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Growth Over Grades Podcast: Episode 4 - Natalie Vardabasso

Thank you for tuning into our Growth Over Grades Podcast where we talk about education ideas and topics that matter most to our Spaces Educator Community. Episode four involves a conversation with veteran educator and consultant, Natalie Vardabasso, whom I’ve been following for a while. Her ability to reflect, make changes, share, and grow is something that resonates with me and many other educators.  Natalie is authoring a book that is about rehumanizing assessment through story. Not sure what this means? Awesome, you’re about to find out! Join our FB Community and let’s keep the conversation going.

Tell Me the Story About You

Loved how this episode started as Natalie Vardabasso shares about her own story growing up in a Canadian town in British Columbia to a family of educators. She resisted expectations of being like her dad and joked she wanted to be Beyonce and thus studied musical theater. However, things changed when she found an education class taught by a mentor where students and teachers were learning side by side. It was so radically different from anything she’d ever experienced. This class and way of learning allowed her to share her learning through her gifts and strengths like slam poetry and collaborative performances. From there, assessment changed into an endeavor of feeding the whole student or human, and Vardabasso shifted into education ready to be a change agent. 

Want to know more about Slam Poetry? Check out this YouTube Channel

Vardabasso has held some pretty amazing positions while helping lead her district to become k-9 outcomes-based. However, at this point, she is taking her own edupreneurial journey and is working as a consultant. She’s also a podcastor for a show called EduCrush.

Learn more about the benefits of using a digital portfolio. 

Change Doesn’t Come Overnight

Something Natalie Vardabasso shared early on, and what many educators feel as well, is that there are traditions that are so tightly bound to education, change doesn’t come easily. Change doesn’t come easily even when we know it’s better for teachers and students. In fact, trying to bring about change is very lonely. We discussed how it can be misconstrued and misinterpreted by those who work closest to us. Vardabasso shares that joining Twitter helped her find her people and her voice. 

Vardabasso is very intentional about what and when she shares. When she is inspired by others, or her own learning journey, she keeps notes. She crafts her tweets and makes it a daily habit to add something every morning. When she has deep conversations with others, she feels she is able to frame conversations well because of all the thoughts she takes notes of in her daily practices. Her thoughts are deeply reflective about what she learns within and with others and it amazes me how well she models this naturally. Talking with her greatly encouraged me and I know anyone who listens to her will be inspired as well. 

Rehumanizing Assessment Through Story: What does that mean? 

If this makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone. As Natalie Vardabasso shares, “storytelling is not standardized.”

Assessment Through Story…What is that? 

With everything going on in the world these last couple of years, Vardabasso felt like humanity was being lost. Trying to get back to a normal, while everything feels on fire, if we don’t look at our own humanity, it most definitely can be lost. Every time we turn on the news, whether it’s a new strain of Covid, war, or protesting, people are lost and crying out. We can’t ignore that. 

Vardabasso says, “What is most integral about our humanity is our story.” If you think about trying to find what students know and/or find where there are gaps, through personal stories, we’d find out a lot. But we have to get over the fact that that story has been regarded as inferior when compared to other types of scholarly writing, such as essays. She understands that it’s scary because it’s nothing close to standardized. Stories in their very nature are personalized. If we want to discover the growth in our students, in the humans we teach, story can tell us so much more than any other kind of assessment. 

But there is so much more to stories than the beginning, middle, and end. Natalie Vardabasso discusses a Japanese method that focuses on harmony and reconciliation called ​​Kishōtenketsu. Instead of the “conflict” in this method, there are twists. As we grow, as we learn, the twists are the process that fuels us to keep going. 

Engage your readers without the log!

Principles of Assessment through Story

Talking with Natalie Vardabasso, the sense of using assessment as a way to further learning really struck me. In my mind, assessment seemed so final, and many times more towards punishment. This conversation truly enlightened me. 

Here are some guiding principles that can help us use story as a way to assess learning: 

  1. Establish Purpose. Are we looking for formative or summative assessment? Will the learner go further into their studies or are we just verifying learning? Some examples she gave were: “Tell the story of war…” “Tell the story of revolution or the story of the human impact on the ecosystem…” These stories could be told through projects students create and through conversations at the end of the day. The stories shared will help us decide where to go next in our teaching.
  2. Accuracy means matching the expected depth and level of learning with the types of story we are seeking.  The natural depth of stories encourages divergent thinking and goes deeper than multiple choice tests…
  3. Agility comes through our ability to respond to story. It helps us give feedback that encourages more learning. It helps us form questions and Natalie says, the best feedback is questions. When we start asking thoughtful questions, we are validating the learning experience. We’ve all seen students dump work in the trash once their papers were graded. We know this dumping, whether literal or figurative, means our students didn’t find the relevance of our content with their lives.
  4. Empowerment comes through the ability to share our stories. Some of us aren’t able to do this as adults! As mentioned in the podcast, we can truly celebrate better equity practices when we help our students tell their stories and then honor them. Can you imagine how using class time to listen to students’ stories would engage them if they knew we really cared? Can you imagine how the critical thinking skills and the thought provoking nature of this would broaden perspectives from the tunnel vision we tend to be brought up in?

The Battle Between Standardized Tests and 21st-Century Skills

I’m truly glad to have had the opportunity to speak with Natalie Vardabasso. The principles of assessment she shared are often lost in our education system. However, they are probably the most important ingredients when helping our students own their learning. Through storytelling, feedback, and reflection, assessment can be the gamechanger in a learner’s journey. 


People Mentioned in this Podcast:

Tom Schimmer

Dr. Dawn Harris

Dr. Michael Harvey (Dr. H). 

All the Extras:

EduCrush Podcast:

Natalie’s twitter

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