When We Look Too Closely

A few weeks ago, I sat riveted through this TED TALK. And I have been thinking about it ever since. Now, please know that this talk has nothing to do with education. Mostly it is about sand.  A photographer speaks about the process he uses to take incredibly close-up pictures of sand.  When he zooms in on sand to a level that is beyond microscopic, what he finds is simply incredible. It is gorgeous. It is nothing that you could ever imagine. And the images are mesmerizing.

As he describes the process that he uses in order to put together these awe inspiring images, he explains:

“Now, the way my microscopes work is, normally in a microscope you can see very little at one time, so what you have to do is you have to refocus the microscope, keep taking pictures, and then I have a computer program that puts all those pictures together into one picture so you can see actually what it looks like.”

When you watch the video, you can see exactly what he means.  As he zooms in closely on one small piece of the sand, the rest of the image becomes blurry. While one small piece is completely clear, the rest of the actual piece of sand becomes incredibly hard to see. It is not until he uses a computer program that allows him to put all of these tiny images together that he is able to clearly see the image as a whole.

So why has this stuck with me?

As I listened to this man speak, I could not help but think about what we have started to do in the world of education. How we have started to look at our children.

As we become increasingly dependent on data, we seem to be zooming in so closely on one small piece of who a child really is.  We look at numbers, often in isolation, and we use them to attempt to understand a whole child. And in the same way that this photographers microscopes and cameras work, when we zoom in too closely and look at just one small piece of a child, then the rest of the child becomes blurry. The rest of the child becomes hard to see. And unless we work to put together these isolated pieces of data, we will completely miss the beauty of the entire child.

When I am in my classroom. When I am teaching my children. When I am making the minute-by-minute instructional decisions that truly matter in my students’ education, rarely am I guided by one isolated number.  Rarely does a child’s score on a test inform me of the best instructional moves to make. Rarely does a child’s percentile tell me what that child needs on any given day. Rarely does one number tell me how to help my student. Instead, I find myself constantly putting together tiny pieces of information.

I look at the face of a child during my reading conference and put it together with all that I know that child has been struggling with in the past week and I decide to just listen instead of push today.

I read a response that my student has written about multiple texts that we have been reading and analyzing for bias and I put that together with what I know he struggles with as a writer and I decide to be amazed by his content instead of being appalled by his spelling and grammar.

I see a child smile as he writes and I put that together with how his fourth grade teacher told me he hated writing and I decide to walk over and celebrate with him how far he has come.

I listen to a child tell me that she is still reading the same book that she was reading in September. I put that together with how she runs up to me in the hallway to talk with me about the part of the book she got to last night and I put that together with how I know she is in a reading intervention. And I make the decision to tell her what an incredible reader she has become because she has fallen in love with a book and is sticking with it no matter how long it takes.

If I look at any of these pieces of information in isolation, if I zoom in too closely on just one piece of data, then I allow the rest of the parts of that child to become blurry and I  loose the beauty of the entire child. If I look too closely, if I never take the time to put all of these pieces of information together, then I run the risk of doing an incredible disservice to the whole child sitting in front of me.

And yet.

There are days when I go to meetings and we talk about children as if they can be reduced to one number, one score, one data point. We highlight certain pieces of data and dismiss others. We value data that comes from a machine or from a standardized test that removes the bias of the child’s teacher. We dismiss the data that cannot be boiled down to one number. We look at the data that can be turned into a chart or a graph or a point on a line. We look at all of these isolated pieces of data and then we lose the beauty of the whole child.

These data points. These numbers. They can be so darn seductive. Because they are easy. They are neat. They fit into cells on spreadsheets that can be turned into charts that compare children to each other. They remove all that messy stuff like a child’s home life and a child’s struggles outside of school and a child’s social struggles and the way a child does not perform his best when he knows he is being timed. These numbers have a way of ignoring all of that. And yet these are the numbers we often rely on when making decisions about a child and making decisions about a teacher.

And just like the super up-close images of sand, they are might be prettier to look at, but when we look that closely are we really seeing the sand anymore? When we look this closely at a child, are we really seeing the child anymore?

I am not suggesting that there is no place for numbers or data gathered from standardized tests. However, I am suggesting that as we continue to become overly dependent on data and numbers as teachers, we run the risk of loosing the beauty that can only come when we start to put all of our pieces of information together.

A child is seen so much more clearly when she is looked at as a whole. When the numbers and data are looked at right alongside the observations of a teacher then we get a much more complete understanding of who that child really is. What her strengths are and what her challenges are.

And as teachers, yes, we must get better of keeping track of these observations, of observing the important things, of writing things down so that they can be referred to, of finding ways to really see every single child in our classroom. Because when we do, then we can begin to insist that what we see in the classroom, each and every day, THAT is important data too. That is information that deserves to be examined as closely as the information that is used to create the charts and graphs.

And if we can begin to take our data and our numbers and our classroom observations and the evidence of growth that a child sees in himself, if we can take all of that and put it together, then we have a chance of seeing the whole child clearly. And there is not a single child who exists in this world who does not deserve to be seen clearly and wholly.

The Assessments that Matter Most Can Never Be Standardized

What those in charge (I lose track of who that even is anymore) will never realize is that the assessments that matter most to us as teachers, those can never be standardized. We can never standardize the most meaningful measures of growth because they tell us what really matters about the completely unstandardized humans that are entrusted to us each day and their growth in the completely unstandardized areas that really matter in turning these humans into better learners and better citizens of the world. These children who look to us to help them see the many ways that they are growing, these children are moving along an infinite number of uncharted paths as they grow and then struggle and then grow and then struggle, all the while keeping their eyes on what they will be able to accomplish next.

And those uncharted paths, we can’t turn those into the numbers or charts or pretty color coded graphs that people so desperately seem to want these days.  We can’t take those personal successes and signs of growth and use them to tell you (whoever you are) who is succeeding and who is failing and who is good enough and who is not quite good enough according to your meaningless measures. It just doesn’t work that way. No matter how much money you want to spend trying to find a way to make it work that way.

Because, you see, what those in charge don’t know is that the assessments that matter most are the ones that are scrawled across whatever scraps of paper we can manage to find when we notice several kids struggling with the same concepts so that we remember to pull them into a small group later that day.

The assessments that matter most are the quick charts we create during writing workshop when we noticed that some of the kids are happily writing while others seem to be doing anything but and we want to make sure we remember who needs more support finding a way into his or her writerly life.

The assessments that matter most are the quotes that we overhear that we tuck instantly away in our hearts because they show us the first glimmer of a student becoming a writer who never thought he was one before.

The assessments that matter most are the notes we take in our binders when we speak one-on-one in a reading conference and we find the gold in what our children are saying that shows us just how much they really hear us even when we think they don’t.

The assessments that matter most are the ones that our children themselves are a part of creating because the act of creating an assessment alone shows us that even if a student isn’t able to do all that it takes to craft a powerful piece of writing, he very well may know what a powerful piece of writing is SUPPOSED to contain and once he has written that down, he is much more likely to keep working towards that.

The assessments that matter most are the conversations you have with a student who swears that he hates everything about reading and then finally shares with you that he enjoys reading books about sports players because now you know that you need to rush out and find high quality sports fiction and have it available for him in your classroom library so that he knows that he IS a reader and there IS a place for him here in our reading community.

The assessments that matter most are the moments that we notice and jot down on sticky-notes to share with parents when we see a child start to believe that she might be a reader and a writer who just didn’t know it yet.

The assessments that matter most are the comments we hear during classroom discussions that show us what we still need to teach our students the next day.

The assessments that matter most are the emails from a mother letting you know that for the first time ever, her child, who used to stare at the clock to wait out her assigned twenty minutes of nightly reading in past years, is up in her bedroom reading by choice and has asked her family not to bother her.

The assessments that matter most are the notifications waiting for you on a Sunday that tell you that you have students who have been writing blog posts at home over the weekend.

The assessments that matter most are the conversations that we overhear during group work that show us what our students are misunderstanding and what misconceptions we need to help them clear up.

The assessments that matter most are the ones that fill our binders and create the never ending stacks of sticky-notes we store on clipboards. They are the ones we hold in our hearts and in our guts and in the very fibers of what make us teachers.

But no one wants to see those. Those don’t seem to be very impressive to anybody. So we sit and wait for them to tell us what assessments might be better. We sit and wait for them to give us the “real” assessments that we give us “real” data that can be used to make “real” decisions about our students. We wait for them to hand us the next round of tests that promise to be so very useful for instruction.

And we hold our breath and hope that they won’t be too awful. We hold our breath and we cross our fingers that they won’t take up too much of our precious instructional time. We hope, with our whole hearts, that they won’t undo the work that we have done in order to make our students start to believe that they CAN be successful, that they CAN be readers, that they CAN be writers.

And then we do their assessments. And wait for the smoke to clear so that we can get back to teaching and back to the assessments and measures of growth that matter most.

Maybe one day. Someone will realize that all of this is somewhat meaningless. That no matter what test they give us next. No matter what assessments they tell us are going to finally fix all the ills of the education system. No matter what they promise us this new test will do for us and for our schools and for our students and even for the entire educational system at large. That none of that is really true. And then maybe. Just maybe. They’ll just let us teach. They’ll let us teach and learn alongside of our students. They’ll let us measure their growth and they’ll let us record where they struggle. And they will let us push where we need to push and celebrate where we need to celebrate and trust that we can figure all of that out without their fancy tests.


An Open Letter to My Students: I Am Sorry For What I Am About To Do To You

To all of my precious students,

I am sorry for what I am about to do to you.

This week, I am going to have to give you a new test. It’s called PARCC. There will be five separate tests, on four separate days, and my guess is that most of you will hate them.  My guess is that one or two of you will be brought to tears because they will make you feel like you are not smart enough.  My guess is that several of you will give up part way through the test and just start clicking around on the screen. My guess is that some of you will look around at the students sitting next to you to try and figure out if they are also as confused as you are in the hopes of knowing that you are not the only way feeling this way.  My guess is that more than a handful of you will, at some time during the test, ask me to come over and help you with something and I will not be able to. My guess is that almost all of you will wonder what these tests have to do with the learning and growing that we are doing every day in our classroom because you know that our learning has meaning and purpose in this world and you cannot figure out how these tests could possibly do that.  My guess is that all of you will wonder why I am making you take these tests.

And the answer is simple.  I have to.  Our state and federal government say that I have to give these tests to you. That you must take them. And I need you to know how very sorry I am about that.

I have no control over this. I have no control over whether or not I give you this test. But, like I always tell you, I do have complete control over my own thoughts and my own words. So here is what I need to say to you.

I do not agree that these tests will tell me what I really need to know about you as a learner or as a human being.  I do not agree that these tests will make me a better teacher.  I do not agree that these tests will improve our schools. I do not agree that you need to sit in front of a computer for over five hours in order for the government to find out what you know and what you can do. I do not agree that you should not have a choice in how you are able to show all of the things that you are capable of doing. I do not agree that in order for the state to know that I am doing my job that you have to suffer through tests that could quite possibly ruin much of the hard work that we have done together in building your confidence this year and in helping you to see yourselves as readers and writers.  I do not agree with these tests.

And even more than I want you to know all of that, I want you to know that these tests will never tell you who you are.  They will never be able to show all of your various, beautiful and wondrous strengths.  They will never be able to show all of the things that you have learned this year.  They will never be able to show some of the most important things about who you all are.  Because these tests will not show your humanity.

They will not show how you have learned to see this world through empathetic eyes.  They will not show how you have learned to choose ways to present your knowledge so that you can use your individual strengths. They will not show how you have learned to collaborate with your classmates and with students around the world. They will not show how you have learned to listen first and then speak.  They will not show how you have learned to do good things for this world. They will not show how you have grown as people. These tests will never be able to show those things and please believe me when I tell you that those are the things that truly matter in this world.

So if, and when, you struggle with these tests. If, and when, you start to think that these tests are telling you that you are not smart. If, and when, you start to believe that maybe you aren’t really good enough. If, and when, you start to feel like you want to cry because you just don’t know what these tests are really asking. Sit back. Take a deep breath. And then remember what you know.  Remember what you know about what is really important in this world. Remember what you know about how brilliant you all are.

And if you can’t remember. If these tests are bad enough that they make you forget. Then you raise your hand. And I will come over. And I will take one look at your face. And I will see what is going on. And I will remind you. I will remind you that you are a reader and that you are a writer and that you are worthy just because you are exactly who you are. I will remind you of all the things that I have seen you do this year. I will remind you of all the meaningful work that you have added to our world this year.  I will remind you of how far you have come. I will remind you of what you do for me, and for our classroom, and for this world. Every. Single. Day.

And then. Even though I am not supposed to. I will probably sneak you a piece of chocolate. And I will try to make you laugh. Because at the end of the day, these tests have no real meaning for you. And at the end of this week, we get to go back to the work that is really important. And at the end of the year, what you will look back on and remember will not be these tests, but all of the learning and growing that you have done this year.

So please forgive me. Please know that by giving you these tests I feel as if I am an accomplice in something that feels dirty and wrong. Please know that I value you more than this test. Please know that you are more than this test. And please know that as soon as this week is over, we will get back to our regularly scheduled learning.


Mrs. Lifshitz

Rubrics: What My Students Had to Say About Them

We are nearing the end of our persuasive writing unit. My students have been working for many weeks to learn about what good persuasive writing looks like and sounds like and even feels like. They have read examples of persuasive writing that are better than good. They have tried out new strategies, they have applied new skills when they have needed them and they have reached a pretty good understanding of what a persuasive piece of writing should include in order to make it better than good.

We have a few more weeks to finish up the pieces that we are currently working on and then it will be time for them to chose the piece of persuasive writing that they believe represents the best of what they have done and the best of themselves as  persuasive writers. Now, this is hardly the only time that my students have been assessed. I assess them everyday, they assess each other every day and, most importantly, they assess themselves every day.  I offer feedback in one-on-one conferences, in small group meetings, in whole class work time.  Students offer each other feedback as they have side-by-side conversations and small group conversations.  Students assess their own work every time they use one of our persuasive revision checklists and choose at least two ways to make their writing better.

So there is a lot of assessment and a lot of feedback going on.

But, towards the end of any of our writing units, I want to give the kids a chance to choose the piece of writing that they believe shows the very best of what they have to offer and I want them to use what they know in order to complete a formal assessment of that piece of writing.

The problem is always how to do this in a way that values who they are as individual writers and values what we have learned to do as writers in our classroom.  I have found that most of the assessment tools out there for teachers to use don’t often reflect the unique learning that goes on our classroom (or any other classroom other than the one that the assessment was created for).  And in the past, when I have created my own writing assessment tools, I have felt as if my students felt completely detached from them.  I would spend so much time crafting a checklist or a rubric and then I would hand them out all excited and I noticed that my students’ eyes would glaze over as I read through each bullet point on the paper in front of them.  And then when it came time for the students to use them to self-assess, they simply went down the list and checked every single item or circled the highest number on the rubric. They were meaningless.

So for the past few years, I have tried to get my students more involved in the assessment tool creation process.  At the start of the year, our assessments look pretty simple. For our narrative writing unit at the start of this year, our assessment was a simple yes or no checklist, but the students created the checklist so that it reflected what THEY thought was important to have in a piece of narrative writing. Here is what we came up with.

Before beginning our work on creating an assessment tool for our persuasive writing, I decided to begin with a discussion on the way that persuasive writing is often assessed in our district.  For years we have used the rubric that was created for the writing portion of our old state standardized assessment, the ISAT. There has not been a writing portion of the ISAT for several years now and, of course, this year there is no longer even an ISAT because we will be taking PARCC instead (this is obviously a discussion for another post, I do not want to waste the energy on that now). Anyway, I decided to begin by having the kids look at the rubric that is often used in our district and ask them what they thought about it.

As always, my students’ feedback was incredible.  My morning class began with a collective groan. They then got a bit more specific about what they were groaning about and said that they often felt sad when they had put a lot of effort into a piece of writing and then discovered that it was only worth a 2 in the eyes of their teacher.  Some said that it was overwhelming to them and that it made them feel like they had to do so many things in order to get a good score.  Some kids did acknowledge that it was helpful for them to know exactly what they had to do in order to do well on a piece of writing.  Other students said that while it was helpful for them to know what they had to do, it also felt limiting. In my afternoon class, several students spoke about how it made them afraid to try something creative because they didn’t think that was what the rubric was looking for. Others said that they felt like there were many things missing, like a category for creativity, connection with the audience, emotions, relevance of chosen topic, etc.  And to me, the most eye opening comments were the ones that expressed that while the rubric that we use helped them to know how to get a good score on a piece of writing, it didn’t really help them to know how to create a good PIECE OF WRITING that would be read outside of the walls of our school. It was amazing how much they had to say.

At the end of both discussions, we decided that while this assessment tool was helpful in some ways, it really was more detrimental to our writing because it was missing some important characteristics and it made us feel limited in what we could try with our own writing.

So we decided to create our own assessment tool.

The first step in our creation process was for the kids to work together in small groups to create a list of all of the qualities of better than good persuasive writing that they could think of.  Here is one of the final lists that they came up with. In order to come up with this list, I asked them to think about all of the mentor texts that we have read, all of our writing strategies that we have learned, all of the work they had done and all of the work they had seen their classmates do. I asked them to think about what common elements existed in all of those better than good pieces of persuasive writing.  They added them to a collaborative GoogleDoc and I did some cleaning up at the end to merge some similar ideas and remove any repeated ideas.

The next step that we took was to get back in our small groups and to begin organizing these listed qualities into categories. The kids were free to have as many categories as they wanted and to create the kinds of labels for each category that made sense to them.  Here is one group’s work that is still in the middle of the process.  And here is one group that has finished with the sorting process.  It was so exciting to hear the kids having discussions about the kinds of categories that they wanted to see assessed in their own writing.

It was powerful for them to talk about the things that they believe needed to be in a piece of better than good persuasive writing. And what I found especially helpful was hearing that even though some of my students were not yet able to do all of the things that I would expect a fifth grade writer to be able to do, they still knew what things SHOULD be in a piece of persuasive writing in order for it to be better than good. It helped me to understand that while they might not be at the target yet, they know where they need to be heading.

This is a far as we have gotten in the process so far, but I have been so excited about it that I just had to put some thoughts down.  This week, I am planning to print out all of the organized qualities and ask the students to create a draft of a possible assessment tool. We will talk about how some groups might opt for a yes/no checklist, other groups might opt for a checklist with point values, other groups might opt for a rubric or other groups might simply opt for some form of written assessment.  I want the groups to think for themselves how they think we can best assess a piece of persuasive writing.  After the groups share their drafts, as a class, we will choose one assessment tool, or create a combination of several of the shared ideas, to use on our chosen pieces of persuasive writing.  The final assessment tool will be completed by the students on a piece of their writing that they believe best shows what they know as a persuasive writer.  As they complete these assessments, they will need to highlight and annotate where they find evidence for each descriptor in their own writing.

One of the things that is most exciting to me is that all of this work (in creating the assessment tool) will be taking place as my students are working on their final pieces of persuasive writing.  So they are going to be able to use these tools in order to make their current pieces of writing better, even if those aren’t the pieces of writing that they choose to assess formally.

It’s been great to hear the energy in the room as this work is being done and I am so excited to see what our final product will look like. I will make sure to share a copy here as well so that you all can see what we end up with.  No matter what it is, no matter what it looks like, no matter how much I wish that it was a little bit different, what I will know is that it is a true reflection of the learning that my students have done and a true reflection of what they believe is most important in a piece of persuasive writing. And that matters so very much.

How We Assess Our Students Shows Them What We Value

There are a lot of assessment decisions that we have no control over. There are assessments required by the state, there are assessments required by the district and there are assessments required by the school.  It is so easy to get wrapped up in lamenting these assessments that we sometimes forget that we have control over the way that we assess our students in our own classrooms.  We have control over the way that we take notes on our students, the way that we track our students day to day progress, the way that we look at what are students are able to do and the way that we look for areas where they need help.  The formative assessments that we use every minute of the day are often left up to us.

And these formative assessments have so much power.  Every time we assess a child, it speaks volumes to that child about what we value.  It tells a child whether we value his ability to simply give us the answer that we want to hear or whether we care more about his ability to think deeply about a text he has just read.  It tells a child whether his teacher thinks it is important that he can remember small facts from an article or use an article to better understand the world around him.  Every time we ask a child a question or take notes on what a child can do, we are sending that child a message about what we value.

With that idea in mind, I have started to redo my reading conference note taking sheet.  As I looked back at the note taking form that I used last year, I see that most of the writing that I was doing was about what book the child was reading, what was happening in that book and what goal I gave the child to work on as he or she was reading.  It’s not that I think that this note taking sheet was harming the children in any way, it’s just that it doesn’t line up with what I value.

Yes, I think it is important that a child is able to synthesize the events of a book and retell them to me in a concise summary.  But I don’t think that it is nearly as important as a child being able to tell me what the book he is reading makes him think about.  I needed to create a form that left more space for me to notice the kind of thinking that a child is doing about his text, give that thinking a name, and point it out to the child so that he knows it is important and will be more likely to do it again in the future.  I needed more space to write down if I notice that a child is rooting for one of the characters, or if a child is showing empathy for a character, or if a child is using a character’s actions to better understand the actions of a person in his own life, or if a child is noticing that an author is making a certain choice in her writing style.  Therefore, on my new form, I am leaving a large amount of space to notice a child’s thinking, name a child’s thinking and  then share those observations with the child so that he recognizes the importance of what he is doing.

In addition, I believe it is important for me to set specific goals for a child to work on as he reads a text. I believe these goals should come from what a child is already doing or starting to do and they should be goals that help a child to better understand what he is reading. However, I believe that it is more important for me to help children learn to set these reading goals for themselves. In fact, that is the premise for my action research this year.   Therefore, on my new form, I am creating a space for reading goals and I am creating a space to mark whether these goals are teacher created or student created.  By hope is that, over time, I will be able to see the students’ reading goals shift from being primarily teacher-created to primarily student-created.  If there is a spot on the conference from to mark this distinction, students will see that ultimately, I want these goals to be something that they create based on their genuine curiosities and observations.  After writing down the goal, my plan is to have the student repeat the goal to me in his own words and then write the goal down in his reading journal where he will then be working towards accomplishing this goal.

I believe that having goals is important for students, but I believe that it is even more important to have a plan for how students will keep track of the work they are doing in order to meet these goals.  So I have created a spot to write down the student’s plan for keeping track of their work on their reading goal.  For example, if a child decides that he wants to look for how the main character feels differently about his mother than he feels about his father, we might decide that the best way to do that is to create a chart where mother is written in one column and father is written in the other. And every time there is a moment in the text that shows how he feels about his mother or father, the child might write down that evidence in his chart.  He might then leave space under the chart to write down what this evidence helps him to better understand about the relationship the main character has with his mother and the relationship the main character has with his father.  Without having this specific plan, I have seen children create great goals that are never carried through because the child has no idea how to actually begin working towards this goal.  If we can create a plan together during a conference, then the child will see that I value his ideas for how to work on a goal as much as I value him being able to set a goal in the first place.  It excites me to think about the kinds of plans that the kids will start to come up with.

I believe that working toward a goal is important, but I believe that it is even more important for students to share their work with their classmates in order to show their deep understandings and in order to inspire other students to work towards similar goals in the future. I believe that when students share the work they are doing, their classmates are much more likely to try to replicate that level of work.  So on the new form, I am creating a spot to write down when a student might be ready to share his or her work with the class.  Again, leaving a spot for this, shows the student that I value the work he is planning to do and the work that he is doing so much that I want to make sure to schedule a time for him to share this work with the class.  Again, I am excited about the possibilities that this creates for each child to become the teacher in our classroom.

So here is the form that I have so far:


It is far from perfect and I would love any ideas or suggestions that you might have.

We get so used to using the assessments that we have because they are there. It is easy to use the same forms year after year because they do a good enough job in gathering information.  However, when we really stop to think about what we value and then make adjustments to our assessments so that they truly show our students what we value, then our assessments will begin to create better learning opportunities for our children.  And, whether we remember it always or not, seeing where our students are and then pushing our students to new places is really the whole purpose of assessments in the first place.