Q&A with Christy Kingham, teacher leader, The Young Women's Leadership School of Astoria

Post date: Aug 14, 2017 1:07:07 PM

Mastery Communications Week, from August 14-18, will surface resources, tools, and best practices for communicating about mastery-based learning to parents, and other community members. Several national organizations will share their thoughts, and we will hear from practitioners in their own words through a Q&A series. This Q&A with Christy Kingham, a teacher from The Young Women’s Leadership School (TYWLS), discusses the ways in which the school communicates about their mastery system. Read on for tips, examples, and useful resources!

Sixth grader Triane, 12th grader Alondra, and Christy Kingham.

  1. How do you describe mastery-based learning at TYWLS?

The basic way that we describe mastery-based learning is to say that, instead of traditional grading (i.e., a student receives number or letter grade), we grade students on the skills they demonstrate. That’s where we start the conversation. I will usually give an example of a skill and talk about how these skills are the ones that students will need for the 21st century workplace, as opposed to a more traditional content-based grading.

Then I will talk about the three designations that we use in our mastery-based system: exceeding standards, meeting standards, or not yet there. The “not yet” language intentionally lets student understand that they still have opportunities to work on that skill. It means that students can work on their skills further until they demonstrate that they have mastered them. When communicating about mastery-based learning, I will also emphasize that the skills we focus on are year-long skills. Students always have plenty of opportunities to cultivate them.

It’s also helpful when I provide examples, like the learning target “argue,” in which, to create an effective argument, students must have a certain set of skills. They must know how to formulate a thesis, write a compelling narrative, and deliver a cohesive point of view. All year students work on these skills and get feedback on them. The more they master the skills, the more rigorous the work and the expectations become so they are building on their skills

Most parents like to know that students are graded on skills that are modeled upon the job skills students will ultimately need to succeed in the workplace. Everything that we design is connected to state standards test skills, but our focus goes beyond that. Our system provides more information for parents, students, and teachers about what students need to work on.

I always emphasize to parents that we know your child. If she is not doing well in math, we can parse that out to tell you if she is just not doing her homework or if she is struggling with concepts (and if so, which concepts).

In talking about mastery to students, we bring rubrics into the conversation quickly. We prioritize rubrics so students can use them to anchor their learning. Again, I use examples. The “collaborating” learning target is one I use often. I pull out the outcome and talk about the things students must do to meet the outcome target. Then we practice and rate ourselves, annotating rubrics to get a strong feel for how they guide learning. We are a grade 6-12 school, so we invite our 6th graders to come in for a Summer Bridge experience. One full day is focused on mastery.

  1. Tell us why and how you developed a communications strategy for mastery.

There are many things happening at once. One thing is JumpRope, our grading platform which is available to students and parents 24 hours a day. Since they are using it often, they need a deep understanding of the mastery-based system that it aligns to.

Some ways that we work to ensure parents and students understand is through summer bridge for students, and introductions for parents. They learn about our grading platform—how to access it, what it all means, what students need to do on the platform. They are getting the most information about our mastery system in our student-led conferences, which are basically parent-teacher conferences but with the student leading the conversation. These conferences take place in the November and March, and our grading platform really serves to guide these conversations. This is a major touchpoint for getting parents to understand outcome targets. We equip students to lead these conversations and support them in explaining it. In a way, students are part of the parent communications strategy.

Recently, a teacher identified the need for us to develop a strong model for parent workshops. I’m going to do that this summer and I plan to offer workshops in several different languages, with students conducting the voice overs supported by teachers.

  1. What resources do you use for different types of stakeholders?

We have three touchpoints that help parents learn about our grading policy and platform. For students, Summer Bridge is the crux. But we have also identified the need to codify this information for students in written form, which led us to begin creating a student handbook, which we hope to complete this fall!

Further, every teacher has same grading policy, which many put on syllabi and their classroom websites. These things are all shared with parents. Some teachers even have parents sign the policy to acknowledge it in writing. We also ensure that it’s woven into the day-to-day classroom experience. For example, on every assignment, a teacher will include an outcome. Things like project expectations, outcome targets, evidence, and rubric are things students see every day. This level of standardization means that we consider every assignment to be an important piece of communication.

We have a strong system and a teacher handbook that is really built out. We felt we had to start with teachers because they are the messengers; they build the relationships with students, parents, and community partners. Now we can build on that with a student handbook and shorter experiences for other audiences. This is important to make sure we are all on the same page. Part of the struggle with mastery is that it’s such a mind shift for folks. And a key piece is getting staff on same page, so that students and parents are receiving consistent information.

Regarding community partnerships, intersession is a key piece of our model, and we rely heavily on partner to make that a success. When I explain mastery to our partners, I talk primarily about the large buckets of 21st century skills—like innovate, communicate, and argue—because those tend to really resonate with people in the workforce. I’ve found that when I clearly articulate what mastery is, then community partners can plug in more authentically. I show them the big picture and know where they can plug in. And I use the shared rubrics to bring it all to life.

  1. How did you iterate on these resources? Why did you do that?

It is our 8th or 9th year of this and we have gone through several iterations of our mastery system. Initially, our approach to mastery separated the standards out by department, which ended up being somewhat confusing for students. We had too many outcomes. So we decided to go really big and focused solely on 21st century outcomes. This proved to be too broad for students. It was then that we not only found a balance but we started to share across classes. Maintaining shared outcomes to tie courses together is how we arrived at our 10 shared outcomes. This means that humanities classes have the same outcomes from 6-12 as science and math, etc. They are all connected to the 21st century outcomes. It’s our second year with this approach and we are sticking with it.

It’s been interesting to message this iteration to students and parents. I’ll usually give them an abridged version of how we came to our current goldilocks system and ask what they think about how they are experiencing it in its current form so we can continue to refine and sharpen our messaging.

  1. What would you tell someone who is designing their communications strategy?

Everyone is grappling with these questions around communications, as mastery can become so heady. Teachers in particular love to nerd out about mastery. But really it boils down to the most important main message, which is: “we know your kids.” I make sure to emphasize this. Mastery allows us to have open communication about what our students actually can do and what they need help with. It provides so much more information than schools are usually able to. Our goal is to know your student well to better serve their needs and set them up for success.

For students, it’s similar. We tell them: “we want to know you.” We know students have experienced feelings of misunderstanding. Mastery is a fair system that gives teachers and leaders information about who their students are and what we can do to make sure students are successful beyond this school experience

I’m also of the mind that people should simply experience a mastery-based system in order to really get it. When people see the grading system and talk to our students—that’s when we get those lightbulbs. We want to get parents, in particular, to live it.

Additional Resources

  • Introduction to Grading Platform – We use this step-by-step hand out at SummerBridge to help guide students through the Mastery-based grading platform that they’ll be using.
  • Mastery-based grading handbook for teachers – This draft handbook helps familiarize our teachers with our mastery system—from unit plans, to platforms, to rubrics, and more.
  • Student-led Conference handbook – Student-led conference (SLC) bolster the relationships between students, families and the school. This handbook lays out timing, objectives, prep, and roles to enable a smooth SLC process.
  • Shared Outcomes – This matrix lays out TYWLS’s 21st Century outcomes clearly and simply.