Mindful Literacy Assessment

A teacher came up to me in the hallway, holding printed reports. Her grimace conveyed her frustration before she even spoke. “How can my students have such nice growth from fall to winter, only to see them slide back in the spring?” She was referring to our screener results, the computerized assessments we have our students take in fall, winter, and spring. They are supposed to serve us as initial indicators for which students need more support and which students need enrichment.

Unfortunately, educators too often end up in service to the assessment. For example, the teacher and I discussed the context in which the assessment took place: the middle of May, beautiful weather, and we are asking pre-adolescents to put forth their best effort on a test that has little to no meaning to them. “What should we expect at this time of the year?” I wondered aloud with the teacher. It didn’t resolve the issue, though. We left this brief conversation with more questions than answers.

When we limit ourselves to only one way of assessing student learning, we become dependent on the tools we use. An outcome is usually a number or a level. The assessments that lead to these results are often commercial products with little opportunity for local control. We can blame the tools, but what good does that do?

This lack of agency over the results of student learning could be described as “mindless assessment”. We accept the results as gospel even if they cause anxiety rather than inform our practice. To question them runs counter to the proclamation by the assessment companies that their technologies are “valid” and “reliable” to ensure fidelity within RtI. Yet when you look closely at the research to support some of these tools, many of the studies are self-funded and self-selected. The anecdotal and circumstantial evidence we collect in classrooms is, conversely, often viewed with skepticism.

So what can we move toward as a profession assessment-wise that can give back some control over the outcomes of learning to students and teachers? I don’t prescribe one approach over another. Rather, I would direct our attention to more mindful literacy assessment. The concept of mindfulness has been heavily researched with positive results. One scientist, Dr. Ellen Langer, defines mindfulness within her book of the same title as:

  • continuous creation of new categories,
  • openness to new information, and
  • aware of more than one perspective.

Mindfulness is about being more aware of the present and worrying less about the past or the future. When people are mindful, they notice what is happening right now with an objective point of view. They resist judging, although they do question sources of information from a place of curiosity. As I read Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018), I couldn’t help but notice all of the connections between mindfulness and the authentic assessment practices she describes. In the rest of this post, I categorize some of these ideas within the context of mindful literacy assessment from past, future, and present perspectives.

Forget the Past (at least for a while)

One of the best aspects of a new school year is the opportunity to begin again in our learning journey. Students have a new teacher who knows little about them other than what might be passed up through the faculty grapevine and reputation.

Instead of reviewing their assessment data from the previous years, what if we came into a new classroom with expectations that all students will be successful? Could we hold off on passing judgment about a kid until we got to know them a little better?

Regie advocates for this. In the very first section on engagement, she calls for teachers to build trusting relationships as a priority during the first days of school. It isn’t about just literacy. “We simply cannot underestimate the power of positive relationships on the health, well-being, and achievement of all school community members” (10). For students to be able to learn, their basic needs have to be met. A strong relationship between student and teacher and as a classroom community are essential.

But what about all the time we are losing by not addressing reading and writing from day one? I hear you. What is being asked – slowing down and getting to know one another – seems contrary to the norm. Yet to be open to new ways of seeing each other, ourselves, and the world (the essence of mindfulness), this time in developing trust and relationships has to be a priority. The assessments will be there waiting.

Keep the Future in Perspective

The discussion described previously between the teacher and me is one example of the larger concern about student evaluation in general. I see a pattern where the further the assessment is removed from the context of the classroom, the less accurate yet more anxiety-producing them become. This is largely due to the desire of outsiders to publicize school report cards that are dependent on standardized tests. As Regie notes in her book, what information these scores reveal is limited at best.

We knowingly ignore the wide body of research that confirms that test scores primarily reflect family income. (312)

I have studied this phenomenon myself in my state of Wisconsin and I can attest to the accuracy of Regie’s statement. She offers sage advice for educators who worry too much about ensuring that their students reach expected goals and outcomes (318):

If we focus on the process, the product will improve.

This process that Regie speaks of suggests practices that help teachers focus on the present.

Be Present

Easy to say, hard to do. I know. I am in classrooms regularly and I can confirm the challenges inherent in moving toward more mindful and authentic assessment practices. Classroom routines, room arrangement, and a strong community with a focus on student independence are a prerequisite for this level of practice.

Once these conditions are established, ongoing formative assessment can begin. Assessment for learning (vs. “of” learning) is always mindful: it resists categorization, it is open to new information, and it can guide teacher and student to consider multiple perspectives. Results are typically qualitative and anecdotal. Formative assessments don’t serve as the total answer to the assessment conundrum but rather as an important piece within an evaluation framework.

Triangulation within RtI

Conferring notes are one such example of ongoing formative assessment. Teachers can use technology, such as a stylus, an iPad, and a notetaking application such as Evernote or Notability. One of our first-grade teachers uses Notability to not only write information about each reader and writer but also to audio record the students reading aloud an independent text or their own writing. Students can listen to themselves reading and then self-assess their fluency.

Paper and pen/pencil are a tried and true technology. Another one of our teachers uses different colors of ink for every time she confers with her readers and writers. This gives her and her students a visual way of distinguishing the conferring notes.

 

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Done systematically, conferring notes and other forms of ongoing, formative assessment can serve as a counter to the sometimes anxiety-inducing interim and summative evaluations. They breathe life into what can be a stagnant process. More responsive assessment practices conducted during instruction provide a richer picture of students, helping teachers see each kid as a unique individual. In addition, formative assessment guides instruction in response to each learner needs. As Regie notes, “quality formative assessments have the potential to create equal opportunities to learn for all students” (314). I would add that it also helps everyone be more mindful of what’s most important.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Fits and Starts

A personal goal of mine is to learn how to use Adobe InDesign. It is a digital publishing program that allows you to draft visual documents such as flyers and eBooks.

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Photo by Mikaela Shannon on Unsplash

I’ve opened it up several times, played with the tools, will often end up frustrated, and eventually shut it down. Yet every time I open up InDesign, I learn something new. This learning might be small, such as how to find a preferred template online or how to zoom in on a document. Eventually, I will get the hang of this software, as long as I keep trying.

These types of fits and starts are the necessary beginnings for learning anything. If we introduce something new into our lives and it doesn’t change how we think or work, then we likely didn’t grow. The journey toward a worthy goal is paved with trials and mistakes and restarts.

Suggested Reading:

Writing for an Audience by Andi Sanchez (The Reading Teacher, $)

Affinity Spaces: How young people live and learn online and out of school by James Paul Gee (Phi Delta Kappan, free)

We are on spring break, which means a tech sabbatical for me for about a week. No Twitter, no problem! See you in April. -Matt

Writing is Innovation

As an idea, innovation is getting tossed around a lot in education lately.

Anytime I see something accepted en masse, I get suspicious. I find it helpful to go back to the meaning and origin of these concepts. Merriam-Webster defines innovation as “something new or…a change made to an existing product, idea, or field”. The Latin root of innovate is innovatus, meaning “to renew, restore; to change”.

Given this understanding, I believe innovation is used too loosely in the context of teaching and learning. Will Richardson aptly points this out in his article for The Huffington PostStop Innovating in Schools. Please.:

Our efforts at innovating, regardless of method, idea, or product, have been focused far too much on incrementally improving the centuries old structures and practices we employ in schools, not on fundamentally rethinking them.

I would continue this argument by stating that innovation should not be limited to science, technology, and mathematics. We go there, mentally, when we hear the term “innovate”. It’s a misconception that needs clarification.

Consider writing. It is a process as well as an output of information and experiences we have gathered to create a new product. This product – an article, a book, a blog post, a tweet – is almost always an iteration of a person’s prior knowledge. Not a lot new here; mostly remixed. Sound like innovation to you?

Dana Murphy, an instructional coach and a writer for Choice Literacy, offers a visual of the writing process that speaks more authentically to me (also a writer) than anything offered during my many years of formal education.

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Important: Murphy notes that one person’s process for writing (innovation) is likely different than another writer’s process.

Here is what I want kids to know about writing: writers have a unique writing process. All writers approach writing differently. There is not a right way and a wrong way to write. There are many ways—endless ways—to approach the task of writing. The process that works best for you is the right process.

Maybe this is why effective instruction, literacy or otherwise, has taken so long to become embedded in all schools. Teachers have to be prepared for a variety of ways students experience success in the classroom. This approach requires a long-term commitment from leaders to guide a school or district to make instructional changes based on sound beliefs and values. Or, administrators can buy a commercial program, wash their hands of any process or necessary conversations, and call it a day. Innovation stays within the purview of STEM.

Changing curriculum is easy. Changing teacher practices is hard.

It is not just us holding ourselves back. Too many standards, nonacademic demands, and not enough time are a part of our struggle to truly innovate in the classroom. Yet we have to start somewhere. As you think about next week’s lesson plans, where could you include opportunities for student choice and voice? How might you coordinate STEM and literacy activities, and demonstrate for your students that one discipline is dependent on the others? When do you celebrate process in your classroom, instead of only products? I’ll be exploring these questions next week in a classroom. Maybe you will join me. Check out the hashtag #PointerNation for updates on our work.

The visual by Dana Murphy, along with the ideas discussed in this post, are adapted from my new, free eBook titled Looking to the Future: Assessing Innovation in the Classroom

Start with Your Strengths

I wrote this short piece for my weekly staff newsletter. Thought it might work here too. Have a great weekend, -Matt

I thought I was a pretty good basketball player in my middle school days. That is, until I attended my first summer basketball camp. It became apparent that I had been a big fish in a little pond. Several players were taller, faster, or simply better than me.

So I had to rely on one of the few things I could do well: hustle. I raced up and down the court, trying to beat whoever was guarding me, and getting into positions that would allow for easy buckets. Maybe I could not dribble past or outshoot many of my opponents, but I wasn’t going to be out-hustled. Focusing on a strength gave me the  confidence to eventually improve in other areas.

As we continue to explore new ways of teaching literacy, maybe you are feeling the same way at times. My humble advice: do what you do well that is also effective for students while trying one thing at a time. Time, commitment, and an open mind are our strengths.

When Every Day is Day One

Each day we seem to enter a story. The introduction starts when we wake up. What we think and do is a lead into a plot. Yet our goals are too often the same; get to work on time, do my job well, figure out dinner and how to spend quality time with the kids, find some quiet time to breathe, and go to sleep. Maybe read the next chapter in a book if we are lucky.

But a story demands more than a series of events. There needs to be conflict. A plot with an intriguing setting. Character change over time, complex and maybe unexpected. A resolution that does not solve the conflict as much as allow the characters in a story to resolve the conflict and find more peace within themselves. Above all, this story wants the reader (and ourselves) to “stay with it”, if I can quote Tom Newkirk’s book Minds Made for Stories.

Maybe that is why people experience hopelessness and end up turning to less healthy behaviors. They have no story. They aren’t struggling with a conflict that productively challenges them to achieve their inspiring goals. Maybe they have no goals. Instead, they just struggle. They lose more than they win. Defeat becomes the overwhelming setting and context.

Blaming outside factors for this malaise can only go so far. If there is a predisposition to mental health concerns, that certainly needs more outside support. For everyone else, maybe we forgot the importance and the enjoyment of a story. How might we place ourselves as the protagonist in our personal journeys? We need a goal that we desire to reach, an objective so important that we are willing to struggle through the struggles to achieve it.

Everyone wants to be inspired. We look to movies, to books, to other people’s lives for examples of who has overcome obstacles to realize their dreams. I have no problem with that. My concern is that if we only live vicariously through others’ experiences, their personal goals and journeys can become a substitute for our potential. Maybe we are susceptible to forget what we were passionate about… We need to start our own stories. Stories that other people will want to read about and be inspired by in their own personal journeys. Stories in which we are the protagonist, seeking success.

Think Time

I recently read aloud Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz (an excellent nonfiction picture book) to 1st graders. After the story, we discussed possible writing ideas inspired by this text. One student raised his hand.

I called on him.

He thought.

I waited.

He thought some more.

I waited some more.

Finally, he shared an idea based on the book plus his own experience with pets. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and then showed everyone.

In the past, I would have likely told that student that we could come back to him later. After reading an article about think time, I have changed this practice. Here is one line from the article: “The students never disappoint. They trust that smart things will pop into their minds. And smart things always do—if we give them time to think.” Without reading, watching, and reflecting upon excellent instruction, I would never have grown.

 

Reading and Writing in the Real World

I’ve been thinking more and more about teaching literacy for students today. Digital media has become a primary source of information for many people. Do they know how to read a Twitter thread or write an effective blog post? If someone does not, are they fully literate? I wrote the following piece for our school’s families to start the conversation. I’m sure I will be revisiting this topic again soon.

-Matt

One of my sources of information is Twitter. I follow educators, leaders, journalists, and friends. I also subscribe to a few newspapers, although much of the content I read there is online. As I scroll through articles from a web browser or app, I find I have to work hard to keep my attention focused on the writing. My mind is drawn to the advertisements and other distractions that appear at the edges of the screen.

I share this information, both in digital and in print, for a reason. Mainly, when education is tasked with teaching students to read and write, we can no longer limit our scope to printed text. The advent of the Internet has created brand new literacies. In a connected society, we need to be globally literate, in which we can understand people’s perspectives from other cultures and locations. We also need to be digitally literate. Multimedia messages read and heard online require new strategies to comprehend them.

At a recent strategic planning for the district, a variety of community members got together with Mineral Point School educators to talk about what we want our students to know, understand, and be able to do. After a lot of conversation and debate, we decided on two big goals: community engagement and academic innovation and independence. These are pretty broad. Basically, we want to improve our connections with our local community around the concept of education, and we want to prepare our students for a changing world.

How do we get there? We have already started follow-up conversations at the administrative level. One of the things that we can agree on is for students to be readers and writers in the real world. That means being able to decode and comprehend text both in print and online. That means writing for an audience that could be one person or the world. Speaking and listening also have taken on new purpose when we can communicate with anyone from anywhere. These ideas are both challenging and exciting. I look forward to working with you to help project a course for our students’ futures.