Making Student Work the Center of Teacher Work

I am consistently pleased by and proud of the Leyden High School English department’s collaborative energy. We write objectives together. We exchange lesson frameworks and email classroom activities. We share unit and reading calendars. We co-write quizzes, tests, study guides, and rubrics. When I think about what happens at our best Wednesday morning meetings, I conjure up an image of committed and competent educators huddled around tables, purposefully planning, problem-solving, and producing.

But after three days attending the CEL Summer Institute on Critical Issues: Assessment, I have to admit that the image no longer materializes with the same nobility. The excellent character and competence of my faculty remains intact, as does the quality of the work being produced. What’s changed is that the CEL institute has thrown an important absence into sharp relief.

John Rossi

John Rossi

When my colleagues and I collaborate, we focus primarily on teaching artifacts, the learning materials we develop and create. We need to shift our energies to work with learning artifacts: responses, essays, and projects that students have submitted as evidence of their learning. As chairperson, I need to direct my colleagues to devote more of their collaborative time to the second (and more important) half of the teaching and learning cycle.

To be fair, it’s not that we ignore this part. We regularly look at large sets of exam data together in order to identify troublesome test questions and guide revisions. And I know my teachers interrogate their students’ performance constantly and in various ways. They also adjust their instruction accordingly. Thus, I know solid formative assessment is taking place.

Yet we’ve been operating under this paradigm: we review summative assessment data together but monitor and respond to formative assessment evidence alone.

Unfortunately, the cut scores on data reports rarely foster sincere discussion. Because they are reductive in nature, teachers usually respond reductively: “The students bombed this question, we need to revise it.”

Reviewing student work is different. At the CEL institute, we talked about the inherent value in conducting a collaborative examination of student artifacts. Among other benefits, it may allow teachers to form norms for grading and expectations, discover or share best practices, illustrate how students progress as they move through the program, and monitor whether or not the tasks assigned yield products that reflect the department’s published goals or values.

The call to look at student work together is just one way that the CEL Institute reinforced the importance of teacher decision making in assessment matters, a highlight of the NCTE position statement on formative assessment. While I understand and appreciate the power of data to inform instruction, I sometimes worry that “the numbers” are presumed to be superior to the careful, informed observations of a well-trained, caring professional. There’s room for both, and I hope to assert the power of the latter in the coming year by requiring my teachers to endow their students’ work with the bagel crumbs and coffee stains of their coworkers.

In addition to the singular takeaway above, I’d also like to share some thoughts about the conference as a whole.

The three day institute provided invaluable networking opportunities. Because CEL specifically attracts disciplinary leaders, I found myself working with colleagues whose concerns were identical, not just similar or related, to my own. Moreover, each and every one of the CEL organizers and facilitators demonstrated his or her commitment to English leadership and experience-driven expertise in an approachable and effortless manner. I left the conference with contact information for exponentially more peers and role models than I had previously.

All these feel-goods were accomplished because the institute included a purposeful and practical structure, rather than a routine series of whiplash-inducing lectures on loosely-related topics. The keynote speakers and sponsors remained squarely focused on issues of assessment, and for the majority of the time, participants were in small groups exploring different strands related to assessment.

I chose to work with others in the Curriculum Program strand, investigating the role of assessment in an organization’s scope and sequence. In that context, I had the opportunity present my unique plans and goals for the English department at my district through a consultancy protocol discussion. It was powerful to listen–and not respond–while others with a direct knowledge of my position and the ELA content offered concerns and troubleshooting about my unique and timely problem.

Given the tremendous, personal gains I made in these three short days, I’m excited to continue working with CEL and its members in the future. And I wholeheartedly encourage others to take advantage of this powerful learning network.

John Rossi (@JRossiLeyden)
English Department Chairperson
Leyden High School, IL

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2 thoughts on “Making Student Work the Center of Teacher Work

  1. John:

    I am so glad you were able to get such a great realization out of the CEL Assessment Institute. Discussions of formative assessments are collaborative. All you can do with summarize data is celebrate or despair. I’ve even heard it called an autopsy. Best of luck with the new paradigm.

  2. John,
    I felt the exact same way at the CEL conference. I too left inspired and with a great new set of role models and peers. I’m sure I’ll see you at another CEL event soon.

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