1.1 Knowledge of Learners & Learning
Candidates assess learner needs and design instruction that reflects educational best practice.
“Learning is finding out what you already know.” This quotation by Richard Bach stands as a testimony to the importance of pre-assessment in the field of education. In order to truly observe and measure learning, it must be clear to both the teacher and the student what prior knowledge already exists. Never before had the value of pre-assessment been as apparent as it was during my preparations for my digital nonfiction collaborative unit. I was preparing to teach a first grade class after having spent my entire professional career at the high school level. More daunting was the fact that the unit would hit upon a slew of information literacy skills including differentiating between fiction and nonfiction, finding nonfiction resources in the library, articulating the purpose of nonfiction, using the features of the Pebblego database, searching for a specific information need, taking notes effectively, and citing sources. I knew that these were all skills that, with the appropriate scaffolding, a first grader could tackle. However, with only two hours total to teach all of these skills, I knew that my collaborative partner and I would need to carefully craft the design of our instruction to meet the needs of the learners. It was essential that we have a clear understanding of what the first graders already knew in order to exercise educational best practice.
Designing a pre-assessment for a primary level student was a new and initially challenging experience for me – one I’m grateful I had during my internship because it truly gave me the opportunity to learn on the job. It was difficult to develop questions that would yield the information we needed without the pre-assessment becoming too verbose and confusing for a first grader to complete. I knew that I needed to keep the number of questions at an absolute minimum, so that the first graders would not be overwhelmed. Since my collaborative partner, Emily, would be administering the pre-assessment in her classroom prior to our first collaborative lesson, I was also cognizant of the need to avoid the pre-assessment’s adverse interference with her classroom lesson plans. I was able to narrow what began as a long list of possibilities down to five solid questions. I tried to keep their phrasing as simple and straightforward as possible and used images throughout to cater the design of my instruction for emerging readers.
The students were to circle their responses to each of the five questions/statements, which were (1) Which books are nonfiction?, (2) Where could you find nonfiction information in our school library?, (3) Agree or Disagree: I understand what nonfiction information is used for, (4) I like to find out new information about things that interest me, and (5) Select one: I use the computer this much. For question one, I selected four book cover images from the Chicago Public Library, all of which were written on the topic of polar bears (the mascot of Parr’s Ridge Elementary). Of the books, two were fiction, Touch the Sky, My Little Bear and The Snow Bear. Two were nonfiction texts, Ice Bears and Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World.
Though the major focus of our collaborative unit was to be digital nonfiction, I used print texts to connect with the students’ prior knowledge. Their base knowledge of the difference between fiction and nonfiction in both the classroom and the library was based entirely on hard copy texts. Through this question, I sought to assess the learners’ needs – whether they would need to review the concept of fiction vs. nonfiction before moving forward to new nonfiction and research skills. For question two, I designed icons representing different areas in the library. The first showed the instructional area to the left of the red river as you enter the library. I depicted the bookshelves against the far wall and included a picture of a librarian in a rocking chair and a picture of a book worm, to signal to the students that this was the area where their class met with Mrs. Nies and Bookie the Bookworm. The second symbolic image depicted shelves to the right of the red river, and the last image showcased a computer station. I wanted to ascertain whether the students remembered where the nonfiction books were housed in the library based on their recent library lessons on subjects. I also hoped to discover how many students were already aware that a computer can be used to locate nonfiction information. Questions three through five were designed to provide further information in regards to the students’ experience with nonfiction information. Three and four featured thumbs up, thumbs down options, and question five asked the students to select “a lot” or “a little.”
All of the students responded to item four “I like to find out new information about things that interest me” in the affirmative. This consistent response indicated to me that the class would be eager, engaged learners as they pursued their digital information needs, which proved to be true. With the questions more closely linked to specific classroom and library curricular topics, I found some holes in the students’ mastery of nonfiction skills. Though the students had already done some activities in the classroom and in the library that dealt with differentiating between fiction and nonfiction, approximately one half of the students were not able to accurately determine which of the book cover images were nonfiction texts in question one. I knew, therefore, that it would be imperative for me review fiction vs. nonfiction before beginning to promote an understanding of digital nonfiction texts in the first collaborative lesson; otherwise, the students would be missing an essential building block in their understanding of nonfiction information. This was an identified learner need around which I designed Day 1’s instruction. The students had the most difficulty responding to question two, in which they were to circle the areas in the library where nonfiction information can be found. About a third of the students were not able to properly indicate which portion of the library housed nonfiction books, and only a small handful identified the computer as a source for nonfiction information.
Based on my assessment of the student responses, I shaped my initial engagement activities for the first collaborative lesson based on the learners' cognitive needs in accordance with educational best practice. In the past the students have often helped Bookie the Bookworm (a puppet alter-ego of my mentor, Jan Nies) learn new academic skills – from mastering the alphabet to counting to learning nursery rhymes. The students really relate to the difficulty that Bookie has in these academic areas and are always eager to help him. I decided to structure the lesson around a need to become digital nonfiction experts in order to help Bookie. I knew that I wanted an opportunity to go over the front page of the pre-assessment (which entailed the nonfiction vs. fiction and locating nonfiction in the library questions) and make some clarifications without using up too much of our class time. I created a version of the pre-assessment supposedly completed by Bookie – naturally, it had a number of mistakes. As “student teachers,” the members of the class needed to help me correct Bookie’s paper. This created a basis for discussion of how we differentiate between fiction and nonfiction and where nonfiction information can be found. I reminded the students of Mrs. Nies’s nonfiction tagline. She sings “NONfiction,” and the students respond with “INformation.” This triggered an understanding of nonfiction material that had previous been lying dormant in the minds of many of the students. Correcting the mistakes of the fictional character Bookie was a non-threatening way for the students to spend time reviewing skills from the pre-assessment with which they were having continuing difficulty.
As the collaborative unit went on, the formative and summative assessments the students completed demonstrated the malleability of the first grade brain. The students were exceptionally motivated and eager to learn. The retention of skills from our two collaborative lessons was remarkable. Every student truly was able to be successful. In the future, I will not be concerned (as I was during the planning of this unit) about overloading young minds by incorporating multiple skills into the confines of a relatively brief unit timeline. The experience of planning teaching, and assessing this collaborative unit taught me that incorporating information literacy standards with content area curriculum can be a much more seamless process than it initially seems.
Reviewing essential nonfiction skills, prior to launching into the main body of the first collaborative lesson, proved to have a lasting effect for the students. I have been told by their first grade teacher that the students have a much clearer understanding of what nonfiction information looks like. When a question comes up in class to which they do not have an answer, they often suggest to their teacher that she look it up on the computer. They truly do understand the importance of digital nonfiction information. Coming into the unit without previous experience teaching these students, I would have never been able to determine the most effective way to begin the two-part collaborative unit without first having the students complete a pre-assessment.
1st Grade Collaborative Unit:
Collaborative Unit Plan - Digital Nonfiction
Collaborative Lesson Plan 1
Collaborative Lesson Day 1 PowerPoint
Student Pre-Assessment Examples
PebbleGo Scavenger Hunt
Student Scavenger Hunt Sample
Collaborative Lesson Plan 2
Collaborative Lesson Day 1 PowerPoint
Nonfiction Animals Recording Sheet
Student Research Examples
PebbleGo @ Home
Digital Nonfiction Expert Certificate