The Past and Present of My GMWP TIWI Journey
Hello, world! This is Skylar L. Primm, reporting for duty with the GMWP Teacher Inquiry & Writing Institute (TIWI)’s deep dive into assessment. For context, I grew up in pre-Katrina New Orleans, where I attended magnet junior and senior schools, both of which required entrance exams. I ended up in Madison for graduate school in geology before finding my calling in teaching. I’m about to start my tenth year in the classroom, and every one of those years has been in a project based learning school. For the past seven, I’ve been at High Marq Environmental Charter School in Montello, where 32 students in grades 7 through 12 direct their own learning, using the environment and sustainability as contexts.
My career transformed for the better in 2015, when I participated in the GMWP Summer Institute and learned to view myself as both a writer and researcher, with my classroom as the laboratory. Since then, I have been active in all sorts of GMWP initiatives, and I’m very excited to be part of the inaugural TIWI, with a focus on assessment. My bias is always in favor of student centered learning: How will this impact my students? How can I involve them more in the process? Where can I, the teacher, let go?
With that out of the way, it’s true confession time. I loved standardized tests. It’s been over 20 years since I took the SAT, but I still remember my scores like they were reported yesterday: 760 Verbal, 740 Math, 1500 Total. (As a confirmed “science kid,” I was only a little sad that Math was lower than Verbal.) My ACT and GRE scores were similarly lofty. I share this not to brag, but to acknowledge an important truth: I loved standardized tests because I was good at taking them. Because they let me show off how smart I was. Because they let me know exactly how much smarter I was than everyone else.
So what? “Middle class white male is good at test taking” isn’t exactly a major news lede. My point is, I never thought of these tests — or any other assessments from that time in my life — as avenues for self-improvement or windows into my strengths. They were just charming stops on my relentless journey to the next thing: a selective high school; college; graduate school; a teaching career. They weren’t even “high stakes” to me, because I knew I’d do well. I’m a good test taker, after all.
I think differently now, with years of life — and I hope a little more wisdom — between that version of Skylar and this one. As a teacher, I want my students to finish school with anything but the experience and attitude I had. I want them to look forward to assessments as opportunities to learn and grow, not methods for communicating their supposed superiority or inferiority to themselves and others. I want them to seek out feedback — from whomever they most trust to give it — in the interest of improving their work now, not as a bridge to the next step that might never come. Is “mindful assessment” a thing? Because that’s what I want.¹
A Plan Emerges
So, how can I make that happen? Great question. It’s one that I’ll be exploring for at least the next two years with my TIWI cohort, my students, and my colleagues. I suspect the answer lies somewhere closer to one-on-one conferencing than standardized testing, but I’m willing to keep an open mind.
In my current classroom, I find that conferencing and reflective writing are far and away the most valuable modes of assessment for our students’ project based learning work. The rubric, by contrast, has become an obstacle for some students, an afterthought for others, and an arbitrary requirement for the rest.
My hope is to develop a format for assessing students that provides the positive aspects of reflection and rubrics while acting as a guide for more focused conferencing in the end. A sort of reflective script, I guess? Surely, something like this already exists… right? I’m not opposed to inventing something new, but I’d much rather build on the work of others, if possible. It seems that a literature review is in order.
In short, my driving question for the next year or two is: How can our end-of-project assessment become more meaningful and functional for students? I have no idea where this work will take me, but that’s what makes action research so exciting. I hope you’ll read along with me here as I embark on the journey.
¹Answer: maybe so?