Content, A Fairy Tale

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Once upon a time, in a far away gradebook, oh about fifteen to twenty odd years ago, there was a keen and eager teacher who wanted to create an assessment for an English 9 short fiction unit. She laboured over the assessment and decided that a test would be the finest of fits for her students. Because she was a creative teacher, she included many forms within the assessment.  There was matching and multiple choice, short answer and fill in the blanks.  At the end, she aptly placed one paragraph question that would be the cherry on top of the unit ice cream sundae.  Now this test, this labour of love, was a fine fit for 20th century learning.  It tested vocabulary, the plots of stories read in class, terminology and knowledge.  She had keenly taught to the test and her students did well!

Years later, there was a new view of learning. Behold BC’s New Curriculum.  The teacher was, at first, confused, bewildered, and shook her head in dismay.  What will I do with this new curriculum?  she asked herself. It was foreign to the teacher, indeed, but she soon realized that it must be so so important (and being one to never shy away from a challenge), she set off to understand it.  She dove right in and the let the curriculum swallow her up. She toiled and she perspired. She read and she scrawled. She collaborated and tweeted. She did what she needed to do to get a handle on this new curriculum.

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Her favourite part were the curricular competencies. Never before had she seen skills as a part of learning.  The content was so familiar to her, but the competencies were not.  After thinking long and hard, watching webinars and reading books, the teacher realized that the content that she and her colleagues seemed so devoted to, was really the means, not the end, of learning.  Oh no! She nervously tapped her pencil on her grade book. Now she would have to find ways to teach skills, and assess skills, and use the content to refine those skills. What a challenge this will be! she told herself. And an immense challenge it was for the teacher.

But what about those tests she had made that the teacher held so dear? What would become of them? Well, this teacher felt confident that they would fit into her new perspective. She opened up the short story test file with eagerness and beheld its beauty. It was so divine!  As she flipped through the pages, her eyes became wide with surprise. She crinkled her forehead and clenched her jaw. Oh dear, she exclaimed. This test does not fit at all! This test…this test is content knowledge! Oh dear! Oh dear! Filled with woe, she grasped hold of her Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Her fingers fawned the columns. Suddenly, she placed her hands on her head and gasped. The content is low level thinking skills, not high-level thinking skills that I’ve wanted to impress upon my students.  Whatever would she do? 

She slept very restlessly that night, but awoke with a fervor.  She knew what she had to do! With a slight pang of regret and a twinge in her heart, the teacher did what any good teacher would do.  She hovered the mouse from her computer over that file she loved, right clicked, and deleted it.  As she watched it become incinerated into cyberspace, she did not weep for the loss of the test. In fact, the teacher felt a surge of rejuvenation.  This is, she said, the finest thing to happen!  I’ve got it! I will use the content like the foundation for a house. I will make it the first steps of learning!  I will make sure they understand this wonderful content by other means: four corners activities, thumbs up and thumbs down, and exit slips.  Maybe I’ll slip in a quiz or two.  Oh yes. It will be divine!  I won’t need to count these tasks. They will be formative.  I won’t nearly have the marking at all. I’ll wait until it’s summative. I’ll give feedback in class when my students need it most!  What a blessing assessing skills would be for the teacher!

She got to work, unpacking those curricular competencies.  And once my young learners have a strong foundation of knowledge, she muttered to herself, I will take them up the taxonomy ladder and guide them through all the skills they need to battle any 21st century fiend that comes their way. She clapped her hands with delight.  They will communicate…oh yes.  They will think…oh my.  They will take responsibility…hallelujah!  

As her fingers floated over each competency, it became clear to her how sophisticated these competencies were: synthesizing and evaluating, analyzing and explaining, choosing and defending.  What fun we will have developing these skills, she thought to herself.  What novel ways I can approach. Maybe, there are several ways to develop these skills. Voice and choice would be the key for each student’s success.  How inclusive it would be for all.

When the teacher settled into bed one night, after many weeks of personal growth, she was extraordinarily exhausted, but she felt confident and clever. For she had not abandoned her love for content, but she had embraced a new focus. She closed her eyes and envisioned what the wonderful future would hold for her learners. And she smiled.

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Syncing Maslow with Bloom

For the first week of school, a young man (Let’s call him Brad) hid in his hoodie in my Humanities 8 room. He refused to do any work. I pulled him out, one day, and questioned him in an authoritarian manner. It’s the beginning of the school year and I needed to show him I was the boss. It was the usual: What’s going on? Why aren’t you working? You need to get to work! He informed me, in that conversation, that he didn’t want to do the work because he had already done it last year. Ahh..a repeater. Great. (I confess that I rolled my eyes in my head for a second). After I got over myself, I explained my teaching style with the hope I could prompt him to get to it. I explained to him that I assessed students on a continuum, which meant that evidence of learning could be used to move forward.

By talking about my assessment prowess, I was, indeed, making the situation about me. Realizing this and making no headway with the boy, I promised him that I would confer with his previous teacher and find out what he had and hadn’t learned and we would go from there. Why not, right? I might as well find out what he can skip and what he still needs to do. Maybe, just maybe, if we can skip a couple assignments, he’ll be more motivated. Because less work is a motivation to do more work, right? It even sounds dumb in my head.

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, no evidence was found. He was often non-compliant and a non-attender) his teacher informed me. When I broached the bad news to Brad, he continued to hide in his hoodie. He was playing the game. Maybe, she won’t notice me and will leave me along if I sit really quietly in my hoodie game. The I’m hopeless game. I decided to shift gears.

Instead of worrying about the work that had to get done in a timely manner, I decided to try and connect with Brad. I said good morning to him every day. I told him to have a gread day at the end of every class. In class, I sat with him for a couple minutes, every day, to find out how his mapping was going even if all I got were responses of shrugs and head shakes. I can be dam persistent, especially with kids who are reluctant learners. It’s a challenge for me.

 When it came to lit circles discussion day, last week, Brad joined the group as he was supposed to, but was typically emotionless. When I spoke with him instead of ignoring his non-compliance, he told me that there was no way he would contribute to the group. He was excruciatingly shy. Ok. That’s OK.  I told him no problem! In fact, I told him, the way I assess (triangulation style – show, do, tell) I could use what he wrote, what he said or a combination of both. So, if he wanted to just write, he could write, but he needed to listen to the group discussion and the discussion could be used to compliment his written work.  He looked surprised, but in the moments following that conversation, I saw his pencil on his paper, the first time in three weeks. Now, I didn’t yet get excited, yet, but I was definitely optimistic. 

Today, I showed all the students how to find the scale for their political, continent maps. We did some math. It was no big deal. Find the scale on the map. Measure two points and calculate the scale. Use the distance to work backwards to calculate the scale of your map. 1 cm now equals…blah blah blah. But I noticed that Brad’s eyes were brighter and more involved than usual. In fact, he was thoroughly engaged! Huh, well isn’t that something.

At the end of that same day, Brad arrived to pick up his binder which he had left behind before an assembly. He spoke. Brad doesn’t speak very often. “I just had the longest Math question in t-block. It took me forever. But I got it.” I stopped what I was doing and we chatted about Math. He loved Math, I found out. When I asked him how his map was going, he told me that he liked learning about how to calculate scale. This is new. “You know,” I told him, “later in the semester, you will get to choose what you want to research. I do these projects instead of a final exam which allow you to deep dive into a topic of interest. Maybe you could research Renaissance mathematicians…” His eyes went bright again. I then placed my hand on his shoulder. “You know, buddy, if you just do your best and use class time wisely, you’ll pass my course. Just think about what you could do with Math when you get out of school.” He responded with a sensitivity I hadn’t seen before. “I want to do something with Math. I’m really good at Math. I won Math awards in my elementary school. I want to do something like design work.” I was thoroughly intrigued, so I told him the story about how my husband, who, fifteen odd years ago, lost his job and chose to take some E.I. training to become a engineering design technologist. It was a game changer for him. He smiled when I told him that story. I, then, decided to dangle a bit of a carrot. “I’ll make you a deal, Brad,” I said. “If you give this course your best shot, you’ll pass. Then, you can put my name on your resume in June. That way, if you want to get yourself a little part time job, I’ll recommend you if a potential employer calls me for a reference. What do you think about that?” He said he liked that idea, and for the first time in four weeks, I saw that his posture was a little straighter when he walked out of my room. Yes!!

I was pumped.  Now I’m not naive. The journey Brad and I are on, together, is far from over, but the growth that occurred over the last four weeks has been like hurdling buildings…no mountains!  It was a start.  And in this start, maybe I’ll see some more learning. I was incredibly hopeful, Brad looked happier, and the entire situations now wreaked of optimism.

You see, I think the first four weeks of the school year is the time to get to know students. I love assessment. I love standards-based and gradeless philosophies. But before Bloom, we need to get through Maslow first. We need to touch student’s souls and show that we care before we can ever, EVER expect them to feel safe to begin their learning.

Teachers often feel the push to jump right into assessment practices and assess, assess, assess.  This can come from extrinsic pressures like interim reports, parents or administrator protocols.  Intrinsically, we know that we need to get to the heart of our students and get to know them first. But productivity and the desire to learn doesn’t happen instinctively. It requires nurturing and guiding. Students need to feel protected before they will be willing to learn.  Even at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, despite our resolve that student should come well fed, properly clothed and well rested, we notice that many aren’t. How many teachers keep a stash of granola bars and apples to feed our kids? I’ve also found that Smiles and Frowns foster so many of Maslow’s hierarchy too.

Smiles and Frowns is the brain child of Monte Syrie, a Washington educator who found that beginning each class asking students to share a smile (something positive) or a frown (something not so positive) fosters a sense of community and sensitivity in his classroom. Students are never obligated to share, but they are obligated to listen. The results, which Monte frequently writes about in his Project 180 blog, has had a profoundly positive impact on how his students learn. It had an equally positive impact on the students in my class as well.

When I began doing smiles and frowns, last year, in all of my classes. I noticed something remarkable. When students were willing to share something so basic as losing their lunch money, other students were willing to step in and support them. A girl in my Drama class, last year, shared the fact that her money was ‘eaten’ by the vending machine and therefore had had nothing to eat. Within minutes, students stepped in with an apple, cheese string and granola bar. Her hand went up shortly thereafter…”I have a smile. I was fed!”  Her physiological needs were met in smiles and frowns. She felt safe in the room and also had a feeling of belonging.  She is further along the taxonomy and will be far more productive that she was before the class began. All because of Smiles and Frowns.  It’s so simple. It takes five minutes. It’s community building at its finest.

Maybe it’s because of Maslow that students feel comfortable ascending to new heights of learning, instead of keeping their spirits firmly settled in satisfactory or minimal proficiency in terms of achievement. Over the past few years, working through #20time projects, my students deliver three to five-minute Ted Talks instead of writing a final exam at the end of the year. I always figured that kids were more willing to do the Ted Talks because kids are willing to do anything that doesn’t involve writing a test. But then, I realized, that public speaking isn’t exactly a carrot for kids neither. We’re talking about standing up in front of their peers with a spotlight on them. Daunting! Scary! But Maslow plays a big part of the #20time process.  It takes nurturing along Maslow just as much as guiding kids to work hard on the areas I was assessing for them to be confident to present. 

One of the most integral moments of the #20time process is the show and tell I host regardless of whether the project is complete or not. This celebration honours all of the work done by students and the leaps they took. When we celebrate in a complete way (and not just a couple atta boys or atta girls) students’ esteem needs are built up . Even when a project is hugely incomplete, the spotlight is on the success not the failure. It is about what was done, not what wasn’t. There are always smiles across the room as we celebrate the impressiveness of the journeys. Some students are even inspired to complete their projects even though this stage was technically, considered complete.

Additionally, I recently decided to incorporate three minutes of mindfulness into my daily instruction in all of my classes. For some students, there is a storm in their heads that needs calming before learning can begin. Mindfulness is not a quick fix, nor can is replace counseling or one on one professional guidance, but it can, with practice generate a sense of calm and peace in the room and in one’s mind.

Mindfulness is personal for me. Last June, there was a storm brewing in me and that storm resulted in my doctor pulling me off work for a couple of weeks. My year was filled with loss and the way I tried to overcome that loss was to immerse myself in my work. What I didn’t realize is that I was cloaking my sadness and not dealing with my grief. I’m thankful that I was able to realize the depth of my despair and see my family doctor. I’m even more thankful for the amazing counselling I received in the weeks following my doctor’s visit. My counselor taught me about mindfulness and prescribed frequent, daily mindfulness moments. After a month of following their orders, I felt more grounded. I cannot go a day without practicing mindfulness now.

I shared that part of my year with my students, recently. It was my hope that exposing my vulnerability would invite them to take the three minutes of mindfulness in each class seriously. Now, they remind me to play the music for mindfulness and willingly share their own vulnerability. My classes, this year, feel more like a family than ever before.

Our students need nurturing and love before they can begin their learning journeys. We have an obligation to love the beautiful and difficult parts of each of our students. We cannot be afraid to expose our own vulnerability and humanity to our students. Perhaps, we can make them feel less alone. And perhaps, we can reap some benefit of sharing a bit of our souls and our journeys.

It is easy to get swept up in processes, Bloom’s Taxonomy, learning scales, and instruction. We need to make reflecting on students’ needs a priority in our daily objectives. After all, kids are worth it. Brad will make it in my class. I have hope.


The Report Card Dilemma

You’ve embraced a gradeless mindset. Your students are showing progress. It was a struggle at first, but you persevered in your communication of student learning to parents and they now appreciate that your focus has been on learning and not grades. Wahoo! Success!

But it’s June and the Ministry of Education requires a letter grade on the report card.

Your heart sinks to the base of despair.

Unfortunately, there really is no way around it. Until there is a ministerial shift in how learning is reported, we are obligated to provide a mark. It’s a miserable fact.

How do gradeless teachers deal with the report card dilemma?  I usually have an answer or some kind of suggestion to most edu-assessment problems, but I gotta be honest. I don’t have an answer for this one. I’m in this boat with the rest of you gradeless maestros, and the report card dilemma is a tough nut to crack.

The formula dilemma

I’m gradeless and use a learning scale to assess the BC curricular competencies. My scale is similar to the Ministry’s four-point proficiency scale, but has been expanded to a more detailed five-point rubric.

Last year, when I organized the scale into FreshGrade, I also used a simple set of marks to correspond to each of the levels on the scale  The reality of generating a percent or letter grade at the end of the course was not a foreign concept to me, so to be ahead of the eight ball, adding a numerical equivalent to each level would, hopefully, create an ease and efficiency to that task at the end of the course.  Add them up and get a mark.  Job done.

You can see how I am over-complicating things here as you can see.  It’s a really hard transition to gradeless.  The learning scale, while significant and important in its conceptualization, can also trap a teacher into a pseudo-letter grade dilemma as you can see by the “Partially Applying” and “Partially Exceeding.”
Not much better now, but a bit more firm and clear in its grade level disposition. It’s still numbers though.

The dilemma lay in the transition from effective, meaningful language in my gradeless classroom to a letter grade generated from numbers. I’d like to think that there is a thoughtfulness to the learning scale and its development both at the district level (in which part of the scale came from) and the original language I added to it. The scale was never meant to represent the very letter grades or percentages I was trying so desperately to get away from, so how could I represent each column in that way?   It seems to me, now, that those numbers are hypocritical to the important philosophy characterizing gradeless.  I pushed and encouraged the scale to my colleagues, last year, because I believe in growth mindset and that growth mindset cannot be bred in a culture of percentages and letter grades.

So, you could simply use an uncomplicated formula that adds up all the numbers and divides by the number of scores and poof! you have a mark.  It’s easy and convenient.  It also allows gradeless teachers to abide by ministerial rules.  Unfortunately, it is unsettling to do so.

The who cares what the grade is? dilemma

Teachers who haven’t adopted or completely bought into a gradeless system, seem to have a preconceived notion as to what certain grades mean. I’m not sure where and when, exactly, the notion of what a good mark and a poor mark came from besides the obvious pass/fail structure in which if one fails, one ultimately repeats the course, and if one passes the course, they move on to the next grade level. Perhaps, it’s a blue-ribbon mentality that rewards students with accolades like Honour Roll and Principal’s List.  “A’s” and “B’s” seem to give the impression of appropriateness for students, parents and teachers.  I’m not sure I really buy what that’s selling though.  Look at how Honour Roll, for example, in my school, and how it is calculated. A “C+” in one course is fine so long as you get an “A” in another course.  Hmmm.  It seems a bit screwy to think an average of marks reaps a version of success. And what about the justification of a “B” giving an “Honour”? Why should a 73% gift a student with a certain level of distinction or prowess, but a 71% doesn’t? It’s just two percent! It just makes my head hurt.

If you’ve cultured a lovely gradeless, growth mindset over the last several months in your classroom, shouldn’t the final mark be so much more thoughtful than one created by a formula? Absolutely!  Do we tend to overthink the final mark regardless of formula or not thanks to cultures of appropriateness? Definitely. I wonder, if you have embraced a gradeless mindset, why should you stress about the final grade at all? Dare I I say, who cares what the grade is? That’s right. What if we stopped caring about the grade and said to heck with them? Why overthink it?

One reason, I think, we tend to overthink the final mark, is that we worry, unreasonably, about university or college entrance marks, and so, lend too much weight to how the proverbial marks chips fall.  This I know for sure: professors have more important things to do than worry about than what mark Joey got in History 12 or Suzie got in English 12.  University and college are entirely different atmospheres of learning and this resonates with the students who go there. Students who, perhaps, didn’t give two hoots about their high school courses, might show more carefulness at a post-secondary institution because they are now on their career paths, taking courses they want to take and paid for them.  Then, there are some who miss the more friendly atmosphere of high school and buckle under the higher a pressure of a post-secondary civilization.  Regardless of what happens to students at university or college, my point is that “A” and “C” labelled students are all held to the same standard when they are at post-secondary institutions.  Some so called “A” students in high school sink and some “C” students swim.  

We do our best to prepare students for post-secondary, but how much power should we even consider wielding on report cards?  Who says we should hold the authority to what will be the most important educational years in our students’ lives? What if the computer reads that a student has a “C,” but they are desperate to get into a university that requires a minimum of a “C+”? Are we so great and powerful that we hold true to the “C”? I say give them the darn “C+” and let the cards fall where they may. I propose that we let go of the frustration that is deciding on the “A, B, C+…” that goes on the report card.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should gift failing students with a passing grade. If students do not meet at a minimal level of proficiency in most curricular competencies, they should not pass the course.  I’m pretty confident that I can accurately assess whether a student has reached minimal proficiency on the scale as opposed to below expectations. I am suggesting that we not stress over a “B” or a “C+” or even a “C,” especially when we’ve worked so hard instilling a learning culture.  Make the report card grade an afterthought and maybe even consider negotiating a grade with the students.  Let them wield a bit of the power and feel good about what has to go on the darn report card. Honestly, I think, in the long run, we’ll all wonder why we put so much pressure on ourselves in the first place.

The letter grade rubric dilemma

So if if formulas aren’t the answer and we shouldn’t care about the grade because it goes against the gradeless philosophy, what then? We still need a letter grade on the report card.

What if we used a scale to help generate letter grades to help teachers make the transition from gradeless or standards-based grading to the final letter grade? No formula. I’m talking about a version of a learning scale or rubric that stands alone from the gradebook, but is used in conjunction with a gradeless mindset. Is it possible?

If you are a rubric enthusiast and prefer a standards-based approach to gradeless, then you will, no doubt, appreciate a rubric to help you determine a final grade and it might help you sleep better about having to come up with a letter grade. It also allows for somewhat more transparency if and when you choose to conference with students to determine said letter grade. If students don’t have some clue as to what grades represent, to you, how can they determine what they deserve, right?

Teachers who preach the gradeless gospel and standards-based philosophy (which are not one in the same, but are, sometimes, used in conjunction with each other, like I do), believe in these concepts:

  • Grades don’t accurately represent what a student knows.
  • Grades can hinder learning forward thinking.
  • Grades put unnecessary labels on students.
  • Grades don’t motivate.
  • Students learn better when they receive and are given the chance to improve with timely, authentic, descriptive feedback
  • A standards-based model more accurately assesses learning than grades do. 
  • Standards based learning (like the five-point scale above) allows for the words in the scale to reflect the path of learning. 
  • Feedback, in addition to the learning scale, allows for students to move along the spectrum.
  • Standards-based assessments should never be averaged.

Given the above outlook, I think a suitable scale to generate a letter grade at the culmination of a course, if so chosen to go in that direction, and that meets the needs of students, should, at the very least, be a combination of progress and achievement

Achievement and progress are distinctly different. As Tom Schimmer points out in his book, Grading From the Inside Out (2016), achievement is proficiency in the standards while progress is how much growth has been shown.  He goes on to say that including both in the evaluation process is necessary in order to accurately reflect learning, but growth is “somewhat tricky to report since less proficient students have the most room to grow, but making the most progress doesn’t always equate to reaching the highest level of proficiency.  As well, a highly proficient student may have little opportunity to show much growth since his or her achievement, from the start, was already close to the advanced level” (170).

The business, then, of incorporating achievement and progress in a letter grade determination, means that teachers better be sure that every student has an equal opportunity for growth.  That means providing stretches and challenges for both novices and exemplary students.  So, ultimately, the use of a letter grade determining rubric means embedding achievement and progress in the pedagogy. This might be a tough sell for those who aren’t wholeheartedly riding the gradeless bandwagon yet.

For example, last year, when I explained the gradeless learning scale to my colleagues, the Extending level (at the far right of the scale), was envisioned, by some, as part of “bonus work land,” and extra work for those ahead and wanted ‘extra’ credit. This doesn’t mesh in a standards-based classroom. Additionally, any consideration of less than 100% and calling it “proficient” (Applying in the learning scale) also generated some gasps.  The reality is, the mark we ultimately place on a report card cannot exceed 100% so either we consider 100% as proficient and remove the possibility of stretches and challenges for those we deem as proficient in a skill, or we rethink proficiency and make sure that there is the opportunity for all learners to extend themselves as learners.

For me, it’s a no-brainer to provide opportunities for all learners to exceed their expectations and not settle in to a certain section of the learning scale. It also makes sense to consider that a final assessment (grades or not) should include the journey a student takes as well as the achievement they have worked to earn. This is the very nature of growth mindset and fosters a love of learning instead of goals. It’s hard work for teachers to make sure all learners have the means to advance themselves. It’s even more hard work to give them the necessary skills to level up. I don’t want bored students in my classroom.

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In order to find some kind of peace, I am working on developing a scale that meets my needs and pedagogy, and takes into consideration both achievement (level of proficiency in the curricular competencies) and the amount of progress they’ve made on their learning journey. It isn’t easy to find a happy medium.  Ask Aaron Blackwelder, one of co-creators of the Teachers Going Gradeless website (, and he’d concur. Blackwelder has inspired me to rethink how I generate a letter grade at the end of a course, but reminds me of the difficulties in that development.  He says that, in fact, his “Descriptive Grading Criteria” rubric (see below) is not even close to a solution to the letter grades dilemma, nor would he consider it a merger of grade and gradeless philosophies: “I want to be as transparent as I can. That rubric is pretty much developed to satisfy a system that I do not believe in. When I do a report card, I only add the letter and then send home a copy of my report card to parents, which I think is much better.”

Courtesy of Aaron Blackwelder
Example of a feedback driven report card courtesy of Aaron Blackwelder

I really like Aaron Blackwelder’s version of a report card (above) as well as his “Descriptive Grading Criteria.” I could manipulate the criteria to reflect the learning scale and simply examine a student’s body of skills to determine their letter grade. I would have to pay more attention to my tracking to be sure I am authentically tracking progress and not just achievement, but it’s a start.  In terms of the report card, I love the detail as it aligns with my preference to communicate student learning via portfolio, dialog, and descriptive feedback.  

I’m just genuinely fearful of using letter grades to any extent, even as part of teacher-student conversation or a criterion-based rubric, as it may shift the mindset of my students and make the whole point of going gradeless or using standards-based learning scales, hypocritical to the true nature of a grade-free classroom. When asked if he plans to use some kind of rubric to generate a course end letter grade in his gradeless classroom, Washington teacher and champion of the Project 180 blog (, Monte Syrie, says: “in keeping with my desire to truly de-emphasize grades, I am just going to focus on the learning, and let the ‘grading’ pieces fall into place at the end. I feel, as soon as I start down the path of defining [letter grades], I am letting grading, not learning, guide the way. Since I am focusing on growth and have tried to develop an approach that supports and honors that, I expect most kids to get an “A.” I am only putting a grade on the report card because I have to.”


I’m not alone in my report card dilemma. And for those of you who were hoping I had a rubric or philosophy that would solve the problem of creating a letter grade in a gradeless classroom at the end of a course, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m working on some version that will set my mind at ease. When I think I have something workable, I’ll share it, but I’ll vehemently encourage tweaking it to make it true to you.

I guess, then, if I were to give you, the gradeless teacher, any sage advice, it’s to stay true to your pedagogy, but don’t lose sleep over this letter grades business. Adopt a learning scale if you want, or conference with each student. Maybe bring in a report card like Blackwelder does. At the end of the day, if you have made the amazing choice to teach without letter grades, your students will walk out your classroom with a growth mindset and polished skills that will be critical for them to survive in the 21st century. And you can’t put a letter grade on that.


My 21st Century #20time Epiphany

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I fell in love with project-based learning a few years ago when I went looking for deeper way of doing projects with my Humanities 8 students. At that time, I was doing project work with my students, but it was cookie-cutter projects: posters, PowerPoints, and newspapers…you know what I’m talking about. I gave out the topics and lots of class time and yadda, yadda, yadda. These projects were fine and the kids enjoyed them, but then I still relied on tests and final exams to assess their learning. I felt a disconnect in my assessment process. The kids would show me this great work via the project and then bomb the test. Maybe I could just skip the test? But then how do I get in enough content into the project? Ahh, the worry.

Then I stumbled upon several teachers who incorporated Project Based Learning (PBL) or Genius Hour into their curriculum. I was fascinated. I loved the idea of assessing things like grit, hustle and work ethic. These were, you know, real life skills. My only problem was that even with Genius Hour, while I got critical and creative thinking, I still got the same kinds of projects that students were comfortable with: posters, PowerPoints, booklets. I also found this sense of complacency with some students. You know those kids who want to the take the path of least resistance, or those ones who just want to do the one that gets them an “A.” We’re talking kids without a growth mindset. I was frustrated.

Deep down in my gut, I wanted to make students uncomfortable. I wanted students to seek out a challenge and try to conquer it. It is the 21st century and I knew that students who could collaborate, critically think and creatively think would be the big winners in the job jackpot of the future. Then, lo and beyond, I found this book:

And then this vlog:

And this quote.

And I literally felt the stars align! I knew that #20time was what I needed to embrace.

I stopped everything and looked at my calendar and started deleted boxes and figuring out how I would incorporate it….and now. (For those who you who want to know, this type A personality plans her year on a spread sheet: weeks at a glance, units, lessons, curricular competencies, and lab time…I know I am persnickety one!) I actually decided that I would try #20time, first, with my English 9 students, not my Humanities students. If proven successful (translation, I don’t crawl into the fetal position and cry in front of my students at some point), I would figure out a way to do it with the Humanities kiddos at the end of the school year.

So off I went…into the great unknown…#20time!

What is #20time?

In short, #20time is the allocation of 20% of class time to work on a passion project. The passion project can be directly tied to a theme in the course. In the case of my English 9s, their overarching theme was compassion (I used compassion and ignorance as the course’s theme. Flash forward, in my Humanities 8 class, I tied it to a student-created inquiry question from Social Studies.) If you check out other #20time projects from around the world, you will also see no thematic or obvious thematic curricular connection (check out Laura Randazzo’s blog – In those classrooms, students were given the freedom to pick whatever they wanted to do. Learn to play the ukulele? Sure. Build a robot? Why not? Start up a soup kitchen? Giver!

Regardless of how #20time is used or will look in a given classroom classroom, one thing remains constant. #20time takes all your preconceived notions of project work and throws them out the window. Crash! Bang! Typical projects are teacher directed and generated. A teacher gives a variety of topics to choose from and often a format, or choice of to format, to generate the final projects. #20time is about giving students unlimited choice and 20% of class time to express their unlimited voice. They cannot be spoon fed a topic or idea, nor can they be given a format for the project. Teachers become guides, but have to relinquish the usual control of a project they’ve created. It’s scary…big time scary! But it is so cool!

Before I started the English 9 #20time compassion projects (or any #20time project) I needed to have an end in mind. What skills did I want my students to come out with on the other end?

I began with an examination of the curricular competencies I wanted students to develop mastery of. I would build on all the curricular competencies in class via other units, but the #20time unit would culminate with their learning of these competencies:

  1. Synthesize ideas from a variety of sources to build understanding
  2. Access information and ideas for diverse purposes and from a variety of sources and evaluate their relevance, accuracy, and reliability
  3. Assess and refine texts to improve their clarity, effectiveness, and impact according to purpose, audience, and message
  4. Use and experiment with oral storytelling processes
  5. Think critically, creatively, and reflectively to explore ideas within, between, and beyond texts

It was an English class, so I wanted their final projects to involve writing, which we had been working on over the course of the semester. #20time projects end with a Ted Talk, so synthesizing and refining texts would fall into that category. I also wanted students to research and research well, so that would fall under accessing information. The speaking process for the Ted Talk could be oral storytelling. Reflecting could be writing reflections on the process. Done! Easy, right? Not exactly. It was still up to the students to have something to write, research, speak and synthesize about.

Because our course theme was compassion and ignorance, I asked students to come up with a charity or individual they felt exuded compassion, but has been taken for granted or has been, to some extent overlooked. It was a meaty topic and not just, “pick a charity from the list” topic. They had to have a personal connection to the charity/individual, and the charity/individual had to be local.

Here’s the first kicker. Over the course of several weeks, students had to research and interview a representative from the charity or the individual themselves. One of the parameters was research in the form of local, relevant research. That meant had to talk to living, breathing people, or at least email them directly. Scary stuff for students who text or snap their bff’s with said bff one meter away from them (I’m not exaggerating). This was the uncomfortable I mentioned previously. Communication is a tough sell, but insisting on local, relevant research and topics/individuals who they were personally connected with meant they couldn’t just Google the answers to their questions or Bing search the good work Leonard DiCaprio does for climate change. So, student students created questions of interest and went to work contacting charities or individuals. I didn’t contact them for them, but I did give them time, in class (what I called their “20time day” on Wednesdays) to use the school phone or their own devices to make contact. I would also help them troubleshoot other means of contacting their person or charity. My job was facilitator and helper. Then, students compiled their research and had to come up with an exotic way to highlight their research.

Here’s the second kicker. The way they highlighted the research had to be in a format that was new to them. They couldn’t just throw all their information into a PowerPoint or create a poster. No Sirree! They already knew how to do that. #20time is just as about learning to build, create or make something new as it is working on curricular and core competencies. So, then, over several weeks, students had to learn how to build, create or make their projects and then try to have it ready by the due date.

Here’s the third kicker.  The project might not get done by the due date and that’s okay, because…wait for it…the project isn’t going to be assessed.  

I’ll give you a second to take that in…

You heard me correctly.  The project isn’t assessed. They will celebrate their journeys, but they won’t hand them in.

Then, here’s the fourth kicker! Students put the projects aside and write amazing Ted Talks…a 3-5-minute final exam Ted Talk.  Passionately presented in a speech style, at a lectern (minus the red, circular carpet…darn…I really need one of those), and complete with PowerPoint projection behind them.   They would look just like the pros at but I let them have a cheat sheet because I’m such a nice person.  We’re talking, massive, intimidating presentations, 11 weeks in the making.

You’re sold right? Probably not yet. This is a lot to take in. And it would be, like, way easier to just chuck an exam at them, right? Don’t.

But wait, you say, I still can’t let go the fact that the projects aren’t assessed? They’ve spent hours and hours on beautiful projects and you don’t have the decency to mark them???

I felt the same way at first.  Here’s the poop! Go back up to the curricular competencies.  #20time isn’t about the project, it is about developing the skills (in BC, curricular and core competencies) needed for the 21st century.  The projects, then, become the avenue for the skills.   Without the avenue, students won’t have a route to the skills.  

And I tell my students that.  I leave nothing for the imagination. I don’t suddenly drop a bomb on them…oh yeah, by the way, that model ship you made. I’m not marking it. Surprise! I tell them that the project won’t be assessed.  I explain to them all the skills I will be assessing.  Do you know what that does? No mark on the project becomes an incentive for them to try something creative without fear of failure. If I were to mark the project, the objective would change. It would become about what Mrs. Schinkel wants and deems good. Blech! What do I know about model ships? Instead, I want to be a high school version of Bill Gates meets 007 meets Ethan Hunt: “Here’s the challenge if you choose to accept it.  Be creative.  Make a plan.  Collaborate your way through problems. Get fired up.  Don’t lick your wounds. Make it happen!”

My rustic learning map on the board. I checked off each step as the class went forward. Next year, each student will have their own. (I’m always reflecting and looking for ways to make things better next time.)


When students are given choice and voice, they buy in. Plain and simple.  When you let them sit in the driver’s sit, you’ll get even more buy in.  When you let them drive for the entire journey, you guessed it, you’ll get even more buy in. Winner winner, chicken dinner!

For the English 9 projects, I didn’t choose a charity or inspirational person for them. Man, there were days when I just wanted to throw an idea at some of them because they procrastinated like it was nobody’s business! But I had to be patient. I couldn’t expect students to connect, personally and deeply to a topic I, the teacher felt personally and deeply about. I had to be about them and only them. So, instead, we conferenced and brainstormed, and sometimes we conferenced and brainstormed even more.  Through the conferencing, my job had to be to be that of Professor Positivity, at your service. No idea is ever considered a bad idea in #20time. Even though, in my heart of hearts, I thought an idea might not be a really good one or I had a better one, I had to check my opinion at the door and encourage any and all ideas that crossed my path.   I had to let them try.

Additionally, every week, students had to reflect, on FreshGrade, about their journey.  Sometimes, we conferenced on FreshGrade too. Soon, students realized, though, that the kids around them who had made their choices and started the research process, were leaving them in the dust and they were losing important project development weeks, so that often pushed students to make it happen, so to speak.

For the Humanities 8 projects, students honed on their favourite unit from the year and developed an inquiry question to base their hypothesis and subsequent research on.  Instant buy in when students get to choose what they want to examine more deeply.  But let’s talk about the projects that they may or may not finish.  In a Humanities class, focussed on copious amounts of reading and writing, imagine the excitement when kids are told they get to highlight their research in any way. They could build something, make something, or create something.  I had students forge blades because their research was on medieval weaponry. I had two girls learn how to knit because they decided they wanted to knit the flags that represented the countries where the Black Death spread.  Another group learned to work with clay and paint in order to mimic Renaissance art styles.  They got to play. They got to work with their hands. They got to be creative. It was cool.  These are the future critical and creative thinkers employers want to have on staff.


According to Growing Tomorrow’s Citizens in Today’s Classrooms, meaningful, challenging tasks helps shape cognition, asking student to consistently reflect develops metacognition, celebrating all growth and achievement fosters hope, highlighting strengths over weaknesses increases self-worth, and constantly and consistently showing learners how their efforts are directly linked to overall improvement cultivates a growth mindset (Erkens, Schimmer, & Vagle, 2019).

Self-regulation is an important 21st century skill.  In #20time, students are challenged to build or create something new (developing cognition). They reflect on their process, progress, challenges and set goals (developing metacognition). The entire comes to class and shares projects (complete or not) in an informal, chips and cookies, show and tell day (inspiring hope). Students are given the assurance to develop grit and hustle (developing self-worth). Measuring growth and improvement in all the skills is what is assessed (which is growth mindset).

We shouldn’t take self-regulation for granted and #20time encourages its development.

Skill development & Assessment

I’m big on gradeless assessment. #20time and a gradeless mindset are like potatoes and gravy, sunshine and good moods, pumpkins and Halloween…they go very well together.#20time helps eliminate the “I give up” mode so prominent in teenagers’ brains.  In #20time, it is okay to try-fail-try again, try-fail-try-fail-try again, and try-fail-give up-reset-try again.  The projects themselves are not assessed, and the pressure of making picture-perfect, pretty projects that can become a huge burden for kids, mentally, is gone.   The class and I had many conversations about overcoming challenges, grit, reflecting, researching, writing well, as important life long skills, and those were the skills I assessed using a learning scale over the course of the 12-week unit.

Standards based learning scale I developed with a gradeless mindset in mind.

I tied each of these areas to curricular competencies by way of backwards design.  That is, I took the curricular competencies and core competencies, and decided how students could go about working towards mastery of them, and then I assessed them using a learning scale.   I gave authentic, descriptive feedback throughout the journey so that students could see what they strengths and weaknesses were and I gave them the chance to improve.  For example, after students presented their 60 second elevator pitches (an important step for students in which they complete and share with their classmates around week 5 or 6, what they found in their research, what they plan to do for a project, and how they will complete the project), I gave them feedback on their speaking skills (posture, manner, voice, etc).  This was integral, formative feedback they could use when they started practicing their Ted Talk. It’s really important to me that students have the path to be successful. That includes authentic feedback and scaffolding of instruction.

As another example, I mentioned how I get students to reflect each week on their learning.  When they reflected, I shared with them where they are on the scale for reflections and I give them feedback on what they were missing and how they could improve in that skill next week. Using FreshGrade was an integral part of this process. FreshGrade is digital assessment and portfolio system in which communication of student learning is shared between all stakeholders: parents, students and the teacher. So while one might argue that a student might ignore the feedback and simply settle for Developing, for example, keep in mind, again, that the parents are involved and witness to the reflections as well. Additionally, students buy in a lot more when they know that assessments are not averaged and when the feedback is right there, front and center. Parents would often chime in if my feedback suggested that the student wasn’t answering all the suggested questions for the reflections. That was a win-win for the student.

Reflections with next steps. Doesn’t have to be too wordy. Just has to be supportive and allow them to level up in the next reflection.

Online reflections are powerful connecting tools. Sometimes, what is unsaid in the classroom, can be said in the digital landscape.  And regardless of what they achieved over the ten or so weeks of reflecting, they were always informed of the learning scale assessment as a guide for improvement, and scores were never, ever averaged. If, by the end of the ten weeks, a student was writing reflections at an Applying level, then it didn’t matter if they wrote five of their first reflections at Beginning. They showed improvement, and at the unit, were assessed as such.

Students were also asked to provide a quote that represented their learning for the week. These, then, in turn, could be used for the PowerPoint portion of the Ted Talk.

Final Thoughts

#20time could be used with intermediate to high school and in any subject: Science (what if students came up with some kind of novel, green solution to a school’s waste problem), History (what would Europe be like had the Black Death not struck it?), Geography (reorganize the downtown core of Prince George to make it more accessible for persons with disabilities), Drama (write a play about human rights), Foods (create and market a new food item), Social Justice (how can students create a movement to end climate change)…The possibilities are endless but the parameters are clear.  Give students voice and choice. Become the facilitator, not the spoon feeder.  Encourage but do not assess the final project. Examine the curricular competencies you want to assess and integrate them into the folds of the #20time experience.

It won’t be an easy journey. There were times during my first #20time experience that I wanted to fold up my notes, chuck them in the garbage can, and tell the kids to Fuhgeddaboudit! There will be students who leave their projects to the eleventh hour. There will be students who take weeks (it will feel like years) to come up with a topic or project idea because they would rather the teacher would just give them an idea. Put on your poker face and get through it. At the end of the journey, when students show their projects you’ll see the pride. You’ll hear the “wows” from other students.

Check out the pictures above. I have a story for every picture but I’ll keep the detail brief: the Renaissance art duplicated by a duo of Humanities girls, the wooden replica medieval shield, the actual forged gladias (we had to get special permission from admin to bring that one in), the girls who learned how to knit so they could knit flags but never got one complete (but learned and loved knitting as a result! They found it calming, especially for the student who dealt with major anxiety issues), the stamp created by a student who loved his elementary school teacher and wanted to show his love by making and giving him this stamp (if that doesn’t make you cry, there is seriously no hope for you), the SPCA comic book that even the SPCA thought was really cool, and the cutting board made and given to Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen at Christmas (that kid could not stop smiling when he delivered it). At the bottom, are two examples of Ted Talks. Every single student presented their Ted Talks. Every kid. Both classes. No one skipped. They all showed up. They loved it!

Get out your phone and take photos because you will want to keep the energy in the room forever. (And get out your hanky because you just might cry…I know I did.) If I could bottle any day in the last two semesters, it would be show and tell day for #20time and the Ted Talk presentations. I almost forgot to assess them while watching the Ted Talks because I was so amazed and impressed that they poured so much of their heart and soul in to their work. And so many reflected on how this way of learning with freedom, with voice and choice, had such a positive impact on them as learners. No three hour, sit down exam can do that. No way.

So, give #20time a go. If you want to collaborate, shoot me a message or email. I’m happy to help or lend advice. I plan on doing #20time again next year. I’ll be sure to share how the journey goes. Oh, and if you do do it, get a red, circular carpet for the Ted Talk presentations.  Let me know where you bought it. I could really use one too. 😉


PS And one last thing…do a #20time project with the students. Write reflections. Share your projects with the class on sharing day.  Be a part of the experience. I wrote a readers’ theatre play for Northern Bear Aware. It was hard work and challenging. It was neat to work alongside the kids and collaborate with them, too.

There is no ‘%’ in ‘team’

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I’m so done with letter grades.  I’m done with having to generate a symbol of learning that is banal and meaningless.  To me, putting a letter grade on a report card is the equivalent of putting onion flakes on the perfect hot fudge sundae.  Yuck.

Take my Drama 10 class.  Over six weeks, they worked on a show to perform in front of students, friends, and family. Over this time period, not one kid has asked for their mark. I also don’t dare bring up a learning scale or assessment because I feel like I am going to ruin the moment.  That’s because what has happened over those six weeks has been akin to magical. 

The process. I blocked each play.  I made tweaks to lines, movements, entrances, exits, and vocal expression. Students offered up suggestions. When kids were struggling, we spent extra time on their particular skit.  They rushed in each day, as show time drew nearer, assuring me that now they had their lines memorized, and that they had practiced by running lines with their siblings or recording their lines on a voice memo on their phones.  When they had any moment of free time, they asked if they could work on their skits.  They were responsible to bring in costumes and props.  They watched each other practice. They gave each other feedback. They pumped each other up when they felt down.  We built strategies for success when success felt so far away. We created cheat sheets so students with learning disabilities could have that crutch.  We let students bring a costume from home because their mental health wouldn’t tolerate the drama room ones.  A tech student was assigned to each play and this individual; in this case two students who felt smothered by the idea of performing on stage, stepped up with a different kind of responsibility. They still had an extraordinary responsibility: lights, cues, sound effects, music.  It was all a beautiful, exhausting chaos.

Regardless of the role, descriptive feedback was done every second of the blocking process. Students knew exactly what they are doing wrong and were given strategies to move forward.  We practice until we got it right.  We practiced until I saw improvement. Do they always meet my expectations?  No, they don’t.  Do they all grow from the first day of rehearsal to the performance day? Absolutely! 

More important than any assessment, students worked towards a big goal…to perform in a big theatre in front of peers, family, and friends.  Not all of these kids wanted to do it to start with, and some were downright terrified, but it was always instilled in them that the show would be a group effort.  They were told that big, small, walk on or part with lines, their part is important, and if they don’t step up in some way, they could let down the ensemble.  I remove marks completely from the conversations.  I set up a timeline and goals with expectations for those goals.  I don’t assess any student until they complete the ensemble performance. I don’t want a menial assessment of learning part way through the learning process to bring any of the learning to a full stop.  I have learning scales, but I keep my feedback to anecdotal and assessment for learning.

Are they working towards a skills assessment? Of course. Never, ever, do I compare them to anyone but themselves.  If I compared students to students, I’d never have a successful Drama program.  The naturally talented kids would always outshine the weaker kids and the weaker kids who can never see themselves reaching the level of the talented kids would bolt.

“But, Schinkel, aren’t you the learning scale queen who uses learning scales as assessment for learning and not just of learning?” Yes, yes I am. And I do that in my Drama class as well.  At the start of the year, all the same skills students are working on for their show were assessed at the end of a short duologue (two person play) unit.  They know what level their skills are at (voice, body language, blocking, concentration, etc.) and were given feedback and next steps.  They were also informed that those skills were assessed as a snapshot of learning. Assessments are never fixed.  They will have the chance to grow and improve in those skills throughout the semester. I reiterate that sentiment throughout the semester. 

It’s still about using the learning scale, but it’s also about when to use the scale.  I cannot emphasize that enough. When I use learning scales as a tool for learning in all of my class (Humanities, English, or Drama), I don’t hover a scale over students’ heads from day one and have students self-assess every day. I use the scale when students think they have completed a skill.  I’ll take kids to the scale and challenge them to see where they are on the scale. By offering “next steps,” students see how they can level up or as I like to put it, “fill the cup.”

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In Drama, the tension building up to a show is extraordinary.  It’s wonderful tension. But it’s still tension.  It’s simply the wrong time for “next steps” and how can we “fill the cup” the day or even week before a show.  Along the way, it’s more practical to just verbalize “next steps,” and have group reflections that help students polish and refine learning.

Additionally, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs becomes far more important closer to showtime, than any of Bloom’s taxonomy.  In a Drama class, students look to me as their sort of security blanket or protector. I am going to go on stage now, Schink. I’m going to act in front of 500 of my peers. I got this, but you got me too, right? It will be ok, right?  I assure them of several things from the start:

1) I will never give them a part they cannot do their best at. From day one, I tell students that I will give them a part that they can be successful at.  This is student specific.  For one student, that might mean being challenged with extra parts and skits. For another, it might mean one part.  For my special needs student who refused to participate in most of the course, I decided to have her introduce each skit with a poster that she and her EA made.  In the classroom, she wouldn’t participate.  At the eleventh hour, in the theatre, during dress rehearsal, she walked on stage with a poster.  My jaw dropped.  A few minutes later, before another skit, she did again.  On the day of the show, she went on stage more than eight times! I wanted to cry.  All she did was walk on stage with a piece of 2’x1’ cardstock, but it was amazing!

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2) I will make the show more than just about them.  One of my favourite additions to my program in recent years has been the addition of a Personal and Social Responsibility charity.  My Drama 10 shows are always free, with the addition of donations for a charity of the students’ choosing.  This year, we received donations for BC Children’s Hospital and The Canadian Mental Health Association. These charities were picked, defended, and voted on by the students.  Instant buy in and meaning for all the students in the class.  Now, they aren’t doing it for themselves or an assessment. They are doing it to help others.  Mic drop.

3) I will always make sure the show is about team building.  One of my favourite moments is right around the time stress is mounting and I can feel the tension in the room.  They start getting snippy with each other and worried about the success of their pieces.  It’s normal. It’s also the perfect opportunity to bring them in and have a group talk. I circle the kids up and ask them to examine the person to their right.  They must think about that student’s best drama skill and something they appreciate about them. It is the most corny, beautiful bit of team building you will ever see.  Young men who seem too cool for school will tell their friend of many years that they think they are greatest improvisational actor on the planet and that they feel grateful for their friendship. Aw. The young girl who sometimes feels like she doesn’t fit in, is told that her duologue performance was spot on and she is appreciated for her willingness to help with in group who needs her. Double aw. It’s awesome.  Warning…this activity might make you cry. It might make your students cry.  All of that is ok.  It will feel so good! It’s emotional wonderfulness.

 4) I promise to protect my students from scrutiny. I am incredibly defensive and protective of my students and how they are received by an audience, especially a juvenile audience.  That doesn’t mean I have laughter and applause cards to condition the audience, but what it does mean is setting up clear expectations for teachers on how to teach their students to use proper theater etiquette.  Additionally, I make sure that young audiences know about the hard work that has gone into a show, but that the show itself, still might not be perfect, but it has been a labour of love for them to enjoy.  It’s about instant forgiveness when little setback occur.  It’s about creating a culture of students who appreciate their peers and their grit.  When my students know that I literally have their back, they feel comforted.

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5) Lastly, remember Maslow on an individual by individual basis.  Students have lives outside the theatre. Of course, the show increases in priority as we get closer to show time.  Sports come second.  Jobs come second. Trumpet lessons come second. Even other classes come second (sorry academic teachers, but it’s true.) Mental health, though, trumps all the above, including the show. It takes a bit of finesse to make sure that mentally, they feel understood and appreciated.  I never have a conversation like, “can you put it all aside and get on stage?”  It’s more about having the conversation that allows them to vent and feel mentally held.  I always tell them that the cast and I have their back no matter how they are feeling.  I give them breaks and repeatedly check in.  I feel a bit selfish sitting down with a student and having a heart to heart when their world is falling apart, because I know, deep down, that it’s about getting that kid on stage.  The bigger picture here, is that this kid has worked hard to enjoy this moment alongside their peers. It’s about giving them the mental space to perform and the comfort to know that their feelings are respected.

Doing a show means a lot of extra work on my part, but the onus is on the student not the teacher to bring it to reality come show time.  They are all brave, beautiful little humans who put sweat into a production and one simply cannot assess those beaming smiles of pride after an event like this.  Nowhere in any of those five promises to my students are marks or learning scales involved.   I can, once the show is over, go back to my gradebook and think about their individual progress and how well they “filled the cup.”  Did they meet my expectations and fill their own cups?  Did they go above and beyond when I pushed them?  Did they improve, but could have done a bit more?  That’s how I assess them. They already know.  Those who put in the energy, gave the performances of their life and they don’t need to see their assessment. Those who chose to skip class instead of rehearse or still needed a prompt during the show, they will tell you that if given another shot, they would have done it differently and could have done better.  Accurate, empathetic, and clear self-assessments set the summative assessments in stone.  They always do.

So, I may be the learning scale queen, but first and foremost, I am a teacher. I know what my students need and I want them to see the value of what they have done in the theatre. And that means guiding them to see their own value.  When they line up on stage and bow, my breath is always taken away.  Not one kid bowing is worried about an “A.” That’s because they know there is no ‘%’ in ‘TEAM’.


Grades are the bane of my existence

When I was in university, I liked A’s. I was shaken by A-‘s and a smart person knew better than to come near me if I got a B+ on anything.  I liked A’s.  Funny thing is, I’m not sure why I liked A’s.  I knew they epitomized a standard of achievement that students desired. I pushed myself to get that standard of achievement. I worked hard and I mean hard!  I spent long hours writing essays and rehearsing speeches. Why? Because I liked A’s.

I thought I had a mindset for learning, but what I really had was a grades mindset.  The first indication that I really didn’t have a learning mindset back then, came in the years following university. I didn’t pick up a single book to read for pleasure for over two years.  The university grind of being force fed literature and my unreasonable desire to get a flippin’ A put me in the position of plowing through reading without acknowledging the pleasure of reading itself. As a result, I had bruised my hunger to read.  I, like many other students, also allowed myself to get trapped in the web of pleasing my professor instead of finding, at the very least, a happy medium of entertaining and appreciating my role as student.  For some reason, I could not find that balance, and so, sacrificed my vision for A’s.

It’s not like I didn’t learn anything. I had some amazing professors who shared their passions with me, and that, in itself, at times, was infectious.  But those moments were few and far between. It’s too bad I couldn’t see that learning should have been my focus not the letter grade. Maybe I would have spent more time enjoying my journey, savouring the literature I read and discussions I had with other students, instead of letting myself get caught up in the push-pull dilemma that letter grades wrought on my brain. But as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.

Now, as a 21st century teacher with a firm, gradeless mindset, I can share my personal journey with my students in order to explain why I’m so bent on them developing a learning mindset and why grades create a fixed mindset. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I have to battle with both ministry requirements that insist that report cards need letter grades and standardized tests (or literacy and numeracy assessments, as they are cleverly disguised as now) which ultimately categorize students into four insufferable categories once processed: triumphant (aced it!), relieved (ok, not perfect, but ok), deflated (%$&$! My overall mark just dropped a letter grade!), and completely discouraged (I failed it…why do I even bother?).

Why don’t I like report card marks?  They put up walls.  They slam on the proverbial brakes of learning.  There is this fixed mindset of what is good enough, and, as such, once a letter grade is tattooed on a report card, learning has the ability to cease altogether.  That can be catastrophic at the half-way point of a semester when there are ten more weeks of teaching to go.  Letter grades don’t really tell us anything so why use them?  What does 80% mean?  What does 80% represent?  There are so many flaws in this system.  80% is only accurate if we are all using common selected response assessments and that means common one-word answer-type and multiple choice tests.  Ew. It gets worse. If we delve into performance based or even constructed response assessments that involve a variety of assessment strategies, then what is 80% in the eyes of one teacher could very well be 70% in the eyes of another.  This is not an exaggeration. Tom Schimmer spoke about this in the webinar, Assessment and the New BC Curriculum: An Exploration (April 11, 2019).   However, if we all used a four- or five-point learning scale that assessed the skill, we would all be much closer to assessing more homogeneously. But that involves two important changes: teachers must jump aboard the gradeless bandwagon and teachers must collaborate on learning scales, or at the very least, discuss what learning scales will look like across the course for all.  So letter grades irritate me, but I’m whistling Dixie if I think that teachers will just flip their grades mindset overnight.

Letter grades irritate me, but I detest standardized tests even more.  How absolutely idiotic it is to think that we can narrow down an entire semester of learning into a sweaty, smelly, stressful three hours. It’s absurd. Even more absurd is the very notion that we must do this to “prepare students for university.”  What?! Sure, test-taking and the study habits, and the stressful feelings that go along with both are an unavoidable, major aspect of university life.  As I watch my son attempt to cram three months of learning into his little brain this weekend, I am fully cognizant that study habits are, indeed, important to survive university.  But even he will tell you that his exam scores don’t signify his learning for the semester; they are just a hoop he has to jump through. 

Ask a handful of students who finished high school exams and they will also tell you that the mental taxing of their high school exams haven’t helped them prepare for university or college; they have, in fact, motivated them to pursue post-secondary fields that do not require such expectations. That’s right. Standardized tests might actually be deterring students from seeking out higher education specialties for more hands on, portfolio based post-secondary institutions. This, too, should send a strong message to post-secondary institutions that still require the rigor of exams instead of going the portfolio or project-based assessment routes. Many have made the switch. Let’s see if high schools will follow suit. Maybe then, teachers will let go of standardized tests as the means to an end and jump on the project-based or skills-based learning bandwagon.

For those students who do go on to college and university, who have to write exam after exam, they will tell you that at least in college and university, there is some kind of relationship that builds between student and professor (or even the TA), which allows for dialogue and moderate support at exam time.  Many a post-secondary student, including myself, have wandered into a professor’s office with their tail between their legs, begging for extensions on papers, an alternate setting for exams because the pressure of a 125 seat theater is too much, or in tears because writer’s block has wormed its way into their brains.  Profs, for the most part, can be sympathetic to the plight of students.  In addition, many professors know, through class discussions and other assignments, a bit about what their students know. As such, even when a high pressure exam is written, they can personally determine (even tweak) the final mark for each student. 

Come back to those standardized tests.  These suckers usually get sent away for marking by a group of teachers who don’t know these students.  In typical standardized fashion, students are reduced to a student number.  Students wait anxiously for several weeks hoping that a fair marker graded their exam. Oh, and let’s not forget the variation in assessing these standardized tests can be a 10% variation.  So, a student who received a 70, could have been easily given an 80 by a different marker.  This is considered fair and normal, and we’re all supposed to sleep soundly at night with this information. Yeesh. And this is supposed to support our kiddos preparing for university if that’s their route in life?! I think not!

Thank you, Monte Syrie for allowing me to include your amazing room message in my blog. By the way, if you are not following Monte…start….now! @MonteSyrie #MyRoomMessage

Learning should be the focus in classrooms, not letter grades. Like Monte, I provide “opportunity and support” so students can “earn [their] learn.” When we are committed to learning and not letter grades, magic happens. When we teach kids skills that will last them a life time and throw letter grades out, just think of the wonderful human beings they will become. Learners.  I don’t know about you, but I want my students, the future, to never stop learning.  Learning should be the carrot, not an A.

So, I plunk away at my keyboard with the hope that some day, in some way, letter grades will be gone forever and standardized tests will be a thing of the past. Until then, I plunk away, worried about the impact that these two things will have on my gradeless classroom and students, but I am strong enough to persevere.

Letter grades make my job more challenging than it needs to be.  If I could wave a magic wand, I would eliminate letter grades from report cards and all standardized tests or assessments. I would replace both with portfolio-based learning, learning scales, and learning mindsets. As for teachers who still feel that letter grades are fuel for growth, I haven’t a remedy for that except to just keep pushing onward and upward, preaching my assessment religion.  #mygrowthmindset

Choreographing Communication of Student Learning

As mentioned in my Teachers Going Gradeless post, communication of student learning is vital for gradeless and standards based grading to be successful. By communication, I mean communication of pivotal learning points in a student’s learning journey:where they are at now and how to get to the next level. Communication should highlight the growth and be clear about why. Like a dance, communication of student learning should be carefully choreographed.

When my kids were in elementary school, I received approximately five reports of their learning per year. There were one or two parent-teacher conferences and three report cards. At all these times, the report on learning was personal, individualized, and focused on strengths and weaknesses. On the report cards, a number was assigned to each outcome (4 meaning Exceeding Expectations, 3 meaning Meeting Expectations, etc.). In addition to the numerical explanations on the report card, there was always a short, written summary of specific strengths, areas to work on, and how I can support my child at home.

Nowhere on these reports of learning were long lists of specific, daily assignments, tests, quizzes, and worksheets. Sometimes, tests and projects were brought home for me to examine and sign (showing my acknowledgment that I had seen it), but daily or weekly updates were definitely not a normal feature of the reporting process. And now that I think about it, I really didn’t care to see any extra progress reports. What I wanted and what I received was a snapshot of my child’s learning at pivotal points in the school year. What I wanted and what I received was not an inundation of numbers and scores that mean little in the grand scheme of things. I always thought to myself, the teacher will let me know when it’s important, and if they or I am at all concerned, we’ll communicate with each other.

So why, then, are we, especially at the high school level, insistent on keeping parents in the loop so much more often? And even if we don’t communicate learning that often, why must we flood our grade books with so much — everything that is handed in, every quiz done, and every check for understanding? Do parents want to track their child’s progress to this extent? Yes, I know, there are helicopter parents who hold teachers ruthlessly accountable for their child’s progress, but those parents are few and far between. Communication with parents is a vital component of communicating student progress, but reflecting on why we are assessing what we are assessing should dictate what we are communicating to parents.

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While communicating student learning is a very important service, teachers should communicate with parents in a justifiable way. By simply communicating learning of pivotal learning points to parents and leaving out all the different hoops their child had to jump through, parents will remain engaged in the process, but aren’t held so accountable for every worksheet to get handed in on time. To be fair, in high school, I didn’t want to wait until report card time to find out my child was not putting in the effort they could be. When work habits are the reason for learning weaknesses, we are obligated to communicate this with parents in a timely manner so that they can take action at home — No more Fortnite for you! When it comes to assessment of progress, I think it’s totally fine to wait until it is significant to communicate with parents.

Leaving out routine assessments and leaving in useful assessments in the grade book, gives students the opportunity to show both accountability for their own learning and time for the teacher to make crucial decisions as to next steps in the learning process. When a child doesn’t meet our expectations, I would rather give them another shot at doing better and when they do, put that in FreshGrade with accolades of improvement noted. If my learning progression expectss several attempts at a curricular competency skill until students attain proficiency, why publish each step in the progression for all to see? Putting a lousy first attempt may have been just as much my fault as theirs (because an assessment often shows my flaws in teaching the skill especially if several students floundered) and as such would be futile for the student and parent to see. When a significant pattern develops that shows an obvious problem or success, that is when I want to communicate student learning.

I’m been no angel when it comes to over assessing. I’ve been known to fire up my grade book every day because I thought that was what parents wanted. It’s fifteen minutes into the block, little Johnny didn’t turn in their project at the bell as I asked so I better punch the button on my keyboard that shows the red dot of doom on FreshGrade — NOT HANDED IN (cue eery dum dum dum music). What I have realized is that building the habit of over assessing for parents is like building Frankenstein’s monster. Parents come to expect it every day if I do it every day. And when I don’t do it, I could potentially by hounded for immediate feedback. Seriously! It is not out of the ordinary to be notified half way through a block…Has Johnny handed this in yet? Egad! I was feeding the monster I had a part in creating. I felt to blame for satiating parents and over communicating with them was the culprit.

Reproduced with permission

When the ding of the grade book goes off, student’s, parent’s, and teacher’s anxiety increases. A student wonders, “What did I get?” A parent wonders, “How did they did they do?” A teacher wonders, “Will the parent be impressed? Will the student be okay?” That’s a lot to think about. What we communicate via our grade book has a direct impact on subsequent behavior and achievement of our students. I’m not going to coddle my students by withholding assessments that are the truth, but I will decide if communicating achievement at this particular time will hamper or hinder their progress.

We also should not assume that all parents will hold their children accountable to the same extent. Stricter parents may be more quick to react negatively, forcing the teacher to backpedal and explain that there is really nothing to get so alarmed about and that there will be more opportunities for growth in the future, while for other parents, the teacher cannot use enough language or tools to emphasize that the issue is of paramount importance than they are investing energy in. Even in a gradeless system, using a standards based approach to communicate a system using a learning scale or rubric, as I do, providing assessment of the first attempt of a skill or applying a yes/no if the assignment was handed in on time, can fuel all those anxieties. These are anxiety fueling behaviors we can avoid.

Of course, it is important, that we keep track and carefully track progress, but I think there needs to be more analysis of what is necessary to communicate, what can be kept between teacher and student, and when we should communicate student learning. I’m not talking about deviously hiding important assessments from parents. In a completely gradeless, standards based, or traditional system of assessment, teachers should make an effort to provide anecdotal information that explains weaknesses, strengths and next steps. A list of three attempts at the same curricular competency (or standard) shows a important pattern for sure (IE: Paragraph 1 – Beginning, Paragraph 2 – Developing, Paragraph 3 – Developing), but descriptive feedback like, “After three attempts at paragraph writing, I am noticing that Sam is making progress in defending their argument by using implicit explanations. They should now work on using explicit citations from the reading to support their argument” does a better (and more accurate) job of explaining why, and also because the learning scale headings simply don’t have the same impact, or after a while those words are simply viewed no differently than mark or percentage. Descriptive feedback thoughtfully used in the classroom between teacher and student, supports and justifies a teacher’s assessment of a student’s learning. Then, let’s do that when we communicate student learning.

Shameless plug…it’s this descriptive feedback that is the lure of a gradeless system and it’s time more teachers bought in. When we focus on timely, descriptive feedback and bring parents into the folds of this communication of student learning, student learning improves. When parents become active participants in this type of assessment, there is a better understanding that our focus is on growth and learning, not fixed mindset marks. Assessments are more thoughtful and genuine, while marks feel so finite and judgmental. But our intentions as gradeless teachers as much as those assessments of student learning, need to be clearly communicated to parents. We cannot expect parents to understand our intentions unless we explain our intentions. Sell it to parents. Parents are open to gradeless assessments because when it is sold as having their child’s best interests at heart and that assessments will explain more than a “B” ever could, they will jump with excitement…okay maybe they won’t exactly leap for joy, but they will appreciate it. They love their child and they want them to have the best possible opportunity for learning.

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Parents want teachers to communicate learning with them but they do not need to be inundated with too much information. If you have a helicopter parent who insists on daily updates, for example, then give them their daily updates (however, I would argue that an appropriately worded email that this is not a reasonable request is in order, but I digress). Develop a new pattern of communicating student learning. Write more and leave the numbers out.