The Proximity Principle: How to Assess Readers’ Work In Order to Break the Cycle of Teaching to the Middle

Written by Julie Wright & Barry Hoonan

If you want to know what students know and can do, along with what they need next, using proximity to get up close to students’ work is essential.  We like to think of assessing student work in these ways:

Student conversations:  The stuff kids talk about -- dialogue between and among students and teachers.  Talk is an authentic source of data for understanding what kids know and what they need next.  This might be student talk during minilessons or shared experiences. It could also be the talk that happens as kids share out during mid process or at the end of workshop.   This is particularly insightful is students share how they process understandings during whole group, small group, and 1:1 interactions.

Student work samples:  The stuff kids make, create, write, or design.  Student work can be short (annotations, jots, blurbs, reflections) or longer in nature (paragraphs, projects, models).  The in process, along the way, work helps us create a focus for instruction and know what to do next in the moment. The end of learning work helps us assess culminating learning where we can look back in order to plan forward.

John Hattie explains that, “visible learning is teachers seeing learning through the eyes of their students, and students seeing themselves as their own teachers.”  Think of student work as anything students create, talk about, or do that makes their thinking and understandings visible. Below are some examples of student evidence.  As you read, there are lots of ideas that could be added.  Think about what you would add to this list.

Teaching and learning is hard, rewarding work -- both for the student and the teacher.  As a teacher and coach, we’re often asked to “boil things down for teachers and show them what to do.”  Since reading is a complicated process, it makes “boiling it down” tricky. Yes, reading and meaning making are dependent on students’ ability to decode and comprehend the text.  That part is complicated in and of itself. Add to that the idea that reading is dependent on the individual reader’s interactions about and within the text in order to for knowledge, skills, and understandings to come into full bloom.  Student work is our lens into knowing what kids know and and what they can do. It’s also our lens into what they need next to grow their reading and thinking muscles.

Here’s an example:  

It’s late January and sixth grade students are enjoying a mini-unit focused on interesting people in the world.  Through whole group learning, we created a shared agreement that we would begin by reading short texts and that short texts meant anything that can be read in one to two independent reading times.  Students also agreed that short texts could include pictures. This definition was important because it took into account students’ needs and interests. For example, students explained that one to two independent reading times was important because not everyone reads at the same pace.  In addition, many students wanted the opportunity to investigate higher level picture books, or sets of picture books with a common author or theme, and they wanted to make sure that picture books were accounted for in their definition.

If we fast forward about a week, kids are reading, re-reading, trading, talking about, and enjoying all types of short texts.  

Organizational Tip:  Give each student a two-pocket folder because it gives them a place to store reading materials.  Along with this folder, using a reader’s notebook or a binder with paper is key so that there is a designated place for students to hold their thinking.  

During the work time portion of reading workshop (after the minilesson and before the debrief/share out) is where students are given time to read, write, think, and talk about what they are reading.  Across the mini-unit students have multiple opportunities to read independently and in small groups to construct and co-construct meaning. This becomes a data center for teachers to figure out what students know and what they need next to lift their learning.  During a small group conversation with a group of students who were investigating short, one page stories in Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky, students read, took a few notes about big take-aways and then they shared their thinking with a shoulder partner.  If you lean in, listen and take note, you can size up student thinking and understandings (and possibly misunderstandings) in less than twenty minutes in order to determine what students know and are able to do and what they need next to grow their reading muscles.

Here’s the interesting part:  By leaning in, listening, and taking note, we can assess and respond to readers’ work and we break the cycle of teaching to the middle.  

For more, check out our new book!