Today we were fortunate to Skype in Shelley Blake-Plock into a lunch-hour session in our high school. Blake-Plock, the driving force behind the recent paperless push by educators on Earth Day, spoke to our staff about his classroom design, philosophy, and practice in a 45-minute session today.
When I originally contacted Shelley last week to inquire as to whether or not he would be willing to talk to my staff, he jumped right in, and he didn’t disappoint. What impressed me most about him as I listened to him describe his practice was his clear vision of what it meant for his students to function in a classroom that he designed: it was about them learning. He truly designed the environment with their learning–their unbridled learning–in mind. His decision was not a secretarial one, but rather came from a desire to push students to take control of information gathering, processing, and creating.
At one point, a teacher from our Social Studies department asked about how he assesses his students if he doesn’t give tests or quizzes on paper. Did he design them through some sort of CMS in the formed of timed essays, or online quizzes?
Shelley’s answer was flat-out brilliant. He described the manner in which students are required to keep a blog that he is tied into via RSS, and daily they add content to that blog in the form of class notes, personal reflections, or other media. His assessment then becomes his analysis of their thinking and reaction, and he does this using screencasting (he uses Jing). This way, instead of notes in the margin that are loosely tied to anchors in the text, he can pinpoint exactly where in the writing he is talking about and offer precise, quasi-one-on-one feedback even though he is not present. I just dug this. We often bemoan our students willingness to skip past any comments we make on their writing in their desperate rush to find out their grade, but what Shelley is doing is removing much of that and asking students to take constant feedback and do something with it. Our teachers have long lamented the amount of grading that has to be done, our parents and students complain about the length of time it takes to get it back, and all research shows that feedback given after a certain point is nearly useless to the student in terms of increasing achievement.
What if they got feedback consistently over time? Would that change the final outcome (the grade)? In my follow-up with the staff, I am going to be sure to inquire about that one. With a budget that includes nearly 60% of supplies being cut, looking at alternative options in terms of assessment–and those options that are grounded in formative assessment–is necessary.