Some practical help: formative, summative, day-to-day

Assessment has been one of the trickier aspects of teaching for me. I have experienced a lot of frustration, anxiety, and struggle over the 20-odd years of my career. Through work with my amazing colleagues at Fort St. James Secondary School, some great books and professional development, and my virtual colleagues out in the Twitterverse, I am feeling more and more confident about the assessments I do in my class, and thought I should share it.

Here is a “how assessment works in this class” explainer that each student gets at the beginning of the course.

It’s a process!

Portfolio Assessment

Many teachers in the English and Social Studies Departments at our school use portfolio assessment. This has been a truly collaborative effort over many years. Several teachers have contributed their incredible hard work and effort toward what I am describing below. (Cindy, Misha, Gretchen, Lenore, Marni, Deirde, Kate-Nicola, Karen!)

Each student has a folder with a tracking sheet and all returned work. Once a week, or so, we do a folder check. This means students record recent assignments on their tracking sheet, receive assessed work back from me, and record any marks and comments that were given. I ask them to record comments from me that might help them see both what they are doing well, and what their next steps would be. In this way, they can spot trends. It pushes them to look at what I wrote about their work, not just at what they ‘got’. All work is in the folder, in a bin, and the folder does not leave the room!

I don’t print out computer lists – I don’t have computer lists. If they ask me what they are missing, or what percent they have, I ask them to pull out their folder and to tell me what they think. We check and make sure their tracking sheets are up to date. I let them know that I am happy to sit with them and help them see how they are doing. In our departments, we have worked hard to move the responsibility to them. How they are doing should not be a mystery, or up to the teacher to keep track of.

I used to have different weights for different types of work – classwork, assignments, tests and projects, and the final. Students would often ask, “What is this worth?”

I don’t do that anymore.

The portfolio assessment is holistic, although, the more complex the thinking, the more sophistication in the demonstration of the skill, the more important the mark.

My colleague, Gretchen, shared her work on the process of involving students with assessing their overall performance and arriving at a numerical grade. It is a very important  aspect of the ‘what am I learning/how am I doing/what’s next? process. At mid-term and end-of-term, students do a portfolio assessment and give themselves an overall grade. Students transfer all the work from their portfolio from the term onto the larger assessment sheet. I have included one below  – there is no standard sheet. All our semesters vary, so the portfolio assessment will vary. You’ve got to have standard rubrics for a variety of types of assignments so that the assessments can transfer onto the larger sheet.

Gretchen is great at conferencing with students one by one. It takes a lot of time. For her English 10, 11, and 12 classes it takes a full four hours at mid-term, and the same number at term end. However, she has found that time critical in moving students forward toward their next goal.

I am less consistent, but working on it. Most often, I chat with them as they work on this document, or I conference with them after. Sometimes, we run out of time for that final conversation. It’s not a perfect world, and I am working on building in the time!

Here is an example of a English 11 – Final Overall Assessment – Student Teacher Evidence-based Conference Prep Sheet I used last year in English 11. This was adapted from Gretchen’s work – so grateful for the collaboration and sharing in our departments!

Another key aspect of our process is the idea of bands of grades. There are only three possible percentages at each grade level.

Most students are bang-on with this self- assessment. A few underestimate themselves, and once in a while, someone will overestimate their performance.

Formative  Assessment

Comments only to start

When I am teaching a new skill, I don’t give any type of numerical or rubric-based assessment. I give comments only.  It is a constant effort to pull back the damage numerical scores have done. Of course, sometimes there is a number – say, on a key terms quiz. Mostly, however, assignments are assessing comprehension, skills such as note-making, writing, and high leverage thinking.

Three column assessment

Lately I have started to integrate three-column or single point rubric assessment for complex skill – specific types of writing, high-leverage thinking, types of note-making. Again, it stops students from looking at the mark and ignoring what they should be learning from the assessment on how to improve, and on what they are doing well.

Summative assessment

In part, the summative assessment comes from showing what they are learning repeatedly. For skills like finding summarizing text, making point-form notes, finding main ideas and details, or comprehending, students should see a solid trend when they transfer learning over to the mid and final portfolio assessment.

As well, there are larger summative assessments-an inquiry project, an essay, an in-class write or exam, a concept map, or other presentation. These involve more sophisticated skills and often include demonstrating an understanding of the essential questions and big ideas.

The practical aspects

I do a lot of marking at home. When I can, I include the rubric on the assignment to ensure transparency.

Sometimes there is no assignment sheet, and I staple the rubric to the work. Having them all at home is handy!

So, I have a white plastic bin loaded with my most commonly used rubrics, pens, scissors, and a stapler.

I try keep all my rubrics in one document so I can find them easily.

That’s it. I hope there is something useful for you here. If you have any great tricks for the process of assessment, please share them in the comments!

Pilot of SS 9 Draft Curriculum

During the first semester of the 2015/16 school year, I piloted the draft Socials 9 Curriculum at my school.

These are the Big Ideas:

Big Ideas

I took these and converged them all into one essential question that I referred to over and over throughout the semester:

What causes social, political and economic change?

I began the course by examining national anthems. What could we tell about a place and the history of that place by listening to and reading the lyrics of these highly symbolic texts? It seemed like an interesting hook, while also discussion the issues of nationalism. We looked at the anthems of Haiti, France, Russia, the US, Canada, and Britain. Students practiced annotating text, and we began to construct an understanding of how events shape a nation’s sense of identity. It also nicely laid the stage for the first unit, which was about the causes and effects of revolution. Plus, I had a very funny group of boys who stood up each time, hand over hearts, as we listened.

With the curriculum, I took what I am calling a ‘case study’ approach. For example, when we were studying revolution, we ‘drilled down’ deeply with the French Revolution, but also skipped through the Haitian, Russian, British and American revolutions. We spent most of our current events studying the situation in Syria, which began with protest against the current regime.

We discussed the impact of changes in information, technology and ideas. Our case study in this case was the Industrial Revolution, but we also looked at the impact of the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, the horse, human rights, and so on.

We focused on imperialism and the colonization of what is now Canada. At the same time, we kept tying back to the causes and effects of change – the changes in technology, ideas, and power that drove colonization. Of course, this also connects to the revolutions we studied as well. Everything is connected!!

As time went on, we developed an understanding that what causes social, political and economic change are:

  • environmental or other disasters (disease, drought)
  • shifts in power
  • changes in ideas
  • collective learning
  • changes in technology
  • abuse of power
  • violation of human rights
  • inequality of wealth and access to human rights
  • individuals/individual action

We studied in brief or in depth the following (but always in the context of the essential question):

  • Current events – Syria and modern slavery
  • Russian, Haitian, British, French Revolutions
  • The Enlightenment
  • Protestant reformation
  • Industrial Revolution
  • Middle Passage
  • Irish Potato Famine
  • Witch Trials
  • Canadian history including
    • The three Cs of Cabot, Cartier, Champlain, and the other Three Cs of Curiosity, Commerce and Christianity
    • The Huron (case study)
    • Acadian Expulsion (case study)
    • The Seven Year’s War
    • Pontiac Rebellion
    • Royal Proclamation

As the course drew to an end, and students worked on an inquiry of their choice related to the course, we put all the causes of change we had thought of on a big sheet and brainstormed how they all connected:



Students had an 11X17 sheet of their own to carry on with once we had started to work it as a class. Not everyone completed this as we had started to run out of time on the semester and project completion. I may use this as the final exam for the course at some point.

Instead, the final exam had three sections (comprehension, note making and response) wherein students considered an article on slavery in the shrimp industry. I set it up ahead of time with information, videos and discussion.  The students had to choose one of two questions to consider in the context of the article:  Why is it hard in a global economy to protect human rights, or How does lack of power lead to violation of human rights?

Odds and ends:

Future approaches will have to expand to include WWI; pacing is an issue, but I have confidence the approach I am taking will work.

The Curricular Competencies were easy to deal with, but there were weaker areas of my course I will need to address:


One site that helps with dealing with the broad sweeps of history is The Big History Project. I highly recommend accessing these resources. We watched several videos, read some pieces written for the site, and played the World Zone game.

During the course, I focused on the skills of note-taking, annotating text, writing a solid paragraph, and then let them loose on a project in which they could represent their learning in a variety of ways. I asked them to consider the essential question in the project, to varying degrees of success.

I had a group too guarded to do an inquiry. Instead, I had them do a series of mini-research projects to try to build confidence and skill in finding answers to questions and citing sources using EasyBib. This needs work, but has promise.

Super cool use of an old textbook: One student wrote an essay on the Middle Passage and created this sculpture:


Overall, the new approach is not really new to me. I have been changing my practice in this direction for years. I am excited to continue to work on integrating all aspects of the curriculum, including the First People’s Principles. I look forward to seeing how other people are approaching their courses!

Flingin’ around those Essential Questions!

I presented this last Friday and Saturday in Prince George at the Spring Fling and New Teacher’s Conference. What a great event!

Here are the slides, with some modifications, from my presentation:

Spring Fling, PDF

Much of my inspiration comes from Wiggins and McTighe’s essential questions and backward design. Grant Wiggins is one of my favourite bloggers. You can find him at Granted, and…

Along with the presentation, above, I blogged about my practice here, and there also some other links to texts we are using here. There are some repeats of information.

Here are some links to the assessments I discussed in the afternoon presentation:

Thanks to the organizers in Northern BC schools and districts, and thanks to all the folks who came to chat!



Spring Fling 2015 Links

McTighe and Wiggins (Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. Alexandria: ASCD, 2013, p. 17) outline several reasons why essential questions are so powerful. They:

  • Signal that inquiry is a key goal of education.
  • Make it more likely that the unit will be intellectually engaging
  • Help to clarify and prioritize standards for teachers.
  • Provide transparency for students.
  • Encourage and model metacognition for students.
  • Provide opportunities for intra and interdisciplinary connections.
  • Support meaningful differentiation.

Essential questions allow students to connect to the content.

Humanities 9 


Blue Gold, by Elizabeth Stewart 

Iqbal, by Francesco D’Adamo

I am a Taxi, by Deborah Ellis

Humanities 8


Crispin, by Avi

Girl in a Cage, by Jane Yolen

The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Jane Yolen

Texts that talk to each other, and get us talking

Why I organize my teaching around essential questions:

McTighe and Wiggins (Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. Alexandria: ASCD, 2013, p. 17) outline several reasons why essential questions are so powerful. They:

  • Signal that inquiry is a key goal of education.
  • Make it more likely that the unit will be intellectually engaging
  • Help to clarify and prioritize standards for teachers.
  • Provide transparency for students.
  • Encourage and model metacognition for students.
  • Provide opportunities for intra and interdisciplinary connections.
  • Support meaningful differentiation.

Below, I have outlined some of the questions and texts I have used in my classes. Some principles in these units:

  • I like threes. I think it is important to have more than two texts to consider.
  • In each of the following examples, these are anchor texts. That is to say, we take them in as a class. I use audio books to ensure everyone has the content. I read the stories and poetry aloud. We discuss the essential questions, themes and symbols together. All students have access to the texts, regardless of ability.
  • Each text has its own power, its own essential questions and understandings. Even though we have one or two primary questions within a unit, other topics are also discussed and written about.
  • When taken as a whole, common themes and symbols emerge and we can really dig in to how different characters/authors represent the universal human experience.
  • In some cases, the students carry on with independent literature circle reading and link the work they do back to the themes or questions.
  • Sometimes we just do that one unit together, and then carry on to other questions with more independence and choice.
  • The skill the students are working on depends on what I need students to learn at that time. How I ask them to represent their learning can take any form, but the key is that they are engaging the material at a deeper level.
  • I am working on moving from the essential question to the existential question.

English 11

“[Forgiveness is] a powerful and wonderful thing, and ridiculous, too….he sensed that it was the only way to save his own heart, to stop it from breaking in two” (The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate di Camillop. 208). “I know that in the end, God will forgive. He will forgive your father, me, and you too. I hope you can do the same. Forgive your father if you can. Forgive me if you wish. but more important, forgive yourself” (The Kite Runner, Hosseini, p. 316).

Essential Questions/understandings:

  • Can we be good again?
  • What is the role of forgiveness in our lives?
  • What is the power of story to save us from the darkness?


  • Children’s novel: The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate di Camillo
  • Novel: The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
  • Non-Fiction various: Canada’s longest war
  • Movie: The Girl, written and directed by David Riker

Skills taught (Spring 2014):

  • Recognizing symbol
  • Writing thesis statements
  • The literary essay
  • Response to literature
  • Dealing with non-fiction

English 9

  • Novel: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
  • Movie: Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle, based on Q & A, by Vikas Swarup
  • Poetry: Various

Essential Question:

  • To what principles do we owe our primary allegiance?
  • How far are you willing to go to get what you want?

Skills taught (Current):

  • Citing evidence
  • Response to literature
  • Visual Essay – Character Traits
  • Future Assignment: Memoir or short story using the essential question as a theme/central organizer

 English 8 –

  • Novel: Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick
  • Movie: Tsotsi, directed by Gavin Hood
  • Short Story: Phoenix Farm, by Jane Yolen (In future years, I will add other short stories.)

Essential Question:

  • How can we deal with challenge in a healthy way?
  • Who sees, and who is blind, and why?

Skills Taught (current):

  • Finding evidence
  • Response to literature
  • Finding theme using the concept of the universal human experience
  • Personal essay, poem or memoir – students will write about challenges in their own lives

Other units:

  • Humanities 8 – What is the impact of technology on society? How does our world view shape our actions?
  • Geography 12 – Earth and humans are in a fine balance together
  • Psychology 11 – What are the costs and benefits of fitting in and not fitting in? Is there a right way to be?

This style of teaching suits me  – my engagement level has increased, and so has the engagement of my students. I want all students, regardless of ability to consider the important questions of what it means to be human.

Real and not real and unreal

I swore several times this morning I wouldn’t waste any time on this topic, but I kept reading the first paragraph of this article by Brent Stafford over and over. I decided it would be better time management to just write about it and get it out of my head. First, here is the paragraph.

I don’t blame the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation for being unreasonable in its contract demands. After all, teachers don’t work in the real world. They are oblivious to the challenges of driving revenue, servicing customers, operating against a budget tied to profit and loss. They have no idea what it’s like to be an entrepreneur — to bet their future on a new product, service or system — to nurture a small business, to be responsible for the livelihood of staff and to satisfy a mountain of regulation.


I am going to start with the idea that I have no idea what it means to be an entrepreneur. Think about me like a small business. I invested in me for about 8 years with minimal income, while I went to school to get my two degrees.  I bet my future on it, and it took years and years to get where I wanted my career to be. I took loans (paid out at prime, plus 2%, so about 9% in the 90s) to help me build my business (pay tuition and living expenses). I continue to invest in my professional learning.

This is real – no tax write-offs for anything, not office space in my home, car to drive to work, computer to use for my classroom and online learning, costs of websites, professional books, office supplies, resources for my classroom, travel expense claims and so on. I get that I now am less vulnerable to market fluctuations as I am a salaried employee with a union contract, but it wasn’t a cake-walk to get here and it takes major investment in time and money to remain here. I’m fine, though. My husband’s groaning and eye-rolling on the issue of what I pay out of pocket with no tax write-off notwithstanding, I love where I am.

The idea that I have no concept of servicing customers is unreal. Try engaging a room full of teenagers and their iPhones. I compete all day long. I have to remain competitive to keep them learning and I work hard to keep my ‘product’ ahead of the curve, relevant to the ‘marketplace’ and useful for their future. It’s a great challenge, and I love it.

Don’t talk to me about how I don’t understand what it means to be responsible for the livelihood of others. It is clear from research that students’ long term health outcomes are related directly to how long they stay in school and how educated they are. Education is life and death, in the long and the short term. I know that if I don’t keep a student coming to school, it can mean complete disaster for them, and frankly, the entire community. Believe me, we work extremely hard to ensure students stay connected in our school for as long as possible. We give them as many avenues as we can to keep them connected to adults in the building, to provide them a safe and healthy place to come to, to give them food and shelter. We help them mature so they have options, purpose and dignity. We don’t always succeed and they don’t always let us help. The pain of that is very real.

Unreal: the idea that a building full of people is not the real world. Every imaginable story walks through our halls. Real stories, real people. Of course, I can’t really elaborate because I am talking about real people and their real tragedies, their real successes. Because it is real, I can only generalize.

Ah, mountains of regulations. Again, sorry, but we are both living in the same real world. Budget cuts and pressures. Ditto. Some of these are my own challenges as a classroom teacher and department head, others are the responsibility of other professionals in our school.

By the way, my own personal budget has been cut back over the last two decades or so as my salary has not kept pace. If you take the salary my relative was making when he retired in 1997 (same category as me) and put it into the Bank of Canada inflation calculator, it tells me I should be making about $6000 more to stay on pace. I don’t want a raise, I’d just like to stop sliding backward. I am not apologizing for that expectation.

Anyway, I could debate the whole of the article, but I have to get back to working on the classes I am teaching this semester. It helps keep me positive to work with curriculum. I really do have the best job.

Hang on, a few more things.

Real – one area of this article with which I am in complete agreement – keeping the children/grandchildren of politicians out of the discussion.

Also real- the way adults are treated is also important. The article takes a very nasty tone, suggesting I am stomping my feet and yelling for all the money to come to me! That’s not real and it is mean.

Real – we need students back in classrooms. Arbitrate NOW.

Not real – the idea that we don’t really want to arbitrate.

Real – many teachers really feel they are on the line to protect public education and the Constitution. This is not a political game for us.

Unreal – using the BC EdPlan for political purposes.

Unreal – spin. Spin that suggests our desire for more specialist teachers is only to pad ‘the rank and file’.

Not real – unlimited massages.

Real – spin hurts our democracy. Thoughtful debate on policy is healthy. Spin makes people cynical. Cynical people stay away from politics. My new slogan: Stop playing politics with our democracy.

Not real – that the relationship between the two sides is intractable.

Real – that the relationship is intractable is the excuse the government will use for its ‘new paradigm’.

Real – my husband wants to throw my computer into the lake because of the distress and anxiety as I watch twitter and the media. I love him for that.

Real – I can’t afford to replace it.

I could go on, but that’s enough. I am sure more will come to me, or to you. Feel free to add via the comments section.

“Not easy to stay firm”

I went out yesterday, with hope, and bought a few back-to-school clothes I couldn’t afford. Sadly, it was with the kind of hope that I have when I buy a lottery ticket. It’s fun to think about the things I’d do, and the people in my life I could help, but I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the big one.

Similarly, I have no real expectation of returning to school in my shiny new clothes for at least three weeks.

Recent evidence reconfirms my sense of things. In Michael Smythe’s interview with Minister Fassbender on August 21st, I found some, I don’t know, code, for why I feel so concerned that there has never been a political will on the part of the Government to negotiate a deal. It seems they are holding out for something, have always been holding out for something.

Fassbender says, “We have to change the way we do business. And when you do that, and when you take a leadership on wanting to do that, it is not a comfortable place to be.”

Here’s another quote from the interview from Fassbender; he says, “…my goal is to change the paradigm so we are not back into that cycle, and it is not easy to go there, not easy to stay firm.” 

Of all the topics that came up in the interview, this is the one that snagged my attention. Kept snagging my attention.

What is the paradigm shift? What is Fassbender staying firm on?

Fassbender refused to give the deadline for when he will bring down the (surely already planned, the date already in place,) “solution” to this conflict.

Yes, he’s going there. But where is there? What will this all look like when Fassbender has achieved his agenda?

Could someone in the media please ask him. If he doesn’t answer, ask again. Keep asking.

Maybe I am wrong, maybe there is hope. Maybe I’ll go buy a lottery ticket, too. See how it turns out.

We tell our story, or someone else will

It has been incredible to watch the kind of storytelling that has taken place during this labour dispute in BC. Teacher bloggers and tweeting teachers have given voice to a variety of issues. A critical mass of teachers are obviously taking up the tools of the digital age to enrich their own professional lives, make their classroom work accessible to kids and parents, and to bring the world to their students.  Many teachers also wrote letters to the editor, or posted on Facebook. Images of emptied classrooms, pictures from the picket line, and stories from the classroom have belied the predominant narrative that this is just about a recalcitrant union executive that needs to be brought to heel.

The lockout was particularly inspiring.

This outpouring is a huge difference from the last ‘withdrawal of services’ back in 2012.

Yesterday, we rushed to say good bye, to send out emails to parents, to get work back to students, to send home work for students that didn’t quite get there, to take student work home that didn’t get assessed. (Yes, I know I am on strike. I was also locked out, but I have a job to do, and I have no intention of letting a single student down if I can avoid it.)

Today, it was a pure joy to watch the #thisismystrikepay hashtag dominate my Twitter stream. It was uplifting, and helped me deal with the wide ranging emotions that toppled me yesterday around 4pm.

We tell our stories, or someone else will.

I tried hard not to feed the trolls, or curse the media’s lack of clarity or stale commentary.

This is not about them.

This is about the courage to tell a story. I am so grateful to you all. You helped make a miserable couple of weeks doable.

I am hopeful that  we will get a fair deal and that students will have more supports. I am hopeful Districts will have enough money to provide services, rather than trying to do more and more with less and less, year after demoralizing year.

In the meantime, all of you that posted and tweeted, wrote letters, took pictures, penned signs, and attended rallies you are my  #thisismystrikepay.

Also, these two great kids, who give up loads of time with me so I can go to work, #youaremystrikepay!


Internal and external conflicts with assessment

I am marking English 11 this morning, as I await my 2-6pm shift on the picket line, so internal and external conflicts are on my mind. Hence the title.

Once again, the sticky, pokey, confuzzled, and much hated Marking Beast reared its ugly head. (Not to be confused by the much loved Assessment Hero.) Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, I asked students to analyze some short stories via specific questions, using integrated quotes and providing analysis and explanation. Recently, I had started to use short, focused rubrics and and feedback on student work, because I am loathe to assign numbers until report cards force me to.  (And then I am still loathe to do it.) This time, due to some conflicts within myself, with time, with students themselves confused by the lack of numbers on their work, I decided to use my older method of assigning numbers to questions. (When will I learn?)

I am cheerily marking along, providing advice, using my number system, which looks something like this:

  • If they use two specific quotes to prove their point, and integrate them in their answer, and provide explanation and analysis, that would be a 10/10.
  • If they use two specific quotes, including analysis, but do not integrate, that would be a 9/10.
  • If they use limited but clear evidence, and integrate and don’t explain, that would be….

….and so on. Marking English/Humanities is complicated.

It is going well for the first six or so assignments, until I run into a paper produced by a student I have worked with before and who has struggled with writing and analysis. I am thrilled at the work she has done, and drop the paper mid-assessment to text her parent to pass along a congrats and encourage her to stay ‘in the game’ until the end of classes in June. English 12, here she comes!

However, by the time I tally her marks, she has a C. I get up off the couch and walk the dog.

Here’s why her mark was so low.

  • On eight questions, she got an average of 85%.
  • On two, she misunderstood the questions, and while she provided strong and thorough evidence for the idea she thought she was answering, she got zeros.
  • On three, she gave partial answers, clearly losing interest or perhaps again not understanding the questions, but having completed them for homework, did not ask for clarification before putting it in the marking bin.

Okay, so if she got 85/130, that is 65%. Should she have a high B? Should the C stand? How do I hand back a paper with 65% scrawled on it, when she so clearly can do more? Did do more?

My options:

  1. Track her down and get her to re-do the questions she did wrong or did not complete.
  2. Give her a C.
  3. Give her  B, based on the questions she did answer and in which she clearly demonstrates her ability to ‘provide a clear and thorough interpretation of works that feature complex ideas and language’ and her ability to ‘make logical inferences and analyze literary works using textual evidence’, and her capacity to ‘provide thoughtful insight’. This is all language from the rubric.

Given the limited time I currently have to work (voluntarily) with students outside of class, Option 1, while good, may not be realistic.

Option 2: Will. Not. Happen.

So, she gets the B. She earned it. She showed her ability EIGHT times, ten if you count the missteps. If she had done it only 3 times, my choice would be different.

(Bring it, Marking Beast, bring it.)


What about you? What would you have done?