Written Communication at SK
Communication at SK generally occurs along the following five, two-way, sub-community portals:
- teacher – student
- student – parent/guardian
- teacher – parent/guardian
- teacher – teacher
- teacher – school administrator
A variety of traditional and new media communication platforms are employed within these networks, including email, blogs, hardcopy memoranda, and face-to-face interaction, all of which rely to varying degrees on written components for meaning making. Following is a brief overview of the primary written communication practices at SK.
Email — The spouse of the school’s founder is Tom Knoll, the developer of Photoshop, so it’s not surprising that Summers-Knoll’s community members are generally tech-savvy, and email is the primary method of communication. Parent/teacher email is daily, and so much of it occurs that parent/teacher conferences are almost redundant. Any concerns over student performance are addressed immediately, and email provides real time feedback to parents. As Summers-Knoll is a wireless, laptop-based environment, writing and sending email to a parent is easier and more efficient than a phone call. It also provides a documentation that can be used to track progress of any concerns and used for reference when writing student assessments.
Internal email is extensive and the primary method of communication between teachers, head of school, and other staff. It is especially helpful in promoting collaboration and sharing of information among homeroom teachers.
Newsletters — Homeroom teacher-designed newsletters are HTML-formatted email to parents that include curricular updates, announcements, and links to class photo and video galleries and downloadable forms like permission slips and homework assignments. Newsletters are a more formalized way to keep parents up-to-date on classroom and school happenings, and they also help teachers graphically organize their own calendars, plan ahead, and keep on top of a generally demanding environment. By including the head of school in his/her newsletter distribution list, the homeroom teacher keeps the principal apprised of classroom activities and developments.
Blogs — In addition to weekly newsletters, all homeroom and specials teachers maintain web-based blogs. Where newsletters tend toward presenting crucial facts (important dates, announcements, reminders, etc.), often in list format, blog entries are lengthier, more structured narratives. Generally, blogs contain fewer topics with greater depth. Blog entries are all archived on one site, and users can view photographs, videos, and assignments online without having to download files to their computers
Forms — Numerous forms must be completed by parents, teachers, and administrators. Even when generated electronically, most are still printed and archived in hardcopy. Some procedures requiring forms include:
Admissions: Families applying to SK must complete an admissions packet. The packet includes an application form and questionnaire. Parents/guardians must also compose an essay highlighting their education philosophies. Transcripts must be forwarded from any previous schools. If applying students have attended other schools, evaluations must be completed by previous teachers. Applying students must submit to psychological testing, including an IQ test, and request scores and narrative summaries be forwarded to the school. Applying students visit the school for two or more days and participate in all scheduled activities. All teachers must interview candidates and write a narrative summary of the meeting. Students are further evaluated by grade-appropriate teachers in math and English.
Students leaving Summers-Knoll School often require letters of recommendation and academic evaluations from homeroom teachers.
Health Reports: All students must have up-to-date health care information on file at school. Numerous forms are completed by parents/guardians that include information on allergies, medications, health insurance coverage, and emergency contact information. Teachers must complete accident reports after any student mishaps, and this may involve additional follow-up reporting with school insurance providers.
Tuition: Summers-Knoll is a fee-based institution. Parents may elect to pay for a semester or a year in full or make monthly payments. They must complete payment forms for the option that they choose. The school accountant generates monthly statements, which are mailed to parents.
Student Assessments — Of all written communication at Summers-Knoll School, student assessments are the lengthiest and most labor intensive. SK’s primary assessment tool is the Work Sampling System (WSS), a comprehensive, two-pronged, authentic assessment package developed by the School of Education at the University of Michigan. A detailed discussion and analysis of WSS follows in the next section.
Background: Student Performance Assessment at SK
Developed by the University of Michigan, WSS provides curriculum-embedded assessments to systematically document students’ skills, knowledge, behavior, and academic accomplishments in the following seven domains:
- Personal and Social Development
- Language and Literacy
- Mathematical Thinking
- Scientific Thinking
- Social Studies
- The Arts
- Physical Development and Health
Additionally, SK faculty determined criteria for evaluating students in foreign language (Spanish, Latin, French, etc.), technology, and electives courses.
WSS is based on national and state standards but is entirely teacher driven and student focused. Rather than assigning standardized tasks that students must master, WSS offers grade level, end-of-year benchmarks for achievement. How students meet the benchmarks is not mandated by the system, allowing the teacher to individualize and differentiate curricula for different student interests, ability levels, and learning styles.
Use of the WSS begins prior to the start of the school year. Through independent reading and instructor-led WSS training, teachers familiarize themselves with grade level benchmarks and outcomes in all seven domains. Teachers create checklists and file systems for each of their incoming students to visually track student development via performance indicators. While developing curricula, teachers refer to WSS outcomes to ensure individual lesson objectives are aligned with the system’s recommended outcomes. Notes on student progress are maintained daily and referred to extensively during future curricula planning. These notes culminate two times annually in written narrative reports and accompanying student portfolios. The process of the WSS can be best described when broken down into the following three sections.
1. Checklists and Notes — Notes are maintained by teachers on all students in all domains. I will use the second domain, Language and Literacy, as an example to illustrate the process.
Under the domain of Language and Literacy, there are four sub-domains:
Children are evaluated in these four skills at all grade levels. The skills are the same for each grade, but the outcomes vary. Following are examples of end-of-year outcomes for kindergarten students in this domain.
The bullet point outcomes above are what kindergarten students should reach by the end of the school year. Many will exceed these, but these offer a standards-constructed, baseline comparison system. When designing curricula and individual lessons, the teacher refers to these outcomes and those of the other six domains. He/she aligns individual lesson objectives to meet these outcomes. Notes are taken during and after each lesson on each student and maintained in domain-specific files for each student. If any hardcopy work is produced, it is kept in the same domain-specific files. Non-tangible products (i.e. science experiments, games on the playground, etc.) can be photographed or video recorded and filed in electronic domain-specific files. These files are maintained, reviewed, and sorted by teachers weekly to be sure students are working towards the outcomes. Though the checklists and notes component of WSS reporting is text heavy, it relies equally on multimedia visual and aural components, which must be interpreted, defined, narrated, and evaluated by students, teachers, and parents.
2. Narrative Reports — Narrative reports are based on multimedia experiences as recorded in section one above. Formal assessments maintained on student outcomes progress are produced by teachers twice each year. Teachers compose summaries of students’ performance in each domain. These domain summaries include specific examples of student progress towards mastering domain outcomes, and, where applicable and appropriate, include objective scoring data. No letter grades are assigned, though percentages may be incorporated into the narratives.
Construction of the narrative reports is labor intensive and requires collaboration with all specials teachers, the head of school, and the office manager. An organized teacher with detailed notes on student progress achieves the greatest success during the semi-annual “assessment season.” To ensure timely delivery of report to parents, intracommunication must also be tightly organized. The diagram below offers a visual representation of the collective procedure of developing the WSS narrative reports.
Narrative reports are delivered via surface mail to parents twice each year, approximately one week prior to parent/teacher conferences.
3. Portfolios — The final component of the WSS assessment tool, and the most reliant on visual communication, is portfolios. Student portfolios are built three times each year. Portfolios offer student-generated examples of outcomes progress and achievement. Samples of student work are selected in each of the seven domains. (Often, however, due to differentiation of instruction, a single item may represent progress or achievement of outcomes across two or more domains.) Samples should represent students’ best efforts as well as improvement over time. Generally, three to four examples from each domain suffice in offering a broad overview of achievement. Samples may include hardcopy work (lab reports, data collection spreadsheets, essays, etc.) and photographs of non-tangibles (class presentation, community service outing, choral performance, etc.). Students are involved in the selection of portfolio items and the building of the portfolios. Portfolio construction methods vary by teacher. Finally, portfolios are presented to parents during parent/teacher conferences and used as centerpieces for discussion. As parents have pre-reviewed narrative reports prior to conferences, they come to the meetings with a solid understanding of their child’s strengths and challenges. These are reinforced through discussion and visual examples offered by the portfolios.
WSS is the most comprehensive and valuable K-5 student performance assessment tool I have used. I believe that the authentic data generated by its application is far more valuable to parents/guardians, students, and teachers than the checklist and letter grade report card systems used in many other schools. That said, implementation of the WSS requires teacher training, ongoing professional development, funds for hardcopy and web-based teacher materials, and lots of time. The collection of data for the narratives requires many weeks and numerous hours of note taking. The final narrative report and accompanying portfolio require approximately five hours per student to construct, and this is in addition to the teachers’ normal duties. At Summers-Knoll School, teachers are allotted one day off per trimester to work on WSS reports and portfolios. Actual time spent on the WSS is numerous hours (approximately 60 hours for a class of 12 students) spread over a two or three week period. The bulk of the work must be completed in the evenings and weekends on the teachers’ own time. While this causes a certain amount of grumbling, it is agreed by all Summers-Knoll employees that the benefits of the WSS far outweigh any costs. The system holds teachers and students equally accountable, assists teacher in lesson planning by documenting where they’ve been and where they’re headed, and provides teachers with objective data to support student performance claims.
Though SK continues using WSS’s narrative and portfolio assessment package to measure student achievement and growth over time, the school is now considering moving both components of the UM-designed tool onto digital platforms. WSS offers a web-based alternative to the paper and pencil model of its narrative product. Management of student data can be streamlined, archived, and reviewed allowing greater ease-of-use for cross-referencing and report generating. And it is my belief that moving narrative reports online will provide more meaningful student performance data that will satisfy the minority of SK parents/guardians seeking greater quantification of their children’s achievements.
WSS does not offer a web-based portfolio tool, though a variety of affordable software applications exist, the use of which would allow SK to craft a sort of a la carte digital assessment package based on the original structure of WSS’s narrative and portfolio model. Digital, or e-portfolios, have lately dominated much of the discussion of secondary and post-secondary student assessment. Their use in K-5 contexts has received minimal coverage, however, and the efficacy of their implementation at Summers-Knoll School is the foundation of this research study. Following is a brief review of the major literature to date on digital portfolio use in K-12 settings.