Accidental Assessment

I’ve had several anguished conversations with friends in the past few weeks.  These are people with young children, particularly boys, who are watching their kids disengage from school, start to feel anxious about school, begin to dislike school.  Whereas backpacks and shoes used to fly on in the morning, now they have to coax and cajole to get their kids out the door.  They feel powerless to change the classroom environment and they are desperate for their kids to feel successful and happy at school. They are at their wits’ end.

What’s happening?  I have one word: assessment.  Assessment is happening to these kids.  Assessment is the reason that teachers have all kids sitting at desks doing the same task at the same time in the same way.  Their success on that task is assessed based on whether they’re doing it the ‘right’ way.  This is the way assessment gets done in many classrooms.

So let’s talk about assessment for a few minutes.

How do you assess student learning?  What tools do you use?  What data do you consider relevant and what data do you exclude?  Does assessment information only count when it comes nicely packaged on a piece of paper?

Here’s an example:

I was in a kindergarten class earlier this week.  I noticed a little girl lining up dominoes on a cookie sheet.

As she finished, I approached her and said:

“I like the way you’ve arranged those dominoes.”

She replied: “They’re not dominoes, they’re cookies.”

“Oh”, I responded, “can I have one?”

She nodded and I took the cookie at the top of the left-hand row.

I pretended to eat it and asked if I could have another.  Pointing at the row from which I had taken my cookie, she said: “You have to eat this one first.”

dominoes

I asked: “I have to eat the whole row?”

She replied while pointing at each row on the cookie sheet: “Yes, this is the first row, this is the second, this is the third, this is the fourth, and this is the fifth row.”

We have a curriculum expectation in Ontario related to understanding ordinal numbers in Kindergarten.  It reads:  “As children progress through the Full-Day Early Learning–Kindergarten program, they use ordinal numbers in a variety of everyday contexts.”

Clearly, this little girl understands what ordinal numbers are and knows how to use them.  For me, this photo and conversation sample is all the assessment data I would need to feel confident that she is progressing well in this regard.  The idea that I would need to stop her play, sit her down, and formally assess her on this expectation using a paper and pencil task is ridiculous to me; why wouldn’t information from her play be enough?

I don’t have an answer to that question.

What I do know is that we are imperiling student engagement on the altar of assessment and it’s a completely unnecessary sacrifice.  There is lots of good data out there; children show us all the time how much they’re learning, in all of their 100 languages.  We just have to be open to seeing it.

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The Capable Child

I believe that children are capable.  If my teaching life has a base, that’s it.

I’ve started so many experiences with that assumption that it’s become second nature.  I’ve tried, over the past few years, to make that assumption really clear and obvious to children, parents, and colleagues.  Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge: You think kindergarten kids can’t do that?  Let’s try!

They can’t climb and jump?  Let’s try.

They can’t paint with acrylics?  Let’s try

They can’t play with sticks?  Let’s try.

They can’t play on the ice? Let’s try.

They can’t build scale models?  Let’s try.

As a society, we place so many limitations on children, I take some mischievous delight in challenging them.

Sometimes it’s me that gets challenged.

This morning, I worked with some Kindergarten students, introducing them to clay for the first time.  I was expecting the usual progression: some exploration of the properties of the material, followed by some basic sculpture-building using the tools and techniques I had shown them.  Maybe in a few days, they would build something interesting.

Wrong.

This is what they built… in the first hour.

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So, yeah, children are capable.  Often more capable than I could have imagined.

The question that remains for me is this: how much of this capacity do we miss when we don’t allow children access to these rich materials?

I had a great conversation with a teacher of older students this morning.  We were talking about how her students, as they worked on printmaking, were having a hard time dealing with the fact that their prints didn’t always look exactly the way they had envisaged. Their discomfort at seeing art-making as a process with surprise embedded in it, prompted me to wonder how much of this anxiety is related to our cultural stigmatization of mistakes and how much is related to the product-based way we teach art.

One of the kindergarten sculptors took his piece apart three times and in the end didn’t have a final product.  He was fine with that.

The grade 6 students were upset when their prints weren’t “perfect”.

What happens in between?

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Observation Frustration

The child has a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture

(Loris Malaguzzi)

Children can draw from observation.  They have an eye for detail and they can reproduce those details with remarkable accuracy.

Even very young children, only just able to hold a pencil, can draw the concentric petals of a rose or the long lines of stalks of grass.  But what happens when children forget that they can draw?  When they insist that they can’t?

I’ve been faced with exactly this challenge this year as most of our students have resisted drawing from observation.  Every time I or my colleagues have put out a drawing invitation, we’ve been met with motifs: flowers with happy faces and 6-8 identical petals around a circle, for instance.  When I’ve asked the children to show me the flower they were drawing, they’ve resisted, shrugged, and declared “that’s the only flower I know how to draw.”

I’ve trucked out my usual strategy of sitting and drawing with them; perhaps they’ll realize that Madame’s flowers aren’t perfect representations either and maybe watching me struggle will encourage them to try.

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I’ve put out the work of a variety of artists whose work ranges from representational to abstract, hoping that it might encourage them to try a new way of drawing.  We’ve even had group conversations about the mechanics of drawing what you see – moving your eyes and hand together to draw.

Unlike other years none of these strategies has met with much success.  While a few individual students have been engaged, the idea has never really caught on.

But I’ve kept at it and finally, in the last month of school, victory!

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What’s the magic? Was it the subject?  Maybe dandelions, that most common of flowers, is less intimidating than roses, faces, and block towers?

Maybe it’s just time having its often miraculous effect.  Maybe it has taken a year for the cultural message of sameness and cuteness to be washed away and for the children to realize that their own representations, however different from each other, will be valued as much, more even, than any smiley face.

Wouldn’t it be great if they didn’t have anything to unlearn?  If their interpretations were always valued?  If we allowed the aesthetics of childhood to exist without needing to modify them to suit our own adult ideas about what childhood is?  Wouldn’t it be great if children’s interpretations of the world were as precious to us as the motifs that the media presents as childhood for sale?  That would be a smiley-face moment.

Architectural Voices – Part 3

This is the third and final installment of children’s poetic reflections on their architecture projects.  To read about the project in its entirety, please use the search term “architecture” in the search window below.

The Big Apartment Building

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It’s kind of big and also people who live here don’t have to live in little houses, they can live in big buildings.

And also they don’t have to live out of houses.

It took a long time to build it.

The sides are really big and the building’s really big

There’s lots of places for people to live inside.

Sometimes they have to break it down because it’s not working well.

They make designs so that the building doesn’t fall down

and they glue the bricks so it doesn’t fall down on the people inside.

 

The Pretty Triangle (A-frame)

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There’s a big window.

You slide the door open.

I like that it’s a triangle.

It looks like a face with eyes open or eyes closed.

 

The Villager Hut

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L: It kind of looks like a farm.

T: It would look like a real farm if the windows were down there.

E: It looks like a villager hut from Minecraft.

When the rain falls down

it will fall off onto the roof.

The roof is a sesame circle.

It’s for Lego guys – villagers.

 

K’s House for my Family

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The stairs they go up

roof.

the

to

way

the

all

And the windows are not square

‘cause they can look out of more places.

The fence has a little door

and they can go

straight to go inside.

The chimney is where Santa goes down.

 

Z’s House

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The roof is made out of paper and the rest is made out of wood.

There’s no ladders to go inside the window ‘cause that would be weird.

I have a chimney.

Santa Claus fell through the window – he’s stuck in there now.

I have a square window.

The door looks like a square

But

It

Isn’t.

 

The Playground (an almost haiku)

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This is a chimney.

There’s a slide and a diving board.

It’s to play in.

 

Architectural Voices – Part 2

This is the second post in a series of children’s poetic reflections on their architecture projects.  You can read more about their projects in earlier posts on this blog tagged with “architecture” as well as here.

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The Fire Fighter Station/Gymnastics Place

We put the roof on top and it can move a little.

I want

A door that opens and closes

If there’s ever a fire, you just run inside for help.

When you’re all done with the slide, you can just lift it up.

I wanted to do that to the ladder too.

We had to take one thing at a time.

When we make it we had to think up ideas

And when it falls apart we have to do it again.

It’s a place to go and do gymnastics, like I do gymnastics.

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The Shoe Factory

The roof is pretty crazy.

It looks like something that I don’t know what it is.

There are 3 rooms.

I made a model first.

I thought of the idea because my auntie told me about it.

This one won’t break because it has glue and not tape and it’s made out of wood.

I dreamed about the roof.

I like it because it looks like a crazy head.

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The Squirrel Hotel

It’s a playground hotel for one squirrel.

There’s a ladder,

A little shelter.

The roof is shaped like a diamond. It has wings

A flying house.

It has a window.

They can lie down on the ground

So they can sleep at night.

Architectural Voices – Part I

In documenting our architecture project, I’ve struggled with how much to interrogate the children about their buildings.

Tell me about your building?

What’s this?

What’s that for?

All of the questioning gets a little tedious for both of us and the buildings themselves speak so strongly on their own that I wonder about the need to layer text on top of that.

Part of this project, for me, was to validate building as an important language of expression by really digging into in and creating longer-term building projects instead of the build and break construction projects that kids create every day using blocks, tiles, cups, etc…

I’m astonished by the diversity of their work and by how clearly they’ve communicated their own personalities and thinking without using a word.  To say that they are different from each other isn’t enough – in many ways they are their buildings.

But, once they take their buildings home all we will have left are photos and text, so I decided, in the interests of posterity, to ask them to tell me whatever they thought they would like people to know about their architecture. I’ve formatted them as poetry because it seemed to fit – one language for another. Here are the first two:


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The roof is straight and not bendy.

The steps help you get up and down the slide.

There’s a stove on the roof.

That part (the V) is for bad guys to trip… it’s the tripper.

The chimney is for smoke.

The flower is for people to see it.

The diving board is for people to jump off; water is there.

The square behind the slide is for bad guys not to get in the house.

No Santa allowed in the house; there’s no more Christmas!

The hole is for people to pop up. There’s an invisible trampoline underneath.

It’s all done.


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I don’t have any chimney

There’s a window in the wall and in the roof.

There’s a gate and around it is to hold the gate up.

There’s a triangle mouse hole on each side ‘cause the mommies and the daddies go in one hole and the babies go in the other hole.

There’s a surfboard on the roof.

The glue is snow.

There’s a chair inside the back door.


I couldn’t have made them more different if I’d tried – the buildings or the girls who built them.  I’m still not sure about how much to value the text but I’m hoping that we are becoming more multilingual these days; maybe we can speak architecture and English without privileging the latter.

Versions of Risk, Versions of Reggio

Last week, Teacher Tom posted this article about climbing.  In it, he shares photos of some of the amazing climbing contraptions that his students build in their outdoor play space.  Some of them took my breath away; a plank balanced on a swing – wow!  Now there’s something that could cost a public school teacher her job!  Looking at that picture, I find myself feeling equal parts jealousy and awe.  It takes a lot of courage and trust on the part of any teacher or parent to let children explore the environment and materials to that extent.  Chutzpah… serious chutzpah.

boy climbing stump

While I do plenty of things that may make other people shake their heads, I’m not in that league, much as I admire it.

This puzzling over my own comparative cowardice led me to think about how the work done in Reggio Emilia during the last 60-odd years gets translated as it moves around the world.  How many times have I heard teachers talk about “doing Reggio” as though putting coloured water in glass jars will somehow transform their pedagogy?  My wonderings brought me back to Jerome Bruner who discusses the value of locality in the schools of Reggio Emilia.  He writes that:

The idea of locality and a sense of local identity are absolutely essential. This is the heart of the Reggio model, it is the model of living within your locality and being conscious of your local tradition. This does not mean that you need to ignore what is universal about mankind. The great task is to translate the local into the universal, and the translation of universals into local use. Politics is local, morality is local, knowledge is local, meaning is local. The process of making these local matters into universals is a process of negotiating.

To be ourselves we must first be local: Reggiani, Modenesi, Bolognesi, Londoners, New Yorkers. It is a sense of our locality that helps us to appreciate the universal. This is what the Reggio schools help children to do – to see the universal in the local. That is how we can become ‘global’ without losing our sense of our own local identity. And that is what Reggio stands for. The ‘Reggio idea’ is a local idea. Yet, what is so striking about it is that is has inspired an international movement. Its international message is that you must take your local task seriously. (Bruner, 2000, p. 12)”

One of the things I struggle with as a public school teacher is how to reconcile the necessities of my job with my ideals.  There is a creative pragmatism that grows out of this wrestling.  Sure, kids can probably climb our chain-link fences safely, but we have a school rule against that and, if I want to have the relationship collateral with my administrators and custodian that I’ll need to embark on my next slightly insane art project, I might have to scale back the climbing a bit.  Please take a moment here and imagine what it’s like to be the custodian in any school I’m working in… exactly.

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So how do we translate those global Reggio ideas into a local context that not only has pretty strict rules about safety but also a mandated curriculum?  Maybe it has something to do with pushing just to the edge of those structures, to see how far they will stretch.  In the dance world we have this notion of structured improvisation – two terms that seem at odds with each other but that, in practice, work beautifully together.  You can sketch the outlines of a dance – first we enter one at a time, then we move forward and backward, then into pair work and then we exit one by one until only one dancer remains on stage – without actually deciding in advance what you’ll be doing in those moments.  Structure without choreography.  You can push right to the edge of chaos without going over, hovering there on the precipice with your arms circling.

That’s what my locality feels like to me, exploring the tension between child-led pedagogy and curriculum, between risk and safety, between climbing and falling.  Sometimes it’s about letting them climb the stump instead of the fence.

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