Are Our Classrooms Ready for Formative Assessment?

By Sarah P. Hylton, M.Ed., SURN

Formative assessment is often understood in terms of the names we give various formative assessment techniques: exit slips, thumbs up/thumbs down, KWL charts, etc., but understanding formative assessment this way is limiting because it’s much more than merely undertaking a series of clever and engaging techniques. Rather, as Moss and Brookhart (2009) assert, it is a philosophy of teaching, a persistent instructional approach. Enacting meaningful formative assessment relies on recognizing that it is an ongoing process of collecting information, analyzing and making inferences, providing feedback, and using the information to make informed instructional decisions.  Laying the groundwork for this approach necessarily requires us to consider what changes may need to be made in our classrooms.

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Fostering a classroom environment that maximizes the full potential of formative assessment takes time and patience and, well, teaching. After all, students may not show up knowing how to function in a classroom where formative assessment is a predominant philosophy. They, and their teachers, may need to unlearn habits that have become ingrained or to wrestle with the discomfort that such a classroom may create. Teachers will need to be committed to an intentional, consistent focus on creating a classroom culture where genuine formative assessment is truly at work.

So, what does a formative assessment classroom look like?

  • The classroom culture values ideas, not answers. Students are willing to take risks and try things rather than focusing on the expected or “right” response.
  • The classroom is a discourse community. Students talk to each other. They listen carefully and respond respectfully. They discuss ideas and support their thinking with relevant evidence.
  • The classroom practice is to ensure that students truly understand both the intended learning outcomes and success criteria. Students are able to apply their understanding of these in order to assess their own progress and their peers’ progress as well. Students are adept at giving and receiving feedback.
  • The teacher is not the only teacher in the room. Students, too, have ownership for teaching, and the teacher models an effective learner mindset.

It’s not a far leap to imagine that a classroom committed to this philosophy of formative assessment is also likely to foster student metacognition, self-regulation, and a growth mindset. Virginia’s 5Cs –creative thinking, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and citizenship – are also supported by such classrooms. I would contend, then, that these are characteristics not only of the formative assessment classroom but more broadly of the thinking classroom, something we must all be genuinely committed to achieving.

 

 

 

In Appreciation of the Assistant Principal

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

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Dear School Administrators and Teachers:

For several years I walked around in the “skin” of an assistant principal. I am very familiar with the challenges you face, the hours you dedicate to your school, the loyalty you pledge to your principal, and the joy you experience watching students succeed. As a teacher, I distinctly remember thinking about the life of an assistant principal as being stress-free. I formulated a judgment that their administrator duties and responsibilities compared to my teacher work were notably less. At that moment I believed that an assistant principal could use the restroom at their leisure, leave paperwork for the next day, eat lunch uninterrupted, and build relationships with students and parents quickly. I was wrong – what a difference perspective makes!

More than just a “right-hand man or woman” employed to take the excess workload from a public-school principal, the assistant principal is a vital component of a school’s success. They are responsible for handling administrative, disciplinary, and logistical tasks, along with planning activities and monitoring and reporting on the status of the school, its student body, and staff. In some schools, the assistant principal may count teacher or substitute among their list of job roles as well. With that said, assistant principals are the backbone in school building administration.

As an assistant principal, there were moments of uncertainty and worry that I did not make the best decisions. The long hours of supervising sporting events, participating in parent-teacher conferences, attending trainings, conducting home visits, advising students, counseling teachers, etc. did not create a stress-free life.

Although unintentional, the assistant principal job is sometimes unappreciated. This week the nation celebrates the sacrifices and contributions assistant principals make to the American education system. I was fortunate to have strong assistant principals and acknowledge that my success as a principal relied heavily on their shoulders. They were my foundation. Teachers, before you submit that discipline referral or complain about a consequence from a discipline referral, and principals, before you add another task to their already endless list, I challenge you to reflect and try to “understand things from their point of view.” This week and beyond I encourage all principals and teachers to consider the efforts of their assistant principals and share their gratitude for all that they do to support students, teachers, parents and communities.

Educationally yours,

Jamon

Recruiting and Re-recruiting

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

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A top priority for school administrators is to ensure the academic, emotional, and physical safety of students.  Not far behind are recruiting and staffing their schools with the best teachers for their students. We are at the beginning of the hiring season where many administrators join forces with their human resource department to attend job fairs, sift through applications, and conduct interviews, all based on the “intent” of current staff members and expected enrollment.  This process can be daunting and taxing, but, this season provides you an opportunity to revisit the mission and vision of your school to determine the characteristics, talents, and skills needed in order to promote achievement and build capacity.

As you work to recruit teachers, remember these things:

Invite others into the interview room

The interviewing process should not be conducted by administration alone but with a variety of stakeholders. It is important to remember that potential teammates and students are the people who will interact with this individual more frequently, so their presence and voice should be included. A strong interviewing team represents the school and its community. Throughout my tenure as an administrator interview team members included:

  • An assistant principal (preferably over the grade level or subject)
  • A core teacher from the grade level or content
  • An elective teacher
  • A staff member
  • A parent/guardian
  • A community member
  • A representative of the student body (this member was included mostly on the secondary levels)

Conversation v. Interview

Participating in an interview is a high anxiety event and can take a toll physically and mentally on the candidate. Let us not forget, we all have been in their shoes, and we know people’s reactions to interviewing varies.

After introductions, I attempted to make the candidate feel a little more at ease by saying, “We all have been in your shoes, and we encourage you to relax as much as possible. If you need a question repeated, please ask. Let us begin our conversation.” This approach created a warm and welcoming environment that set the stage for a candidate to display their personality and educational beliefs. Do not misinterpret me; this conversation should not mimic the same conversation we might have at a local bar, but it creates space for both parties to learn more about each other and hopefully helps the candidate feel more comfortable with answering and asking questions.

What is their added-value?

Beware of sacrificing your vision of the ideal candidate in an attempt to fill your roster. The campaign to recruit teachers, especially teachers of color and males, is an on-going need. Generally speaking, there is a need for more teachers, especially in specific disciplines and geographical areas. The need is complex and critical, yet I urge you not to sacrifice your students’ education or your vision for learning as the urgency to fill positions grows; rather, I suggest you be extremely intentional about who you are hiring. I learned this valuable lesson as an assistant principal. I worked with a principal who conducted added-value audits of her assistant principals, teachers and staff members. Although testing results were a component in the model, other components included being a team player, coachable, having strong content knowledge, and relationship builder. In other words, she made the audit holistic, which provided information that could be used to have a better sense of their strengths and areas for growth. When you think about recruiting an individual to your staff, think about them holistically.  Ask yourself, what is this individual adding to the cultures and climate of the school? What can this individual add to this community that you do not already have or cannot create with the current staff?

Re-recruiting teachers

Re-recruiting teachers is a key to teacher retention. While you are recruiting new teachers, do not neglect your current faculty and staff. During this time in the school year, teachers need a reminder that their presence and expertise is much appreciated. It is important to thank and celebrate your current staff.  Remember, they have been with you since the beginning of the school year, if not longer. They have worked hard to meet your expectations as well as the students’ needs. Also, make sure you are taking care of their needs. How have you helped them reach their goals? What professional development opportunities have you offered them? How have you recognized your teachers’ contributions?

Looking in the mirror

Often, we focus on what the candidate has to offer the school’s culture, but I challenge you to think about what can you offer the candidate. Ask yourself, why would the ideal teacher want to work at this school? In addition to reviewing your mission and vision statements, revisit your brand. What is the message your website is conveying? Is the website updated or does it still have your welcome back message posted? Are teachers’ pages updated? These are the sorts of methods candidates, community members, and others use to evaluate your school.

Best of luck and happy recruiting!

 

It’s a Process, Not a Technique

By Sarah P. Hylton, M.Ed., SURN

Imagine that you’re observing a class in which the students are working to find text evidence to support opinions they have. After each student locates a piece of evidence, the teacher, Ms. Smith, asks the students to show thumbs up, sideways, or down to indicate how confident they feel that their chosen piece of text evidence effectively proves their opinion. One of the items on your observation checklist is that the teacher effectively uses formative assessment. Would you check that box? Has Ms. Smith used formative assessment? What tells you that she has or hasn’t?

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Formative assessment is a process that involves multiple steps (see the image above). The first step in the process involves eliciting and capturing information about what the students know, believe, or can do and how well. The second step in the process requires the teacher (or student) to analyze the information that has been collected and to make appropriate inferences about the nature and degree of student learning. Finally, the teacher must communicate and use the information that was collected. In other words, the teacher should use the results of the analysis to inform instructional decision making and should share the results by providing feedback to students.

Often, our understanding of formative assessment is limited to the first stage of this process. There are seemingly endless lists of techniques that teachers can use to elicit information from students. You’re probably familiar with a litany of these types of techniques: thumbs up/thumbs down, exit slips, individual dry erase boards, think-pair-share, popsicle sticks, four corners. Often these formative assessment techniques are referred to as formative assessment, but this “name game” results in misconceptions about formative assessment. Using a technique is not formative assessment. In order to truly undertake formative assessment, teachers must engage in the subsequent stages of the process.

Teachers at SURN’s Designing Formative Assessment Workshop engage in conversation about the formative assessment process.

Teachers at SURN’s Designing Formative Assessment Workshop engage in conversation about the formative assessment process.

Returning to our original scenario, Ms. Smith does indeed create an opportunity to elicit and capture information from her students about their thinking, in this case, their degree of confidence in their chosen piece of text evidence. What we aren’t told is what happens next. Imagine that Ms. Smith follows the thumbs up/thumbs down responses with a comment such as “It seems like only two people are feeling really confident that they have found a solid piece of evidence. Let’s all look for another piece of evidence that supports our opinion even better.” Such a comment should reasonably convince us that Ms. Smith is actually engaging in formative assessment. Not only did she take time to elicit and capture information about student thinking, she also took time to analyze that information. We only know this because she then communicates that information with the students and uses it to make an instructional decision.

On the other hand, if Ms. Smith had simply said “Okay, great! Let’s move on to the next chapter,” we could be confident that she has not engaged in formative assessment. Yes, she used a formative assessment technique, but her decision to move forward despite only two students feeling that they had found a good piece of text evidence would indicate that she hasn’t engaged in the process.

Remember: formative assessment is not a technique; it’s a process. To truly engage in formative assessment, teachers must not only elicit and capture information; they must also analyze that information and then communicate and use that information.

Healthy Relations Create Equity

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

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As a principal, highlights in my day were visiting classrooms, interacting with students, and witnessing learning and teaching. By far, my students across grade levels were fortunate to have some great teachers and if I ever had to select the most effective teacher I worked with, indisputably, I could not. Although different in their approach, but sharing the same beliefs about students, these teachers did whatever it took to ensure students received a quality education. They made sure that students were present and engaged. They never allowed their students to fail; this task was easier said than done.  Like most teachers, it was not unusual to find these teachers staying after school to provide extra help, spending their Saturday mornings conducting tutorials in the local library, and communicating with parents on a regular basis. In my previous school, these behaviors were demonstrated by a majority of teachers, at different degrees respectably. However, there were several teachers in particular that received the most accolades from students, parents, and community members. What made these specific teachers so effective and highly requested among students and parents? In my quest to supporting my hypothesis, I visited a kindergarten classroom taught by Mrs. Kaufman, perhaps one of my favorite kindergarten teachers.

Daily, she worked hard to ensure that her students received the best education. This dedication meant never giving up on her students or parents. Throughout the school year, she remained sincere in her teaching style, yet brutally honest in her academic diagnoses, but she would always end those conversations with “we will get them there.” Her classroom was full of energy and love, yet there was a noticeable distinction. Easily to discern to a naïve individual would be race; Mrs. Kaufman was White and her students were Black. While accurate and an essential factor in the equation, race was not the most notable distinction. It was the healthy relationships she had with the students.

The much-needed campaign to recruit teachers of color is germane to the advancement of all students, and vital to building a better narrative for students in education. Some research suggests that teachers of color are likely to be more effective in producing positive academic and behavioral outcomes for same-race students. However, it is not a requirement to have a shared race, background, or experience in order to connect. Mrs. Kaufman’s success illustrates how building a relationship, setting expectations, and working to keep your students engaged are key to creating a conducive learning environment.

While there’s been an increase in the racial diversity in the public school teacher workforce, it is still dominated by white (82 percent), female teachers (76 percent). Local and state agencies struggle with recruiting and retaining teachers, especially teachers of color, for many reasons, and this problem will not be solved quickly. Yet, we are making great strides as programs, such as Call Me MISTER, work tirelessly to help increase the 2 percent of Black males teachers in American schools. More urgently, school districts should focus their efforts on trying to improve the quality of instruction for students of color now.

One necessary part of that work: schools must examine and reform their disciplinary policies and practices. Black students, boys especially, continue to be referred for discipline or suspended from school at alarmingly disproportionate rates. This means that these students become less engaged in their coursework or school as a whole. The instructional time they lose affects their academic progress. State and local educational agencies must work to reduce these referral disparities — and classroom teachers and school building administrators must be at the forefront of this work, increasing their efforts to build healthier relationships with students.

Although administrators are vital key players, teachers play the most critical role in engaging students in learning. Joint efforts among principals, teachers, and students can collaboratively develop effective interventions targeted on improving teachers and schools’ discipline practices — exploring their beliefs and raising expectations for students of color. A clear focus on building relationships with students — much like Mrs. Kaufman did — is likely to reduce biases teachers might hold and increase student engagement in the classroom and the learning process.

Being culturally responsive and sensitive are critical to these efforts, regardless of the race of the teacher or the student. Do not misinterpret me; a teacher’s race matters when teaching students of color, and so does a teacher’s ability to build relationships.

 

SURN Principal Academy Delivers Powerful Messages: Communicate, Value Relationships, and Create Your Tribe

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

By now the wave of school openings has ended and the school year is well underway. The challenges that accompany the start of the new year are now giving way to the day-to-day work of meeting the high standards we have set for ourselves, our faculties, and our students. Meeting deadlines, managing conflicting obligations, providing direction for teachers, and supporting students can be overwhelming and make it easy to lose sight of our optimism. To help mitigate this, I’d like to remind you of some things you already know but may forget in the daily shuffle.

School leaders model and discuss the importance of communicating SURN Principal Academy expectations to their teachers at the September workshop.

School leaders model and discuss the importance of communicating SURN Principal Academy expectations to their teachers at the September workshop.

Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate! 

Remember to communicate! Effective communication leads to an effective organization. Communication with all stakeholders is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for a productive school year. As a principal, I tried to balance written communication with the powerful communication of my presence. It is no longer enough to just mail documents home. We must also embrace systems such as ConnectEd and School Messenger to stay connected with all members of our community. We also need to remember to post information and publicize school events and accomplishments on the school website and on social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Technology has increased the number of outlets for us to communicate and has made information more accessible to our stakeholders. As a result, we may sometimes worry that we run the risk of over communicating, but this is a preferable position to be in than not having communicated enough. Remember, effective communication builds trust. It puts people at ease (especially newcomers!) and keeps people from having to guess about our expectations.

Being present is a powerful form of communication and a characteristic of effective leadership. It is easy to get trapped in your office, but it’s essential to satisfy the high demand for your presence from both internal and external stakeholders. First and foremost we communicate the value of education by being present for our students. This includes being in the hallways, cafeteria, and extra-curricular activities. Every organization, department, grade level, central office person, and family that is associated with your school wants a piece of your time, and it is important to provide each of them with an opportunity for a face to face meeting. Try to schedule these meetings during your least busy time.

Familiar faces in new places as SURN leaders connect, re-connect, and discover the value of relationships at the SURN Principal Academy.

Familiar faces in new places as SURN leaders connect, re-connect, and discover the value of relationships at the SURN Principal Academy.

Relationship over Achievement

 Student achievement is a source of strength, both for the division and the individual schools. Achievement creates energy which, in turn, fuels further improvement, but too much focus on achievement can actually damage student performance.  For example, as the principal of an unaccredited school, I relentlessly focused on tasks and goals. In the beginning, I commanded and coerced, and as a result, my faculty became more concerned with meeting my expectations than with meeting the needs of students. I should have heeded the caution of Spreier, Fontaine, and Malloy (2018): “Too intense a focus on achievement can demolish trust and undermine morale, measurably reducing workplace productivity” (p. 45). In other words, I should have remembered to coach and collaborate, to take time to learn my faculty, staff, and students. Relationships take time and are made one open-house, one faculty meeting, one classroom visit, and one hello at a time. With relationships and trust fully established, we can get down to the business of improving student learning for every child in our building.

Mentor leaders encourage collaboration, pride, and networking as they develop their tribe.

Creating your TRIBE!

The principalship is a high-demanding, complex, and lonely job. Therefore, experiencing a supportive community of fellow principals is necessary. Principals rarely have opportunities to collaborate with their peers to share ideas, reflect on leading and learning, and discover how to improve their performances. At the beginning of my administrative career, I worked in isolation, but I quickly learned the power of having a community of leaders as a muse. In my latter years of being administrator, I was introduced to SURN. Being new to VA, the network in the Principal Academy helped develop my VA educational leader profile. To this day, I remain in contact with members of my cohort as well as my mentor. I encourage each of you to take advantage of your cohort members and our time together during the Principal Academy. By surrounding yourself with positive people who are in the similar roles, they are going to push you towards greatness.

Jennifer Abrams Helps Us Use Our Best Voice

By SURN Staff

SURN leaders often share the need to continue developing human resources skills and competencies as they strive to cultivate collaborative cultures. This means communicating well, crossing generational divides, and leveraging conflict. We are pleased that Jennifer Abrams, international communications and educational consultant, will join us at the 22nd annual Leadership Conference this year.

Jennifer Abrams is a communications and education consultant and author.

Jennifer Abrams is a communications and education consultant and author.

Jennifer brings a dynamic keynote based on her popular workshop, Swimming in the Deep End – What Does It Take, to open the day Tuesday, June 19. “No matter what role we play in a school or district, we all want to make a difference. However, things move fast in education these days, and often in our communications we are left confused, overwhelmed and not as successful as we could be. We need to build up a skill set of effective decision making capabilities, ‘resistance management’ communication strategies and for the sake of our health, our ‘stress tolerance (Abrams, 2018).’” Additionally, Jennifer will lead a concurrent session later that morning.

Jennifer’s books are best-sellers. In Having Hard Conversations, Jennifer leads us through replicable processes as we navigate work-related difficult situations as leaders. The sequel, Hard Conversations Unpacked: The Whos, the Whens, and the What-Ifs, takes readers on a deeper dive into the nuanced world of communication. The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate, and Create Community provides readers with tools for navigating beyond their personal “generational filters” as they lead.

We hope you’ll join us as we learn from Jennifer Abrams and our other esteemed presenters at this year’s conference. You will leave with tools, resources, and experiences designed to enhance your leadership performance.

A little more about Jennifer: Jennifer considers herself a “voice coach,” helping others learn how to best use their voices – be it collaborating on a team, presenting in front of an audience, coaching a colleague, supervising an employee and in her new role as an advisor for Reach Capital, an early stage educational technology fund. Jennifer holds a Master’s degree in Education from Stanford University and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Tufts University. She lives in Palo Alto, California (www.jenniferabrams.com/about/).

 

The 5 Cs across the Disciplines

By Sarah P. Hylton, SURN

The Profile of a Virginia Graduate is a framework aimed at preparing our students to be life ready citizens. Positioned as part of the VDOE’s Standards of Accreditation, the Profile is the response to an essential question: “What knowledge, skills, and dispositions should a Virginia high school graduate possess?”

Focused on the four pillars of Content Knowledge, Workplace Skills, Community Engagement/Civic Responsibility, and Career Exploration, the Profile insists that creative thinking, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and citizenship – which we commonly refer to as the 5Cs – be incorporated into learning experiences in every classroom, pre-K through 12.

The 5Cs are not the purview of secondary teachers only (a common misconception given the reference to graduation in the name), nor are they intended to reside primarily in one discipline or another. Rather, this focus on the 5 Cs obliges all teachers to develop a common understanding of these skills and attributes and to understand how the 5 Cs exist across the standards and goals of the various academic disciplines.

Creating opportunities to build teachers’ capacity to incorporate these skills is the work of all school leaders. As each division considers how it will begin to implement the Profile, consider having teachers review the strands and/or goals of the various disciplines to determine where the 5Cs are mentioned in the standards of their own discipline as well as in others. Such a task should provide a good starting point for teachers to develop operational definitions of this language and will give them insight into how they are working in tandem with their colleagues to ensure that all students are developing these critical skills. Because reading, discussing, and writing with purpose in every discipline is fundamental to developing the 5Cs, further faculty conversations might center on how to offer instruction rich in these opportunities.

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Thankful for Partnerships

Administrators in the SURN Principal Academy help shape an educational partnership that spans the state.

Administrators in the SURN Principal Academy help shape an educational partnership that spans the state.

At this time of year, many of us engage in reflection on the many things for which we are grateful. At SURN we pause a moment this week to acknowledge our gratitude for the many meaningful partnerships that breathe life and purpose into the School Leadership Institute. Our connection with William & Mary School of Education runs deep, and the support we receive from faculty and staff provides a foundation for reaching beyond the university and into the K-12 classrooms and schools we serve.

We collaborate and work with our 30 Virginia school divisions to bring quality professional learning and development to educators across the Commonwealth. Through these collaborations and experiences at William & Mary School of Education, leaders have established relationships far beyond our walls. This fall principals willingly opened the doors of their schools to allow their colleagues an opportunity to develop their skills in instructional leadership as they complete collaborative walk throughs together.

The opportunity to network and to collaborate with peers is cited as a strength of virtually every workshop and program at SURN. Learning and innovating together to enhance student achievement is a hallmark of what we accomplish in partnership with each other, and relationships are at the core of this. We look forward to continued growth in our partnerships with all of you.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at SURN!

EPPL Goes to Washington

By Sarah P. Hylton, SURN

EPPL students take part in a policy field trip to Washington, D.C.

EPPL students take part in a policy field trip to Washington, D.C.

At SURN’s Board Meeting on Wednesday, Dr. Mike DiPaola promoted William and Mary’s EPPL cohort and its goal to develop capable school leaders. The EPPL acronym stands for educational policy, planning, and leadership, and students in the program take courses in each of these areas, ultimately synthesizing those classroom experiences during comprehensive examinations. The natural extension, of course, is how these areas will interact in their professional lives as school leaders. Students in the program are reminded often of the necessity of leaders being conscious of the policy process in order to be able to engage positively and intentionally in that process.

Students currently doing policy coursework, including SURN Graduate Assistants Jamon Flowers and Sarah Hylton, took part in a policy field trip to Washington, D.C. on October 27, 2017. The trip, organized by Dr. Pamela Eddy, provided us with the opportunity to meet with K12 and higher education interest groups and with congressional education legislative aids and staff. We were reminded of how critical it is for school leaders to envision themselves as policy actors and to foster relationships with a broad swath of individuals and organizations. Those we spoke to urged us as school leaders to know our own narrative and to use it to shape our policy goals and aspirations. Faithful commitment to the organization’s best interests framed consistently and positively serves schools leaders well as they navigate policy issues at the local, state, and even federal levels.