Monday, February 18, 2013

The Worksheet Dilemma

During the years I was a language arts/reading coach, I spent a lot of time trying to convince fellow teachers that worksheets were not the best way to assess their students' reading and writing abilities.  I "preached" about the beauty of rubrics and guided reading notebooks.  I demonstrated taking and gathering information from running records.   I extolled the virtues of  reading and writing conferences and referenced Lucy Calkins or Fountas and Pinnell in almost every conversation.

But then I came back to the classroom to teach first grade!  Reality set in, and I found that giving up worksheets was harder than it sounded, and they sure made my life easier sometimes.  (Nothing like a couple of cut and paste worksheets on a day your head is throbbing and you just need the class to work quietly for awhile!)   I also know that school life beyond first grade will be filled with worksheets and tests like our Texas STAAR.  I want my students to have at least a little bit of familiarity with these types of activities.  But still, rubrics, running records and conferences are my main assessment tools in language arts, and I am quite comfortable using them and sharing the information with parents.

But I didn't have that same comfort level with math when I returned to the classroom.  I knew the importance of teaching with manipulatives and using the CRA model, but most of our practice and assessment opportunities came from worksheets.  As I begin to immerse myself in professional reading about math, I started to question the use of even this many worksheets. Another reminder to be careful with worksheets came from my experience at Confratute this summer.  During my session with Rachel McAnallen, she talked about "naked" worksheets- the type with just a page full of equations to solve.  She said that these number-only worksheets were overwhelming for some children and that by adding a noun to the problems, it enables them to "see" the problem.   For example, instead of just 3+4=?, add a word: 3 cats + 4 cats = ? cats.  I imagine that some of these worksheets just look like a page of squiggles to some first graders!
I can see why some kids hate math if this is all they ever see!

Worksheets and paper-pencil tests do make grading easier.  It's time consuming to individually assess 22+ students.  But I am starting to realize that the same techniques that allow me to assess language arts skills without a worksheet can work in math as well.  Rubrics are the perfect tool for assessing students' problem solving skills.  The Exemplars program that my district uses provides many different styles of rubrics that we can use not only for Exemplars work, but other problem solving as well.  As I start to do more teaching in guided math groups, I realize I could use my anecdotal records and checklists to assess and evaluate just like I do in reading and writing.  I can observe and conference with students as they complete workstation activities.  Visiting with a student and hearing how they worked through a problem solving exercise can tell me much more than any fill-in-the-answer worksheet!

The next few months of school will be a great time to explore alternative types of assessment.  Many of our upcoming skills like measurement and geometry lend themselves perfectly to performance task assessments.  Hopefully I will be able to develop some easy to use tasks and rubrics that will provide my teammates and I an opportunity to authentically assess our students!

How do you use rubrics or performance tasks in math?  I would love to hear about the ways you assess and grade your students in math!

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