Category Archives: Technology

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.


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.


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.

Powerful Connections

Plans rarely work out how we hope they will. I often feel defeated at this time of year as I reflect on everything I didn’t do for my students. So many wonderful plans have not worked out either because they were poorly executed on my part or because of a lack of time.

One of those plans up until last week was a science inquiry on the impact of humans on local ecosystems. We had developed inquiry questions but hadn’t really taken it anywhere. My goal was to have my students interact with the general public outside of our classroom either to interview an expert, collect data, or to convey a message.

This week, we’ve finally managed to get the ball rolling. It’s strange, really, as my kids were not initially enthusiastic about moving forward with a project so late in the year… But one tweet can make all the difference!


The group quickly learned that their tweet would be more effective if they targeted a specific audience…


Within a couple of days, we had responses from both the City of Surrey and the Vancouver Aquarium. How cool is that! Students are now interviewing a scientist about the ozone layer and sharing resources with the city about construction projects and population growth. When less enthusiastic groups saw that others were actually getting valuable information from Twitter, they decided to try it too.

Once we had made it through this learning curve, I threw out the idea of making Google Docs surveys to gather information that would help guide their inquiry. By tweeting to #comments4kids #sd36learn and #cityofsurrey, one group had several responses within 10 minutes. Now the students are starting to see the power of connecting outside of the classroom! They are also beginning to see that both French and English can be used to communicate with an outside audience, so many of our projects are bilingual.


Photo Credit: ~Aphrodite via Compfight cc

Students are using everything from blog posts, poster campaigns, and public service ads for YouTube to understand and explore their inquiry questions. All are using Twitter to communicate in some way.

Students using Twitter is not a new concept, but for us it has been a very exciting week. I am most proud of those who are taking chances and trying new things even when they’re uncertain. It is so important to make learning meaningful for kids. At this time of year, many classes begin winding down, but this inquiry project is one way I feel we are winding up. Who can argue with excitement that is connected to learning?

3 Things I Learned at ILD EdCamp

This post was started nearly two weeks ago… Life got in the way, but my new motto seems to be “better late than never!”


cc Flickr photo by Mark Brannan

On February 8th, I had the opportunity to attend my school district’s Innovative Learning Designs EdCamp. Although I had never attended an EdCamp myself, I was familiar with the concept of participant driven learning and the expectation that participants would share with each other. I wouldn’t say that I learned a lot of concrete things in my two sessions (i.e. the proverbial “something I can use tomorrow morning”) but I definitely came away with lots of reminders and lots to think about.

1. Sharing is Key!

I have been reflecting so much on this concept for the past several months thanks to Dean Shareski and #ETMOOC. It is so important that we be willing, as educators, to share our ideas, our efforts, and our experiences. If we don’t share with each other, how will we ever learn to be better? There was a lot of awkward silence at my first session, and that’s ok, and partly to be expected for a bunch of EdCamp newbies… but I think we need to be willing to just jump in and share! Tam Manery from Bear Creek (@TManery) did just that, and her sharing helped me to clarify in my mind what personalized learning could look like in Math. A topic and subject area that, quite frankly, I used to love but haven’t been loving so much this year, was rejuvenated! That’s the power of sharing. Which brings me to my next point…

2. Risk Taking Is Essential for Learning

It’s ok (and I would even say necessary) to take risks and to experience a sense of failure. I think that too often, we want to wait until we have “mastered” a concept before we try it out in our classrooms. However, I really do think there is something to be said for diving in head first! I have learned so much more by simply trying something than I ever could by planning and thinking about it. If things go miserably wrong, I have learned a valuable lesson about what does not work. If we expect our students to take risks in learning, we have to model this ourselves. We  worry that students may not be “ready” for things like passion and inquiry based learning. My question is: How will we ever truly know unless we give them the opportunity? Mistakes are inevitable, but they are incredibly valuable learning opportunities.


cc Flickr photo by pcgn7

3. Technology is Not Innovation

It is not about the technology, it is about transforming the way we approach teaching and learning. Technology should be second nature, invisible, embedded into everything that we do… NOT because it is cool and fun (which it is) but because it provides students with amazing opportunities to create and to share their learning. We must always remember this!

The day was a great reminder of what “Innovative Learning Designs” really means.

What have you shared or tried lately that was innovative?

Sharing, Learning, Inspiring


Photo Copyright by Moyan Brenn

I have not had the opportunity to participate in any online ETMOOC sessions to date due to my time zone and a lot of after school commitments. However, I’ve been meaning to participate more than I actually have. I saw Dean Shareski present at our school district’s Digital Learner Series earlier this year and his message about sharing really resonated with me. His online session for ETMOOC was equally inspiring. What I took away from it was that I better share something soon!

I’m still new to the teaching profession. Because of this, I find it very easy to fall into the “no one is interested in my ideas” trap. Thankfully, I have finally been able to begin building a sense of confidence this year and I am finally feeling as though my teaching and learning is beginning to be a true reflection of who I am. Dean shared this YouTube clip at our dinner series in September, and it instantly changed my outlook on the value of my contributions. It is a wonderful reminder that we all have something worth sharing.

As educators, it is so important that we share our experiments with each other. I say experiments because there are many days when I feel as though I have failed and I have to remind myself of the bigger picture. I am not perfect but I care about my students. Deeply. Ridiculously. I truly want what’s best for them. I want them to be creative, passionate, and independent. I want them to be critical thinkers. I want them to love learning. I want them to understand that we live in a world that encourages collaboration and inspiration like never before. And I want them to know that you don’t need a fancy job title to be an inspirational leader. How could I ever possibly convey this message to them if I never collaborated with other educators? If I never tried anything new? How could I dare teach them that we live in a world made for sharing if I never shared myself?

I am not sharing as much as I should. I struggle with time management. I also continue to feel self conscious about my contributions. The point is that I want to share and I am trying to share as much as I can right now.

So for all of you who are worried about what others think (because I know you’re out there…) you are not alone! But it is only through sharing SOMETHING that we can motivate each other to continue on our journey.


Well, it’s a week late, but I’m finally introducing myself to the ETMOOC community! Honestly, I registered on a whim at the last minute, as I often do, and then felt a bit lost about where to start. I finally came to my senses and realized that a great place to start is always wherever you feel comfortable.

I am a Grade 7 Late French Immersion teacher in British Columbia who is experimenting a lot with my teaching this year. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited, terrified, humbled or proud in my whole life. I absolutely love what I do every day and am constantly striving to instill that same sense of passion for SOMETHING in my students. I am definitely an advocate of using technology to engage students, but I think we need to spread the word that is about encouraging creativity and collaboration, not content consumption. I hope to continue building my professional learning network by participating in ETMOOC.

I’ve really been loving six word stories with my students this year, so I thought I’d share one of my own. Here’s to a few months of wonderful learning opportunities!


cc licensed Flickr photo shared by Gloson