Early on in my career, I worked with an assessment coordinator who I respected a great deal. She showed me the value of working closely with student data and listening to what the data was telling me in addition to what I was seeing (and feeling!) in the classroom. She would jokingly say ‘Show me the data!’ mirrored after ‘Show me the money!’ in the Jerry McGuire movie. 

I am thankful that I learned to value the information student data showed me, rather than complain at how that data was collected and what kind of data it provided. That said, I prefer data that immediately impacts instruction: the kind that provides tangible information about students’ strengths and needs that can impact my teaching tomorrow. That is why I like the thin-slicing technique: it helps us sort through the data in meaningful ways to actually impact practice.

So, what is thin-slicing? Thin slicing is a term I first heard from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project but it originates from Malcolm Gladwell and his New York Times Best-seller, Blink. Put simply, it means paring down information so we can make quick, yet meaningful, decisions about a set of data in front of us. Thin slicing helps to analyze student data in relation to the standards or through the lens of specific skills, strategies or techniques.

I like to use an adaptation of the three-step process that Mary Ehrenworth suggests in her work with student writing:

Step one: Gather the student writing you plan to analyze and review the lens that you are thin slicing for: For writing craft? For critical thinking? For figurative language? Clearly articulate what teachers should look for and how they might find evidence of it in the data. Be specific.

Step Two:
Quickly glance at the data. Do not analyze the data, do not closely read the writing samples, do not do anything other than glance at it for an initial impression. Tentatively sort the writing samples into three piles: high, medium and low. If your district uses a 4-point sequence, then you might find it more helpful to sort into 4 piles instead. It is important to not overthink things here, just sort the data based on your knowledge and intuition as educators.

Step Three: Next, take a closer look at the data and re-sort the pieces. It can be helpful to start with the middle pile, which can be considered a benchmark level. Still looking quickly, thin slice based on your lens for analyzing the writing. You may find that you are shifting data from one pile to another.

Step Four: Now, select a piece (a slice!) that represents the larger pile and place it at the top. These pieces can act as anchor texts for thinking about instruction and what each group of students might need next.

Step Five: Once you have your representative slices, it is time for teachers to collaborate around the data. How do their chosen slices compare to each other? What are students already strong at? What might students need next? What could we do to lift the level of instruction for all?

Step Six: Now, it is time to make instructional plans. You might find it helpful to give teachers a template of sorts to document students’ progress and make concrete plans for instruction. I created this simple template based on a version that Allison Walter, a literacy coach in upstate NY, shared with me. Teachers list students’ names in the appropriate column and make a plan for the mini-lessons they might offer each group of students in strategy groups or even 1:1 conferring.

Make copies of the class templates or snap a quick picture of them to upload into your own files instead and reflect across grade levels and at the school level. How could this data inform your overall coaching? How can it help you to better support grade level teams? How can it strengthen your individual coaching cycles? Later in the year, return to this data and track the representative slices over time. How have those students grown? In what ways? While only one student, examining this single slice over time can give us important information about how our instruction is supporting student growth.

Have you used thin slicing in your coaching and leading? Let us know how you used it and what advice you might give someone trying it for the first time!

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