Square Pegs, Round Holes, and Formative Instructional Practices

This blog post was written by Kelly Skipworth. Kelly is a Grade 7 and Grade 8 ELA teacher at Green High School in Scioto County. 


According to the 1986 hit by Huey Lewis & the News, “It’s Hip to Be Square.” But I say, it’s no longer hip to be square if you are a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.

Twenty-two years ago, I began my career as a high school English teacher. It was exciting to be a teacher during the decade of the nineties because I was able to witness the debut of the internet, the digital camera, the digital grade book, and yes, the installation of phones in every classroom! Conversely, the end of the decade brought with it the terrors of Columbine and successive copycat tragedies which, in turn, fine-tuned teachers’ radars. Like never before, teachers tuned in to the social, emotional, and psychological well-being of students, resulting in stronger, more positive teacher-student relationships. It was in this climate that I brought my first child into the world, and in the spring of 2000, I resigned from my beloved profession to become a full-time mother.

One year ago, after a 13-year hiatus, I had the good fortune to return to the classroom as a full-time teacher, and I was a self-proclaimed square peg. But the shape of education was no longer square. It was as if someone had dramatically chopped off the corners and finely sanded the sides until the whole structure was completely unrecognizable. Thanks to my new colleagues, especially those who trained me in Formative Instructional Practices (FIP), I was able to find success and happiness in this new educational landscape. More importantly, my students met their projected growth targets, took ownership of their learning, and gained confidence in their ability to read critically and to write competently.

I am thankful that I was proactive enough to study some of the changes in education during the years of my hiatus, and I am also thankful that I began serving as a substitute teacher in 2009. This allowed me to gently re-immerse myself into the ever-changing current of my career, rather than to dive headfirst into unfamiliar streams.

I still consider myself a master teacher because I won’t allow myself to be anything less. After all, I have a great amount of passion for my profession, a high level of determination, several years of teaching experience, and many years of life experience. One lesson that all this experience has taught me is that even though education might be a round hole today, it might be an oval hole tomorrow. And even though I am a round peg now (thanks to FIP training), I need to be flexible enough to become an oval peg tomorrow. But no matter how things change, I will continue to use the Formative Instructional Practices that I have learned during this past year. Ever since I have been trained in FIP, I have changed the way I teach because I have changed the way I think about student achievement.

In short, Formative Instructional Practices simply make sense. If the goal is to teach for learning, then what good does it do to teach a lesson and then test my students without checking for understanding? If the goal is to master a standard, then what good does it do to teach an entire standard without breaking it down into more manageable chunks? If the goal is to perform a series of skills, then what good does it do to wait until the day of the assessment to gather data about student competency? If the goal is for each student to be successful, then what good does it do to slap an F in my grade book without any plans to reteach that child in a different way so that he or she can be successful? If the goal is to maintain student dignity, then why would I simply ask students to raise their hands if they are having trouble understanding a concept?

Because Formative Instructional Practices are based upon frequently-collected data and evidence of student learning, the teaching profession has become more scientific, and differentiated instruction is key. My data charts inform me of student progress, and I make instructional choices for individual students and small groups based upon the data that I have collected. My students also take ownership of their learning by graphing their progress, skill by skill, in student data folders. I believe it is important for individual teachers to develop their own systems for tracking student data, but I also believe that it is important for teachers to share successful methods with their colleagues. By collaborating with others, teachers will continue to grow and to learn, and students will surely benefit.

Needless to say, I have learned a great deal this past year. My square corners are rounded now, and as I continue to grow as a teacher, they will continue to take shape. But I am still thankful for those years of being a square peg because they have played an important role in my growth as an educator. The letters in the word SQUARE also serve to remind me of some of the most important facets of Formative Instructional Practices:

S – Start with the STANDARD that you want students to master. Break it down into more manageable chunks and post “I Can” statements to match these chunks. At the beginning of each lesson, tell the students exactly what you want them to be able to do at the end of the lesson.

Q – Decide how you will assess students. What type of QUANTITATIVE DATA will you collect? Be sure to administer a pre-assessment so that you can track student growth. Pre-assessments also show you what students already know.

U – Teach for UNDERSTANDING. Students must understand the standard, the lesson, your expectations, and how you will assess them. Students need to know that they can be successful in your class, and they need to know that you will not leave them behind.

A – Use daily formative ASSESSMENTS to check for understanding and to inform instruction. Exit slips are a great way to briefly assess students. You can examine these before the next day and plan your instruction accordingly.

RRETEACH students in a different way if they have not mastered the skill. Keep individual learning styles and researched-based strategies in mind. Remember that all students can learn, and it is your job as a professional to find the best way to make this happen.

EEVALUATE the effectiveness of the lesson by administering another formative assessment. If the students were successful, it’s time for the summative assessment. If students were not successful, it’s time to do more research. Sometimes there is an excellent teacher right down the hall who might have some great ideas for you. Don’t be afraid to ask.

As we know too well, some students will still need help, and it is our job to do whatever we can to help them find success. The stakes are too high to give up on those students, so we must continue to try to reach them. After all, I am grateful that nobody ever gave up on me. Because of the teachers who believed in my ability to succeed, I am who I am today. Finally, I am certainly glad that nobody gave up on me when I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. Formative Instructional Practices have transformed my teaching for the better, and my students will continue to benefit in the years to come.