Tag Archives: National Writing Project

On the Origins of a Personal Learning Network

flickr photo shared by Cea. under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Note: This post is an extended reflection from the EdTech Team’s Teacher Leader Certification Program. I am participating in the initial cohort.

General Thoughts

Early in my teaching career, I was fortunate enough to get involved in with the National Writing Project. Becoming part of that network of K-U educators, kind of kickstarted the development of my own personal learning network as an educator on a digital front. Of course, I “followed” other educators prior to attending a summer institute, but NWP influenced me in countless ways, leading to a number of unanticipated branches and interesting additions to my PLN.

Apart from that, I have been cultivating my PLN through all my other experiences, both analog and online. I still use a few different RSS readers, following a fair amount of blogs, as well as Twitter and other social media tools. I even subscribe to a fair number of old-time email newsletters. In fact, I have been thinking I may produce one myself.

On the sharing front, I still have this personal blog, although I do not update it often enough. There was a time when I was on a genuine tear and posting every day. Then changes at work took time away from that endeavor for awhile and I have never completely recovered to that level of production.

As it is, I write regularly about edtech related items for HPS Digital, a work-related endeavor.

Currently, I share most items I am reading or grab my interest on Twitter. I still occasionally add items to my Flipboard magazine, but that was highly tied to my more productive blogging period.

I am always kind of tweaking my workflow around how to share with greater ease. It is a perpetual project.

Value & Benefits

A good, well-tended PLN can proved immeasurable value. On a basic level, a PLN offers a highly effective filter. There is so much content generated on a daily basis that it can easily overwhelm anyone.

Cultivating a strong PLN is the first level of defense from becoming overwhelmed. Since no one can drink from a firehose, my PLN can reduce the stream to a more manageable flow. It requires effort, but it is well worth it.

As an educator recognizing this aspect of a PLN is a not just valuable to me, but it is something that I can share with other educators and students. A strong PLN can trump Google every time. It privileges humans over machines and taps the collective intelligence and wisdom of people I have selected on purpose.

That human element can make all the difference. For example, what students often do not understand is that people might be the most valuable resource in almost any kind of research. Plus, relationships improve our lives.

In terms of my goals in building my PLN, I am always on the lookout for people that have expertise in areas of my interest. Consequently, I am always trying to identify the important players in a field. I am always adding, in that sense. However, think I may need to sharpen my focus a bit more to increase its effectiveness. That requires a bit more tending than I necessarily do.

However, think I may need to sharpen my focus a bit more to increase its effectiveness. That requires a bit more tending than I necessarily do. There is no magic vetted list. It is in the creation and curation of that makes it personal.

The Only Assessment that Matters

Photo: Inverse #2

Inverse 2 – cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Andy Houghton

A fellow National Writing Project colleague and friend Paul Allison and I were talking once upon a time, when he posed a question very close to this, “In the end, self-assessment is the only assessment that really matters isn’t it?” That may not be exactly what he said, but that is how I like to remember it. Plus, it certainly captures the spirit of the brief exchange. The sentiment resonated so strongly with me it has remained ever since.

We all must live with ourselves an awfully long time, more than anyone else certainly has to live with us. That’s for sure. It is not uncommon for me share comments like these and stress the importance of reflection and self-assessment with my students.

A Brief Anecdote on Student Self-Assessment

A few years ago, I received the most remarkable student self-assessment I have ever read, as part of an end-of-semester writing portfolio. Also, I have to admit being a little disconcerted when I saw myself quoted in a student paper, but this student simply gets it and gets it on a deeper level than I ever would have imagined. It also seemed to highlight a lot of the issues that have been shared and discussed in this MOOC. Here is an excerpt.

Through the course of the year, I have been writing down bits of conversations, words, and tips that I have heard in English class. Some are funny, some are weird, and some really stick with me. On October 28th, you said, “[Self-assessment] is really the only assessment that matters.” Is it? Through the course of the year, I grew more and more at home with this statement. If I know I am doing the best I can, then everything else is secondary. “Any time you’re focused on the grade, you are off target,” you said on February 14th [and has] always been a hard concept for me to wrap my head around. Through the year, though, these quotes bloomed into significant meaning. Whenever I write, like now for instance, it needs to just be the best I can do. My goal is to make my point and prove it in my writing, not simply to reach 600 words. This is a way that I have grown as both a student and a person, because as my mindset in school shifted, so did my outlook on the rest of my life.

Keep in mind this is from a former ninth grade student. It remains my favorite, most fascinating student self-assessment I have ever received. It broke all expectations. In fact, reading something like this, written by a student, makes a lot of the slogging through drafts as an English teacher, a whole lot less daunting.

My Latest Plan for a Self-Assessment

I am about to wrap a narrative writing unit with my ninth grade students, which I have already mined for examples for Beyond Letter Grades. Heavily influenced by George Hillocks’ Narrative Writing: Learning a New Model for Teaching, I have been using a lot of the methodology outlined in that title ever since reading it.

Beginning with a pre-test audit to be written in a one hour class, students were given the following prompt right from Hillocks: Write a story about an event that is important to you for some reason. Write about it in as much detail as you can so that someone reading it will be able to see what you saw and feel what you felt.

This week students will submit their anchor summative assignment, which they have had a couple of weeks to develop. Later in the week, they will take the post-test, another hour in class writing task, with the same pre-test prompt. In between, they have completed a handful of what I like to call rehearsal assignments, practicing specific narrative techniques listed in this rubric, also something I have adapted from Hillocks.

I have deliberately kept only a handful of broad categories to be assessed. Using this rubric, I already scored the pre-test, and will also use it to score the summative narrative task and the post-test.

Prior to assigning the summative narrative task, I issued and reviewed the rubric with students, in an effort to key them explicitly into the skills and technique I am hoping that they will demonstrate, despite routinely highlighting them in classroom instruction and various reading selections.

Once they have done a round of peer feedback and submitted the summative narrative task and completed the post-test, I am going to have students conduct a self-assessment.

  1. I will ask each student to score their summative narrative task with the rubric, prior to submitting it.
  2. I will hand each student their pre-test and ask them to score it with the rubric.
  3. I will hand each student their post-test and again ask them to score it with the rubric.
  4. I will then ask them to write narrative feedback about the difference between the two scores, specifically focusing on what they have identified as improvement and why.

I am considering sharing the scores I gave each student on both the pre-test and post-test, and asking them to consider any potential discrepancies between their scores and mine, but I am still undecided on this point.

Turning Summative into Formative

Since I have students complete an end-of-semester writing portfolio, this exercise will be good preparation for a more general, reflective self-assessment that accompanies the portfolio, like the student excerpt included above. Keeping with a broader strategy of looping many of the tasks and skills over the length of the course, this narrative self-assessment becomes a rehearsal for the portfolio one.

All three assessments then become fair game for revision, thus transforming a summative assessment into a formative one. Students may choose which piece that they would ultimately like to include in the portfolio. Since each one is a story, it can become more difficult to decide which story they want to revise, develop further, and include as their best of the narrative bunch along with the other modes and genres that comprise the portfolio.


In the end, I am blending a number of concepts celebrated in this class in my teaching practice, sometimes in a number of simultaneous ways. Occasionally, I wonder if it can become too complicated for my students. However, the only thing I am truly concerned about is that students are able to learn, improve, and demonstrate their learning in a few different ways. This is also a message that I repeatedly try to impress upon them over the length of the course.

Attempting many alternative assessment methods requires a pretty substantial initial investment of time and energy in developing relationships,  setting expectations, and building trust. It may be a bit ambitious, but I can say that the results have been relatively successful, especially as I continue to refine and advance my reasons, approach, and methods.

About Authentic Assessment & Advancing Alternatives

Photo: Rejuvenation

Rejuvenation – cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Aaron Hockley

Poking at Preconceptions

Although I have grown to rather hate the term “authentic” in an education context, I must admit to being a bit allured by the idea of authentic assessments. My main problem is that the word “authentic” is actually quite muddy, a point “Defining Authentic Classroom Assessment” refreshingly concedes in its opening.

In my experience, too often “authentic” is reductionist code for some kind of contrived task meant to mimic the “real-world,” but doesn’t and is grounded in what students already know, in effort to be relevant to them. While I am certainly no defender of standardized tests, there are a fair amount of “authentic” tests in the “real world.” Just ask any unionized tradesman or civil servant, as well as any doctor or lawyer, to name just a few occupations.

Still, my fascination with the idea of authentic assessment probably predates my being a teacher. Reading the piece by Frey, Schmitt, and Allen offered some great clarity on reestablishing a working definition of the term, authentic assessment, offering more nuance and meaning.

As a teacher consultant with the National Writing Project, I think I may be predisposed to operating within a Frey, Schmitt, and Allen frame. For example, genuine audiences have been of particular interest to me. As an English teacher, I have spent a lot of time over the years trying to make writing a genuinely authentic task, as much as possible in my classes.

In fact, I just pressed home the point with my three sections of ninth graders, saying, “All writing begins with an audience of one, and it’s you – the writer.” As a result, I have made an attempt to de-emphasize assignments and tasks that strike me as less authentic. I still have improvement to make but no one assignment currently rises to the level of a redesign. So, let me capture a recent experience and add to it looking forward.

Recounting an Authentic Change

For years, ninth graders at the school where I work were tasked with what I felt was a hackneyed attempt at a literary research paper, masquerading as a project focused more on the process of research. However, the product always proved to be more decisive than the process, and the results were often poor, semi-plagiarized, papers that amounted to little more than extended annotated bibliographies that only a teacher would ever see, with proper citation no given.

Sadly, this seems to be more prevalent in schools than I would like. What’s worse, few students were really learning the value of research skills, rarely were terribly interested in the author or their work, and usually experienced a significant drop in performance, not to mention their letter grade for that semester.

It took years for me to convince people of an alternative approach. Resistance to any change was strong, until it wasn’t. We were ready for rejuvenation.

Enter the late Ken Macrorie’s I-Search Paper. From his original “contextbook,” published in 1980, Ken Macrorie advances the idea that no one can begin looking at something without a preconceived notion. He honored the idea that research is a quest and the more personal the better. Admittedly, Macrorie’s text looks a little dated now. Yet it is remarkably prescient regarding a world-wide-webbed world. His ideas remain remarkably resonant.

Riffing off Macrorie’s basic idea, we refashioned our whole approach to teaching research and the final product. Students self-select the topic of their research. Crafting deep, interesting questions about topics of interest becomes central to the effort. We teachers focus primarily on skills associated with authentic research, especially in a world with Google merely a thumb-swipe away. We have re-oriented students toward gathering data from real people, rather than simply the Internet or library.

Now our students write something that looks a whole lot more like an I-Search paper than a traditional research paper. The task is actually more complex, with more moving parts, and engages students in process that is more preparatory for the kind of research they are likely to do in their lives, inside and outside of school. The process is primary, and the paper product has become more an exercise in how to prepare work for an audience of more than a single teacher, with proper formatting and citation. Best of all, it asks the student to investigate something in which they actually have an interest or care.

There remains a departmental resistance, but it has faded. However, since making the switch the results have actually been significantly improved. The papers are more interesting and reflect genuine research and investigation.

Looking Forward

As a team of teachers, we continue to modify and adjust our I-Search-influenced unit. I have experimented with different modes of presentation beyond simply a final papers, but this is where I would like to make this assessment even more authentic, in the truest spirit of the term.

As an exercise in distilling the quest into the most simplistic of terms, I have encouraged students to make Google Search Story videos. The old service simplifying the process is now gone, but I am considering it as a requirement, but I am still looking for more ways to make the work public. Now that we teach ninth grade in a 1:1 laptop environment, we have been employing blogging as a more routine practice for class. Thus, this year I will be leveraging our use of blogging as an integral part of the I-Search process, making the work more public and reflective in real time. Lastly, I am even considering having students distill their research into some kind of limited presentation, like a five slide deck or PechaKucha style, and having them script and record their presentation.