Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rethinking Assessment for Learning

When people think of assessments they tend to think about pencil and paper tests. Tests are a very traditional assessment method, but unfortunately most pencil and paper tests tend to focus on lower level skills that consist of recall tasks (define, describe, identify, label, etc) and comprehension tasks (infer, interpret, predict, summarize) as identified on Blooms Taxonomy.  If we really want to assess higher level thinking skill such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation we need to rethink the opportunities we are providing to assess that learning.  What is the the best way to assess learning? How can you rethink student assessment to improve student outcomes?  These are questions that were posed to all LASD teachers last week during an afternoon of professional learning and growth.

How Teachers Assessed a Unit of Instruction Prior to Upgrading
As a teaching staff, we are having incredible conversations about the purpose of assessment in the learning process.  Teachers are experimenting with different types of assessments as they upgrade a unit of instruction.   Assessment does not always have to involve paper and pencil, but can instead be a project, an observation, or a task that shows a student has learned new concepts and skills.  These types of formative assessments are often called performance assessments.  Performance assessments are a measurement strategy based on providing students with authentic tasks such as activities or problems that require students to show what they can do.  

In preparing their students to work on performance tasks, teachers describe what the task entails and the demonstration of skills that will be used to evaluate performance. This requires a careful description of the elements of good performance, most often in the form of a rubric, and allows students to judge their own work as they proceed.  This helps to shift the ownership of learning for students from passive to active learning as students recognize what they will need to work on in order to meet the identified final outcome.  

The work we are collectively engaged in is powerful because I truly believe it will make a difference for student learning.  Just by rethinking assessment of learning we will be providing students with greater choice and voice in their learning.  As I reflect on my own learning experiences, I remember too many instances of studying material only to be forgotten after the test was complete and wonder how my own learning process would have changed if teachers changed the way they were assessing knowledge.

Following an afternoon of professional development, we asked teachers to share their type of unit assessment before and after their unit upgrade.  That evening, I entered teacher responses into a wordle to generate a visual image.  The results are inspiring!  Since larger words indicate more popular responses to unit assessments, we can tell that following an afternoon of professional development, teachers are making changes.  They are rethinking their assessments from the standard unit tests to move towards a broader variety of assessment types.  It is exciting to see how teachers in LASD are rethinking instruction.

How Teachers are Rethinking Assessment for a Unit of Instruction After Upgrading

by Alyssa Gallagher, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

If You Build It: They Will Innovate! Part II: Rethinking Classroom Spaces

Please note: This post is a follow up to the first blog post in the series, If You Build It: They Will Innovate Part I. Both entries focus on rethinking and innovating our educational spaces within the Los Altos School District.  Whereas the first blog post told the story of the iLearn Studio, this post focuses on what teachers can do to create more collaborative and flexible classroom environments.
Sixth Grade students at Almond collaborate
 using a Z-Rack whiteboard.
     Inspired by the collaborative, reconfigurable environment at the Stanford and/or the moveable MGTaylor whiteboards used in the iLearn Summer Academy, some Los Altos teachers are rethinking their classroom spaces for their students. From covering bulletin boards with “shower panel whiteboard” at Santa Rita and Almond, to “hacking a Z-Rack” at Almond and Blach, using adhesive erasable whiteboard paper at Oak, or building rolling whiteboards at Loyola, several teachers are “making space” for students to get up out of their seats and work together in a BIG way! If teachers are interested in embracing student collaboration and creativity, simply starting with the classroom environment is a great place to begin. 

Are you interested in creating a more interactive space that is conducive for student collaboration and creativity? If so, here are a few tips to get you started!
Loyola students work at whiteboards in
Gina McDonell and Janet Taylor's classroom.
iLead Learners discussed Make Space book
as part of iLearn Summer Academy 2012.

How can we engage and actively involve students in the learning process? How can we effectively integrate more creativity and collaboration in our classrooms?

       Scott Doorley, co-author of Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration says,  “A creative space should be about people and not about the space itself. So room for people’s ideas to emerge and room for people to interact with each other is really important.” Take a look at a video that features the authors of Make Space and how they explain the importance of creating environments the allow creativity to flourish.


Tip #1: Make space for student interaction by scrapping extra furniture that takes up too much room! As Scott Doorley says, “room” is important for the emergence of ideas. If students are too confined or constrained, it is difficult for them to be creative, interact and collaborate effectively.  At times, the furniture and arrangement of desks in classrooms prevent students from quickly transitioning smoothly to and from group work. 

Look carefully at student traffic patterns and spaces within your classroom to inform your redesign. Jill Croft, fourth grade teacher at Covington, took this idea to heart when she decided to eliminate her teacher's desk in her classroom to make space for her students.

Take inventory of your classroom. Are there pieces of furniture or items that are unessential? Maybe it is that extra table, filing cabinet or bookshelf that isn't used efficiently. Reorganizing and removing extra furniture means that students will have more room to think, gather and collaborate.

Tip #2: Whiteboards, whiteboards, everywhere! Large writing surfaces such as whiteboards empower students to "Think Big!" We all have seen how using chart paper and a set of markers can take an ordinary student activity and make it more engaging. How about a more permanent and environmentally friendly approach? 

Several teachers are turning their whiteboards over to students for group collaboration and presentation spaces. Some are mounting writeable shower panel on their bulletin boards, while others are building new rolling whiteboards for their classrooms. Listen as Gina McDonell, who teams with Janet Taylor in sixth grade at Loyola, explains how they redesigned their space to include tables instead of desks and utilize moveable whiteboards.

Robin McLaren, Santa Rita fifth grade teacher, explains how her class is using whiteboard space to facilitate more student interaction. 
Teachers are noticing that when groups use large whiteboard space to collaborate, generate and process ideas, students become more engaged in the learning process. Writing larger allows everyone to participate, expand on each other’s ideas and take the group thinking to the next level. By having students write “big” their thinking becomes bigger too!  
Photo credit: 

"A learning space that can be reconfigured on a dime will engage different kinds of learners and teachers."

Tip #3: Create agility in your environment! Flexible grouping requires flexible, moveable furniture! Furniture with wheels allow students to quickly arrange spaces for collaboration and individual work stations.  Lightweight seating solutions allow students to quickly move to new locations within the class.   
The most skilled teachers flow between whole group, small group and individual instruction within their classes to provide variety and interest for students. Classroom environments need to embrace this movement and provide flexible furniture configurations for groups of students to quickly convene and collaborate.  Furniture with casters and wheels allow students to reconfigure and set up the environment in the matter of moments.  Consider setting up student desks in small clusters, pods or table groups as a “default” setup to include opportunities for small group interaction. 

Photo credit:
Often desks can be too heavy to reconfigure quickly. How about lightweight stacking stools for students to quickly gather in a group? Or exercise balls for student seating? The students in Jill Croft’s class still use their classroom chairs, but also use lightweight stools like the ones in the photo as well.  During transitions, students easily lift and move the stools to different locations in the classroom for seamless transitions throughout the day.  

Lisa Waxman, a teacher from Blach Intermediate School, is including a few large exercise balls in her classroom as options for student seating. Her students love them AND get a good core workout while learning too! Listen as Lisa explains how she is incorporating new elements, such as exercise balls for seats, in her classroom this year.


Tip #4: Measure student engagement by counting opportunities for interaction

When I participated in multiple training days with Doug Fischer, author of Gradual Release of Responsibility and Productive Group Work, he emphasized measuring engagement by counting the number of student interactions in a classroom. A classroom environment that features group working areas, is flexible, reconfigurable and provides rich opportunities for collaboration and creation can cultivate powerful learning experiences. 

Last year, Shelby Biddy, sixth grade teacher at Loyola, redesigned her classroom with her students.  Her class took cue from the Stanford space to create a student-centered environment with "learning station areas" in certain places for group work.  The amount of engagement and the quality of student interactions within her class increased dramatically. Shelby attributes her classroom redesign as fundamentally shifting the learning experience for her students.

Take a look at the following video that captures a group work activity from her class. Can you count the number of opportunities for interaction? How many moments exist within the group assignment for students to interact, extract important information from the textbook, share ideas, write down an concept, draw or illustrate a picture? 


Igniting the Learning Spirit

With my new role, simply walking through our campus hallways and observing learning in action is reinvigorating.  I love to hear the bustle of a classroom of learners deep within a project.  With some classes the learning spirit seems to spill out of the classroom! It is with these classrooms, teachers and students that I’m intrigued.  How does the teacher engage his/her students so fully in learning? I constantly ask myself...How can other teachers ignite the student learning spirit in their classrooms as well?

Blach students use whiteboards to
share and categorize ideas about heroes.
One technique to empower student learning starts with the physical classroom environmental design. Environmental features such as large whiteboards, Z-Racks, adhesive whiteboards, mini stools and exercise balls are indicators that teachers are teaching with the student experience in mind. 

Effective use of space, tools and best practices enliven and engage students in the learning experience. Educators who are rethinking their classroom spaces and providing space for student interaction are helping transform student learning and are inspiring others to do the same. These teachers are creating classroom environments that embrace student interaction, collaboration and creativity to ignite a love of learning within the hearts and minds of their students. Brighter minds make a world of difference.

Ellen Kraska is the Technology Integration Instructional Coach within the Los Altos School District. She is passionate about edtech, creativity and collaboration within innovative learning environments. You can email her at and/or follow her on Twitter @kraskae.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why do we ask Essential Questions?

 Any one who has spent any time with a two year old knows the sound of an essential question. "Why do we have to say please? Why would you want to go there? How come we can't have a dog?" You get the idea. These are the questions that take time to answer. They cause us to stop, reflect, and think about how we want to respond. "Because I said so," doesn't always work.

Essential questions are hard to answer, and while they require higher levels of thinking, they also spark our curiosity and sense of wonder. We really want to know the answer because it matters.  A good essential question has no one obvious "right" answer. Sometimes these questions can take a lifetime to answer, and they often recur throughout our learning.  

When we use these questions to guide learning in the classroom, students must construct their own answers and make meaning from the information that they gather. They create insight. They aren’t found in the textbook or through a Google search.

As teachers work to “upgrade” a unit of study, they are starting with writing a great essential question. It is a fantastic way to engage students in real life applied problem solving. They require students to apply skills and perspectives that are multidisciplinary, mixing math and language with science and history. A good question raises other good questions and can be used to link ideas and units of study together while on a quest to find an answer. 

As our teachers create and re-imagine their units, an essential question helps guide the process. Wiggins and McTighe write, “In framing essential questions, we must first ask what our intent is. If we don’t know why we pose it, how we intend students to tackle it, and what we expect for learning activities and assessments, we don’t really know what we want. Essential questions keep us focused on inquiry as opposed to just answers.”

Before, teachers may have started with a research project about frog habitats. By starting with an essential question such as, "Why is there no place like home?", students are making new connections to the idea of habitats and what makes them perfect for frogs. They are also able to weave that idea of home and habitats into other areas of curriculum such as literature and history.

Through project based learning, design thinking, or more traditional teaching strategies, starting with an essential question will grab students attention and give them a reason to explore resources, searching for their idea of an answer. The answers may all be different, but the journey will be one of learning for all.

By Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach