Twelfth grader Stazanae Tidwell sits on a stool facing three teachers and two students, ready to present her thesis, the product of four years of hard work.
She looks nervous, but confident as she begins her College Success Portfolio Defense at Envision Academy in Oakland, Calif. Tidwell will have to present three different projects she worked on during her senior year, laying out her thesis, providing evidence to support the thesis and connecting interdisciplinary ideas. She also has to show that she’s developed a personal philosophy of learning and that she can connect her academics to her personal life.
Tidwell’s presentation represents Envision Academy’s focus: to teach and measure skills that go beyond algebra and essay writing. In addition to taking the state assessments for the past 12 years, students have also been learning how to see themselves as scholars, so they can have the confidence to face challenges in college.
Envision Schools is a small public charter network in the San Francisco Bay Area whose mission is to prepare students to get into and graduate from college, and to do this, teachers focus on helping students develop what they call a “deeper learning” skill set. Students have to master academic content and skills, collaborate effectively, think critically, reflect on how they learn, and understand how they can have an impact on their own success.
“We said if we are going to redesign high school so that kids go to and graduate from college, we’re going to have to teach and assess these outcomes,” sad Bob Lenz, co-founder of Envision Schools and Director of Innovation. The Portfolio Defense is the culminating assessment of these skills: four years of working to learn specific class content, and a steady progression towards proficiency in the deeper learning outcomes. “The portfolio defense is a really transformational rite of passage,” Lenz said. “Our young people are getting validated by the adults in their community that they are ready for the next step in their life and that’s a really powerful experience.”
Getting to the point where students can defend what they’ve learned and demonstrate that deeper learning skills takes a lot of hard work. Most ninth-graders at Envision Academy in Oakland come in reading at a sixth-grade level. All students have taken algebra, a requirement at public middle schools in Oakland, but only 14 percent are proficient at it when they start their freshmen year. There’s a lot of remediation so that students graduate secure in the knowledge that they can produce college-level work.
A RITE OF PASSAGE
Demonstrating what they think they’ve learned is a powerful experience for students. They’re continually refining their projects to make sure they’re meeting all the requirements stated on the rubric. But even once the project is deemed proficient, the student could fail his or her defense. It’s a high stakes moment where students put their best foot forward, answering questions and receiving feedback, both positive and negative from their teachers and peers.
If they fail, they have to go back and revise their presentations. “They learn that if they work really hard and they fail and they continue to work hard, with support they will eventually pass,” Lenz said. “And we think that is one of the biggest lessons they take away from this because this is what life is full of. And especially for low-income kids of color who go into college, they’re going to face adversity, and we want them prepared to fail and pick up and work hard and persist.”
WHAT DO STUDENTS THINK?
“By doing these presentations I actually mastered the information,” said senior Stazanae Tidwell. “I feel like it pays off in the end because we’ll go into college with the skills we need.” Tidwell also readily admits that she failed many times on the path to her eventual success, passing her defense on the first try, with distinction.
During her defense, Tidwell discussed two literary texts from a psychoanalytical perspective and related them back to her own experience growing up low-income in Oakland. She discussed her father’s violent death on the streets, and that while the circumstances around his death were complicated, she ultimately attributes it to his lack of planning for a life after high school. She showed her defense panel the academic growth she has shown in high school by comparing her sophomore grades — where she was failing every course — to her senior year where she made the honor roll both semesters.
“I just feel like because I messed up so much it gets tiring,” Tidwell said. “People start to expect you to be a failure or to be nothing. And I know that that’s not at all what I am. I know that I want to go far and I want to do a lot and I’m very capable of achieving my goals. It’s just time I show everyone that I can do it.”
In her defense, Tidwell explained her philosophy of education as falling until one learns how and where to stand. Her life story clearly reflects that belief in redemption, something the school allowed her to achieve through its philosophy. Tidwell plans to attend a two-year college next year and hopes to transfer to Howard University.
ASSESSING DEEPER LEARNING
All teachers in the school have to assess students’ portfolio defenses, both for sophomores and for seniors. To prepare for that responsibility teachers go through rigorous training so they understand what the subject-area teacher taught and what qualities make it proficient. Teachers are also working to calibrate their interpretations of different presentations so that one person isn’t grading much more strictly or laxly than others.
“The powerful thing that comes out of that is that all the teachers and the staff in the building have a common standard of high expectations for all kids,” Lenz said. When preparing to evaluate defenses, subject area teachers do a mock-defense of the projects they assigned students to demonstrate to their peer graders what was taught, what a proficient presentation looks like, and to familiarize other subject area teachers with the content.
The other teachers then practice scoring presentations against the rubric and discussing what qualities made it proficient or not. If their standards are too high or too low they have to recalibrate.
“The lens that they’re really looking towards is the deeper learning outcomes,” Lenz said. Students have already worked hard to make the projects they are presenting proficient in the eyes of their subject area teacher. The defense is more about the ability to communicate their ideas, think on their feet when they are asked questions and be able to articulate the connections between things they’ve learned.
DEVELOPING ACADEMIC IDENTITIES
When ninth-graders come into Envision Academy, teachers first work to build up their engagement with school, which Lenz said happens fairly quickly. The bigger challenge is to keep them engaged by providing supports that help them be successful. “They’ve had a repeated pattern of failure,” Lenz said. “What we’re trying to do is break that pattern and help them build a growth mindset so they see that their hard work will pay off to increase learning and increase success.”
The school has five socio-emotional counselors to support students who have experienced trauma. They run a special program for African American boys to talk about their identity as scholars — a direct attempt to turn around a persistent national trend of failing African American boys. Everyone in the school participates in a Silent Sustained Reading program several times a week and there’s lots of time to get extra help from teachers. Lenz says if they can keep them engaged through ninth grade, they build on that success in 10th grade, helping them to form a more positive academic identity.
To make sure they’re on track, sophomores have to defend their first two years of learning, proving they’re ready to move into the upper division. If sophomores can’t demonstrate proficiency on all parts of the sophomore rubric they have to keep working on it and defend again until they pass. Students at the school understand that learning is a process and that if they don’t understand the material or perform the skills well the first time they can continue trying. What matters is that they eventually demonstrate they can produce and discuss work that would be accepted in a college-level class.
“This experience is what I think helps our students develop that academic resilience and grit that helps them persist through college,” said Kirsten Grimm, Principal of Envision Academy of Arts and Technology in Oakland.
BUILDING PROFICIENCY THROUGH PROJECTS
A big part of helping students become proficient in the content and skills they need to graduate and succeed after school is to make a clear rubric for every project that defines the skills students will be expected to demonstrate.
“We can see what task a student is going to be asked to perform in order to demonstrate proficiency and we can work towards that,” said John Kittredge, a digital literacy and expression teacher at Envision Academy. In his class, which involves both practical computing skills and creative digital expression, Kittredge usually assigns a project that focuses on a specific technical skill first. For example, students were asked to make a “How-To” video to practice videography skills, but the video could explain something as simple as how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That way students can become comfortable with the technique before worrying about content.
“Then they take that technique and they apply it to something where the content is more creative or specifically driven by another class,” Kittredge said. “They have the opportunity to learn the skill and then apply it.” Teachers are preparing their students step-by-step for bigger projects that will include all the skills they will have to demonstrate they learned for that class.