Tag Archives: NWP

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.

Thoughts Responding to Some Recent Student Reflections

I have been reviewing a lot of student writing of late, which has definitely eaten into the time I have to spend some time investing in my own writing. I have quite a few things I am itching to pound into words but have been partially burned out, feeling behind, and letting a lot of things get in the way. All this  got me thinking a little about my relationship to the National Writing Project network.

In reading some of the self-assessments and reflections from my ninth grade students, I am finding a common thread, corroborated by the number instances and the individuals writing the same thing. While students are admittedly not the most reliable reporters, I continue to see statements that suggest my students have already written more in my class already then they have in their entire eight grade year, and we are not even through the first semester. Interestingly, many of the students reporting this I would rank a bit higher on any reliability scale. Plus, I know it is probably adolescent hyperbole. Yet with sadness I must admit, this would not shock me if it proved true.

Perhaps more curious to me is I genuinely wonder just how much writing they are asked to do and what the nature of it is. On this point, I am genuinely inquisitive and not looking to just pass judgments. Given the chance I want to have some conversations with teachers not just in the middle school where I teach, but I also feeling some compulsion to make inquiries  of other teachers in the high school, particularly outside the English department. Honestly, I have always been a bit reluctant to do this, for fear that it might seem aggressive and judgmental.

Now I know I make the kids write a lot, although I try to be careful about believing my own hype on this, not to mention “a lot” is a pretty relative term. Still, I am growing a little weary reading accounts of how minor the writing demands are, be it middle school, other departments, or even within my own department. I guess my suspicions are mounting again on this front, which happens from time to time.

Part of what may be fueling all this suspicion and concern is my steadfast feeling that many teachers simply do not consider themselves writers, which brings me back to the Writing Project. One of the core values of the Writing Project effort focuses on the teacher as a writer. Many a Writing Project teacher is likely to echo the idea that it is hard to teach anyone how to write if you are not engaged in writing yourself. Thus, if many of my colleagues just don’t think of themselves as writers how much instruction are they really able to provide?

What’s more, it seems to me that as I informally look around writing is almost synonymous with assessment. Is it any wonder that I encounter so many fourteen year-olds that are reluctant or weak writers? Almost every time students put pen to paper it is to produce work destined to become fodder for teacher’s judgments, teachers who do not consider themselves writers but seem to believe they know good writing when they see it. Even more disconcerting is when the only real value of student writing has is merely a means for extracting some knowledge that they should have obtained. Talk about a recipe that would make anybody gag, not to mention a mess of mixed messages.

I certainly don’t feel like I am breaking any new ground here, but I guess I have been feeling some of this more acutely as of late. This seemed as good a place as any to show it. It all makes me want to stop reading student writing and get to writing some more of my own.