So Long, and Thanks for All the TIWI

Wrapping Up the 2018–20 Teacher Inquiry & Writing Institute

A screenshot from Google Meet, featuring a head and shoulders shot of the author with some art in the background
The view from High Marq South—aka my Dining Room Table—where most of my teaching happens now

Well. That did not go the way I expected it to. I actually thought that by May I would have not only a solid definition of humane assessment to share with the world, but also a series of beautiful anecdotes of how humane assessment was playing out in my classroom. The hugs and the high fives! The authentic assessments through on-stage presentations! The sample reflections where you can clearly see just how much more human this year made them all feel!

Yeah, no. My expectations were not met. So, what can I draw from a truncated year of humane assessment in the classroom, followed by flailing attempts to maintain our humanity through the screen? I have trouble even thinking about assessment right now, given the circumstances. I’m definitely communicating with my students a lot, and I’m giving them plenty of feedback, both academic and personal. Is that humane assessment? It’s definitely meeting my students where they are at, and listening for what they need. Maybe that’s enough.

Back at the start of this year, I defined humane assessment as “assessment that is meaningful, relevant, and purposeful for students.” In that post, I also referenced the spirit of “Yes, and…” that I was hoping to cultivate in students. I believe we have all been better equipped to persevere through the disruptions wrought by the pandemic because of those early efforts to make “Yes, and…” a thing. (“Remote learning sucks.” “Yes, and… we’re going to make the best of it.”)

Over the course of the first semester, I continued to refine my work and question everything, which included asking for student input on a single-point rubric I’d been kicking around for two years. (That single-point rubric has proven to be my white whale of the Teacher Inquiry & Writing Institute, always shining like a beacon, just over the horizon, possibly leading me toward my doom. It, of course, remains in draft form.)

Continuing with the theme of listening to students, I reflected on the importance of hearing their stories, and helping them write new ones. With all this extra time on my hands — no commute, no staying late at school — I’m finding myself writing down a lot more of my own stories. My coteacher has students participating in a version of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s COVID-19 Journal Project, so I think that they are, too. I hope their stories are helping them cope.

I shared some frank thoughts about standardized testing, which is decidedly not humane (and seems even less so now that most of the spring assessments were canceled). Many colleges have gone #TestOptionalNOW for 2020–21, which is certainly a humane response to the pandemic. An even more humane assessment practice would be to cancel them forever, in my opinion. Many schools seem to agree with me.

Returning to the students for their feedback and ideas, I tried my best to humanize the end of the first semester. Though it was published in mid-April, that last piece was drafted just before the pandemic moved our school online, and described events from earlier still. Looking back at it now through the COVID-19 fog, I stand by my conclusion that humane assessment “starts with trusting student voices and acting on their ideas.”

So, what now? After six weeks and counting of remote teaching — and eight since I’ve seen my students in person — I find myself missing their voices more than ever. The time I’ve spent recording video lessons, speaking into the void, hoping for the best, just hasn’t fit with the responsive practices I believe in. I still struggle to find the balance between warmth and demanding that students need, even when I know them so well. How do I treat my students humanely, without tossing all of my expectations out the window? At times, I find myself commiserating with the handful of school districts in other states that decided to stop teaching altogether instead of trying to provide something equitable remotely.

All of this is true, but what’s also true is that the one-on-one time I spend conferring with my students each day feels much more humane to me. Seeing them on video or even simply “seeing” their avatars brings me so much joy, and I am glad to hear what they have been up to over the last week, even when that turns out to be nothing much in terms of school requirements. Looking back at the past year, I keep coming back to the concept of seeing students for who they are and listening to what they need.

And so, I think that’s how I will ultimately define humane assessment. It’s assessment that takes into account and invites participation from the whole child, in all their messy, glorious humanity.

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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. 🧡🌱 skylarprimm.com highmarq.org

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