Moving Students Forward: Be Generous with Time and Space
By Janice Ewing
We all know that a teacher’s new year starts in late August or early September, but still, during the months of December and January, as the rest of the world closes out one year and starts the next, it seems appropriate to focus on the theme of moving students forward as readers, writers, and thinkers, and that’s what we’ve been doing on our blog. Moving students forward is what we’re all about, even if that movement is inconsistent or even imperceptible at times.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what it means to “see” growth in our students – whether in test scores, conferences, writing pieces, or observation. What’s happening when growth is not evident, and how should we respond?
Ah, test scores. In my role as a teacher of teachers, I hear this frequent lament: we’re doing such frequent benchmark testing that we don’t have time to interpret the results, let alone design interventions to address areas of need. And there is most definitely not enough time to “see’ results before the next test, perpetuating a perception of failure all around. How can this possibly help move anyone forward?
Of course teacher-designed and formative assessments are a different matter, but many teachers are locked into program-based tests that require them to adhere to a rigid pacing guide, even in working with groups that are designed to meet the needs identified on the aforementioned benchmarks. Clearly, there is a need for more time and space between tests.
Research and practical experience tell us that reading and writing conferences are among the most effective ways to combine personalized assessment and instruction. We’re all familiar with the challenge of finding time and management strategies to make this work, and many of our bloggers have shared valuable ideas and tools for this. What happens when, despite our best intentions, a student does not seem to respond to a conference in the way we expected? Maybe that student isn’t ready to let go of long-held doubts about his abilities? Maybe her past experience has shown her that a conference is correction under the guise of conversation? Consistency on our part, along with again, time and space, will most likely prevail.
Similarly, most of us do our best to design effective mini-lessons, model craft and genre with our own writing and other mentor texts, and provide guidance throughout the writing process. What if the final paper does not reflect our ongoing (seemingly collaborative) efforts? What if we are not seeing growth?! Perhaps we can look more closely at the process than the final product and move on?
How about plain old observation – the simplest and at the same time most subtle of assessments? Sometimes we’re disappointed in what we pick up on – a conversation about nail salons in the literature circle, an eye-roll at the mention of an upcoming project, a blank look when a much-discussed concept in raised. These moments can shake our sense of accomplishment, and sometimes, at their most extreme, our very identity as teachers. Taking a step back, however, we can also see them as natural fluctuations in the tide of classroom life.
Recently, I found the time and space in my life to start cleaning out a particularly messy closet. The task had been hanging over me for months; I just wasn’t ready. In the process, I came across two books about organization; apparently, they had not helped me at the time of purchase. (Even upon finding them, I still wasn’t sure where to put them.) Now, though, for several reasons, including the addition of two kittens to our household, I’m ready and determined to de-clutter and organize. Bring on the test, the conference, the observation; I’m even ready to write about it.
Janice Ewing is an adjunct for Cabrini College and a co-director for the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. Janice co-facilitates PAWLP’s “Continuity Days” and this blog. She is an avid reader and writer, and especially enjoys writing poems.