Ears in the Water: Assessment for Improvement

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about the impact of assessments that are based on criteria versus percentiles and norms.  My thoughts about how all assessments don’t equally help students improve were kick started with smell of chlorine, beside the flutter boards at the local community pool.

The din of mothers with their babies and preschoolers splashing in the pool accent most Saturday mornings at the local pool.  Mothers and tots are led through actions and an awkward singing of such classics as ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ and ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’.  During these mornings you will find me sitting against a wall near the shallow end, with a towel on my lap, watching my four year old learning to swim.

Boris zwemlesThere are several parents, each living vicariously through the 5 little guys kicking, jumping, and splashing in front of us.   I know it is silly, but each time my son is asked to do a front glide or a back float with the teacher my attention builds and I mentally ‘will’ him to do well.  Each kick and turn leads me to hope that he will have improved since the last lesson. The parents act like a support group.  Red faces are evident when their child refuses to attempt something and each person has uttered the phrase, ‘it is weird, he loves the water when we are at free swim’.  After we all look away for the requisite moment, we murmur ‘it’s OK’ and ‘it gets better’ to the parent.  And when the teenage instructor handed my child a piece of paper that had water drops and smudges by the time it arrived on my lap, it only took a second to realize what it was.  My son had just received his first report card, although this was his mid-term swimming report.

The mid-term report card had about 20 different items listed and each was rated as complete, needs improvement, or incomplete.  I pretended not to care.  I tried not to look at it, you know it isn’t that big of deal.

What if the report had stated that Liam, my son, was in the 60th percentile of swimming proficiency for children his age?  How would I know how he could improve?  How would he know how to improve? I’m not sure the bell curve would have helped Liam.

Instead the report focused on specific skills that needed to be improved.  These were combined with what feedback the teacher gave to Liam during class to develop the criteria that will help him become a better swimmer.  It could have been said that he has a few areas to improve. But he was told he needed to improve on his back float and back glide. This was combined with what I’d overheard to be: Liam on your back float and glide, you need your ears in the water, your chin up, and your chest up.

Guess what?  The next week, for the first time this course when he tried the back float, his ears were in the water.  The teacher then just asked him to put his chin up and chest up.  Which he quickly remembered and did. As he splashed back to the side of the pool, his eyes searched for mine.  He pointed to his ears while his teeth were exposed with a large grin as water dripped down his face.

Bell CurveI was reminded that when reporting student achievement to parents, ranking isn’t as hopeful or productive as criteria.  With criteria we can improve, we can make a difference.  Clear criteria as someone learns starts a conversation. A conversation that that person has internally as they attempt to apply their learning and is followed up with people around them.

Liam knew what he needed to do to improve in the moment.  He wasn’t perfect, but he was improving by applying the criteria.  Is that a key principal for learning? Understanding the criteria that will help us improve?  If the teacher and the learner don’t know the criteria, how can we learn?

Thumbs up Jacob.Liam doesn’t care what percentile he is in, but his smile showed a deep self satisfaction with his improvement.  His smile was met with a thumbs up from me.
Ears in the water, check.



Photo Credits:

Boris zwemles by ianus, on Flickr

Bell Curve by vlasta2

Thumbs up Jacob. by thejesse

Running your first marathon…

On Sunday, September 26, 2010 I ran my first marathon.  A friend wrote and sent this to me based on our conversations before and after the race.  It is based on the writing form popularized on the 1000 Awesome Things blog.

Running your first marathon…

It takes focus.  It takes determination.  It takes working toward a goal for years.  It takes accomplishing many mini-milestones along the way.  It takes intense training.

It is not easy.  You endure many training runs.  You endure the pain.  You endure the massages that creep you out.

Then finally, you run in a combination of pain and exhilaration for hours.  And right when you are about to finish, you remove your headphones and connect for a moment with God, in total thanksgiving, as you feel His incredible love.

And then you, with tears glistening,  finally cross the finish line of your very first marathon. ~ Awesome!

The Regular, Thanks for the Coffee

The regular, thanks for the coffee.” The morning is crisp. Slight clouds escape from my mouth as the stroller rhythmically skips across the cracks in the sidewalk. Without breaking stride, I pierce the bubble of protection around my new son. Large eyes greet my gaze, and lips part to reveal a toothless grin. He doesn’t realize we are late. I return his grin and glance up to realize we are close. An exhaust fan pokes out of Patty’s, a local diner, humming and spreading the Sunday morning village with a mix of the salty greasy smell of bacon and fresh breezes from the foggy river. The stroller wheels turn around the final corner, and the seat’s release button gives way to my fingers. Liam sways toward me, as his travel seat bumps my knee and the cold metal door handle responds to my arm as I duck inside. The warmth of the restaurant surrounds us as our eyes shift around the restaurant looking for Grandpa.

The regulars sit at their tables. The silver haired knights of Port Lambton’s round table sit at a large circle over looking the river. Coffee cups rise and fall as the conversation turns from precipitation to people. Two of the knights silently listen to the conversation and thrust cards toward each other and pegs dance around a board. The conversation swells, moments in time are measured in coffee levels.

Patty, our host and owner of the diner, peeks through the window from the grill. She grins as Liam’s brown eyes emerge from beneath warm blanket fuzz. Good morning is mouthed before turning back to her sizzling station. Small hands of the 3 month old push the blanket lower swiveling his head from left to right. The small head pauses as he sees a man in a booth. Pauses and smiles. Liam recognizes Grandpa who is sipping a coffee and reading the Sunday edition of the local paper.

We weave through the tables toward the open seat, pausing to unbuckle and slide the baby from his warm cocoon that is perched atop a neighbouring table. In one motion generations pass between the loving arms of family. Liam recognizes his grandfather with a grin then rests his head on Grandpa’s chest. I slide into the booth and am greeted by with warm dark liquid poured into a white mug. We all shift our eyes to our waitress who questions our intent for nourishment. Do we want the regular? We both nod. We both love the regular. Over easy, brown, bacon for me and a toasted western, no butter for him. We are here because it is the regular. “The regular, thanks for the coffee.”

Words begin to flow about the boy. How did he sleep, eat, and poop recently? Words shift to the life events from the past week and what might happen during the approaching week. Thoughts and events are shared, moments pass as the generations of fathers ponder the meaning and concepts from life. Ideas float toward greater awareness and mutual accountability. Questions cut through the wake of words to provide clarity of thought. The boy shifts from Grandpa’s chest into a state of gently bobbing in those loving arms. Plates slide on the table in front of them. Black flecks of pepper fall onto the white eggs, yolks ooze and thick ketchup drips onto the side of the warm plates to accessorize the fragrance of toast. Lips, hands and eyes pause. Thankfulness emerges from their lips, through the regular words of gratefulness.

The moments that follow blend words, food, and thoughts together. The moments pass love between generations. The moments are shared. We are here because it is the regular. These regular moments are meaningful and treasured. Meaning is found in what we choose to make a routine. The regular places value in family, support, and love. “I’ll have the regular please, thanks for the coffee.