Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I thought the articles were quite accessible to read and did a good job of distinguishing the different types of portfolios.I particularily liked the Wolf and Siu-Runyan article. Since I do not do portfolios in my class I have never spent much time thinking about them. I thought the authors did a great job of distinguishing between the three models: ownership, feedback and accountability. I think that they did a good job of discussing the strengths and limitations of the three types. The Mondock article job did a good job of discussing the product vs. process models of portfolios. The reflection questions for the process portfolios were worth keeping and using with students.
I think that portfolios make a lot of sense and should be started in kindergarden and kept in an electronic file until a student leaves or graduates. It is a great personal record of a students growth. I don't know if this type of portfolio is being done in Edina or being considered. If it is not being done at school then I think parents and students should start one at home. I have kept some of my children's writing and I do like to go back and read it.

Portfolios in the Web 2.0 Reality

The three types of portfolios described by Wolf & Siu-Runyan in “Portfolio Purposes and Possibilities” reminded me of what I have experienced and seen as a teacher in the last decades. Event though this article is 14 years old, the premise still holds true. However, the electronic means we now have at our fingertips make the management and maintenance of portfolios much easier.

In the “old days” (i.e. when this article was first published), the portfolios I struggled to maintain as a teacher were mostly ownership portfolios, where “students collect a variety of information that illustrates their progress in reading and writing, they reflect on the development of their work and their learning, and they set goals for themselves as learners (p.33).” I did struggle to organize and maintain these portfolios as my second graders would throw in their pizza box portfolios anything with neat penmanship, beautiful drawings, and any work they had easily completed. Back then, I didn’t know how to teach them to be self-reflective beyond a smiley face self-evaluation. And that’s IF I remembered to have them evaluate their pieces at all. Most often, everything ended up in the pizza boxes until they overflowed, which meant the next day would be Select-your-best-work-and-take-the-rest-home Day. The writing pieces I pushed through the full writing process were usually collaborative pieces such as class books or group projects like Pourquoi Tales. Anyone who has ever taught non-native speakers knows how laborious the revising and editing process can be: you carefully pick your battles.

Luckily, we’ve come a long way! We know so much more about teaching writing. Moreover, electronic resources have changed the way teachers and students write, and they provide an easy way to organize portfolios. Even without a student Blackboard environment, we can use wikis to organize portfolios. We are no longer limited to paper or pictures in these collections of student work. Kids, even non-native speakers, can show their learning through Voicethread and Photostory—no more arduous editing for accent marks and missing silent letters before publishing! The students can do their self-assessment reflection as comments on Voicethread or even on their wiki. In a digital portfolio, students can include pictures of their page contributions to class books. Students can use Google Docs to show their growth and writing process by typing the various drafts of projects, which may include feedback from peers and teachers. They would also use Google Docs to collaborate on research projects, build websites, etc. which could easily be shared or linked to their individual digital portfolios. What a great way to show the evolution of students’ learning, their strengths and growth!

Digital ownership portfolios could easily become feedback portfolios, “comprehensive collections of student work and teacher records, co-constructed by student and teacher, that provide ongoing documentation of student learning (p.33).” Teachers, peers and parents could provide feedback by commenting on a student’s Voicethread, Google doc, or wiki. Teachers could also add classroom assessment data to showcase both the strengths and needs of the student. And by keeping digital portfolios online, parents would have access to this information and the multi-faceted exemplars of their child as a learner.

We already have a form of accountability portfolios, “selective collections of student work, teacher records, and standardized assessments … to evaluate student achievement for accountability and program evaluation (p.33),” although most teachers would not describe them as portfolios. Yet, when teachers problem-solve issues about a student as part of the Response to Intervention (RTI) process, they present to their team a wealth of data about that child. It includes relevant standardized test data hosted online through ICue (our repository of district and state data) but also their own classroom data, which includes classroom assessments, observations, samples of work, and information about the student’s interests and home as relevant to the issue at hand. When teachers engage in that problem-solving protocol, the data they present to their team becomes an accountability portfolio that guides teaching and learning.

So we’ve come a long way indeed. In what ways have you used portfolios? How do you envision digital portfolios?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Portfolio - "...the function of reflection in an assessment context isn't entirely clear."

Kathleen Blake Yancey writes in Reflection in the Writing Classroom (1998), Chapter 7, Reflection  and Assessment, that "As we shall see, the function of reflection in an assessment context isn't entirely clear."  Reading this statement in the second paragraph of the first of three readings this week shaped my focus as I read.  All three of our readings this week, Yancey (1998), Wolf and Siu-Runyan (1996) and Mondock (1997) are 12 to 14 years old. So the question I asked while pondering the readings was how does reflection which is at the heart of portfolio self assessment intersect with the current climate of Federal legislation and initiatives? Among them:
  1. formal multiple choice high stakes testing, 
  2. 'scientifically based' programs, skills, and strategies, 
  3. nationally formed standards,
  4. and funding for public schools?
Teachers rightly look for research to support, inform and guide their practice.  In the current climate of politicized education districts are careful to use data and research in more refined ways.  Now 12 to 14 years after these readings were created would Yancey still make that statement?

I think she would.  Searching for clarity produced more thoughts to ponder.  Unless my searches were flawed, which I always wonder when navigating the great world of the web, the NCTE last issued a position paper on portfolios in assessment in 1990,  Resolution on the Development and Dissemination of Alternative Forms of Assessment.  In 2007 they created a position statement, Principles and Practices in Electronic Portfolios, for postsecondary institutions. 

A short hunt for more research on portfolios shows portfolios continue to be used, have entered the digital age, figure heavily in self-assessment and multiple purposes.  Regardless of the political nature of high stakes testing, educators are asking students to reflect and explain due mostly to Mondock's insight that "this evaluation scale provides multiple indicators of student performance and acknowledges differences in individual learning styles. By basing evaluation on student self reflection, the evidence does speak for itself." (Mondock, p. 64.) So the function of reflection may be clear but it's role as a a research based practice remains open.

A few more Abstracts on the topic if you would like to meander....

Andrade and Valtcheva (2009)Abstract:

Criteria-referenced self-assessment is a process during which students collect information about their own performance or progress; compare it to explicitly stated criteria, goals, or standards; and revise accordingly. The authors argue that self-assessment must be a formative type of assessment, done on drafts of works in progress: It should not be a matter of determining one's own grade. As such, the purposes of self-assessment are to identify areas of strength and weakness in one's work in order to make improvements and promote learning. Criteria-referenced self-assessment has been shown to promote achievement. This article introduces criteria-referenced self-assessment, describes how it is done, and reviews some of the research on its benefits to students. 

Barrett (2007) Abstract:
Theoretical background for researching student learning, engagement, and collaboration through the development of electronic portfolios is described in this article. After providing an overview of the limited research on portfolios in education, the author discusses the accepted definitions, multiple purposes, and conflicting theoretical paradigms of electronic portfolios. Principles of student motivation and engagement are covered, and the philosophical issues related to portfolio assessment and reflection are outlined--paying particular attention to the difference between assessment "for" learning and assessment "of" learning.

Electronic Appeal: Writing Portfolios Go Digital (The Council Chronicle, March 04)

Elizabeth Beagle, an English teacher at Landstown High School and Technology Academy in Virginia Beach, has seen a lot of teacher interest in electronic portfolios. She attributes this to the many benefits, which she lists as: "storage, ease of reading, option of alternative assessment, variety, and integration of state technology standards."
She also notes some hesitancy among teachers who might not be as familiar with technology. But Beagle encourages everyone to try it, suggesting they start out slowly and build as their skills and confidence do.
"I think what the electronic portfolio does for a lot of students is that it unlocks their minds. I know when I first started doing this, I had students who would have been reluctant to turn in a standard, written portfolio, but because it was digital, it intrigued them. They were able to express their personality, using fonts, color, and graphics." Enticed, students turned in a portfolio, even if the quality wasn't always stellar.

A Quick Tour of Four Portfolio Programs (The Council Chronicle, March 04)

At St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, students who want to design their own major are asked to create a Web portfolio that demonstrates the connections they've made in their studies.
David Booth, associate professor of religion and director of the Center for Integrative Studies, says that the college has identified four "habits of mind" as central to students' development in liberal arts. Booth and his colleagues believe that Web portfolios are uniquely suited to developing these habits of integrative thinking, reflective thinking, thinking in a community, and thinking in context.
He says that the college is exploring further possible uses for electronic portfolios, such as in the first-year writing program, to increase the cohesiveness of the first-year experience. Some established interdisciplinary programs are also thinking about including Web portfolios, he adds.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Real Purpose of Rubrics

Mabry and Wilson tell us that rubrics have failed to live up to their promises of fair, reliable, and consistent evaluations. The kinds of rubrics they describe—which stifle writing, force it to be contrived, or ignore the creativity of the writer—must be those “one size fits all” rubrics that accompany commercial curriculum materials. Perhaps their mistake was to equate rubrics and grading. The real purpose of rubrics is to stretch a writer to try something different and see what happens. It’s ultimately a way to create a more confident writer who will have received peer and teacher feedback on the effectiveness of his/her writing and will be more likely to reproduce what worked in the next piece of writing.

I agree that to be a useful tool, a rubric must clearly identify what each criteria is but also what it means. A rubric with excellent criteria but vague descriptors will only end up confusing students: it’s nothing more than a tool to play “Gotcha!” with kids. On the other end a 14-page fully explicit rubric is unrealistic and ridiculous. So how do we create rubrics that clarify expectations and demystify the complexity of writing? How do we use rubrics so they not only provide a language for talking about what good writing looks like but also help students understand and assess their own performance in order to improve their writing?

First, we need to be realistic. Which trait or criteria needs to be emphasized? Which traits/criteria are the “no excuse” criteria that everyone is expected to demonstrate? I liked the way Janice focused her rubric on no more that 3 or 4 traits, knowing which ones were most important for the purpose of the writing. Her rubric also left room for some self-evaluation and creativity, which Wilson would certainly approve.

Secondly, we need to teach students the meaning of the rubric, using student exemplars to show clear expectations. Students know what excellent work looks like. They can also tell you when a text lacks so much substance that it stinks. Those are the 4’s and the 1’s on our rubric’s scale: they’re the no-brainers. That’s why I also like Zach and Janice’s idea of not even showing the 4’s or the 1’s. Instead, we need to spend the most time and energy teaching about the 2’s and 3’s: the average stages of the rubric where most of our students sit, stuck in the rut of the limited writing skills they possess. This is the true key to unlocking the hidden talent in writers by nudging them to try something new, something slightly better. Through self-assessment they will see how they stretched themselves just a little further, which is key to increasing students’ writing skills. When students clearly understand not only what good writing looks like but how theirs compares to the criteria, AND how to get there baby step by baby step, they will be able to improve their writing.

So the answer to Wilson’s questions about rubrics comes down to the purpose and the process for using the rubric:
Purpose: Stretch yourself and practice what good writers do.

  • Look at exemplars, concentrating on the 2’s and 3’s.
  • Get student input in writing the rubric’s criteria.
  • Use the rubric for self-assessment, peer-conferencing and teacher feedback.
  • Reflect on what worked well in students’ writing so they can replicate it next time.
I'm not sure if this is fully reconciled with Wilson's stance on rubrics but it leaves me more confident that rubrics are indeed the right tool to help kids make progress in writing.

Speaking of figure skating...

Linda Mabry argues that "Rubrics incorrectly imply that good writing is the sum of the criteria on the rubric" (p. 678). When I read this, I thought of figure skating. When I was a kid, figure skating was judged differently; the scores were not point-based and judges had more discretion in awarding scores to skaters. Now, figure skaters are awarded points based on the difficulty of the elements of their program (jumps, spins, when in their program they perform their jumps, etc.). This was done to make the judging of skating fairer and less subjective. It strikes me that this new system of judging is a lot like a rubric. It breaks skating down into individual parts and then the final score is the sum of those individual parts of a program. There is also some room for artistry or performance points, and those are largely left to the judges' discretion.

The problem with the new system is that sometimes a skater can perform beautifully and still not get a score that reflects the artistry of her piece. Or, conversely, a skater can really flub up, but still get a good score because of his reputation or past performance. For example, I really thought that American Johnny Weir did a nice job on Thursday night during the men's free skate. He had no noticeable big mistakes and his program was interesting and evocative. I guess (according to Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming) his program was less difficult because it had fewer transitions. Still, Weir only ended up in sixth place. It felt unfair.

Overall, I do feel that this system has been a good change in skating. When I was a kid, it seemed like judging sometimes fell along the old Cold War lines. Eastern European countries gave higher scores to Russian skaters. American, Japanese, British and Australian judges gave higher scores to American skaters. I recall this happening with Nancy Kerrigan, an American, and Oksana Baiul, a Ukrainian skater, in the 1994 Olympics. But I do think that sometimes this system can, like a writing rubric, fail to account for the beauty in skating. I would much rather watch a clean, cohesive, beautiful program than a program with a bunch of triple jumps and very little artistry. To me, those programs feel like watching a bull in a china shop.

This isn't a perfect analogy--skating and writing are different. But, like in skating, a well-crafted piece of writing isn't always the sum of its individual parts. Good writing would probably score high in all of the different areas--strong voice, interesting word choice, cohesive organization, etc. But sometimes, as Wilson argues, there will be pieces that most would argue are wonderful, but that may not earn the highest point totals. What to do...what to do.... Go with your gut?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Still speaking of rubrics

While I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the arguments made by Mabry and Wilson, I still consider rubrics to be a real help to me as a teacher and assessor of student writing. At least, I don't think there's a better alternative. If I had time to sit down with every one of my students each week and conference with them, that would certainly be better, but I have 149 students.

When I was in high school and college, I had never heard of a rubric. The writing process as well as writing assessment -- how teachers assigned grades -- was a mystery to me. I had some good natural tendencies as a writer that were rewarded by good grades, but that was as much as I understood. I think I learned most from the instructors who wrote copious comments on my papers, but overall there wasn't much direct instruction about writing or help with revision.

Now I think writing teachers, including me, have worked hard to de-mystify what good writing is, how to do it, and how it's assessed. And the challenge is how to do that in a way that encourages creativity and voice rather than stifle it. In the past, I have taught AP Lang and Comp students who have formulaic essay writing down cold (and can score 5's easily on the AP test), who are "good writers" in a technical sense, but whose writing is flat and dull and stilted. With those students, I felt like I was trying to help them unlearn what well-meaning writing teachers have taught them so well (like the precise number of supporting examples needed in a paragraph).

I don't think that rubrics have to "strip writing assessment of the complexity that breathes life into good writing," as Wilson says. If a rubric is carefully written, it allows space for this complexity. I think that my best rubrics DO honor complexity. . . but the downside of these very rubrics is that they are not so student-friendly. The language that I try to use in describing student papers needs a whole lot of interpretation from me, and this, I admit, is not good. But the best rubrics give students something to work towards, I think.

I do disagree with one of Mabry's assumptions about writing. She writes that "The standardization of a skill that is fundamentally self-expressive and individualistic obstructs its assessment." I don't consider writing to be "fundamentally self-expressive and individualistic." Certainly some writing, like journal writing, is. But lots of the writing we do in and out of school is for the purpose of communicating clearly, for persuading, for entertaining. For this writing, it makes sense to have objective standards, I think, for what "good writing" is. Let's keep our idea of "good writing" flexible, but let's do have an idea of what we're working towards.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why I Grade

As a secondary English/language arts teacher I am working to create students who are curious, who find writing meaningful, who are willing to invest themselves in their writing (Alfie Kohn's "support model"). At the same time, I want to teach my students how to write coherent paragraphs, how to create thesis statements, how to support their ideas with examples, and how to use language with accuracy and precision (Kohn's "demand model"). Kohn sets these two sets of goals in opposition to each other, but I don't want to think that I have to choose between the two. I want my students to learn to play with words, to construct meaning through words, but I also want my students to be able to write strong thesis-driven essays -- the kind of high-stakes writing that they will need to do over and over again in school. I don't think these goals have to exclude each other, though I think Kohn believes that they do. . .

After reading Lynn Bloom's "Why I (Used to) Hate to Give Grades" and Alfie Kohn's "Grading: The Issue is Not How but Why," I am left thinking: "So the kids are better off without me???" In both pieces, the authors suggest that teachers most often do more harm than good, with regard to the assessment of writing. Grading writing (mostly) discourages, stifles, or misleads our students, so better to resist quantifying anything -- instead just let them write? Hmmmm. . . . . .

I believe that students become better writers through revision. I like what Kelly Gallagher tells his students: You have to write the bad writing first to get to the good writing. I really believe this. And it is grades that motivate students to revise. I think this works. (I know Bloom and Kohn would disagree). 8th graders tend to want to view writing as a kind of race -- get it over with as quickly as possible. Revision is not appealing at all -- but because a grade is attached, students do revise and rework and redo, and they become better writers and thinkers as a result. In the last two years, I have begun using a policy in which students are allowed to revise and resubmit all of their major writing assignments if they choose. Most of the students who do choose to resubmit are motivated to improve their original grade. If nothing else, students are learning how to revise their work.

Questioning Rubrics

"The grade's validity--or ability to reflect the 'worth' of the paper--relies on the rubric's ability to predict how these factors work together to create good writing." (Wilson, 32)

How many of you remember all the work we put into creating the power standards for writing? I, for one, spent countless hours creating rubrics to go with each of the genres I was teaching my 5th graders. The rubric is based on my instruction of writing, meaning it changes every time I improve my own skillS as a writing teacher. Even though Wilson claims rubrics save time, I still spend many weekends and evenings taking the time to consider how each student applied the skills we learned in class. I certainly wouldn't say it's easier, but it definitely creates a standard (even if it's just a standard that applies to me alone).

Our last writing assignment was a personal narrative that we turned into a VoiceThread. I was troubled by one student in particular because she didn't include a couple of the main revisions we worked on in class (Barry Lane's "Exploding a Moment" and "Adding a Setting"). As a result, I couldn't score ideas any higher than a 2. However, this student used dialogue brilliantly to help me envision what took place in this special moment she shared with her best friend. I didn't have "dialogue" anywhere on my rubric, and the girl was understandably upset when she saw a 2 under the trait of "Ideas". She asked how she could make it better, and I told her. I have to admit that by adding her "Exploding a Moment", it did help me visualize the scene better. However, she added other parts that just took away from the simplicity of having a couple third graders excitedly exploring their newfound spelling oddities, "pugnacious" and "schwa". Meaning, she added these descriptions because I told her to, but it actually made her writing worse.

If rubrics aren't the best summative assessment, then what is? There has to be an end to writing at some point. With 107 students, I can't keep allowing them to revise their writing. There just isn't enough time for one person to assess multiple revisions of one assignment. I am looking for some sort of magical answer here. Someone please...pull that rabbit out of the hat! Given the resources and number of students we have, how can we assess writing in a meaningful way? And how can we motivate students to improve their writing, even if the teacher isn't giving them any more feedback?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Let's just get rid of grades...

Two great articles for this week!

"Grading: The Issue Is Not How but Why"
I am fairly confident that, like several other schools in the metro, our district will adopt the live grade book. Every time a teacher enters a grade a parent will receive some kind of notice, and he or she can check the status of a student. This step seems to be contrary to what Kohn and supporting research suggests: "Only by abandoning traditional grading and performance assessment practices can we achieve our ultimate educational objectives." In fact Kohn points out that grades can squash creativity and increase fear of failure. I thought we are part of the "creative age," where young people are expected to come up with creative solutions to problems they did not create but will ultimately have to pay for during their lives. Schools seem to be emphasizing grades more than progress, understanding, and student desire.

What alternative do we have to grades? I readily admit that I am cynical of colleges such as Evergreen that have chucked the traditional grading system. How on earth is there time to write comments for every student? How can student performance be measured by outside interests, such as potential graduate schools? The few schools that are abandoning grades are facing a gigantic monster that is grades. Does that make sense? Grades are traditional. Grades are safe.

I am curious to see what would happen if a teacher decided to not put a letter or number grade on anything for a quarter. Instead, assessment would be done during conferences with the students and by written response sans a grade only. At the end of the quarter some kind of grade would have to be given to satisfy... everyone. There would be the pass or fail option as well, but would that be detrimental to a student's transcript? I don't know. Would colleges take the time to read the teacher commentary? It seems a post-secondary school would learn much more about a student this way. Would the administration of a high school support this experiment? Would a teacher loose her mind trying to find time to do this? Grades are easier, it seems.

Maybe I should try this next fall...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I think I do this...or do I?

As I was reading through "Working Inside the Black Box..." I thought to myself, "I think I'm already doing some of this. Or am I?" That thought continued to carry me through as I read the article. In discussing the 4 main headings of questioning, feedback, peer & self-assessment and formative use of summative tests, I was really stuck on the questioning piece of the article.

As I think back to my teaching-even today-I think about the questions I asked (or didn't ask for that matter). I know I do one of the things the article spoke of: "The key to changing such a situation is to allow longer wait time" (p. 11). Yes! I do this! I cannot pinpoint the moment that changed for me, but I do know it was after some sort of professional development/book/class where we discussed wait time. This is pertinent for me in my class this year because I have a few kids who have this written into their IEP where they are to get additional wait time.

However, when it comes to the types of questions I ask...well, I might need to work on that. I'm pretty sure I do a lot of the one-word answer questions. I remember being better at planning my questions when I had elaborate lesson plans (which are no more). There is something to be said for writing down (some of) the things you plan to say to your students.

I really enjoyed reading about how one teacher has the "no hands" policy. That way, the kids know they are accountable for their learning and their time with me. This is something I can do in my classroom TOMORROW! Talk about immediate use and change in what you can do! This would in turn leave it to be a more comfortable climate. My only question would be, what do you say to that student? Do you say, "Nice try? Try again?" That would be something to think about too. Funny-thinking about questioning, while ending with another question. I guess it has me thinking!

Grading Paradigm shift

How to assess writing has not been a major concern for me. I certainly have never thought about it to the depth that the writers of the articles that we read this week have. Reading the articles did give me a lot to think about before I plan my next class writing activity. Reading about Christensen's grading policy was interesting. I liked the way she described her grading criteria to her students. I think her students will have a good idea of how they will be evaluated after reading the criteria. I like that Christensen outlines her philosophy of grading to her students. Students don't need to sit through the class for 3 months before they understand her grading philosophy. I see real value in being more transparent with students about how they will be graded. I like the fact that the emphasis is on the process of writing and not the ranking of students.
In Alfie Kohn's article about grading, I found myself really liking the description of supportive assessment. I particularly liked the the second principle of supportive assessment "The best evidence we have of whether we are succeeding as educators comes from observing students behaviors." I agree that we can witness success or failure in our classrooms by observing our students.I also like the fifth principle about having student have input into the criteria upon which they will be evaluated. I have not done that but I think that that could lead to some rich conversations with students about the process of writing. I also liked the list of things a teacher should do to reduce the focus on grades. I think all teachers need to be reminded to "Never grade students while they are still learning something." The question is how do you know when they are done learning something.

Excuse me while I anthroposophize...

Reading through the Black, et al. and Kohn articles -- highlighter cocked in its holster and green pen held in a triangle death grip -- I found myself responding in verbal affirmatives to both authors, lamenting the height of the pedestal upon which E.P.S. places quantitative test data, and wondering W.W.R.D (What Would Rudolf Do?).

Rudolf Steiner, late philosopher of such gorgeous ideas as anthroposophy and Waldorf education, had such a firm grip on Kohn's third level -- challenging why we evaluate students as opposed to how we are doing it (Kohn, p. 38) -- that he fathered a society of k-12 schools with nary a grade offered. This stands in stark contrast to our own system, one in which we summatively assess our students so often that it cuts deeply into valuable classroom time. (To what end? )

Daydreams of Waldorf aside, we are a district that must grade; and not one in which the general feeling leans towards doing everything in our power to help students forget about them (Kohn, p. 40-41). Despite Kohn's contention that one should "never give a separate grade for effort (p. 41)," every elementary report card that went home last week required specialists to grade the students specifically on both effort and participation. Enter, the Black Box.

Black, et al. offer both theoretical and practical advice that might diminish the ill effects of all of this assessment, and help teachers and students to undertake assessment as usefully as possible. Ideas such as the wait time (p. 11), the "big question" (p. 12), and use of a self-assessment semaphore (p. 15) offer concrete starting points for successful formative assessment. However, as we move closer and closer to a being a district whose elementary curriculum moves in lockstep, these small decisions will require sanctions from the larger school community.

Debi, please pass those TUMS over when you're done.

Low Stakes vs. High Stakes

I really enjoyed Elbow's ideas of identifying low and high stake types of assessments. We are constantly assessing our students but they don't always need to know the end result of that assessment. I like that low stakes assessment allows students more freedom in their writing. As Elbow explains, "We should honor nonverbal knowing, inviting students to use low stakes writing to fumble and fish for words for what they sense and intuit but cannot yet clearly say. And if we assign lots of low stakes writing, students are much less liable to be held back by fear or inability to put what they know on paper when they come to high stakes writing." That's the just of it, isn't it? We want students to feel more freedom to explore their voice. In my classroom, by making writing an ongoing process rather than an end result, I see students who are excited to write, who are creative and pushing limits and having fun, and who are trying to find that voice and write it down instead of how to "please the teacher,"or "get the grade." The multi-genre writing project we have been working on this year is an example of this. Students have not yet been assessed. They will have an assessment at the end of the year when they choose three of their multi-genre writing pieces, reflect on them and post them on their blog. So the low stakes has been more like no stakes other than using the the time to move through the writing process and getting it done. The high stakes will be choosing the three pieces and then writing about them; why they chose them, what they think of them, what they learned from doing them, how they would assess them, etc. It has freed me up to spend more individual time with students conferencing, helping them with the technology, brainstorming, supporting and just making connections. Isn't that what we want to be able to do all the time with students? And it's a lot easier to do it when your not worried about assessing the students or they're not worried about being assessed.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Assigning, assessing, responding, maybe just abandoning it all…it’s enough to give me a little bit of a stress stomachache. Kohn stridently challenges us to “question the whole enterprise of assessment” in the educational system. But then Elbow rebuts: “It is obvious why we need high stakes assignments in our courses. We can’t give trustworthy final grades…unless we get them [students] to articulate in writing what they have learned” (p. 5). What is an elementary special ed teacher to think? Therein lies the reason for the stomachache. Sometimes I wish I could have just a little less to think about in my job.

In my gut (so many stomach references!) I believe in assessing through observation, watching how students perform, asking probing questions, monitoring levels of independence. This kind of assessment informs my teaching every day. But data collection is also my job. I need to be able to show teachers and families how students are progressing toward their annual goals. I need to write short-term objectives that have clear, precise criteria for mastery. This is the language of special education. This is my legal obligation to my students.

Reading and math are more concrete academic areas. I can measure fluency, or sight word recognition, or decoding skills, or the ability to solve double-digit addition problems. But “measuring writing skills” really goes against what I know and believe about writing. Writing is not the sum of its parts (can a student write a complete sentence? can they start with a topic sentence? do they use transition words?). I have to break down those skills in order to show progress in some quantifiable objective way, but really, progress to me is when students are pleased with their own written work, when their personalities emerge within their writing, when they start recognizing the power of words and language. Those things are not quantifiable.

Slow down, you're moving too fast...

I appreciate Black's definition of assessment for learning: "any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting students' learning". (p. 15) With this view, it would seem that nearly any assignment, discussion or performance can be a formative assessment, used to inform teaching and further learning. Or, can it? Black asserts that "the assessment methods teachers used are not effective at promoting good learning." Could it be true in my classroom? As I reflect on Black's recommendations, I vow to be more thoughtful in my questioning, to take time to probe deeply, rather than at a surface level. Today I led two small group novel discussions. We focused on clarifying vocabulary, summarizing, and evaluating the story. But did I take time to assess the depth of their understanding of the story plot? Tomorrow I can do better, improving my questioning with a no-hands policy where every student is expected to answer, and more time listening to the students' questions rather than asking my own.

A second ah-ha in this reading: Feedback is helpful only when it is used by the learners to improve! (14) So, my comments need to identify strengths and specific areas that need improvement, then provide students with an opportunity to improve. This all requires time. A grade doesn't help them improve. (Maybe I've always known that. I've always thought of grades as a necessary evil.) In fact, when a score is given, students ignore the comment! This is eye-opening, life-changing.

Finally, "students can achieve a learning goal only if they understand that goal and can assess what they need to do to reach it." (14) This is a reminder to me: be explicit: tell students where they are going and how they are going to get there.

Slow down, you're moving too fast...

Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom A s s e s s m e n t ,” Phi Delta Kappan, October 1998, pp. 139-48.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Assessing New Literacies

Burke and Hammett in their “Introduction: Rethinking Assessment from the Perspective of New Literacies” (p. 8) state: "We must develop new forms of assessment and in the process shift our whole conception of assessment and ensure it is based on conceptual understanding of new literacies and not print-centric understanding."  
I’ve kept coming back to these lines.  Pondering and wondering and hoping the text continues and expands advocating enfolding the best of print-centric literacy, Mindset 1, into the understanding of teaching and assessing with what they frame as Mindset 2 the “cyberspatial-postindustrial” perspective.   (Spell check, which must be Mindset 1 tool, doesn’t approve of 'literacies' let alone 'cyberspatial'!)

This is stuff to chew on for a while.  Literacy is so all encompassing and the lists of ‘elements’ from Eve Bearne  in "Assessing Multimodal Texts" overwhelmed as she listed: “computer internet, PowerPoint, paper-based texts, picture books, magazines, novels, information books, sound and visual media, radio, television, videos, DVD’s, stories, drama, presentations, screen and non screen, gesture, movement, image, moving, still, diagrammatic or representational, sound, spoken words, sound effects, music, writing, and print including elements of font, type, size and shape.”  Enough to make a person with the title ‘Literacy Coordinator’ feel a bit like Alice shrinking as she goes down the rabbit hole of 2.0.

Then I found Dr. Jason Ohler and “New Media and New Literacies,”  Perhaps it is his more laid back voice, underlying humor, or the clarity of bridging Mindset 1 and Mindset 2 but his writing helps me see the possibilities of merging the “youth communication” with standards based instruction and “college work ready” cultural expectations.
Highlights from the position paper “New Media and New Literacies".
Favorite word: “tEcosyst
The ecosystem created by humans consisting of digital technology, connectivity and the communication they facilitate.” ( Isn't that Fun?)
Favorite Ideas:
A lack of assessment strategy leads to an “A for Anything”.
New media literacy involves traditional literacy. Assessment includes: considerations of clear communication, media grammar, alignment of academic goals, and audience needs with media development.  Additionally it will blend four primary literacies: Digital, Art, Oral  and Writing.

Perhaps this is the blend of Mindset 1 and 2 I was struggling with?  Perhaps creating a Mindset 3?

Will We Recognize the Talent?

This week’s readings provided some interesting thoughts.

The one that I really appreciated was: how is evaluating and assessing going to change with the digital age? Not the question of does it need to change, but to what depth will be required?

In the future, a teacher will need to be familiar with more areas of performance other than multiple choice items and constructed response essays in content areas. They will also need to be rather adept at technology, since chances are high that the learners will be more digitally proficient than the educator.

With so many multimodalities, how will we be able to assess performance or even know what students know?

I received a thought provoking email this week about a musician that performed in a subway station as people hurried by not recognizing the talent before them. It was an experiment on social culture regarding perception, taste, and priorities. The connection I made to our studies was: in our teaching and learning culture will we be able to recognize talent in an unexpected context or will we be too focused on grades, liking, and ranking? Here’s the link to the story

Suddenly It All Became A Lot Less Hazy

As I was reading this week's articles, I kept thinking "Wow, I wish I had read this last semester for Digital Writing." They answered so many lingering questions I had about exactly how digital writing is different from alphabet-based texts (I got that term, which I love, from the Burke & Hammett article) and what exactly these new literacy skills are that we've been talking about.

I am convinced that in order to assess multimodal texts, we will need to begin by expanding our definition of what a text is. We also have to train teachers and students how to use elements of design to convey messages. In some ways, the articles made me feel once again that I don't have nearly enough training in design to be able to effectively teach digital writing. Nor do I necessarily feel that I can "read" on-screen texts that well. My traditional reading and writing skills are coming up a little bit short.

I was especially impressed with the way that Bearne described the skills that multimodal writers need (like "uses technical features for effect"). That section of the article was so refreshing because it was concrete. Theory and abstract concepts were actually broken down into real, understandable standards that we might use to assess our students' multimodal texts! It felt so useful.

Mostly these authors convinced me that we have an obligation as teachers to learn these new literacy skills and incorporate technology into our teaching. I'll be the first to admit that I often resist technology in favor of more traditional alphabet-based texts (there's that term again). I've been part of the chorus of teachers saying "Yeah, who needs this techno stuff when we can just read actual books and use pencil and paper to tell our stories?" But, I feel now that it's almost a moral obligation to incorporate these new skills into our language arts curriculum. To not do so is neglecting to teach important literacy skills that our students will need to communicate and express themselves. As Burke & Hammett argue, "We must embrace larger notions of text and invite multimodal forms of representation into our classrooms. We need to reexamine beliefs about the equity found within language representation, and to learn how to accept and value learning that comes from outside the classroom" (p. 8).

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Training Students for Assessments

How do we truly know what students know? Daniel Hickey, in his blog “Can we really measure 21st century skills” says that it is not possible to measure 21st century skills in a way that is reliable and valid. What I appreciate more is his opinion that we should not be testing these proficiencies as individual skills but rather as social practices. When we start to test and assess different skills (or proficiencies) I fear that we “train” students to answer in a certain way.

I have been working on my Student Learning Goal (SLG) for our Alt-comp program. In looking back at previous MCA and MAP scores we have found that in fourth grade our students score lowest in the geometry strand. To help improve these scores my team came up with a pre-test to determine students’ abilities to compare and contrast 2D and 3D figures. Next we teach mini-lessons on what terms we can use to compare and contrast these figures. Finally we give the students the same pre-test as a post-test to see what they have learned. Although this helps me to see what they have retained, I definitely feel I have “trained” them to answer these questions.

Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to spend our time teaching students how to collaborate, communicate and solve problems rather than answer a detailed question on how many vertices a certain geometric figure has? What will serve them best in the real world?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Assessing New Literacies

What to look for, what to teach

The articles on Assessing New Literacies were very interesting. They brought two issues to the front of my mind. One is that we can't assess what we haven't taught. The other is the role of audience in assessment.

In teaching fourth and fifth grade for many years, I have given a variety of multimodal assignments, including picture books, powerpoints, even comic strips. What I have not done is preteach the graphic, sound, and other media skills and aesthetic sensibilities of design which contemporary work demands. Although some students absorb design by osmosis, this is not true for all students. And if teachers are unaware of the elements of design, how are we to teach and enrich our students' work?

Bearne describes Alex as 'an increasingly assured multimodal text writer' as she analyzes his decision making process (including awareness of audience), his structure, and his technological savvy. She does not have a rubric, although she does have areas of evaluation, which she also applies to Luren and Hannah's comic book. She is not rating the students; there is no 3 out of 5 parts mentioned or mastered. She is using evaluation in that she describes the students on a continuum of 'assured multimodal text writer.' Her assessment points toward the next step or level of expertise on this continuum—Alex should learn to use punctuation marks—but she acknowledges, even celebrates, his efforts to express his meaning pictorially as well as verbally. Bearne notes that Lauren and Hannah at age 11 have had rich experiences with “historical information, Internet sources including journal writing, picture books, and films” (p. 30) which they bring to their work. My experience last semester as a digital writer has given me some insight into some design components of 21st century literacies. My old rubrics may be obsolete, but I need to learn what else to teach.

Burke and Hammett quote Knobel and Lankshear (2008) to support their view that multimodal compositions are indeed authentic texts (p.3). They talk about assessment as needing to include process and culture, and for teachers to acknowledge and encourage collaboration and creation as integral to 21st century literacies. I would agree with them that Facebook postings and blogs are written for authentic audiences and therefore are authentic texts. Certainly my Peace Garden Photostories are seeking an audience beyond my prof and classmates and I consider them authentic texts. Without these classes, however, I do not know when I would have come to realize the power of contemporary cultural media. Having an authentic audience is inspiring—or intimidating!-- to the author of both traditional and contemporary texts.