Final Exam revamped

It’s coming up to “that time” of year for high school students.  It’s final exam season. 

Have you ever asked yourself: Why do I give a final exam?    Will I, after grading the tests, learn that my students knew a lot more or a lot less than I already had established through the other summative tasks and tests they completed through the term?   What is it showing me that is different than I already know?

In a mad clean up of well over a decade of “good stuff”, this gem was uncovered: Demonstrating Understanding: Visual Verbal Quiz or Test.  Have a look.  It’s nothing new.

The thing that may be new to to you is the idea that this can BECOME your final exam.  Why not?  You have provided excellent summative unit tests and tasks throughout the school year.  You are a professional and know where your students are at and where they need to go to next. 

A visual representation of learning can be a three hour open book activity where you, the teacher, has an opportunity to observe your students’ synthesis of information in action.  It is a powerful tool that will show learning while reducing the anxiety and “guesswork”.

Ms. Burden ( is linking the BIG ideas of Earth Science 11 from the IRP to FIVE overarching concepts of the course.  Her students will be writing an open book final exam with pencil crayons, glue sticks, and big pieces of paper.  Her goal is to observe deeper understanding of concepts and key ideas through this experience.

Do you have a hidden gem that you have yet to uncover?

Meeting of the Minds: reflections on inquiry

It is evident that educator collaboration, purposeful professional learning, and administrative support for risk-taking are ingredients that help to make a learning environment vibrant and exciting.

Sara Douglas (@sjteaching) knows that experiential learning and “getting messy” are two ways that inspire students and get people excited for learning.  As a drama teacher, she experiences this first hand.  Bringing that engagement from the Drama class into the English class has been her focus over the past few school years.

Sara was fortunate enough to travel to High Tech High in San Diego with two colleagues over this past Spring Break.  It was very obvious that, at High Tech High, collaboration is central to everything that is done.  Working within the confines of the timetable and the school structure she is currently in, Sara came back from Spring Break ready to focus on meaningful projects that really engaged students and moved learning forward.

Have a look at this if you want a little more background: What is Project Based Learning?

1. Sara found that her students really struggled with poetry.   After seeing PBL in action, she thought that shifting her current practices to one that focused on critical thinking and synthesis.  Her goal was to have students interact authentically with poetry, learn about a poet, connect that poet’s ways of thinking with the philosophies or theories or an historically significant philosopher or scientist.  She built the project called “Meeting of the Minds” with these goals in mind, aiming to enlist the assistance of two other colleagues (History and Science).

2. The BIG question for Sara was:“How will a poetry project that involves critical thinking and synthesis impact student results on the Poetry Section of the Standardized Grade 12 Provincial Exam?”  For her students, Sara wanted her students to know their poet and their philosopher/scientist well enough that the student could create a believable dialogue between the two.  Ideally, the test would be in the public presentation of the works.

3.  Students researched the poet and the poetry created, looking for themes and trends, and getting to really know the poet as well as their digital footprint (and the books in their library)would allow. They did the same with the philosopher/scientist, determining the impact this person had/has on our world today.  The “product” they created was a dialogue between the two. Here is a sample: Meeting of the Minds: Patrick Lane and Sir Isaac Newton 

4. Students had voice and choice. The field was wide open for choice in philosopher though many chose someone they had learned about in Comparative Civilizations.  The field was also wide open for choice of scientist though it was clear that many also chose based on prior knowledge from Chemistry or Physics.  The poet had to be Canadian (provided a direct connection to BC’s CanLit requirements).

5. Minute by minute, day by day feedback is essential and Sara was available during work-time and via e mail for immediate feedback and guidance.  In addition, some students accessed the teacher-librarian for assistance in editing and narrative structure. Building a culture of collaborative teaching and learning is a hidden learning that is being celebrated as a step forward to breaking down barriers and the silo structure of a traditional high school setting.

6. The finished products are on display in Sara’s classroom.  There is definite pride in the work and Sara has found that students are feeling more confident in their understanding of poetry and the purpose of poems (and performing better on their practice exams).


Right now, it is challenging to host public exhibitions. As exhibition is an essential part of Project Based Learning, I wanted to do something. I contacted Victoria BC poet Yvonne Blomer, who knows Patrick Lane well, and asked her if she would read the student writing (featured above) and provide feedback (the inside scoop, so to speak).

Yvonne wrote: “I think it is very good – I like how cranky Patrick is with Newton. Patrick had a GG award in the 1970s but not recently. He was shortlisted for a lot of awards for Red Dog, Red Dog and for the memoir, There is a Season. That jumped out at me, because the GG he and Newton are talking about is more recent. I’m not sure that really matters. I like how they are in a garden, and Patrick finds tranquility there, I think that is very accurate. Their conversation is good too – I like the bit about being friends because they each get to learn from each other – I think that’s what it suggests – Newton listens to Patrick not as a real friend, maybe, but as one just who learns for himself from listening.”

How cool for a student to get that feedback like this from Yvonne?  She did forward the writing to Patrick who responded quietly and calmly and, as Yvonne wrote, quite in the way the student created Patrick’s character in the conversation.

It is important to understand that the last part of the process, the public exhibition, is important, but can be creative.  We were able to model how that can happen even when a “traditional” public exhibition is not possible.  Through creative connections, and use of social media, we were able to publicly exhibit one piece (it’s a start!).  It was an interesting experiment and, as Yvonne’s colleague, who also read the student writing wrote:” I will never look at a rotten apple in the same way again.”

It is evident that this process would not have been as successful without teacher collaboration, purposeful professional learning, and the structures in place to support risk taking.  This story exemplifies these three key components for shift in pedagogy and get schools “moving” (Stoll in Kaser and Halbert, Leadership Mindsets).

And, we still need work. Our next big question focuses on effective assessment of this learning.

As always, please contact Sara (@sjteaching) or me (@ajgadd) or leave a comment below.

The history of the lab write up: then to now

In the “olden days”, Karen’s students would “do” the lab and “write up” the lab; Karen would mark the lab, the students would get the lab back and the process would be repeated in the next lab.  Sadly, Karen would face similar “write up” woes – conclusions would not really get much better, and error analysis would be weak at best.

What was the problem?  Based on the plethora of research out there now (Black and Wiliam, 1998; O’Connor, 2009; Kohn, 1999 for example), we determined that it was the “mark” that was hindering progress and skill development in lab process and write up.  Simply put, the students were not looking past the grade.

As a result, Karen stopped putting a mark out of anything on the front of the lab, the back of the lab, and after some time, in her mark book.

Instead, she employed the Lab Write Up Rubric

Lab Rubric hi-lited and attached to a completed write up


This is hard to see, so if you would like to view the Rubric for further scrutiny, and to give us feedback, you can find it here: Lab Rubric – Senior Science.


We had hoped for miraculous change.  And, for the record, there MAY HAVE been change, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of change we wanted to see.  It seemed that the students were not significantly improving from lab write up to lab write up despite receiving a hi-lited rubric and written descriptive feedback for “where to next” on each lab.


Again, we asked: what was the problem?  It seemed that Karen was putting more time into the feedback than the students were making to READ the feedback and ACT UPON the feedback.  Essentially, the work that Karen did, in an effort TO IMPROVE LEARNING, was doing little more than use some coloured pen ink and felt hi-liter.  How could we ensure that the students were asking themselves the three questions (Hattie and Timperly, 2007): “what am I learning, how am I doing, and where to next?”?


Karen instituted the Lab Duotang.  All labs are kept in the Lab Duotang and the ENTIRE duotang is submitted (with ALL labs inside) each time a new lab write up is complete.  The goal is to have students look at their previous lab rubric and make an effort to focus on areas for improvement.  For Karen, it will be very clear, very quickly (with a flip to the previous labs) that a student is referring to the feedback.  The evidence is there and everyone knows the why of the Lab Duotang.  Transparency in this process is clear.


For students who manage their time well and submit labs for assessment promptly, this process works like a charm.  We still struggle with students who do not truly see the value in the descriptive feedback to move learning forward.  Without set deadlines, some students are in a mad rush to write up multiple labs; this results in lack of descriptive feedback for improvement and, therefore, less deep learning and skill/process analysis.


To further improve the impact of the rubric and the Lab Duotang, Karen stepped it up a little more.  Students receive their first lab back with the rubric and written feedback,  Now, when they submit their next and subsequent labs, they also include a cover letter.  The cover letter is intended to reflect on feedback received from the previous lab and give Karen a focus.


"Dear Miss Tomlinson" letter: Karen would like to see stronger links to the Lab Rubric, but this is a good start


Karen saw that these points linked more directly to improvement and provided details she was looking in the reflection.


The hope is that students will have, through this process, an opportunity to reflect on the feedback and then commit to improvements as a result of the letter.  When Karen sees that the improvements identified by the student are not truly there, it gives her the space to have a conversation with the individual that is meaningful and focussed on success.  Bruce Wellman refers to a “third point” in coaching learners.  The letter creates a third point.


This evolution has not occurred overnight nor is it complete.  As is the case in our work with students, we believe in self regulation and student engagement.  We believe that this process allows for students to own their learning and really understand how Karen is striving to help her students become stronger critical thinkers, more analytic, and effective communicators.


As is always the case, feedback is welcome.  What do you do in your lab sciences to ensure that students are acting on the valuable feedback you give them?  Do you think that the process in this narrative is effective?  How would you build on this or do it differently?


You can reach Karen via Twitter (@houseofmole) and Angela via Twitter (@ajgadd).  We always appreciate YOUR feedback!

Building Rubrics

It is often the case that teachers can find reasons to avoid creating criteria or building rubrics with their students, most often arguing that it will eat up valuable learning time. The recent process Pemberton Secondary’s OALP English class went through in building a rubric to assess oral language built on their growing sense of accountability to each other and themselves, and demonstrated, once again, that if we permit students to reflect on their learning and set goals for excellence in learning, the result is OWNERSHIP in learning.

Here were the steps this class recently took:

Step one: groups of three or four sit together with a “hot dog and hamburger” folded 11×17 piece of paper. They determine the titles for what we would traditionally label 1, 2, 3 & 4 or minimally, meets, fully meets, exceeds; they determine up to four “big things” that are required to learn and demonstrate in oral language; and they describe what each of these “big things” looks like for each of the achievement levels.


Two groups of 3 or 4 get together and battle it out to create one super rubric.  Through consultation, collaboration and consensus, the teams of 7 or 8 create a rubric that makes sense to all of them, that focusses on the things that really matter, and that shows a progression of learning and skill development.  This example shows how a group cut up the two rubrics to create a new rubric.   

The teacher has taken the three hand written “group rubrics” and, for her homework, has created a Word document of the class created Oral Language Rubric. She emails the rubric to her entire class for editing. The students work in pairs at one computer screen and read through the rubric; their role is to locate and correct errors, adjust word choice or improve clarity, and provide feedback. Students embrace the opportunity to be part of the editing process, especially when they are editing “teacher work”. Students are also afforded the opportunity to use Track Changes, an excellent Word editing tool. When student pairs have edited and commented, they e mail their teacher with the attached corrections and suggestions.


The teacher takes the edits and melds these newest documents into one final document.


The final product is turned into a PDF and posted on the class page on the teacher blog. Anyone can access it at any time to self assess or peer assess. We have, as a class, determined what excellence in oral language looks like in grade 10 OALP English.


If you are interested in seeing the rubric full size, please go to OALP English 10 Oral Language Rubric.  You may be surprised to learn how little time this took to create with the students and, as will be evidenced in all learning we do, students will always be able to state where they are at and where they need to go next in their oral language development.

Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching

Truth be told, most of us probably went to school in the “behaviouralist” era of teaching and learning. And, given that most people reading this blog are educators, most of us successfully completed our schooling in this paradigm. Likely we would have learned more deeply and would have been more genuinely engaged for learning’s sake if we had experienced a constructivist or social constructivist classroom.

Here is a primer on CONSTRUCTIVISM.

The great thing about this “mini course” is that it unearths a lot of topics, concerns or issues related to the paradigm, answering:
What is constructivism?
How does this theory differ from traditional ideas about teaching and learning?
What does constructivism have to do with my classroom?
What does an expert say?
What is the history of constructivism, and how has it changed over time?
What are some critical perspectives?
What are the benefits of constructivism?

Happy reading. Happy reflection. Are you a constructivist?

Visual Learning

Visual learning can mean different things to different people. Some argue that there really is no such thing as being a “visual learner”.

Learning Styles Don’t Exist (video)

Whatever your thoughts are, it seems obvious that using visuals as a way to aid memory and build understanding is smart practice.

Here are some documents especially created for educators and learners (lots are educators) to understand the value of visual learning as a good practice and much more complex than hanging a few more posters in a classroom or hallway.

Visual Learning

Mind Mapping and Concept Mapping

When students are able to demonstrate their understanding of learning in a way that makes sense to them (and this might then include a conference with the student to “get” the understanding), they are more likely to be engaged in their learning,will be more connected to the learning that is taking place, and will likely have greater recall of their learning. Win, win, win!

It is important to think about how we, as educators, ask students to communicate their learning. Are there alternatives that we can encourage or promote in our classrooms?

School wide focus takes time to build momentum

In September 2011, each Pemberton Secondary Student participated in the School Wide Write.  This was something new for staff and students and it resulted in a writing focus for the school year.  What was essential was the professional learning that was tied to the focus, as well as the consistency, school wide, to improving writing in clear, simple ways.

Our school wide learning intention became (and still is):

“I am learning to use powerful words and sentence variety to clearly communicate my knowledge, opinions, and ideas.”

In November 2011, Susan Augustyn led the staff through a professional learning session focused on improving writing simply by using sentence starters and dress ups in writing.  They have become part of our school’s writing culture.

It has become one of those learning intentions that cannot ever be fully achieved because, I would argue, writing has a learning continuum that begins before and goes beyond high school.  However, as time progresses (we are fully into 2012 now), there is evidence that the focus on powerful words and sentence variety is making a difference in our writing at Pemberton Secondary School.


Today, I arrived at work to find a “labelled diagram” of sorts adorning the staff room white board.  Not only is this modelling great teaching (“does the student really know they are using sentence variety” is a question I have sometimes and, therefore, ask students to identify their sentence variety), it is also an authentic way to show that sentence variety is something we need to be thinking about all the time – even if it is only to get rid of an abundance of garlic a husband bought for his wife!

Staff Room white board February 6th, 2012


Later today, it was brought to my attention that the exemplar I used in class was not “up to standard” given my expectation for powerful words in writing and speaking.


Here is my poster: Poster Exemplar. I thought it was pretty good.  This is the short conversation the ensued:

Student: “Did you make that poster?”

Me: “Yes.  Is there a spelling mistake on it or something?”

Student: “You describe the moose as ‘big’.”

Me: “So what you’re saying is that ‘big’ is not good enough.”

Student: “Yep” (with big “I’m calling you on this” smile on face)

Me: “So you want me to use more powerful words in my writing?”

Student2 (from other side of room): “Like MASSIVE or something.”

Me: “Much better word.  I like ‘massive’.  I guess I thought it would not fit.” (bad excuse!).


And it is just not in the English classroom.  In a Social Studies class, a student suggested more powerful words would more effectively describe the point the teacher was communicating to the group.  It is happening on a regular basis, with all students, in a variety of classes.


What I see is evidence of a congenial relationship between teachers and students at this school where students are focused on learning and focused on building capacity in themselves, in classmates, and in their teachers.  This is evidence of ownership of learning We are all able to focus on this learning intention, determining where we are all at and how we can move across the continuum of more powerful words and more effective use of sentence variety and dress ups in writing.

This all speaks to the power of sustained shift in practice over time.  School wide learning intentions cannot always be a September to June venture but, more often than not, need to be supported over years.  The evidence is found in the ways in which the learning becomes an integral part of the school culture.

What is your school’s learning goal? 


January is/was FEEDBACK month

Thanks to the prodding of @mrwejr and @peterjory, January became a month to promote feedback as a way to move learning forward at Pemberton Secondary School.

Although efforts seemed much more grand in other schools across BC, efforts were made to remind staff of the impact FEEDBACK has on student learning.

Notice how the feedback gets to the heart of learning through the THREE questions:

1.  What are you learning?

2. How is it going?

3.  Where to next?

Feedback becomes routine in a classroom when students are able to reflect critically on their own work, ensuring that they are accessing the assistance to move their learning forward; peer review assignments to offer assistance and learn from other student work; and accept minute by minute, day by day formative feedback from the teachers and SEAs in classrooms, often before the assignment is “turned in” for grading.

Feedback that Fits by Susan Brookhart is an article for some light reading, and to share with interested educators.

All of this ties into the pedagogical shift that IS formative assessment.  Students own their learning and are more easily self regulated learners when they are engaged in the learning and involved in the feedback loops.

Calling all Formative Assessment Super Stars…

or even if you refrain from thinking of yourself as a “super star”, you probably do some things pretty well if you reflect on your practice and are doing things a lot differently than a few years back.

Using formative assessment as a way of doing things is certainly more than a bunch of “new things” to “do” on top of all the other things you already do.  It’s a pedagogical shift in the way we operate.

That’s what is so amazingly wonderful about thinking about teaching this way and, simultaneously, so frustrating.  On one hand, a teacher wants to encourage learner growth by giving regular, timely feedback focused on “what are you doing”, “how is it going” and “where to next”, however, on the other hand, report card time comes and the teacher feels obligated to, is directed to, or doesn’t think anything differently than to give a letter grade and, as Dylan Wiliam might suggest, throw all that hard feedback work out the window.

We are shifting practice and thinking about teaching in ways we did not consider manageable or doable even five years ago.  To contribute to a network of like minded educators, strategies or “things you do differently” that contribute to improved student outcomes is smart practice and will build on the Network of Performance Based School’s newly named Networks of Inquiry and Innovation.

In 250 – 500 words, you can describe something that works for you in your classroom and, more importantly, makes a difference to kids.  Focus on a key Assessment for Learning area (for instance Learning Intentions or Questioning) and share what has worked.  Building capacity in our educators builds capacity in our education system!

Here’s one that might make the pages of soon.  Keep your eyes peeled!

Using Criteria

Coming up with, or creating criteria with students, can seem overwhelming, daunting or a waste of time for high school teachers who argue they don’t have enough time to “get through the curriculum” as it is.

In BC, with the Writing Performance Standards, Angela has found it invaluable to take the time at the beginning of the term to have students understand what the Ministry of Education expects of students in a particular grade level.  What the students create, from the “extended version” of the Performance Standard, is student friendly and student created, and, most importantly, becomes the go to document for all formative feedback – self, peer, and teacher.

The goal is to create a document that means something tostudents.  It is about having the students interact with the expectations of the Minsitry of Education’s Performance Standards.  It is about group work and collaborative discussion.  It is not about homework or completion of the task by every group.

Tips for implementation:
1. Use the extended version of the performance standard you are choosing to work with (ex.pages 363 and 364 for grade 9 Writing). Photocopy the pages onto an 11×17 paper.

2. Groups of two work best at taking the Ministry document and building a personal document. Have groups use 11×17 paper that they have “hotdogged and hamburgered” into a 16 box document.

3. Each pair takes the “extended version” and reworks the phrases into language that makes sense to them.   Groups who you know have challenges should NOT start with “exceeds expectations” boxes.  The students will become
frustrated with the language.  Collect the around 15 completed documents at the end of the work period.  Some will be complete and some won’t.

4. The teacher job is to take the 15 and amalgamate them into ONE class document.

5. Provide a draft the next day (timely feedback) and take the time to build class culture around the document by creating “fun” titles for the “not yet” to “exceeds”.  “Rock Star” and “Getting there” are more fun and build ownership.

6. USE it…. ALL THE TIME.  Or, at least, parts of it.  There is no sense creating to document if it is not an integral of daily class practice.

If you want to see some student examples, please check out: or

Where to next? “I would love to see grade groups work in school wide creation of, in the very least, a writing rubric for each grade.  Then, all teachers, regardless of curricular area, can assess student writing based on a student created rubric
based on Ministry expectations,” says Angela. “We will all have a better idea of where our students are, what we need to focus on for improvement, and where we need to go next to build on the current skill level.”

Professional Learning through the Aesthetic

Principals and Vice Principals in the Sea to Sky Corridor made their way to the School Board Office on November 24th for an evening of professional learning.  The last activity included working in teams to create a visual image using art supplies to communicate an idea.

Drs. Catherine McGregor and Darlene Clover, both currently at UVIC, are particularly interested in researching the depth of learning that can take place when participants use the aesthetic to communicate an opinion, an idea or, in the case of the pictures below, a person’s life as it relates to leadership.

Wangari Maathai leadership through the aesthetic.

Nellie McClung through the aesthetic.


Using the aesthetic to communicate learning and ideas and to assess learning and determine the “what next”can be very effective and can lead to deeper understanding that a typical paper or conversation can.  Plus, in the case of the activity on November 24th, it can be fun!

Making sure the task is understood.


Wearing protective gear and ready to go.


Demonstrating the "fun" before getting to work.


Of course, this is not new.  Do a Google Scholar search and you will find writing about this dating back to badly scanned documents from type written PhD papers.  However, as is evidenced here, and in thinking beyond the use of written communication to demonstrate all learning, the aesthetic is something to consider.