Students Can Own Their Learning

At times I take for granted how far my students have come in their ability to own their learning. It has not always been this way but over the past five years so much has changed in how I view students as learners and how I teach. Formative assessment is at the very core of these changes; the result – student ownership of learning.

This year, as visitors entered my room to view formative assessment in action, many educators spoke of how surprised they were at my students’ ability to articulate their learning. Students would quickly share what they were learning, how far they had come and where they still needed to go. They would pull out their criteria sheets and discuss how they could meet with success and share peer feedback, communicating how this helped improve their learning. This was also evidenced within students’ self-assessment pieces they shared on line, in journals and through discussions. The students were demonstrating how they learn best.

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But something happened on the last day of school that has left me in awe of the changes and growth that has occurred with so many of my students.  When I opened up the thank you gifts and cards something dawned on me, many of the cards were not written by parents but by the students themselves. In and of itself this might not be unusual but it was what was written that had taken me aback.   For many it was not a simple thank you but a  letter sharing their thoughts and feelings of the year(s) they has spent with me. It was not thanking me for the wonderful activities we had done, or the field trips that they participated in, but focussed rather on how they had grown and changed as learners. It really was quite something to read their words and understand the significance of what they were saying.

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A grade 7 student wrote:“You have pushed me to do my best and taught me to take risks and helped me to enjoy learning more. When I first came into grade six I was always worried about the final grade instead of taking risks with my learning and enjoying the process. Thank you so much for helping me realize learning is a journey we take through life and it is not about a final grade. You helped me understand that when we take risks we will make mistakes but instead of feeling sad we should use them to accomplish our goals.”

Another student shared: “Your learning strategies like peer feedback, reflections and self-assessments have been super beneficial to my learning. … You really inspired me to be a better learner; always challenging me to dig deeper.”

These are just two examples of the kind of letters the students wrote to me in their cards; I was, and still am, amazed at their words. Formative assessment practises can and do change the way students view themselves as learners. My evidence comes not from test scores but from the students themselves. To me there is no evidence more powerful than that.

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Grades: the freeze effect

The discussion of grades, whether we should give grades or not, has been on my radar for years. I have always struggled with giving grades as I know it can inhibit the motivation of some of my students. In the past four years I have embraced formative assessment Unknown-2therefore everything in my class focusses on individual learning. My students know that learning has no end, it is about  looking to improve, reflecting on learning and making plans for improvement. This shift in my understanding what helps students learn best really emphasizes the need to move away from grades whenever possible. This past year the Surrey School District opened the doors for schools to create their own reporting process. I was truly excited to dive in but when it came to developing a format my colleagues and I felt communicated student learning clearly, we struggled. So the year passed, we debated and nothing changed, at least for our grade 6/7s at Hillcrest. (Other grades/teachers in our school did jump in.) Something happened to me recently where the impact on grades and student learning hit home on a very personal level.

In the novel, Touching Spirit Bear, there is a part in the story where a Tlingit elder demonstrates how change can occur. One way is by a constant tension pushing us and eventually moving us off our path. The other way is for a sudden and unexpected push, this might include a life changing event.  For me it was not a tragedy but the beginning of my Masters program that has caused a sudden shift. I was thrilled to be going back to school as my experience in the graduate diploma program had relit a fire within me that I did not realize was burning low. One of the reasons I enjoyed the program so much, and soared as a learner, was that I was free to learn what was important to me;  it was a pass/fail course. The pressure of grades was absent therefore I learned for me, not for my instructor and the grade he would assign.

So when I was accepted into the Masters program I was excited and of course a bit nervous. But the nerves were centred on handling the extra workload, not on how I would do academically. Our first day approached and the syllabus arrived. All was good until I Unknownread the break down of the grades, this is where my shove came – I was to be graded on my learning. I froze. Really and truly my gut clutched tight and my anxiety escalated. For some of you, grades may motivate you, but for me they were a reminder that I was not smart. In high school I was a B student and never felt comfortable about sharing this with colleagues. For some reason I felt that it just wasn’t good enough. Initially my university grades were Cs until I started to get my feet firmly planted in the system. I slowly worked my way back up to Bs and even a sprinkling of A-s thrown in but my GPA suffered from those first two semesters. It took me 21 years after graduating with a BA to build up enough courage to apply because  I truly did not feel smart enough.

Here it was again, I was feeling like I was an impostor, that people would discover maybe I should not have been accepted into the program because I was not an A student. I images-1worried about what this would do to my learning as I had discovered through the PB+15 program that I love to learn. One of the teachers in the program compared me to the Pacman of learning – I gobble it all up. But would my learning be stunted because I was more focused on what I thought the instructor might want from me rather than the freedom that is allowed in a pass/fail situation.

How could I not connect what I was feeling to what students experience every time they know an assignment is a summative one. What does this do to my learners who often get Cs if I know what it does to me as a B student? How am I crippling the learning of my students when I assign a grade? Are these students showing only part of what they can do because they focus on the grade and are worried about my judgement rather than theirUnknown-1 own growth? For me it is about not feeling good enough inside, but for my students they have the extra pressure of not being good enough in the eyes of their parents. The shove, as I mentioned earlier, has made a monumental impact on my understanding of how grades can affect student learning. I know some of my students relish grades. How do I know, because I asked them.  But for the most part it is the A students who want to keep grades, the rest would like them gone.Students have been very articulate with me regarding this issue and how they feel. I even had 4 students this spring choose ‘no grades’ as their persuasive topics of choice.  I am feeling even more strongly that we need to remove grades, at least in elementary school. This does not mean we stop assessing our students, but is giving a grade the best way to communicate their learning. What this looks like for my students next year I am not quite sure; this is a tension in my teaching that needs to be addressed.

I must end with a relieved sigh. This weekend, during one of my sessions in my Masters course, I found out that everyone gets a B  unless of course you do not complete the images-2assigned work. My shoulders came away from my ears and I was able to sit back into my chair knowing that I could focus on my learning. I am sure those closest to me could hear my exhale of stress as it was released. If the thought of being graded can still do this to me even as an adult learner and one who has many life experiences under my belt, what does this do to most of our students? How have we stifled their thinking, their love of learning every time we say, “oh and by the way, this is a summative piece so I will be marking it”?

Who Grew More, the Student or Teacher?

Two years ago the grade 6 and 7 teachers at my school, along with our principal, made an important decision. Little did I know that this agreement would change my beliefs about what is best for student learning  nor did I realize this was the nudge I needed to take  risks and make changes in my teaching.

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Then there were 4.

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Now we are 5!

In June of 2011, after much consideration, the upper intermediate teachers decided to move from 3 straight grade 7 classes and one split to 4 combined 6/7s. Notice I used the term combined, not split. There is a very significant difference in how you teach a combined class versus a split class.

This was not an easy decision for me as I had been teaching grade 7 for many years. I was in a comfortable spot where I knew the curriculum  well enough  to be able to develop new approaches to what I did each year without having to learn a new curriculum. I had so many questions of what this combined class would look like and how the parents and kids would react after the years of tradition that had taken place at our school.

DSCF2049As a collaborative group we decided to take the leap,  to start a new journey. As we took this turn, we also were starting an inquiry on the use of technology and student engagement in the classroom. We also made a decision to run a two year program – the grade 6s would stay with their same teacher for two years. Thirdly, we made a conscientious decision to change the language in our classes to ‘learning’ language.

Our first two year cycle has come to an end; the grade 6s we started with are now off to 100_4596high school and ready to fly. As I reflect on this journey I am amazed, thrilled and a little dumbfounded at all that has transpired. What is even more powerful is that the students have recognized how far they have come in the two years and articulate it clearly to anyone who might ask.

What made the most impact on the change in student learning? I don’t know if I can prioritize this. I doIMG_0951 know that having the students for two years allowed growth for all. If you were to tell me that Mary (made up name) would grow from a timid, sometimes socially inappropriate, and disinterested child to a leader in the class as well as the school and a deep, reflective thinker I would have scoffed. If you would have told me that Johnny (again made up) would go from the highly disorganized, lose everything, one line writer to the focused (not all the time but most of the time), love to help others learn, and writer of thoughtful, detailed pieces I would laugh. But these as well as 11 other powerful stories did take place. The 13 grade 7 students who walked out my door on June 28th, 2013 are not the same students who walked in September 5, 2011. Some may say, “Maybe this growth would have happened anyway even without the same teacher for two years.” Who knows. What I do know, from my perspective, is that I am incredibly thankful to be the teacher who did have them for two years to witness their growth and did have the chance to push them to find their own potential. I am lucky to have been part of their world for the past two years.

Creating a combined class rather than a split class was also instrumental for the students.IMG_1031 We did all of our learning together (except Math); there was no split curriculum or sitting in separate parts of the class. Each student had an opportunity to work with everyone in the class, sit beside everyone, build relationships with everyone. The students did not see themselves as separate but as a family. As we reflected on this at the end of the year the students very clearly stated that it was the creation of the family unit that was incredibly important to them. They felt that we all built trust together and that we learned together.

Finally, the change of language. This is harder to describe. I made it intentional to promote the concept “we are all learners.” I was not the keeper of the knowledge. In December of 2012 one of my grade 6 students wrote on my blog,

IMG_0997Mrs. Middleton

It’s Slapshot one of your students and I’d just like to say that I think your an amazing learner and critical thinker. By the way you take time to write out these posts and are not afraid to share your learning with the world is just amazing! You are one of the only teachers I’ve ever had that has made learning fun, and it’s an honor to have you as my teacher but most of all a fellow learner. It’s not just us that learns but you can learn from us. Like just today you said to Skywalker in class that you could never come up with “International classmates” by yourself. That just shows how much you have pushed our thinking in the past 3 months.

Thank you for making this the best year of school yet and more to come.

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This was so powerful, a wow moment – my students saw themselves, as well as the teacher, as a learner.

I also tried to instil in each of my students that it was the journey that was important, the journey is the learning, not some end grade. Students came to embrace this and stopped asking, “Is this for marks?” or “What is my mark?” They came to own their learning. Two years ago I was wondering how I could move my students from being observes of their learning to owners of their learning. Well they have done it and I cannot believe how  powerful this piece is and how proud they each are of their growth.

Haley and IIt was a very difficult good bye this past June for me. It is hard to say farewell to those who have been such a part of my life for so long. I can feel a sense of satisfaction and a lot of pride that these  students will succeed in their lives because they have taken on the ownership of their learning, they are wanting to succeed for themselves. I also am thrilled to know that 15 of my students will be walking back through my door in September ready to take the lead in our class, to build new relationships and to continue their growth where they left off. How exciting for us all.

I cannot imagine going back to the way it was in June 2011; too much of who I have become happened because of the changes my colleagues and I made over the past 2 years. I am extremely excited to continue this journey and see what else transpires for me in this wonderful profession I am a part of.

To end this year each student created a reflective animoto of their growth – where they have come from and where they are now. I have shared three with you here but all of the reflections can be found on my website at Student Reflections. These are  powerful examples of how far each has come in their own growth as well as the growth of the learner.

Student Reflection

Student Reflection 2

Student Reflection 3

I would like to hear of changes others have made this past year or two that have made a difference in your teaching and student learning. Please share a story or two of what has made an impact in  your teaching.