Empowering and Guiding Students to Take Charge of Assessment – Synergy 8 Example

For many, many years, at school “marking periods,” I have written narrative comments regarding eighth-grade student progress. Typically, these comments have been summative and brief in nature. They generally covered work habits, class-participation trends, and performances on quizzes and tests. When I completed such a comment, I recorded my progress report in a school database, where it was reviewed and proofed by a grade-level administrator. Then, after about a week, the comments were sent – now emailed – home to parents.

When we (Jill Gough and Bo Adams) inaugurated Synergy 8 in 2010-11, we decided to use this non-departmentalized, non-graded, community-issues, problem-solving course to run some “pracademic” experiments in a number of areas, including assessment and student-progress reporting. Now, instead of an adult (teacher) writing a static comment to another adult (parent), the Synergy 8 students utilize moderated journaling to prepare their self-assessment reports. The student learners take primary responsibility for preparing their reflections about their own learning and growth. The student learners initiate the communication of this self-generated progress report to their parents, their teacher-facilitators, their grade chairs, and their director of studies. Before the published draft is sent, student learners peer review other team member’s reports, and they engage in a series of iterative prototypes, enhancements, and revisions.

The student learners “live” at various stages of maturity regarding their capacity to self-assess and initiate their own progress-report discussion with adults. BUT…they are practicing this incredibly vital, life-long skill of evaluating their own learning, performance, skill development, and growth. They are precipitating virtual, student-led conferences when they send their reports to the adults who serves as guides and coaches. Unlike the database-housed comments of the past, these student-based comments stir responses from their parents and the adults at school to whom they write. During the course, we see growth and progress in EVERY student’s capacity to engage in such self-assessment and progress reporting, and we believe this is a critical skill to develop at this middle-school age.

Obviously, because of the relatively private nature of such progress reporting, I cannot publish one of the student samples here. However, I am pasting below what now goes in the school database, so that you can see additional context about this student-centered way of reporting progress, learning, and growth.

From Midterm Marking Period (Friday, October 14, 2011):

Since we last wrote to you, the Synergy 8 Team has been hard at work, engaged in the KP Challenge. At the same time, we have been focused on communications, presentation, and design. Additionally, our team members have collected almost 300 community observations on a tool called Posterous. At this midterm, we will be transitioning from the KP Challenge alpha project to projects conceptualized and organized by the Synergy 8 student learners – projects that will be born from the Posterous observation journals. Expect more project news and updates as those projects get underway.

At the first-interim marking period, Mr. Adams and Ms. Gough concluded their comment this way:

“As we dig deeper into our projects and learning rubrics, you can expect more information coming to you. Much of the assessment will be relative to the “essential learnings” expressed on the course logo – the Synergy 8 Light Bulb and Gears (http://scr.bi/Synergy8-ELs). At the midterm, you can expect more self-assessment from YOUR CHILD, and Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams will provide more feedback from their seats, as well.”

Working intensely and introspectively for the past two weeks, our Synergy 8 members have been preparing a “bright-spot” reflection regarding each person’s deepest learning. YOUR CHILD will be presenting that evidence-based, essential-learning story to you soon. You can view a short movie (http://vimeo.com/30541014, password: provided only to parents and school personnel due to new school policy) to see an overview of our approach, and you can access the originating rubric (http://scr.bi/EL-rubric) from which the stories emerged. As you receive an email summary from YOUR CHILD, Mr. Adams and Ms. Gough will respond to that communication so that all of us – student-learner, teacher-facilitator, and parents – can engage in a discussion about YOUR CHILD’s learning and growth.


From 1st Interim Marking Period (Friday, September 14, 2011):

When Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams conceptualized Synergy 8, we envisioned an interdisciplinary, problem-based course rooted in student-directed inquiry. Now that the course is underway, we increasingly desire to share responsibility from teacher to student, so that the eighth graders can practice being even more involved in their own learning – similar to the powerful, self-directed learning that children engage in before and after formal, traditional schooling. Synergy 8 possesses many elements of experimental design, and progress reporting in a non-graded course is one such element. Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams expect Synergy 8 students to take a more active role in the assessment and evaluation of their own learning and growth. Therefore, you can expect your child to send you more information about Synergy 8 and his/her experience thus far. At this marking period, you should have already received a progress report via email.

As we dig deeper into our projects and learning rubrics, you can expect more information coming to you. Much of the assessment will be relative to the “essential learnings” expressed on the course logo – the Synergy 8 Light Bulb and Gears (http://scr.bi/Synergy8-ELs). At the midterm, you can expect more self-assessment from YOUR CHILD, and Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams will provide more feedback from their seats, as well.

[Cross-posted at Experiments in Learning by Doing]

JHS Parents Night 2011: Presentation Materials from the Principal

The Junior High School administration, teachers, and students GENUINELY APPRECIATE how supportive and attentive our parents are! However, we also realize that not everyone can attend Parents Night. So…below you can find the presentation materials that I am using at JHS Parents Night 2011. While access to mere materials does not equate to being at the event, I hope that you can, at the least, get a taste of what’s being said, if you cannot attend in person. And you can always ask a friend who was there to “fill in the details.” Also, even for those who could attend – I tend to load a few slides in my deck that I know I will not cover in person, but I think the notes and resources might be helpful for people to access online.

My Parents Night slide deck is embedded below as a PDF on Scribd (if the web does strange things to the document, you can also access the PDF here). If you have the application “Keynote,” you can download the actual slides by clicking here. Other back-to-school information for Junior High School parents can be accessed on the Westminster website by clicking on the “Back-to-School” button and clicking in the “Junior High School” section (a PDF of my slide deck from the JHS Parents Tech Night on 8-18-11 can be found there, at the bottom of the page, and a direct link to the Tech Night PDF is here).

If you have trouble getting to the iMovie that I am showing, you can view it below, too…

THANK YOU, PARENTS, for sharing your children with us at Westminster!

“Learn from Mistakes” Student Devotional at MMM 8-22-11

A few years ago, the Westminster Junior High School added “Monday Morning Meetings” as a regular community occurrence for our approximately 560 middle-school students and 80 faculty. The 15-minute, weekly assembly is lead by middle schoolers – at this time, the leadership team is composed of our student Honor Council. Much of our thinking involves this simple principle – if you want to teach leadership, students need an authentic thing to lead.

On Monday, August 22, one of our students provided a superb devotional about “Learning from Mistakes.” With great fortune, I had my Flip camera, and I had pressed the record button!

Thanks to the Honor Council and to “K” for a superb beginning to this year’s student-led Monday Morning Meetings. K’s opening message provided the ideal sentiment for starting a year that should be full of exciting learning – the real-life learning that is full of mistakes from which to learn and grow.

At the Crossroads of Honor and Technology

At the start of every school year, the Junior High School details the community expectations of our Honor Code. One step in this detailing involves our Junior High Honor Council advisers reviewing the processes and protocols with the faculty. This year, because of an unexpected time constraint, we experienced less division-meeting time. Undaunted by this unanticipated time constraint, advisers Thomas and Fry employed their developing tech skills and leveraged their tech learning to produce the following (shared here with their permission)…[KUDOS to them! And how nice that I can share with others…including our parents!]

Good morning, wonderful faculty!

Mr. Fry and I, in addition to each of the 17 members of this year’s Honor Council are so excited to serve our community by helping preserve and uphold our Honor Code in the Junior High.

Our main goal is to EDUCATE and assist in the learning process, and we hope that we can begin by offering these few reminders to you in the enclosed video.  We had planned on sharing face-to-face time with you during Monday’s Faculty Forum division meeting, but alas, time ran out.

And so, in the name of trying and learning something new, we hope this video can be a helpful reminder for both now and throughout the year.

You can either access it via youtube here:

You can also access a written version of these reminders, along with the video posted on my blog:


Please know we are always here for you and your students, and we anticipate a magnificent year ahead!

With love and thanks,
Carter Thomas and Adam Fry

In the upcoming days, our student-led Honor Council will present the Honor Code and community expectations to the entire student body. I know they are already working on a great presentation of their own!

The Essential Conversation

Parents and schools (teachers, administrators, staff, etc.) are members of the same team – partners – striving together for the same goal. The goal, I hope and trust, is to collaboratively guide and support our children/student-learners as they grow, develop, learn, fail, rise after failure, succeed, question, figure out life (as we do, too), and be and become themselves. I am thankful for the partnership that exists at Westminster. I know it is not this way at some schools, but we do work together here. Today, I hosted the third of three “Junior High Parents Parleys with the Principal.” We don’t always all agree – nor should we…what fun or challenge would that be – but we do listen to each other and value the other. Good conversation and team work happens.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, in 2003, published The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other. The title and the author alone are good motivation to read the wonderful piece. My purpose here today is not to pontificate on the book, but I wanted to use the title for this post and to recommend the read, so I include it here. My purpose is more to share about the parley today. About 120-140 parents attended the 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. event (we have a JH student population of 559, for reference). I am so appreciative of the parents who choose to attend and can attend. I realize that many cannot attend a middle-of-the-day event, and I imagine that many more want to be involved in the ongoing discussions about their children, school, and the intersection and spectra of the two.

My objective today (I am a teacher): facilitate conversation amongst parents about things on their hearts and minds concerning school. Usually, I spend a lot of time prepping a presentation – a Prezi, PowerPoint, videos, etc. Today, partly because of my recent sabbatical absence, I simply used a Q & A format. But I tried to model a “21st century way” of doing so.

  • People could raise hands and ask questions (or shout out, for that matter, if they preferred).
  • People could write a question or a topic on a notecard provided at the door (I am not sure anyone actually did this…I failed to collect any, although I did reference them twice and received no cards).
  • People could tweet if they wanted. The pre-decided hashtag was #jhparley (click on the hashtag at left if you want to see the tweets).
  • People could contribute to a Poll Everywhere web-doc if they wanted – by phone (text), poll4.com (smart phone or other mobile technology), or tweet to poll. (Here is a screenshot example, and the full transcript can be accessed with the link beneath the screenshot.)

Full “live text wall” of poll everywhere results

After I did a short explanation of how people could use the Twitter hashtag and Poll Everywhere if they wanted, someone immediately asked if they could just raise their hand and ask aloud. “Of course,” I said, “but some people might not be as comfortable asking their question in a room of 130 people. Some know how to use Twitter and some don’t. People can use the cards and/or the Poll Everywhere. This is just like a classroom – we can enhance the conversation if more people have a way to join the conversation. We are all different, just like our kids. And on Twitter, if you wanted, you could continue the conversation after this is over. Some of you might want to try a ‘new’ way so that you can experiment in a safe place with the tools at your disposal and your children’s disposal. There are many ways to get a rich conversation happening for as many people as possible – people in the room and not in the room. We should leverage the tools we have so that more people can get involved. For those who could not come today, perhaps they might like to read the tweets of attendees. Or they could read the Poll Everywhere transcript later when I post it on my blog.” [Okay, this was not a direct quote, but it is what I tried to communicate, and what I hope to be communicating here and now.]

For parents just tuning in to today’s parley by way of this blog, here are a few samples of questions from the floor:

  • Is Synergy 8 a semester class or a year-long class? It was not clear on the registration card handed out Tuesday.
  • Do some students and teachers run to lunch?
  • Can we have a formal chess team in the JH?
  • Have you read the recent article about boys? Do you think that there is a negative trend for development of “good boys?”
  • What’s the real difference between regular math and honors math? If a student decides not to act on recommendation for honors, do they have a harder time getting into honors later?
  • Can we talk more about the changes in honors and awards at the end of the year? Here’s what I think about the changes…
  • Have the netbooks been a successful addition this year?

There were many more questions, and I answered most with additional input and thought from other parents in the room. The hope was for me not just to talk and parents to listen. And we took most questions from the poll, as well. An audience member tweeted some of the resources discussed in the meeting – an article in a newspaper, a link to a documentary film about schools, etc. I was so appreciative of this tweeter! I have tweet-messaged her to thank her! I wished for more tweeters, but perhaps people forgot to use the hashtag, or perhaps not many people are comfortable using that particular tool. It was ” a start” though. Just like a good conference has a hashtag, so did we! And two people – one other than me – used it! That’s a start.

The various technologies were NOT the point.

The CONVERSATION and DISCUSSION were the point…the objective!

In my opinion, though, the “21st century way” to facilitate this discussion was to provide and/or introduce ways for people to participate – so more people could participate and potentially connect with each other…and potentially use each other for resources so that we can collaboratively help and guide our children to grow and develop and learn. It’s about learning! Thanks parents for your partnership.

[Note: I decided to use these tools this morning. I set up the hashtag and Poll Everywhere at about 9:00 a.m. after a brainstorm on my way walking to work. I was thinking about how best to get more folks into the conversation, and I was wishing I could provide some sense of the meeting to people who could not attend. Then, I thought of Twitter and Poll Everywhere. Maybe next time, I will wear a mic and webcast for those interested! I love trying something new to provide more potential for learning and growth – mine and others’.]