My Non-Report Card Writing Experience

Today, our Board had an Assessment and Reporting PA Day. Just last year, this would be the day where I would be writing Communications of Learning and connecting with Paula about comments for students. It seems strange to not have my own report cards or Communications of Learning to write this year. And while I might not miss my Communication of Learning countdowns or my report card writing weekends, I kind of do miss the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the growth in kids so far this year. For this reason, I’m incredibly grateful to the wonderful team of Kindergarten and Grade 1 educators that I work with each day.

Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve had some of the most amazing conversations with teachers about data, evidence of growth, and next steps.

Then yesterday and today, I worked with different Kindergarten and Grade 1 educators on Communication of Learning and Report Card comments. This was not about just emailing out comments or proofreading what others wrote. This was about collaborating.

  • We shared.
  • We discussed.
  • We questioned.
  • We revised.
  • And we even revisited some comments the next day.
Such a lovely tweet yesterday that brought me so much joy!

While I might not have my own class, I’m a part of so many others, and I appreciate these opportunities to connect, collaborate, and share. Whether you have a teaching partner, a Reading Specialist, a Learning Resource Teacher, and/or a colleague in your school, how are you connecting and reflecting with others? What might be the benefit in doing so? As many of my blog readers know, my partnership with Paula meant everything to me, and without a doubt, made me a much better teacher. Until I got into this role though, I don’t think that I ever realized the tremendous value of partnerships that extend beyond classroom walls. Different perspectives. New insights. Additional ideas. Being willing to listen and learn together truly results in amazing things, and I’m thrilled to work with a team of educators who remind me of this every single day. Thanks for giving me the little reporting experience that I never realized that I missed quite as much as I do.


DRA, Decodable Texts, And Everything In Between: My Many Assessment Wonders

On Wednesday, I was at the Board Office for our monthly Reading Specialist Meeting. I sent out some tweets during my time there, but these two are the ones that I’ve returned to often.

It’s reporting season, so there is even more talk about assessment, evaluation, and instruction than usual. With greater focus on the Science of Reading and a larger emphasis on decoding, educators are trying to figure out what this means when it comes to assessment and evaluation. Many of us in our Board used to use DRA, but these texts are not what you would usually consider “decodable texts.” So should we still be using this resource? What might we use instead? There’s a lot of uncertainty, and educators everywhere are wondering aloud together. A couple of teachers replied to my DRA tweet, and I promised to blog to share more of my thinking. I think that I was hoping to come to some conclusions before I blog, but today, I decided on a different approach. This post is all about my wonders.

As I shared during the Reading Specialist meeting, when educators ask me about using DRA or not using it, I always ask them the same question. This is a question that I’ve asked myself over the years when it comes to using any assessment, and I think that it’s an important one to think about.

  • What will [name of the assessment] tell you about your students that you do not already know about them?

For a while now, we’ve often relied on formal assessments of some sort to help with determining success and deciding on marks. The problem is that by focusing primarily on these types of assessment, I worry that educators might have lost their faith in their own professional judgement. In the past couple of weeks alone, I’ve talked to so many Kindergarten and Grade 1 educators. They all know their kids. They all understand where they are at in terms of reading and writing skills, and what they need next. They also know the year-end benchmarks and how their current skills align with these. Knowing all of this, what will a formal assessment tell them versus what might it just confirm? Do we need this confirmation? Why?

This takes me to part two of my wonders:

  • What about Growing Success?

I know that every elementary and secondary teacher has heard about this document and quickly thinks about the “triangulation of data” — observations, conversations, and work products — but why does this always seem like such a new idea when it comes to evaluation? Maybe the fact that Growing Success does not just emphasize standardized tools becomes a worry when it comes to substantiating a mark. But even when we are using a standardized option, I think that we need to consider how this data compares to other data collected, and how this might give us a picture of the whole child. I think that the following tweet sums up so much, and again makes me grateful for the amazing educators that I work with every day.

From here, I need to move to move to my third big wonder:

  • If DRA was initially considered a formative assessment, why are we using it for summative purposes?

I’ll admit that as a classroom educator, I probably used DRA more frequently for summative assessment. In Kindergarten, I only did DRA at the end of the school year, and for those students that I knew would be a Level 4 or above. Why? They were meeting or exceeding benchmarks, so this data could be valuable for Grade 1 educators. It might also tell us what skills we need to focus on next to move to the next level (e.g., exposure to more challenging high frequency words, a closer look at certain vowel sounds, or a greater focus on comprehension). For those that were not meeting benchmark, I was worried that a DRA would just highlight that these students are “below.” What impact would this have on instruction? Our Board’s Phonological Awareness Screener would better highlight areas of need and next steps, so I chose to use this instead. Now it’s as I write about this process that I wonder if DRA, just like the screener, could be used for both summative and formative purposes. Maybe when used prior to reporting, it’s helping me determine a mark or comment for that child, but it’s also helping me plan next steps for upcoming small group instruction. It might also highlight some important starting points for next year’s teacher. Does this count as formative then?

DRA might not be valuable on its own for determining a mark, but …

  • could it be part of the puzzle, especially if used for the right child at the right time?

Last week, I blogged about my Grade 1 PD session and the decodable text that we wrote together. This takes me back to my cognitive dissonance tweet, and the follow-up conversation that I had with Jodie Howcroft about decodable texts vs. DRA. Please note here that at no point did Jodie give me any answers, but what she did do, was provide me with some wonders that allowed us to come to a conclusion together. Or at least it was a conclusion at that moment, which might continue to change as we talk and explore more.

The big part of all of this that continues to make a lot of sense to me is that a decodable text is not levelled. Now this becomes somewhat tricky, for technically any text is decodable if you know the code. Uncovering the Logic of English will make you re-think a lot of irregular words. So maybe it comes down to the type of decodable text that it is, and when we created that text to use with Grade 1 students, the focus was on vowel sounds, blends, digraphs, and high frequency words that have been taught and reinforced in class. Classroom instruction though is based on observing students and determining the needs of that group of students, so even if students can all read that text, does that mean that they’re all at grade level?

In the past for Grade 1, one piece of data that most educators likely would have used to determine a reading mark is DRA. Knowing that a Level 16 is the benchmark for the end of Grade 1, we would want students to be at least a Level 8 (likely a Level 10 or 12), to get a B right now. Technically, those students that are reading a Level 8 text, can decode, so if students are meeting benchmark at this time of the school year, wouldn’t it still hold true that they could read this text? The problem is, knowing what we know now about decoding, is it still reasonable for a 16 to be a year-end benchmark? I really don’t know.

The other interesting thing that came out of using a decodable text in this way — regardless of if it’s an instructional tool versus an assessment one — is that even instructional tools can provide us with data. When using this text with students, educators noticed …

  • which students have difficulty with vowel sounds.
  • which students do not know digraphs.
  • which students struggle with blends.
  • which students are still reading word-by-word (which we know can impact on comprehension).
  • which students need a visual or two to connect with text in order to support comprehension.
  • which students do not know the high frequency words that have been taught in class.
  • which students are not applying their knowledge of phonics’ skills in isolation when reading a text.

This then led to us discussing next steps for both full class and small group instruction. If assessment informs practice, then could a decodable text be used for assessment, even if not in a standardized way?

With that then, I get to the end of a long blog post that does everything but come up with a definitive answer on DRA and the role that it might play in assessment. Maybe there isn’t one answer and maybe that’s okay. While this was likely not intentional, I will say that the DRA and decodable text conundrum has led to some of the best conversations and reflections with educators that I’ve ever been involved in. As a Reading Specialist, these opportunities to co-problem solve and co-plan are incredible, so for now, maybe I’m okay with a little uncertainty. Knowing that learning happens through wonder, discomfort, and change, could this whole debate provide just that? I hope that others can weigh in and share their thinking and conversations, for I wonder what role our shared thinking will have on this assessment conundrum.


Finding Joy

I don’t usually blog in the middle of the week, but I was inspired to do so today. I was actually inspired to blog about a couple of different topics, but I still need to reflect on one a little bit more before I put the post out there. When I got to our Reading Specialist Team meeting today, I had the opportunity to chat with Jodie Howcroft: one of the Program Consultants. Jodie knows that I’m fairly active on Twitter, and she wondered if I had decided on a #oneword goal, as many other tweeters have done. This made me think about some recent blog posts by Doug Peterson, where he reflects on different people’s “one words.” When #oneword resolutions became popular many years ago, I started to choose one of my own. Slowly, I moved away from this practice. I don’t know if I’ve officially selected a word this year, but I have deliberately made a choice to focus more intentionally on something: joy.

In my new role as a Reading Specialist, I often tweet out reflections throughout my day. As part of these tweets, I’m trying to share a few of my daily joys.

These are just some of the joyful moments that I’ve shared recently.

Sometimes teaching can be hard. Sometimes it’s easy to get immersed in what’s not working or what you would rather work differently. I consider myself a fairly happy and positive person, but occasionally, we all need that reminder to find joy. With this as a goal, I think it’s shifting my perspective of every moment, including those that might seem far from perfect.

On some days I might share multiple joys, and on others, I might share less, but with joy as a goal, I wonder if it helps shift my perspective. Anyone else want to join me in this #DailyJoy? I would love to hear about your moments — whether big or small — that make you smile.


Exploring The Wonderful Messy Side Of Building Capacity

This past week, I had the opportunity to facilitate a PD session with the Grade 1 team. While there were a couple of topics included in this three period session, the big focus was on assessment and evaluation. With report cards coming up soon, we were talking about a B In Reading. Our Board released a document that helps educators determine if their students are meeting benchmarks. Initially, I thought about beginning with this document and extending the learning from there, but then I thought about how we might be able to uncover some of the main ideas in this document. I’m a huge proponent of a constructivist approach to PD, and I appreciate how our admin team supported this approach. I’m now so grateful that we took this approach because the Grade 1 team went in some wonderful directions and took our learning even further.

Since the Grade 1 team at the school is a large one — with six educators — we broke into two groups of three. It was interesting, as while I did a similar activity with both groups, they each went in slightly different directions. The first group, looked at some of the descriptions included, and began to modify them. They added in specific examples (e.g., listing the digraphs that students might know at this point in the year), and also clarified some points (e.g., moving from “knowing all short vowel sounds,” to “knowing and applying them when reading texts”). Their descriptions helped with eliminating some points and combining others. As they began to sort the descriptions, they realized that this could make a great rubric to also share with parents: helping families see where their child is at and the range of skills included in reading. They decided to then sort the descriptions and categorize them — from decoding to fluency to comprehension — and when we later looked more closely at the Milestones Document and the B In Reading Document from our Board, they could see the overlap with the different headings and descriptions.

The second group heard what the first group was doing, and they extended this thinking with a look at evidence to support some different areas. We’re at an exciting time in reading learning right now. While the Science of Reading is leading a lot of our new learning, we are waiting for the release of a new Language Document. The scope and sequence in this document could influence both purchasing and programming decisions. Right now, many educators are still using the standardized reading assessments that they might have used in the past (e.g., DRA), and while this assessment could be valuable for students that are already decoding, what about those that are not? Our Board has some K/1 screeners that are wonderful and focus on Phonological Awareness Skills, but the concern is how to take this data and determine a grade level. There are other assessment tools that we could use (e.g., DIBELS 8), but what about a reading passage that also aligns with our Board’s Scope for what students should be reading at the Grade 1 level? We know what the Language Document says around reading expectations, and educators could transfer this to what they’ve taught in class already. While Growing Success focuses on observations, conversations, and work products, for so long, we have really been focused on standardized assessment tools, so it’s hard to let go and remember the value in teacher professional judgment. What might we use as a decodable reading passage that could tell us more?

The Grade 1 team thought about a list of high frequency words that they would like to see in a decodable text, while we also spoke about including all of the short vowel sounds, three-sound words and some four-sound words, and a few digraphs. We know that comprehension also matters, so we decided that we needed to have even a couple of comprehension questions. While decodable books are wonderful, we also know that you can write your own decodable texts, so why not write this one? This led to the creation of a decodable text, which could act as evidence to support evaluation and aligned with the Language Document, our B In Reading Document, and the Milestones Document.

As I tweeted yesterday, there were wonderful moments that came out of using this decodable text with students.

His giggling also showed his comprehension of this text before we even asked the comprehension questions.

Some of the most wonderful moments also came from our group reflections during and after using this text.

This thinking aligns with the B In Reading Document that our Board created.

I’m writing this blog post because on Wednesday, I’m going to be sharing at our Reading Specialist Meeting about building capacity using the B In Reading Document from our Board. As I shared with the Grade 1 team, their voices will be an important part of this discussion. In this case …

  • building capacity didn’t start with the Document, but with uncovering the Document together. This allowed educators to see where all of the student learning fits into determining a grade.
  • building capacity gave educators the voice to share what they thought was missing, and to work together to create this piece. Is this a standardized reading passage? No. Is it without problems? Definitely not. For some students it was too long. The comprehension questions might not be best suited to this text and maybe need to be tweaked. We’re still unsure if it’s best to have a decoding passage without images or one with images. Would it be better to find a decodable book that might address all of these same areas, but also include pictures? Maybe this would also help with comprehension and allow for the previewing of the text. Or maybe this shows that we need to look at how we get students to think while they’re reading, regardless of if there is an image in front of them. That first Grade 1 student that we read with did exactly that, and showed us what might be possible.
  • building capacity reminded me that this does not mean answering all questions, but also providing the time and space for reflection, debate, uncertainty, and further exploration. We were all taking a learning stance here as we worked through the pros and cons of this decodable text and how it fits into the B In Reading Document. Our hope is that the conversation at Wednesday’s Reading Specialist PD might further our thinking in this regard. Maybe insights from my blog readers will do the same.

I do know though that this might be one of the messiest and most exciting large group learning experiences that I have ever been a part of, and I’m grateful that I was able to do so alongside a passionate Grade 1 team. Learning is messy, and maybe building capacity is too. What do you think?


Inspiring Everyone To Have Their Floor-Of-The-Bookstore Moments

Last year, I had a goal to read 150 books. The number seemed somewhat arbitrary. That said, I know that over the past few years, I’ve read between 100 and 200 books, so 150 seemed like a reasonable goal. On December 31st, I was excited to post that I exceeded my goal and read 161 books in 2022 — and so many wonderful ones at that!

Those that know me, know my love of reading. Reading brings me joy. It always has!

When I was younger, my mom read to my sister and I every night. We moved from listening to storybooks to listening to chapter books. I still remember her reading us, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Books have always been a huge part of my life. My mom, dad, and step-dad were all big readers. While my mom loved fiction, my dad loved bridge (card game) books and newspapers, and my step-dad loved newspapers, mysteries, and suspense novels, we always spent time with text in our hands.

I still remember when my grandmother came down to visit from Nova Scotia, and she used to take my sister and I out shopping. My favourite place to go was the bookstore. This was during the time when bookstores were Coles at the mall, and even at three-years old, I could spend hours flipping through storybooks. My grandmother got an employee to watch me, and I would sit down and look through tons of books, while my sister and grandmother went shopping for shoes and clothes. I don’t think that I could really read at that time, but it was through looking at pictures and retelling familiar stories that I found joy in books.

When I started school, I was determined to grow up to be a teacher and an author. I might not have written a book yet, but I have met my author goals through this blog, and that brings me just as much joy.

I share these stories because I’m now in the unique position of being a Reading Specialist with our Board. With all of the new learning around the Science of Reading, it’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking and talking about phonics. There’s definitely a lot of value in rethinking how we’re teaching decoding skills and how we’re targeting instruction for students. Every Reading Specialist PD session that I attend at the Board though, reminds me that phonics is just one piece of the puzzle. This should not be our whole day and/or our whole literacy block. Even though it was so important for me as a young child to learn how to decode unknown words, I think it was those long blocks of time on the floor, surrounded by books, playing with new vocabulary, and making sense of text in different ways, that helped me develop a love of reading. As I now work on planning some staff PD sessions for after the Break, I continue to think about this bookstore time (as a young child), and my hours reading now on a sofa, in bed, on a stationary bike, and occasionally as I walk around the house or get items organized at school (apparently I can walk and read πŸ™‚ ) …

How are we giving students their own floor-of-the-bookstore moments? As educators, in addition to teaching kids the code that will allow them to read in the first place, we want to inspire and nurture that love of reading, which will have them finding joy in texts even when there’s no requirement to read them.