Scaffolding learning for each different layer of understanding in my elementary classroom is one of the hardest things I professionally do. There, I said it. Maybe you can sympathize with me more completely if I tell you about a recent math lesson.

By the beginning of 4th grade, students should know all of their basic facts, and we begin to lay the groundwork for different strategies to complete multi-digit multiplication. Today, just like each other day, the students took out their math books, math journals, and pencils, and waited quietly with hands folded in eager anticipation of the lesson. Okay, well, the part about taking out their materials was true…

Anyway, the lesson was on the distributive property of multiplication.  I recapped the prior day’s lesson to build upon, I clearly stated the lesson’s objective, I provided concrete visuals and utilized a video as an additional learning bridge.  

Time was allotted for experimentation and practice, and when I felt it was appropriate, the kids tried applying a new strategy to a problem on their own under my watchful guidance. I circulated the room and was sure to help those with raised hands or furrowed eyebrows.

Surely the lesson was a success, and soon they were off to the races to do some independent practice.  They were getting it.  

To make a long story short, at the end of the lesson, I distributed post-its for the kids to complete an exit card. Easy peasy, I would just make three piles: “got it”, “sort of got it”, “didn’t get it”, positive that “got it” would be the biggest. Well, as I went through the post-its, the “didn’t get it” pile quickly began to win. There were four post-its in the “got it” pile. Four. Are you serious? I thought I was giving effective feedback throughout the lesson…

What makes the biggest difference here is what we do next, and that’s what formative assessment is all about.

I came across an article by Scholastic entitled 25 Quick and Easy Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom. You had me at quick and easy… Scroll down to page nine and you’ll find a nifty little chart that gives scaffolding ideas for struggling learners and for challenging advanced learners. Now some of the ideas are things that good teachers intrinsically do, but many of them are new ideas or at least good reminders. I just love the enrichment ideas about using the information in a completely new way.

So where did I leave off with my class who completely, in no way, could move on to the next lesson the following day? I decided to teach the distributive property of multiplication in a new way, incorporating kinesthetic and color-coding elements and challenged those who understood it to come up with a real-life situation where they have to convince others to use this property of multiplication.

Working to refine how we formatively assess students is not always easy, but doing so is huge and so, so worth it.

Ellen Raupp