On the first day of my internship with Nancie Atwell at the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine, I sat eagerly with my spiral-bound notebook, poised to record notes, and watched as Atwell moved around the room to gather page numbers and check in with readers. My excitement quickly turned to haughty indignation when she finished talking with every reader and sat down in her rocking chair to wait until it was time to pull students out of the reading zone. Doesn’t she realize we are all watching her? I wondered. I was shocked that she seemed to be acting so casual when we were looking to her as a model.
I watched and waited. Positioned to take notes, I was closely observing—even when there didn’t seem to be anything to notice other than students reading and a teacher relaxing. It was this moment of careful note taking that revealed another truth entirely. Atwell was not waiting for time to pass, but rather observing the readers in front of her. I watched as she looked from left to right, pausing for a mere second or two to look at each reader’s eyes.
My perspective shifted again, this time from indignation to awe. This quiet moment of subtle observation contained all the power and importance of a dancer’s movement between beats. Sitting back to take in the nuances in behavior of the readers in her room is what propels Atwell to make her next move as a teacher of these readers.
My internship at the Center for Teaching and Learning was six years ago. Since then, I have given myself permission as a teacher to slow down and watch my students. I have begun to consider observing an act of formative assessment. Recently, it occurred to me that this subtle teaching move is not only a form of assessment but an assessment that could be turned into data.
Data has been a word I have always dreaded. In my experience as an educator, data analysis involves confusion, is based on inauthentic tasks, and results in shame. However, data can be simple, authentic, and empowering when it is collected in meaningful ways.
I want to take the subtle moment I witnessed in Atwell’s classroom and turn it into meaningful data by making it more concrete. In addition to other records I keep about readers, I plan to add an engagement-scale score of 1–10. When I think about capturing data on things I am already doing, I get excited, and my plans expand. I am considering asking students to self-assess their own engagement during independent reading as well. That would mean I have to work with students to develop a shared definition of what it looks like to be engaged at level 10 versus level 9, and so on. I imagine that conversation would be beneficial with or without the data collection.
The idea of data analysis even becomes an energizing possibility when I think of comparing my data on each reader’s engagement with each reader’s own data. This analysis could open a world of possibilities in terms of conferring with readers and setting goals.
The more I think about collecting and using meaningful data in my classroom, the more empowered I feel. I think about what would happen if I shared this kind of data with administrators. I believe our conversations might shift from the confusion, inauthenticity, and shame of the past to more meaningful reflection and future plans. Given that possibility, I began collecting other ideas for data collection that empowers.
Based on the work of Teri Lesesne in Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Them to Be and Penny Kittle in Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, I ask my students to complete reading ladders at the end of each semester. They complete the ladder by writing the title and author of every book they finished reading, putting the texts that were most complex for them as individual readers on the higher rungs. Next to each book, students write a brief note explaining why it falls where it does on the ladder.
There are many possibilities for meaningful data collection from these reading ladders. The total number of books read by each student can be looked at on an individual basis and used to determine a class average. A comparison can be made between first semester and second semester for the purpose of analysis, reflection, and goal setting. The total number of books read that students consider to be complex could be valuable when planning future lessons, conferences, and book talks.
Another possibility for data collection is similar to reading ladders, but has a slightly different focus. Make a ritual of taking photos of students posed with their books each time they complete one. Displaying the photos would be a powerful visual representation of data that could have an effect on readers throughout the year.
At the end of the semester, students would have a stack of photos that could be sorted to plan for reading ladders. Students could also use the photos to look for patterns in their own reading and across the class. By looking at book covers, it would be easy to tell which books, authors, and genres are most popular. Students might use this data to make decisions about their own reading.
Reading and Writing Conferences
Conferring with readers and writers is a natural aspect of reading and writing workshop. Although I am intentional about documenting much of the work I do with student readers and writers, there are pieces of data and opportunities for analysis that I have been missing out on.
In addition to keeping track of strengths, goals, and teaching points, I have records that show the number of times I have met with individual students. However, I have not been using this data for reflection and decision making. I wonder if there is a correlation between the number of times I met with students and the growth they made. I wonder if the average number of times I met with students overall differs from one class period to another. I am pretty certain that the number of times I conferred with students rose and fell at different times of the school year. By intentionally collecting the data to answer these questions, I position myself to take action as a result.
At the end of the year, I ask students to complete self-reflections on their growth as readers and writers.
Students are asked to consider who they were as a reader and writer before the current school year. They are asked to think about what they’ve learned and which lessons had the greatest effect on their work. They are prompted to consider their accomplishments and note ways in which they have changed.
Although these reflections do not directly produce data in the form of numbers, student responses can still be reviewed for patterns. For instance, I might read through reflections and gather the number of students who report an increase in reading enjoyment, the number of students who report an increase in reading engagement, the number of students who report a particular writing lesson as most influential, or the number of students who report that peer feedback made a difference in their writing. This information could be used as a means of reporting progress, as fodder for reflection, and as fuel for setting goals.
Although meaningful data collection may appear on the surface to simply be a teacher sitting in a rocking chair doing nothing but waiting for time to pass, a closer look reveals that it is far more than that. When we apply the concept of data collection to moves we are already making as teachers, it looks effortless and empowers us to take actions that matter.