Episode #28: How to Align Assessment with Teaching? A Math Mentoring Moment with Nathan Vaillancourt
In this episode we speak with another Math Moment Maker who reached out to us for a Math Mentoring Moment Episode. Nathan Vaillancourt, a jack of all trades teacher talks to us today about how he can change the way he assess his students.
We discuss questions like: How do I adjust my assessments to match the way I’m trying to teach? Do I need to record observations and conversations that I have with my students? Do I need to have the same tool or piece of evidence to assess every student? What are fair assessments? What are equitable assessments?
- How do I adjust my assessments to match the way I’m trying to teach?
- Do I need to record observations and conversations that I have with my students?
- Do I need to have the same tool or piece of evidence to assess every student?
- What are fair assessments?
- What are equitable assessments?
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Nathan: For instance, if my learning goal is to solve a system of equations, for example, how do I go about planning something where I can one, give them the opportunity to have that conversation or have me observe something, some piece of work from them, and then two, do I get that piece of information from all of my students, or do I maybe try and solve? Obviously that’s logistically impossible, right? So trying to build the equity. [crosstalk 00:00:37]
Kyle Pearce: You’re listening to another Math Moment Maker who reached out to us for another Math Mentoring Moment episode. Nathan Vaillancourt, jack of all trades teacher, talks to us today about how he can change the way he assesses his students.
John Orr: We discuss questions like, how do I adjust my assessments to align with the way I’m trying to teach? Do I need to record observations and conversations that I have with my students? Do I need to have the same tool or piece of evidence to assess every student? What are fair assessments, and what are equitable assessments?
Kyle Pearce: Stick around and listen in as we talk all things assessment with Nathan. Hit it!
Kyle Pearce: Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. I’m Kyle Pearce from TapIntoTeenMinds.com.
John Orr: And I’m John Orr from MrOrr-IsAGeek.com. We are two math teachers who, together …
Kyle Pearce: With you, the community of educators worldwide who want to build and deliver math lessons that spark engagement …
John Orr: Fuel learning …
Kyle Pearce: And ignite teacher action. Welcome to episode number 28: How to align assessment with teaching. A Math Mentoring Moment with Nathan Vaillancourt. Are you ready John?
John Orr: Let’s dive in buddy. All right, before we begin the episode today, we want to take a quick moment to invite you to check out the Make Math Moments Academy. Educators in the academy have been sharing their past success, challenges, and goals as they plan to continue developing their math pedagogical practice and content knowledge in the community areas. Some are already hacking away at our latest mini course titled, Are You Picky Enough: How to be more choosy with the resources and activities we find online, while others are using our brand new Curiosity task tool that has exclusive tasks with full teacher walkthroughs. Join the Make Math Moments Academy so you too can eliminate the guesswork and stop throwing everything you’ve got at the wall in hopes that something might stick. Learn more about the academy to see if it’s the right fit for you. Learn at makemathmoments.com, forward slash academy. That’s MakeMathMoments.com forward slash academy.
Kyle Pearce: And without further ado, here’s our chat with Nathan.
John Orr: Well, we are here with Nathan. Welcome to the podcast!
Nathan: Thank you very much.
John Orr: We want to know just a little about yourself. Can you fill us in on where you’re coming from, what do you teach, what grades do you teach, and maybe just a little bit about your backstory, like your teaching journey?
Nathan: Sure. So I’m actually now going into my tenth year of teaching. It seems like yesterday and forever at the same time, but I’m mostly working out in the Durham region, which is just east of Toronto, Ontario, and I’m working mostly right now as an occasional teacher. I’ve been doing LTO, so long-term occasionals filling in for the past four, five years now. I basically taught, at some point or another, all of the high school math courses, so I get around a little bit, and actually now-
Kyle Pearce: That’s good training, I’m sure.
John Orr: He’s a jack of all trades.
Nathan: That’s right. On that note, I’ve actually been now teaching physics this year, so I’ve made a little bit of a switch over, which is good. It’s nice for a little bit of a change of pace, but math has always been my first love, and that’s where my heart lies. Maybe don’t tell my wife that, but I’m hoping to get back into the math class in the near future, but for now the physics and the science allows me to keep that going and bring some of the skills that I’ve been working on in my math classes over to something a little bit different.
Kyle Pearce: Awesome. Awesome. That sounds like quite an interesting experience. So about 10 years in the game and really, my guess is probably really getting a good sampling of all kinds of different schools and neighborhoods, environments, and I’m sure you’ve seen quite a bit. Also jumping around, not only courses, but also departments. I have one of my good buddies, Joel Caslik is a former colleague and current friend who teaches physics and he always jokes with me, saying that, “Physics is mathematics with units.”
Nathan: I just told my kids that the exact same thing, that math and physics are very closely related, but they are different courses for a reason, and a lot of what we do in math is very abstract, but then we go over to the physics and all of our numbers mean something, so we can get away without meaning, maybe fast and loose with meaning in math class but in physics there’s always some meaning behind it.
Kyle Pearce: And lot of the work I’ve been engaging in, just my own learning, is really realizing that so many students struggle with math because oftentimes we proceduralize thing and we’re not really paying attention to the quantities that were actually measuring, and actually operating on, so that phrase by Joel always sticks with me and I realize, geez, I think we need to end that in math class. We need to pay way more attention to what we are actually counting.
Kyle Pearce: Before we dive in any deeper, can you tell us a little bit more about why did you want to become a teacher? In particular, you’re in the secondary classrooms, so obviously it sounds like math is your … that was your goal, it sounds like, for teaching, so why did you want to become a math teacher? What was going on? Was it something early, or maybe something later in life that you decided? Tell us a bit about that.
Nathan: It was sort of always something that was on the horizon. It’s a common theme. My mom is a teacher. She’s still teaching, although she teaches in the elementary. Her phobia is math and at family get togethers that’s the big joke. That was always there in the background, but it wasn’t always something I wanted to do. Going through high school I had visions of going into something like film, because I was taking media arts through high school and that was something that interested me. I got to about the summer between grades 11 and 12, and I had a down to earth moment where I figured, am I really going to be able to do something in that field? And I figured well, maybe not.
Nathan: I wanted to do something that could get me somewhere, and I had always liked math. I liked doing the math, at least in a traditional sense. Going into grade 12 I had really awesome grade 12 math teacher, Mr. Whelan, and he really inspired me to take that further and to go into that direction. That’s sort of where I found myself going in and then not to say I didn’t do very well in his class, because I was one of those kids, and I know you sort of talk about those kids being the ones who are good at the game, and that was me as well. I think we all tend to fall into that category a little bit. Going into his calculus class, at that time integrals were still part of what we were doing in high school.
Kyle Pearce: Still a thing.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s right. And so I had done well-ish, but then doing in terms of the memorization but then we started going into integrals and that’s when it sort of hit me where, okay, memorization’s not going to get me through that. I ended up not doing very well in the rest of the class. It was still something that I enjoyed, so I stuck with it, and this is a story I tell my students a lot of the time, particularly my senior students, is that I didn’t do very well in my grade 12 calculus class, but didn’t necessarily let that stop me because it was something I enjoyed, or at least I thought I enjoyed. I was good at it, anyway.
Nathan: Went into university and didn’t do very well in my first year calculus class. I think I maybe got a 50, and I failed my first year linear algebra so I had to pay to go back and take it in summer school, but then I had this click. I don’t really know what it was, but something in me was like, okay, now the understanding is coming. That really was what turned the corner for me, trying to find an inherent love of the mechanisms that underlie all the stuff that we were doing in high school. That really pushed me forward and got me through the rest of it. Now here I am trying to do my best to impart that on to my students.
John Orr: Every time we ask people to share a little bit about their story, I Kyle would agree here that we hear a little bit of our own stories. Something that brings to my mind is that so many of us high school teachers I think got into teaching because our love for the subject. And we’re so comfortable with the subject content, and when we think about our elementary counterparts, like your mom, who has probably been burned by math somewhere along the line, and are feeling very, you know, math is not their thing or not their strong suit.
John Orr: But you know what? I think we have a lot to learn from the people that we’ve talked to on this podcast and in our work, in our daily work. Those elementary teachers have almost made a vow to make math different for their students. They’ve got so many great lessons to learn and great activities that we can apply, and great strategies that I think will apply.
John Orr: I’m sure as we get going in this conversation here today, we’ll be able to give you some tips that stretch back into that elementary field that will apply into your class. As we get going, I wonder if before we dive into that and the tips, I wonder if you can think back a little bit more into your history and tell us what your most memorable math moment from math class would be and why that would be.
Nathan: I think I have two that come to mind, and I kind of alluded to both of them already a little bit. The first one is not really a moment necessarily as a single moment, but Mr. Whelan, my grade 12 calculus teacher was just that sort of eccentric teacher, that sort of eccentric, stereotypical math guy. That really sort of left a mark on me in terms of inspire me to take that forward. His love of things and his real passion for it was really what got me through as well as I did, which wasn’t great, but really inspired me and that enthusiasm for math as a subject is something that I try to take with me when I’m teaching, and try to impart that enthusiasm and that passion for it as well.
Nathan: I think you guys have said in the past that enthusiasm isn’t enough, necessarily. Proportionately, we would like that to just rub off on the students, but it doesn’t always. For me it did, and that was really what pushed me in that direction when I was at that point in my life where I was trying to figure out what it was that I wanted to do. I appreciate him for that. My second math moment that really left an impression on me actually comes from university. It was in my second year, and like I said, I hadn’t been doing very well in my first year math classes, and at this point I was actually pursuing a double major, and math was one part of that. I was taking a second year course, it was a pure math course, so we were looking at proofs of all kids of different things, and off course that’s not something that you can get by memorization.
Nathan: I remember vividly going into the final exam for this course. I remember the room, I remember the people in the room, and I remember sitting in the very front desk and sitting down and looking at the exam paper and reading over every single one of these questions, and going in my head, “I know how to do this. I know how to do this. I know how to do this.” All the way down until I get to the bonus question, and I’m like, “I know how to do this.” And I get through it, and I’m just like, oh my goodness, I think that maybe I can give myself a little bit more credit than I was giving myself before in terms of trying to get the foundations of understanding of things, because I know what I’m doing here. That really was the turning point, I think. I dropped my double major and went to a single major into math, and then I went into all the analysis and all that kind of stuff.
Kyle Pearce: Oh, the good stuff.
Nathan: That’s right. Exactly. So that really opened the door for me and that was really the big moment that sort of led forward, I think.
Kyle Pearce: That’s awesome. Hearing both of those stories, I’ll comment on the first and then on the second, because both I think are great. As you mentioned, John and I realized, just like you have, that just loving math isn’t enough for everyone. I like how you’ve helped me reflect on that to make sure it’s explicit, that you know what? There’s always, always students in the room that our passion and our love, whether it’s eccentric, or whether it’s just the geeky math joke guy, or whatever it might be, there’s kids in that room that we are influencing, so we definitely don’t want to underestimate those things, but if we want to reach all students, we have to be thinking about more than maybe what we necessarily experienced.
Kyle Pearce: Going into your second piece, I’m so happy. I was sort of anticipating hearing about that struggle that you had shared earlier in the conversation. It’s really cool to hear that you had an experience in your second year where it was like you got over that hump, and you probably started, sounded like starting to put things together. I know for me, second year university was the point where my memorization train, that gravy train, came to an end. For so many kids it happens in different places, like seventh grade, tenth grade. It sounded like in calculus or yourself in high school things got a little bit tricky for you. For me, it was second year when my world came crashing down, but your story reminded me of an experience very similar in third year where it was sort of like I was starting to figure out that math was more, so much more, than I had realized, having gone through and just memorizing and just being praised for it as well along the way.
Kyle Pearce: So I think that not only am I happy that you shared that story, but I think it leads into my next wonder, which is really to give you an opportunity to think about what’s working right in your class right now. As teachers, we’re so hard on ourselves. I find that when we come out of the classroom, we’re the first people to say, “Ah, that part didn’t go well,” but then we ignore all of the other things that went well, just because we’re hoping for that perfect lesson. I’m wondering, over this past school year is there any gains that you feel you’ve made, or anything that you feel like has been a success that maybe wasn’t so successful in the past.
Nathan: It’s hard for me to point to one thing necessarily. I think for me it’s more about getting the little things. A lot of what I’m trying to improve on is difficult. I’m trying to wrap my head around a lot of things, and I think a lot of people are in terms of so much out there and so many new things to try and to do, but looking back at where I am now compared to where I was five years ago, it’s a world of difference. I don’t even recognize, almost, the teacher that I used to be.
Nathan: Really, that’s the biggest thing for me. Trying to keep in touch with all the stuff that’s going on around, and I’m lucky in that as an LTO where I can go into different schools, that’s sort of the benefit to that and interact with different math teachers and different teachers of other subjects in all the different school in our board and taken from them a lot of ideas. I think that was really the catalyst a few years ago in terms of what got me on this journey, that opportunity to go to different schools because the beginning of my career I was that teacher, and even that the beginning of my career I was already that person who was set in my ways in terms of that’s the kind of teacher that we tended to grow up with in terms of technology-adverse and all that kind of thing.
Nathan: I was supply teaching at a school one day, just so happened, and they were doing math and services with their math department. I don’t know, really, how it happened, but I ended up sitting in the back of the room because they were working with a class that I was substituting for, and I just kind of sat there, and the time the school they had just got a class set of iPads and they were doing all this great work with the different apps on the iPads and all the kinds of different things, and something just clicked at that point. This is cool! Look at all the great stuff! It’s not just technology for technology’s sake, it’s technology for a purpose towards a specific learning outcome, and that led me on the journey that I went on.
Nathan: I ended up teaching data management shortly after that and went on a quest, and that let me to your website, Kyle. And then from there I stumbled on to Twitter and all the great things that was happening there, and to Dan Meyer, and to all of this stuff. Just trying to make those little improvements. I’m nowhere near where I would like to be and where I think we could be, but if we can make those small adjustments every little bit, then that’s all we can ask for ourselves, right? I think my lessons are progressing in that way, and I’m happy they way that they’re going, so now, of course, the next logical step is what does assessment look like. That’s where my focus is going now, and I’m sure that’s a common thing. I’m sure I’m not the only one in terms of what does assessment look like.
John Orr: Those are some great points that you’re making about your journey and your transformation. When you reached out to us about how we can provide you some assistance, I think you’re moving into talking about assessment, is that what’s on your mind lately? Is it assessments specifically that you’re thinking about that you’d like to talk about with us here today? What other struggles or challenges are you experiencing along the way that you’d like to talk to us about today?
Nathan: I think assessment, generally speaking, is something that I’ve been struggling with in terms of how to reconcile the new way that I’m teaching things with the old way that I was assessing them obviously isn’t going to work going forward, and trying to figure out what my new assessment strategies are going to be going forward is sort of where my challenges lie, specifically in terms of not just the product. Going into the observations and conversations side of things, because that’s really been a focus and an emphasis from our board over the last couple of years is trying to work that side of assessment into the grades that we give kids.
Kyle Pearce: What does that look like right now in your classroom? You had mentioned assessment and moving towards observations and conversations. Paint us a picture of what assessment sort of looks like if I’m a student coming in to, whether it’s your data management class or I guess this year it would be physics, but whatever that class might look like, what does that currently look like or sound like?
Nathan: Still currently I think my assessments are still fairly traditional. They look like tests that they would have looked like in the past. I’m trying to change it up a little bit to try and incorporate a little bit more of the open-ended questioning styles that we do during the lesson, but the overall format of it still looks like it always looked like, and that is this traditional, sit down, 75 minute period test.
Nathan: I’ve tried a few things different that I like how they worked out, and that I give a couple more challenging questions, where they get to work with a partner and they get to look through their notes at the same time. So those are I guess would have been traditional thinking type questions that I would have put at the end of a test in the past, now I’m trying to break it up a little bit and give them a little bit more interaction and collaboration in terms of bringing that into the assessment.
Nathan: I like that. I think that’s worked well, but I think I can still go a little further in terms of trying to work things out. Turing my assessment towards assessing by standards, I think is really where I want to go in terms of trying to incorporate those standards because of the conversations and the observations side of things. That’s really how I see that side of the equation fitting in to trying to assign marks to things, because at the end of the day that’s what we have to do.
John Orr: The way that you traditionally have done your evaluations, I’m wondering, what specifically are you finding difficulties with? Just to summarize some of the things you just said, you’re trying to teach in a certain way. We’ve been assessing in a traditional way. You’re trying to change things, you’re trying to change your assessment, so I guess what we’re asking is, why do you want to change your assessments? What specifically isn’t working for you? What’s not aligning for you between what you used to do and what you want to do?
Nathan: I think it’s the philosophical side of things in terms of, I’m teaching a certain way and I think that it’s only fair to be assessing the students in the same way. If I’m teaching you how to do something and to solve a particular type of question, then we should be assessing in the same way. I don’t think that a traditional test works to anyone’s favor. I think there’s a lot of test anxiety that goes on, and in terms of the equity side of things I don’t think that’s necessarily the best piece of evidence to necessarily capture all of the stuff that’s going on, particularly when we’re trying to teach through tasks.
Nathan: If we’re teaching that way, then having them sit down and do an individual test where they’re writing or answering questions similar to the stuff that we find in textbooks, I don’t think that that’s the way to go forward. I’m trying to find a way to draw the best out of my students, because I don’t think that what we were doing before was getting that best work out of them, that best thinking out of them, and so trying to provide them with some more opportunity to be able to demonstrate that, and then the logistical side of things, how do I provide those opportunities for them to demonstrate things like the conversations, and how do we record that and how do we get that information from all 25 kids in my class, and then how does that translate into our grade marking system and all that kind of side of things.
Kyle Pearce: That’s very helpful. I’m wondering, you had mentioned teaching through task. Can you help us understand? Because it sounds like, If I restate, and hopefully I’m restating this accurately, it sounds like you’re feeling like it’s fairly traditional. We use the word traditional, and sometimes right away we make it sound like traditional’s always bad. That’s not the case, but pretty much what people picture when they think of assessment in a traditional fashion is that paper, pencil, end of unit sort of thing, and you’re finding it’s difficult when you’re teaching through task.
Kyle Pearce: Can you help us get an understanding? What would it be like if we were in your class today, and you were introducing a lesson and basically teaching through task. What does that look like, sound like, for students in your class? Just to make sure that everybody listening has a good feel for why maybe those two things just aren’t jiving before we dive in deeper.
Nathan: Trying to teach a concept, trying to get the students to collaborate and to talk about things as much as possible, and by doing that they can bounce ideas off of each other, and everyone gets something out into the environment, and trying to get them to do things, to get down to doing some math as quickly as possible when they get into the room. So trying to give them a problem and trying to get them to collaborate, I think is really the biggest thing that my goal is for this idea of teaching through a task and getting them to collaborate with each other and me, really, about the math that they’re doing. I struggle to get those conversations out of them and to get that thinking down, logistically speaking.
Nathan: I guess what I mean is, if I’m trying to assess using an observation or a conversation, how do I know what it is that I want from them? As I said, assessing by standards I think is really how I see this going, and so identifying the learning goals that I want for them and then having that as my assessment, but then a matter of, how do I get the response out of them that I want in terms of me hearing from them something that illustrates to me whether or not they understand this particular learning goal.
Nathan: For instance, if my learning goal is to solve a system of equations, for example, how do I go about planning something where I can one, give them the opportunity to have that conversation or have me observe something, some piece of work from them, and then two, do I get that piece of information from all of my students, or do I maybe try and solve? Obviously that’s logistically impossible, right? So trying to build the equity, right? So in terms of getting everyone on the same page, and then having that down, and recording it and making sure that everyone has that same opportunity.
John Orr: There’s a lot of big pieces that we’re all trying to figure out. I think we’re all right to think that we should be including observations and conversations. Your school district and board is right to stress those things, and traditionally we’ve never really accounted for those pieces of our information. We’ve always just put the quizzes and the tests down, and those marks went in mark books, and those marks represented our kids’ understanding going forward, even if that understanding changed along the way from unit to unit.
John Orr: I don’t want to say that a test is a bad thing because I think a test can be a good thing. What we have to consider is what is the point of the test. Is the point of the test to be one mark that goes in to represent all their learning on all of those concepts for that unit? If so, then maybe we should reconsider that. If a test is used to give you information on the student so that you can decide on where your direction goes next, where your learning should go next, then that’s a good thing. I think we think that we shouldn’t be giving tests because we’re teaching through task. I don’t believe that we should just throw it out the window. I think it’s just one piece of evidence that we can use to gather more information about what our students understand, and how can we used that piece of evidence to push our direction forward or our learning forward, how that student’s learning forward. I don’t think we want to throw that out the window. I think we want to ask ourselves, what do we want our students to learn and how can we gather evidence?
John Orr: Also, to talk about the observations and conversations piece, sometimes us traditional math teachers, especially high school math teachers, are thinking, okay, I have to use observations and conversations, so how do I do that? I’m going to try to gather that from each student, and then I’m going to put that mark down in my mark book. I feel like soon as you do that, soon as you put that mark, you’re trying to assess this, come up with a grade or some way to record this conversation, as soon as you throw that down in your mark book, and I think teachers definitely are trying to put a grade attached to that, it now just becomes product. It’s not observation and conversation anymore that you’re using to influence your understanding of where that student is. I think that’s the point we’ve been missing.
Kyle Pearce: You know John, I’m over here going, “Yeah. Absolutely,” and I want to add in a couple things there too because I think many of us, and I say many of us like K through 12, that report card or parent-teacher interview puts us in a position where often times it’s easy to forget the whole reason why assessment and evaluation is a thing in the first place, which is really to help push student learning forward. I think we have a huge issue, not just Ontario, not just Canada, not just North America, I think assessment and evaluation everywhere is an issue because I think we’ve sort of forgotten the whole point.
Kyle Pearce: There’s a couple things there that make assessment really difficult. I say a couple. There’s a lot of things that make assessment very difficult, but a couple that pop into my mind right now are just this idea of the permanency of us putting something down into any type of grade book, and then also the idea of fair versus equity. I heard use the word equity earlier, and oftentimes I think we get stuck in the fair zone, meaning if I put down an observation of Sandra and I’m using that for her assessment and evaluation, then I should have to do that for everyone in this classroom because I’m so trained that everyone writes the quiz, everyone writes the test, everyone does the assignment, and it’s always this everyone game when if I start to look at assessment, first of all being clear about assessment and evaluation that assessment is ongoing. I’m constantly assessing through observations, conversations, and product. And then evaluation is the end. I’ve evaluated all of the assessment that I’ve done.
Kyle Pearce: To me, that’s not the very last day of a course or a grade, or whatever grade level you’re in. For me, that is so important for us to stop and reflect and say, “If my grade book is something that once a number gets put in it, it can never leave,” then I think that’s probably one of the parts that really freed me to start assessing and evaluating more meaningfully. At least starting to head in that direction. But if I’m putting a grade in there and it’s cemented in there, that’s when you start to run into all these problems and then that whole idea of fair, well this student’s going to be upset, or the parents are going to complain because this student got this and that student got that, if the end goal is to use that grade as a way for both you, the student, and the parent as a team, like a three person team, to come together and go, here’s where we’re at. Here’s the game plan moving forward.
Kyle Pearce: I feel like that lowers the stakes in so many ways because then it’s not this fair game anymore. It’s like, Tommy over there doesn’t know how to apply the Pythagorean Theorem using multiple representations. That’s just based on what I know about Tommy. If Tommy comes to me tomorrow and proves to me that what I know about Tommy is completely off base, then that changes the assessment and the evaluation ultimately at the end of the day. I feel like as soon as we get in to that realm, all of a sudden this huge weight is lifted off of our soldiers and we star to see what it is we’re trying to do with the assessment instead of going … I remember when products and conversations first was brought into the first staff meeting when I was at my first school at Belle River District High School, and I remember thinking to myself, how am I going to do this to satisfy X, Y, and Z? The parents, the principal, the kid, all of these things.
Kyle Pearce: It was like I wasn’t even paying attention to … the whole purpose here is to make sure that every student is getting a better understanding of where they’re at, and then also given an opportunity to continue getting better and to continue learning and moving forward. John and I just did a lot of talking there, but I’m wondering, anything from those pieces there that are maybe resonating with you or maybe need some clarity? What are your thoughts on that?
Nathan: For sure. I guess the biggest thing then would be, if you have a particular learning goal in mind, for example you want to know whether Tommy can do a particular thing, how do you plan for that? How do you go into that saying, okay, here’s my lesson for today, whatever it happens to be with this particular learning goal, and then do you have an idea going into it about who you might want to speak to, or watch, or otherwise interact with? After the fact, how do we make use of the data that we … data is not necessarily the right word, but the stuff that we’ve seen going forward.
John Orr: Okay so let me ask you this. When you say, “I want to understand what a student knows on concept X,” what do you do now to gather that information or try to assess that student? What do you do right now to gather that info?
Nathan: Now it’s sort of in the form of a product, so I try and get them to do an exit ticket style question every couple of days usually, to try and get a little bit of stuff in front of me that I can look over and jot down a couple of things here and there to give them some of that feedback that I can’t necessarily give them face to face. But right now that’s what my formative assessment would look like, so trying to, I guess, get a little bit better information and then at the same time maybe reduce my workload. That would be nice.
John Orr: Right. Right. So for example, when you’re working with your class … you’re talking about teaching through task, and you’re working your students on a task, when you are working with the student do you have a good professional sense of where that student stands on those learning goals in that task even before you get to the exit ticket? Do you feel like when you’re working with those students you have a good sense, or I know I need more. What do you get out of that as a professional, in your professional experience?
Nathan: You know, I think I have a decent sense about how they’re doing, and I think part of what was giving me issue, Kyle I think you talked about this, was this idea of trying to get something from everyone. I guess that idea of fairness. You talked about it doesn’t necessarily need to be that, and I think that was where my hangups were lying and where I was trying to get some written work from everyone so that I could have those observations in front of me from everyone, and then be able to give that feedback to everyone. That was where my difficulties and my workload issues and all that kind of thing really hung on that, I think.
Kyle Pearce: I’m picturing myself, because I wanted to be the best I could be and I wanted to help every single student, and I still want both of those things, but just thinking back and realizing that my feeling of wanting something for everyone was I think partially because I thought I had to, so that’s one part obviously is the expectation that we put on ourselves, and nowhere does it say that, by the way. It doesn’t say it anywhere, but it’s just something we all just had that assumption. A lot of times as teachers we assume a lot of things, and I think people are okay with those assumptions, like a principal is like, “Yeah, that is a great idea. Make sure you do get something for everyone.”
Kyle Pearce: But when we think about when we’re assessing students, part of it think is confidence. You never want to get to a place where you’re too confident, where you feel like you don’t need to do anything, because that’s not good either, but having confidence that you feel like you’ve got a good handle on what certain students know and don’t know. You mentioned earlier about standards-based grading and that’s sort of a direction you’re hoping to head in, and I would tend to agree and I’m sure we’ll dive into that some more as we continue talking.
Kyle Pearce: As you start focusing on what you want to know that students actually know, or what they need to know, I think that really helps because right now, if you’re using, let’s say, a fairly traditional approach of quizzes and tests for unit-based instruction. I did it for years. John did it for years. Many people are still doing that. It’s what we knew. The problem with it is that often time at the end we get this number, but the number doesn’t really tell you anything. It would if I went through the test and I went through and studied each and every question for every student, but usually that’s not the way it’s graded. By breaking things up a little bit and then getting a feel for what students are feeling confident with this idea and which students are feeling maybe not so confident with that idea, you start to learn your students so much more and that makes that observation and conversation piece so much easier because then when the gaps in that knowledge about what kids know and don’t know, when that appears for you, meaning, I don’t know what John over there, I don’t know what that student knows about this idea, that’s when I go, “I’m going to go have a conversation with that student.”
Kyle Pearce: I can anticipate those things before a lesson by looking at some of my grade book. You don’t want to obviously study your grade book every single day, but reflecting on what students did yesterday, what gaps students had in that lesson, and then that might be where you actually document and you throw down some pieces of anecdotal comments for yourself, and that could be with the student for the student to actually see, or not. Then that might help you the next day when you’re crafting your lesson and then thinking to yourself, okay, I know there’s only so much time in a day, and yesterday I was really curious about these four students, so I’m going to try to pay close attention to those four students and if I want to try to pay close attention to 25 students, that might be a lot harder and more overwhelming, but if I have these four students that I want to pay attention to, that could help me to answer some of those questions.
Kyle Pearce: Then if my assessment practice is as it is now, then you’re now in this position of, okay, now that I know more about those four students, what does that mean for them in the grade book? Does that grade book, does that number that’s sitting there in the computer, what does that mean? Do the students know what it means? Do I even know what it means? What changes based on what I learned about those students today? These are big, hard questions. There’s no right or wrong for it, but just thinking about those things I think is what gets us to start moving in the right direction in terms of using assessment for learning instead of labeling like I did for the majority of my career.
Nathan: As a teacher, I find myself with these two problems of one, this idea of fairness that I talked about in terms of trying to get something from everyone, and then the mathematician side of things in terms of collecting data of what I’m looking at. Those are really the two hangups that I was having. You guys talking about not necessarily needing it from everyone and it doesn’t have to be a number, I guess, is just something to … I guess the phrase would be the professional judgment side of things in terms of, what does that mean for this particular student’s learning and how does that affect things going forward, right?
John Orr: We want to be very clear that we’re not saying you don’t need information on only some students. I think we want information on all our students, but it might not be all our students every day, right? It’s going to be like what Kyle said, it’s a few here today, but it’s a different few tomorrow. I think what I’ve learned to tackle that myself logistically in my class is because you have three different classes, that could be 75 to more students, is I have a checklist and when I do what Kyle has suggested, when I do that anticipation and go, okay, these are the learning goals that I’m setting out for the lesson today, here are the hangups from some of the students in the past.
John Orr: I’m going to watch. I’m going to look for to see if I have any improvement on these four students, and if all of a sudden I catch some of the other students with some improvement I’m going to just check off under that kid’s name under that learning goal that I saw some improvement. The way that you record that or what you want to record on that check sheet could be anything that fits your own personal style, but I definitely have that going forward. Something in my hands to keep me organized, and I think that’s important to plan for these things. You just don’t want to go willy-nilly because you want to stay organized. You don’t want to go through a couple weeks without talking to four kids. That would be a huge misstep on your part to not talk to four kids in your class for three, four weeks. That would be awful. Your missing on those kids’ learning. So I think you want to stay organized.
John Orr: The other big hangup we have is that we want this evidence. We want this because we think parents are going to be down our throats if we don’t have data to back this up. I think we have to have that confidence. Kyle and I have talked about this a few times, even on this podcast, that in a parent-teacher interview, and if you are talking with the parent and it’s clear that you only have the kid’s best interest in mind and it’s clear that you know that student’s abilities, just because you’ve been working with them through task, think about traditionally you would have just done an example on the board and you wouldn’t actually know what that student knows until they ask a question later on in a traditional style lesson, or you mark their homework or mark their test, or it’s not until the quiz that you would mark it until you’d really find out.
John Orr: But if you’re working with your students regularly through task … that’s why I asked that question. When they walk out the door before the exit card, do you really know what they know? I think if you’re working through task, you do.
Nathan: I think that was a strength of mine in terms of having those conversations with those kids, and that’s why I enjoy working at high school level so much. Not to say that you can’t have rich conversations with the elementary students, but being able to have conversations, deep conversations often about the math, that’s really why I love working with this age group of kids, but trying to keep things organized, I think that was where things were lacking on my part.
Kyle Pearce: And assessment is a complete beast, so it’s definitely something you want to obviously be thinking abut, but don’t try to rush into anything or do anything to rash. Make sure that you’re reflective about it, which it sounds like you are because you’re here with us tonight having this chat, but some things that come to mind for me to kind of give you maybe these little things to think about, and maybe these first steps, let’s say.
Kyle Pearce: First off, I might think, you mentioned about standards-based grading and if you go to our blog, I know you’ve been there and have read some of the posts, in particular, about standards-based grading. John and I, luckily we had each other when we started that journey. We did not know what was going to happen, and I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I would’ve done it had I not had somebody else doing that at the same time. I was lucky enough that John was teaching the same course. We are in two different districts, we are teaching the same course, but we literally weren’t close enough to be seeing each other at all. It was just this online thing, but knowing that somebody else was doing it, it made it a whole lot easier.
Kyle Pearce: Trying to feel out, even if it’s someone not at your school, but maybe someone online who’s teaching a course and they’re interested in something like you are in terms of moving your assessment practices forward, that’s a great first step. I know that it’s the beginning of second semester here in Ontario, so the timing is great, but even just as a starting point to start looking at your curriculum documents as more at a high level about the big ideas in your course. How can you start now to assess even if, let’s say, your formal assessment practice right now doesn’t change from that traditional quiz or test, but to on your own start thinking about what are the big ideas that you want students to know when they leave this course.
Kyle Pearce: Marian Small talks about big ideas and she’s got a lot of great things and a lot of great reading about that, but just for yourself to know, this is what I want students to know, and what do you still want to know about the students in your class? When you leave the class after you’ve taught a lesson, taking that 10 minutes, I know sometimes in secondary you could be going from class to class, but as soon as you get that first prep or if you get that lunch break, take 10 minutes to just jot down, really rapid write, some of the things about which students knew what from that lesson. It doesn’t have to be formal. We’re not doing report card comments, but what did they know and which students didn’t know something? Try to figure out, what’s that gap in between there? Is that assessment actually going to impact what I do tomorrow?
Kyle Pearce: Because for me, at the end of the day, this entire assessment conversation, as much as we know it’s a part of the structure, but the reason we’re doing assessment is to help kids learn more and to help them along their learning journey. If I reflect on what happened today, what about what I just spent a couple minutes, rapid write all of these ideas down. Things that students know, things that students struggled on, how is that impacting what I’m going to do tomorrow? Unfortunately, that might mean changing or pivoting from your initial plan.
Kyle Pearce: For me, these are big ideas that I can start thinking about and grappling with in my mind, even if maybe you’re not at a place now where you’re like, okay, this is going to directly impact my grade book now, maybe it’s just to get you started in keeping your own understanding so that when it comes time to actually start making those big changes in how you’re grading and how you’re recording and in your grade book, at least you’re feeling more confident about the process rather than the other way around where you decide to change it all and then suddenly you’re feeling like you’re out in no man’s land and you’re not really sure where to go next.
Nathan: That’s right, and I think that for a while that was where I was, in terms of fear of not knowing what to do, really kept me back a little bit in terms of how long it took me to get started, but now I’ve gotten over it a little bit, although we’re still hung up on the assessment part, but trying to think with a little bit more intentionality about things, as you say, I think has really struck a chord with me I think.
John Orr: There’s a tool that I use in my classroom that I think you’ll find very valuable. It’s an online portfolio tool. It goes almost hand in hand with this idea that you want to explore, which is standard-based grading, and it’s called FreshGrade is the actual tool, but really what is, is it’s a collection of activities that you can set up and the activities are really just pods, these rectangular things that float in a student’s window online. It’s their portfolio and their parents have access to it, you have access to it, they have access to it.
John Orr: What I do is I set up those activities as learning goals, and those learning goals you can add to. One learning goal might be, I can solve problems with the Pythagorean Theorem, and the students can see that. You get to add pictures. Take pictures with your camera. It’s such a great tool to use in your classroom. Take pictures of their work. Have them take pictures of their work. Have them put them in the right slots in their portfolio. Have them do that self assessment on where that should go. What learning goal is this? They can populate their own portfolio based on their work, and you get to do that too. You can add, not only pictures, but voices, take a audio file or you can even text, just right on those comments.
John Orr: I find it really valuable. I find it really nice to organize their thinking, and it’s great come time when you’re starting to think about, what is that mark going to be? You’ve got all this information that’s in your brain from all the observations and conversations, you’ve got the checklist, you’ve got their quizzes or their tests to consult, but you could also have this portfolio that has this visual representation of their learning on all the learning goals. I think it’s really great. It helps me stay organized and it helps them think about their learning goals.
John Orr: You can check it out. FreshGrade.com is the website, but you can learn more about it on my website and how I use it in math class, if you go to MrOrr-IsAGeek.com, and then in the top corner if you hit the “Peak Into My Classroom,” scroll down a bit, look under “Assessment,” there’s some stuff there for FreshGrade, so you can learn how to use that in your classroom. I think it would be worthwhile to check out.
Kyle Pearce: Awesome. Well Nate, listen, we have been chatting here about, I think one of the thorniest areas of math education, just education in general, really, which is assessment. It’s something that, by all means, I don’t think anyone would say is an easy change or fix to make in our classroom, but before we go we’re wondering, is there any takeaway from this conversation, maybe it’s something that you think you might be able to apply now? Or maybe it’s something that you want to reflect a little bit more on as you start or continue down this path to updating or changing your assessment practice to help students along their learning journey.
Nathan: Yeah, I got a lot out of our conversation. One of the things that really stuck with me, almost from the beginning, is the idea that tests aren’t necessarily a bad thing when we’re talking about traditional style tests, as long as we are clear and reflective about what the purpose they’re serving is. Going forward, I think trying to incorporate some of this idea behind this idea of standards-based grading in terms of trying to think a little bit more intentionally about if we’re going to give the kids a test, then think a little bit harder about what it is that I want to get out of them on that particular test. So to try and plan a little bit harder, I guess, to get the exact thinking that I want out of them. A traditional test is thrown together willy-nilly with questions that kind of look good, but now to think a little bit more about what each question’s individual purpose is instead of thinking about the test as an overall single piece of product.
Kyle Pearce: Well, that’s great. That’s awesome. We’ve really enjoyed this conversation here. I’m sure many people are thinking and reflecting as they have listened throughout, and I’m sure many are feeling exactly the same way you’re feeling with this, because assessment is a huge weight on our shoulders. We’re wondering, this is really for two reasons, but we’re wondering if you’re interested in us following up with you in about six to 12 months to see how things are going.
Kyle Pearce: Two reasons, one reason being is we’d be really curious, and I’m sure many listening would be curious, to see how thing are going for you, and really to have a check in and then also see how we might be able to help at that point. Then also for a bit of accountability as well, for you to know that, hey, I want to continue moving on down this path. I want to continue reflecting, and obviously you’re more than welcome to touch base with us in between. Would that be something that’d be okay with you there Nate? If we got in touch with you?
John Orr: Well we want to thank you for joining us here tonight, and we hope that your next few lessons go great as always that we want to hope for any of our fellow teachers. Thanks again for joining us here, Nate. We’ll be in touch soon.
John Orr: Well, there you have it. That was Nathan Vaillancourt, another Math Moment Maker like you, who is constantly thinking about his teaching practice and how to improve. We appreciate Nathan’s honesty and braveness for sharing his past successes and challenges.
Kyle Pearce: This was another Math Mentoring Moment episode, with many more to come where we will have a conversation with a member of the Making Math Moments That Matter community just like you who’s working through a challenge, and together we’ll brainstorm ideas and next steps to help overcome it.
John Orr: If you want to join us on the podcast for an upcoming Math Mentoring Moment episode where you can share a big math class struggle, you can apply over at makemathmoments.com, forward slash mentor.
Kyle Pearce: If you like what you’re hearing and you want to hear more and learn more about how you can Make Math Moments That Matter in your classroom, every day we invite you to check out the Make Math Moments Academy by visiting makemathmoments.com, forward slash academy. Again, that’s makemathmoments.com, forward slash academy.
John Orr: Also if you like what you’re hearing, please share the podcast with a colleague and help us reach a wider audience by leaving us a review on iTunes and tweeting us at @MakeMathMoments on Twitter.
Kyle Pearce: Show notes and links to resources from this episode can be found at MakeMathMoments.com, forward slash episode 28. That’s makemathmoments.com, forward slash episode 28.
John Orr: You can also find Make Math Moments on all social media platforms and seek out our free private Facebook group, Math Moment Makers, K through 12. Don’t miss our next episode.
Kyle Pearce: Well, until next time, I’m Kyle Pearce.
John Orr: And I’m John Orr.
Kyle Pearce: High fives for us.
John Orr: And high fives for you.
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