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Doing The Invisible Work: The Value of Relational Pedagogy

Anthony R. Reibel

Take a moment and picture yourself teaching. What comes to mind? Is it a favorite instructional activity, a student’s inspiring essay, or a moment when a student shared something insightful about their lives? Whatever it is, I am sure it stirred up many emotions and memories that you may or may not want to remember. Now I invite you to do the same exercise, but this time, please visualize the invisible teaching you do each day. No one can directly see these actions, yet they are as valuable to student learning as any observable practice. Are you still not sure what I mean?

Invisible teaching practices include the feeling you have of sincere curiosity about your students or the deep sense of support you hold when you notice a student struggling. Even the empathetic mindset you use to plan a lesson or the facial expression you give to a student to show that they matter to you are examples of invisible teaching practices. In my perspective, most of our value as educators comes from these invisible actions, we perform each day with students. Although there is an endless list of invisible work that you can and should do with our students, I want to share a few invisible teaching practices that I found helpful in building community and helping my students succeed in my classroom.

Treat Students as Subjects, Not Objects
In their book, Everybody Matters, Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia write, “the majority of employees in the United States go home every day feeling that they work for an organization that doesn’t listen to or care about them but instead sees them nearly as functions or objects as a means to the success of the organization” (Pg. 69). Our schools are no different. More often than not, educational institutions’ practices and policies recognize students as objects of a lesson or an outcome of a teacher’s effort rather than a subject responsible for their learning (Freire 1996). In my view, our current educational system operates from the perspective of “knowing is repeating something in authority figure told them” (Felton & Lambert 2020, Pg. 92).

From my perspective, students often view school as a series of transactions of mechanical sense of knowledge and rote skill development and less about learning how to ask more critical questions. When a school treats its students as mere objects, there can be detrimental effects. For one, schools reduce their practices to transactions and evaluation, leaving students to perceive that their teachers don’t value them as individuals but instead see themselves as valuable only when they mimic their teacher’s expertise. Sadly, we teach simple transactions where a student gives the teacher their work in exchange for points or technical feedback due to lack of resources or time. This reductive practice can make students see education as a sterile process of hoop-jumping devoid of meaning or purpose. In other words, they see school only as a game with specific rules to follow.

How Can You Treat Students as Subjects and Not Objects?
In their book Relationship Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, authors Felton and Lambert write that “taking time to ask students what their story is and using the resulting information as a departure point for teaching can create more student-centered classrooms and more reciprocal relationships based on mutual trust” (Pg. 3). When you ask students about their lived experiences, your teaching practice can lead to more authentic and sincere relationships with your students and potentially gain more context about who they are and their learning needs. Even a question such as, “Interesting, what makes you say that?” can make students feel like you value their thinking, experience, and individuality.

Relational teachers, teachers who value their students as learning subjects, see the time with their students as an opportunity to cultivate one of the most basic human needs: belonging. These teachers help students recognize that their thoughts matter and respect and care for each student regardless of their level of proficiency. In a 2014 Gallup Purdue poll of college graduate students, researchers found that if an employed graduate noted they had a teacher who cared about them as a person, they reported higher levels of workplace engagement and a sense of thriving in their well-being.

Further relational teachers see teaching first and foremost as a conversation with students. To teach our students effectively, we should know what they know, what they care about, who they are now, and who they are becoming (Schlosser 2014). Taking time to initiate interaction and listen to what the students are trying to say about themselves while you teach is essential in being more relational in your practice and understanding your students.

Measure the Strength of Relationships in Your Classroom
Whether intentional or not, many educators continue to reduce the perception of the effectiveness of a school to its measurable outputs such as grade distributions, graduation rates, and exam scores. Schools are rated and measured on these metrics. Yet, these same ranking systems exclude measures of connections, the strength of communal bonds, and levels of collective school efficacy since they are difficult to measure. The absence of these critical metrics leaves schools to ignore this valuable phenomenon when evaluating teacher performance and school culture.

Thinking back about my career as a student, my teachers and professors did not measure the strength of relationships, only technical knowledge. They never seemed to care what I felt about the class and their teaching, whether I felt like I belonged or that my feelings mattered. This perspective made me value earning points and grades over building supportive relationships, as well as value being an individual over being a part of a learning community. When schools don’t value and continually measure the strength of the relationships in their classrooms, they may deny students the chance to develop a complete sense of self.

How Can You Measure the Strength of Relationships in Your Classroom?
Once you begin to measure the impact of your relational practices, you are more likely to develop more meaningful relationships with your students that transform their educational trajectories (Espinoza, 2011); as we can measure, we can more easily change. Working within classrooms that prioritize student-to-student relationships may better help students believe in their inherent learning capacity. At my school, where I am assistant principal, we ask our teachers of introductory courses at my high school to emphasize and measure the impact of relationship building, track their instances of peer-to-peer mentoring, and develop active learning pedagogy. (Felton & Lambert, 2020).

We also ask our teachers to use assessment as a vehicle to measure the relationship quality with their classrooms. Our teachers use assessment not solely to evaluate students but also as an opportunity to get to know their students. We call this process: dialogic assessment, and it tends to stimulate student thinking better and drive more conversations which our teachers can use to guide their instruction. Our teachers achieve this by adding questions to their assessments such as “How is the exam going for you right now? Write a few words or details.” or “Did you guess or were you sure when you answered the previous question?” When our teachers began adding questions like these to their assessments, they increased the likelihood that their students saw them as mentors, an invaluable figure in their lives.

Pay Attention to Belonging Cues
Too often, educators unknowingly leave many of our students with uncertainty about if they belong or if they matter. This unintentional and invisible isolation can lead to students believing that school is a solo endeavor, leading to many school issues. Even the tiny implicit signals teachers send to students through comments or body language “can reinforce the internal narrative that they don’t know what they are doing and don’t belong in the classroom. (Felton & Lambert 2021).

A misinterpreted cue can lead to deterioration of performance or relations when there was no deliberate intent to isolate or marginalize. Although these signals are unintentional most of the time, they can still be debilitating for a student and may potentially impede future performance (Bandura 1997). Often, the perception that a student does not know something or is deficient in their ability could be due to the teacher sending cues about a lackluster performance (Bandura 1997). When teachers send deficiency-based cues to their students, they can be ashamed to admit what they do not know; they are confused, uncertain, or struggling.

How Can You Pay Better Attention to Your Belonging Cues?
As educators, we need to send a signal to our students that we genuinely care about their lives and sincerely care about their growth as human beings. You convey that you believe in your students’ abilities to succeed either directly or indirectly through the intentional transfer of content knowledge and skills, or indirectly, through cues such as eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation (Felton & Lambert, 2021). The right cues can help students see that you are an ally and not an obstacle to their learning. (Felton & Lambert, 2021).

In his 2018 book The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle writes that successful groups (businesses and schools alike) had three common attributes among their members:
1. Their members said they felt safe.
2. Their members said they felt connected.
3. Their members said there was a purpose to their work.
Some ideas I suggest to build these three attributes into your teaching practice could be:
1. To make your students feel safer, perhaps inactivate your formative assessment scores. In my experience, it signaled to them that it was acceptable to take risks and even temporarily fail in my class.
2. To make your students feel more connected, pause your entry into the lesson and let the students attempt to make learning independently, even for a few moments. In this way, students can build a personal state of learning that they can connect to my lesson to make sense of the content better.
3. To help your students see more purpose in classwork, consider designing your curriculum around transferable and enduring skills instead of situationally-focused content. When I re-designed my curriculum with a skills-first mindset, my students saw more purpose in the content because they understood they were learning the content to develop a more significant skill with potentially more utility in their lives.

These attributes make members of groups feel like they belong, and the same qualities should be true for your students.

Make Dialogue A Central Part of Your Practice
“When we learn and talk together, we break the notion that our experience of gaining knowledge is private, individualistic, and competitive by choosing in fostering dialogue we engage mutually in the learning partnership” (hooks, 2003). Suppose we are sincere in our devotion to getting to know our students. In that case, we should feel more empowered to ask students about their internal and external experiences throughout the learning process.

However, the societal view of a teacher tends to be as the imparters of wisdom or the possessors of proper knowledge, responsible for each student’s learning. This view leaves many teachers to consider the information in their lessons more valuable than their students’ minds and hearts. In my opinion, this is problematic as it put students in a passive role and places the burden of a student’s learning on the teacher’s shoulders, where it does not primarily belong.

How Can You Make Dialogue a More Prominent Part of Your Practice?
After many years in education, I realized that learning should be the student’s responsibility, and the responsibility of the conditions of learning should be the teachers. To make more sense of this point, I want you to think about a gardener. A gardener is someone who prunes, waters, and tends to the plant but does not tell the plant how to grow–the plant is responsible for growing itself. This gardening process should be the same in the classroom, where students learn how to develop themselves, and the teachers nurture this growth.

I found that students are more than willing to talk about their struggles and deficiencies when I asked a mixture of academic questions and personal questions. For example, I would insert reflective pauses on my assessments where I would ask students, “What new things have you realized after completing the last section of the exam? Or “do you have any questions at this point of the exam?” Asking these questions served several purposes: 1) they signaled to my students that I cared about them as people; that it was acceptable to talk about their experiences and emotions in my classroom, 2) I gathered more context about their answers and thought processes, and 3) I signaled that dialogue was a central part of my classroom.

A strategy that I used to help me use their dialogue as a central focus of my practice was to recite the phrase “Ask, don’t tell?”; meaning “Ask [students about their thinking first], [before] I tell [them advice].” (Sorensen, 2017). It was a mantra of sorts that I would say to myself as I interacted with students or provided feedback; sometimes they had such fantastic insight that they did not even need my advice! Repeating this phrase helped me build the mindset that I should be more of a reactor to student thinking and performances and not merely a deliverer of information or evaluator of their work. I was to act as a supportive presence for students who tried to make meaning, explored new experiences, emotionally worked through setbacks, and faced new challenges.

Closing Thought
As I close this article, I want you again to picture your classroom. However, as the image becomes clearer in your mind, I want you to ask yourself this question, “Am I teaching to my students, or am I teaching with students?” A teacher is likely to have more experience and expertise than their students, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any. This erroneous assumption leads teachers to believe that their students are empty vessels and are waiting for the teacher to fill their minds with the teacher’s expertise (hooks, 2003). In my experience, it is teaching with students that matters most in education, where teachers create meaning and knowledge with their students. I invite you to think about meaning as an emergent concept resulting from interdependent collaboration, relational pedagogy, and productive discourse. When I did these central practices in my classroom, they transformed my classroom culture, my students’ engagement, and even me as a person.

Bandura, A., Freeman, W. H., & Lightsey, R. (1999). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control.

Chapman, B., & Sisodia, R. (2015). Everybody Matters: The extraordinary power of caring for your people like family. Penguin.

Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: The secrets of highly successful groups. Bantam.

Espinoza, R. (2011). Pivotal Moments: How Educators Can Put All Students on the Path to College. Harvard Education Press. 8 Story Street First Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138.

Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. JHU Press.

Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed (revised). New York: Continuum.

“Great Jobs, Great Lives: The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report,” Gallup and Purdue University, 2014, https://www.gallup.com/file/services/176768/GallupPurdueIndex_Report_2014.pdf.

Hooks, B. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope (Vol. 36). Psychology Press.

Schlosser, J. A. (2014). What would Socrates do?: self-examination, civic engagement, and the politics of philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

Sorensen, M. S. (2017). I HEAR YOU: The surprisingly simple skill behind extraordinary relationships (First Edition.). Utah: Autumn Creek Press.


Responding to Trauma and Responding to Evidence – Both Needed, Both Possible

Responding to Trauma and Responding to Evidence – Both Needed, Both Possible

As regular readers of the STAC blog posts offered by my colleagues and me, you won’t be surprised to read the next sentence. Assessment is one of the most stress-inducing activities educators put students through. Perhaps some of you might even have some uncomfortable reactions when you recall some of your own test experiences. I should qualify this with the notion that I’m talking about assessment done poorly – the type of assessment I define as a number chase, instead of effective assessment which I believe is an evidence chase. But first, let me connect the dots to the title of this post.

In our newly released book Trauma-Sensitive Instruction: Creating a Safe and Predictable Classroom Environment, John Eller and I share a definition of trauma that really stopped us in our conversations because it was so powerful. The definition is from the work of Kathleen Fitzgerald Rice and Betsy McAlister Groves (2005) and states: “Trauma is an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope” (p. 3). The current stress we are all experiencing (and to varying degrees) brought on by the health pandemic far outweighs the stress induced by ineffective assessment practice. However, the combination of these two – poor assessment practice and additional trauma from the pandemic – may combine to negatively impact students to the point that their progress and academic growth might never recover in their remaining school years. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In my work with teachers, I’ll often hear that the constant stress and lack of stability sets up students for difficulties in calming down in order to feel safe, learn, and give their best when it comes time to performing on assessments. Teachers, then, would be wise to invest in assessment design that does not depend on a “one shot, achieve or fail to” test. Instead, formative assessment – the practice before the performance – must be a part of the evidence gathering, not just for students experiencing trauma, but for all students.

The impact of the pandemic was not evenly distributed nor evenly felt. For some of our students (and colleagues) it reinvigorated past traumatic experiences almost incapacitating any opportunity for progress. For some students, the extended trauma exposure resulted in what Jim Sporleder and Heather Forbes (2016) refer to as toxic stress. Toxic stress can lead to issues that can impair students’ normal development and success in the classroom, including their ability to focus and respond appropriately to teacher requests. The potential for assessment to be inaccurate or incomplete is very high. In Trauma-sensitive Instruction we offer many scenarios like this one:

“Laura, a seventh-grade student, lives in a home where her father drinks excessively and comes home drunk. When he gets home, he is both verbally and physically abusive to Laura’s mom and any of the children he sees. Laura normally knows that when he comes home, it’s a good idea to stay out of his way and try to be invisible. She usually withdraws from the situation and tries not to cause a lot of issues.

In her classes, Laura uses similar behavior. Even though she may not understand what she is learning, she is reluctant to ask questions or get clarification. When working in groups, Laura contributes little to the conversation and goes along with the ideas of the group. She is reluctant to make eye contact with people (adults and peers) and appears to be disconnected and isolated.”

Relationships are critical
How might the teacher respond to Laura’s actions while also committing to gathering good evidence to assist her on her educational journey? If Laura is disengaged and disconnected, her teacher may not be able to assess what she knows. Somehow, her teacher has to be able to reduce her stress to be able to get an accurate read on her progress.

Again, the focus on why we assess comes into play. One of the powerful outcomes of a fair an equitable assessment process is the development of a positive relationship between teacher and student. The more assessment is viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate learning and to progress from “not yet” to “proficient”, the greater the view that teacher and student are on a journey together. In our research for Trauma-sensitive Instruction one of the keys that emerged to help buffer against adversity is having warm, positive relationships, which can prompt the release of anti-stress hormones. The choice to have assessment as a stress inducer versus a stress buffer comes down again to how the evidence is used by both the teacher and the student. If teachers can help the student see how assessment data can help them learn, it may cause less of a stressful reaction. If the student thanks that assessment is being used only to label or sort them, it will not be seen as positive or productive, and they certainly won’t capitulate.

We also know that the trauma that came with the health pandemic did not arrive on every doorstep equally. The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) suggests that “COVID-19 exposures were significantly different across race and household income strata, with Black, Latino, and low-income families reporting higher rates of COVID-19–related stressors, which they attributed to systemic racism and structural inequities…” The trauma-aware schools project further suggests, “Symptoms resulting from trauma can directly impact a student’s ability to learn. In the classroom setting, this can lead to poor behavior, which can result in reduced instructional time and missed opportunities to learn.” It’s important then, that educators avoid overemphasizing the importance of tests and exercise caution to avoid overemphasizing the consequences of failure. The messages educators use to communicate about tests matter, and efforts should be made to reduce students’ anxiety and increase students’ self-efficacy beliefs. The message should focus on the role of assessments as a measure of students’ knowledge and ability at this moment.

Know what to look for–and how to react
One of the key body reactions to trauma occurs as a result of the fight-or-flight response. Educators often see this reaction during test time with those students who arrive and seem to “power down” immediately upon receiving their tests. They may quickly do as much as they can and turn in an incomplete exam or they may just put their name at the top and stop there. When this level of trauma is occurring, the body may be releasing cortisol which keeps the body on alert and primed to respond to the threat. It is important to note here that while the body is primed to respond to the threat, the control center of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is shut down. This is the place for logic and reasoning, key skills needed for assessments.

In a paper that focused on high-stakes testing, the authors (Jennifer A. Heissel, Emma K. Adam, Jennifer L. Doleac, David N. Figlio, Jonathan Meer) found that “Students whose cortisol noticeably spiked or dipped tended to perform worse than expected on the state test, controlling for past grades and test scores.” So, if summative tests unfairly penalize students who are experiencing high levels of trauma, it might be reasonable to conclude those tests aren’t generating the evidence we need them to, and they might not be aligned with the formative evidence we already have. The authors go on to state “A potential contributor to socioeconomic disparities in academic performance is the difference in the level of stress experienced by students outside of school.” This means as educators we have to be mindful that students will react differently to similar traumatic experiences and may need different kinds of support from us.

Let me summarize by going back to the title of this post. It’s important for educators to recognize the need to pair trauma-informed teaching with assessment processes to ensure we are not adding more trauma to our students’ lives. Strategies to consider include communicating the purpose for assessment, providing a calm and predictable classroom environment, building and leveraging positive relationships with students, and recognizing when students are under stress and helping them to relax in order to make assessment a natural part of their learning journey. These and other trauma-informed practices will not only help them do better, but will also help them build the resilience they need to be productive and well-rounded adults. Adults who have the capacity to break the trauma cycle for their own children. By the way, these practices, when fully implemented, will benefit ALL learners not only those whose lives have been impacted by trauma.

https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2021/04/covid-studies-note-online-learning-stress-fewer-cases-schools-protocols

https://traumaawareschools.org/impact

Testing, Stress, and Performance: How Students Respond Physiologically to High-Stakes Testing
https://justicetechlab.github.io/jdoleac-website/research/HADFM_TestingStress.pdf

Sporleder, J., & Forbes, H. T. (2016). The trauma-informed school: A step-by-step implementation guide for administrators and school personnel. Boulder, CO: Beyond Consequences Institute.


Shift Away from Learning Loss and Focus on Relevant Assessments that Emphasize Creativity and Critical Thinking

There is a buzz in education circles and districts raising concerns about the significant learning loss affecting students after the absence of in-person learning and the multiple shifts between learning models. It is important to shift away from this idea of learning loss, as it focuses on the deficits of students and does not recognize the strengths and assets students developed during the pandemic. The Spencer Foundation and The Learning Policy Institute created six principles to consider when addressing this concept of learning loss. One pillar identified is to focus on creative inquiry forms of learning. This was further explained as:

“Learning environments can engage in disciplinary and interdisciplinary inquiries through a variety of contexts and by using artistic forms of expression. All students deserve the opportunity to be treated as creative thinkers and makers. Learning should be an opportunity for play and authentic meaning-making, with the focus on how students are learning instead of drilling content in isolation. Children should be inspired, their curiosity encouraged, and their dreams fed. Research demonstrates that such environments provide rich opportunities for deep learning. Such forms of learning can support meeting multiple learning goals and create opportunities for students to imagine and contribute to thriving post-pandemic worlds that serve themselves and their communities” (Bang et al., 2021).

Refocusing
This report started the wheels turning in my brain. Summer is the time for educators to step away, refresh, and reflect. It is also the time when intentional and rich collaborative conversations take place around curriculum and assessment among teaching teams. They may be formal or informal conversations but what is so powerful is the creativity that comes from these collective voices coming together.

What if this understanding of creative inquiry was shared with teams in advance of planning together? Would this guide teams to think differently about formative and summative assessments? Would it spark new ways to allow students to show their knowledge? Instead of defaulting to traditional assessment practices such as multiple choice, a short essay, or matching, the sky’s the limit in the ways that teams can collaborate to create assessments that are meaningful, relevant to their students’ own lived experiences, and allow students to show what they know. Stephanie Woldem, a brilliant math teacher in a south Minneapolis urban high school, asked students to analyze tables of data showing numbers of homicides, assaults, and arrests. She asked students to find out which police precincts had the most positive interactions with police compared to arrests and crimes. (Star Tribune, Mattos, 2015). Interactions between the community and police were a growing concern. Woldem was very aware of these concerns among the students and created a relevant learning task with an assessment in her freshman algebra class. Policing impacted many of the young scholars in the community around the school. Woldem knew that having a deeper understanding of the data and helping the students make meaning of the data was far more impactful than practicing a few algebra problems.

Bringing lessons to life
The teachers at this school also asked students to participate in data tours, using relevant city data and students created questions to dig into the data. Often they came away with more questions than answers when analyzing the information. What this teacher learned is that in a subject matter such as math where students struggled to make meaning and find relevance, math jumped alive for these students. The teacher found a way to use content and assessments to motivate, engage and inspire the students to become critical thinkers using the data in ways they have not done before.

Through understanding what is going on in the lives of her students and the community in which the students live, the teacher helped them develop the skills of critical and creative thinking. The three great assessment gurus which taught me much of what I know about assessments today, Cassie Erkens, Tom Schimmer and Nicole Dimich, wrote a book called Growing Tomorrow’s Citizens. In the text they outlined critical competencies necessary for success in a changing world. Two of these tenets that Woldem also used in her math classroom were critical thinking and creative thinking. While the authors argue that all seven are critical for deeper and more meaningful learning for student’s today, I want to focus on critical thinking and creative thinking when developing assessments for students.

Reimagining assessments
The authors identify the skill of critical thinking and to also consider the dispositions or how to help students behave as critical thinkers. Students need opportunities to engage in practicing this skill prior to providing evidence of their learning through a formative or summative assessment. As did the math teacher, “it is preferred that learners emerge as partners and key decision makers in their own experiences, allowing them to create relevance while exploring those areas and topics that naturally pique their curiosity” (Erkens et al., p.77). Inquiry and project based learning can be valuable examples of helping learners to practice these skills. As teachers working in collaborative teams in the summer, how can teams reimagine a unit summative assessment to build in critical thinking skills in a way that is relevant for the students in their school community?

The second of seven critical competencies is creativity. Erkens et al., state that “creativity is the backbone of innovation, and humanity thrives on innovation; indeed, it is what improves the quality of living across all age and continents” (144). Creativity may be difficult to measure and far too often students do not have an opportunity to imagine, invent or develop original ideas. Schools are looking for right and wrong to prepare students for standardized tests, which also do not assess creativity. Thus, teaching this critical competency is left behind. A mentor once said to me what is measured is what identifies the values of an organization. If the school is only looking at standardized tests, then students often would not have experiences to produce or create and collaborate to develop new solutions. However, if educators were to ask employers what are the top skills they are looking for in employees, often creativity and developing new, innovative solutions rises to the top. Schools are not preparing students well for the skills they need in our ever-changing world. Again, as educators work together to develop new curriculum and assessments in the summer, consider embedding teaching the skills of creativity into units of study. Allow students an opportunity to practice these skills. In fact, work together to create new opportunities for students as you get your own creative juices flowing. One recommendation from Erkens et al., is to teach the creative process. Melissa Purtee came up with this visual to assist in helping educators understand the creative process.

Inspiration design creation reflection and presentation flowchart

(Purtee, 2017).

One middle school classroom in a STEM school had a specific design course. The students were asked to design musical instruments that were required to make a noise at a certain level of frequency. The students spent time walking through each step of the creative design process. They kept journals documenting and reflecting on each stage of the design process. This was also used as a formative assessment for the teacher. The teacher read a few journal entries each day to get a grasp of how students were making sense of each step in relation to their instrument design. In the end, the students were asked to play the instrument. If the criteria was not met, the teacher provided feedback and the students were able to have another attempt, as failure and revision is a necessary part of the design process. However it is not necessary to have a separate course to teach creativity and this can be embedded into any course or subject matter. To further understand the creative process, visit go.SolutionTree.com/assessment for a free reproducible of a table called” Instructional Questions for Teaching the Creative Process”.

Growing tomorrow’s citizens is important to engage in relevant and meaningful assessments that tap into creativity and critical thinking. This aids in motivation and engagement for the learners when they find assessments where they can make personal connections to prior knowledge, new learning, and develop new skills. With an emphasis on creativity and critical thinking with assessment practices, this will aide in the acceleration of learning instead of focusing on this concept of learning loss. The time is now to engage in critical and creative thinking while collaborating with your own teams during the summer to develop authentic and relevant assessments that are meaningful for students.

Matos, Alejandro (2015, December 6). “South High teachers illustrate inequities through math.” The Star Tribune. www.startribune.com
Bang, Megan, et al. The Learning Policy Institute, 2021, Summer Learning and Beyond: Opportunities for Creating Equity.
Erkens, C. et al. Growing Tomorrow’s Citizens in Today’s Classrooms: Assessing 7 Critical Competencies. Solution Tree Press. 2019.
Purtee, M. “The Essential Framework for Teaching Creativity.” The Art of Education. 2017, theartofeducation.edu/2017/08/15/essential-framework-teaching-creativity/.


Formative or Per-formative: Using Student Evidence of Learning in the Right Ways

If your classroom was to become (or currently is) a picture for a social media post, how many likes would it get? How many retweets?

In truth, to how many of you would that even matter? What if your principal or superintendent suddenly broadcasts a message saying, “Everyone, stop what you’re doing and take a picture of your learning environment right now!” Would you be eager to share or completely mortified? I can admit, at various moments throughout my career, I have been on both ends of that continuum…and everyplace in between! Read more


Documenting Learning over Time: Portfolios and Data Notebooks

Documenting Learning over Time: Portfolios and Data Notebooks

Portfolios and data notebooks have been around a long time. I remember bringing home scrapbooks in June, after another year of elementary school, filled with glued-in samples of worksheets and drawings—artifacts of a year spent learning. I recall, many years later, opening my portfolio during a final summative conference in a university studio art class, and pulling out samples of work that represented the skills and knowledge I had developed throughout the course. Even more years later, after I had taught for some time, I recollect asking my students to chart their skills in recalling French vocabulary on multiple bar graph templates I had handed out at the beginning of a unit. These graphs were then placed in a dossier for reference. Each of these examples speaks to the act of documenting learning by collecting artifacts and data in a single place where they can be easily accessed and serve their intended purpose.

What is interesting about each of the examples above is that the intended purpose varied in each context. My elementary scrapbook was simply a collection of artifacts representing skills we had been developing or things I had chosen to create. It served as a kind of curated (largely by my teacher) album that I could share with my parents and then place in a box in our basement. My art portfolio was a catalyst for reflection and evaluation at the end of my studio art class. The individual pieces contained within served as a way to make a case for my growth and development in critical artistic skills. Sadly, this portfolio has also been relegated to my basement, gathering dust. I still feel tremendous emotional attachment to the artwork within but it has served its purpose. The data sets I invited my students to create in French class served the purpose of documenting growth and supporting conversations about how my students might improve further. The data the learners collected and graphed was intended to be a temporary “current state,” with new data added each time they attempted new strategies and spent time practicing.

The years we spend in educational contexts represent a vast array of experiences. Children and youth spend a tremendous proportion of their days in classrooms and schools (face-to-face or virtual) and the learning they experience is certainly worthy of documentation. Their educational stories deserve representation. The great thing about data notebooks and portfolios is that we can document the learning journey and we can use the documentation as a catalyst for reflection, analysis, goal setting, and growth. We now know that these collections of artifacts and data can serve a purpose beyond becoming an album or a capstone collection that sits in a basement—they can begin new learning conversations. Read more


Connect the Dots

I apologize for using a rather trite metaphor for the title of this blog, particularly since I never really cared for the dot-to-dot pages that would occasionally appear in my coloring books as a child.  I never saw the purpose. I could tell what the picture was going to be and I didn’t need to scour the page to find the next number to make it appear.

As an educator the idea of connecting things has become much more profound to me. Watching the students in my English classes make connections between what we were reading and what was happening in the world were some of my favorite teacher moments. The flip side of that was also enlightening to me. As a principal of a school with many different academic support programs for students I remember a conversation with a student who told me that she didn’t “do reading” when she went to a classroom to work with a teacher who was supporting English Learners, even though I had just been in that room and seen a lesson that was explicitly planned to connect to the general education classroom. The student didn’t see the connection and that was the problem. Read more


The 4×2 of Student Self-Reflection

The story self-reflection within the context of my own career is a good news/bad news story. First, the good news. While there is much I’m not proud of when I reflect on the early part of my career – especially from an assessment and grading perspective (e.g. zeros, no reassessment) – the one thing I did do is have my students engage in some self-reflection.

The bad news? Well, I didn’t engage my students in self-reflection very often and when I did, it was awful; I didn’t know what I was doing, there was no structure to it, and it, more often than not, ended up being a waste of time.

Self-reflection is essential to the development of our students’ metacognitive awareness that allows them to plan, monitor, and assess their learning and themselves, as learners (Clark, 2012; Jones, 2007). Metacognition entails both the knowledge and regulation of one’s cognition (Pintrich, 2002). Through the processes of self-judgment and self-reaction (Zimmerman, 2011), self-reflection plays an essential role in the cyclical process of metacognitive awareness before, during, and after the learning. Read more


Uncovering Implicit Bias in Assessment, Feedback and Grading

Education is a noble profession. It is a profession that aims to cultivate diverse thinkers and aspires to nurture personal growth. It is a profession that can lift humanity’s spirits and help humankind strive to be the best version of itself—the “great equalizer of the conditions of men,” as Horace Mann famously stated in the 19th century. However, even with great people, a worthy goal, and an admirable vision, the opposite can often be the case.

Unfortunately, education can also be the great unequalizer, where personal biases can inform practice and policy development, stifle student growth, enforce discriminatory policies, and even socially isolate students. According to some researchers, implicit educator biases may contribute to a racial achievement gap; precisely, the negative impact of teacher assumptions on students’ ability based on race, culture, or values (van den Bergh et al. 2010). Unknown to an educator, these personal biases may create imagery of an ideal student, which is often seen through a white privilege lens because of society’s tendency toward whiteness, distorting our interactions with students of color.

Without social awareness and continuous self-monitoring, educators may let their implicit bias become an influential factor in their pedagogy, influencing everything from assessment to grading. This blog will discuss how personal biases can appear in our teaching and learning practices if educators are not diligent. I will focus on three of the more considerable teaching and learning modes: assessment, feedback, and grading.

Assessment Bias

Without attention, teachers may create assessments that reflect their values and experiences and ignore those of their students. The teacher may use language that they are more familiar with in their queries or create prompts influenced by their personal experiences. Ultimately students may find it hard to relate to the questions—potentially leaving some students unable to perform to the best of their abilities. For assessments to be less biased, a teacher must consider all backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, and identities to ensure that their lived experience isn’t the only one represented on an assessment.

By being more introspective when developing assessments, teachers can lessen the chance they produce a personally irrelevant assessment for their students. The impact of this irrelevancy could be low student performance, disinterest in the task, and even apathy toward school.

To help teachers be more aware of their biases when creating assessments, they can ask themselves the following questions as they develop questions:

  1. Does the assessment give the sense that the teacher has unwavering support and is a partner in a student’s success?
  2. Are the questions seeking to understand the student or judge them?
  3. Does the teacher draw on the students’ life situations, interests, and curiosities when creating problems/prompts? – Adapted from Tomlinson (2015).

Microaggressions in Feedback 

Suppose we ignore our implicit biases when speaking with students. In that case, we run the risk of putting both parties into what social psychologist Albert Bandura calls “a downward course of mutual discouragement” (Bandura 1997, 234). A student’s reaction to deficit-based feedback may result in the teacher reacting in kind. Once this cycle starts, a student’s self-belief is now at risk.

Microaggressions and subtle discriminations can exist in the feedback process, and when they do, they may severely limit feedback acceptance.

Teachers can limit bias in their feedback to use the student’s thinking to grow the student. For example, let’s look at the following examples:

Example A

Feedback that Uses Teacher Thinking: You didn’t include [these details] about [person] in your essay. Try [these words].

Feedback that Uses Student Thinking: Tell me more about these words [here]. I am interested to know why you think [this word] didn’t work instead? Oh, okay, that would work. You should add what you just said to your paragraph, and it was perfect.

Example B

Feedback that Uses Teacher Thinking: When I write, I try and think about [detail]. Remember when I taught you the three-step process? No? The one that is in your textbook? That’s the most effective process.

Feedback that Uses Student Thinking: What did you think about when you wrote [this]? Seems like that interests you? Yeah, I can see you are passionate about [that]. What are the first three things you did when you wrote [this]? That is an interesting place to start. Could I convince you to start here? No? Okay, that makes sense. Have to make this work for you.

Example C

Feedback that Uses Teacher Thinking: In this graph, I would start [here] because this information is important. Has anyone heard of the [rhyme name] to remember the key features of a graph? No? Oh, this helped me a lot.

Feedback that Uses Student Thinking: In this graph, what information did you think was essential for you to begin this problem? I’m surprised to hear you say that because yesterday you said something different, what changed? Interesting, I saw you smile as you were talking. Why? Yeah, I agree you are getting this concept more. Are you using any strategies to help you learn this? Yes. Well, [that strategy] is undoubtedly helping you.

These scenarios are fictional, but the point here is teachers should always be aware of their language. Otherwise, they can inadvertently make the student feel like an unequal and devalued student in the class and even the school. In short, words matter.

Race Bias in Grading Practices

Teachers must judge student performance fairly and accurately. It is our professional duty. Inaccurate judgments have the potential not only to alter grades but could negatively affect teacher-student relationships, distort a student’s self-concept, or reduce opportunities to learn (Cohen and Steele 2002). One factor that can lead to a misrepresentation of a grade is teacher race and ethnicity bias. A student’s racial or ethnic group, socioeconomic class, or gender can substantially bias a teacher’s judgment of student performance. Any internalized racial biases can activate stereotypes and lead teachers to utilize discriminatory performance evaluations (Wood and Graham 2010).

For example, several studies found substantial differences in students’ performance judgments from various racial subgroups when the teacher subconsciously subscribed to the general stereotype that African American and Latino students generally don’t perform as well as their White and Asian counterparts (Ready and Wright 2011).

Different minority statuses can affect teacher perceptions in performance evaluation, leading to inaccurate grades, potentially harming students’ perception of their academic experience. (Ogbu and Simons 1998). In other words, students may feel like school is insignificant, unsupportive, or even harmful.

To help lessen the likelihood that implicit personal bias influences the grading process, teachers can democratize the grading process. They can use learning evidence instead of points and employ a modal interpretation of gradebook scores instead of averages. They can use a skills-focused curriculum instead of a content-focused one. Perhaps most important, they can involve the student in the grading process by infusing more self-evaluation moments into their instruction.

School leaders should explore ways to evaluate pedagogical practices through a racial and equity lens and observe classroom interactions between teachers and students. School leaders should also continue training on white privilege and its influence over the status quo, and teachers should evaluate student performance to judge its fairness and accuracy.

The Work Ahead

Although we may feel like we are objective and rational people, we all have biases.  We all have values, beliefs, and assumptions that help us make sense of what is happening in our lives and guide our interactions with others. For the most part, these values, beliefs, and assumptions guide us in positive and productive directions, but the interplay between these same values and social interactions can produce implicit biases that distort our decisions, perspectives, and actions. We must notice, monitor, and manage these distortions to achieve a goal of racial equity in school and life. If we don’t, we are at risk of our unconscious biases harming our pedagogy, our relationships with students, and our perception of their needs.

 

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman & Co, Publishers.

Cohen, G. L., & Steele, C. M. (2002). A barrier of mistrust: How negative stereotypes affect cross-race mentoring. In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp. 303–327). San Diego, CA: Academic.

Ogbu, J. U., & Simons, H. D. (1998). Voluntary and involuntary minorities: A cultural-ecological theory of school performance with some implications for education. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 29(2), 155-188.

Ready, D.D., & Wright, D. L. (2011). Accuracy and Inaccuracy in Teachers’ Perceptions of Young Children’s Cognitive Abilities: The Role of Child Background and Classroom Context. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831210374874

Tenenbaum, H. R., & Ruck, M. D. (2007). Are teachers’ expectations different for racial minorities than for European American students? A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 253–273.

“Teaching Up” – Carol Ann Tomlinson: Teaching for Excellence in Academically Diverse Classrooms (2015).

van den Bergh, L., Denessen, E., Hornstra, L., Voeten, M., & Holland, R.W., (2010). The implicit prejudiced attitudes of teachers: Relations to teacher expectations and the ethnic achievement gap. American Educational Research Journal, 47, 497–527.

Wood, D., & Graham, S. (2010). “Why race matters: social context and achievement motivation in African American youth.” In Urdan, T. and Karabenick, S. (Eds.) The Decade Ahead: Applications and Contexts of Motivation and Achievement (Advances in Motivation and Achievement, Vol. 16 Part B) (pp. 175-209). Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley.


Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About! Using Academic Conversations to Assess Student Understanding

“Something to Talk About,” recorded by Bonnie Raitt in 1990, happens to be one of my favorite songs. While listening to it the other day, I began to think about the lyrics in a different context: meaningful assessment of student conversations. Tapping into student discourse is one of the most informative means of examining student thinking, particularly with students who might be culturally or language diverse. According to Zaretta Hammond, “One of the most important tools for a culturally responsive teacher is instructional conversation. The ability to form, express and exchange of ideas are best taught through dialogue, questioning, and the sharing of ideas.” (Hammond, 2015, p.149).

There is seemingly vast potential for educators to gather authentic evidence through the observation of academic conversations. Teachers can gain valuable insights into their students’ conceptual understanding and the language skills they demonstrate in real-time, authentic conversations. But as I reflect on the various assessment practices that I typically observe, I wonder if we are capitalizing on this powerful source of information? Are educators assessing the quality of rigorous academic conversations and providing support when needed to enhance that quality? Read more


Data as a Flashlight: Using the Evidence to Guide the Journey (Yours and Theirs)

My granddaughter was struggling with the latest topic in her grade 3 math class and her recent assessment result validated that she did not fully understand the learning target of patterns and the equations that supported them. Determining patterns is not always an easy process as this example would indicate:

2, 6, 3, 9, 6, 18, 15…

With a big test coming up, my daughter-in-law reached out to me to help get my granddaughter past the block and gain some confidence in her ability to master the concept. We connected online a few times over the days before the test and worked through a lot of questions and strategies. As she grasped the concepts and different ways to get to the solution, I could see her confidence soar. By the time we concluded all of the practice and she routinely got every solution, she was excited to demonstrate her skills on the assessment. As I write this post it’s been well over a week since the assessment was completed and my granddaughter has not received any feedback.  Read more