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Conferences as Data

I presented yesterday at the Michigan Council of Teachers of English's Fall Conference on a question that I'm still working to answer: What counts as data and assessment? It's a question that I still don't have the answer to, a question that isn't answered as easily as the educational de-formers want it to be. No student will ever be reduced to just a number; they are stories. They are works in progress. 

As teachers, we hear a lot about the "triangulation of data." We're told that our assessments should "speak" to each other. And we're often given incredibly large amounts of data that is packaged with an invisible label that reads something like this: This data is reliable, and it's meant to make your job easier. It's instantaneous or nearly so, so you can make nearly immediate change in your instruction. But sometimes what we think we know to be true about students isn't necessarily true about students. Take, for example, poor performance on a standardized reading test. A low score could mean that she is an emerging reader, but it could also mean that a computer was malfunctioning. It could also mean that she didn't eat breakfast that day or was worrying about an exam that she had to take next hour.  

All of this is to say that our impressions and understandings of students are also works in progress. We must keep working toward the big picture, incorporating data from our practice and from those sources that know students best. 

On Wednesday and Thursday, I had the opportunity to gather more data about my students. This time, it came from sources that know them better than any standardized test or I could even hope to: their parents, guardians, and family members. 

Imagine if a teacher were to find out information like this that night (I should note that the bullets below are hypothetical and not factual; I respect the privacy of all of my students and their families): 
  • One student has a parent that has been injured multiple times in the military. She lives with extended family, and she is trying to find a way to balance the need to care for her parent in addition to finding time to study for school. 
  • Another student received the highest grades on her report card than she has in a long time. The student passed just a few classes, something that I was raised to think of as "failure." This was something to celebrate for her and her parent. 
  • One parent conveyed her appreciation of the writing process, remembering a time that she was in school. I appreciated her enthusiasm for really "rough drafts," and how the final draft is not as important as the process along the way. I now know that my goal of spending a lot of time on a piece meets this parent's goal and belief, too. 
  • Another guardian and I discussed his nephew's frequent "book hopping." There's no standard for this, but it was reassuring that the parent even noticed how he appeared to bring a new book home every night and attempt to convince family members that he was completing them all. 
  • Another parent and I talked about improving time management. The student enjoys my class, feels as if she is learning, but just doesn't remember to complete all of the assignments in time because of extracurricular involvement. 
  • One parent told me that his son gets up around 5:00 AM in order to get ready for school and to make the commute to have a better educational opportunity than the one offered in their home neighborhood. 
  • And yet another parent told me about how her son attended a different school last year where there were multiple long-term substitutes and rampant inconsistencies throughout the building.
And the data goes on and on... 

So what are educators to do with all this? Add it to the copious amounts of other data to try to form an even bigger picture in our minds about who these students are. These young people are still forming and developing. This data reminds us of that and how human they really are. We must be willing to learn with, from, and about our students if we really want to make a difference. 

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