Experienced teacher, curriculum director, coach and teacher trainer, Tracy Ocasio, shares her thoughts on the importance of students being engaged in rigorous learning. Key to the design of teaching is clarity in knowing the critical desired outcomes of instruction which are sometimes hidden in a curriculum’s laundry list. Rigor has a focus on understanding which frequently extends beyond getting the correct answer.
Contact Tracy: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding. And my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate coach and support their learners.
Steve: 00:32 The more the rigor, the more students move. Joining our podcast today is Dr. Tracy Ocasio. I had the opportunity to work several years back with Tracy. We reconnected. She is currently working in the state of Delaware, focused on the work of K-8 teachers and students with a focus on mathematics. And when when Tracy and I reconnected and in the middle of a discussion, she spoke the words that I’m using as the title to this session, “the more the rigor, the more students move.” And when I heard that statement, I asked her if she’d join me on a podcast to talk about it further. So welcome, Tracy.
Tracy: 01:24 Thank you. It’s nice to talk with you again.
Steve: 01:27 So Tracy, just tell us a little bit about your interaction with with teachers and students in your current role.
Tracy: 01:34 In my current role, we have low levels of proficiency. It has been exacerbated of course by the pandemic, but it had existed previously. It is a setting that has its challenges, urban setting in the state of Delaware, Northern Delaware. And my role is really to support the teachers in meeting the challenges, not only associated with the unfinished areas of learning from the pandemic, but also just raising student achievement in general, helping students learn at the levels that they to be successful in order to go to a nice high school, to have great post-secondary pursuits.
Steve: 02:08 So when you use the word rigor, talk to me a little bit about your definition and maybe include what that looks like and sounds like in a classroom.
Tracy: 02:19 So I think it’s important that when we talk about rigor, we recognize that there’s a very intentional connection to the standard, whatever your state standard actually is. In our case, we use the common core state standards. We’re measured by the smarter balance assessment. And I think that it’s important to understand that in rigor, when we relate it to a standard, there’s an inherent depth of knowledge in those standards. And while I’m focused on math in this role, my previous experience, as you know, from working together in the past, has been in all content areas as well as in English language arts. And so the easiest way to describe it with English language arts is we understand that standards are written in clusters. And it’s really important to understand that there’s a depth of knowledge with each of those clusters. So when we think English language arts, we’re thinking about cluster one, that’s a comprehension level depth of knowledge.
Tracy: 03:08 Kids need to be able to talk about the local comprehension for the text in front of them. They need to explain it based on the developmental progression that’s associated to that grade level. So if I’m talking about third grade, my students find the main idea. When it comes to standard two, they tell me a little bit about that main idea with the supporting details from the author, but by the time they get to fifth grade, they’re looking for multiple main ideas. So rigor is defined really by that grade level intention. The other part of that is what’s nice about the standards is they do have that inherent progression as well as that inherent level of depth of knowledge. So when I go to the second cluster and the English language arts standards, those standards are about analytical thinking.
Tracy: 04:00 And so that if I’m using that same third grade example, and I’m reading about in literature instead about the one I giant one of those exemplar texts by Mary Pope, I know that that author has chosen words to describe that giant to connect me back to the comprehension I need for that standard, which is to understand the interaction between that character and the things that are happening with that conflict and how those words are described in a way that gives me a sense of why that character was so courageous, that theme that I would connect to standard two. But those words were very intentionally used and I would have students analyze them, not word by word, but in the combination of those words. So rigor is really about getting to the standards aligned outcome, but then of course, furthering as we go through the clusters. Now that last cluster, when we think English line language arts, they’re all evaluative. So it’s not local comprehension anymore of one text, it’s global comprehension. How does this text fit in with the variety of texts on similar topics or by the same author or various forms of media?
Tracy: 04:53 What understanding do I get then from the text? So when we talk about rigor, we really wanna think about what’s the grade level outcome, and how does that grade level outcome in this grade fit with all the things that happened before and the sequence of things that will happen next, whether it’s at the grade level or it’s beyond the grade level. In mathematics, when I think about rigor, we can’t get to the fullness of the standard unless we marry it to the mathematical practice. So when student are learning about fractions, they need to be able to create models, especially when we’re moving into equivalent fractions in fourth grade. I need to show why one half looks the same because it’s a part and whole relationship as it would for two fourths. And so it’s really important or that it looks like the same for 50 hundreds because we need kids to be able to then in fifth grade relate, as I said, it’s about the standard and where it lives in our grade level, but also how it connects. We need them to relate that parts whole relationship in fifth grade to decimals, to fractions, to percentages. So it’s really about preparing kids, not only for what they need this grade level, but to make them successful as they move forward.
Steve: 06:04 You just hit where my question, where my question was going. So first, I was gonna ask about where the word depth fits in, but then connected to that is understanding the curriculum at my grade level is insufficient for the teacher to be able to understand the purposefulness of depth and rigor. Am I close with that?
Tracy: 06:34 I think that’s a great summarization of my verbose response to the first question. I think that that’s really important that yes, we need to know our content. We need to know our standard at our grade level, but how did this fit? How does this sandwich, especially now post pandemic? And I love what Doug Fisher had said previously in my last district. He had mentioned that we can’t have crisis teaching. Pandemic teaching was crisis teaching. And I was a chief academic officer at the time that the pandemic started and I remember thinking, oh my goodness, we’re going to be closed for three weeks, did we see this coming? But now, we can’t live on that crisis level thinking. We were getting things in place quickly because that’s the best that we could do at the time, not ever anticipating what we have just experienced.
Tracy: 07:21 I know in my lifetime, your lifetime, we didn’t expect this. And I have been an educator now for 32 years, so I’ve done 911 but this is probably even more significant and I’ll probably remember this at a retirement story one day more so than that, but we need to give our kids this high level of learning, because if we think about the need to solve this huge global problem, the people that are solving it needed high levels of learning, they need that critical thinking, that problem solve. It’s no longer about memorize this here’s procedure. When I was a child, we did a lot of memorization because we didn’t have access to information. And years ago, a board member once said at a graduation, no longer are we asking kids to memorize content, but to think about content and be able to utilize it at high levels.
Tracy: 08:11 And so really understanding what my grade level requires and the mastery students need, I’m making it easier for the next teacher if I can get students there. And in this pandemic, we know we have students for whatever reason and even pre pandemic. It’s just that this has really exposed and highlighted some of those issues of equity. We know that students have unfinished areas of learning and how can we best anticipate that as we’re delivering our grade level instruction? I think that’s the biggest part of rigor. And I know in my career, it has certainly brought me to that level of thinking, particularly since we’ve just gone through this situation or are still going through it.
Steve: 08:51 It’s interesting because I had the opportunity to teach grades five and six for five years early in my career, and then follow that by teaching grade one. And there were two interesting twists on it. When I worked with the grade one teachers, an asset that I brought am was an understanding of where this is going because primary teachers didn’t have that experience. But equal to that, I always said after my grade one experience, that if I were to go back to teaching grade five and six, I’d be a much better teacher because I stood the pieces. So I had, especially in reading, I had kids missing concepts from the from the earlier grades as a grade five and six teachers. I didn’t know what those were. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t go back and put ’em together. So that whole concept of us being able to see the curriculum not in the chunks that historically year by year, we tend to do it, but really given teachers that opportunity to to dig in the curriculum and see that building. I’m using the word building, but almost that word building is running against me because it’s not – building seems to be going up and the word in my head is depth going down. So being able to see where this is headed.
Tracy: 10:27 But I love what you’re bringing up here because a lot of what you’re talking about, I’m trying to work on with my grade level groups. And one of the things that happened just yesterday, so it’s so funny that you would share that story. I was working with a kindergarten team and even though the curriculum that we have, it’s very rigorous it’s curriculum that I had in my DC schools years ago and we made great gains with it, but even though the curriculum, it has one approach to something. And one of the things I had mentioned to my kindergarten teachers who are now focused on not understanding the concept and relationship between number and numeral, but really understanding that I need kids to see that number based on its benchmark, which is five and 10 at that grade level. And so that if I’m using the five frame or that ten frame, as I’m now in this part of the curriculum where operationalizing those numbers, not just understanding the value associated to that numeral, but operationalizing it at early subtraction, early addition, that decomposing and composing numbers, as I do that, if I have them draw and pictorial is after concrete.
Tracy: 11:35 So we start with concrete, but I need kids to visualize. And even when I’m organizing concrete objects, think about your early preschoolers or your own children, we get them to count it out. We want one to one correspondence. So that’s the lowest part of that progression, but then we want them to organize it in a way that they can operationalize it in a way that’s going to make sense and reduce opportunity for error. And so one of the things we were talking about is our curriculum uses number bonds, which is great. It helps kids understand those inverse relationships. It helps them to understand the connections. But one of the things that’s important is really getting them to organize their thinking based on a benchmark of five and ten at this great level. And so I explained to them, here’s why I would say to you have them use the five frame, the ten frame because it orders their numbers and they can see that six is closer to ten than three.
Tracy: 12:24 They can see that six is not as close as eight and they can start to see the missing numbers because there is a section of second grade, the a second operationalizing algebra and operations standard is about memorizing those facts, the sums to 20. But we don’t start with that. That’s retrieval level and knowledge. And we know from the Ebbing House studies that if there’s no meaning behind that, kids will lose it. It’ll stay in short term memory for however long and then when we move on to the next thing it’s gone. So I was explaining to the kindergarten teachers how this relates to what they’re going to do in second grade, we use place value disc in second grade, and sometimes our curriculum goes too fast. We should start with place value blocks because that disc in the hundreds column looks exactly the same as the disc in the ones column.
Tracy: 13:09 It’s getting that visualization of a hundred is a lot compared to a one. And so I explained to them that if I get kids to organize that number in the ones column, and let’s say they have nine and they write them with five dots on top, four on the bottom, they stop me mixing that up when they’re going to have to do a problem where there’s regrouping and now they’re going to use the second number where they’re maybe have three dots, so nine dots, and then the three dots. If I get them to put it down in an orderly fashion, order in order comes out, it’s less likely to cause error. And for the kindergarten teachers to see the value of it works for my content, but then it helps. Another example earlier in the year is I was having the third grade teachers work with ratio tables.
Tracy: 13:56 They were just in the start of the multiplication standards in those early clusters, the cluster A standards of those OA third grade standards. And we know by the end, I think it’s OA seven, the third graders need to memorize single digit products, the product of two single digits. That’s the second part. But the first part is the understanding of that. And we can’t just skip to let’s memorize our facts. I did as a kid. And you may have as well because that’s the way we did things, but now we know, better do better. And so now I was explaining to the teachers that when I’m teaching five times seven, I need kids to see that in a ratio table so that they really get the multiplicative nature of those equal groups. And so I may not present it on day one, but by the time I’m working on standard three in that cluster, which happens pretty quickly and they’re matching up the inverse operations and they’re thinking about the properties, I need to start putting that on a ratio table.
Tracy: 14:55 It’s going to not only help me with my content as it becomes more complex, but it also then helps the seventh grade teacher who’s presenting it as a ratio table, the sixth grade teacher who’s presenting it because our secondary standards are composite skills. Teach the foundations in elementary, and then they become much more composite skills as a means to an end in the secondary. So what you had mentioned is it would make sense why you felt like you were a better fifth grade teacher if you had left first grade and gone to fifth grade, and also why you were
probably a much better first grade teacher, because you have knowledge of where kids are going.
Steve: 15:32 Tracy, what would you say are some of the key things for teachers to consider as they support students working in rigorous tasks?
Tracy: 15:45 So I think one of the big things to consider is really what standard am I working on? I think that it’s a little unfortunate it, and I’m not sure why it’s done this way. And I don’t know the purpose of never worked for a publishing company, but sometimes we can have great published programs. We have great curriculum, but they’ll put a laundry list of the standards that we’re working on. I think it’s really important to know the key work of the grade level. And if I know the key work of the grade level, I understand the foundational skills. And so for example, I was working with first grade teachers last week and we were looking at the key work that they were doing in their module and looking at the standards that were covered and they had a relationship to geometry and some measurement.
Tracy: 16:31 And so I said to them, I want you to really think about what’s the key work of your grade level, and really it’s getting that place value, that sense of number and establishing it because kids are gonna operationalize with much larger numbers, right into second grade, in the early part of second grade. And so it’s less about the measurement, less about the geometry of it and really understanding that there’s a comparison, but it’s related to the sense of number. And so I said, here’s how you can know that. Your text says, this is the standard you’re working on and there are a lot of measurement and data standards listed here. But when I look at the foundational standards, it leads me back into kindergarten’s counting and cardinality and the part of the counting and cardinality that’s about comparing numbers. The highest standard in that cluster is all about comparing the sense of number and understanding quantities in sequence to how they are ordered on the number line.
Tracy: 17:27 And so if I know that, I know where to keenly focus as I’m delivering this content, I know where to put my emphasis. It also helps me understand better what’s the grade level outcome and then the intentional strategies I need to use in order to reach it. I worked with Dr. Marzano for a few years in different districts across the country, working at the Marzano center. And I’ll never forget some things that I had learned about that work with different groups of teachers. It’s really thinking about this is the outcome, but here’s a strategy that’s been found effective in research to reach that outcome. I use different strategies if I want kids to retrieve information than if I want them to analyze. And one of the things that my work has been focus on is I asked the teachers, what claim do you want a student to say by the end of this lesson? And to give a more concrete example, I was working in fifth grade last week, we were doing division of fractions and people automatically go to the procedural. But I wanted the teacher to realize the claim that we needed to understand is the part-whole relationship further than what they’d learn in third and fourth grade.
Tracy: 18:34 But then also that every fraction is a division problem. And our job then is to get the kids to articulate that early in the lesson, because that’s the conceptual knowledge that we need from them, but then to prove and disprove what they articulated. And it’s okay to record erroneous information because part of the work in examining reasoning that I had done during that experience with the Marzano center was that my resolving that error, that anomaly, and I’m not saying, let them live with it overnight, but resolving that error during the lesson is great learning. There’s a lot of thinking that goes into that analysis and I’ll remember that.
Steve: 19:15 Our timing here as I follow you is interesting because the question that was forming inside my head is that what gets assessed becomes critical. And as I’m listening to you assessing for the right answer is probably through me off of being able to assess for rigor. That the real rigor is in the student’s explanation for the student process. It seems to me that the assessment is much more observable or it’s critical that I observe as part to the assessment versus just the outcome.
Tracy: 19:55 I love that summary statement as well. And it really reminds me of the work that Dylan Williams does across the country when he talks about unobtrusive formative assessment. And I think that we miss that. And I remember even some of my early days with Dr. Marzano, one of the conclusions that I drew is that the magic is in the monitoring of student outcomes, in the moment, not later, not in the exit ticket, but in the moment because I can use a fix up strategy. I adjust myself to get a better outcome. And just what you said, we talk about rigor, but rigor’s also in the associated learning progression. I learn a lot about students in that lesson that I modeled the other day on that division of fractions, it started off with an application problem that really assesses did they understand addition and subtraction of fractions, and then I wanna make a relationship between what you did there, but also what you’re doing here as we go through this lesson.
Tracy: 20:52 And so I think it’s really important that yes, the kids have to model the fraction. But when I did the application problem, I’m watching to see what do you understand? And I noticed that there was a significant number of students that missed the third concept of part and whole. So then it makes me think, I wonder if they understood that in relationship to decimals. And I need to look for that as I’m moving forward, because I’m gonna have to make these key connections about how a decimal in a fraction. They’re the same thing. It just looks differently. But if I plotted them both out on two number lines, I would land at the same spot. One of the things that I thought was important in that lesson is the other misconception that I observed during that application problem is that kids were then adding up the denominator.
Tracy: 21:37 Now we know that that doesn’t work. And that indicates to me that when you did equivalent fractions in fourth grade, maybe you didn’t learn it, or maybe you didn’t apply it here when it came to operationalizing those fractions at this grade level. And so there’s that power that happens in the moment. And then thinking about how does my standard lie here because intervention does not begin in the tiers. Intervention begins in core instruction, which is tier one, essentially, but we never think of it as one of our tiered interventions, but I have to start there. And I have anticipate unfinished areas of learning and knowing what happened grade level before is a good opportunity. And so that would be an example that it really resonated to think about the magic of that monitoring in the moment and then adjusting what I do in response to that. And getting kids to bring their answers to the board. It’s okay if you don’t have the correct answer, but now I want you to help me, what would you do differently? That’s called revising their knowledge based on critical information. Here’s what I did. Here’s what I do differently as a result of this learning experience. And that’s another concept we want kids to articulate.
Steve: 22:45 So the teachers observation of students in the learning process is a critical element for the teacher’s instruction.
Tracy: 23:00 I would definitely agree with that statement. And I know that I watched a video years ago, I used it in professional development
with principals and it was a video of John Hatty talking about students and talking about kids being able to go to the next level in their video game. So here’s the other part of that, that we haven’t really hit on. Another way to get kids to rigor and understanding what we’re assessing is also to get the student to understand what the learning outcome is. John Hatty said that kids move quickly through levels in video games. I have a grandson that’s about to be six. He’s my oldest one and I’ve watched him. He gets a little bit of screen time, but he can tell me exactly how in that Pokemon game to get to the next level. I don’t always understand it becuase there’s not a lot of relevance for me.
Tracy: 23:47 And I don’t have the vocabulary that he’s using, which is also a good teaching moment. And a good reminder of good instruction, but he can tell me exactly what he must do. Our kids, if we can help them understand that first I have to identify, this is what a fraction is, I need to understand that I have to make equivalent fractions, then I can add and subtract the fractions. If I can help kids see that, this is how I get to the next level, not only does it let them know they’re on the ladder, which is for struggling students, is important because many times they give up out of frustration. You are on the way you can define a fraction. You can define a ratio. You can tell me multiple to write a ratio. You can show me pictures of a ratio.
Tracy: 24:28 Then I can at least motivate them to move towards the level that I need them to be. I can help them understand here’s what you already know and now we’re gonna build together on that. And think about the implications. This is an awesome implication. When we talk about students with IEPs, we talk about standards aligned IEP goals. And that’s an area of contention. I’ve been involved in leading special education programs as well as pupil services in the past but an area of contention is if I wanna write a standards, aligned IEP goal, and I’m working on a goal, it’s gotta be something I’m working on now. So that end of grade level expectation may not be it, but where should I be working here incrementally to get to that major work of the grade? Because what we wanna do is reduce the gap of present level of ed, of course, and then where we need them to perform. And so I think it’s really important, not only for students, but as well for a teacher in their intentional planning, but in their very transparent communication of here’s our learning outcome today with this students during instruction and being able to get students to self-regulate. If you could do this, here’s where you are in the path to meeting our learning progression and our learning goal for this lesson.
Steve: 25:38 I’m just pondering that we may need to change the word outcome to to understanding becuase I’m afraid especially looking at
mathematics that the student interprets as outcome, meaning you can do this problem, where the rigor says, you can understand this problem.
Tracy: 26:02 Good point. And you can explain your work. You can tell me if this would work again.
Tracy: 26:08 Learning, target, learning goal learning intention are awesome words to describe what we are really getting at is can the student actually demonstrate mastery.
Steve: 26:18 Tracy, thank you so much. I’m wondering, you got a way that listeners could contact you if they wanted to raise a question back to you?
Tracy: 26:28 Yes, absolutely. I would like to share my email address. It is just my name @icloud.com. So it’s email@example.com.
Steve: 26:50 All right. We’ll stick that in the in the lead-in to the podcast if folks missed it. Thank you so much.
Tracy: 26:56 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 26:58 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.