Assessment That Informs

By Amy Brennan

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Sitting at the computer, my jaw tightened and my stomach knotted up.  I felt that uncomfortable feeling, the one that comes when I know it is going to get messy.  When I know it would be easier to step back, rather than lean in and embrace the mess or uncertainty that comes with difficult conversations and ultimately leads to a greater reward – deeper understanding.  This was how I felt when we were planning the questions for the November 10, 2016 #G2Great chat.  This chat was part of a series of chats focused on Saying “NO” So We Can Say “YES” and in particular this chat focused on Saying NO to numerical data so we can say YES to Assessment that Informs.   

My apprehension resulted from knowing what people say in response to hearing the word assessment or data.  Over the past several years the word “assessment” has gained a rather negative connotation for a variety of reasons.  Assessment and data have almost become “bad words” in some circles.  The same implication is often associated with the phrase “data-driven instruction.”   Fortunately, as I reflect on our chat, I do not see evidence that “assessment” and “data” are “bad” things or that educators view them in this light.  I see that there is hope in education, as teachers recognize that data and assessment are pieces of our students, pieces that tell the story of the whole child.  As educators we acknowledge this – we need to know where our students are if we want to advance learning.  One step further, our students need to know where they are if they are to advance their own learning.

Watch as the story unfolds…

Brene Brown, known for her Ted Talk and research that led to her books Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, has been referred to as a researcher storyteller.  I am reminded of words spoken by Brene Brown, “Stories are data with a soul…”  If we flip this idea we can consider that in using assessment we can derive data that builds the stories of our students — our “whole students” not just one data point, but several.  Several data points that tell us the story of our students as learners.  We can look through all types of data and find patterns, patterns which cause us to dig deeper and support our students’ learning.  

Remember everyone has a story…

On my short lunch break one day I was standing in the local Walgreen’s in the check-out line, tapping my foot, checking and rechecking the time on my phone.  “This line is moving sooooo slow,” was the protruding thought in my head.  There was no clear reason for it that I could see except that it appeared to me that it was moving in super slow motion.  This in no way was conducive to a teacher’s already short lunch break.  My agitation grew.  Finally I was next in line and I looked up from checking the time on my phone to catch the end of the conversation the cashier was having with the customer in front of me.  In my hurried mind I wondered why they were talking so much.  Seriously? I needed to get back to school! As I looked up to the cashier’s face her smile caught my attention.  She was an older women, with short, curly, gray hair.  But her smile was captivating.  Her smile was so deep and genuine, and then I glanced to her eyes they seemed to smile too.  My curiosity set in at that moment as I stepped forward and she asked me, “So dear, what is your story?”  I must have looked confused because then she followed up with, “Aw, honey everyone has a story, tell me yours.”  I hold this moment in my mind so often because it reminds me that each and every one of us has a story.  We just need to make the time to listen for it.  Data tells us the story of our students, but only if we make the time to listen to it.  We cannot just glance at numbers alone and make plans for learning.  We need to take the numbers along with all the other research we gain from informal assessments and build the story of our students’ learning.   

Go deeper into the story…

When we read and go deeper into a story we notice patterns, patterns possibly in how characters might react to differents situations or other characters and then we make inferences about that character based on those patterns.  In studying data,we need to dig deeper to make it meaningful.  We need to find the patterns across different data points and gain a clearer understanding of what our students know, how they learn and how we can advance their learning.  We need to look at formal and informal data, quantitative and qualitative data and then talk to our students, watch as they learn and respond to each iteration in learning.  

Make sure students know their own story…

“It’s not about the data – it’s about interpretation.  What’s the story underlying all these data?”  John Hattie in this video talks about making learning visible and understanding the story of all the data.  Hattie’s mantra, “Know Thy Impact” relies on understanding the impact that one’s own teaching has on students’ learning.  If we want to advance learning in our classroom it requires that we know our impact.  This is formative assessment at its best.  Teachers become evaluators of their own teaching and then help students to become their own teachers.  In this way, we need to teach our students how to understand and evaluate their own learning.  We need to help students to know and understand their own story, and to do this they need to look at the data and interpret the data.  Students need to learn, reflect and revise their learning based on their own story.  

Sitting at my computer, I look up at the Supermoon tonight, I feel a sense of clarity in the ideas that earlier left me feeling uncomfortable.  Before my jaw was tightened, now it feels relaxed.  Before my stomach was in a knot, now it is at ease.  I feel hope and clarity because that discomfort has been resolved with understanding and that understanding puts the numbers in perspective.  I know the numbers are part of each student’s story and the story continues to build day by day through formative assessment — data is powerful when you listen to the story.

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Saying “NO” to Compliance So We Can Say “YES” to Professional Responsibility

Guest Blogger Kari Yates

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Every time I participate in a #G2Great twitter chat, I’m in awe. What is it about this chat that motivates people in every time zone to juggle dinner arrangements, carpools, bedtime stories and dozens of other daily realities to be part of the conversation on Thursday nights?  For me, it’s the fact that the topics are so relevant.  The questions are so thought-provoking.  The perspectives are so diverse. And the dialogue is simultaneously passionate yet respectful . Every time I participate, I grow. This Thursday’s topic, Saying “No” to Compliance So We Can Say “Yes” to Professional Responsibility was no exception.

But let me start with a confession.  When Dr. Mary Howard asked me to write this week’s guest post I was both incredibly honored and a bit reluctant.  Afterall, I’ve spent the last decade working as a principal and district-level administrator which has meant that  I am often the face and voice of external pressure knocking on the classroom door.  I am often the one in the room that teachers look to when they want to know, “What was the district thinking, anyway?” But of course that’s not news to my #G2Great PLN. They know me well enough to know that I toss and turn many nights wondering, “What is the right mix of external pressure and autonomy?”  “How do we get schools and whole systems headed in the right direction without limiting the teacher decision-making that is so vital to thriving classrooms?”

Thursday night’s chat helped refresh and revitalize my thinking about this crucial topic. Using the collective brilliance of Thursday’s #G2Great chat participants, today’s post contains five considerations for helping us cross that bridge between “us” and “them” while staying focused on our one common and constant mandate: Do right by kids!

1. We’re all on the same team.

Although we have diverse roles within the system, we are all here for one purpose. We’re here to serve children. The children are wise and wonderful. When we keep our eyes and our hearts on them, we are more likely to move in the right direction.  The face of a child can become a source of energy and courage when there’s tough work to do or there are tricky decisions to make.

2. Keep working to name the “Why?”

During the chat, Gravity Goldberg reminded us that the best questions are WHY questions. Whether a decision is coming from inside or outside of the classroom, as reflective educators and decision-makers we must keep working to name our “Why?” Whenever a practice comes into question it provides the perfect opportunity to revisit the questions of ‘Why?”  If Simon Sinek had been able to join us on Thursday night, he might have reminded us that great leaders always start with why.

3. Professional decisions are research-informed.

It never feels good to be asked to do things we don’t understand or believe in. But once we understand the “why” we’re  better positioned for critical dialogue about “how” and “what”. As the great Marie Clay reminds us, there are different paths to common outcomes.  These alternate paths, of course, should not  just reflect our personal preferences, or “the way we’ve always done it”. Instead, we must follow the signposts of research, learning theory, and of course the children in front of us.

4. Keep stretching.

If we’re doing our jobs as educators, we’re stretching and growing right alongside our students.  We’re constantly asking ourselves, “How can we make our school even more responsive to the needs of our students?”  And we’re looking for answers through collaborative decision-making, reflective dialogue, and professional learning, not a push for blind cookie-cutter compliance to a program. Programs will never solve our problems. Only better teaching can.

5. Keep the door open.

Yes!  We must learn to ask brave questions when things don’t feel right. We must share our ideas freely. We must stand up for what we believe our students need.  But we must also challenge ourselves to listen wholeheartedly and completely. We must learn to look for common ground and the thread of good that is usually hidden on the other side of the divide.  We must dare to open our doors, rather than close them. Honest, respectful dialogue is our best tool for bridging whatever gap we find ourselves needing to cross.

The journey from compliance to professional responsibility can only happen one brave act of trust, one honest conversation, one research-informed alternative, and one student-centered decision at a time.  And when it comes right down to it, maybe our common mandate and our professional responsibility are one in the same: Do right by kids.

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I’d love to connect and continue the conversation.

Follow me on Twitter @Kari_Yates

Find me on Facebook at Simply Inspired Teaching

Follow my blog SimplyInspiredTeaching.com where I share ideas, inspiration, and companionship for the journey.

Check out my book, Simple Starts: Making the Move to a Reader-Centered Classroom from Heinemann.

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Kristin Ackerman and Jen McDonough: Conferring With Young Writers What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

By, Jenn Hayhurst

On October 27, 2016 #G2Great celebrated Kristin Ackerman and Jen McDonough’s beautiful new book, Conferring with Young Writers What to Do When You Don’t Know to Do. Kristin and Jen’s work brought us together to think deeply about what young writers need, and how to tap into conferring to encourage independence.

During the chat I imagined teachers everywhere thinking about conferring and the writing process as they dedicated more of their lives to the art of teaching.  I am struck by an overwhelming sense of well-being as I think of all these literacy leaders who are pushing themselves to learn long after the school day has ended. I truly believe that educators who actively read and write every day are a force for good in an otherwise challenging world.

We read. We write. We grow…

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Lori Sabo ( reminded us that “writers write” and that we all need to take time to devote energy to the actual act of writing. Her words of wisdom reached out to us, asking us all to remember that any literacy learning begins and ends in the service of comprehension:

Living a writerly life…

What can we do to build routines and structures for writing?  Linda Hoyt  suggested that we should practice what we preach. If our students need to write then so do we. We can all be writing role models who work in partnerships with our students, showing them how to be resilient writers who understand how to work through struggle:  

Structures for Conferring…

The chat moved into a bigger discussion about how we organize our instructional day to support conferring. Kym Harjes-Velez shared her system with us.  Conferring may be complex but classroom structures can be easily managed and simple to keep up:

Growth…

Jessica Maffetone reminded us all that learning to become a  writer is a process that is completely aligned with growth.  The beautiful thing about writing is that as we confer with our students we see their skill develop over time. It is both introspective and collaborative at the same time.  Kristin and Jen never promised us that this work would be easy, but this is what teaching is all about:

Independence…

There are many pieces that make conferring work well. We know that being a keen “kidwatcher” is an essential skill that we grow over time. Jen McDonough focused the conversation on another important piece, having tools at the ready to help students become independent once the conference ends:

Learning…

As Kitty Donohoe so wisely observed, learning and  agency go hand-in-hand. We really do learn best in the company of others.  A collaborative and creative process is the mainstay of the world our young writers will inherit. Their work becomes meaningful when we create environments that that are built around community and work:

Kristin Ackerman added onto this thinking when she shared how they are using students’ reflections as another great teaching tool:

Mentors…

When we celebrate student writing as mentors we are elevating our own practice. Courtney Kinney shared how she uses student writing to teach others.  It is so true that we are at the pinnacle of our practice when we use students’ work to teach. Having student writing on hand as we confer places their voices at the center of the writing workshop, it sends the message their work matters and has an impact:

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Thank you Kristin and Jen. Your book really got the conversation going and made us all think of the power that skilled teachers can bring to conferring. You reminded us that our conferring work builds community through strong relationships.    As I end this post I think about our growing #G2Great PLN. We are teachers, we are administrators, we are authors, and we are all dedicated to the art of teaching as we keep our students at the center of all that we do.