Sunday Reflections: The power of observation

Certain things about common teacher practices upset me. I hear particular statements and shake my head. Braver me should say something on the spot. That isn’t always easy. I’m not always brave. I should be because those statements don’t leave me. They stick in my head and I fret. I worry. I wonder. Couldn’t we, shouldn’t we be doing better for the students we teach?

What am I currently concerned about? Teachers talking about “assessment” and gathering “data” in the first week of school. Sometimes on the first day. Writing samples collected in quiet rooms with the timer on. Spelling tests. Pages of math “testing” to see what students know or remember. Again, administered quietly. No talking. Reading and answering questions to determine “a level” or placement in a group. I could begin ranting. What about building relationships and community? Is this a good use of time when students are still readjusting to “back to the classroom.”  What truly useful information is gathered from these activities given at this time? What, really, is this going to help you do that will benefit students?

But ranting does not move us forward.

Instead, I would like to suggest something simple. Watching. Noticing. Interacting. Paying attention. Yes, we need information about who are students are and what they need in order to best meet their needs, but how we find that information matters.

In my primary classroom, by just observing students during five different activities, I can learn so much. In the first few weeks, I observe.

When I read aloud, I pay attention to:

 Sunday Reflections: The power of observation There's a Book for That

  • Who sits where and why?
  • How much physical space and how much opportunity to move does each child need?
  • Who likes the interactive read aloud experience?
  • Who dislikes interruptions and needs “flow”?
  • Who has listening stamina? How much?
  • Who respects the listening space of others?
  • Who is an active participant in discussions related to what we are reading? Who needs some encouragement? Who needs additional processing time?
  • What kind of story sense does each child have?
  • What kind of comprehension strategies are utilized (predicting, making connections, asking questions, inferring, etc.)
  • What background knowledge on certain topics do students seem to have?

When it is independent reading time, I pay attention to:

 Sunday Reflections: The power of observation There's a Book for That

  • How much reading stamina does each child have?
  • Who is a confident reader?
  • Who finds reading challenging?
  • Who needs a lot of support on their journey to becoming a reader?
  • Who has knowledge of a variety of authors/illustrators/series?
  • Do students have knowledge about different genres?
  • Who has well developed personal preferences with reading material?
  • Who reads widely?
  • Who can self select “good fit” reading material?
  • How does each child respond to recommendations?
  • Who takes suggestions of what to read from peers? Who offers suggestions?
  • Who is influenced by what his/her peers are reading?
  • Who wanders and needs redirection?
  • Who can read quietly? Who mumbles? Who needs to read aloud?
  • Who seeks buddy reading opportunities/
  • Who seeks out an adult to read to?
  • How actively does each child engage in reading conversations with peers? with adults? during conferences?

When I ask students to talk with each other, I pay attention to:

 Sunday Reflections: The power of observation There's a Book for That

  • Who follows directions about “turn and talk” expectations?
  • Who can talk with anyone? Who wants to talk with an adult beside them? Who only wants to talk with friends or classmates he/she knows?
  • Who can listen carefully?
  • Who can share easily and with confidence?
  • Who can offer a different opinion/perspective?
  • Who can add to what a peer has said?
  • Who can ask questions of a peer? Answer questions from a peer?
  • Who needs adult prompts and frequent feedback?
  • Who grows when feedback is given either individually or to the group?
  • Who listens when peers are sharing out to the group?
  • Who can say something different or add to what a peer has said during sharing out?
  • Who tends to only repeat what someone else has said?
  • Who is comfortable sharing a different opinion in front of the whole group?
  • Who wants to share out (is an eager participant)?
  • Who will share out when called on?
  • Who is reluctant to talk in front of a whole group?

When a math problem is proposed, I pay attention to:


  • Who likes to work independently?
  • Who prefers to work with a partner? Or a small group?
  • Who is a self starter?
  • Who takes risks?
  • How persistent is each learner?
  • Can each child refer to a class demonstration or chart for support?
  • What kind of materials does a child like to use?
  • Who is willing to try a variety of strategies?
  • What does “frustration” look like for each child? How quickly do students get to the frustration point? What happens when they do?
  • Who seeks peer feedback?
  • Who can take redirection from a peer?
  • Who seeks adult affirmation? feedback? support?
  • Who wants to share?
  • Who likes to peer teach? Who is really good at it? Who is developing skills to take a leadership role?
  • What kind of number sense does each child have?
  • What number concepts does a child need to have more success?

When it is free choice/play time, I pay attention to:

 Sunday Reflections: The power of observation There's a Book for That

  • Who likes to do things independently? With one other child? In a small group?
  • Who is a starter? Who is a joiner?
  • What kind of creative ideas emerge during play?
  • How long can each child sustain attention with one activity?
  • Who solves social problems independently? Who immediately seeks adult help?
  • Do children tend to “tell on” or ask for help when having problems with a peer?
  • Who is willing to accept criticism?
  • Who is trusted to play fairly? When cheating happens in a game, what does that look like?
  • Who is a floater? Who tends to stay connected to particular peers?
  • When a child leaves a situation where there has been conflict, what does that look like?
  • Who can problem solve in the moment? Who needs cool off time?
  • How do we manage and give apologies? How do we handle forgiveness?
  • What kind of safe or calm places do we need in the room to support upset?
  • What kind of questions and wonders come out of play that we should pursue?

While my students have been engaging in everyday learning experiences and while they are learning and building skills, I also am learning and thinking about what’s next. I don’t need to write every single thing I see down. I don’t need something on paper as proof. I need time to watch and interact and notice. I need to trust that I know what I am looking for and that I can make decisions to best guide the learning based on what I see. This will be with individual students and whole class trends. Sometimes I am surprised. Even confused or worried. But this will lead me to more watching, to asking questions, to seeking support.

The wonderful thing about observation? I can gather information all day, every day as we continue to engage in our daily learning. The power of observation. Over time. In many different activities. With children we know and have relationships with. It gives us so much more than any paper and pencil task will ever do.

We don’t need to fill our first weeks with students with assessments. We need to let the learning begin. Everything we need to know is happening right in front of us if we just pay attention.

What do you learn when you take the time to notice?

17 thoughts on “Sunday Reflections: The power of observation

  1. Bravo! While I support quality assessment to guide teaching and learning, the importance of belonging, community and noticing what students do can’t be underestimated. My excitement for the new year is growing each and every day. As principal, my wonder is – how to revisit a mission statement from many years ago – one that doesn’t mention belonging, celebrating differences or joy. I am always so inspired by your posts. Thank you for revving up my school start up engine!

    • I am so glad this post contributed to your back to school excitement. I do think assessment has its place of course – but the first week of school is not the time for it. Students are beginning with us and we need to build relationships, cultivate community and carefully notice so that we can make best practice decisions for the future.

      • Thanks Carrie, I so enjoy reading your posts. Learning so much from your book selections and reflections! Yes this fall will be quite different!

  2. Starting out in Special Education was very good for me. It taught me how to really observe students and look for learning and processing and be a bit of a detective in figuring out how to best support children. These are great questions.

  3. The majority of my assessment is done through observation. I kind of learned this the hard way. Do you remember the three day writes? Back in the Stone Age when I taught grade one I administered the three day write. I told the class that they had to try and do all of the writing by themselves. That led to tears and it was only day one of the three day write. I have to say I help them when they needed it. Now that I teach kindergarten, I do the vast majority of my assessment through observation. However there are times when it’s necessary to sit with everybody one-on-one and do formal assessment. For the most part – and I think I’m reading them right – the students enjoy sitting with me one-on-one and the ones who haven’t had the chance yet to do so come up and ask when it’s their turn.
    Thanks for your post! Very inspiring!

    • Oh yes, I do remember those. Ugh. The reason your one to one assessment is so successful I am sure is the relationship you have developed with your students! Can you imagine doing this the first week of school?

  4. So much to think about there, Carrie. Every second we are with our students is opportunity for learning for us, as teachers, about who they are and what they thrive at. Spending time talking about their joys, fears, and passions is something I think is also important as we need to also learn what our students gifts are. Many of them have no idea themselves, so it takes a sharp eye to notice what they love. Notice and note it and then tell them! 🙂 Thank you for your words of noticing.

    • I love this comment. I want to put it in a vase and look at it all day every day! I completely agree that we learn so much from just being with our students – each interaction, each conversation is an opportunity to learn. I was mindful of not wanting to make this post too long but wanted to add other activities that I learn so much from noticing: during gratitude circle, when writing a reflection, doing an art activity. Everything gives us the chance to learn and think about how to best support the children we work with.

      • Yes, sitting at the lunch table with them, walking alongside them in the hall and all of it! We are in constant research mode, aren’t we. 🙂 Love it.

  5. Such a reflective and powerful post, Carrie. Wouldn’t it be a better world if every teacher believed in the power of observation? Which I think is possible if we open dialogue about this topic (as you so bravely have…). No assessment could possibly give you more authentic and meaningful information. No assessment can tell you what makes a child’s heart beat.

    • Thank you Lisa! I agree that we need to be talking about this more often. I think teacher’s don’t feel trusted or don’t trust themselves and yet, when we pay attention and access our experience, we can learn so much.

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  8. A wonderful post Carrie. Due to the nature of my new program I have only seen my students for one hour so far. In that time, they had one challenge to work on – create the letters in their name using Lego pieces. As they created I too observed. We learn so much from the children in our classrooms when we just let them be themselves. Thanks for putting what so many of us already think and do into words.

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