by Phil Olson & Nick Truxal
District-Wide Thoughts from Nick Truxal
Why the Focus on Feedback?
Work to redefine progress reporting and grading has been happening for far longer than I’ve been in education. With that said, there are some real attempts at change happening world-wide for the first time I can recall. There are currently pushes for:
Plus, the tools available to educators have been evolving to enable these approaches as well: there are larger comment areas in student information systems, there are now ways to weight newer assignments more than older assignments via the use of decaying averages, and there are tools like Mastery Transcript that attempt to focus purely on skills and students’ evidence of each of those skills.
I’ve worked with our elementary and middle schools in Dover-Eyota, Minnesota to move towards a feedback-only grading system focused on feedback around key skills, areas of growth, and illustrations of excellence. Upon our first parent survey—which admittedly had fewer responses than we would want to make lasting judgments—we were told that this system was preferable and that they would love some additional information as well, including ways parents can work with their students on areas of growth while at home.
With all the great work happening in our district, I wish I had discovered Sarah Zerwin, first—before we had begun this process. Her work is applicable to all grade levels and content areas, and it explains how to smoothly transition a community that can’t imagine life without letter grades into one that, instead, focuses on learning versus points and percentages. Her work, once digested, makes such approaches to grading and reporting seem obvious.
The simplest way to describe Zerwin’s thesis, at least to me, is that we can engage students through robust and meaningful activities, which helps create deep thinking and lifelong learning. Points, on the other hand, distract from learning: thus, the play on words that is Zerwin’s 2020 publication, Point-less.
Classroom Application for Any Grade-level or Course Area
In exploring Zerwin’s nine specific learning goals for an English classroom, we made a more general template that can be applied to any grade level and content area. The focus is simple—if we don’t have purposeful goals, we won't have meaningful activities to reach those goals.
Before diving in, a reminder that the single most important part of this work—at least to us—is to make sure we bring everyone along with us. That work starts with conversations with students about grading, reporting, and what is important to them. We need to be sure that parents don’t feel left out, that administrators have our backs, and that local colleges and universities support anything that drops points or grades from the picture. Zerwin further discusses ways to accomplish these things in our podcast (the 6.22.21 episode) with her as well as in her book.
Back to our generalized goals (these have been adjusted to target approximately a third grade reading level, thus the shift to “I can” language); of course, tweak and adjust these as needed for your own work, and at the direction of your conversations with your students.
While, Zerwin’s work in Point-less is relevant to all educators, it perhaps is most directed to English Teachers; the subtitle of the book, after all, is An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading. In fact, I first learned about Zerwin from one of my colleagues, Phil Olson, a long-time English teacher in a nearby district who read the book and immediately tried some of Zerwin’s ideas. So, I invited him to participate in our podcast discussion with her (the 6.22.21 episode) and asked him to share a reflection about how things went in regards to implementing her ideas in his own classroom.
Classroom-Specific Thoughts from Phil Olson
Classroom Application for English
The 2020-2021 academic year was tough on students and educators. From technology overload to personal wellness, the effects of the pandemic hit schools hard. Still, we education professionals pushed through, and we now have another year in the books. Before we get too far into summer mode, though, let’s do a little more assessment:
What grade would you give your performance as a teacher or administrator this past year? An A, B, C, D, or an F?
Before you answer, consider that your grade must accurately encompass all of your efforts to teach and lead, including the ways you managed controllables and responded to uncontrollables. Keep in mind that your performance is also compared to that of your colleagues. Were you a top-tier, A-level educator all year, or did your performance flag at points? Perhaps, just for this one year, we should consider assessing ourselves on a Pass-Fail basis: that’s easier. Or, instead of a single letter, maybe we should discuss our performances with descriptors, as in “this was not my best year” or “I rose to most challenges.”
Every school year, on the last day on the academic calendar, the staff of the Dover-Eyota School District gather in the cafeteria at the secondary building to celebrate the work that has been done over the course of the academic year. This year, cupcakes were served and ice cream dished out, as were many awards for years of service, retirees, and more. One person always recognized is the Dover-Eyota Education Association teacher of the year : this year, that is the secondary band instructor, Ryan Anderson.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share with you today. I want to start with a question. How many of you actually know something about Social Emotional Learning within the classroom?
I was wondering what that was before I took a class this fall. If I could put it into one sentence or two, maybe a question, I would have to start with: “How does it feel to be in the classroom? How does it feel to learn? Are we recognizing the feelings of each other?” If I had to put that into why social emotional learning is important, it would be because it is the magic that gets us to the next level. And, recognizing people as individuals in unique circumstances--we aren’t all going to the same place, but us recognizing that we all have potential, understanding how our students feel in the classroom, is equally important as them passing a quiz or test. Right now, if we think about how we feel… Well, it has been such a crazy year.
I don’t think I really belong as Teacher of the Year, when you consider how everyone else has been able to do such amazing things. I want to recognize a couple people that could never get educator of the year. I want to start with Carrie Frank. Carrie Frank is our Food & Nutrition Director. I’ve been absolutely amazed at what she has been able to do this year. If somehow she was asked to feed our entire school district, she would gather as many spoons and pots as needed and get her staff together, and they’d find the resources and make it happen. She put together an absolutely unbelievable Christmas Dinner. Because Carrie cares about how people feel and you can’t learn when you’re hungry. It just doesn’t work as well. And, she cares about all of our students. She had this gigantic Christmas ham, which I still have some leftovers in our freezer. I swear to God it was at least 24 pounds. And it was really good. Really good. And she had potatoes, she had string beans, she had rolls, she had dessert...she had everything.
I asked her, “Carrie, what do you need help with?” You know what she said?
“Sign up and take some food.”
That’s all she asked. Just take. She is saying, You’re important. Our students are important. We need to eat. It’s all going to be okay. And she was a superhero. It would have been so much easier if we had put on a Covidproof, bulletproof vest and taken all the shots to our emotions and peeled it off and thrown it away when we were done, but that’s not the case, because we are human. Carrie is superhuman.
I’ll tell you who else I really think deserves some recognition because he is superhuman. It is Steve Herrick: Steve, the custodian. Steve is also the most popular person in the whole dang school district. When Steve comes by lunch, the sixth graders chant and pound the tables, “Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve;” because, Steve already gets Social Emotional lLearning. Because he asks kids their name, and then he purposely forgets it and gives them a nickname. My kids have the nicknames “Larry Bird” and “Harvard” because my son is tall and blonde and my daughter wears a Harvard sweatshirt. Because they already had this rapport. He remembers them. He jokes with them. He shares that it’s “Smiling Wednesday.” Steve matters. Steve’s important. Everyone is important. Look around the room: we’re all important.
I want to tell you a story. In fall of 2019, my friend Dan asked me to go skydiving, and skydiving is the type of thing where I’ve always wanted to say I did it, but didn’t really get that excited about falling out of an airplane because that’s pretty scary to me. I’m not afraid of heights, I like roller coasters, I love a good thrill like that, but jumping out of a plane is pretty scary.
But Dan called, so I said, “Let me check the calendar.”
Nothing was on the calendar at home, so I checked with my wife, and she said, “Do it.”
I thought to myself, You know, okay. I guess so.
In the meantime, before I called Dan back, I get a call from Lane Powell, who runs TriState Marching Band Association: it’s all marching band judges that go all over the country. He said, “Ryan, how would you like to judge the Iowa State Marching Band Competitions?”
I said, “Oh, that’d be awesome. What’s the gig pay?”
And he said, “$350.”
Dan had just gotten off the phone with me and said the cost [to skydive] was $350.
So now I had absolutely zero excuse. The calendar is open. I’m going to have the cash in hand. We’re going to go skydiving.
So, we put this on the calendar, a Sunday morning at 10:00. I’m nervous as all heck. Anyway, Skydive Place calls Dan up on Saturday and says, “Hey, we’re overbooked, we’re wondering if we can bump you to another weekend.”
Dan calls me, and I said, “If they can’t get us in, I’m not coming man. I’ve committed, I’ve already lost two nights of sleep, we’re doing this thing.”
So, Dan calls them back and says, “We’ve gotta take this if we’re going to do this.”
They say, “Fine, we’ll get you in.”
Cyphers as Restorative Circles
Ian, you make our minds jump to places we weren’t anticipating. In this particular moment, we jump to a fabulous teacher in a nearby district, Sweta Patel, who has been doing work with restorative circles. She has found fabulous success—said this year in particular has been amazing, which seems to be in large part because of the ability to have individual conversations with students through new uses in technology. It seems like another example of a different way to involve students, make sure they are heard, and have hard conversations. My assumption is that, if we do that, hip hop will emerge as a key vehicle.
I think about it in a couple ways. One way is - yeah, you can do restorative work, and if it is done authentically and there are hip hop voices within that space, that will naturally come to the surface. I also think that, when you talk about chapter six, which talks in depth about interacting in cypers--Isn’t a cypher itself a restorative circle? I think they are.
This idea of creating circles in school environments so youth can process conflict with each other, come to some sort of resolution, reach restitution—the cypher has always been that. Much like the circle has been as well. There are connections to Paulo Freire and all the work that has been done circularly in Brazil. That’s where all the critical consciousness ideas come from—all situated in circles. I am thinking of African drum circles. Circles themselves have cross-cultural meaning as communicative spaces. If I’m not incorrect, circles are pulled from a lot of inuit populations and culture. Again, hip hop is a version of the restorative circle in so many ways, and that is a beautiful thing.
Having the Bigger Conversations
The examples in your book, such as students making a mix tape around police brutality, with them you mention resolving conflict. We have the internal things we may be dealing with, then we have the large external things that may be happening. Was the choice of the police brutality example in your book about speaking to a larger audience, or is there something about grappling with those large world issues that makes students feel like they are trusted to have bigger conversations?
Youth decided on that topic, that concept, and all the songs on that album—very much because that was what was happening around them at that time. Effective group counseling work is able to grapple with the impacts of the larger context and the worlds in which youth live in and how that impacts them and can pivot to those when it needs to.
I can come into a group and say, “We’re only going to talk about your self doubt in your math class.” I could make a group narrow, and there is some evidence that can still be effective even if you’re very prescriptive with the direction. But, at the high school level, in particular, I love facilitating groups where youth decide on the direction of the group. That is very process oriented. That is what happened here.
There were a ton of shootings. A lot of death of a lot of youth—black and brown boys and girls. It was all over the media. This was at a time that the media was hyper focused on it. It was everywhere. Youth were saying, “We need to talk about this,” “We need to talk about this: did you see this case happen?” so naturally. As we talked about each and created songs around each and their feelings around each, this project came together.
I think it is hard to separate that out from what youth are experiencing in school. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens—that we say: this student didn’t do their homework, they were struggling at home to finish it, and they must not feel competent at math. But what if it is just that when the student is at home and they go to pull out the book, they are thinking about the world around them? And then they are bringing that to school and they walk through a metal detector and see police officers at school. If you live in this hyper vigilant kind of world and you feel like you are being watched and seen as threatening, how can you focus on anything else?
Naturally, this stuff came to the surface. I don’t think you can parse out one’s reaction to a specific situation in school, whether that be relationally or with regards to academic content, and not think about the larger context. Youth took it there because that is where it needed to go. That is the value of this kind of work.
We loved the story about going to a school and students coming in wearing sneakers being forced to change into the school uniform. Are you familiar with the poem, “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound?
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Pound said he was trying to capture a moment that something external became something internal. In grappling with the larger issues, well, you aren’t isolated from them. You are showing that they interweave.
They aren’t binary, right? We can’t just deal with one and then deal with the other, they don’t work that way.
In terms of those externals and internals are “zones of control.” Something internal, I can control to a certain extent: something local to me, I hope I can control to a certain extent. The wider mindset of the world, it would be great if I can influence it, but probably less influence than with something local. Is there power in these activities because of the feelings of helplessness around certain topics?
Yeah, in a myriad of ways. If I express something that I am expressing as external, and a bunch of people around me are like, “Hey, I felt that also,” that is universality. That, in and of itself, helpful in realizing, okay, this isn’t a “me thing.”
By the way, when you are fifteen, everything’s a me thing. News flash—when you are thirty-two, it still feels that way. That’s life. Everything feels like it’s us. To disconnect oneself from that—to say, I’m not alone in feeling this—is great in terms of control. In terms of realizing that I don’t need to bear the burden of this myself. This is something that the world is feeling, that my peers are also feeling.
There’s another—expressing it out into the world to potentially impact or effect change—is that advocacy work that is also very helpful. Letting youth know that there are ways they can advocate from a place of deep personal knowledge and experience affect positive change on the world. That is one way of taking control. Even if it's not changing the whole thing, but being able to produce this mixtape and share it and let other people hear how you feel: it depersonalizes it because you’ve had this experience and you’ve talked about it with your peers, and you realize that it isn’t only you, but then you’re owning it to the world as this thing outside of me. You're telling the world, “Hey, this is something that’s going on.”
That is the ultimate way of realizing that it's not you. Trying to hold the world accountable. What’s beautiful about hip hop is that the entire process is ideal counseling: ideal counseling is realizing universality, transferring what you’ve learned inside a session to outside a session. Mixtapes as a cultural medium offers the ability to discuss, to create a cohesive product with your peers, and a distribution plan so the world hears what you need to share. Hip hop offers this pathway for realization. Regaining control by saying, “this is you all, it isn’t me.”
I’m going to read one more comment from our poet in residence, Jean Prokott. (A plug for Jean--go buy The Birthday Effect and The Second Longest Day of the Year.) Prokott noted: “Just to comment on how amazing this professional development would be. Since I am in English, I always wonder how STEM teachers would address this. Notes on using hip hop as statistics, counting beats to per minute, etc., are so wonderfully applicable, something other books on pedagogy fail to do. This isn’t theory, it’s practice.”
I love it. That is really nice to hear. I think a hard task with books is to be practical. That’s something mentors of mine have modeled so well for me: how to keep one foot in schools and one foot in the academy, in such a way that you’re able to bridge theory and practice. To reimagine how we think about the work and applying it. That is an incredibly important modeling that I am trying to uphold in my career because I don’t want to become the classic stuffy old guy in an ivory tower. That balance has been on my mind a lot lately.
We love drawing lines in the sand in this world. Like counseling is here but education is here. As a school counselor, I’m like, then where do I go?
Well, Ian. You can be with us.
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.