What does quality look like? How can I describe proficiency to my learners? We know that one response to these questions is to engage the learners – whether students or adults – in the process of co-constructing criteria. This process often begins by sharing samples to illustrate quality and proficiency. However, with that understanding can also come other realizations like – I have just started teaching and I have no samples to share with my students. What should I do? or Even though I have been teaching for eleven years, I have never thought to collect samples. What are my options? These are questions that teachers often ask me, especially during the first term of a new school year.
It is true that we could create some samples on our own…and yet this might prove too time-consuming. It is also possible to scour the Internet for samples to print off and use with students. And yet, these samples might not reflect the unique context or culture of our school communities and classrooms. So, what might be some other possibilities?
Actually, this lack of samples – paper product – provides us with incredible opportunity and a practical next step. We can “become” the sample. What do I mean by that? If we have not yet collected samples of math problems that are solved completely, we could solve math problems in front of the students. If we have not yet gathered samples of strong lead paragraphs, our students could witness us writing some. If we don’t have video files of students engaged in a respectful class discussion, we could pull a group of adults together to demonstrate what this process looks like.
In each case, we are careful to chunk the sample. That is, we solve a bit of the problem at a time and stop along the way to ask the students what they are noting about what we are doing. By way of examples, as we compose a strong lead, we pause after each couple of sentences to have students talk to each other about what they are noticing in our writing. Or, as we demonstrate a small group discussion, we stop after every 4 or 5 minutes, and turn to the student so that they can tell us what they notice the adults doing.
The sample that unfolds in front of the learners’ eyes is a powerful way to witness quality and proficiency. Our curricula are filled with expectations that call our students to be metacognitive – for them to make their thinking visible to others.
“Becoming” the sample presents an additional opportunity. As we write the lead paragraph or as we solve a math problem or as we engage in a small group discussion, we make the thinking visible – why are we writing this sentence in this way or why are we taking this step in the problem or why are we saying what we are saying. We let students in on that which is often hidden or assumed.
And yet, even though expectations of metacognition are embedded in all curricula, it can feel like a risky thing to do – making our thinking clearly visible for others does not necessarily come naturally to all of us.
And herein lies an additional opportunity for leaders. We can simply tell teachers or require them to “be” the sample, if they do not have product samples. We can make this an expectation as if it is the most obvious thinking in the world…or we can “walk the talk”… literally.
I recently had this experience working in northern Saskatchewan, when I was invited into Canoe Lake Miksiw School on the Canoe Lake Cree Nation. I was asked to do two demonstration lessons – one in a grade three class, focusing on “What counts in personal writing?” and one in a grade twelve English class around “What does it look like when we are reading to make meaning?” Samples for the Early Years class were readily available. But how to tackle the second one? Obviously there can be no paper sample and yet what a powerful question to have students consider!
Instead of asking others to provide the live model, I decided to do it – not only would this be a sample for students, but it would be an example to the other teachers of what is possible when we “become” the model.
I enlisted Tanis Crawford, Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment for the Meadow Lake Tribal Council. Together, we chose a text to read aloud by Ray Bradbury. We did not pre-read the entire piece; rather, we spent our time preparing by talking about what we do as readers to make meaning. Our conversations included ideas like:
· Uncover our biases
· Use textual cues
· Make connections to our own lives
· Reread to check for understanding
· Ask questions along the way
· Verify previous predictions
We were ready to go. We sat on stools facing each other and began to read. I read the title and Tanis immediately stopped me to tell me that the title reminded her of something else she had recently read. We decided to scan the text for clues that could help us anticipate what might come next. We read two or three paragraphs at a time, pausing to share what connections we were making, what questions emerged. We looked up words that we were not too certain of. And every five or six minutes, we stopped altogether, allowing the students to record what they saw us doing that served to answer our original question. This pattern continued for the next 35 minutes – 6 or 7 minutes of the sample, followed by 8 or 9 minutes of small group and then large group debriefing related to what had been observed.
After that, the next steps of co-constructing criteria unfolded:
· Sorting the ideas into like groups
· Identifying criteria for each group
(For a full accounting of this process, please read Setting and Using Criteria by Gregory, Cameron, and Davies.)
While these steps are important, they build upon a sample(s) that unmistakably and clearly illustrate(s) quality and proficiency. Without the sample, the rest of the process would inevitably fall flat.
So what can this account teach us? Samples can be demonstrated and witnessed. When samples are demonstrated and witnessed, they can offer a clearer view into what is going on internally for the learner. In essence, we give voice to talking about our thinking. As leaders, we can provide to students samples in this way. We can also offer our staff an alternative to the product sample – we “become” the sample of using live samples.
And as this account so clearly communicates, we do not have to wait to build up multiple files of samples – being a learner in front of our students can fill an immediate gap for us so that we can respond to those oft-asked questions - What does quality look like? How can I describe proficiency to my learners?
Examples are instructional workhorses: they carry a great deal of the burden of teaching and learning. They help us dig into ideas and plow the land of the abstract. They help us transport information and ideas from one person to another and from one context to another. One way to improve teaching and learning is to improve the examples we use so that they more effectively communicate difficult concepts.” The Teaching Professor