Written by Julie Eilertsen, AP Language and Composition teacher in Chandler, Arizona; Hilary Johannes, 9th grade English teacher in Chandler, Arizona; and Joe Nelson, 11th grade English teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

WestEd’s Nancy Gerzon and Barbara Jones collaborated with Eilersten, Johannes, Nelson, and others through Formative Insights: Assessment for Learning, a service designed to help schools shift away from heavy reliance on teacher-directed instruction to develop more collaborative classroom cultures that encourage and equip students to monitor and direct their own learning.

This post first appeared on Assessment for Learning’s Rethink Assessment Blog and is posted here with permission.

In February 2020, we experienced the Assessment for Learning (AFL) Conference in San Diego, CA, where educators, leaders, and partners gathered to explore ways to empower students and build equity in learning. We offer three takeaways about formative assessment, ecosystems for learning, student and teacher agency, and the power of community.

Takeaway #1: The Classroom as an Ecosystem

An ecosystem is a living entity that as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Its components rely on each other to thrive, and no one piece is more or less important than another. The systems that we create in our classrooms should follow nature’s lead. Our classrooms thrive when we as teachers take on that role of learner and share that learning journey with our students, as we do in formative assessment classrooms.

Joe: Listening to Beto Vasquez of UCSD Create describe the concept of ecosystem in relation to education at the beginning of the Assessment for Learning Conference, I reflected on my own classroom. How does my classroom maximize relationships, resources, and opportunities? How is my classroom symbiotic? My notebook is filled with more questions than notes — each prompting me to think about the student experience in my classroom. Before I learned about formative assessment, I misunderstood it as a check for understanding during instruction. I gathered evidence, but kept that information for myself to guide me in the next steps of instruction — a solo pedagogical game of Chutes and Ladders. Now, my students and I all use evidence to move learning forward. I spend a lot of time thinking about and creating learning activities that allow students to engage collectively and individually to construct new learning. I spend a lot of time cultivating the ecosystem. To provide equitable opportunities and develop student agency, my ecosystem must be based on formative assessment practices, a classroom culture of learning, and developing students’ identities as learners.

Takeaway #2: Gaining Teacher Agency

Formative assessment work involves a multitude of components used to assist students in agency and learning. However, success in a formative assessment classroom hinges on us as teachers. It depends on our agency, our ability to grow in our learning and to live collaboratively, reflectively, and actionably. Formative assessment teachers guide their students to have ownership over their own learning and to move learning forward, while taking responsibility for our teaching and moving our practices forward.

Julie: Boarding the plane to San Diego on the way to the conference, my brain in a fog of burnout and cynicism, I reflected on the past semester and honestly wondered what the point was of teaching in today’s society. Having fallen victim to the typical English teacher mentality of “assign, grade, return,” I wondered where I went wrong.

My cynicism continued for the first session of the conference. Yet, the bubbly atmosphere and the promise of a session with student voices jabbed at my heart. Being surrounded by like-minded teachers working through the process of formative assessment, I realized my heart missed the abounding benefits this practice brings to a classroom. Our campus in Arizona currently boasts only a small handful of formative assessment teachers. Of course, meeting and listening to other peers share their campus-wide work felt discouraging at first. How do we build our own formative assessment ecosystem in a system that does not understand formative assessment?

Then, I had my own realization. I am not powerless. Ultimately, it is my choice each day to choose what I know truly grows critical thinkers in my classroom. If I lose focus of that, I will of course fall into the abyss of coursework and grading — when really, that is not what my students need.

My students need support and guidance in learning how to assess their progress; they need structure to practice feedback and communicative phrasing; they need hope that learning is meaningful and relevant. It absolutely falls on me to model that in my own practice and to create that environment for my students. They deserve it, and they are worth it; however, I cannot do this alone. We must grow our own learning support systems as teachers just as we help students grow their own in our classrooms.

Hilary: The biggest takeaway from the conference for me was about integrating the idea of the ecosystem and the realities within my district. I had to reframe the idea of what I was individually capable of, and the frustrations I felt because of that, with a more realistic way of thinking. I was able to shift my idea of an ecosystem to be more site-based rather than district-based, that is, to work more closely with teachers in my building instead of trying to spread formative assessment across the district as I had been doing. Once I was able to make that shift in a very concrete way, I became more hopeful again about my ability to grow the work of formative assessment within the ecosystem that I live in on a day-to-day basis.

Takeaway #3: Teacher Agency Includes Peers

While each of our own classrooms are a small ecosystem within the school walls, we must also create an ecosystem for ourselves that supports and encourages teacher agency. Our ecosystem can and should be larger than just our own buildings. Rather than waiting for someone else to take the lead, teachers can come together and explore ideas and topics that will deepen their own understanding of formative assessment. This is a crucial component of the formative assessment cycle: reflection. We can develop a collective teacher agency by reflecting together on our own practices. By working together across school districts and state lines, we can focus on the foundation of formative assessment practices. Our students may not have opportunities to express their agency and identity as learners in other places, so we can provide that support as they develop. Likewise, we ourselves may not have the support in other areas of our ecosystem. As teachers, we must become the support for one another.

Hilary: For me, my agency as a teacher/practitioner of formative assessment is energized every time I am able to be with others who see that the hard work is worth it, that it is what is truly best for our kids, and that it empowers us as educators and them as learners. I came to the conference really struggling with the question: “What do I do now to move this work from just a few classrooms to a broader scale in my district?” Connecting with others around the country and hearing that their struggles and successes are similar to my own reaffirmed that I am not alone in this work. This journey over the last five years with formative assessment has been the most rewarding of my professional career.

Joe: For the past two years, I have been the only high school teacher in my school implementing formative assessment practices in the classroom. When I am in the middle of the school year, it can be easy to think that I am the only one who cares whether students develop their own agency and identities as learners. At the conference, I had the opportunity to sit down with four other experienced formative assessment teachers. I finally felt like I had found a group that could relate to my experiences of switching from a focus on my teaching to a focus on student learning. Sitting at that table in the empty ballroom, I did not gain innovative insights on formative practices or radically change my perspective on student learning. I found something much more profound. I found community. I was reminded that there are other teachers in other places who recognize the importance of noticing emerging learning and supporting student self-assessment. I am not sure if I really understood it at the time, but I had just discovered my own need for collective teacher agency.

Julie Eilertsen has been learning and practicing formative assessment for the last five years. With a focus on implementing and developing peer feedback and self-assessment in the writing process, Eilertsen’s students have been learning to take ownership of their own writing skills.

Hilary Johannes has been on the formative assessment journey for the last five years. Her focus has been on implementing formative practices with her students on a daily basis to help them take ownership of their learning, develop a strong community, and grow their skills with learning goals and success criteria.

Joe Nelson has been learning about and implementing formative assessment practices in his classroom for the last three years. Recently, his focus has been on the use of a learning continuum to help students set small group and individual goals for themselves.

Photo: Teacher Joe Nelson and students at the Assessment for Learning Conference in San Diego, CA