Posts tagged Grade Free
The Mark You Get Isn't You
Hey there Shifters, Matt here with an interruption to your regular scheduled programming. You see, my fellow shifter, Jamie Mitchell was presented with a pretty huge honour today at school.  Some of you may have already heard that he was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence Certificate of Achievement.  That is a kind of a big deal.  Out of thousands of nominations, only 10 teachers in Ontario were awarded that honour!  What I found really striking about the ceremony we just had at our school to mark the award, was in fact a student Maggi Djurdjevic.  

Maggi went to the considerable work (it is a 21 page application!) to nominate her teacher and she spoke eloquently on why she nominated Jamie for this honour.  She said that Jamie Mitchell was able to take a subject that she isn’t particularly strong in, math, and make that period the best part of her day.  That is pretty awesome!  Two more ideas really hit home with me when both she and Jamie spoke at the event.

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Jamie Mitchell accepting his award from
the student that nominated him, Maggi Djurdjevic.

First, I really saw the importance of connections.  Jamie’s high school drama teacher was in attendance at the ceremony and Jamie told the story of how he got suspended in high school (for using some less than favourable language when sticking up for students he felt weren’t being treated properly).  When he was suspended, he told his drama teacher with a heavy heart that he was going to miss some rehearsals because of his suspension and his drama teacher told him “This is why you will be a good teacher, because you will stand up for people for others who need support”.  That powerful connection that teachers and educators can make with their students, recognizing their talents, pumping them up, and engaging with them as fellow humans on the same journey of life can make such a huge impact on students’ lives.  I remember a similar moment of connection in grade 9, when Mrs. McCarthy, my art teacher, pulled me aside at the end of the year and pumped me up about my potential as an artist and offered me some art supplies to work with over the summer.  A small gesture, with a profound effect.  Time and time again, you hear that these are the stories being shared about the high school experience.  Not the course, the project, the mark, but the relationships, the small conversations, that have can have life changing ripple effects in people’s lives.  How about you?  Do you have a similar story of connection in your high school experience?  I am going to make it my goal next year to reach out to students one on one, acknowledge their greatness and show my appreciation for good deeds and good people.  I think people can stand to hear more of that.

The second thought that really struck me was something that Jamie said when he spoke (off the cuff, I might add, mighty impressed!).  He talked about a conversation he had with Maggi over how she was doing in class and he told her “The Mark you get isn’t you.  How you approach life is YOU.”  I would love to have more students hear that message!  With so much importance placed on the mark in this education system of ours, it is a real barrier to real, joyful learning.  It blocks true risk taking as a learner, because the students’ concern for that mark causes them to play the game of school to maximize their mark, not to go deeper in their learning.  It also creates a divide in the relationship between teacher and student, as we are responsible for assigning a number to their efforts.  This gets in the way of true mentorship that a teacher could offer students as they learn.  I’d love to get to a place where we can more readily focus on the learner and the learning and not the mark.  We should be placing more importance on resilience, risk taking, impassioned learning as ways to approach learning and to approach life. How about you? How often do you find the mark getting in the way of these goals?  

Congratulations Jamie, on this huge honour!  I’m pretty proud of you, fellow Shifter!



Road Trips - Rethinking Furniture, Going Gradeless, & Community
A requirement about being part of The Shift  is that we travel to other schools around the board.  We do this so that we can get perspectives on the innovative things that are happening in all schools.  We also want to help people share their thinking.  The profession of teaching can’t grow if everyone always works in a bubble.  A few weeks ago we had a flurry of travel and unfortunately haven’t been able to write about our experiences until now.  So...where did we go and what did we see?


Rethinking Furniture
We had the opportunity to visit Lester B Pearson High School to get a first hand viewing of some classroom furniture that rethinks the instructional flow of a classroom.  We tried rocking chairs and stools (Matt always calls dibs on the rocker) that encourage movement as a tool to help keep students focused. We saw a variety of smart, well thought out tables as well,
The discussion with classroom teachers was honest, exploratory and excited.  The talk centred around the most important point: does the furniture work to better support teaching and learning of students?  There was talk of layout, and how it can be moved around the room in different configurations to work in different learning situations.  The tables had two wheels that enabled easy moving around the room by lifting one end of the table and pushing it like a rolling suitcase, which was neat.  Other tables were height adjustable, which would allow teachers to set bar height seating if desired.  One aspect that would have been really cool to see in that scenario would have been hydraulic height adjustment (like an office chair), so that the height could be easily adjusted in the moment.  Hey we can dream, can’t we?  In a couple of weeks, we look forward to visiting Milton District H.S., which is a pilot location for a full classroom of this new furniture.  We will be sharing our further impressions on how that  pilot is going.  Dibs on the rocker!




Going Gradeless
One fascinating trip we recently went on was up to McKenzie-Smith Bennett Public School in Acton, upon the invitation of Kim Phillips, Principal of the school.  She wanted us to meet Michael Primerano, an intermediate teacher who is doing some truly innovative work around going gradeless in his class.  We are very conscious of not overusing the word “innovative” in this role, but in this case, it is truly merited.

The new “thing” is seeking a way to better motivate and engage students in the classroom by eliminating grades from the learning experience.   Michael was in tune to the fact that students in his ACCESS class were not motivated by grades and noticed that grades were more often  a deterrent to learning because they were a source of stress and heartache.  As such, he chose to eliminate quantitative means of assessment  altogether, favouring qualitative observations as evidence for learning and to  use while determining grades for his students’ report cards.  
Yes, as teachers in the province, we are required to put a grade on the report card, though the tools used by the teacher to inform that decision are left to the professional discretion of the teacher.  Michael has been using a triangulated method of assessment that combines observations, student conferences, and co-constructed success criteria, with a focus on using descriptive feedback to help students benchmark their progress rather than grades. Thus far this year it has been working rather well.

The student and parent feedback to this shift has been encouraging, too! S

Students are saying:
“I don’t miss getting Cs.” -BM
“It’s more work in the end, but the product is always better.” - GD
“I know that you want to help me because you never judge me.” - WT


And parents are saying:
“My son doesn’t hate going to school now - he gets up and goes in the morning without me having to bug him.” - CL
“I don’t ask my daughter how she’s doing in school anymore, I ask her what she’s doing instead.” - JB


That feedback is a clear indication that Michael is truly onto something. As teachers, Jamie and I have had frequent chats about how going gradeless would benefit our students.  This topic is top of mind and this won’t be the last you hear from us on this subject!"

If you want a deeper dive into Michael's thinking, you can check out his presentation here.


Engaged Community
Finally, we took a trip to Craig Kielburger Secondary School to gather some footage for the next video in our Case For series.  Suzy Koh was nice enough to welcome us into her classroom, which was a Grade 9 Applied Math class.  This class was a continuation of the Unlimited Potential program from Semester 1.  We were lucky enough to witness a classroom where all students were engaged, willing to talk to each other, work with each other and most importantly not rely on their teacher for too much guidance.  Students were working on problem sets with each other, asking their peers for feedback and help BEFORE switching gears and looking to the teacher for solutions.  Everyone was smiling.  The classroom was comfortable and it was obvious Suzy had done work establishing a positive classroom environment first, before diving into curriculum.


Jamie was able to sneak away for a bit to reconnect with an old friend who also works at Craig Kielburger and is working with a team that delivers a combined Drama and Comm Tech course.  The purpose of the course is to have students gain a better understanding of the entire production process, from both the technical and artistic sides. They're currently working on their biggest project to date, creating, acting in, filming and then finally producing a sitcom.  Kyle Hume and his colleague Anna Burnett are the teachers working on this project, but really he and his colleagues have found a great way to involve all players in the creation process.  When I arrived to class another teacher was at the front of the room, organizing her students, handing out roles and jobs.  It was only when I sat down with Kyle to talk about this Sitcom package that I found out the teacher leading the  students was actually a student in the course.  The feeling of empowerment among his students was palpable and I left Kielburger feeling inspired by the possibilities of different ways to engage students.

What do you think?  How important is the community you build in the classroom?  Have you experimented with going gradeless? Or thought about doing so? Have you been experimenting with alternatives to the typical class furniture layout and structure?  What about alternative ways to deliver curriculum while engaging students? How has it shifted what you do?
Halton Goes Back To Class
Halton Goes Back to Class
As we mentioned in a previous post, this year the Halton District School Board has gone to the movies.  Keeping with this theme, last Monday the board went back to class.  Two hundred staff from the board spent their Monday evening watching a video discussion on the first chapter of the Innovator’s Mindset and participating in a live chat as part of a massively open online course.  It was fun seeing so many colleagues participating in professional development outside of the normal working day.  It was especially great for us because the conversations revolved around innovation and how it applies to the classroom.
In addition to some reading and thinking, participants in this MOOC have been asked to respond to the video chat with a blog post.  Well, here is what we thought about the discussion on Monday night.
1. What do you see as the purpose of education?  Why might innovation be crucial in education?
Man, George, talk about starting with a whopper of a question! The purpose of education is to prepare for life in society.  The thing is, what a productive life in society looks like is rapidly changing.  Employers are increasingly looking for innovators, with flexible, creative thinking, to drive their projects forward.  Our education system needs to catch up to this new reality.  How can we not only innovate as teachers, but also train our students to become their own innovators.  The purpose of education is NOT to prepare students for university.  That is not everyone’s destination.  Also, which university are we preparing students for?  The one we went to, or the one you went to, or another one?  Is each one the same?  Of course not.  So, education should be preparing students for whatever life might put in their past.   Resilience, perseverance, critical thinking, soft skills that make a big difference.
  1. “Change is an opportunity to do something amazing.” How are you embracing change to spur innovation in your own context?
Well, for us, The Shift means finding ways to create dialogue and build and reinforce a culture of sharing in the our board.  Sharing isn’t really new for us and it certainly isn’t new for our board.  What we are trying to do is find better, more efficient ways for all teachers in our board to connect and share their ideas.  We are diving headlong into that!  The huge change for us are the all of the extras and unknowns.  We’ve dipped our toes into video making and editing and are looking ahead to starting a podcast down the line.  All this is very fun and very much out of our comfort zone.
  1. If you started a school from scratch, what would you see as necessary, and what would you take out from what we currently do?
Having a set of guiding principles or a founding framework is the most important thing.  A well articulated vision of what the school could be or wants to be makes all of the other work easier.   It would be interesting to build a school where community is at the very core of how it functions.  Schools do a pretty good job of this but there is always room for improvement.  When we think of the total community of a school we wonder about how to foster and build student engagement and also, equally importantly, staff engagement in the community.  It is important to find opportunities to celebrate, reflect and play in order to create engaged, energized humans who are willing to take risks.  It would be great to see genius hours for all members of the community built into the school day.  
All cards on the table, we would take out grading, in favour of some sort of pass/fail system with some sort of demonstration of mastery built in.  Obviously we would need to be giving students lots of descriptive feedback in real time.  We don’t want to squash students creativity by assigning a mark to it (that one is for you Sir Ken!)
Obviously a change like that would require a major reset on so many aspects of school culture and teaching.  We think it’s time for that change!  A Shift to put a renewed focus on allowing students to follow their passions, helping students discover what on Earth their passions might be and teachers in mentorship roles who are along for the ride sounds pretty idyllic (wide-eyed optimist you say?).  Hey, we being asked to dream here, aren’t we?  
4. Your choice from the book on the YouTube Live session.
One little bit that we particularly latched on to from the YouTube live session was the notion of advocating for Vintage Innovation.  AJ Juliani, John Spencer and George Couros were mentioning old ideas, perhaps repurposed for the 21st century learner in mind.  They Socratic Seminar (which was highlighted also in the Most Likely To Succeed Film), building with Duct Tape and Cardboard, and Sketchbooking (sing, art teacher hearts, sing!).  


Caine's Arcade and the Power of Innovative Use of Cardboard


credit: Susan Murtaugh
On the topic of sketchbooks, fellow art teachers Jordie Burton, Toge Heersink and myself sat down with at least one of us (Hint: It wasn’t Jamie) last month with Meredith White, professor of Photography at Sheridan, and she talked about how their photography students are using sketchbooks to catalogue, ideate, and get inspired in their practice.  In an age of Pinterest, Flipboard and Tumblr, the humble sketchbook has a powerful place in helping the brain to work creatively.  There is something about the physical writing, pasting and sketching of ideas that are core to the creative process.  Innovating is not about ipads and smart boards, it is about problem solving and improving practice, and there are so many successful “vintage” tools at our disposal that we can use for this.  This is something that can make innovating a less daunting task too, when we can say “Hey! I’ve used that before.” as an entry point to innovate in our classrooms.  As long as we are pushing to know the “WHY”? - What is old can be new again if it has an authentic improvement in mind. How about you? Do you use any "vintage innovation" in your class? Comment below.