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.

Episode 111 – Abigail French

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Meet Abigail French

ABIGAIL FRENCH is a mother of four, a history teacher for sixth graders, an advocate of public education, and an explorer of the natural world in Woodstock, VA. 

A Challenging Professional Reboot

For Abby, one of her biggest professional challenges was returning to the classroom in 2014 after leaving it in 1997. A lot had changed while she was away, particularly technology resources and internet access. She recognized immediately that technology should be used to build skills, facilitate learning, and create deeper understanding, but it took some time to adjust to the changes that technology had brought to the learning environment.

Today, her sixth graders enjoy 1:1 Chromebook access, a move that has come with a mix of tremendous opportunities and practical challenges. “It’s definitely a journey,” Abby says of her use of technology in the classroom. “It’s always evolving – it’s not like you ever arrive.” As she models a posture of constant learning and openness to new things, you sense that Abby’s learners are in good hands.

The Snake That Rocked Edu Twitter 

Abby has been fascinated by herpetology – the study of reptiles – for about as long as she can remember. She’s even gained such notoriety in her community for the courage, care, and prowess she shows around snakes that she is known by some as The Snake Lady!

When her daughter called her about a large snake in the backyard in the summer, Abby didn’t hesitate to run outside and move it. It was likely a female, she says, looking for a nice place to lay her eggs. What others fear, Abby loves to engage and learn from.

Not Measuring Up

Abby isn’t someone who went into teaching because she had such a great experience as a student. In some ways, she actually went into teaching to undo the damage done and to give students a better learning experience than the one she remembers.

As a young student, Abby is quick to point out that she definitely had some good teachers. But she had a learning disability, a processing issue, and that meant that she learned differently than most other kids. The symptoms of academic success, including good grades, words of affirmation, and the approval of her teachers always felt elusive. She still clearly remembers the feelings of falling short, of never being good enough, of never quite fitting into the game of school. Those memories and experiences have shaped her philosophy and professional practice profoundly.  

Rethinking Assessment in Her Practice Today

As with technology, Abby’s approach to assessment has been a journey. It starts with a mindset, she says. As she returned to teaching five years ago, she realized that traditional means of assessment – quizzes, tests, and multiple choice assessments – were not satisfying her desire to know what her students actually knew and had learned.

She started looking around at other examples and modes of assessment, asking how she could better partner with her students and include them in every part of the assessment process. She wanted to put students in the driver’s seat: how do YOU want to show what you’ve learned? Building strong relationships with students was an essential step toward empowerment, she observed. Student reactions to her change in philosophy have been exciting, and Abby is constantly learning about the ways to represent learning that energize her students and connect with their passions and interests.

One other way that Abby has started changing her practice is to change the way that she organizes her students’ digital portfolios. Rather than organize them by subjects and units, she has started to organize them around learning targets and skills: analyze and interpret, compare and contrast, using a decision-making model, etc. This means of portfolio organization shifts the focus from the content to the skills: what are we actually trying to learn? Which skill does this work demonstrate?

#HackLearning: Countering Toxic Cultures 

Abby recently moderated a #HackLearning Twitter chat about toxicity in schools, and she’s given this topic a lot of thought lately. It’s a challenging topic with a ton of complexity and layers, and she’s quick to point out that there are no quick fixes or easy solutions.

Teachers pour themselves into their work, and the emotional well can get pretty low if communities aren’t doing the important work of caring for their members. The work of teaching becomes doubly difficult in environments of toxic thinking and behavior, but one thing we should always keep in mind is that toxicity is rarely personal. Instead, it usually appears as a symptom of what someone else is going through.

Ultimately, we need to protect our own mindsets by finding supportive partners, both locally and through our professional learning networks. PLNs such as the education community on Twitter can deliver incredible encouragement and inspiration, and it’s a great way to find your people when you’re feeling isolated or marginalized in your own learning community. Even as we connect outside the walls of our school, however, it’s important to continue to invest in our own community. 

A Professional Goal: Instructional Coaching

Abby has been exploring some growing opportunities in the area of instructional coaching, and lately it’s been a pleasure to serve in a mastermind group for new teachers. She’s excited to contribute, and she enjoys the growth she sees in her own practice along the way.

Personal Passions Outside of Education 

MushroomsOutside of school, Abby enjoys sharing passions with her four children. Their curiosities are endless and they stretch her into new spaces that she otherwise wouldn’t necessarily find herself. She is also energized by running, getting into nature, and hunting for mushrooms. Mushrooms fascinate her, and it’s a joy to find them, photograph them, and cook with them.

A Personal Productivity Hack: Time Blocking

Abby credits Aubrey Patterson with the practice of time blocking. She uses Google Calendar to prioritize her time for the week and make sure that the big rocks are accomplished before the sand. Her next mission? Getting a better handle on her Google Drive and organizing it more efficiently.

Voices and Resources That Inspire Her Practice

Over on Twitter, Abby recommends giving Jeanne Wolz a follow @TeacherOffDuty. Jeanne is an instructional coach who Abby has learned a lot from lately. She also recommends following Aubrey Patterson @PattersonAubrey, co-founder of Nohea Kindred, educational leadership strategist, and consultant.

An edtech tool that has taken learning to the next level in her sixth grade classroom as of late is Zoom. Zoom has allowed her to connect with other educators in real time, bringing new insights and information into her classroom.

Entertaining an Elephant by William McBrideAbby’s book pick comes from a book club she joined this year. The title is Entertaining an Elephant: A Novel About Learning and Letting Go by William McBride. The book chronicles the journey of a seasoned teacher who battles burnout. Follow the author on Twitter @DrBilly7

Two podcasts that are making a difference in Abby’s professional practice are Teachers Going Gradeless and Human Restoration Project. Both shows completely reimagine education and particularly assessment, and they’ve been fuel for her professional growth and evolution.

When she’s got no energy left in the day and it’s Netflix time, Abby is watching Peaky Blinders, a great historical series, and Jane the Virgin, a source of non-stop laughs.

We sign off on this great conversation, and Abby gives the best ways to connect with her online. See below for details!

You can connect with Abby on Twitter @AWFrench1. 

Connect with the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media:

Song Track Credits

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

Episode 108 – Deanna Lough

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Meet Deanna Lough

DEANNA LOUGH is an eighth grade English teacher at Sussex Academy of the Arts and Sciences in Georgetown, located in the southern part of Delaware. She’s an aspiring leader, kid Mom, puppy Mom, Mrs., music fan, and a lover of all things inspiring and positive.

How She Rediscovered Her Joy

A few years ago Deanna reached a point where she felt like she was killing herself with work. Her lack of energy and margin was preventing her from connecting with her students the way she wanted to, which led her to start asking how she could make her classroom a better space for her students.

That question has since evolved into a focus on equity, a pursuit that has really driven growth and evolution in her practice. Thanks to the changes she’s made in her thinking and work, she enjoys teaching a whole lot more today and has rekindled the passion that led her to enter the profession in the first place. 

A Journey of Putting the Needs of Learners First

At the time that Deanna really started rethinking her practice and her learning space, she asked her students to describe their ideal classroom.

  • What would it look like?
  • What kind of work would they do?
  • How would teachers support their learning?

Their responses steered her first toward flexible seating and then to her own embedded biases and the obstacles faced by students from cultural and sexual minorities. She also started asking tough questions about her instruction and assessment.

  • Were her assessments actually fair?
  • Were they really assessing what she wanted to assess?
  • Were they really supporting the learning journeys of her students?

As she asked these questions, she realized that a lot of the traditional and adversarial grading policies that she had complied with for so long were causing her the most stress and stealing her joy. Although her school still requires her to submit grades, she’s begun the slow work of changing her assessment practices and allowing her students to demonstrate their learning in new ways. 

What Else is Setting Deanna on 🔥 in Education Today

In addition to her changes in assessment, Deanna is keen on supporting her LGBTQ students and students of color in more effective ways. She’s become aware of so many situations that don’t do a good enough job of supporting these learners, and she’s also started to think about how some of the same systemic barriers affect minority educators, too.

The work of educators such as Dr. Sheldon Eakins (@SheldonEakins) and Dr. Mechele Newell (@mechelenewell) has also been deeply influential in her journey. One of her biggest realizations is that she does have a voice in these issues and that she needs to use it — to advocate not just for her minority students but for all of her learners and for the state of humanity.

A Professional Goal

Deanna is thrilled to teach in a professional environment that allows educators to set their own professional goals. Her focus for this year relates to thoughtful uses of technology in her classroom. Her school is 1:1, meaning all of her learners have Chromebooks, so she wants to not only improve learning experiences for students but also increase her own expertise in the Google environment. She makes the point that as we grow, learn, and gain competence as educators, we bring more joy to the job, and students notice that. Lately, she’s also enjoyed watching her students support the digital expertise of others.

A Personal Passion Outside of Education: Music 🎶

Deanna is a huge music enthusiast, and even though she’s never been trained to play an instrument she’s taken up the challenge of writing about it. This commitment has pushed her to listen to music podcasts to learn more, and shows like Sound Opinions and Rolling Stones Music Now have helped and inspired her to keep going. Right now, her goal is to write one formal music review per month, and she’s shared this journey with her students as well. 

Productivity and Priorities

One set of strategies that Deanna has found valuable is Angela Watson’s 40-hour Teacher Week Club, and one her biggest takeaways has been the prioritized task list. Whenever she has a lot going on, she takes a few minutes to sit down and arrange to-do items by priority.

Another helpful takeaway has been Google Keep, a simple but effective list keeper that syncs across all devices. “Nothing will kill your joy faster than when you try to be overly ambitious and get more things done in a day than are humanly possible,” she points out.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Her Learning

Over on Twitter, Deanna recommends following Dr. Sheldon Eakins @sheldoneakins. As mentioned earlier in our conversation, he’s doing great work in the area of equity and Deanna has learned a lot from his online course. Make sure to visit his site and tune into his podcast as well.

Deanna’s edtech tool pick is Screencastify, a leading screencast application that works well in the Chromebook environment with a handy Google Chrome extension. She’s also been extremely impressed by their customer support.

We Got This by Cornelius MinorA must-read book title in the equity space is We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be by Cornelius Minor. Deanna can’t say enough about how open Cornelius is about his own journey even as he helps other educators rethink the accessibility in their learning spaces.

A few education podcasts that Deanna appreciates include Dear Teacher, Don’t Give Up by Jeffery Frieden, EduMatch Tweet & Talk by Dr. Sarah Thomas, and The Dr. Will Show by Dr. Will Deyamport III. All three hosts are former guests of the Teachers on Fire podcast!

When she’s looking for education inspiration on YouTube, Deanna turns to Edusations by Phil Strunk. On Netflix, the show at the top of her list that just restores her faith in humanity is Queer Eye

We sign off on this great conversation, and Deanna gives us the best ways to connect with her online. See below for details!

You can connect with Deanna …

Connect with the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media:

Song Track Credits

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

 

Episode 107 – Trevor MacKenzie

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Meet Trevor MacKenzie

TREVOR MACKENZIE is a learner, teacher, speaker, consultant, and outdoor enthusiast. Trevor teaches English at the 10th through 12th grade levels at Oak Bay High School in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is also regarded by many as the preeminent voice on inquiry-based learning today, authoring Dive into Inquiry: Amplify Learning and Empower Student Voice and co-authoring Inquiry Mindset: Nurturing the Dreams, Wonders, and Curiosities of Our Youngest Learners

The First Five Years Are the Hardest

When asked about an experience of adversity on his education journey, Trevor thinks back to his first five years in the profession. There were many forks in the road, he says, where he found himself questioning whether or not he even wanted to stay in education. It took him a while to move from substitute teaching to a full-time contract, and even then it was a real challenge to juggle all the responsibilities of a classroom teacher: lesson planning, unit design, assessment, parent communication, coaching, and other duties.

Trevor credits his local community of colleagues and professional peers who gave him advice, encouragement, and solidarity during those early years. Although his professional learning network has evolved far beyond the bounds of his own building, he continues to appreciate the power and importance of collaboration today.

Why Inquiry? 

First and foremost, Trevor says, he never proposes that other teachers must do things his way. “Teaching is an art with incredible nuance and subtlety, and there’s simply no lockstep approach or prescriptive framework to what makes a good teacher.”

That said, Trevor readily admits that inquiry-based learning is where his heart is, and he loves nothing more than helping other educators see what is possible for learners. Education has changed a great deal in the last decade – not just because of our access to phones but also in terms of the amount of prior knowledge that students bring to the classroom. It’s no longer about how much students know, but about what they can do with what they know.

Inquiry-based learning challenges teachers to facilitate experiences that help our learners to explore content and then create products that have an impact on others. Inquiry also challenges students to investigate the “un-Googleable” questions, the sort of questions that Google Home and Alexa cannot help them with. These are the kinds of vast, broad questions that students must chew on and wrestle with over extended periods of time. Inquiry encourages the development of the 4 Cs: competencies that are absolutely critical in today’s workforce. As a framework, inquiry provides the space and common language for students to become creators, problem-solvers, and active agents of their learning.

Inquiry and Curiosity

Children enter the school system full of curiosity, chomping at the bit to learn, to play, to read, and to interact. Sadly, students often leave high school with that curiosity and joy of learning greatly diminished. “Curiosity is at the heart of how we can better meet the needs of all of our learners,” Trevor points out.

We need to look at our curriculum with an eye to integrating inquiry approaches – it never needs to be a situation of all or nothing, inquiry vs the curriculum. Inquiry-based learning, when properly applied, allows us to explore prescribed curricular outcomes through the lens of curiosity and creativity.

Understanding the Types of Student Inquiry

Structured    Inquiry, Controlled Inquiry, Guided Inquiry and Free Inquiry

In the swimming pool illustration, Trevor divides the types of student inquiry into four levels: structured, controlled, guided, and free. Although it might seem tempting to jump quickly into the deep end of the swimming pool, Trevor cautions against initiating free inquiry without giving learners the necessary tools, understanding, and vocabulary. To move too far and too fast into inquiry is to invite chaos and confusion for teachers and learners, so strategy and forethought is required here.

Ideally, a school can work together on strong and structured units of inquiry-based learning so that all learners in the community become familiar with a common language. Frame those first units of study around central, unGoogleable questions. Use provocations to spark rich and engaging entry points to new areas of interest and study, and allow space for students to pursue side paths and related questions along the way. For help in getting started, visit TrevorMacKenzie.com for a large collection of free inquiry unit planning templates and other resources.

Inquiry and Assessment

When first introduced to inquiry-based learning, educators often have questions around assessment. To help guide teachers through these challenges and demonstrate what assessment can look like in the inquiry classroom, Trevor is currently working on a book that speaks directly to the mindset shift he has experienced around assessment in his own practice, and he goes on to describe some of the changes he’s made in the classroom.

For example, he no longer puts any numbers or letter-grades on formative assessments — he only offers feedback. He also makes sure that students are invested in the assessment process through the co-creation of criteria, the inclusion of student voice, and by making sure that assessment occurs in the classroom, by and with students — instead of something done to them. Assessment done properly infuses course content instead of taking the shape of something slapped on to the end of a unit of a study. 

The Power of Grading Conferences

Speaking to the power of the conference, Trevor says that the simple decision to sit down with each of his learners to discuss their assessments for the term was one of the most helpful and practical moves he’s ever made in his practice. He immediately noticed the empowerment and sense of agency that the conferences gave students. For a change, many of his students actually wanted their parents to read their report cards because they had a direct hand in crafting those comments. Even more importantly, the process broke many students out of a fixed mindset regarding what past report cards and the education system had told them they were and were not capable of as learners.

Could Inquiry Reshape Professional Development?

Sadly, Trevor says, professional development is often not designed by teachers, and as a result, there can be a disconnect between philosophy and practice. Make sure that teachers have a voice, and make relevance and immediate application high priorities in the design of professional development activities, he urges.

What Else is Setting Trevor on 🔥 in Education

Beyond inquiry, something else that is setting Trevor on fire in education today is the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion. He’s taken some hard looks at cultural responsiveness, systemic biases, allyship, identity studies, and the unpacking of his own personal biases. Educators who greatly impress Trevor in this space include Gary Gray Jr., Liz Kleinrock, and Cornelius Minor. If we want our students to truly understand themselves as learners, people, and human beings, we owe it to them to help them understand the biases, narratives, and historical forces that shape our understanding of ourselves.

Serving with Presence

As much joy as he derives from working with learners in his classroom, Trevor is also passionate about teaching teachers and working with other educators around the world. Balancing the two consituencies well and being fully present in every context requires intentionality and mindfulness. “As I enter the classroom each and every day, I’m asking how I can be present and mindful of what’s immediately before me,” Trevor says.

A Personal Passion: Cycling

Trevor is an avid cyclist, and on many mornings he is up early and out of the house on his bike before school. He also enjoys a good community of fellow cyclists in his area that he enjoys biking and racing with. Cycling gets him going, fires him up, and keeps him healthy so that he can serve others well.

A Productivity Hack: Early Mornings 

Trevor’s best productivity hack is to get up at 5:00 a.m. each morning, and he’s been inspired by other creatives to work before the rest of the world is awake. It’s the perfect time to tie up loose ends, complete tasks, do important reading, or write reflectively. With small children at home and students at school, the early morning is simply the best block of time in the day to be productive and undistracted.

Voices & Resources That Inspire His Practice 

Over on Twitter, Trevor recommends following @TheMerrillsEdu. The Merrills are an amazing elementary teaching couple who take creativity to a whole new level in their practice. Make sure to give them a follow!

No edtech tool has revolutionized Trevor’s assessment practices more than FlipGrid, where students post video responses and interact with each other’s ideas. Microsoft recently acquired this legendary platform and made its features absolutely free for educators, increasing equity and access for all learners in the process. Make sure to connect with Flipgrid on Twitter @FlipGrid

The Innovator's Mindset by George CourosWhen prompted for a book pick, Trevor points to a classic — The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, by George Couros. Trevor also shouts out another title that has been influential in his practice, Understanding By Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.

In the world of podcasts, Trevor is making a late appearance at the world’s most famous true crime series, Serial. He’s also gaining a lot from the Teaching While White Podcast – White Fragility podcast series.

As for YouTube channels, Trevor is going back to one of the faves he mentioned previously: Gary Gray Jr. Gary is an important voice in the conversation on equity and he keeps things real on his channel.

Although his kids are still too young for the chills and thrills of this popular series, Trevor has been enjoying Stranger Things whenever he does find the time for some entertainment on Netflix.

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

Connect with Trevor …

Connect with the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media:

Song Track Credits

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

 

Episode 97 – Nina Pak Lui

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Meet Nina Pak Lui

NINA PAK LUI has taught at the middle and high school levels and today she instructs pre-service teachers at the School of Education at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC, Canada.

Nina views teaching as a sacred calling, and she’s dedicated to inspiring and equipping future teachers to be caring, competent, inclusive and reflective. She is passionate about designing and facilitating meaningful learning experiences that intentionally connect theory to practice.

Tensions Between Vision and Reality

A few years ago, Nina was teaching in a high school context when her mental health began to struggle. She experienced a taxing tension between her vision for program ideals and certain systemic constraints that would not allow that vision to come to fruition. It became increasingly difficult to align her values and beliefs with practice, and the emotional distress eventually became too pressing to ignore.

Nina took an extended leave from her position, and the time away was healing and clarifying. With a lot of time for reflection, she stopped blaming external factors and began examining her own internal landscape. She learned to be kinder to herself, show more patience with others, accept the slow rates of institutional change, and recognize that perfectionism is a thief of joy. With lots of love from her support network, she has rested, recalibrated, healed, and now enjoys new optimism and outlook in her current context. 

Focusing on Formative Assessment for Learning

Nina regularly talks with her undergrad students about their own assessment journeys. They share about unyielding deadlines, grades being used to punish, no chances to refine or revise, and feedback that only comes at the end of a learning cycle. Although assessment experiences can be positive, the negative experiences seem to come through more often.

Katie White, author of Softening the Edges: Assessment Practices That Honor K-12 Teachers and Learners, writes that “continual intention and active capturing of learning in the moment and making inferences about a learner’s understanding in relation to a goal happens over time.” Dylan Wiliam adds that “for assessment to be primarily embedded in the learning cycle it must remain formative,” and “all activities undertaken by teachers and/or by students provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching or learning activities in which they are engaged.”

These quotes speak to the ideas that …

  1. learning happens over time,
  2. we must practice intentional goal-setting,
  3. we must allow more times for reflection, and
  4. we must support more opportunities for revision and additional tries.

For Nina, formative assessment is often about determining readiness: is the learner actually ready to take the next step? Too often, we push learners down a track that ignores their individual needs and progress, which only creates further dissonance and deficits in their learning journeys. By being more flexible and creating personalized learning experiences, we create more on-ramps for learners and ensure that every student remains on a track to growth.

Summative assessments have a place in classrooms, Nina says, as long as they are actually used as a tool for learning, celebrate growth, and close the door for further learning as seldom as possible. Summative assessments should look like rich performance tasks that demonstrate the complete learning standards that the learner is aiming for. When using summative assessments, it’s critical to carefully consider the best type of summative assessment to be used and ensure that the learning standards can be fully demonstrated.

Why Should We Assess Students At All?

So why assess? Katie White says that assessment is something that we are always doing, and it’s an essential process to support the human. Achievement in school is not about doing work to accumulate points and letter grades. Instead, school should be a place of learning and becoming. “I want my students to know that they can make mistakes, that they can try again to correct their mistakes and improve,” Nina says.

Questions to Ask Ourselves Around Assessment

  • Are we here to ensure that students are taught or that students learn?
  • Are we here to measure only past learning or support future learning?
  • Is our work about building walls and documenting who climbs over them, or making sure our learners have the tools and supports to push through the barriers that are in front of them?

When we identify and address barriers to learning through greater access, equity, and inclusion, our learners will be more successful.

How to Best Serve Pre-Service Teachers 

When it comes to pre-service teachers today, Nina points out that their needs haven’t changed too much over the last twenty years. They still need the safety and support to try new ideas, encouragement to take risks, and the freedom to think outside the box. They also need quality mentors and supportive partnerships in the field, because sometimes what they see and experience in classrooms does not align with the principles they are learning in their classrooms.

On that note, education programs must work hard to intentionally connect course work to field work, theory to practice. Pre-service teachers and inexperienced teachers are having to adjust to a rapidly changing landscape and movements, so we must give them the confidence to remain lifelong learners – professional learners – that aim not to have it all figured out at once but instead adopt a posture of continuous learning and growth throughout our careers.

Addressing Gaps in Equity and Inclusion in Our Schools

When it comes to equity, Nina says, she starts by looking at access. Does every student have equal opportunity and access to the learning experiences? It’s an obvious step, but school faculties and leaders must do a better job of representing the voices and cultures in their school populations, says Nina.

What’s Setting Nina on 🔥 in Education Today

Nina has become obsessed with collaborative inquiry and the Spiral of Inquiry, created by Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert. The spiral gives voice, choice, and agency to educators and the means to go on learning journeys as whole communities.

Nina gets ignited by other education soulmates, including academics like Jenn Skelding, Christine Younghusband, and Gillian Judson, co-author of Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. These three and others constantly recharge her passion for education and the changing paradigms in assessment.

One thing Nina has definitely missed since leaving the classroom are the voices of parents, and she wants to find ways to include their voices in more education conversations.

Nina’s Professional Goals

On the horizon, Nina is also passionate about taking on another new step of learning by way of academic research. In particular, she wants to learn more about teacher education program development and assessment for learning, including its integration at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

The two words that summarize Nina’s goals for this year are bravery and courage. Nina has felt challenged in this last year to really lean into transparency about her professional learning journey. On top of starting new research, she’s also committing to sharing her learning on her blog and modeling vulnerability for her students. She’s been asking her students to blog about their learning, and after reading hundreds of their entries, she recognized that it was time for her to walk the walk and start sharing her own journey as well. Creating and designing her blog and formulating her first posts has already given her more empathy for her students and understanding of the learning challenges they face.

Personal Passions That Keep Her Inner Fire Burning 

Nina’s chief passion and source of rejuvenation away from the university is her family. She’s a wife and mom to two kids, and spending time with them is her greatest joy. Calling her kids her greatest teachers, she says they help her come alive and continually remind her of what it means to be human.

She’s also enjoying the insights shared by authors like Ken Shigematsu, Henri Nouwen, and Jean Vanier regarding the nature of life and humanity, and she embraced opportunities this summer to unplug from the digital and become fully immersed in nature.

A Productivity Hack

Nina uses the Wunderlist app to track to-do items for her courses or profound questions asked by her kids. It helps keep her stay organized and on track.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Nina’s Thinking

Over on Twitter, Nina recommends following @KatieWhite426, author of Softening the Edges. Katie is active on Twitter and hosts the #AtAssessment chat which takes place every other Tuesday night.

An edtech tool that facilitates voice, engagement, and learning in her university classes is Socrative. Follow Socrative on Twitter @Socrative

The Way of the TeacherNina’s book recommendation is The Way of the Teacher: A Path for Personal Growth and Professional Fulfillment by Dr. Sandra Finney and Jane Thurgood Sagal. This book works on several levels, Nina says. It offers practical suggestions for our professional work but also offers guidance about how to work in human and sustainable ways that rekindle our love and joy for teaching.

One podcast that Nina enjoys is called On Being with Krista Tippett. What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? Who will we be to each other? These are the questions that guide their conversations.

Two shows that Nina has been watching on Netflix are The Crown and Queer Eye. More than just a fashion show, Nina appreciates how the hosts of Queer Eye go beyond fashion to meet people wherever they are in their lives.

We sign off on this conversation, and Nina offers the best ways to connect with her online. See below for details!

Connect with Nina:

Sponsoring This Episode: Classtime

This episode is brought to you by Classtime.com, an assessment platform that delivers learning insights, giving you more time to teach.

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