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One of exciting things I've come to realize about AFL is that so many teachers are already practicing it in their classrooms.  To become a more "AFL-ish" teacher usually doesn't require making major changes in practices.  Instead it's usually a matter of focusing one's intent and purpose.  When this happens, it seems that what we find is that the best classroom practices tend to be AFL in nature.  When one's mind is focused on AFL purposes, it becomes much more likely that these best practices will become more frequent and pervasive.


Here's a simple activity that Mrs. Kelley, my daughter's 3rd grade teacher at South Salem School, does with her students.  Everyday they review key Social Studies facts and key Science facts.  Take a look at the worksheets pictured below (you can enlarge them by clicking on them) and then read on for some AFL analysis of this activity and the lesson that secondary teachers can take from it.



At first glance, there is really nothing extraordinary about this activity.  The teacher teaches the content and then has her students review it daily.  This isn't extraordinary because it is - and should be - a very ordinary activity.  Everyday students should be reviewing content.  


This is a perfect example of the fact that our best activities are usually AFL in nature.  Rather than simply teach and then assess at the end (summative assessment), Mrs. Kelley is choosing to assess daily (formative assessment).  If she uses this activity properly, 2 important AFL objectives will be accomplished:

  1. She will daily receive feedback on how well her students are mastering content, and
  2. Students will daily assess their own progress.


This type of activity needs to occur at all levels of education.  I would contend that not a single class period should go by in which ALL students don't assess their understanding and provide feedback to the teacher.  It's not enough for a teacher to rely solely on the feedback from the handful of students who answer questions in class.  A systematic approach is necessary to make sure that ALL students are assessing their progress.  In fact, I would strongly encourage all teachers at all levels to do exactly as Mrs. Kelley has done.  Create a daily review activity and then train your students on how to use the feedback they receive from it.


I can think of 2 possible negative reactions that a secondary teacher might have.  They are:

  1. Printing out this many daily review sheets would use too much paper, and
  2. This is an elementary-style activity.  At the secondary level students should take more ownership of their own studying/reviewing.


Let me try to address both of those.  The first is easy: Don't print out a daily review sheet.  Project the daily review from a computer/LCD projector/overhead on your screen at the last part of class each day and have students use their own paper.  Write it on the board.  Review orally.  There are many alternatives that will work great.


So is this activity too "elementary-ish"?  I would respond to that with the following question: Would students learn content better if at the end of each class period/lecture/activity the teacher made them stop and review what they had just covered?  I think it's pretty easy to say the answer to my question is "yes".  Our first of order business is to NOT to make sure that students review on their own.  Our first order of business is to make sure that our students learn.  Therefore, if there is something we're not doing DURING our class time that would increase learning, then we're not doing all that we should.


Think about your own classroom.  Are there ever days when your students leave without you being able to quantify how well they have mastered the content?  Are there ever days when your students leave your class without you having provided them with a way to quantify their own level of mastery?  Thinking back to my own classroom, I think the answer for many if not most teachers is probably "yes" to both questions.  


The next obvious question is, "What should we do about this?"  Some would say that the answer is to tell students to go home and review.  I agree with that answer, but that answer isn't complete unless I don't feel a sense of ownership of my students' success.  If I feel a sense of responsibility for how well my students do, then I will make sure that each and everyday I provide students with a time to check their understanding.  


So go ahead and figure out a way to daily let your students assess themselves.  It works great in 3rd grade and it will work in your classroom as well.

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Student Success Prerequisite: Hope

This blog post is a reprint of an article originally published on Education Week. Read it here or in its original form

We know that all people need HOPE, and as educators we have seen the results of young people without HOPE.  I found this post to be a great reminder of our need to provide HOPE for kids.  If we aren't focused on that, then to a great extent we are wasting our time and efforts.  We are in a unique position of providing HOPE to those who need it most.  What a vocation - let's pursue it with passion!

Student Success Prerequisite: Hope


9th-grader Keisha (not her real name) entered my Algebra class older than most of her classmates, having been held back a year in elementary school. And based on her test scores, she would have been repeating eighth grade if it hadn't been for the district's social promotion policy. So there she was in my classroom, giving no effort and getting 0 upon 0 on one assignment/exam after another.

Not attempting an assignment and getting a 0 on it is a common face-saving strategy for kids like Keisha, since they can always say, "I could have done that but didn't feel like it." Trying their hardest and getting a 25 or 30 would be worse, since failure would then reflect lack of ability rather than apathy.

But I wasn't buying it, and at 10-week report card conferences I reminded Keisha's grandmother (mom was incarcerated, and dad came and went--mostly went) that I stayed after school to tutor students. Keisha showed up for tutoring the next day. At first, of course, she didn't want to be there. But at least in this safer setting--with just a few other "dumb" (her word) kids there--she set aside her "I could do this but don't feel like it" facade, and said tutoring was pointless because "I'm no good at math."

After a day or two of sulking, Keisha decided the time would go faster if she actually did some work. And what soon became apparent to me and, more important, to her was that she had much stronger math ability than her prior experience had led her to believe. Within weeks, she was earning a "C" in class, and her grandmother excused her from tutoring. But Keisha decided to keep coming anyway, so instead of remediation, I gave her extension problems and sneak previews of upcoming lessons. And soon the "dumb" kid was the go-to kid for students who needed help.

Keisha was upbeat until I gave a test that she should have aced but instead bombed--a result, I was sure, of test anxiety rather than lack of ability. But newfound confidence is easily shaken for kids who've doubted themselves for years, so you can imagine Keisha's response as she stormed out of class: "I told you I'm no good at math." Still, I tracked her down later that day, and convinced her to retake the test after school. And when I told her she got a 96, Keisha looked at me and said, "Are you for real, Coach G?!" I've never seen a prouder or happier kid.

What Keisha's turnaround illustrates is the need for students to feel hopeful in order for them to learn to their potential. Instilling hope in students at school must therefore be an essential goal for us as educators. And the way to achieve it is not, as I wrote in Success Comes From the Heart, by preaching optimism, but through policies and practices that give students cause for optimism. Here are some examples:

  • Reverse students' "0 is better than 25" thinking. We've got to change students' views so that scoring 25% on an assignment or test is seen as a better alternative than not attempting it. I'm not suggesting 25% should be cause for celebration, but why not cause for inspiration? Myshift from multiple choice to open-ended questions was helpful in this regard because each right answer was an indication of true understanding. I could then say to a student who scored 25%, "great, you've nailed one-fourth of this stuff; now let's go after the other three-fourths."
  • Reinforce the success process. In conjunction with #1, allow students to retake tests, as I did with Keisha (subject to students meeting certain conditions, since it's wrong to give second chances to kids who blew their first chances due to self-defeating behavior such as not taking notes in class).
  • Assign greater weight to later assessments than earlier ones. Provided your assessments are cumulative--which I usually recommend--students will have opportunities to show on future assessments that they've mastered skills they lacked on previous assessments. Those later assessments should thus count more toward their overall grades than earlier ones, since it's what students know in the end that matters most. And by doing this, here too you'll be reinforcing the success process and providing hope for those students who score 25% early on. (This too, of course, should be subject to students meeting certain conditions.)
  • Diversify assignments. Kids are most likely to confront their weaknesses with hope when we regularly recognize and reinforce their strengths. One way I did this was by including in math assignments unconventional items such as word plays and brainteasers that played to math-averse students' strengths.

Just a few ways we as educators can give students hope, the first word in my H.E.A.R.T. acronym chronologically--and in order of importance, since students will never do what it takes to be successful unless they believe they can be successful.
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