Today I had the opportunity to observe a teacher using formative assessment in the classroom.  You’re probably thinking that’s something fairly ordinary to see; however, today I was seeing teacher directed professional development at its finest.  Why?  Well, the teacher I was observing was also being observed by a new teacher.  Michelle Ciolfitto works as a district learning support teacher who will come into different schools and work with teachers who may be new or wanting to try something new.  She worked to create a lesson focussing on a learning outcome that built on what students had previously been learning.  I wanted to share what I observed today.

Michelle addressed the “why are we learning this?” question right at the start of the lesson and wrote the day’s goal (or learning intention) on the board: You should be able to write simple ionic compounds at the end of this lesson.  To clarify, she had students define ionic (charge) and compound (two or more) which was great for me because I haven’t taken a science course since high school.  She then handed out manipulatives that would allow students to take an abstract concept and make more meaning from it.  Michelle provided students with a simple concept to complete using the manipulatives and began circulating the room and giving feedback when they completed the question.  I looked around the classroom and it seemed that each pair was actively engaged in the activity.  When Michelle randomly asked a pair to share their answer, they were a little bit unsure, and they had been a little less engaged.  When the pair realised they might be asked to contribute randomly, they were fully engaged during the next example, raising their hands to contribute.

Students seemed excited by what they were doing and eager to contribute when they felt they had the correct answer.  At one point, as the compound questions became more difficult, Michelle had groups who really understood explain to students who “sort of” understood.  She went on to teach a new component to the lesson: the name change.  She built the connection by explaining that the metals (like “m” men) were married to the non-metals.  In keeping with a traditional union, the non-metal, like a woman, would experience a name change with an ending of “ide”.  The example took something with which they were familiar to help explain a new concept (aluminum oxygen, when united became aluminum oxide).  In addition, Michelle referred to the number placement at the bottom of each element.  She repeated this component very intentionally (let me say this a fourth time) so that they were aware of the new info and heard it being stated several different ways.

Finally, she took the concept with which they were working and provided a “super challenge”.  They needed to take what they knew and apply it to a question that forced them to take a small leap with the concept.  One group eventually figured it out, and what I enjoyed watching was how engaged and eager students were to “discover” the solution to the conundrum.  In fact, I went over to one of the pairs finding it to be a challenge.  As the non-science teacher, I thought I might know what to do so the ions matched up evenly.  I asked whether there could be two aluminums (with three ions) and three oxygens (with two ions) which would allow all the ions to match up (three times two aluminums and two times three oxygens or six ions each).  The boys’ eyes lit up as they realised this might work.  In fact, I was excited that I had made the leap as well :).  I was disappointed to have to leave before the very end of the lesson, as I felt I was finally starting to understand some science, but I had another appointment to attend.

What I had the opportunity to do was watch an experienced teacher use formative assessment in a real situation (and so did the new teacher, who can take from the lesson new concepts and skills to use in teaching).  Not only that, but the two teachers will continue to work together, with the new teacher perhaps using some of what she saw while being observed or while team teaching.  I guess what I enjoyed was seeing teachers working together on “real situation” professional development.  We attend workshops and keynotes that often inspire us and allow us to think about the possibilities, but we don’t always get to put those possibilities into practice before some of what was learned gets lost.  It’s truly rich to see what can be accomplished through working together (seasoned and newbie teachers alike).

Strategies/Concepts I Observed:

  • The clarity students have when the learning intention/class goal is clearly articulated.  Today we are learning about ______.  I will know that I learned _________ if I can do __________.
  • The power of manipulatives to explain an abstract concept to learners (and engage the tactile learner).
  • Creating student ownership by making it clear that they will need to be able to answer questions posed by the teacher (the teacher won’t be asking only those with their hands up).
  • Peer to peer instruction: another way to assess, another way to get feedback.
  • Relating new information to a concept students readily understand: building connections.
  • Using intentional repetition to highlight important information to build understanding.
  • Pushing students’ thinking by applying what they know to new situations.  Resist giving them the answer; let them get there independently (even though I inadvertently gave a pair the answer in trying to stretch my own understanding :)).

I’m hopeful that in reading this article teachers either think, “Hey, I kind of liked a couple of those strategies; I might try that some time”, or they think, “I never thought of using a district resource teacher in that way.  I’d like to connect with someone like Michelle and try something like that”, or they might even think, “That’s something I’d like to try with another colleague in the building.”

We have Faye Brownlie coming to our building to be in classrooms and provide that “real situation” professional development.  It seems that, in teaching, there is never a non-busy time, but I encourage teachers to jump at chances for those “in the classroom” pro-d experiences; it will enhance your ability to be intentional as a teacher.

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