I have long asserted that one of my favorite things about working in education is the ability to experience a new beginning and a consistent end to each academic year. In the span of one year, we have the privilege of traveling alongside groups of students as they experience new content, new contexts, and new relationships each year. We structure environments that support learning over time and we have the opportunity to capture and celebrate each moment of growth through purposeful observations, conversations, and performance tasks. Our journey with our students is significant for everyone in our classrooms and understandably, when the year begins to wrap up, we all feel tired. Each year is filled with hard work, challenges, and triumphs and our work together is exhausting.
As this year edges toward closure, I have been thinking about this precious yet draining situation and how it impacts our learners in their final weeks in schools before a big break. Admittedly, I move between feeling great empathy for teachers who have been giving it their all for months on end and need a break, and hope for those learners who are on the cusp of making a long-awaited connection, mastering a long-practiced skill, or learning an elusive concept. While I understand the desire to slow things down and ease away from the frantic pace of learning, I know that the final weeks of school can be so important for those learners who need as much time as possible to practice, re-demonstrate, and re-visit the essential learning necessary for readying them for their next new beginning.
Last week, I was working with a group of teachers who were moderating a common formative reading assessment. The assessment was labeled “year-end formative” and as teachers were working with each other, question-by-question, I could sense a frantic energy in the crowd. When I asked what was causing them tension, one teacher exclaimed, “I just feel like I have so much to do! But we are at the end and I have run out of time!” In reality, we were five and a half weeks from the end of our school year, but I realized some of the teachers were approaching the task before them as a summative event, feeling they had no ability to take action. I reassured the group that there was still plenty of time to invite the needed practice of certain learning targets. I urged them to avoid getting caught up in the swell of disappointment and defeat and, instead, rise to the challenge before them: five productive weeks of school (not to mention subsequent years!) I realized that in this case, the “beginning and end of the year” model was not serving teachers or their learners very well.
While our time with learners does end at the close of an academic year, it is important to remember that year-end is an imposed timeline and that our learners never stop learning, despite a summer break. Nicole Dimich-Vagle (2015) asserts, “Time is often described as one of the biggest obstacles to providing effective, descriptive feedback that students learn from.” (p. 93) Removing opportunities to grow in the final month because we are nearing the end robs students of valuable opportunities to demonstrate proficiency on targets and standards. Every hour spent with a learner is one hour closer to mastery and the confidence that accompanies it. For some students, this time could make or break their chance to feel successful. We could argue that students and teachers deserve a rest after such a long year, and this is certainly true. However, it is a disservice to our learners and their potential to cut their time short.
As we wrapped up our reading comprehension formative assessment day, teachers left, armed with clarity about the targets they were going to continue to practice, and lists of student who needed either additional practice or enrichment. The year isn’t over for these students and their teachers have decided that learning will continue right to the end! They are embracing the potential of the final five weeks and are committed to staying curious about thinking and learning. They will provide opportunity to show growth until the final bell rings on the final day of school. After that, we rest!
Dimich Vagle, N. (2015) Design in 5: Essential Phases to Create Engaging Assessment Practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.