Get creative with formative assessments!

Formative assessment is a vigorous and engaging tradition that we as teachers should be committed to cultivating in every classroom. Why is it such an essential part of learning? It serves as an assessment tool for teachers, probing for understanding, and guiding decision-making about future instruction. Formative assessment creates a supportive environment in which the teachers and students learn and teach each other effectively, and instruction is tailor-made to fit each learner.

Formative assessment is an ongoing, fluid experience – a spontaneous, on-the-fly process that guides teachers toward understanding which resources to utilize with specific students according to their specific needs. Analyzing student work is a valuable part of formative assessment, as it clarifies which pieces of the learning process students might not understand. As an effective teacher, be prepared! Know the content that you’re going to cover, and have an understanding of the progression you want your students to make to achieve that ultimate goal. Utilize a plethora of questioning strategies and focused observations, engaging students in the learning process with a sense of urgency, and closely monitoring their progress and comprehension. Students should be entrenched in the content of the curriculum, entirely present with each other, and focused in the process of learning.

An effective formative assessment system gauges student understanding and nurtures retention. Teachers are able to pinpoint student strengths and weaknesses, down to their most minute need. Formative assessment results are used to drive instructional strategies and resources. These results should be effectively and easily communicated to students, teachers, parents, and administrators in a consistent and easy to understand format. When teachers analyze data and use it as a tool to tweak the curriculum, the curriculum becomes dynamic and alive, not just a static document.

There are literally hundreds of ways and opportunities to formatively assess students. Education today is moving away from the sole use of traditional paper and pencil assessments. Valuable formative assessments now come in a plethora of forms, adding interest and engagement to the classroom while still providing the information needed to differentiate instruction and guide student learning.

A tried-and-true method of formative assessment is the “Ticket-Out the Door,” or the “Exit Ticket.” Students compose a written response to a question posed by the teacher, and are allowed to leave the room (or in many cases, transition to the next subject) only if their response meets the approval of the instructor. Similarly, teachers may utilize this strategy as a pretest, having the students complete an ”Entrance Ticket,” or a “Ticket-in-the-Door” to gauge student knowledge on the topic of the day.

Another quick and effective formative assessment, “Show What You Know,” can also be used at the end of the lesson. This is simply a higher order or critical thinking question posed at the very end of the lesson after the lesson summary. Students write their response to the question in a complete sentence on a sticky note, and post it on the “Show What You Know” board. This gives the teacher an “at-a-glance” view of whether students understand the concept presented or not.

The “Text What You Learn” strategy engages students at a high interest level, and allows teachers to formatively assess student knowledge of a concept quickly and effectively. At the beginning of the class, students use their cell phones to text in a response to a question that the teacher has presented through the Poll Everywhere software. Responses are projected on a SMART Board, and students are given the opportunity to self-assess, and see what their peers have learned. This provides valuable information to the teacher on how to move forward with the lesson.

Edmodo has a free micro-assessment called Snapshot which provides assessment feedback by student and standard. Progress can be monitored by choosing the standard(s) to be assessed, and utilizing the standards-aligned Math and ELA questions (for grades 3-12). Snapshot displays information on student mastery of standards, and with prioritized recommendations, teachers are able to customize lesson plans and improve the performance of individuals. There is even a built-in calendar and time limit selector option, so teachers can schedule Snapshot for the most opportune time during lessons.

Socrative is a super simple tech tool teachers can use to enhance classroom engagement, assessment and individualization of content. This is a free student response system in which students respond to the teacher through a series of educational exercises and games via any web-enabled device: smartphones, laptops, and/or tablets. Socrative takes teachers 3 minutes to set up and takes their classes 20 seconds to load. Easily differentiated, Socrative can be tailored for any learner.

If you don’t have that level of technology in your classroom, you can do a “quick write” at the beginning of your class. Ask students to provide you with a brief summary of what the homework was about, or what the key point in the reading was last night. They can either hand these in to you, or you can have students share them with a Collaborative Pair Partner or group — all to truly pinpoint where the lesson should begin.

Whatever tool or strategy is chosen, formative assessment is a culture, of sorts, that teachers create in a learning community that is dynamic and engaging.

Students mirror teacher behavior — are you setting a good example?

Years ago, I worked in a school where faculty members routinely brought laptops to meetings. Everyone would gather in desks facing the front of the room, screens up, fingers furiously typing, while the facilitator spoke.  At first, I was determined to sit near the front, maintain eye-contact with the facilitator, and participate meaningfully in discussion.  Eventually, though, I gave up. It became clear what my colleagues thought of our meetings: this time was better spent preparing lessons, checking email, or even comparing Fantasy Football stats.

The way faculty meetings were run at this particular school was indicative of a larger, more pervasive problem: a lack of established norms and behavioral standards for everyone. If an outsider were to walk into any classroom, they would see students demonstrating similar behaviors and mirroring this same disengagement.

So what can administrators and teachers do to establish behavioral norms in classroom and school environments?

Step away from the situation

When a teacher comes to me again and again with the same behavioral concerns — students not using tablets or smartphones appropriately, calling out of turn, arriving to class late, using disrespectful language — I will often set the teacher to the task of observing and taking notes on the students in question while I get their class started for the period. This serves a dual purpose: teachers have the opportunity to step away from the situation and observe student behaviors objectively, as an outsider. In addition, the whole class is given a chance to reflect upon and re-establish behavioral expectations. As any effective teacher knows, the first thing you do when you walk into a classroom full of students whom you have never taught, is set norms through student input and empowerment. It’s amazing what happens when they are given the opportunity to reflect upon, and even make adjustments to their classroom behavior guidelines.

Walk in their shoes

Benjy was incredibly bright, intellectually curious, intrinsically motivated, and autistic. He also got kicked out of class a lot. One of the main reasons why this happened was because he couldn’t keep from punching holes in teachers’ logic. His brain was wired in such a way that it literally “itched” (his words) when a storyline contained flaws or loose ends, a complex math problem didn’t add up correctly, or a teacher gave out inaccurate or wholly incorrect information. Once teachers gave credence, and even respect to his practical natures (and supported his social development by teaching him how to properly address “itchy situations”) Benjy was able to stay in the classroom and really add to the intellectual value of discussions. Our brightest students will always be the first to disengage if we don’t make time for empathy and afford them the respect and validation they deserve.

Model academic risk-taking

A colleague recently told me about a social experiment of sorts that his high school conducted a few years back. Everyone swapped classes for one period of the day. English teachers taught Physics, Physics taught History, Math teachers taught English. What started out as nearly a practical joke, morphed into something slightly intimidating, and eventually, became an incredible learning experience not only for teachers, but also for students. Teachers found that they had to deliver instruction much more creatively using what schema they could access. They got really excited about uncovering new ideas and making intellectual breakthroughs (I think we call this “learning”). Their enthusiasm spread like wildfire. Students felt that teachers were as much their guides as they were their intellectual peers on an unexpected adventure in learning. When we allow students to see our humanity – our capacity to make mistakes and willingness to admit to our own lack of knowledge — they’re less likely to push back.

Follow your own rules

Speaking of mistakes, I made one this year. Just one. I covered for a teacher at the last minute when a family emergency arose, and in a hurry, I carried the remainder of my lunch into his classroom and ate it while the kids worked on a quiz.  About 5 minutes in, I heard a crinkle. Then a rustle. Then crunch, crunch. Before I knew it, this class of highly-distractible students (all of whom are diagnosed with ADHD by the way) began calling out:

“Can I have a chip?”

“Where’d you get that Rockstar?”

“I don’t like the Cool Ranch Doritos. The orange cheese powder is awesome….”

“You guys, you can’t eat food in there!” I said through mouthfuls of sandwich.

To their credit, they all put the food away and got back to their quiz. But it’s not always this way. It may seem almost too simple to state, but follow your own rules. Don’t pull out your phone in class, speak respectfully to students, arrive on time, and contribute meaningfully to creating a culture of positivity and support.

Changing the way students behave in classrooms, or the way faculty attend to their work, starts with brainstorming and buy-in. If we want to create this environment, we must model key expectations and be flexible and humble enough to reflect and revise when necessary.

Overwhelmed by the Common Core? Don’t be!

Schools throughout the nation are embracing the Common Core State Standards as a guide for developing curriculum across the content areas and designing assessments to measure student performance. It’s important that teachers have an understanding of what students need to be able to do at the level they are teaching. For educators who reach a wide range of students in their everyday workload this can be an especially daunting task.

There are great resources for helping teachers access the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core State Standards has a fantastic website for teachers full of useful information. They have a clear outline of all of the standards in addition to resources for parents and frequently asked questions.

If you are operating most often with the screen of your mobile device you’ll definitely want to download the free mobile app from Mastery Connect (iOS / Android). By having this app on your tablet or smartphone, you can easily access the Common Core State Standards in a meeting, planning session, or just to answer a quick question.

One helpful feature is the ability to type in a keyword and search through the Common Core State Standards. If you’re in a school that is new to these national standards this option will definitely come in handy.  You can type in a phrase like “comparing fractions” and figure out which grade and standard applies to this particular skill. As you prepare for the upcoming school year definitely add this app to your homescreen for easy access to the Common Core!

Teaching Digital Citizenship

From a young age, students are taught what a good citizen looks like: obeying laws, helping others, staying informed. Unfortunately, many students (and adults!) think the Internet is a place to let that good citizenship fall apart. You only need to look at the rise of cyberbullying to see this phenomenon first-hand. It’s important for teachers to teach students to be good citizens wherever they go, be it in the physical or digital world.

Consider sharing these guidelines and thoughts about good digital citizenship with your students this coming school year:

Staying Safe

  • Never use your full name or give away any personal details online.
  • Speak to an adult if any interaction online seems strange or makes you uncomfortable. Remember that it’s easy for someone to use a fake name or pose as someone else online.

Interacting with Others

  • Be respectful in online discussions. Allow others the chance to speak and reply to your ideas. Respond thoughtfully to diverse opinions.
  • Practice the 5-minute rule. If anything online makes you upset or angry, wait 5 minutes after typing a response before hitting send. Take that time to really think if that response is respectful.
  • Before sending a message online or through a text message, ask yourself if you would say that message to a person’s face. If not, think about why you wouldn’t. Maybe the message shouldn’t be sent.
  • Use Standard English and grammar in all interactions online.

Presenting Yourself

  • Credit the source of all information, photos, and videos you use if you did not create them yourself. Using someone else’s work without giving credit is plagiarism and a form of stealing.
  • Understand that nothing on the Internet ever really disappears. Your digital footprint will follow you to college, the workplace, and beyond. Be aware of the image you create.

Would love to hear what other suggestions you have to promote digital citizenship — please share in the comments below!

Using ClassDojo for more than just behavior!

Have you ever thought about using ClassDojo for data tracking needs besides behavior? As educators, we are continually collecting data on our students. No matter what grade-level you teach or how many classes you have any given day, ClassDojo can assist in collecting, storing, and producing customized data without the need for a spreadsheet or paper. You just need to think outside the box!

In my own little fifth-grade world, I use ClassDojo to gather a multitude of data. ClassDojo allows me to create as many classes and behaviors as I’d like, so I can keep track of so many different types of data points. For example, I track our students’ work habits. I track whether students complete an assignment for ELA, math, science, and social studies. If a student does not complete the assignment, he or she receives a negative point for the specific subject area. Students can also receive a negative point if they are unprepared for class. This really comes in handy when quantifying subjective data such as “work habits”, which appears as a grade on students’ quarterly report cards. At the end of each quarter I enter the date range of the quarter within the “Customized Report” and instantly have a number of missed assignments for each of my 97 students. This number is then translated into an O, S, or N based on a grading scale pre-determined by our administrators. The data truly makes my job of submitting these types of grades much easier.

Another great use of my ClassDojo account has been tracking my Junior Beta members’ service hours and meeting attendance. Just as I do with work habits, I create categories for meetings and projects we are completing. Members receive points for attending monthly meetings and completing service projects. This replaces hunting for sign-in sheets or begging for Beta folders to monitor student participation. By the end of the year I have collected a useful report of students’ individual hours and have guaranteed proof of hours earned. Once again, this omits the loss of documents and playing the guessing game on which member may have gained his or her hours in order to receive an award at the end of each year.


The amount of data that can be collected through ClassDojo is endless. I have already started a list of spreadsheets I will be converting to ClassDojo next school year. This list includes the large amount of signed paperwork students must submit each year prior to school starting, fees collected, forms returned, etc.

It’s time to think outside the “paper” box you collect each year and save yourself a lot of work!

Professional Learning Communities

When I heard Clay Shirky say that the only proven way to improve teacher performance is for teachers to learn from each other, my conscience stirred within me. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are a growing trend in excellent schools and we didn’t have one yet at my school.

Shirky went on to say, “Letting teachers choose to opt out of new tools is okay because it keeps the naysayers from blocking forward movement. Let those who are interested implement change.”

The next week I began asking my fellow teachers if they’d like to create a PLC. Within three weeks, eight out of thirty-seven teachers signed up. At our first meeting, eighteen showed up!

Our First Meeting

At our first meeting we discussed Harry Wong’s book, The First Days of School. This meeting was unlike any other I’d been to at our school. Several teachers had already read the book and shared how it had helped them. Teachers who were planning to read it asked incredible questions. I came away with at least 10 ideas for things I could do on day one of the next school year. I got more out of those 30 minutes than I’d gotten from 30 hours of certain professional classes. It was unbelievable!

What’s Next

Our next plan of attack is to have a “lunch and learn” at our school. Everyone is working to finish the book and we’re going to discuss and share ideas. No one is required to do this — we are attending by choice, making it that much more powerful.

Reach Out and Start Your Own PLC

It can be intimidating to reach out to colleagues, but we know that the way to improve schools is to improve teaching. We must do this for ourselves. Although it is frustrating to have an insufficient amount of money to spend on professional development, we can get so much from a PLC — for free! We are so excited to be part of a teacher-led group that encourages sharing and collaboration.

I encourage you to talk with other teachers at your school. See if there are a few who would be willing to start a PLC. Some may refuse to join you, and that’s okay! Don’t be discouraged, there will be other teachers who are just as excited about starting a PLC as you!

If you’re having trouble creating a PLC within your own school, there are plenty virtual PLC’s. In Summer 2014, thousands of educators joined the Summer Learning Series, open to any and all educators (#SummerLS on Twitter). You can also keep an eye out for Voxer groups and book studies that you can join.

When you work with teachers who are willing and excited, change happens. Are you ready to level-up your classroom?

Is it time to FLIP your classroom?

One goal at my school this year was to switch how we teach towards a flipped instructional model. On the surface, it may sound simple. Students learn from videos, online collaboration, and recorded lectures at home instead of at school; and voilà! — loads of valuable classroom time is freed up. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy.

Let me rewind back to phase one of our technology plan. Our first meeting revolved around questions like, “How come the Starbucks down the street only has one of those spaceship-looking thingies on the ceiling and about 200 people on the internet, while we have 5 of those things and no one can stream videos?” Yikes! Eventually, we figured out to send our most tech savvy staff to trainings and conferences to figure out our bandwidth issues!

Enter phase two — a 1:1 iPad program and full suite of great apps. We discovered a Learning Management System that allowed teachers to post assignments and videos, create “bundles” of lesson plans and units, and give students access to chat sessions, polls, and organizational systems. All year-long teachers and students collaborated to learn from each other using these amazing tools.

By phase three teachers were ready for seamless integration! I recall, in my relentless optimism, saying, “We aren’t going to assign any homework this year! It’s just practice!” I imagined shouts of joy, fist pumps, maybe even a student throwing a pile of worksheets in the air in ironic celebration of our new, paperless workflow.

By the end of the year it was clear that there were as many triumphs as there were challenges when it came to the flipped classroom. Both students and teachers agreed that organization was streamlined with an LMS, and we truly achieved a nearly paperless workflow. The copy machine soon lost its status as an activity hub and we got a Keurig! Students benefitted from the ability to review lessons online at any time and advanced students were able to work more independently and complete extra credit activities. Differentiation became easy and authentic. Students enjoyed online collaboration, something more familiar and natural for them. Everyone agreed that flipped homework was both meaningful and engaging — the way homework was meant to be.

Interestingly enough, the challenges we identified were some of the same associated with regular, old, technology-free teaching: lack of time for lesson development and the issue of incomplete homework assignments. The same culprits turned up unprepared for class. Without “pre-learning” the flipped model comes to a grinding halt. Teachers are once more faced with the choice of holding conscientious students back or plowing onward, regardless. Development and curation of bundles and lesson plans took hours and hours of prep time. It would have been very tempting for teachers to simply give up, considering these obstacles.

All things considered, year one of flipped instruction went well for us. If we were to do it all over again I’d recommend that other schools be sure to set aside as much teacher-training and preparation time as possible. Encourage your staff to “play” with this technology, make mistakes, and fail brilliantly. Start small. Ask teachers to post one video on your LMS per night. This might be all you get from tentative tech-users for a while, until students start asking for more — and they will. Know that effective teachers are not always effective online instructional designers, but blended learning can balance this out. Finally, remember that the flipped model is only a catalyst for learning. Students are still the center of the classroom and sound teaching methodologies and strategies are still as vital as ever.

Technology Rules! …literally

Before the school-year begins, you need to establish clear guidelines for technology in your classroom. Whether your school is 1:1 iPads, shared laptop carts, or computer labs, students need to know what is expected of them when they power up technology tools.

8 rules for technology in the classroom:

  1. “Apples Up!”: When teacher is talking, iPads must be face down on students’ desks.
  2. Use two hands to carry iPads or laptops. “Hug it like you love it!”: Great for younger students. Reminds students to hold the device to their chest. “Both thumbs on top!”: Good for older students. Students should stack books or papers beneath the device, then carry everything together.
  3. Never carry devices by a cover or lid.
  4. No food or drinks near devices. No devices in the lunchroom!
  5. Always use the app or website the teacher directed. No unauthorized apps or chatting.
  6. Wash hands before using any shared devices. We all know how easy it is for germs to spread like wildfire in a classroom!
  7. When technology time is up, save and power off quickly.
  8. Do not take iPad or laptop out of bag/desk/cart unless directed by teacher.

As a teacher, it also helps to set some guidelines for yourself when integrating technology into your lesson plans!

5 rules for technology in the classroom — for teachers:

  1. Make sure the technology adds real value.
  2. Set clear expectations and guidelines for students. Make sure they know the technology has real educational value and is more than a fun tool or distraction.
  3. Before any student work appears online, get administration and parental permission. No last names or location information!
  4. Test all apps and websites before having students use them. If there are bugs you’ll want to know what they are and how to fix them before class starts.
  5. Be open to student choice. Technology allows students to create animations, record podcasts, or make infographics all from the same device. Give students the freedom to explore outcomes that interest them.

Once you’ve established these guidelines, you and your students can start to enjoy the many benefits of technology in the classroom!

First year teachers! Set a strong foundation for the road ahead

Congratulations, you made it! You now have your own classroom! You will probably spend the better part of your summer thinking about your classroom setup and decor. You are likely to purchase your first planning book and other teacher supplies. Even after 14 years in the classroom, I must admit I still feel giddy thinking about new supplies and classroom decoration ideas.

Your first year as a teacher will be both exciting and overwhelming. It will also be the best adventure you will take in your professional journey. As you embark on this endeavor you will want to examine and develop five basic “maps” to set you in a successful direction:

  1. Establish a support system: Whether it be colleagues within your grade level or a veteran on campus, these people will be your lifeline. One uniquely inspiring aspect about this profession is the willingness to share and mentor. Veteran teachers have all been in your position at some point in time and can ease confusion or unknowns for you.
  2. Ask a lot of questions: As educators, we are always reminding our students to ask questions, but we need to ask questions as well! You will need to know your school’s policies and procedures, school-wide behavior plan, schedules, and much more. I have taught in three different schools, each with a unique way of handling day-to-day tasks, so try not to assume too much!
  3. Developing a solid behavior management plan: Once you have established whether your school has a behavior plan, examine what your role is. Explore whether colleagues in your grade-level have specific procedures for handling encouragement and discipline. Hopefully teachers at your school are already using ClassDojo and you can jump on board. If not, there is no reason for you not to use ClassDojo for your own classroom. You might be the catalyst for change. Speaking from experience, it can happen.
  4. Establish strong classroom procedures: There should be a well-defined procedure in place for just about every classroom activity. This will save you an incredible amount of time that can be wasted during transitions. Your school might have procedures that all teachers must implement. If not, mentor teachers can help you develop procedures and there are plenty of ideas online. Whatever procedures you choose, put them in place immediately. Practice often with your students and maintain consistency. Both you and your students will be glad you did.
  5. Plan for more than you need: I develop detailed plans for the first three days. We practice procedures, go over the behavior management plan, gather materials, and perform icebreakers. I give a presentation about myself and students give “brown bag” presentations about themselves. We develop personal goals, class goals and set expectations. It’s always smart to plan far too many games and brain breaks just in case particular tasks take less time than anticipated.

Remember that you are setting the foundation for not only your first year, but for years to come. The goal is to establish who you are as an educator. Your methods and structures may change as you find what works or don’t work in your classroom, but your foundation will remain the same. Solid foundations support solid learning.

Expect more to get more

Over the years, I have worked with students of different cultural, socioeconomic, and academic backgrounds. One year I taught at one of Philadelphia’s most challenging schools with one of the lowest teacher-retention rates. Violence, poverty, and failing scores gave the school a negative reputation in the community. I quickly discovered that most of my colleagues were burnt out and expected behavior problems and poor performance. I was assigned a class of 32 below-level students without any special education, language, or behavior support.

Given the situation, how should a teacher envision the year ahead? Should a teacher expect every lesson to be interrupted with behavior problems? Should a teacher expect that no child will pass the state test? I refused to accept that the situation was out of my control.

I focused on attaining quality academic and behavioral performance from each student. I consistently set high, yet achievable, expectations and didn’t back down. These expectations were continually communicated with students and families. We celebrated growth, successes, and even attendance on a daily basis. The kids felt accountable knowing there would always be follow-through.

After the first trimester other staff members began to notice a dramatic, positive change in this class. By March my students were exhibiting record gains on the Benchmark Assessment.

Although I may not be a better or more experienced teacher, I believe I approached the year much differently than my colleagues. Preconceived notions did not dictate my school year. Past performance is certainly beneficial information to have, but this information should not be used to place students in a box. Rather, one should use this information to motivate students appropriately and raise the bar whenever possible. Instruction must be differentiated to meet cultural, academic, language, and learning style needs. However, the definition of quality must remain the same and shouldn’t waiver between student populations.

How do you set expectations for your students? Would love to hear your ideas!