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This graphic provides educators with helpful ideas on how to collect evidence over time to support the triangulation of assessment while using SpacesEDU.

Ep. 10 | “Assessment: What’s Hope Got To Do With it?”

Welcome to the Growth Over Grades Podcast where we talk about education ideas and topics that matter most to our SpacesEDU Educator Community

At the beginning of each episode, I like to feature an amazing educator in our community. This week, I want to give a shoutout to educator and speaker Stefanie Crawford. She is an educator who is also a sketchnoting artist. She regularly shares her work through social media and that is why I began to follow her! She's also an advocate for Autistic people and students and is a person who regularly shares what she learns. Thank you for being part of our SpacesEDU community, Stefanie. Stefanie is someone who learns from our podcast guest for this episode, Tom Schimmer. 

Tom Schimmer is a recognized voice when it comes to learning about assessment and grading. He’s an award-winning author and has at least 8 published books and I know more are coming. He’s been an educator for over 30 years. I was blessed to meet him this past fall at the TeachBEtter Conference in Ohio and he is down to earth. 

Schimmer advocates for change in both assessment and grading but he does it in a humane way. He is not out to make anyone feel dumb. Tom believes in teachers and knows they are doing their absolute best for their students. His mission is to help change the system in a way that honors our humanity and when I say “our”, I mean teachers, students, family, administrators and all those in our school communities.. Everything he does and teaches adults is an example of how we can relate that back to the young people we serve.

Growth Over Grades Twitter Community

Humanity is Greater Than Systems

We, teachers, have our systems for everything, even in how we grade our students’ work.  Schimmer shares that he was traditional in his systems until his own daughter was born.  He examined how he was communicating with his students in a way that made him question, “What if someone said this to my daughter?” He said he felt knots in his stomach when he thought about it. 

He also examined how student “failure” was communicated to students, and how it affected their motivation to improve or even attend school. A continuous cycle of failure does not motivate most students to do better. It’s quite the opposite. 

But what does one do when they want to change their traditional practices and have no idea where and how to move forward? 

Schimmer was on a path to improve grading and assessment. He has spent years learning, growing, and sharing with other educators all that he is learning. We talked about how going completely “gradeless” isn’t always realistic. At the end of the day, there is accountability that has to be considered and communicated.  

To support those who are going gradeless (or moving towards that direction) and those who are using grades, he offers this bit of advice, “Grade less and emphasize feedback.”

The Battle Between Standardized Tests and 21st-Century Skills

What Does Hope Have to Do With It? 

For the last decade, Schimmer and his colleagues, Cassandra Erkens and Nicole Dimich have been working on what makes assessment successful. They settled on these six tenets: assessment purpose, architecture, interpreting results, communicating results, instructional agility, and student investment. But they also don’t want educators to stop in the structures of assessment.

One of the most profound moments in our conversations was when Schimmer said, “What often gets lost in this assessment conversation, which can feel very clinical, and be discussed very clinically, right, is that there is a human being on the other end on every assessment decision you make… And they are going to have an emotional reaction to the prospect of being assessed.” 

Why are emotions so important? Schimmer follows up by saying that students’ emotions will influence how they see assessment as something to be feared or productive. 

Students can feel hopeful about assessment when they feel like it is leading them to where they want to go, and the opposite is it can also diminish hope when they don’t see it as helpful or themselves as successful. He describes it as being able to see, or not to see, the light at the end of the tunnel. That also ties directly into self-efficacy and if students believe that what they achieve can get them to that light, or in the direction they want to go.  

It all ties back to those six tenets. Schimmer and his colleagues’ work focuses on the lives being impacted.  How do the decisions we make as educators advance or hinder what students believe they can do through the power of grading and assessment?

That is why standardized testing or one-size-fits-all testing can’t properly show each student’s capability, gifts, or story. It may seem like it’s holding teachers accountable from a political perspective…but does it do anything to further the dreams and hopes of our students individually? Do these kinds of assessments, or really any kind of assessment we implement, help our students feel hopeful and ready to keep moving on and achieving their goals? 

These are big questions and with mass testing and grading, it’s no wonder so much gets lost in the process. We might not be able to stop standardized testing (for now), but it also made me realize how important our grading and assessment practices, as individual teachers, are when we think about those students whose lives will be affected. We can do better and so many of us are on the path to continuous learning in this area. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with Tom Schimmer and hope you will check it out in its entirety. He regularly shares what he is learning in his books, professional development, and podcast. If you aren’t already following him, I hope you will now.

Follows & Show Notes:

Tom Schimmer

Stefanie Crawford 

Cassandra Erkens

Nicole Dimich

Tom Schimmer Podcast 

Ep. 9 | “Protecting Teachers’ Boundaries”

Welcome to the Growth Over Grades Podcast where we talk about education ideas and topics that matter most to our SpacesEDU Educator Community. At the beginning of each new episode, I’m going to feature an amazing educator in our community. This week, I want to give a shoutout to teacher, author, and leader Bonnie Nieves. Bonnie is an active member in our community. She is on a mission to help her students love the learning process and reflect deeply so they can take what they are learning in class and solve problems in the real world. She regularly shares what she is learning with her PLN. Thank you for all you do, Bonnie.

Meet Tim Cavey

Another educator who regularly shares with his  PLN is Tim Cavey, our podcast guest today. Tim is the leader behind Teachers On Fire. He is someone who has inspired me and countless others to continue to grow and share in our learning and expertise in content creation. He has over 20 years of experience as an educator and is now also in an administration role. 

Three Ways Teachers Leave an Impact 

The Case for Boundaries

Recently I read one of Tim Cavey’s articles titled, Should Teachers Attend Student Performances Outside of School?  It was a thoughtful piece that was about protecting the time that teachers have after school. I really admire how Tim uses his experiences as a classroom teacher and administrator to share in a respectful way that times are changing. Teachers have always worked tirelessly, but these last couple of years have asked even more from them. 

There is a story behind Cavey’s blog post. Last year he sat with a fellow teacher in a conference where parents tried to say she didn’t care about their child because she did not go to a private event they were having. Tim Cavey leads by example and shares that with all the extra things teachers are required to do after school hours (think back to school night, conferences, programs, etc.), they should not feel pressured to attend more events. 

Check out the SpacesEDU Library of Lesson Plans

Boundaries Help Student Growth

“At the end of the day, student growth and student learning is dependent on vibrant,  well teachers.” Tim Cavey

In fact, Cavey shares that when educators implement professional boundaries, they are more likely to have energy and the capacity to be the teacher their students need. 

Here are some boundaries he models & sets for his colleagues:

  1. Mental health days are sick days, so take them.
  2. Don't mark/grade everything.
  3. Create boundaries around your work time, think Parkinson’s Law.
  4. Don’t feel guilty for saying “No” to coaching.
  5. Don’t apologize for ignoring emails on the weekend. 

When administrators protect their teachers and staff, they are doing so in the best interest of their students’ growth. The pandemic has added a new layer of fatigue to a teacher’s daily tasks. We hope this podcast helps you put boundaries in perspective and would love to hear if this episode helps you and your school community. Check out the articles mentioned in the podcast for more ideas on how to implement professional boundaries. 

Growth Over Grades Twitter Community

Follows & Show Notes:

Bonnie Nieves

Tim Cavey

Teachers On Fire 

Knikole Taylor

Jamie Nicholson

Should Teachers Attend Student Performances Outside of School

Two Scary Phone Habits That Will Bring Back Your Fire for Teaching

A Message to Middle Schoolers: Stop Sweating the School Stuff

9 Survival Tips for New Teachers

Parkinson’s Law: How to overcome it to increase productivity

Ep. 8 | Claire Romzek “Is this for a grade?”

Welcome to the Growth Over Grades Podcast where we talk about education ideas and topics that matter most to our SpacesEDU Educator Community At the beginning of each new episode, I’m going to feature an amazing educator in our community. At the TeachBetter Conference this past October, I was able to meet Livia Chan. She embodies teaching the whole child/student, and I had the privilege of sitting in one of her sessions where she talked about atomic interactions. Her message is about using every opportunity and interaction with students as a way to grow a deeper connection. Make sure to follow Livia Chan if you aren’t already doing so!


A STEM Lesson Plan: Cultivating Persistence & Problem Solving Skills

Going Gradeless

Speaking of amazing educators, Episode 8 involves a conversation with educator and leader Claire Romzek. She is the magnet coordinator for The Lied Stem Academy and works to promote STEM in her school through field trip opportunities and inviting guest speakers. Before her present role, she taught both elementary and middle school.  

I met Claire Romzek at the NVSide Silver State Technology Conference in Las Vegas this past September. We immediately clicked when she came into my session which was focused on teaching the whole child/student. It was just a few people so we ended up having a deep conversation and sharing what we have learned and observed throughout our teaching careers. 

Her goal as an educator is to help students learn to their maximum potential without worrying about grades. She wants her children and students to go out into the world as empathetic problem solvers knowing they can pass any test in life (not just the academic ones). 

We know that grades often lead to the end of learning or pursuing knowledge. 

Courageously, Claire Romzek made the decision to go gradeless! Now, she helps other educators who want to pursue this, and she is also learning more about competency-based education as the state of Nevada is moving in that direction.

Is This for A Grade?

Every teacher has been asked this question many times. Romzek reminded me in this conversation that we, as educators, have created this mindset. She explained how grades have become a student’s currency. They face consequences at school and home when they don’t bring home the right letters on their report cards. This currency of grades can go through a myriad of student calculations. In fact, she shares how some students, in order to save themselves from embarrassment in front of their peers, would rather not try and fail than fail and get a low score.

Reimagining Student Led Conferences: Demonstration vs. Show and Tell

Culture Shift

To get away from this grading mentality, we have to face some truths. First, our society understands grades. We were graded as students. We often believe that students won’t try if they don’t think they will be graded. However, as Romzek found out, students not only worked when they weren’t receiving a letter grade, they worked harder in many instances.

But like other educators who pursue a different approach to reporting grades, Romzek still has to submit something for report cards. Her system involved conferencing with students, who generally are harder on themselves, and using a scale to show mastery. Her process relied heavily on reflection and feedback. In order for this to work, we as parents, educators, and students have to see the benefit of not getting Straight As and the benefit of learning to master the standards or competencies. We have to trust the process and focus less on stellar grade point averages. In order for this upgrading or gradeless process to be successful, communication with all stakeholders must be a priority. 

Through one of the reflections, a  student shared with Romzek, “I learned more because I tried new things.”

Another amazing benefit of going gradeless was observing students taking ownership of their learning. Romzek shared that she and another colleague found that they no longer needed to take work home. Everything they do is in class.

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At the end of our podcast, I asked Romzek about wisdom she would like to impart. She shared that we need to put humanity back into education. Students didn’t lose their learning, and we shouldn't be looking at students as numbers or categorizing where they “should have been.” Instead, we need to meet them where they are in this present time. To many of us in education, that’s the heart of a true educator, leader, and change-maker.

All the Good Stuff/Show Notes:

Follow Livia Chan 

Follow Claire Romzek

Follow Carrie Fisher

Digital Citizenship & Sustainable Development Goals

Welcome to the Growth Over Grades Podcast where we talk about education ideas and topics that matter most to our Spaces Educator Community. Episode 7 involves a conversation with two global giants bringing people together: students, educators, and families in a way that empowers them when using digital citizenship to advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals, also known as SDGs.

Marialice Curran, Ph.D and Eugenia Tamez have been working and writing together since they met in person in 2016. They met through a mutual contact, Dr. Jason Ohler who always encouraged them to fill the needs they found that were being overlooked. They have published a book with EduMatch Publishing called DigCit Kids also co-authored with Marialice’s son, Curran. They have founded the DigCit Institute and for the month of October, you can see them making waves on social media with their global partners and communities that they hope to continue throughout the school year to use tech for good! 

#UseTech4Good and #DigCitSDGs

The reason these two are committed to sharing digital citizenship through the SDGs is because it is authentic learning. Caring about your neighbor, whether next door or on another continent is something everyone can do in the age and grade or job they are in right now. Many of Curran and Tamez’s partners start with an SDG that resonates with their students. They learn all they can about it, invite experts to share more, and then find ways they can advocate and do something to help form their community. Curran reminds us that we don’t have to be experts to begin! 

While this duo begins to spotlight their global commitment in October with daily social takeovers and calls to action, they want every teacher and student to continue throughout the year. Join them in a way that works for you and your students. Go at the pace that is natural for you. Following the hashtags #UseTech4Good and #DigCitSDGs will show you what others are doing all over the world! The message is clear, our learners can be contributors in their virtual world as well as physical.

3 Ways to Get Involved in Digital Citizenship with SpacesEDU

LIVE Student Showcase

There was an exciting announcement made during this podcast. On April 1, 2023, the DigCit Institute will be hosting a LIVE Student Showcase! It will be held in New York, but everyone will be able to attend virtually if they can’t attend in person. They are so excited to see what students do with the calls to action that come from October 2022 social media takeovers.

Join our FB Community

We hope after listening to this conversation, you and your students will feel empowered to get involved in using tech for good in your school community. We would love to see the work you do, so please tag us on our socials. If you need support or want to continue the conversation, join our SpacesEDU Educator Community today!

All the Good Stuff/Show Notes:

DigCit Kids Amazon

DigCitKids EduMatch Publishing

DigCit Institute  


Instagram: @digcitinstitute

 Dr. Jason Ohler

Welcome to the Growth Over Grades Podcast where we talk about education ideas and topics that matter most to our Spaces Educator Community. Episode 6  involves a conversation with fellow Alaskan educator and leader Allison Curry. Curry is currently a sixth grade middle school ELA teacher. I’ve been following Allison for a few years now on Twitter as we met through the #AkEdChat. I finally was able to meet her face to face at this last ISTE in NOLA. I’ve always respected Allison as an educator because she does what is best for students, teachers, and families. She leads by a true example even if or when her opinion is unpopular. In this episode, she shares her expertise in competency-based education (CBE) and how it can help students in middle school or junior high. By the end, you will also have actionable steps to get started if CBE aligns to your goal as an educator.  Don’t forget to add Allison to your professional learning network.

Why Competency-Based Education?

Allison Curry makes an incredible case for CBE. Her journey began when she realized that traditional grades on the 100-point scale was more about failing than success. She speaks about feeling discouraged how this scale made it so hard for her students to come back after one bad grade. When she started to look for a better system, her go-tos included Twitter and ISTE classes. Turns out there are so many other educators excelling in CBE and it’s a great place to start learning more.

5 Benefits of Competency Based Education

Competency-Based Education works because students are going for mastery. Grades are finite, you pass or fail and you stop. CBE is about feedback and students taking a path that continues until they truly “get it.” Where our education system often has us pushing on before our students are all ready to move on, CBE meets students where they are to set the foundation for what comes next.

Competency-Based Education is NOT Easy

Competency-Based Education is not a quick and easy solution for anyone or anything. Somet of the hurdles Allison Curry mentions is being an island where others are still using traditional grades. Communication is priority. Students need to know what they are trying to master and parents need to know that you are not grading traditionally. You have to be willing to make mistakes along the way, learn from others, and start small. 

How to Use Video to Give Engaging Student Feedback

However, the rewards are worth it all. Curry shares that one professional reward is that she knows her content so much better. She understands what her students need to have as prerequisites and where they are going next, even after mastery.  She shared that her students might finally “get it” when they are in her class. Parents have told her that it’s less hassle for them to keep up with their children’s work/papers. 

Ready to Give CBE a Chance? 

If you have been thinking about implementing competency-based education, Curry provides some books to start reading (see show notes). She also says to start small. Maybe tackle one competency at a time. You don’t have to overhaul your entire system before you have the necessary skills.  You’re also invited to join our Spaces EDU community on Facebook. Come find the support you need! 

Thank you to community member, Allison Curry, for coming on to our podcast. As parting wisdom, she says to Middle School teachers, “Keep it weird!” 

Join our FB Community

All the Good Stuff/Show Notes:


Grading For Equity by Joe Feldman

Competency-Based Education: A New Architecture for K-12 Schooling by Rose L. Colby

The Successful Middle School: This We Believe by Penny Bishop and Lisa Harrison

EduProtocols by Marlena Hebern and Jon Corippo


Follow Allison Curry on TikTok


"Invitation to Brave Space" - Daily Affirmation to Begin Class

adapted from works by Beth Strano and Mickey Scottbey Jones

Welcome to the Growth Over Grades Podcast where we talk about education ideas and topics that matter most to our Spaces Educator Community. Episode five involves a conversation with educator and leader, Stephanie Morgan-Harris, who has fulfilled many roles in education and life. Serving in her 20th year in education, her current role is principal and she is always a champion for all students! We recently met her at the Global IB Conference in San Diego. Leaders like Morgan-Harris inspire us to form stronger bonds and understand student learning profiles. If we don’t navigate this with cultural competence, we do more harm than good and big ideas such as the Portrait of a Learner won’t truly represent our students. 

Not New to Trauma

The newest junior high principal in Kankakee, IL understands what it’s like to be taught with high standards from people who believed in her and knew she was going places in life. She also knows what it’s like to go to school each day and be traumatized by low expectations academically and high expectations of failure. 

If you listen to her story, you will be blown away by how she beat the discriminatory assumptions put on her by the people who were supposed to be building her up. As a Person of Color, she attended a Black school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She was grown and encouraged, excelled and had a future. However, for high school, none of her teachers were like her and she found herself in the principal's office frequently enough to have her own seat. He was not afraid to share with her that he thought she would amount to very little.

The school leader was not worried that his student had become disengaged. He saw life through his own lens and had no idea that a promising, young woman, very capable of learning and leading was right in front of him. He failed her. It wasn’t the other way around. This is still happening in our system. It’s not always as blatant as it used to be, but low expectations for learners is a sure sign that trauma happening to our students, especially for those who are in our historically marginalized communities.

Launch Your School Year in the Right Direction

Most people might not be able to come back from that type of trauma. But Stephanie Morgan-Harris made it her life mission to excel and help students like her. Whether serving in the role as teacher or leader, she knows that building strong relationships with her students is the foundation of helping them excel academically. She has high expectations and seeks to know what helps each student learn. She knows that being culturally competent helps both teachers and students reach goals.

The Importance of Cultural Competencies

If you Google “Cultural Competencies” you will find this definition…

Cultural competence — loosely defined as the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one's own — has been a key aspect of psychological thinking and practice for some 50 years.

Being culturally competent means you appreciate the diversity in people and are willing to do the work to make sure your own personal bias does not interfere with how you treat others who are not like you in race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. If you are accepting of the differences of the people around you and they feel comfortable to be their authentic selves in your presence, you are culturally competent. As an educator, you are also modeling this for your students. Knowing that we each bring our own lens with us, but knowing we can always strive to see others through their perspectives (and not just our own) keeps our minds open that life experiences from those around us don’t always match ours. Knowing this truth can be a welcome mat in helping our students share their stories and help us enrich their learning environment.

Help your Students Blossom in Creative Confidence

But the opposite is also true. When we don’t strive to overcome our personal bias, we often shut down others without even trying. Some of our students, and their parents, have been shut down so many times, they learn not to share anymore. 

If you want to encourage and become partners with those around you, you must learn to accept that mindsets and learning experiences are not equal for all of us. We must accept that we can do and say things that are harmful. We must be intentional in showing inclusivity and allowing for representation. We must constantly seek truth even when it’s not readily available. 

When done well, we are modeling this for our students. They may encounter prejudice and discrimination, but they will also be able to come back from it with the tools we give them in being culturally competent. Knowing who we are, who our students are, and what is important in their lives also gives us insight in how to teach in a way that is relevant.

The Learner Profile

To begin learning more about your students, start with relationships, don’t assume you know everything about a student. Morgan-Harris expresses in the podcast what it felt like to be on both sides of that. Her teacher, Mr. Sutton, who wanted to help her succeed, began with questions that helped her go deeper into her learning. Morgan-Harris excelled in math because of this kind of relationship building. 

However, when she went to high school, no one asked why she was disengaged from learning and her principal told her she would only be a “welfare case.” The low expectations and the refusal to learn more about his student brought harm to Morgan-Harris and many others. Not all students are as resilient and can flip the script as she did. That’s what propelled her to go into education. 

“Cultural competencies and identity, I call them mirrors and windows. When students are able to see themselves in the curriculum when they are able to see others in the curriculum, and they understand, not just in the time and space as it relates to right now in present time, but in the historical context of nature related to whatever subject matter, it helps them see themselves actually succeeding in that content area.”-Stephanie Morgan-Harris 

Why does it matter for students to see themselves in relation to what they are learning? Morgan-Harris says this is pivotal in their personal decision-making that they can make a difference and grow in these different areas as well. She reminds us that it’s first about reaching our students before we can actually teach them.

Teacher Guide to Get Started with Spaces

As a classroom teacher, Morgan-Harris would bring the community into her classroom so her students felt like they could reach out and talk to these people and see themselves in the role as part of their futures. That’s also how she designed her field trips. She incorporated real life experiences and skills like reading bus schedules as well as curriculum standards and content. Everything she introduced them to was something they could use in their own life as citizens. Looking back, Morgan-Harris shares that her grown up students have never forgotten the learning that took place with her as their teacher.

It all begins with forming strong relationships. It also entails celebrating growth that is personal to each learner. Morgan-Harris shares that might include celebrating a student growing from a D to a C in grades. It also means questioning what we are actually grading and the impact those grades have on our students. 

This was such a powerful conversation, and I am honored that I could be involved in it. There is healing that needs to take place in our school communities. The work in understanding our students on a deeper level, so we can reach and teach them, begins with our own personal work in learning where our bias may lead us. We may learn that we tend to assume when we should be seeking for truth, instead. As educators, we need to strive for representation and inclusivity. This will help our students see and believe in themselves, foster healing, and allow them to be the change-makers and innovators we know they can be.

The Extras

Follow Stephanie Morgan-Harris on Twitter and Facebook

Blog: What is Cultural Competency and Why is it Important?

Blog: Here’s Everything You Need To Know About Learner Profiles

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

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 three involves a conversation with veteran educator and consultant, Todd Scholl. Todd shared that he comes from a family of educators as well as spending 27 years in education himself. He’s been a classroom teacher, worked on a state program to retain educators, and currently is Lead Learner for the Center for Educator Wellness & Learning (CEWL). Todd is an extremely vocal leader and advocate for school and teacher wellness. His messages keep the “whole person” in mind, whether that’s students or teachers.

Todd recently shared this quote on his social media, and that's why I knew he needed to be a guest on our podcast.

 “ Standardized testing is a waste of taxpayer money. It is no longer needed. More authentic and useful assessments of student performance can be done by individual teachers and schools. This would save money and dramatically improve school culture.” 

Spaces provides an authentic platform to assess students.

Assessment Should Embrace Students & Teachers Humanity

When I asked Todd about what healthy assessment looks like, he started with, “Anything that aligns naturally with a human being's sense of curiosity….”  He shared that assessment should not be rigid. He also compared healthy assessment to a doctor’s diagnosis, where we are looking for areas of health and areas that require help. When we think of it like that, we are looking at individuals and how we as educators can best teach/serve them. It takes away that sense of punishment that oftentimes follows standardized testing. 

Healthy assessment looks different than our regular paper and pencil multiple-choice tests. We constantly do formative assessments to know if our students are grasping learning objectives. But a mixture of anecdotal, written, student-teacher meetings, and even sharing work with the world and community at large are all parts of healthy assessment. Does this sound personalized? It should. 

Todd Scholl shares a story about how his students made a YouTube video presentation that inspired a school district in Turkey! Sharing artifacts like that demonstrates real learning while also sending a message to students that they are already contributing to society in positive ways. That is the kind of message so many of us want to leave with our students.

Does High-Stakes Testing Help Learners?

We also discussed how this one-size-fits-all view is harmful to students and teachers, even dehumanizing them. Scholl shared that when a doctor shares a diagnosis of high cholesterol with their patient, the doctor is not blamed. However, standardized testing, used as a way to measure a student’s growth, is also being used to find fault with teachers. He stressed that the teacher is actually the most important variable in helping students grow, so punishing them is not just dehumanizing but encouraging good teachers to leave the profession. 

Here is a 20-year-old article about how standardized testing is harmful to students. Its title says it all: The Dangerous Consequences of High-Stakes Testing, FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. Twenty years ago, experts knew that high-stakes testing was harmful to students...yet it is still a dominating practice.

Advocating for Educators 

If you are teaching and you feel like the system is working against all you know about child development and the learning process, you are not alone. But speaking out can initiate punitive actions against teachers. Scholl shares that even so, we must still advocate for change, but not individually. He shares that change will only really happen on a large scale when we collectively demand it. 

Advocating for educators and demanding better assessment practices is on all of us as educators, parents, and community members. Creating a system that fosters curiosity and allows students to demonstrate their learning is assessment that makes lives better. 

Join our Spaces Educator Community today! 

All the Extras

Follow Todd Scholl at

Todd Scholl's article The Thing NFL Kickers & Standardized Testing Have in Common.

To listen to the Teacher Hotline conversation about Assessment with Ronald Hae and Damian Cooper, click here.

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