Towards a Culture of Learning

This post was written for the TG2Chat blog, and originally published September 29, 2018.

Culture has memory and momentum. It helps us understand both what to expect and what is expected of us. Culture manifests itself at different levels in public education. Over time, a school develops its own unique ‘persona,’ and anyone who has visited several schools can speak to the vast differences that can be found among schools, even within the same community. Classrooms are no different. Teachers and students create smaller ecosystems that function within the greater school culture. Both school and classroom culture are strongly influenced by the norms and beliefs that exist in the greater community, and by the policies dictated by the state, province, or county.

My school board serves more than 50,000 students in over 100 schools. I spent three years as part of a central team, working with a brilliant team of educators to support teacher professional development. We had a strong focus on innovation in education and worked hard to create opportunities for meaningful, personal learning for our teachers. Although the work was satisfying, it was often frustrating. Despite our best efforts to reach as many people as possible, we were acutely aware that our actions would not have an immediate impact on the predominant culture. We were attempting to steer an enormous, slow-moving ship with nothing but elbow grease and some brightly painted oars. I loved that work, but also felt some relief when I returned to my classroom to focus my energy on a more manageable 100 students.

Changing classroom culture in a way that challenges institutional norms can also be difficult. In making the shift away from grades, I found that the biggest barriers to changing the classroom culture were my students’ expectations. After 10+ years in school, they were all very comfortable with traditional grading norms. Many of my students didn’t just want grades, they needed them. The first time I returned ungraded work in my biology class, one of my students had a visceral reaction; she was pale and shaking when she asked, “But how will I know how I did?”

The culture of previous classrooms had not trained her for that moment. The dominant culture in education dictates that teachers hold authority and students are supposed to comply and accept their fate. Taking away grades signals a fundamental change in the power dynamics of a classroom, and students need to be supported in order to thrive in an environment that doesn’t fit their current schema.

When I stopped grading student work last year, many of my classroom norms stayed the same (respect for self and others, everyone is welcome, everyone is capable of succeeding) but any norms related to assessment and evaluation had to change significantly. This is the first time I have attempted to verbalize some of the new norms we adopted:

  • Learning is never over. There is always room for another attempt to demonstrate what we know.
  • Learning is not a competition. We learn as a community and grow together as we share our understanding with one another.
  • The purpose of feedback is to help us identify the most important next steps in learning. Using feedback is how we move forward.
  • Learning is hard work. We embrace challenges and learn from mistakes.
  • We share a responsibility for documenting learning. Evidence of learning collected by students will be used alongside evidence collected by the teacher to assess progress.

So, what did I do to help develop this culture? It’s not an easy task to recall and explain everything that we did in my classroom last year, but I can identify some important themes.

I was completely honest with my students from the very first day. They knew what our path was and why I thought it was a good idea. They understood that my choice to not use grades was based in research, and not just a crazy idea I cooked up. They knew I was prepared to make mistakes and that I would work hard to fix them. This complete vulnerability was a far cry from the authoritarian approach I used in my early years as a teacher. Frankly, I don’t think I could have pulled this off earlier in my career. This level of honesty was only possible because I was confident in myself and the choices I was making. Teenagers are great at sniffing out signs that their teachers are not being authentic, so it is not enough to just say the words. We have to be willing to let our students watch as we make mistakes, own them, and learn from them.

I made my students full partners in the development of the new norms and routines. I listened to their concerns and made changes based on their suggestions. I collected feedback formally (and anonymously) at least once each semester, and invited constructive criticism on an informal basis almost daily. Driven by real suggestions from students, I tried out several different versions of student portfolios, tested out different ways of giving feedback on their work, and varied the frequency of conferences. It was not possible for me to foresee some of the challenges students would face because I myself had only ever been a student in a traditional classroom. In addition, at the start of my gradeless journey I had very few examples from other content-heavy gradeless classrooms (so many examples being in language and the arts) and therefore could not anticipate some of the problems and concerns that were specific to my situation.

I asked for my students’ trust and worked hard to keep it. In order to relieve the extreme anxiety of some students—particularly the seniors—I asked each student at the start of the year what grade they hoped to achieve in the course. I made a promise to my students that if at any point in the semester I had concerns about them achieving their goal I would speak with them about it. Students had the ability to revise their goals at any time based on their progress. This acknowledgment that their final grade was important to them (for university and college admission) was one of the keys to my success last year. Had I ignored the fact that I was legally bound to put a grade on their final reports, I don’t believe I would have had as much support from students. In a perfect world, I would not be bound to assign a grade. In this world, grades are a reality that needed to be addressed.

I followed through on the plan. Students were given multiple chances to demonstrate their learning. I provided meaningful feedback and helped the students learn how to do the same. Students had opportunities to use the feedback to improve. Students were encouraged to collaborate, debate, and listen to one another. I modeled the change in language that our new culture required. “That question is worth three points,” became “I will be looking for a logical argument with at least two pieces of supporting evidence.” Conferences gave students an opportunity to share evidence of their learning and gave me a more complete picture of their capabilities. Students appreciate it when teachers stick to the plan, even if things are a little messy. In the words of one of my biology students, “I liked how you didn’t waver even though a lot of students wanted marks. At the beginning I kind of wanted marks, but after not having received them for a while, I was okay with it and kind of relaxed.”

This year, there are other things I would like to incorporate into our classroom routine to help nurture a culture of mutual trust and respect. I am intrigued by the idea of incorporating a daily classroom discussion (see Monte Syrie’s ‘Smiles and Frowns,’ for example). I want to become better at developing students’ ability to give feedback to one another and to help them see the value in this skill. I am also hoping that more students take advantage of opportunities to improve their work; some seemed reluctant to revisit things they felt were “good enough.” There are so many things I have yet to try, but I am extremely thankful that there are so many teachers willing to share strategies and stories that I can bring into my classroom.

I have made great strides towards changing my classroom culture, although I still feel like I’m in a little rowboat trying to fight the momentum of the big ship. That said, my students’ feedback from last year helped affirm the choices I have made:

  • Many teachers I have encountered are set into their ways and don’t look to improve, so I’m happy you allowed me to share my feedback with you.
  • Students feel safe to ask you for help or just talk to you.
  • This class helped me focus on actually learning and not about achieving the highest mark. Thank you for this new perspective!
  • I have grown as a student and as a person.

As I finish writing this, I have nine more sleeps remaining until the start of a new school year. Every few nights in August I experience my usual back-to-school dreams which haven’t changed in 15 years (I’m late and unprepared; the students are out of control and then the principal walks in). My waking thoughts, on the other hand, have a much different focus than they once did. Now, more than ever, I find myself thinking about how I can create a space where students thrive and learning is valued. Instead of spending hours trying to figure out how to get a calculated grade to reflect what a student knows, I can spend those hours providing meaningful feedback that promotes growth. Investing in my classroom culture has transformed the way I do my job, and the rewards will sustain me for years to come.

Last Week’s Lemons

The first few days of school are always a bit of a blur for me as I get back into regular routines at work and at home. This year I want to focus on building strong relationships in my classes to support our feedback-focused work, and I felt that the first few days were crucial for setting a tone that will help us move forward successfully. I wrote a short post after the first two days of school to share the progress of our new ‘class meeting’ routine, and was looking forward to keeping that momentum going.

Sometimes life just doesn’t cooperate with our intentions.

I woke up at 1:30 AM on Thursday in a significant amount of physical pain. I woke my husband and had him drop me off at the hospital. Now, I’m not a wimp. I’ve only been to the hospital three other times in my adult life; two of those times I was in labour and the third time I had been hit in the eye with a bungee cord. The pain was excruciating, and I had no idea what it was, though it was on my lower right side so I suspected appendicitis.

On the way to the hospital, I used my phone to book a supply teacher. After I was through triage, I emailed my principal, then agonized (literally and figuratively) about what to have the supply teacher do with my classes.

What about the class meeting? I didn’t think the students were ready to run one yet. What about the activities I had planned? The supply teacher might not know any chemistry or biology, and most of what I had planned to do probably wouldn’t fly in that case.

I emailed my fabulous colleagues to ask for their help in getting some lessons together for my students, knowing that they would come through for me and that, in the end, I would just have to let go of any control I had over my students’ destinies that day.

I spent several hours in the ER, enjoying two visits with doctors, some lovely pain medication, great care from the nurses, 1.5 library books, some sock knitting, and an ultrasound. I was diagnosed with a ruptured ovarian cyst. (Shameless plug for Canadian health care…I am so lucky to live here.) I was thrilled that an appendectomy was not required. I would be able to return to work on Friday if my pain was manageable. The doctor who discharged me, upon discovering I was a Science teacher, gave me a detailed description of my problem and the reasons it can be so painful. He enthusiastically encouraged me to share this information with my students, because he knows that ‘real’ biology stories are far more entertaining than those you read in a book.

While I was at the hospital on Thursday, my students did some worksheets and read their textbooks. When I returned on Friday, we picked up right where we had left off on Wednesday. At our class meeting, I told them all about my adventure at the hospital (ovaries and all!) and expressed my gratitude that I hadn’t had to be away from them for longer than a day. They had questions for me. I answered. They shared some of their hospital stories. After that, we learned some Science together. It was a good day.

On Monday – yesterday – I had the distinct feeling that my unfortunate medical problem had had a really interesting influence on our class culture. My mysterious disappearance and return, our ensuing discussions…these things accelerated our relationship-building in a way that we could not have accomplished with other activities. When our newly-formed community was temporarily placed in limbo, we had a chance to consider the significance of losing it.

In one of my classes, our daily meetings have already taken on a relaxed, friendly vibe where people have shared all manner of ideas, concerns, and information. In another, the students are shyly growing into the idea – they still seem to be on the fence about whether this time together has a tangible value for them. The third group is energetic, and we are at a stage where they are figuring out how to slow down and take time to listen to one another.

So, a pretty interesting first week. Lemonade from lemons, to be sure. 🙂


First 2 Days – New Routines

We are two days into the new school year. Our building is hot and humid, but it has been a pretty good start-up. Some construction at our school prevented most teachers from getting into their classrooms until the morning of the first day of classes, which made yesterday a bit frantic, but we all survived.

This year we will be starting each period with a ‘class meeting.’ This move was inspired by some amazing educators (Sarah McLeod and Monte Syrie, among others) and I have decided to adopt this practice in order to build a positive, supportive classroom culture. The norms we have set for the class meeting are that we stand in a circle and face each other, and each person has a chance to share something. While someone is sharing, there is an expectation that others listen. Each person can share something about themselves, an idea, a story, a concern…anything that they feel they’d like the group to know. As an alternative, students can simply say ‘pass.’

As I expected, things were a little awkward yesterday and today as we explored this new routine. We had more passes than we had people sharing, which I expected, though we did have each person share their name to help us all learn them. We discussed the expectation for listening, and acknowledged that sometimes it is a challenge to actively listen to each other. We decided it was OK if your attention wandered, but agreed that it should not ‘look’ like your attention is wandering. 🙂

I’m excited to see where this routine takes us, and how it might change the vibe in the first couple of weeks of school.

Going Gradeless? Do your Homework!

I stopped putting grades on student work just one year ago. I often tell people that I ‘jumped in head first,’ but the truth is that a great deal of time and reflection happened before I was ready to to undertake this transformation. If you’re thinking about going gradeless, my best advice is to take things slowly. A thoughtful, methodical approach is likely to yield a more sustainable change. This post is an organized version of the messy process I engaged in many months ago as I prepared to give up grading in my secondary Science classroom. If you are looking to de-emphasize grades and focus on feedback and growth, I invite you to consider the importance of the following points as you prepare to ‘take the plunge.’

Figure out your ‘why’
It is important to be able to articulate – to yourself and to others – your reasons for making the choice to go gradeless. I made that choice because I felt strongly that it would help me accomplish three main goals I had for my classroom: to help students focus on feedback and improvement, to develop students’ ability to self-assess and own their learning process, and to more accurately understand student strengths and needs through standards-based assessment. Knowing my ‘why’ has helped me remain focused on my goal of removing grades, and also allows me to effectively communicate with students and parents.

Research and connect
Know the research that supports a feedback-focused classroom. Connect with other educators who have gone gradeless; social media is a great place to start, but make sure you dig deeper. Read blog posts. Read books. Engage in meaningful conversations. If you read or hear about real examples of this work in action, you will better understand the change in mindset and workflow required to make a successful transition.

Know your local assessment policy and acknowledge systemic barriers
It is extremely important to have a firm understanding of your local assessment policy so that you can identify what your legal responsibilities are. In my case, there is a provincial assessment policy as well as a local policy generated at the board (district) level that dictate the things I ‘must,’ ‘can,’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do. In my county, these policies dictate that I must provide midterm and final percentage grades for my students, but neither policy requires the use of numeric grades at any other point during the year. I am fortunate that these policies also acknowledge and emphasize the importance of timely, relevant, actionable feedback.

Speak frankly with your administrator
Even though you are anxious to get started planning, do not skip this step. You do not want to find out that your principal does not support you after the school year begins. Set up a meeting. Share your research. Outline your intentions. Emphasize the benefits for students. Don’t be afraid to address potential problems. If appropriate or necessary, discuss ways you might push the boundaries of the local policy with administrative support. I feel lucky that my principal was very supportive of my choices last year.

Re-examine your curriculum
This is where things get fun. Ideally, you would be examining the curriculum alongside your students. In the meantime (or if you’re not ready to take this step) you can take a close look at the standards/goals you are meant to cover in your class(es). Some curriculum documents help us identify ‘big ideas’ or ‘essential skills’ or ‘crosscutting concepts’ that are important to student learning in the disciplines we teach. If you can step back and look at the big picture, this can help you consider the most meaningful connections between the curriculum and your assessment practices. I find that our Science curriculum is extremely dense with content, and although the content is important it can distract from the fact that the skills are even more important. I did two things to help make it clear to my students what is being assessed:

  • the content-based learning expectations for each unit were simplified into 5 or 6 learning goals that are as open as possible, and written in student-friendly language (again, students could/should be involved in this process, and were involved in one of my courses last year)
  • overall course learning goals were identified (eg. formulating scientific questions, making logical predictions, planning experiments, analysing data)

Explicitly showing students the relationship between content and skills can help them understand that just because content changes, they can still be demonstrating growth in the skills inherent to the discipline.

Here is an example of how curriculum might be ‘distilled’ into something more manageable. This is an excerpt from a curriculum document for a Chemistry courses I teach. There are far too many expectations to track individually, but in this case I rewrote these as six goals that are clear and easy to track. (Again, think about how powerful it would be for students to read, cluster, and rewrite the curriculum in their own words!)

learning goals.png

Decide how you will track student learning
If you will not be grading student work, there needs to be a different system in place to collect evidence of learning and growth. Ideally, students will be major participants in the collection of evidence, but they are likely unaccustomed to doing so and will require a significant support from you. In my classroom, I shared the responsibility of collecting evidence of learning with my students.

  • Some student work was submitted to me for assessment and feedback. I assessed mastery of the learning goals and recorded (for my eyes only) a level in terms of achievement of those goals (1-limited demonstration, 2-approaches, 3-meets, 4-exceeds). The purpose of these ‘levels’ was to help me determine what everyone’s strengths and needs were, to monitor growth over time, and in some cases to ensure I had evidence of student progress for students who struggled to collect their own evidence. Here is a snapshot of my ‘gradebook:’


  • Other student work was not submitted to me, but rather self- or peer-assessed with some guidance. Students were encouraged to document their learning in a variety of ways; in some classes they kept a paper portfolio (that may have included things I had assessed) and annotated their progress on a tracking sheet (blog post about my first attempt with this). In other cases, students used Google Keep to collect and organize their evidence, and used this evidence to create digital portfolios (some details in this blog post).

Here are some excerpts from my students’ digital portfolios. (This is a screenshot of a slide I created to share with my colleagues in order to demonstrate students’ ability to evaluate and reflect on their learning process.) You can hear about my rather emotional first experience assessing these portfolios here.

What is most important here is that none of the ‘levels’ in my gradebook are permanent. My students have an invitation to show evidence of their improvement right up until the end of the semester. Our assessment policy dictates that our evaluations should emphasize the ‘most recent, most consistent’ evidence, which fits nicely with this approach. Since I must assign a numeric grade at midterm and at the end of a course (about every 10 weeks) I decided we should try to use the evidence to come up with a grade at the end of each learning cycle (unit). At the end of each unit, students used the evidence they have collected to determine a grade range they thought was appropriate. If the student’s suggested grade was significantly different from what I might assign based on my assessments, then we took a closer look at the evidence together. My experience is that most students assigned themselves the same grades that I would have, and those who did not (whether lower or higher) usually reconsidered their self-assigned grade after a frank discussion.

Choose tools that will help your students give and receive effective feedback
According to my provincial assessment policy, teachers are expected to provide “ongoing descriptive feedback that is clear, specific, meaningful, and timely to support improved learning and achievement.” This seems straightforward, but providing feedback to 30 (or 90, or 120) students on an ongoing basis can quickly become overwhelming. The method(s) you select for giving students feedback will depend on a variety of things including the subject matter, the age of your students, your personal preferences, and comfort with technology. Here are some tools that I have found useful this year:

  • Single point rubrics: These are simply a list of success criteria (ideally co-created with students) for a given task. The reason I like these is that they can be used by students and by teachers, and they do not ‘over-prescribe’ what is required to achieve at a certain level. Traditional rubrics left me annoyed with high achievers (“but I did all of the things in the level 4 column!”) and discouraged when some students aimed to achieve the bare minimum. A single point rubric allows whomever is assessing the work to indicate whether the criteria have been met, and also to choose 2 or 3 areas to provide specific feedback. I have included a sample rubric here.
  • Video comments: I never, ever thought I would do something like this, but while assessing student portfolios I found that this was a great way to share my feedback clearly. It didn’t take any more time than written feedback would have, and certainly goes much further in terms of ensuring that the message is received in the correct context and tone. There are several screencasting tools out there that work with Google Docs (Loom, Talk and Comment, Screencastify, etc.) and this will require at least a minimum amount of comfort with technology.  

  • Student-generated feedback: Students need lots of support to learn how to give effective feedback. One of the first steps is identifying an area of improvement in a piece of work. I recommend having students practice on low-risk tasks. One easy activity is to provide work samples from a previous year and have students practice giving feedback related to the success criteria. Allowing students to work in groups and have conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of a work sample is a very important way to support the skills they need to assess their own work. Another exercise I enjoy is to hand back a quick written assessment without giving feedback, but group students together who have similar ‘mistakes.’ I then challenge each group to figure out what common piece of feedback they would need to help them improve.

When you’re ready, communicate openly with parents and students
Students and parents are more likely to be supportive if they understand your motives. Be honest about the reasons behind what you are doing. Be honest about the fact that it is new to you. Share the research that supports the strategies you are using. Remain open to feedback from parents and students throughout the year. Understand that transitioning away from grades is something that can cause major concern. Some of my best insights came from digesting feedback from students who were feeling uncomfortable.

Share your learning with your colleagues – please!
Depending on your school environment, this could be something you right from the start of your gradeless journey. At my school, I knew that at best my actions would be called unorthodox and at worst they would be deemed foolhardy. I waited as long as I could before I started sharing about what I was doing. During the school year, I shared more openly as my confidence grew. I also had the opportunity to present to teachers from other schools on professional development days.

Giving up grades can be a bigger leap of faith for some people than for others. If you are a ‘lone wolf’ at your school, you may require more support from an online community than someone who is going gradeless as part of a team. Change, especially change that breaks with long-standing institutional tradition, requires courage and determination. Whatever your situation, know that there is a growing community of teachers who will share ideas, give advice, and even lend emotional support when it is required. I never would have come this far had others not generously shared with me, so I also want to encourage you to share your journey with others.


De-emphasizing Grades in Secondary Science: A Shift in Perspective


This essay was written for the Teacher Going Gradeless blog, and originally published there on July 14th, 2018. It explains why I decided to stop grading student work this year. Information about ‘how’ I did that can be found in some of my previous (and hopefully future) posts!

The first time I was introduced to the idea of ‘going gradeless’ I was intrigued. At that time I had been teaching for 12 years, and had recently taken a job as an instructional resource teacher at our school board. Colleagues of mine were working with a group of teachers who wanted to explore the idea of a gradeless classroom. Most of the teachers involved were elementary teachers; others were secondary teachers in the Arts. I loved hearing about what they were learning and doing. I had seen the effects of grades on my daughters’ attitudes toward school, learning, and their self-worth. It made sense to me that kids should not be labeled with numbers. With every new story that was shared, I became more interested. Despite this, I was certain of one thing: going gradeless would never work in my classroom.

I have an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and a graduate degree in Biomedical Engineering. My Science education trained me to measure, quantify, and prove. Numbers are often crucial to supporting scientific claims, and numbers are an incredibly powerful way to make sense of the universe. Even though being a scientist requires persistence, creativity, and a deep understanding of concepts it is often mathematical analyses that we rely on to convince the scientific community that our ideas are valid. When I became a Science teacher, my mentors taught me to be just as analytical in my assessment of student understanding. As a teacher, I taught mostly senior Biology and Chemistry, and had been analyzing student achievement numerically for more than 10 years. A gradeless classroom seemed like a great idea for Art or English, but certainly not Science. Making art and writing are process-based – a gradeless classroom seemed to fit the natural cycle of improvement in these disciplines. Science is about the knowing facts, analyzing information, and determining the correct answer. I didn’t see any room for iteration or second chances.elL5kti0Photo by Martin Lopez from Pexels

Luckily, I had fierce and brilliant colleagues who challenged my opinion that a gradeless classroom wasn’t for me. They pushed back at my thinking every time the topic came up. They were insistent that the subject matter was not the issue; that this was something I could do if I truly wanted. I thought, “they don’t know what it’s like to teach secondary Science. If only they knew: the extraordinary amount of content, the pressure to provide grades to nervous university applicants, the demands from parents to justify final grades with solid, computational proof.” I was certain that someone who wasn’t a Science teacher could never understand the systemic barriers I faced.

Another barrier was my certainty that I was very good at what I did, that I did an exemplary job using numbers to measure my students’ learning. I had refined my grading practice over the years. I was fair and flexible. I had calculated grades in many different ways, looking for the ‘best’ way to analyze students’ progress. I never gave zeroes, knowing how they unfairly damaged a students’ average. I had everything figured out. How could I possibly do a better job determining grades than I already was? It is only now that I realize how much my ego was getting in my way.

For two more years I worked centrally, primarily supporting a board-wide ‘STEAM’ initiative. Our team helped teachers bring more hands-on Science and Math to their classrooms. We witnessed teachers and students using robots to support numeracy and literacy. We emphasized the value of explicitly making connections between Art, Music, and Math. We helped teachers focus on global competencies to support the development of skills like collaboration, communication, and citizenship. These years had a profound effect on the way I perceived schools and learning. Working in elementary schools for the first time in my career, I was reminded of the enthusiasm for learning that exists before we extinguish natural curiosity with structures, grades, and labels deeply embedded in the educational system. Sitting alongside 10- and 11-year olds made me realize how high school culture was stifling my students’ creativity and risk-taking. Students played it safe in my class because their grades mattered more than their learning. There was no room for thinking outside the box.

r_8_0yZHPhoto from Pixabay

When the time came to return to my classroom, I had to decide how I would change my practice as a result of my recent experience. I had spent three years drinking from a firehose of ideas – the best PD anyone could ask for – and I knew I had to make careful choices about how to proceed. I knew that I wanted an increased focus on feedback to support student learning. I knew that I wanted to support the development of metacognition to empower learners in my room. I knew that I wanted to try standards-based grading, as I believed it would give me deeper insights into my students’ strengths and needs. I visualized how these things might look like in my classroom. Hours were spent digging into course standards and curating resources and strategies to support metacognition and feedback. It became clear to me during this time that my return to school was a turning point: if I didn’t make a big change now, I was at risk of sliding back into old habits. Schools are busy – life is busy – and it would not be easy to reinvent myself as a teacher without a concrete plan in place.

Craving a lasting shift in practice, I found myself reconsidering the idea of going gradeless. In the matter of two or three days it became clear to me that reducing or eliminating grades would be the best way to accomplish my goals. At the same time, it would create a safety net that would prevent me from falling back into old patterns. If I took out numeric grades, I would not be able to easily grab an old quiz or lab from the past. I would be forced to actively think about how I was communicating feedback to students. It would be necessary to rethink everything, from how students demonstrated their learning to how I assessed and tracked their progress.

My first semester back, I was assigned two sections of grade 12 University Preparation Chemistry. I was worried. Grade 12 students are not usually happy when their teachers experiment on them; their grades determine their acceptance to Canadian university programs. As a rule, these students fight for every point on every assignment. It would be an understatement to say that they did not appreciate being used as guinea pigs. I was scared, but at the same time I knew that if I could succeed with them that I could succeed with any other class. I was ready to take the leap.For many high school seniors, grades have been the primary mode of teacher-student communication. Grades are concrete. Grades don’t leave room for conversation or debate. Grades measure and rank you. Even if you don’t like the number a teacher writes on your paper, there is an authority in that number that limits your ability to question. The number is, in effect, the end of a one-sided conversation. Usually, if a student completes a unit test, it is returned to them with a grade that is written into the teacher’s gradebook with permanent ink. If someone gets 74% on that test, they have no motivation to revisit things they missed because the learning opportunity has passed. So students cram, write tests, and forget. Every few weeks repeating this cycle. Without grades as a tool for communication, I was left with feedback. Feedback is a powerful tool for learners. It answers the question ‘how can I improve?’ rather than ‘how am I doing?’ After 11 years of knowing exactly how they were ‘doing,’ a shift away from grades was bound to create anxiety in my students. I knew that feedback-focused assessment would require a significant amount of trust.

So, I spent the first few weeks building trust. I faced questions and even some tears, but I did not let them slow me down. Instead, every conversation became an opportunity to address a problem and make an improvement. Usually it was my improvement to make, as I knew little about how to provide students with a structure that would help them feel secure in a gradeless environment. This first group of students taught me a great deal. As you might imagine, my biggest critics had the most amazing suggestions for improving the structures I had put in place. Others quietly thanked me for giving them a space to learn where marks on quizzes didn’t make them feel stupid. After our four months together I took their feedback into the spring semester, making changes so that my new crop of students would feel better supported than the last.

v-YL2MH4Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

Four more months have passed now. I still have doubts – big ones, sometimes – but I feel strongly that this is a good path for me. I know my students better because of the time we spend conferencing. I have much more insight into what each of my students’ strengths and needs are. Not all of the feedback from students was positive – several students remained unconvinced at the end of the semester, stating that they would very much prefer to have grades on their work. One student accused me of treating them like ‘six year olds.’ Comments like these are hard to take, but I know they come from a place of uncertainty and anxiety. These students had learned to play the game of school, and I had changed the rules on them. They were uncomfortable in my classroom because I required them to reflect on what they knew rather than just telling them what I thought they knew. I think I can do more to support my students, and can only hope that the ones I taught this year know that I have had their best interest in mind. Luckily, not all of the semester-end feedback was negative. Some of my end-of-semester conferences lifted me up, as did some of the written feedback – keep in mind that these comments are from university-bound Biology students:

  • “Was skeptical at first, but felt prepared by the end. Overall, I feel prepared for what university will be like, and I think more academic level teachers should develop a teaching technique more geared towards getting kids ready for university and just having to know the material without always having marks.”
  • “It really motivated me to actually learn and understand what i was doing instead of just memorizing.”
  • “I was a little anxious about it at first, but that was because I haven’t had that happen to me before. Overall, I’ve come to really like it, not having grades on pieces of work. It’s nice to have my understanding be what my mark is based off of, not a calculated average.”

The reality of my position is that I have to report percentage marks twice each semester. In my classes, I have decided to meet with students and discuss mark ‘ranges’ at the end of each major learning cycle – about once each month. Grades are still a part of my teaching reality. Despite that, I cannot imagine ever putting a numeric grade on an individual piece of student work again. Assessment has taken on a much more human quality that has become rather addicting.

Four years ago, the idea of giving up grades seemed ridiculous to me. I am grateful to those who pushed my thinking at that time. Without those professional conversations, I would never have considered shifting my practice. What began as an experiment in September transformed my teaching for good. Assessment has morphed from a purely analytical task into something personalized and meaningful. This change continues to demand an incredible amount of hard work and reflection on my part, but when I am assessing portfolios and conferencing with students I can see the enormous benefits in terms of their growth as self-directed learners.b5NlMYEBPhoto by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash

Fear and Elation…it must be June!

A couple of weeks ago Joy Kirr wrote this blog post which, admittedly, will help me keep this one short as I had been reflecting on many similar questions and frustrations. The frustration is a huge motivator for think about what I might change or not for next year. Like Joy, I even entertained the idea of going back to grades in some shape or form. (Horrifying, I know.) Some of my similar struggles…

  • students making work for my class their last priority because they know I am flexible; this is OK sometimes but ended up putting some of them in difficult positions as they ran out of time to complete some assignments
  • students are not all looking at (and using) the feedback I give them, and I don’t know if it is because they don’t feel they have time or because they are content with a mediocre result
  • distilling things down to a single percentage grade at the end of the semester doesn’t feel good, and in some cases I think students feel it is just the same result they would have had with grades all along

A few days after Joy’s post, I started formally collecting some feedback from my students about the courses that are currently finishing up. I was out of town that weekend – without internet – and when we got back to town Sunday night I skimmed some of the Google Form responses. Bad idea, really…not a very healthy Sunday night activity. First, there was this question (25 students of my 65 Biology students responded):

blog june 2018

I know it’s not really that bad – the ‘liked it’ category was a healthy size – but I hated to think that anyone would consider this to be the ‘worst thing ever!’ Anyway, not a big deal because it’s the details that count, right? This was the next question: “Share your thoughts on the fact that you didn’t receive grades on individual pieces of work. Pros and cons both appreciated!” There was some good reflection here, but clearly there were a couple of students who absolutely detested what I had done. There were what I would call neutral responses, like this one:

  • The aspect of not having a number attached to everybody test or assignments did help me relax and reduce my stress throughout the semester. However, at times I also did wonder what was the point of learning and doing the work if I wasn’t getting a grade (obviously not the best mindset for classes as learning new things is also important). Overall, I feel like there is a middle ground needed between absolutely no marks to marking everything. The check-ins we had helped balance it but I wouldn’t honestly prefer to have them even mom a bi-weekly or monthly basis if possible.

Then there were some positive ones:

  • Was skeptical at first, but felt prepared by the end. Overall, I feel prepared for what university will be like, and I think more academic level teachers should develop a teaching technique more geared towards getting kids ready for university and just having to know the material without always having marks.

But, for reasons you might understand, this was the one that haunted me for the next 36 hours:

  • Not marking tests or assignments and not giving students the perpetual updates of their marks causes more stress than it would if you actually gave marks. Giving mark updates after every unit is not enough. Giving marks on tests helps us stay motivated and powered to complete and understand their work. Giving marks is also a reality to university level students, that are striving for UNIVERSITY. We are not six year olds. We do not need colours or levels to understand or prove our progress, I would sooner see marks that state my mistakes rather than having a comment or level that is in a ballpark range of my ability (ballpark range does not help me learn). Also, all year I have felt a sense of disorganization, with myself and the overall style of your marking.

Yikes. I think what upset me most about this comment was the fact that this student – whose identity I do not know – did not feel that they could share these thoughts in person. Clearly they were unhappy. Clearly I could have done more to help them understand the process. Or, maybe not. Maybe this is just a case where this wasn’t a good fit.

There was also a bit of a theme in regards to the lack of grades hurting students’ motivation:

  • consistent receiving grades would have pushed me to do better
  • I thought that I had less stress surrounding grades, and when I got tests back I was less worried about my mark, but I also think that being less stressed made me less motivated. I think without a LITTLE bit of anxiety/fear one’s conviction sort of dwindles.

Interesting. In my end of semester conference I asked a handful of students whether they thought my comparatively relaxed approach caused them to do/study/work/think less about my class. A few agreed that this was probably true. I don’t have a huge problem with this; some students worked their butts off and learned a ton even though I was not waving around a battle axe.

One last AMAZING thing I need to mention is that two days after I first read some of the feedback I was finishing up student conferences. One of my last conferences was with the student whose parents had challenged me at interview time back in March. This student had been very uncomfortable with my classroom assessment choices at the start of the term, but had a truly amazing semester. At our final conference, we had a long, frank discussion about her feelings and she told me how much she loved the way the assessment was done and that…wait for it!…her PARENTS were the ones that convinced her that what I was doing was probably a really good idea to help prepare kids for the future. My jaw dropped. I had no idea that those parents had gone home from that interview as my allies! After a couple of days of wallowing in the negative nature of some of the other comments, this conference breathed life back into my resolve to keep doing what I was doing.

I have had doubts about the path I am walking, but I know it is a good path. I know I need to get better for it to make sense to more of my students. In the fall I will return to my classroom refreshed and ready to be better at building relationships, scaffolding self-assessment and peer feedback, and making my classroom a place where students feel challenged, valued, and motivated to do their best work even if there are not numbers attached.

We have a few days left of school. I’m writing reports and doing a little bit of work to get ready for next year. For all of you who have already begun your summer vacation, I hope you are unwinding without too much trouble. For those who are not finished yet, I’ll be thinking of you Friday afternoon as I hand in my keys, head home, and get ready for a fabulous Canada Day weekend!

After this post was written, I read this feedback from a student (it was written on their exam). It helped confirm that I am on a good path. Clearly I have given this student something they were looking for. I’m wondering, based on this student’s words, would you make any assumptions about their achievement in this class?

G - blog June 27


Reinventing My Classroom (and Keeping Myself Honest)

I’m dying to share some things today. I don’t have long so excuse the unpolished-as-usual state of things.

In the last few months as I explore a feedback-focused classroom I have sometimes ‘slipped’ back into old habits. I’m not saying this is a terrible thing, but I have noticed it and have found it frustrating that I haven’t been able run my classes exactly the way I dream of running them.

Today a lovely tweet (thread) by @SusanCampo caught my eye; I was at the dentist waiting for my daughter to get her chipped tooth fixed (hooray for Science!) and saw this:

The podcast she is referencing is wonderful – I had a chance to listen today only because of the chipped tooth! @MonteSyrie has wonderful things to say about the power of relationships, the importance of creating a space where kids feel valued and empowered, and the joys of challenging the status quo. He is worth a follow on Twitter – his tweets often lift my spirits and I wish I could spend time in his classroom to feel what his students must feel. In a later tweet, Susan had this to say:

“I strive to have authentic relationships with students but often slip back into transaction/power/control mode, especially as the days wear on me. It’s easy to build relationship when students are happy and doing well, but when you hit opposition or struggle, it’s so much harder.”

These words resonated with me because they described exactly how I have felt SO many times this year. After having taught a course many times, it is easy (and convenient!) to put your hands on an old lesson or activity when there just isn’t time to reinvent something else new. These slips are OK – we are humans, and need to take care of ourselves – but while listening to the podcast I was thinking about how a greater shift in the way of doing things might help me stay on track…and I was thinking that I am getting there, bit by bit.

In one of my classes (Biology) I have been continually frustrated by the moments that seem so traditional, but somehow necessary, since I haven’t figured out how to shake them off. So, for the unit we started today (Evolution), I have been working on a completely new way of thinking about things. I was motivated by the following (among other things):

  • Too much documentation work required of me, not enough done/owned by the students (leading to me ‘slipping back’ into old habits)
  • Despite my best efforts, I was not really offering enough in the way of student choice
  • My students are getting better at having meaningful conversations, and I want to keep that going

So, for the Evolution Unit, I started to develop a sort of ‘activity menu’ that students could select from. The activities are categorized by learning goal (I have 6 overall learning goals for that unit) and each tells the student how much time the activity will likely take and whether it is suited to independent or group work. The activities each have a ’tile’ that looks like this:

Humans love to categorize things, and in my desire to organize things in a thoughtful way, I had two criteria in mind:

  • how creative the activity requires the student to be
  • what depth of thinking is required by the student

With this in mind, I have put the activities on a grid that looks like this:

So, from left to right we move from less creative to more creative endeavours. From top to bottom, we go from knowledge-based activities (important to build understanding) down to in-depth research, discussion, and analysis that will challenge my students and offer them a rich way to engage with the material.

The scale on the left hand side is based on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) (here’s a reference I grabbed quickly…just Google it to find out more). I liked the simple language and could easily categorize the tasks this way. The categories at the top simple describe the type of task: read/watch/write, interact, or create.

Knowing that a balance of all of these types of activities is important, I am currently determining what the requirements will be for choosing from the grid

  • certainly I’d like to see students to at least one activity from each row (surface understanding to deeper understanding)
  • students need evidence for each of the learning goals
  • considering whether to require activities from 2/3 or all three columns; thoughts?
For documentation, students will be using Google Keep. Thanks to @sashwoodedu for the suggestion and to @MsJenLachapelle and @MsMdance for an amazing conversation about where we can take assessment. Connecting with people is how great ideas are born!
OK, so after documenting in Google Keep, my idea was for students to create a portfolio of their understanding in Evolution. I was a bit stuck on this…couldn’t really see how to organize it…and then saw this:
Many thanks to @MrSurti for sharing this at just the right moment! I can’t wait to learn more from @robintg. 🙂

So, my students and I co-created some success criteria for what ‘quality work’ looks like (needed something more generic since they will all be curating different types of activities). The current iteration of the Evolution Portfolio looks like this:

On the first page, students identify which artifacts are evidence of their learning (of Evolution learning goals and also some overall course learning goals).

The second page gives them some guidelines re: self-evaluation. I want them to consider how much they know, but also the quality of the evidence they are sharing.

Starting on the third page, students will select and share their evidence from Google Keep. I included an image from @robintg (shared by @MrSurti), and tomorrow in class we will model how to select and add evidence to the portfolio. 

Whew! That was longer than I thought.

Thank you SO MUCH to all of the amazing educators that helped this idea come to life. I look forward to letting you all know how it goes! 🙂

Trials and Tribulations of Gradeless Biology

Today is April 16th and I woke up to a world coated in ice. I knew at 6AM that school buses were cancelled for the day, and was frankly delighted to have a student-free day to catch up on my marking and other loose ends after a very busy month.

This tweet is what reminded me to put blogging on my to-do list; thanks Matthew and Pete for the little push!
So, what to write about? I have so many things I’d like to share; sometimes this causes me to write very LONG posts that touch on lots of different things. Today, inspired by the post/thread above, I’ve decided to focus on just one thing. That way, I’ll have to blog more often to get the rest of my ideas out, right? We’ll see. It’s still a long post. 🙂 

Grade-less in Biology

This semester I am teaching grade 11 Biology for the first time in quite a few years. It’s a nice change of pace from Chemistry, and gives me a different look at what a feedback-focused classroom in secondary science looks like.

Initially, my students seemed receptive to the idea of our class being ‘gradeless.’ Interesting, since their responses to a survey the first week indicated that they were grade-focused:

Survey results of 67 students. Half said they are most focused on getting a good grade. Another 40% are focused on learning and on getting a good grade.
It’s not surprising that they are grade-focused. Many of these students have their hearts set on careers in healthcare; my classroom is full of future doctors, veterinarians, dentists, and surgeons. 
As a result I was not surprised when students were aghast when I returned their first traditional assessments without numbers on them. There was a chorus of ‘how will I know how I did?’ They were not accustomed to getting feedback without grades. They were accustomed to getting good grades. They were craving the number that would tell them they were good enough.
Many of these students expect senior science courses to be difficult and somewhat unpleasant; they associate rigour with suffering, and many can barely process my repeated invitations to enjoy what they are learning.
One student, a serial high-achiever, was having hard week just before March break. She declared in frustration that she did not have time to learn the parts of the heart before our quiz that Thursday. 
“OK,” I said, “then don’t.”
This stopped her in her tracks. She could not comprehend my answer. She expected me to tell her to suck it up. And, when she didn’t learn the parts of the heart, I knew how hard it had been for her to let go of this because I used to be just like her.
List of heart parts on quiz. Mostly incorrect. Teacher has written 'spectacular job letting go of this! So proud of you!'
I am acutely aware that I am creating discomfort in my classroom. I invite students to share their discomfort and concerns with me; some do, some don’t.
Before our interim reports were handed out – just after March Break – I sat down with each student to look at their progress and discuss a grade ‘range’ that was reasonable based on what they had shown me so far. These conversations went well; many students are on track to reach the goals they have set; others have the chance to identify areas they need to work on to get there. These conferences are what helps me continue moving forward; I know my students better than I have in the past and I am enjoying the new nature of my relationship with them – less an evaluator and more a mentor.
I have often said that I could not have made a change like this 5 years ago. Doing something drastically different is not for the faint-hearted. Taking a leap requires a significant amount of confidence that can only come with experience (and age?) as well as strong support from supervisors and colleagues. This semester my confidence in what I’m doing was finally put to the test.
My schedule on parent-teacher(-student) conference night was quite full. I was full of nervous excitement, wondering about what questions I might get from parents about assessment practices in my class. I had been met with some curiosity first semester but was not questioned or challenged in any real way. This semester, I had communicated much more clearly with parents about the grade-less approach, but had yet to face any questions. The nature of grade 11 Biology had me thinking that I might have more questions at interview time, and I was right.
That evening I answered lots of questions about the grade-less nature of our classroom from parents; some of them eyed me skeptically but, I believe, could see that my intentions were good and that this ‘experiment’ wasn’t doing their children any harm. Finally, I knew I had found the challenge I was anticipating when a serious-looking couple entered the room. One of them held a sheaf of paper which I recognized as all of the written assessments that had been returned to their child with feedback so far this semester. I smiled and invited them to sit down, my heart fluttering with anticipation. This would be my greatest challenge yet.
Parents know their kids really well. These parents – like all parents – had concerns that were really more about their child’s wellbeing than anything. Their child was a high achiever and was having trouble understanding how they were ‘doing’ in Biology. The student was uncomfortable not seeing grades on their work. And, finally, with a certain amount of restrained anger – certainly detectable displeasure – one of them asked the ‘big’ question:
“Can you explain this…’technique’…you’re using?”
I took a deep breath and gave the best 3-minute explanation I could, citing the improved focus on learning that I was seeing in my classes. I shared my desire to have my students learn to look for personal areas of improvement rather than being satisfied with a mark I had assigned. I spoke about students’ reluctance to take risks and share creative ideas when they were concerned about grades.
Not much reaction.
Next came something else I had anticipated – the parents shared that they both had post-secondary degrees in Science – they ‘knew’ what it was like after high school and had serious doubts about the suitability of a grade-free class to prepare their child for that future. 
Our conversation got more personal after that. I shared that I had always done well at school. That I, like them, had a post-secondary Science degree. I spoke about how few of my teachers took time to make Science come alive for me, and about how I learned to game the system early on. I reminded them that feedback is rare in large first-year courses at university, and about how much we all had to rely on self-assessment to really know if we were prepared for midterms and finals. 
In the end, met with some reluctant acceptance of my ‘methods,’ I shook hands with them. I acknowledged that I had caused discomfort for their child (and for them) and encouraged them – in particular, their child – to be more honest about this discomfort in the future. Before that evening, their child had never expressed any negative feelings towards what we were doing, and I promised to do my best to ensure we maintained an honest line of communication going forward. Right up to the end, there were no smiles from them, but I’ve learned to accept that sometimes it’s OK to be the only one smiling.
It felt good to be challenged and defend my position. It didn’t feel good to be reminded that students don’t always share what they are thinking. I ended the night with a good feeling, overall, and feel that this challenging conversation was an important part of my growth as a professional.
Keep doing the good work, everyone! More soon.

New Year (Semester End!) Musings

The November/December high-speed train has made its yearly visit, and though I am certainly still exceedingly busy I’ve got some thoughts swirling around that I’d like to share.

With only about 10 days left with my students I am firmly entrenched in a familiar January struggle that has me torn between doing what I need to do (some marking, end of semester conferences, prep for exams) and what I want to do (drop everything and work on plans for next semester). Spending a few minutes blogging seems like a great way to avoid making a decision about the other things. 🙂

Shortly before the Christmas break, my pre-holiday frenzy was interrupted by this blog post by Susan Campo. She wonders about the meaning of a 30% final evaluation in a gradeless classroom and reading her post put me into a strange head space. Having jumped back into the classroom this year trying lots of new things I hadn’t posed this question myself…and it really threw me for a loop.

My path this year has led me to think about my students’ learning in more of a mastery sense than I have before. I have been coaching my students as they work towards a good understanding of all of the overall learning goals. Thinking about the meaning of the 30% culminating task in the context of my current assessment practice led to many questions, most without clear answers. I’m going to use a hypothetical classroom with 10 learning goals to share some of my thinking with you. Bear with me.

A student has consistently demonstrated a good understanding of 9 out of 10 of the course learning goals. (For the sake of this example let’s say that their ‘mark’ in the course is 76%.) The remaining learning goal (#10) has been a significant challenge for this student, but they are committed to figuring it out, putting in lots of extra time and effort before the end of the semester.
On the 30% culminating task, this student finally nails learning goal #10, but for some reason they make mistakes on a couple of other tasks that they had previously demonstrated confidently and consistently. (For argument’s sake, let’s say that the ‘mark’ on the final evaluation is 70%.)
From a mastery point of view, this student has actually improved their overall standing by finally achieving that last learning goal. If we look at the final evaluation in isolation, the ‘grade’ they achieved might actually hurt their overall standing in the course.

  • In this case, what is the value of the 30% final evaluation for the student?
  • Why place an arbitrary numeric value on this end of semester task when it does not help capture the complete picture of their work in the course?
  • Should the exam not be another opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning of course material?
  • Does this performance really have to be ‘separate’ from their term work?

There are lots of other similar scenarios I have thought about, and I don’t have time to write about all of them, but the essence of my thinking is that I am feeling constrained by the final evaluation policy.

I don’t have any solutions. The good news is that my students and I, in our discussions about the 12U Chemistry exam, have landed on a plan; it doesn’t address all of my concerns but may bring a nice flavour of reflection to the exam preparation process.

I’m going to set an exam with ~ 15 questions, of which my students will be required to complete 10. A couple of weeks before the exam, students will be given the list of topics corresponding to the 15 questions. With the help of their self-assessments and my assessment data, we will identify the exam topics that represent their most important outstanding ‘growth areas’ (those they did not consistently demonstrate during the term). That is, students will decide ahead of time what questions they will prepare for but MUST choose some questions identified as being in their ‘growth areas.’

So, then, how to assess? Doesn’t it make sense to look for areas of growth? How do I differentiate the assessment so that I recognize huge gains (student who moves from level 1 to level 3 on a certain learning goal vs. someone maintaining a level 4)? I’ve got some ideas. 🙂 I also promise to write about them when I make a decision about what the assessment part ‘looks like.’

I’ve also been doing some fun planning for sem 2…but no time to share tonight. 🙂

– – –

So, today (day after the post above) our school buses were cancelled and I had an unexpected chance to work on exam prep for my 12U chem course. I created a template planning document, then merged it with some of the data in my assessment spreadsheet. 

Each student now has a custom page to help them prepare for their exam. There is a list of question types, sample problem references, and the student’s current ‘level’ for each of the skills (I removed the name from the image here). Data isn’t available for the last unit yet, so we will add this as we go. I have left myself a column to record their achievement on the final evaluation. Yup…thinking ahead.