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By Duncan Wilson
In my role as an instructional leader, I have worked with teacher teams to look at student results and have seen the group be overwhelmed by the data in front of them, particularly when the data set involves student work. Where should we start? What should we be looking for?
This past January, the Kindergarten Team at the Fox Meadow School in Scarsdale, NY, (where I served as the principal) was looking for a better way to track and to understand the progress the entire grade had made as writers since September. They wanted to take this information to help them better plan their writing instruction for the second half of the year.
The Fox Meadow K-team knew they had writers at different stages of development, but they needed a clearer picture of what skills had been mastered, and which ones were still emerging in order to plan more targeted instruction going forward. A helpful practice called “thin slicing” has helped our teams to align student work with specific skills and standards, as well as align the teachers’ assessment practices with each other. In addition, the focus on student work during thin slicing gives the teams a better way to plan the next steps for both the individual teachers and the group.
We learned about the practice of thin slicing from our work with the staff developers at Columbia Teachers College. Thin slicing is when a team of teachers focuses their work on specific skills or a specific learning standard through small selective samples – or “slices” – of data to help get a better sense of where individual student performances fall into a large group, such as a class or a grade level.
Our work with thin slicing started as a way to fine-tune our understanding of standards and student progress toward standards during the third year of implementation of the new reading and writing curriculum. Each of our grade level teams were led through the thin slicing protocol with a “data set” of their choosing, with the specific goal of understanding student growth in writing through a single unit.
Here are seven steps we took while “Thin Slicing”:
1. Teachers brought their class set of writing to be assessed
2. Teachers then reviewed the standard or standards along with any leveled samples to determine what skills, strategies, content and conventions they should be assessing.
3. In two or three sentences, the team articulated the most salient features one can look at to judge the work. For example, in narrative writing, did the student’s story tell rather than summarize, and did she or he write with detail?
4. Quickly (in 2 minutes) they scanned and sorted their students’ work into low level work, medium level work and high level work. Teachers should really just “eyeball” the work at this point, not read it.
5. Quickly (in 3-4 minutes), each teacher read through their benchmark pile (the medium group), noting pieces that were outliers and moving those pieces to higher or lower piles as necessary. They repeated the quick read-throughs with below and above benchmark piles if time allows.
6. Teachers then selected a single piece (The SLICE!) that was representative of each pile and placed that piece on top of that pile.
7. Teachers worked together to compare the benchmark piece from their class with the benchmark slices from other classes, as well as with to the corresponding leveled samples (such as those available through released items with student work from the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessment consortia and some state testing programs).
Some of the key steps in the process are steps 3 through 6. Step 3, agreeing in shared language what teachers are looking for, is the most important change we made from other student work protocols. It forced teachers to look for specific items and to support their assertions about a student’s piece with specific examples. Too often, our teams have fallen into the trap of overgeneralizing work without looking for specifics. This step of generating shared language around a standard also helped teams to see past distractions like handwriting, punctuation, and inventive spelling.
Steps 4-6 are best done quickly. We often say, “Look at the writing and not the kid.” These steps are the “slicing,” and they force teachers to trust their judgments then follow their judgments up with close reading and comparing.
As a result of these thin slicing activities, the teams feel that they have a better sense both of what the standards look like in action as well as where their students fall in the work. When done early in the year, this process is great for setting yearlong goals and for creating student groups. In the middle of the year, this work can help with mid-course adjustments, re-teaching, and enrichment. Each team plans to continue the work going forward by thin slicing work from other units and genres. Over time, we hope that this process can be used to look at data sets across other subject areas as a method for helping teacher teams to answer specific questions about student learning and growth.
Duncan Wilson is the Director of Instruction and HR at Briarcliff Manor School District in Briarcliff, New York, and a member of CenterPoint’s Teaching and Learning Advisors. He has spent his career in various roles in high-performing New York schools including Horace Mann, Byram Hills, and the Scarsdale School District. Most recently he served for nine years as Principal of Fox Meadow Elementary School in Scarsdale where he played a leading role in bringing STEAM – the educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking – to the district and was instrumental in Fox Meadow being the first school in the region to have a Maker Space.