Yesterday was a coaching day, and I had an awful lot of fun hanging out with sixth grade students for the better part of the morning. I began the day in Danielle Cobb’s classroom, who has begun differentiating reading instruction and making use of formative assessment. Danielle knows that her kids struggle to identify main idea as they read, and yesterday’s demo lesson aimed to address that.

I’m sharing that lesson here for two reasons: I’d like the other teachers from Danielle’s building to have a place to access it, and I’d also like to get some warm and cool feedback from others about my use of formative assessment throughout. What are warm and cool feedback? They are components of Tuning Protocols. My first exposure to this process happened through Communities for Learning last summer, and this peer review process has become a powerful part of the work that students do in our young writers’ studio sessions. Mine can be found toward the bottom of this wikispace…feel free to use it if you’d like to.

Much of this lesson was adapted from this one, provided by the Ohio Department of Education. The pre-assessment, graphic organizer, and template that I used to record information about student performance are all provided there.

I began yesterday’s lesson by reading an informational paragraph aloud to students while they listened at their desks. I read this passage twice, and when I was finished, I asked each student to write down the main idea and the supporting details present in the paragraph. As they worked, I circled the room, recording which students were able to do this accurately and which ones were not. I also made some annotations. For instance, some students were able to translate the main idea into their own words, and I thought this was worth noting.

This first step provided me a baseline understanding of how well students already knew how to do this. At this point, only a handful of students were capable of doing this.

Next, I provided a think aloud, modeling for students how I was able to identify the main idea and the supporting details in the same passage that I had read aloud. I used a graphic organizer to demonstrate how the main idea of any passage is much like a table top and the table legs provide support, just like details in text.

Then, I read the passage aloud again, asking all students to put their thumb up when they heard the main idea and to use their five fingers to indicate when they heard supporting details. As they did this, I assessed the effectiveness of my think aloud. At this point, many more students were able to identify the main idea and the supporting details.

Lastly, I provided students a graphic organizer of their own, and I asked them to read the first section in their leveled readers. As they worked, they used the graphic organizer to demonstrate their ability to identify main idea and supporting details. Danielle knows that she can use these assessments to determine which students might be pulled into invitational groups for further support and which students can move on to explore the text in other ways.

Like I said, I’ve been eager to receive some feedback about my use of formative assessment in this lesson, and it occured to me that a blog might be a good place for this coach to get some coaching herself. So please be honest! It will help ME help others better, and I’d be very grateful for this. Thanks!



  1. Warm: This is good example of how formative assessment can be done simply to inform instruction. When the word assessment is attached to explanations of what a student can do, teachers a lot of times hear that as “graded work.” Where really, formative assessment is as much a checks and balances for the teacher (directionally) as it is a mastery gauge for student learning. To do this well, blanket formative assessments rarely tell a teacher anything, except that the average and above kids are doing okay. This assessment was appropriately differentiated and gave real, useful data to help guide the teacher to a next step for all students.
    Cool:Were there students that would have been successful with this task through another means? Meaning, could there have been another measure to quickly assess their understanding besides the graphic organizer? Could the differentiation opportunities extend to the product as well? Perhaps give the kids a choice of ways to demonstrate understanding that including the G.O. but may have also included a textual representation or a non-linguistic model?
    Other comment: The warm/cool model here is difficult because, as a human and as a teacher, I want to see the good and identify it and celebrate it. I personally thought this was a well done lesson and I’m qualifying my comments in a “devil’s advocate” sort of mode. (Because I feel I must? Maybe I just need a tad more coffee!)

    Is this what you were looking for?


  2. Warm:

    Ditto to Mike’s observation regarding formative assessment. Collecting the data WHILE students are working is a natural and tapping into something you would have done otherwise. You lesson takes the mystery out of main idea and presents it in a clear and manageable way.


    Before looking at students’ work, did you have a standard in mind for main idea? In other words, had you articulated what you thought was the main idea without using a graphic organizer?

    I’m wondering if you might have expanded your think aloud by using your formative data from the walk-around and identifying students who were able to do it and quietly asking them if they were comfortable sharing how they did the task (given they did it prior to scaffolding). Having one or two students do a think aloud after they’ve heard you do one could support the message to students that there are many ways to arrive at the same conclusion and as teachers, we share one way, not necessarily the only or the right way.

    I’d be curious to see the difference in students’ responses to high interest text as compared to informative texts. If they read a blog posting or article on something they are interested in, are they more likely to identify main idea without scaffolding? If so, I wonder if that would represent an opportunity for a reflective prompt that could provide additional information about what students have mastered the skill and internalized how they did it.

    Ditto to Mike’s comment re: differentiation. If your formative assessment indicates that let’s say 5 out of 20 students could do it prior to scaffolding, why should they have to do the scaffolding activity? Is there an alternative activity they could do? As you’re walking around, could you slid them a separate task and share that since they’ve mastered the skill in one way, are they able to it in another way? Perhaps in a text where the main idea isn’t stated explicitly?

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Angela Reply

    Thanks for taking the time to help me, Jenn. This sort of feedback is exactly what I need. I wish there were more opportunities to do this. It helps so much.

    Your suggestions are incredibly meaningful…..I never thought to ask the students to share their process. Very meaningful and more engaging.

    Ironic–in a different lesson this week, we focused on author’s purpose. I modeled, used a children’s book for guided practice/formatively assessed and then challenged kids to do with less considerate text—they couldn’t. We know where we have to go now, but still not satisfied with that outcome. Want kids to leave feeling as successful as possible. You’ve given me a lot to think about here. Thanks for taking the time here, I know it was a lengthy post.

  4. I had the same “warm” response as the previous commenters.

    On the “cool” side, I think formative assessment’s strongest benefit is immediate feedback to the learner. Like Mike said, you used the assessment to change the teaching. And like Jennifer said, it seems that there could be opportunities to help all students understand better in that same moment, rather than waiting for later lessons.

    For example, when the students raise their hands, they see other students raising their hands. That is somewhat misleading, because you might get hands raised just because they figure majority rules.

    But, again piggybacking on Jennifer’s comments, what if you had students explain their choices in front of the class. Why is one sentence more important than others, and let them have a conversation about that. It would expose the kids to the thought process of others, and give you even more information about what they are thinking. Some kids get the right answer for the wrong reasons, and then can’t transfer it to the next situation.

    But I wouldn’t only let the kids who got it “right” talk – everyone can talk about what they think. If you only call up the “good” students, it’s jut an indirect lecture.

    Don’t tell them the right answer, let them talk it out.

    Like you might have one student say that the main idea is always in the first sentence. They will be right lots of the time, but that’s not correct. If they have to say that out loud, and then discuss why with other students, they will have to defend their own logic which is a powerful learning experience. Other students who may have the same misconception can hear the discussion, and other students who have the right answer can argue.

  5. This is a perfect remedy for that part of the lesson that I felt less than satisfied with. Someone DID suggest that the main idea was in the first sentence—but I WAS THE ONE to challenge it. You know, I think it’s hard for teachers relinquish “control” in any environment, but in these early coaching/demo sessions, I’m realizing it’s even more so because I know I’m being “watched.”

    Thanks so much, Sylvia. These are great suggestions—will influence my next go at it.

  6. Thank you for sharing this lesson; I will share and use it! I agree with the comments above. One thing stood out to me as I read your description of the “thumbs up…” piece, which Sylvia addressed (students may be raising their hands because they see others). An alternative could be to have students highlight or underline with colored pen the main idea, and either number, or use a second color to indicate the supporting details. (Did students have the paragraph in front of them?) This technique could be especially useful as a “quick and dirty” to see where students are understanding main idea if they have not done a lot of work with it. I think about some of the very struggling students I’ve observed who have great difficulty with the physical task of writing. I realize that as part of your assessment you were looking to see if students could restate in their own words, but the highlighting technique could be a way to differentiate and scaffold. (I think this post has turned into my own “think-aloud” but I hope you find it helpful.)

  7. Angela – by sharing this lesson with the world and soliciting feedback in strategic ways, I think you’ve really highlighted the power of community on the web. This is a fantastic example of the Disposition of Practice in so many ways! It almost have an advantage over in person feedback in that I, as a provider of feedback, could think carefully about what I wanted to say without worrying about time constraints and could wordsmith if needed. I built on Mike’s comments, Sylvia built on mine and Linda on Sylvia’s. As the receiver, you have a permanent record of the feedback and the opportunity to follow-up as you like. Again, thanks for being so courageous and sharing!

  8. Angela, this sounds like a great lesson for both the teacher and the student. I am sorry I couldn’t see both the lesson in Liz’s room and Danielle’s. I had the privilege of having you discuss this with me in person, so I have a couple perspectives.

    “Warm”: Looking at the benefits to the students, I have to agree with everyone that this immediate feedback and adjustment of teaching is critical to improve teaching and learning. Looking at the benefits to the teachers, the formal collection of the data not only helps drive the changes to instruction, it also gives documentation to show continual growth and for larger collegial instruction-as a grade level or department.

    “Cool”: How does one make sure that the “type” of formative assessment works well with the larger group of students? Some do not work well with graphic organizers. Can the F.A be differentiated and still give the information that you are looking for?

    “other”: I think that most teachers use Formative assessments, as a matter of practice, but forget to intentionally collect data and sometimes forget to change instruction immediately. Are there standard ways of collecting data this formally?

    Thank you for this opportunity, as it has made my understanding of Formative Assessments grow.

  9. Okay, so I just have to say this: I was thinking this whole thing could flop. I’ve never asked for this sort of feedback in a post before—and I am now wondering why on earth I haven’t.

    Every single one of you bring such a unique and important perspective to this, and the suggestions provided here are going to influence so much more than the sort of work encapsulated in this single lesson.

    Jenn—I’m so excited to have received all of this feedback and support, and I’m going to have control myself a bit here, because I am now going to be tempted to bug people to read and critique all the time. This exchange has felt more meaningful than any other on this blog. Never thought about how the blog lifts time-restraints and provides time to think/respond carefully. I know I’ll be revisiting these comments often while I’m planning in the future. This has been incredibly rewarding. Thank you!!!!!

    Joe–Wow. These are great questions, and you are definitely touching on things that are still a bit beyond my scope. Learning more about collecting and capturing this data is one of my personal learning goals this year. I’m hoping that information like this can generate further study/discussion between all of us and lead to refined practices. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Hope you will continue to!

  10. Angela,

    As the teacher trainer, though–who sees the value in this sort of dialogue–I think it’s important too to recognize (and we talked about this briefly earlier) that this is the teaching/learning zone. If more teachers engaged in dialogue at this level about what they were doing, in a peer review mode, specifically where they invited each other in and formed communities that broached the topic of reflective practice in this manner–the business of education would become self-fulfilling, and evolve beyond the scope of anything we could hope for!

    This is such a necessary process. This is where true change and growth are born.

  11. Linda–I like the idea of using highlighters or markers. Wondering about cutting the piece apart as well (with scissors). Jenn’s suggestion, to differentiate how they show what they are able to do, is a good one. This connects to that….thanks!

    Mike–I’m going to use this post and the comments within to demonstrate how peer review can enrich reflective practice. I’m hoping that it will exemplify the importance of the process and the necessity for these types of conversation. So often, when we think about instruction, we consider anticipatory set/input/modeling/guided practice/check for understanding/independent practice…..we think about creating a solid plan…..we deliver it…and then we are “done.” Opening ourselves up to this sort of dialogue before AND after supports the notion that assessment, particularly formative assessment, can be practiced on different levels–as a check of student understanding/progress and as a check of professional understanding/progress. I’m thinking aloud…hoping this makes sense.

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