Stealing this, with gratitude

If you read my final blog post of the last year, you will know that I am  struggling with assessment, and how assessment can shape learning.

I want assessment to be for learning, not of learning. I ran into this blog this morning, and loved the description of ass-ass method of teaching writing. The rest of the blog post is worth reading as well.

Assessment of learning, if that is all that is ever done, implies that students can’t grow intellectually and that they can’t develop greater skill.

It’s a fixed mindset, and in my view has done untold damage to broad range of students.

Many of my students suffer from the perception that there are smart students, and they get As and Bs. They have this school thing cracked, and there is nothing to do but keep raking in the marks.

Then there are other students. They ‘understand’ they are ‘dumb’, and will stay that way, and will probably pass and even often graduate, but what we are doing in school actually has little to do with them.

All my jumping up and down, and motivating, and cajoling, and sometimes crying is just amusing (and sometimes alarming) and mostly they humour me, but everyone seems to know where they fit.

There is no fix. The game is fixed. Our minds are fixed.

It’s all wrong, and I want to get off this train-track to nowhere, or kinda-somewhere.

As per my previous post, I have been implementing a lot of the strategies recommended by the assessment for learning research. We make learning intentions clear, we are focussed on skills and essential questions, we examine exemplars, students construct rubrics, we assess exemplars.

I have stopped giving grades until I have to, and use description instead. I ask students to self-assess, but the results have been underwhelming.

My practice has changed radically and I have learned a great deal. I need this to be true for students.

The next area of improvement, I had decided, was student portfolio and student self-assessment. I am working on integration of that process. But, the other day, via Twitter, I ran into this Sea to Sky Learning blog on the science lab write-up. The teacher has been struggling with making descriptive feedback on lab write-ups matter.

The key to Karen’s process is that all labs will be in a Lab Duotang. The feedback will also be placed there. Then, when the next lab is submitted, the student must write a cover letter in which they explain what areas they sought to improve, based on the feedback from the previous lab. The letter is in the form of ‘please notice that I worked on….’

I love this and I think it will make the routine feedback vastly more … routinized. I can use the doutangs to talk with students and parents, to write interim reports.

How to make this work in my Humanities classes? There are two key areas where I would like to see students be more self-evaluative, as a start.

First, I want them to ‘own’ the information we learn. The only way to do this is to show their thinking. This is personalized learning for all students. I want to hear their voices, and I want them to hear their voices. I want them to inquire, and see their brains on fire. We learn when we write (it’s happening to me right now), so I want to see them write more frequently about what they think about when we consume information, and why it matters, how it connects to their lives, how it expands their understanding, and so on.

Secondly, I want them to think about themselves as learners and as members of a learning community.

So, for starters, two sections of the Learning Duotang, one for Voice (response to information, response to literature) and one for Participation. This word, participation, is a very loaded term in assessment. What I am trying to express is the idea of active involvement in learning, whether it is taking place in a full-class setting, in a group, or as an individual. What is a phrase or word that can capture that? Active involvement? I want to students to become aware, if they have not already, of the absolute necessity of their active involvement in the learning process. Oral language assessment is part of it. Social responsibility is also a part of it.

I’d sure love some help thinking this through.

As the year progresses, I would think that students could pick an area in which they want feedback and improvement. The learning goals could become differentiated by student in a more specific way.

Lessons from the gym

I go to a great gym in my town three to four days a week at six in the morning. I credit it, and its owner, Scott, with making my life more manageable. Almost every time walk out of there I am feeling flexible, strong, and mentally ready for the day. I love it.

In spite of this, I don’t really want to go. Or, I should say, I don’t really want to get up at 5:30 am, four days a week. However, with a busy work and family life, it’s really the only time that works for me. And, there is a lot to be said for starting the day early. However, when that day starts in the deep dark, and I have to bundle up to go outside and shovel the snow off the van and scrape the windows, and meantime, my family is all cozy inside…. Even in the summer, I am compelled to stay snug in bed.

Plus, I usually sweat on the floor of the gym. It is hard work.

So, I mentally prepare. I lay out my gym clothes. I picture myself walking out of the gym, feeling good. I remind myself that I love to eat. I remind myself that I have to keep weight off, and take more off, to slow down the progression of my arthritis.

I wonder if my students have to talk themselves through the doors of school in a similar way, even if they love school. I wonder if they realize how much of what we do starts with talking to ourselves, visualizing, seeing the outcome. I wonder if they understand that it is hard work even when you love what you are doing.

I am reminded to talk with them about this in a more systematic way.

Sometimes, while I am watching my sweat drip, I think about teaching, and learning, and doing.

Scott is a great facilitator.

He is almost always cheerful; he doesn’t come in complaining about the time of day.  I hope my students can see that in me, too, even if sometimes I have to lose the ‘cheery’ Ms. Inden and get out my ‘teacher voice’. I do not ever complain about having to show up. Sometimes I tell classes that I am about done in and need their help, but I want them to know that there is no where else I would rather be at that moment.

It is clear loves what he does. He is always improving his practice and showing us what he learned. His passion for his work comes through.

He has a routine that does not often change. Oddly, this provides a degree of comfort. It’s odd, because I don’t do this well enough for my students. I recognize the impact this has on my comfort level, so I am thinking about more ways to routinize my classroom.

Scott has routine, but varies the activities within that structure so we don’t get bored. Activities change frequently over the hour so that we don’t stick with any one thing for long. His activities are interesting, and sometimes a lot of fun.

This is a strategy I use a lot. I don’t want the students to get bored, so I mix it up, keep it moving, vary the location of the class, the style of learning, the kinds of out-put I am expecting, the level of choice they have for topic or product. I want them to be a little surprised by how much they learned. (This is also why I find routing hard to implement.)

Of course, there are also the times when I feel frustrated at the gym. A key frustration is when the instructor lays out the plan, and then, on the fly, adds in something I was not expecting. Because I am often doing exercises that are just plain hard work, it is, again, a mental game as much as anything.

“Okay, we’ll do three rounds of the core circuit today, five reps.” We gather our mats, our balls, benches, or other devices we might require. Mentally, I am going over the 3 planks I will be doing. I am picturing it, and telling myself, you can do it. I know my arms will shake, my muscles will burn, so I am getting ready for it in my head.

As he punches times into the interval app he has on his phone, he says, “Never mind, let’s do four rounds, five reps.” I already did the heavy lifting – which was mental. Now I have to prepare myself again, and I am frustrated, surprised at the depth of my emotional response.

I get it that he has calculated on the fly what we have done as a class, and what he thinks we can handle that day. In spite of his sometimes evil ‘bwahahahah’ that we tease him about, he not out to torture us. Mostly. Also, I trust him to know that this is best.

But I am reminded that my own ‘on the fly’ changes of the plan I laid out for the students could elicit a similar negative response. I need to be sure I am not pulling the rug out on anyone, especially not anyone that struggles to keep up in the first place.

Going with the teachable moments provides some of the best learning. It is not about sticking rigidly to the plan. It is, however, about being careful to acknowledge that students might be stressed by what I am doing, to pay attention to the behaviours that might show me that a student is frustrated and then mitigating it as much as I can.

Because of my arthritis, I am a ‘special needs’ student and this provides me with some insight I don’t normally experience. School for me has always been easy, because I have a facility for reading and writing, for remembering and analyzing.

At the gym, I become a disabled person. Some exercises I can do the same as everyone else. Other exercises are entirely impossible.

Scott is good at finding ways to help me achieve close to the same goals as other participants, but in a different way than the rest of the class. It can’t always completely match, but it keeps me in pace with everyone else. I don’t have to go off and do something entirely different, or find a different gym, or join a special class.

However, even though I am a forty-seven year old woman, I still can feel the following, especially if I am tired or in pain:

  • an odd shame and embarrassment when new people find out I am different
  • frustration when Scott forgets temporarily about my disability and asks me to do something I can’t do
  • anger and grief because of what I can’t do, and what it means for the future

Scott creates a kind of learning environment that has both community and individualization. We are in it together and in concert with each other, but at the same time he is talking with each of us about where we are, where to go next, how do something different to nurse a sore shoulder, or how to add challenge to an activity if we can take it.

I strive to match this kind of environment. It is harder at school, where young students often don’t know why they can’t read or get their ideas out of their heads. Tests can show where a problem is a disability as opposed to failure to learn, but it doesn’t provide a script to follow. Students may not have been taught, or have not yet grasped how to be reflective about themselves as a learner. They may have developed a host of highly effective behaviours for avoiding thinking about it or doing any work at all.

At the gym, nobody ever calls me dumb, or points a finger and laughs, or takes home a report card with an A, while I take home my inevitable C+. (There is assessment rearing its ugly, slobbering head again, but that is another post.)

However, the principles hold. If we can help students win the mental game, if we can mitigate frustration when it gets hard, if we can differentiate, if we can teach students to be knowledgeable about their challenges and their goals, if we can provide opportunities for differences to be honoured, and engage them in the process as much as possible, we can help them be strong and flexible.

“What did I get?” Time for some self-assessment.

As I wrap another year, some self-assessment is required.

It is apparent to me once again that many students still view the whole assessment process a mystery, yet it should not be so.

I am writing primarily about my English classes, but this applies in Social Studies as well.

We set criteria, we create rubrics, we examine exmplars, I provide ongoing feedback. Clearly, I still am not doing something critical to the process.

Many students still consider education, ‘doneness’, as in, “Have I done enough to pass, or get a B, or get an A”? When this is the case, the assessment is probably as useful and worthwhile as if I had just piled it up measured it with a ruler.

But I don’t use that method. I spend untold hours in careful assessment. Well, let’s be clear; I do count the hours, and they are more than I can physically and mentally bear, particularly when they feel, in least in some ways, a waste of time.

I love assessment. I love teaching skills, content, and inquiry. I enjoy reading student projects and writing and providing feedback. What I find agonizing is how often my feedback goes unimplemented, and how infrequently students do a good job on self-assessment. I ask for it, frequently. The students don’t know how to do it, or don’t do it, or don’t value it. They must, and the quality of that process will be part of the portfolio assessment they will do themselves.

Of course, I have to value it, and teach it, and assess it.

I am going to change some assessment routines, in particular, end of semester routines.

Next year, I will be implementing a portfolio approach to summative assessment, and it will directed and guided by the students. I will drop whatever elements of my courses I can in order to achieve this, because it will need to be completed well before the end of the semester.

Students should be very clear and able to determine the quality of the work they have completed and what they need to work on next time – as long as I do not accept personal responsibility for doing the summative assessment.

No mystery. The power of assessment will be where it belongs – in the student’s control and understanding. They shouldn’t have to drop by later to “see what I got”.

For English, in particular, I plan to put together a portfolio on large card stock. There will be three categories, Reading, Writing, and Oral Language. Students will collect artifacts representing their best learning in each category throughout the semester or year. They will reflect on product and process in both a written form and in an oral interview.

Anybody have anything like this? Advice? Routines?

Great teachers easily do this

Ran into a blog by Justin Tarte on some of the qualities of a good teacher. I didn’t really quibble with much of what he had to say, although sometimes these kinds of lists make me uncomfortable. I have met a lot of incredible educators, and they all brought their very unique selves to the profession. However, most of the points were general enough to work.

There was one that got my attention, however. It is not that I disagree with the idea, but I stumbled when I got the word, easily.

Easily. Hmmmm…. Okay, pushing thinking, yes. Asking questions and getting students thinking more deeply, yes. Getting a room talking, sure. Getting a room discussing in a skilled manner, and then assessing that skill, not that easy. This is one area that I have struggled with over the years. It is not as simple as it might seem. Some students are reticent. Some talk too much. Some students can be cruel. The age of the group can play a role, for sure. It takes community-building to enable students to be vulnerable and real. As I have written before, not all groups are created equally. Some groups are more ready than others to have a conversation.

In English Language Arts in BC, we need to be able to assess this skill. Oral Language is supposed to comprise something like 20% of their mark. If we are assessing it, it must also be taught.  That part I have done, and I have no problem thinking of different ways to bring students to the concepts of good communication. The assessment is where I run into trouble.

Even when I do have a group that is respectful and will talk, I am often circulating, pushing thinking, sometimes dealing with a behaviour issue. How can I assess this regularly enough to have something valid to say on a report card?

I’d be very grateful if anyone has some assistance on this.

Over and Over

Today, I was doing some assessment of work my Grade 8 Humanities students did. I wrote this, over and over and over, in various forms.

You make a strong point. You must take it further than this. It is important to explain and expand. You could give an example to make your thinking clear. You could connect to your own life, and explain why you relate to this situation.

Your voice, your opinion, your ideas are important. The reader should get to know something about you. Anybody could make this point – now make it yours by showing your perspective. No one will see it  quite the same as you, and this uniqueness is what matters. In English, the marks are in the details, the explanations, and your voice.

More importantly, you figure out what you think when you write. You figure out what you believe, how you want your life to be. You figure out what you want your relationships to be like. You figure out what is important to you.

What you have to say matters.

We are going to keep working on this.

Publish or hand in

I have thought a lot about the idea of authentic products. I have a strong belief that when students get the opportunities, an audience can push students to create stronger products. As well, since most of our students will function in large measure in a digital environment, having them create digital products is critical for preparing them for the future. Students can create some incredibly impressive digital products, which can be highly motivating.

Every week, it seems there are new ways for students to collect information, share information, collaborate with others, present, synthesize.

We have a depressing number of students with little or inconsistent access to the digital world. We need to forgo a few intersections and passing lanes in this province and make sure students can access, create, connect, collaborate, and publish in the digital world. Infrastructure, training, portable labs, software.

Of course, there are plenty of ways students can ‘publish’ in a non-digital formats. To name a few:

  • Letters to leaders/newspapers on topics of concern
  • Posters, leaflets, pamphlets distributed into the community
  • Coffee houses for poetry reading
  • Productions
  • Presentations to local boards, councils
  • Displays
  • Student news letters
  • In-school displays

However, there are still a variety of reasons students hand work in to me. Not everything can be or needs to be published. Provincially examined courses are different from other courses. Each group of students requires different types of accountability.  It’s a complex picture.


Mr. D on Assessment

Here we are at the end of the semester, and once again I am struggling with what the numbers might have to say – about my students, about me as a teacher, about what was learned, and not learned. Apparently, Mr. D has no such concerns!

This blog post, Rethinking Letter Grades, by Darcy Mullin reflects what I really feel, so please do follow this link.

I would much prefer descriptive feedback, especially without having to attach a final, specific number. I think this is the real revolution/education reform we need. I think we would be shocked at the incredible changes removing letter/percentage grades would create.

This kind of assessment takes time. Last semester, when I taught English 10, I spent 14 hours one weekend doing a portfolio assessment at the end of a Romeo and Juliet unit. That was thirty students.

Ultimately, however, the students should assess themselves in conference with me. When we work together to create the assessments, and students get ongoing feedback as they work, the students should know exactly what they learned, what they could have changed, what they need to work on in the future. Sounds like the kind of 21st Century learning we are all talking so much about.

This culture shift will be not be easy; not for teachers, not for parents, certainly not for students. We have been working toward this kind of change in our English department. It’s been well worth it. In the end, we are still stuck with the final number. Why.

What’s the point, if it’s not for marks?

Today when I introduced Genius Hour, I was a little iffy. Looking around the room, I could see all that could go wrong. That student will head for a computer and log onto an online game. That student has a hard time finding ideas, when presented with choice. That student only wants to research Justin Beiber, and yes, I am going to let her. That student will wonder around and bug other people.

Some students have little to lose, and a lot to gain. The experience of learning something without being led by the nose, or by getting the answer off of someone else. Accountability to themselves, rather than to someone else. Intrinsic motivation.

A relatively strong learner said, “What’s the point, if it is not for marks?”

Exactly. That’s when I remembered I was on the right track.