Professional Paradox: The Agony and Ecstasy of Reporting Period

Report cards form a sacred ritual that speaks to our core mission.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

We’re approaching another reporting period in my middle school. Our year runs in three terms, and we’re currently in the process of wrapping up term two before spring break.

The deadline for the submission of report card comments looms large.

The Agony

For as long as I’ve been a teacher, reporting periods have been something of a painful rite of passage.

Even on normal weeks throughout the school year, I feel the weight of lesson and unit planning, assessment, emails, parent communication, team meetings, staff meetings, supervision, and all the other duties that come with the job.

If you’re in the classroom full-time, I’m sure you can relate.

Reporting periods just pile on top of those regular demands. There are more summative assessments to complete, marks to record, work habits to consider, progress comments to write.

It all takes time, and because we are proud of our professional work and committed to the mission of learning and growth, we want to do it well. It can lead to some long days and late nights, leaving us with less emotional margin for the people we serve.

As deadlines loom, thoughts of 9 to 5 days in other career fields suddenly become interesting, and our escapist fantasies take us to lazy beach vacations.

It can be an exhausting time.

The Ecstasy

Even in the midst of this pain, there is joy to be found. Year after year, I’m somehow surprised when the arduous process of reporting actually increases my care and empathy for students.

I evaluate each strand of their work habits, and I see their faces. I replay our interactions: their expressions, laughter, passions, curiosities, and the highs and lows of their character.

I write about their progress, and I’m called to reflect deeply. To consider their academic strengths and weaknesses. To remember their moments of despair and frustration. To relish their times of triumph and success. To point to areas of continuing growth and progress.

I’m reminded that some of my students fight silent battles: health problems, stressful moves, parents in the middle of divorce. Others project a brave exterior that masks deep anxiety: about academics, about their future, or about fitting in at school.

As I intensify my focus on each learner in my care, my commitment increases.

photo of three men jumping on ground near bare trees during daytime
Photo Credit: Zachary Nelson on Unsplash

A Sacred Ritual and Privilege

Reporting is a sacred ritual — one integral to our mission. It comes back to our great purpose, our rai·son d’ê·tre.

Our why.

Because this project of K-12 education is about something far, far bigger than the transmission of information. It’s about far more than 13 years of filling brains.

It’s about equipping students with skills.

It’s about habits of thinking and attitudes of heart.

It’s about the formation of mind, spirit, and character.

It’s about developing young adults who are filled with passion and compassion, who lead with service, who are prepared to contribute to the lives of others and make this world a better place.

And so it is that the rite of reporting is an honor, a privilege. Because as educators, as guides, as lead learners, we’re given a special place in this journey.

Our place is to speak into this process of growth, this journey of development, knowing that our words carry great weight.

Our comments become a formalized, enshrined review of the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the growth and the challenges ahead.

Our words can simultaneously affirm, correct, encourage, and create hope.

And that’s an awesome responsibility. It’s what we’re all about.

Episode 116 – Caitlin Krause

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Meet Caitlin Krause

CAITLIN KRAUSE is a learning and design specialist, education leader, keynote speaker, and an authority on VR, AR, and AI. She is also the author of Mindful by Design: A Practical Guide for Cultivating Aware, Advancing, and Authentic Learning Experiences.

In addition to experience as a computer programmer, Caitlin has taught and developed curriculum at K-12 schools in the United States, Belgium, and Switzerland. Today, she owns and operates her own company which allows her to facilitate meaningful learning experiences for learners around the world.

Caitlin is fascinated by the intersection of arts, collaboration, communication, relationships, and the newest applications of XR technology. Her learning and teaching is predicated on the idea that we learn and grow as whole human beings, and she resists the disciplinary walls and binaries that we often erect between subject areas in education.

Lessons Drawn From a Novel Failure

“Isn’t it great that we are not great at everything?” Caitlin asks rhetorically. “Life is not a simulation. It’s beautiful that we’re not in control.”

Caitlin recalls introducing a novel to a British literature class for juniors. It was a novel that resonated powerfully with her, and she was sure her students would connect with it. But it required a lot of deconstruction, it lacked a compelling love story, and no matter how much she wanted it to work, it became a serious struggle to work through it with this class.

Eventually, she worked through her own resistance to the situation and embraced the failure and necessary surrender that followed. It was a reminder that what is close to our own hearts may not be close to the hearts of our learners. We need to meet them where they are, and sometimes that means letting go of our treasures.

Teacher Wellness

Caitlin has created an online course for educators on the topics of mindfulness, SEL, and teacher wellbeing. Statistics tell us that many teachers struggle with anxiety and burnout, and we see many teachers leaving the profession after only a few years in the classroom.

We need to remember that humans are reactive beings, and the effects of being constantly on and emotionally available for days on end can be damaging in the long-term. Mindfulness is a practice that offers some powerful counter-effects to these emotional demands. Even though mindfulness can actually raise stress in the short-term as practitioners recognize sources of anxiety, over the long term it has been shown to decrease anxiety as we raise awareness and address sources of stress more proactively.

Mindfulness and self-awareness are powerful measures for learners, too, as they adopt simple practices of quiet reflection, intentional breathing, gratitude exercises, and other strategies for self-regulation. As anxiety comes down, opportunities for learning increase.

Mindful By Design

In 2019, Caitlin published Mindful by Design: A Practical Guide for Cultivating Aware, Advancing, and Authentic Learning Experiences (Corwin Press). Caitlin is an authority on AR and VR and anticipates a major shift in the adoption and application of these technologies in learning spaces throughout 2020. She sees them shaking up teaching, learning, storytelling, site exploration, and other immersive learning experiences. Although the applications are powerful and improving all the time, she also points out that the deep learning actually happens before and after students utilize these technologies.

Advances in Artificial Intelligence

We see AI technologies creeping into the learning environments more and more each year, and tools like Google’s Smart Compose, Google Home, or Apple Siri are making content more accessible for all learners. Artificial intelligence often conjures notions of sci fi and Ex Machina, but AI technologies are serving learning well and informing the improvement of a lot of applications. Caitlin shouts out John Carmack’s interview on the Joe Rogan Podcast and celebrates the amazing innovations he has led at Oculus.

Voice commands and operating capacity continue to improve across all devices, and Caitlin is fascinated by the research that MIT and other authorities are pioneering regarding the recognition of human emotion through facial expression and speech. The companies and institutions leading innovation in AI technologies require richer and more diverse data sets, she observes, noting that “You’re only as good as your data set.”

Making sure that a diversity of cultures, genders, and other factors are properly represented and included remains a central challenge, complicated in some contexts by privacy issues. There are obviously some important ethical questions to be asked and answered regarding how these companies and institutions source their data sets.

Relationships with Robots

Caitlin bears no ill will toward robots – in fact, her approach is much the opposite. “I think it’s good to be considerate to our robot friends,” Caitlin chuckles. “I kind of bristle when someone yells at Alexa.” Machine life and artificial intelligence is taking us into some interesting philosophical territory, particularly as we experiment with creative impulses for robots. Yes, a robot can write a piece of poetry or create a song, but does it have a soul? These are some of the essential conversations that must continue going forward.

Saving Room for Anomalies

Additionally, Caitlin notes that AI devices and technologies must always leave room for the element of surprise and irregularity. In other words, if AI algorithms learn our profiles so effectively that they can supply us with a steady stream of content tailored exclusively for expressed interests, passions, and familiar comforts, we actually reduce or eliminate our exposure to unusual content that has the power to provoke curiosity and inspire further learning. We already see that segregation at work in social media networks and news aggregators, and to lose further ground would be a significant loss to humanity.

“They say the brain learns the best when it has the element of surprise, when expected patterns are broken,”  Caitlin says. How much can we be surprised? This is a great question to ask ourselves as educators and lifelong learners.

What Else is Setting Caitlin on Fire in Education

The metaphor of being on fire is an apt one for Caitlin, and she takes a hopeful view of how voice and creativity and storytelling will continue to strengthen and add momentum to learning. Our fire is essentially the stuff that we find meaningful, she says, and it’s up to us to spread those ideas to others.

We’re all telling stories as educators, and it’s our place to invite listeners to enter into these stories and write their own heroic odysseys as they enter into unknown spaces and then tell their own tales. “It makes me really excited to be in worlds where not only can we lift each other up but we get to stay curious, stay connected, and create love over fear,” she says.

Professional Goals for 2020

Last year was the year of her book, Mindful by Design, and 2020 will be her year to spread her message, ideas, and mentorship. The book is applicable at so many levels, including education systems, leadership, teacher wellbeing, and classroom practices, and she wants to continue to develop online supports for those who wish to integrate these values and strategies into their own unique contexts.

She also wants to continue to build SEL training through immersive VR experiences and AR applications. It’s a fascinating area that requires further development but offers tremendous promise for the future. Will we see a day when groups of educators can connect in virtual environments to practice breathing and mindfulness exercises together? Perhaps that day has already arrived.

Other Personal Passions

“I’m a very human, curious learner,” Caitlin says, “and anything involving photography really excites me.” She’s enjoyed cameras since childhood, and treasures the activity of photography as a mindfulness tool. She also comes alive during opportunities to run outside, especially trails that wind their way through picturesque settings through the woods or along the ocean. Last but not least, Caitlin loves consuming and learning about chocolate from European countries and around the world – so much that she’s even tempted to write about it some day in the future.

Productivity Hacks and Philosophy

One of Caitlin’s favorite productivity hacks is to break simple numerical goals into smaller pieces. For example, instead of aiming for 20 full push-ups, she sets a goal of 40 half push-ups, which gives her a greater sense of momentum and optimism about achieving the target.

She also avoids goals or resolutions of deprivation, choosing instead to always frame her actions in a positive light. “Being productive means realizing that we are not our worst enemy, so be kind and gentle to yourself,” she encourages.

Finding ways to gamify our goals – even simple routines or chores like cleaning – can add joy and pleasure to ordinary exercises of productivity. She shouts out Lisa Johnson’s book, Creatively Productive, as a convincing argument that productivity doesn’t have to look like grueling deprivation or robotic behaviors.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Her Practice

Over on Twitter, Caitlin recommends following Kent Bye @KentBye: historian, philosopher, and host of the Voices of VR podcast. She also shouts out the New Hampshire’s Poet Laureate, Alexandria Peary @WriteMindfully, someone who’s done some interesting work around the effective use of mindfulness to break through writer’s block.

One edtech company that Caitlin has her eye on is Engage, which is doing some innovative work to support learning experiences in VR environments. Another company called 3D Bear is pioneering some exciting AR technologies as well. Consider following both industry leaders on Twitter @3DBearOfficial and @VReducation.

Two books that have impacted Caitlin’s thinking recently are There There by Tommy Orange and Get Weird: Discover the Surprising Secret to Making a Difference by CJ Casciotta.

Caitlin does enjoy podcasts, and she’s especially a fan of the big ones: RadiolabThis American Life, and The Moth. Any content that includes a mix of storytelling and technology will tend to hold her attention.

On YouTube, Caitlin makes a shameless plug for her own channel where she plans to post more creative work in 2020.

When she’s feeling relaxed and ready for some pleasure viewing, Caitlin is streaming Mr. RobotThe Good Place, and The Watchmen on Netflix and Amazon.

Before we sign off on this conversation, Caitlin shares some beautiful poetry pieces. Make sure you’re in a relaxed setting and enjoy.

To connect with Caitlin and learn more about what she’s all about, make sure to check the links below.

Connect with Caitlin:

Connect with the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media:

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device:

Song Track Credits

Listen on YouTube and subscribe to the Teachers on Fire channel!

*This page contains Amazon affiliate links.

The Case for Teachers on Twitter

Educators are learners first.

woman holding iPhone during daytime
Photo by Paul Hanoka on Unsplash

“I don’t care about Twitter, and I’ll never go on Twitter,” I heard an educator say last year.

I understand this position. From the outside, Twitter may just seem like more noise, more distraction, more nonsense that doesn’t really add anything to our lives or professional growth.

I’ll also be the first to agree that as busy professionals and leaders of families, we need to be intentional and discriminating with our time. Meaningless scrolling and shallow engagement doesn’t and shouldn’t make the cut.

But what IF Twitter can serve a valuable role in our professional growth and development? What IF Twitter can add to our lives without consuming much time?

Educators Are Learners First

In my view, the case for teachers on Twitter begins with the idea that educators are learners first. The principles of learning that we believe in for our students apply just as much to our learning and growth as they do to theirs. If we’re hungry to learn and grow, it’s wise to build an active Professional Learning Network and engage.

Twitter isn’t the only place to build a professional learning network. But it’s an awesome place to start.

The Learning Activities of a Twitter PLN

1. Collaboration.

Just like our students, education professionals learn best when they learn together. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. When you have a question or you’re feeling stuck in a challenging situation, chances are your Twitter PLN will be able to offer suggestions and resources.

2. Communication.

As David Guerin once wrote, “Whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning.” When we write, read, and respond to professional conversation, we’re more engaged. We’re tuned in. We can’t help but learn. And the inverse is also true.

3. Metacognition.

We also learn when we take the time to thoughtfully reflect on our journey. By answering questions like What am I learning, Where am I going, and How will I get there, we gain awareness and greater intentionality about our own learning path. I treat Twitter as a journal, especially when I’m trying a new project or attending an education conference. You too can use Twitter to archive and preserve your own learning reflections for future reference.

4. Visible Learning.

When we make our learning visible, we benefit from feedback, and others learn from our stories. And we can make the learning of others visible, too. When asked why he uses Twitter, principal Chris Chappotin used the word “showcase.” Administrators are especially well-positioned to play this role in their buildings, since they can be in more classrooms and contexts than teachers.

5. Inspiration.

Whether it’s a lesson idea, helpful resource, or a word of encouragement, my edu-Twitter feed is an overwhelmingly positive space. Think of it as constant connection with a cloud of education leaders and mentors. It’s phenomenal.

6. Professional Relationships.

When we engage in professional conversations, we meet others in similar fields and spaces. Twitter is a wonderful place to connect with education leaders and authors, too. It’s as easy as reaching out.

5 Ways to Increase Engagement on Twitter

I believe the number one reason that so many educators try Twitter and then ignore the platform is lack of engagement. Maybe it took them forever to work up the nerve to finally tweet something pithy or valuable, but it’s only crickets in response.

What a waste of time, right?

It doesn’t need to be. By following these five simple strategies, you’ll increase engagement and gain more value from your time on this platform.

1. Use relevant hashtags whenever possible.

If you’re new to the platform, you may regard hashtags as little more than cute decorations. But for many users (including me), hashtags can be a great way to dig deeper into a topic. Think of hashtags as rooms. Whenever you use a hashtag, you’re putting your tweet in that room for others to find. Whether it’s #growthmindset, #goinggradeless, or #formativeassessment, tag your posts so that others can find them topically. With a little Googling, you’ll find the best hashtags to use for your context and areas of work.

2. Tag others whenever appropriate or relevant.

If and when you’re sharing ideas or resources that relate to someone else’s work or area of interest, you’re doing them a service by tagging them. Educators usually like thoughtful tags — especially if it’s an endorsement, shoutout, suggestion, or recommendation aimed specifically at them. I always like being tagged by colleagues in my building, because otherwise I might miss their tweets. And authors usually appreciate being tagged in quotes from their work, because you’re helping to share their message. Again, keep it genuine. But don’t be afraid to connect.

3. Use relevant images, GIFs, and videos.

Make your tweets stand out and get noticed by adding relevant media. Again, this isn’t purely an attention game, but it is about building the kind of engagement on the platform that makes activity worthwhile. You have to be seen to be heard, especially as you get started.

4. Engage in Twitter chats.

There’s absolutely no better way to build connections with other educators than by engaging in real-time Twitter chats. Not sure where to start? Try the weekly #TLAP (Teach Like a Pirate) chat, one of the largest to take place on the platform each week. Or, next time you’re at a large conference, tweet the highlights from your learning at the conference hashtag.

5. Keep it education-only.

Make a point of only following educators, which generally keeps your feed on track with education. It’s incredibly easy to switch between Twitter accounts quickly, so I have my faith, sports, and politics conversations elsewhere. If you’re still not convinced, here are 5 Reasons to Niche Down on Twitter.

The point is, if you follow @RealDonaldTrump, @Yankees, @Netflix, and the like, your feed will get noisy, distracting, and unproductive. My advice? Keep it strictly on education.

A Simple Formula for Getting Started

There’s no time like the present to use Twitter to develop your professional learning. Once you’ve created a Twitter account, how can you go about building a professional learning network? Here are some practical steps.

  1. Start with at least one tweet a day.
  2. Share questions you’re wrestling with, ideas from your learning, or inspiring quotes from your reading.
  3. Use one or more relevant hashtags (like #MSed for middle school education).
  4. Use one or more user handles (think of interested colleagues, figures working in related areas, or authors of your quotes).
  5. Include relevant images whenever possible.

Then, try to follow at least one more educator a day. Not sure where to begin there? Visit @MisterCavey and select Following. You’ll see nothing but educators and education organizations. You can start following them, too.

As I said at the outset, Twitter can facilitate the same learning processes that we seek for our learners: communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, metacognition, and relationships. If you’ve been a Twitter holdout, consider this both a challenge and an invitation.

Happy Tweeting! I look forward to learning with you.

Sincerely,
@MisterCavey

Thoughts from My Twitter PLN

As I put the finishing touches on this piece, I asked my PLN how they use Twitter. Here were some of their responses.

First, an educator who teaches in my area:

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And here is a reply from Chris Chappotin, principal of STEAM Middle School and guest on episode 61 of the Teachers on Fire podcast, who I mentioned earlier in this story:

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And this — from a fellow education podcaster:

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Episode 115 – Jonathan Alsheimer

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Meet Jonathan Alsheimer

JONATHAN ALSHEIMER teaches seventh grade history at the legendary Fred M. Lynn Middle School. He’s a family man, keynote speaker, and the author of #NextLevelTeaching: Empowering Students and Transforming School Culture. As much as he enjoys speaking to teachers about education, it’s a thrill for him to share his story with students and motivate them to overcome adversity in their own learning journeys.

Early Struggles with the Game of School

Although he grew up in an education household, Jonathan freely admits that he struggled to play the game of school. As a kid, test-taking was difficult, and he remembers adopting a facade of confidence to cover up those insecurities. To be successful, he realized he would need to work hard and never give up, and he carried that never-quit ethic into athletics and throughout his school and college career.

He’s found strength in being honest about his academic journey and enjoys encouraging students to keep pushing, keep grinding, never give up, and overcome those challenges that today seem insurmountable. “Be that teacher that you needed when you were a kid,” he says, and it’s something he keeps constantly in mind regarding his own practice. We need to see past the data and the test results to recognize each child for who they are and the journey they’re on.

Next Level Teaching 

One of the biggest motivators behind his book, Next Level Teaching, traces back to a major language arts test that Jonathan failed in high school. As painful as that failure was, it’s only made him more determined to become first a Master of Education and now a published author. He’s walking the walk — living out his message that hard work and determination can overcome the demons of failure and adversity. To the doubters and haters that second-guessed his potential, this book is a mic drop.

115 - Jonathan Alsheimer7.jpgOne of his hopes for this book is that it inspires teachers to reach out to learners and classrooms beyond the door of their classroom. No, one teacher won’t completely revolutionize an entire school and culture by themselves. But our influence goes much further than we think it does, and it’s when committed teachers truly take ownership of their communities that we start to see systemic change.

Bring the energy, bring the passion, engage with kids, and love on students beyond your classroom and throughout your building, Jonathan urges. Take those opportunities during supervision duties or athletic events to connect with kids on another level and communicate care. Be “that teacher” that we all look back to with fondness, the one who believed in us and made a difference beyond the academics.

What To Do When It’s Hard to Connect

To teachers who struggle to connect with their learners, Jonathan encourages them to view each student as their own child. How would that relationship change the ways you relate to that hard-to-reach kid?

Kids need to feel empowered; when they feel that they can’t win or don’t matter, that’s when they withdraw, isolate, and tune out. Teachers should rethink “throwaway minutes” and use that time to build quick connections and trust. When kids love you and they love your classroom, they’re more likely to learn.  “I’ll throw away 30 minutes today to gain an hour of focused instruction next week,” Jonathan says. Find their interests and connect with them there, and you’ll be on your way to building a positive relationship. 

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What Else is Setting Jonathan on 🔥 in Education: TeacherFit 

One thing that Jonathan is hyped about today is TeacherFit, a health and wellness program for teachers. It’s simple, affordable, and has the capacity to significantly improve the health and wellbeing of an entire staff community. Even better, TeacherFit gives Jonathan great mentoring opportunities with students. He’s been working out after hours at school, and students have been joining in. It’s been another great on-ramp for relationship-building with students, and it’s improving the health, wellness, and community culture at Fred Lynn Middle School.

A Professional Goal: More Speaking to Students

Jonathan’s new book has taken a lot of his his focus and attention over the last year, but he also continues to build his capacity to speak to students. He is speaking at schools in Texas and Kansas in January and anticipates more opportunities in the months to come. Some of the feedback from schools and students has been incredible, and to hear that his message is giving hope to the hopeless pushes him to do more. There are kids that need to hear that message of hope at virtually every school.

Personal Passions That Bring Jonathan Alive

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“I’m all about getting out there and living life,” Jonathan says. “I wanna DO stuff in life.” He’s committed to living a life with no regrets, visiting new places, and trying new things. He’s already tried white water rafting, climbing mountains, and mixed martial arts fighting, and he looks forward to experiencing a shark cage next. It’s all about living life to the fullest and modeling a spirit of risk-taking for his learners, and his experiences make for great stories, illustrations, and connection points in the classroom as well. “You can be okay with what you got or you can push life to the max,” he tells his students.

His Key to Productivity: A Relentless Spirit

Instead of an app or routine, Jonathan points to his relentless spirit as his key to productivity. It’s a value that kids need to learn to nurture and grow within themselves over time, he says. That said, it’s also important to take some time for yourself, and Jonathan credits his amazing wife for helping him find balance between work and play. Next Level Teaching isn’t about spending money and hours on Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers. It’s about acknowledging that you as the teacher are the single most important factor for learning in the classroom, and that being the case, we need to care for ourselves properly.

Voices & Resources That Inspire His Practice

Over on Twitter, Jonathan recommends following his principal, Hamish Brewer. Hamish has been absolutely inspirational, genuine, and he really does walk the walk at Fred Lynn Middle School. Connect with Hamish on Twitter @BrewerHM

When asked for an edtech tool pick, Jonathan goes to iMovie. It’s nothing new, but kids love it, he says. It’s such an easy and powerful way to energize learning activities and engage students in the act of creation.

When it comes to books, Jonathan recommends Relentless: Changing Lives by Disrupting the Educational Norm by Hamish Brewer, a book he was honored to contribute to and endorse. Jonathan also shouts out Leadership Lessons of the Navy SEALS: Battle-Tested Strategies for Creating Successful Organizations and Inspiring Extraordinary Results by Jeff and Jon Cannon, explaining that many of the principles contained in this book are universally applicable and certainly come in handy in the classroom.

Jonathan has a lot of commute time, and two of his favorite podcasts include Jostens Renaissance and TeacherFit

This episode released during the Christmas season, so when prompted for an all-time favorite Christmas movie, Jonathan went with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. It’s one of those family classics that never fails to deliver laughs.

We sign off on this inspiring conversation, and Jonathan gives us the best ways to reach out and connect with him online. See below for details!

You can connect with Jonathan …

Connect with the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media:

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Listen on YouTube and subscribe to the Teachers on Fire channel!

*This page contains Amazon affiliate links.

Real-Time Feedback for Real-Time Learning

Assessment is most effective and efficient when it happens right away.

Photo by Jeffrey Lin on Unsplash

“The most important takeaway from the research is that the shorter the time interval between eliciting the evidence and using it to improve instruction, the bigger the likely impact on learning … the biggest impact happens with ‘short-cycle’ formative assessment, which takes place not every six to ten weeks but every six to ten minutes, or even every six to ten seconds.”

— from Embedding Formative Assessment, by Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy

Think about that quote. The shorter the time interval, the bigger the impact on learning.

Let that sink in for a bit.

Nineteen years into teaching, I still don’t have the assessment game completely figured out. No matter how much feedback and assessment I provide, I labor under the constant burden of all the other student work that I feel I should be assessing.

In the evenings, on my weekends, on holidays, and even on snow days — especially snow days — I hear that quiet voice.

You should be grading work right now.

However subtle, it’s constant guilt and pressure. You know the feeling.

It’s enough to drive teachers insane. Studies confirm that it’s even enough to drive some from the profession entirely.

Image Credit: Sam Hames on Flickr.com

I started my career in the pre-internet classroom. In my 7th and 8th grade classrooms, I always had at least one tray marked INBOX. Work from learning activities given throughout the day generally ended up there. (Many of them with no names — remember that fun?)

Depending on the day’s activities, I might have anywhere between 25–100 sheets of paper in my inbox by day’s end.

And I would do my best to mark all those papers, of course. But inevitably the constant barrage of paper would start to pull away. My chunk of papers would become a pile, then a stack, then a mountain.

Within a month or two, my school bag was ballooning out of control. And I wasn’t alone. I remember colleagues who resorted to milk crates to ferry their paper mountain back and forth from home each day. Milk crates, filled to the brim with assignments that required marking.

Just take a moment to savor that accumulation of anxiety. Ahhhhhhh.

I’ve taught just about every subject in middle school, and I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that the most challenging assessments to complete — at least, in the traditional sense — were the writing pieces in English class.

Combing through a middle school student’s piece of writing was a brutally exhausting endeavor — especially before computers in the classroom. Traditionally, I was looking for form, style, meaning, and conventions. But I wasn’t just evaluating — I was coaching — and so I sought to offer meaningful feedback and notes as well.

Make sure your subject and verbs agree.”

“Fortnite should be capitalized — proper noun”

“New paragraph here”

The math on this kind of feedback got ugly. To carefully comb through one piece of average writing and offer this level of feedback could take three or more minutes. With 28 students in my class, that was about 90 minutes of marking. Then the feedback had to be recorded — first in a place and way the student could observe it, then in my gradebook or assessment tracker.

Add any time to take breaks, talk to family and friends, or just generally be human, and we’re talking two hours.

Two hours of marking — typically in an evening when I felt exhausted from the day. For one learning activity.

And of course that didn’t count time spent on unit plans, lesson plans, email, parent communication, coaching, etc.

It was too much time.

The bad news about the scenario I just described is that it often failed to yield the results I was looking for. Even if I returned those assignments the very next day, it was unlikely that most students would pay much attention.

To put it bluntly, I could spend five minutes marking one piece of writing only to have the student look at it for five seconds.

And realistically, my timeline on returned writing assignments was decidedly not next day. A week or two, maybe.

Of course by that time, students really didn’t care. Well, they might care briefly about the grade. But it would definitely be a minority of students that would look much further at that point.

So what, exactly, was being learned through this assessment process? Very little, I suspect.

In fact, I knew it was very little, because my writers would tend to make the same mistakes all year long.

In the last three years especially, my thinking on assessment has started to change in big ways.

For one thing, this is only my second year in nineteen years of teaching that my gradebook contains no numbers. I’ve gone gradeless. By itself, that’s a massive change in mindset with a ton of implications.

For one thing, I no longer regard marks as currency. In older models of education, students and teachers lived under the understanding that for every piece of work done, there ought to be a payment.

Students (workers) completed work for their teachers (bosses) and were paid grades (wages) for their efforts. Every piece of work was worthy of compensation.

The size of the reward matched the level of compliance. The game of school.

The problem with the game of school was that it often ignored the true business of education: the learning.

In school and in life, people learn best in the moment. When I learned to launch a podcast, caulk my shower, or build a website, it would have done me little good to receive feedback or assessment a week or two after I attempted the task.

I needed the help and feedback right then and there — precisely when I was engaged, prepared, willing to learn, making mistakes and finding my way.

That’s when feedback and coaching made the biggest difference. That’s when it was powerful.

In Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School, Starr Sackstein writes that “Assessment must be a conversation, a narrative that enhances students’ understanding of what they know, what they can do, and what needs further work. Perhaps even more important, they need to understand how to make improvements and how to recognize when legitimate growth has occurred.”

And that’s where I’m at today — intensely interested in those conversations, those in-the-moment, real-time, productive struggles.

I’m interested in helping my students wrestle with and through problems, create solutions, collaborate efficiently, and communicate effectively.

I’m interested in helping them understand where they are, where they need to get, and the steps they need to take to get there.

I’m interested in helping my learners assess their peers more effectively, offering feedback that is kind, specific, helpful, and accurate.

And I’m interested in tech tools like Google Classroom, Google Docs, Seesaw, and others like them that facilitate all of these ongoing, powerful, real-time conversations of learning in new and effective ways.

Just as it is on the sports field, my most effective coaching will never happen a day, a week, or a month after the fact. My best coaching and feedback happens right there and then in the classroom as my students study, learn, create, build, design, and share their learning.

That’s where the action is, and that’s why I’m putting less energy into summative assessment and more energy into formative. It’s why I don’t worry about the marking mountain as much as I used to. It’s even why I can relax enough to reflect on my practice and write this blog post.

Because the best feedback my students will ever receive happens right in the moment.