Focusing in on Humane Assessment

My Ideas for Year 2 of the Teacher Inquiry and Writing Institute

At the start of the summer, shortly before embarking on a dream vacation to New Zealand, I bought myself a macro lens. I’m an amateur nature photographer, and lately, I’ve been interested in smaller things — lichens, insects, leaf buds. So, I read some reviews, logged onto Amazon, and two days later I had my lens.

One thing all photographers surely know is that many — if not most — of your pictures will not turn out. When I’m (digitally) developing my pictures, I probably reject two for every one I keep. So, I expected my initial forays with the macro lens to fare poorly. And they did. In my self-assessment, the shots were just plain not good. The subjects were blurry, the depth of field was weird, and the lighting was poor.

A blurry bug in the prairie
A blurry bug in the prairie

Next, I looked up some reputable websites about photography and found some tips for taking better macro shots:

  • Hold your breath when you take the shot
  • Lock the focus while moving the camera in and out
  • Consider how your background will appear

Armed with these tips, I took the macro lens to New Zealand, and shot away for two weeks. Looking back on the photos in chronological order, it’s clear that improvement came with practice. It’s also clear that I’ve got more room to grow.

A weird angle on serpentinite
A weird angle on serpentinite

What’s the point of this extended personal anecdote? It’s an example of the process I want my students to experience through project-based learning. Try something new, assess strengths and areas for improvement, do some research, apply that research, and try again. (Repeat as needed.)

This year, the Greater Madison Writing Project Teacher Inquiry & Writing Institute group is working under the doctrine of “Humane Assessment”. We’re still working to collectively define the phrase, and I expect that many of my colleagues’ blog posts will be written about it. For me, for now, it means assessment that is meaningful, relevant, and purposeful for students.

My inquiry last year was about finding ways to develop a more relevant and useful assessment model for student projects at our school. I spent the whole year forgoing rubrics, relying instead on student self-reflections and one-on-one conferencing. In June, I wrote:

“In the next year, I plan to work harder to co-create authentic, relevant assessments with my students that we can both feel good about.”

To that end, I’d like to rebuild our assessments with greater student voice. I was planning to develop a single-point rubric that applies to all projects, perhaps with an area or two that the kids would fill in themselves. Instead, with our framework of “Humane Assessment” in mind, and in the spirit of “Yes, and…”, I’m thinking bigger — could I extend my assessment rebuild to provide students with the opportunity to develop all the rubric goals for every project?

A better angle on lichen in Christchurch
A better angle on lichen in Christchurch (and my current work computer desktop)

This won’t be feasible for every student — especially younger/newer ones — but how might it unlock their potential for self-improvement and reflection if I gave them the tools to begin that self-reflection before the project even started? Could this be an opportunity to transfer thoughts from the previous reflection to the new project? If so, this may also be a way to address another of my ideas from the end of the school year:

“The key will be seeing if or how they apply this lesson to future work. Finding a way to ‘actualize’ student reflections is one of my goals for next year.”

A baby fern in Wellington, and a handy metaphor for growth
A baby fern in Wellington, and a handy metaphor for growth

I’ll be submitting this post for publication on Labor Day, the day before the 2019–20 school year begins. I’m excited to meet my new students and to reconnect with my continuing ones. I’m also excited to continue improving my macro photography and to work with my TIWI colleagues to co-develop a shared understanding of what “Humane Assessment” looks like in our classrooms.

At this point, I think we’re all ready to hold our breath, lock our focus, and take the shot.




Teacher as Artist, Teacher as Researcher, Teacher as Writer, Teacher as Teacher of Writing

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Skylar L. Primm (he/him)

Skylar L. Primm (he/him)

Cultivating students’ power, nurturing students’ joy, celebrating students’ humanity. 🧡🌱

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