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April 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 7

Tell Me About … / How Your Group Examined Student Work

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At a schoolwide professional development event, I facilitated a gallery walk to allow teachers to view and comment on interactive student notebooks for social studies. That year we had begun implementing social studies notebooks in the elementary grades, but not all teachers were fully on board. The gallery walk helped teachers see the notebooks' potential.
The student notebooks highlighted the importance of both vertical and horizontal alignment. In terms of vertical alignment, the 1st grade teachers saw how labeling a simple drawing in the early grades would eventually lead to creating annotated, content-based illustrations in the upper grades. Teachers who had not implemented the notebook structure with fidelity realized the purpose of horizontal alignment when they observed the success of colleagues within their grade level. The opportunity to view a continuum of student work allowed teachers to see our students' potential to analyze primary sources, integrate drawings and maps, record their thinking, and learn in a meaningful fashion.
Natacha Scott, assistant director of history/social studies, Boston Public Schools, Boston, Massachusetts

A PLC's Realization

In a recent meeting of our professional learning community, we discussed how we used the same task and rubric to assess student writing. However, as we talked, we realized that each of us had unknowingly stressed different components of student writing in our lessons and activities. For instance, one teacher taught numerous lessons about thesis statements and organization. Another teacher spent more time helping students generate ideas and use textual examples as evidence. So although all of the students' papers were assessed on analyzing and organizing, we each had focused our feedback according to our areas of instruction. We realized that we not only had to develop the same task and rubric, but we also had to truly agree on how deeply we were going to teach particular objective strands as they applied to student writing. The experience led us to great reflection and also created a stronger PLC.
Shawn Reed Parsons, IB coordinator, Academy School District 20, Colorado Springs, Colorado

An Eye for Rigor

As a university supervisor for student teachers, I incorporate a focus on examining student work for cognitive rigor in my practicums. I decided to do this as a result of the Common Core's emphasis on higher-order thinking, which requires my student teachers to move their own students beyond recall and comprehension levels of thinking.
For these sessions, the student teachers shared copies of an assignment or assessment and the resulting student work. In groups, the student teachers followed a protocol like Critical Friends or Guest Book. By viewing various types of student work using the reflection and analysis dictated by the collaborative protocols, my student teachers gained insights into the types of assignments that truly represent rigor. This ultimately led them to consider how to refine their practice. The student teachers' comments from these sessions, such as "we need to do this more often" and "this makes more sense now," confirmed that this was an enlightening experience.
Rebecca Maddas, assistant professor, California University of Pennsylvania, California, Pennsylvania

The Writing Lives of Students

At Old Town Elementary School in Round Rock, Texas, where I served as an instructional coach last spring, we had a broad and urgent goal to "improve student writing." During our first discussions about writing, each teacher brought a student writing sample. We quickly realized that our directive to "bring a piece of writing" was too vague, as we saw everything from poetry to prompted writing.
So we set a goal to collect narrative writing samples from each student. The teachers agreed that we needed to look at student writing from kindergarten through 5th grade in a way that would measure growth. I used Writing Pathways Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions, Grades K–8 by Lucy Calkins as a guide to support teachers on this journey. Teachers created an aligned rubric to look at students' writing, which helped them identify strengths and next teaching points.
At the beginning of the next school year, each teacher received an end-of-year writing sample for each student that included a list of strengths and areas of growth (completed by the student's previous teacher). It was such a gift for teachers to have a glimpse into the writing lives of their students before those students walked in the door.
Victoria Arms, elementary science curriculum specialist, Round Rock ISD, Round Rock, Texas

Solutions, Not Excuses

Using Bob Greenleaf's micro-feedback analysis framework, our school has been focusing on students' errors and determining strategies to address what they don't understand. Our conversations are turning away from excuses, such as "He just had a bad day" and "She really meant to write the number 5." Instead, we share responses like, "Based on this answer, we need to find a way to communicate that the digit in the tens place has greater value than the digit in the ones place."
We decide on intervention strategies for instruction and then repeat the process every three weeks. We graph data and share it as a grade-level team. This process has created a safe entry point for goal setting, and facilitated dialogues of problem solving and support instead of blame and fear. We are improving collegiality, student achievement, and the climate and culture of our school by looking at student work together. It makes a difference.
Danniel Cherry, principal, Maple Avenue School, Claremont, New Hampshire

Vague Expectations

A team of 7th grade teachers at my school recently used the Standards and Looking at Student Work protocol to examine three student writing samples. The protocol guides teachers as they compare their expectations for an assignment with their students' work products. At a glance, it was easy to see a marked difference in the three work samples—one student wrote a full page, another crafted a lengthy paragraph, and a third wrote a few sentences. However, as the team talked, they concluded that all three students did exactly what the assignment had asked. Without clear guidelines, students were left to their own interpretation of teacher expectations. Using the work samples as a guide, the teachers crafted a rubric that was much more explicit.
Students are sometimes labeled as lazy or unmotivated. In reality, they are often simply being concise and giving us exactly what we ask for—but not necessarily what we expect.
Jill Edwards, instructional partner, Florence Middle School, Florence, Alabama

A Collegial Effort

A group of teachers with whom I worked examined student work for the purpose of identifying and annotating papers that would serve as anchors for an argumentative writing rubric. The result was more revealing than anyone had anticipated. The teachers repeatedly noticed that there were no examples of students' ability to cite text to support their claims. As a result, the teachers decided to build a collegial collection of instructional strategies and activities to address this need. When the group returned at a later date with a new collection of work, the samples clearly showed that the students had been explicitly taught to cite evidence.
Angela Di Michele Lalor, educational consultant, Learner-Centered Initiatives, Garden City, New York

Bringing Work to the Table

Once when I brought student work from my high school English as a Second Language class to share with my learning community colleagues, I worried they would find it irrelevant. But instead they were astonished by the quality of the work. Their feedback allowed me to see my work and my students' work with fresh eyes and to more fully appreciate what my newly arrived English language learners were accomplishing.
But looking at work together requires skill, trust, and care; it matters very much how teachers bring work to share. Sharing teacher or student work should be voluntary, not mandated. Using a protocol (like those available at provides a systemic, respectful, and productive way to analyze what the student or teacher has produced, rather than rush to a hasty evaluation and simply mark items as right or wrong.
Susan R. Adams, assistant professor of education, Butler University College of Education, Indianapolis, Indiana

Together Everyone Achieves More

John Hattie's visible learning study of more than 800 meta-analyses shows that "collective teacher self-efficacy" matters to student learning and achievement. In fact, this factor tops Hattie's rankings of what actually works in schools.
At the Independent Schools Foundation Academy in Hong Kong, teachers get collaborative time built into their timetables every two weeks. Teacher teams come together to address vertical and horizontal articulation. This ensures a shared understanding of learning experiences, including evaluating performance and student-tracking information. Teams also plan for effective instruction, assessment, marking, and feedback to students, including reviewing how students communicate their learning. The underpinning protocols that focus the dialogue integrate collaborative planning and reflection into a single concept, which leads to informed, effective, and efficient teacher action that promotes learning.
Although this school-based practice is rooted in an International Baccalaureate Standards and Practices compliance framework, it provides a learning-focused, culture-building platform from which to turn rhetoric into reality. The collaborative nature of the structured dialogue gets teachers to systematically evaluate their impact on student achievement. Teachers see that their collective beliefs and actions make a difference to student learning.
Eric Jabal, secondary principal, Independent Schools Foundation Academy, Hong Kong

Emerging Patterns

For many years, I have been fortunate to coach teachers at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento, California, where I regularly lead grade-level teams in analyzing student writing. Teams examine writing samples and discuss the strengths and challenges we notice. These conversations address discrete writing skills, as well as other elements that contribute to writing achievement, such as stamina, use of classroom resources, and the quality of peer feedback. I act as facilitator and recorder, charting our observations.
In a recent collaboration with teacher teams in kindergarten through 6th grade, some patterns emerged across the school, revealing that students needed assistance with description, pacing, and revision. Identifying only a few topics helped focus professional learning and promoted collaboration across grade levels. A unified approach to instructional change makes these efforts more manageable and reaps benefits for educators and students alike.
Julie Webb, education consultant, J. Webb Consulting, Woodland, California

A Shift in Focus

The Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model (TEAM) evaluation process is constantly evolving. Administrators and teachers are beginning to incorporate student work into teachers' evaluations, both formal and informal. In doing so, we are shifting the focus away from what the teacher is doing and toward the impact that the teacher's instruction has on student learning. Incorporating student work in evaluations ultimately ensures that our focus remains exactly where it belongs—on students!
Scott Duncan, TEAM coach, Tennessee Department of Education, Nashville, Tennessee

Insights into Mistakes

I often gain insight into colleagues' mindsets when we look at student work together. In some cases, patterns of student mistakes are simply looked at as wrong answers. Instead, we should mine those patterns, reflect on them, and then make appropriate instructional changes.
Carole Seuber, math instructional lead teacher, Flintstone Elementary School, Oxon Hill, Maryland

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