“Normal does not exist.”

Reflecting on the First Few Months of 2019–20

One of my students spoke the words that I’ve shared as the title for this piece during a “town hall” meeting of our whole school a few weeks ago. They’re absolutely correct, and I find it valuable to consider their statement whenever I worry about how much High Marq’s practices (assessment and otherwise) differ from the “normal” or “typical” classroom.

Me in my classroom

For example, this recent tweet of mine seemed to resonate with my Twitter PLN:

My classroom setting comes with significant privilege. Most teachers aren’t able to stop everything and take an hour-long problem solving walk with a handful of students. Nevertheless, the need for students to talk through problems with a trusted adult, ideally in a restorative framework, is universal.

Every classroom is unique, but there is a collective benefit to sharing our experiences, regardless of the specific context. I’m a licensed science and math teacher in a PBL school, but I’ve learned so much from colleagues who teach AP English, elementary art, online college courses, etc. I hope that the work I’m sharing here is likewise helpful for others.

As I write this piece, we are nearly two months into the 2019–20 school year and the second year of the Greater Madison Writing Project Teacher Inquiry & Writing Institute (TIWI). As ever, I’m excited to be working with my students and colleagues again this year. Our team at High Marq Environmental Charter School is really quite phenomenal, and I am so proud of the growth I’ve seen in each and every one of my students. Because I have students for many years at a time, I’m able to see the long game a bit easier than others — it’s not just a semester or year to do what I can, and to hell with whatever comes after. On the staff side, this is my eighth year working alongside my co-teacher, Amanda, and it is our third year with our Field Naturalist and School Assistant, Tiffany.

This level of continuity in staff and students is a net positive, but it can also lead to stagnation. With that in mind, I’m also glad that my TIWI ethos from the end of last year — question everything — rubbed off on my colleagues. We’ve all been in a mood to rid ourselves of practices that don’t serve a purpose. (See my musings in June about purpose v. tradition.) Individually, the practices we have altered or eliminated have been pretty minor. Collectively, I would argue that they represent the largest shift in our pedagogy in High Marq’s 10 years of existence. Our hope is that the shifts are building the foundations for the next 10.

Last year, I ended my TIWI blog series with a pledge and exhortation to include students in the assessment process (and other decision-making opportunities). Already this year, we’ve implemented a student’s suggestion for daily goal-setting and reflection sheets (adapted from one used by Mary Ott, Montello’s choir teacher). These sheets are helping us teach students to set realistic, yet challenging, goals and fostering discussions about which factors that contribute to success are within one’s control and which are not. They are also providing more opportunities for students to consider this year’s student-generated social pillars, Acceptance, Respect, and Trust (“Be an ARTist!”).

Recently, I met with a trio of interested students to gather their thoughts about the single-point rubric idea I’ve been kicking around since the spring. Their input confirmed that I was on the right track with developing this tool, and with their assistance I have narrowed our former monster of a rubric to five categories: Project Management, Research Process, Communication Skills, Final Product(s), and Project Goals. There is still work to be done on establishing criteria before we try the rubric out with students, but I feel great about the direction we’re taking (and so does my co-teacher).

Students circled around the edges of a classroom
Also my classroom, as viewed from my desk

One of my goals for crafting more meaningful project assessments at High Marq was to make student reflections “actionable,” i.e. to find ways for them to actually do the ideas for improvement that they wrote or talked about at the end of a project. Though I haven’t realized a perfect solution for that problem yet, in reviewing my own writing from the end of the 2018–19 school year, I’ve found myself doing exactly that. One aspect of humane assessment would surely be that we wouldn’t subject our students to something we weren’t willing to experience ourselves. Mission accomplished, so far.

GMWP: Greater Madison Writing Project

Teacher as Artist, Teacher as Researcher, Teacher as…