S3 Ep16 - Planning To Make Report Writing Easier

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Hello and welcome to this episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast. I'm Jocelyn and I'd like to send some virtual hugs to all Australian teachers who are approaching reporting time. We know that we're busy all year, but reporting is a unique time in the calendar. I recall, year after year, the stack of student work, topped with on-balance judgment sheets, in a neat line across my lounge room floor. I crossed every I and dotted every T to make sure that my judgments about student achievement were correct. As I did this, carefully considering the achievement standards of all curriculum areas, I found that some subjects were easy to grade but others more difficult, and there were reasons for that. In today's episode, I'm going to unpack some of the reasons that reporting can be tricky and what you can do in your planning to drastically reduce difficulty in grading. It might seem strange to be talking about planning as you approach reporting, but actually, that's the perfect time to bring it to your attention, because it's in considering why grading is hard that we see the gaps in our planning. You may not be ready to use this episode right now, so I suggest that you set a reminder on your phone for about the time that you're about to start planning for the next term to come back and revisit this episode. Use the steps I'm describing and your reporting next time will be so much easier.

Let's get stuck in. At its most basic, the number one way to ensure a stress-free report writing experience is to teach rigorously to your jurisdiction's curriculum guidelines. That's it. Done. Glad I could help. Go make yourself a cup of tea and enjoy your day after listening to the shortest podcast episode in history. Just kidding. Of course, it's not that simple. How many times have you sat down to write the semester's reports, scanned the achievement standard and thought, "Oh golly, gosh," (or some such statement, perhaps involving many swear words), I just don't know what to write. If this is you, don't despair. There are simple steps that you can take to make it all easier.

Reasons Report Writing Can be Stressful

In my experience, common causes of report writing stress include: number one not actually teaching what the curriculum requires. This might include planning only from content descriptors of the Australian curriculum or your state's curriculum and not giving due consideration to the achievement standard that will be used to grade. I've seen this happen many times. This might also include just looking at the overall broad content and going off on a yellow brick road of instruction that leads you to the winged monkey's lair instead of the Emerald City. Missing the mark on the curriculum can come about because you're using units or resources that people claim are aligned but are only loosely connected to the achievement standards. It can also happen because we have a vision in our head of what a topic looks like and the knowledge and skills it includes that doesn't actually match what the curriculum's asking for.

Reason number two for reporting stress can come from not planning instruction and assessment adequately, so that while you might have done a unit on growing plants, you didn't think through the assessment task well enough to adequately capture student knowledge and skill. This leads to not having suitable evidence against which to grade.

Number three is that every student has identical work and you have no way to differentiate between them or make personalised comments if you need to. I've been here so many times and I know it's disheartening. Usually, this has happened because I hadn't adequately broken skills and knowledge down enough into their smaller parts, taught them properly, and consolidated them well enough for students to work independently. This led to scaffolds having to be so tight and strong that it was almost like I was walking the students through step by step with no independent thought on their part. It was then impossible for them to branch out enough to show what they knew. Now, when I'm saying these things, please know that I'm not criticising teachers.

A huge part of the structures that are set up for us lead us in, unfortunately, not the most targeted direction. The curriculum is written to be skills-based. There's very little there about the knowledge that students have to acquire, and so we do a lot of doing in our instruction. We don't necessarily focus a lot on what students know. You can't be skilled without knowledge, so if we haven't spent enough time building knowledge, the kids aren't going to get to be skilled, they're also not going to be able to explain the why and the how of what you're trying to teach them. Whether this be in English, science, HASS or health, it's the same story.

The fourth reason that reporting may be difficult is because you didn't allow enough time to complete assessment and have been frantically trying to push through with the students in time to meet deadlines. Rushed lessons where we've glossed over details and scrimped on supports lead to substandard work from students and difficulty in being able to grade.

A fifth common difficulty is that you taught using an integrated approach, where you tried to teach more than one subject area at a time and found that you didn't actually cover the subject material in enough depth to really say that students knew what they needed to. Integrated approaches often lead to shallow coverage of knowledge and skills because you just can't go deep in the time allocated, making it challenging for students to develop the understanding and skills that they need to. If this is something you'd like to explore a little more, have a listen to Season two, Episode six of the podcast, How to create an integrated literacy block, and while this episode does focus on literacy, there are learnings for the whole curriculum in that particular episode.

The sixth reason is you were aware of the rubric associated with the content area and knew that some students were capable of B's and A's but didn't plan opportunities for them to demonstrate their knowledge and skill at that level. In order to award a B, students need to have demonstrated knowledge and skills to a deep level with added details independently. To award an A, the following needs to apply: the student consistently displays accuracy and precision in performing the skills at a very high level, including large amounts of detail and explanation, the student can apply this independently to new situations and contexts. If we don't give students the opportunity to actually do these things how can we award them an A? The A doesn't go to the most advanced student in the class. Having that approach leads to great variability across the school and between schools.

Finally, reporting can be tricky because you did a unit with your class, but when you ask them to explain or describe something, they looked at you blankly and could not actually describe what, why or how things happened. To be frank, you just didn't build deep knowledge, check for understanding, adjust instruction to meet their needs and then provide the opportunity for them to show you what they could do. If we want grading to be easier, we have to teach in a way that leads to strong learning, and that means building knowledge, helping children apply it in hands-on activities and situations and then having them build a deep enough understanding that they can explain it. Just doing a science experiment is not enough.

It's all very well to talk about where wheels have fallen off, and over the years, my wheels have well and truly fallen off, but I have learned how to put them back on again. I want to share some of the ideas with you that have really helped me improve my teaching and therefore reporting. To that end, I'd like to outline some basic principles of backward design that I've found to be particularly useful in creating rigorous teaching for effective learning across the curriculum. Now, I get that this topic is completely unsexy and might leave you reaching for the skip button on this episode, but please stick with me. Backward planning or backward design does not have to mean dry, boring units of work that leave children rolling their eyes or sleeping on their desks. If that's what's happening, something's wrong. It means being extremely clear about what you're teaching and how each and every lesson and experience links to the learning intentions you've identified.

Steps to Make Planning Robust

Step number one in this process is to know your students. All teaching is about them. How do they best learn? What's their level of literacy? What kind of learning works best for them? And please do not misunderstand me, I am not talking about learning styles and Bloom's-Gardeners matrixes. What I'm talking about is how much complexity can your students cope with at once? How fast can instruction proceed? What is their previous learning that they're bringing to your new unit? You are best placed to know that. The other thing is what level of language, both oral and written, do they currently have available to them, and how are you going to help them build it? Do your students have the prerequisite skills and knowledge to even engage with the learning you're planning? Do they have a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia? Do they have ADHD or come from a background of trauma which means that they're going to require an even more structured, predictable classroom environment just to engage? Are you planning for the needs of all students or just the easy-to-reach middle? Or, even worse, are you pitching learning at the aspirational level and leaving everyone else behind?

Step two: start with the end in mind. What does your jurisdiction's curriculum require children to be able to know and do? Are you familiar enough with the curriculum and know what's expected of students in different grades? Once you know what's expected, you can develop both 'I can' and 'I know' statements related to that curriculum. These statements will form the basis of the success criteria you will share with your students. You will also use these to write report comments, so here's the link between the planning and the reporting. When developing the statements, you can then refer to a rubric you will use to grade, and this is where you begin to develop an understanding of precisely what your students will need to be able to do at which level.

For example, the achievement standard of the Australian Curriculum, Year 3 Science Area states:

they classify solids and liquids based on observable properties and describe how to cause a change of state.

So they can describe, (not just identify, but describe) in their own words how to turn a solid from a liquid and a liquid to a solid. And the content descriptor says investigate the observable properties of solids and liquids and how adding or removing heat energy leads to a change of state. Here's where we get in trouble, because it says investigate. Okay, well, we can investigate, but how do we know they've actually learned anything? You can do the best experiment in the universe, but how do you know what they know as a result of doing that? So we go back to the achievement standard with the verbs that are used. The first one is classify, the second one is describe.

So our 'I know' statements might be.

  • I know that molecules in a solid state are packed tightly together.
  • I know that molecules in a liquid state move around each other.
  • I know that solids have a fixed shape. I know that solids cannot be compressed or squashed.
  • I know that liquids have a fixed volume but not a fixed shape.
  • I know that liquids take the shape of their containers.

'I can' statements might be.

  • I can describe the properties of solids and liquids.
  • I can use this knowledge to sort substances.
  • I can describe how solids and liquids change when they are heated and cooled.

So there's more 'I know' than there is 'I can', because you can't be skilled without knowledge and this forms part of your review. In whatever subject area you're teaching, the knowledge must be retrieved repetitively, but not repetitively so that people cry, but just more than once, until students have it, because they can't describe anything to you if they don't have the knowledge.

Once you have your 'I can' and 'I know' statements worked out, work through the rubric and decide how you will determine to what degree students have learned what they need to. Because the difference here in differentiating in the particular unit that I'm talking about is not that some children will learn all the 'I know' and the 'I can''s. It's the level of support required for them to do so and the degree of complexity involved in them demonstrating what they know. Remember, you'll be assessing every one of these, so be realistic about what you can reasonably teach well in the time you have. It's better to teach less and go deeper than it is to teach it all so you can tick the boxes, but then three weeks later you ask the students a question and they have no idea what you're talking about. Do less and do it better. Go an inch wide and a mile deep, not an inch deep and a mile wide. The associated report comment for a B grade here might be something like:

This semester in science, Student A used specific vocabulary to describe what happens to the molecules in solids and liquids when they're heated and cooled. The detailed explanations in their presentation to the class showed a well-developed understanding of the topic.

Now I've included a presentation here, but you don't have to. There are lots of ways for students to demonstrate what they know, but we can see here that there are links to our 'I can' and our 'I know' statements directly. There's a direct link between the comment in the report and what we set out for students to learn in the first place.

Step three is to plan your assessment. It might seem odd to be planning assessments before your teaching sequence, but by doing it nice and early you can critically evaluate what it's going to take for your students to achieve success. A really great task for you as teachers to do is pretend that you're the student, and complete the assessment task. If all goes well, you'll now have an exemplar. You'll have a worked example to show what needs to happen. But one of the things we often find is that the ideas sound reasonable in our head. Then we sit down to actually complete the task and realise precisely how difficult it is. That helps us pare back our expectations to something that's reasonable and manageable for cognitive load and also really highlights what we're going to have to focus in on to help our kids. 

In making decisions about assessment, ensure that you leave yourself and your students enough time for them to learn, review and practise before asking them to demonstrate the knowledge or skill on their own. Spending one lesson on a concept and then asking students to independently complete a task in that same lesson leaves a lot of students behind. It also doesn't adequately assess student knowledge. This is particularly true for students who come to your classroom with less world knowledge to draw on. Knowing your students and understanding the expectations of the assessment tasks you wish them to complete is crucial when considering how you'll maximise their achievement. Ensure that you plan to have evidence for all areas of the rubric under consideration.

Step four: plan the sequence of lessons. So far, we've thought about our students, we've thought about the curriculum and we've thought about the assessment task. Now it's time to plan the sequence of lessons. Some important points to remember in planning your lessons are:

  1. plan units in detail from beginning to end. I guarantee that if you plan the first four lessons and think I'll get to the rest later, the rest will end up in a haphazard collection of lessons and your unit will not be nearly as successful as it could be, and yes, guilty as charged, your honour, I've been there and done that.
  2. Make sure that every lesson relates back to the rubric. Our days are full and there's really no time for waffle.
  3. Share the learning intentions and success criteria with your students and refer back to them throughout the unit, each lesson showing students where you've been, where they've been successful and what's coming next. This really helps cognitive load and will help your students with anxiety immensely.
  4. Use these as the basis for regular review.
  5. Focus on language development; if you want students to achieve an A or a B, they need to be able to articulate their learning well. Provide opportunities to develop both sentence structures and vocabulary that you want students to use in their writing as part of assessment, and this applies no matter what subject area you're talking about, whether it's English, science, HASS or health, language is key.
  6. Always engage students orally before asking them to write, they get a little run up and it's really helpful.
  7. Plan for how you will maximise participation of every student. The "we do" is not you and two kids who've put their hand up to answer a question for you. Go back to the podcast episode about getting questions right from the start, that will help you here. If there's a lot of sitting on the mat and listening, or not listening as the case may be, you're unlikely to get the outcomes you're looking for.
  8. How will you check for understanding throughout each lesson and between the lessons?
  9. Keep things simple, don't try to design everything from scratch if you don't have to. There's nothing wrong with utilising prepared resources for any area of the curriculum. Just remember that you do the teaching, not the lesson provider. It's important that you make decisions to meet your students where they're up to. It's also important to make sure that whatever you're using has been planned for you to teach explicitly, not with an inquiry or discovery approach, and that it links really tightly to the curriculum.
  10. Leave time for unexpected delays and interruptions, I guarantee they're going to happen, and use an explicit I do, we do, you do approach in each lesson and throughout the unit.
  11. Make students active participants in lessons, not passive receptors. This does not mean you have to engage in frou-frou funsy activities. You are the teacher and your job is to teach, but they need to be thinking and doing all through the lessons, and hands-on work is a part of that.
  12. The final step in the process here is to review, evaluate and mark regularly. Review student work regularly to evaluate the effectiveness of your teaching. Student achievement is feedback to you about how well your teaching met their needs. If your students are not able to do what you need them to do, then you need to change something about the teaching. Keeping a formative assessment checklist can help you to record progress throughout the unit, not just at the end. One of the simplest ways to determine whether your students are learning in the way that you planned is to regularly ask them to take five minutes to write down what they've learned in the unit or the lesson so far. This is a form of retrieval and serves two purposes: it strengthens student learning and gives you terrific feedback about your instruction.

A backward design model of planning will help you bring rigour to your teaching and will also set you and your students up for success, so that you can reclaim time each semester for yourself and your family. Yes, we need to spend more time planning for reporting and in the reporting itself, but in doing that, we're going to make everything so much easier. The five steps of backward design don't actually have to be all that unsexy. When you know your students, you know what the curriculum is asking, you have a clear vision of the assessment that's going to help you capture their learning, you plan lessons to help them get there and then you evaluate and mark regularly with review, the most amazing things can happen.

This is the approach we take in our text-based units inside The Resource Room, but you can apply this model to all of your planning. As I said at the start of the episode, this might not be the time right now for you to think about this too heavily, so set a reminder in your phone or your calendar to come back to this episode, 'Planning to Make Report Writing Easier', so that you can use this structure and style of planning when you're thinking about what's coming up for you and your students. That's all from me for now, I wish you a world of happy teaching. Thanks so much, everyone. See you next time. Bye.

Looking for resources to help plan for reporting time? Join us inside the Resource Room here.

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