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. 🙂

Braiding Sweetgrass and Bridging Cultures

This summer, as is usually the case, the list of books I had planned to read was too long to be practical. Two education-related books took priority for me this year, both recommended to me by Science educators I have had the privilege to work with these last three years. Both books examine the relationship between Science (the Science I learned and have taught in school) and Indigenous knowledge about nature. The books complimented one another really well, and I wanted to share my reflections.

First, I would like to acknowledge that I am at the start of a quest to better understand my role in the reconciliation process between Indigenous people and settlers in Canada. I have to thank the authors of these books for the role they played in helping me better understand who I am. Understanding the Eurocentric nature of ‘my’ Science and Science education is, for me, an important first step in knowing where I fit in the reconciliation story. I find myself wondering if there are others in the same position I am, struggling to find out where they fit in this complex process.

The first book I read this summer was Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdon, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Dr. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist by training. Her book, carefully-selected stories from her life and from Indigenous oral tradition, is full of hope and wonder. She writes about the importance of creating positive experiences with nature for students of all ages, emphasizing that a strong relationship with nature promotes respectful practices such as the ‘Honourable Harvest,’ which she summarizes with these words:

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you (plants), so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have take.
Give thanks for what you have been give.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

Dr. Kimmerer distinguishes between Eurocentric Science (‘What is it? How does it work?’) and Indigenous ways of knowing nature (‘Who are you? What can you tell us?’). I was particularly intrigued by the inherent differences in western and Indigenous language; I grew up with (and teach) a Science that is full of impersonal nouns. The author recounts her journey in learning to speak her ancestral tongue, and her initial frustration upon realizing that there were far fewer nouns and far more verbs. She uses the example ‘wiikwegamaa,’ which translates as ‘to be a bay.’ Rather than relegate a bay to being a noun, the Ojibwe language imbues a bay with life:

” …the verb wiikwegamaa – to be a bay – releases the water from bondage
and lets it live. ‘To be a bay’ holds the wonder that, for this moment, the
living water was decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing
with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers.”

As I was reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I yearned to be among Dr. Kimmerer’s students, covered in soil, carefully harvesting watap (roots of white spruce) to help them build a shelter in the forest. I found myself recalling professors of mine who made biology come alive for me, using imagery, humour, and storytelling to capture our intellectual and emotional interest. The picture Kimmerer paints of Nanabozho and Linnaeus going for a walk in the woods and discussing the names and relationships of plants and animals will stay with me always. The book ends with a message of hope that our earthly relationships (human-human, human-nature) can be restored to a healthier state with thoughtful, intentional action and cooperation.

A great interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer, ‘Two Ways of Knowing,’ can be read here. She also has several lectures available to view online, including ‘Reclaiming the Honourable Harvest‘ and ‘The Teachings of Grass.’

The second book I read this summer was Bridging Cultures: Indigenous and Scientific Ways of Knowing Nature by Glen Aikenhead and Herman Michell. It was the perfect contrast to Braiding Sweetgrass. Much more technical than poetic, this book provided a detailed analysis of Eurocentric Sciences and Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature, taking great care to define the origins and qualities of each. The authors resist setting up a dichotomy, insisting that these two world views are complimentary to one another and share many fundamental qualities.

Bridging Cultures laid out explicitly what Braiding Sweetgrass taught me through stories and analogies. Eurocentric Science and Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature are both rational, logical, systematic, communal, and dynamic. The differences between these two ways of knowing are relevant to how we interact with Indigenous and Neo-Indigenous students in our classrooms. As teachers, we need to understand that some aspects of Science may be difficult for these students because of some inherent differences in world view, which may include the following:

  • nature has an inherent spirituality
  • humans are not superior to other living things
  • learning about nature involves thinking, but also reflecting, living and being
  • relationships among living things create mutual responsibility
  • knowing nature cannot be separated from sustainability, generosity, wisdom, and collaboration
Aikenhead and Michell provide something that teachers are often looking for: advice on how to bring Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature into our classrooms to better support our Indigenous students. They recommend that teachers learn about the local community and, when possible, involve local elders in a respectful way when looking for ways of incorporating Indigenous knowledge in their teaching. General recommendations for supporting Indigenous students include many things that teachers recognize as good practice, including: a holistic approach, visual aides, oral communication, practical experience, time for reflection, and rich storytelling.
To read more about learning models for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities, you can look at the ‘Holistic Lifelong Learning Models‘ created by the Canadian Council on Learning.
The things I learned while reading these two books stayed with me all summer as I spent time in nature alone and with my family. I noticed more sounds, smells, and plants when hiking in the woods. I considered the effects of a gravel road on an ecosystem during long runs on that road. I appreciated how much my senses and my understanding of angles helped me interpret the wind as I learned to sail. I listened for the differences in the sounds of the wind and rain interacting with different species of trees. I thanked – really thanked – trees for oxygen, plants and animals for food, trees for shade, and the sun for warmth. I shared every possible delight with my kids: the discovery of a luna moth caterpillar, the magical movements of a hummingbird, the glory of a starry night sky, the reflection of sunlight shimmering on the trees, the tiny perfection of an orange mushroom on a trail.
These books changed the way I think about myself as a Science teacher, and has helped me start a journey towards a wider world view. Many thanks to the authors, and to the teachers who recommended these books to me.

I can’t believe it has been over a year since I blogged. I didn’t know it had been that long – it’s funny how time flies. I’m hoping to visit this space more often as a place to share my journey and reflect on my teaching practice as I return to the classroom tomorrow. Tomorrow! Wow.

Best wishes to everyone starting school tomorrow!

AEIC 2015 – We Love Learning!


Yesterday I had the pleasure of helping host an Arts, Equity, and Innovation Conference for teachers. This was the third Saturday of ‘free PD’ that has been organized and hosted by members of my team during this school year. (You can read my posts about EdCamp and the PUSH Conference from earlier in the year.) These events are playing a key role in transforming mindsets about professional development and innovation in education. They have certainly opened my eyes to the importance of providing venues for teachers to learn and share, an area I have identified as important as we try to find ways to #makeschooldifferent.

Yesterday’s conference had a special vibe that is only felt in the presence of artists. Attendees learned about drumming, silk screening, printmaking, strumming, dancing, and drama. Sessions focused on things like assessment, student voice, equity, and social justice. A variety of vendors and guests energized our innovation space with gorgeous examples of art making and some fabulous teaching (and crafting!) resources.

Attendance at the conference was excellent considering the conditions: yesterday was a beautiful, sunny Saturday, it is Mother’s Day weekend, and our elementary teachers are about to begin a work-to-rule campaign as part of their ongoing efforts to negotiate a new contract. Much like with EdCamp (which also happened on a sunny Saturday) our teachers did not disappoint. They had not paid for the event, and there was no consequence for not attending, but they came just the same.
The rewards for attending?
  • connecting with friends and colleagues from across the school board
  • learning how Art can help us connect with some of our least engaged students (because even boys love yarn-bombing)
  • listening to student presenters share their views on ways to improve their learning by giving them more control and focusing on providing meaningful feedback
  • communicating the importance of Art to our overall well-being
  • learning how deeply we can integrate Art into math and other parts of our curriculum
  • sharing ways to use Art to help make our world more equitable and just
  • teaching ideas for creating Art using tools and techniques that are appropriate to our school budgets
  • coming together to create beautiful things with the help of expert makers

      Have you held this type of PD event in your school board or district? You should seriously consider it…check out the #aeic2015 tweets from yesterday to see the impact it had on some of our teachers:



Ideas and Action (after the Anger)

I have been reflecting about the power I have to drive positive change in my school board – the ‘action’ part of the #makeschooldifferentconversation. I enjoyed reading @Dunlop_Sue’s ‘So Now What?’ post that addresses this issue, and thought that I should write explicitly about what I can do to address some of the issues I raised in my original #makeschooldifferent post. Although I am one person, my central role gives me the potential to reach a large number of teachers and students, and I want to make sure I am carrying out my work with purpose.
The following is a list of four things that have become important to me in my work with teachers this year. These are things that I have grown passionate about. These are things that I love to discuss and debate with my colleagues. These are the things that I read about in my spare time. These are the things that I want to focus on in the months to come.
Professional Learning for the Love of It!
One of the frustrations I have voiced this year is the perceived reluctance of some teachers to push their own learning forward. Ideally, school culture would place a high importance on continual improvement in teaching practice and growth in the ability to use new technology in the classroom. Members of my team have run three free events this year to help create an environment that encourages learning for learning’s sake. EdcampBarrie, PUSH Your Learning Conference (featuring GAFE), and our upcoming Arts, Equityand Innovation Conference. These events have helped create a community of learners, and I look forward to seeing this type of learning continue in our school board. In my work with schools I want to help create communities of learning where the staff embraces the challenge to continually improve their practice without direct (and prescribed!) instruction from someone like me.
In my 11 years of teaching before this year, my assessment practices changed dramatically. Interestingly, I believe that my personal growth in the last 8 months has exceeded that of the previous 11 years. My understanding of triangulation of assessment has improved considerably. I know more about how to make use of digital tools to create a more complete picture of students’ learning. I am intrigued by the notion of ‘standards-based’ grading and the opportunity it allows teachers to shift their practice and provide more meaningful feedback. I have discovered that assessment can be a touchy subject, but I am prepared to have challenging discussions with teachers and encourage them to push their thinking.
Advocate for Student Voice
At the start of the year, @lowenesst was the person who brought the significance of student voice to my attention. Her advocacy for students was evident in many formal and informal meetings and her voice invariably helped us focus on what was most important. Now I find that I have internalized Louise’s message and find myself asking people to consider student voice (and choice). Some of my key growth moments this year have occurred in conversations with students, and I want to encourage teachers to engage in the kinds of conversations that will allow students to help drive change in our schools.
Inquiry-Based Learning
Working with teachers who are navigating the world of inquiry-based learning with their students has been challenging and rewarding. Giving students control over their learning while honouring the curriculum can present enormous challenges for first-timers. Imagining a classroom where exploration and creation (think Makerspace) are an integral part of the learning culture has huge potential to transform the student experience. I know can support teachers in building students’ inquiry learning skills and mindsets and encourage the teachers to take ‘safe’ risks as they get started in inquiry.

What are you doing to help #makeschooldifferent in your classroom, school, or school board? Share your ideas for how to take action!

Make School Different: Five Things to Stop Pretending


Thanks to Louise for laying down this challenge for me, and thanks to my sister Beth; I read her ‘5’ (my first) just last night.

When it comes to education…

1. …we have to stop pretending that it is OK to avoid uncomfortable discussions about improving assessment practices. Yes, these conversations can be tension-filled. They will certainly challenge some firmly-held beliefs. Embrace the awkwardness. Relish the confusion. Accept that there is room for improvement.

2. …we have to stop pretending that preparing students for standardized tests should ever take priority over student learning and well-being. As classroom teachers our job is to mentor, nurture, and inspire our students. Supporting their learning and well-being cannot take a back seat to test prep. Ever.

3. …we have to stop pretending that students don’t have a role to play in driving innovation in education. They are probably more open-minded about solutions than we are. At the very least, they will give us valuable feedback on how we’re doing. At most, they should be at the heart of figuring out how to #makeschooldifferent.

4. …we have to stop pretending that it is OK for teachers to wait for quality PD to be delivered in a tidy package. There are no excuses anymore. Stay after work and learn with your team. (That’s right. I said it.) Get onto Twitter. Order a book from Amazon. Watch some TED talks. Attend a conference. Just do it!

5. …we have to stop pretending that mastery of content knowledge is ‘good enough’ for teachers or students. Teachers who master content knowledge don’t necessarily embrace good pedagogy. Students who master content knowledge don’t necessarily have the skills they need to succeed as productive citizens. Time to level up.

It all started with Scott McLeod…http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2015/04/we-have-to-stop-pretending.html. Thanks, Scott!

I welcome your thoughts on my five. 

I would like to challenge @VP_Wilkinson, @HTheismeijer, @pcroteauirt, @LongthorneJess and @A_J_Golding to share theirs. 

Blog them, tweet them out one at a time…whatever works for you. Most importantly, pass it on!