Catch Them Thinking

"Early in the year, I suggest classroom plant investigations, model how to develop predictions about what might happen, and help students set them up," reports second grade teacher Diane Gore from Durham, NC.

As time goes on, explains Diane, students take these responsibilities on themselves. "I use a number of means to assess where students are in their understanding and use of inquiry skills." For each GrowLab investigation, for instance, students make scientific booklets. Before beginning a unit or investigation and after participating in a class discussion, students write in their booklets what they know about a topic or concept and questions they have. After planning in small groups, students describe how they'll explore a question and predict what they think might happen. Later, they record relevant data they gather.

"I make time to conference with students while they write in their booklets, and periodically review each one on my own," says Diane. "In doing so, I learn so much about students' thinking, and can readily see where they need more support, with measuring or graphing, for instance."

Diane also captures students engaged as scientists on videotape. "When I review the videos, I can tell which students were engaged and what types of misconceptions students had," she explains. "I might have a follow-up discussion with a group to determine whether students were actually developing concepts." She sometimes has students view selected footage, then document evidence of having met standards, such as "collaborating with others."

Second-Nature Assessment

"I was given the go-ahead to use our school garden as a context for interdisciplinary learning as long as I managed to address our state standards," reports first grade teacher Kathryn Muzikar-Dull from Newport, VT. With support from a local continuous assessment (and gardening) project, Kathryn learned that by documenting what students are saying and doing while they are engaged in gardening investigations, conversations, writing, and so on, she was able to better tailor learning situations to meet kids' needs. And because she presented her teaching and learning goals in relation to the standards, she and her students had clear and up-front targets for teaching, learning, documenting, and assessing.

Using child-appropriate language, Kathryn shares these targets with the class, models them, and engages students in making the standards "their own." For instance, the class might discuss, brainstorm, and post on a chart what's entailed in "being a good observer," then routinely use that as a reference throughout the year.

Valuing Kids' Ideas

"Although I was leery at first about relying on more qualitative types of documentation -- my observation notes, student writing and journals, group projects, and so on -- I am already seeing how this process helps me better understand the whole child," says Kathryn. Her strategies? When students are doing an indoor GrowLab or outdoor garden investigation, they draw or write a relevant journal entry once a week. "At first I tried conferencing with students one-on-one about their journals, but my time was limited," says Kathryn. "Then I started working with three to four at a time, talking about their drawings and having them dictate their observations, ideas, and questions to me," she explains.

When students are engaged in garden activities (measuring a sunflower using hands, for instance), Kathryn observes them, listens to their conversations, and records comments that reveal how kids are meeting specific standards. Photos of students engaged in garden investigations, along with journals and portfolios that feature a progression of student work, provide more fuel for assessing and reporting student gains. She might also use a rubric or checklist linked to certain learning goals to "score" the work.

Kathryn draws from all of this material when reporting to parents and explaining what the material reveals about students' grasp of standards. She explains that many parents notice a difference in their children's enthusiasm and motivation since the garden project began, but others still question the value of "digging in the dirt." "By showing them the criteria for standards, then linking that to student work and my observational comments, I'm more able to help them see the value of the garden," explains Kathryn.

She acknowledges that it's a struggle to fit continuous assessment into her already busy teaching time. "I've alerted my teaching assistant to what I'm looking for, so she can help gather data. But these types of logistical challenges don't inhibit my enthusiasm for this approach. It helps me gain a much deeper understanding of kids' thinking and abilities, and what I need to do to support them," she concludes.

Article published on June 23, 2008.

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