Reflections from a “Most Effective” Teacher (Part 2): Frequent Formative Feedback

In a prior post, about the connection between value-added ratings and FIP, I talked about how I grew from an “average” teacher to a “most effective” teacher.  While I certainly don’t have it all figured out, and I continue to learn every day, I want to share a specific formative instructional practice that helped me to produce more student growth: frequent formative feedback.

Differentiated Small Groups: My Best Bet for Frequent Feedback

Last year I made a better effort to differentiate. I learned from my value-added information that I wasn’t helping my middle students grow as much as I’d like. Here is the first goal I identified last year, and how I achieved it:

#1 Targeted intervention for my lowest readers

This was hard for me to do. I teach sixth graders, a lot of them, at once. It’s really hard for me to focus on a small group while the rest of my class is doing… whatever. Wait, what should they be doing?

If you’re like me, you have a bookshelf lined with tomes about differentiation. In theory it sounds fantastic, but in the real world, differentiation is hard to practice. I actually spend the first three months of school setting up a structure and a routine that allows for me to pull small groups aside for the rest of the year. Then, and only then, can I focus on small groups, and if we’re being honest, I still have to do crowd control sometimes. So while I am meeting with groups of 3-6 based on their needs, I have the other students doing one of the following: independent reading, writing about reading, workshop assignments, homework, and sometimes centers. It works surprisingly well.

Once I organized targeted intervention for my lowest readers, and thought about how I would accomplish goal #2--higher-level questioning for my highest kids--it seemed so obvious: I should be meeting with every child, low, high, and middle.

And so I did. I used our NWEA MAP and OAA data and decided to focus on an area where my students tend to score the lowest: literature. The other areas, vocabulary and informational text, tended to be areas of higher ability for my students. Who knew? I didn't-until I analyzed the data.

Here’s what it looks like: I have a list of target skills for each small group, organized by areas of need. I meet with one group in each class a day for 10-20 minutes. They share what they've written, self-assess, and if they need help, we talk about it. They might even redo the assignment. If they've mastered that skill, then we move on.

Recently, for example,  I assigned a middle group this prompt: “Identify one conflict in your book, and analyze how it contributes to the plot.” There is a generic rubric that spells out length, how much text evidence to include, etc. The rubric has stretch built into it; all kids can get an “exceeding” score, but my higher groups are encouraged (ok, pushed!) to always aim for that score.

I don’t have worksheets or pre-planned lessons. It’s very organic. I do use a workbook for my lowest group during intervention time, in addition to the reading prompts.

They read their answers, we talk about commonalities, I give them pointers, and then I assign another skill to work on. Sometimes they must do some research; “Explain what symbolism is and identify two examples from literature” is a research task, essentially.

This way of meeting with kids was new to me. It turned out to be fun, interesting, and surprising. My data showed me that it worked, so I am continuing this practice going forward.

Stay tuned for my next blog post, where we will look at the next two things I tackled and changed that led to high growth...