Sunday, December 13, 2015

What If We Measured What We Value? A Must-Read Interview with Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy

We recently had the opportunity to interview Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy (Lumbee), ASU President's Professor of Indigenous Education and Justice in the School of Social Transformation. Brayboy was a keynote speaker at WIDA’s 2015 National Conference. Here are some thoughts he shared with us after his presentation.

Narrow metrics are often used to measure how successful a school is, how would you define a successful school?

It won’t be using the same metrics that other people are using. To me, it is about whether or not children are healthy. To me I measure if a school is working based on how kids look when they are walking in. So for my own kids, who go to a good school, they have a way of walking when I know they are happy and engaged and want to be there. So one of them glides when he is happy. When he is gliding, I know things are working well. The other one bounces.

I understand accountability measures and the politics around them, but for me school should be a place where kids want to be, where they are happy, where they are healthy. And I think the same would be true for teachers. The teachers and the administrators should show up and feel happy. They should bounce or glide into work, however that goes for them. That would be a pretty good mark, and the rest of the work will end up taking care of itself.

So for me, I’m a big believer of taking care of people.

On mistakes and learning:

The other thing I would say to teachers is make mistakes. We don’t do that enough. I was once watching my son build with Legos. They’d come in these packages, and he’d spend all day doing it, and then he’d be done with it. It’d sit on the shelf for a week and then he’d tear it apart and start free styling with the Legos. I watched him trying to do this really complicated thing once. It kept breaking in a particular spot, and he just kept going back to it. I watched him work through that and figure it out, but he made the same mistake probably four, five, six, eight, times. Then he started trying stuff, and this was maybe when he was in second grade. 

I noticed around fourth grade he stopped doing that; he’s still building with Legos, but I think there’s something, and I don’t know developmentally how this works, but it seems to me he stopped wanting to make mistakes. And I think that mistakes are actually this great place to learn, so administrators have to allow teachers to make mistakes.

What we need to be careful of when analyzing accountability measures:
Transferring deficiencies to children rather than looking at structures.

Moving beyond conventional thinking about students:

Think about things differently. Move outside of what you see as success or failure. Open yourself to see new kinds of possibilities for your children. I think the other thing is to love your students.

Interviewed by Jackie Moreno and Ashley Painter

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Teacher becomes a Writer

By Heather Jung

Image result for elementary student writing stock

On a sunny Tuesday morning last July, I found myself sitting in a graveyard in Winchester Virginia, two hours from my house, writing the first poem that I had written in almost 20 years. 

I have been writing for the WIDA blog for almost 2 years, but I never thought of myself as a writer.  I am an ELL literacy teacher. I work in an elementary school teaching students to be critical viewers, listeners, speakers, readers, and writers.  I am a teacher. That is what I am because that is what I get paid to do.  A writer is a person who writes books.  They are writers because that is what they get paid to do.  At least that is what I thought, before I participated in the Northern Virginia Writing Project's Invitational Summer Institute (ISI).

The Northern Virginia Writing Project (NVWP) is an affiliate of the National Writing Project (NWP), a non-profit organization of almost 200 university based network sites.  The NWP is focused on the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation's educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners (, 2015). 

I have always believed that teaching students to write is an essential part of any literacy teacher’s day.  I also knew that good teachers of reading were avid readers themselves, but I never translated that to writing.  One of the core beliefs of NWP is that good teachers of writing write themselves.  This was a new concept for me.

Most of the other participants in my ISI were Secondary English teachers, for whom writing was already a normal part of their everyday lives.  This was not the case for me.  I only wrote when I had to.  It never occurred to me that I should or would want to write just for myself.  

Through engagement in a Writing Group and a Writing Marathon this began to change.  I found that I could write for enjoyment, rather than just to perform a task.  This was the change that I brought with
 me into the classroom when I went back to school this fall.

Certainly, participating in demonstration lessons presented by master teachers was great professional development and expanded my repertoire of concrete techniques for teaching writing. Of course, getting to know current and former participants has helped me to expand my professional network. But what has really revolutionized my teaching has been the change in how I think of myself when it comes to writing. 

Now, I think like a writer.  When I look at the world I look for important ideas that I want to write about.  I write regularly to convey those ideas.  Most importantly, I analyze my own process as a writer. 

This allows me to talk to students about their writing in a completely different way.  I can share in their challenges and successes as a fellow writer, rather than as an authority figure.  There is more honesty in my teaching.  When I talk to students about their writing I no longer use words that I’ve lifted from teacher resource books.  I can speak honestly and with conviction about my real experiences.  I know the struggles my students are facing when they are writing, because I face them in my writing too.

I am a teacher, but I'm also a writer.  I am a writer because I have something to say.  I am a writer because I believe that my ideas matter and deserve to be heard.  All teachers have important ideas to share, and all teachers of writing need to be writers into the classroom when I went back to school this fall.

Friday, August 28, 2015

If You Only Do Three Things This September

By Ashley Coblentz and Jackie Moreno

The beginning of the fall is always hectic - teachers are frantically trying to finish bulletin boards, and parents are starting to pop into classrooms. In the midst of all this, the most essential systems of support are being established. There is a lot going on, but what are key steps that ESL and bilingual teachers can take early on that will make a difference for their students throughout the year?

Here are some ideas:

Make sure all teachers know about the language needs in their classrooms

One of the WIDA tools that we find the most helpful in the fall is the Can Do Name Chart. This chart is an at a glance resource that helps teachers better understand the language needs of students in the areas of listening, speaking, reading and writing. Share this valuable information with other teachers early on to help frame students from an asset-based perspective.

ESL and bilingual teachers are experts in differentiating lessons for ELLs, but in many schools students only work directly with these teachers for a small portion of their day or even week. If all teachers have a deeper understanding of what their students can do, it will have a greater impact on their daily instruction.

Be a central part of team meetings

Although working with small groups is very important, finding ways to co-plan and co-teach with other teachers can have an even bigger impact by helping make more content accessible to a wider range of language learners throughout the school day. ESL and bilingual teachers’ understanding of how students develop language is critical to their success, so make sure you have the chance to offer input and impact instruction during planning time.

Early on you can suggest to your team that collectively you might study your planning process and notice if the needs of ELLs are add-ons or if they are an integral part of how the team plans. From there you can have reflective conversations, make adjustments and set goals together as needed. Even though these conversations can feel a little uncomfortable at times, it is so much easier to have them in the fall from a proactive place then from a place of frustration later in the year. And of course, for the students the sooner this is in place, the better.

Place language learners in the center

When it comes to school-wide professional development, make sure that the needs of language learners are not an after-thought at your school. Be an advocate and ensure that the professional development prioritizes these needs.

For example, if your school is offering PD on technology, partner with the technology coach and focus on tools that serve as graphic, interactive or sensory supports for all students, but are particularly beneficial for ELLs.

The best part about the fall is that it is a fresh start for both students and teachers - take the opportunity to make this year the best yet!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Building Strong School Cultures

By Heather Jung

“The students in Miss Smith’s class always have test scores that are lower than the other teachers at her grade level.  It has been this way for 3 years,” complains a teacher.  “I’ve collected data on this and showed it to the principal, but he doesn’t do anything.  Our students need better teachers than Miss Smith.  She needs to go to a cupcake school or just quit being a teacher all together.’’
This is a scene that is repeated in schools across the country.   There are teachers who are struggling. Many of them work with our neediest students.  These teachers may struggle with classroom management, implementing best practices, or building community. The reasons teachers struggle are as different as the teachers themselves.  This often causes frustration among other teachers on their team, administrators, and teacher leaders.  

The struggling teachers themselves often feel isolated and attacked by their peers and their administrators.  They have reason to feel this way.  Often, the very teacher leaders that are supposed to be helping them are, instead, trying to get rid of them.  Sometimes, they do leave the profession or transfer to other schools where it is easier for them to hide, but more often a struggling teacher stays. They get frustrated, no longer seek to improve, and find other frustrated teachers to commiserate with.   Successful teachers begin to close their doors and disengage with struggling teachers.  Together these  groups create fragmented cultures within the school.   These fragmented cultures are bad for both the teachers and their students.  What can we do to break these negative subcultures in our schools?
We need to start by analyzing the overall school culture and the subcultures contained within it.  Within a school, there are often many competing subcultures some of which are moving the larger culture of the school forward and some that are holding it back.  
Every teacher is capable of teaching.  Teachers care about their students and want to help them, but they need the support of a collaborative culture to do so.  Teacher leaders need to take a critical look at the various subcultures that already exist within the school. Leaders should identify the subcultures that “fit preferred behaviors better or have a more positive influence on a desired vision”(Gruenert & Whitaker, 2015) .  Leaders should empower these positive subculture and encourage them to recruit others.
It is important for teacher leaders to think long term.  The negative elements in a school’s culture are not going to be revolutionized in an instant.  This can be frustrating, especially when you see at-risk students in classrooms where they are not getting all that they need.  Building a good teacher takes a long time, and so does building a strong, collaborative school culture.
Teachers in a  collaborative school culture have strong relationships with peers and students. They are highly reflexive in their practice, and actively seek to improve their teaching.  Building strong and supportive peer relationships is the first step.  Teachers will only listen to teacher leaders that they trust and respect. If a trusting, collaborative relationship  can be built between the struggling teachers and influential teachers in a positive school culture, then the struggling teachers will be more likely to reflect and improve.  
A new school year is the best time to begin building new relationships between teachers.  As you begin this school year, look at your school culture with a critical eye.  Which subcultures needed to be empowered?  How can you  strengthen them?  How can you recruit others to join them?
Works Cited
Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Using Visual Literacy to Engage ELLs

By Heather Jung
Teachers often struggle to assist ELLs in learning grade level content in Science and Social Studies.  The frustration of trying to teach content to students with limited English proficiency often cause teachers to either lower the standards for these students or engage them in meaningless, worksheet based activities.  Neither of these provides ELLs with adequate instructional opportunity.
Our ELLs do not need watered-down instruction; they need instruction that is both accessible and meaningful, and provides the same content knowledge as their grade level peers.  

So, how can we accomplish this?   One way is to use visual literacy to build student background knowledge prior to content instruction with grade level peers.  Access to prior knowledge builds confidence and leads to more risk taking behaviors.  These factors are critical for student success.  Using Visual Literacy to build prior knowledge allows students to construct meaning without experiencing the confusion they encounter when confronted with text. It also builds student fluency and functionality in this critical form of literacy.
We live in an increasingly visual world where the ability to both convey and decode ideas presented in images is increasingly important.  Using online resources such as: YouTube and Google Images, we can expose students to instructional  content visually.  This provides students with practice learning verbal meaning using visual literacy.  We can use the understanding created through visual literacy as a basis to build understanding and oral language around content.  Once understanding and oral language are secure, we can begin to link that understanding to the abstract world of communication through text.
For example, when I was teaching a group of ELLs in 2nd grade about thunderstorms, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, and floods in science, I showed them YouTube videos about each topic.  Then, I had them sort picture cards to sequence the events shown in the videos.  Only, after the students had worked with the information visually, did we begin to discuss the topic and build oral language around the content.  When the oral language was secure, the students were able to write about their understanding of weather.  All of this instruction occurred with my ELLs before the content was introduced to the general education population in the class.   As a result of having built strong prior knowledge for the ELLS students they were able to fully participate successfully in whole-group content instruction.  

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Changing the Conversation: Rethinking How We Talk About Students

By Ashley Coblentz and Jackie Moreno

Minimal. Basic. Low. Why are these words used to describe children who are anything but? Reporting on a narrow set of skills (primarily reading and math), by using numbers reflective of achievement rather than growth, can make teachers feel complicit in a system that overlooks many students’ interests, talents and growth. Of course academic achievement is an important priority. However, when it becomes the singular focus at the expense of the whole child or acknowledging academic growth, it is problematic.

After spending countless hours nurturing a student's self-image in the classroom, what ends up being communicated to the family and the community about academic achievement often causes stress or disappointment. Conversations can easily become centered on what needs to be fixed.

If we just focus on math and language arts scores, what conversations are we missing, and how does this inform students’ beliefs about themselves?

Students celebrating their learning with their families

There’s a constant balance to be found with being straightforward with students and their families about academic achievement, while simultaneously celebrating academic and personal growth.

Although teachers find ways to highlight the positive, we inevitably find many of the conversations focusing around areas of academic concerns. These conversations are essential. However, they become problematic when they are expressed through deficit centered language. 

How do we help kids connect with their strengths while being real about core academics?

When we reframe the way we talk about kids, we reframe the way we think about them. Let's not deliver the same idea in a “nicer way,” but push ourselves to keep each child in mind as a whole person rather than reducing them to conventional metrics. This a huge temptation because these metrics dominate current educational discourse.

A Shift
One of multiple ways our school community is shifting towards asset-based communication about students is through holding quarterly student showcases - letting kids speak for themselves!

A student sharing his e-portfolio in preparation for a showcase

At our last quarterly showcase, hundreds of family members went into classrooms to talk with students about their learning. Students shared multi-media projects, presentations and other examples of their growth. It was refreshing to hear conversations that included statements of pride from students and families, kids articulating what they’ve learned, and students celebrating each others’ learning.

During the student showcases, our bilingual students are given a platform to share their ability to communicate and create in two or more languages, as opposed to conventional report cards and conferences that systematically frame students in terms of language deficits.

Although this might sound simple, there is a lot of societal pull to move in the other direction - to focus on oversimplified metrics. Instead of reducing the stories of kids and schools to numbers and rankings, let’s move towards a more meaningful narrative.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why Did I Get a National Board Certification?

By Heather Jung

When I told my mother that I had completed my National Board Certification, after 2.5 years of work, this was her response:

“Congratulations!  So, what does that mean?”

I responded with the typical NBCT reply:  “It’s similar to doctors.  All doctors have been to medical school, but some take the next step to become Board Certified.  Which one do you want doing your knee surgery next month?”

“Well, as much as I am paying my surgeon he had better be Board Certified,” she said, “But you teach in public school and in public school kids just have to take what they get.  So why does it matter that you are Board Certified?”

Though it is funny to imagine a sign in the front of the school saying: “Welcome to public school! You take what you get and you don’t get upset!” with families in front of it nodding in acceptance, my mom was not completely off base.   In public schools the quality and competency of any student’s teacher can vary greatly, and many teachers are looking for meaningful ways to grow as professionals.

When I started the National Boards process I wanted to be inspired by my work inside the classroom!  I wanted more opportunities to participate in high-quality professional development, to meet and network with hard-working, inspirational teachers, and to participate in leadership and decision making at my school without leaving my students. I wondered if there was a way to do this without getting another graduate degree.

Then I found the National Board of Professional Teaching and its mandate for teachers to lead from the front of the classroom.  Still, taking on the challenge of a 2 to 4 year process with a 70% failure rate was a daunting thing for me, but now having gone through the process I can see that it was just what I needed. 

So how do know if you should consider going through the process?  Let me tell you what I gained: 

  • I am a reflective teacher.  The planning, videoing, and writing that I did to prepare my portfolio entries made reflecting on my practice a routine part of my teaching life.
  • I apply an in-depth knowledge of the five core components of literacy (Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, and Visual literacy).
  • I have autonomy at my school as I gained legitimacy with administrators, teacher leaders, and parents.  They trust that I know what I am doing and why.
  • I participate in decision making at my school.
  • I have leaderships roles such as:   mentor teacher, teacher coach, and professional development presenter.  
  • I network with inspirational educators both locally and nationally.  Through new professional development opportunities.
  • I continue to develop my voice as a teacher advocate for audiences beyond my school. 

If you haven’t already considered embarking on the National Boards process, now might be the time for you!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 Online Sample Items

WIDA is excited to present the new interactive ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 Online Sample Items for the Public (SIPs)! WIDA, the Center for Applied Linguistics, and Data Recognition Corporation have created these new SIPs to provide stakeholders with information about the look and feel of the new online ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 assessment. The new Sample Items were developed to show the test content and language demands that may be found on the actual ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 test.

To access the ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 Online Sample Items, open the link,, in a Chrome browser.

You can download instructions for accessing the online SIPs and screenshots of the online SIPs on the ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 Test Preparation Resources page of the WIDA website.

Image from CreativeCommons

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Improving Teacher Prep

By Heather Jung

Improving public education hinges on hiring and retaining highly qualified teachers, but this is not a task that we have been successful at as a country. Roughly half a million U.S. teachers either move or leave the profession each year (The Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014). While some of these teachers are retiring or moving for family reasons, many of them are new teachers who have just entered the profession.  The first year of teaching is hard and “even those who make it beyond the trying first year aren't likely to stay long: about 30 percent of new teachers flee the profession after just three years, and more than 45 percent leave after five”  (Graziano, 2005).  Idealistic young teachers leave college enthusiastic about making a difference in the lives of their students and then quickly become burnt-out.

Much of the fault for this high turnover rate for new teachers lies with dysfunctional teacher preparation programs in universities.  Other countries do not have the high turnover rate that we have here; for example in Finland “their teacher dropout rate is impressively low: 90 percent of trained teachers remain in the profession for the duration of their careers” (Zeichner, 2012). To be fair our teachers face more challenging classrooms than teachers in Finland, but we can improve our burn-out rate if we raise the standards for entrance into pre-service teaching programs and create programs that truly prepare pre-service teachers for life in the public schools.

The standards for getting into the teaching program need to be higher.  In countries with low teacher turnover, getting into pre-service programs in is extremely competitive.  This is something we can easily replicate.  If a student cannot maintain at least a 3.0 GPA by their sophomore year, they should not be allowed to continue in the pre-service program. 

We also need to look at the professors teaching pre-service programs.  Many of these professors have not taught a full-year in a public school in over ten years.  The populations in our school have changed significantly in the past 10 years; as have the demands put on teachers.  In order to stay relevant, professors need to cycle back to public school classroom teaching (for a full school year, not just a visit) every 3 to 5 years.

Pre-service teachers need to spend more time in public schools, especially in the high-poverty schools (where they are most likely to work after graduation).  In many pre-service programs, student teaching is relegated to the last semester of senior year and is in a middle-class suburban “cupcake” school.   This experience does not replicate the pressures that new teachers will face when they go out into the field.  To get a real sense of the profession they will be entering, pre-service teachers need to spend 2 full school years (not college years) working in the public schools: the first year in a “cupcake” school, and the second in a Title 1 or Special Education setting.  There are no ideal classrooms in the real world.  Pre-service teachers need to experience the true pressures of the public school system while they still have the support of the university.   They need to have the opportunity to go out and experience what really happens in classrooms while meeting with university staff regularly over 2 years.  There they can have a support system with which to discuss why they are seeing situations that are not ideal and to determine how they can face and challenge the status quo when they have their own classrooms.  In this way we can develop new teachers that are prepared to go out and be a positive force to move the profession forward.

Works Cited

Graziano, C. (2005, February 9). Public Education Faces a Crisis in Teacher Retention. Retrieved June 8, 2015, from Edutopia:

The Alliance for Excellent Education. (2014, July 14). Teacher Attrition Costs United States Up to $2.2 Billion Annually, Says New Alliance Report. Retrieved June 8, 2015, from

Zeichner, N. (2012, December 21). Lesson From Finland on Teacher Retention. Retrieved June 8, 2015, from Education Week Teacher:

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Middle Class Parent and “Those Kids”

By Heather Jung

There are many changes that will be occurring at my school over the next few years.  One of which is that our school building is going to be renovated and enlarged (it was built in the 1950s and last renovated in the 1980s).  A significant increase in English Language Learners (ELLs) and students in poverty will come with the expansion.  We are currently at 34% ELL and 55% free/reduced lunch and we expect to be increasing to around 55-65% ELL and 70-80% free/reduced lunch.  These proposed changes to the demographics of our school have created quite a buzz among both staff and parents.  Some parents welcome the opportunity to have a more diverse school, but other parents are adamantly opposed to having “more of those kids” coming to our school.  It shocking to hear parents saying things like:  “they’re ruining our nice neighborhood school” or “those kids are going to drop our home value by $100,000,”statements which are both inflammatory and inaccurate.  I worry about my neediest students facing such prejudiced comments from the very community that is supposed to be supporting them and my school is not alone in facing this problem.

Nationally, “for the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation” (Layton, 2015).   The reality of public schools now is that working with students from poverty is the norm, not the exception.  Teachers working in public schools have known and accepted this for years.  Sonya Romero-Smith, a veteran teacher at Lew Wallace Elementary School in Albuquerque said, “When they first come in my door in the morning, the first thing I do is an inventory of immediate needs: Did you eat? Are you clean? A big part of my job is making them feel safe” (Layton, 2015).  Stories like Sonya’s have been echoed in classrooms across the country.  You also see them passed around on Facebook, with people commenting on how tragic childhood poverty is.  It is tragic but it is also the reality of the American public school system.  Demographics in this country have changed.  Teachers accepted this years ago.  It is time for parents, communities, and politicians to do the same. Childhood poverty is a reality across the United States, in every community!  It is often hidden within upper-middle class suburban communities.  They need to be supported and embraced by them.  We need to build a culture that understands that fairness is not about giving everyone the same education, but giving everyone the education that they need.  Everyone wants their child to have the best teachers and the best school.  Often middle class parents do not understand why money and resources are shifted to the schools with the neediest students and away from their own children, but a person with a clear understanding of the true meaning of equity realizes that this is the only way to more society forward in an unbiased manner.

Works Cited

Layton, L. (2015, January 16). Majority of U.S. public school students are in poverty. Retrieved May 21, 2015, from The Washington Post:

Monday, May 18, 2015

Teacher Leadership and Teach to Lead

By Heather Jung

Beautiful woman writing a motivational concept on a blackboard - stock photo

Teachers, who are working with students every day, have the most important perspective on the issues surrounding education, but are often reticent to make their voices heard when it comes to educational policy issues. The egalitarian nature of the teaching profession can make teachers reluctant to take on leadership roles.  Although most teachers do not want to leave the classroom or become administrators, their integral knowledge of both the community and student learning needs is essential to promoting positive change in our schools.  There has been research, showing that actively involving teacher leaders is the best way to advance the vision of school and district communities.  Teachers who lead from the front of the classroom, rather than leaving it, have the strongest impact on student learning.  Helping teachers recognize that they are leaders, offering them opportunities to develop their leadership skills, and creating school cultures that honor teacher leadership can open up new avenues for providing support and resources to teachers and elevate the level of professionalism surrounding the field of education. Still, many teachers struggle to find their voice on policy issues and appropriate forums for expressing their ideas. Teach to Lead is one avenue that is available to teachers who want to advocate and promote policy change.

Teach to Lead is a joint venture between the U.S. Department of Education and the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards that was started in the spring of 2014.   Teach to Lead has created an online community called "Commit to Lead."   As a part of this community, teachers summit their ideas addressing current issues in education.  They then use social media and crowdsourcing to promote their concepts. Community members comment and vote on the initiatives that have been submitted.  Teachers whose proposals generate the most conversation are invited to attend various "Teach to Lead" summits where they can collaborate with other teacher leaders, principals, districts, supporter organizations, and state leaders to implement their policies.

Here is a link to a proposal that I have submitted to Commit to Lead:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Assessment 2.0 and the Every Child Achieves Act

By Heather Jung 

Since last July, I have been participating in a program to gather teacher leaders from around my home state of Virginia together to discuss issues on our current educational system.  The program is called: the Virginia Center for Excellence in Teaching (VCET) and is run through the education program at George Mason University.   As part of this program, I participated in a conference call with Dr. Steve Staples, the superintendant of public education in Virginia.  I found Dr. Staples’ comments very intriguing, especially those regarding realigning and reshaping the assessments and accountability. In Virginia, we have not accepted CCSS.  Instead, we assess based on Standards of Learning (SOLs) set forth by the Virginia Department of Education.   Yet many of the current SOLs are not consistent with the 21st Century Skills that we are trying to instill in our learners and need to be revisited.  Dr. Staples has appointed a committee to revisit the SOLs, but he did not give any specifics about who was on the committee. 

ASSESSMENT word cloud, business concept

Students in Virginia take standardized SOL tests on the computer each year. These tests are used to determine if schools have met annual yearly progress (AYP) and annual measurable objectives (AMO) according NCLB.  Many of our ELL students are eligible to take an alternative portfolio assessment called the Virginia Grade Level Alternative (VGLA).  The VGLA portfolio includes gathering evidence demonstrating student performance of the standards.  The students are required to perform 50 to 100 rote tasks and worksheets for documentation.  The rote tasks required for the VGLA take time away from authentic learning tasks that would benefit the students more.  I have heard that portfolio assessments were the great alternative to standardized tests, but when I look at the VGLA portfolio, it does not really meet the instructional needs of my students.

At my school, many students come in 3 years or more below benchmark.  Many of those students make significant progress during the school year, often as much as 1.5 to 2 years of growth.   The administration at my school does a good job of recognizing this achievement in house but, because these students are still not “meeting benchmark,” their progress goes largely ignored at the county and state level.

It seems as though we need to find an Assessment 2.0.  A method, which can track and celebrate the accomplishments of students, and teachers, who are making great growth even if that growth cannot always be measured in a standardized way.

As we look forward to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), now is the time consider how to change our assessment systems. ECAA will require students be assessed every year in grades 3 and up for math and language arts and science (though not as often).  States will have autonomy to choose their assessments as long as they "...involve multiple up-to-date measures of student academic achievement, including measures that assess higher-order thinking skills and understanding, which may include measures of student academic growth and may be partially delivered in the form of portfolios, projects, or extend performance tasks;" (pg 36).  

This language provides little reassurance that things will change under the new policy, but the bill has not been passed yet! Now is the time to let our voices be heard and demand that changes be made to the old standardized testing systems!      

Monday, February 16, 2015

Teacher Timesavers Reimagined

by Jackie Moreno and Ashley Coblentz

What if students took on more of the “teacher workload” and in the process became more engaged and invested in school?

Instead of running around crazily as stressed-out adults, why not invite students to be a part of the essential work that happens at schools, such as having a say in how schools spend money, plan events, and communicate with parents? We have been thinking about this a lot this year, especially in the midst of new demands placed on educators.

At Sandburg Elementary our principal has branded 2014-15 the “Year of the Student.” This is all about teachers working together to create opportunities for student leadership and ownership of learning. 

Third-graders writing the morning message

"Whoever does the work does the learning" is often said in education. Here are some Sandburg teacher inspired ways to bring this to life in the classroom:

  • Instead of rushing to school early to write a morning message, pass the markers to the students.
  • Instead of hurrying to finish a newsletter on a Friday, have students do it by writing about what they learned that week.
  • Instead of stressing about planning school assemblies, let students take charge. For instance, Sandburg’s fifth grade students lead whole school assemblies where teachers are in the audience and students are front and center.
  • Instead of coordinating field trips, empower student leaders to plan outings by contacting organizations, writing permission slips, and setting up transportation.

One of our students’ favorite experiences this year has been spending thousands of dollars on books for their classroom and school libraries. Due to high poverty, our school is eligible for Title I funding. Historically adults have been in charge of figuring out how this money is spent, but this year each child in our school was in charge of spending fifty dollars at Barnes and Noble to shop for books to fill their classroom libraries. Additionally, students created surveys to determine how the school library budget would be spent.

Before the trip students surveyed their current classroom libraries; created online wish lists within their budgets; and graphed the genres of books selected to decide if their choices supported a balanced classroom library. This culminated in a joy filled day they will always remember and left them with a personal investment in how they care for and engage with their refreshed libraries.  

Turning over the book selection to students connects to reading research around student choice improving academic outcomes and saved teachers hours of time that would have been spent paging through catalogs and placing orders. And after all, the best experts on what kids like to read are kids themselves.

Inviting students to participate in these practical, fun tasks incorporates standards into authentic learning experiences, allowing students to understand how school applies to everyday life, while helping teachers save time. What could you subtract from your to do list, that your students could take on?