Late to the work

The past couple of weeks I’ve been quiet and haven’t felt great about it. I have withdrawn from posting on social media as I immerse myself in the news and the conversations that are happening about it. Engaging with students about current events during distance learning is strange to say the least. Though I have been consuming lots of news & resources about Black Lives Matter (and about addressing inequity in education settings) I have not shared as much as I should. I did share this wonderful annotated bibliography that is a great starting point for Ontario educators interested in learning more about racism in education in our context.

I am thankful to some of my colleagues who have reached out to have conversations and share resources. There seems to be an absence in strong voices and direction from leadership right now. If teachers are to address anti-Black racism in their classrooms they need support. I am very thankful to those leaders who have been sharing, and I hope that we will see more support forthcoming. Racism exists in our buildings even if everyone isn’t ready to say so.

This week I worked through a short course on ‘Equity Literacy’ along with some colleagues. I found the course helpful as it gave me some language I can use to help me discuss/address equity issues with students and staff at my school. Part of this involved identifying what I have control over as a teacher (eg. assessment practice in my classroom) and where else I had some indirect influence (eg. school committe work). This has caused me to reflect on many events from the past and think about what I missed or how I could have handled them differently. I want to share one story here with the goal of sharing some of my thinking and learning.

I teach in Barrie, ON. When I moved here in 2003 it felt like the least diverse place I had ever lived.* A couple of years later as a new-ish teacher I was teaching a junior Science class that was one of MANY all-white classes I have taught over the course of these 17 years. Students in that class were from a mix of urban and rural homes. In this particular class I had to address racist comments regularly – maybe once a week. I specifically remember a couple of examples: students placed ‘Chinese person’ in a food chain diagram above a cat; students joking about how ‘it must have been some black kid’ when something went missing.

I called out these comments, stopping everything to ask why they would say it and point out that is was inappropriate. (I surely didn’t use the word ‘racist’ in those discussions.) I took these opportunities to lecture my students about the ‘big world out there’ and how if they ever moved away to another city they would surely meet, work with (or for), and even be friends with people who didn’t look like them. I shared stories about specific friends of mine from China and India in an attempt to help normalize these identities for my students.

Near the end of that semester, our class took a trip to Toronto. Some of my students had never been to the city, though it is less than one hour away by car. When we arrived at our destination, my students poured out of the school bus with the expected amount of fieldtrip excitement, but their moods quickly shifted. Black and brown bodies were unloading from the 4 or 5 buses nearest to us. My students ‘circled the wagons,’ huddling together and looking over their shoulders. They were not expecting to feel that they were in the minority and were unsettled by it.

How did I react? In the moment the strongest feeling was ‘I told them so!!’ I felt like I had won some kind of bet with them. Hadn’t I been telling them that other places weren’t as white as our school was? The next day at school, though I didn’t explicitly say ‘I told you so,’ it was implied as we debriefed our experiences. I reminded them of our previous discussions and asked them how it had felt in the minority in that moment. They reluctantly gave some answers and that was the end of it.

In hindsight, I can see so many things I missed. I can see that I was naiive and didn’t have the skills or language to talk to my students about racism. Like so many things that we do as new teachers, my efforts were awkward and I was more concerned with teaching a very superficial life lesson (“Hey, look; not everyone is white!!”) than digging into what the students were thinking and feeling.

One thing I didn’t notice in that moment beside the school bus so many years ago was that my students were scared when confronted with that sea of faces and bodies that looked so different from them. I am curious about that fear and wish I could go back and ask them about it. I wonder if some of those students may have gone on to jobs in law enforcement. I wonder if they are still unsettled by ‘otherness.’ I wonder about how I could have used my opportunity as a teacher to do more with that moment.

I have become better at addressing issues of racism but I have a long way to go. This year I have missed more than one opportunity to step into a difficult situation and do the right thing. I know that my learning is important but that it isn’t of any use to anyone if I keep it to myself. I’m late getting to the work but I’m committed to seeing it through.

*For comparison, I have also lived in St. Catharines, ON, and Halifax, NS.
At the time, St. Catharines and Barrie had a similar proportion of visible minorities but St. Catharines had a larger (recent European) immigrant population so it seemed more diverse. In Halifax I spent much of my time on a university campus that was likely much more diverse than the surrounding community.

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. 🙂


One little pin

I have already shared some of my thoughts about the Ontario Health curriculum on social media. I am deeply concerned that topics such as consent, gender identity, and LGBTQ families are not directly addressed in the ‘re-issued’ 2010 curriculum that will be used in elementary schools this year.

I started teaching high school 15 years ago. I have known a large number of students with mental health struggles. I can say, with confidence, that consent, gender identity, and LGBTQ issues are often intimately linked with these struggles. We cannot underestimate the importance of giving students a forum to learn about these issues at school. Even the smallest actions we take in the classroom can have a huge impact on the lives of our students.

At grade 12 commencement in June, I was helping direct graduates back to their seats after they left the stage. I was positioned beneath the bleachers for some of the time, which gave me a few moments to whisper congratulations to the grads, most of whom I will never see again. Most of us exchanged happy goodbyes, and best wishes for whatever adventures they were pursuing after high school.

One graduate (whose identity I am protecting with neutral pronouns) greeted me warmly. We hugged, and that hug was filled with an incredible amount of emotion. During the embrace, the grad said, “Thank you so much for wearing your rainbow pin.”


Now, this grad is someone who walked our halls with confidence. They were surrounded by friends. They did well in my class. We had shared lots of good conversation over the course of the year. The fact that this student chose to say these words to me in this instant hit me like a ton of bricks. If my little pin meant so much to them, what did that say about how they felt about school in general? We had a very short conversation about this, because I couldn’t stand to let them go without knowing. It turns out that this student had not felt safe and valued every minute of the school day. Sometimes, even in grad 12, they felt exactly the opposite. My heart broke. We hugged, then parted.

This is why we need to have these discussions openly in our classrooms. This is why it is never too early for a student to feel loved and accepted at school. The student I was speaking to at grad? They made it. Others don’t. Kids who don’t feel valued in our classrooms can’t possibly excel. We can’t let them fade away.

Removing language about people’s identity from the curriculum is a terrible mistake. I trust teachers to help kids feel that sense of belonging, but having LGBTQ language in the curriculum ensures their right to see themselves as whole people at school.

You can bet I’ll be wearing my lanyard more regularly this year. It’s the least I can do.


Assessing Student Portfolios: Extended Version

Two weeks ago I posted a video of myself reacting to the experience of assessing my students unit portfolios for the Evolution unit in my Biology classes. As promised, I would like to share some more detail from that experience.

I described the design of the Evolution unit and the structure of the portfolios in a previous post. The choose-your-own-adventure style of the unit was new for me, and I really enjoyed how the three weeks felt. Particularly, I liked that I could circulate through the room, sitting with different students and having rich discussion about the activities they were working on. I collected some formal observations during this time, but didn’t do as great a job as I could have documenting things. The truth is, sometimes documentation seems to get between me and my students. If I’m holding a phone or iPad or even a notebook I know that my students feel ‘the evaluative gaze of school‘ much more acutely, and that our conversation becomes a little less real.

Throughout those three weeks, my students worked through a variety of activities and collected evidence of their learning using Google Keep. We chose this tool for several reasons: it integrates beautifully with Docs and Slides, it allows different kinds of evidence (text, photo, audio), and photos can be marked up on the fly. All of the evidence my students collected was text and photo; their lack of experience with other media is colours their choices and in the future I’d like to explore more options.

Assessing the reflections was an amazing experience – nothing like I have ever done before in Science. I curated some highlights while assessing the first 20 or so. In case you don’t have time to go read my May 1 post first, students shared evidence of their work and wrote explanations that connected the activity to one of the learning goals for the unit. Here is an example; this one has lots of words (more than necessary) and shows a good, if not exemplary understanding of the main idea of the activity:

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Throughout the portfolios, one thing I really enjoyed were the way my students’ voices came through. Consider these examples:

“I did not enjoy doing this activity as much as I enjoyed others. The main reason for this is because I learned about all the unethical things that humans did to mice in order to conduct their experiments.”

“This was probably my favourite activity because I am so interested in philosophy, and (NAME) and I have different world views which sparked many interesting conversations.”

These ideas might never have been communicated if it were not for the portfolio. I really like that students had a venue to discuss the social/emotional side of learning. It brought some life to the process that I had not anticipated.

Something that I saw in the portfolios that I had expected were excellent examples of metacognition and reflection. Here are some excerpts:

“Decided not to include it as even though it was complete as it wasn’t up to my standards.”

“Even so, I do not think that this activity did a great job at teaching me HOW new species are formed, but more what it looks like when they are.”

“I also exchanged feedback with peers on my work which I think helped to improve my quality of work.”

“I had previously learned about domestication of animals but I had never really connected the idea to plants…()…I found this of interest to me as the comparison of domestic plants to wild plants was alarmingly different.”

How wonderful for my students’ learning to be so visible! They are all at different stages in developing metacognitive skills, but I am glad that this activity allowed all of them an opportunity to consider and communicate something about the nature of their learning.

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of students (about 10 of the 65) who decided to pursue their own inquiry questions without being prompted. Many of their work went beyond what was precisely because I was NOT assessing the activities, but rather their curated samples of learning. A handful of students expressed their explicitly as in this example:

“Even as I write this explanation new questions arise
surrounding this topic that I am willing to research.”

These are just some examples of the aspects of these portfolios that prompted my rather emotional video two weeks ago. In the Sciences, we rarely offer opportunities for self-expression as we rush to measure our students’ learning.

I am already thinking about how to incorporate a portfolio model in my fall classes; I’ll share my ideas sometime soon, but right now I have a little homework to do. This week Doug Peterson and Stephen Hurley discussed my previous post in this podcast. My homework is to share a little about to leave video comments on students’ work in Google Docs.

Leaving video feedback is new to me. I will say that I tried a few different audio and video options near the start of the unit and my ‘test students’ much preferred video to audio. I did too – screen sharing allows very clear communication and feedback that is more difficult to achieve with audio alone.

Some options for video feedback that are cloud-based include Loom, Talk and Comment, and Screencastify (all Chrome extensions). See what I did there? Those are links to tutorials not made by me. I’m hoping to show my process in a future post – maybe in the summer? I settled on Loom for this project. I had some concerns about privacy, but since student names and grades are NOT part of the videos I feel comfortable that I am not compromising my students’ privacy by using these tools for this purpose.

There will be another post soon – I hope next week – to share my students’ feedback on a number of things from this semester. Until then I will be conferencing with my students (which I love!) and preparing for our final assessments.

The piece from Carol Black that I have linked to above is poignant and is likely to stir emotions of anyone examining their assessment practices. Definitely a recommended read.

Thanks for reading. 🙂

#MakeSchoolDifferent: Is it OK for anger to drive change?

I have enjoyed following the #makeschooldifferent discussion on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Scott McLeod (who initiated this conversation) has been working hard to compile responses to the ‘5 things to stop pretending in education’ prompt in this document. Take a minute and read through some of the list right now if you aren’t sure what I’m talking about. (Then come back here, please.)
When I took the challenge to add my voice to the #makeschooldifferent conversation it felt really good to speak honestly about some of my current areas of concern in my work with teachers. A few days after that post I was reading some other teachers’ posts when I became concerned about the tone of some of them. I revisited my own post and realized that it could be interpreted as being very negative.
After some reflection I decided to stop worrying about how my tone might be interpreted. Passionate opinions are required to drive positive change. I was reminded of this TED talkIn the talk, Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi describes how his outrage at the injustices of the caste system and child slavery in India prompted him to take action. His mantra? Anger. Idea. Action. His may seem like an extreme example, but it reminds us that strong emotions and a sense of injustice can help motivate us to improve our circumstances.
Do some of the voices in the #makeschooldifferent discussion sound a little angry? Yes. The anger has its root in the deep caring we have for our profession and for the well-being of our students. Anger is much better than indifference and complacence IF we direct our energy to help us find ways to make positive change.
How would you #makeschooldifferent? What issues in education raise your heart rate? Share your thinking. Get a little angry. Just don’t forget to come up with ideas about how we can take action. Anger alone is not enough.

Let Students Help Drive Change

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about our efforts to consult with students to plan a large event as part of our board’s commitment to the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning global partnership. A group of 40 students from 13 different schools ranging from grade 4 to grade 12 gathered in a sunny library to discuss the meaning of deep learning and work on some guided inquiry projects while their parents, teachers, and administrators met elsewhere in the building.
As facilitators we did not know what to expect from these students. We did not know the majority of them personally and did not know what skills they were bringing to the table. We were not sure how much guidance they would need to use the computers and iPads, perform research, or create presentations to share their learning. We were not sure whether they would come to the event with inquiry mindsets, collaboration skills, or curiosity. Faced with so many unknowns our planning was uncomfortably open-ended; there were more question marks on the agenda than any of us would have liked.
We were very lucky to be joined by some special guests, whose presence at the event inspired students, staff and parents. Our guests were brothers; one a grade 12 student in our board, the other in university. They shared their personal story of how they loved to build and create as kids, and that in their desire to create they saw a need for a 3D printer. This technology was too expensive for them to purchase, so they solved this problem by building their own 3D printer. Their description of their desire to create something, their ability to become part of a global online open-source 3D printing community, their perseverance through difficulties, and their honest expression of pride in their work was truly inspiring for our students at the start of the day. A fan club quickly grew around the 3D printer with students drifting to and from the station throughout the day. Our guests’ enthusiasm and willingness to answer questions never waned.
With the 3D-printer running in the background, our student cohort dove into their inquiry projects with as much confidence as we had hoped they would. Some student chose from a selection of open-ended inquiry questions while others created their own. Several groups tackled questions about designing better classrooms, libraries, and playgrounds. Other students set out to overhaul school in its entirety. One young lady came up with the recipe for success, using her cellphone to create a video to explain it to the world. A secondary student boldly explained in a recorded soliloquy why he thinks students fail in school (hint: it has something to do with suppressing students’ choices and interests). As facilitators we spent our time troubleshooting technology, documenting student work, and simply listening to students’ ideas and discoveries. It was hectic but blissful. It made me miss my classroom.

If I had my way I would have loved to keep these students together for a week or more, sharing their opinions and experiences with each other and trying to create a deeper understanding of the possibilities for our NPDL initiatives.

I would also love to extend this invitation beyond the realm of our designated NPDL schools and see student voice continue to play a larger role in shaping growth and learning in all of our school communities.