A true process orientation also means being aware that every outcome is preceded by a process.
-Dr. Ellen Langer, Mindfulness
Right now I am waist deep in writing my new book on digital student portfolios. It will be out at some point in 2017 with ASCD. In this forthcoming text, the audience is teachers and how they can facilitate this authentic assessment process in their classrooms with success.
I’ll be honest – I have reached a bit of a wall. My experience as an administrator for the past nine years has left me with many experiences in setting up performance-based portfolios, developing curriculum that leads to essential understandings, and guiding a school to embed this type of technology initiative over time. What my experience has not provided is a strong understanding of using digital tools to assess student learning progress over time.
That means going back to the books. I don’t have the knowledge yet to write with confidence about the day-to-day growth students make and how a teacher might document this learning. Currently I am reading Digital Reading by Franki Sibberson and William L. Bass II. On my to-read list is Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks, In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, Conversations by Regie Routman, and Inside the Writing Portfolio by Carol Brennan Jenkins. Two of these texts are steeped in technology. All are grounded in pedagogy. As I explore these resources, I plan on writing the prior and following chapters that bookends this topic. I’ll complete this part of the text when ready.
I’ve realized as an author that we don’t have to be the expert on everything we write about as educators. Yes, we should “know our stuff”. But when putting together a resource that might benefit a wide audience, I have found it unavoidable to encounter an area where my knowledge and skill are lacking. Am I not an expert now? Not yet…
With my last book, I received feedback that the fourth section (“Myth #4: Technology Improves Student Learning”) was the heart of the text. It was effective in describing how pedagogy drove the need for technology, which led to the technology enhancing and even redefining the pedagogy. What’s interesting is that this was the section I struggled with the most. The topic of blended learning was still somewhat foreign to me. I had to spend extra time in our school’s classroom that employed this instructional approach in order to write about it.
One wonders with any book we read how much the author was challenged to put into prose what they observed, knew, and wanted to convey for others. Writing forces us to stop when we aren’t familiar with something and reconsider what we yet need to know. Writing is a canary in the coal mine, alerting us to gaps in our knowledge and skills as we travail toward an acceptable outcome. Writing is a process independent of a worthy audience, and publishing seems secondary to the act itself. Our lives are better for the experience either way.
In my previous post, I highlighted an article from Education Week about students being able to pursue their questions and interests in school. The author, Dr. Kimberlee Everson of Western Kentucky University, is suspicious of the use of standards and accountability measures in schools. She believes that if students do not have a voice and choice in their learning, then all of the focus on the core academics will not amount to much.
Education policy should not prescribe children’s access to institutions at the expense of access to personal development, growth, capability, or happiness. All students attending free and high-achieving schools from preschool to college is certainly a beautiful ideal, but if these very institutions quash passion or inhibit relationship-building, then the loss to our nation may be greater than the gain.
What Everson leaves for the reader to figure out is how to develop and implement an action plan that honors all learners’ need for autonomy to follow their passions and become more engaged in school. This is essential for our students of color and students living in poverty. According to Everson, they generally do not have the same level of access to this type of instruction, even though they may be the ones that benefit the most from a more authentic approach.
As a principal in a Title I elementary school, I can attest to the needs of these students. We have implemented a plan that has started to better engage all learners. I am using the headings from Regie Routman’s Change Process Worksheet/Appendix A, from her essential resource Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success, as a guide for organizing and describing our school’s planning process. The next part expands on the first steps in this change process.
Prepare people for change process.
Being very upfront with faculty about any upcoming change, such as increasing literacy engagement, is vital. It shows that we are honest and transparent about our intentions. In our school, we facilitate regular instructional leadership team meetings where we discuss the building’s goals and objectives. Meeting agendas and minutes are regularly shared out via Google Docs to ensure everyone is aware of our conversations. This was how our school started as we embarked on a schoolwide goal of increasing literacy engagement this year.
In addition to visibility, I have found it to be helpful to actually teach the staff about the process of change. To start, I share information about how change can have both an emotional and physical effect on a person. This leads into a conversation about why people resist change, and how colleagues can support one another to ferry through the expected challenges. Also necessary is pointing out that any kind of significant change is a gradual process, so it is important that we become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Think about your favorite teachers from your own school experience. Why did you work so hard for them? Likely, it was because they believed in you and what you were capable of as a scholar and as a person. For some students and teachers, this has become a lifelong friendship.
Infusing optimism as a school begins a journey that moves toward increasing engagement for all students. It is a smart way to start.
I have found that the happiest students learn best in classrooms with the happiest teachers. That means the principal needs to celebrate all that is good in his or her teachers on a daily basis. Celebrations can be as public as a highlight in a weekly staff newsletter via Smore (www.smore.com), or as simple and intimate as a handwritten personal note placed in a teacher’s mailbox that describes what was appreciated about them.
Optimism can also come from the outside. One year, I took my staff to a woodland shelter for a retreat. We brought in facilitators from the Center for Courage & Renewal to guide us toward rediscovering why we went into education in the first place. For some of our staff, I know it was a life-changing experience. We kept this enthusiasm going by constantly coming back to the tenets of our time together, such as showing appreciation for our efforts through nominal gifts and words of praise. This feeling of connectedness along with a sense of optimism for the future is a cornerstone for trying to engage all learners.
Build in ongoing support and collaboration.
No amount of optimism will sustain a school culture throughout the year without regular support from a collaborative professional community. There has to be structures and systems in place to ensure that an organization stays focused on their goals (which in this case, is increasing student engagement to close the opportunity gap).
Our school has implemented what I call a collaborative learning cycle. Each part in the cycle represents a weekly meeting. It is a process in which we connect as a whole faculty to set the purpose for the following month of professional learning. This is followed by an opportunity for grade levels or departments to collaborate about the task at hand. The third week, teachers from different areas come together to calibrate their conversations and expectations across grade levels. Finally, grade levels or departments revisit and reach consensus with regard to the better practices to implement within their instruction.
Here is a visual of this process as it looks in our school:
We do not engage in this process every month, or even that often. Sometimes, teachers need to be able to choose how they want to spend their time together with their colleagues. That might include exploring a new science kit or taking time to analyze the most recent benchmark and screener data. We use the collaborative learning cycle when we have a specific goal in mind. One example is collaboratively assessing student writing at the beginning, middle, or end of the school year.
In my final post within this three part series about student engagement and the opportunity gap, I will describe the last four steps in the change process a school can take to address this aspect of learning in schools that deserves more attention. Stay tuned!
One of my favorite books to read aloud, to staff and students, is What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada and Kae Besom (Compendium, 2014). According to the summary posted on Barnes and Noble:
This is the story of one brilliant idea and the child who helps to bring it into the world. As the child’s confidence grows, so does the idea itself. And then, one day, something amazing happens.
This is a story for anyone, at any age, who’s ever had an idea that seemed a little too big, too odd, too difficult. It’s a story to inspire you to welcome that idea, to give it some space to grow, and to see what happens next. Because your idea isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s just getting started.
It’s been a year and a half since I published my first book on digital portfolios for students. In the time between then and now, my beliefs regarding the smart use of technology to provide authentic, connected assessment for students to showcase their understanding and skills have largely stayed the same. I continue to reference this resource in my workshops, such as the one I facilitated today at AcceleratED.
The consistency in the concept that learners require access, purpose, and audience for this type of learning to take place gives credibility to what I’ve shared today and in the past. This is what I knew at the time:
The visual was designed to locate access as the cornerstone for all of the other work we might engage students in with regard to digital assessment. The purpose of the learning task and the audience for this work would envelope the access students require to share their learning in ways that best meet their needs and preferences.
My thinking has not changed in these three tenets of engagement with digital assessment. However, I am wondering if this visual is the only representation for this framework. As I was flying over the Rockies from Denver on my way to Portland for the excellent AcceleratED experience, a new visual coalesced.
This graphic was not rendered with the same production quality as the previous graphic, but the difference is hopefully clear. By provide access to students with multiple ways to represent their learning (audio, video, image, text), they can feel more successful as well as better inform the teacher about the next steps (purpose) in their learning journey. Motivation is increased when there is an authentic audience involved in viewing student learning, namely their family through digital tools such as FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com). One tenet of engagement informs the other, which informs the other, and back again. Kind of like learning! 🙂
In my subsequent experiences as a school principal who visits classrooms regularly since writing this digital resource, I have found that the digital portfolio assessment process is as much of a cycle as well as a framework. Was I wrong in my initial thinking? I don’t think so. It was my paradigm at the time. I think the premise still holds true. What I’ve realized since then is, what I imagine as a mental model doesn’t necessarily translate to reality. As a lifelong learner, I’ve received a lot of feedback from other educators and explored different perspectives on this topic. The more I learn, the more questions I have.
The main message from What Do You Do With an Idea? isthatwhen we share something new and possibly innovative to the world, it is hard to predict where the idea might lead. Others start to own it, put their personal stamp on it, and eventually make it their own. This is okay. I have given digital portfolio assessment “some space to grow, and to see what happens next.” It wasn’t my original idea anyway. The initial framework has evolved due to other educators’ perspectives and from my own reflections. Who am I to stop these continuous iterations? I look forward to what the framework might look like in 2017.
This question was posted recently to me on Google+. The question asker, Jennifer Derricks, was prompted while reading my new book for ASCD Arias (yeah, a reader!). Here is my response:
Jennifer, this is a great question, and I will post it right here in Google+ so others can read my response. My answer is multi-faceted because there are several considerations when first starting to implement technology within instruction.
First, look at your building goals, your school’s past successes and areas for professional growth as a school. Where are you at, where do you want to be, and how might you get there? If you haven’t identified these yet, look at your student learning results. Pay special attention to the interim/benchmark assessments instead of standardized tests and their ilk. These common formative assessments can show you trends and patterns that will guide your work.
Once you have a focus for professional learning that has a good chance of impacting student learning, the second step is to consider one possibility for technology-enhanced instruction. When I say one, I mean ONE!! (sorry for shouting). For our school, there was a recognized need to augment our assessments to provide access and accommodation for our students, especially our most marginalized. Using digital tools such as blogs and portfolios have given students a greater voice in how they can be assessed with regard to what they know and are able to do.
Third, it is okay to pilot technology integration with only a handful of teachers in the first year. We selected the willing and the interested. Once they became accomplished in using the digital tools with fluency, they became our building leaders in terms of explaining the benefits of the initiative to the rest of the staff. Some of these teacher leaders have led staff development for us at later times. Our staff development offerings are voluntary, paid, and led by the participants’ questions which they post via Google Form prior to the sessions. It cannot be just the principal leading this change process.
Finally, make this initiative a multi-year focus that is embedded within a current academic goal. One year is not enough. Plan for at least three years for these enhancements to truly take hold in your school and make an impact on student learning. Also, expect an implementation dip during the process, probably the second year. In my experience, this happens when you think things are running along smoothly. This is a sign that teachers are starting to move beyond the basics of the technology and ready for more training with regard to more complex uses of the tools.
Also, if the technology is not up to the pedagogical challenge (and you’d be surprised at how many are not), it might be time to shift gears and consider different digital tools that better meet the needs of the students and teachers.
Good luck with your schoolwide approach to digitally-enhanced learning!
Our school’s faculty completed a building-wide technology implementation survey last year. It was based on Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR framework for determining how well technology was embedded in and had changed instruction. The results: Digital tools were most commonly used at the substitution level, with limited modification of instruction.
This was a surprise for me. Were we doing something wrong? I don’t think so. Referencing the image above, students have experiences in a variety of activities, such as keeping artifacts within a digital portfolio. But this was apparently not enough.
Maybe it should not be a matter of what is wrong or right. Rather, we have found that when we focus on those next steps, from using digital tools to capture student learning within portfolios, to using best practice with the help of digital tools to share and to deepen student learning, that we find the most growth as a school. It’s about the process more than the product.
If this has been an arduous journey in our school, I imagine other building leadership teams have had similar experiences. Join me in three weeks at AcceleratED in Portland, Oregon on February 24, 2016 to discuss how technology can enhance student assessment, professional learning communities, and your own personal learning network. Let’s learn from and with each other! Below are the sessions I am leading at this premier event.
In our Google+ Community on digital portfolios for students, we have been discussing the pros and cons of rubrics. Yes, they spell out what is expected regarding a summative assessment for a unit of study. Differentiating between levels of understanding can help teachers more efficiently assess assigned performance tasks of student learning. For teachers who are now evaluated within the Danielson Framework for Instruction, the focus is on a rubric.
So what’s the problem? Clear expectations and easy-to-apply assessment tools can make the learning lives of students and teachers more manageable.
This may be exactly why there is a problem. Assessment is not an easy practice to apply. Expectations for what excellence looks like for student learning can become more confusing when we parse out an understanding of mastery in the name of efficiency. Plus, there is the debate about defining poor performance. How much attention should a “1” really be given? Why is a “1” (see: failure) even an option offered to our students?
In this post, I propose three alternatives to rubrics when designing units of study. I am not anti-rubric; rather, we should consider the possibilities when designing instruction for deep student understanding and strong skill development.
Possibility #1: Analyzing Exemplary Pieces of Student Work
This approach works really well with skill-focused learning, such as writing. Showing students what is expected to achieve excellence with examples from past learners can have a better impact.
Below is an example: A mastery wall of student writing, compiled by grade level teams as a mid-year informative writing check.
How might sharing and analyzing exemplary student work be an improvement over rubrics?
Possibility #2: Standards of Excellence
I don’t know if you have noticed, but the Common Core State Standards, especially the literacy anchor standards, read like a rubric. Each phrase within the standard addresses a specific understanding or skill. Standards of excellence are paragraph-length descriptions of what a student should know and be able to do after a progression of learning activities. What is described is what is expected. Anything less is scored below a “4”, largely at the discretion of the student + teacher discussing the work.
Here is an example I created for a unit of study on narrative writing:
As an author, craft an original story, real or imagined, that has a beginning, middle, and end. This story shall have an attention-grabbing lead, rising action that keeps the reader going, and a satisfying conclusion. It shall be free of confusing language and grammatical errors. In addition, your story shall be both entertaining and informative.
How might crafting a standard of excellence be an improvement over rubrics?
Possibility #3: Novice vs. Expert Understanding
If the concept of a rubric is hard to depart from, consider this alternative. It comes from the Understanding by Design framework by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. The teacher determine what is a basic understanding derived from a unit of study, and contrasts that with a deep understanding which warrants a high level of recognition. Here is an example from a 4th grade unit on state history and geography:
Both effort and skill development are recognized within this assessment.
How might differentiating between novice and expert understanding be an improvement over rubrics?
What are your thoughts on this topic of rubrics and alternative assessments? Please share your thinking in the comments.