By Janet Johnson and Jen Frickey
Each year, our school’s instructional team fine-tunes its collective classroom practice by learning together. Instructors submit ideas for possible topics of study and the director of curriculum, in conjunction with our Professional Development Critical Friends Group, chooses an area of focus for the year.
The Critical Friends Group then meets weekly to plan for four instructional meetings each trimester. The members of the group — both instructional specialists and Eagle Rock Public Allies fellows who are seeking Colorado state teaching licensure — volunteer to study an annual theme, design and deliver engaging adult learning, and facilitate our weekly planning meetings.
A hallmark of these meetings is using School Reform Initiative protocols to share our instructional meeting plans and get feedback about them. We commonly use The Charrette Protocol (note: link opens a PDF) and Tuning Protocols (note: link opens a PDF) to examine our works in progress. These protocols — as well as those that help us to learn from texts, investigate teaching, learning and assessment, and examine student work — are often the backbone of our instructional meetings.
This year’s annual theme is Formative Assessment. For assessment to be formative, teachers and students must ask themselves where they are going, have a realistic appraisal of where they are now, and make a plan together for how to get there. These questions are central to our formative assessment approach.
We attempt to develop our skills in four distinct areas:
- Communicate learning targets and criteria for success
- Provide effective feedback
- Foster strategic questioning among students and teachers
- Promote self-assessment and goal setting
Formative assessment is student centered and transparent, with students and teachers working together to set learning objectives and collect evidence of meeting goals. The explicit result, of course, is improving student achievement.
Since the Critical Friends Group had varying levels of understanding and experience with formative assessment, we decided to ground our work together using two texts: Learning Targets: Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today’s Lesson,by Connie M. Moss and Susan Brookhart, and Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom: A Guide for Instructional Leaders by Moss and Brookhart.
These texts are serving two distinct purposes for us here at Eagle Rock: First, they are helping us to develop a common understanding of what assessment for learning could be and they prompted the team to shift its understanding of assessment from something teachers did to students to hold them accountable, to something teachers did with students to improve learning outcomes.
Second, they are further clarifying that formative assessment is student centered and transparent; students and teachers work together to set learning goals and collect evidence of meeting the goals, with the explicit result of improving student achievement.
As Moss and Brookhart state at the beginning of chapter one of Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom, “When teachers join forces with their students in the formative assessment process, their partnership generates powerful learning outcomes. Teachers become more effective, students become actively engaged, and they both become intentional learners.”
Throughout our first trimester of study, we wrestled with how to write student-friendly daily learning targets, how to create performances of understanding that embodied the target, and how to develop criteria for success that were rooted in the daily targets. Initially, what began as an alphabet soup of acronyms became foundation for our daily instructional decision-making. Daily targets, learning logs, performance rubrics and criteria for success checklists became common sightings on classroom walkthroughs, as well as the focal points for metacognitive conversations with students.
In our second trimester of study, we directed our attention to how to provide feedback that encourages student learning going forward by grounding our feedback in daily learning targets and criteria for success. The instructional team added to its toolboxes by reading about and discussing how to implement feedback that feeds forward into our daily lives. We then examined each other’s work on two different occasions — once through hour-long tuning protocols and once through a gallery walk where every instructor presented what they were working on related to feedback.
Instructors then participated in classroom walkthroughs and collected evidence of how we were using everything we now knew about formative assessment in our daily lessons. This was accomplished by observing teacher moves and by talking with students. Using an ATLAS Protocol (note: link opens a PDF), we examined the evidence we collected from our class visits at our last instructional meeting of the trimester and set goals for what to work on during the summer.
From our last meeting we gathered that our instructors were excited about a wide range of formative assessment practices. As a result of this data, the team self-selected into study groups to flesh out the remaining strategies in our formative assessment framework. These included student self-assessment, student goal setting, strategic teacher questioning and student-generated questions.
Each group will delve into and discuss a text related to the topic, examine work in progress related to the topic, and then cross-pollinate with other groups in order to learn from one another. This learning cycle will allow us to differentiate for interests among our instructional team, while still staying rooted in our theme for the year.
In addition to learning together and improving instruction and student outcomes, the Friends Group also wants to make each instructional meeting — and the learning that comes from it — the best ever. To us this means that all the adult learning we design is situated, relevant, and based on real work from our classrooms.
As Brad Olsen wrote in 2010 in Teaching for Success: Developing Your Teacher Identity in Today’s Classroom , each Eagle Rock instructor comes to us as a “unique and three-dimensional learner — someone who combines life, learning and practice to create personalized understandings of, and relationships to, the world and him- or herself.”
We want to honor the varied experiences, strengths and interests of our instructional team while still pushing for professional growth. Our work this year on formative assessment has reinforced the value of working with each unique three-dimensional individual, whether student or staff, to bridge the gap between where we are now and where we want to go.