The Kind of Evaluation that Matters

Linda Rief said it best ...

"Through their portfolios of writing and reading, I know all my students. They ... are articulate learners because they continually practice discussing what they know and how they know it: by sharing with me, their peers, the community, and other grade levels.

Learning to make meaning in writing and reading is not objective, as our evaluation systems would seem to indicate. We must become more flexible in our assessment of students' work. When kids are given choices in what they read and what they write, and time to think about what they are doing, their writing and reading get better. When we trust them to set goals and to evaluate their learning in progress, we will begin to realize that they know much more than we allow them to tell us through our set curriculums, our standardized tests, our writing samples."

(Source: D. H. Graves, and Sunstein, B. S. (Eds.), Portfolio Portraits.)

It is not easy to move away from set curriculums and standardized tests because it means (to some extent) relinquishing control. Relinquishing control is not something that teachers are very comfortable with. When I first mentioned to my friends and colleagues that my students were blogging about (or, rather, working as a community of learners) and investigating human rights, World War II, and some literary texts, the response often was:

"So, what texts are you going to cover with them?"

My response, every single time, was: "I don't know. We'll begin and see where it takes us, I'll see where it takes them."

It took them into the kind of community where writing and exchanging ideas was "cool," where the journey itself - the act of writing - was more meaningful than the final product. It took them on a journey and helped them acquire and strengthen their voices. Suddenly, they became more interested in engaging in discussions than in getting a mark.

This approach taught me a lot about relinquishing control. I started perceiving my students as writers and gave them time to look for ideas that they found interesting and wanted to discuss and share. And that's why Linda Rief's words are so meaningful to me. A community of writers and learners where students discuss and share their work is a very effective tool. It's an effective tool precisely because it doesn't seem like a tool, it does not feel like a teaching strategy - not to the teacher and certainly not to the kids. I quickly realized that, to them, the best kind of evaluation was in the form of discussions with peers or comments written by others about their work.

Course content (something I commented on before) was created primarily by my students. This shift had a profound effect on me as a teacher and on my classroom. My time in class was spent talking to individual writers or sitting down among my students to write in my own blog or read and comment on their work. I found myself operating on what Marie Jasinski calls the "edge of chaos." I found myself, to use Marie's words again, "facilitating the unpredictable."