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NYC Helpline: How To: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Knowing Your Students as Learners  Lisa Peterson

As a first year teacher, I'd sometimes feel like my words were sailing past my students, hitting the back wall of the classroom and falling to the floor. I would try to explain a concept or a task, only to find that the students had no idea what I was talking about. Sometimes I wasn't expressing myself in a "kid-friendly" way, and sometimes I was assuming prior experiences that my students didn't have. For example, imagine trying to do a lesson about prime numbers, if your students have never heard of factors!

One of the most important things you can do in your first year of teaching is to find out where your kids are coming from academically. Not only will this help you plan lessons that are focused and effective, but it will also help you with classroom management: if assignments are too easy or too difficult, students often respond by misbehaving. Obviously, you want to assess your students' skill levels and background knowledge in the subjects you teach. However, all teachers, not just reading and English teachers, should also consider their students' reading levels. No matter what subject you teach, your students need to read. It's important for you to have an idea of your students' reading ability so that you give them appropriate material. As a middle school teacher, I've seen many social studies and science teachers floundering because they were using textbooks well above the reading level of their students. These teachers didn't need to abandon the textbook entirely, but they needed to provide their students with additional support in order for them to be successful. Even math teachers find that their students' reading ability affects their performance on word problems.

In addition to assessing my students' academic skills, I find it useful to find out about their previous experiences in school. It helps me to know how students feel about the subjects I teach. For example, if kids hate reading, I will focus on making their first experiences in my English class as relaxing and fun as possible. If they love to read, I will probably focus more on challenging them and exposing them to different genres.

I also like to know what kinds of instruction my students' teachers have used in the past. For example, if kids have never done group work, I would spend time teaching them how to work together before jumping into a group research project. On the other hand, if kids have participated in many group projects, I would ask their former teachers how they organized their groups. I might organize my project in a similar way; or if I decided to do things differently, I would draw the kids' attention to how my expectations were different from what they had done in the past.

Here are some ideas for getting to know your students as learners:

Informal reading inventories: If you teach reading or English, you may be asked to administer formal assessments to all of your students. However, it makes sense for all teachers to assess their students' reading in some way. This assessment can be as simple as stopping by a student's desk, asking him or her to read something to you (anything from a math problem to a textbook passage to a page from a novel, depending on what you teach), and briefly discussing the meaning. (It's important to discuss the meaning because some kids are able to pronounce all of the words on the page without actually comprehending anything.) Although this process is time-consuming, if you hear just one student a day, you will be able to assess all of your students in a month or two. If even this sounds daunting to you, at least try assessing the reading of students with obvious difficulties.

Surveys: Surveys are a good way to get information about students' attitudes and prior experiences in your subject areas. For a sample of a reading and writing survey I used with junior high school students, click here. This survey can easily be adapted for other grade levels, or you can create your own.

Student evaluations: Usually, I begin the year by asking students about their best and worst experiences in whatever subject I'm teaching. This question gives me an idea of what their prior instruction has been like. This question also helps me understand what sorts of activities they like and what their learning styles might be. At the conclusion of a unit or the end of a quarter, I ask students to evaluate what they learned, as well as which activities they liked and which they would like to change. This helps me to plan more activities the students will enjoy.

Baseline assessments: At the beginning of the year, you will want to assess your students' skill level in your particular subject. Depending on what you teach, you might want to get writing samples, give pretests, or simply ask students what they know about a particular topic.

Although all of these techniques take valuable classroom time, you will find it easier to plan lessons if you have an idea of what your students have been taught in the past. Taking the time to ask kids about their ideas, feelings, and knowledge can help start you on the road to success.


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