The end of first semester is quickly approaching, and the students are in survival mode. Yes, my friends, final exams are upon us, and students are anxiously trying to finish up semester items and prepare for the various assessments awaiting them next week. As a school, we are constantly thinking about ways to alleviate students stress during this time of year. It is a daunting task; however, we fight the good fight and continue to provide time, strategies, and graphic organizers to help students properly and sufficiently prepare...without losing their minds.
This year, I've been thinking a lot about how we can help prepare our students for performance-based assessments. For various classes, students are assessed on skills that cannot be measured on a scantron: Writing, speaking, collaboration, creativity, and so forth. While we can provide note-taking and graphic organizer-style resources to help our students prepare for these assessments, I observed English teacher, Mrs. Allyson Cagney, do something with her students that reminded me that at times, all we need to do is coach our students through the assessment before they walk into the one that counts.
While students talk academically in all of their classes, two of the key skills taught in English classrooms at Neuqua Valley High School are speaking and listening. We ask our students to communicate with each other on a consistent basis, and one portion of the final exam is an academic discussion. Each level and teacher does it a little differently, but the bottom line is that it is a discussion. Students need to be speaking and listening while using evidence to support their thoughts and conclusions. Our students don't particularly enjoy these speaking assessments. They get anxious speaking in front of their classmates, and they struggle to find a conversational flow; instead, it is like ring around the rosie...let me share what I wrote down on my prep sheet and a quote that supports it. They struggle to listen, respond, connect, question, synthesize, and come to a conclusion. We've learned that as teachers, we need to coach them when it comes to having an authentic, fluid, and mature conversation. While I've always known this, Ms. Cagney's coaching during a Harkness discussion in her Freshmen Honors English class reminded me how much they need us to coach them during the process as they do after they are done...maybe even more.
The Freshmen Honors English classes have read numerous texts over the course of first semester, and the discussion I witnessed centered on the oppression of women and their journey, as portrayed through the texts. In order to draw a conclusion as a group, students needed to have a true conversation and together, synthesize the texts. Before the discussion started, Ms. Cagney warned her students that she may stop the discussions and provide feedback - in the moment - so that students could regroup, continue, and improve. She told her students not to be offended but to use her feedback to get better for the rest of the discussion and future assessments. Just like any coach, she stressed the importance of practice, feedback, fine-tuning, and then dominating on game-day, or in this case, the final exam academic discussion.
So, that is what she did. She stopped discussions - didn't wait until the end - and shared that students needed to go more in-depth with their conversations and avoid having too many answers. Instead of everyone sharing an answer, they needed to dive into an idea together as a group...go deeper and develop their thoughts as a team. This feedback was relevant to the students because she was commenting on what they were doing at that moment. They were aware and able to apply the feedback since it was fresh in their minds...not just something they did a week ago. Even students who weren't in the group currently in the hot seat could learn from her coaching. They were there, too...listening to the discussion and able to apply her tips for success.
During another interruption, she questioned her students: "What about the Why? Are the why's true? Don't run away from the questions being asked." By asking her students to take a different lens when it came to the discussion and their responses while they were in the discussion, they then had the opportunity to try to do what she was asking them to do right away. They couldn't forget it; she was right there and wanted to see it happen. They had to take ownership, as they now became accountable for what came next. Here comes the coaching analogy again...practice, get feedback, practice again...using the feedback given by the coach.
My favorite part of the lesson came at the end: Ms. Cagney explained to her students that their grade on this discussion wasn't important; the purpose of the lesson was to practice and get feedback. She let them know that it was ok that they didn't master all parts of the discussion right then and there. It is a process, and with her help, they would continue to improve so that when it comes to the high-stakes assessments, they are confident and fully aware of her expectations. Teachers are coaches, and coaches are teachers. It is important to provide feedback while students practice - in the moment - and then ask them to take that feedback and apply it to their skill. If they still struggle, we must fine-tune our coaching methods and continue to work to make it "click" for our learners. Ms. Cagney's students walked out of her room that day with a better understanding of her expectations and what it means to be part of a functional, collaborative, thoughtful, attentive, curious, and analytical team. Now, that's #whatsup!