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This guest blog post is written by Molly Leger, a middle school English teacher, who loves creative writing and hates teaching grammar. She is a Massachusetts Policy Fellow at Teach Plus, the founder of the Boston Women’s Market, and the editor of Educator Unbound. When not teaching, she likes to read about teaching and consume inordinate amounts of caffeine.
Data is everywhere. As an adult, it weaves itself throughout my personal life and my professional career, and informs the thousands of decisions I make daily. I use data to decide what I eat, when I sleep, and which commute to take home. As a teacher, it drives my lesson plans, determines my performance evaluations, and offers insights on how to better my practice.
Yet, for all its importance in adult life, very rarely does the word “data” feature in our conversations with children. With so much to teach in so little time, we often neglect one of the most important life-skills: data-driven decision-making.
But getting our kids excited about data can change the culture of our classrooms and complement our curriculum. When I started to use the data from assessments in my conversations with kids, the tone of my classroom completely changed. Once students were excited about data, I no longer needed to offer prizes or pizza parties. Students were using data from assessment to make goals, monitor their progress, and demonstrate their achievement. They were more bought into assessments when they understood we would be using and celebrating that data in class.
So, how do we get squirrely, stressed, and sleepy students to get excited about data? Here’s how!
We collect assessments to help us pinpoint student strengths and weaknesses, and determine what to teach (or reteach) next. As teachers, we know this, but often our students don’t. Before I give an assessment, I tell my students why they’re taking it and how we’re going to use it to help us in class. A test isn’t a one and done deal. Students know that it’s the basis of our class goal setting, and it helps me craft lessons that are both engaging and appropriately challenging
For kids to get excited about data, they need to find it relevant. When I turn back an essay four weeks later, my feedback doesn’t have as much power in setting class goals. That data doesn’t mean as much to my seventh graders, because their attention is on the new essay. Data have to be timely if we are going to use it to engage our students through goal setting.
After handing back an assessment, we review trends as a class. If 90% of my students don’t know the difference between a simile and a metaphor, I name that. And then, we use it to make a goal that sounds like “In the next two weeks, 90% of students will be able to identify the difference between a simile and a metaphor.” Each day, I remind them of this goal, and using data from mini-quizzes and daily assignments, we review our progress toward achieving it.
For English language learners and special education students, tracking student progress with a poster in the class gives them a way to comprehend how the class is collectively progressing toward a goal. A visual enables students to see the relationship between their individual practice and the progress of the class toward their goal. It builds community and purpose in the class.
During long periods of independent work times, I hold brief conferences at a table in the back of the room. I meet with individual students and we review their performance on the last major assessment. We identify strengths and growth areas, and together we devise an actionable goal. They have a folder where they write down all their feedback, and the next week, we review how they’ve used the feedback to get better. The consistency and personalization of conferences helps hold students accountable to their goals and gives us a chance to teach data-driven decision-making.
I frequently stop the class, build in moments to spotlight student improvement, and create celebratory rituals around data-driven goal setting and achievement.
When a student meets her goal, it’s a “stop the world” moment. If Ana’s goal was to master the use of adjectives, and her latest essay shows a variety of advanced adjectives, I project her work on the board. It’s a big deal, and I make sure everyone feels it when I say, “give Ana a round of applause for meeting her goal!”
At the end of the week, I announce my English Class MVP, where I give a little certificate and a small speech about how that student set a goal and worked hard toward it. It’s an honor, and it engages kids in the process of collecting and using data toward their individual goals.
When we get excited about data as teachers, we model the importance of that data and we create engagement around it. Doing so has the potential to reengage our students, reinvigorate our practice, and teach students the skills they need to succeed in and out of the classroom.
Written by Molly Leger