In a post on 11/12/19, “What New Teachers Need,” I mentioned that Jon and I had created a lesson-planning playcard. For each of our Four Questions, the playcard lists teaching techniques and formative assessments. This week, we’re heading back to Newark to work with our friends at the Uncommon charter network. We’ll be unpacking and workshopping a piece of the playcard: formative assessments for Question One, What Happened? (That’s the right box in the playcard row copied below.) 

4QM Lesson Playcard: Row One

Question Learning Activities Practice and Assessments
Q1: What Happened? 


  • Narrative Lecture
  • Reading (Secondary/Tertiary)
  • Video
  • Podcast
  • Timelines and Maps
  • Close Reading of Primary Sources
  • Storyboard
  • Narrative Recitation
  • Written Narratives
  • Image/Event Sequencing
  • Roleplay Reenactment
  • Question Generation


It’s bread and butter for History teachers to teach their students a true and interesting story. It’s pretty much malpractice, though, not to check to see that they’ve actually *learned* the story. You can wait till the unit test, but that’s not giving students a chance to practice with feedback, and not giving you a chance to see how effectively you’ve communicated. Everyone’s happier when you formatively assess what your students have learned, early and often. 

Formative Assessment Is Fun!

It turns out that formatively assessing your students’ grasp of a story is one of the coolest things you can do in a classroom. There are tons of great, lively activities that will trick even the most reluctant students into taking themselves seriously as scholars of history. Jon and I typically group our formative assessments into the “individual” and “collaborative” categories. The individual ones are either writing or formal recitation exercises. A classic is the four-sentence story: boil down the narrative you just learned into four grammatical, coherent, sequential sentences. Doing that reveals a ton about what students don’t yet understand and effectively consolidates what they do. 

But the fun stuff is collaborative work on stories. For instance: I once printed out sets of images associated with the story of the American Revolution. Most of them the students had seen before, either in a slideshow accompanying a lecture or as in illustration in something they read. Some were new but referred straightforwardly to an event they knew, or should have known. In groups, I directed the students to put the images in proper historical sequence. The first group done would win a prize (unspecified, as I recall). Students called me over when they thought they’d completed the sequence. Most required revision. I’d simply look, say “not yet,” and walk away. 

If you like a quieter room — that one got pretty loud — you can try a narrative Write Around. The classic Write Around gets students to elaborate on each other’s thinking in response to a prompt. The narrative version, which formatively assesses Question One, requires them to alternative sentences, starting at the beginning of a story you specify and ending wherever you tell them to stop. No speaking, just writing. Once they finish writing, they get to read aloud what they’ve composed and revise it. 

If you want to get dramatic, you can name an event and have students act it out. If you want to practice oral presentation collaboratively, you can try a Pecha Kucha, and have a team of students hand off slides to one another. You can play the brackets game, where you pair off key terms from a story — actors, events, or ideas — and have groups of students argue out each round, saying which of the terms is more integral to the story, until you’ve got your original list of 16 terms down to a Final Four. Then they tell the story using those terms — and all the rest are taboo. 

Or, get back to 4QM basics. Teach students a story, though lecture, reading, and video, and then have them storyboard it in small groups. Storyboarding forces them to chunk the narrative, to name and date the events, and most important, to talk through the logic of events in the story. What they produce consolidates that logic and captures it in images. In fact, all of these formative assessments are designed to do the same thing: force students to think through the logic of the story. 

One more: once you’re pretty sure your students know the story, make them generate questions. Any story you really know should stimulate your curiosity. There’s so much we will have left out, of necessity. And so, if nothing else, we can always ask for *more* of the story, or more of some actor’s role in it. In any case, you know our wager: whatever questions your students generate will turn out to be one of four different types. If you’re teaching them well, they’ll know what they are and be able to identify them. And if you’ve planned your unit well, at least some of the answers to their questions will be on deck in the days to come.