Friday, April 4, 2014

Regions Formative Assessments

Our essential question for the regions unit is:  How does a region's economy, culture, geography and issues shape each region?  How does each unique region contribute to the U.S. as a whole?  How are we checking for understanding as we teach our unit on the regions of the U.S.?

Before spring break, we began this unit by tapping into, and building the students' schema on the U.S.  We did this by first giving the students a test on the location of all 50 states and reviewing their map skills.   This is a formative assessment in itself, but it doesn't necessarily relate to our Essential Question.  But, we feel strongly that, in order to begin talking about the regions of the U.S., students need to know the locations of the states.  This is a very informal formative assessment, but it does lead to some very interesting and telling classroom conversations. Students are very aware of the locations of the states in the West, but are very foggy on the eastern states.  Opening with this formative assessment allowed us to talk to the kids about important landmarks of the states that will help them eventually answer our essential question. Some examples are:
  1. The Great Lakes States' weather and commerce are greatly impacted by the great lakes. (Students still don't have a good understanding of the size of the lakes.  I think they think of them in comparison to high mountain lake that they may have seen hiking.  Therefore, they don't have an understanding yet of their impact on commerce and the weather.)
  2. States that have an ocean coast have a culture that revolves around the sea and seafood.
  3. The weather impacts those who live and farm in the midwest.
We used to require that students learn the location of all 50 states.  A lofty goal considering that at last check their teacher (Mr. Lewis) could only locate 42.  We will continue to assess them, but I think that a greater focus on a real understanding of our Essential Question is a better goal.

The second activity we did in order to build background knowledge was to watch a series of regions videos on Safari Montage.  As students watched the videos, they labeled the states and surrounding bodies of water on a map of the region and they took notes, organizing their notes in a graphic organizer divided into economy, culture, geography and issues.  Then, as a formative assessments, they had to create and draw an icon in their notes that represented their region.  At the end of the videos on Friday, students gathered in groups according to region and came up with an icon for each of the categories for that region and drew them on a 2" x 2" square.  We laminated them and mounted them onto a wall map.

I struggle with formative assessments for a couple of reasons.  One is that I don't want the formative to become too formal.  I read an article about using questions to check for understanding that was given to us by the SLT one Friday.  I think it is from the Wiggins / McTeague book.  Over the years, I have developed my use of questioning and I think this is a strength for me.  However, I need to do a better job of making the kids produce something to prove their understanding.  Our icons are a good example of this.  I could also use response cards, or exit slips as we move forward.

The other struggle I have is, whenever we plan to tweak this unit, the temptation is to put more in place to have kids demonstrate through performance, or presentation.  I push back simply because we do not have the time to add more of that to the unit.  I also feel that as we add days, weeks to this unit, kids get really bored with it if we don't continue moving forward at a brisk pace.  I need the formative to be quick and dirty.

Our general plan for the rest of the unit is for students to begin to research.  They will do some general research of the regions using the textbook.  Then we will begin to challenge them to come up with a research-able question that they have about a region. They will then research an answer to their question and the essential question and present it as a written piece.


  1. Jeff,
    I must say that it is pretty fun to read your thinking behind this unit as I begin my work with Regions next week. I am particularly intrigued by your reflections on assessments of basic skills, such as state recall, and higher level understanding, such as "How does a region's economy, culture, geography and issues shape each region? How does each unique region contribute to the U.S. as a whole?" I believe that children need bot because they foster such different cognitive development. I think well rounded people have access to base knowledge and can analyze connections/contributions/etc. The icons that the students drew reminds me of the Making Thinking Visible routine of CSI. I wonder if I can use this... Thank you for your thoughtful post!

  2. Jeff,
    I appreciate your thoughtful insight into the formerly commonly accepted practice of testing the kids on labeling the fifty states. I feel that your essential questions will better serve them to relate to the regions and retain that information. My own experience is that through traveling, therefore having a need to know, I have learned geography.
    I also appreciate your concern about adding a performance due to time constraints and the possibility of the student's waning interest.
    P.S. Are the states that give you trouble, in areas of the country to which you have not travelled/no connection?

  3. I had to chuckle over your comment about how many states you were able to label... I am sure I am hovering around the mid-thirties, low forties! It struck, me, however, that when I was in school, one of the most stressful tests I had to take in 4th grade was labeling all of the state! I REMEMBER THE STRESS! And then that led me to make the connection between formative and summative assessment. I think the tasks that you are setting up for the students are MUCH more authentic, serve as formative assessments along the way, but allow the students' thinking, questioning, research and understanding to build into a final summative product that relates to your essential questions. I think it is ok to let go of the desire for performance assessment in this case- the restriction of time, the length of the unit, and the amount of information you have to cover can restrict what you do in the end. I think you are wise to keep pacing in mind, and not "muddy the water" by adding a performance aspect to your assessment.

  4. I agree that it was a good move to focus more on your essential question than memorizing the location of each state. As long as students have a map for reference, they should be thinking more about landforms, waterways, and the people who live in each region. Without having visited a state, the only way to build background knowledge is to do exactly what you did (videos, reading). What is the understanding you are looking for in a formative assessment? Perhaps taking the overarching essential question and adding several topical questions might narrow the focus, and the formatives could present from the topical questions. Just a thought.