Tackling Work Study Practices in a Competency-based Educational System

Our teachers started some really difficult work recently. It was somewhat messy because there was not a lot we could point to in the way of research for what we were doing. Undertaking this type of work can be quite challenging, because intrinsically, I believe educators want to know that there is an endpoint-something we can focus on that can help to guide us where we are trying to go.

Our district, the Sanborn Regional School District in southern New Hampshire, has been implementing competency-based education for the past five years. During this time, our learning curve has been quite steep, but our teachers continuously rise to the challenge and delve deeper into their work because they recognize what the next piece of the puzzle is and they see the benefit of their ongoing work as it relates to student learning.

Last year, our teams became deeply involved in building Quality Performance Assessments, assessments designed to truly assess a student’s competency, or transfer of learning. Our teachers have worked incredibly hard at building high quality, engaging assessments. Their overall assessment literacy, and the learning that has occurred throughout these processes, has been significant. But, it has also raised additional questions.

The most recent questions have had to do with Work Study Practices, (also referred to as work study habits, or dispositions/behaviors). The State of New Hampshire defines the four work study practices in New Hampshire as Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, and Self-Direction. For the past six years, our district elementary schools have identified the Responsive Classroom CARES (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-regulation) as the behaviors we will assess in each student. These fit in well with the work study practices the State has identified. Within each performance assessment, teachers have been identifying a specific behavior as the one that will be assessed within the performance assessment itself. For example, a performance assessment may lend itself to having cooperation/collaboration of students assessed, so teachers are including this to be assessed, complete with its own indicators within a rubric as part of the scoring within the assessment (separate from the assessment of academic competencies).

Questions have arisen because teachers have recognized that it does not make sense to always assess students on the same work study practice all the time. Students, as we know, have different needs in different areas. We may have a student who we know is going to be able to demonstrate high degrees of cooperation within her/his group, but this same student may have difficulty asserting her/himself (while giving a presentation, for example).

As we discussed how to include this differentiated rubric within the performance assessment, a teacher commented that it would be great if we had a common rubric, K-5, that we could access at any time for any student. That way, we would not have to continue to build these rubrics each time we were going to assess. And when we thought about it further, we realized that this was very similar to the change-process we experienced five years ago with our academic assessments. There sometimes was not horizontal continuity with teams, and many times there was not vertical continuity. We had to honestly ask ourselves: “Is what we expect from students aligned K-5?”

My colleague, Ellen Hume-Howard (Director of Curriculum), and I attempted to determine how to go about this work related to work study practices. We thought that it would make the most sense to take each area one at a time and build a continuum for this particular behavior that could be translated to a rubric. But then the questions started coming: How many levels should it have, 6 (for each grade level)? Is what we expect at the beginning of the year different than at the end? Can we pull the grade levels out of the picture once it is complete so that it stands as more of a developmental continuum? How do we build this so that it is truly K-12? And finally, is there a developmental continuum we could reference so that we know that what we are expecting is appropriate?

I decided to just put it out to our teachers. I have an incredibly high degree of respect and trust for our staff, and I knew that although it may be difficult, they would persevere and their feedback would help point us in the right direction. We ended up breaking up into our vertical PLCs so that each grade level was represented at each team and we developed a chart that could be completed for one of the behaviors (self-regulation). The guiding question was, “What are your expectations related to a typical student’s self-regulation at your grade level?

Our teachers all reported that the process was difficult, and that they struggled to put into words what they knew intrinsically. I likened it to the time five years ago when we asked them to identify why the academic grades that they were recording were given, and that everything needed to be backed up by evidence, and that what we were attempting to do was provide students with the clear pathway to their success (If I’m here, and I need to get to here-what do I need to do?). The following Friday I asked our team leaders for specific feedback. The feedback they provided was spot-on, and has given us direction as we move forward.

We will attack each of these areas throughout this coming year (and beyond), and we will start at team leaders so that they have the background information to assist their groups as they move forward. Will it be perfect? I would expect that whatever we develop will continue to morph based upon our experience using it in the years to come. But, this is part of the learning process for all of us. Regardless of how many times it does change, I know that it will be more descriptive than what we currently have, that it has made us think and communicate with each other about something we had not been previously, and that it will provide students with a more objective measure of where they are and what they need to do to continue to improve within their habits of mind.

Competency Education in a K-20 World

It was a typical Wednesday evening in mid-October at our home. My wife and I were sitting on our couch.  She was correcting papers, and I was doing some work on my laptop for school the next day. My wife suddenly exclaimed out loud, but somewhat to herself, “Wow, she’s already completed my course.” It was approximately half-way through the college semester, and a student had demonstrated mastery in all requirements for her course, and had “completed” everything that was assigned.

My wife is a math teacher at the Thompson School at the University of New Hampshire. One of the courses she teaches is a hybrid section of College Algebra that combines an online component with in-person class sessions to assist students with specific topics. Five years ago when my K-12 district, the Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire, started implementing competency-based education, I attempted (unsuccessfully at the time) to explain to my wife why competency-based education was superior to the traditional model of education. She was not the least bit impressed, and provided many rebukes to my attempts at convincing her.

Part of this was clearly my inability to adequately articulate what I intrinsically knew to be a better system for learning. Part of it was the “newness” of CBE for my wife and it’s significant differences from traditional forms of education. We had many ensuing conversations about why (or why not) behaviors should be separated from academics, how a student’s grade/success should not (or could) be decided by their participation (or lack thereof), and why it made no sense that a students should have to make up a whole course if they had not demonstrated mastery in a single competency within that course.

So on this night, as I sat on the couch, my wife described how this young woman in her class had demonstrated mastery in 514 concepts and had devoted over 100 hours of her time mastering these concepts, as tracked through the online system they were using, ALEKS. I asked her if this meant that the student had to go to the remaining classes since she had completed all of the requirements. My wife simply stated, “No, she’s done…” I looked at her and said, “Now that is a perfect example of competency education. It isn’t about seat time, it’s about demonstrating mastery of the concepts that need to be mastered.” My wife looked at me and smiled, and said she agreed. Students are learning at their own pace and demonstrating their understanding of the specific content she expects them to learn.

Since that time, my wife asked this particular student if she would mind taking the final that she would be giving to the class at the end of the semester (it would not count for this student). She wanted to see for herself if the two “really correlated.” Yesterday she shared with me that the student had willingly obliged, and scored a “92” on her final. “It works.

All I really care about is that they understand the material to a high level”, she said, and added that yet another student had just completed the course on-line, as well.

I realized that competency-based education is truly K-16+. The more educators learn about it, the more it seems to make sense. My wife had the opportunity to explore this at a pace that allowed her to come to her own conclusions. She went to workshops, researched resources like Khan Academy, and slowly integrated this into her courses. What resulted last week was the compilation of this learning process-A student completing the course because she had met the academic requirements, not because she sat through 40 hours of instruction.

We have been fortunate in the district I work in that we have been allowed the time to implement competency-based education and learn from the process. It was never presented as a something that we were going to be “done with” in a year’s time and that everything had to be perfect. I attribute this to resolute leadership at the top. Our superintendent, Dr. Brian Blake, understood that this process would take time, and our Director of Curriculum, Ellen Hume-Howard, patiently provided the research-base and guidance as we ran into the inevitable bumps in the road.

In fact, we still struggle every day. There is no roadmap laid out for us. We have worked hard at trying to consider our options and choosing the course that supports getting us closer to our goal of assisting every student in reaching his/her potential at a pace that is right for them. We are fortunate to have teachers who will try new things if:

1.) They make sense (what we are doing isn’t just a new fad and they understand the reasoning behind it.)
2.) It will help them help students to learn at a higher level (how is this going to help me help kids?)
3.) The supports are in place to help them learn how to implement it at a high level (is training available, etc.)

As competency-based education spreads, both within K-12 schools and districts and at the college level, educators across the nation and the world need to be able to question what we are doing and how we are doing things. Are we instructing and grading the way we always have because that’s the way it’s always been done? Or are we willing to provide each other with the encouragement to innovate and to learn about different ways of helping ALL students learn at high levels.

The latter will truly help redesign what learning looks like for all students, at any level, in the 21st century.

Teachers as Expert Trainers

This past August I had the opportunity to participate in an incredibly effective model of professional development hosted by our school district. It consisted of workshops and presentations from national, state, and local experts focused on various topics related to assessment, including competency education, building Quality Performance Assessments, and the development of high-quality rubrics.

The varied roles, responsibilities, and experiences of the many presenters added to the uniqueness of our “Assessment Summit.” Participants and presenters included Rose Colby, Competency Education Specialist, Rob Lukasiak, mathematics and assessment specialist, district and building-level administrators, and teachers from grades K-12. This allowed for differentiated PD for the 100-plus participants, while supporting the professional development needs identified in our district related to competencies and Quality Performance Assessments.

Our district, the Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire, has continued to push forward in the world of competency education. Despite the bumps we have experienced, we fully realize that this is an educational practice that truly captures each student’s ongoing growth and progression within their learning. Teamed with instruction that is differentiated, personalized and based upon a solid understanding of the Core standards, students are engaged in learning that is focused, are provided with opportunities for support or extension as needed, and understand their role and responsibility in their learning.

In the spring of 2014, our curriculum director, Ellen Hume-Howard, posed an opportunity for a summit in which some of the “expert” speakers would consist of the teachers in our classrooms who are engaged in this work on a day-to-day basis. This was the next logical step of the “training team” model that was created four years ago which provided the teachers within our schools the opportunity to participate in training and workshops from various professionals within our own buildings who had familiarity/expertise in curriculum, differentiated instruction, technology, and various assessment practices. This model of PD was incredibly valuable and effective, and Ms. Hume-Howard felt that it could now be extended to the district level.

Focus areas for the summit were: Building Quality Performance Assessments, Developing rubrics (basic, interdisciplinary and student exhibition), Identifying Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) through a data cycle process, Utilizing Tech Tools for Assessments, Assessing Reading Comprehension, Online Resources for Assessment, and Assessing Work Study Practices. Didn’t it make sense to have our teachers be involved in sharing their knowledge with their colleagues in a larger forum? Given the varying needs of each staff member in every building, this type of workshop would allow teachers to step into training based upon where they were and what they needed, and receive practical feedback and guidance from someone who was deeply involved in this work in their daily practice.

One of the keynotes during the summit involved walking through a Performance Assessment Review Protocol. Four teachers within our district, Gail Gwynne, Jennifer Manning, Lisa Collibee, and Amanda Welvers, planned and led over 100 teachers (below) through a protocol to validate teacher-created performance assessments. Their work was indicative of the summit as a whole; teachers sharing an area of expertise to help others continue to develop their understanding, all in our combined effort to improve student learning. One of our staff members remarked to me that she brought a performance assessment to validate that had already been through the process once, but that this time she received “different feedback that definitely made it even better” because this new group of colleagues looked at it through a different lens and provided feedback from their unique perspective.

QPA Presentation-Teachers

Another teacher within our school shared her ongoing work with assessing work study practices. In a previous article (https://jonvanderels.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/the-advantage-of-separating-behaviors-and-academics-through-a-competency-based-grading-system/), I shared how fifth grade teacher Terry Bolduc continuously assessed students based upon their work study practices. This provided an accurate and timely assessment of these practices or “behaviors” on an ongoing basis rather than one assessment at the end of a trimester. And they are separate from academic grades, resulting in a “pure” grade in both the core academic areas and the student’s work study habits. Terry and her colleague, Donna Moseley, shared their work related to assessing work study practices during their sessions. This allowed teachers at various levels of understanding to see how the assessment of work study habits literally looked like (Terry provided screen shots of her grade book to demonstrate-picture below) within a colleague’s classroom, and consider how it could work in their own classroom. They left with a point at which they could start incorporating this practice within their own classrooms.

Terry Bolduc-WSP

Another unique aspect of our summit was the opportunity for teams to access the available staff members for coaching during their Team Design Time. The team time was a part of every day of the summit, and allowed teams to either work together to build performance assessments, for example, or to work with one of the presenters/trainers in an area of their choosing. Many of the teams accessed various resources and came away from the team time with a completed Quality Performance Assessment that they could utilize. In many cases, this was the culminating work indicative of the week’s summit offerings.

In our district, we’ve always believed that teachers are the driving force behind improvement. We have strategically selected three important ideas (Collaboration, Competency, and Culture and Climate) to focus on as a district and we believe these ideas guide and anchor our work. The topics and learning opportunities during our summit were framed with these ideas in mind. We’ve encouraged teachers to try new ways of doing things knowing that what they glean from their experiences will be applied and adapted to better their instructional and assessment practices. When given the opportunity, they will share this learning and help others improve their practice. This model of learning and growth has impacted our staff and will have an even greater impact on the learning of our students, any educator’s ultimate goal.

Caught Up in the Day-to-Day…

PA, 1-4

Wow! I can’t believe how much they’ve grown in just a few months! As parents, we’ve often heard this phrase when someone sees our children after a span of time. We all tend to not notice the incremental changes our own children experience as they grow. Working in a school for multiple years can be somewhat similar. Because we are imbedded in the ongoing work of educating, the small, incremental growth that occurs on a day-by-day basis within a school can escape the eye.

I was explaining at a recent conference presentation that this became very apparent to me during a vertical team meeting that took place at our school near the end of the school year. I had asked our team leaders to lead a discussion related to our spring writing assessment analysis in vertical teams. Our school uses a visual we call “The Wall” (www.competencyworks.org/2014/03/another-brick-in-the-wall/) to analyze writing across grade levels through the lens of a continuum. We have done this now for three years.

Our team leaders’ charge was to guide the discussion of the group using four questions as their structure:

1.) What are your observations related to writing across all grade levels?
2.) What were areas of strength from your grade level writing.
3.) What is your grade level’s plan to assist students in realizing growth in their writing based upon the results of this assessment.
4.) What do you notice in relation to writing at this same point in time last year (specific to % of students in each level)?

The conversations were natural and free-flowing, but during the course of one team’s discussion, the upper elementary teachers were voicing their frustration about their students’ lack of ability to write a strong, well-developed conclusion. Each team member in these grades remarked that a number of their students’ writing could have been a level higher if they had “just written a strong conclusion.”

I eventually interjected and pointed out to the team that three years ago, this same group of upper elementary teachers was expressing their concerns with students’ inability to start sentences with capitals, use end marks, and write a strong paragraph with a topic sentence and details (to name a few areas). I asked if these items were still areas of concern, and teachers responded that they were not. It took a second for what I was asking to sink in, and then one of the teachers remarked that over time, our area of focus had become much more refined. We had started out trying to correct a significant amount, much of which had to do more with conventions than with the actual ideas and voice within the writing. With a consistent approach and sufficient time dedicated to writing, our focus had now become significantly more succinct and explicit.

Another teacher remarked that the information we were now discussing was going to make her writing conferences much more streamlined. She was now going to be able to work specifically on writing a strong conclusion with these students so that they could improve in their writing, whereas previously the conversation also included more feedback about mechanics. The conversations now had more depth.

It is vitally important to keep the ongoing growth of a school’s work in perspective. I often videotape the conversations our teachers are having during their PLC discussions. My intent is to someday show our staff how our discussions have changed over time. In the short-term, I have to consistently remind myself of the conversations that have occurred in the past, and make a point to share these as with staff when appropriate to ensure we keep perspective. We must remember and appreciate the ongoing changes that occur within our school over time, as we do the little changes our own children undergo as part of the growth they are experiencing each and every day.

Looking at our Work through an Assessment Lens

QPA, 5-14-1

Our staff recently had the opportunity to wrap up a year’s worth of professional development related to building Quality Performance Assessments. During the2013 summer and over this past school year, I attended five days of training with four of our classroom teachers from our elementary school along with colleagues from other schools in our district. The training we received during these days became the focal point for our PD throughout the past school year, and has really helped us to tie together the significant amount of work we have been engaged in over the past five years.

Our district, Sanborn Regional School District in Southern New Hampshire, has admittedly taken the plunge with a number of best practices designed to increase our understanding of curriculum and our ability to most effectively instruct students. This work included teachers developing “crosswalks” between the NH GLEs and the Common Core about three years ago. This was done through professional release days and was led by our Director of Curriculum, Ellen Hume-Howard. We made the switch to assessing students’ performance only through the Common Core over the past two years. Teachers’ transition to these standards was seamless because of the support provided during the transition and the teachers’ understanding that the work we were engaged in together was helping them help our students. In fact, teachers requested that all other standards be dropped from their grade book because they understood the Core standards and the others weren’t needed for guidance any longer.

We have also been grading students through a competency-based grading system for the past four years. The pathway to effectively implementing a standards/competency-based grading system has not yet been traveled by many, so the work we have been doing has been replete with learning experiences. Despite any bumps we may have encountered, it has also allowed us to better understand students’ needs, has been a perfect complement for our tiered intervention and enrichment model, and has allowed us to hone in on precisely what it is we would like students to learn-the big ideas that will carry on with students as they move forward in their learning.

Additionally, our school has worked diligently over the past six years to work collaboratively in Professional Learning Communities. This work has been, and continues to be, the foundation for all of the work we do. Our teachers are very comfortable working interdependently to affect positive change for students, regardless of the amount of additional effort this entails.

Heading into last summer, I was struggling a bit on how to most effectively support our school’s focus on our next logical goal area. The work we had been engaged in over the past few years was targeted on curriculum and instruction, and I felt we were in a great place with both. Our team leaders had discussed the need to shift our focus now to assessments, but we weren’t quite sure of the “how”. Fortunately for us, the State of New Hampshire’s DOE, in collaboration with the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) and the Center for Assessment, was spearheading a second cohort of training related to building Quality Performance Assessments. We were fortunate to have a team of teachers interested in attending the summer conference, and their work and gained knowledge became the foundation for our collaborative work throughout the year. I felt it was important for me to attend with our school’s teachers. I wanted to be able to understand the “how” as much as the “why”.

Our team of teachers’ training in building these assessments became the groundwork for much of our staff’s PD over the course of the school year. Together, we built a plan for how the work the cohort was doing would be integrated into the professional development in our school. Our goal was to have the participants go through the various protocols related to building quality assessments, then help guide the rest of our staff during early releases and professional days.

However, as our November Professional Development day approached, it became apparent that we needed to do some additional work around a couple of key areas prior to getting into building the performance assessments. The focus on that afternoon revolved around building Essential Questions and Outcomes, Depth of Knowledge (DOK) questioning, and re-familiarizing ourselves with the structure of the UbD model of unit planning. I am glad we took the time to do this, because it has allowed the PA work to take off.

The culmination of our year’s work came during our last early release day in May. We asked teachers to bring the unit planning template, a performance assessment, the rubric the team developed to assess, and student work samples. We then worked in PLCs to validate each team’s performance assessment using a validation protocol, with consultation from a program assistant from the Center for Collaborative Education. A number of the assessments built by our teachers during these training sessions were recognized as exemplars, and will be posted on a “task bank” to be reviewed by outside evaluators. This process should help to make these assessments even more effective in assessing student learning.

Our teachers have now implemented and incorporated these processes into their planning, they have a solid working knowledge of the Common Core standards, they have worked diligently to enhance differentiation within their instruction, but most importantly, they collaborate together in their continued efforts to hone in on students’ areas of strength and areas for growth. Their ability to look at planning, lessons, curriculum, and instruction through an assessment lens will continue to shape our work as we move forward.

The Advantage of Separating Behaviors and Academics Through a Competency-Based Grading System

ImageAs I watched one of our teacher’s training sessions this past Wednesday, I considered how far we had come in grading practices in a fairly short period of time. Our school made the transition to competency-based grading four years ago, and despite some of “bumps in the road”, we really have never looked back.

Terry Bolduc, a fifth grade teacher at our school, is also one of our training team members for our staff. Terry was sharing with other classroom teachers at our Wednesday afternoon training session how her grading practices have continued to evolve. This particular session was related to how Terry continuously assesses students on their behaviors or dispositions, both through daily assignments, and weekly formative assessments. Terry was explaining that by doing this, there are a number of points of data that can support where a student is in each particular area.

These dispositions, or 21st Century Learning Skills, we assess our students on are based off of the Responsive Classroom’s CARES (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-regulation). Each of these has indicators that teachers use to assess student growth. What has typically happened over the past few years is that teachers have had minimal data in their gradebook related to CARES behaviors. Academic areas had multiple assignments attached to standards, but the data related to our CARES was somewhat limited. Most teachers were continuing to input a CARES assessment grade just prior to the distribution of progress reports and trimester report cards. We have worked very hard to get away from “subjective” grading in academic areas, so why should work habits be any different?

Ms. Bolduc is even breaking apart the “Responsibility” portion of the CARES with different assignments within this particular indicator. Responsibility includes such things as completing homework, completing assigned tasks (classwork, etc.), and working to one’s ability. Within the area of Responsibility, a student may have specific areas to work on, depending upon where they are. Ms. Bolduc’s grades now reflect multiple data points even within different areas of the CARES.

By inputting multiple data points, it really discredits the common myth that work habits/dispositions such as participation, completion of work, effort, and collaboration “don’t count” in a competency-based grading system. CARES behaviors are an integral part of EVERY assignment and by separating this information from their academic proficiency related to the standards we are assessing them on, students, teachers, and parents have even more information available to them about a student’s growth, mastery of content, and work habits.

Our work related to the assessment and reporting of behaviors is not done. We foresee moving toward an individualized assessment of student behaviors that can be included on assignment rubrics. There will be a level of student-choice/input within this rubric. For example, one student may choose to work on his/her self-regulation on an assignment while another may want to be assessed on his/her Cooperation during the group work portion of the same assignment. These may be areas in which the individual students may need to grow, and in consultation with their teacher, they would be have the opportunity to continuously work on, and have in their sights, the expected behaviors within their area.

We also foresee our CARES grades being on a trend-line. We are currently averaging our CARES grades. A trend-line allows the most recent data to be weighed more heavily. Each student’s most recent performance would be what carried the most weight when we run a progress report. With what we know about grading now, we realize that averaging is not the most accurate or timely indicator for where a student is at a point in time. We determine our academic grades with the most recent mode (the trendline), and we feel that moving to this with dispositions is the next logical step.

I remember clearly attending a PLC at Work conference with the DuFours and Dr. Rick DuFour stating that it would be, at a minimum, unprofessional and more likely, that it would be educational malpractice to continue to do what we know is not best practice. Knowing what I know now about grading, and what I have experienced over the past four years related to our school’s competency-based grading system, I agree with this statement. If we were to return to giving grades that are a combination of academics, behaviors, and anything else a teacher decides to include, we, as educators would be remiss in our responsibilities.

Another Brick in “The Wall”


Writing Wall PLC

This article was co-authored by Jonathan Vander Els and his colleague Ellen Hume-Howard, the Director of Curriculum, at the Sanborn Regional School District.

Looking closely together at student work can unveil a treasure trove of insights to guide a school as they reflect on their purpose, assess their progress, and plan strategies for reaching all students more successfully. Their experiences are enhanced when teachers develop an awareness of where a student falls along a continuum of learning. Writing for instance is a content area that lends itself well to studying student work within a continuum, and has been the focal point in guiding our teachers at Memorial School as we align our work not only within each grade level, but vertically within all grade levels in our school.  However, getting to this point was a three-year journey that continues to evolve as we learn more about not only our students’ skills and needs, but also our own needs as a staff related to instruction and aligning our assessment of student work.

A visitor checking out classrooms at the Memorial Elementary School might be surprised at how traditional everything looks. But it’s the little things that might catch your eye:  the charts and graphs on the walls depicting student learning targets, the student work displayed with the standards identifying the learning outcomes, and the conversations students have identifying precisely what they are working on.  But one artifact stands out. It’s what we like to refer to as “The Wall.”  The Wall is actually a writing wall that represents the writing analysis that the entire faculty engaged in and has been reviewing over the course of the school year.  The writing wall is an example of blending working with the standards and reviewing students’ work.

The Wall was a way that we have found success not only analyzing writing, but also developing a greater understanding as a staff, K-5, about our vertical alignment.  This was the next “step” in our journey as a Professional Learning Community.  We felt like our individual team structures were quite solid; there was a level of interdependence among the members of our grade level teams.  We wanted to expand this vertically, so that a student’s experience from grade to grade was not only consistent, but the content built upon each student’s previous learning and experiences to the highest degree possible.

Three years ago we chose writing as our common area of focus for a few reasons.  First, it was an overall area of need for the students in our school.  Our students had made great gains in reading and mathematics, but were still struggling to write critically.  We knew that our focus had been so intense in reading and mathematics that we had not been able to focus on writing to the extent we would have liked.  We also felt like student’s ability to write more effectively would translate across all subject areas.

Once we had formally identified writing as a “school goal” we went about establishing a baseline.  We decided to do this through a school-wide writing prompt.  The first year, we realized very quickly that we were comparing “apples to oranges”, so to speak.  Each team had built a rubric to assess their grade level’s writing.  What we found was that the rubrics were very different, so it was difficult to compare writing from grade level to grade level.  One of the other outcomes was that the expectations across grade levels were inconsistent.  In some cases, expectations at lower grade levels were more rigorous than at higher grade levels.

We found our solution to these issues by utilizing a multi-grade continuum developed by Lucy Calkins.  Through this lens, our whole staff would be analyzing writing by the same criteria.  This would result in more consistency not only within grade levels but from grade to grade.

But we were searching for a way to put all of the pieces together to analyze our writing as a staff.  Our team leaders, consisting of the assistant principal, representatives from each teaching team, and myself, along with the continued guidance and consultation of our Director of Curriculum, Ms. Ellen Hume-Howard, decided that the best way would be to display the writing on our wall.  This writing wall would allow us to visually analyze the writing we had done from kindergarten through fifth grade.  Of course, we had to consider how we would represent 350 pieces of writing.  We decided to make a large table, with the vertical axis representing each particular grade level, and the horizontal axis representing the level on the continuum.  To account for how many students were at each particular level within the continuum, we used small stars to represent each student at each level.  In this way, we could immediately see where each grade level fell overall, but also dissect where specific clusters of students were and how far away they were from where a “typical” student would be at the end of the year at each grade level.

Writing Continuum, 2012-2013-Tri. 1

Because it was a developmental continuum, we had to remind ourselves that it was not based upon “grade level expectations”, but rather each individual child’s growth.  We had guidance regarding where a “typical” student would be at each grade level, but the individual growth was also of great importance.  An additional step in our teams’ process was to complete a “data cycle” (this is a forthcoming blog article in itself).  The data cycle process requires a team of teachers to analyze the data-specifically, where each student is on the continuum-and develop a plan for instruction that will help students to develop the skills necessary for them to progress.  We are then able to look at the grade level data as well as the individual classroom data.  This is crucial, as it allows for discussions related to instruction and remediation to occur, as teams identify the practices that are assisting students in being successful in their writing.

After the data analysis is complete, we take the time to debrief as an entire staff.  We have established vertical teams in our school, and we take advantage of these teams to offer different perspectives on the work we are doing.  For example, our vertical teams (consisting of one teacher per grade level, special educators, and reading specialists), follow a protocol which asks them to debrief using the following questions/directions to guide the conversation:

1.)           What are your observations related to writing across all grade levels?

2.)           Please share areas of strength from your grade level writing.

3.)           Please share your grade level’s plan to assist students in realizing growth in their writing based upon the results of this assessment.

4.)           What do you notice in relation to writing at this point last year? (this allows for the very important task of comparing data from year to year)

I remember clearly during our first vertical analysis, that teachers identified that there were differences in writing at the same level on the continuum.  We had a great discussion as a staff around the notion that a “five is a five is a five”.  That is, it shouldn’t matter what grade level a student’s writing was from.  If it was placed as a “5” on the continuum, it should be very similar to the other “5s” that were up there.  We found that it really was irrelevant what the writing “physically” looked like (because depending upon the grade level and the student, the appearances in writing are going to be visually quite different, as would be expected.)  What was within the writing was what was important.  This really helped to establish “inter-rater reliability” within our staff members, to the point that when we look at a “5” now, we can agree upon why a particular piece of writing was given a particular score, regardless of the grade level the piece comes from.

Writing Wall-Levels

The work we have been undertaking has truly helped to develop us professionally.  It is imbedded within the work our teachers are involved in as part of their daily practice, and it allows our school to have the conversations necessary to make lasting systemic changes.  “The Wall” is but a microcosm of the larger work we are doing as a school and as a district, but is has allowed us the foundation to build upon as we engage in similar work in other curricular areas, or said in another way, as we add additional bricks.