Core Competencies… It’s not about the checklist.

I have been doing this thing called teaching for over 35 years and when I think about all the many learners, young and old, I have had the privilege to learn beside and with, I am humbled by their willingness and their abilities to take ownership of their learning and move to meaningful self-assessments when the conditions are right. What are the conditions that allow learners to assess their own learning in ways that are honest, thoughtful, and to help them move forward in their learning?

This, I believe, is an important question teachers must ask themselves if they are to meet the year end BC Ministry of Education Reporting Guidelines, specifically, supporting students in self-assessing their growth in the three Core Competencies: Communication, Thinking, and Personal and Social.  It may be helpful to read the ministry document Supporting the Self-Assessment and Reporting of Core competencies, March 2017

Three Essential Conditions that Support Student Self-Assessments

1. Caring Relationships

If students are to talk about their learning in honest and authentic ways, they first have to feel safe, trusted, and respected. I need to make sure that my students feel prized and cared for and that they have a sense of belonging in an inclusive learning environment. I need to help students build caring relationships with each other, as well as with me. Healthy attachments that are nurtured are important foundations to help students begin to do the difficult work of reflecting on their learning and to provide evidence that support their assessments.  In short, I need to earn my students’ trust and affection so they will want to share both their thinking and feelings in sincere and personal ways.

2. Process-Orientated Engagement

If students are to reflect on, and assess their growth in the core competencies, the competencies need to be part of my classroom’s daily rhythms, routines, and curriculum activities.  I have to provide opportunities for children to direct their own learning through play, inquiry, exploration, and discovery.  I have to actively engage my students in rich and engaging process-orientated curriculum tasks. If students are quietly sitting in their desks, listening to teacher-talk, and completing one word answer worksheets, self-assessing their growth in the core competencies may not be an easy, nor meaningful process. Students need to take ownership of their own learning; they need to direct their own behaviour, making decisions, solving problems, working with others, communicating their ideas, and thinking creatively and critically about things that matter. In other words, students need to be living and doing the core competencies so when they are asked to assess their competencies, they can!

3. The Language of Reflection

Finally, the classroom must be a place where conversations about the process and products of learning are woven in and around the life of the classroom.  If students are going to self-assess both their strengths and growth in the core competencies, students and teachers must be engaged in diverse and individualized daily interactions about learning. The language of reflection needs to be a natural and embedded part of the learning process.  Right from the start of the year, I must engage students in on-going self-reflections, both informally and formally.  As I do this, I can explicitly teach and model the language of the core competencies.  Every day I need to provide opportunities for students to make thoughtful observations and assessments in respect of the core competencies and identify and collect evidence of their growing skills and abilities.

Teacher as Model

I need to watch and listen and, when appropriate, take time to notice, name, and connect the core competencies to the activities, experience, and learning that takes place around me. For children who do not yet have the language, I need to guide their observations through my questions, and for some, gently script their words, helping them name and describe their strengths.  “Look at what you did here, communicating your ideas with such detail.” I can also model my own learning, and describe how I am demonstrating competence from my own experiences. My friend and colleague, District Principal, Antonio Vendramin, in his blog post, Silly rabbit . . . Core competencies are for everyone! shares a powerful learning story about the importance of first identifying the core competencies in ourselves before we can help our students engage in the process of self-assessment.

Research suggests that self-reflection and assessment are the most powerful instructional strategies that lead to new learning. When students are able to use their own words to describe and explain their thinking and feelings behind their learning, they become motivated and confident learners.  It is my responsibility to encourage and invite students to reflect on and share what they think and feel about their learning. It is my responsibility to help students identify and collect evidence of their growing skills and abilities so that they can make thoughtful observations and assessments of the core competencies.

So, the conditions are right . . .

One thing I know for sure, when the conditions are right, all learners can move to honest, thoughtful, and meaningful self-assessments. I must remember, as Sharon Jeroski, Research Director at Horizon Research and Evaluation, writes in her google doc, Supporting Self Assessment of the Core Competencies, “It’s not about filling in a template or checking off aspects on a rubric – it’s about what students are becoming and how to support them.” It really isn’t about the activity or form, and definitely not the checklist; it is instead about students taking ownership and making meaning of the process, connecting what they do, what they know, and what they feel and understand about the core competencies and how they see themselves inside these competencies.

Students Take Ownership of the Core Competencies

In many classrooms students are taking ownership of BC’s new curriculum core competencies.  Teachers are bringing the core competencies to life, helping their students talk about and connect their understanding, their experiences, and their learning activities to these competencies.

All year round, students need to be engaged in the process of self-assessment.  It can not just happen at the end of the year as an add on. Beyond our informal conversations and discussions of the core competencies, I also engage our students in carefully planned activities. These activities deepen students’ understanding and skill sets, and gives me feedback on the students’ growing ability to talk about and assess their strengths. Teachers have to trust and believe that children can become reflective practitioners and that every child has a voice that needs to be heard.   As I have said, and written many times, it sometimes takes a lot of slow to grow.

As I plan activities that engage students in core competency work, I want to make sure they are given plenty of opportunities to:

  •  talk, share, and listen to each other’s ideas
  • connect what they know to what they do
  • communicate their understanding
  • provide concrete examples and evidence of their learning

Here are some activities that we have engaged our grade 3 and 4 students to help them move to thoughtful and meaningful self-assessments of the core competencies.

Core Competency Chats

Inviting students to share their understanding of the core competencies through informal chats and discussions continues to move their growth and skills in self assessing them.

Zach shares his understanding of the Thinking Core Competency

MacKenna shares her understanding of the Communication core competency.

Avneet shares her understanding of the Personal and Social core competency.


Small Group Brainstorms

After lots of dialogue and discussion, students in small groups used felt markers (red for communication, blue for thinking, and green for personal and social) to record their understanding of the three core competencies.  In pictures and/or words, students worked together to represent their ideas:  What do the core competencies look like in our classroom? sound like? feel like?  How would you describe the core competencies?  What do they mean to you?

The insight and depth that children brought to this task was stunning.  What was most interesting to me was the dialogue between the students as they worked together, negotiating, planning, clarifying, and helping each other get their ideas down.  Each group began to understand how the three competencies work together and how they are interconnected in many of the activities they do.

Sort and Categorize Activity

In this activity, children worked together in small groups, first recording all the activities, routines, and tasks that they work on and have worked on. Students also gathered ideas from looking at their documentation in digital portfolios.  They then made three cards with labels: communicating on red, thinking on blue, and personal and social on green; these would become their categories for the next step.  One by one, the children had to talk about each “learning experience” and together choose the best category to sort it under.  Once again, the dialogue was rich and descriptive as the children shared their thinking behind their decisions, coming to consensus.  The children also came to realize that many of the activities and tasks we do in our classroom involve all three competencies.

As I visit other classrooms, teachers are helping students understand and self-assess competencies using “I can” statements, pictures, and photographs.  Our primary classrooms have been using real photographs of children working and learning, which are talked about, competency named, and sorted similar to the example above. These strategies help lower the level of abstraction, making the language and concepts behind the words concrete and accessible to younger students. All said, even our older, more mature students need concrete examples and time to develop their understanding of the core competencies so they can move to thoughtful self-assessments.  Ms. Teagan Hayes, who shares my grade 3/4 class on Thursdays and Fridays, did some wonderful work with her grade 2 class.

Our kindergarten friends next door, with Ms. Becky Weber, have been collecting photos of children in action and placing them on competency posters.  The young learners in this classroom are talking about the core competencies in language that makes sense to them, “We use our brains, our mouths, and our hearts, and sometimes they work all together,” the very capable little ones share.


Self-assessments can take on many forms: photographs, videos, illustrations, learning stories, “I can” statements, open-ended writes, and more.  Here are some forms that our students have used to assess their learning and plan new learning goals under the core competencies.



I am always reminded how real, authentic artefacts help students self-assess.  Here are the photos that go alongside the above self-assessments:  Paul’s Heart Collage Math Task, Samantha’s “Two of the Same” Portfolio Documentation of her Double-Entry Journal Writes, and a photo of Will manning his Estimation Challenge Station with a kindergarten visitor.   “Two of the Same” explained.

And finally, a very simple and open form inviting students to share their ideas through words and/or illustrations.




As we move into the last months of the school year, I know many teachers are focusing on helping their students move to self-assessments of the core competencies in the new curriculum.  I applaud the many different ways teachers are engaging their students in the process of understanding the competencies and connecting them to their lived experiences in ways that are authentic, personal, and meaningful to them.  As we continue this very important work, I am reminded of an important distinction, “A student is not a collection of competencies. A student is a person who has competencies that vary from one context to another. Competencies are all about strengths; they are not incompetencies.” (Sharon Jeroski)

I am humbled by my students’ honesty, their thoughtfulness, and their insight. When I believe in my students and give them ownership of their learning, they never cease to amaze me.




Posted in 21st Century Classrooms, Antonio Vendramin, Assessment and Evaluation, BC Ministry Curriculum, Cambridge Elementary, Cambridge Elementary, Surrey, BC, Communicating Student Learning, Communication, Core Competencies, Formative Assessment, Language of Reflection, Personal and Social, SD#36 Surrey, Self-Assessments, Sharon Jeroski, Thinking, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Every Child Matters, the Messages Behind Orange Shirt Day.

Originally published September 26th on CambridgeLearns,  by Kelli Vogstad

Over forty years ago, six year old Phyllis Webstad lived with her grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. They had very little money, but some how Phyllis’ grandmother managed to save enough to buy Phyllis a brand new orange shirt for her first day of school.   Wearing her treasured orange shirt, Phyllis entered the St. Joseph Mission Residential School, outside of Williams Lake, BC. The mission quickly stripped off her new orange shirt and replaced it with the school’s institutional uniform. Phyllis shares her story and her memories of feeling unworthy and insignificant in the video below. She recalls all the children crying, frightened, and feeling that no one cared. No teacher was telling them that they would be okay and that they mattered.


Phyllis’ moving story is the nucleus for what has become a national movement to recognize the experience of survivors of Indian residential schools, to honour them, and to show a collective commitment to ensure that every child matters. The initiative calls for every Canadian to wear an orange shirt on September 30 in the spirit of healing and reconciliation.  Phyllis’ story also reminds me of how important our role is as teachers.  We are often the first person a child comes in contact as they enter our school.  At Cambridge Elementary school, teachers work together to send a message to all our students that we care, that they are safe, and that they matter.

Orange Shirt Day is this Friday, September 30th.  It is an opportunity for First Nations, local governments, schools, and communities to come together in the spirit of reconciliation and hope for generations of children to come.  The date for Orange Shirt day was chosen because it is the time of year in which children were taken from their homes to residential schools and because it is an opportunity to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the coming school year.

Today we have the capacity and the opportunities to make our lives different from those that came before us. Phyllis’ story stands to remind us all that we can make a difference in the lives of our children and students, helping them feel worthy of love, respect, and belonging.

I am struck by the importance of our responsibilities as parents and teachers. As parents and teachers, we are in the business of person-making. The cultures we create in our homes, classrooms, and schools, the interactions we use, and the activities and tasks we ask children to do, can make important differences in their lives and who they become.   Who we are in our homes and in our classrooms can have profound influences on who our children and students become. These are important understandings we must remember as we work to create environments that will have positive effects on our children. This is not always an easy task.

My belief, and my hope, is that the stories we remember and share from our pasts, stories such as Phyllis’, help us to become better people. As I continue working in schools with teachers, students, and their families, I must remember I am an agent of change and the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and actions which I bring to classrooms and schools influence and impact students’ own journeys to becoming who they are and the stories they will share.

Our challenge is to accept, value, and nurture our students’ developing selves in an effort to help all of them feel a strong and positive sense of belonging. We must remember, the way we live together in our classrooms and our school, and the way in which we appreciate each other’s struggles to become who we are, can make a lasting effect on each of our lives. With this understanding, the teachers at Cambridge work hard to create a special place – a place of belonging that sends the important message to all the members of our learning community: you matter.

Posted in Attachment Theory, Cambridge Elementary, Communicating to Parents, Moral Development, Orange Shirt Day, School Culture, Social and Emotional Learning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Communicating Student Learning: The Journey Continues

IainIt has almost been a year since I wrote my post called, Making Learning Visible through Digital Portfolios.  We have continued our journey here at Cambridge Elementary deepening our understanding of pedagogical documentation and how we can best document student learning so it is truly authentic, meaningful, and reflective of the learning that goes on in our classrooms. This year documenting student learning has become a regular and intentional process in our classroom. The children and I work together to choose, capture, and communicate evidence of learning with parents, but also, and perhaps most importantly, to improve student achievement.

I have seen first hand how and why our digital portfolios have become more than just a collection of activities and tasks; they have become tools of assessment that weave together the voices of the teacher, the student, and the parent. FreshGradeUsing the Fresh Grade digital tool, student portfolios have become living documents as we work together discussing, planning, reflecting on the evidence of learning, and setting shared goals for future learning. I believe this process has been instrumental in moving our digital collections beyond glorified scrapbooks

Three Parts to Documenting: Choose, Capture, Communicate

Throughout the year, we have thoughtfully combined formative assessment practices with our documentation, focusing on learning goals and intentions, taking stock of where students are in terms of these goals, and including assessments, both teacher and student assessments for learning. We have focused on both reflecting on and interpreting the documentation and making comments about where students are in their learning, where they need to go, and how best to get there.

Our documentation of student learning includes three steps; we use three words that begin with the letter “C”, Choose, Capture, and Communicate:

  1. Choose the learning – the skill, the strategy, the task, the process, the understanding, the competencies, the curriculum area that will be highlighted.
  2. Capture the learning – through thoughtful documentation using photos and/or videos (see the four types of documentation)
  3. Communicate the learning – teacher and student share comments/ reflections/assessments, sharing learning stories: what the student can do/ has learned, needs to still do/ learn, and how he/she will move forward.

In our first two years using the Fresh Grade digital tool, we focused on choosing and capturing tasks and activities that would show students’ progress, growth, and learning. We generally used four types of documentation which I have named and written about in a past post: Two of the Same, Showing the Knowing, Celebrating the Learning, and Explaining the Hows and Whys (Making Learning Visible Through Digital Portfolio).

This year, we continued to document in these four ways, but have specifically focused on our third step: how we communicate the learning. Through modelling and conversations, sharing and using teacher and peer feedback, students have developed their skills of reflecting on and assessing their own learning. This process of reflecting on and assessing one’s own learning has made our documentation and communication of student learning more meaningful and powerful, not only improving students’ progress, but also supporting teachers’ best practice.

BoysI have also found, as students learn to reflect on and comment on their own learning, students have become more motivated and confident in their learning journey. Students begin to take ownership of their learning, becoming self-directed, self-assessors, and in doing so, continue to improve their learning. This year, I have also noticed that the more opportunities and experience students have, the more confidence and skill they gain to reflect on, make observations, and assess their learning. They have developed what I call a “language of reflection”. This reflective process also includes three steps as outlined below. The students use three words that all begin with the letter “N” to comment on their learning: Now, Not Yet, and Next.

Three Steps to Reflect: Now, Not Yet, Next

  1. Now – What did you learn, try to learn, do, succeed at, are proud of, want to celebrate? What I did and want you to notice and why, what I learned, what I tried to learn, what I am proud of, my strengths and the positives about this documentation. How and why do you know and feel this?
  2. Not Yet (but that’s okay)- What do you still need to work on, struggled with, were challenged by? What I need to work on, what was challenging, what I didn’t do, what I need to still figure out and learn? How and why do you know and feel this?
  3. Next – What do you need to do next to improve on, get better at, continue learning, and what will you do to get there? What help or support will you need? How I will learn more, get better, what strategies I will use, what help will I ask for? How and why do you know and feel this?

To help students reflect on, assess, and make comments about their learning, I have, at times, given them additional sentence starters. With time and experience, I have noticed that students move naturally and independently to their own language of reflection that is individualized, meaningful, and personal as they share their observations, their thinking, and their feelings.


  • I would like you to notice . . .
  • Before I couldn’t but now I can …
  • I am proud of this because …
  • Something now that I learned and understand …
  • I am doing better at …
  • I used to … but now I …
  • I feel … about my learning because …

Not Yet:                                                                                                                                                             

  • I need to work on …
  • I still need help with …
  • My biggest challenge was …
  • I feel … about my learning because …
  • This is not my best work because …
  • I still have questions or uncertainties about …
  • I still need to figure out …

Next Steps:                                                                                                                                                 

  • What I would have done differently next time …
  • I will need to …
  • I could improve by …
  • How I will I continue to improve is by …
  • What I will do next and why …
  • I will … to keep learning …
  • I feel … about what my next plans because …

This year, one student coined another phrase, Yo’s, to help him remember what he needed to comment on; he called Yo’s, the yahoos, the oops, and the next steps that he will take in his learning. Some teachers help students by using other prompts such as “a star and a wish” (what I did well, and what I want to work on), or a rose, a thorn, and a bud (what was good, what was not so good, and what has potential and I will continue to work on). Whatever words and/or descriptors you and your students come up with is up to you; the goal is to provide opportunities for students to become reflective practitioners and to develop their understandings and skills so that they can confidently talk about their learning and describe the evidence that leads them to their assessments.

Examples taken from my grade three and four students’ digital portfolios:

Ellie reflects on two writing samples, one from September and one from January (Two of the Same).  She uploads her two photos and her comments to her portfolio:

Two the Same writing


Sydney makes a video of herself solving an equal-sided equation using the “Explain Everything App” (Showing the Knowing). She uploads her video as well as her reflective comments to her portfolio documenting her learning:


Marcus uploads a photo from his Literature Circle Journal and then adds a comment about his work (Celebrating the Learning):

double journal

And finally, three more examples of how students reflect on and comment about their learning across the curriculum:

Alicia reflects on one of her projects sharing a detailed description and her assessment of her creation.

Junk PicJunk art comment

Sebastian uploads the video of his group’s presentation and then shares a comment of the process, how he felt, and how he met some of the criteria.

group project.png

group write

Zach comments on his learning video he uploaded to his portfolio.  His reflection is informative and detailed demonstrating his understanding of the learning intentions.


I am moved to comment on Alicia’s and Zach’s reflections. Both students end their writes with the words “practice makes perfect”. This idiom has become a familiar cliché which to many means that if you do something over and over again you will learn to do it very well. It’s true, experience can improve performance, but we also know that in order for practice to result in learning it must be meaningful, motivating, skillful, challenging, and rewarding. The work my students are doing is just that. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about doing your best and moving forward in your learning.

What has been most powerful this year has been hearing the children’s voices – what they think and feel about their learning. Through their own words, I can understand how students see and assess themselves in their learning. I can also see how their comments are becoming more sophisticated, detailed, and meaningful in their reflections. When one is able to reflect on his or hers own learning, it helps one become motivated and confident as a learner.  Isn’t this what we want for our students?

Inviting Parents to Move to a Language of Reflection

EllieA third voice that has become an important part of our journey is inviting the voices of our parents. Research has consistently pointed to the positive effects that parent involvement has on their child’s learning. Ann Davies, in her article “Getting Your Students Communicating About Their Learning”, Education Digest, Apr2001, writes about the importance of parents being involved in this process: “Research indicates that when parents are involved in talking about learning with their children, the children achieve more. The more parents are involved, the higher the student achievement levels.”

We have helped our parents share comments that go beyond, “Nice job!” and “Excellent!” Parents also share their observations, questions, and feelings about their children’s learning. Through parent meetings, three-way conferences, and emails, I have provided suggestions and examples for parents to help them use more “reflective language” in their comments to support their children in their learning. Parents have shared that they have appreciated a list of suggestions to guide them in making meaningful comments in their child’s portfolios that support their child’s learning.

Ways parents can offer feedback and comments:Zach

  • acknowledge and prize the learning
  • make an observation about the task or content
  • ask a question about the task or content
  • share a personal or home connection
  • share a feeling
  • offer a suggestion
  • offer a next step
  • ask for more information
  • ask for more explanation

Zach blog

Zach’s dad comments on Zach’s new Kidblog post, connecting with his ideas and then posing a question to move Zach’s thinking and learning.  The parent has offered an invitation to move the learning deeper.

Earth Ranges

Jayden’s mom makes a home-school connection and then offers encouragement, to motivate the learner.  The parent then poses a question to move Jayden’s reflection deeper, re: the workshop he participated in.


Ruby’s parents make a comment prizing and acknowledging her strengths and work ethic.  They share a personal comment about how they are touched by their child’s work.


Adam’s mom and dad respond to Adam’s reflections, acknowledging and prizing his learning. The parents also add an observation, re: the learning demonstrated.


Parents also respond and make comments about what I share and communicate to them in Adam’s portfolio about his learning and progress.

The Importance of Making Thinking Visible

I have always commented on my students’ learning making my thinking and feelings visible for parents to see and read about their children’s learning and progress. But, when children are given opportunities to make their thoughts and feelings visible, we can see the learning unfold through the eyes of the learner.   This process of students and teachers making their thinking and feelings visible is what has made our portfolio documentation more authentic and meaningful in helping us communicate the learning. When we help students make their thinking visible, we not only provide a window into what students understand, but also how they understand it.
Making Thinking Visible.pngRon Ritchhart is his book, Making Thinking Visible, writes: “Uncovering students thinking gives us evidence of students insights as well as their misconceptions. We need to make student thinking visible because it provides us with the information teachers need to plan opportunities that will take students’ learning to the next level  enable continued engagement with the ideas being explored. It is only when we understand what our students thinking, feeling, and attending to that we can use that knowledge to further
engage and support them in the process of understanding.”

Communicating student learning through digital portfolios has not only impacted students’ learning, but has directly influenced teachers’ practice.   Teachers have had to reflect on and move towards planning and implementing activities and tasks that are worthy of documenting and reflect evidence of student learning and progress.

Our journey continues . . .

My AccountAs my students and I continue to work together to document the learning that takes place in our classroom, we will have meaningful conversations about what it means to talk about and show their learning. We will create, talk about, describe, and reflect on the learning intentions, and the criteria for success. We will work and talk about the evidence that support their observations about their learning and, together, we will gather information about the strengths and weakness of their performances in ways that inform all learners and all learning in the classroom.

This isn’t always an easy task.   As I can often be heard to say, “It takes a lot of slow to grow.” Helping children talk about and reflect on their learning requires time and modelling. Children need to be immersed in good formative assessment practices if our portfolio collections are truly going to reflect student learning and progress. The interactions teachers create between sharing learning intentions and identifying clear assessment criteria is so important in helping children develop their confidence and skills in talking about what they have learned, need to still learn, and how they will do this. One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing teachers say, “They are too young; my primary children can’t do this.” Yes, they can! Even the youngest students in our school are talking about their learning. We want all of our students to recognize when they are learning and when they are not, and to be able to determine what to do to improve their learning. This is a tall order, but here at Cambridge Elementary we are ready for the challenge.



Posted in 21st Century Classrooms, Ann Davies, Students Communicating Learning, Assessment and Evaluation, Cambridge Elementary, Surrey, BC, Communicating Student Learning, Communicating to Parents, Curriculum, Digital Portfolios, ePortfolios, Formative Assessment, Fresh Grade, Instructional Leadership, Making Learning Visible, Making Thinking Visible, Parenting, Pedagogical Documentation, Ron Ritchhart, Making Thinking Visible, Student Reflections, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Classroom as the Third Teacher . . . what are your students learning to live?

The other day I read a tweet about 21st century classrooms looking like Starbucks coffee shops and I couldn’t help thinking about all the wonderful classrooms I have visited or have set up myself over the thirty plus years that I have been teaching. This is not a new 21st century concept. The importance of the learning environment, often referred to as “The Third Teacher”, was brought into awareness in the 70’s through the schools of Reggio Emilia, which focused on creating beautiful places and spaces for young children to play and learn in. I think many educators would agree that classroom environments in which children live and learn have profound influence in helping them develop important skills, attitudes, and behaviours.


Have you ever stopped to really identify, discuss, and unpack the big ideas behind your classroom organizations, structures, and systems? It’s more than just bringing in a comfy couch, tables, and one or two plants.  What are the beliefs and principles behind your classroom setup, furniture, and routines?

If one of my goals in educating children is to help them grow into caring, thoughtful, and reflective human beings, individuals who will be better able to face the challenges of today’s society, I need to look closely at the “life” I have my students living in the classroom; it is this life which will translate into their lives outside the schoolhouse door. I am not referring to the curriculum content or activities that I plan, implement, and have students learn and do – I am referring to the ways in which I organize and invite children to interact, work, and learn together. I believe that in many subtle, and sometimes very deliberate ways, teachers both promote and prevent the development of the moral self, as well as the development of important skills, such as self-direction and regulation, problem solving, collaboration, and independence. If we don’t take the time to examine and question how we invite and expect children to live and learn in our classrooms, we may be fooling ourselves that we are making a difference.

When I think of the many classrooms I have visited or have had, there are typically two kinds of environments; let’s call them two diverse classroom organizations. The first is a more traditionally structured environment, I will call the “by myself, don’t talk or share” classroom. The second classroom organization is a setting which invites children to make choices, share materials and ideas, and interact freely; I will refer to this as the “community, let’s choose and share” classroom.

The “by myself, don’t talk or share” classroom

2015-04-29 13.24.40In this classroom children are assigned to desks by the teacher and expected to sit and remain in these seats for most of the day. The assignment of desks is more often than not based on children’s strengths and weaknesses and is a way of managing children’s behaviour. The “noisier” children are seated next to the “quieter” ones; the independent task workers are seated next to the “slow to finish” ones. Other students who may be deemed “very needy” are either seated at the front, near the teacher’s desk, or right up against the teacher’s desk, and sometimes these children are even isolated to a corner of the room. Boys are seated only by girls. ‘English As A Second Language’ learners are seated only by English speaking classmates, and so forth. In this classroom, children are responsible for their own supplies. Their pencils, erasers, crayons, and such, are stored in their individual desks. When their materials are either used up or lost, they are responsible to inform their parents that they need more. The expectation in this classroom is to take care of and use your own things. In this classroom, there is the expectation that you use your own ideas. In other words, when you are working on a task, you are working silently and independently. In the “by myself, don’t talk or share” classroom you can often hear the teacher’s voice loud and clear: “Please, stay at your own desk”, “No, talking”, and “Thank you for doing your own work”. The voices of the students are few, but when they can be heard their words often reflect the rules of the classroom: “Please go away and don’t bother me”, “That’s my pencil”, “No you can’t use it” and “Teacher, he’s copying my work”. In such a setting, I wonder what attitudes, skills and behaviours are being taught and learned, and how might this classroom organization promote or preclude moral development? cooperation and collaboration? self-direction and regulation?

The “community, let’s choose and share” classroom

IMG_1290In this classroom children move freely and interact with their peers. There are a variety of workspaces and table arrangements for children to choose from.   The expectation in this classroom is that children will learn to make responsible choices about where and whom they will sit with according to the task or activity, and their own needs and interests. In this classroom, children’s supplies are either stored at a central location in the room or in various baskets and totes throughout the room on the tables for the children use. There are always more than enough sharpened pencils, erasers, felts, and the like, for everyone to use. No one needs to worry about finding a pencil, nor sharpening one, doing without, or having to borrow. The expectation in this setting is that students treat the classroom supplies with care and respect. Everyone is responsible for keeping the materials in order and cleaning up. While learning in the “community, let’s choose and share” classroom, children are encouraged to work quietly, and thoughtfully, sharing their ideas, helping others, and cooperating on tasks. If an individual needs, or prefers to work alone, there is always the choice to do so. The voices heard in this classroom are many and varied, but nonetheless they all work to reflect the classroom goal of respecting and caring for one another.

The stage is set, but what does it mean?

When I establish conditions and expectations in my classroom that reflect my beliefs and values about learning and teaching, and focus on how children learn to work together and build relations, I can begin to help my students become caring and ethical people, self-directed and thinking learners.  Even though at times I am overwhelmed with the responsibility of guiding and nurturing my students’ moral development, it is my belief that if we do not provide these opportunities for children to see and talk about caring relations, and to struggle and reflect on their choices and behaviour, it will never happen. I can not suppose that the conditions I establish can ever guarantee moral, self-directed, thoughtful behaviour, but neither can I disclaim that I have no responsibility for my students’ behaviours and the fact that I will inevitably affect their lives. It is my opinion that the “by myself, don’t talk or share” classroom works against the very things that may help children develop important life skills, and moral behaviour. Some would disagree, defending such classroom organizations as successfully meeting curriculum standards and promoting children through the grades. In staff rooms one can hear comments: “I have a great bunch, they work so quietly”, “This year’s class is so easy to control and manage, we’re already on Chapter 27 in our math book”, “Ever since I moved Tommy away from the window, he’s been able to listen and do his work”. This makes me wonder what are these educators’ priorities?

We need to listen how we value what goes on in our classroom and begin to critically examine how the lives of our students are being constructed through instructional practices. I do not mean to suggest that by simply creating a “community, let’s talk and share” classroom, all children will become more caring, respectful, responsible people. It’s not that simple. Nor do I mean to suggest that in other settings children never have opportunities to develop into caring and responsible individuals. I am suggesting, however, that classroom organizations have important influences on our students’ moral, emotional, and intellectual development, and that it is our responsibility to think about and question this hidden curriculum and evaluate how it reflects on and shapes our growing understanding of how it “plays-out” through the day-to-day life of the classroom.

Posted in 21st Century Classrooms, and routines, Instructional Leadership, Moral Development, Moral Stewardship, Reggio Emilia, School Culture, School Organizations, Social and Emotional Learning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Why is my kid building patterns again? The Importance of Patterning.

Pattern3This post is written for all those parents who have ever wondered why their child, whether in kindergarten, grade three, or grade seven, is exploring, identifying, creating, and naming patterns in Math class.  It is also for the many teachers who want to help parents understand the importance of patterning.

Researchers say that when children explore and learn about patterns, we help them build important foundations for later number work. Creating, extending, naming, and talking about patterns help build strong mathematicians. Even the most scholarly mathematicians can be challenged with studying patterns.   In many classrooms, students of all ages learn about patterns at the beginning of their school year. Patterns are at the heart of math. The ability to recognize and create patterns help us make predictions based on our observations; this is an important skill in math. Understanding patterns help prepare children for learning complex number concepts and mathematical operations.

Patten 2

Our BC Math Curriculum, from kindergarten to grade seven, identifies and describes the big ideas behind the tasks and activities students are engaged in and working on in their classrooms. These big ideas are:

  • We use patterns to represent identified regularities and to form generalizations.
  • Patterns allow us to see relationships and develop generalizations.

Patterns are everywhere! From the very simple patterns that repeats with two or three elements, to repeating patterns with multiple elements and attributes. Pattern4Students learn to identify and create increasing and decreasing patterns, to name rules for patterns with words, numbers, symbols, and variables. Older students learn to record and manipulate number patterns using tables, charts, and graphs. Learning about patterns provides students with an understanding of mathematical relationships, which is a basis for understanding algebra, analyzing data, and solving complex mathematical problems.

We find patterns in math, but we also find patterns in nature, art, music, and literature. Patterns provide a sense of order in what might otherwise appear chaotic. Researchers have found that understanding and being able to identify recurring patterns allow us to make educated guesses, assumptions, and hypothesis; it helps us develop important skills of critical thinking and logic. The knowledge and understanding of patterns can be transferred into all curriculum areas and open many doors where this knowledge can be applied.

And so, when you see your child building a repeated pattern with blocks, recording a decreasing number pattern in their math journal, or creating a table of increasing multiples to solve a mathematical problem, you will know that they are building important foundations for future learning.IMG_1656

I invite families to explore and have fun with patterning at home.   Go on a pattern hunt and identify and name patterns all around you. Create patterns with shapes and colours, letters, numbers, and variables. Share them, extend them, and record them. Talk about how patterns influence the world in which we live and the decisions we make.

Now when someone asks why are children building patterns again in school, you will be able to tell them the importance of patterning.

Posted in BC Ministry Math Curriculum, Communicating to Parents, Mathematics, Parenting, Patterning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Digital Portfolios . . . Making the Learning Visible

As promised, here is my second post about Making Learning Visible and Digital Portfolios . . . Forgive me for any technical problems, or the lack of digital craftsmanship; I am still learning.

Fresh GradeAs an administrator and classroom teacher, I find myself in a wonderful position to make some important differences in how we communicate student progress and make learning visible. I have decided it is time to share my journey in communicating my students’ learning using FreshGrade, an online student digital portfolio system

My first message to my parents.Welcome to Fresh GradeAs I reflect back on the year, it has been a journey of careful decision-making, exploring, and celebrating.  Together with my students and parents, we have embraced the challenge of making the learning visible in our classroom in ways that I believe are authentic, meaningful, and instrumental in improving and enriching students’ learning. IMG_6335

Pedagogical Documentation

When I began teaching in the early 80’s, the ideas behind the pedagogical documentation developed by the preschool educators of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy inspired many teachers who valued and understood the importance of making learning visible. It has been my practice to document the learning that goes on in the classroom as a way of shaping how, and what, students learn and how teachers can continue to deepen student learning.  This type of documentation was formative assessment at its best.

The most crucial component to documenting student learning was the voices of the children.  It placed the child at the centre of the learning process; students were invited to reflect on and talk about their learning in real and informed ways, and to identify and set new learning goals.

A New Kind of Digital Documentation

As we began this new kind of digital documentation using FreshGrade, we first had to learn how to use it. This wasn’t the difficult part. Thank you to all the wonderful resources that FreshGrade provided us. Our challenge making sure that  what we were capturing and uploading into our portfolios was truly making learning visible.

I continued to find ways not only to show what students were doing and learning, but also to invite and document students talking about what they were doing and learning. I continually stopped and asked myself: “Where was the learning?”  “Have I invited my students to make sense of their learning, to articulate what they are thinking, feeling, and attending to so that I could use this knowledge to further engage and support them in the process of understanding?”

Remember the Guiding Principles

As I reflect back on our journey and look at what we documented in our digital portfolios, I can identify three important guiding principles that I kept in mind to ensure that the very “stuff” we were making visible really did demonstrate student growth and learning:

  • Documentation that shows growth over time through revisited curriculum tasks or experiences, demonstrates concrete change in abilities, skills, behaviours, attitudes, and understanding.
  • Artifacts that invite student reflection and analysis of student learning, incorporate the thinking operations of observing, comparing, contrasting, analyzing, hypothesizing, imagining, and making conclusions.
  • Evidence that demonstrates student behaviour and growth in the three competency areas: thinking, communicating ideas, and personal/social development, reflects meaningful and relevant learning across all curriculum areas and provides opportunities for students to show their learning in a variety of ways.

I watch and listen as students work together to make meaning of their learning. This is the first step to collecting rich evidence for student portfolios.

As I continue to reflect on this past year, I can also identify some important big ideas that guided my decision-making in ensuring that what we were collecting would be of value in not only communicating student learning and progress with parents, but also providing feedback for students, which informed, improved, and deepened their learning.

The Teacher’s Role

To capture and document student learning, I must be a careful observer, listener, and questioner.  I have to help students create artifacts that are worth “putting their brains on” to talk about and analyze.  I need to be patient and remember that it takes “a lot of slow to grow”.

The importance of modelling, guiding, and scaffolding my learners’ understanding and abilities so that they may become reflective and skilled in talking about their own learning progress, is essential. It is my job to help students become thoughtful practitioners who can make connected and meaningful observations and assessments about their learning. ‘Where are they now? Where are they going? And how are they going to get there?” – this has to come first.

My interactions, the way I invite student observations, the way I ask questions, clarify reflections, and respond to students’ words are key to helping students become skillful at analyzing and talking about their own learning. I need to remember it is the students’ voices that need to be heard; this is how I access their thinking and understanding, in other words, their learning.

The Pedagogy Behind the Documentationportfolios

As we built our digital portfolios, it became very clear to me that the curriculum tasks I invited students to engage in completely determined if learning was made visible or not. It’s not about documenting test scores, worksheets, and spelling lists. The tasks behind the documentation have to be well constructed, process-centered, open-ended, thinking tasks in order to invite students to reflect on and talk about their learning.

For example, if students are to talk about learning how to write, the way I teach students to become skilled writers makes a huge difference. How I help students understand and talk about what it means to be a “good” writer” and how they identify evidence to support their observations as writers, reflects my own understanding of what it means to be a “good” writing teacher.   It’s more than uploading a photo, or recording them reading  a written task

Karley Writing

Ishan Writing

Four Kinds of Documentation

When organizing and collecting data for our digital portfolios I am able to categorize them into four kinds of documentation:

  • Two of the Same – Student completes two of the same tasks which are documented over a period of time. For example, an impromptu write completed in October, and one completed in January; the two similar artifacts invite observations and comparisons, demonstrating student’s growth and learning.

Alexa's Number Comments

Adam's Response Tasks

Adma's Response Task Comments

  • Showing the Knowing – Demonstrations/process-based sharing: student presents or “walks” through an activity, task, or process, explaining thinking, strategies, connections, decision making, problem solving skills, and understandings.

“I Spy My Eye”


“How Do I Find the Missing Boxes”


Ellie explains her thinking and the strategies she uses to solve equal-sides equations.

“It’s Not just About Memorizing the Algorithm”

As I became more comfortable with using the digital tool, the way we documented and shared the learning became deeper and more meaningful.  It wasn’t always easy to find the time to work with every student, but I knew our collections had to share more.  For example, sharing a child’s development as a reader.  It has to be more than simply recording the decoding of text and telling them what they need to do to get better.

 Not only does Elliot share her reading, she also share her understanding about what she reads.

In this video, not only does Elliot share her reading, she also share her understanding about what she reads.

Teacher, parents, and students voices are all shared on FreshGrade.

Teacher, parents, and students voices are all shared on FreshGrade.

  • Celebrating the Learning – Documented student artifacts show skill and ability reflecting criteria of success. May include performance standard descriptors or task generated criteria; comments are made based on observed evidence that meets criteria.
100 Day collectioms

I try to give parents the rationale and important big ideas behind our curriculum activities. I also invite them to access other information, for example, blog posts, to help them further support and celebrate their child’s learning.

Mirin shares her learning, and talks about her decision-making, strategies, struggles, and successes at collecting and presenting her Out-of-the-Box 100 Day Collection.

Mirin shares her learning, and talks about her decision-making, strategies, struggles, and successes at collecting and presenting her Out-of-the-Box 100 Day Collection.

Mirin's 100 Day Collection

Teacher comment added to MIrin’s portfolio along side her reflections.

“Lights, Camera, Action, A Stop Motion iMovie” – individual projects are documented and shared to celebrate the learning and the end product.

“See I Can Dribble” – at the end of our Basketball Unit in P.E. every child was invited to show of their skills in a 12 second video and then write about their learning.

“A Holiday Book Talk Poster” – along with this video I documented the task criteria, as well as included photos showing the different activities the partners went through to complete the task.

  • Communicating the How and Whys –  The fourth component documented by the teacher provides parents accessing the documentation a lens through which they can understand and support their children’s learning. Descriptions and explanations about the curriculum activities are documented which inform, instruct, and communicate the big ideas, learning intentions, purpose, and goals behind the artifact. 

Teacher comment explaining the learning task and student’s work in completing thoughtful double-entry journal writes.

Students Taking Ownership of Their Learning


Students using iPads to add their comments and reflections to their digital portfolios.

In our classroom students are now documenting their own learning. With devices in hand they access their own Fresh Grade accounts to upload photos, videos, and, most importantly, their reflections. When children view the documentation as more then a record and a display, and move to share their observations, thoughts, feelings, values, and understanding, this is making learning visible.

It is exciting to watch and listen as students talk and write about what they did, and how they learned; what they struggled with, what was successful for them and how they know this is true. Through this language of reflection and analysis, students learn to monitor, assess, make decisions, and goals to move their learning forward.


Sharing the learning, explaining the hows, whys, and what’s next, as the girls present an Inquiry Project which we videoed and added to their portfolios.

I must remember, it takes time, modelling, and instruction for children to develop understandings and skills. Not only does it depend on rich and engaging process-orientated curriculum tasks, but also a safe and inclusive learning environment wherein every child feels prized and cared for and able to succeed.

As I prepare for our upcoming school year, I am excited to see where are journey using FreshGrade will take us.  Through these reflections and writings, I have become clearer and more organized in my thinking and understanding of what it takes to make the learning in our classroom. Together, my students and I will focus on gathering and documenting evidence that not only communicates their progress, but also informs my students’ learning and my teaching.

Posted in Assessment and Evaluation, Communicating Student Learning, Curriculum, Digital Portfolios, ePortfolios, Formative Assessment, Fresh Grade, Instructional Leadership, Making Learning Visible, Pedagogical Documentation, Reggio Emilia, Student Reflections, Thinking Operations | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Digital Portfolios . . . Moving Beyond the Glorified Scrapbook


Surrey Schools Superintendent, Dr. Jordan Tinney, CNN interview, 2014.

Co-Authored with Antonio Vendramin

Inquiry is a dynamic and emergent process that can foster a culture of collaborative learning with teachers working together to consider, explore, and reflect on issues and approaches related to shared questions and intentions. It has been said that when educators make their own discoveries, they become energized by the desire to inquire more deeply and to learn more broadly. You actually get the opportunity to not only ask questions, but also to delve deeply into these questions.

We think it would be safe to say that in the culture of openness, sharing, and genuine curiosity fostered in Surrey Schools, the process of inquiry has led some teachers into a state of dissonance. Dissonance, results as teachers pause and take a step out of their practice and become increasingly reflective. Teachers have called into question much of what they have always done in schools, and careful reflection and discussion, has led them to make responsive changes in practice as they work to better meet the needs of their students. We suspect teachers throughout the district continue to experience this so-called dissonance, and the unrest it has caused has resulted in thoughtful exploration around many topics, one in particular, communicating student learning.

We began by asking . . .

  • What does exemplary communicating regarding student learning look like?
  • Do our current tools and strategies adequately communicate the rich learning taking place in our classrooms?
  • Do parents have the information they need to be the supporters of student learning that we want them to be?
  • Do we hear the voice of students?

For the first time, we were equipped with the tools to create digital portfolios with learning evidence in the form of descriptive feedback, images, audio and video. Imagine giving parents the opportunity to see and hear their children in class engaged in activities that demonstrate their learning in almost real time. Parents can now be invited to look into their children’s classrooms, access activities, and see what their children are learning on their own time and schedules. No longer do they have to wait for the parent-teacher interviews, products to be brought home, or report cards. Teachers now had the tools to make this all happen.

But learning is messy; inquiry is a journey, and most journeys have bumps in the road. With digital tools in hand, it became easy for teachers to collect artifacts…too easy! Many digital portfolios became “media dumping grounds” and “glorified scrapbooks”. In the beginning, it was new and exciting. Parents loved to see their children smiling into the cameras, a beautiful piece of artwork, or a polished published story. As teachers began to question their collections and reflect on the goal behind digital portfolios, they asked themselves: How are we communicating student learning? It became clear that parents didn’t need more, they needed better.

Transformation calls for us to move past simple replication with technology. As our inquiry into communicating student learning continued, teachers had to ask themselves: Were they using these tools to document, show, change, and improve student learning? We had to move beyond the technology, and focus on the pedagogy and what we were really communicating to parents. If you take a picture of a spelling test and send that to a parent does anything really change? Can we justify sending an image of a student simply posing with some artwork which he or she created? If anything, this is a recipe for infuriating parents. As parents ourselves we’d be asking some pointed questions:

  • Really, you spent $500 on an iPad for a teacher so that they could send me a photo of a spelling test?
  • The artwork is great, but can you tell me why they created it and what they were supposed to learn?
  • Why don’t I hear my son or daughter reflecting on what they learned?

It would be easy to be disappointed, to point the finger at technology, to make excuses, but the road forward is not paved with excuses. Rather, it is time to leverage the connections we have with teachers and to harness some of the exceptional exemplars we know exist. These exemplars are created and chosen by asking simple but serious questions whenever artifacts are collected and shared with parents.

Where is the learning?

If we describe learning as a change in behaviour (“I couldn’t do this before and now I can”, or “I used to do this but now I do this”, or “I used to think this but now I don’t because…”) we begin to think critically about what we capture and share. What we document should show what kids know, understand, and can do. What is captured and shared should show a child’s learning over time, changes and growth in his or her ability to communicate, think, and build his or her capacities of self as a learner.

Here are some examples of teachers and students talking about changes in behaviour:

Students making learning visible by explaining their thinking:

Student reflecting on their work over time: Eshaan%20Writing%20%281%29 Ishan's Response

Students engaged in conversations about their learning:

What is worth sharing?

Our parents know their children best. Often times, parents are able to share with teachers, what their children can do. We believe parents want to know how their children are changing, both in how they act and how they think. Parents also want to support their child at home. We can help parents provide better support by showing and communicating to them not only WHAT their child is learning, but WHY. At the same time, if we provide the criteria behind what is shown in the portfolio so students and parents both know what “good” looks like we can help move parents to deeper understandings of the “whys” behind the learning tasks. And, to go further, if we include descriptive feedback prior to summative assessments we can provide parents with meaningful data they can use to assist in the intervention process.

Here are some examples of teachers sharing this kind of valuable information:

Explaining to parents how they can support their children’s  learning:

Sharing criteria and exemplars with parents: Math Criteria Parents Part 1 Parents Part 2 Explaining to parents WHAT students are learning and WHY: c2997d509de811e48ca5afeb2449ad77-rotated-yThRG_16-01-2015-05-32-55

What and Why of learningHow much should we share?

When teachers suddenly found themselves with the ability to easily capture evidence with their devices, they thought they had to capture everything. Not only did this inundate parents, it overwhelmed teachers. We didn’t collect and share everything before; why start now? How much we collect and share is a discussion we are currently engaged in. For us, it comes back to Jordan Tinney’s quote cited at the start of our post, “We’re trying to boil it down to what do parents really want and need to know…”

True, different parents want different things, but we believe all parents want to know if their children are learning and progressing. They want to know if their children are having difficulty and struggling in their learning. They want to know what the teacher is doing and what they as parents can do at home to help their children be more successful. And mostly, parents want to know that their children are cared for, safe and respected, and liked by others. Through thoughtful digital portfolio collections, parents can be reassured that the teacher really understands and knows their child and is helping them learn and succeed.

As we continue this journey of inquiry into communicating student learning, we have become connected in our desire to improve our understandings and practices and to continue to reflect on what we know, what we do, and how this relates to student learning. We are ready for more dissonance and more questions as we develop better and more meaningful ways to help students learn so we indeed have the data and documents to capture and collect and share with parents. This is our challenge!

Posted in Antonio Vendramin, Assessment and Evaluation, Communicating Student Learning, Curriculum, Digital Portfolios, ePortfolios, Instructional Leadership, Making Learning Visible, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments