As principal of Newtown High School in Sandy Hook, CT, and with more than two decades in the field of education, I had experienced many defining moments in my career thanks to my ongoing engagement with people, programs, and practices. Originally, I thought that some of my most memorable moments occurred after I read about a promising intervention for struggling learners, or perhaps when the mantra from a speaker’s keynote address prompted me to embrace the latest educational reform.

In retrospect, however, I realized that the truly inspiring moments came from examining artifacts found much closer to home. These were the student products posted on our school walls, tucked neatly away in teachers’ briefcases awaiting a grade, or shared proudly during daily classroom instruction. While these student products were a natural extension of our work, I wondered if we were missing something more significant—whether a closer examination of these works might reveal new insights about our students’ interests, emotions, and understandings.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting tragedy of 2012, our students had been through a great deal of stress in the last several years. It was not surprising that teachers, administrators, and community members felt compelled to engage students in activities that would be meaningful and motivational, and would promote healing.

In July 2015, I received an intriguing text from one of my teachers that read: “Students from the summer work program have a cool plan to share with you.” Our school’s summer work program was developed years earlier out of a grant from the summer youth employment program through the Northwest Regional Workforce Investment Board. The program brought students together to encourage their participation in vocational activities and allow them to work while earning money. The kids had spent weeks digging into the earth and toting wheelbarrows of mulch to beautify our high school campus. Still, they wanted to do more—to illustrate the vibrant spirit, strength, and resiliency of the student body.

Enthusiasm and Anxiety

Within a few days, I was sitting in one of our high school classrooms. I knew these students had already invested countless hours in the hot summer sun, working with a local nursery and researching hardy plants that would be low maintenance and add aesthetic curb appeal outside the school. The classroom was filled with enthusiasm as well as anxiety, as kids were ready to decide what else they could do to show their strength as the Newtown High School student body. Students nervously eyed one another, hoping someone might have the confidence to break the ice. One student spoke up, “We have an idea to paint an image on the wall outside the cafeteria.” A variety of initial designs flashed across the screen, and after a healthy debate, it was decided that the final image would be a harmonious combination of paint and mosaic. Students settled on the image of a nighthawk—the school’s mascot-emerging through a brick wall, talons flailing through the air, bold and empowered.

What Science Students Did  

Another time, a teacher stopped me in the hallway to share something one of her students had written. She was on her way to meet with a team member from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) as part of our school’s accreditation process. She proclaimed proudly, “Take a look at what one of my science students did!” The biology teacher described the assignment that encouraged her students to construct an illustrated book, website, or video describing the processes of photosynthesis to a younger audience. Students were given an opportunity to integrate text and pictures to depict the complex pathways associated with this biological process. As the science teacher rolled out a portion of a large scroll (in the form of a children’s fairy tale told from the perspective of a young princess in a mythical kingdom), I smiled as I read from this student’s work:

In Gracie’s Kingdom people loved green

There were flowers and gardens to appease the Queen

Grace was a child whose mind would enchant

With dreams every night of all of the plants

So one morning she asked if her mother would know

Mommy, how do all of the plants grow?

Well, little Grace, the Queen said with a smile

I’ll teach you a lesson but it could take a while

There used to be many theories in existence

But today we call the process photosynthesis 

Both the mural and the fairy tale were significant reminders that performance—both traditional and unconventional—revealed unique strengths about our students. It demonstrated deeply rooted passions and underlying interests that might not have been tapped—or appreciated. 

If we wanted to consider the powerful stories student works conveyed, then our next step as a high school faculty was to calibrate our own understanding around the cognitive and affective processes evident in student performance. For example, what evidence in students’ works might point to motivation around a particular topic of study? What does student work tell us about our learners’ curiosity, risk taking, creative thinking, or underlying emotions? Why did a particular student struggle with one problem over another? How might we improve assessments in the future to ensure students’ understanding of concepts and overall success?

A Formalized Approach 

We had plenty of reasons to move forward, and bringing teachers together to look at student work became a priority. We opted for a formal approach using Looking at Student Work (LASW)—an association of individuals and educational organizations that focus on ways to approach student work. Using this approach assures consistent standards of quality for student performance and supports educators in honing their observational and analytical skills.

We decided that the Collaborative Analysis Protocol would be a good starting point. Department chairs and teacher leaders helped orchestrate the professional development and sought out teachers who might be willing “pioneers” for the day. We worried that some teachers might be reluctant to step up, viewing this as a professional risk, especially since they would be asked to share a piece of student work with their colleagues that would foster critical reflection and discourse. On the other hand, we were confident that our teachers had a high level of trust and strong respect for each other, something that was necessary for any LASW protocol to be embraced and implemented with fidelity.

Our faculty had invested several years working in professional learning communities and were just beginning to use data to measure student learning goals as part of our district’s new teacher evaluation plan. As teachers gathered in their respective departments in October, they were provided with clear explanations around the four major components of the protocol:

  • Setting the context of the work: Outline what teachers should know about the student work, the rationale for giving the assessment, and the learning targets.
  • Discussing the work: Teachers discuss what the work shows in relation to the learning targets, including any patterns to suggest what the student(s) struggled with or where they showed success.
  • Reviewing the instruction: Analyze what was learned from looking at the work and how this could help in moving instruction forward.
  • Examining the assessment: Show how the particular instruction allowed students to meet the learning targets and how this could help in designing the next assessment.

In one department I visited, teachers reviewed a student’s rhetorical essay on Fahrenheit 451. Teachers worked throughout the day, sharing and offering their input as critical friends. While one teacher pointed to the student’s deliberate use of text to support the student’s knowledge of the story, another highlighted the mature use of language the student used to engage the audience. Teachers asked questions, shared their assumptions about the learners behind the work, and engaged in courageous discussions about ways to improve the assessment in the future. It was honest and authentic.

Collaborative Effort

Our collaborative effort as a faculty continued throughout the school year. In April, our professional development focused primarily on a review of student work through the lens of a newly revised schoolwide writing rubric in order to collect feedback about the integrity of this assessment tool. The reflection on student work has provided us with new revelations about our students and the way in which we assess their responses. But, more importantly, the process has moved us to celebrate the unique manner in which our high school students express their understandings, their passions, and their evolving insights about the world in which they live. 

Lorrie Rodrigue is the principal of Newtown High School in Sandy Hook, CT. 

Making It Work

Harness the power of work at your school:

  • Protocol. Select a protocol or format for reviewing student work and clearly define the steps involved in the process—identification of work samples, analysis, questions, and discussion. Invite teacher leaders to learn the steps of the process in advance in order to facilitate the work with small groups of teachers.
  • Pioneers. Solicit work samples from “pioneers”—teachers who feel comfortable sharing student work from classroom instruction to be reviewed by their colleagues. Allow teachers to choose the student exemplars they want to share—from essays to labs to illustrations—including the learning targets and the context in which the work was created.
  • Professional learning. Provide adequate professional development time for the process of reviewing student work, group discussion, and follow-up reflection. Continue to carve out time for the faculty to review student work on a regular basis so it becomes a part of the culture and considered authentic and reliable information related to student learning, growth, and achievement.