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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

This is the third in a series of pieces on the importance of Belonging in Assessment for Learning Work, specifically looking at the model brought to us from Hawai’i and the Nā Hopena A‘o or HĀ (BREATH) outcomes. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here. Kau’i Sang is the Director of Hawaiian Education at the Hawai’i State DOE.

Cheryl Ka’uhane Lupenui is president of the Kohala Center on the north end of the Big Island, and Puni Jackson is director of Hoʻoulu ʻĀina, a nature preserve and education center on Oahu. All three were instrumental in the development of the HĀ framework and the relationship with Assessment for Learning.

Kau'i Sang (top left), Gary Chapin (top right), Cheryl Lupenui, and Puni Jackson (bottom center) have a conversation over Zoom about belonging.

The HĀ Framework was not the first time we’d heard of the concept of belonging—I hope that’s obvious—nor the first time we considered its importance in learning. But it was the first time we’d seen it expressed in such vital, powerful, and non-negotiable terms. The phrase used by HĀ for “Belonging” is He pili wehena ‘ole, literally meaning, “The relationship that can’t be undone.” The level of commitment expressed in that phrase is extraordinary, especially considering that it is, and must be, a voluntary commitment.

Belonging is an invitation, not an order.

I had a conversation with Cheryl Lupenui, Puni Jackson, and Kau’i Sang, drivers in the HĀ work for the past seven years, about how the idea of Belonging has grown and been embodied during their time with Assessment for Learning. It was a wide ranging discussion that I’ll share over the next weeks. One small part of it, though, focused on how individual schools are making the HĀ work their own.

This freedom to interpret is built into the design, Sang reiterates, is part of “the intention of this framework. There isn't a prescription. It would be difficult to suggest that you could just package the BREATH framework, and then deliver it and expect that you'd see indicators of change overnight. The practice and process of allowing for people to discover their sense of belonging and then strengthen it and the process that they go through are critical to its growth.”

How does this discovery work at the school level, for teachers and administrators?

“I can share a local example in our elementary school, here,” says Jackson. “So, in our local school, we had one teacher who was really living it, really doing belonging all day long. And when her kids came up, you could feel the difference.”

It showed in the circles with the kids, “in how they chanted, how they entered the space. They understood the protocol. They felt their [HĀ] outcomes themselves.” The other teachers felt it. “There was a slow trickle into the same grade levels, the other teachers, and they started to do cohorts so this teacher could influence the other teachers.”

It’s important that the other teachers weren’t ordered to do this.

“That sense of belonging,” continues Jackson, “and connection and land were so important that the other teachers were hungry for that.”

And they had the support of the administration.

“There was one other element: they had a principal leadership that was sort of liberated into these values. He was not a Hawaiian. He wasn't raised here, wasn't grown up here, but the framework liberated him to lead in a way where belonging and aloha were very important. That prompted him to move her into a new position. She's a music teacher now, which means that not only her own classroom is benefiting from her practice. Every single kid in the whole campus is benefiting from her practice. We're witnessing how that impact is spreading out. And it is I feel like it's more of a liberation into belonging and an extension of belonging. And so that's just our little elementary school example.”

The idea of being liberated into belonging stops me in my tracks. Are we liberated into these values. I think we are. And the liberation comes from the structured invitation mixed with the lived passion of the teacher and the clever moves of the Principal.

Next installment coming soon. Talking to Cheryl, Puni, and Kau’i about the tension of assessment and accountability, qualitative and quantitative, and static and dynamic measures—all in relation to belonging.


About the Storyteller

Gary is the co-author of 126 Falsehoods We Believe About Education (2021). He has been working in education since 2000, first as a teacher, then as a curriculum director, then as a Dept. of Ed. researcher, and most recently as an advocate and supporter of equity based practices such as competency-based learning, performance assessment, adaptive leadership, and collaborative cultures. He is deeply fascinated by questions like: What should kids learn? How do we decide what kids should learn? How do we learn what they learned? How can learning what they learned help them learn more? Also: systems!

Gary has provided support to schools and districts trying to work with performance-based practices, competency-based cultures, fundamental assumptions, portrait of a graduate, assessment audits, competency development, change management, teacher-leader sanity, etc. He’s especially proud of his ability to bring comfort to teachers by easing their stress around rubrics.

He has written dozens of articles and blog posts over the years and presented at many education conferences around the nation. To see his resume, click here.

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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

By Jillian Kuhlmann

We are pleased to share with you today a piece from our storytelling series of reflections and noticings coming out of our convening in Tucson!

Please stay tuned for more writings from our team of storytellers and revisit the blog here to see them all in the coming months.


Pam Betten (top center), Chief Academic Officer of Sunnyside Unified School District, facilitates a table discussion around Sunnyside's work with convening attendees.

When Pam Betten speaks of coherence, there’s a level of emotional intelligence implied.

“We are really good in schools at creating alignment,” said Betten as she walked 230 (or so) educators and education advocates through the work that Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona has done to organize themselves around learner identity, agency and purpose. Betten is Sunnyside’s chief academic officer. “Alignment matters, but the depth of that shared understanding is where you get coherence.”

Coherence is the thing that you feel, that you know when you see it. After listening to Betten speak, Amy Harker, a personalized learning specialist with the Ohio Personalized Learning Network, described the difference between alignment and coherence with her hands.

“Alignment is like this,” Harker said, palms down, hands side-by-side and moving forward together. Then she placed one hand on top of the other, fingers entwined, and continued the motion. “But coherence is like this.”

Part of the way they’re building coherence for Sunnyside students, teachers and families is adopting a learner stance with everything they do. The adults in the room are not the experts, but the facilitators of learning that is student-centered and an educational experience that ensures graduates leave the district with an understanding of their own agency, identity and purpose.

Betten noted how taking this stance is modeled by the way their superintendent, Jose Gastelum, engages with staff, and how teachers reflect on their own learnings. When a panel of teachers and students were invited to present to the Aurora Institute, even that was an opportunity for learning and for students to see their teachers as learners, too.

“They were listening to their teachers process their learning with their principals, and it was an ah-ha moment,” said Betten, extending the experience into how students began to reflect on their own successes. “It wasn’t about, ‘I know what grade I got, what my GPA is, my class rank’ – it was, ‘I know what I understand.’ That’s the piece.”

That depth of knowledge and understanding of the “why” behind the district’s work center student identity, agency and purpose contributes to a stronger foundation going forward – and continues to serve as an inspiration for Harker, who cites the value of coherence as the thing she’s most excited to bring back to her own learning community.

“We want to align the many initiatives we have going on in education, but we want to take our understanding of the integration even deeper by bringing coherence to how they all work together as a whole,” said Harker. “I will use the idea of coherence as a foundational concept to help others develop clear learning pathways that intentionally bring interconnectedness and a true learning stance to the forefront – not only with our educators but most importantly, with our students. We are a learning community.”



About the Storytellers

Jillian Kuhlmann is the senior manager for communications at KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit organization that partners with states and schools to align policy and practice, reimagining what education can do through personalized, competency-based learning – and what it must do to prepare students for a lifetime of learning.

Julie Thompson is a mentor teacher in the Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction department of Tucson Unified School District.

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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

By Ryan Mick

We are pleased to share with you today a piece from our storytelling series of reflections and noticings coming out of our convening in Tucson!

Please stay tuned for more writings from our team of storytellers and revisit the blog here to see them all in the coming months.


Caption: Becoming an independent learner (photo by Gary Chapin)

I sat down with my discussion partner Charli, a high school student, at the ALP conference in Tucson. It was a session on independent learning. The facilitator posed the question, “When did you become an independent learner?”

Charli, looking a bit skeptical, asked me, “When did you become an independent learner?”

I paused for a moment, realizing that Charli's question was poking at something in me. I confessed, “Honestly, I don’t think I became an independent learner until after I graduated from high school. It took me a while to figure out how to learn on my own.”

Charli nodded in agreement, “I feel the same way. But, why do you think it’s important to be an independent learner now?”

“Well,” I explained, “with so much information available and the world constantly changing, it’s important to be able to take control of your own learning and adapt to new challenges and opportunities.”

Charli responded thoughtfully, “That makes sense, but how can schools help students become independent learners?”

I suggested, “One way is to incorporate formative assessment practices. This is a process that provides ongoing feedback to students during the learning process, helping them monitor their progress and adjust their approach when needed. By giving students more control over their learning, formative assessment can help foster a sense of agency and motivation that drives independent learning.”

Charli seemed intrigued, “How can schools make sure the assessments are helping us develop the skills we need to be independent learners?”

I replied, “One approach is to align formative assessments with 'portraits of a graduate,' a set of competencies and skills that educators believe students should possess in order to succeed in college, career, and life. These competencies may include critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication, among others. By connecting assessments to these competencies, students can develop the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world.”

Charli nodded, “That sounds like a good idea. But, how can formative assessments and portraits of a graduate help teachers improve their own teaching practices?”

I explained, “By providing ongoing feedback to students, teachers can gain valuable insights into how their students are learning and adjust their instruction to better meet their needs. Similarly, by focusing on the competencies and skills that students need to develop to succeed, educators can ensure that their teaching is aligned with real-world expectations and requirements.”

As Charli and I continued our conversation, we both agreed that if our schools had prioritized formative assessment and portraits of a graduate, we would have had more access to flexible and responsive learning opportunities where we would work collaboratively with our teachers and schools to meet our individual needs. Despite the barriers that exist, we both recognized the importance and value of independent learning as we look ahead to an uncertain future.


About the Storyteller

Ryan Mick is Chief Program Officer (CPO) of The Learning Accelerator (TLA). In this capacity, he is responsible for developing the vision for TLA’s programmatic impact, serving as a key partner in establishing overall strategy, and building and leveraging partnerships that support TLA in achieving its mission and goals.

A national leader in human-centered design, innovation, and continuous improvement, Ryan joined TLA after serving as the Senior Vice President of Program Design at City Year. There, he led the organization’s program model efforts across more than 350 schools and the launch of its school design and improvement division, which included the creation of a teacher residency program, a charter school, and several networks for school improvement across the nation.

Ryan is a first-generation college student from rural Ohio. He completed a bachelor’s degree in history and economics, a master’s degree in educational research, a law degree from George Washington University, and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in organizational learning, performance, and change. Ryan has worked in the fields of child policy, civic education, and legal advocacy and has held roles as special education teacher, program designer, performance coach, and was a founder of the Diverse Learners Initiative at Teach For America.

Ryan joined the TLA team because he believes that students deserve equitable access to the best education, free from barriers and system constraints. Ryan is based in Denver, CO and spends his time hiking the mountains, playing the piano, and traveling the world with friends and family.

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