To get students where they need to be, start with what they know.
Like many former teachers, I love hearing from past students.
But sometimes, what they say surprises me. For instance, when I asked on social media what text they enjoyed most in their AP Literature class, many responded with The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love The Poisonwood Bible. But, when teaching it, I didn’t always get the sense that my students did.
But after thinking about it a little more, I realized that reading and writing about this particular novel may have felt a little different to my students because The Poisonwood Bible was the piece of literature that led me to develop formative assessment mapping, a process that helped me meet every student in my classroom precisely where they were.
Formative assessment mapping in high school ELA classrooms
The Poisonwood Bible gives students a lot to discuss, which means it's great for upper-level seminars where students take the lead.
But during one of our early discussions, things started to get hairy.
Even though this group of students had lots of practice holding successful discussions and generally did a good job listening to each other, it didn’t take long for the conversation to become chaotic. We got mired in contradictory understandings of the plot, and there was a lot of unproductive crosstalk as students got confused when their interpretations did not match the assertions of their peers.
I waited a while to see if the struggle would become productive, and when it didn’t, I asked students to take out a notecard and write down the three questions or statements that felt most urgent to them.
From here, formative assessment mapping was born.
The road to formative assessment mapping in high school ELA classrooms
After our flopped discussion, I looked at my students’ responses and noticed some trends in the responses that I could group.
While most students felt connected to the novel because the characters are rich and the action is vivid, some were getting tripped up with basic comprehension because the story is told by multiple narrators and is not linear.
Other students could piece together the plot but weren’t sure how to contend with the fact that narrators had different interpretations of the same event. Not knowing who was reliable—or if anyone was—left them feeling like they were “missing something.”
Other students were still processing strong emotional reactions to the characters. I’ll never forget when one student marched into the room waving the book and yelling, “Ms. Renner, why are you making me read this? I hate Nathan Price!” She, and several of her peers, weren’t ready to analyze how a narrative technique constructed a character so that the reader would feel a certain way—they first needed to unpack why they had such strong feelings about the text.
With my students’ highly illuminating responses in hand, I could pose two questions to myself—questions designed to incrementally increase student understanding and, perhaps more importantly, use the interpretations they were bringing with them to the reading experience.
Those questions were:
If the students weren’t quite getting what I wanted them to get, what were they getting?
How could I use what students already knew to help get them where they needed to be?
What is formative assessment mapping?
To assess and respond to what my students already knew, I set up a four-step process of formative assessment mapping, which is the collecting and diagnosing of student understanding followed by purposeful, targeted instruction based on what they still need to learn.
Here are the four steps.
1. Anticipate: Before giving students a discussion question, I wrote down as many possible responses to that question as I could think of. Since I knew my students pretty well, I could accurately predict the range of responses I would receive.
2. Combine: Once I had my anticipated answers, I grouped them into similar categories.
3. Next, I diagnosed what the anticipated responses might indicate about the student’s current thinking. I asked myself these questions while I did this:
A. What does this student seem to be paying attention to?
B. What does the student understand? What is the student showing they can do?
C. What do I not see evidence of in the student’s responses?
D. How do I build the next step on the student’s path to understanding?
4. Lastly, I listed scaffolding moves and tools I could use in response to each group of responses. In the case of The Poisonwood Bible, some students needed to begin by mapping the plot to reach a coherent understanding of the story's what, when, and how. Others needed to look at a particular character's framing and consider how it impacted their understanding of them. And others were ready to sit in a group and talk about how different characters described a pivotal moment in the novel.
Formative assessment mapping leads to shared understanding
Formative assessment mapping strengthened my classroom community, helped all students feel like they had something to contribute, and, from a literary analysis standpoint, seemed to work.
When I met each student where they were and asked them to grow from there, they felt less judged, did less comparing themselves to others, and were more willing to engage in the hard work of learning and improving their skills. In our capstone discussion, students talked with each other from a place of shared understanding, and those who had been reticent or disengaged contributed thoughtfully.
Formative assessment mapping also came in handy when it was time for students to write about The Poisonwood Bible. Each student employed our course themes of exile, intercultural encounters, and making the strange familiar and the familiar strange differently depending on their starting point. Some students could write about how one character related to one of the themes, and others could talk about how Kingsolver used contrasting perspectives to develop the narrative more holistically, which is quite advanced work for a high schooler.
The point is that by collecting simple data, diagnosing understanding, and structuring my next steps accordingly, I better understood what each student could feasibly be expected to write about. And I had come a little closer to building a classroom of equal involvement and mutually felt accomplishment.
Why formative assessment mapping is powerful
There are many reasons to love formative assessment mapping. Here are a few.
Differentiate learning. We hear a lot about the importance of differentiation. But it can be both laborious and time-consuming. If you go in with a plan, you’ll come closer to meeting each student where they are and actually giving them the tools they need to go farther. And because you’re basing your next steps on data you’re collecting from the student, you’re more likely to assign tasks that will help them progress.
Build confidence. Starting with what students already know is a great way to improve their confidence. Students who feel validated are more likely to keep pushing themselves.
Foster agency. With formative assessment mapping, the teacher nudges students in the right direction instead of just telling them how to get there. Of course, I could have given a lecture about how Kingsolver uses multiple narrators to disrupt our notions of truth, but when I assigned a group to research how different philosophers define truth, they made the leap themselves.
Continue assessing. Formative assessment mapping can be ongoing. What students know and need changes, sometimes weekly. And with formative assessment mapping, you’re always checking in and adjusting content and approach as needed.
Equitably reward growth. Formative assessment mapping lets you give grades based on progress. You can assess how much a student has grown in their skills and thinking—and how hard they’ve worked to get there—instead of basing grades on a pre-determined end goal that doesn’t consider that every student started in a different place.
To get started with formative assessment mapping, lean on your colleagues
Like anything else that focuses more on process than finding correct answers, formative assessment mapping can take some time and practice to implement.
So, here’s my advice. Don’t try to implement formative assessment mapping without support, particularly if you are a newer teacher. Anticipating and grouping responses, diagnosing what each group of responses indicates about student thinking, and creating scaffolding for every lesson likely won’t be doable on your own.
I was able to implement formative assessment mapping with The Poisonwood Bible because I had taught the text many times, had a good sense of likely student responses, and had an archive of possible tasks, questions, and writing activities. Even so, formative assessment mapping took me some extra planning time initially, but I stuck with it because student engagement and growth were so encouraging.
By my second or third year of implementing formative assessment mapping, the process had become somewhat automatic, and it actually made my prepping faster. But it didn’t happen overnight.
My suggestion to anyone interested in trying out formative assessment mapping is to work with your teaching team or professional learning community. Take a text you will all be teaching and go through the process of anticipating, grouping, and diagnosing responses and then pool your resources when drafting the tasks, questions, or assignments that will come next.
Colleagues with many years of experience will likely have resources already made, and you can see where these might fit in as you prepare scaffolds. To save even more prep time, you can skip the step of anticipating responses and instead use an exit ticket and then group actual student responses. The only caveat is that your differentiated instruction won’t happen until your next session together, but when teaching a longer text that’s discussed over many class periods, this often isn’t a problem.
Formative assessment mapping will help every student progress
Although it took me a while to grow into this truth, it really is a gift when a lesson doesn’t go according to plan.
If class that day had gone as it always had, I probably would not have stumbled upon formative assessment mapping, which I believe helped me build a classroom culture where kids felt comfortable showing up with the tools they had and moving forward from there.
We often tell our students that the unexpected will help them grow, and this is no less true for teachers—as long as we meet these detours with flexibility, creativity, and the knowledge that the journey is the destination.
This article was adapted from my 2022 collaborative session, “Making Sense of the Messiness: Formative Assessment With Complex Texts and Tasks,” at Literacy For All: The National Institute, Carnegie Learning’s annual professional learning event for literacy educators. I hope you’re as excited as I am about the 2023 Institute, scheduled for July 17th-20th in Scottsdale, Arizona.
As a passionate high school English teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools, Nicole taught every 9-12 English class under the sun and supported the implementation of Project Based Learning and Paideia active learning. Nicole holds an M.Ed. in Secondary English Education from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, and an M.A. and B.A. in English Language and Literature from the University of Virginia. For the last decade, Nicole has directed her love for English Language Arts into the design and development of curriculum, assessment, and professional learning at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE); Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC); and now at Carnegie Learning.Explore more related to this author
When I met each student where they were and asked them to grow from there, they felt less judged, did less comparing themselves to others, and were more willing to engage in the hard work of learning and improving their skills.
Nicole Renner, Director of Instructional Design, 6-12 Literacy