Remember Zone of Proximal Development?  It’s that sweet spot between what a student knows and can do, and what’s out of reach.  A student’s ZPD is the perfect “challenge level” for that individual.  We all learned about ZPD in our teacher training, but once we started working and became bogged down by paperwork and deadlines and emails and collaborative planning, teaching principles we know to be crucial can fall to the wayside.

Middle and high school teachers sometimes expect students to know things that they simply don’t, leading to frustration for all parties.  For instance, a ninth grade student may be assigned a discussion essay in biology, and then earns a low grade because he submits a persuasive essay instead.  He’d just been taught how to write a persuasive essay in his literature class, and it was fresh in his mind.  He had never actually been taught how to write a discussion essay.  Now, he doesn’t understand why he earned such a low grade when he followed all of the instructions for writing an essay, and his biology teacher has no idea how this student completely missed the point of the assignment.  Nobody’s happy.

I encountered something like this this last year, when the mother of one of my students asked me why her son didn’t know how to write a certain type of essay for a subject that I do not teach.  “But you’re his English teacher,” she snapped.  I explained to her that in literature and history classes, the types of texts (both written and spoken) students produce are different from those they produce in mathematics, design, and other subjects.  Hell, the writing did while studying education in graduate school was completely different from the textual analysis I’d done as an undergraduate drama and English literature student.

I know all of you educators out there use formative assessments to guide your teaching, but don’t forget to assess all of the skills that you will be grading, in addition to content and concepts.  If you are going to grade students on organization, check to make sure that they actually know how to organize their work effectively, and if they don’t know how to do it, teach them.  Some kids may not have mastered it in previous years, others may be new to the school, and some may have just forgotten.

One way I scaffold summative assessments is to provide students with graphic organizer templates (I love Thinking Maps) to help them brainstorm, rearrange their ideas analytically, and finally put together a cohesive product based on the type of assignment they’ve been given.  Let’s say it’s a compare/contrast assignment.  First, I’ll have students make a simple mind map just to brainstorm.  Then, the students will rearrange that information into a Double Bubble in order to compare and contrast.  Once they’ve done that, they can analyze the information before them to determine what the thesis statement should be.  The relevant information should then be rearranged into a Tree Map.  Finally, now, the student can begin to write.

That whole process usually takes about 45 minutes for students with a good amount of content knowledge.  I’d be happy to walk any of you through the whole thing in a fun, interactive workshop like the one I did at the AGIS conference in February of 2015.  Otherwise, I will also be posting a video demo in the next couple of weeks.

Anyway, in terms of meeting students at their ZPD, perhaps a lot of this can be resolved by using formative assessments that more closely resemble our summative assessments, with plenty of time in between to address deficits.  Even the best teachers have to sacrifice a little bit of unit content in order to reteach things the kids didn’t understand the first time around.  Maybe we can save a bit of that time, though, by truly listening to our students from the beginning.