Submitted by Grant Page
I spent most of my teaching career in one school, a school where, from the beginning, I was challenged to develop and defend my pedagogy and philosophy of learning. I was given the opportunity to explore alternatives, take risks and fail miserably, so long as I kept moving forward. It was exhilarating and exhausting. In Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, he writes about being able to clearly articulate your “why” or the thing that inspires you. During this time, I found my “why” – everyone needs an opportunity to grow.
Prior to teaching at this school, my experience with assessment had been mainly with marks, numbers, percentages or letters that were used to communicate how one was “doing in school” on a report card a few times a year. It was percentage based, and number oriented with only short generic comments used from a pre-determined list. Through my post-secondary education, I took one class dealing with evaluation. My one-and-only memory was that of an assignment where I had to create a five-question multiple choice test. I received a mark for my efforts – mine was 100%, but no written feedback! The word “assessment” was never used or discussed in this class only “evaluation”.
A few years into my career, in 1992, I had the opportunity to be part of creating the culture in a new school and help shape the vision of what the staff believed to be the purpose of school. We talked about engagement and student voice and assessment. We spent time thinking about what engagement meant and how we could provide our students with voice. We were also given time to explore alternative ways of assessing students. For a while, we had no report cards and tried to institute a portfolio model of assessment that included student self-reflection, written teacher reflection of growth in skill and understanding for all students, and student-led portfolio discussions instead of the more traditional parent-teacher conferences. As I said before it was often exhausting to create this culture from scratch.
In my classroom I developed an assessment philosophy that focussed on growth and problem-solving. There were no numbers on assignments. There was self and peer assessment, descriptive feedback, as well as discussions about strengths and challenges we all had in our learning. Yes – students learned from me… but I also was learning from them… through interactive conversations and observations. It took the better part of fifteen years before I was comfortable with what I had created. I don’t know how many times I changed an assessment or incorporated a new protocol into a lesson only to realize I needed to tweak the latest version just as I was using it with my students. Change became a norm. Learning and growth were always the goals.
The foundation of my assessment philosophy was a four-point rubric with these words – beginning, developing, strengthening and secure. I had these words placed on the wall in the back of my classroom as a constant reminder of the process of learning. Students had helped me create criteria for each level of the rubric and those words were used to describe the place each of us was at in our learning. During instruction we often talked about revising your thinking and refining your skills. I asked students to make their thinking visible and I celebrated their mistakes with the same joy as their successes using both to create a safe place to learn and grow. As our school website evolved, I added a section on the page describing my program that outlined what skills and understanding would be learned and how students would be assessed. It was my “why” and the intent was to inform parents and the broader community about how assessment can move learning forward.
I retired at the end of the last school year. I did my best to leave my successor with everything that they would need to continue the work I had done. Some say I went beyond what is normally expected but I had a reason… my “why”. I wanted the students I worked with over the past year or two to continue their opportunities to grow through that assessment model and I thought that by handing over everything I had collected over the twenty-six years I was at the school, growth would continue.
In late October, I went online to remove my files and personal information from the school server. I was checking the school’s website to make sure that my contact information was no longer available when I came across that page that used to be my “why” – a page of information that explained the goals of my program and how students would be assessed while working to achieve those goals. Something had changed.
One word stood out – one single word – that completely changed the focus of everything on that page. A word that I spent most of my teaching career trying to understand had been replaced with a different word that contradicted my beliefs. It was the pin prick that burst the bubble. The carefully crafted bubble that was the result of years of investigation, experimentation and risk-taking into how students are assessed had burst and like the child that delights in the growth of a bubble only to see it disappear before his/her eyes, I was disappointed and I was angry. I felt a loss and grieved over it.
It has been a few weeks since the bubble burst and as my anger subsided and I accepted the fact it is time to move on, something hit me. When a bubble bursts, the child simply starts another bubble. Why not me! I have realized that it is important to keep making bubbles, to breathe life into the reasons I do what I do. So I have started some new bubbles continuing with the idea that everyone needs an opportunity to grow, that same “why” that I found as a teacher. Instead of providing my students with an opportunity to grow through assessment, I want to turn my attention to helping educators connect with each other and share their experiences with assessment. To encourage them to be risk-takers and explorers. To watch and listen and talk with them to find out where they are in their learning journey and help them keep their own learning moving forward. To provide them with an opportunity to grow.