Tim Schwarz has spent the last two school years working as an instructional leadership coach for the Achievement Network. In that role, Tim worked with a portfolio of school leadership teams in New Orleans to identify and implement opportunities to promote excellent teaching in their schools. Before that, Tim spent nearly a decade as a classroom teacher in New Orleans. He taught 9th grade World Geography at the New Orleans Charter Science and Math HS, 6th grade World History at New Orleans College Prep Charter School, and 10-12th grade Geometry at John McDonogh HS.
Thriving Schools: Tim, let’s get started by talking about assessment. How do you know that your students have learned what you wanted them to?
Tim: I know it sounds cliché, but I would pretty much assess every student during every lesson with an exit ticket. I wanted to know if students had learned something by the end of class that they didn’t know at the beginning. On the other hand, I think that what we teachers do in the name of standardized testing is sometimes just bad teaching. For instance, in the past in Louisiana, we would assess my students’ knowledge of thousands of years of world history with 40 multiple choice questions. But just because that’s how the test might look doesn’t mean my instruction should be devoid of critical thinking. Now I’ve also seen exit tickets used in ways that are unhelpful – they’re way too long, the teacher never provides feedback on them, or they’re simply not well aligned to the day’s lesson. But if used correctly, they can provide really useful information.
Thriving Schools: Given the low quality of the standardized tests you were asked to administer, what student performance metrics were you most proud of?
Tim: Most of the time, my students would have good to great results on our standardized tests, but like you’re alluding to, that wasn’t what I was most proud of by any stretch. I was much more interested in how they would do on my end-of-unit performance and writing tasks. That’s because these tasks would allow them to demonstrate they could think and write critically about the topics we had covered. Now of course that’s a little tricky because I created those assessments and I can’t compare my results. But I had put enough time into writing those performance tasks (and creating exemplars and rubrics), that I was confident my students were doing well.
Thriving Schools: It must take a lot of time to create performance tasks like those. How do you think about planning time differently to make sure you’re ultra-focused on what students will be able to do?
Tim: So I don’t worry so much about what activities my kids are going to do or what resources we’re using, until it makes perfect sense to me what I want them to learn today. I know this sounds simple, but it’s actually very difficult. That’s because we teachers often start with the question, “Do I have enough ‘stuff’ for my kids to do today?” So when I sit down to plan (or help other teachers work on their planning), I always start with a 3-column chart. The first column would contain our objective and what students will be able to do. The third column would have the question or questions being asked on our exit ticket. But where I spent most of my time is in that middle column, which I call the “key points” (keep in mind different planning frameworks have different terms for this). Essentially, I want to know the ideas, facts, and skills that my students are going to be working on.
Thriving Schools: Why is the middle column so important?
Tim: Because until you force yourself to think through the key points and write them down, you can’t be sure they’re really clear in your mind. And if it’s not 100% clear in your own mind what students are supposed to learn, how are you going to plan out any reasonable set of activities that will get them there? Again, this isn’t earthshattering – everyone knows this. What matters is disciplining oneself to do it consistently.
Thriving Schools: Can you take us through an example of doing this? Let’s pick a standard and see how we would fill in each of these columns!
Tim: Okay – here’s one that comes to mind. I helped another teacher with this recently! The objective was: Explain the Battle of Bunker Hill. When I examined the teacher’s lesson materials and their exit ticket, it wasn’t at all clear to me what exactly they wanted students to know about the battle. There were a lot of facts in their lesson materials and they were all accurate, but in social studies there are an infinite number of facts. What’s important is deciding which facts you want your students to learn.
Thriving Schools: So how did you proceed with this planning conversation?
Tim: I asked the teacher – why is this battle important? There are entire books that have been written on this single subject, and you have just one lesson to teach it. So what then are the 3 or 4 most important facts or ideas you want your students to know about it. And in this case, it took the teacher 15 minutes to come up with a good answer. But this is how you come up with good key points. Of course it’s subjective what the most relevant facts are, but the important part is that the teacher’s done the thinking.
Thriving Schools: After planning this out, how would you think about creating an appropriate assessment?
Tim: I would be thinking – what is a question you could ask your students that would allow them to demonstrate their grasp of these facts without simply regurgitating something you (or one of their classmates) said. Again, they’re not just showing that they remember the facts, but also demonstrating real understanding.
Thriving Schools: We know you’ve done a ton of thinking around this – how do you craft really good exit ticket questions?
Tim: One of my favorite question starters is “What if?” For instance, I might ask, “What if blank had happened during the lead-up to or during the battle, how might the outcome have been different?” Because a question like this forces students to provide the relevant facts and details, but also to understand how they interact with each other (and the relevant cause and effects). There’s an art to this, but the best way to get good at it is to take 5-10 minutes and try to workshop some ideas on paper.
Thriving Schools: Fascinating! Can you give us another example?
Tim: Another idea is to use the compare and contrast framework. For instance, “How is the Battle of Bunker Hill different from a previous event, blank, in terms of its significance or sequence of events?”
Thriving Schools: Any others that come to mind?
Tim: I’d also say exit slips are a great place to make use of RAFT writing. Keeping in mind there are a few different versions of this, it basically stands for Role, Audience, Format, and Topic. So getting really creative with this, you could say, “You are a revolutionary soldier who’s participating in the Battle of Bunker Hill and writing a letter to your wife about the events going on.” And in this way, your prompt includes the role, audience, format, and topic you’d like your students to write about.
Thriving Schools: Are there any caveats you’d include with this strategy?
Tim: You want to design these in a way to allow students an opportunity to demonstrate what they've learned (the 3 or 4 key points from your lesson) or expose what they didn’t learn. There’s an art here! You can get cutesy and end up messing up the alignment, but if you do it right, it’s going to be fun and show what students got from the lesson. Let me give you another example of a RAFT prompt – this one’s from a 9th grade World Geography unit (see the example below). After reading it, you can clearly tell that students have been learning about Africa, but that they’re being asked to apply their knowledge in a completely new environment. This particular assignment goes on to give more details about “Lemuria,” but the main point is that you can clearly see how the RAFT strategy is being employed:
Thriving Schools: The last thing we’d like to ask you about today is determining the scope and sequencing of a unit. What’s your advice on deciding the right amount of content to cover and the amount of time to cover it in?
Tim: I’ve got an unsexy answer here, but I think it’s the right one. And that’s the Understanding by Design Framework. You basically start with the big ideas, turn those into some essential questions, and get really clear on the content that’s going to lead to those enduring understandings. Then you have a cumulative performance task that’s aligned to the items you taught. And this same thinking can be applied at the lesson, unit, or semester level. But I don’t think that most teachers and administrators appreciate the amount of time that goes into doing this well. To say – “Yeah, we’re going to finish all of our enduring understandings for the whole year during one single morning preservice meeting at the start of the year” – isn’t going to cut it. And giving teachers a binder with all their curriculum and enduring understandings for the year doesn’t work either. We need to give teachers more time and support to do this well.
Thriving Schools: Can you give us an example of how this would look at the unit level?
Tim: Sure thing! The following is an example of what this would look like in a unit on the Industrial Revolution! Obviously this is a very long document, but take a close look at how the planning is being accomplished!