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Articulating Growth and Setting Realistic Goals

18 Feb

Meg and I recently went back to our teaching jobs after a semester writing sabbatical. I took over two sections of a junior-level inclusion course and three sections of an honors sophomore course. After spending months pouring over former students’ work, I am seeing a key difference between those who worked with the ILP and my current students.The abilities to articulate learning, accurately assess work, and set realistic and challenging goals for improvement are hallmarks of student experiences when they use the ILP as a tool to guide their learning. Unfortunately, I am not yet seeing these qualities in my current students.

Because the ILP system is grounded by the close-reading of standards and unit/course objectives, students gain intimate familiarity with the requirements of the unit/course, and they have a hand in developing ways to express mastery of those requirements. They consistently compare their work to the requirements and articulate how and why their work matches, falls short of, or exceeds the standards. This often happens in teacher conferences, but the ILP also builds in points to reflect on progress after each round of practice with a skill. That means students are not only comparing their work to professional models or exemplary work but they’re also comparing their second attempts to their own first attempts and pinpointing elements that have improved and why. They are also recognizing aspects that remain stagnant and setting new goals for further growth.

Here are a couple of examples from my current students when they were asked to consider how they made progress toward goals they set at the beginning of the school year.

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While there are elements of specificity, most vaguely reference some improvement without articulating what aspects of the broader skills needed improvement and, more importantly, what they see that’s different from their initial attempts.

In prior years, students were asked to reflect on their progress after each attempt at a skill. The example below from one of last year’s sophomores not only shows a deeper understanding of the skills’ elements, but it also shows how his second attempts were better than previous tries. And, this student clearly articulates where he can still improve.


Standard reflection from previous student after two rounds of skill practice

Continual self-assessment leads to a strong self-awareness that other students might not have. As a result, providing students with tools to help them assess and opportunities for deliberate practice has gained increasing importance in my classroom. I’m getting more and more excited to jump into that aspect of teaching. I took the first step in the process last week with my new groups of sophomores. They used their initial reflections to set goals for themselves going forward. Then, we put those goals to use immediately.

In small groups, students examined the standards for our next unit, and they selected those that echoed the goals they established. They will be their focus standards for the unit–the ones that they target with specific activities, receive the most feedback on, and reflect on throughout the course of the unit. Next, they performed close reads of the standards, using the model that Meg designed last year*. Already, they began to see intricacies of the skills that they identified as areas for growth, and they are fine-tuning the goals that they established.


Close-read of CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.9-10.5 by sophomore students

I’m excited to see what practice with reflection and self-assessment will yield, and I’m even more excited to help the students through the process. If these classes are anything like those that previously used the ILP and its accompanying tools, these students will walk away with the ability to thoughtfully and accurately assess their work and to hold themselves accountable for the goals they set.

“AASL 4.1.3 Standard Close-Read Activity Model” created by Meg Donhauser and previously published in School Library Monthly (Volume 31, No. 4, pages 8-11).

Coping with Curriculum

17 Nov

One of our session’s attendees asked us about the pressure to cover the host of skills and content that a course’s curriculum calls for. This is absolutely a real and difficult challenge in our school and in many schools as the expectations to cover and assess Common Core, discipline-specific state standards, 21st Century Skills, and other content requirements increase. It’s exhausting to think about! In my American Lit course, for example, I need to cover all of America’s literary history in only 9 weeks of 84 minute class periods. This is a huge burden–one that inspired Meg to create the ILP in the first place. Furthermore, this responsibility suggests that teachers are the only people in the room who can deliver content or help students improve in skill areas. If we assume that, we are greatly limiting student’s learning to the extent of our knowledge. We are limited. Continue reading

Reflections Part II: The Standards

9 May

The other reflection that students complete after each round of activities is about their progress towards mastering the standards. Like the EQ reflection, it allows us to see what successes students are having, and it allows us to help our students through the frustrating early stages of the inquiry process. When one of my students wrote, “I really dislike this reading standard, because I feel like it would go a lot better with poems than with texts,” I was able to step in and remind her of a full-class DIDLS activity we did for Matthew Arnold’s “The Definition of Poetry.”  She could then reattempt that standard with a clearer focus and direction.

By requiring this reflection, students are forced to keep the standard and all its components in mind as they complete their activities. Another student of mine reflected on how an analysis tool helped him work through a poem and meet his standard:

My reading standard asks to analyze the way the authors writes, rather than what it means. This means going in depth and looking at why the author chooses certain words or themes and how their sequence affects the text. A TPCASTT accomplishes this standard because analyzing tone and connotation really analyze word choice–which is a key part of this standard. Also, the paraphrasing and title steps in the process analyze why the author chose those words–another major part of the standard.

It also allows the student and teacher to see growth over time. When our students work through the ILP, they aren’t only experiencing the inquiry process to answer their EQ, but they’re also experiencing it as they figure out how to fulfill their standard. One student wrote: Continue reading

Activity Design

25 Apr

After the excitement of choosing texts and developing questions, students sometimes hit a rough spot with activity design. In some ways, it’s an act of synthesis: create and complete an assignment that tries to answer a question, practice a standard, and analyze a text. Like Cathy mentioned in a previous post, a key step to activity design is understanding what the standard is requiring the student to do and create. The first time we have students tackle design creation, we usually do it as a class, though it’s not always a success. Based on the diagnostics, my Brit Lit course chose to complete the Reading: Lit Standard 11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain. After rewriting the standard, they brainstormed potential activities as we read The Canterbury Tales. Here’s their first attempt:

  • Visualizing with media
  • Get quotes from the text and draw what it means
  • Hollywood Squares- people are contestants and the authors are the people who get asked questions
  • Draw with friends!
  • Telephone game
  • Skits based off of text
  • Board Game
  • cooking
  • Check your understanding squares
    • What happened
    • What does it mean
    • Establish a deeper connection
    • Create a conclusion

Obviously, these don’t really fulfill that standard (seriously, cooking?). Luckily, this helped us discuss aspects of activity creation. Yes, technically, you can do whatever you want for an activity but it must fulfill the standard.  So, when we went back to this list, we ultimately decided to do the last one, a type of graphic organizer for students to “cite…evidence to support analysis” and make “inferences…including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.”

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Introducing Students to Standards

12 Apr

When students receive feedback from diagnostics, we require that they set goals in skill and content areas where they need the most improvement. That way, they can focus their course work on getting stronger, rather than simply showcasing their strengths. Of course, this sounds a little daunting to them, and sometimes students need to understand why they have to do things they’re not good at. For me, that’s where the standards come in. I explain to students that standards are a list of skills and content information that they are expected to learn and demonstrate before they move on from my class. The diagnostics show us which ones they already have covered, and now they can put their energy toward meeting the other requirements. From that point, we can start to align their individualized goals with discipline-specific skill and content standards.

As you can imagine however, being asked to work on weak areas is difficult, and it asks students to go well outside of their comfort zones. The Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP) requires students to consider the processes they go through as they face that challenge. That way, as I explain to the students, they can understand how they learn, and they can apply it to other situations in which they will have to explore and discover new information. Students need language to describe and assess their successes and setback through this process though. At this point, teachers and students may look to many other standard sets to supplement content-area standards and help direct the student’s experience. AASL standards for the 21st Century Learner, ISTE’s National Educational Technology Standards, and NCTE Standards for 21st Century Literacy, among others, directly speak to the process of learning.

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Using Diagnostics to Set Goals and Select Standards

6 Apr

The Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP) structure provides an opportunity for students to design their learning around skill areas that need the most improvement. In order to do that, students must understand their strengths and weaknesses so that they can determine which skills and content to focus on. Diagnostics can give students and teachers a baseline from which to work. Even though teachers center instructions on standards, we rarely make them apparent to students.  The diagnostics serve as an “initiation to standards though I don’t immediately label it that way.  The nitty gritty of the standards comes later. Initially, I tell students that there are a few general skills and content elements to the curriculum that I need to assess throughout the course. (For me as an English teacher, they’re reading, writing, and speaking/listening–the exact categories of skills outlined in the Common Core Content Standards for Language Arts Literacy.)  Students simply need to know that they will be responsible for working toward improvement in those areas.

I introduce the idea of diagnostic assessments to get a pulse on their abilities. Traditionally, diagnostics mimic final assessments as closely as possible in both structure and content. However, when using the ILP, the teacher may not know what the final product will look like ahead of time. Therefore, the diagnostic must cover the content and skills that the students will be responsible for knowing by the end of the unit/course. It should provide enough items in each content or skill area to get a strong reading of students’ abilities. I like to align the assessments with the standards and group questions by standard area so that the students and I can easily determine strengths and areas for improvement. With my English classes, I have three separate diagnostics. I ask students to actively read a text and answer questions to assess their reading skills. The next day, they discuss the same text in small groups, during which I assess their speaking and listening abilities. Lastly they write an essay that connects this text to their summer reading in order to assess their writing and language skills. In classes without a summer reading assignment, I ask students to find an article that connects to or refutes the ideas in the reading diagnostic text, and they write about those texts. The diagnostic assessments speak to the exact reading, speaking/listening, writing, and language skills that I will summatively assess at the end of the first unit. To kill two birds with one stone, I also connect all three of these to the content and themes of the first unit.

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The Plan

1 Apr

While the first iteration of the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP) was similar to a blank UbD template, we’ve spent the last three years reorganizing and refining the plan (we’re actually on version 8.0!). As Heather and Marci explained in earlier posts, the plan uses elements of the ISP and Guided Inquiry, and it’s also a tool that helps students organize their thoughts and examine how their inquiry progresses. The plan is divided into four sections, the first of which is where students outline the materials they will be studying.  Depending on your discipline, this first section could contain mathematical theories or artistic movements.  Over the course of one unit in my current British Literature course, students have to read five texts from a time period; one is a long text and one is a piece of non-fiction, but the remaining three can take on any format, including poems, speeches, works of art, etc. We also require that students use supplementary resources to aid in their inquiry; for our students, these range from Wikipedia entries to literary criticism.  As a result, section one contains a variety of sources – some that serve as the object of students’ inquiry and others that support their inquiry.

The next section is titled “What I Will Learn: Desired Results” and has students identify essential and guiding questions for the unit. We’ll discuss how we help students come up with these questions in a later post, but this step can be done in conjunction with finding texts or after reading a bit of the core text. In this section, students will also list the standards that they choose for the unit; my Brit Lit kids attempt at least four standards: a reading, writing, speaking and listening from the CCSS, and other standards possibly from AASL, NCTE, or another category from CCSS. These standards are chosen after students reflect on their diagnostics, something Cathy will explore in a future post.

So, these first two sections of the ILP really serve as a cover page of sorts, to let teachers, librarians, or anyone else who is reading the plan see what the student is attempting to learn. The majority of the work for the unit will be completed in the “Student Growth” section of the plan. Students generally complete three rounds of three activities and reflections; these activities are based on at least one standard and should help the students answer their guiding and essential questions. The reflections are crucial for students to stop and assess what they’ve learned and what they see as holes in their understanding. What will they need to do in the next round in order to improve their skills? What information do they still need to find?  Although reflections provide insight into future improvements and needs, they also show students how much they’ve learned.  This ability to monitor their own learning is crucial for today’s students.

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