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Lighting Fires (of the Mind) in Detroit

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This post is by Symon Hayes, Envision Learning Partners' Director of Professional Development and Jesse Bean, Envision Learning Partners' Detroit-based Consultant

In May 2014, the city of Detroit encountered a most welcome and inspiring sight: more than 700 high school seniors from the city's lowest-income neighborhoods stood before their teachers, peers, and community members to demonstrate deeper learning skills, and ultimately to defend their readiness for college and career. 

According to Ricardia Lewis, a math teacher at Denby High School, "If you could see a defense and see the value that it added...it wasn't just about how well they did, it was about the conversations, students sitting around helping and supporting each other."  These "NGR" (Next Generation Ready) Defenses represent the highlight of an ongoing partnership between the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) of Michigan and Envision Learning Partners (ELP) that started in 2011, and featured every graduating senior from six Detroit high schools, all of which had previously been identified as being among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the entire state. To turn things around for these students, EAA teachers and administrators worked with ELP consultants to build a deeper learning assessment system, develop portfolios of performance assessments aligned to the EAA Graduate Profile, and create the systems and culture necessary to sustain a district-wide shift toward project-based instruction and public defenses of learning. Over the course of two weeks in May, students, advisors, and community members came together across the six schools to experience what many have described as a "transformative" event for the community. According to Central Collegiate Academy's Assessment Coordinator, Evege James, "These defenses have totally shifted the culture of our senior class."  For the first time, students and teachers alike witnessed the empowering impact of asking students to "Know, Do, and Reflect" upon their experience as learners.

The first step towards achieving this vision was the creation of a Graduate Profile that described the EAA's vision for next generation readiness. Among the outcomes in this profile were such competencies as Research, Analysis, Inquiry and Creative Expression, and deeper learning skills like Completing Projects Effectively, Communicating Powerfully, Thinking Critically, and Collaborating Productively. Throughout the year, EAA teachers used rubrics aligned with the Common Core State Standards to design and implement performance assessments to assess those competencies and skills. Students then worked with their advisors to compile certified work in digital portfolios before ultimately crafting a defense presentation organized around an Essential Question, such as, "How has your education prepared you to make a positive impact on the city of Detroit?" As LeAngela, a senior at Henry Ford High School, so proudly stated during her portfolio defense: "This process has made me more confident. ...I believe that everything you do should be done with excellence. Of course there are going to be obstacles that life puts in your way, but I've learned that I can eliminate those obstacles myself."

The defense experience yielded three valuable insights into how deeper learning skills can be cultivated among student populations that are overwhelmingly low-income and first-generation college bound:

  • First, the importance of meaningful relationships between adults and students cannot be overstated, whether those relationships are forged in the context of Advisory, classroom instruction, authentic audiences for projects, or staff and community members sitting on defense panels.
  • Second, performance assessments are most effective when they provide opportunities for real-world application. At the EAA's high schools, this included the creation of several urban gardens, a project conducted in partnership with staff from Detroit Future City, and students designing public service announcements during election season in Michigan.
  • Third, it's essential that students to have opportunities to reflect on their personal growth as learners. This includes describing how they've utilized deeper learning skills in the completion of academic tasks, establishing and sharing future goals, and identifying their own strengths and areas for growth.

In Michigan's so-called "lowest-performing" high schools, these factors are making a real difference for students, young people who are thinking differently about their futures now that they are armed with deeper learning skills and competencies.

Inspired by the May 2014 defenses, the EAA is gearing up for even more transformation. This month, the EAA's six K-8 schools are embarking on a similar journey, as educators there create a system to assess deeper learning outcomes and develop expertise around performance assessment, with the ultimate goal of hosting their own defenses in May 2015. The district's Assessment Design Team also plans to develop anchor sets of performance assessments by grade level so that teachers can norm district-wide; they are also working to increase the level of rigor by incorporating robust academic skills within projects. In addition to the 12th grade NGR Defense, the EAA will host 10th grade Benchmark Portfolio Defenses, in which all sophomore year students will be asked to defend a "junior version" of the senior portfolio. While much work remains to be done in order to realize the district's vision of schools full of deeper learners, the success of last year's defenses firmly establishes a strong foundation upon which to build. The Detroit defenses demonstrate what can happen when educators work together to bring learning to life.

Evege James believes this is only the beginning: "In urban education, we're used to putting out fires. This process has been more like starting a fire than putting one out."



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