Using Drawings for Formative Assessment

By Shveta Miller, published on Edutopia, September 2021

Formative assessments, when done regularly at key points during the learning process, are windows into what students misunderstand or question about a concept or topic. Inviting students to process and express their understanding with drawings offers teachers incredible insights about what instructional moves to make next.


Drawing while we learn allows us to capture a concept, image, event, or object and frees up cognitive space so that we can begin to think critically. If I quickly sketch a few characters from a novel with a small but key detail distinguishing each one, along with arrows depicting their relationships across generations, I can now think critically about those relationships, how characters influence each other, and how they develop throughout the story. Similarly, if I roughly sketch elements of a scientific process, I can begin to think about their functions and how they are integrated.

Drawing as we learn requires abstract and metaphorical thinking about the content, which helps us retain and understand it in more sophisticated ways. A student who draws as they learn considers the following:

  • How should I represent the relationship between these parts?
  • How large/small should I draw these parts?
  • What shape should they be?
  • Where do I place each part?

Because students make many decisions as they translate content into visuals, teachers can uncover their preconceptions, their misconceptions, the depth of their understanding, and what excites them about the content.Start of newsletter promotion.


Drawing has significant learning benefits, and it’s important to integrate it into a full academic experience. We can equip students with basic tools to become confident in drawing and allow them to use various methods to process and express their thinking. We can ignite interest in a topic by offering variety in modes of learning. Also, leveraging intuitive thinking appeals to students’ diverse skills.

Students don’t need developed artistic skill to experience the cognitive benefits of drawing as they learn. But, it’s also important to ease any anxiety and dispel myths about visual work.

1. Offer drawing as one of a few options for students to process and demonstrate their learning.

2. Model the drawing option you offer. Replace fixed-mindset language like “I can’t draw” with narration describing your process: “I want to show that the elements build on each other, so I’ll draw boxes on top of each other.”

Dan Santat’s series #DrawLikeAKid demonstrates how to draw a lot of things with just a few shapes and the letters of the alphabet.

3. Prompt students to reflect on their experiences in drawings so that they begin to understand it as a helpful learning tool. 

  • How well did I recall the material after having represented it in my drawings?
  • When would drawing as I learn be useful? When is it not useful?


The feedback we offer on student drawings and the instructional choices we make next are as critical as the drawing.

Students mimic the jargon or vocabulary they read or hear, which can obscure what they actually understand. As a formative assessment, verbal communication can be problematic because it can be difficult for the teacher to grasp what students truly understand. When students draw as they explain, it’s almost impossible to obscure their knowledge. Obvious misunderstandings, along with subtler mistakes, make their way into students’ drawings.

Here are some ways to integrate drawing as formative assessment:

  • Line-color-symbol: Draw a line, choose a color, or select a symbol that represents your current understanding of the concept we are learning. Be prepared to explain your choice.
  • Draw an image that represents (gravity, how an argumentative essay is structured, the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist, the limbic system).
  • Using only simple shapes (circles, squares, triangles), represent the relationships between (characters, principles, events, laws, mathematical concepts).
  • Create a comic/sequential art to represent a system, to distill key elements of a story or event, or to order essential steps of a process and represent cause-and-effect relationships.

To effectively use students’ drawings as formative assessment data, consider the following as you examine their visuals:

  • What facts, relationships, sequences, etc., does the student understand?
  • What key elements have been overlooked?
  • What factors are somewhat misrepresented?
  • How were certain factors, relationships, details, etc., represented?
  • How do students’ drawings compare? What patterns do you see? What is distinctive about some of them?
  • What insights do their drawings offer about the content?

While reviewing a middle school student’s visualization of the scientific process of making bread (below), I notice that he understands some key concepts: He knows there are two proteins that bind to form gluten, and his simple drawings demonstrate why each wouldn’t, on its own, result in glutenous fluffy bread. But I wonder if he understands the roles that amino acids, water, mixing, and kneading play in this equation.

Student's visual notetaking

In my feedback, I’d acknowledge the elements he correctly illustrates. Then, to determine if he understands the complexity of the process, I‘d ask him: Are these the only elements needed for the two proteins to result in gluten? What could be missing? Where and how could you draw it?

When we see thinking represented in visual form, we—students and teachers—get valuable insights into the concepts involved. We learn from what others see, the choices they make to represent an idea, and even the misconceptions they might have.

Thinking is messy—we generally don’t follow a rigid and consistent procedure to think through problems, though a steady step-by-step process is often used to solve a math problem, form a hypothesis, or write an argument. Offering students structured opportunities to represent their thinking with drawing allows them to demonstrate their unique processes for thinking about complex concepts and problems and arriving at creative solutions.

When we see their thinking, we discover the subtleties of what they do and do not yet understand, so we can better prepare to solidify their understanding and build on it in our next lesson.

What Matters Most When You’re Evaluating Edtech Tools

By Shveta Miller, published on Edutopia, November 2020

Because of pandemic-induced distance learning, planning lessons and remaining connected with students involves an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the benefits and potential problems with edtech resources. As a veteran teacher and instructional coach with years of experience in edtech, I’ve seen it over and over again: Teachers’ inboxes and social media news feeds are inundated with advertised tech products, and it’s hard to know what will enhance the learning experience for our students, whether they use the tool in class or remotely.

There are a host of factors that educators need to consider when choosing edtech tools and resources that will support their students and instruction.


Educators know to look for a research base behind the resources they use in their classrooms, but Nell K. Duke, professor of education at the University of Michigan, warns that conclusions drawn from research are only as sound as the research itself.

A teacher choosing a learning software program likely does not have the time to thoroughly investigate the research that each organization cites. To quickly gauge the impact that a tool can have on your students’ learning, examine testimonials from students and teachers who have used it. The quotes shared in sales presentations and ribboned across product pages often express excitement for features like earning points, watching entertaining videos, or raising a state test score, so look closely for indications that students have actually learned something valuable.

Check to see that there are testimonials where a student enthusiastically describes a new concept they learned, elaborating on how their perspective on an issue changed, or even mentioning what they are reading about or what interesting problems they are learning to solve.

The Student Experience

Can you demo the tool as a student would? If so, explore the experience from the perspective of three different student personas (e.g., an English language learner, an advanced reader, and a student with ADHD).

When you look at the product from the perspective of a student persona, you might notice that there is no audio feature or captioning to support striving readers or language learners to independently access complex texts. Or, when you play the audio, you might detect that the voice is robotic and unengaging. Or maybe there is a human voice that reads with expression, but all the texts are read by people with the same regional dialect or accent, which is problematic when teaching through an equity and inclusion lens.

Also ask yourself, “How will visually impaired students experience the tool?” and “Will students with mobility issues who cannot use a mouse be able to use this tool?”

When assessing from the students’ perspectives, determine if this tool you are investigating will meet their varying needs, and if so, what protocols, modifications, or settings you will need to put in place.

Intrinsic Motivation

While small rewards work to motivate students to complete basic tasks, incentivizing meaningful learning activities has the opposite effect. Yet many edtech tools rely on features like points, badges, and even competition among peers to extrinsically motivate students to stay engaged.

Celebrating students’ progress with quantifiable measures can be helpful, but the progress celebrated has to be meaningful to the student. When exploring edtech tools, ask yourself:

  • Do students set the goals?
  • Who guides them to set ones that are measurable and achievable?
  • Do they get to choose when they see status updates, or do dings and cheers confront them uninvited?
  • Are these rewards a minor feature, outshined by the stimulating and relevant content the student is actually engaging with, or are they the primary factor in motivating the student to participate?

Extrinsic rewards can help some students initially engage, but then the stimulation offered by the content and learning activities should take over. When testing a program, consider the balance between extrinsic rewards and opportunities for students to cultivate intrinsic motivation to learn.

Zone of Proximal Development

There is perhaps no concept more referenced by publishers and program designers of student learning technology than Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The zone refers to that optimal learning space where a student engages with tasks that are beyond what they have the skill to accomplish alone but that they can accomplish with a more knowledgeable guide that supports their productive struggle with “imitative” models (like worked examples and guiding questions).

But the ZPD, suggests Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar, professor of education studies at the University of Michigan, is “probably one of the most used and least understood constructs to appear in contemporary educational literature.” Edtech programs may claim to provide an optimal ZPD for each student user, but the actual experience can be quite similar from one student to the next.

In one adaptive literacy software program I have worked with, the “knowledgeable guide” turned out to be simply an audio recording of a more challenging text that a student was meant to comprehend. The topic’s complex vocabulary and the necessary background context were not explained. As a visiting literacy specialist, I observed students receiving low scores on their “right-fit” passage questions within the software, indicating that either their precise ZPD had not been determined appropriately to begin with, or the direction and support provided were weak.

It’s important to know if a program is actually serving as a skilled guide for students working in their true ZPD or simply providing general scaffolds or assisted instruction. If it is offering the latter, then teachers can proceed to provide the former.

The Teacher Experience

Aware of educators’ valid concerns that edtech aims to replace teachers in the classroom, most companies assert their digital tool’s inferiority to teachers. Their marketing copy will suggest that their program helps teachers to do their jobs better or that they function as something along the lines of “the best assistant a teacher could ever have.”

I have observed thousands of students using adaptive literacy software in which they were meant to progress through increasingly difficult reading passages and comprehension questions. The program did not inform students of their current levels or when they were ready for the next one; they were dependent on the teacher to share with them this crucial information. In theory, the teacher was to monitor report data from the program to celebrate students’ progress and inform small group instruction. But the reports were vague, listing only percentage scores on activities that teachers could not see or experience themselves. And there were no alerts to inform teachers that their students had mastered a level and could be promoted.

Without knowing how, why, or when to change levels, teachers discovered at the end of the school year that dozens of students had been consigned to repetitive low-level work they had mastered months before. The personalized adaptive software, in these cases, did not serve as an adequate teacher’s assistant and wasted valuable learning time.

In some cases, a program’s flaws can be addressed with ongoing training and coaching, so it’s important to know from the start if the tool is so complex that expert training is needed in order for teachers to use it effectively.

Before introducing digital learning tools to students, determine exactly how the technology will help you—the most important resource for your students—to do your part well.

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Building Relationships With K-12 Students Through Letter-Writing

By Shveta Miller, published on Edutopia, June 2020

With remote teaching likely continuing into the next academic year, we’ll need low-tech ways to establish relationships with students whom we can’t reach digitally. An ongoing letter communication through the mail is just that—and is also an empowering way to build relational trust with students. That trust, explains Zaretta Hammond, is the foundation on which culturally responsive teaching can change learning trajectories for even our most vulnerable students.

My first year in the classroom, I saw one of my more disengaged students pass a note to a friend. I thought about confiscating it, as my teachers had done. Instead, I wrote her my own note the next day. She wrote back, and we continued writing through the year, her engagement in class strengthening alongside our relationship. Letter writing became my most essential tool for earning my students’ trust.

When we as teachers write letters to students and they write back to us, we balance power dynamics, learn from each other, practice holding space for complex feelings, and engage our natural curiosities as readers and writers. Here are several suggestions for writing meaningful letters to students.


To promote authentic communication that equalizes the power dynamic, remove obligations and expectations that students participate. Keep the letters optional and clarify that writing conventions and content will not be evaluated.

Inform families, perhaps in a separate letter, that you are initiating a dialogue with students through optional letter writing. Remind parents and students that you will respect their privacy—but that you are still a mandated reporter.

Keep the lines of communication open and flexible by avoiding constraints like deadlines and page limits. Make it known that students are welcome to start new topics and don’t need to continue a topic initiated by the teacher.

Write the first letter to your students (you might start with a few students per week) to serve as a helpful example for students who may struggle with this possibly unfamiliar form. Set students at ease by using a casual tone, sharing personal anecdotes, and even including jokes or funny sketches. Model letter writing conventions like dating and signing the letter.


I used to pepper my letters with questions and suggested topics to prompt students to respond. But this approach maintains the traditional power structures of classroom communication, where the teacher is facilitating conversation. Over time, I learned to create a safe space that promotes genuine dialogue.

Participate in the conversation instead of directing it: If I know a student plays the violin, I won’t directly ask him about it. Instead, I write about my related experiences. For example, with this extra time on my hands, I have thought about finally learning how to play my guitar. I’m thinking of trying YouTube videos, but I’m worried that I won’t have the discipline to practice without a teacher. By sharing these thoughts, I open up lines of communication. My student is free to pick up this thread and respond in a variety of ways, instead of only answering my specific questions about the violin. Maybe he won’t mention his violin at all and instead choose to talk about YouTube, describe what he’s doing with his extra time, or assuage my worries about learning a string instrument.

Ask questions that stem from curiosity about topics that students initiate: Questions that are prompted by what students are choosing to share with us invite us to demonstrate genuine curiosity, offer our unique perspective, and introduce new words and ideas that probe students’ thinking. When we gain insight into our students’ unique funds of knowledge, we see their academic assets. We can use these insights to plan instruction that leverages what students already know.

Make your thinking visible: When young people get a glimpse into the thinking life of someone else, especially someone who thinks in an interesting or productive way, it’s the best kind of education. When a student recommends an app I should download, I’m honest about how I’m trying to cut back on my phone use since I’m getting addicted to the games I already play. I add that I’m trying to dock my phone after 6 p.m. and will let her know how it goes. By observing others’ thinking, our students may learn new coping skills and language to navigate their own experiences.

Encourage all forms of expression, regardless of perceived errors or informality: Zaretta Hammond has said that our students’ errors are information. As students informally write to you to connect and share their lives, avoid directives about how they should write. Simply note their errors and write your response with correct models. Use this information as you plan your instruction, but don’t instruct in your letter.

Hold space for students’ feelings: To maintain an equitable co-writing relationship, refrain from comments that evoke the authority you still have as the teacher. Instead of suggesting solutions to problems that students share, respond with acknowledgment and empathy. Instead of reassuring students with praise, show how you connect with their experience or what you’re learning from them.

When our students have uneven access to distance-learning technology, writing letters allows us to advance equity within our sphere of influence. We can give them a safe space in which to reflect, complain, disagree, express fear, ask hard questions, and hear our stories. We can practice being there for students as a trusted adult, a relationship that can nurture rigorous learning.

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11 Meaningful Writing Assignments Connected to the Pandemic

By Shveta Miller, published on Edutopia, May 2020

With students currently at home because of the pandemic, it’s helpful to provide learning opportunities that get them talking about what’s happening in the world with trusted adults and peers.

These ideas for home assignments build connection and help our young people process this difficult experience while developing their writing skills.


1. Interview senior members of the community: With our older community members at higher risk, hearing their stories has increasing significance. Generate interview questions with your students, and conduct a sample interview as a model.

Students can interview family members, senior members of the school staff, or others through handwritten letters, phone calls, or video chats. When students write up and share their interviews with the class, they will get a broader, more nuanced view of older generations’ experiences.

2. Folding stories: In the traditional version of this activity, one person writes a sentence or two on a piece of paper and then folds the paper so that only the last word or phrase can be seen. The next person continues the story for a few sentences before again hiding all but the last word or phrase and then passing the paper on.

To do this remotely, set up a randomized list of all of your students. The first student sends you their contribution, and you send the last phrase of that to the next name on the list. Compile all the contributions in order in a Google Doc to create a single story. Once everyone has contributed, share the whole story with the class.

The format may allow students an imaginative outlet for anxious thoughts and predictions about the future, and the result is almost guaranteed to be hilarious and inspiring to both eager and reluctant writers.

3. Dialogue journals: A journal in which a teacher and student write back and forth to each other is an ongoing communication that helps teachers build relationships with each student while they model writing and observe students’ progressing skills. Start this off by writing a first short entry for each of your students in separate Google Docs, choosing topics you already know they’re interested in and offering personal details about yourself.

You can ask each student to write something once a week—and you’ll respond to each entry, so this does entail a time commitment on your part. The benefit in relationship-building, so difficult to do in distance learning, makes this worth the work.

4. Student-to-student letters: Organize pen pals or small letter-writing groups. Ask students to write back and forth to one or more peers using provided prompts and sample questions. Teach students to consider their audience and to keep a written dialogue going over several letters as they write to different peers. Encourage students to include self-created activities in their letters to peers: They might make a crossword puzzle using the class vocabulary words, create a maze, or share a recipe or a silly joke.

5. Write to an author: A professional writer may be a great correspondent for a young fan, offering insight into key aspects of a favorite book. Follow #WriteToAnAuthor on Twitter for access to mailing addresses of authors who are standing by for letters from young readers. Provide your students with prompts, templates, samples, and feedback to support them in writing thoughtful letters.

6. Adapt a text to reflect current conditions: Lately any story we read or watch can be a painful reminder of how much is changing. Characters are dancing, hugging or shaking hands, and talking to each other in public places. Some students find it comforting to be immersed in that world, but others find these moments upsetting. Assign students the task of rewriting a scene from a story, show, or movie, considering what needs to change for it to be realistic in our current situation but still retain the original essential themes and meaning.

7. Letters to the editor: What do students think about our leaders, policies, and proposed solutions to this pandemic? Guide them through the art of writing a well-crafted letter to the editor, and post submissions on your district, school, or class website, if privacy policies permit that. Give your students guidelines that specify word count, style, and topics, just as official publications do.

8. Student-created blog: Begin by sharing strong examples of student journalism as mentor texts. Invite students to brainstorm ideas for articles and columns. Some students can assume the role of section editors—News, Features, Arts—and others can write articles, take photos, and work on the design and marketing of the website, which students can build using Edublogs.

9. “Slow looking” documentation: Shari Tishman describes “slow looking” as prolonged observation that occurs through all the senses. Students can use a variety of slow looking strategies to observe their setting and sketch or write about their observations. There are seasonal changes to observe, among other things. By practicing slow looking, students may learn to see things they never noticed before. When they share their observations with the class, everyone gains a broader perspective of how the larger environment is changing.

10. Covid-19 comics: The genre of graphic medicine—which uses comics to explore the physical and emotional impacts of medical conditions—shows that comics can be a good way for students to explore troubling experiences. Share comics related to Covid-19 that engage with the wider implications of the pandemic, such as feeling increased isolation, processing conflicting news, and coping with social distancing or unemployment.

Invite students to explore their experiences through an intentional combination of words and pictures. Make it collaborative by having students write text for a peer’s drawings. Students can use Canva to make comics, or draw them on paper and then take photos to upload to the class learning management system.

11. Pandemic journals: A pandemic journal invites students to process their feelings and document their experience for future generations. To structure the assignment, provide prompts and templates. Suggest to students that they layer in artifacts such as news reports, a note received from a friend or neighbor, a copy of an online school schedule for a day, a snippet of an overheard conversation, or a sketch of a parent hunched over a laptop.

The Surprising Benefits of Student-Created Graphic Novels

By Shveta Miller, published on Cult of Pedagogy, 2019

Graphic novels are wonderful for reading, but when students use this form for their own writing, incredible stories can emerge.

There is no shortage of ways we all can benefit from teaching graphic novels. They engage reluctant or struggling readers, they are gateway texts for more complex literature, they build necessary background knowledge, and they develop visual literacy skills. 

But another important reason to teach students to read, analyze, and create a graphic novel is that the form invites them to express hard truths about themselves and their experiences in a way that is different from what they can do with pure prose. 

And perhaps a more surprising reason is for the impact it can have on a teacher’s relationship with students. Teaching the graphic novel to my high school English students wasa way for me to see that there was pain in my classroom and the role I might be playing in students’ difficult experiences. 


I taught my first unit on the graphic novel in my high school World Literature classes. We read Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis, in which a young Marji describes her experience growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. For their culminating project, students created their own graphic memoirs about a significant experience in their lives, using Persepolis as their mentor text. 

As I turned page after page of each student’s story, I discovered that this unit had accomplished a goal I never intended. I didn’t expect so many students to delve into deeply personal, often traumatic, experiences from their past. I had read engaging personal narratives from students before, but this was different. Some used the project to announce an aspect of their identity they had kept secret. Others revealed the reasons behind certain challenging behaviors they exhibited in class. They created stories that would be healing for them and, in some cases, for their relationships with me. 

What is it about the graphic novel form that made this possible?

read the rest at Cult of Pedagogy

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A Strategy for Giving Corrective Feedback to ELLs

By Shveta Miller, published on Edutopia, 2020

Using sentence frames and explicit feedback thoughtfully can provide the right balance of structure and scaffolding for English language learners.

When I started teaching English language learners, I avoided addressing my students’ language errors in class because I was just grateful that they volunteered to speak at all. I was also unsure how to provide feedback in the moment. On top of that, I thought that I simply lacked the time to address all the errors that students were making.

One day, I had the chance to explain to a student why he needed the article a before certain nouns. He told me this was an “aha” moment for him, and I was reminded of the value of corrective feedback.

Here are some ways to address students’ language errors in class while also building their confidence with spoken and written academic language.


Teach and practice how a vocabulary word is used in different situations: When introducing a new vocabulary word, I also teach the correct conjugations, prepositions, parts of speech, and collocations of the word when used in different contexts. (A collocation is a series of words that are often found together. For example, after defining the word indicate, I explain that it’s typically paired with thatwhy, or how.)

If the word is a verb, we practice using it in different tenses and paired with different subjects. I include the correct prepositions alongside the vocabulary word on our class word wall. If students use the word with an incorrect preposition, I direct them to the word wall and ask them to choose one of the correct pairings.

Explicitly model how to correctly complete a response frame: Language teachers commonly use response frames to model the academic language their students need to practice. For example, to practice using the word persuade, we might use this frame: “Citizens can persuade political leaders to _____.”

I improve the quality of students’ shared responses when I demonstrate how to generate the correct language in the blank. In this example, first I clarify the meaning of the word citizens. Then I highlight the word to as a grammar clue in the sentence. When paired with persuade, the word to signals that next we need a base verb (an action word with no changed endings). I write improve public transportation in the blank as I think aloud, “People are late to work because the buses don’t arrive on time. Many people want to persuade our mayor to improve public transportation.”

I recite the completed sentence aloud, modeling the correct pronunciation and emphasis. I prompt students to repeat out loud together so they will be more comfortable sharing their own examples. With this added step, students build fluency.

read the rest at Edutopia

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When Your Child Reads New Kid Over Your Shoulder

By Shveta Miller, published on Book Riot, Februray 2020

Last year, I picked up Jerry Craft’s New Kid from the library. I had heard on a podcast that Craft uses inventive graphic novel devices to tell a story about middle schooler Jordan Banks transferring to a prestigious private school where he is one of the few students of color. Craft mentions that the story was influenced by his own experiences growing up.

I have taught my students how to critically read and analyze graphic novels, and how to incorporate unique elements and devices to tell their own compelling stories in graphic form, so I was particularly excited to check out New Kid for its potential as a classroom mentor text. And, having been witness to the experiences of students like Jordan as a classroom teacher, I imagined that reading New Kid would open students’ eyes to the possibilities of stories they could narrate in graphic form. I knew this was a book I wanted to read.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, was how reading this graphic novel to myself, on the couch next to my 2nd grade child, would spontaneously spark conversations about racial bias, stereotyping, and microaggressions.

Jordan, the narrator of New Kid, bonds with Drew, a fellow student of color at his new and mostly white private school. They commiserate about the assumptions that teachers and librarians have made about books they would connect with—books about slavery, struggle, and street life. I was so engrossed in the images of several book covers with increasingly dire titles that I barely noticed my daughter hovering over my shoulder, equally captivated.

“That’s like how a lot of books with brown girls I see are about how hard it is to be brown.” Now, this is a conversation we’ve had before—I’m a brown educator raising a biracial reader—but this impromptu communal reading experience of New Kid stretched our conversation in new directions. “Why did the teachers give him those books?” she wondered aloud. We talked more about how Jordan and Drew might’ve felt when they were given those books and why. She had a lot to say about the limited range of topics covered in the books she’s read with main characters of color.

read the rest on Book Riot

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A GOOD TALK We Should All Listen To

By Shveta Miller, published on Book Riot, January 2020

Good talks we have with our children tend to happen in private. They might take place when we’re snuggled on a couch or while in the car, eyes occasionally meeting in the rearview mirror. A child might be on our laps, our breathing in sync, as we navigate big questions together.

When I was teaching in NYC public schools, I used to commute on the always crowded crosstown bus. One afternoon, I looked up from the high school essays I was reading and noticed a caregiver and a child reading a book aloud together. I heard them notice details on each page and laugh at the characters’ antics. How special, I thought. Such a private moment on display for all these tired commuters to hear or tune out. I felt honored to witness it.

Now I’m a parent having these talks at home with my own child, often wondering what territory we’re about to enter and how to keep the conversation flowing as long as possible. I can’t help but wonder how these talks go in other families. But I’m no longer a crosstown bus commuter, and I don’t get many opportunities to eavesdrop on the good talks children have with their trusted adults.

Reading Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations put me back on that crosstown bus. And the first few pages relayed a conversation that put me on the edge of my seat. Jacob invites us to witness an impromptu discussion she and her son have about race, equity, and identity. Her son, wanting to know more about his idol Michael Jackson, asks increasingly complicated questions like “Was Michael Jackson brown or was he white?” which leads to “Is it bad to be brown?” Jacob’s responses alternate between objective honesty and overcompensating enthusiasm. When her son ultimately asks, “Are white people afraid of brown people?” she quietly considers, “Sometimes.” When he chillingly wonders, “Is Daddy afraid of us?” she emphatically states, “NO.”

read the rest at Book Riot

Can equity in the classroom start with a survey?

When I saw a student nodding off in class during my first year as a high school teacher, I am not proud to confess that I responded with, “Gary, I’m deducting participation points. We don’t sleep in class.” I am forever grateful for his honest response:

That’s not fair. I mean, some of us have been up all night because of a crying baby sister. You just take off points because I closed my eyes for a second? I’m trying my best.

So many thoughts ran through my head in that moment, standing in front of an increasingly silent and watchful audience of 10th graders.

Wow, that’s a really understandable reason to be nodding off right now. I wonder, what are other reasons students struggle to remain attentive in class? How can I support students with meeting essential expectations like showing up, staying awake, and completing assignments?

Equity in the classroom means that every student has the support they need to be successful. It took several more years for me to establish systems, routines, and learning activities that would help all students meet high expectations. But one place to start is finding out about students’ lives outside of school at the beginning of the year. From there, we can plan instruction and assignments with students’ specific needs and challenges in mind.

What materials do your assignments assume students have access to outside of school? Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash
What materials do your assignments assume students have access to outside of school? Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

In the beginning of a school year, after some initial icebreakers and community building, I ask students to respond to this survey, so that I can design a classroom experience that will help them thrive as learners.

I discovered that some students had a two-hour commute to and from school everyday that involved hectic transfers on public transportation, making it difficult to work on assignments or catch up on sleep during bus rides. One student served as a translator for his entire extended family, accompanying aunts and uncles to doctors appointments and grocery stores every day after school. Many students worked part-time to help with family finances. And in some cases, students did not have a stable place to live, much less steady access to a quiet place to draft an essay.

In other communities I taught in, the challenges were different. Students had reliable places to work at home and didn’t need to contribute to the household income, but they had a series of counseling, therapy, and tutoring appointments to attend. Others just couldn’t concentrate because of toxic stress they experienced from fractious relationships with parents or siblings.

Beginning of year survey: What factors outside of school can impact students’ progress?

The digital divide – inequitable access to technology outside of school – is a known factor that impacts students’ abilities to complete assignments outside of school. But possibly a more common cause is our false assumptions about students’ access to time, space, basic supplies, and support from a trusted adult. Even in my first year I suspected my students wouldn’t have access to the technology needed to do certain projects outside of class. So we worked on the project during class, where students could collaborate, access materials, receive and provide feedback, and benefit from scaffolds and modeling. What I didn’t realize was that crying baby siblings and various other obstacles would impede students’ abilities to do even low-tech assignments outside of class.

When creating your own classroom survey, consider what you already know about the communities of students you teach and craft specific questions that will give you the information you need. Teacher Matt Hiefield advises that “it is not adequate to ask if students ‘have internet access at home’ as this question takes on different meanings for different students.” A student, he explains, might think a brief turn with his parent’s phone is adequate internet access. With precisely worded questions, we can determine the nature of students’ access and provide necessary support systems.

How do students interpret “internet access”? Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

Once I asked students about their commutes, access to supplies, and available time, the results indicated that some of my initial plans for homework, group projects, and hands-on learning would need to be revised so that all students would have opportunities to participate successfully.

One assignment asked students to “Find a political cartoon in a newspaper or periodical and use close reading skills to critically analyze the visual elements you notice.” I intended for students to experience productive struggle with the analysis, not with finding a political cartoon online or in print. Some of my students would have to detour to a library and wait their turn for a computer, or ask a librarian for help locating a print periodical that might have a political cartoon in it. Some just wouldn’t be able to take that detour.

Some might say that the added struggle of commuting to a library, waiting their turn, and speaking to a librarian is “good for students” and helps them develop a variety of useful skills, like resourcefulness and perseverance. But if the homework assignment or school project is not intended for all students to develop these skills, then the added expectation for certain students is an unfair (and unnecessary) burden. Students who have to go to great lengths to complete a task are not getting the intended and necessary practice with the task. By the time a student finds the political cartoon, how much cognitive energy is left for analysis and written expression?

Knowing about students’ responsibilities outside of school, I can change the assignment in a few ways. If I want students to independently apply the visual interpretation skills I’ve taught, then I can provide time for that in class. If I want them to apply the skill outside of the classroom, I can ask them to consider any visual texts they see in their community (billboards, subway ads, commercials, signage, graffiti) through the critical lens they have practiced in class. They will be invited to share their thinking the next day.

If time management is the intended skill students will practice, provide tools and methods students can use to develop the skill.

And if we want students to explicitly practice skills like resourcefulness and time management, then we can teach those skills to all students and provide strategies they can practice to develop these skills over time. For example, if we want to teach students how to manage their time to meet a deadline, we can teach them how to use calendars, backwards plan, schedule check-ins with a teacher or friend, and set small deadlines. We can provide feedback and monitor progress with this skill, like we would with reading and writing skills students are learning.

Of course, a beginning-of-year survey can certainly feel impersonal and not our first choice for getting to know our students as whole people. I give the survey to students on the first day of school, but my learning doesn’t stop with the survey. On every following school day, I use the two-minute relationship builder routine – I choose a student and chat with them for only two minutes for several successive days before moving on to another student. I keep track on my seating chart and note down what I’m learning about my students’ lives over time. The first day of school survey, however, is a way to learn about students’ experiences so that assignments, deadlines, and opportunities are meaningful from the start.

Once we take that first step to survey our students about the challenges they face outside of school, we can begin the real work to ensure our classrooms are equitable. When a student nods off in class, we are more likely to know why. We can’t make the baby sibling stop crying, but we can approach students’ behaviors with understanding and a readiness to support them to meet their own high expectations for learning.

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