5 tips for engaging K–3 students in your responsive planning process

Do you remember your kindergarten teacher? For many of us, the first few teachers we have stick with us. For one of my colleagues, it’s her third-grade teacher. The one who taught her that March 4th is a sentence, a silly fact that has stuck with her over the decades. (March forth. Get it?) And, more importantly, this was the teacher who introduced her to Ramona Quimby and helped turn her into a lifelong reader.

K–3 teachers hold the key to not only early literacy and math skills but also to creating a student’s love of learning. The responsive lesson-planning process can help you create a balanced assessment system and use assessment data to make informed decisions about how your students are learning before and during instruction—even amid the chaos that is teaching during COVID-19. It can even be a powerful way to engage with them. It’s engagement that can be the ticket to getting kids excited and passionate about all there is to learn.

My colleague Brooke Mabry explored this approach to lesson planning in her blog post “How responsive planning can strengthen your formative assessment practice.” She explained how it can help you tie all the components of your practice together: “Intended to ensure strong alignment of standards, instruction, and assessment, responsive planning with the end in mind allows you to create a plan that outlines assessments, instructional activities, and tasks responsive to students’ learning needs and preferences.”

Involving students in this process is key for student buy-in and learner empowerment. If you’re a K–3 teacher, you might be wondering, “Are my students too young to be involved?” No, they’re not. So what are some good ways to engage them in the process? I spent most of my career in K–3 classrooms where I learned some strategies I think you’ll find helpful.

Tip #1: Continue to build a culture of learning

Whether you’re teaching in person, online, or using a hybrid model, a strong culture of learning is the foundation for engaging students in anything you do. Students need to feel their classroom is a safe place to take risks. They need to know it’s ok to make mistakes because that’s where a lot of learning happens. And they need to know you see them and value them as human beings.

All those things you’ve been doing from the start of your career—from greeting students in the morning to wishing them a good night and getting to know their interests—are excellent ways to make that culture strong. Remember to focus on growth, too, not just achievement, and to celebrate failure for what it is: a golden opportunity to try again. If you’re feeling stuck for how to foster a strong culture of learning online, I encourage you to read my post “10 ways to create a community of learning in a virtual setting.”

Tip #2: Introduce students to their grade-level standards

Standards are usually filled with many teacher-centric words, but some guidance from you can make it easier for students to understand the learning expectations. Let’s use the first-grade math standard 1.OA.D.7 as an example: “Working with addition and subtraction equations: Understand the meaning of the equal sign, and determine if equations involving addition and subtraction are true or false.”

I would begin by reading the standard to my students and explaining that the word “determine” just means to “figure out.” I would then explain to them that they will use a chart, similar to the one from Teachers Pay Teachers below, to rate themselves on the standard.

Once students understand a standard, they can place a sticky note on the chart to express where they feel like they are. This could be done virtually through a forum like IdeaBoardz or by having each student hold up a finger or drop a number into a private chat during a live video call. I would often create rotating collaborative groups, such as 3s and 4s helping 1s and 2s, as well as groups all receiving tailored support from me. At the end of the lesson, we would come back together as a whole group, and students would re-rate themselves. We would talk about ratings at conferences, too. Students were often surprised at how they would grow from a 1 or 2 to a 3 or 4 by the end of a lesson or unit.

When I taught kindergarten this rating system had to be explained a few times, but after practicing during one-on-one conferences most students understood the categories and could accurately rate themselves. Conferences were also a good time to clarify the standard if students were unsure of how to rate themselves.

I love this activity because it familiarizes students with grade-level standards but also makes it easier for teachers to provide supports appropriate to their needs. Best of all, it proves to kids that their hard work can pay off.

Tip #3: Create goals together

With young learners, you’re likely used to setting whole-class academic goals. Some of you may set individual growth goals, too, which can sometimes be behavioral. Let me start by talking you through what worked well for me and my students with those whole-class goals.

My objective with academic goals was always the same: to make the learning objective clear for students. In my classroom, our lesson or unit learning goals were based on our focus standard. I engaged students in unpacking the standard into learning goals for our lesson. Here are some sample learning goals based on that first-grade math standard from earlier:

  • We will know what the equal sign looks like.
  • We will know what the equal sign means.
  • We will be able to look at some math problems with adding or subtracting in them and say if they’re right or wrong.

Our learning goal statements always began with “We will” because I liked to reinforce that we were doing the work together as a community of learners. Starting them with “I will,” “I can,” or “We can” also works to accomplish the same purpose: involving students in understanding the learning intentions.

After we created our learning goal statements, my students and I would come up with motions for each word. Throughout our work on a specific learning goal statement, we would do the motions together at the start of the lesson, in the middle, and again at the end to reinforce our learning intentions. Here’s a video of Vicki Embry, a third-grade teacher at Saddlewood Elementary in Ocala, Florida, modeling that.

In my classroom, starting in first grade, my students would also set a personal goal for themselves. It could be academic or behavioral. Whatever goal type they picked, they’d use a sticky note to write down their goal, and we’d add all the notes to a chart hanging in our room. (If you’re teaching remotely right now, you could try this using IdeaBoardz, Padlet, or a Google Doc.) Once their goal was met, no matter where we were or what we were doing, we would take a moment to celebrate it by doing a classroom cheer. Dr. Jean has an assortment of cheers you can use.

Tip #4: Collaborate on establishing success criteria

When students know the focus for learning, they can be active participants in the creation of the success criteria for a learning statement. By asking students, “How will I know you know that?” you can think through success criteria together. Even if you worked with your professional learning community (PLC) to identify success criteria ahead of time, cuing students to add success criteria can provide voice and choice. Not all learners may choose to show mastery of a standard or learning target in the same way; perhaps they can contribute success criteria the PLC didn’t consider.

One way to involve students in the creation of success criteria is by offering a learning menu. Cult of Pedagogy includes learning menus in “A starter kit for differentiated instruction.” One of the tools they link to, a PDF from the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, describes learning menus as “Empowering students through choice while ensuring adherence to important learning goals” and has examples and templates you can use. You can create digital learning menus using Google Docs as shown by Shake Up Learning or following the advice in “4 ways to craft choice menus in distance learning classes.” Whatever approach you take, students should help create what goes on the menu and have some choice in how their learning will be demonstrated as well.

Tip #5: Use data sources often to adjust your instructional plan

We know that using multiple data sources gives us the most accurate lens into how a student is doing. It’s well worth your time to look to formative, interim, and summative assessment data to build a balanced assessment system. Consult your data sources frequently so you can always be working from a student’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), and communicate data with students regularly so you can work together to use it to adjust their individualized learning paths.

A good way to communicate data with K–3 students is through conferences. Give your young learners feedback frequently to help them know how they are doing and what they need to work on. Some assessment data may need to be explained to younger students so they can understand exactly why the assessment was given, how they performed, and how the results will impact their learning. Use the data you collect through formative assessment to make minute-to-minute or lesson-to-lesson adjustments to meet student needs as well. Take the time to explain to students that you’re making changes based on the feedback you’re getting from them.

In closing

Are you ready to give responsive lesson planning a try with your K–3 class? The following questions can guide you as you begin this work:

  • What are some ways you currently involve students in the learning process?
  • What is one new strategy you would like to try to involve students in the learning process?
  • How does ZPD affect classroom instruction?

If you’re a leader, consider the following questions:

  • How can you ensure teachers understand how to involve students in the responsive planning process?
  • How can your building support a culture of learning that involves students in the learning process?
  • What is one way you can become involved in learner empowerment in your school or district?

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