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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

"Don't Just Talk About It. Be It.": 5 Lessons from an Excursion

By Adam Sparks

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.


The ALP Conference concluded on February 17. 2023, and now the stories start coming in. A team of twenty-seven—including eight educators from Tucson—were a storytelling team in Tucson. For the next few months, this blog will share the stories of those folks.

From left to right: Dr. Rashad Bennett, Nza Branton, and Ron Garlington from Young Middle School in Atlanta Public Schools are greeted by Desert View Principal Angelica Duddleston

As we approached Desert View High school on Day 2 of the 2023 Assessment for Learning Conference in Tucson, the typical trappings were all there: Sports fields and courts in a row, school busses lined up, a mascot (Welcome Jaguars!) emblazoned welcome sign as you pull into the parking lot. Aside from the desert-like surroundings, it felt much like other high schools I’ve taught at over the past seven years.

What makes Desert View different slowly revealed itself over the course of the afternoon and an incredibly powerful professional development experience. Yesenia Ayala, Kasie Betten, and Larissa Peru, under the support of Desert View Principal Angelica Duddleston, co-created and hosted the Student Agency and Student Voice Learning Excursion with our team of roughly 25 educational leaders. But they were not alone: As we came to find out, our professional development session was to be not just informed by or about, but actually created and led by, students. This is the story of that experience in 5 quotes.

1. “Don’t Just Talk About It. Be About It.”

Our team was greeted by Principal Angelica Duddleston and escorted to our classroom upon arrival at Desert View. We walked in under a banner that read “Don’t Just Talk About It. Be About It.” Principal Duddleston was the walking embodiment of those words. Her radio crackled repeatedly as she escorted us in, emphasizing how much effort and commitment went into creating this learning experience: Principal Duddleston was busy. And yet, here she was, carving out time in the middle of a school day to create a space for her educators and students to share their expertise and experiences with us. That Principal Duddleston took the time out of her day to greet us and take part in our learning, all while running a high school of roughly 2,000 students, was an early indicator that our hosts embodied the values and experiences they would share with us.

2. “There is No Hierarchy in Learning” - Ms. Larissa Peru, Math Teacher, Desert View High School
Larissa Peru of Desert View High School and Yesenia Ayala of the WestEd Formative Assessment Team lead group introductions.

Principal Duddleston led us to the English classroom of Ms. Kasie Betten. As we munched on pastries from a local bakery and sipped coffee, we took turns introducing ourselves and getting to know the learning objectives and activities for the day. Yesenia Ayala of WestEd, along with Larissa Peru and Kasie Betten of Desert View, explained that the goal of our session was to understand how student agency contributes to the overall shift of how we rethink assessment for learning. In doing so, we would conceptualize instructional practices that support student agency, reflect on the impact of structures that support student agency, and identify actional items to take back to our respective home districts/sites/ and work. On the surface, that might sound like a traditional professional development session. Then the students took over.

3. “It shows their trust in us. Just as they teach us, we teach others…It’s almost like we’re mini-activists or something.” - Aiden, Desert View High School

Ms. Betten and Ms. Peru walked their talk on student agency when they turned it over to Diego and Kiara, two seniors at Desert View High School, to lead us through the first of three activities. In Terry’s Travels & Visible Learning, we broke into groups and were tasked with making a toy boat that would float in a tub of water while holding a plastic dinosaur. The twist was that, within each table group, only one group knew what the assessment criteria was (i.e. getting the boat to float, generating a creative name for our vessel, etc). The experience emphasized the importance of not just sharing the assessment criteria for the learning task with learners in advance, but co-creating those assessment tasks to empower students with the agency to shape their own educational experiences. It became a major point of emphasis throughout our day: In classrooms and schools that empower students with agency, students are co-creators of knowledge with their teacher.

4. “If you want things to be different, you have to do things differently.” - Ms. Kasie Betten, English Teacher, Desert View High School

Over the course of three interactive activities, our group built boats to learn about the importance of learning criteria, tossed bean bags to weigh the differences between behavior and agency, and revised a lesson plan to include more opportunities to build student agency. A panel reflection led by our student facilitators closed our time together in which it became even more evident how impactful formative assessment and learner agency had been in shaping the educational journeys of the 5 students leading our session. “This is my last year of high school, which is kind of scary,” shared Kiara, “but I’ve grown in agency and as a learner.” For Diego, it shifted what was important about school: “I used to be more focused on grades. Now it’s more about understanding.” In many ways, this was the intent of Ms. Betten & Ms. Peru. As Ms. Betten put it: “The more you shift away from compliance, the less satisficing you see. It’s less ‘I’m done’ and more about deepening understanding….so students should know about pedagogy. The more they know about our processes and pedagogy, the more a huge curtain is lifted that hides things from them in their education.”

5. “We wouldn't have been practicing what we’re preaching if we didn’t include kids in the creation of this.” - Yesenia Ayala, WestEd Formative Assessment Associate

The Student Agency and Student Voice learning excursion’s group learning artifact
The Student Agency and Student Voice learning excursion’s group learning artifact

Upon excursion's end, our group said goodbye to our hosts and headed back to the convention center to reflect on our learning. In that space, we reflected on how powerful it was to take part in professional development in which the form followed the function: Our Desert View leaders didn’t just lecture us on agency, they created interactive activities in which we got to experience what agency actually is and is not. There was no more powerful way to do that than to have students lead the learning experience themselves. Put another way: “Don’t just talk about it. Be About it.” The students and educators at Desert View High School most certainly are.


About the Storyteller

Adam Sparks is former social studies and English teacher from Nebraska. He holds a master's degree in Learning Design and Technology from Stanford where his work focused on using peer feedback to improve formative assessment practices. He is a co-creator of Short Answer, a new K-12 formative assessment tool.

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