Thoughts on Assessment

My presentation at EduCon 2.1 helped me conceptualize some of my thoughts and research efforts on assessment in the 21st-century classroom. My interest in assessment emerged out of my research on blogging communities and adolescent literacy. The student participants in my study engaged in writing and reading through a variety of complex and rich interactions. They posted their own work on their blogs, commented on the work of their peers, linked to each other’s work, and initiated numerous conversations in the class blogosphere. My biggest challenge as a teacher-researcher was to figure out what kind of role I should play in the community. The traditional role of the teacher seemed inadequate. I knew that, as active bloggers and communicators, the students would not respond well to a teacher who enters the class blogosphere only to assign work or to evaluate their writing. Then another issue arose quite quickly - assessment. Once I started responding to student work in a readerly fashion and participating as a contributor, reader, and not just an evaluator, I realized that it would be unfair to the students to reduce all their rich interactions and complex online presence to a B+ or a 13/15. I realized that I needed to develop an assessment strategy that would take into account the complexity of student interactions online and recognize the process as much as the final product.

The students themselves helped me arrive at this realization. Only two days after I asked the students to compose a written response to the work we had covered, they began to use their blogs not only to brainstorm but also to request feedback from their peers and engage them in discussions about the work they were doing for this assignment. The assignment itself gave my students a lot of freedom - they could compose a personal reflection, an essay, a narrative account of their engagement with the material, or even a creative response in the form of a short story or a collection of poems. Two days after we discussed this task in class, I noticed that they turned to the class community for help. What follows is a list of individual blog entry titles that I found in the class community two days after the task was assigned:

Here's my plan - could you comment?

Work in progress. Please comment everyone.

Rough draft. Comments would be greatly appreciated.

My essay unfolds ... any thoughts?

Thesis improved (again). Tell me what you think.

Essay ... it's coming along. Pls post ideas and suggestions.

Improved introduction (after some comments and suggestions)

New and much improved planning post - expecting comments. Thanks.

I was very impressed - the students had turned to the community of their peers to request feedback. Then, I realized that none of the children asked me for feedback. It didn’t take long to realize that, a) they didn’t see me as a contributor in the community, and b) they associated me with corrections and grades. At this stage, they were not ready for corrections yet - they were simply interested in having conversations about their ideas. They needed somebody to talk to and, as their teacher, I was not at the top of their list.

Hardly surprising, I know. But this experience helped me realize that we don’t spend enough time providing feedback for our students and that most of what teachers consider teaching and assessment consists of marking and correcting student work. This kind of practice does not engage our students in those rich interactive processes of talking about their work and their ideas.

Initially, my role as a teacher was limited to first presenting the material (and engaging the students by initiating conversations) and then marking their work. I was absent from that rich part that happened in the middle where the students continued our classroom conversations online by brainstorming on their blogs, requesting and providing feedback, and engaging in conversations about some of the key ideas in the course. Instead of engaging with them, I just waited for them to submit their work.

Teacher and a class blogosphere

As my research continued, however, I realized that I needed to spend more time with them in the community that we had created together. I needed to not only give them the freedom to interact online but also support them as they engaged in virtual conversations about their work and posted planning/brainstorming entries. That complex and interactive process of knowledge building (represented by the middle square in the diagram above) required more of my involvement. It offered a great opportunity to support student learning and to learn more about the students as learners and individuals.

Unfortunately, teachers often don't know how to participate in that process and tend to focus on assessing the finished product. They tend to concentrate on the two areas in the diagram above where their roles are clearly defined. They focus on presenting content and then evaluating the quality of student responses to assigned tasks. These roles represent familiar territory, but they fail to take into account that teaching, learning, and assessment are interrelated. The problem with limiting ourselves to teaching and evaluating is that these roles alone ignore the potential to initiate and sustain rich interactions with knowledge. They ignore the opportunity to support our students as learners.

These traditional roles of provider and evaluator also reinforce the hierarchical relationship between teacher and student. However, a teacher who enters a community of independent learners/writers/researchers to support and encourage student learning removes that hierarchical structure and encourages students to become more involved in the assessment process. Assessment in this situation can become more collaborative because the teacher and the student have opportunities to discuss/co-construct the task itself, the criteria, the process of learning.

Learning to Avoid "School Talk" (Part 1)

Nothing has brought pedagogical theory into greater disrepute than the belief that it is identified with handing out to teachers recipes and models to be followed in teaching .

- John Dewey, Democracy and Education

I've written about this before, but the concept of engaging students in conversations and engaging, as an educator, in conversational assessment, is something that I continue to investigate.

Of course, it is not easy to have meaningful and authentic conversations with students about a literary text that they're reading. First of all, they know very well that I'm an expert - even if I don't see myself as one. Therefore, they are absolutely convinced that they cannot contribute anything to the discussion that I don't already know. No matter how much I try to show them that there are still many aspects of a given topic that I am not very familiar with, students persist in their belief that teachers are experts.

So, I often try to start conversations and create activities that are just as challenging for me as they are for them. This calls for quite a bit of creativity and forces me to abandon tried and tested lesson plans.

Last month, I decided to help my students engage with Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl as more than just a literary text. I wanted them to look at it as an experience, as life written down by someone their own age. They find it difficult not to treat the diary as just another "big book" that they study at school. I wanted them to think about Anne as a person and her diary as a personal record. I wanted them to have an opportunity to engage with the text and think about what Anne's words and experiences meant to them. I wanted to create an avenue for a personal connection - not an easy task in a classroom setting where every text we study is likely to be perceived as a literary text first and a personal experience second. At the same time, I also wanted to engage myself as a participant. I wanted to model the kind of personal engagement I wanted my students to experience.

It occurred to me that one way of doing this would be to create a soundtrack for the diary. So, I spent some time browsing through the SeeqPod and SkreemR archives on the mixwit page . The next day, I walked into our classroom and explained to my students how I got the idea:

I always listen to music when I read. Last night I was listening to Mozart and re-reading parts of the diary for our discussion today. Suddenly, I realized that the piece I was listening to suited the passage I was reading perfectly. It felt almost like the best soundtrack for that specific passage. So, I decided to make a list of songs and classical pieces that, in my opinion, would work well as a soundtrack for Anne's diary.

And then I showed them the soundtrack I had made and we listened to a couple of tracks. I saved my soundtrack using mixwit's highly visual interface and then embedded it in my blog in the grade eight blogosphere:

(Click here if the above widget does not work)

Then, I continued:

I want you to know that this took a long time and I found it very difficult to choose the songs. I kept searching the mixwit database for all kinds of songs that I thought would be perfect, but then I realized that the lyrics didn't really work or that the song was actually very different from how I remembered it. In other words, I had to spend quite a bit of time not just coming up with possible song titles for this but also justifying my choices.

So, I would like you to do the same. Create a mixwit account and then search the database for tracks that, in your opinion, would be perfect for a soundtrack for The Diary of a Young Girl . There's one catch, though: You have to be able to justify your decisions.

And then the conversations started. The one thing that made a huge impact was that I had challenged them to create something that I myself had already done. They could interact with my playlist and learn from the process I had engaged in prior to starting their own. They could critique my work and analyze it before embarking on their own journey of creating a soundtrack. In other words, I had entered the classroom and started the conversation as a participant. Creating my own mixwit tape placed me in the position of a learner. I eagerly shared with them my experiences of using mixwit and choosing the appropriate songs.

The point here is that what they were encouraged to do was not based on an abstract assignment description. I had entered the classroom with evidence of my own meaningful personal engagement with the diary, not just a typed handout explaining what they had to do.

This exercise led to a number of meaningful conversations with my students about Anne Frank, her writing, and our interpretations of her personality and her work. The fact that they all needed to justify their musical choices ensured that the conversations we had focused not just on the music but also, perhaps primarily, on the text. I had many one-on-one conversations with my students in which they talked about specific aspects of Anne's personality and shared their knowledge of popular music with me. They read and listened to the lyrics carefully because they realized that the choices had to be justified and couldn't be in any way offensive to the sanctity of the text written by a girl their age who perished in the Holocaust. This wasn't just about listening to music, it was about making connections, and they all realized that, in order to make them, they had to become very familiar with both the songs and the text - I had encouraged them to become experts.

I was also pleased that this activity gave all of us an opportunity to engage with the diary in a new and unique way. The students still studied the text, they still had to think about Anne as a person and a writer, but they had to do it in a context that rarely enters our classrooms, one that certainly is never present when we discuss literary texts.

I learned that entering the community as a participant allowed me to have conversations with my students that they did not perceive as instructional. Yes, they were talking to Mr.Glogowski about their songs and their reasons for picking them, but it did not feel like school talk.

Here are some examples of what they created:

... and, of course, the best thing about this was that there was no rubric or evaluation sheet. Why? Because when you listen to student soundtracks for The Diary of a Young Girl and the music works, the music fits, you just know the students did a great job ... and they do too - not because they received a rubric with a high mark, but because their work emerged from meaningful conversations with each other and the teacher.

Looking Forward to EduCon 2.0

I've been very busy lately. First, I had to finish the complete draft of my thesis to be sent to the external reviewer before the defense. Then, I immediately turned my attention to EduCon 2.0. It's an important event for me for many reasons. First of all, it comes at a time when my research and thesis are finished and I can finally reflect on the whole experience which, as you can imagine, was about so much more than blogging. Yes, the thesis focuses on what happens when a group of grade eight students start researching and blogging while their teacher becomes a listener, a learner, and a contributor. But what I've learned from the research goes beyond blogging. My research taught me many important things about teacher professional development, classroom design, virtual environments, pedagogical shifts in the 21st century, and the nature of learning and instructional conversations. That's one reason why I'm looking forward to EduCon 2.0 - planning a presentation/conversation for those who are interested in attending my session gives me an amazing opportunity to reflect on what I have learned. But there are other, equally important reasons. EduCon provides an opportunity to meet many of the incredibly inspiring people whose work over the past few years contributed to my professional growth as an educator and a researcher. A couple of days ago, when I read carefully the list of all participants and presenters, I realized that going to EduCon will be like walking into my Google Reader, except that we'll finally be able to shake hands!

I look forward to meeting some of my long-time virtual mentors: Will Richardson, Chris Lehmann, Christian Long, Patrick Higgins, David Warlick, and Joyce Valenza to name just a few. Their work has been instrumental in helping me with my doctoral research journey.

Also, along with Sharon Peters and Mario Asselin, I will be part of a small Canadian contingent. Sharon and I met at a conference last year and have stayed in touch ever since. I know that this conference will give us yet another opportunity to chat about curriculum and professional development. I have never met Mario, however, but his work as Principal of Institut St-Joseph in Quebec City inspired me at the very beginning of my doctoral research to follow the example set by his school and use blogs or electronic portfolios to create a virtual extension of my classroom. When I first found out about his work through Stephen Downes' seminal article on blogging, I knew that my research had to revolve around eportfolios and blogs. It will be good to chat with him about blogs and the work he's been doing since.

Finally, I'm looking forward to EduCon because it will take place inside a school, not at some posh convention centre. In other words, we will interact in the very spaces where learning takes place, in spaces where students interact on a daily basis. If our work revolves around classrooms, then talking about what we do shouldn't take place away from them unless absolutely necessary. Thanks, Chris, for bringing us together in an environment designed for interactions and learning, not just public speaking and passive reception.

I mention interactions because the Science Leadership Academy has been designed with interactions - with meaningful interactions - in mind. That is one of the biggest reasons why I can't wait to see the school. According to DesignShare, the Science Learning Academy has been described as "one of the only examples of School 2.0 in the United States (and beyond)." It is a place where "the school's founder and the architects tried to make the renovated space [converted office building in an urban context] come to life to support a truly new way of embedding technology into the lives of their students/teachers."

This is especially important to me because, when I first started teaching, I was given a classroom with no windows and a malfunctioning air conditioning unit. Needless to say, we ventured out of that classroom on a regular basis and, at the very beginning of my career, I found myself having classes in hallways, the courtyard, in the gym, and on the soccer field. At first, I looked at it as an unnecessary disruption, a nuisance, and envied teachers who had classrooms with windows and proper ventilation. But, as time went on, I began to realize that leaving the classroom was often the best thing to be done. These experiences led me to believe that the four confining walls can be very conducive to delivering lectures, but not always to meaningful interactions. Ever since, I've been very interested in classroom design and my interest in creating virtual environments for learning stems from my early teaching experiences outside of the classroom.

So, when I first found out about EduCon, I knew that I had to be there to see this innovative learning space and to meet the principal who believes that "the design of a building [can] serve a particular pedagogy" and that "we can create schools where what we do with the information we can access is more important than the information we can memorize" (Lehmann, 2007).

The Science Leadership Academy is a school where the administrative offices, including the Principal's office, are an integral, transparent, and accessible part of the school:

Because our school's core principles stress the collaborative and transparent nature embedded in "School 2.0" thinking, we moved the Principal's Office to the front of the office suite with a door leading straight into the main hall. Better yet, we wanted no "gate-keeper" guarding access to my office.

From day one, the students and teachers would see my office as their office. Within the overall administrative suite, we made the offices smaller and created space for teachers and administrators and support staff to gather together. The office essentially was designed as community work-space and a dynamic teachers' lounge all in one (Lehmann, 2007).

In addition, the cafeteria - referred to at the school as "the cafe" - is a place

where students have a really wonderful, well-lit place to eat and hang out and for anyone walking down the sidewalk to see the lives of our students unfolding in real-time. And with that change came a change of name as well. We started calling it the café to attempt to signify the change in mindset the space represented. Every space - including what could have ‘just’ been a cafeteria - would be re-imagined as dynamic, collaborative, and public spaces that echoed what SLA and “School 2.0″ stand for (Lehmann, 2007).

I am also really interested in seeing the school's presentation spaces, classrooms, and the hallway "streetscapes," all of which are designed as spaces where students can move around, engage in creative processes, and where explanation, instruction, as well as hands-on, and creative work can all co-exist.

Needless to say, I can't wait to walk the halls of the Science Leadership Academy and interact with its staff and students.

See you there!

__________________________ References:

Lehmann, C. (2007). DesignShare: "Designing School 2.0: A Study of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy". Retrieved November 9, 2007, from