Category Archives: Growth

What’s Assessment Got To Do With It?

I’m an assessment nerd. I like reading about it, talking about it, and experimenting with it in my practice. I find it fascinating because it seems like the missing link between social emotional learning and more “academic” competencies such as critical thinking. As someone who believes relationships come first but adores challenging students intellectually, formative assessment changed my life.

The Journey

Having said this, I didn’t start my career truly understanding formative assessment. As a new teacher, I felt I was very current because I loved using analytic (4-column) rubrics. I spent countless hours choosing just the right language to include in each column. I got very excited about projects and was proud that I gave lots of descriptive feedback on these tasks. I never believed much in the value of letter grades, so I would proudly share that I didn’t use these in my classroom regularly – they were only present on report cards each term. I did have an “aha” moment in my first or second year of teaching that providing an overall performance indicator on a specific task was exactly the same as assigning a letter grade. Duh. I also felt like no matter what the task, at least one kid didn’t fit into any of the boxes I had so carefully and thoughtfully crafted. But the most important realization? I didn’t notice any significant improvements in my students’ learning once I gave them all of this wonderful feedback. The learning was over. I was designing great end goals but I was ignoring the important part: how do we help students achieve these goals?

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Slowly, I began learning more about formative assessment and the importance of questioning and feedback during the learning process rather than at the end. I was introduced to Dylan Wiliam’s work and started implementing learning intentions and criteria as part of our regular routine. Students starting to use this language and soon, I was giving targeted feedback both orally and in writing – as we learned – and we were exploring self and peer assessment in ways I had never thought possible. Rather than commenting on what they liked about someone’s final project or presentation, students were giving each other specific, descriptive feedback before they ever shared the final product. This resulted in more peer-peer support, greater sense of ownership, and better learning overall. They could actually provide evidence for their claims! Eventually, I moved away from analytic rubrics in favour of single-point rubrics, where the criteria simply indicate the expectation and the feedback can be personalized for each student. This showed me that there are ways to avoid placing students in categories and that the focus really can be on the learning 99% of the time. I was developing a greater understanding of my students, both as learners and as people, and this helped to shape our classroom environment. We developed a more explicit focus on social emotional learning and kids began talking about perseverance and growth rather than comparisons amongst themselves. I can honestly say that formative assessment is the single most important thing I ever shifted in my practice; it impacts everything.

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The Key Takeaways

Now working with pre-service teachers, I have a new perspective on formative assessment and the confusion that it inspires. For example, there is often a tendency to focus on the what rather than the how. Exit slips, observations, and work sample collections are all wonderful ways to gather evidence of student learning. However, it is so important to remember that these are simply tools. I could ask students to complete an exit slip at the end of a lesson, but if I don’t use it to guide my instruction and/or provide feedback, then it is really not being used formatively. We need to think carefully about how the information provided through the tool will guide our lessons, provide an opportunity for teacher feedback, or involve students in self and peer assessment. All of these are important features of formative assessment because they move learning forward.

Equally important is aligning our formative assessment with our summative. If we don’t have an end goal in mind, it becomes very difficult to design learning experiences that help students move toward that goal. Scaffolding is a term thrown around frequently in education, but often misunderstood. Really, scaffolding is the process of planning and assessment, which are interdependent and inseparable. Too often we teach one way and assess another, like providing lots of hands-on, interactive activities in Science but assessing with a written test that focuses on recall. This doesn’t make sense but it is an issue often overlooked in pre-service education courses. Summative assessment should reflect teaching practice in order to be fair, valid, and meaningful.

Finally, new teachers often remember that it’s important to collect evidence of learning and they use it to guide their own decisions in the classroom. They also tend to acknowledge that feedback is generally helpful for learning. What is most often forgotten is providing ample opportunities for students to apply the feedback in a timely manner. Spending hours on thoughtful comments is not meaningful if there is no opportunity for students to respond and/or try again. It also isn’t meaningful if it comes weeks after the experience. Whether it is with the same task or different but similar ones, students need multiple and frequent opportunities to practice and apply the feedback provided. Summative assessment – our end goal – is assessment of learning. How can we assess an end result if it is students’ first time doing something? This may seem simple, but I believe it is one of the most profound mindset shifts we can make as teachers.

I’ve learned so much over the years thanks to those who have shared and questioned their practice alongside me. Obviously, this post is not a comprehensive overview of assessment, but it’s always worth sharing stories and ideas. Formative assessment changed my entire practice as a teacher. It was the key to unlocking my students’ potential, and it was right in front of me all along. I hope there is something here to inspire you… or at least, to familiarize you with one of my nerdy teacher passions!

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The Values of Our Actions

Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. I’m not someone who has ever understood the appeal of audio books or podcasts. However, with some big chunks of time in my week newly available to me, I feel as though the inspiration that comes from podcasts is really infusing new life into my long commute.

Some of the most inspiring listening sessions I’ve had over the past couple of months have been financial podcasts. One in particular called Afford Anything exposed me to interviews with people I likely wouldn’t have come across if I had stuck to my usual book reading. One message I have taken away from this show is the importance of our values aligning with our actions. Basically, if we are not clear on our values – what’s most important to us – then we likely won’t align our actions with those values. According to a few of the show’s guests, this often results in a lot of frustration as people realize they’re not achieving their financial goals; if they could just be clear about what matters most, they would make more decisions that help them achieve their goals and they would be much happier.

I consistently find myself making connections to teaching. We often think we are clear about what matters to us in our practice. Whether it’s inquiry, storytelling, technology, or relationships, we tend to know what our passions are. But how often do we check in to make sure that our actions align with our values? How often are we actually doing things that are counter-intuitive to our values without being mindful of this disconnect?

I think these are important questions to ask ourselves because we are all human beings and teaching is hard work. The stress and frenzy of “the day” gets to all of us at one point or another. We can easily lose sight of what matters most when there’s a line up of emotional crises to deal with after lunch, the child who needs it most doesn’t have EA support again, or the phone rings for what feels like the 17th time that day. Nonetheless, taking the time to really dig deep, articulate our values, and map out how we might act accordingly can have a huge positive impact on our practice. It can save us time by minimizing decision fatigue and help clarify our expectations of our learners – not to mention make us happier!

So take the time to think about what matters to you… and more importantly, what you will do about it.

A New Chapter

This past spring, I made the decision to leave the classroom and try something new. I accepted a new role working with Teacher Candidates in the B.Ed. program at the University of British Columbia. While I will continue teaching Intro to Teaching and Learning Core French as I’ve done for the past couple of years, I am also be coordinating the Social Emotional Learning cohort. This means I am responsible for teaching Inquiry courses, embedding the theme of SEL into our cohort throughout the year, and acting as Faculty Advisor for a group of Teacher Candidates.

When I made this decision, I felt nothing but excitement. What an awesome new challenge! However, while saying my goodbyes in June, I started to second guess myself. By the time summer was in full swing, I was sure I had made a mistake… What was I thinking? I love my kids! Knowing that I wouldn’t return to my school or to any classroom in September made me very emotional.

Most of us enter the teaching profession because we want to make a difference in the lives of kids and I was no different. Those pre-teen years in particular come with a lot of angst, social awkwardness, and sarcasm that I secretly love. Those years are when I felt most disconnected from adults in my own life, so I’ve always wanted to help those who are looking for a positive role model and a bit of empathy while maintaining the facade of nonchalance and grown-up-ness. Little people in big bodies who just need to know they are loved…

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However, having met my group of Teacher Candidates this week, I am feeling much more optimistic. They are a wonderful group of people who, like all of us, are in this to make a difference in the lives of kids. Their hearts are in it and they are authentic, intelligent, compassionate people. I already feel like I am getting to know many of them and I haven’t even had to give up my addiction to bad jokes and sarcasm!

I can tell that it will be a fantastic year of learning and I know they will all make a difference in the lives of kids. I can see the potential for far reaching impact in this new role and that is exciting. I can also see that I am going to learn so much from them. But most of all, I can now see that although I may not have a physical classroom this year, I have met my new “kids.” And I couldn’t be more excited to see where this new adventure takes me…

It’s the Little Things

Over the past couple of years, I have often questioned my abilities as a teacher. I have had a lot of rough days and a few occasions where I wondered if I could ever do enough. I think we all end up in this place once in awhile because it is truly a job that never ends and could always be done better. However, I have also been trying to focus more on the little things that bring us joy as educators. There are, of course, many moments related to academic learning that are super special, but it’s not these moments that I find most meaningful and it’s not these moments that keep me in this profession. It’s those little things that are about relationships that really get to me…

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  1. That smile from that kid who just needed someone to talk to at recess.
  2. “Can I give you a hug, Ms. B?”
  3. The moment a child finally opens up to you.
  4. An email from a parent thanking you for your understanding.
  5. That kid who comes to ask you about anxiety after a lesson on mental health.
  6. The student who feels safe enough to share that their grandfather passed away during morning meeting.
  7. “I know you get it, Ms. B. You understand.”
  8. Watching a child develop a new friendship.
  9. Parents who let you know that their child is happy to come to school.
  10. Returning after an absence to: “We missed you!”

There are a million moments that we could reflect upon because we truly do make a difference in the lives of kids. They matter. We matter. Relationships matter.

When we’re feeling down, we need to remember that it’s the little things that matter the most.

Talking Openly About Mental Health

My struggle is anxiety. I didn’t know it until I was an adult, but I’ve actually been anxious my entire life. For as long as I can remember, I have experienced chronic daily headaches and I was a classic worrier growing up. However, it wasn’t until my physical health began to fail me about 3 years ago that I realized something was really wrong. I was highly motivated and inspired by my work, yet I was horribly sick and began fainting. I was often dizzy, unable to eat, and angry. Doctors couldn’t tell me what was wrong, so I began to think it was all in my head. It wasn’t until I found an outlet through fitness and support through counselling that I realized my physical symptoms were all a result of anxiety. I was relieved; at least I wasn’t suffering from some horrible physical illness! Little did I know how difficult this journey would be – digging deep to understand the root of our emotions is not a task easily checked off our weekend “To Do” list. I know now that it is challenging lifelong work.

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Photo via Pixabay

Since my own journey of self discovery began, I have developed so much compassion for students who suffer from anxiety. I often share my own daily experiences with them, like how it’s hard to sleep at night and how sometimes it feels like there’s an earthquake when there’s not. Or how sometimes my anxiety is triggered by events, like flying or large crowds, but most of the time it is completely unpredictable and difficult to explain. I also share self-regulation strategies that work for me like nature walks, yoga, and mindfulness.

For some reason, I have been sharing more openly in my classroom this year than before. I think being in a new school has provided me with an opportunity to share my true self – the one who I’ve been peeling away layers to get to know over the past 3 years – the one who has come so far and yet still feels like a child sometimes – and it feels good.

However, the reason I share all of this with you is because it’s easy to forget that many of our students are suffering from physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety every day. It’s becoming an epidemic in our fast-paced, modern society. These kids need to know that we know why words like “calm down” or “don’t worry about it” are unhelpful… and that negative behaviour is often an indication that we’re struggling with something inside. Other students have family members who are struggling with depression, addiction, eating disorders, or mood disorders – as do many of us. Simple conversation can go a long way toward developing a sense of acceptance and compassion for those struggling with mental health issues. It shows students that positive mental health is something we are all working on, not something you either have or you don’t.

Through sharing, we may be putting ourselves out there, but we may also end up modeling a growth mindset for our students. I personally think that being vulnerable is worth the risk of healthier, happier, and more empathetic kids.

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Photo via Pixabay

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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cc Photo Credit: liquidnight via Compfight

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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cc Photo Credit: SevenSeventyFive via Flickr

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.

Three Words for 2016

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cc Photo Credit: keithcarver via Compfight

Happy New Year! Once again, it’s been awhile since I have devoted time to blogging. I’ve written many a post in my head, but unfortunately, they have not often translated into actual posts for people to read. I would like this to change because writing brings me joy and provides me with an outlet for reflection. However, the highlights of my 2015, although not blogging related, were pretty awesome, so I’m going to tell myself I have a long list of very good excuses and forgive myself for the lapse in writing.

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Photo Credits: Patricia Gillespie, Moonrise Photography

I’m not usually one for New Year’s resolutions, but I have been inspired over the past several years by educators who have shared their “one word” for the year. While I like the idea of a guiding word, I never felt that one was enough. So rather than choose just one, I’ve carefully chosen three words that I feel will help guide me through 2016 – not to achieve goals necessarily, but to help me be my best self.

1. Balance

This is a word that I am choosing to remind myself that it is important to rest, rejuvenate, and restore. As someone who struggles with anxiety daily, I am prone to overworking myself in pursuit of approval and perfection. I hope that the word BALANCE will remind me to revisit my passions outside of education and to focus on my social and emotional needs. It represents my desire to act and to reflect, to share and to listen, to care for others and for myself.

2. Strength

This past year, I gave up a passion of mine that keeps me grounded and in good physical health. This year, I am reminding myself to revisit physical activities that make me feel strong – hiking, dance, yoga – because to me, STRENGTH means positive physical and mental health, a sense of self. It also reminds me to look for courage within myself when I am lonely, overwhelmed, or afraid. I hope I will have the STRENGTH to make healthy decisions for myself in 2016.

3. Relationships

This word is to remind me to revisit and strengthen the many meaningful RELATIONSHIPS I already have in my life. I often get wrapped up in my day to day life and forget to connect with those I would consider my closest friends and family. I am hoping to change this. I also feel this word represents the most important aspect of my educational philosophy; I hope it will remind me of my professional values in stressful times so I can choose care and compassion over reaction.

So those are my guiding words for the new year. There is so much right in front of us that we forget to nourish. Rather than planning for drastic changes, I’m hoping my #threewordsfor2016 will help me better understand myself and my role in the lives of those around me.

What words will guide you in 2016?