• Thursday, September 21, 2017
  • Jennifer Adams

Finding out about children in our learning community is the first step to purposeful instruction. It took years of experience for me to learn how to make meaning from formative assessment and use the information to guide instruction. Eventually I learned this process needed to start before the school year officially began and that getting to know my students meant more than looking at scores from the year before.

For years as a second grade teacher I invited families to drop by the classroom during the last teacher workday prior to the start of the new school year. Usually about half the families of the incoming class would arrive one or two at a time. After nervous introductions at the door, I would peel away from the grown-ups and tour the classroom with the incoming second grader. During this walk around the room I inevitably asked each boy or girl, “What did you do this summer?“. During this conversation I listened for excitement about a new adventure, sometimes learned about big transitions or loss, and often heard silence, as the child pondered what to make of this new setting and the new teacher. I was always curious to see how long it would take for the child to become comfortable and ditch the last minute reminders from the parents at the door to “be good”. Sometimes the child would make eye contact with me, sometimes not. I always saved up some small jobs for the children to do during this short visit- like sharpen a box of pencils, or put the magnets on the board, or help with nametags on the cubbies. This helped me finish preparations, and gave the children a first step in contributing to the making of a learning community.

Sometimes the grown-up who attended the visit would try to corner me- to drop off forms (for which I had a pre-arranged IN-box), ask questions, and share concerns. I would politely nod my head, remind the parent of the upcoming Open House where we would also sign up for fall conferences, and hand out a detailed questionnaire. In this take-home questionnaire, among other things, I asked parents to tell me the story of what it was like for the child to learn to read, describe experiences where their child demonstrated leadership, and express their wishes for this school year. These questionnaires allowed the parents or guardians to teach me about their child. And by asking families to share poignant information about their child, and by valuing their insights, I invited the families to engage in collaboration with me.

After each visit, I would record information about these first encounters by noting my observations and recording my impressions on index cards- one for each student. This record would be the first step to developing a dynamic, three-dimensional profile about each child. In my years in the classroom, I learned to teach children effectively I needed to know who they are and what motivates them.

This summer I witnessed the power of developing three-dimensional profiles of learners as part of collaborative professional learning experiences. During a series of summer learning programs for PK-Grade 3 students across the country, teachers administered a tool commonly known as the Professor Garfield Survey (Gambrell, Palmer, Codling, & Mazzoni, 1996). In this survey children described their feelings about different aspects of “recreational reading”, that is, reading outside of school, and “academic reading”, that is reading in school. This included questions, for example, about issues of choice, participation in discussions about reading, and taking a test about reading. In the first few days of the summer program, after surveys were administered, and before they were scored, teachers collaboratively reviewed student responses case by case- to make note of the individuality of the learners, to discuss what they knew of the children, and to share new insights gained from comparing the responses to their impressions from prior experiences.

In these collaborative discussions teachers learned, for example, that it was critical that Olivia be permitted to talk about what she read in a small group, and for Quentin it was important that he was given an opportunity to demonstrate his understanding in ways other than a paper and pencil test. Even though both children received similar final scores, by reviewing the content of the survey and hearing about the interests of the child outside of school, teachers were better armed to develop instructional plans based on what would motivate these individual students. However, if teachers had been focused only on reviewing the scores, they would have missed these essential nuances.

Research has demonstrated the bidirectional relationship between children’s reading skills and reading motivation (Morgan and Fuchs, 2007). Whether it is through conversations about summer vacation, detailed parent questionnaires, student surveys about motivation and learning, to be effective literacy teachers it is critical for us to be intentional about collecting information about the nature of our students and to integrate this information in our instructional plans.

Gambrell, L., Palmer, B., Codling, R., & Mazzoni, S. (1996). Assessing Motivation to Read. The Reading Teacher, 49(7), 518-533. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20201660

Quirk, M., Schwanenflugel, P. J., & Webb, M. (2009). A Short-Term Longitudinal Study of the Relationship between Motivation to Read and Reading Fluency Skill in Second Grade. Journal of Literacy Research?: JLR, 41(2), 196–227. http://doi.org/10.1080/10862960902908467

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