Thoughts on Developing a Writing Assessment

The focus of my teaching work of late has turned toward developing and administering a district wide writing assessment for middle school argument writing.  Amid warnings from the latest Rethinking Schools about all the extra baggage that makes Common Core implementation dangerous, like even higher stakes in testing and privatization, many of us on the ground are still working towards making something good out of what might be good.  The writing assessment we are crafting, like so many others being made in the likeness of the testing industry’s new Common Core assessments, involves a performance task requiring multiple sources students weave together as evidence to compose their own written argument.  It’s a tough task.  And we’re asking for teachers across disciplines to be involved in the endeavor with us: some English and Science teachers developed the test in consultation, teachers are administering it across the board, and most of the teaching staffs (including Science and History teachers, not only English) will be involved in the scoring process, learning to distinguish performance on various scales of a rubric.  The idea is to stimulate cross-disciplinary understanding and discussion, so that we’re all in the same boat.

My hopes are that teachers begin to give students credit for the sharp critical thinking they are capable of doing about problems of social, scientific, and cultural concern, and learn to express and argue with sophistication, nuance, and maturity across spheres.  I hope that all of this leads to teachers imagining engaging, cross-disciplinary units that involve interaction rhetorically with real-world problems and perhaps real-world audiences, cultivating civic voices and ethical commitments in the process of refining their linguistic repertoires. 

My fears are that teachers feel another wave of endeavors crammed down their throats without the time and space to formulate their own understandings, to take ownership and cultivate their own belief systems, and to hone practices that get students beyond surface understandings and procedural displays.  My fears are that students are being asked to do much, with the stick coming long before the carrot.  I am concerned about the ideology which attempts to drive teaching with evaluation, drive pedagogy with assessments, since evaluations and assessments often boil down to the most blunt and simplified versions of “the answers,” and what students need is complexity, individualization, and trust.  I tremble when I hear about computer-scored essays and merit pay schemes based on these assessments.

What teachers have to do (magically in the negative four hours of free time they have each day) is coordinated efforts of ownership, demonstrating that collaborative creation, scoring, and use of these assessment instruments by teachers for teaching is the only function that matters.  But it’s just impossible with all else that we have on our hands. Continue reading

Why teaching is political and why it’s worth it

Working together with some incredible colleagues today, I shared a thought that occurred to me years into my work as a teacher and a coach, that much of teaching and being a teacher leader was a matter of navigating politics. This often feels secondary, like a distraction, like ugly business and irrelevant to the real work of teaching kids. In many ways it is. But I came to understand at one point that working on those politics, building bridges with those lone ranger teachers, tactfully speaking up to or finding common ground with admins with different imperatives, working in solidarity with your union even when their protections require creative workarounds… Yes, it can be a lot of politics piled on to 8 hours of teaching plus evenings of lesson planning and grading.

But it is in fighting for the things that matter for kids in the midst of those politics, for the sake of the kids, that collective change and growth happens. As teachers we should have the ideal situation to support meaningful collaboration and colleagues ready to share the best they have, so that our focus is utterly on great instruction, assessment, and relationships with kids.

But in reality, those politics that seem constraining are the very territory over which the relevant battles are fought. The stakeholders don’t always have the best motives compelling them at each moment, but they very often have good intentions that you can appeal to. And even where people are the enemy, they are wolves we must protect our flock from, and worth our efforts. These stakeholders impact our kids. To engage them with integrity, strategy, commitment to equity and humanity, and love, is often to serve the kids and communities that are our bottom line.