True story. My first year teaching upper school was also my first year teaching AP European history, AP U.S. history, and government. Want to know a secret? I knew nothing! Looking back, I have no idea how I even got the job, let alone managed to keep the job. The whole year was and continues to be a gigantic blur to me.
On the first day of class, I told my AP Euro students (sophomores) to write an essay on their summer reading (The Prince by Machiavelli!) and to include a strong thesis and support for their argument. I gave them a prompt and told them to get to it! For about 5-10 minutes, the students shuffled papers and scratched out some ideas, but no one had truly begun writing. Finally, one brave soul (shout out to Trey Ingram) raised his hand and asked, “What’s a thesis?”
I imagine this is how my face looked, minus the bunny part!
I had assumed my students would come into an AP class knowing this, but of course, I was wrong, at least with that particular group of students. I immediately had to adjust how I was going to proceed. (Sidebar…I also immediately wondered what on earth I’d gotten myself into! :)) I had to take more time than I had expected to teach my students how to write an argumentative essay. I could have pushed forward without doing this with the attitude that someone should have taught them earlier and the students would just have to sink or swim because I didn’t have time to do it all, but my students would have suffered in the end. Don’t get me wrong! It wasn’t easy to adjust, especially that first year when I was so overwhelmed to begin with, but I had to do it. You know, it was kinda my job. 😉
We teachers assume a lot. We assume our students will walk in with certain skills or knowledge, and when they don’t, we’re apt to blame our colleagues, parents, administration, social media, the weather…You name it! While every school needs to make sure that students are developing knowledge and skills in a logical and efficient sequence from one grade level to the next so that teachers can move forward with their students at the start of the school year, sometimes things are what they are. For the good of the students, we have to move beyond our assumptions and start adjusting.
So where am I going with all this? I think the adjusting part is where formative assessment comes into the equation. It helps us to diagnose where our students are at any one time and create a plan for how to get them where we need them to end up by the time the summative assessment rolls around. It helps us to plan backward, placing small stepping stones that move students in a forward direction.
Tomorrow I will wrap up this series of blog posts on formative assessment by providing a number of resources that can get the ideas flowing for how to incorporate more formative assessment in your own instruction.