Saturday, December 31, 2016

Who might earn an LRNG badge? Cris might; a student profile and some thoughts about data privacy

On a recent trip to the snowy wonderlands of East Lansing, MI, I had the chance to meet up with National Writing Project (NWP) educators who are collaborating on the Sandboxes for Learning project under the warm, demanding guidance of Paul Allison. In preparation for a workshop Paul would take us through, we were asked to write a profile of a student who might earn one of the badges that we are designing along with learning "playlists" that will appear on the LRNG.org platform. I arrived in Michigan a little low on sleep, behind on my playlist draft, and strangely worried about the data privacy questions that I have heard in the last few years accompanying badging efforts in public education. The weekend, and a midwest snowstorm that locked me in a hotel room for an extra day, combined to help me catch some Z's, and catch up on my playlist draft. Conversations about data privacy with Paul and Christina Cantrill from NWP helped me solidify my thinking about student data- a complex and hotly contested issue these days.* Upon my return, I shared this profile with the Cris, the 11th grade subject in question. While Paul and Christina helped me untangle my thoughts about data, I wanted Cris's, my student's, feedback on the data narrative-ish profile I had already shared with that small, safe audience of NWP colleagues. After reading the profile below, he gave me the go-ahead to share it with any audience I wanted. That permission matters when we talk about student data.

Cris


Cris is a latino boy who loves soccer, which makes him just like a whole lot of other latino boys in Aurora, Colorado. When he made the varsity soccer team at Rangeview High School this year, he became the envy of so many of his peers who wish they could take the field in what they see as big time Colorado high school athletics. He walked our halls with the confidence of a young man whose high school plans were working out just the way he’d drawn up.


What his peers might not know is that Cris travels to Rangeview from the Montbello section of Denver, which has historically been seen by Denverites as a tough part of town, probably the toughest. Nor did his peers see the worry on Cris’ face at the start of the school year when he was arriving late, or not at all, to first period every day because he was charged with getting his younger siblings ready and off to school before he embarked on his commute. For a student open-enrolling in Aurora Public Schools from Montbello, a seat in my classroom is coveted but tenuous spot. Too many absences would put him in violation of the agreement his family signed and he’d be dispatched back to his home school. Such is the bargain we strike in Colorado, where per-pupil funding doesn’t pay for the educational costs of the living, breathing pupils.


“Mr Dillon, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to get to this class on time,” he said. I saw the worry on his face.


I don’t know how his family made other arrangements after we called them and explained the deal, I just know he comes to class every day now and arrives just before the bell, never showing the early morning weariness that afflicts so many of his English 11 classmates. He usually tries to beat me to the punch with a morning greeting by saying something like, “How about I just teach this class today?” or “Look who’s early!” Another observer might see him as cocky, or as a jock who has the high school experience dialed in, but I see his relief.


A look at his transcript shows that he took honors English as a freshman, but takes general English now, probably to accommodate soccer, his part-time job, and his responsibilities caring for his siblings.


When I asked him to reflect on his view of literacy in a personal essay at the outset of the year, he reflected on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, he wrote:


Shamefully I must admit I have stereotyped individuals from places that I knew nothing about, even Mexico. The media only shows the bad things that go on there like violence and poverty... I just took a trip to Juarez, Mexico this past labor day weekend and what I saw was not violence, and not as much poverty as the media makes it out to be. What I saw was my family living in a place where the community knows it’s people and everyone is a very hard worker from the time the sun rises until it sets. Children play outside more there than here in America. It’s a beautiful place to live. I now have more than one story.      


What he wrote about the media portrayal of Juarez could be just as easily be said about the Denver media’s portrayal of Montbello, and Aurora for that matter. As I try to teach him about nuanced claims, marshalling evidence, and college ready writing, he teaches me about the American dream.


In his limited time on YouthVoices.live this year, he has left comments on youth poetry and posts about healthcare, race, texting and driving, and abortion. He’s suggested articles for youth researchers in Oakland, and the tone and thoughtfulness of his comments display a civility that I aspire to in my own work. Cris gives me hope, not just for this online community, but the future of the web. Just yesterday, I asked him if he’d be willing to provide other writers with feedback on YouthVoices.live the way he does with his tablemates in my class. “That’s one way I could let you teach,” I explained.


A broad grin spread across his face and he seemed excited at the prospect of having a platform for leadership. As I prepare to think what an LRNG badge might unlock for Cris, his excitement rubs off on me.


*  In brief, Paul asked some variation of "So what?" and "How does that hurt kids?" while I described my paranoia about sharing student data and as I wove data privacy tales from my experience with badging work. His student-centered focus and critical questioning helped me orient my views as a teacher and student advocate. Christina shared with me what she understood about school districts' interests in badging work that she had gathered from conversations about badging in Boston, MA public schools. Essentially, she affirmed for me that schools need assurances about their ownership of, and access to badges and related data.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

How is teaching English a political act?

Ernest Morrell, in his address to the NCTE Conference in 2014, argued that teaching English is a political act and I've been kicking around this claim ever since. English teachers, he said, have an important role in creating the literary canon and a responsibility to culturally diverse learners to ensure the canon reflects diverse identities. Having just attended the #ISTE2016 conference where banners larger than my house told me that I am part of some type of revolution, I'm thinking about how the politics of text selection connect with the politics of emerging media channels and media literacy. I'm wanting to make sure I'm clear about what kind of revolution I'm willing to support.

Screenshot of this tweet by @karenacantrell

The politics of text selection

Part of the politics of teaching English is about the composition of the syllabus or the classroom library. Teachers have an opportunity to select readings from authors with diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, interests and identities. By creating text sets that look like the real world in 2016, an English teacher can establish an increasingly equitable learning experience for young developing readers and writers.

A look at recent events through the always-evolving and always interesting prism of social media shows some of the ways text selection is a political issue. The hashtag #slaverywithasmile tied together a protest and a conversation about "A Birthday Cake for George Washington," a children's book that depicted slavery in a positive light. Public outcry occurred on Twitter, in the comment boxes of Amazon reviews, and then echoed into the traditional media's 24-hour news cycle, all of which led Scholastic to take the rare action of recalling the book.

The recent story of Marley Dias offers another example of how the bookshelf can be a political space. Dia, an 11-year-old from Philadelphia, gained media attention and notoriety for her search for 1000 "black girl books." Her one-girl social action project was spurred by her frustration over being assigned books about white boys and their dogs.

The politics of emerging media channels

Speaking with the Philly Voice, she expressed her goals this way:
"I want to be a magazine editor for my own magazine," she explained, without hesitation. "And I’d also like to continue social action. For the rest of my life.”
English teachers, bibliophiles all, might miss the digital media component of Dias' story if we're too entranced by the story of a young black girl who wants to find books about black girls. We might mistakenly rewrite this story to just be about a girl who looked critically at a bookshelf and demanded better. In the case of #1000blackgirlbooks, it is instructive that Dias named her project with a hashtag. In doing so, she made an instant media channel and initiated an action campaign that moved beyond the bookshelf and into the modern world of agentive activism. We shouldn't gloss over the way this girl saw an injustice and created a media channel to lobby for support.  When she says social action is part of her life's work, that's a far cry from saying she just wants to go read her thousand books.

When CNN reported the story they wrote, "Through word of mouth, the campaign has grown into a global phenomenon." It strikes me that the campaign never would have grown to be a global phenomenon if Dias had relied on the word of mouth.

The story of #1000blackbooks shows how the evolution of texts and communication channels is a political issue that requires teachers- especially English teachers- to look beyond the bookshelf and think about the development of community-ready youth who can leverage emerging communication channels.

The politics of media literacy

It is always possible, and maybe even likely, that a journalist, or a teacher, might not understand how a young girl's creation of a hashtag creates a channel. The use of social media channels for civic action is still niche use.


At the same time our culture is seeing the emergence of the #blacklivesmatter movement, our schools are struggling to make sense of the complexities of Internet access. Until now, people unfamiliar with Twitter could be forgiven (or perhaps applauded) for not using the social platform but educators need to take note when young people who have historically been seen and not heard find their voices and carve out community leadership roles in online spaces. We surely are reaching a tipping point where educators need to understand the web's potential as a civic platform. What schools have seen up until now as an access gap they must now understand as a participation gap in which some students engage with the world beyond the classroom about issues that are relevant to them, while other students might be asked to tackle perceived skill gaps in texts that don't help them understand their place and their power in the modern world.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Since last I met with the DWP's CRWP team




Since last we met, I've continued to incorporate Literacy Design Collaborative module structures in my class. The tasks I've put in front of students have led to different results with the scoring tools we use in this work.

Here are the two we've worked on:
1. After reading Cell One by Adichie, write an essay in which you argue whether Nnamabia is truly innocent in this story. Evaluate how the author uses character development and narrative perspective to complicate his innocence. Use evidence from the text to support your discussion.  
2. What is feminism in 2016? After reading informational texts on feminism and women’s roles in society, write an essay (or podcast) in which you define contemporary feminism and explain how your definition updates or corrects historical connotations of the word. Support your discussion with evidence from the texts you’ve read.

Here's just some of what I've learned:


Reading papers written in response to the first, I noticed that my students made nuanced claims because of their familiarity with the story and the way their comprehension helped them access the task.

With the second task, I noticed that students understood the concept of feminism but struggled to address the part of the question dealing with connotation. As a result, my students wrote simpler claims that showed little nuance.

What I've demo-ed: 


I've demonstrated for my students how signal phrasing can help them present evidence so that a reader can understand that evidence better contextually.

I'm pressing them to describe their sources very specifically to aid in their discussion of the reliability of sources.


What I got excited about AND what I'm grappling with:*


Abby’s share out was a learning experience for me. She talked about a humanities class that she co-teaches. In social studies, her partner is asking students to study a weapon from WW1 and answer how technology impacts the human experience. In her ELA class, she is asking them to read poems that soldiers wrote in the trenches.


Her comments reminded me that the organizer we used last time - skills|noticings|next steps -  might be used best by students in peer conferencing. Her reflection left me thinking how our using sources tool might bridge collaborative opportunities between ELA and SS teachers at Rangeview High.

On the other hand I'm struggling with incorporating daily argument writing right now. I can see the connection between notebook work and argument construction, but I don't think my students can.


*On a more personal but tangential note, I'm still excited about the role of technology in education. Specifically, I'm excited about my ability to chase my children (and my colleagues) with my new Blade Inductrix FPV drone but I struggle to fly it without looking at the aircraft. I wish I could fly it fully FPV. 




Tuesday, November 15, 2016

An invitation to join me (and Remi) in annotation and online activism...kind of like climatefeedback.org

This blog post was originally published on November 15th, just six days after the US elected Donald Trump. When I pressed "publish" then, I knew I was publishing a rough draft, as is so often the case with this blog. Almost a month later, President-elect Trump has stunned the nation by selecting enemies of federal agencies as nominees to lead those federal agencies. Reading the news, it is as if Vladimir Putin himself is selecting Trump's nominees in order to cause panic in the US. As an English teacher, I don't know if I should teach about fake news or lead literature circles about dystopian societies. In the meantime, I've updated the post below with titles of news articles that have shocked, and continue to shock people who love diversity, the outdoors, and public schools, just to list a few of my own passions that cause me to feel horrified. 
Click here to annotate
Click here to annotate

Click here to annotate



Talking with educators in the last year about the importance of, and potential for, online annotation, I refer often to the work of the folks at climatefeedback.org. When I get puzzled looks from teachers or the predictable, "So what?" from school leaders after I show how to mark an online text using hypothes.is, or how to see public annotations in the hypothes.is stream, I step back from the logistical demonstrations to describe an emerging example, saying:

 "There is a group of scientists who are concerned about the popular media's presentation of climate change and climate science. They have organized an online annotation effort to effectively fact check the media." 

In that way, I try to justify my interest and excitement about online annotation. Digital notes in online margins are not just a tool for bookworms, they are a tool for bookworm activists. Here's how those climatefeedback.org bookworm activists describe their project on the homepage of their website:
Today’s media climate leads to confusion
 With so much information available online, trying to figure out which information is credible — and what is not — is a real challenge. When so much of what we read falls outside of our own expertise, how can we know which headlines and news articles are consistent with science?

On the heels of an election that challenged journalists, pundits and citizens alike to determine what information was credible and what information wasn't, I find myself reading the excerpt above thru a different lens, seeing it now not as a description of a project, but as a call to action for experts across disciplines to peer review news articles, editorials, and policy statements.


In the education circles I am passionately connected to, the call to action is timely. Today's media climate leads to confusion about an endless list of school-related topics. Here's a short one:

1. The state of public schooling in urban areas.
2. The role of digital tools in the lives of students today.
3. The role of digital tools in the learning spaces that serve our youth.
4. The impact, or lack thereof, of the Common Core Standards and standardized testing.
5. Gaps- achievement gaps, access gaps, and participation gaps.
6. Issues of race in schooling.

Even as I write this list, it looks incomplete to me and I think about revising the list. If this post stirs your passions or your activist bent, please join Remi Kalir and I in one of our marginalsyllab.us conversations. For now, I'm pushing it out into the interwebs where it might spark thinking, garner a few comments, and perhaps stir a few other bookworm activists.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

since we last met... a #crwp writing into the day

Since we last spoke school has begun at Rangeview High School and the sleepy juniors in English 11 have studied a few different arguments. They've considered arguments presented in the Room for Debate feature on the New York Times opinion pages. First, they identified arguments that interested them, choosing three debates from the ten I asked them to skim. Next, they looked at the texts of the authors in those debates, interested professionals mostly whose claims line up sometimes messily on two sides of the overarching questions. They've looked for claims and gauged their interests, found and charted evidence while considering their own opinions.




On YouthVoices.live they've completed a similar task: They've looked at 10 posts selected by me and then skimmed the site for posts that interest them. On that youth focused network they've also hunted for claims, finding and considering evidence all the while gauging their own interests.





The formal arguments they've written and submitted support claims of a different sort, though. Their papers have been informational and personal and don't argue against counterclaims. After reading Sherman Alexie's "Superman and Me," and studying the TED talk "Danger of a Single Story," by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, I asked the sleepy juniors in #english11, 7:30 AM at Rangeview High School, to draw conclusions about an author's view of literacy and then to make a claim about how that author's view compares to theirs about books, stories, literacy and stereotypes.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Faces of Death revisited

When I was little I was never allowed to watch the viral VHS videos entitled Faces of Death, which, reportedly (I still haven't seen them) showed real life murders, like executions, and fatal accidents caught on video. I played with three neighbor boys, all brothers, who were allowed to watch rated R movies when I wasn't, and when Faces of Death enjoyed a brief spike in popularity, I heard their vivid descriptions of the murders they witnessed while watching Faces of Death and eating popcorn. It must've been about 4th grade when those brothers would tell my brother Jason and I about firing squad executions and skydiving accidents they'd seen. They'd re-enact deadly scenes on the school playground between touch football games. I don't remember what I would say when I heard their second hand accounts but I remember knowing for sure that I didn't want to watch Faces of Death. I was too young, I knew, to handle those films that my buddies bragged about. When they weren't bragging, my neighborhood friends confessed to being haunted by nightmares of the footage. I preferred Star Wars and my lingering fear of monsters under the bed. 

Still squeamish about violence and nightmare averse, I've been watching a different kind of Faces of Death in my social media stream. The helicopter footage of the police shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa is a scene straight from a nightmare. It is an execution pulled straight from a Faces of Death editing table. The video clip left me sick, sorry, and wanting to take action. The sound of the video clip of Crutcher being shot is gruesome in its own way, even though you can't hear a gunshot. Instead, the arial footage of this black man being shot is accompanied by a white man with an Oklahoma drawl.

And the cover up is such a familiar narrative that we can hear this helicopter pilot starting the cover up story even before Terence Crutcher was shot. From his arial vantage point, a white man with a badge describes Crutcher, who had his hands in the air, as a "bad dude" who is probably "on something." The officer who shot Crutcher is being described by some in the Tulsa police and by her attorney as a "drug recognition expert." Instead of calling this murder the way we can all see it, this murder is being quickly reframed as the shooting of a "bad dude" by a "drug recognition expert."

This morning I'm still scared of monsters and I still long to hear mythical tales of good triumphing over evil. This morning the rebellion isn't a bunch of fictional characters fighting the Empire. This morning the heroes are in the streets demanding justice and risking their own health and welfare to bring murderous monsters to justice. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

My untroduction to #clmooc 2016... leading with my interests


Happy Saturday, #clmooc. Though I've posted a number of times already in the spaces and places of our online collaboration, I haven't unformally untroduced myself yet. At the risk of being self-congratulatory, I'd like to note for the hallowed digital record of #clmooc that I was posting about Pokemon before it was...errr...cool? So the first question I'll pose in this blog is: was my untroduction last year, in which I pictured myself on a Pokemon trading card, celebrated the sleepy Snorlax, and described my interest in games and learning, clairvoyant or coincident?

Maybe I should concede right here that I had no visions then about swarms of players in parks at virtual Pokestops (see below). I just wanted to enter into #clmooc's connected learning by declaring my playful curiosity about the characters and narratives connected to a game that my daughters and I were playing.

Vaporeon stampede Central Park, NYC from Woodzys on Vimeo.

So, even if I didn't see this convergence of augmented reality, fandom, fitness trackers and geolocation coming, I think I was on to something last year untroducing myself by leading with Pokemon and my interests.

I'm interested in games for learning and games as texts

I'm still interested in games and learning, evidenced by my recent posts, "A letter to professor Willow..." and "14 reasons why #PokemonGO has a future in education." When I posted on Soundcloud a brief conversation with my daughter about the game, I was thinking about how games and fandom situates youth as experts, experts with background knowledge about the digital texts they navigate in Pokemon Go.



I'm interested in badges as microcredentials that might serve social justice aims

I recently had the opportunity to hear from Nichole Pinkard and Doug Belshaw speak at the Aurora Public Schools #badgesummit. They both helped me develop a deeper understanding of badging and that learning experience has me thinking of experiments I'll do with digital badging in the coming year with the APS badge system
Screenshot of this tweet.
Screenshot of this tweet.

I'm interested in social annotation and it's civic potential

Learners who watch the #clmooc channels during the year probably have seen examples of digital annotation and discussion about where the practice of marking up digital texts in the open might lead. I've blogged about my desire to encourage youth who have experience with immigration to comment openly as experts in much the same way climatefeedback.org activists mark up texts about climate change.

For educators interested in working toward more equitable schools, communities, and policing, I invite you to mark up this post by Antero Garcia, "There are No Lessons for Alton or Philando." (Just get the hypothes.is Chrome extension here and watch the video below.)


Finally, I'm interested in open learning

As I read the tags and posts of #clmooc for the fourth year now, I remain interested in how a community of learners develops and strengthens, swells and shrinks, plays and questions. I'll end my newest intro with one of my first creations for #clmooc, the teaser video below. I have the same sense of anticipation about where this experiment will take us now as I did then, back when this MOOC was still just an idea. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

14 reasons #PokemonGO has a future in education; or, Why #PokemonGO deserves the thoughtful, creative, attention of schools and teachers

I've been playing and reading about PokemonGo for about a day and a half now and almost as soon as I gave Professor Willow permission to pretty much steal my identify by giving the app access to my camera, location and contacts, I started thinking about how this immersive game might mediate Connected Learning. Since its release just last week, the game has become a mini social phenomenon, draining cell phone batteries and inspiring memes, and the social media response has been every bit as immersive as the game. An article that has enjoyed some heavy circulation on Twitter was one of the first to comment on the game's educational potential. "14 Reasons PokemonGO is the Future of Learning" by David Theriault missed the mark by engaging in all-too-familiar educational technology hyperbole. I put some mild criticism in the margins (here and here) via the social annotation tool hypothes.is. My commentary was quickly met in those margins by the thoughts of other educators interested in games and digital tools.

Screenshot of the annotated version of Theriault's article. 
In what amounted to a short annotation flash mob, Theriault was taken to task for overhyping the game- "The Future of Education" and essentially for deficitizing youth for being hopelessly obsessed with their phones. A lot of his argument for PokemonGO was really an argument for permitting cellphones in school on their merits as composition devices. His overhyped title suggested a more measured title and defensible argument to me, so I took a break from chasing monsters to sit under a shade tree alongside my panting puppy, Oliver, where I sketched out a Twitter list of the reasons #PokemonGO deserves the thoughtful, creative attention of schools and teachers interested in playful methods for engagement with digital texts and tools. What follows is an edited revision of that list.

1. Interest in Pokemon and the app is cross-generational.

2. #PokemonGO is a complex, distributed text, as evidenced by this Reddit thread.

3. Youth have background knowledge of the game and the story.

The table in my basement photographed during a PokemonGO planning session. 

4. Social mapping in PokemonGO is engaging and relevant.

5. Youth with mobile access will have background with digital maps- notably Google maps- and be able to make meaning of the geographic aspects of the game.They'll quickly connect maps to strategy.

6. The PokemonGO app is free, which allows for teacher and youth experimentation.

7. Using a mobile phone camera is central to gameplay. That invites creativity and composition.

8. The augmented reality in the game invites memetic composition, and shots like the one below are snatching the attention of Internet culture in the same way #bookface and #planking have in the past.

Screenshot of this Tweet by @MatPatGT


9. You can play outdoors, with a dog or a little sister.

10. In PokemonGO parks become text and media-rich environments to read and explore.

11. Museums and educational "3rd spaces" can marry, augment, and advertise their content w/ game content, like the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas has by blogging photos captured with the game's app.
Screenshot of this Tweet by +Swot Sisters 


12. Players create avatars and rosters of pocket monsters, developing fictional digital identities to test in the collaborative game.
My avatar was created by my daughter who was so excited she added an extra "l" to her own name. 


14. If you are a teacher, who you gonna trust? @pearson or Snorlax?


A screenshot of this Tweet by @Sonya_Wattles.


Friday, July 8, 2016

Reflecting on LRNG assessment work: week 2


A few weeks in to assessing LRNG playlists, the experience has me thinking a lot about what information I need to provide helpful feedback to learners. A
s I sift through digital stacks of submissions, I find myself wanting experience inside the playlists that engage youth. I also wish I knew the context that brought them to learning opportunity. Are they in libraries? Do they have the support of mentors? My best feedback might reference their experiences so they can learn from me how to better navigate supports and platforms.


Our team's extended and distributed conversation in a Slack channel has me imagining how I might make the criteria explicit to youth in the playlist so they could understand what assessors are looking for. My brainstorm idea: I want there to be a one to two minute video from a helpful, friendly teacher sort of person, like Chris Rogers or Paul Allison, who would break down the expectations for them and also help them understand that they could submit multiple times. I imagine my teammates in short video clips speaking directly to learners, maybe this teacher-as-narrator would speak while walking down the street and pausing to buy a popsicle from an ice cream truck. "Your work in this playlist will be read by an assessment team comprise of people like me," he or she might say. "We're going to be checking to see if your submissions are in the format we've asked for, and to see if they contain tips for other youth based on your learning." A video would help the youth be perfectly clear about what they should do. Adults seeking to support young learners could direct them to these videos and watch alongside the youth. "It sounds like this badge really hinges on an informal essay or video. Which would you like to take on? Which sounds fun?"

I can't help but reflect on what we’ve been looking at while assessing the Pay Day Ready playlist. It is instructive to me that we’re assessing a submission where youth are supposed to produce an essay or a video but very few submissions have more than a few sentences that amount to brief statements of learning. It seems like that goal- having youth draft informal essays or capture quick videos- ought to be really achievable if the expectation is clear and if the supports are in place to help them do so- either through digital content or through the support of mentors. If the content or learning experience that we thought would produce essays or videos doesn’t, we can generate questions and iterate. Is the experience is sufficiently clear about what youth should do? In this case the digital content, the learning experience, or the mentors guiding youth to the playlists are probably indicating that the expectation is something less than essays or videos. The feedback we are providing is closing that loop, too, and lowering the sights of the playlist because we direct them to list three tips or key learnings but we don't ask them to bring to bear what they know about essays or video composition.

While I don’t know if an essay is the right target or if a video is the right ask, but I think those things are achievable if the content, the face-to-face support and the feedback couple to provide a warm, demanding experience for interested youth. It also seems achievable that a team like ours might be able to look at learners’ work together as a regular protocol. We could start our assessment conversations by noticing what there is to admire in that work. With those possibilities in mind, I wonder if the work we do looking across playlists will surface which learning experiences are warm demanders and produce thoughtful work that uncovers the assets that we know these youth bring to summer learning.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

What I bring to the assessment think tank; or, what can techquity offer assessment?

My weekly calendar is bookended this week by conversations about assessment. On Monday, I had the opportunity to speak with innovative educators from the National Writing Project, the Creativity Labs at Indiana University, and LRNG. I'll be part of an assessment inquiry team forming to assess the work that youth submit in response to LRNG playlists of online content. This summer and into the fall we'll be thinking together about the possibilities for these playlists, badges, and youth interest-driven learning. This work has a national scope and may inform the local work that happens in cities of learning

At the other end of the week, on Friday, I've got an appointment to join an assessment think tank conversation in Aurora Public Schools. In my role as educational technology coordinator, I'll convene with program directors and content coordinators for an hour to discuss a full range of assessments, including diagnostic, progress monitoring, as well as common formative assessments. The appointment also indicates that we'll think about "what techquity can offer." This conversation is part of the ongoing work in APS to reorganize and reform our instructional work to foreground equity. We'll need to tie into a strategic plan that states that every student will have the plans, the skills and the credentials to shape a successful future. It is a local project that could have implications for how other culturally and economically diverse urban districts work. 

The two conversations and the ongoing projects associated have me taking inventory of what I bring to assessment work with equity aims. 

Assessment expertise made simple

Conveniently, my favorite literature about teacher evaluation and about assessment is all condensed into one little article, "Teachers as Evaluation Experts," by Peter Johnston. In it, Johnston makes a claim that approaches gospel. To paraphrase, he says that in order to test a teacher's ability as an evaluator, we can look at that teacher's impromptu description of a child's literacy development. According to Johnston, an expert will focus on process and will detail what a child can do. (Johnston's emphasis.)

Johnston recommends this as a self-test for teachers, who might ask, "Can I describe a student's literacy development with a focus on process, and an emphasis on wha that the learner can do?" The high value he places on naming what youth are able to do jives with my experience working with youth and their parents, and it extends beyond literacy as a content. My assessments are best, and best received, when I can point accurately to a students abilities, skills, gifts and talents. 

In equity professional learning in APS, we are pressed (capably, by the bow-tied Yemi Stembridge) to think about the differences between applying an asset-focused lens with our students and communities, and applying a deficit-focused lens. Having worked for the entirety of my career in the diversity of Aurora, CO, this simple framing- that we must approach our youth and their communities with an asset focus- is just as fundamental and important when we think about educating youth, as learning to stay to the right is when we are learning to drive. In both contexts, following these fundamentals helps us avoid head-on collisions. 

 Don't forget ambitious instruction

Whether I'm looking at an LRNG playlist (coming soon!) or thinking about instruction in APS classrooms, I'll bring a bias toward ambitious instruction. Here too, Dr. Stembridge has helped with a framing. In equity professional learning in APS we've looked at the Essential Supports for School Improvement from the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research. Here's how they define my favorite of the essential supports, ambitious instruction:
Ambitious instruction couples the development of strong skills and basic knowledge with the development of keen intellectual capacity. Complex and multifaceted, ambitious instruction requires systematic organization of textual and graphic materials, a variety of classroom activities designed to meet learning objectives, and purposeful assignments for students. 
 This working definition creates a contrast to what the researchers found in the inner-city schools of Chicago.
Despite the compelling arguments for ambitious intellectual work, in inner-city schools, where children typically score below their grade level on standardized tests, policy makers and local educators often worry more about basic skills instruction because they believe that students cannot do more challenging work until they master the basic skills. 
The report closes its discussion about ambitious instruction by quoting Lisa Delpit, who said, "[If] minority people are to effect the change which will allow them to truly progress, we must insist on skills within the context of critical and creative thinking.” 

This sweet spot suggested by Delpit, between skill building and the development of critical and creative thinking, might be the real territory that assessment inquiry occupies. Strong assessment work requires a strong learning context. After all, students engaged low-level instruction, like worksheets that seek to build skills, can only demonstrate what the content and the instructor give them room to demonstrate. 

Going forward with these two inquiries, I'll apply Johnston's self-test with a strict asset-focused lens. The assets I can see in the work will tell me about the quality of the learning experiences available to youth.

When I'm assessing online work resulting from LRNG playlists, if what youth can do shines through the interest driven work these playlists catalyze, LRNG will know they're on the right track. If I'm planning and teaching in a literacy classroom and I cannot pass Johnston's self-test, I have to look critically at the opportunities in my curriculum. 

Avoid the death spiral of deficit-focused skill building

The report from the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research says something else to me, so this is a bias that I'm bringing to all this assessment work: There is a skill building death spiral that teachers in urban settings, teachers with different cultural backgrounds than their students, must avoid the way a starship captain avoids a black hole. 
...local educators often worry more about basic skills instruction because they believe that students cannot do more challenging work until they master the basic skills. In this context, including such schools in Chicago, teachers rarely get to the more ambitious tasks...
I understand this to mean that assessment work in an environment with low level instruction is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a teacher starts planning for instruction with a deficit lens and designs low-level instruction that fails to engage, that teacher's assessment will show all kinds of new gaps and holes to fill. That is an educational death spiral. 

What can techquity offer?

A few years back, I used Twitter to express my interest in convening conversations about the intersection between ed tech and equity. Anna Smith, a colleague who worked with me on #clmooc cleaned up my first effort at a hashtag when she insisted on using #techquity over my clunky suggestion of #EdTechEquity, making the hashtag more economical in terms of characters and infinitely catchier. Since then, the #techquity hashtag has been a flexible marker of conversations about this important intersection (it has also withstood a regional hijacking by the city of Oakland, CA, when they talk about their tech sector.) 

Techquity is also the name of an emergent research partnership between the University of Colorado at Denver (UCD) and APS, spearheaded by Dr Remi Holden of UCD. Just over a semester old, that research has helped us identify problems of practice and has also inspired the development of school level inquiry projects. 

Besides bringing the fun spontaneity that made up words always bring to any conversation, I hope that thinking about techquity while we think about assessment means that we'll have a ambitious, innovative bent, and a critical lens about digital tools. 

While techquity work hasn't yielded any neatly packaged breakthroughs in assessment that I can deliver to either group I'm working with, the educators' voices we've heard can inform our conversations.

In the short history of the techquity project, a key frustration from teachers is software that is supposed to support math skill development, but always isolates students, locking their gazes to their screens, and bringing a halt to math conversations in class. For teachers who aim to foster collaboration and build on students' assets, some software is a digital version of the deficit-focused, skill building death spiral. 

Participants in the techquity project have been kind enough to take part in a "From-To" activity, where we ask them to name the shifts in practice they hope our work will bring about. The quick-writes of our participants have yielded a list that can inform my thinking about assessment. Techquity participants want to see: 
...interactive online reading
...more collaborative technology use
...space and options where kids can choose their environment
...driving inquiry questions that integrate different content areas
...more open exploration of a variety of ways to express understanding
How's that for ambitious?