Friday, February 7, 2014

Literacy Centers as Pre-Assessment

"Mrs. Kissner, I know the pattern! We have a two-hour delay, and then we have off. We have a two-hour delay, and then off."

And this student was right--that has been the pattern this week! I haven't been able to accomplish much teaching because of the weather. Yesterday, during what should have been my fluency intervention, I was digging a drainage canal in front of my house:

It was like building the biggest sand castle moat ever, and it was hugely satisfying to see the water start to run down to the storm drain instead of pooling in front of my driveway. I have always loved standing in slush and yesterday's slush was about the best ever.

All of these odd days left today's reading class as a finish-up and catch-up day. Some students were still working on their poetry assessment and others were completing their Comparing Poems projects. I needed something for the students who were finished with everything. I didn't want to have them work on their other ongoing projects, as the noise level would quickly escalate.

So I decided to pull down my nonfiction literacy center activities and use them as pre-assessment instead of independent practice. I created these over several years, and slowly added sets to my box. There are two versions of a paragraph match in which students match paragraphs to text structures. A retelling center directs students to read a short text about an animal life cycle and then retell the text with pictures; a main idea center has students arrange sentences from paragraphs in an order that makes sense.

Here's what I found: Using the center activities to find out what my students already know was incredibly effective. The informal nature of the activities made students much more willing to talk to me about their thinking than they would have been if they had been taking a traditional pretest. "What does this word mean?" one student asked, pointing to chronological. "Are these paragraphs or poems?" asked an ELL student. "I don't think I've learned about text structure before," said another. I love to overhear these questions--they mean that the kids are actively thinking about what they are reading and are searching for meaning.

Using the centers before instruction increased the overall level of engagement. Although I expected the activities to only take about 20 minutes, students kept coming back for more. "I want to try the water park one!" or, passing an envelope from one to another, "You'll love this one!" Best of all, I now know what kinds of knowledge students are bringing with them to the nonfiction unit that we will start tomorrow.

Or maybe not tomorrow. After all, there is a pattern.

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