Category Archives: Assessment For Learning

Communicating Student Learning: My Personal Journey

Three years ago, I wrote a post entitled Why I Hate Letter Grades. I figure it’s about time I write an update on my adventures…

In the fall of 2013, one brave soul (@BronwenHowden) decided to join me in the ride that was our district’s Communicating Student Learning pilot. We were two teachers in one of five schools that term to design our own report card template. We jumped on board very quickly and fumbled our way through implementation in first term. It was a very sudden shift for the community and in hindsight, there are many ways we could have communicated more clearly. However, we learned a great deal, and by second term, we were using feedback from parent surveys and a focus group to make changes to our template. By third term, we were finally gaining confidence in our methods of communicating student learning. While we knew all along that we were working to design assessment that promoted growth and learning, it was finally becoming more widely accepted in our community and we had evidence from students to support the shift that had taken place.

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We continued revising and using our template the following year alongside digital portfolios with Fresh Grade and approximately 8 more teachers and tons more schools in the district. We felt our confidence grow as we were more able to articulate our rationale for the changes and more students and parents began to see the benefits of assessing in alternative ways. Parents having access to ongoing communication of learning via Fresh Grade was hugely beneficial, and we referenced these learning samples in our CSL anecdotal assessment. We decided to maintain this formal paper communication in addition to the portfolios throughout the year, as we had already changed a lot in a short period of time, and it put many parents at ease. However, we did make some significant changes to our template, such as removing formal reporting of individual subject areas (other than Literacy and Numeracy) in favour of more cross-curricular approaches to learning and including personalized learning plans for each student. We also focused on improving the quality of our ongoing communication with parents.

Bronwen and I came out of that second year feeling there was no way we could ever return to the “old ways” and confident we could now move away from report cards altogether. Although there were a million and one factors that influenced our decisions throughout those transitional years, there were five main principles consistently guiding our practice:

  1. Formative Assessment
  2. Competencies
  3. Student Conferencing
  4. Self-Assessment
  5. Ongoing Communication with Parents

Experiencing this transition as educators provided us with the time we needed to truly explore what quality assessment looked like in practice. Looking back, we can see that learning intentions and criteria guided all of our assessment, students were involved in the learning process through co-creation of criteria and regular self-assessment, and we were focused on developing competencies through content knowledge. We improved our communication with parents through the use of Fresh Grade, email updates, class blogs, social media, and conferences. One on one conferences with students lasting 15-20 minutes every term were invaluable. It was a lot of work – we had to completely rethink how we structured our days – but somehow it felt like less work than before, as it all became so much more meaningful. We knew our students’ strengths and challenges inside and out. Even more importantly, so did our students.

Now in a new school (and desperately missing my original partner in crime!), I have finally made the complete shift to communicating student learning through Fresh Grade. I don’t think anyone can argue that it is valuable to have regular updates about their child’s learning, but change will always be difficult. I remain focused on quality assessment in my use of Fresh Grade, as it is not really about the technology, but a shift in mindset.

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There are numerous Surrey Schools educators who have already put together guidelines about the what, why, and how of digital portfolios, so I will refer you to to their brilliant work. You can find links to many of them in Elisa Carlson’s blog post here. What I have done is put together a few key pieces of advice, educator to educator, for those who are moving toward ongoing communication of student learning for the first time:

  • Be transparent! Students and parents need to know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how they can be involved. Let them know you are learning alongside them but also share resources to help them understand the transition. Ask them what they want and highlight connections between their input and best practice.
  • It’s all about the learning! If you are doing significantly more work than your students, STOP. Portfolios are not about including as much as humanly possible, but providing quality assessment of key learning throughout the year. Students should absolutely be involved in the process, no matter their age, and assessment should be moving their learning forward.
  • Learn to embrace change! Change is not meant to be comfortable but it should be meaningful. Don’t try to do the same thing in a new way; if you’ve committed to using portfolios or other alternatives to grades, you’ve committed to being a part of the change. It’s ok for your communication to look different… it should.
  • Be prepared to listen! Not everyone is ready for change at the same time. Focus on strengthening relationships by finding common ground. Actively listen to those who disagree with you. Take feedback for what it is – a learning opportunity. Remember that parents, teachers, and administrators all want what’s best for kids.
  • Find a partner in crime (or several)! Together, we are better. Collaborate. Share. Question. Collaborate some more. Support each other along the way.

I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore multiple ways of communicating student learning in my district. It’s been an amazing journey that I would not trade for anything. What are you doing to ensure quality assessment and communication of student learning?

CSL, Fresh Grade, and the draft BC curriculum provide me with so much flexibility in designing meaningful learning opportunities for my students. You can check out my visual presentation entitled “Redesigned Curriculum in Action” here as a sample of some things we do in Division 3.

Oral Language – How and Why?

Oral language development is always a hot topic in French Immersion, or any second language classroom. I can’t count the number of times someone has said to me “I took French all through high school and can’t speak a word!” As a French teacher, there is nothing that makes me more sad or disappointed. What is the point of pursuing language learning if we can’t interact with anyone else?

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Often we mean well, but there is a lack of understanding about how students best learn a new language. I would like to share my strategies for developing confidence in oral language amongst my Late French Immersion students.

Identify the Learning Intention

If we are not clear about our objective as teachers, how will students know what they are supposed to learn? I’m not talking about vocabulary here, either; I’m talking about what we want our students to be able to do. Try structuring your intention in the form of an “I can…” statement. For example, “I can use passé composé to share what I did on the weekend.” This will help provide you with context in which you can teach the language structure.

Context

Vocabulary taught in isolation is almost never meaningful for students; it relies on memorization and is not representative of any authentic communication situation. Grammar in isolation can be even more troublesome; what is the point of knowing how to conjugate the past tense (passé composé) if we have no idea when or how to use it in a real-life situation? Focus on what students want to talk about in the past: their weekends, their vacations, or what they did before coming to school that day. These are meaningful learning opportunities because students are actually applying the language structure in an authentic way.

Model

This step is so key! Teachers must model the language structure they want their students to learn before they ask students to use it or write it down. This means providing multiple examples along with actions and/or visuals to help cue students’ vocabulary. Using a simple structure repeatedly in context is most effective. For example, I might point to what I am wearing when I say: “Je porte un chandail bleu. Je porte des pantalons noirs.” Obviously the structure you choose to model and practice depends on the level of your students; in our class, we often focus on a specific verb tense or expression (e.g. passé composé or “J’ai hâte pour…”) The key in modeling is to avoid translating in favour of contextual cues and to take reading out of the equation; that can be learned later once the structure is internalized.

Partner Practice

Once we have modeled a language structure in a meaningful context and supported our model with actions or visuals, we can move on to offering students the chance to practice. However, this should be done in a very structured way. I will often share my model and then ask students to share their own personal phrase with a partner. This allows them to practice in a safe way as it does not put them on the spot in front of the whole class.

Once students have practiced in partners, I model a question such as “Qu’est-ce que tu portes?” and call on anywhere from 1-5 students to answer the question. This is the time to correct any errors in the targeted structure.

Developing Independence

Have the class repeat the question, such as “Qu’est-ce que tu portes?” chorally to ensure correct pronunciation. Then allow them the independence to practice the question and answer format with their peers. Inside/outside circles is a strategy that works really well with most students. It allows me the opportunity to circulate and formatively assess students’ abilities very quickly and easily; it also gives students the opportunity to practice the same language structure multiple times to increase

Know When To Intervene… and When Not To

With new language Learners, it is very easy to become intimidated or anxious. While of course the purpose of structured oral language practice is to target specific language structures, we need to know when to intervene or correct and when fluency is more important. If passé composé is what I am modeling, then that is the structure I will openly correct in students’ communication. Correction of errors is necessary and important, but building confidence is even more important! Don’t forget that it’s ok to leave them to fumble through expressing their thoughts as well, as they are developing different skills at different times.

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How Morning Meetings Have Transformed Our Learning

This year, for a variety of reasons, I decided to try morning meetings with my grade seven students. Every morning, we sit in a circle and one by one, we share how we are feeling that day. We rate our feelings on a scale of 1-10 and provide some reasons why we are feeling that way if we are comfortable doing so. This has been an incredibly powerful experience for me as an educator, as it provides us with dedicated time to listen to each other, builds trust within our classroom, and encourages students to take risks in sharing in a new language. It has also provided us with an avenue for oral language practice. Each day, we target a specific language structure. For example, Mondays are usually practicing past tense as we share what we did on the weekend and Fridays are a great opportunity to talk about “J’ai hâte…” It is amazing how many errors can be corrected when they are class learning intentions. Over time, students have become more comfortable correcting themselves and others as well. We are able to laugh about some of our mistakes while we develop common language understanding. Several initially shy students have come out of their shells during morning meetings! It’s been a wonderful experience that has greatly increased students’ confidence in French. I can no longer imagine not having morning meetings in our classroom.

I believe oral language development is essentially the most important skill we can help develop in our students. Without speaking and listening, they will always lack the ability to communicate meaningfully with others in real-life situations. By targeting specific language structures and modeling oral language on a regular basis, we can help our students open doors to new experiences.

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C3 Inquiry and Assessment for Learning

I am embarking on a new learning journey. A few short weeks ago, I met my M.Ed. cohort for the first time. For the next two years, we will be learning together, exploring the concepts of creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration and how they relate to the inquiry process. I must say that my initial reaction was a positive one as everyone seems open to respectful dialogue and listening to new ideas. I was challenged and I felt excited! However, I was also overwhelmed on the first day with social anxiety, worries of inadequacy, and wonder about how this would relate to my professional practice. Before we left on Saturday, we were assigned learning tasks to complete in between sessions.

I left my first weekend of classes feeling totally energized and inspired because of my colleagues and our rich discussions. However, once I had time to sit down and review our learning tasks, I felt an overwhelming sense of disappointment that I was returning to my days as a university student with readings and assignments that were not relevant or meaningful to me. Although we had said that it is all about the learning process and not the product, it seemed like another case of talking the talk but not walking the walk.

Tonight we began our second session together, and I am so relieved to say that this is not the case! While we had each written a critique, the importance was not at all placed on what we had written, but rather on sharing, discussing our work with colleagues, and self-assessment. We spent several hours constructing meaning as a group about the many conceptions of creativity that exist and how our personal and social contexts influence our conceptions. We practiced how to offer a balanced critique of someone else’s thoughts while being fair and charitable. But most important of all, we were given time and space to reflect and self-assess our own thinking.

No assignments to be handed in or graded.

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It is such a relief to know that there are education programs out there that are actually using assessment for learning. This past week, I felt some of the anxiety about assignment criteria and expectations that many of our students experience when something is to be graded. While I thoroughly enjoyed thinking critically, reflecting on my own conceptions of creativity, and discussions with friends, the thoughts of submitting my ideas on paper to be assessed made me nervous. I was reminded that many students feel that way all the time and it saddened me to think that my learning might be limited because of assignment format or criteria. Tonight, it was freeing to hear that there will be no grades given until we have mastered concepts and can submit our best work. We will continue to share, discuss, and transform our thinking and when we are ready, share and submit our best. We will all be involved in each other’s learning to help provide guidance and feedback. We will all help each other make our learning relevant to our teaching context.

I am excited to experience assessment for learning firsthand and the power it can have to transform student learning. I know the experience will help me grow as an educator and I hope I will learn how to make formative assessment more impactful for my students.

As part of an ongoing learning diary, I will blog about creative, critical, and collaborative inquiry using the tag C3 Inquiry. I look forward to sharing my learning with you 🙂

Why I Hate Letter Grades

I hate letter grades.
They are harmful, ineffective representations of my students’ learning.

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Those who know me personally know that I’ve always been passionate about assessment. I’ve always thought I had a fairly firm grasp on good assessment practices. I’ve always thought I had students’ best interests in mind by providing ongoing, descriptive feedback and never giving letter grades on projects. This year, we have also explored ePortfolios as a way to document student progress. I spend a considerable amount of time and energy encouraging my students to focus on learning and improving rather than on extrinsic rewards and punishments.

Yet every term, I fail numerous times because I must assign a letter grade in each subject area on report cards.

How is this helpful for students? How does this contribute to passion, intrinsic motivation, or lifelong learning?

Those are the things that really matter to me. I want my students to love learning. I want to inspire them to find and pursue their passions in life. I want them to look honestly at where they are and where they want to go in their learning journey. How can I honestly expect them to do that when all of their amazing progress and achievements are reduced to a single alphabetical symbol at the end of each term? My answer is that I don’t think I can anymore.

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I’ve proposed an inquiry project to my school district that would explore how eliminating letter grades on intermediate report cards in favour of anecdotal evidence, ePortfolios, and conferencing affects student learning. While I feel hopeful that the proposal is a step in the right direction, I have also recently come to realize that we need to create change where we currently have the power to create change. I don’t have control over whether the inquiry project is approved for next year or over our report card templates. Although I will continue to advocate for change in those areas and hope that I am well supported, I am proposing another more manageable shift in practice for the time being. Something I can change NOW.

I know others already do this, so I do not claim ownership of the idea in any way.

Rather than simply involving my students in a discussion about their grades (where they feel they fit on a continuum, why they think they fall where they do) I am going to involve my students in the process of assigning grades. They will decide what they think their grades should be. They will provide evidence from their ePortfolios and projects throughout the year that supports their position. We will have an honest discussion about their samples and their progress and we will come to an agreement about what their final grade should be. I hope this will allow them to truly reflect on where they were and how far they’ve come as well as their strengths and areas in need of improvement. I know that this will actively involve them in a new learning experience.

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Screen shot of one of my student’s ePortolio pages – “Français”

I know that this is not a perfect system and that we will make mistakes… ePortoflios were new for us this year and are still progressing in terms of reflection. However, I strongly believe that in their current state, grades are harmful to my students’ learning. I can no longer treat them as they’ve always been treated because it goes against everything I stand for in my classroom. Kids feel a lot of pressure from society to perform, and this often causes them to take less risks for fear of “failing.” How will they ever learn to love learning if they are terrified of failure? How can I ever get them to want to think outside the box when they are placed in a box at the end of each term? I want them to be free of boxes and categories so that they can see the light that is learning!

We have to start somewhere. This will be my somewhere.

Do you plan on finding levers for change in assessment and grading? If so, how?

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This is obviously not a complete argument against grades. There will be future posts on the “why” of abolishing grades. In the meantime, check out @joe_bower’s blog page “Abolishing Grades” for some great resources.