Determining Next Instructional Steps: Looking at Student Work Through an Improving Stance


Last week I shared how a group of third and fourth grade teachers deepened their students’ understanding of realistic fiction by introducing the concept of character flaws. Framing instruction around this vision definitely helped make the students’ stories more powerful. But once they began to develop ideas in which characters were complicit in the problems they faced and had to change to solve them, there was still lots of teaching to do. And we determined that teaching not just by returning to the unit plan but by using the critical practice of looking at student work.

looking-at-student-workTeachers, of course, look at student work all the time, often on their own, as they check assignments or pre- and post assessments for the purpose of evaluating or seeing if the students got something or not (which, if they haven’t, usually means the next step is reteaching). Writing in Educational Leadershipauthors Angie Deuel, Tamara Nelson, David Slavit and Anne Kennedy call this “the proving approach” to looking at student work, which is guided by the question, Did the students get it or not? And that’s different, they write, from what they call “the improving approach,” which teachers should ideally do collaboratively in order to explore a different question: What are students thinking?

According to the authors, using an improving approach to looking at work supports

“more generative conversations about student work. Teachers’ discussions yielded different questions that teachers wrestled with; those questions led to additional questions and sometimes to spirited debates about what teaching and learning should look like. Teachers sharpened their thinking about instruction, learning styles, content, formative assessment, the role of the teacher, and student engagement.”

This approach to looking at student work was precisely what led the teachers I worked with to rethink the way students were planning their stories. And studying the students’ work, we also realized that we needed to think deeper about what we teaching them not just about planning but drafting and revising.

To see what I mean, take a look at both this fourth grade student’s story mountain along with his initial draft and consider what the student reveals about his understanding of both planning and writing stories—that is, what do you think is going on in his head? story-mountain-sample-2


In a sense this student did exactly what he’d been asked to do: He filled in all the story mountain boxes and used that to create a first draft. He also revealed an understanding of the concept of a climax and, perhaps, that characters need to change in order to solve their problems. But if you looked carefully at the first three event boxes, you may have noticed that he seems to have broken down one event into three, which suggests he has a fuzzy idea of what a story event is and how stories tend to complicate things before they resolve them. Additionally, he doesn’t seem to have a vision of the difference between planning and drafting, as he seemed to rewrite what he wrote in the boxes for his draft with only a few added details.

ruby-the-copycat-coverRecognizing these misconceptions, we then had to think about how to address them, which is one of the challenges of an improving approach. That’s because, as the Educational Leadership authors write, “taking an improving stance often unearths the formidable complexities of teaching and learning that stay hidden when the focus is on making cutoff scores.” We considered, for instance, offering a lesson on dialogue or leads, but while those would provide students with a strategy for drafting, it might not give them that deeper understanding of the difference between planning and drafting and of summaries and scenes. So we returned to one of our mentor texts and designed a lesson, which I then taught, that explicitly addressed those misconceptions while also providing a vision of craft.

To implement the lesson, I first created a chart that showed what Ruby the Copycat author Peggy Rothman might have put int the Event #1 box if she’d filled out a story mountain worksheet:


Then once the students had gathered on the rug, I introduced the chart then read the following from Rothman’s book, asking them to consider this question (which I invite you to think about, too): How are these pages different from what’s in the box?  ruby-the-copycat-1



Of course, kids being kids, the first thing they noticed was the book said Ruby sat behind Angela, not next to her as I’d written. But as you’ll see below, they went on to notice much more, beginning with the fact that there were more descriptive words.


Because I didn’t want them to arbitrarily add more descriptive words to their pieces for the simple sake of being more descriptive, I asked if they could give me an example, which brought out the lines about Ruby tiptoeing and looking at Angela’s bow. Building on that, I then asked if they thought those details did more than just describe what Ruby was doing, and the students all said yes. Those details gave them clues about Ruby—that she might be shy or want to ‘lay low’ and that she admired Angela’s bow and might want to copy it.

imageIn this way the students were grasping another concept I wrote about in an earlier post on show, don’t tell: that writers actually show and tell, conveying information through the details they choose. And the students thought the dialogue was doing this as well. It gave the reader a hint about Ruby’s problem which, to the delight of the observing teachers, one of the students named as foreshadowing.

Studying the beginning of a mentor text this way definitely gave the students a deeper vision of a scene versus a summary and of planning versus drafting. But having a vision doesn’t automatically mean being able to replicate it on your own. For that learners, be they children or adults, need additional practice, and I’ll share how we offered that in another post. For now, though, try to keep that distinction in mind: Are you proving or improving when you look at student work?

Exploring the Instructional Implications of What We Did as Readers


As I did with my first read-along invitational two years ago, I want to try to notice and name some of the great thinking found in the comments left by readers on this year’s read-along, “20/20” by Linda Brewer, in order to consider the instructional implications as well as how that thinking work is connected to critical thinking. And to do the latter, I want to share again what’s become one of my turn-to quotes on critical thinking, Francis Bacon’s definition, which seems to me as good as any:

“Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order, and hatred for every kind of imposture.”

In comment after comment (which you can read too by clicking here and scrolling down), I saw readers seeking, doubting, meditating and considering. By the end, some felt ready to assert and set an interpretation in order, but many wanted to linger and mull over the questions the text raised for them without rushing to make any sort of claim—yet. Or as Victoria wrote, “I don’t like drawing conclusions because there are always so many sides to think about.”

The instructional implications of this seem huge. We currently live in a climate where making a claim—no matter how simple or undeveloped it is as long as it’s backed up with some evidence—seems to be valued more than developing a carefully considered idea, which can’t happen fast precisely because it’s carefully arrived at. If we’re serious about critical thinking then, it seems to me that we need to give students more time to seek, doubt, mediate and consider, knowing that, if we give them that time, what they eventually assert as a claim will be more nuanced and insightful. Anything less, I’m tempted to say, is more about test prep than reading.

If You're Not Confused 2

“Dazed and Confused” by Ketna Patel, with quote from Tom Peters, author of “Thriving on Chaos”

It’s also worth noticing that these readers were questioning because they were perplexed or wanted more. That is, their questions came directly out of their curiosity and their confusion—and those, in turn, came from the fact that they were paying attention. And here again, the implications seem huge.

Much has been written about the importance of getting to students to ask their own questions. Yet if your experience is anything like mine, when we teach questioning as a skill divorced from confusion and curiosity, we often get questions that seem mechanical and that students aren’t interested in; or worse, we get students raising questions they already know the answers to just to meet an assignment. If we’re serious about questioning then, it seems to me that we have to welcome confusion into our classrooms, knowing that, as Socrates said, “Confusion is the beginning of wisdom.” And we can start doing that by sharing with our students the fact that we’re often confused when we read, and then inviting students to share their confusion, too.

There are also implications in how these readers dealt with their confusion by creating what Steve Peterson called “maybe-stories.” They attempted to fit the pieces together in order to consider what the writer might be trying to show them, with different readers fitting different pieces together to arrive at different ideas. Most readers began that process by thinking about the characters, though people came up with quite different interpretations—from seeing Ruthie, as Julieanne did, as a “seemingly simple soul,” to Mary Jo Wentz who made me rethink my whole take on the story by suggesting that, far from being simple, Ruthie might have been taking Bill for a ride.

Testing VisionMany, such as Susan, also found the title key to their understanding, though again, readers came up with a range of interpretations about what “20/20” meant. Karen, for instance, thought the story suggested that “there is no such thing as 20/20″ vision”, while Emily Rietz thought that 20/20 meant “seeing each other clearly in this world.” Others, found themselves focusing on the idea of a journey, in which Bill might be learning something from Ruthie, whether that’s, as Terri put it, a lesson about “reveling in the moment’ or in a more practical (and humorous) vein “to familiarize yourself with your traveling companion before embarking on cross-country adventures,” as Gail Ballard wryly put it. Meanwhile Pat thought about the story through the lens of assumptions, with Bill going from “lump[ing] people into categories” to “realiz[ing] he needed to look deeper.” And Colette managed to circle many of these ideas by focusing solely on the dialogue!

The instructional implications here seem to be that it doesn’t really matter where you start, so long as you notice something and then start questioning and thinking about how it does or doesn’t fit with other details you notice. And that’s a far cry from the text-dependent question approach to close reading, which directs students to something the teacher (or textbook writer) has noticed and then “scaffolds” students until they arrive at the same answer as the teacher or textbook writer. And lest anyone think that students aren’t capable of doing what these readers did without that all that directing and scaffolding, here’s an excerpt from the comment Christina Sweeney left after she took up my invitation to try the text out with her 7th graders:

“I was surprise how quickly students connected the story to the title and began to talk about ways of seeing. Many described Ruthie as imaginative and different, artistic in the way she sees the world. One student even point out the recurring references to ‘eyes’—Bill resting his, Ruthie’s ‘big, blue and capable of seeing wonderful sights,’ the ‘visions’ she has over the course of the story. . . .

Overall they saw the story as being about ways of seeing—that people see the same thing differently and that is, essentially, a good thing.”

Young Girl Hag Optical IllusionAs for me—though I’ve read this story any number of times, all these comments deepened and enriched my understanding of it. And this time around they enabled me to see the story in more than one way at once, like the optical illusion of the young girl and the hag, or those red spots winking by the side of the road, which could be reflectors or Bigfoot—or both.

This ability to recognize and appreciate more than one way of seeing things seems both integral to the story and to critical thinking. Unfortunately, however, it gets short shrift in curriculum that guides students to a single way of seeing things, which is what too much of the supposedly Common Core aligned programs to. Once again, if we’re serious about critical thinking, we could see these programs as impostures (a word which Merriam-Webster says “applies to any situation in which a spurious object or performance is passed off as genuine”) and look upon them with hatred. Or we could arrive at the same conclusion Brette Locker reached as she looked at the wealth of thinking that was generated by simply paying enough attention to become confused: “I don’t need to do much more than this with my Grade Two students in reading groups, do I?”


Some Thoughts on March Madness (and I Don’t Mean Basketball)

Embed from Getty Images

The New York State Common Core English Language Arts Assessments will be upon us in a few weeks, and this year they arrive against a backdrop of controversy over the use of standardized tests. More parents than ever have joined the opt-out movement, refusing to allow their children to submit to tests whose validity they question. Diane Ravitch has called for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. And many states, including New York, have decided to slow down implementation of the Common Core and its tests, because as a Huffington Post education blog post states, “in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.”

Whatever the ultimate fate of the Common Core assessments are, this year’s tests are going on as scheduled, and teachers are struggling over how to best prepare the students in their care, which has not been easy. Many schools around the country, for instance, adopted packaged reading programs that claimed to be aligned to the Standards and the tests as a way of hedging their bets, with New York City going so far as to commission a few key publishers to develop programs0 to the City’s specifications. Yet having now seen some practice tests, many teachers feel that these programs haven’t adequately prepared students for these tests. And they’re not alone in thinking this.

Sleuth CoverAccording to a recent Education Week blog post—whose title “Boasts about Textbooks Aligned to the Common Core a ‘Sham’ says it all—these programs should be viewed with caution as few, if any, live up to their claims. Many, as the blog post points out, have recycled material from older, non-Common-Core-aligned programs, such as Pearson’s ReadyGen, which uses the magazine Sleuth from its old Reading Street program for close reading practice on texts that don’t really seem close reading worthy. Others, such as Scholastic Codex, are so overly scaffolded—with teachers repeatedly directed to “assist students in understanding”—that it’s hard to see how students are being prepared for higher order independent thinking.

Meanwhile the practice tests provided by Curriculum Associates’s Ready test prep program, which most city schools are using, are insanely hard. Sixth graders, for example, most of whom have had no exposure to chemistry, must read a speech given by Madame Curie about the discovery of radium. The passage contains much content-specific science vocabulary, and while some of the words are defined for students as you’ll see below (underlining mine), the definitions seem as incomprehensible as the words in the passage themselves.

Madame Curie Speech

Meanwhile seventh graders are subjected to an excerpt from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, poems by Keats and Yeats, and a speech by Ronald Reagan commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which seventh graders won’t learn about until eighth grade (provided, of course, that amid all this test prep, there’s still room for social studies).

With these texts, traditional test prep strategies don’t really seem to help. Process of elimination, for instance, will only take you so far on tests where more than one multiple choice answer seems completely plausible. And telling students to “make sure you understand the question before choosing an answer” seems almost laughable when the questions and answer choices are like the following:

Hybrid word question

But what’s really disturbing is that the Ready instructional test prep workbook doesn’t seem to help either. It’s organized in sections that correlate to individual Standards and skills—summarizing informational texts, analyzing text structure, determining point of view, etc.—but the workbook’s texts, questions and tips seem absurdly simplified when compared to the company’s practice tests. Here, for instance, is how the test prep workbook for seventh grade talks about point of view:

Analyzing Point of View

And here is a point of view question from a seventh grade practice test on a text called “Country Cousin/City Cousin” that consists of two sections with different narrators who, though dialogue, not only express their perspective but their cousin’s as well:

Narrator POV Question

The workbook suggests that a point of view is synonymous with a character’s perspective, which can be conveyed through dialogue, thoughts and actions; yet this test question requires students to think of point of view only as a narrative stance, which isn’t covered in the workbook. And even if they did get that, every answer except A seems plausible, since they more or less say the same thing. But only D is correct.

Maurice Sendak Cropped

From Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

So, once again, what’s a teacher to do? Aware of the problems inherent in both the packaged programs and test prep materials, the teachers from a middle school I work with and I decided to take a different tack. At each grade level, we invited a small group of students who’d just finished a few passages from a practice test to talk with us about how it went. The point was not to discover who had the right answer or not, but to hear specifically what the students found challenging and how they, as readers and test takers, tried to deal with those challenges.

What the students said was enormously enlightening, as it gave us a window on how students were thinking, not just what they thought. (The confusion over what was meant by point of view, for instance, emerged during one of these talks.) And after listening carefully to what the students said and considering the instructional implications, we were able to come up with a few tips and strategies that specifically addressed what students found challenging and how some had overcome that.


We also noticed that the students were fascinated in how their classmates thought through their answers, so we also designed a new test prep practice. Rather than having the students practice simplified skills in the workbook or go over the answers to a practice test to find out which answer was right, we broke the students into groups, assigned each group a multiple-choice passage from a practice test they’d taken, and gave them a piece of chart paper. Their task was to first talk about the passage itself—what was easy, what was hard and why—then compare their answers, looking for questions for which they’d made different choices. Next each student explained to the group how and why they their answer they had—in effect, making a claim for an answer and supporting it with evidence from the text. And after listening to each other, they debated the answer and voted on one, recording their thinking on the chart paper. Then, and only then, did we consult the answer key.

Not only did the students find this more engaging than the worksheets and reviews, they also benefited from hearing how their classmates figured things out, which they could then try to do, too. Of course, it will be a while before we know how successful this approach was or not. But I have to believe that sharing the various ways different students solved the challenges these passages and questions posed was better than just reviewing the right answers. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the powers that be will listen to parents and teachers as attentively as we listened to these students and bring an end to all this testing madness.

Stop the Madness