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.


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.

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:

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. 🙂

First Unit Gradeless in 12U Chem, Part 2

OK, so it has been about a week since the last brain dump…time for another. Lots of turkey between then and now. 🙂 I hope everyone had a restful weekend.

Last time, I left off explaining that my grade 12 students and I were going to come to a consensus about a grade that represents their learning in the first chemistry unit. For this to happen, the students and I each had some homework to do first:

  • Students completed a self-assessment based on the overall learning goals for the unit, assigning themselves a level (1-4) for each item. After that, they had the option of assigning themselves a grade or grade range) that they felt represented their learning so far.
  • Using my data (from product, conversation, and observation) I assigned each student a grade range based on their progress (75-80, 80-85, etc.)

Students submitted their self-assessments to me so that I had time to read their comments. The majority of students in my two classes have submitted their self-assessments for the first unit. I will say that I was relieved that about 80% of the self-assessments were in agreement with my grade assessment. I had been nervous about this process, anticipating that I might have some debates on my hands. It turns out there was little need to worry about this.

I have chosen a couple of examples from the student self-assessments to share to illustrate points of interest.

This student (a high achiever) knows that they made an uncharacteristic (small) error on their test, and used their self assessment to tell me that they felt it did not represent what they had learned and advocate for another opportunity to show what they know. I liked the self-advocacy here. I am open to providing more opportunities for students, but need to make sure things remain manageable for me (time wise) and them (with each passing day we are more removed from this content, and I don’t like the thought of them spending time preparing for another opportunity when they have new content in all of their classes every day).

This student is a good example of someone who has truly reflected on each of the learning goals. If you can read the text (I know you’re all pros at deciphering students’ writing!) you will see that she knows her strengths and needs. I agreed completely with her assessment of progress.
In this example, the student and I were much less in agreement. We had a longer conversation about each of these items – you can see that the student both over- and under-estimated their demonstration of learning. This student estimated their grade at about 65% while I had determined that they were in a range of about 70-75%. Certainly a more interesting case than the previous examples. This tells me that this student needs more support using the feedback and success criteria to self-evaluate.

This next example was the best one to illustrate student over-estimation; we were 10% off in our suggested grades in this case. I will say that this student does a much better job expressing themselves orally than on paper, and the levels I recorded reflect some conversations we had during lab activities. I agree with the student that their understanding is probably better represented by a higher grade, and am open to adjusting the evaluation if I have more evidence to support the adjustment. The issue we are running into is that we are in the thick of our next unit, and most of my conversations with students are about new ideas and concepts rather than things we worked on two weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about how to best address this; if this student wants to demonstrate their understanding again/differently we most likely need to be able to find time together outside of class time. Not a big issue, but if I imagine 50 students wanting to do so, the idea feels overwhelming. Something to think about.

And, finally, evidence that some students are taking this VERY seriously. Check out this detailed analysis…I had 3 – 5 with this level of depth – students telling me the whole story of their learning. I had a conversation with this student and got the sense that this level of depth was what they felt was required to justify the levels they assigned. I can understand their motivation to make a strong case for themselves, but if you read this one you’ll see that the student has regurgitated some of their understanding here, rather than simply focus on their specific strengths and needs. Another indication that more guidance may be required to stay focused in the self-evaluation process.

OK, that’s it for now. Next I plan to write about the next cycle and the adjustments I can make to improve the process.