Sorting Student Work – A Process Used Throughout the Coaching Cycle

Written by: Diane Sweeney, co-author of Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves (Corwin, 2016)

One of our favorite coaching moves is to sort student work with teachers because it is a productive way to help us see – and act upon – the different needs of students. It’s a process that is used throughout the coaching cycle. At the beginning, we sort student work to collect baseline data. Throughout the cycle we sort student work to make daily instructional decisions. As the cycle wraps up, we sort a post-assessment to determine who has met the goal, and make follow-up plans for any students who haven’t.

When using this coaching move, a teacher or team of teachers sit down with the coach and a pile of student work. They sort the work against clearly defined learning targets. By analyzing the work in this way, teachers and the coach gain insights into where students are in relation to where they need to be. This leads to clear next steps for instruction that are differentiated and driven by student learning.

Sort Student Work, Not ‘Data’

While our schools are inundated with ‘data’, it may be rare for teachers to analyze assessments that are formative in nature. We find that focusing on student evidence, rather than on spreadsheets, leads to non-judgmental partnerships with teachers. We use student work that is open-ended, descriptive, and shows what the students know. This includes; short writing samples, open-ended math problems, reading responses, conference notes, exit slips, and other formative assessments.

Look Closely for Patterns in Relation to the Learning Targets

While a teacher may choose to assign grades after a sorting session, this isn’t really the purpose. The true purpose is to analyze the work so that we know what students’ need in tomorrow’s lesson.

Megan and Janet were a few weeks into a coaching cycle focused on identifying the main idea of a text and providing evidence to back up their thinking. In an earlier lesson, they had read aloud a book about how storm chasers research tornadoes while they are forming. Then the students completed a short response that would be sorted later.

After school, Megan and Janet sat together in her classroom. Megan said, “I’m proud of my kids. They did pretty well.” Janet chimed in, “I think your hard work is paying off. Let’s see if we can identify some trends. Then we’ll know what next week will look like.” As they read through the work, they found the following trends:

  • Three of the students identified the topic as being about tornadoes, but they didn’t provide the main idea. They also didn’t provide evidence.
  • Ten of the students identified the main idea as being about storm chasers, but their evidence wasn’t clear or convincing.
  • Eight of the students identified the main idea and provided evidence.

While the data was pretty good, Janet knew that they weren’t where they needed to be. The beauty was that she didn’t have to say so. The student work spoke for itself. They proceeded to co-plan a few lessons for the following week. One focused on the difference between topic and main idea, including small group support for the students who were almost there. Another lesson zeroed in on providing convincing evidence. Again, small group support would be a feature of this lesson. They decided to co-teach the small groups so they would both be clear on how the students were progressing.

Helping Teachers See the Value in Sorting Student Work

There is no doubt that teachers are busy. And the truth is, they may be a bit burned out on meetings that involve looking at ‘data’. For this reason, coaches may need to make the case for sorting sessions. The following language stems are designed to guide you through these conversations.

If I hear…..Then I say…..
‘I don’t have time to create and grade a new test every other day to see how my kids are doing.’‘We want to collect student evidence that is authentic and easy to analyze. Why don’t we start by taking a look at the work they’ve done in class today and see what we can learn from it?’
‘I know my students really well and don’t need to gather any specific evidence to know what they need.’‘I can tell how hard you work to know each one of your students. But if we collect actual evidence – even if it’s anecdotal – we can look through it together to find trends and needs that we might not otherwise be able to catch.’
‘It feels like a waste of my time to look through another teacher’s student work. I’m not sure how that would help me and my own students.’‘Having multiple sets of eyes on the same set of student work really creates some rich learning opportunities for everyone, and helps us calibrate our understandings and expectations as a team of what success looks like and how to meet students’ needs. Usually what you find in your teammates class will apply directly to your own students as well, so you won’t need to go through the whole process again.’

Student Work Speaks Volumes

If you aren’t yet involved in coaching cycles, a simple first step may be to find ways to integrate student evidence into your conversations with teachers. Let’s say you are meeting with a teacher for an informal planning conversation, you could ask, “Do you have any student work that might inform our decisions?” Or, if you are leading a PLC, propose that the teachers bring some student work to the next meeting. This will be a first step in moving towards sorting sessions.

It’s easy to forget that student work tells us the story we need to hear. The key is looking and listening. For more information on sorting student work, check out my book, Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves (Corwin, 2016).

© Diane Sweeney Consulting, all rights reserved.

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