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Data driven into the ditch. (And calling a tow-truck.)


About two years ago, I and my colleagues tallied eight weeks of instructional time that went directly to summative assessments provided by the school, district, and state/Federal. We asked, and then begged, for a reasonable conversation and dialogue, but it fell on deaf ears. One test cost $8 per student, and I’m not sure we ever saw the results. Imagine you’re a doctor, you treat a patient, and then never know whether the treatment was effective. It’s kind of like the Schrödinger’s cat of education. Is the test alive, or dead? If you open the box and confirm it, you just killed the cat, jerk.

Well here in Washington State, we’re kind of in a cat box right now. (Not THAT kind of cat box, gross!) So many juniors did not take the SBA test, the data is invalid for those who did. Education writers around the country are discussing our state:

NEWSFLASH: Washington State on 2015 SBAC results: Never mind.

Our local NPR affiliate, KUOW, recently reported High Stakes Testing Efforts Hampered by Opt-Out Movement.

Going to pause right here: I, and many educators, experience fatigue when trying to explain the differences between the Common Core State Standards and their second cousins once removed assessments, SBAC and PARCC. And I’m not even sure how much of an emotional investment I feel about the SBAC: this isn’t about me. It never has been. It’s about students and their parents. What I am proposing is not a slog through the Swamp of Standardized Testing. As my son told me, it’s like Obi-Wan cautioning about Sand People:

Standardized Assessments: they always come back in greater numbers...
Standardized Assessments: they always come back in greater numbers…

So here we are. We can’t ‘inform instruction’ based on opaque and sullied samples. The data are corrupted and invalid. I propose a deep consideration and intentional conversation about portfolio assessments: no matter the grade, content area, or material/method of delivery, we create a meaningful assessment collection system* to truly see where children/students are, and where they need help. This will require concrete and focused PLC meetings, and time for teachers (hopefully in student cohort/cadre teams) to support student growth.

But you already knew that.

Much has been written about the worth of professional development: these news stories begin to hit the teacher media sites about this time of year, naturally. Seasonally this is the time when teachers go back to their buildings prior to school’s openings, and participate in a variety of ice-breakers, agenda items, and yes, some professional development. It’s a time to get to know new staff members, and introduce staff resources and reinforce bonds and make new allegiances. This summer I’ve been fortunate to participate in PD with two long-time colleagues, and am looking forward to a follow up PD this next week through the focus of close reading. The best PD always springs from two fields: it’s high-quality, and that usually means it costs money, or it’s from other teachers. Times when I’ve had coaches in my room have been best when the coach is well-trained, and asks me how my students are doing, and has honest conversations about my instructional choices, listens to my reflections and seeks understanding. The time when coaches came in my room and took over the lesson confused the students, (and me), and the conversation veered from my request to look over a close reading strategy to this taking over of the materials for that class. Enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of all of us, and we step on toes. I know my big size 10 feet have misstepped more than once while I’m learning the dance steps.

So if you’re in a position to provide leadership, or an educator in the classroom, two articles for your consideration:

Reimagining Classroom Walkthroughs


Ten Tips for Delivering Awesome Professional Development

This one is challenging for new administration teams, because they don’t know who knows what when –perhaps a survey before the in-service days is warranted?

6. Build on Existing Expertise

As a facilitator of learning, you don’t know everything and you don’t need to. When you’re planning, consider how to surface the expertise in the room and build on it. All of your participants, even brand new teachers, know something. Your job when delivering PD is figuring out how to connect new learning and content with what already exists, how to build on what people are bringing with them and already doing. Isn’t that a relief? You don’t need to know everything!

Yes: this began as a look at the data driven into a ditch, and turned into a call for solid professional development and instructional dialogue. This my attempt to wrap my head around what to do about it. It is going to take team-work, and sharing know-how. It’s clear to me that the ‘not knowing’ how to help students is our greatest concern, and we are reluctant to admit we’re not always experts. The best conversations I have are when we’re allowed to identify  an issue and be frank about its possible resolutions. Argue the issue, not the personality.

And like Sand People, we startle easily, but we always come back.

*Postscript: my plan is to recreate and refine my data collection systems using portfolios, student reflection, and guidance–allow students to see the meaning of the work, and assess their skills and acuity.

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National Writing Project (NWP): Yes, in my backyard…

spongebob writes

Call this shameless promotion. Accuse me of having an agenda. I do. An important one. As I approach my ninth year of teaching, as I begin to sift through the hours of professional development, stale staff meetings, and reform, reform, reform, and oh, “Would you like a new assessment with that reform?” one clear and shining beacon of hope burns bright for me still — the time and relationships I’ve built with Puget Sound Writing Project, my local chapter of the National Writing Project. The NWP celebrates 40 years this yearlet that sink in for a moment. I’ll wait. 

Did you check your e-mails? Did you post a cat video on Facebook? No, I’m not being smug or snarky: those would be things I would do. Allow the static and volume both in noise pollution and quantity to interfere with my own thoughts. But consider the stalwart insistence of four decades: no matter the changes and turbulence, the National Writing Project has held true to its mission:

Our Mission

The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation’s educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.

They believe something I have not witnessed in many administrators: they believe teachers are the best teachers of teachers. NWP encourages and clears the path for us, allowing us to flourish. What is the very essence of education? My truth–to provide a space where I and my students thrive, push, connect, and remain messily, unabashedly human. There is something that supercedes or transcends devil-in-the-details about Common Core or its accompanying assessments such as the SBAC. It doesn’t matter how we feel about those things — what matters is how NWP/PSWP provides the clear-thinking mental (and physical) space to support each other. All I can think of is a stupid metaphor about how we teachers are the farmers, reform is the changing weather (tornadoes, drought, and pestilence at times) and our crop, naturally–our students. Okay, forgive me. That was dumb. I’m stretching. (Quietly walks over to coffee pot to see if caffeine will help!)

I think it did. Okay. Back to this.

Here’s what it’s done for me:

  • Made me believe I am a writer
  • Given me sustaining and nurturing relationships
  • Provided me with a means to help students tell their own stories
  • Given me a free space where none of my ideas are stupid, dismissed, or discounted
  • Let me talk things through
  • Honored me, and given me status
  • Shown me through gentle leadership how to empower others and give them status
  • Provided a dragon’s vault of valuable lessons and instructional delivery
  • Encouraged and expected my own teaching vision
  • Space for critical thinking and reflection of others ideas and research/analysis
  • Supported connections with educators around the country and world
  • Periodical check-ups for teaching health (this is HUGE)

I thank my lucky stars every day for Holly Stein, too. She’s the former and now current director of the PSWP. Without her encouragement and guidance–don’t even really want to think about that right now. The working studio environment — time to work, time to talk, time to share — honors teachers from all paths. If you’re feeling fatigued from the current state of affairs in education, possibly even close to extreme burn-out, (as I was), consider looking into your own local NWP group. Even if there is not a physical space at a university, consider reading news and updates from this organization. We are digitally connected, and our front porches as close as our screens.

Now — time to write.

National Writing Project, Twitter: @writingproject