A Crash Course

This fabulous photo of my bike rider was taken by Erika Plummer.


Mama, every time I crash my bike, I learn something.


Mac, that’s so awesome! What do you learn?


I learn how to not do that crash again.

Nature, or nurture? My bet’s on nurture.


Being Intentional About Being Intentional

Intentionality. With thought. Deliberate. Designed. Purposeful.

Intentionality is on my mind a lot because I think that assessment can be more interesting, engaging, and powerful (for learners and teachers) when it’s less about measurement and accountability and more about supporting authentic learning practices. In this vein, assessment can be an interesting catalyst for reminding us to be intentional in what we do and how we do it — and in knowing why we do what we do.  Being intentional means thinking about each and every aspect of a course we teach or program we facilitate to do our best to ensure it lines up to what we’re hoping people will learn from it. The short article How To Study Your Own Teaching (And Why You Might Want To), by Janine Utell, speaks to this very idea:

I’ve developed strategies to create good discussion, to facilitate broad and deep involvement, and to synthesize the contributions of the classroom community. I feel like my classes are going best when the room is a bit rowdy, when interactions lead to debates and eurekas. But due partly to assessment work on my campus and partly to collaboration with colleagues in a different discipline around designing a study of student writing, I decided to create a project of my own to investigate the effectiveness of my practice. I wanted a more robust picture of what’s going on in my classroom and whether it’s working.

Utell wants to see her practice differently because she wants to make sure what she does is working. (And like many of my best teachers and colleagues, reflecting on her teaching practice and pedagogical commitments is likely part of her DNA and happens with less intentionality as well).

Intentionality. With thought. Deliberate. Designed. Purposeful.

Intentionality certainly has its role in my yoga practice as well. In early January, my yoga teacher asked a group of us to define one thing we each wanted to focus on this coming year in our practice.  It was a sort of New Year’s Resolution moment. And I knew right away:  I need to focus on squaring my hips in poses such as Warrior 3 or Pyramid.

This is not me - my hips are not this square. Nor do I practice yoga in a place like this. I live in Portland - we practice rain yoga. So thanks to rfarmer on Flickr for making this image available for use!

My hips always want to go way off to the side, and I thus don’t get the benefit of the pose when that happens. By stating this intention, and with self-assessment and my teacher’s coaching and assessment in each session, I maintain that intentionality, and I am improving. I can feel it. It’s on my mind constantly in any pose that requires me to get squared. If yoga is about anything for me, it’s about intentionality. And it’s about seeing myself differently.

Intentionality. With thought. Deliberate. Designed. Purposeful.

Parenting my 4-year old is also a practice in intentionality — and learning and assessment — as well. Let me illustrate:

A few weeks ago Mac and I went to the zoo and found a friend in this fellow. Mac had been having a hard time with his own swimming attempts recently, freaking out at the thought of going under the water, so I seized the moment:

Me: Mac, why don’t you ask him why he likes to swim underwater so much.

Mac: Mr. Sea Lion, why do you like to swim underwater so much?

Mr. Sea Lion: blurb blurp bubble blurp

Mac: Mama, he says it’s fun to swim to the bottom and see all the kids down here.

Me: Wow, neat! I wonder what you can see when you swim to the bottom of the pool.

Mac: That’s silly mama. I can’t see anything. My eyes are closed!

WHAT? Mac always wore goggles in the pool – why did he close his eyes? What did he think the goggles were for? A fashion statement? To hold his hair back? I pointed out that with his goggles on he could open his eyes and see the bottom just like the sea lion, and – EPIPHANY!

Mac: Really? If I open my eyes in my goggles I can see down there?

Me: Yep – and you won’t get water in your eyes!

Mac: Cooooool! That will be really good, mama!

And the next time in the water, with his goggles on, he opened his eyes, swam to the bottom, and fetched a toy. Just like Mr. Sea Lion. Intentionality helped us out here, again. It reminded me that we often take things for granted and don’t question them for a long time until we have opportunity to see them differently.

Intentionality. With thought. Deliberate. Designed. Purposeful.

It’s good to see things differently – with our eyes open.  (If you’re in need, Mac has a pair of goggles he’ll let you borrow if you’d like – if you open your eyes under there, you might be amazed at what you’ll find.)


This is a picture of my kid with his bike at the age of 3 and 11/12 months:

This is a more recent picture of him with his new bike at the age of 4 and 30 seconds:

Some pretty major things needed to happen to get from picture #1 to picture #2. For example, in our family:

  • Four year-olds need to be able to put on their own socks.
  • Four year-olds need to make their beds when they get up in the morning.
  • Four year-olds need to take their plates to the kitchen after they are done eating.
  • Four year-olds, for goodness sake, need to feed themselves!!!

That’s right. We instituted milestones.

Milestones are constructed to provide reference points along the road. This can be used to reassure travelers that the proper path is being followed, and to indicate either distance traveled or the remaining distance to a destination. ~Wikipedia

Milestones, in this way, promote learning and help us assess how well we are doing toward a learning outcome. In the world of educational assessment, we call milestones a kind of “formative assessment.”

In my family, it’s what got us sanely from three to four.

Ok, ok, in all fairness, we really created milestones so to preserve what’s left of our parental sanity, but we also wanted the kid to have a goal (being four), to work toward something significant and important (and I quote, “Mama, I fed myself my dinner all by myself; now I can be four!”), and to have a sense of accomplishment when he got there.

The payoff for reaching these milestones? Well, not only did the kid actually turn four (which frankly seemed significant enough to all of us), but he also got that new bike in picture #2.

And guess what! To prove to us that he had in fact turned four, he ate 2 pieces of this birthday cake!

All by himself!

Is He Learning?

Last week we received my kid’s first report card from his new school and we had our first parent-teacher conference. So you all know, Mac is 3 and 11/12ths years old and he is in preschool. So this is all new to us. The report card and the conference have me thinking about assessment (of course) because really, that’s what it’s all about. Is Mac learning what we want him to learn, and what evidence do we have to prove it?

First Official School Photo

The report card is not a card that says “A” or “C” or any other grade, but is, in fact, a rubric.  There is a description of where his learning levels are in several categories, accordingly:

(E) = Exceeding – consistently exceeding grade-level expectations; a strength

(M) = Meeting – developmentally appropriate or meeting grade-level expectations

(D) = Developing – working towards grade-level expectations

(X) – Not assessed at this time; not applicable

For each category, there are specific learning items that are assessed using this framework (some are skills; some are knowledge areas; and a lot is behavior, as you might expect for students who are 3 and 11/12ths years old). Here is an example from the listening category:


  • Effort – M
  • Demonstrates comprehension in the daily routine – M
  • Listens attentively to spoken language – M

(No comment here about how I would assess his listening skills. Let me just say we might have a case of grade inflation happening here. Or an inability to transfer skills from one context to another. Either way … )

Thus, across several categories and skills, we now know where his teacher sees his strengths and where we can help support his improvement. For example, he can count from 1-6 (E) and sort objects by color, shape, and size (E), but he needs more work in demonstrating self-control (D) and accepting responsibility for his own actions (D). He is doing as expected in recognizing his own name in print (M) and cutting across paper with scissors (M).

This takes us to the parent-teacher conference, which was also about assessing his learning and was evidence-based. His teacher had an iPad with about 30 pictures of Mac taken from the beginning of the year. Together, we looked at evidence of how he held a marker in September, October, and November; we were able to see differences in technique by looking at actual letters, shapes, and pictures he had drawn in an accompanying portfolio of work. She also had samples of his writing in which we saw evidence of how he wrote M – A – C in September compared to how he writes M – A – C now (not much improvement there, frankly. The M is still upside down thus spelling WAC instead of MAC. No comment…)

My point?


We pose questions: What and how well is he learning? What evidence do we have? And what do we need to keep working on? And in answering these questions, we learn and his teacher learns and his school learns! Assessment = Learning = Assessment = Learning and around and around we go through the learning cycle. And we love it because we care.

Overall, Mac seems to be learning and doing pretty well in school (which is awesome considering that he is 3 and 11/12ths years old and has trouble listening … but apparently only with us). To provide further evidence that he is learning, here is a conversation between Mac and his dad this morning:

Mac: I want to wear these pants today.

Dado: Cool! These are cords!

Mac: Oh – I can’t touch those. I am not supposed to play with cords. They’re dangerous!

This after yesterday’s moment of inquiry, accordingly:

Mac: After the champion wins, is that when they get the chips?

Dado: The chips? What chips?

Mac: Yeah, the champion chips, Dado.

(Yep – most certainly grade inflation.)

Sherman Saved The Day

Elayna Alexandra (Flodin), one of the student bloggers in my collection, was thoughtful enough to send me a copy of a children’s book that she illustrated called Sherman the Frog Meets the Snow Princess for my kid Mac. Mac has a thing for frogs, and boy howdy, now he has a thing for Sherman!

ShermanThis past week, Mac, who 18 months old, has been suffering from some large molars pushing through and a bit of a summer cold to boot: the perfect storm for toddler (and parental) misery. None of the ordinary tricks of our trade were working to cheer him up.

Balloons? NO!

Blueberries? NO!

Trash truck? TRASH TRUCK??? (he had to think about that one, but then …) NO!

Vacuum? VACUUM??? PLEASE! (Ok – that one worked, but only for about 10 minutes before he was screaming again.)

But then, into our lives came Sherman. Sherman is not only a brave frog, but also an adventurous frog, and a frog that thinks of others before himself. Sherman, gifted with his wish from the Snow Princess, helps other folks  in need. Sherman, in essence, saves the day.

While Mac doesn’t quite yet understand the nuances of the story (um, at all!), he does understand that there’s a frog, a princess, some trees, some shoes, a hat or two, and snow. Oh, and did I mention a frog? Because in Mac’s world, that’s really all that matters.

In mom’s world, however, Sherman totally saved the day for us, in more ways than he will ever know. Thank you Elayna for your generosity. You are truly gifted: not only are you a wonderful illustrator, but your Sherman character can also chill out a sick and cranky toddler, a feat that not even a trash truck or vacuum combined can perform!

We are both grateful.