When Allison Penner (from Urban Academy in New Westminster, BC) made it down to the staff room after ushering out the last of her Grade 4 and 5 students, she was flushed and carrying an armload of paper. She looked at me, eyebrows raised.
“Let’s get started!” I said.
We started by spreading her students’ assignment logs on the table and sorting them into groups according to similar “Areas of Focus”: conventions, introductions and detailed ideas.
Next we discussed how she could best teach them how to fill out specific and detailed plans for improvement for each of those areas. The idea is that each student chooses an aspect of writing he or she wants to improve and then articulates a plan for achieving that improvement. The next time the student writes, he or she enacts the plan and, with each effort, improves the quality of his or her writing.
Before arriving at this point, Allison had made a decision to shift her teaching so that assessment would drive her students’ learning. This mindset led her to use a series of lessons to guide her students in writing a class Writing Rubric.
“They actually did really well coming up with clear criteria,” Allison reflects. By allowing students to articulate the criteria she and they would use to give feedback on their writing, Allison began shifting ownership of the learning onto her students.
“Okay, wait,” Allison said, her cheeks flushing a little. “So this means that I’m not going to be doing formal lessons all the time.
“Right. I mean, sometimes you might – when everyone needs to know something. But when everyone needs to know or work on something different – like with writing – then they’ll all be doing their own thing. You’ll be working with them one-on-one and in smaller groups.” This is the definition of differentiated learning.
During our entire meeting, Allison smiled. Despite already being a good teacher, she challenged herself to be better than she was the day before. Allison personifies the growth mindset; in using assessment the way she plans to, she will inspire the growth mindset in her students as well.
With plans to keep in touch, Allison and I parted ways. She reminded me of how exciting the classroom can be (I’m 6 months into my maternity leave). Her enthusiasm and bravery at trying something new made me eager to try some of the things I’ve been learning about these past months (I often joke about my maternity leave being something akin to a sabbatical). But most of all, I felt a deep sense of shared satisfaction: her students successfully created clear criteria to drive their learning; they were a day or two away from using that criteria to plan for their own individual improvement; and they were a short time away from feeling that sense of achievement that comes with accomplishing something they set out to learn. And Allison gets to see that happen.