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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

By Jennifer Poon and Sean Ross

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.

“What saved me and my team was stepping back into that formative assessment space and saying, we’re learners, too.” – Sean Ross

At the February 2023 Assessment for Learning (AfL) convening in Tucson, Sean Ross was sharing about supporting formative assessment practices across the state of Arizona. Ross, the Executive Director of the Arizona State Board of Education, was presenting with a team including Arizona Department of Education colleagues Eboney McKinney and Sandra Figueroa (Ross worked with them at ADE until just a few months ago), and Barbara Jones and Jessica Arnold from WestED. They were workshopping a new toolkit to support growth in formative assessment practices at every level from classrooms to the state house.

That work is impressive. But what kept ringing in my head after the session was the connection Ross made between formative assessment and his experience as a team leader during the pandemic. Formative assessment saved your team? I wanted to know more.

Ross generously agreed to share more about his leadership experience with me over Zoom three weeks later. What follows are highlights from our conversation, edited for readability.

Jenny Poon: Before we get into your leadership story, let’s start by learning a little more about you. What motivates your interest in education?

Sean Ross: For most of my life, my mom was a single mom raising three children, and we grew up very poor. When I was nine, we moved from Oregon to Arizona on a Greyhound bus. Along the way, we lived off vending machine soup and whatever spare food or water other passengers gave us when they disembarked. When we arrived, my mom had $10 in quarters. It was a terrifying experience.

My aunt and uncle lived in Arizona and helped us find housing. We moved into the cheapest option we could find. As it turned out, our apartment happened to be zoned for one of the top schools in Phoenix.

So I ended up attending this great school, and I remember at one point being recognized by my teachers as a strong reader. I was never a struggling student, but I also had never been recognized or spot-lit like that in the past. It motivated me. I began identifying myself as something other than poor or a potential gang member or drug addict. I built myself up as a lover of reading and writing.

Then in the 7th grade, my mom was hit by a car when crossing the street. She was medically dead for three minutes, then in a coma for three weeks, and coming out of that was reduced to childhood. My sisters and I had to re-raise her, and I took on the responsibility of re-teaching her how to read and write.

Through these experiences – first building up my own identity as a lover of words, then using that passion to help my mom regain literacy after her accident – I began to understand my calling.

It took me a little while to get there (initially, I trained to become a pharmacist because I felt I needed a job that guarantees good pay) but I eventually followed my passion into the classroom as a middle school and later high school English teacher. I loved it. It was my happy place – a sacred place, a place of healing.

JP: What drew you to work in education policy?

SR: After 15 years, I felt I was nearing the end of my classroom run and made the jump to the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) as ELA Director for the state, which was still very field-facing. And I just continued to get drawn in and take on more roles from there.

In my early roles, I saw first-hand how much policy dictates what happens in the classroom. And I saw how often those policies are developed by people who never taught in classrooms themselves. Not that they didn’t mean well or weren’t well-informed, but I’m a big believer in having voices at the table who are impacted or who have direct experiences with those impacted.

JP: Let’s talk about leadership during the pandemic. At the ALP Convening in Tucson, you said, “Everything was changing in the moment, there was no way to plan ahead. I was faced with doubling down, or leading from a place of equality as a learner.” Can you say a little bit more about that moment and how you needed to respond differently as a leader?

SR: When the pandemic started, I had been in my role as Deputy Associate Superintendent of Academic Standards at ADE for just four months. Whenever you’re new to a leadership position, you encounter feelings of “imposter syndrome” and moments where you feel like you’re supposed to have all the answers.

As a teacher, you realize really quickly that it’s not always possible to know everything. You gain students’ respect by being honest, admitting when you don’t know everything, and working to learn it together.

But when the pandemic hit, I wanted to “keep it together” for my team at ADE and present as much stability and reliability as I could. I wanted to have all the answers. My leaders were trying to do the same.

The problem was, as soon as my leaders gave me a piece of information and I passed it on to my team, that piece of information would change. My effort to show up as a calm, stable force wasn’t real.

I distinctly remember one of my daily check-ins with the team while we were telecommuting, about two weeks into the pandemic. I was getting the same questions from them – questions I wanted to answer but couldn’t. I finally said, “I’m so sorry, I don’t have the answers, and I don’t know where to get them. I don’t think I can have them, or that I’m ever going to have them. That makes me want to do one of two things: either run away, or – we’re all really smart people, can we figure this out together?”

I had invited collaboration as a leader before, but that vulnerable moment launched something different. We said, wait a minute, let’s get everybody on the entire team – admins and everyone – on the call. I can’t lead us alone and don’t want to pretend that I can. Let’s form a new leadership style.

We found ways to elevate everyone’s concerns and to address them together, with everyone contributing their ideas. We distributed control and stewardship of our team meetings. We started planning together and brought in teachers and school personnel to inform our work. My job as a leader shifted from “having all the answers” to being the person who advocates for our collective decisions with higher levels of leadership.

JP: How does this new approach to leadership connect to your work on formative assessment in the classroom?

SR: It’s a lot like what we want teachers to do in the classroom. It’s gathering data in the moment, synthesizing it, identifying gaps in ideas or perspectives that haven’t been represented, going and doing more research, coming back, and using that to guide what we do next. That’s formative assessment.

It’s also similar to what teachers do when they raise up student voice and student agency. From my work on formative assessment with Barbara Jones at WestEd, I realized that I have to be in the mix with my team, not leading from my chair. My team is empowered to lead and inform our decisions, too. My job is to set up the system, then become a part of it, and use the weight of my title to get obstacles out of the way.

And just like in the classroom, sometimes it takes an adjustment. Sometimes new employees show trepidation, wondering “Is this real? Why is my boss asking for my ideas?” They pause, they wonder if it’s a test. Or else they wonder, “Does this guy not know anything?” It becomes incumbent on me to reinforce that this really is the way we work. The best way I can do that is to model collaboration and let them see moments when I support someone else’s idea. Then people start to believe it.

JP: What are you noticing about the impact of this “formative assessment” approach to leadership? What difference does it make?

SR: It takes the lid off. During the pandemic, it released the pressure on me to have all the answers and to navigate the team through it all by myself. It turned “me” into “we,” and ensured that everything we were doing was coming from the perspective of: what does the field need and how can we best meet it?

One example: When my Deputy Director, Aaron, and I came in as the new executive staff for the State Board, we met one-on-one with every employee to ask, what do you love about your job, what impedes you that we can help change, and what’s something you see on the horizon that we aren’t talking about yet but should be? When we met with our investigators, we learned they were having trouble getting important reports from another agency, limiting their ability to respond quickly to issues. It was also clear that they had brilliant ideas for how to solve it, but they weren’t comfortable sharing them. So, I called a meeting with both departments and created space for everyone to understand what is and isn’t going well, and to collaborate on next steps. Now, our investigators are getting what they need, including additional trainings we were able to provide.

Stepping back into a learning role also makes leadership more fun. It’s about growth and empowering others – and in a time when there’s administrative turnover as well as teacher turnover, it helps sustain people because they know you believe in them and have a vested interest in their growth.

This made a difference for my own team, resulting in more humane working conditions for all of us. One example of this happened about a year into the pandemic, when we had adjusted to telecommuting and the Zoom world but still weren’t very good at it. We were stacking Zooms all day with no clear boundaries between work and home, leaving no room for real life outside of work. We were burning out, just like we saw happening with teachers in classrooms. So, I went back to the team and said, I’m worried about us, what do we do? Together, we shared perspectives and created consensus agreements about when and how we should work during this time.

JP: What do you carry forward as a leader post-pandemic?

SR: I’m carrying this leadership style to my new job as Executive Director of the Arizona State Board of Education. The job can be overwhelming – it’s a high-stress job. But since Day 1, I’ve approached it with the same mode of leadership, operating communally with my team, learning and growing together.

Because of that, I haven’t had any moments where I felt embarrassed by being brand new. I just say, “Hey, I’m new, can you help me with this?” That invitation has helped form relationships with my staff because their expertise is acknowledged and we can also ask questions and grow together. I’ve carried over the system I had built at ADE in which parts of my team run their own agenda items during our weekly meetings. They elevate issues as they see them, bring ideas, and we collaborate on solutions.

JP: Any parting advice to others in similar positions who might consider a formative approach to leadership?

SR: Yes: it requires front-loading. It takes more time in the beginning because you must establish the system. The only way to get buy-in is to nurture it. But once the system is in place and is working, everything becomes smoother and easier. You don’t have to fear being blindsided by new information because your entire team is watching out and bringing ideas to you, unprompted, because they know the system. And they’re not just saying, “here’s this issue.” They’re already workshopping it with their own people, doing outreach, and bringing a better-formed idea because of it.

As a leader, you naturally question whether you’re making the right decision, asking, “what am I weighing and not weighing?” Leading from a “formative assessment” space takes that responsibility and disseminates it among a group who – if the system is working – are giving you honest feedback from their unique perspectives. That way, when a decision is made, you feel comfortable knowing that it’s been vetted through multiple different lenses, not just me and my unidentified biases. It takes all the voices, because we’re better together. There’s no way this gets better unless it’s all of us.


About the Storyteller

Jennifer Poon’s mission is to affect social justice by transforming the public education system to be more responsive to the needs of all learners, especially those most historically under-served. She currently serves as Partner for Learning Design and Sense-making with the Center for Innovation in Education. She lives with her husband and daughters in New York. Tweet to her @JDPoon.

Sean Ross is the Executive Director of the Arizona State Board of Education. Prior to joining the State Board of Education, he was the Deputy Associate Superintendent of Academic Standards at the Arizona Department of Education. Before joining state government, he was a classroom teacher, instructional coach, and site leader for fifteen years.

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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Reflections on the past, present, and future of assessment for learning

By Jenny Poon

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.


At the center of the emblem representing Tucson Unified School District’s department for Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction (CRPI), a mythical bird turns backward to retrieve an egg (Fig 1).

Called Sankofa, the bird – a Bono Adinkra symbol originating in Ghana – represents retrieving things of value from our knowledge of the past.

Sankofa is often associated with the Akan proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenkyiri," which translates to, “It is not wrong to go back for what you forgot (or left behind).”

As I reflect on my three days in Tucson, AZ for the 2023 Assessment for Learning (AfL) convening, the concept of Sankofa reverberates through three distinct, yet interconnected, stories. The first is about a district’s effort to restore indigenous epistemologies. The second is about a teacher restoring a pedagogical practice that was once vibrant but since forgotten. The third is about my own reckoning with feelings of “assessment for learning” de ja vu.

Returning to epistemologies left behind

This first part is about what Sankofa represents to the CRPI department. As CRPI Director Lorenzo Lopez shared in opening remarks at the convening, the symbol is combined with images of Teocalli, temples of the Aztecs and other Mexican peoples that represent places of learning. Together, they represent a retrieval of cultural heritage and indigenous epistemologies – “ways of knowing” – that were discarded by colonialist educators.

For example, CRPI’s Mexican American Studies courses are built around indigenous knowledge codified in Aztec mythology (Fig 2). Such as Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent representing the stability, direction, and purpose that come from one’s knowledge of cultural identity and collective history. And Tezcatlipoca, a smoking mirror representing the self-reflection necessary to reconcile the past with the possibilities of the future.

Figure 2. Los Cuatro Tezcatlipocas, shared during a presentation by Lorenzo Lopes, Jr., Director of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction, Tucson Unified School District. Assessment for Learning Conference. February 16, 2023.

These and other indigenous concepts come to life through CRPI’s Mexican American Studies and African American Studies programs. As Alexandro “Salo” Escamilla writes in this post, schools like Wakefield Middle School embed them in curriculum, pedagogy, ritual, and celebration. In doing so, Tucson students, teachers and leaders reclaim cultural identities as sources of strength and pride.

But do not confuse this work with the feel-good multicultural fairs or cultural awareness months that are more typical in American schools. Yes, they celebrate identity and cultural heritage, but the indigenous epistemologies driving Tucson’s Culturally Responsive courses also challenge and expand traditional notions of “student success.” Los Cuatro Tezcatlipocas teach us that success is not a student who is knowledgeable. The real goal is in guiding students to become “mature human beings” who are in harmony with themselves and the world around them.

That seems like something worth holding on to.

Returning to pedagogies left behind

Sankofa took on a second meaning at the AfL convening when I witnessed a Tucson teacher discovering the buried lineage of her pedagogical practice that, once realized, has the power to change everything.

We were sitting in a small conference room at the convening hotel. I and a group of AfL participants gathered with Teresa Sena, a veteran English and World History teacher at Tucson’s Catalina High School. She and her national collaborator, Moneka Stevens from Future Focused Education, were preparing us for the “learning excursion” they had designed for us to experience AfL practices in real time, in Sena’s real classroom.

Sena’s students had just launched their Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) projects, a pedagogical practice that Sena had brought over from her previous school. The students each selected a topic that impacted themselves or their communities, such as gun violence, substance abuse, mental health, immigration – even school dress code policies. Individually or in small groups, they conducted background research on their topics and were preparing research projects to first understand the root causes of their issue, then design an intervention that they themselves could take to help address it. We were preparing to enter this process through a World Café event designed to connect students with us and other local community partners to discuss and receive feedback on their project designs.

Teresa Sena, Catalina High School teacher, providing an overview of the YPAR World Café to her students and other guests from the AfL convening and the surrounding community.

Sena is deeply passionate about YPAR. She believes students deserve learning experiences that are relevant and meaningful to them. She praises her students for demonstrating agency and driving their projects on their own, joking that she’s a mere accessory in the room. She wants more teachers to share her passion and hopes that Catalina will one day become a YPAR magnet.

But right now, she’s running YPAR alone, on top of her other curricular commitments as an English or World History teacher. As far as she knows, she’s one of the few teachers in the entire district doing YPAR.

But this year, with the help of Stevens, she is excited to expand her practice to include community partners through today’s World Café. She said she is hopeful that many of them will stay on to support students’ YPAR projects in ongoing ways.

Josh Schachter also happened to be in the room with us. Schachter runs the Tucson-based nonprofit CommunityShare, a “human library” connecting PK-12 students and teachers with local community partners in order to boost the relevance of students’ learning experiences and grow their social capital. His organization is perfectly poised to facilitate the very connections that Sena and Stevens want to take YPAR to the next level.

Schachter shared that, as it happens, he created CommunityShare after his own experience co-leading YPAR with ELL teacher Julie Kasper at a Tucson high school. He learned that the relationships students formed with community partners through their YPAR projects were valuable, but they were too dependent on his own social capital. When he left the school, most of that social capital left with him. So, he developed CommunityShare to create a more decentralized and resilient infrastructure that any student, teacher, or community partner can tap into.

But here’s the kicker. That school Schachter left? It was Catalina High School. And Sena, like the rest of us, had no idea that the school had any history of YPAR, until then.

Schachter and Kasper’s pioneering practice may not have endured at Catalina, but what’s important is that their legacy is not forgotten. Sena now carries it forward, connecting the dots between past and present. More: she now has access to the resource (like Sankofa’s “egg”), CommunityShare, that was forged from Schachter’s own past.

We glimpsed only the beginning of what might be the story’s next chapter. The next day, we participated in the World Café along with several community partners. We traded ideas and insights with the students. We traded contact information with Sena.

It remains to be seen whether those community partners will become ongoing mentors for Sena’s students, and whether Schachter’s platform might bring more partners to the table.

But the potential is there. The things of value from the past have not been lost.

Students interacting with Assessment for Learning convening participants and Tucson community partners during the YPAR World Café event at Catalina High School.

Persisting in what we’ve known

On a personal level, the symbol of Sankofa speaks to a feeling that had been nagging me from the start of the AfL convening. We’ve been here before.

Indeed, it’s hard to say that any of the conference’s key messages were particularly new or revelatory. The term “formative assessment” surfaced in academia in 1967 to describe “on-going evaluation” for the purpose of improvement, distinguishing it from more “summative” evaluations. Since then, researchers like Benjamin Bloom, Paul Black, Dylan Wiliam, and Margaret Heritage (among many others) have spent decades making the case for formative assessment (also known as “assessment for learning”) practices, such as eliciting evidence of where learners are in their learning; establishing where they’re going and a clear understanding of what success would look like; providing ongoing, in-real-time feedback that moves learners forward; and activating learner agency through shared goal-setting, co-regulation, and assessment of their own progress.

We also already know from the science of learning and development that physical, emotional, and social safety impacts learning; that valuing one’s culture, identity, and lived experiences impacts learning; and that strong, positive relationships can open up learning and impact cognition on a cellular level.

And that’s just what the academics have agreed on. One could rightly argue that teachers, mentors, coaches, families, and caregivers have known many of these things since the dawn of time. Schachter knows this, and built CommunityShare to support the kind of hands-on informal learning that predated modern schooling – a time when “young people learned with and from caring adults and elders in their community.”

So why are we here at the AfL conference in Tucson? Why do we need a national conference to spread the word about AfL practices that researchers have “proven” and that seem so obvious to the rest of us?

I believe the answer lies in what American education, as a system, prioritizes and constrains us to pursue. It is not “assessment for learning.”

As a current system, American education does not prioritize nurturing “mature human beings” who are in harmony with themselves and the world around them, like the Los Cuatro Tezcatlipocas suggests. It gives little space or support for community-embedded, student-driven field work relevant to students’ identities and passions, like in Sena’s YPAR projects. It crowds out so many of the things that our teachers, mentors, coaches, families, caregivers – heck, even the researchers – know are important not just to cognition but to human thriving.

So for me, Sankofa inspires persistence. It is not wrong that we’re still here holding the banner for assessment for learning. We are holding on to the things of value amidst relentless demands to uphold something else. We are also sharpening our understanding of those things – and giving and sharing feedback on those things – as each of us moves forward on our own formative journeys as educators and system-builders.

No, it is not taboo to hold on to the wisdom of the past.

It is necessary.


About the Storyteller

Jennifer Poon’s mission is to affect social justice by transforming the public education system to be more responsive to the needs of all learners, especially those most historically under-served. She currently serves as Partner for Learning Design and Sense-making with the Center for Innovation in Education. She lives with her husband and daughters in New York. Tweet to her @JDPoon.

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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

Updated: May 30, 2023

By Cheryl Ka‘uhane Lupenui

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.

Gifts from Kohala

We have a saying passed down from our ancestors in Kohala, ‘A‘ohe u‘i hele wale o Kohala. No youth of Kohala goes empty-handed. Youth of Kohala are raised knowing that when they travel, they take along gifts, provisions, and a helping hand; they are prepared in every way when doing things.

Thus, as our Hawai‘i team headed out to Tucson for the Assessment for Learning Conference, we loaded our bags with handmade gifts to appreciate our many hosts. On the day designed for learning excursions which would take me to visit Cholla High School and the Mission Gardens, I was ready with one gift set for the teacher host and one for the garden hosts. Arriving at the high school I was greeted by four senior girls who I found out were also to be my hosts throughout the day. Oh dear, I really was not prepared!

I put this worry out of my mind at the time believing that what was supposed to happen will. The day continued to move beautifully. As the learning journey was coming to an end, I looked in my bag and saw that I still had a gift set of four cards and their envelopes. Each card held a different photo image of a place called Ho‘oulu ‘Āina. But all represented ceremony, healing, gratitude, feeding and family lovingly captured through a Hawaiian lens.

I asked each young woman to choose a card that called to her, perhaps sharing why she was drawn to that particular card. One by one, each took their turn and spoke their truth. “I’d like to go there.” “I was drawn to the colors.” “It reminds me of my family.” “This card was the only one left.”

In return, I offered a story about what makes each picture so special.

After our ceremonial exchange, we knew clearly and felt deeply that each card had chosen its own keeper of the story. Even the girl who received the last card felt the magic. This card held her story in that it was about wellness and healing and she comes from a family of healthcare workers. Our little circle became a bit safer, and we talked more freely about things that mattered to us.

I returned to the conference and to the driving question asked of us, What can we learn together in Tucson about how assessment for learning relates to learner belonging, equity and liberation?”

That day I remembered ceremony invites story. I learned stories bring our relations and bring out our relatedness. I feel ceremony and story are acts of belonging, equity and liberation. I learned that Chuk Shon’, the village of the dark spring at the foot of the mountains is a storied place. In figuring out what I had left to give these girls, I realized everyone received exactly what they needed including us. I was reminded some stories are gifts themselves. Now, the magic of our stories is held in these ancestral grounds to be passed down by those who remember them.


About the Storyteller

Cheryl L. Ka‘uhane Lupenui founded The Leader Project as a

place for learning about shared leadership from Hawai‘i for Hawai‘i. Now as President and C.E.O of The Kohala Center she is part of a larger community returning ancestral knowledge and research into daily practice across fields of education, agriculture, conservation and yes, still leadership. Her career path to this work includes serving on the Board of Education for Hawai‘iʻs Department of Education, being CEO for the YWCA of O‘ahu, managing business development for Servco Pacific, Inc., running her own restaurant promoting sustainable local agriculture and consulting native-led entrepreneurs.

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