Midterm Reflections: #BIT17, PD Day, Midterms, Student Feedback, and Tracking Observations


I’ve got an hour to spare and need to get caught up on this blog (not a little bit, a ‘lotta’ bit, as my daughter would say)…it is hard to express how busy October and November have been, personally and professionally, but I am determined to remain committed to writing about (and reflecting on) my teaching and learning this year. (In other words, WAY too early in the year to fall off the blogging bandwagon!)

This post contains:
#BIT17, PD Day, Midterms, Student Feedback, and Tracking Observations/Conversations
Scroll down to the part you want to read…it’s a very long post! 🙂

November 9-10 at #BIT17 Conference

It was wonderful to return to BIT this year, but so different than the last three years because I was leaving my classroom. Preparing for the conference while planning for my absence had my mind spinning a bit. I was presenting on work that I had done in the last two years as STEAM coordinator on the Program and Innovation team. This work was very dear to me, yet it now seems so far removed from my current role that it was difficult to get into the right headspace. 

For me, there were two major highlights from the conference. The first was getting to carpool with three fabulous teachers from my school, @Misener75, Joe Bilton, and Kirsten Bach. The chance to spend some meaningful time with people on my staff outside of a PD day was wonderful. The drive to and from the conference was filled with as much rich conversation as our time at the conference, and we have committed to working together to continue to improve our assessment practices this year. We were also joined by @sashwoodedu, SCDSB’s new Technology Enabled Learning and Teaching contact, and she will play a role in our collaboration this year.

The second highlight from the conference was the opportunity to meet some feedback-focused allies from PDSB, @SusanCampo, @MsHLye, and @ChrisHillinPeel. Our conversation was a flurry of reflection and idea sharing. I’m thinking it would be great if there was a conference that we could attend that just involved making ‘thought dates’ with people we’d like to connect with. I learned much more from this hallway conversation than I did from any of the sessions. The sessions were great – just not focused directly on what my personal learning needs were. This is the wonderful power of social media – we had already connected via Twitter and our blogs, and the face-to-face conversation allowed us to quickly dig deep and ask each other some important questions.

PD Day Nov 17

On November 17th secondary SCDSB teachers had a PD day co-organized by the school board and OSSTF. All secondary teachers in our school board spent the day at two locations (divided based on subject area). For half of the day, teachers were able to choose from a menu of sessions presented by classroom teachers and central staff on a number of topics related to assessment. I was invited by @ssimpsonEDU to present a session about my feedback-focused classroom and jumped at the chance. With BIT the previous week and midterms due on Nov 14th, this made for a very busy week. I knew what I wanted to share, had only 45 minutes to work with groups of teachers, and wanted to make things as meaningful as possible. I shared most of what I have blogged about in the last couple of months in these posts: 1,2,3,4.

I underestimated how vulnerable I would feel speaking in front of so many long-time colleagues; in my central role I worked with teachers all the time, but seldom was I leading a session that included my close colleagues. In the morning I presented to two groups of teachers at one school, and in the afternoon I did the same thing at a different location. The afternoon location included all of the current Math and Science teachers. These are my people! They are my closest allies and harshest critics. They know the courses I’m teaching and how unusual my current assessment approach is in these disciplines. Some of them share my workspace and my students with me. I was certainly the most nervous I’ve been in a long time. Forty-five minutes with 30 people is not the way I would choose to share about assessment, but I am happy I took the opportunity!

Slides from my presentation are here: bit.ly/Nov17SZ

Midterm Reports

The Monday after the BIT conference I had a marathon of 1-on-1 conferences with students about their midterm marks for 12U Chemistry. The first two units of study were included in the grade, along with parts of the third unit. I had already met with students regarding their grade ranges for the first two units, so there were few surprises here, and a longer conference was not needed.

The biggest challenge was looking at the ranges we determined were appropriate and translating them into a single integer. For example, if a student’s grade range for unit 1 is 80-85 and for unit 2 it is 85-90, does a grade of 85 make sense? How much of that difference is a result of the students’ growth and how much has to do with their mastery of the topics in those units? Even more difficult for me were students who had the same range for both units…if they’re in the 85-90 range for both, what do I do then?? Some decisions were more difficult than others, and students’ current work (from the third unit) was used to help inform the number we put on their reports.

Nearly every student was content at the end of our little meeting on that Monday. There were a couple of students who were not as happy as I had hoped, and I wondered why. The process had been very transparent, and almost all of the students were working within the ‘happy range’ they shared with me in September. It turns out that at least one of the students who was unhappy was also unhappy with the goal they had set for themselves in September. The student had determined that a range of 85-95 would be acceptable to them, but it turns out 90+ was more what they had in mind. This outlines for me the importance of revisiting student goals. Had we revisited that goal together at the end of each unit, I’m certain this student would have revised their goal, and I would have worked harder with them to help them meet that goal before midterm.

My mini-conferences worked for me with the once-per-unit mark-giving that I am doing. If you would like to read more about student conferencing, I’d love to direct you to check out these blog posts by Susan Campo (When giving feedback, relationships matter, but so does what you say and how you say it) and Heather Lye (Reflections on Midterm Conferences in “Gradeless” 9-10 Math) about their midterm experiences this semester. If anyone knows any more, let me know and I’ll add them here. I love their honest look at the challenges involved with this process – it is SO hard. I’d like to move towards more meaningful conferencing, but don’t know how to make time for it…YET. I applaud you ladies for having the courage to do this the way you intended from the start – I know it hasn’t been easy!

More Student Feedback

At the PD session, I shared some of my students’ suggestions for better supporting them in our low-grades classroom. I was a bit intrigued by their suggestion to assign smaller ranges for unit marks. If the ranges were smaller they would be more equivalent to levels (2, 2+, 3-, etc.) and I am open to that idea.

Another suggestion that I can’t believe I didn’t think of myself (or, admittedly, foresee as being required!) was to give more guidance on assessments (tests, quizzes, etc.) about ‘how much’ to write. Rather embarrassingly, I had not considered how heavily students rely on the ‘out of’ value for a question to determine how much to write. I don’t know why I missed this, and it is an easy thing to fix.

A third suggestion was to help support students more with self-assessments. So, for the 4th unit I have numbered our learning goals and I will use that numbering to help students identify tasks that are relevant to each of those goals. In the past, some students had difficulty ‘choosing’ or locating a learning goal that fit best with a particular question. This tells me two things – first, that they are still very much ‘my’ learning goals and NOT theirs. Second, that I could do a better job with ensuring that the language is clear and specific. I’m looking forward to how this will work out during the next unit.

The last suggestion? More frequent mark updates. Um…no. The frequency of mark updates is the same as it has always been for me. I never updated marks until after a major learning cycle was complete, and I see no reason to change things now.

Observations and Conversations

So, I finally took the plunge and tried a new way of recording observations and conversations. My 12U students were working on designing and carrying out an experiment for the entire week last week. I knew it would be a good chance to test out a new tracking method; in the past that week-long activity has provided much opportunity for rich conversation as students stumble through their first truly significant lab design experience.

After many months of sharing different strategies for tracking observation and conversation, I decided to try out docAppender with Google Forms. The form I created was simple. First, a list of student names (both classes in the same list to streamline my life), and then the following options:

  • Safe (for observing safe lab procedures)
  • Selects (for selecting appropriate materials and/or conducting experiments accurately)
  • Adapts (for the ability of students to modify their procedures as necessary)
  • Talks (for any conversations about theory, interpretation of results, etc. that I want to record)
For each of the above options, I can select ‘Yes,’ ‘With support,’ or ‘Not yet.’ The next question is for my specific comments and I added a question for file upload of evidence.


So, one of the reasons I was a little reluctant to use docAppender/Forms at first was that I had had feedback from other teachers that they couldn’t easily see who they hadn’t observed. On the computer end, there is a solution for this…the survey result view gives a lovely summary of the number of comments for each student:

This is all I need to check and see who I have not observed yet. My goal was to intentionally observe each student at least once – I almost made it! The form results look like this – can be filtered in an way I like and will help me assess student work in a more well-rounded way than I had previously. I found having my phone out a little awkward at times (not usual during labs) but as the week went on it felt better and better. I am committed to continuing to use this tracking tool until the end of the semester, then I will re-evaluate.

Did you read to the end? Congrats. I could have saved these topics and posted on different days, but I think it might never have happened. This way, it’s all out there. 🙂

#TTOG: An Important Conversation

One of my greatest guilty (?) pleasures these days is searching #TTOG on Twitter and reading some of the rich discussion happening among educators. The beauty of TTOG – Teachers Throwing (or Taking) Out Grades – is that it cannot be discussed without exposing raw emotions and opinions about the very nature of education.
As a secondary teacher I have often expressed regret that I have to report a percentage at the end of each semester. It is clear to me that students’ focus on grades distracts them from their job as learners. It is particularly difficult to address student concerns as they apply to post-secondary programs and implore me to raise their grades by one or two percentage points to increase their chance of acceptance. I resent having to have these discussions with students because I am there to teach them Chemistry, not to ensure their admission to university. I often wish that students could simply trust me to prepare them well and that the universities would use alternate criteria (entrance exams? portfolios?) rather than ask me to be the judge of a student’s suitability for a program or scholarship.
For me, the best part of TTOG is that teachers are talking about creating a culture of learning that focuses on meaningful teacher-student relationships. Growing Success says that “the primary purpose of assessment is to improve student learning.” How often have we heard that phrase? How much does a grade distract from this ‘primary purpose?’
Sports analogies help underline the absurdity of some of our common classroom practices. If coaches handed their athletes grades at the end of a practice, how helpful would that be? What would ‘7/10’ mean to someone who had just completed volleyball practice? If the grade is also accompanied by feedback, then what purpose does the grade serve? Why assign a grade at all?

This conversation is important, and we are having it at the right time. Check out #TTOG (or #scdsbTTOG) on Twitter to follow the conversation yourself. You can also read what our stakeholders are sharing at the #scdsbTTOG blog: http://scdsbttog.blogspot.ca/