Sunday, 14 January 2018

Gimme Feedback! Getting rid of Marks in Elementary School.

A few years ago, I came to the uncomfortable realization that my evaluation methods were not working. Well, it wasn’t really that they weren’t working - they were generating grades, information and feedback for report cards. They served as a brief and fleeting triumph for students who were already academically successful. However, they were not sparking the growth and progress that I wanted to see in my students - particularly students who struggled academically.

I was trying to do everything right. I had looked over the most recently literature which, In Ontario, is the Growing Success Document. (2010) I reviewed the Seven Fundamental Principles that would “ensure that assessment, evaluation, and reporting are valid and reliable”.( p. 6) I discussed Success Criteria with students based on specific curriculum expectations and, collectively, we built rubrics and settled on “mutually agreed upon timelines” for work completion. Still, I wasn’t seeing the growth that I knew more of my students were able to achieve.

It was around this time that I began to focus on my professional Twitter account. I had been using a personal Twitter account for years (Est. January 5, 2009), but, for the most part, followed Pro Sports Teams, Stand Up Comedians, Musicians and Television Writers and rarely posted. A colleague suggested creating a professional Twitter account (Est. April 24, 2013) and a quality Professional Learning Network (PLN) was growing. I think I followed about 200 people at that time.  Wonderfully, for the first time in my career, a post on Twitter led me to an answer that was so simple that I was a bit frustrated that I had not thought of it myself. Get rid of the marks.

I began to evaluate following these steps:

  1. Continue to build “mutually agreed upon” curriculum driven expectations with students. Make them part of the process of learning from the start. Be sure that the language is “student friendly”.
  2. Give feedback at an approximate midpoint in the activity.
  3. Let the student return to the work in order to take advantage of the feedback.
  4. Have the student self-evaluate.
  5. Conference with the student about the self-evaluation. (a) Be sure to celebrate achievements, (b) Be sure to discuss potential next steps & optionally (c) Agree on report card comments that include a & b.
To help, I began using a No Marks Rubric. Once again, I want to make it clear that  the genesis for the idea was not mine - but from a post on Twitter. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to track down the author of that first post, so I can give the appropriate credit. If it comes to me, I will make the changes here immediately.

However, I have evolved that initial concept over the past four years and a blank copy of my current version is here. It is divided into four columns.
  • The center column is for the expectations
    • Mutually agreed upon with the students.
    • Curriculum connected.
    • Ideally, connected to the 4 categories outlined in the Growing Success Document (p. 17) Thinking, Application, Communication and Knowledge (TACK) or sometimes referred to as  (CAT-K) cat-ka.
  • Immediately to the right, is a narrow column for checkmarks. If the expectation in the cell beside it has been met, the box is checked. If not, it remains unchecked (for now).
  • The left column is broken into cells that match each expectation. It is here that, when necessary, next steps can be written. Sometimes, the expectation has been met and the next step is a suggestion. More often, the next step is a reminder to review the expectation or an idea to prompt additional action.
  • The far right column is a place for celebration.
    • What has been done particularly well?
    • Which things exceeded expectations?
    • What caught the evaluator’s eye as “interesting”, “fun”, “humourous” or “unexpected”?
  • There is space at the top to identify the activity and student. Optionally, a parent signature could be required at the bottom.
Here is an example using Cereal Box Biographies - a Grade 5 cross-curricular activity which draws from expectations in Writing, Reading, Media Literacy, Health & Art curriculum.

Students are asked to ...
  • research a famous person and create an aesthetically appealing, easy to read cereal box biography to share the information. EX: Obama O’s Cereal - detailing life of 44th US President.
  • create a “tag line” for the product. EX: “They’ll give you HOPE!”
  • create a food label replacing the percentage values with personal qualities instead of nutritional facts. (A little math embedded in the activity). EX: Persistence 30% Intelligence 20% etc. Here is a complete example
Some Additional Thoughts (regarding No Marks Rubrics)

Students are quick converts. There are some who persist with the question “What did I get?” and that needs to be met with the responses: “What did you learn? What did you do well? & What could you improve or change?”

Parents sometimes take a little longer - particularly parents who put a high value on grades. Sometimes, a private conversation with them helps. Ask them if they remember their Grade 4 Social Studies mark more than the things they learned in Grade 4 Social Studies ...or perhaps that awesome pyramid they built!

Unfortunately, Ontario report cards still require a grade. Consequently, the teacher is eventually forced to quantify this information and reduce it to a letter (Gr 1-6) or number (Gr 7-8).

Fortunately, report card comments are already done.  The completed rubric allows the Teacher to synthesize statements that are personal, and include both the celebration of work achieved with concrete next steps.

Optionally, the “mark” can be determined with the student present. As I was preparing report cards last May, I had frequent discussions with students about both the comment and the final grade for many of the strands and subjects - Complete transparency and, for some students, the opportunity to make changes.

My hope is that the province makes the bold decision to move away from grades, at least prior to Grade 7. For now, the No Mark Rubric has been a valuable tool in my classroom and has been well received by teachers I meet in my role as instructional coach. I hope it can be useful for you.

Monday, 1 January 2018


2018 arrived quietly for me last night. I was watching “Black Mirror” on Netflix and my wife and I almost missed the turning of the hour...and the year. Thirteen hours later, things are much like the chorus of that popular U2 refrain from "New Year's Day"...quiet.

That is probably for the best as it has given me time to reflect. Over the past week, I have had the opportunity to read a number of excellent #OneWord blog posts from friends, colleagues and members of my Professional Learning Network on Twitter. The #OneWord phenomenon, established in 2009, has become an annual tradition where, instead of making a resolution, a single word is chosen to become a personal mantra for the upcoming year.

OneWord Wall 2017 @ Eagle Heights
Typically, I do not officially select my #Oneword until I return to my classroom and present the concept to my students. Since 2016, I have used it as the first writing challenge of the new year. It is a great opportunity to help them think introspectively, expand their vocabulary and set up a personal mindset for the upcoming months. We also create artistic paper banners for classroom display and learn how to make Twitter banners using Canva and Google Drawings.
In 2016, my #OneWord was Mindfulness. In preparation for this post, I pulled up my lesson plan notes on Google Drive. In them, I noted that I wanted to “slow down and be more mindful of the world around me and my own feelings”. I reinforce the idea that I wanted to “stop myself regularly and enjoy the moments in life through which I am prone to rush." I’ll admit, I wasn’t very successful and I still struggle with this. I am a chronic multi-tasker and, despite the mountains of research to the contrary, I still feel that this benefits me.

In 2017, my #OneWord was Revitalize. Following a health scare in late 2016, I looked toward a new year that included healthier dietary choices, more exercise, a renewed effort at mindfulness and quality time reconnecting with my family, friends and passions. After an unsuccessful attempt in 2016 (due to the aforementioned health scare) I embraced the mile-a day challenge in which one attempts to run 365 miles over the course of the year at an evenly balanced pace. I managed to hit 1000 kilometers (620 miles) on the elliptical and I have noticed significant improvement in my flexibility and strength. My friends and I often remark that we used to exercise for reasons of vanity; now, fitness is entirely about the quality of life in the future.

For 2018, I spent much of today (while multi-tasking through the writing of this article) reflecting on the things that make me happiest. Thoughts turned to the documentary “Happy” (2011) which highlights the importance of looking for happiness through intrinsic sources. It continues, through research and example, to distill the simple elements that can amplify joy. They are: exercising, creating, learning, giving and community. With those ideas in mind, I am selecting the word Cultivate as my #OneWord for 2018  

  • I want to continue to cultivate a healthy lifestyle through better dietary choices. In particular, I want to reduce my carbohydrate intake and increase the number of times I make vegetarian choices at meals. This, in combination with the gym routine I have established should help make me healthier and happier. Maybe even an extra step in my weekly hockey game?
  • I want to cultivate my creative spirit. I have been working on a novel targeted at middle school students and it needs more of my attention in the new year. I intend to write more frequently on this site and I have set a goal of 24 posts for 2018. Well, 23 to go now!
  • I want to cultivate my learning by continuing my professional growth. I am at 54% in my Spanish studies on Duolingo. I would like to finish the program before the end of the year. I will also give more time to my guitar and, when the environment permits, my saxophone playing.
  • I want to cultivate my capacity for giving to my community. I am fortunate to have a job where I work with children on a daily basis. I would like to find a way to give more. There is a quote that I often pin to the top of my Twitter feed: “Treasure relationships, especially family and your obligation is to make a difference in the world and help people that can not help themselves.” I would like to redouble my efforts to this end. I think I’ll begin with those closest to me and then move outward.

Thank You for reading. I hope you have a wonderful 2018.


Sunday, 31 December 2017

A Quick 2017 Reflection

The last time I wrote for this site, I had agreed to participate in an #IMMOOC - An Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course - centered around the George Couros book - "The Innovator’s Mindset". It was in early September and I was just starting in my new role as an instructional coach.

At that time, I was still getting my feet under me as a coach. The first few months in this new role have been about building relationships and doing professional reading. I assumed, incorrectly, that I would have plenty of time to contribute to this ongoing, educational weblog journal.  It is now the last day of December...and 2017… and I am just getting time to reflect and write.

I have, over the past four months, been provided with a deluge of quality professional development through my Board, my Twitter Professional Learning Network (#PLN) and my own reading & research. My position also affords me the enviable opportunity to collaborate with creative, passionate and dedicated colleagues who consistently bring their “A Game” to classes and schools everyday.

So, I want to take a few minutes to reflect on 2017 and start anew tomorrow.

  • Last year, I wrote  16 blog posts - My goal for 2018 is to get to 24. I also intend to ReTweet more blog posts from my colleagues. I think we should all tag each other in our posts and repost frequently - ideally quoting the post with feedback.
  • My most popular was an effort to dispel some myths about Prayer in Schools that I penned in April  Perhaps this is evidence that I should tackle more controversial or dynamic subjects.
  • Surprisingly, my least popular was which detailed a cross-curricular approach to teaching Junior age students how to effectively and amicably disagree with each other. It was written in the middle of the summer. I suspect that had something to do with it.
  • Another weak post was my early September effort to chronicle my journey as an Instructional Coach. This I get. It is self-indulgent and frankly boring. I need to do less of this.
  • I am proud of the growth of my #PLN. I am following nearly 3000 Twitter users (mainly educators) and I am on the verge of gaining 2000 followers. I don’t want to set a goal here, because I have already far surpassed my expectations.
  • The best book I read this year was Trevor Mackenzie’s “Diving into Inquiry: Amplify Learning and Empower Student Voice”. It was made better by my participation in a summer book club using my favourite App of the year - Flipgrid.

I want to keep this short. I know that is important. Knowing that my posts are short will embolden me as a contributor - I hope to come right back to the keyboard tomorrow to begin writing my #OneWord post for 2018.

Have a safe, happy and healthy New Year.


Tuesday, 3 October 2017

IMMOOC - Week 2 - Observe & Report

This is the second post in my continued participation in the Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course (IMMOOC).  My first, from last week, can be found here.

I’ll admit, I was overwhelmed by the amount of content generated by this Online Course last week. The word “Massive” is a fitting moniker. There were thousands of educators participating through Blog, Twitter and Facebook posts throughout the week. I was fortunate to be available to view the Live YouTube chat  featuring Jo Boaler & George Curous on September 25th while concurrently following an active Twitter feed around the global hashtag #IMMOOC & my own board’s hashtag #IMMOOCTVDSB. It was impossible to keep up with all of it. I did, however reflect on this sound bite from Joan Boaler as an important reminder.
This week, I continued to re-read the book, with an eye toward the following questions that were presented to our group:

  • How can you create opportunities for innovation in your leadership? In your teaching? In your learning?
  • If you were to start a school from scratch, what would it look like?
  • Take one of the “Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset” (see below) and write an example of how you exemplify it in your own work.

I am going to start with the final prompt and answer it simply. I will then use the other two prompts to support that answer. The characteristic of the Innovator’s Mindset I want to look at is #5 - the ability to observe.

How can you create opportunities for innovation in your leadership? In your teaching? In your learning?

My new role as an Instructional Coach has taken me out of the conventional classroom setting. Although I am enjoying new opportunities, I miss the familiarity of a high energy Grade 5 classroom. I miss the daily opportunities to spark excitement, support calculated risk, foster meaningful inquiry and promote creativity. Last year, I was genuinely enriched by the progress my students and I made as we embraced a new approach to tackling curriculum.  Bolstered by Trevor MacKenzie’s wonderful book “Diving into Inquiry” and strengthened by numerous professional development opportunities, I had the confidence to take chances.

I want to apply this approach to my new position. However, I know this is going to be a challenge. I am still acclimatizing and building relationships. Intuitively, I recognize that both leaders and innovators need to begin as observers. That has been a challenge for me. I am so excited to get things rolling. Much like the experience George Couros details in Chapter 1, “I took on this position knowing it was a bit of a risk” and, for now I need to learn about the constants before I start to push for change. I guess, borrowing his analogy, I need to spend my time in ground school before “trying to build an plane in the air.”

If you were to start a school from scratch, what would it look like?

When I first read this question, I reflected on the two new schools that were built in my board over the past year. I was fortunate to be able to follow the progress on Twitter and I knew that all the hallmarks of a modern education institution (flexible seating, STEAM-EDU, Project Based Learning, GAFE, etc.) were being embraced by the administrative team that was chosen to open them. In fact, had I not been successful in my application to be an Instructional Coach, I would have applied to teach at Sir Arthur Currie Elementary last May.

As I reflected further, the monumental undertaking that must be involved in starting a school from scratch became overwhelming. I mean, it is easy to point out the flaws in any new undertaking - particularly one as important as a school. Shamefully, I admit that, as a member of a staff who experienced the challenges of a school’s expansion, I have willingly participated in the criticisms...
  • “Why didn’t they do that?” 
  • “Did they not know that a basketball court needs to be wider?” 
  • “Couldn’t they have put more plugs along the back wall for the computers?”
  • “Really, two new bathrooms for over 400 new students?”

Like the proverbial "Monday Morning Quarterback" or “Armchair General” it is easy to see the faults when given the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  So, I guess I would do everything I could to ameliorate the complaints - with the recognition that mistakes will be made and overcome. I would begin by assembling the best possible team I could find. People with experience, foresight, passion, wisdom and smarts. I would draw from as many qualified sources as I could find to make the best possible decisions. Once again, I find myself recognizing the same truth I identified when responding to the first prompt.
Innovators need to be observers first.  
I’ll think about that this week - as I continue to try to build relationships through staff room conversations.

Monday, 25 September 2017

#IMMOOC - Week 1 - Innovation from Adversity

This autumn, I will be participating in the Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course, known by the odd sounding acronym IMMOOC.

This is the 3rd event to be centered around the George Couros book “The Innovator’s Mindset - Empower Learning, Unleash Talent and Lead a Culture of Creativity”. I read the book last year, but this is an opportunity for me to participate with over 1000 other educators in a series of YouTube live sessions and Twitter Chats. Additionally, we are encouraged to write weekly blog posts from prompts that are provided in the days leading up to each session.

This week, we were asked to read the Forward and the Introduction to the book. The questions posed were

a. Why is innovation in education so crucial today?
b. Talk about a time you dealt with adversity in education, and how you overcame it?

I enjoyed the read. I even took the time to watch the suggested videos from Kate Simonds TedX Talk I'm Seventeen and the delightful Be More Dog commercial.

a. Why is innovation in education so crucial today?

Innovation in education is so crucial today because, as Couros puts it, “To succeed, (students) will need to know how to think for themselves and adapt to constantly changing situations.” Katie Simonds raises the concern that traditional models of education can limit this skill. As she puts it, “we’re teaching them to stop thinking outside the box and to accept adequacy. We’re teaching them to conform to standards and to lose their creativity. But, before this happens, students don’t think of logistics or limitations, they’re fearless.”

I agree, we need fearless creators in our future. We need the kind of thinkers who do not shy away from challenges - young people who embrace change and can maximize the technology that will shape our world. To some extent, my motivation is self-serving. At 52, I am staring squarely down the fairway of the back nine in my adult life. People like 17 year old Kate are going to be the caretakers and wardens of this world - which is particularly important to me, as I move into my senior years. I need them to be adaptable, creative and passionate. I do not want them accepting adequacy and the status quo. Consequently, I need to do my part now to empower my students to be creative risk-takers who, like the cat in the “Be More Dog” video, recognize that “the world is amazing” and that they can contribute meaningfully to it.

b. Talk about a time you dealt with adversity in education, and how you overcame it?

In 1989, getting a mandatory math credit for my undergraduate degree seemed an insurmountable task. I took two half courses, one in calculus and the other in finite computation and probability. To my complete surprise, I got through the calculus course with a passing grade...barely. During the spring, as I plugged away at discrete and continuous distribution theory, I could feel it all slipping through my mind like sand through open fingers. The more I tried to make it stick, the more impossible it felt. I was unsuccessful. I bombed the mid-term and things only got more complex as I worked toward the final exam - which I left early. At the very least, I recognized quickly that my probability of passing was zero.

I talked with my professor a few days later. I let him know that I had not completed the exam and wanted to see if there was another course I could take that would satisfy the requirements of a half credit.

“Do it again in the fall”, were his words of advice. “I’ll be teaching it and I’ll be mindful of your presence. I will talk with you after each class and, if necessary, I can set you up with one of my teaching assistants to get support.”  

I did take it again and made excellent use of the resources provided to me. Additionally, because I knew the professor was mindful of my presence, I arrived at every class early and prepared.  Admittedly, I had missed a few classes during my first run and I was famously tardy. I passed the midterm with a nearly perfect score. Given that this was worth 40% of my final grade, I moved into the more challenging parts of the course with renewed confidence. I was less successful on the final exam, but I managed to secure a grade in the high 60’s.  

Reflecting on this experience and the first section of the book leads me to the following:
  • I want to be the educator that makes kids persist and who is there to support them in their efforts.
  • I want to be an educator that is constantly mindful of their presence and their goals, so that I can recognize when they are struggling.
  • When it comes to creating a culture of innovation, I want to use the words that my professor used with me - “Do it again.”

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Instructional Coaching Journey - Day 1

Today was the first day of school. This is something I have experienced from both sides of the desk over 40 times. However, for the first time since 1998, I did not begin my day greeting a new group of eager and excited students. Instead, I made a left turn at the end of my driveway and traveled to the Board Office to meet, mingle and learn with an eager and excited group of Instructional Coaches & Math Coordinators. This was the first of many upcoming Professional Development sessions that will help me acclimate and settle in my new role as an Agent of Change for the Thames Valley Board.   

The supervisory team welcomed us with a fun video and a thoughtful treat. In many ways, they demonstrated the collaborative, collegial and professional approach that I hope to present.
Ice Breaker Activity
There was a new twist on an old icebreaker activity. Much like my students, I alternate between liking and loathing these activities. I do enjoy meeting new people and sharing my ideas but, I often find myself caught up in moments of awkward silence at the end of these encounters. More frustrating is being stuck in a veritable "no-man’s-land" between tables and a human log jam, waiting for a chance to move or engage someone else. I know it is in my head - but I always feel utterly graceless and oafish in these moments. I was fortunate today, I was stuck near the snacks and coffee table.

We broke down some numbers from EQAO and solidified our focus as coaches. I summarized it quickly as a personal mission statement and put it at the top of my calendar and into a Canva poster for Social Media. I’m not sure why that works for me. I think it is something about making things concrete for me. It reads as follows “My Focus needs to be intentional & precise, and must be directed toward tangible improvements in Literacy and Mathematics.” I will reflect on it regularly as I move forward.
It is nice to finish at exactly the end of the day. It is also a treat to be able to spend a little time on professional reading & writing. Typically, the first day after school is spent organizing lesson plans and preparing for another hectic and engaging school day. Instead, I did some reading and wrote this reflection. More PD tomorrow.