In the process of moving my office this June, I’m unearthing memorabilia from my past and enjoying revisiting the artifacts of my teaching history, especially the samples of student work. That’s how I found myself paging through pre-assessments written by me and the team and filled out by fifth graders. I’d saved them all. Our unit was called Causes of Conflict with an emphasis on the American Revolution. Our opening statement was designed to set the students at ease:
The purpose of a pre-assessment is to find out what you know before we start our unit. This will not be graded. Your honest effort is greatly appreciated as it helps us provide better instruction.
We started off with some of our big ideas in the unit and asked students to write everything they could:
*What is conflict?
*What leads to conflict?
*Why do participants take sides?
*How are conflicts resolved?
Many of the students had great examples of conflicts in their own lives and much wisdom about taking sides. For example one student wrote, “Participants take sides because everybody has their own beliefs and they take the side of people who have the same beliefs as them.” Another student explained, “People take sides because they want to get others’ backs. They usually take the side of their friends.”
Then we had some stems for them to complete with a short response:
*The American Revolution was…
Because we were going to look at the American Revolution with all of these aspects of Social Studies in mind, we wondered what students already knew. Most students had solid definitions for history, geography and economics. I chuckled to read one’s attempt, “Geography is…plain, hard work.” The majority of students weren’t sure about civics. Was it a person like a citizen? Was it a type of animal? (A civet, I realized). Or another answer that got me chuckling, “I used to know what civics was, but I’ve forgotten so you’ll have to remind me.” Looking at the trends, almost every student knew the American Revolution was a war, yet only a couple were certain who it was between.
Our unit was going to be guided with an around-the-classroom timeline that we’d build together so we asked the students to create a timeline with any four events in history on their pre-assessment. Many students chose personal events like, “I was born, my sister was born, I started school, I started fifth grade.” Almost all the students put September 11, 2001 on their timeline. Three students had accurate dates for the American Revolution, The Civil War, World War I, and World War II. The teachers remarked that they were surprised by some of the students who emerged as timeline savvy, two of them were students that were below grade level in other aspects of literacy.
The final question is one we used to judge students’ preconceptions and engagement for an upcoming unit. We worded it like this:
When you heard you would be starting a new Social Studies unit, place an X on the line below about how you feel.
Excited ——————————————Not Very Excited Yet
Then we also asked them to explain why they felt that way. “I’m not that excited because I don’t know that much about it” and “I’m just not that into history” contrasted with “I read about the American Revolution all the time. I love studying battles!”
As a coach, one of the best ways to measure my work with a teacher or a team is with a pre-assessment and a post-assessment with very specific learning goals in mind. But I’ve been met with resistance to doing pre-assessments. Teachers have told me:
*”It’s a waste of instructional time.”
*”We already know they don’t know it.”
*”Students get upset if they don’t know the answers. I don’t want to stress them out.”
I understand questioning adding something else to the plate. Let’s start with the last concern. When I approach students this way, “Listen, we’re going to ask you to spend the next 20 minutes doing an assessment to see what you already know about this topic we are starting. We want you to try to answer everything. It’s not graded. We are going to use this to make our teaching fit you better and be more interesting,” they are open to doing their best. Some have even told me they thought it was fun to think about things they didn’t know they were going to think about. I believe it’s all in the way you approach it.
In response to “We already know they don’t know it” and “It’s a waste of time,” let’s consider these assessments I’ve described. We didn’t know there were three boys in one classroom that rocked timelines. We were able to identify them as experts early on and for two of them it buoyed their confidence and made this their favorite unit. We were able to teach terms like history, geography and economics quickly and spend more time understanding civics and its role with this important conflict. Finally, we took the engagement we’d discovered in the question: Why do participants take sides? and we used their experience and interests to open the unit that way. Without the pre-assessment, we wouldn’t have had any of this information.
In the post-assessments most of the students who had selected “Not Very Excited Yet” in the pre-assessment had moved much closer to “Excited.” One student said it best, “I think I wasn’t excited because I didn’t know what we were going to learn, but then once I learned it I realized how important the American Revolution was to me today. It made me think about how there is a time to fight for what you believe in.”