For the last two weeks, our students have been immersed in investigating information and constructing new understandings as they have been composing their research design proposals, revising sections of their proposals, and doing additional research after focusing and narrowing their topics and research questions. As they have gone back and forth in refining their topics and questions and doing the subsequent additional research, we’ve seen our students move back and forth between confusion/doubt/uncertainty/discomfort and clarity. Most students are not used to doing this sort of deep dive with a topic, making their own choices about the topic and research questions, articulating how they demonstrating growth in their learning, or selecting their learning products; consequently, the messiness of choice and ownership of their projects has been a new experience (and uncomfortable to varying extents) for them. Sarah Rust and I have also experienced a spectrum of emotions in this inquiry process as well; we know our students will grow from these experiences yet we too feel some of that same uncertainty and frustration as our students when they wobble or stall in spite of our efforts to scaffold and support with individualized feedback, resources, and reflective questioning. Like our colleagues Heather, Meg, Marci, and Cathy, we provide them strategies and feedback that will propel them forward and give them the tools to self-help, but as we have told them, we cannot make the decisions for them or give them the answers. We stay calm and reiterate that we are focused on how and what they are learning, not grades—of course, this discourse is a departure from the narrative they have heard their entire school lives in our test-driven culture.
The individualized and fluid nature of working with 50+ students who are all doing different topics is also a newer experience for us and definitely for the students. Over the last two weeks, any given day has been a potpourri of joy, exasperation, delight, and doubt as students have drafted their research design proposals for their multigenre projects. This kind of work is where the collaborative partnership Sarah and I have is critical because you have an instructional partner to be responsive to these kinds of learning experiences and individual student needs. Because we both bring different strengths to the table and can process what we are observing with student work together, we are much better positioned to truly help our students than if we were doing this in a solitary or prescriptive, rigid way.
After receiving the drafts of their proposals for their projects, Sarah and I have employed a variety of strategies to personalize the feedback for each student at their points of need. Here are some of the action steps we’ve tried:
Individualizing and Capturing Feedback Through Mail Merge and Databases
I created a database in Word of all of our students in 2nd and 3rd periods. Data fields I created included:
- First name
- Last name
- Class Period
- Comments About the Narrowed/Focused Topic
- Multigenre Products Students Selected
- Publishing Platform of Virtual or Paper (Word/PDF)
- General Notes (comments about student self-selected learning targets, what they know about their topic at this point, what they want to learn, research questions, their working bibliographies, and search terms/strategies.
- Next Steps–specific tasks and suggestions to help the students move forward. These action steps could also include requests for students to schedule 1:1 help or to participate in some of the small-group help sessions we set up in response to the patterns of thinking and gaps we saw in the proposals.
I went through each proposal and typed in my feedback for each student in the appropriate fields in the database document. I then used the Mail Merge wizard in Word to create a “form letter” that imported this feedback and printed out the feedback documents for each student on colored paper or in color. Once I printed completed feedback forms, I stapled them to the research design proposal draft and returned to the student as soon as possible for them so that they could move forward or make revisions. I also provided a copy to Sarah so that she could begin developing a list of needs to address and to prioritize which students needed her help and areas of expertise. The master database provides us an archived record of the formative assessment to use as we look at student growth; it is also easily accessible to reprint should a student lose his/her copy of the feedback form.
It did take quite a bit of time to methodically go through each proposal and to generate the personalized feedback. However, I so appreciate the opportunity to engage in this sort of assessment because it helps me get to know the students as learners. This work also improves my instruction because I can easily see patterns of understanding and confusion and helps me to be a more reflective and effective practitioner as well as instructional designer.
Conferencing/Coaching/Triage 1:1 and Small Group
Using this information as our starting point, Sarah and I have been meeting with students the last few days (late last week and all of this week)to discuss the feedback we’ve provided them ; we use the feedback forms as a strategic entry point for face to face conference/coaching conversation with students. We have been organizing our 1:1 meetings and small group sessions through a variety of mediums each day:
- Students can sign up for specific individual help each day—we have used large post-it paper and our Verb dry erase boards as our parking lots for students to indicate they need assistance or have questions.
- Students can sign up for small group help or indicate they want to join a future small group work session through our Verb dry erase boards. For example, after reviewing all the research design proposals, I realized I needed to do some small group instruction on additional search techniques with Boolean operators and additional instruction on mining Academic Search Complete.
- For those who might be shy or reluctant to place themselves in one of these help request parking lots, we’ve also been sure to work through our class rosters and are checking in with each student so that we are sure to meet with EVERY student and “check up” on their progress, successes, questions, and worries.
Yesterday, Sarah called students up by the class roster whereas I started with my list of student requested help. Today we approached the scheduling of the 1:1 conferences by working through the class rosters and having students first check in with Sarah about some of their recent process work; students then moved to my table for to discuss the feedback they received from us on their research design proposals. We each set up a help area with our mobile tables and our green Hon rolling chairs so that we had comfortable spaces to talk to students and where they could spread out their work and/or where we could show them specific resources or skills on our laptops if they needed some concrete visualization or examples. Some conferences are brief while others are more extended, but typically, each meeting can last 3-10 minutes—it all depends on student need and how the conversation evolves in the conference. We also keep notepads, large lined sticky notes, and/or Google Docs available at the conference table to jot down notes from each meeting while students bring along their folders of their process work, drafts of their design proposals, and the individualized design proposal feedback form.
In just these first few days we’ve been meeting with students, it’s very apparent when students feel confident (and skills/processes/ideas they’re self-assured about as well) and where students feel fuzzy, unsure, and/or anxious. We’ve also observed that most of our students are not used to this level of accountability, and some seem a bit uncomfortable with it when you are asking them questions to nudge them to dig deeper or be more specific with details; we sense many are also not used to these types of conferences that puts the responsibility and decision making on them as students. We are framing this conference/coaching sessions from a stance of discussions to help them think through their choices, to clarify their own thinking/choices/next steps, and to move forward with their projects since we don’t want them to see the messiness and muckiness of inquiry as punitive. These sessions have also helped us identify those who might benefit from some of our upcoming small group mini-lessons but who may not have initially signed up for assistance. Last but not least, I believe these conferences convey to our students that each person matters and that we care about them and their topics.
While we cannot do their work for them, we can give students every opportunity to get personal assistance in a low-key setting —we want them to know they cannot fall through the cracks or simply fly under our radars. While I’ve done this sort of work before, this is probably the biggest chunk of time I’ve had in a collaborative partnership for this level of assessment and 1:1 student conferencing. This approach requires us to be agile and responsive as each day is different and every student need varies. This kind of conferencing/coaching is time consuming and messy; while the prep for the small group work is pretty straightforward, the 1:1 help is definitely open-ended. I have been inspired and am improving my own conferencing skills with students by watching Sarah (who is a master at this process) and by my friend and fellow school librarian Heather Hersey. Her post about the importance of conferencing helped me to think about focusing on all aspects of their inquiry work and design proposals rather than just sources or their bibliographies; it also inspired my idea for using the mail merge form and database to capture feedback and use that as a starting point for the student conferences/coaching sessions.
Sarah and I have also been discussing how intense this kind of work is and how you have to be comfortable with making adjustments as needed to timelines and your plans in order to be responsive to the students. The processes are messy, yet this “mucking around in ideas” is the grist for the growth and critical thinking that happens as both we and our students problem solve, question, and revise our ideas and stances. Neither of us has any idea how someone would do this kind of process-driven, organic, fluid, and reflective work alone! We love that our combined talents help the students as well as each other; we also are appreciative of having someone else each day who can help you see things you might have missed or to think about a particular situation or challenge with fresh eyes. We are also excited we can model collaborative learning for our students—how often do they get to be in a learning environment where there are at least 2-3 adults who can help them and provide them the kind of specific and personalized attention they are receiving? Most importantly, this type of collaboration is a catalyst for inquiry work and for integrating more formative kinds of assessments that benefit students and impact learning.
We expect the 1:1 and small group conferences, coaching, and small group instruction to continue the next 7 days of school leading up to our Thanksgiving break. I hope to share more images, video, written/video reflections and feedback from both of us as well as our students in an upcoming post later this month. I’m also thinking about how to better integrate the conferencing/coaching/conversation aspect into the inquiry approach (and at an earlier point in time) with research using Cris Tovani’s conceptualization of these conversations as data and formative assessment (see her text, So What Do They Really Know? Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning).
How are you approaching assessment with inquiry work? How do you negotiate and embrace the challenges of time and fluidity with this approach to learning and research? How do you scale this kind of learning experience when there are always challenges of time, space, and staffing?