July 6, 2015

Wishing You a Great Failure

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“As is a tale, so is life. It is not how long it is, but how good it is that matters.” ~Seneca

This is the time of year for finishing–across the country, students are finishing preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. While none of our sons have reached a traditional educational milestone this year, we realized that some of their day-to-day trials and tribulations are worthy of at least a small bit of the celebration we save for those momentous occasions.

Recently, Kim’s ninth grade son, Matthew, took an English exam. In spite of thoroughly preparing for the test, the exam was hard.  So hard, in fact, that thirty-five minutes into the ninety minute test, he decided it wasn’t worth finishing.  He handed the test to the proctor and walked out.

As you would expect, the fallout for not finishing this exam is a failing grade. Given the work that he has done in the course to improve and even excel, failing this test left him feeling defeated.  He was ready to write letters of angry protest and picket for justice, which in this case meant an easier exam.

For Kim, watching Matthew struggle–and fail–triggered a complex array of emotions ranging from empathy to her own feelings of failure as a parent, thus complicating an already complicated situation. She wanted to do something to make the situation “right” but struggled to know what that was.  Fortunately, her own conflict consumed her long enough for Matthew to fully digest the experience.  After giving it a great deal of thought, Matthew realized for himself that if he studied differently–and harder–he would be able to pass this exam.  He petitioned for a retake (which has been granted) and he is gearing up to take the exam again.

In her commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008, J.K. Rowling reminded graduates that, “Some failure in life is inevitable.  It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case, you fail by default.”  As you finish this school year and celebrate your children’s accomplishments, we hope that you will at least pause and give a nod to failure, for without it, great success would not be possible.

Open a World of Possible with Engaging Literacy Instruction

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Open a World of Possible is an initiative by Scholastic that celebrates the moments that turned people into readers. Dedicated to helping those moments happen again and again for children so that they grow to love reading and books, this new website by Scholastic features some wonderful resources–quotes, articles, books, and now lessons–that help promote this important goal.

If you scroll down The Open a World of Possible webpage, near the the bottom you will find four, free downloadable powerpoints that we developed for Scholastic in collaboration with Literacyhead. In an effort to make reading instruction both engaging and intriguing, these lessons use both art and children’s literature.

Each time we teach a lesson, we harbor the hope that the book we are using or some part of our conversation will be one of those moments that transform children into readers. The idea of celebrating these moments is exciting to us and makes us proud to contribute to Scholastic’s “Open the World of Possible” initiative. The four lessons we developed are described below.


Lesson 1: A K-2 Read Aloud Lesson











This lesson begins by priming students’ thinking, showing them different pieces of artwork and prompting them to think about the ways in which the artwork illustrates the word “hope.” The lesson continues with a read aloud of Come On Rain by Karen Hesse. Complete with thought provoking questions to ask throughout the read aloud, this lesson also allows teachers to project several key illustrations onto the whiteboard to engage students in close, careful observation and animated discussion. By the end, this lesson comes back around to the idea of hope with more artwork and questions that prompt students to think deeply about the way the hoped-for experience–playing in the rain–changed the characters in the story.


Lesson 2: A K-2 Comprehension Strategy Lesson on Making Predictions


This lesson introduces prediction by showing students a series of three paintings and asking them to practice making reasonable guesses about what might happen next. You can then show students how this skill translates to reading by picking some or all of the four different excerpts from both fiction and nonfiction texts, including Lion’s Lunch, My Name is Yoon, Stone Soup, Who Would Win: Alligator vs. Python. In this lesson, as in all of the lessons, the notes section of the powerpoint provides suggestions and guidance for teacher talk that will keep students thinking and engaged in the lesson.


Lesson 3: An 2nd-4th Grade Academic Vocabulary Lesson on Comparing


This lesson begins by asking students to look at a piece of artwork featuring a green apple and an orange to “compare.” Compare is the focus word and students work to craft their own definition after thinking about the image as well as several sentences that use the word in context. The lesson continues by asking students to use the word “compare” as they discuss how it relates to other images. Throughout the course of the lesson, students gain an in-depth look at the meaning of the word by considering examples, non-examples, and derivatives of the word.


Lesson 4: A 3rd-5th Grade Comprehension Strategy Lesson on Summarizing


Like each of the other three lessons, this lesson begins by having students look at artwork. Students study each of the images and work to synthesize the most important details of the picture to summarize its essence. Students then work to transfer this skill to reading. The Powerpoint provides three text excerpts–a fiction piece from LaRue for Mayor, a fiction selection from The Journey and nonfiction selection from The Ancient Maya–that students can use to practice filtering out the most important details and formulating brief, succinct summaries. At the end of the lesson, students are asked to think about the books they are reading independently and how they might use this skill to help them synthesize what is most important about what they are reading on their own.




Cooking Up Great Instruction

Cookbooks on shelf
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While we both enjoy puttering around the kitchen, Kim, especially, loves to cook. If you visit her home, you will find an extensive collection of cookbooks.

Cookbooks on shelf


The cookbooks Kim refers to most often, such as her copy of The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, are splattered and stained. The margins are lined with notes about her family’s reactions to dishes as well as notes about revisions–add more onions, leave out the ginger, use a little less garlic– that she wants to remember the next time she uses the recipe.


Cookbook page


Because the authors of her cookbooks can’t actually work alongside her in the kitchen, their recipes and Kim’s marginal annotations become her cooking mentors. Each time she cooks, she consults with them as she works to duplicate her last success or improve on her last attempt at a dish.

In many ways, our teaching resources serve us the same way. As we work to hone our craft, we reach for our dog-eared resources and read and reread the wise words of our mentors,  canvassing for inspiration, guidance, and coaching. While most teaching resources don’t read like a cookbook, there have been times when a cookbook of lessons felt like the very thing we needed:

Students unable to sustain attention during independent reading?

Flip to the section on Reading Engagement.

Students not reading with expression?

Turn to the tab labeled “Teaching Fluency.”

Students skipping all of the hard words in the Social Studies textbook?

Go to “Supporting Comprehension in Nonfiction.”

When we’re crunched for time, we try to work most efficiently. With their intuitive organization, cookbooks help us find what we are looking for quickly and allow us to pick and choose just what we need.

Coming this May, teachers will have just this sort of resource. The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo  promises to be like our dog-eared, splattered, and stained cookbooks. Organized into thirteen sections that cover a wide-range of reading strategies, Jen’s book is filled with lesson ideas from which to pick and choose. The lesson “recipes” say enough to inspire and guide us but not so much that if we vary the ingredients a bit, we will worry that it will “come out all wrong.”  We imagine that Jen’s new book will become like Kim’s copy of The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook–bookmarked and spotted with notes. However, instead of comments like “Delicious. Make this on Thanksgiving!” and “Took extra ten minutes to cook through,” in the margins of this book, teachers will write instructional notes, such as  “Great lesson. Remember to do this in September!” and  “Only had 15 minutes to practice. Make sure to plan 25 next time!”

The Reading Strategies Book Cover Jennifer Serravallo


Though the title, The Reading Strategies Book, may lead readers to think that they will be learning new ways to help students connect, question, infer, and synthesize, this book aims to extend the definition of “strategies.”  Serravallo defines strategies as “a means to the end,” the processes that help readers become more skilled (p. 8), and with over two hundred lessons, she helps teachers internalize the meaning of this updated definition. This book is very practical and offers the best of Jen’s reading lesson repertoire. Like any great cookbook, The Reading Strategies Book is carefully organized and gives wise direction that will help novice and veteran teachers alike hone their craft whenever they are looking to cook up something great in the classroom.

Staying the Course During Testing Season

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On today’s blog, we reintroduce you to our friends and colleagues from North Carolina, Hope Reagan and Alice Oakley.  Testing is a hot-bed topic in education and in this post, they share some of their thoughts and observations about test preparation as well as some insight about staying the course during this hectic time. 

‘Tis the season of testing and with this season comes a real pet peeve of ours. This pet peeve being schools who choose to essentially shut down instruction to start the heavy duty test preparation work, months before the actual test date. Seemingly, they move into panic mode. It has been our experience when panic mode sets in, the game plan for what is best for children can be misplaced. This kind of work can be disguised with fancy names such as strategy groups, data clusters or Links, as in linking what you know with how to take a test. Beware.


According to many people, teaching to the test is as unavoidable and those who opt not to succumb to the pressure will reap harsh consequences under tough accountability systems.

We worry when we hear such stories as the principal who turned up the dial on his staff to start test preparation as early as three months before the test and a brave teacher spoke up challenged this idea, “Wouldn’t it make sense to just keep teaching in a purposeful and meaningful way like we do everyday in our classrooms?” he suggested.

We are thankful for teachers who teach this way and think this way.

In stark contrast we celebrate when we hear about a principal who told her entire staff if she saw test preparation in the form of item testing before two weeks of the actual end of grade test, she would put them on an action plan. She explained that the practice was unethical and “curriculum teaching” should continue in classrooms to prepare students for the EOG not “item teaching”. She also compared it to fool’s gold – you don’t actual have what you think you have.

We are thankful for principals like this.


What is wrong with teaching to the test?


There are different ways of thinking about “teaching to the test”.  We really like the way assessment expert W. James Popham helps to clarify the difference. He defines two kinds of assessment-aware instruction: “curriculum teaching” and “item-teaching.”4 Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions even though tests can employ only a sample of questions to assess students’ knowledge about a topic.


For example, if students will be tested on author’s purpose in reading, curriculum teachers will set students up to think about (evaluate) the many reasons authors choose to write, the structures in which authors use to lay out their message and how the message is created through main ideas and details or a well developed plot. Students will read and discuss many types of texts to experience and evaluate author’s purpose and they will also practice authentically writing for different purposes in order to apply these ideas.


Item teachers narrow their instruction, organizing their teaching around particular questions most likely to be found on the test — and thus teach only the bits of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on state assessments.


Mr. Popham goes on to say the latter is unethical. We believe it!



Staying the Course


Tony Dungy says in is book Quiet Strength, “Leaving the game plan is a sign of panic, and panic is not in our game plan.”


We would argue that the best way to prepare students for high stakes tests is to stay the course with teaching the curriculum with rigor and purpose. As we work in classroom as coaches, we see effective instruction – students gathered together talking about a good book they are reading, writing that is being revised, edited and finally published, application of content through project based learning and math concepts being explored at a deep level so that more complex problems can be solved. What more could we ask for?


We know, based on research, that effective instruction is correlated with student achievement. Why would we want to stop this type of teaching months before the end of grade test?

What is 21st Century Writing, Anyway?

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Every six to eight years, education reinvents itself, usually focusing on the exact opposite of the most recent reinvention. Of late, influenced by the roll out of the Common Core State Standards, writing’s reinvention has focused on making arguments and writing informational pieces. Conversations about the nuances of this type of writing–persuasive vs. argument, citing evidence, the role of emotion/voice, etc.–abound, and experts have weighed in heavily. All of this discussion, revolves around an interest in making students “college and career” ready. But what does this mean, anyway? In reality, however, even those of us who are considered literacy “experts” can only imagine the role of writing in the careers of future.

The authors of the Common Core made much of the role that informational reading and writing plays in the work world. They based their insights on analysis of the materials that people read (past tense, which means it’s already obsolete) on their jobs, many of which were governmental. These jobs, however, or at least the way they are performed, are already obsolete, as manuals are already being replaced with video orientations and printed material in general is already moving from text-based to image-based.

Consider the following text, which most of us have heard many times:

“Welcome aboard and thanks for flying with us. We’re committed to making your flight safe and comfortable. So, before we depart, we will be showing a brief safety presentation. This information can help you if there is an emergency, so it’s important to pay close attention, even if you are a frequent flyer.

All carry-on items should now be stored securely, either in an overhead bin or under the seat in front of you, and all aisles, exits, and bulkhead areas should be clear. Your mobile phone and other electronic devices should be turned off. Once air born, we’ll let you know when you can use approved, electronic devices. But note that some items, such as phones, may not be used in flight at any time. You’ll find a list of approved electronic devices in the in-flight information section of Sky magazine.  …”

This traditional text conveys the necessary information for not dying during a plane crash, but how well does it consider the audience? Now, consider this current version of Delta’s safety “speech.”

Now, which of these two types of writing is more interesting to “read?” Which do you think better communicates how to stay safe in a crash? Which way would you like your loved ones to get their flight safety information?

And about the writing … . Which version do you think was more interesting to write? And which do you think was more fun to write? And, which do you think was more difficult to write? Which do you think better reflects 21st century writing.

When Delta first wrote its safety text (example 1), no one could have imagined the later, video option, just as we can’t imagine the ways people will read and write on their jobs in 20, 30, 50 years. What we do know is that, in the coming decades, people will have more and more ways of communicating ideas, and their jobs will likely involve keeping up with these possibilities, knowing their audience, and selecting the best way to communicate to that audience.




Giving Students Authentic Reasons to Read

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In a post titled Sending Children Off to Do Big Things, we wrote about how exposing children to picture book biographies can help them better understand the connection between mindset, passion, and effort. In this post, we introduced readers to the Heart, Head, Hands and Feet Lesson from Reading Wellness which utilizes the following graphic organizer:

Student HHHF

Since sharing this post, as well as some of our favorite titles for Heart, Head, Hands and Feet in a post titled They Grew Up Reading and Writingwe have heard from several readers by way of email and recently, a school media coordinator from North Carolina shared these reflections with us about using Heart, Head, Hands and Feet with a teacher beginning a unit on biography looking to “push” her students. This teacher reported exciting results which made us wonder how this lesson has gone for others who have tried this with their students.  We’d love to see pictures of your graphic organizers and hear stories from the classroom if you have them.  If you’re not familiar with this lesson, you can find more information about it in this document as well a more comprehensive list of titles that work well with this lesson.


Looking forward to hearing from you!











Hot off the Press: Downloadable READING WELLNESS Study Guide

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Reading Wellness Study Guide

After many requests for a Reading Wellness study guide, we are very excited to share with you the results of our efforts. We really wanted the finished product to support your close reading of the text, so we didn’t simply do a paint-by-numbers routine, but rather tried to make the study guide a complement to the book. In addition to the usual elements of a study guide, such as discussion questions and quotes from the book, this guide includes a number of non-traditional options, such as an anticipation guide, magnetic poetry, a Mad Lib, and more. In an effort to stay true to the philosophy of Reading Wellness, the study guide also includes opportunities to practice wellness, such as reminders to breathe, stretch, and appreciate.

Because we wanted to get this study guide into your hands as quickly as possible, we have it available now in draft form (download below). Over the next few weeks, it will go through the editing and publishing process with Stenhouse. In the meantime, please bear with us if you encounter formatting or other editorial issues. We will let you know when the more polished version is available from Stenhouse.


Download a copy of the study guide for Reading Wellness.

Mindset’s Hold Over Achievement

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(Image credit Pixabay.com)


After listening to several subtle (and many not-so-subtle) hints from her twelve-year-old son, Nathan,  about being interested in playing soccer, Kim signed him up for a team.  A month separated soccer sign-ups and the beginning of the season and during this time,  Nathan worried–a lot. He worried that he’d be on a team with kids who have been playing since age three.  He worried that his lack of skills would be really obvious to the coach and that he’d spend the season on the bench.  He worried it wouldn’t be as fun as it looked.  He worried so much that by the time his first practice rolled around, he had himself convinced that soccer was a dumb sport, he had never really wanted to play it, and what was Kim thinking signing him up for a team, anyway!? He wasn’t going to go.

Kim and her husband took a solid, unified stance: “You’re going.”  They told him that he had to play for the eleven weeks for which he was registered.  They explained that, after he tried it (for eleven weeks), if he decided that he never wanted to kick a ball again, so be it. But for now, he had committed to playing, so he had to put on his cleats and report to the field.

Needless to say, Nathan was not happy!  After some angry words and several passive aggressive tactics aimed at delaying the inevitable, he acquiesced.  He got in the car and headed to the field. The mood was heavy and Kim and her husband wondered if they had made the right choice. After all, they try to listen to their children and pay attention to their interests.

When they arrived, Nathan stepped out of the car and looked at the field. Seeing the empty nets and the wide open space shifted his posture.  He turned and said, “I’m just going to keep telling myself that I really like soccer.” (Incidentally, “Tell yourself a different story” has become common language in our households, as we have worked to help our children develop growth mindsets.)

He put on a brave face and introduced himself to the coach and listened intently to what he had to say.  He dribbled and kicked and threw the ball back in bounds. He came home sweaty and energized.

Interestingly, since Nathan began telling himself a different story about soccer, getting ready for soccer practice feels like celebration.  Now, he’s enthusiastic, and this enthusiasm shows in his body and his language.  What’s more, he’s really learning how to play soccer. And, not surprisingly, his growth mindset is helping him get better at it, too.

As parents, and as teachers, helping children negotiate their reluctance about things that are hard is a substantial part of our work. Given the many things that we must teach children, this mindset work may seem rather small, however, to us, we feel like helping children embrace things that are difficult is among one of the most important life skills we can teach.  Like Nathan who is getting better at soccer because he shifted from “I’m not going” to “I’m just going to keep telling myself I really like soccer,” children stand to make huge gains when they understand that mindset can have a powerful impact on achievement.

Reading Wellness by Jan Miller Burkins and Kim Yaris

In Reading Wellness, we dedicate a whole chapter to explicitly teaching children about the habits and language of growth mindsets. In a lesson called “Leaning In/Leaning Out” we help students explore mindset by looking at a series of images that  make them say either “Oh yea” or “Oh no!” From there, we help students closely and carefully read images that depict people leaning into or away from various activities, such as cleaning a toilet or reading a book.  We  teach children to look carefully for evidence that supports their thinking.  From there, we read aloud an anchor text, such as Ish by Peter Reynolds or Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully, which describes characters who lean in and out.  As we read, we discuss how the characters’ posture influences the outcomes they are working toward. (For other titles that work well for teaching mindset, see pages 49-50 in Reading Wellness).

As children learn new things, inevitably, some of those things will be difficult. Reminding students what happened when beloved characters leaned in, along with asking students to reflect on whether they are “leaning in or leaning out,” can have a profound impact on how students approach new challenges. While mainstream conversations want us to believe that improving student achievement boils down to addressing “this skill” or “that strategy,” we believe such deductions are far too simplistic. To us, looking at the bigger picture of how people learn is just as important and investing at least some time in teaching children about the powerful connection between mindset and achievement has the potential to pay huge dividends.


10 Things Going to the Gym Can Teach You About Teaching

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In a post we wrote some time ago titled Solving Education’s Greatest Challenges: Unconventional Collaborations , we told the story of Stephane Tarnier, the French obstetrician responsible for inventing baby incubators.  We love this story as it illustrates how improving our work life sometimes means leaving our work life at work and doing something else for awhile, such as going to the gym.  Today , our friend and colleague, Kara Schwarz, an educator from South Florida, shares a story of how leaving the workplace behind helped to inspire her thinking and her understanding of her work.



Sometimes it is hard to remember back when we first learned to do something, especially if you are excellent at it now.  I am a very competent reader so at times it can be difficult for me to remember those beginning stages I went through to acquire the skill.   I work with students who have diagnosed learning disabilities in reading, math and writing, which means learning the skills needed to be successful in these subject areas can be challenging. I have to do a lot of thinking when it comes to how to best present a strategy to them.  One of my guiding philosophies is to respect that each child who sits in my class is unique and different.  This includes the strengths and weaknesses that they have physically, emotionally, mentally and academically.  Realistically, however, we are all challenged in something.

I don’t know about you, but I have certain places and activities that lead me to self-reflect about my teaching practices,  For me that place is the gym.  It actually is even more than a gym, it’s called Crossfit and some of the activities include pulling tires, rowing thousands of meters, doing endless pushups, pull-ups and sit-ups for time. It may seem like a peculiar place to do any “thinking” but it is the place where I get most of my “ahas” because there, I am the most challenged.  (This might be the right time to mention, that I am not very quick to learn anything that has to do with rhythm, large body movements coordination and strength activities, such as dancing or aerobics.)

It leads me to see myself as the “learning disabled” student and to focus on what strategies work best in helping me be successful in this area of weakness. What I have found is that I need to see it modeled many times, not just once.  After the movement is modeled by the instructor both quickly and slowly in smaller increments, then I need to do it alongside the instructor.  I need time to ask questions and practice, sometimes even watching some other gym members as they complete the movement.  I also find it helpful when the instructor comes over to me individually during the actual workout, and notices what I am doing right and also gives me a suggestion for improvement. Before I have truly mastered any new movement or activity, I have to practice on my own in front of mirror or in my garage. Finally, the pinnacle of success is when I can help a new gym member learn a movement and share my technique.

This sounds familiar, right?  These are things that expert teachers do within their classrooms daily.  Finding something that was challenging for me and then thinking through the process of how I learned that skill, were extremely helpful in refining my teaching practice.  It gave me fresh eyes on the process and various motivational techniques to encourage students through their academic challenges. It also encouraged me to empathize with my students as they face struggles to acquire new learning.

The top 10 things I know about teaching, I learned at the gym:

10. Everyone is “disabled” in something.

9. The best way to overcome a challenge is to face it, head on.

8. Modeling a strategy should continue throughout the year, but be varied in length and detail of delivery.

7. Every student benefits from the modeling of a strategy, every time.

6. Allowing students to practice while I am modeling is helpful.

5. Let students see stellar examples and non-examples, and independently seek these examples when needed.

4. Welcome all questions at any stage of the lesson.

3. Come alongside students as they are working and encourage and guide them.

2. Allow and encourage a lot of practice.

1. Always provide opportunities for students to show what they know to others, as well as sharing how they arrived at that correct answer.


Where do you go to find inspiration that helps you reflect on and improve your craft?

Are We Measuring What We Think We Are Measuring?

Lose weight now
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Lose weight now

Benchmarking, or taking running records with a series of books along a text gradient is a common practice in elementary schools. We are concerned, however, that these, as well as other measures of literacy, which consume large chunks of instructional time, have gaps that can influence early literacy instruction and interfere with later growth. For example, a focus on reading level can divert time and attention from interactive read aloud or shared reading, whose benefits aren’t readily measured. However, time spent working in these contexts exposes children to vocabulary and models skills and strategies in meaningful, supportive contexts, both of which contribute to reading growth and development over the long-term.

Placing all of our proverbial eggs in the leveled benchmarking basket is kind of like opting for a crash diet instead of making a lifestyle change in order to lose weight.  If there isn’t attention dedicated specifically to lifestyle–processes for preparing food, exercising, and other elements of wellness–then weight loss is typically short-lived. Losing weight in ways that address causes for weight gain is a slower, but ultimately more rewarding process. It is hard, however, not to be blinded by magazine declarations that you, too, can lose 10 pounds in a week!

Similarly, it is hard to resist the lure of immediate results in literacy, which benchmarks and strict adherence to a text gradient seem to promise us. However, children’s reading growth and development are at least partially influenced by students’ vocabulary and listening comprehension, neither of which are measured by most benchmarking systems. This means that the data being reported by these benchmarks are, at best, incomplete. Meaningless numbers abound. Meanwhile, there are truly helpful data points schools could collect.

Here are three questions to help you evaluate your collection of formative assessment data:

1. Are your formative assessments balanced?

If the answer is “no,” then you may need to make some adjustments. Either individually or combined, they should give serious attention both to print and meaning. This is very challenging in the early grades, and few schools seem to have the insight or the commitment to pull it off.

2. Are your formative assessments formulaic?

If the answer is “yes,” then you may need to make some adjustments. We hate to say it, but computerized programs that level kids and texts and purport to match them to address their reading challenges seem to us to be causing more problems than they solve. They may feel like a magic bullet, but they are not.

3. Do your formative assessments help you teach better?

If the answer is “no,” then you may need to make some adjustments. Formative assessments should inform instruction. Too often, schools district leaders are using formative data to make summative decisions. For example, the benchmark levels we mentioned at the beginning of this blog are often tied to grades, or even teacher evaluation.

We caution you against trading early “raised scores” for long term success. While we’re not suggesting not to do these “running records,” we just think that measurements should provide a balanced picture of students’ print AND meaning systems. Being able to ascertain how well students work to integrate their knowledge about letters and sounds with what they understand about the text provides a big picture understanding of children’s growth and development and, in turn, informs instruction so that we can give them what they need to improve.