available to us a wide variety of information that can be used to provide evidence of a student’s reading processes, preferences and strategies. Each source provides a different type of information which helps us to come to know our students as readers and literate beings. Various assessment windows or data generating techniques are used to tap into these sources of information, and it is to these assessment windows and observational techniques I now turn.
Efficient Assessment Windows
            I have relied upon many different assessment windows over my years of experience as a classroom teacher in order to come to know my students as readers and writers. Some windows have generated a wealth of information, while others were not worth the time I spent using them, either because they took too much time away from my instruction, or the information they provided was not very helpful in understanding my students. The windows I will share with you in this chapter are the ones that provided the most information with the least amount of interruption to my teaching. In addition, they generated information during actual reading events, not the contrived scenarios that mimic real reading that are part of so many standardized tests. It is because of these characteristics I call them “efficient” assessment windows. 

My Top Ten Efficient Assessment Windows
  1. Observational Records
  2. Observational Checklists
  3. Reading Interviews and Conferences
  4. Reading Response Notebooks
  5. Oral Reading Analyses
  6. Think Aloud Protocols
  7. Retellings
  8. Reflection Logs
  9. Book Reviews
  10. Treasuries

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Best of Frank Serafini: Assessment & Reflection

Assessment has to be about more than simply generating information about my students to report to parents on a report card. The information I gathered about my students had to do something for me and my students. In order to do so, I had to do something with this information. I needed to learn how to use this information to make better instructional decisions and to design more effective lessons and learning experiences in my reading workshop. This led me to investigate the concept of reflection, reflective practices and how to assume the role of “teacher as researcher.”
Much of my understanding of reflective practice came from the early work of John Dewey. In How We Think, Dewey described reflective practice as an, "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends.” The grounds that support our instructional and curricular decisions are based on the information we generate through the assessment windows we utilize. This seemed to be the connection between assessment and instruction I was looking for.
Reflective practice begins with a perceived uncertainty, a nagging sense of doubt, and ends with a judgment or action. These “uncertainties” or doubts do not appear ready-made for the teacher, rather they are created or “framed” from the experiences one encounters in the classroom. In other words, through careful, extended observations we determine the challenges or uncertainties we will need to address and the information we will need to generate to make more informed instructional decisions. In order to create more effective learning experiences, we need to identify an area of the curriculum to focus on, gather and generate relevant information, and learn how to use this information to make sound instructional decisions. In other words, the information we generate must work to inform our instructional practices.
In addition, Dewey wrote about the concept of “suspending conclusions”, describing this as the ability of teachers to resist the temptation to jump to premature judgments, and to carefully weigh the evidence provided and the consequences of one’s actions before making instructional decisions. In order for this to occur, teachers needed to generate enough relevant data to make effective decisions. This is where classroom-based assessment comes in. Reflective practitioners are knowledgeable teachers that generate information, act according to their best judgments, suspend their conclusions, but also understand that knowledge is tentative and open to change when new information comes to light.
For Dewey, the purpose of reflective practice was to change teachers’ actions and their processes of arriving at instructional decisions. If reflection did not lead to action, it was simply a waste of time. Without action being taken after reflection has occurred, teachers are simply reflecting for the sake of reflecting and not using their new understandings to improve their teaching practices. In this sense, the value of assessment and reflection is in its usefulness to the teacher and the student, not as an isolated mental activity. In other words, if we don’t use the information we generate about our students to inform our instruction, we are simply "navel-gazing".

In summary, reflective practice is an active stance a teacher assumes towards his or her practice. Reflective teachers view the experiences in their classroom as open to inquiry, are able to suspend judgments in order to question why they do what they do, use the information they generate about students to critically examine the learning experiences they create in their classrooms and make the necessary changes in their instructional practices and learning environments.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

By the End of September - Best of Frank Serafini

In my book, Around the Reading Workshop in 180 Days, I included a section at the end of each chapter describing what I hoped to have set in place by the end of each month. In this installment of my blog I offer the description of what I hope to have in place by the end of September. I hope this helps new teachers get a sense of what is important to start the year.

By the end of September, I hope to begin to see, hear, and have established the following things:

  1. Most students are choosing appropriate reading materials, based on their comprehension abilities, for independent and paired reading – I am aware that I will need to consistently monitor some readers’ choices, but many of my students will be choosing appropriate materials by the end of the month.
  2. Students are willing to offer ideas when I am finished reading aloud a picture or chapter book without being asked – I want students to know that it is their responsibility to generate and articulate their interpretations without being asked after every reading what they think.
  3. The classroom library is organized and being used regularly by all students – we spend a great deal of time on the classroom library in September and I expect students to know what is available and how to find it, check it out and return it to its appropriate place.
  4. Students are writing most every evening in their literature response logs – one of the primary assessment instruments I use is the literature response log. Although these lit logs will include longer and more sophisticated responses as the year progresses, it is essential that students accept the responsibility for completing these every night.
  5. Students know the basic procedures of the reading workshop and are in the right place, with the right materials, for instruction to begin.
  6. Students sing along with me during our “shared singing” time – I begin the year playing the guitar and singing songs with my students. I try to choose songs they like, but the expectation is that everyone participates.
  7. My student assessment forms and notebooks are organized and I have begun to include various assessments in there – September is a time to get to know my students, and for them to get to know me. It is important for me to set up my assessment files so I have a place to keep students’ work samples and assessment forms organized.
  8. Students are beginning to understand the concept of genre, and use terms like science fiction, mystery, realistic fiction, and fairy tales to describe the books they are reading.
  9. Students are beginning to listen to each other in group discussions – the concept of “thinking-talking” is based on one’s ability to articulate one’s ideas AND one’s ability to listen to other students’ ideas.
  10. The classroom will be noisy, but not unruly; engaging but not intimidating; challenging but thoroughly enjoyable – above all, the reading workshop is a place for people to read and revel in the joys and wonders of reading and literature. I need to create a space where every student, regardless of their reading experiences and abilities can find enjoyment engaging in the act of reading.