Is A Formal Assessment “Better?”

At the beginning of the school year, somebody asked me if I was going to do the letter-recognition test on every child. I said, “No.” This teacher was curious as to why, so I explained. “I don’t think that I need to. These children (and I named a couple) are already reading above grade level. If they can decode at this higher level, they already know letter-names and sounds. These children (and I named some more) have demonstrated their letter-sound knowledge through play. They were writing letters to their friends and identifying the letters in names and other familiar words. Others wrote on their paintings. I have videos of them telling me what they know. Just like I have videos of a few other children showing me how they’re still using the alphabet chart to identify letters. We’re working on oral language skills — rhyming and syllables — as we also build letter-recognition skills. They’ve shown me that they know a few letters, like the ones in their name, but that they still have many more to learn. Does it really matter if they know 5 or 7 letters? The bottom line is that this is a skill that these students are still developing, and we know that. As for the students that know most or all of the letters, does the standardized test tell me more than what I already know? No. Then I’m going to spend my time working on different things instead.”  Yes, I had a lot to say, but I’m glad that I explained it then, and I’m glad that I’m explaining it again now. Why? Because I think it’s time that we re-think testing.

The other day, I met a friend of mine for brunch. She works at a different school than I do, and she was discussing this other school’s assessment plan. The plan? It was the hope that every teacher would do the standardized reading assessment four times a year. Here’s confession time everyone: I did this assessment once this year — at the end of the year. Some people may question me on this choice. I understand. But here is why I decided to do what I did.
  • My teaching partner, Paula, and I read with the children on a daily basis, and knew from our ongoing assessment — including some running records — at what approximate level the children were reading.
  • Paula and I observed the children carefully during play, and watched and listened to them read with others. We saw what strategies they used. We heard them decoding texts — including their own writing — and we heard them discussing texts (demonstrating comprehension skills). Observing the children in action, helped us determine mini-lessons and plan for next steps.
  • Paula and I regularly connected with parents about reading. We discussed what we saw in the classroom, but we also listened to what parents saw at home. One mom even emailed us a recording of her daughter reading, so that we could provide suggestions for extensions at home. Growing Success — The Kindergarten Addendum mentions that children can demonstrate skills at home that we can use for assessment purposes. Some students feel more comfortable in a home environment, and may show some reading skills that they do not show at school. A standardized assessment may not accurately reflect these students’ skills.

We knew that a standardized assessment would give us a reading level, but it wouldn’t tell us more than what we already knew about our students as readers. When I eventually did the assessment at the end of the year, the levels were what I anticipated, but the standardized assessment came with a drawback that I hadn’t anticipated. Many students were less confident readers because of the testing experience.

Children were all used to reading with me during play. What we read connected with what they were doing and was meaningful to them. I would often record their reading and our conversations, but I never sat next to them with a paper and pen, checking off words and noting errors. This is something that I did later … without the children sitting there. As the year came to an end, I decided that I would do a formal reading assessment on each child. This was not an easy decision for me to make. Initially, I considered doing a running record instead, but eventually, I chose the more formal assessment option. Why?

  • I knew that every other teacher was doing it. (This is not necessarily a good reason, but sometimes peer pressure — even when there was no explicit pressure — is hard to ignore.)
  • I knew that the Grade 1 teachers would look closely at this assessment to plan for next year, and I wanted to give them something they could use.
  • I knew that reading levels often correspond with possibilities for additional support, and for the children that I thought might need this support, I wanted to make sure that I had the data that the school needed. 

Since I decided to do this more formal assessment, I thought that I would also create an environment that is conducive to this type of testing. I chose to pull students individually during our morning meeting time — which Paula runs — and read with them in a quieter space. I sat beside them with the marking sheet and my pen, and together, we did the test. 

I noticed the difference right away.

  • Children constantly looked over at me to see what I was writing on the sheet.
  • Many children found the reading level on the book right away, and they asked me, “Is this my reading level? Is this where I’m supposed to be?”
  • If I corrected an error, children saw me mark this on the sheet, and some children were bothered by this. They began to tap their feet, play with their hands, put their fingers or shirts in their mouth, and pause regularly during the rest of the book, concerned that they were making more errors. You could see and feel the stress, and no amount of comfort from me, seemed to change this. 

While slower, more stressful reading did not necessarily impact on the child’s reading level, it did impact on their confidence as readers. This really made me pause. Here I am working with four, five, and six-year-olds: our youngest school-age children that have just learned to read. Is it okay for any child to feel this kind of stress from a reading assessment (or any assessment for that matter)? If this assessment is not telling me more than what I already know, then is it the best option? 

Contemplating now why I chose to do this formal assessment in the first place, I’m now looking at how I can make this “test” less stressful for kids.

  • Maybe I need to do this assessment in the regular classroom environment where I read with them on a daily basis.
  • Maybe I need to forgo the pen and paper. Yes, I will need to do the paper work afterwards, but what if I recorded the reading instead? Sitting down with me and an iPad would be something that the children are used to, and maybe this would help decrease stress. 
  • Maybe I need to consider the different times that work best for the different children. While I pulled everybody at the beginning of the day, some students might feel more comfortable once they’ve settled into play and even done some reading and writing of their own that day. One time might not work for everyone. 

I share all of this because no matter what changes I make, one change that I will not be making is to significantly increase the number of times that I do this formal assessment for each child. Why? Because I think that there is tremendous value in our daily documentation that outlines where our students are at, what they need, and where we can go next. 

The other day, Donald Ey, from the United States, tweeted me a link to this article about Kindergarten classrooms in the US.

I was quick to reply with this.

Jill Snider then weighed in with her thinking and a link to the new Kindergarten Program Document.

I agree with Jill that our Program Document is “pretty darned good,” but then I think about standardized assessments and I worry about the role that they’ll play in the classroom environment. How do these assessments align with the play-based Program Document? How can we notice, name, and extend learning — in all grades — without the need for more formal assessments? None of us want our students to slip through the cracks. We want to see growth, and we want to do what we can to support this growth. Maybe the thinking behind more regular, formal assessments is that we’ll ensure that we are noting progress and identifying problems. But are these assessments cognitive stressors, and what impact might that have for the “whole child?” I’m curious to know how educators address these stressors, hold true to the Program Document, and still assess student growth. Maybe it’s time to continue to look even more seriously beyond formal options. 


Do we need to learn how to play?

Last week, I wrote this blog post about my experience facilitating a couple of sessions at the OTF – Teaching Math Through Problem Solving Conference. The post generated a lot of discussion, and even a mention in Doug Peterson‘s weekly Ontario Edubloggers post. I think it was Doug’s post that led Andrea to my original blog post, and inspired this comment that has been on my mind ever since.

Here’s the problem: as much as we may talk about the value of the constructivist approach, discuss play-based and inquiry-based learning ad nauseam, and even have an updated Kindergarten Program Document that emphasizes the importance of play and our latest Social Studies Curriculum that instructs us to inquire with our students, the truth is that for most of us, free play is a terrifying concept. We don’t see it as learning. We see it in addition to learning, and supplemented by the direct instruction that we give in a more structured program. There. I said it. And I said it because these are the same fears that I’ve heard expressed from numerous educators across school, Board, and through outside professional development activities for years now. The concerns vary.

  • Will I have enough time to cover all of the expectations?
  • How do I know that the student interests will align with the expectations?
  • How will I get to everyone?
  • How will children be ready for Grade ___ (this is not just a Kindergarten concern) if I teach in this way?
  • How will students learn to sit and listen?
  • Where’s the activity?
  • How will students learn anything in this “free for all?”

Maybe somewhere, stuck at the heart of all of this, is our own uncertainty around why play matters. While Andrea said it in her comment, I’m sure that she’s not alone in her thinking: Do adults want or need to play when learning? I worry that if we don’t, the reliance is on me, as the presenter, to impart all of the knowledge. But I don’t know everything. Neither do all of the people that attend the sessions.

  • When we play though, we form new ideas.
  • We use materials in ways that others may not have considered.
  • We couple our ideas with the ideas of the other people around us, and we all learn a lot more.

I understand why this play is difficult. 

  • We’re used to instructions, and the materials come without instructions.
  • We’re used to an activity, and there isn’t a specific one.

Now we have longer, unstructured periods of time with less directions, and that’s hard. The outcome seems less clear. And when we’re looking to take back a task to use in the classroom, now our learning is not just task-based. But if we’re willing to let go, get creative, experiment with materials, talk to our colleagues, share ideas, and explore items as our kids may do so, I wonder just how much we’d learn. 

I think back to my sessions last week. Maybe fewer people would have left if I took Doug’s suggestion and “gave more guidance.” If I were to do these sessions again, I still don’t think that I would want to provide question prompts or post activities. You see, if we want our students to engage in “free play,” I wonder if as adults, we have to do so first. Here is what I think I would do instead.

    • I think I would share more photographs and videos of what the children did in the classroom. These can be great for providing a context for the learning and helping people see different uses for the materials.
    • I think that I might tell a few more stories. Stories sometimes inspire exploration. 
    • And I know that I would try to do what Diana mentioned in her comment, and get some more facilitators there to help inspire and extend the play. I would love to have my teaching partner, Paula, there, as she is the one that continues to show and teach me the most about how we can be authentic when playing with kids.

Reflecting now, I can’t help but think about this fabulous video from Dr. Jean Clinton, where she talks about the need to stop “stuffing the duck.”

If this is true for children, what about for adults? If we become more comfortable with playing, what impact might this have on our students? I think it’s time to address that elephant in the room: our documents may speak about the value of “play” and “inquiry,” but do we value both, and if not, is it time to change?  


When A Passing Comment Leads To A Light Bulb Moment

At the end of last week, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the OTF – Teaching Math Through Problem Solving Conference. After my two presentations, I attended a water cooler session, where I got to sit down with Matthew Oldridge, Royan Lee, and various conference goers to talk about math. This was an informal conversation that touched the most on pedagogical documentation, the learning environment, and how we plan the most effectively for kids. 

I share all of this because my greatest aha moment happened at the beginning of this conversation and before most people arrived. Our water cooler talk was right next door to Jon Orr‘s incredibly popular session, and at first, the only people coming into our room were doing so in order to grab chairs to move next door. This gave Matthew, Mary-Kay Goindi (she helped directionally challenged me find my way to the right room 🙂 ), and I, a few quiet moments to talk. 

The three of us are quite a diverse group of educators. I teach Kindergarten, Matthew supports math educators from Kindergarten to Grade 12, and Mary-Kay is a K-8 teacher librarian, who also teaches Grade 8 math. We don’t appear to have much in common. Our conversation proved otherwise. 

During our talk about math, we started to discuss patterning. I can’t quite remember how this topic came up, but it did. When Mary-Kay started to talk about AB patterns, I was about to mention the simplicity of these types of patterns, and how we encourage students to move from them to more complicated patterns (e.g., ABB or ABBA ones). And then she made the comment that led to my light bulb moment: the important learning that comes from these types of patterns is when students begin to realize that there are the same number of one colour or object as the other one. Just like in ABB patterns, they see that there are twice as many of one colour or object as another one. Of course! This is how patterning connects to algebra (mic drop). In all of my years teaching elementary math, I always emphasized the repetitive nature of patterns … but Mary-Kay’s passing comment made me realize that there’s even bigger learning that comes from patterns.

I’m now starting to think about the questions that we ask around patterning. 

  • What if we helped students see these number relationships instead?
  • What value might this have for them initially and in the long run?

All of a sudden, I see a much stronger connection between patterning and number sense, and I’m re-evaluating how I approach and respond to patterning in the classroom. I can’t wait to talk to my teaching partner about this as we look ahead to next year. 

This experience on Thursday reminded me about the importance of connecting with educators from all grade levels and disciplines. I can’t help but think about my “one word” — perspective — and the value in conversing with people who share different perspectives. You never know when, or from whom, you’re going to learn something new. I wonder how we make these kinds of cross-grade learning opportunities more prevalent at a school and Board level. What have you tried? How has it worked? If we’re open to it — and take that important “learning stance” — I think there’s a lot of potential here. What do you think?


I Packed. I Came. I Shared. And Now I’m Left Wondering.

Yesterday, I had the amazing opportunity to present at the OTF – Teaching Math Through Problem Solving Conference. When Mary-Kay Goindi initially asked me to present, she emphasized that it was important to have hands-on components to the sessions. I decided to facilitate two sessions that were connected togetherone on Math Through Play and one on Documentation. I was excited to bring some “free play” to the conference, and hopefully get people thinking about the math that happens in the everyday and that can be extended through noticing and naming math behaviours. 

As Mary-Kay noted in her tweet yesterday morning, I did not pack light for this conference. 

(Note that the suitcase that’s beside the cart was full of materials as well.)

I’m a big believer in the fact that a Kindergarten classroom provides an optimum learning environment for kids. Math becomes embedded in the whole day, and students really start to see themselves as mathematicians: asking questions, solving problems, and using mathematical vocabulary that we have exposed them to throughout the year. Since I couldn’t bring the people to our classroom, I decided to bring our classroom to the people. 

I really wanted to make this learning authentic, so I chose to present the materials, in much the same way as we present them.

  • There were no signs.
  • There were no posted questions or activities.
  • I told the participants that they could touch everything, move things around, and use items in any way that they wanted. 

For both sessions, I created Padlet walls, where people could add links, ideas, questions, and comments. During the Documentation session, I also printed some documentation examples to include around the room, and encouraged people to document their play: even talking to other educators during the process, as a way to analyze what they observed and discuss and determine some possible next steps. I was so excited about this! I loved the fact that these sessions were not going to be “sit and get” ones, and that as teachers played more, they could discuss different options to link “learning” and “play” in all grades. I’ll admit that in my dream world of how this was all going to come together, we would all get to listen to and participate in rich discussions, ask questions, and leave with new ideas to contemplate and new things to try. 

And while this did happen with a group of participants, something else also happened: in both sessions, the majority of people left early. In the second session, the room almost cleared out completely as soon as I told people that they could “start playing.” In the first session, it took a little longer for this to happen. Some people came to talk to me first, and a few were surprised that our “play time” is our “learning time,” and all tools become “math tools.” Our conversations continued for a little while, but often after talking (and normally without playing), people left. On one hand, I can attribute people leaving to factors such as,

  • this was the second day of the conference, and people were tired.
  • there were lots of interesting sessions happening at the same time, and people wanted to see other ones.
  • my second session was close to lunch, and people were hungry.
  • many people attended both of my sessions, so by the end of the second one, they may have seen and explored everything.
  • people got the ideas and the links to the presentations. Maybe for some people, this was enough.

But on the other hand, I’m left worrying and wondering if there were other reasons for them leaving.

  • Did the sessions not meet their needs? Should I have shown a bigger variety of examples to the full group, and not just have included the links in the Padlets?
  • Did I “release responsibility” too early? Did we need to engage in more playing and documenting as a full group before people went to do so on their own?
  • Was “free play” too “free” for adults? Are we looking for “instructions,” and does this eventually lead students to do the same? How might we change this, and is this something that’s worth changing?
  • “Sit and get” PD is often criticized (I do this as well), but is this what some people wanted? Why? Or did I just need to find a better middle ground?

Criticism is rarely easy to take, but I think that we can learn a lot from all kinds of feedback. I’m making inferences based on my observations from yesterday, and while I did receive some very positive feedback, I also can’t ignore what I saw. Now I’m hoping to hear more. If you were at these sessions, what did you think, and if you weren’t, what might you suggest based on what I shared here? Yesterday, I was excited about the possibilities of “play,” and while some play happened, many materials were left untouched. The learner and questioner in me, needs to find out why.

Can you help?


Learning Among The Trees

As my 16th year of teaching comes to an end, I have so many special memories of my first year at Rousseau. Maybe the cluster of memories that stand out the most though is from our time in the forest. From the end of September to the beginning of June, our students spent at least one hour — almost every day — among the trees. It didn’t matter if it was snowy, cold, rainy, muddy, or any combination of the above: we all dressed for the weather and made it out to this special place that changed all of us!

One more for good measure: a happy way to start the day! #teachersofinstagram #iteachk #ctinquiry

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I learned a lot from this time in the trees. On the first official day of summer holidays, I need to take this moment to reflect.

I learned that ALL children — even our youngest learners — are capable of supporting each other. I know that numbers are usually a concern when thinking about the Full-Day Kindergarten Program. Even with two adults in the room, how are we supposed to be there for everyone? The forest taught me that I needed to reframe my thinking. There may have only been a couple of adults in the room, but there were 33 little teachers that could support, encourage, and model for each other. We can all be “teachers.”

I learned that time outside — first thing in the morning — makes for a calmer time inside. While many students may be excited to come to school and eager to learn, other students find it hard to leave home. Maybe they miss their moms and dads. Maybe they had a disagreement to start the day and recovering from that is a challenge. Maybe saying goodbye to their siblings is harder than they anticipated. For whatever the reason, sometimes the start of the school day is a sad one … but that changes when we’re outside. Students can have some quiet moments with friends. They can run and play. They can sit and eat a snack, and calm down. They can all do what they need to self-regulate, and that’s what makes the forest truly special!

I learned that new relationships form in this special space. As the year went on, I loved seeing the friendships that occurred outside. While there were groups of students that always played together in the classroom, new interests emerged out in the forest, and with these different interests, came different connections. 

I learned that inquiry often begins in nature. My teaching partner, Paula, and I definitely saw this happening as the year progressed. At the beginning of June, Dr. Jean Clinton came to visit our Kindergarten teams at Rousseau, and on her visit, students found some bramble bushes. This led to an increased interest and lots of thinking around berries and plant growth.

I learned how much new vocabulary can be introduced and reinforced outside. The discussion around brambles (above) is a great example of that. This is where students learned the words “brambles” and “drupelets,” which they then used again when talking to us outside and sharing learning inside. Last summer, I attended an inservice through our Board, which spoke about the connection between vocabulary and reading success. What better way to develop vocabulary than out in nature!

I learned that the outdoors provides so many authentic reasons to read and write. This year, I saw the biggest growth in reading scores than I have ever seen in my teaching career. All of our Senior Kindergarten students learned how to decode — many far above grade level — and many of our Junior Kindergarten students did as well. Most of them learned all of the letter-names, and the majority of letter-sounds, and they did so even with all of our forest time. Why? There are many possible reasons for this growth, but I think that the outdoors made a difference. Our time outside provided so many meaningful reasons to read and write, and students began to see writing as a valuable way to communicate their thinking.

I learned that problem solving happens naturally outside, and children are capable of solving problems in incredible ways. The type of problem solving varies in an outdoor space. Sometimes it’s a building problem. Sometimes it’s a math problem. Sometimes it’s an environmental problem. Sometimes it’s a movement problem. And sometimes it’s a problem of how to get clean. But when we trust kids and give them time to problem solve, their solutions are often quite incredible. It’s as they problem solve that they also learn about the importance of perseverance, and for many of our students, they learned this lesson outside. 

I learned that creativity can happen the most in this outdoor space. We don’t bring items with us out to the forest, so students have to figure out what to do with sticks, rocks, pinecones, flowers, leaves, vines, and trees. This is where “wonderful” happens. I think about the Four Frames of the Kindergarten Program Document, and there is certainly some incredible “innovating” that happens outside.

I learned that if we want others to see this outdoor learning as valuable, then we have to see it as valuable. We have to document it. We have to share it. We have to reflect on it, and make plans for next steps based on what we see. We also need to celebrate it! Outdoor learning is not just recess. It is often “free play,” but as we notice and name this learning, provide new vocabulary, and reinforce the reading, writing, math, and thinking skills that happen naturally in this space, this learning is taken to a whole new level. 

I’ve learned to become a better listener, observer, thinker, and questioner, thanks to this time outside. There are many things that I love about this year, but this time in the forest, changed me. What have you learned thanks to outdoor learning? As our Board works towards meeting its reading target for next year, I wonder if we have to look at the role that outdoor learning can play in this. How might outdoor learning benefit all of us: from emotional well-being to academic success? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories!