Assessment

Here’s to throwing our hat over the wall…

There is this story, attributed to JFK’s grandfather, that as a boy, he and his friends would walk along a stone wall in Ireland on their way home from school and, as kids do, they dared him to climb over the wall. The wall was tall, formidable, and scary. He decided that the only way he could guarantee completing this challenge was to throw his hat over the wall so that he would have no choice but to go after it. The hat was part of his school uniform, and he couldn’t go home without it.

We are in a throw your hat over the wall moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that we are all capable of massive change in the short term. Nearly overnight, we went from our usual way of life, to teaching and learning online, working from home, social distancing, wearing masks in public, grocery shopping differently, and adapting to a new way of life. Eight weeks into this pandemic and we see that we are capable of really significant pivots.

So often in education, I hear how resistant some educators are to change. If this moment is teaching us anything, it’s that we are capable of throwing our hat over the wall. Teachers all over the world have done this. How can we capitalize on this moment? How can we define a new normal with new priorities? How can we involve students in the re-imagination?

What we choose to do next matters, we can double down on our efforts to keep the broken status quo, or we can use the opportunity to re-imagine our system.

Who and what will we choose to support? Kids, families, and teachers? Or curriculum companies, tests, and bureaucracies?

There’s nothing sacred about spelling tests as a way to learn spelling, flash cards to learn math facts, curriculum as a way to teach, testing as a way to collect data. There’s nothing sacred about most of what we do every day in education, and yet we hold tightly to these institutions as we make decisions about what school will look like. These constructs have been put into place to accomplish certain goals; namely to get kids to pass a test, have a certain GPA, and go to college.

When we consider how to do education better, how to make it more equitable, more meaningful, we often do so from the vantage point of old constructs.

As if they are sacred.

As if they are worth preserving.

This is an opportunity to engage in design thinking that will forever transform our schools. Where does this design thinking begin? With empathy. With what is actually sacred: the students.

This moment in time has reminded me how essential this step is (unfortunately, it’s one we regularly leapfrog in education). Who are our students as individuals? Who are their families?

When we refocus our organizing principals around the actual students in our care, when we begin from a place of empathy we can anticipate meaningful changes in our education system. Post pandemic I hope that education doesn’t look the same. I hope that we have taken a step back and hung question marks on the things we take for granted.

What might starting with the student (empathy) look like?

*Class sizes will be smaller. Part of this will be out of health necessity, but I hope the bigger driver of this decision is that we’ve considered the individual student first. With small class sizes, we can offer dynamic, student-focused learning that is tailored to the learner rather than the static curriculum currently being spoon-fed.

*Curriculum will be dynamic and living. We’ll focus less on what content has been covered and focus more on critical thinking, problem solving, discernment, research, and creative expression. Curriculum will meet students where they are rather than demand everyone be in the same place.

*We’ll step away from siloed subjects and engage students in inquiry. We’ll consider that students live in a world that’s subjectless and ask that learning be immersive. We’ll recognize that financial literacy, digital literacy, and statistical literacy are vital.

*We’ll remember that learning is so much bigger and more beautiful than the meaningless data battles we’ve insisted on in the past. What was one of the first things to go amid pandemic? Standardized testing. Students will be better off as a result. Learning isn’t about the data we collect, or how much content was memorized. Learning is immersive and relational. Assessment practices will be for the student. We’ll return to the Greek root of the word assessment (asidere) to sit beside. Assessment will be used to guide learning and as a way for students to self reflect.

*I’ve seen many politicians, parents, and educators voice concerns about students being behind in learning as a result of the pandemic. Should they repeat the grade level? What will we do to catch them up? The pandemic is shining a light on a problem that’s been true the whole time. Students have ALWAYS developed at different rates and in their own time. Nothing about this moment is actually unusual. What is different is that we have a spotlight on the inherent flaws in our systemized one-size-fits-all approach to education that promotes kids to the next level because of their age. What a wonderful opportunity to completely lose grade levels as a way of advancement and instead, let every student advance as they are developmentally ready. How do we organize classrooms? Based on social/emotional maturation. Who is their peer group? Who can they be vulnerable in learning with?

* We are being reminded that social-emotional literacy isn’t something to tack on to school policies or a curriculum, rather it’s the life force within the system. After physical needs are met, emotional needs are very next in the pyramid that makes it possible to learn. When students come back to the classroom, we will be met with complex emotions and unique forms of trauma. We’ll find ourselves in charge of these wonderful, fearful, joyful, exuberant, grief-stricken, complicated, anxious, lovely, overwhelmed children. This has always been the case but, I suspect as we return to school, we are going to be met with the complexity that all of these emotions can exist simultaneously. We’ll be more acutely aware of them. Kids and families will be looking to educators for help, stability, and understanding. How will we meet them? How will we commit to navigating this together? We need to know our students (empathy) and their families well so that we can meet their unique needs. Educators know it’s never been about just teaching kids. As educators we are connected to every single part of society. How families eat, work, access heath care, are supported in mental health, the jobs they hold. All of humanity intersects in the classroom and it impacts how we do what we do in the classroom. This pandemic has given us more awareness of this reality than ever before as educators scramble to fill the gaps that society generally overlooks because “someone” is taking care of it. The way that this crisis impacts society is going to impact our classrooms and the learning available on any given day as we navigate base physical and emotional needs that haven’t been met. The only reasonable response is to begin with empathy. We will need to be stronger advocates than ever before and we’ll have to consider the whole child in every decision made.

Here’s to throwing our hat over the wall. Here’s to remembering who is sacred in education and designing around them.

Unintended consequences of a system

Schools are places where all of humanity collides. When students enter school, they come just as they are. For educators, the human condition is apparent. The brokenness is apparent. Students come to school with all of their differences be they political, social economic, racial, academic, or theological. They come with all their fears, insecurities, doubts, anxieties, trauma, shame, guilt, hopes, dreams, passions, interests, excitement, and a desperation to be loved.

When students enter our classroom, they come in search of sanctuary. A place where they can be safe and feel included. To ignore this is to ignore that as educators we are in the very business of humanity and community.

Schools, and indeed our classrooms, are the very place that our society is formed. We must place the focus on the humanity in our classrooms. On who they are. On the stories that enter our space each day. To place the focus on anything other than the students is to erode their sense of self, place, and belonging. When we don’t take the time to get to know the children and stories in our classrooms, when the focus is on knowledge acquisition, on curriculum, on Pinterest worthy classrooms, on tests, on being a “blue” school, we ignore this humanity.

In the wake of the shooting in Florida, I again feel stripped bare. I again wonder when we will look at ourselves in the mirror and ask the right questions, respond in the right ways. Look at the unintended consequences of our current narrative and systems. I wonder when we will be able to change.

I’m a strong believer that everything matters. Our language, the structures we put in place, the way we speak about our values. It all matters. Students pick up on the undertones, those things we aren’t even naming aloud. Kids have an internal BS meter that goes off when our words don’t match the systems. When our words don’t match our actions. They can spot a disingenuous spirit a mile away.

I’ve read the articles and Twitter posts placing blame on the erosion of values in our country. Sometimes they point to the removal of prayer from schools. Other times the finger gets pointed at violent video games and movies. Sometimes it’s the song writers and artists that get the blame.  There is talk about this being a cultural problem.

I agree. It is a problem with our culture, but not for the reasons listed above. It’s not the lack of prayer, or video games, or musicians, or movies. It’s because we continually send the message as a society that you don’t matter. That you’re not worthy. We rarely say it aloud in this way. In our words, in our finger pointing, in our actions, in our systems this is the message that gets sent. You don’t matter.

Let’s explore some unintended messages being sent in our current system:

Subjects/tests/grades: Unintentionally share the message that only some skills are worthwhile and that if you don’t have them, there is something fundamentally wrong with you. You are only worthwhile if your passions and skills match up to those we’ve decided are worthwhile.

Grades: Unintentionally send the message that your worth comes from a number. You are worthy if, and when, you perform.

Homework: Unintentionally sends the message that you can’t be trusted to be a learner. We have to tell you what to do and how to spend your free time. What you value isn’t as important as what we value. Downtime is not important. Rest is not important. Boredom is not important.

Behavior charts: Unintentionally sends the message that the only way to get you to comply is through public shaming. You can’t make good choices on your own.

Standards: Unintentionally sends the message that we get to determine what is important to learn. If we haven’t named it as a standard, it’s not as important or valuable.

Curriculum: Unintentionally sends the message that you can’t think or explore on your own because you aren’t capable without a map where we tell you where to go and how to get there. You are a computer to be programmed.

Assigned seats: Unintentionally sends the message that you can’t be trusted to choose where to sit. We don’t care to get to know you, so by making you sit in the same place, we can look at the chart to know your name.

Grade Levels: Unintentionally sends the message that your age is the most important consideration when deciding who you should spend time with.

Tests and Grades: Unintentionally sends the message that competition is better than collaboration. Being the best is what matters.

Classroom space: Unintentionally sends the message that nothing is alive. That we don’t need a connection to life, or growth, or fresh air. Classrooms are enlarged cubicles. You’re learning so that you can trade one cubical, for a smaller cubical when you’ve been “trained” to our approval. This is what your life is destined to, get used to it now.

Gun laws (protection of the second amendment and all firearms): Unintentionally sends the message that we value the gun more than we value you and your safety. A gun is more worthy of our protection and activism than you are.

Armed teachers: Amplifies the message that you are not safe at school. School is not a place of sanctuary.

Increased core class time: Unintentionally sends the message that movement isn’t important, free time isn’t important, music isn’t important, art isn’t important. There is no value outside of the narrow band of academics we say have value.

We’ve created a morally corrupt society because we’ve unintentionally created a model that systemically tells kids that they don’t matter.  We look only for outward measures of success. We fail to help kids look at how to care for their inner lives. We’ve taken away the dignity of the child with so many of the systems we’ve put in place in schools.

Until we name the brokenness of the system out loud, it can’t change. Until we confess to each other, we remain unchanged and the world remains unchanged. By naming it out loud, and looking at it together, we begin to take away its power to do harm. To hide, deny, or pretend that it doesn’t exist is to allow the hurt and stripping of humanity to fester and grow. We bond over our shared brokenness. We invite change when we name the brokenness together, out loud.

We need to tell the truth. Humanity collides in all of its brokenness and beauty in our classrooms. We’re all on a journey. We’re in this together. We all give and we all receive. We all have a place. The world is interconnected, and we are connected. We belong to each other.

The unintended and underlying messages we send with our systems and policies, and language matter. They ultimately shape the ways we think about ourselves and others.

 

 

 

Hanging a question mark on the things we take for granted

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and again to hang a question mark on the things you take for granted.”

-Bertrand Russell

This. This quote is one of my new very favorite quotes ever! This is where innovation lives. In the question marks.

Too often in education, we talk about innovation as if it is something that we’ve created and something that can be owned. We talk about innovation in steps and processes and we make it into something it isn’t. And so when we talk about education reform, the conversation gets centered on the wrong things: rigor, standards, tests, Race to the Top!, No Child Left Behind!, technology, better teachers, more tests. Things that end up actually adding layers between us and what we fight for: students. But educational innovation doesn’t live in any of these.

Innovation is a shift in mindset. It is hanging the question mark on things taken for granted.

5 years ago, I started a school fueled by questions. Surrounded by an incredible team, we search for the question marks on those things that we take for granted. In the process, we’ve found that questions are the catalyst of innovation. Questions have the unique ability to disrupt the status quo and force us to think differently. This is important for our students, we believe that this world needs citizens who are self-learners, who are creative and resourceful, and who can adapt and adjust to change. This is also important for us as educators. We need the questions. In a system that seems to value the answer above all, I’m proud to say that Anastasis teachers are those who value the questions. Innovation seems to thrive in this environment of “what if?”. Answers end the process of inquiry, yet this is what our schools have largely been built on.

At Anastasis we are constantly asking, now that we know-what is possible now? We live for those ‘what if?’ moments! These ‘what if?’ moments are our slow hunches that give rise to something bigger. We go through the process of asking: Why? (Why is this the way it it?), What if? (What if it were different?), How? (How could it be different?), what solutions might there be?.

Our assessment at Anastasis is testament to this process of questioning.

Why? Why does assessment look like it does? Why do we judge students on a moment of time? Why have we decided that these things that we assess are the MOST important things? Why are we okay with assessing students this way? Why do stakeholders accept this as a picture of a child?

What if? What if assessment wasn’t based on moments in time? What if we looked at the whole child? What if we changed the guidelines? What if assessment helped students grow? What if assessment could reveal to stakeholders where students are in their learning journey? What if report cards were more comprehensive? What if assessment wasn’t the end point?

How? How do we show stakeholders that a student is more than the few data points we collect? How do we use assessment for growth? How do we determine what should be assessed? How should a student who leaves our school look? How do we know if a student is ‘succeeding’? How will we share with other schools? How could we offer something meaningful?

What solutions can we come up with? What do we want students to leave us to look? What are the words we want to describe them? What can we do to reveal learning journey and forward progress? What do we do to help others understand the bigger picture? What do we do to help students understand the bigger picture?

When we went through this process as a staff at Anastasis, we began with the end in mind. What do we want students to look like on leaving our school? You know what never came up? Scores. Grades. Specific content knowledge that would deem a child ‘educated.’ Instead we came up with words like: inquirer, problem solver, risk-taker, communicator, compassionate, responsible, thinker, mathematician, scientist, self-aware, writer, reader, creator, connector, historian, geographer, respectful, open-minded, service-minded, healthy, reflective, resourceful, responsible, innovative, researcher, discerner, aware, logical.


These words are vastly different from what we generally see listed on a report card. Different from what we generally value (according to what we measure).

This was the launching point for our assessment system. The questions led to innovation.

Our report card looks like this:

UpGrade Anastasis Academy Report Card

We know it looks different, it should. It started with a question mark. It evolves every year.

Innovation doesn’t come as the result of declaring that innovation is needed and putting a plan in place to reach a predetermined outcome. Innovation comes in hanging a question mark on the things we take for granted.