Things I Know 119 of 365: Report cards can be so much more

It is difficult to imagine a more potent lever for changing the priorities of schools than the evaluative measures we employ.  What we count counts.  What we measure matters.  What we test, we teach.

– Elliot W. Eisner, “The Meaning of Alternative Paradigms for Practice”

Writing narrative report cards is difficult. It is time-consuming and difficult.

At the end of the first and third quarters, SLA teachers write narrative report cards for each student.

Narratives don’t replace traditional report cards, they augment them.

Four years ago, my first round of narratives snuck up on me. I joined the faculty midway through the first quarter. I’d barely learned the students’ names and was being asked to write a few paragraphs about their strengths and weaknesses as well as set a few goals for the remainder of the school year.

While each student got a couple personalized sentences, that first round of narratives included a lot of copying and pasting.

It wasn’t until I sat in parent conferences with my advisees and read what my colleagues had written in their narratives that I started to understand what narratives could be for the students.

My second attempt was much better.

In year two, I learned that writing the narratives to the students rather than about the students helped me to feel I was connecting with them as I wrote. It also helped me to remember I was writing about a person, fighting off the slight tendency to write about my students in a dry and clinical manner.

In years three and four, I felt the greatest shift in my classroom practice as influenced by narratives. While looking at my grade book helped inform what I wrote to my students about their learning over the course of a quarter, the data it provided quantified students’ learning when I was trying to qualify it.

I began to use the note function with assignments in the grade book to track thinking that was particularly poignant. The use of Google Docs in the classroom made almost every piece of written work instantly searchable. I could copy and paste again, but this time it was excerpts from student work or comments I’d left that illustrated areas of strength or weakness in the quarter.

This past quarter, I asked students to keep longitudinal records of their thinking regarding the books they read in class. Each record had a section dedicated to a key literary concept. When writing narratives, I could track students’ abilities to articulate how a book’s author used figurative language to tell a story. If the records were blank or incomplete, I could comment on that as well.

Because narratives can be time-consuming and difficult, I’d created systems and structures throughout the quarter that could feed my reporting to offer a detailed assessment of student learning.

Because I’d built these systems and structures, my students and I could track the learning, reading and writing happening in the classroom. Not quite a portfolio, I’d built a web of data.

Writing a good narrative requires detail. I built assignments that supplied that detail. Multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, true-and-false, and matching assessments won’t work in my classroom. They don’t provide me with the deep understanding of my students’ progress I know I’ll need when sitting down to write narratives.

I changed my approach to teaching because I needed a better way to write about my students’ learning. Because I changed my approach, I came to better know about my students’ learning.

Writing narrative report cards is time-consuming and difficult.

I’m a better teacher for it.

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