Sunday, August 19, 2012

10 Less Traditional Ways of Coming to Know Learners

School Yard
Talking with, listening to, and observing children's behaviors as they talk, read and write offer rich ways to come to know what children are like and can do, are almost able to do, and not quite ready to do as learners.  Without question, these are the methods I rely on most when I am trying to understand a learner.  These methods, like all assessment methods that are observational or task-oriented, are discursive practices and as such--are only as informative as my knowledge of the child, the context, and my understanding and confusions about reading/writing processes.  Here are a sampling of methods I like to use to help me better understand the child's intentions, strengths, and needs. It is important though to conduct these types of assessments after children are settled at school.  It pains me to think that formal assessments--regardless of quality, are scheduled for the opening days of school.  Settling in, getting to know one another, and becoming comfortable are more important than any data collected via formal assessments.  The former offers rich opportunities to understand learners.

I like to offer learners a range of engagements that learners can opt to do or not to do. I have no expectation (or desire) to have everyone do all of these. I do hope that learners will select some to do and offer their own engagements as well for our consideration.  In the years that I have been inviting students into engagements I have found that all do some and never in the time frame I first consider.  It has not been unusual to find ourselves in March and have a student declare that she or he is going to spend time making a self portrait, engaging in an art conversation, or doing some other opening engagement.

Here are a few:
Example of an art conversation and poem that a middle school student produced.

  1. I often ask learners to tell me and when appropriate classmates about interests they have at and beyond school. I am confident that I can parlay/recognize reading, writing, talking skills and strategies in work that children actually enjoy.
  2. Self portrait project. A great example of this can be found here.  I hope to engage 5th to 8th graders (who are interested in the task) in this type of engagement this fall. The only difference is that I don't want to limit the self portrait to what can be drawn and collaged.  Rather I would like to open it to video, drama, and musical expressions as well. 
  3. Writing/drawing/talking sample that a child self generates (without prompting) and is recorded in some manner.
  4. Record of an oral reading of a self-selected text (not from a kit like DRA 2). I tend to do this at the beginning of the school year very informally.  I sit next to a child who is reading and ask the child to read a page of text (or more depending on the book, article, web page, etc.) and make an informal record (if necessary). I am thinking about how to do this with moving text as I imagine that there will be students who are making video or remixes. How these are read is important, too.
  5. Choral reading/drama performance/classroom design. I find it interesting to observe how students conduct and organize a choral reading or dramatic skit or arrange the classroom (what to keep, get rid of and where to place what remains). 
  6. Building and making stuff yield artifacts (in classrooms that still have blocks, sand tables, art easels, collage station, iPads, laptops, cameras, recorders, musical instruments) that children freely produce and that together we can study (or not). 
  7. Art conversation artifacts. Nonverbal conversations we have using our hands, paint, and paper.  Pulling poems and other types of text from the painted conversation is often meaningful. 
  8. Visual letter exchange: I usually write to students and create some piece of art  at the beginning of the year that tells them a bit about myself and I have asked students if they might tell me what type of teacher they hope I will be. 
  9. Learning walks. I take these all year with students, but the beginning of the year allows me to have conversations with students outside of the school location. As students have the option of bringing phones, handheld devices, sketchbooks, etc. with them on the walks--some products are made. Often these are collaborative products and that helps me to build more understanding about each child.
  10. Photographs. With students permission, I photograph them at work/play. I share these images with students and we discuss them when that is appropriate and/or interesting. Likewise, students also have cameras and are making images too. Sometimes we pool these images after the first month and see what we notice.

I usually keep a sketchbook in which I record observations, questions, tentative understandings about each student. I am thinking about how to do this now as I imagine that keeping it digitally could be important.  Hmm.  Will need to think about this more.


  1. Like many of your other blogs, added to my fall courses.

    Thank you.

    1. You are welcome. Look forward to hearing aout your courses this fall

  2. Wonderful ideas! I have bookmarked them for future use -- Thank you for sharing

    1. Hope you'll return and write a bit about how you made use of the approaches --or bet yet, new ones you invented!!


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