Sharpen the Pencils

Timing is everything. As I worked in schools this week, it felt like the absolute right time to talk about ‘sharpening our pencils’.  There were great conversations about students and learning. There were questions asked (to me and by me) about what adults actions were needed to ensure that we were doing all that we could do to meet the needs of students.  As one teacher said to me, it is a good time to park the excuses and truly focus on what can be done to help each and every student get to the finish line this year.

A great deal of my time was spent this week helping teachers and administrators understand the kind of questions that we need to be asking students to help them develop more critical thinking skills.  There is much talk about assessing students. The most important reason to assess students is so that we understand what they know and can do.  We have to know where they are on their learning journey; what they are proficient at and what they are struggling with.  We need this information often so that we can take action on what needs to be done, immediately, to help them.

Sometimes, we fail to ask the right questions. In other words, the information that we gather really doesn’t provide the evidence of learning that we need.  How we word our questions and what skills we ask students to do is directly related to the level of thinking that the student will do to respond.  We control this and it takes “sharpening our pencils” and being intentional colored-pencils-686679__340with our questioning skills to be sure that what we are challenging them to think critically. Our questions, for example, should provide opportunity for students to have to reason, to justify their answers, to apply knowledge, to compare and contrast, to write about what they are reading.  If we only ask them to recall facts we miss an opportunity to really have them think.

At several schools this week, we practiced writing assessment questions that would progressively become more complex.  We recognized that if we only give students more work to do, we will not increase the level of difficulty expected.  State and provincial assessments create opportunities for students to be challenged. They also provide opportunities and challenges for educators to ensure that students can think.  It takes stamina and confidence for our students to sit and take these large-scale assessments.  There is a great deal of academic vocabulary that they have to understand to be able to be successful.  Think about it- just understanding what it means to “justify” an answer or how to think through the process of answering a multiple-choice question are skills of success.

A shout-out to Northside High School in Lafayette, LA and Rivercrest Elementary School in Wilson, AR. In two of my sessions this week, teachers of ‘speciality’ subjects, for example, music, art, physical education, rocked it! They were totally engaged in learning more about what they could do differently to create more “thinking” opportunities. I was inspired by their questions of me and how they were willing to support what the core subject teachers were working so hard to do.   “It takes a village to raise a child” and “all means all” is alive and well in these schools!

And lastly, I ended the week at an amazing Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor concert. Two great musicians with lots of energy and care for their audience. It was so obvious that they both appreciate their fans and still love what they do.  Reminds me of our school improvement world- what our students need… to be appreciated and have educators stand before them who love what they do.  Have a great week. Ask intentional questions. See you next Saturday.


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