Upon Reflection … It Still Comes Down to Engagement

Tomorrow I’m going on vacation. Hopefully the sun will shine for most of the week and I’ll take advantage of every minute of salt water, sandcastles, and ice cream cones.

Today I began to unplug. I actually found myself reflecting … something I haven’t had a minute to do during the sprint of the last few months. Specifically, I’ve reflected on the major take-always from May, June, and July.

…. MAY

Assessment

All you have to do is set foot in a school or have a conversation with an educator and you can feel the tension – the pressure of high stakes testing. May feels different in our schools. It feels different for our children.

While Virginia’s SOL assessments are here to stay, I had the opportunity to lead a team of teachers and administrators through an awesome process this spring: we spent a great deal of time reconceptualizing the 13-year assessment framework for our students. We’ve reduced the amount of traditional assessments by about 40%. (This means we’ve effectively added that same amount of time back to teaching and learning.) We’ve added growth measures, and we’ve developed performance assessments. We’ve created the division’s Balanced Assessment Project.

We’ve made the conscious decision to create a more well-rounded, more comprehensive assessment profile for our students and teachers. We’re building an assessment system that we know is better than the one we’ve used for years.

University Partnerships

We’ve been working all year on strengthening our relationship with Virginia’s colleges and universities. After a second encouraging meeting with officials from James Madison University, it looks like we’re poised to provide some incredible opportunities to our students and staff. Some will be as early as the fall. Some will take more time to develop and deliver.

From working toward a program that will allow our seniors to graduate from Goochland High School with an official JMU transcript to providing our teachers with exceptional professional development opportunities – it appears that we’re at the beginning of a partnership that will become a cornerstone to our overall educational program.

…. JUNE

Apple Event

A team of about 15 administrators, teachers, and school board members attended an education event hosted by Apple in Reston, Virginia. Beyond the amazing resources afforded by the Apple platform, I left the event with one major take-away. It centered on the urgency for technology to exist as part of the learning environment, as opposed to an event within it. We need to move past the days when we stop instruction to make our way to the computer lab or when we ask students to put away their laptops (or mobile devices) to get back to direct instruction.

Of course this notion doesn’t minimize the importance of direct instruction; rather, it emphasizes the advancement that can be made when technology exists as a ubiquitous part of students’ learning environment. This kind of environment allows for true personalized learning.

Performance Assessments (or Tasks)

A “performance task” requires a student to create, manipulate or re-work intellectual academic content in a practical and authentic performance that demonstrates student learning. It’s an assessment of learning – and it sure requires more of students than a traditional multiple choice test.

I had the opportunity to work with a small team of teacher leaders in the development of our first set of division performance assessments in grades 4 and 5 and in middle school science. Our team consisted of teachers and principals from every level: elementary, middle, and high.

STEM Camp 2013

140 students in grades K-8. Design challenges. Guest engineers. Bridge building. Rocket launching. Underwater robots. The Science Museum of Virginia.

Wow.

…. JULY

Strategic Planning

Strategic planning is something we’ve been working on for months … years. What’s happening lately, however, is that all of the discussion, all of the soul searching, and all of the thoughtful consideration is beginning to take shape. It’s taking the shape of a well thought out vision, mission, and set of values.

In this strategic planning process, I was asked last week to define the word “rigor.” The conversation ebbed from Bloom’s Taxonomy to grading to the idea that rigor, by its very nature, has to be individualized. The question sure made me pause, consider, and dig in on a word that we use daily in our work as professional educators.

Rigorous are performance tasks.

Back to strategic planning. How great would it be to work for a school division whose central mission it is to maximize the potential of every learner? Not to work for a division that hangs a hollow statement on the wall – but to be part of a team and immersed in a culture wherein every decision made is aimed at maximizing the potential of every child, every employee, and every stakeholder.

So … what have I discovered in the chance to finally reflect?

It’s given me the chance to connect the dots of the past several months. The discovery affirms what we’ve been working toward for the last 18 months: ENGAGEMENT.

Balanced assessment, college coursework in high school, technology-rich classrooms, performance tasks, hands-on science and engineering, defining or vision and values … each of them will play a significant role in our ability to engage our school community.

I talk (and write) all the time of my beliefs about the importance of engagement. I’ve shared the graphic by Gallup that shows us the typical engagement trend for students in school.

I believe our school division can create a different trendline: one that starts high and stays high.