Sunday, January 17, 2010

Constructive Feedback - Be Kind to Ourselves

Thanks to Lorraine Minosky for the post below about what it's like to change assessment practices. The short answer? It isn't easy, but the struggle can be worth it. "Be kind to ourselves" is good advice as we work through how this works in classrooms.

Many of us are in different stages of the process of making changes to our assessment practice. From reflecting on our practice over the years or from reading the research, we are seeking ways to use assessment to support our students’ learning. There is a constant tension that nags at us and we’re seeing that the old ways are not working for many of our students.

When making changes, we dive in with the best of intentions but it can be overwhelming especially when our students, parents and colleagues resist when faced with looking at assessment in a different way. Making changes in such a complex aspect of our practice can be daunting. It becomes easy to fall back into our old ways, even when we know better.

At a recent Pro-D day session at one of our elementary schools, a wise colleague reminded us to, “Be kind to ourselves”. It’s so true. Starting small and focusing on one area is much more manageable than trying to change everything all at once. As your understanding deepens over the years, it becomes easier to apply our new understanding in other areas. When I started to make conscious changes to my assessment practice, I chose to focus all my energy in one area. I was facing weekly anxiety around the readers’ response journals that I would haul home on a Friday and then would sweat over late Sunday evenings. The students’ responses never seemed to move forward and I didn’t know how to respond effectively to them. Giving them a score out of five and repeatedly coaxing them to “add more detail” just wasn’t cutting it. They basically ruined my weekends. With the support of graduate programs and study groups, I set out to find ways to make changes and improve my reading program, especially in the area of assessment. Even though I struggled in many other areas of my teaching, I forced myself to stick to reading and kept other subject areas on the back burner. Developing rubrics, using performance standards effectively, involving students in setting criteria, using student response journal exemplars, assessing oral discussion group responses, and providing descriptive, focused feedback was where I channeled my energy. Eventually these skills began to spill over into other areas of my teaching. Gradually it all began to make more sense. I even began making changes to my assessment practice in math! Now there was a stretch!

However, learning is a spiral. It takes many turns around the loop and as we observe, reflect and ask questions we deepen our understanding. I couldn’t do it alone and I needed and still need many opportunities to articulate my learning and listen to colleagues. Explaining how and why we’re doing things to students and parents is especially challenging and they really force us to examine and question our practice. Moving schools and adjusting to a very different culture and environment was especially challenging and I fell off the wagon initially when I was once again being challenged as to why I was doing things differently. “No marks for math homework??!! Why should we do our homework then?”

Our district is gradually working toward developing a new assessment policy and I know this will spur many of us to make significant changes. It will be challenging and will overwhelm many of us. But if we remember to be kind to ourselves, start small and seek support from our colleagues, we’ll start to become more comfortable with our assessment practice. Maybe some of us will start to enjoy our weekends a little more!