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Teaching Writers, Not Writing.

Our recent two week winter holiday was a complete right-off for me. A bad cough and laryngitis left me couch bound for pretty much the entire rest. The silver lining to this enforced rest was the opportunity to read, and read I did.

#ShiftThis by Joy Kirr
Empower by John Spencer & AJ Juliani
Feedback That Moves Writers Forward by Patty McGee
Peer Feedback In The Classroom by Starr Sackstein
I also tackled Joy Kirr’s incredible LiveBinder & blog which are filled with resources ranging from goal setting and feedback to links to inspiring educators teaching journey blogs. Monte Syrie chipped in with a blog post and resources about creating “Learning Stories” in journey journals, and my illness induced inquiry was complete.

I loved the creative layout and message of Empower, but I felt much of the books content mirrored that of #Launchbook or had already been addressed in the author’s blogs. It was more of an affirming read that we are on the right track with our use of student voice and choice.

Starr Sackstein’s book had some valuable insight into the power and usefulness of peer feedback. The book was probably pitched a little above our year level and is a resource I will visit again in the future when we look to build on these skills. For now, we are focusing on self and teacher assessment, with mostly teacher-led opportunities to share and provide peer feedback. I’m not convinced at this point that students are ready to offer meaningful feedback to each other. We have more work to do.

I’ve written plenty about #ShiftThis and encouraged our staff to also pick up a copy. We hope to take up Joy’s offer of a Skype PD session to discuss the book in the near future. Joy’s blog¬†and LiveBinder provided an entire day’s exploring. I’ve said a few times that it is like teacher Inception because there are resources inside resources inside even more resources. The goal setting sheets, google forms, core skill rubrics, collecting and documenting evidence scaffolds etc really saved me many hours of work re-inventing the wheel.

Patty McGee’s book and accompanying website have really helped tie our new approach to writing together. I loved this book. Her personal reflections provide an insight into the mindset of young (and more experienced) writers. Her links to research, particularly that of Carol Dweck, back-up the anecdotal evidence that teachers know just works. This book changed my mindset from teaching writing to teaching writers. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

Patty’s book was exactly what I needed at this point. Planning scaffolds, real world examples, prompts will all become part of our regular learning. Students loved the JK Rowling example of planning for one of the Harry Potter books (Order of the Phoenix). The practical processes, reflection, conferencing, and feedback that Patty describes in the book have already helped me begin to¬†meet students where they are with their writing.

I loved seeing the struggle with planning timelines, the collaboration and sharing of ideas, and actual writing that has been evident in our first few days back for term (or trimester) three. They value what they are writing because it has meaning to them, and because they themselves will be self-assessing, students are carefully editing as they go. On the back of watching Austin’s Butterfly, we are attempting to seek feedback at around 30% done (planning), 60% complete (first draft) and then at 90% after revisions and self-assessment.

Finally, Monte Syrie shared his resources and process for learning stories with the #Tg2chat community via a blog post. ¬†Providing this opportunity for regular reflection was something that has been missing in my teaching practice. It is a simple idea executed really well. It is optional for students, but a few days in, everyone is on board. We really appreciated learning about Monte’s journey and class via our FlipGrid AMA (Ask Me Anything) and the learning stories (or journey journals as we have settled on) have provided a chance for kids to be part of Monte’s class.

The first few days back have been productive, settled, and from my perspective, really enjoyable. Students have embraced the new classroom layout, including our cave for silent reflection and working. Behaviour and work ethic has been outstanding, and hopefully is now part of our new norm, not a new term honeymoon period.

A Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing?

The following inspirational quote gets thrown around pretty frequently on social media, but it sums up my current dilemma:

Fake it ’til you make it are words I’ve lived by in my teaching career. I’m in my eighth year of classroom teaching, and yet I’m still grappling with how to balance the demands of teaching content from the Australian Curriculum, with teaching students. I do my honest best, but I’m still faking it. Which makes me wonder, how many of us are sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing?

If it is good for kids, it is good. Period.

These are the words of Mark Sonnemann, taken from a TG2 chat earlier this year. Mark is Principal at a Catholic school in the city of Kingston, nestled on the banks of Lake Ontario in Canada. These words resonated with me because it sums up where I am in my planning journey for the rest of 2017. Weighing up what feels right versus the traditional expectations of my employment.

I’ve spent this first week of winter holidays trying to make sense of the whirlwind of student feedback and my own ideas and reflections regarding the direction of our class for the remainder of 2017. I honestly believe that the learning changes we’ve piloted this year have¬†been good for kids. But I am plagued by questions for which there seem to be no easy answers.

If we continue to learn the way we have this past semester, am I being neglectful in parts of my job? Am I really setting my students up for future success? Or damning them to future disappointment when the voice and choice available in their current learning becomes a rug literally pulled out from under them?

This term has been filled with re-learning how to learn. Process over content. Some students have commented that we really “haven’t learned much this term”, and they’re right. The amount of knowledge based content that we covered this term has been negligible. Our focus has been on the general capabilities outlined here:

We have a composite year 6/7 class where I am tasked with delivering seven different subject areas to 25 students from two curriculum maps. There is some content crossover between the two grades, but in subjects like Science and the Humanities, the differences are significant. So this term, while in pursuit of establishing a classroom based on student voice, Project Based Learning (PBL) and feedback over grades, something had to give. For me, it had to be the sheer weight of content we are expected to deliver.

In the other states of Australia, year 7 is the beginning of high school, not so in South Australia. The year 7 curriculum rightfully expands in content scope because, unlike our primary school system, high schools usually offer specialist teachers in each different subject area. So when it comes to being able to expertly deliver content in seven different subject areas – Am I a sheep in wolf’s clothing? ¬†

Sebastion Millon Cartoon

I certainly feel like one. I have a level of expertise in HPE,¬†and largely, competency in the other subject areas. Perhaps with another 12 years I could master more of the content I am required to teach, but I’m actually done trying. Instead, I’m going to try to specialise in students.¬†Specialise in feedback. Processes. Relationships. Collaboration. Just not more content. I’m going to teach students, not just the curriculum. I believe that the general capabilities embedded in the Australian Curriculum may allow me to do this.¬†

By advocating a program heavily rooted in the general capabilities, am I branching into a brave new world of learning where students are empowered to take charge of learning? Or doing students a disservice by limiting their “access” to curricular content?

Will it hurt students when it comes time for compulsory standardised testing like NAPLAN? Or will slowing down and pursuing mastery of skills shine through down the track? Either way, I can’t see too many of my students rocking up to their first job interview armed with their year 7 NAPLAN results and primary school report cards.

Don’t get me wrong, I like NAPLAN as a measure of growth for individual students in some key learning areas, just not as a yardstick to gauge the success of individual classes, teachers, or schools. The real problem is, how do you measure the immeasurables? Most of the “best stuff” that we learn in our class will not be showing up on a standardised test anytime soon. Empathy. Self-discipline. Perspective. Community contribution. Time management. Collaboration. Creativity. The list goes on.

My next step is to explore going beyond the content via the South Australian DECD website for Leading Learning. Most of this content appears anchored in the work of Martin Westwell, Guy Claxton, and Anne Baker. Some more of my questions I have been wondering about include:

How much content in the Australian Curriculum is Googleable?

How much content will be relevant for these students in 5/10/20 years time?

Most of my reading at the moment focuses on student empowerment, improving feedback, and valuing growth over grades. These books have all had common themes – that what students know will be far less important than what they can do with what they know. But where is the line in the sand? I’ve gone for what I consider to be gradual release into student voice and choice. Circumstances dictate that I’m still probably moving too fast, but I like to think that students and I are learning together and that their education is something happening with them, not to them.

Is the shift that I am asking of my students so great that it may cause harm in the future? In Starr Sackstein’s book Peer Feedback In The Classroom, Jill Berkowicz suggests that without student voice and empowerment taking systematic root in schools, students may suffer in preceding years if stripped of the “power sword” that I seek to gift them in order to fight their own learning battles.

Removing grades from the conversation has been liberating for me, and has significantly deepened the relationships I have with students. This is because grades had to be replaced with something, and that something is feedback. I have never spent so much time talking with students (though I’m still guilty of talking at students too often!) Assessment and feedback in my class used to be a postmortem. Delivered when learning had ended. Now assessment and feedback are ongoing, throughout the formation of ideas, the struggle to navigate and organise thoughts, and battle towards creating a piece of work to be proud of. Authentic. Relevant.

I need to become far more proficient in the art of feedback. I enjoyed this 2015 article by Tom Barrett where he discusses how we should differentiate feedback at the 30% complete stage versus when work is 90% finished. These subtle differences in mindset are part of the art of feedback. I also need to find better systems and processes for self and peer assessment. We recently shared some self and peer assessment rubrics that were made with students. Some of these are just plain bad. But we are learning, together. The students have been involved in deciding what to value and assess, which has been powerful.

Another issue I am exploring is how to help students stay accountable to themselves, families and their education, in the absence of grades. We already use student blogs to share learning, but my intention is to separate our learning into practice and performance-based tasks. We will explore learning portfolios of student’s best work using online resources like SeeSaw this term.¬†A more experienced colleague from a different school recently suggested to me that the evidence of learning that our students were collecting on blogs/portfolios merely amounted to advertising and showing off. Here I was thinking that in 2017, it was just good practice. I can understand if work was being used as a photo op, to laud over others. But I think that by using tools like Google classroom, SeeSaw etc we can increase student access to feedback and actually improve learning.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if in the future, year 11 and 12 students, who currently endure tremendous stress in their final two years of high school, could focus on mastering skills and following passions, rather than chasing empty grades that are the modern currency to opportunity. I can envision a day when learning portfolios of mastered skills replace letter grades and SACE scores.¬†The Boston Globe recently reported in the US of a private school shift away from grades and transcripts towards skills-based competency. I wonder if in Australia we will be on the forefront of this change, or playing catch-up with other parts of the world.

Finally, I wonder how the 12-year-old version of me would fair in my classroom.

I let myself down through much of my schooling. I was immature, lazy, and often defiant. But is this who I really was as a student, or what I became as a result of my school experience. I have always been creative. As a young kid, I would always make my own board games. Everywhere we went, I would go with pencils and ruler in hand to create little board games. At school though, the only thing I created was trouble. I was bored. Much of my schooling lacked relevance (or I lacked the ability to find context).

If I had been given a measure of control over my learning as a student, would I have been mature enough to trek my own path? Or would I have squandered the opportunity? Would it have made any difference? I went to University as a mature age student because my results out of high school were never going to be good enough to meet the entrance expectations for teaching. When I was finally given control of my learning in year 11 and 12, I swung too far towards my interests in the Arts and HPE. I never chased the grades and as such, severely limited my opportunities moving forward. My school experience was not an indicator of my future success, and I believe this is true of many others too. Schools need to be better. I need to be better.

I’m not advocating that anyone stop what they are doing and follow me into a gradeless utopia. But there are elements of my journey that I think are relevant to many teachers, that compliment, rather than oppose their current practice.¬†This isn’t the way forward, but it is my way forward.

If it is good for kids, it is good. Period.


Cartoon Credit: Sebastion Millon

The Best Lesson I Never Taught

I broke a promise to myself today. I gave my students a worksheet. And it was the most powerful worksheet I’ve ever given.

This is week 10 of our school term, the final few days before winter break. We have been reflecting on the success (and failure) of our term long¬†City of Glacier Park project. It was a project born from a belief that we could do and be more. It has been based on increasing students voice, PBL, and “going gradeless”. We have been guided by four overarching themes:

  1. Critical Thinking
  2. Creativity
  3. Community
  4. Collaboration

Reflecting this week I was able to tick the first three boxes. Big improvements. But box four, collaboration, no dice. Last Friday was a nightmare day. I chased tail all day, trying to keep up with the never-ending revolving door of students seeking advice, permission, and answers. I have been selling a lie. Our class didn’t actually know how to collaborate.

The topic of blogging as a form of reflection has come up fairly regularly as part of the #TG2chat (Teachers Going Gradeless) Twitter chat that I have been part of recently. Blogging has been a powerful reflection tool for me this year. In the past I used blogs to share student work, videos etc. Never really to help organise my own thoughts or reflect on learning.

I’ve never really been a sharing kind of guy. I’ve always kept my “best lessons” to myself. Kept parents at a comfortable arms length. Informed, but not too involved. But for this project/experiment, I committed to track my journey, share¬†more with my colleagues, attempt¬†to engage parents, and build my own Personal Learning Network (PLN) by blogging and tweeting. I’ve been lurking on Twitter for years, but only started posting recently.¬†I’m a little nervous now before I hit publish, because all of a sudden, it appears I’m not the only one reading my blog.

That gets me to the point of this blog post. You never know when something shared will result in a lightbulb moment for someone else. A flash of inspiration.

I had one of these on the weekend. I have been searching for answers to “going gradeless” in Maths. I am starting to understand how to make English, HASS, Arts, Design & Technology etc work in my context. But Maths? I need some help. So I hit up Gary Chu over The Twitter. Gary is a Maths teacher in Chicago, far away from Adelaide, and without even knowing it, he taught my class to collaborate today.

I found Gary’s Medium blog, and I #StoleLikeATeacher. I found a post¬†titled: Capitalizing on What Students Do Best: Socialize. I can relate to this (if socialising was a sport, we’d have some world champs). In the post he shares Larry¬†Geni’s work¬†which yielded a post on¬†the art of appropriate socialising¬†for students. These diagrams led to a significant reflective discussion of our “collaboration” practices. The consensus was that “We suck”. ¬†Students love the idea of collaborating for conversational learning, but in reality, they were mostly socialising.

We had watched the following two videos earlier in the week and discussed what resonated with students. We discussed the industrial revolution model of schooling and how the love of learning evident in young children seemed to drain out of students as they progressed through school. That we too had been guilty in the past of diluting learning down to a collection of letters and numbers by which success was measured.

Everyone agreed that students accessing the curriculum solely through a teacher was an antiquated practice. It had its place at different times, but should not be the lone means of learning. The teacher shouldn’t be the most important person in the room. Collaboration. But even after a semester of banging on about this, we still weren’t really collaborating.

This brings me back to Gary who wrote this about group questions.

Whenever an individual raises their hand, I walk over to that individual, maintaining eye contact until I arrive at their desk…and then I abruptly turn to someone else in their group and ask them about the question. If they do not know, I walk away.

L1: Wait, where are you going?! Why did he just walk away??!
L2: Why didn’t you ask us first? We could have helped.
L1: [zero comeback]

Nine times out of ten, the learner who had the question did not ask their group. Well, at the beginning it is nine times out of ten. Once a group picks up on the whole ‚Äúgroup question‚ÄĚ thing, they are much more cognizant of utilizing each other as resources¬†first.

This was my lightbulb moment. My inspiration. So simple. But this changed EVERYTHING. It took a little while to cotton on, but students started engaging in conversational learning. I say it was the best lesson I’ve never taught because I literally couldn’t have done much less to help.

Students were tasked with using simple, compound and complex sentences in a constrained 100 word writing challenge. I outlined the task, shared this image, and walked away. 

No explicit lessons. No scaffolds. No explanation of sentence structure or clauses. Nada.

It didn’t take long for hands to start shooting up around the room. This is when the magic happened (and if I’m being honest, a fair bit of fun for me…) If someone else in the group couldn’t tell me what the question was, I walked away. Students¬†were forced to become their own best teacher today. I was no longer the most important person in the room. It was awesome. They¬†researched on iPads, shared & discussed sentences, argued about clauses, and sought help from each other. Collaboration!

Then it happened.

A year 7 student remembered a worksheet we used last year for a similar writing task, found it in one of my text books, surveyed the class, and decided we needed 25 copies. At the end of the day almost all of the sheets were gone. And not in the recycling bin either for a change. It is the most powerful worksheet I’ve ever given out, because I think it’s the first time a student actually ask for one.

As Gary says –

Share the wealth.

I encouraged the kids to share the wealth today. If anyone has made it this far and you don’t already blog, I encourage you to also share the wealth. We all have a story, you never know who yours will inspire. Thanks Gary.

Ask Me Anything (AMA) with Monte Syrie

Beyond thrilled to be able to connect with Washinton State educator Monte Syrie via a FlipGrid AMA. Monte’s “Project 180” story inspired so much conversation in our classroom, that we put together an “ask Monte” whiteboard that students filled with questions. We used FlipGrid to record video questions. Check out our conversation below on Vimeo or FlipGrid.

FlipGid AMA with Monte Syrie Part II from City of Glacier Park on Vimeo.

FlipGid AMA with Monte Syrie from City of Glacier Park on Vimeo.

Thanks Monte!

So Are Grades Broken? Going Gradeless Part II

So are grades broken?

I’m a HPE teacher at heart. When people ask what I teach I still identify as such. Then I tell them I’m a classroom teacher at the moment. But really, I’m a contract teacher. I never know year to year whether I have a job to come back to. But I’m totally ok with that. It has given me choice. Flexibility. My employer too. If I am not the right person for the job, move me on.¬†Likewise I can exercise that right should I not like where the ship is headed. This is a photo of me in 2005 (with hair!) right before I graduated from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Human Movement in education.

A few years into my career, my¬†principal at a previous school said he couldn’t offer me an ongoing HPE position, but because no permanent staff wanted to tackle the troublesome year 6/7 class, I could move into the classroom. It was a low socio-economic school in a challenging part of the city. I mentioned to him that I had zero training in ANY of the subject areas that I was to teach and maybe I wasn’t the best choice. He replied that I “did relationships well” and I could learn the rest. He valued relationships over content. Looking back now, this brave decision has largely shaped where I find myself today.

My biggest strength has also been my biggest weakness. I came into classroom teaching with zero¬†preconceived ideas about what I should¬†be doing, and got on with figuring out what actually worked. In those early days, it was the students (sorry kids) who had to endure¬†my muddling practice of worksheets, grades and compliance. I’ve always been ok with change. Flexible. But, if I didn’t have relationships, I was literally dead in the water.¬†I still contend that my principal was a little nuts. But he believed in me and my intentions were good. I largely entertained those kids and tried to build something of a community. But it really was worksheet world, and realistically, I shouldn’t have been in the job. Survival was the goal. Maybe some learning.

But I did survive. So did the kids. No one was irrevocably scarred. By the end of my third year I had some idea of what I was doing. Problem is, I spent those three years grading with wonderful intentions but with barely a competent understanding of curriculum. There were no real checks then, and there have been no real checks in the six years since.

So, again, are our current grading practices broken? Yep.

And I have been part of the problem. Now I would like to be part of the solution.

Over the years¬†I have seen teachers grade based on attitude rather than understanding. I know classrooms exist where the neatness¬†of work is held in higher regard than the thinking behind it. I have had kids come into my class and try and “game” me with pretty work, and who can blame them if it had¬†worked in the past.

Grades are confusing. I’m happy to admit I am regularly confused. Take a look at the Australian Curriculum for a composite year 6/7 class and¬†tell me with a straight face that there is consistency in a single classroom across all those subject areas, let alone across the¬†state or the entire country. I think not. In our district we are focused on moderating student learning so we can agree on the differences between an A-E grade for students. Question is, how does this help drive and improve learning for students?

We are increasingly data driven. PAT tests. NAPLAN. I once overheard a parent say they would never send their child to X school because the NAPLAN scores were too low. The best learning that happens in our classroom cannot, and will not, ever be measured by a NAPLAN test. Unless someone invents a standardized test to measure empathy, perseverance, collaboration, communication, creativity etc.

What evidence is there that traditional grading¬†drives growth or proficiency? Anecdotally, I have seen grading demotivate struggling students far more regularly than I have seen it¬†used for motivation. Heck, I’ve been¬†the judge, jury and executioner. I’ve known that entering a “failing” grade¬†into the gradebook would do nothing to help a student. But I didn’t realise I had another option. I’ve tried to soften the blow at times, lose a grade here and there, but at the end of the day the student gets what they deserve don’t they?


Going “Gradeless” for the past term has been liberating for students and me.¬†It has forced me to slow down and assess what I value, not value what I assess. Students are focused on mastery of skills, not cutting corners and just doing enough to get by. They are motivated by a desire to learn, not compliance or a desire to avoid detention. They are collaborating. Assessing each other and even students from other classes. Creating rubrics. Discussing what excellence looks like in a piece of work. Behaviour issues have reduced. Independent learning skills are improving. Time management and prioritising learning. If our little “invented” city project hasn’t been some kind of success, then I’m not sitting here.

We were contacted by TouchCast recently who liked that we had used their Studio iPad App in a pretty unique and unintended way. They invited us to create an video to explain our learning which they intend to share online and in their newsletter. This was a great example of authentic learning by connecting with the real world. The students involved worked hard to script, storyboard and record the video.

This week we also connected with Monte Syrie who has captured the imagination of students with his guaranteed “A” Project 180. We have organised an AMA (Ask Me Anything) over FlipGrid so that we can have a conversation across time and place. Monte’s journey was part of¬†Hailey’s inspiration to write¬†a profound reflection of her learning this week.¬†For three days she poured over a piece of writing that wasn’t compulsory and was never going to be assessed.

She did because she wanted her voice to be heard. Because something resonated with her and she wanted to try and make sense of it. Awesome. It went a little bit viral and even became one of those inspirational posters, read and shared amongst the Twitterverse by teachers and educators all over. A 12 year old girl from Hallett Cove South wrote something that had people thinking all around the world.

I wonder what grade I should give her for that?

Do. Reflect. Do better. Repeat.

Do. Reflect. Do Better. Repeat.

This is a¬†Mantra of Monte Syrie, a Washington English teacher who recently decided to challenge conventional thinking and disrupt the grades driven system by giving each and everyone of his Cheney High School students an “A” in his¬†English class, before a single word was written or spoken.

With over two decades of teaching experience in his pocket, Monte decided to disrupt tradition and take grades off the table. Completely. He literally handed every student a wooden “A” on the first day of the school year, and true to his word, delivered an A to every student transcript at years end. Project 180 was all about exploring growth over¬†grades. The big question¬†became: Will there be any learning?¬†

Would students work? Could students learn without the threat of grades hanging over them?

By removing grades, Monte gave his¬†students the freedom to grow without fear of failure. They were given ownership of their learning. Choice. But also, responsibility. Many students flourished, some spluttered, a few abused the opportunity they were given. Throughout it all, his students owned the experience. And, to my awe and admiration, Monte blogged about all 180 days of the journey (save for a few sneaky snow days). When it comes to writing, I am an excellent PE teacher. Check out Monte’s far more succinct summary of ¬†project 180 and his¬†recent article about¬†Uncomfortable Truth about Grades.

It was never Monte’s intention to continue with the automatic “A”, and he has already outlined a “select and defend” type system for next year (similar to what we are trialling in class). His wish was to swing the pendulum as far as possible from the grades driven stress associated with his level of schooling, and highlight some of the problems associated with traditional grading.

This was fascinating reading and I’m grateful that Monte took the time and had the discipline to record and reflect on the entire journey. What I have found is that there is no road map for where I am attempting to go. There are lots of useful resources and helpful voices, but ultimately, our experience will be shaped by us. I truly believe that empowering student voice and choice is the way forward for us. No turning back now.

Our City of Glacier Park project is underpinned by 3 main ideas:

  1. Empowering student voice.
  2. Providing choice through PBL & Design Thinking.
  3. Focusing on growth over grades

Something is starting to happen in our classroom. What it is, whether it is sustainable, I’m not sure yet. But it is starting to feel like we have turned a corner…

Finally, I really like this checklist I lifted from Monte’s blog. It almost feels like a daily checklist for¬†my job at the moment. Other teachers I’ve spoken with seem genuinely interested in what we are trying to achieve, but most want to know what I’m doing with my time if not explicitly teaching and grading. Well, this:

I’m trying lots of different strategies, systems, tools, and content at the moment. We are far more process driven than content at this point. I’m trying hard to be the ‘lead learner’ in our classroom. Lots of success and failure. Daily. I constantly feel like I need to do better, but first I have to do.

Do. Reflect. Do better. Repeat. 



Sphero Chariot Racing Week

Our collaborative project using Spheros to advocate powerful learning in our community was a great success. It was messy, loud and a whole lot of fun. Students created a scale model of the Adelaide Clipsal 500 racetrack in our classroom. They created advertising, an elaborate camera system using the TouchCast iPad app, created a racing schedule, and even commentated on the races. In-between all of this was obviously designing and building Sphero Chariots. We used the LAUNCH cycle once again to give structure to our design thinking process. Students then practiced as much as possible on track to highlight and fix any problems before raceday.

While this was all great and plenty of new learning happened, we were really interested in phases 2 & 3 which included teaching our younger peers how to drive Spheros on our racetrack and a specially designed obstacle course. Following this we held a family night after school where students volunteered to help kids and families build lego chariots, race and even paint with Spheros. Students also reflected on the experience and included some suggestions for what could be done for improvement next time.

Going “Gradeless” in Glacier Park

I have never really been comfortable with the way I grade student work. I regularly feel like a fraud.

Of all the learning transformations we are attempting in the City of Glacier Park, the one that I was the most sceptical of trialling was the concept of going “gradeless”. This is not an idea I had ever considered because I keep SO¬†much data. The BEST data. Evidence to offset every polite enquiry that never came my way. And I do mean never, because strangely (luckily?) in recent years, rarely has a parent¬†questioned my assessment methods or outcomes.

I have poured literally countless hours (I shudder¬†thinking about it) into building elaborate rubrics, grading work samples, reading every word written in genre texts, testing, re-testing, and using¬†this data to create¬†pretty colourful spreadsheets which either banished students to the fearful fate of D’s &¬†E’s, elevated them to the safety of C’s, or if they really knocked it out of the park, delivered them to the¬†rarefied¬†air of B’s & A’s.

But, what if this time was better spent doing something that REALLY contributed to improving learning and achievement outcomes? Can I take failure off the table as an option for students?

I have been¬†constantly frustrated in the past that students didn’t¬†read and apply¬†the feedback I spent precious time preparing/writing¬†for them. They were interested (or not) in the grade they were given, and usually that was it. For some it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, they were bad at/bored with/or were going to fail ‘said subject’ anyway,¬†so why bother trying. Put in as little effort as possible, maybe just enough to keep the teacher off your back, and accept the fateful¬†grade, before¬†moving onto the next failure.

For a while I stopped giving a grade AND¬†feedback, focusing¬†¬†on one or the other. But again, this seemed to achieve¬†little in regards¬†to student outcomes. Maybe it saved me a little¬†time. Add to this, Freddy didn’t hand his work up (E), Sally & Billy were¬†seriously late and parts were missing (D), and sorry folks, it’s deadline day, we have to move on. Better luck next time. Even when I offered to re-mark work that was resubmitted, students rarely took up the opportunity without a parent breathing directly down their polo top.

So for a while I’ve known there has to be a better way to work, I just didn’t know what it was.

Now, a whole heap of people who I follow¬†and¬†respect don’t have the nicest things to say about all of John Hattie’s ideas and data, but he suggests that student self-reported grading had¬†THE greatest influence on student achievement outcomes. So this seemed like a logical concept to explore. This led me to Arthur Chiaravalli & Aaron Blackwelder who are responsible for a group called “Teachers Going Gradeless“.

This has been an eye-opening group to be part of. While many of the strongest advocates are based in the US and Europe, their work is based on considerable pedagogical research and many of their opinions and stories are compelling. To some teachers, going gradeless means actually grading less, for others it really does mean going gradeless. I’ve been giving full gradeless a run. I haven’t marked a piece of work in 6 weeks at time of writing. And I have to say I’ve been happily surprised to see the positive change in thinking and the improvement in many students. More about this later.

In four years of university and virtually since beginning my teaching career eleven years ago, my assessment methods and consistency have gone largely unchecked. Keep in mind that this teaching career thing is a big boat, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only passenger.¬†Don’t even get me started about setting outcome goals for students with Individual/Negotiated Education Plans (IEP/NEP’s) let alone reporting against them. “What do you mean the student with the global delay/processing problem/ASD/Dyslexia/*insert 10 other issues here* didn’t meet the explicit goals that I set out for them within weeks of meeting them?”

Now, I’m not saying that I don’t have some¬†professional expertise in working with parents/carers &¬†outside providers to set and assess against goals, because after 11 years, clearly I should have. But even now, this is a grading¬†area that I struggle with. How do I give a kid a “D” for failing to meet a goal that I helped set with the best intentions of providing a challenge within what is considered “their abilities”. Countless issues could contribute to that missed goal, including possibly my own error in judgement, but no one is grading my effort and achievement at years end, so only one of us ends up wearing it.

Another problem is that most parents don’t seem to share the same enthusiasm for the shear weight of data that I collect during a year. Which makes¬†me question why I spend¬†all that time collecting it at all. At student conferences,¬†most parents just want to know if their child is working hard, making progress and get this, engaged in learning. But look, pretty¬†spreadsheets!

This feels like¬†dangerous territory for a teacher. On this blog I have now openly admitted that I am doing far less explicit teaching (my job) and I’ve stopped grading work almost entirely (also my job). Quick, sack him. Heck, he probably sacked himself. Well hold on there, it’s a small sample size, but strangely enough, this might just be working. And honestly, I’m not even sure if all of my students have even realised¬†I stopped marking their work!

I’m not grading anything at present. Done. But I’ve got 25 little helpers who are doing a whole mess of marking. Self and peer assessing has become order of the day. This has¬†been tedious,¬†messy, and just straight up frustrating at times, but it does appear to be¬†working. Taking time to up-skill¬†students to be critical of their own and others work has resulted in some significant gains, particularly for students who normally ‘struggle’. Coincidence? So what am I doing with all of this new found free time? Discussing, conferencing, providing written and verbal feedback, checking in on progress, sharing learning etc. I’ve never had so much time to work one-to-one with students.

Recently,¬†students spent several days self-assessing¬†poetry¬†they had written¬†(it was painful to watch!) But at the end of the process, they owned the work, and the learning that occurred during the assessment phase was almost certainly deeper than the explicit lessons taught in the lead up. Some students went away and wrote more poems so that they could complete some missing elements of the assessment and show evidence of their learning. Others actually applied what they learnt to our next learning task. And almost all of it was finished within a “soft-dealine” target. But thing is, not one grade was given. Poems were shared on student blogs, uploaded as videos to FlipGrid, read aloud in assembly, but I didn’t assign a single letter, number or percentage.

In the Arts, students are collecting evidence of their learning in a portfolio and we are going to conference so they can give us a letter grade we can all agree on for their mid-term report. Students¬†are becoming familiar with the curriculum, seeking out completed artworks/sketches, discussing outcomes with staff, which is all pretty weird from where I sit. And I’m backing them. You’re an A student, awesome, prove it! I have heard many will under-score themselves as a sort of self-handicapping defence mechanism, others will need support to collect evidence, but it will certainly be an interesting couple of weeks.

I have many more questions than answers at the moment, but these are for another day. I’m under no illusions that what I am currently doing is anywhere near best practice yet, or where this will all end up, but it is a start.

Some light reading for anyone without a life who has made it this far:




City of Glacier Park Project – What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Early in the year I asked our class a simple question¬†– “If you were given the choice, would you come to school or not?”¬†

Answers varied.¬†Some said they would in order to see friends, play sport etc. Others said yes¬†because¬†they needed a good education to get into a career they wanted. But overwhelmingly, the answer was “sometimes“. After digging into why this was the case, a new question was born – “Is it possible for us to create a classroom where everyone¬†WANTS to come to school everyday?”

And so we started on a journey of discovery to see whether we could in fact create a classroom based on student directed learning with a focus on collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and community.

John Spencer & AJ Juliani are the authors of the LAUNCH Cycle which is a design thinking framework that we have been using in the City of Glacier Park (CGP) to provide structure to our creative projects. They advocate classroom inquiry and innovation through student voice to engage and empower students. I have found myself referring back to their books, blog posts and videos regularly over the past couple of months.

Now that we are half way through our term long CGP project I wanted to take time out of report writing and planning to reflect on how we have been going. The image above outlines some¬†concerns that I shared when planning this grand (or crazy) adventure. So I am using John’s blog post¬†The Five Biggest Fears that Kept Me from Empowering Students¬†to help organise my thoughts.

Fear #1: Classroom Management Might Suffer

One thing I’ve always encouraged is student self-regulation of behaviour. I hate “command and control” and students definitely do too. We spend significant time exploring¬†behaviour education at the beginning of each year which I find far more powerful than running an ongoing behaviour management plan. Play is the Way ¬†is a fantastic program by¬†Wilson McCaskill¬†that we have adopted school wide. We use 6 agreements to guide our behaviour and students have the opportunity to be responsible for themselves until they make an adult “be the boss”.

Management of learning has been trickier. Very rarely this term have we all been working on the same task at the same time. Some students have flourished by having the opportunity to follow¬†their own learning interests and paths, others have found “not being told what to do” very challenging. I have to admit I don’t always¬†love¬†having so many students working on different tasks, but I’m learning to “let go” and trust that students have enough structure to accomplish their learning goals.

Students designed our classroom setup, and initially chose where and with whom they sat. We tried this for a couple of weeks but it became clear that this wasn’t working for everyone, so students gave control of¬†seating back to me. What was supposed to be collaboration was distraction, and many lacked the discipline to manage this. We will try again later in the term and see if we can find strategies to improve.

Fear #2: Students Wouldn’t Pass the Test If They Are Choosing the Topics in Projects

We are fortunate that we have little standardised testing that we are required to cover outside of NAPLAN national testing in year 3,5,7,9 and some state diagnostic testing in Reading, Maths, etc. Both of these are good tools to measure growth in individual students. Both are terrible tools to measure “success” of individual schools, classes and teachers. Some teachers spend weeks “teaching to the test” before NAPLAN, I figure we spend the entire year preparing for this. Problem is, most of the skills that our class are learning at the moment cannot and will not ever appear on a standardised test…

I am trying to incorporate far more formative assessment as we work through tasks. Question is, what is the right balance between formative and summative assessment? I need to find better systems for students to self-assess and peer-assess work. This is probably my biggest challenge at the moment.

That said, a recent self-assessment task for poetry writing was a great success. No grades were given, and every student succeeded in reviewing and creating literature based on their own work. My time was spent helping students sift through their writing to find examples of alliteration, rhyming schemes and mood rather than marking and grading their work at the end. Every poem was published on individual student blogs, favourites shared via video on FlipGrid and some bravely performed in assembly.

Fear #3: We won’t cover everything on the curriculum map

This one is up in the air. Staying true to the spirit of the Australian Curriculum and covering enough content in a composite year 6/7 classroom is tough enough when I am directing the learning, let alone when students are making choices about what and how they learn. We are trying a “gradual release” of content where¬†I have chosen many¬†of the learning outcomes¬†for this term, and¬†students have scheduled the learning calendar. As we progress, we are co-designing some tasks (see our Sphero Chariot Racing Collaborative Project) with the intent of students taking greater¬†ownership of learning next semester.

We have planned¬†to cover too much content this term.¬†Learning doesn’t happen in straight lines and the creative tasks we have been tackling certainly don’t¬†care for timelines!

Fear #4: Students won’t know what to do if they own their learning

Many teachers and schools have made students passengers in their own learning. I have contributed to this as much as anyone in the past.

To paraphrase John Spencer’s article:

I chose the resources; content; questions; wrote the instructions; managed the project progress; chose the tasks; wrote the objectives; picked the standards; decided on the format; and determined whether or not the work was any good. Students were working for me.

After six or seven years of constantly being told what to do every step of the way, students have become very passive in the learning process. According to AJ Juliani:

Students have¬†been taught since a very young age that school is a game‚Ķand if you follow the rules, it is easy to win. Teaching our kids to play the ‚Äúgame of school‚ÄĚ will not help them later in life.

We have had some good days where everything seems to click, followed by some days where I’ve questioned what we are actually achieving… But they ARE making progress. Students have completely planned their learning for the Arts this term and will collect evidence of their learning across the year before conferencing with relevant teachers to decide on a grade for reports based on curriculum outcomes. Students have collaborated based on interest rather than friendship groups. They are peer teaching each other and younger students. I’m no advocate for homework programs in Primary school, but I’ve had kids emailing and Edmodo messaging me at night and on weekends with questions and ideas. I’ve had students constantly pestering me to stay inside during recess and lunch breaks so they could keep working. If that isn’t some kind of progress, then I don’t know what is!

Fear #5: I was worried that my leaders would view student ownership as teacher laziness

Our school leaders certainly won’t find me sitting at my desk marking work at any stage during the day, for two reasons:

  1. Students decided in our planning phase to get rid of my desk and storage space and turn it into a “Maker Space”. I have been unceremoniously dumped into an adjoining office. And I don’t miss my desk one bit. It forces me to work amongst¬†our class and I’m certainly increasing my daily step count!
  2. We are experimenting with “going gradeless”. This of course doesn’t mean we have stopped grading work, we are mandated to provide a letter grade with supporting evidence twice a year. But as I mentioned earlier, I am spending the vast majority of my time giving feedback to students about their learning, preparing self and peer-assessment systems, and strangely enough, learning too.

However, I am mindful of “how it looks” when we have visitors to our room. Colleagues have visited to get a sense of what we are doing and I want the scene to be authentic. I don’t want everyone “on their best behaviour” so it just appears we are being successful. I want our success or failure to be measured on merits, warts and all. I have only taught a handful of explicit lessons so far this term, so it would be easy to see me not doing too much teaching and assume I’m cruising. But truth be told, I’ve never worked as hard as I am right now.

My¬†leader has been supportive of this experiment. I can always go back to doing what I’ve always done if it was a miserable failure. But while we have a long way to go and still so much to learn (especially me!) I don’t think I would be willing to go back. Onwards and upwards from here.

City of Glacier Park Update Week 2

City of Glacier Park Update Week 2 from City of Glacier Park on Vimeo.

I made an off the cuff comment to a parent during a meeting in term one that I could probably write end of year reports at that moment and be 90% correct in the grades that students achieved. This comment has been sitting with me ever since. The student we were discussing is a hard working, patient, friendly, empathetic and all round genuine kid who happens to “struggle” in certain learning areas. We discussed that the grade achieved was largely irrelevant, that the effort, engagement and improvement would be the focus for this year.

But this got me thinking, why am I spending so much time marking and collecting data (and I have heaps!) when I could be focusing on providing feedback for learning and giving students the opportunity to integrate their strengths and interests into our learning? So was born the idea for the City of Glacier Park.

Shouldn’t I provide an opportunity for every student to access the curriculum and have a chance to be successful? So I have made a significant move away from summative assessment and grading so much work towards providing feedback in many different forms and ongoing formative assessment so students can check in with how they are going and what they are learning.

In the past I have used hard deadlines to get work in on time. “punishment” for failing to finish work on time has come in the shape of a grade (usually a partial or minimal). We are currently trialling soft deadlines to give the students a target end date, but the only real deadline is the end of term.

Now the¬†“consequence” for not finishing work, is finishing the work.

I recently found a community of educators¬†called “Teacher Going Gradeless”. This doesn’t actually mean that teachers aren’t grading work, they are in fact¬†focused on providing meaningful feedback to students and utilising other forms of grading via self and peer assessment. Most of the conversations are based around student growth and learning, not grades, and based on research and results.

We are playing around with many different learning techniques and assessment strategies during our term long project and while it has been slow going so far, I’m certain that by the end of the term we will have made significant improvements in the way that we learn.

Now my big questions have turned to whether I am setting students up for failure later if I find ways for them to be successful now? Is a significant increase in formative assessment really a fair measure of understanding if students fail to ‘remember’ it during summative assessment?

These are questions for another day.

Week 1 in Review: #GDD17 & Student Voice Audit

I’m just over 10 years into my teaching career and its been about 6 years since I transitioned full-time from HPE teacher to the classroom. My program has been pretty similar the past few years and I decided it was time to mix things up. I thinks students have generally enjoyed being in my class, but that is the problem, it has been “my class”. So this year I set out to hand the classroom over to the students and see what we could achieve. Slowly, we are moving towards co-designing learning, using feedback to guide and improve our learning, connect with our community, and try to create a classroom that allows every student to be successful.

Months of work culminated in our first week of learning in the “City of Glacier Park”. We begin with a TfEL¬†Student Voice Audit ¬†to find our strengths and weaknesses as a classroom when it comes to students being evaluators; teachers; learning designers; researchers; decision-makers and advocates for 21st century learning.¬†Using the Audit Cards¬†we learned that while we have some areas of strengths, we are lacking significantly in creating opportunities for¬†students to act¬†as researchers, evaluators and designers of learning. These are the areas we will be focusing on when we co-design some learning projects towards the end of term.

We used the LAUNCH Cycle for the first time while participating in the Global Day of Design, a¬†creative design thinking challenge involving schools all around the world. Our challenge was to create a new game using just a handful of materials including paddles, a wife ball, balloons etc. We used the Launch Notebook¬† scaffold to guide our way through the cycle using an annotation app on iPads. This cut down significantly on paper (some 800 pages if we photocopied for every student) and gave us skills using a new technology. Student found the process was very long, and it wasn’t until the 5th phase that the penny dropped as to why we were doing it. They realised that if they could answer every question posed¬†in the investigation and had used the feedback from their surveys that they had actually already created¬†their sport¬†without stepping outside. They were then unleashed create their prototype. When they discovered problems with the games they highlighted and fixed them, before preparing to launch to the world. We will see some finished products¬†in week 2.

While the process was very long, most groups persevered and made it to the prototype and launch phase. Students then gave two types of feedback about the Launch cycle. Each team completed a PMI and then individually they recorded a FlipGrid video. We will use this feedback to create a more condensed version of the LAUNCH Cycle for this weeks task, building rockets and parachutes.

This was a long process for me also. I over-planned the week thinking this activity would take perhaps two days, but we still didn’t have a finished product at the weeks end. What was interesting was how invested the students were to finish. Many groups asked if they could¬†continue the following week say they could¬† share their sport with the class we connected with from¬†Winnipeg, Canada. Normally there would’ve been a mad rush on Friday to give me something to grade, but the focus was on learning the process and completing the phases to create something they were proud of, so not one group was willing to compromise their final product just to finish.

Looking at our term overview and schedule, we have probably planned to try and cover too¬†much content. Meeting deadlines and smashing content has been my normal practice, so slowing down and allowing students time to really invest in a project is a slow, messy process. We are using ‘soft deadlines’ to guide our progress, but the only ‘hard deadline’ I am pushing is the end of term.

Next up is finding a practical scaffold for students to self-assess their final product, and provide feedback for their teammates about what they valued about working with them.




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