Carrie Symons, PhD

Education, Literacy, and Language in Multilingual Contexts

The Arts & Humanities: Essential Parts of Project-Based Learning

Summers-Knoll is Ann Arbor’s premier project-based and place-based learning school. When people ask me what “project-based” means, I begin by defining the word “project.” A project is an undertaking, often defined by a specific end-goal or purpose, that involves a collaborative journey from point A to point B. The result of a project is usually some kind of creation or product. The journey taken during each project depends upon the paths forged in the process of building knowledge, asking questions, problem solving, overcoming obstacles, leveraging various resources, and arriving at the destination.

SK teachers draw upon content area standards as well as their assessment of individual students to design four main projects each year that engage students in learning through inquiry and learning through doing. Lending themselves naturally to the integration of content areas, the arts and humanities are woven throughout projects as either the main foci or as a mediums through which students express and communicate their learning.

In addition to the myriad ways homeroom teachers integrate the arts into project-based learning (e.g., visual art, music, film, poetry, performance), SK students’ schedules also include formal instruction in visual arts, music, French, and Latin. SK’s art, music and language teachers also approach teaching and learning through a multimodal lens so, for example, in French and/or Latin class, students learn about ancient myths, traditional folk dances, and classical theatre. In art, students learn about synesthesia and the relationship between the five senses in the artistic process. In music, students compose using pencil and paper scores and instruments as well as digital software.

Not only do the arts and humanities stimulate the growth of neural networks and expand a learner’s repertoire of communicative tools, they deepen students’ awareness and appreciation of cultural and linguistic diversity; they provide entry points for understanding global history and cultures; they broaden students’ opportunities for intercultural communication and recognition of varied ways of knowing, being, and expressing; and they increase students’ attention to aesthetics and beauty in the formed as well as natural world.

“So we need to cultivate students’ ‘inner eyes,’ and this means carefully crafted instruction in the arts and humanities – appropriate to the child’s age and developmental level – that will bring students in contact with issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and cross-cultural experience and understanding. This artistic instruction can and should be linked to the citizen-of-the-world instruction, since works of art are frequently an invaluable way of beginning to understand the achievements and sufferings of a culture different from one’s own (Nussbaum, 201, p.108).

Additionally, when learners cultivate a habit of regular practice with a language, an instrument, or an art form, they learn how to persevere, experiment, fail, take risks, and get better at something over time. Ideally, they learn to enjoy the creative process, regardless of the product or how an audience receives their work.

Granted, I’m biased. I grew up in a family with a father who was a professional actor, a professor of theatre, and a director. I started performing at the age of 5. I cannot imagine my life without the influence of the arts. But my support of, and advocacy for, the arts in schools does not just come from my own personal experience. Decades of research, sound pedagogical theories, and evidence from my own integration of the arts in my teaching have affirmed the importance of the arts and humanities in a child’s education.

Witnessing SK students in their creative processes, and witnessing the pride they feel when sharing a piece of artwork or performing for an audience of their peers and parents, the educational benefits of the arts and humanities is affirmed yet again. If project- and place-based learning provides the framework for instruction at SK, the arts and humanities provide the colors, textures, flavors, sounds, music, light, and language with which students formulate, create, and express meaning.

Gathering in the Midst of Winter

Temperatures have dropped, the first snows have come, and students are bringing their snow pants, hats, boots, and gloves with them to school so that they can go out and play during recess despite the chill in the air – Michigan’s winter season is upon us. But even with the best outdoor gear, we can only stay outside for so long before our need for warmth draws us back indoors.

In October of this school year, Summers-Knoll hosted their annual spaghetti dinner, and we had a great turn out. In November, we held our first quarter parent/teacher/student conferences with 100% participation. (Thank you, SK parents!) Today (Friday, December 1st), we will host a movie night where SK students and parents will come together to watch Pixar’s Ratatouille. Then on Tuesday, December 19th, every student in the school will perform in our Winter Concert.

Regular opportunities for meeting and socializing enable us, as a community, to get to know and appreciate one another as people, beyond the roles that define us or our work. It has become easy, once again, to take such opportunities for granted, but not long ago, gathering together posed serious risks.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ensued in March of 2020 and everyone around the world was forced into isolation for months, being with other people in public places posed a serious health risk. As vaccinations were developed and rolled out starting in the spring of 2021, the risk lessened. During the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, Summers-Knoll classes were “podded” to reduce the chances of the virus spreading if, in fact, someone contracted COVID. Social events that had traditionally brought the school community together, such as our Friday morning meetings (aka Dragon Time), were held remotely; people came together via digital devices from their respective isolated spaces. Starting in fall of 2022, Summers-Knoll classes were no longer podded. Cross-grade buddies, multi-grade lunch/recess, and in-person, whole school events began again.

Conflict resolution and dialogue facilitator, Priya Parker, sheds light on how to make gatherings more meaningful. In her work, she talks about the importance of purpose when we gather together and how to leverage a clearly defined purpose to inform what we do when we spend time together.

In her talk, How We Meet and Why It Matters, Parker states, “Having a purpose for your gathering need not make your gathering formal. When you are wanting to have a more meaningful gathering, there are ways to increase the level of meaning and that’s to increase the level of focus.” Her work amplifies the value of gathering and how we, as hosts, can create a shared experience that engenders a sense of belonging, connectedness, and renewal. She suggests to give our gatherings a purpose, a name, and a rule. Parker poses the question: What is a need we have right now around which we can gather to create something new together? Given our relatively recent emergence back into in-person gatherings, perhaps it is fair to say that some of our needs, and our children’s needs, are to (re)connect, strengthen our sense of community, and just enjoy one another’s company.

It’s a chilly, cloudy, wintery, rainy day in Ann Arbor, Michigan today. I’m really looking forward to the warmth of our SK movie night this evening where we can delight in the joy of children being together, watching a movie together, snacking on popcorn together. It’s simple and uncomplicated, and yet we know, all too well, being able to be together is truly precious.

Leading, Coaching, Directing: Taking a Peek Behind the Scenes

Last school year (2022-2023) was my first year as Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at Summers-Knoll School in Ann Arbor. My position was new to the school and so was I. Due to the newness of my role, there was a suggestion to have one of our weekly newsletters feature my role and the work I am doing. Jinny, the Communications Director at the time, and I discussed what we might include in such a newsletter.

“If people are wanting to know what you’re doing, a blog would probably be a better venue,” Jinny suggested. I agreed.

Unlike the titles of “teacher” or “coach,” the title “Executive Director of Teaching & Learning” does not explicitly communicate what I do, so it’s worth unpacking.

As I wrote in my post “New Beginnings” earlier this year, I support teachers in the work of teaching and learning. Supporting teachers encompasses a wide range of responsibilities, including (but not limited to) previewing and selecting curricular resources and materials across subject areas; working alongside teachers to figure out how to optimize the use of new curricular materials; co-constructing curriculum; collaborating with homeroom teachers and specialists to vertically align coursework between grade levels and document this alignment; coordinating as well as facilitating ongoing professional development for the faculty as a whole; and working with each teacher individually to determine their particular needs (e.g., being a thought partner for instructional planning; providing observation and feedback on a particular instructional practice; incorporating content standards into project planning; analyzing assessment data and designing instruction based on that analysis; brainstorming ideas for how to identify and address individual student needs).

And what does this look like in action on a weekly basis? It changes from one week to the next depending on where we are at in the quarter. For example, last week, teachers held their first quarter parent/teacher/student conferences. In preparation for conferences, teachers completed a written assessment for each student.

This year’s assessments are significantly different (and improved) from last year’s assessments, a revision that I undertook starting in the summer, which continued into fall. Designing assessments is a dialogic and iterative process of research, drafting, revising, editing, and finalizing, which yields a final product. Each teacher and I create the assessment templates for their grade levels through our shared study of national as well as state content standards and teachers’ curricula. Prior to sending completed assessments to students’ parents, I read and review each individual assessment. Just as with any piece of writing, the process is not evident in the polished final product, and such is the nature of my role as an executive director – many aspects of my work are behind the scenes or on the sidelines.

My spouse and I recently watched The Last Dance, a documentary about Michael Jordan’s career as a basketball player with the Chicago Bulls. Through watching the documentary, I learned a lot about Michael Jordan, but I also learned a lot about other esteemed basketball players and the Chicago Bulls team’s dynamics. At the helm of the Bulls during Michael Jordan’s career was Phil Jackson, “the winningest coach in the Bull’s franchise history.” As we watched the documentary, I became increasingly interested in how Jackson’s work as a basketball coach is similar to, and different from, the work of instructional coaches.

Much like directors or choreographers in the performing arts, a coach of a team sport lives on the sidelines. A director’s work is somewhat invisible to a general audience because the attention during a performance is on the performers. Similarly, a coach’s work is hard to detect because, during a game, the spectators’ attention is on the athletes. But without a director or a coach, the group of people who comprise the ensemble or team would function very differently. This is not to say that they wouldn’t function, but how an ensemble or team functions is a direct reflection of the director/coach.

I’ve thought a lot about leadership and have participated as a fellow in several fellowships focused on leadership: Michigan State University’s Lilly Fellowship (2020-21), The Witness Institute Fellowship (2022-23), and Washtenaw County’s Champions for Change Fellowship (2022-23). Through these fellowships, I’ve thought about leadership through different lenses: galvanizing change within educational systems; moral leadership; and fostering racial justice and equity through our work as leaders within our communities. As leaders, one of the greatest influences within a collective, an ensemble, or a team is who we are – what we bring from our experiences and backgrounds – and how we foster and sustain collaboration. As such, one of the constants in conscious leadership is self-reflection and discernment.

Leaders are constantly making decisions about which various pieces of knowledge, research, and/or resources to leverage in any given circumstance to take informed action and provide guidance and support toward shared goals and a shared vision.

The work of Margaret Wheatley, a scholar of leadership, is one place I turn for insight and inspiration relative to leadership. In her book, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, she writes:

“Seeing the interplay between system dynamics and individuals is a dance of discovery that requires several iterations between the whole and its parts. We expand our vision to see the whole, then narrow our gaze to peer intently into individual moments. With each iteration, we see more of the whole, and gain new understandings about individual elements. […] We keep dancing between the two levels, bringing the sensitivities and information gleaned from one level to help us understand the other. If we hold awareness of the whole as we study the part, and understand the part in its relationship to the whole, profound new insights become available” (Wheatley, 2006, p. 143).

Leadership, directing, coaching – it is a dance, a seemingly invisible one, taking place on the sidelines or in the audience or sitting among a group of teachers at the end of school day after the students have gone home. When questioning the nature of a leader’s role or work, perhaps it is best framed not as, “What are they doing?” but rather “How is what I am witnessing influenced by the leaders in this organization?”

Featured image (above): ArtMary and Carrie in the art room at SK. Photo cred: Shelby Parker

Learning and Working in Communities of Practice

“At Summers-Knoll, kids don’t just learn – they learn how to learn.”

~ Mary Perrin, Art Teacher

Imagine walking into a new work place where you are expected to be self-motivated, collaborate with various teams of people, develop new skills and knowledge and apply them to new tasks, and navigate interpersonal relationships in positive and productive ways. As working adults in the 21st century, we do this. But how did we learn how to do this?

Even people in seemingly isolated professions, such as novelists, must be both self-motivated and able to collaborate because no one truly works (or writes) alone. No matter what our jobs are, there are both individual responsibilities as well as collective expectations as we work with and among others to accomplish a shared goal.

One could argue that if students in school can learn how to be self-motivated, collaborate with various teams of people, develop new skills and knowledge and apply them to new tasks, and navigate interpersonal relationships in positive and productive ways, they will be well prepared for any college and/or career path that follows their P – 12 educational experience.

So the question is: How do teachers in schools create conditions where students can discover who they are, as unique individuals, as well as learn how to be a contributing member of a community?

At Summers-Knoll School, these 21st century intra/interpersonal skills are taught, embodied, and reflected in individual classroom communities and our school community as a whole. I think of these various communities as “communities of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998).

Social learning theorists and researchers, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, first coined the term “communities of practice” as a way to describe how novices in practice-based professions (e.g., midwives, tailors, naval quartermasters) learn the various practices that are central to a profession (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In communities of practice, learning is characterized as processes of doing, experience, belonging, and becoming (Wenger, 1998, p. 5).

“A community of practice is a set of relations among persons, activity, and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 98).” In schools, students learn how to be a member of a community of learners, which is also, ideally, a membership we all posses, even as adults in workplaces (especially as educators) because we are always learning and evolving together.

Early this week, the faculty and staff met with SK’s board members, and during this conversation, the board asked the faculty and staff to share what makes SK special.

Teachers spoke of the centrality of rigorous project-based learning (PBL) that is authentically connected to the real world and the ways in which a project-based approach encourages lateral thinking.

Teachers provided specific examples of how PBL makes learning meaningful and memorable.

Teachers pointed out that alumnae return to SK for school-wide events and are often the last to leave.

Others told stories about specific students that illustrated how instruction is individualized; students are given ample opportunities to express their learning in ways that reflect their individuality; and with this individualized attention, teachers help students realize their own potential.

Complementary to the focus on each child as an individual human being and learner, one of the things that makes SK particularly special is its community and the ways in which students learn how to be a part of a community, specifically a community of practice, in which we are all learning and working together toward a shared vision of what education can be when we keep students at the heart of our work, apply research-based instructional practices, honor one another’s humanity, and cultivate real world connections and applications through project-based learning.

The Power of Relationships

“Every child has hidden potential. It’s easy to spot the ones who are already sparkling, but many students are uncut gems. When teachers stay with their students longer, they can see beyond the surface and recognize the brilliance beneath.” ~ Adam Grant, “What Most American Schools Do Wrong”, The New York Times, Oct 22, 2023

In his new book, Hidden Potential, Adam Grant provides a framework for how to help ourselves – and others – tap their personal “hidden” potential. I’ve been reading and listening to Adam Grant (in particular his Work/Life Podcast) for several years now. But long before I had heard of Adam Grant, I was a classroom teacher at Harrington Elementary, a public school in Denver, Colorado.

Harrington Elementary was a large school with 4 classes at every grade level with at least 24 students in each class. In the early 2000s, the principal and vice principal team at Harrington, Sally and Cindy, were a dynamic duo who dared to lead with kids’ learning at the heart of all their decision-making. We were one of several “year-round” public schools in Denver – rather than a 3-month summer, we had a 6-week summer and a one or two week break every eight to nine weeks. The purpose for the year-round schedule was to prevent the “summer slump,” a decline in kids’ academic skills and progress as a result of not having any instruction for an extended period of time.

“Looping” was another innovative design Sally and Cindy implemented at Harrington. Recognizing the importance of consistent relationships among students and their teachers/caregivers, teachers were always given the option to “loop” with their students from one grade level to the next. My first three years of teaching, I looped from 3rd to 4th to 5th with the same group of students. I completed a second cycle of looping from 3rd to 4th to 5th in the following three years. After six years at Harrington, I moved to California to take a 4th grade teaching position at Mount Madonna School, an independent school on the grounds of a yoga retreat center (Mount Madonna Center) in the Santa Cruz Mountains (but that’s a story for another time).

At Summers-Knoll, our multi-grade classrooms give teachers and students the consistency necessary for teachers to identify, recognize, and leverage students’ hidden potential. As Grant discusses in his October 22 NYTs piece, “With more time to get to know each student personally, teachers gain a deeper grasp of the kids’ strengths and challenges. The teachers have more opportunities to tailor their instructional and emotional support to help all the students in the class reach their potential. They’re able to identify growth not only in peaks reached, but also in obstacles overcome. The nuanced knowledge they acquire about each student isn’t lost in the handoff to the next year’s teacher.” Again, this idea is not new.

In The Challenge to Care in Schools, first published in 1992, Nell Noddings advocated for the same idea: “Children need continuity not only of place but also of people. […] Students and teachers need each other. Students need competent adults to care; teachers need students to respond to their caring (p. 68 – 69).” Early on in my teaching career, perhaps from my administrators Sally and Cindy, I learned the adage: kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. This theme of care and the importance of relationships in education keeps coming up.

One of the beauties of a small independent school, like SK, is our ability to prioritize relationships, because we know how much they matter, and ensure that our structures, policies, and practices support the building of genuine relationships – among teachers, students, parents, admin, and staff – with which we can truly care for one another as fellow humans on this journey of life.

Learning How to Learn & Fail: The Importance of Productive Struggle

Earlier this week, Johnathan and I were talking about the importance of students being met at their growth edges, experiencing challenges, failing, overcoming obstacles (i.e., learning how to struggle). This idea of struggle has been popping up lately in other conversations as well, so I’ve been reflecting upon how we learn to struggle productively.

Several years ago, while living in East Lansing, I joined an all women’s Dragon Boat team. I had never rowed or had much experience with boats, but when this invitation arose, it felt like a great opportunity to try something new, make new friends, be outdoors, develop some new physical skills, and work with others as a team toward a common goal. Through splashes, banging paddles, and a lot of practice and feedback, I learned how to row in synch with my teammates, and we won second place in our competition that season. However, as a child, my attitude toward learning a new sport and being part of a team was quite different.

During my elementary school years, many of my friends were athletic. They swam on our neighborhood swim team or played soccer and softball with our local leagues, but when I tried my hand at team sports, I felt like a failure. I was afraid of the ball in softball, so I would close my eyes when it came toward me, and according to stories my father tells, I got upset during soccer games when my teammates wouldn’t pass the ball to me. My softball and soccer games usually ended with me crying in the car the whole way home. “If this makes you so upset, Carrie, you should just quit,” my parents would advise. And so I did.

My early experiences with team sports reinforced a response to adversity that I had to unlearn as I grew older: if something is challenging, then just quit. In my later years, I had to learn how to not give up in the face of a challenge. I had to learn that, at the outset of learning a new skill or concept, I won’t be good at it. And through my experiences as a yoga practitioner, performer, writer, and educator, I have realized that, with deliberate practice, I can get better at something if I am willing and able to endure the necessary productive struggle.

(Granted, sometimes, “quitting” is absolutely the best and healthiest decision. When it comes to quitting, context matters. As Annie Duke explains in her interview “The Science of Quitting” with Maya Shankar on the podcast A Slight Change of Plans, “[…] from a narrative standpoint, we’d prefer somebody push past the point of sensibility and persevere and actually perish to somebody who rightly quits early.”)

As a child, when I chose to quit softball and soccer, I was robbing myself of the opportunity for productive struggle, which would have also inevitably involved failure.

Failure is taboo in our society. Talking about our failures inevitably elicits sympathy or reassurance. Failure is interpreted as a weakness; it’s something we aimed to achieve and didn’t, or worse, couldn’t. At the same time, extremely successful people always refer to how frequently they failed while working toward their goals.

Perhaps it’s only socially acceptable to talk about failure once you’ve reached your goal, in moments when you’re enveloped in praise and accolades, receiving your medal or giving your speech. Then, as if to reassure those you know are striving and failing just like you had, you pronounce that you had to fail a lot to get to where you are today. Only then is failure seen as an inevitable part of growth.

When a child is learning to walk and they fall down hundreds of times, we view this as a natural part of the process, but somewhere not too far down the road of life, that child learns that their failures should be hidden, kept secret, because no one wants to hear about those. It’s success that matters. The less you struggle, or even seem to struggle, the better.

As educators, we can create learning environments where learners can take safe risks (within bounds), try new things, fail openly, and try again. Learning involves encountering and overcoming obstacles, facing fears, and reflecting upon how we grew as a result of an experience or project. I can understand why my parents encouraged me to quit – they didn’t want me to be miserable. But to this day, I wonder how my life’s path may have been different if I had learned, much earlier on, how to not be good at something for a while.

Surface, Deep, and Transfer: Learning at All the Levels

Over the summer, in preparation for this school year, Summers-Knoll teachers read The Project Habit: Making Rigorous PBL Doable (2022) by Michael McDowell and Kelley S. Miller. In this text, McDowell and Miller outline and describe 15 “habits” that teachers can adopt to ensure “rigorous” project-based teaching and learning. “Rigor” has become a buzzword in education – people use it, but they don’t often define it. McDowell and Miller, however, provide an explicit and concrete definition of rigor: learning at surface, deep, and transfer levels. For learning to be meaningful, students must construct discipline-specific knowledge (surface), understand the relationships among facts and skills within a discipline (deep), and connect or apply those ideas to other disciplines and contexts (transfer).

McDowell and Miller’s very practical book provides lots of examples of how to plan for and enact project-based instruction at all three levels. They also point out that a lack of rigor is a potential pitfall for teachers who try to facilitate project-based learning but do so without understanding how to 1) create learning intentions at surface, deep, and transfer levels and 2) follow through with teaching that supports students’ learning at all three levels throughout a given project.

This week at Summers-Knoll, although teachers and students are in the thick of their first projects, Project 2 is on the horizon. During our weekly Wednesday professional learning session on October 18th, teachers crafted learning intentions for their second projects at all three levels: surface, deep, and transfer. Although our learning sessions are scheduled for 3:15pm – 4:45pm, the teachers kept working (of their own volition) well beyond 4:45pm, and we’ll continue this work at our Wednesday professional learning session next week. SK teachers’ dedication, care, and excellence is evident in everything they do, which makes my work as an instructional coach incredibly satisfying.

Below, I outline the meanings and purposes of transfer, deep, and surface learning so that you can see and appreciate the rigor with which SK teachers are planning for rigor in their projects this year.

Teaching for Transfer – Leveraging what we’re learning about rigorous PBL, at SK, we plan backwards. We start with the end goal in mind, and this involves crafting an overall learning intention for transfer. This “transfer” learning intention articulates how students will demonstrate a transfer of knowledge and/or skills at the end of a project. Examples of verbs and verb phrases that reflect this notion of transfer include design and conduct, produce and present, critique, reflect, and compare and contrast across contexts.

Teaching for Deep Learning – Each overarching learning intention for a project is made up of sub-learning intentions, which are written using verbs at the “deep” or “transfer” levels. Examples of verbs or verb phrases that reflect the cognitive nature of deep learning include analyze, draw conclusions, argue, extend patterns, infer, interpret, verify. There are also “deep learning” success criteria that teachers identify and students meet along the way as a project unfolds.

Teaching for Surface Learning – And then there are the success criteria at the surface level that students need to meet to be able to dive deeper and apply their knowledge using their higher order thinking skills. Examples of verbs or verb phrases that reflect the cognitive nature of surface learning include name, tell, recall, measure, list, label, perform a procedure. Interestingly, research shows that project-based learning often falls short when students engage in inquiry without being given opportunities to first build surface knowledge. “Students need to have a thorough understanding of core content knowledge by understanding facts and using skills within a discipline” (McDowell, 2017, p.14).

Surface learning, deep learning, and learning for transfer are all important. They work together and build upon one another. Knowledge begets knowledge – the more you know, the more you are able to learn. At SK, teachers’ thoughtful planning and enactment of project-based learning ignites students’ joy of building knowledge, seeking knowledge, and applying knowledge.

“Assessment” Then and Now

When I began teaching in Denver, Colorado in July of 2000, U.S. public schools were headed into the era of “No Child Left Behind,” marked by the mandate of annual standardized testing of all students in grade three and up. So, for example, when my third grade students took the “CSAP” (Colorado Student Assessment Program) in the spring of their 3rd grade year, the results would supposedly show how proficient they were in the areas of reading, writing, and math. The CSAP consisted of paper and pencil test booklets, which were accompanied by Scantron bubble sheets for the reading and math portions. If my memory serves me correctly, each content area had three sections, each of which took about an hour (in theory) for students to complete, unless students were given the accommodation of “more time,” an accommodation that all of the students in our school received. As such, the CSAP test alone consumed about two weeks of my instruction, and we (the school, teachers, and parents) did not receive the students’ scores until July when the school year was over. If a certain percentage of students in the school scored “partially proficient” or “unproficient,” the school would be at risk of being taken over by a state charter. The students’ CSAP scores were used punitively, as a potential form of punishment on schools and teachers, with the erroneous assumption the students’ results on that one standardized test were a direct and all-encompassing reflection of teacher effectiveness and/or student learning.

While tests can provide some information on what a student knows at a given point in time, tests are inherently limited. Knowledge is a vast construct. The nature of knowledge itself is dynamic, complex, and context-dependent. Any test, no matter how well designed, will only provide a snapshot of what a test-taker knows in that moment under the circumstances of the test’s conditions and constraints. Furthermore, a student’s performance on a standardized test (or any type of test for that matter) is influenced by a whole host of factors, many of which – such as quality of sleep, nutrition, stress – are not within a teacher’s scope of influence.

Fortunately, tests are just one type of assessment. Assessments and assessment practices in education have evolved considerably over the past two decades. Perhaps, most importantly, the utility and purpose of assessments in instructional contexts has been widely researched and critiqued, which has reinforced the premise that assessments should inform instruction. Unlike the CSAP that I administered when I was a teacher in Denver Public Schools, where the results were delivered after my students had already moved on to the next grade level, diagnostic and formative assessments are integral to responsive instruction; they give teachers a sense of where students are – at a given point in time – with their understanding of concepts, ability to apply knowledge from one context to another, and/or mastery of a set of skills. By identifying learning targets and using various types of assessments for specific purposes throughout a project or instructional cycle, both teachers and students gain greater clarity about the learning goals and how to reach those goals.

At Summers-Knoll School (SK), teachers are constantly using a variety of formal and informal assessments (diagnostic, formative, and summative) to get to know who students are as people and as learners, how they make meaning, and their current understanding of particular skills and concepts. Students can express what they know and share what they have learned through a wide range of media and modalities (e.g., writing, visuals, speaking, audio, art, music, photography, performance, demonstration). Teachers assess what students can do independently, without peers or assistance from adults, as well as what students can do with others because both independence and collaboration are key to success in the 21st century.

For the first time at SK this 2023-2024 school year, we are using the NWEA MAP Growth assessment (in reading, math, and science) schoolwide. Just this week, Johnathan, the head of school and I began administering the MAP Growth test with students in grades Kindergarten to Eighth grade, and we will do so again in the middle of the school year and at the end. Parents can opt out if they prefer their child not take the test. Unlike the CSAP standardized test that I gave when I first started teaching, the MAP Growth assessment is a norm-referenced, adaptive, computer-based test that provides information on how an individual student performs on the test – at a particular point in time – as compared to the millions of other students in their same grade level around the world who take the same test.

At SK, we recognize that a student’s performance on the MAP Growth test is just one data point among an array of other assessment data that teachers gather throughout each quarter. Teachers analyze assessment data (on an ongoing basis) to iteratively construct a dynamic, holistic perspective of each learner, as an individual, so that they can provide instruction that leverages a student’s strengths, meets them at their growth edges, and supports their academic as well as their social-emotional development.

I must admit, by starting my career in education as a public school teacher in the era of the mandated “No Child Left Behind” standardized tests, I became very critical about how assessments were being used in education broadly and about how I was using assessments in my own classroom as a teacher. Fortunately, I now see that my criticality has served me – and the students and teachers with whom I work – well because I am vigilant about using assessments purposefully: to inform instruction and support students’ growth. Scrutinizing our instructional practices as educators keeps us honest and responsive, and perhaps most importantly, such scrutiny enables us to get clear about what we want students to learn and why so that we can provide meaningful learning opportunities through which students can grow, stretch, encounter and overcome obstacles, and ultimately reach their learning goals.

For more on the relationship between instruction and assessment, check out this ASCD article, How to Create Assessments That Drive Learning.

On the evening of Monday, October 9th, Indigenous People’s Day, as I was trying to fall asleep, these words above began to take shape in my mind’s eye. I got up and wrote them down because sometimes, for writers, that’s the only way we can rest. Being able to rest at all, ever, is a privilege in a world filled with unrest.

Reading The World & The Word

In Reading the World and Reading the Word: An Interview with Paulo Freire (1985), Brazilian educator, scholar, and community activist, Paulo Freire, explained his conception of literacy: “If we think of education as an act of knowing, then reading has to do with knowing. The act of reading cannot be explained as merely reading words since every act of reading words implies a previous reading of the world and a subsequent rereading of the world. There is a permanent movement back and forth between ‘reading’ reality and reading words – the spoken word too is our reading of the world. Reading the word is not only preceded by reading the world, but also by a certain form of writing it or rewriting it. In other words, of transforming it by means of conscious practical action” (p. 18).

Known for his progressive literacy pedagogy, Freire’s emphasis on the relationship between the world and the word exemplifies how we, at Summers-Knoll School (SK), prioritize the development of students’ academic knowledge in relationship to the development of their understanding of the world – while students learn how to read and write print text in the early grades and become critical readers and writers in the latter grades, concomitantly, they are also deepening their understanding of the world and translating their learning into action. 

As a project- and place-based school, projects provide students with a real purpose for their work, which includes having an authentic audience beyond their grade-level peers and classroom teacher; cross-grade peers, parents, and community members serve as authentic audiences. Students not only present their work to audiences outside of the school; they also learn from community members outside of the school who are experts in relevant and related fields of study. Our in-house SK buses enable teachers to take students out into the community and learn about, and from, the world outside the school walls.

During the past two weeks, SK teachers have launched their first projects and taken their first field trips of the year. In preschool, they kicked off their Deserts, Rainforests, and Aquatic Life project with a field trip to the Malletts Creek Ann Arbor Public Library to browse for books on deserts, oceans, and rainforests. In Young 5s/Kindergarten, they launched their Identity Book project with learning about how authors use both text and illustrations to communicate their ideas. In the 1st/2nd graders’ Light, Emotion, Color, Sound project, students have been using all of their senses to explore the relationships among light, emotion, color and sound – this week, they went to the Ann Arbor Hands On Museum to experience these phenomena through interactive, science-based exhibits. The 3rd/4th graders have launched their place-based investigation of local water health through weekly walks and visits to Malletts Creek. The 5th-8th graders just started their Science Demonstration project. After an introduction to Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion, they began conducting experiments to more deeply understand the physics principles underpinning these laws. On their field trip to Tillers International, the 5th – 8th graders witnessed Newton’s Laws in action as they interacted with with farming tools and practices that were developed prior to the advent of electricity and are still used today.

At SK, students make connections among who they are, what they are learning in school, and the world around them. As one Upper School student, Hasan Rehman, said when reflecting upon his experience with Walk with Little Amal (see previous post), “Empathy for me means that you have a shared feeling. Or a feeling that you can get when you see someone in a bad situation. Learning about Little Amal and the refugee crisis has made me feel empathetic for the people who have actually dealt with all these hardships. I used to always think that home is just another word for house. However as I grew older and learned more about the world I learned that home can be things other than my house. It can be my family or pets. Even after that I started to feel like my home was still my house until I moved and started thinking that my home was actually not my house and I am now here.” As Hasan’s reflection demonstrates, “reading the world” can literally lead to a deeper understanding of a word. As students continue to delve deeper into the meaning of words, their understanding of the world deepens and vice versa, which brings us back to where we started in this post: the Freirean notion of the iterative relationship between reading the world and reading the word.

For more on Freire and how his work has influenced my teaching and scholarship, see Symons, C. & Gajasinghe, K. (2022) Digital storytelling as a Freirean-based pedagogy with refugee-background youth. In S. Barros & L. de Oliveira (Eds.) Paulo Freire and Multilingual Education: Theoretical Approaches, Methodologies, and Empirical Analyses in Language and Literacy (176 – 195). Routledge. ISBN: 9780367773557.

(Photo: Lake Erie Metropark, July 24, 2023, SEMIs Coalition Summer Intensive Professional Development.)

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