Assessment and evaluation conformity woes: a partial solution?

My stance on this subject is about as secret as it is neutral. I do not believe that teachers should have to use the same assessment and evaluation strategies simply because they are teaching different sections of the same course. To say that this practice ensures fairness may be accurate (although probably not) but this practice does not ensure equity. Here’s what often happens with this practice:

  • evaluations are determined well before students’ needs have ever been assessed
  • junior teachers are made to feel that they have to use the assessments of senior teachers because “they know better”
  • little to no differentiated based on student needs, strengths, or interests

In a perfect world, department members would find plenty of time to collaborate and constantly revise evaluations, but we all know how challenging it is to find this time.

So in an effort to please the powers that be who insist on uniformity across sections* I’ve come up with a plan:

Using our computerized grade book program, “Markbook,” we can assign different mark sets. In the past, I created a Term mark set, a Final Exam mark set, and a Course Culminating Activity (ISP, CCA… etc. Choose your acronym) mark set. Each mark set was weighted according to the percentages we use to calculate the final mark.

  • Term: 70%
  • Final Exam: 15%
  • CCA: 15%

(These numbers are determined by our board)

So now, all I’ve done is add one more mark set. Ready for it?

Here we go!

  • Formative: 20%
  • Summative: 50%
  • Final Exam: 15%
  • CCA: 15%

See what I did there? It doesn’t solve all the problems and of course we still need to be striving for at least the “appearance” of uniformity, but… now it doesn’t matter if teacher A records 15 different formative assessments and teacher B records 4 formative assessments; the summative assessments will be worth the same because of their weighting.

See this is where things were getting tricky in our department. We agreed that major assessments would be the same, (well… I didn’t agree but I don’t have a choice in the matter) but we also agreed that formative assessments could differ depending on the class (I did agree with this). But if Teacher A had 15 different formative assessments and Teacher B only had 4, then Teacher B’s summative assessment would be worth proportionately way more than Teacher A. Trying to get all the weightings to line up in Markbook is just ridiculous and doesn’t allow for much freedom in designing formative assessments UNLESS you do what I did.

So is it a perfect fix? No. But at least we can clearly show that regardless of the types and variety of formative assessments (or “rehearsals” if you like), the summative tasks (“performances”) are still worth the same percentage of the overall mark.

The only real challenge with this is that in the very early progress reports, the marks will be skewed (although, the are anyway). So we might have to play around with the weighting of the mark sets in the early stages to give students and parents a more accurate understanding of their progress. By midterm, however, we should be able to use the actual weightings.

We’ll see how this goes! Let me know what you think of the plan, or if you’ve tried something similar.



*… for perfectly understandable reasons, I should add: Students and parents complain when there is a perception that one teacher is “marking differently” than another teacher. The perception is that students in one  class are not receiving the same treatment as students in another class. Now, having students complete the same assessment doesn’t alleviate this problem; it just helps with the perception.

Thoughts on the Innovation Lag in Education

It’s Labour Day weekend. I’m sitting in my living room wearing a big sweater and getting a bit high off the scent of vanilla and cinnamon from the apple crisp I’m baking. It was 32 degrees two days ago but fall is here now. I know this because I bought a pumpkin spice latte this morning.

Anyway, now that I’ve set the scene, I’ll get to the point. I had my first “back to school” day on Thursday. No kids, but we had a full day of PD involving a scintillating recorded powerpoint presentation (complete with bullets, narrated slides, and improper apostrophes) on CAS reporting practices, memos mandating ugly shoes, reminders about field trip paperwork, and… discussions about cell phones and assessment practices. And this is when I realized that I don’t actually work with the teachers that I talk to on Twitter.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have awesome, dedicated, professional colleagues. But sometimes I forget that we don’t always have the same concerns, philosophies, and passions. Sometimes I get caught up in a passionate discussion about assessment policies (yes, I know. I’m a geek) and the person I’m talking to is smiling and nodding and then slowly I see her face glaze over and I realize I may have gone too far. I also have to remember that just because I’m passionate about something doesn’t mean I’m right. I think I’m right, but I could be wrong, and even if I’m not wrong, that doesn’t mean that I won’t learn something by listening (with an open mind) to someone who doesn’t share my beliefs.

Even when they say cell phones need to be banned.

Even when they say technology is distracting and unnecessary.

Even when they say if we have to deduct late marks to prepare students for university.

All that being said, I’m looking forward to an exciting year. I get to go see Damian Cooper in November, I’m presenting at two conferences, I’m starting my master’s, and apparently I’m helping to coach cross country. I’m not really sure how that last one happened.

The only downside I see is this ridiculous health and safety policy banning pretty much every pair of shoes I own. I don’t understand how standing in front of a class of 17 year-olds and walking down the hallway suddenly became activities that require rubber-soled steel-toed shoes. I’m usually a very rule-abiding person. That may have to change.

The Grade Inflation Debate


Actually, I’m not so sure this is a debate. In order for it to be a debate one would presume that you have differing opinions on the topic and I don’t think I’ve spoken to a single teacher who doesn’t think that grades are “inflated”. When I think back to my grades (for all you Ontarians–when I say grade, I mean mark, but we’re the only people who call them marks apparently) in high school, my highest grade in English was probably a 93%. That was considered to be a very good grade. One might say exceptional. I wasn’t the best student, but I was a very good student.

I’m not a total packrat, but I did keep my old high school essays. When I look at my Hamlet essay now from the lens of a high school English teacher and consider how I would assess it, the grade is much higher than the grade I received 13 (eesh….) years ago. True, I’m a little biased, but I think there is something interesting we can learn from this.

My teachers didn’t use rubrics. They didn’t assess using a balance among different categories of learning , eg/ Knowledge, Thinking, Communication, and Application (I kept the marking schemes–where they existed). I had one teacher whose strategy involved giving you a grade of 100 and then deducting marks for each flaw. I had another teacher who believed that no student would ever receive 100% on an essay because it could never be perfect.

These seemed like valid marking schemes/philosophies to me at the time, but now, I have a different perspective.

A student could (and did) receive a grade of 100% on a culminating task in my class, because we don’t use norm referenced assessments; we use criterion referenced assessments. I don’t think an essay (and I’m just going to stick with this example for the sake of argument, not because I think the essay represents the pinnacle of human achievement) needs to be perfect in order to get 100%.

Now, hang on, here’s why:

I don’t construct a rubric for an essay using expectations that students can’t meet, and then assess the degree to which students almost meet the expectations. That would seem pretty unjust to me.

I don’t assess the other students in the class based on how they compare to the strongest student in my class.

So it’s possible that I could have two students in my class: one who writes an excellent essay, meeting every expectation, and one who does that and then some. But I’m not going to go back and dock marks from the first student’s essay because the next student’s essay was better. So they might both get 100% even though the second student has an even stronger essay.

Some people might say that’s not fair, but I think those people are assuming that the reward for demonstrating your learning is a corresponding number. And as far as I can tell, that is not the purpose of assessment and evaluation. Grades are not payment for services rendered.

I can’t speak to grade inflation in other subject areas, but that’s my take on why grades are higher now in English than they were when I was in high school.

I know that guidance cousellors and universities are finding this frustrating because competition is so high for scholarships and if more and more students are getting higher grades, well, you get the picture.

But I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Maybe what colleges and universities have to realize is something that we teachers are already realizing: a numerical value does not provide an accurate picture of a student’s achievement.

Anyone have a time machine to spare?

I’ll explain in a moment, but before I do that me FIERCELY state that I will NOT be that teacher. You know that teacher. The one who sits in the corner of the staff room hunched over and broken by years of bitterness and regret, wishing they still allowed corporal punishment, and thinking that fear and intimidation are better teachers than praise and compassion. The one who resists every change and thinks that “these kids today” are never going to amount to anything. She looks like this:


That will never be me. I mean, look at her shoes.

I still refuse to believe that deducting marks for not meeting deadlines is an effective strategy (see yesterday’s post). And yet here I am with seven instructional days left and here’s the situation. I handed out markbook print outs today so that students could see where they stood before the final exams and culminating tasks. And then the floodgates opened up. Suddenly students cared about missing assignments, or assignments that had not been completed to the best of their abilities. Suddenly I had a swarm of students who didn’t care a month ago asking me what they could do to improve their marks.

“That teacher” would have uttered a dry chuckle and said “You know what you can do? Get yourself a time machine, go back to February, and do your work.

But I didn’t say that. Instead I said yes.

“Can I still submit this?”


“Can I redo this?”


Why? Because if I say no, their marks would be lower–not because they weren’t capable of meeting the expectations, but because they didn’t meet the expectations within a given time frame. And mostly I say yes because a big part of me believes that while they have a responsibility to meet the expectations within a given time frame, I have a responsibility for teaching them that not meeting deadlines results in consequences, and I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain.

Why? Because I know what I’m good at and I focus too much on that. I’m good at designing engaging lessons (not all the time… but still good), I’m good at designing meaningful assessment tasks. I’m good at relating to my students (maybe too good). I am not good at staying organized, and I’m not good at coming up with meaningful consequences for poor academic behaviour. I’m also a sucker for a good sob story.

So what ends up happening? I end up stressed out with more work on my plate than they do, and I’m furious. But after an intense run that left me feeling exhausted I realized I wasn’t furious with my students. They’re students. They’re still learning. I’m furious with myself because I’m a teacher and I should know better. I think a part of me felt that having good rapport with my students should be enough to motivate them to submit their work on time.

I really need to get a solid policy in place for September and be consistent with that policy.

The only catch is, our board will be working on developing its own policy in response to the policy document from the ministry that I wrote about yesterday, and there’s no way that will be in place in September. So for now, I’ve got to try to make a policy that is still aligned with our current policy and does not contradict the new policy. Oh, and I probably have to run it by my department head and my principal. But both my principal and vice principal will be brand new in September.

My head hurts.

I think I need another run.

My thoughts on “Growing Success” Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools

Confession time.

I am a nerd. I love talking about assessment and evaluation. I love reading about it, debating about it, writing about it, thinking about it, planning for it, and sometimes doing an interpretive dance about it. My favourite A and E guru is Damian Cooper who I had the pleasure of meeting last year thanks to my good friend Heather Jakobi. I like him because while his philosophy is grounded in all the best research into good assessment and evaluation practices, he is practical enough to recognize the challenges and limitations that teachers and administrators face in their day to day lives.

My basic assessment and evaluation philosophy is this:

  • The primary role of assessment is to promote student learning
  • Assessment should inform and drive instruction
  • You need to begin with an idea of what students must know and determine what sufficient evidence of this achievement will look like.
  • There are many different ways to demonstrate learning and students need to be exposed to a variety of assessment tasks and when possible and appropriate, be given choice.
  • Students need to develop an awareness of how they learn best and should learn how to effectively self-assess.
  • Students should have multiple opportunities to demonstrate they can meet expectations
  • We should not use academic penalties (deducting marks) for behavioural/learning skill issues

I could go on. And I often do. But I think those points cover most of my thoughts about this topic. The last point on that list is a contentious one, and one that I have not always believed. I used to say, as many teachers and parents do, if teachers don’t deduct “late marks” then students won’t be properly prepared for the realities of college/university or the work world. But here’s the problem with that:

The college/university argument: Our students do not all go on to post-secondary education. Also, educational philosophies and mandates of post secondary institutions are not the same as those of elementary and secondary institutions. We shouldn’t emulate practices that we don’t feel are beneficial to students in order to “prepare” them for bad pedagogical practices they might encounter in the future. That’s like saying to a hockey player, “I’m not going to give you pointers for improving your slap shot because in a real hockey game, you’re not going to have me there to coach you.”

The work world argument: The previous analogy that I used works for this too. But also consider this: While it’s true that you may get fired for not submitting a project to your boss on time, it’s a faulty analogy to compare this to school. In the work world, you perform a service, and in return you receive money. In school, completing assignments is not providing a service, and grades are not money. The purpose behind completing assignments is to learn and demonstrate your achievement of specific curriculum expectations. Grades are not rewards, but an evaluation of how well you’ve achieved those curriculum expectations.

So here’s the problem: many students and their parents view grades as rewards for hard work. Parents praise students for high grades. Grades are requirements for admission to colleges and universities. Until we have a society that values descriptive feedback over percentages, I really don’t see how this can change. So, in many cases, the only penalty that is meaningful to students is the deduction of grades for what is in reality a behavioural problem.

Now some might argue that we need to have meaningful behavioural consequences then for failing to submit assignments on time (or at all!). The aim of these consequences would be to help students learn the importance of meeting deadlines. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with disruptive behaviour and other types of classroom management issues, it might be a tough sell to tell teachers that they also have to assign lunch hour detentions to the students who didn’t submit their homework assignments. Don’t get me wrong. It makes perfect sense to me to say the consequence of not doing your work is that you will sit with me until you have done your work, but it’s just not always practical. That being said, I am considering assigning a lunch hour detention early on in a given course to students who fail to complete a homework assignment or other small formative task to see if it sends the message that “not doing the work” is not an option.

All right, so now that you know where I’m coming from, let’s get to the point.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has just released a document called,“Growing Success” Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools. The policy document is meant to guide school boards in developing their own A and E policies. The biggest thing that I think teachers are going to jump on and perhaps do a happy dance about is page 43. On page 43 at the end of a long list of suggested interventions for late and missing assignments it suggests:

deducting marks for late assignments, up to and including the full value of the assignment.

This calls for a dramatic chipmunk moment

Now let’s move on.

That strategy is at the bottom of the list for a good reason, and since many teachers will laugh gleefully at that final strategy and ignore the next page, I would like to add that the document has a very interesting bit of text after the list, where the ministry seems to try to justify the change of heart. Here’s what it says:

There are strong and often divergent opinions on the issue of how to deal with late and missed assignments. Many stakeholders, including many parents and students, believe that marks should be deducted when assignments are late and that a zero should be assigned when a student does not submit an assignment…. Proponents of this view believe that unless students face academic consequences for non-performance in school, they will not learn to be accountable to themselves and others and will not be prepared to meet the requirements of employers or of postsecondary educational institutions.

But wait! There’s more!

On the other hand…

See. You had to know that was coming.

…many experts in the field of assessment and evaluation discourage deducting marks or giving zeros for late and missed assignments, arguing that such measures do not make students change their behaviour or help them succeed in the long run…

You get the picture. So here I am reading between the lines: “People who argue that we should deduct late marks don’t really know know what they’re talking about because they’re not experts, but they are taxpayers so we need to listen to them.”

Hmph. I’m not so sure how I feel about that wording.

Here’s what I think:

Until we have a system that does not require teachers to report within strict time frames, and until post-secondary institutions value learning skills as much as grades, we will have an imperfect assessment and evaluation system and teachers will have to do the best they can and use their best professional judgement when it comes to determining grades. I think sometimes that will mean doing things that don’t always jive with what the best educational experts promote as best practice.

What is most important is that we remember that as teachers our primary goal should be to promote student learning. We’re teachers, not evaluators.

One more time!

Ning is the Thing: Using web 2.0 technology to encourage higher-level thinking in senior academic English classes

Ning is the Thing:

Using web 2.0 technology to encourage higher-level thinking in senior academic English classes

Danika Barker


Central Elgin Collegiate Instute
Thames Valley District School Board



The purpose of this action research project is to assess the impact of web 2.0 technology on student attitude and engagement in a secondary English classroom. Essentially, the term “web 2.0” refers to technologies that allow people to collaborate, share, and create content anywhere, anytime.  Common examples would be blogs, wikis, Flickr, Facebook, and Google apps. For the purpose of this study, I will look specifically at one type of web 2.0 platform, Ning,  that mimics social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace.


Last year, I had the opportunity to work for our board as a learning coordinator in the area of literacy. I was lucky enough to have the time to read and research about a number of different topics related to literacy, but I was most interested in a report by Kathleen Blake Yancey, called “Writing in the 21st Century,”[1] in which she explores historical attitudes toward writing and how these attitudes have changed over time as a result of changing technology. She goes on to explain that teachers of English need to acknowledge these changes in order to provide students with authentic opportunities for writing that better reflect the kinds of writing they do outside the classroom.

This year, I am back in the classroom at a moderate-sized high school in Elgin County. The school has a reputation for academic achievement, but in recent years, the population has been changing requiring staff to focus more on strategies for student success. I have been assigned grade 11 and 12 university preparation English and grade 12 college preparation English for the first semester of the school year. Although I recognize that my “clientele” are not the most high-needs learners in the school, they have presented me with some interesting challenges in terms of motivation and achievement.

Most of my students are “digital natives”[2] who have grown up with computers, the internet, cell phones, and mp3 players. Approximately 67% of my students have cell phones and 93% of my students have Facebook or Myspace accounts and use them regularly. They do a great deal of reading and writing online, but they have also grown up in a school system that is often suspicious of online technology. Cell phones and mp3 players are banned from most classrooms even though they can be valuable learning tools. Our school currently has a wireless network installed for student use, but students do not yet have access due to concerns regarding security. I know many teachers who are very concerned about our students’ lack of awareness or concern about what they may be revealing about themselves online, but, for a variety of reasons, the response has frequently been to ban, restrict, or filter rather than teach.


My administration have been very supportive of my ideas about technology in the English classroom and scheduled two of my English classes (grade 11 and 12 university preparation) in a computer lab. This resulted in a rather mixed reaction from students on the first day of class. Some students looked thrilled while others looked deeply suspicious and nervous. I have explained to my students that this semester will be an experiment.

While I had access to a huge range of web 2.0 technology thanks to the computer lab, the content that I taught was still restricted as my administration also felt strongly that different sections of the same course should still have the same content and assessment strategies. I found a way to work around this challenge by simply using the technology available to differentiate instruction and assessment. That way, no student was ever penalized for not wishing to use technology.

A typical period of my grade 11 English class looked like this: Students came into class and logged on to their computers. They went first to our class website,, and then followed the link to their class blog, They found instructions and updates and began working while I talked to individual students and completed attendance. Some students then logged off the computer and chose to sit at one of the tables, while others stay logged-on. I conducted a focus lesson on a particular topic and then had a practice assignment, usually in small groups. Students could choose to take a paper copy of the assignment or download the assignment from our class site on Edmodo[3]. We debriefed and then I assigned any individual work at which point students could choose again whether they would work online, or at their desks.

For the purposes of this study, I focused my research on one web 2.0 platform my students use regularly in my grade 11 and 12 classes. Ning is a social networking site similar to Facebook. This site allows students to form groups, add content such as video clips and music, and create discussion forums on topics of their interest. It also has a blog feature. Initially I only planned on using a Ning to support the student study of the novel, The Great Gatsby in my grade 11 class. As students worked with the application, I saw additional benefits and created Nings for a variety purposes in all three of my classes. In the end, I created five different Nings:

Ning Class Purpose
Gatsby Ning ENG3U
  • enrich student understanding of the novel The Great Gatsby by allowing students to research historical context and then share with other students
  • allow students to demonstrate understanding of character through the creation of a “Facebook” page
Othello Ning ENG3U
  • Provide students with a platform to blog as they study the play
Literature Circle Ning ENG4C
  • Extend the discussions that happen in class during our literature circle meetings
Life of Pi Ning ENG4U
  • Extend small group discussions about the novel Life of Pi
Hamlet Ning ENG4U
  • Provide students with a platform to blog as they study the play

When I initially began this project, I wanted to assess the impact of both Edmodo and Ning on student achievement and engagement. I now realize that I based my initial question on an assumption that students would enjoy and be excited by the prospect of using more technology in the English classroom. As I received some “push-back” from students, I was forced to reassess and I came to the conclusion that what I really wanted to know was this: What benefits do students gain through use of web 2.0 technology that they could not achieve through non web 2.0 tasks? Specifically, how does the Ning allow students to use the higher order thinking skills of Bloom’s Taxonomy?[4]



The methodology summarized in this section includes: demographics, research method, data collection, and ethical considerations. The main question in this study is: How does web 2.0 technology allow students to access higher level thinking in their responses to literature?


The study focused on a grade 11 university preparation English class composed of 15 girls and 12 boys. All students had internet access at home, although some had limited access due to dial-up. The physical environment of the classroom was unusual for students and most of them were accustomed to a more “traditional” English classroom with desks and a blackboard. While most of the students spent one to two hours a day outside of class time using computers for socializing, playing games, and occasionally doing homework, some of them had been uncertain and even suspicious about using computers on a regular basis for schoolwork.

Research Method and Data Collection

After experimenting with using the Ning for The Great Gatsby, many students became routine users of the Ning while others remained mechanical users. After they became fairly comfortable with the site, they were presented with an assignment that allowed them to choose to use either the Ning or a more traditional method to complete a character study of one of the characters in The Great Gatsby.

Since the purpose of my study changed over the course of the semester, the initial survey I had students complete asked questions about their attitudes and experiences with technology. As the study evolved I realized that my focus was not so much on attitude but achievement. With that in mind, I collected and examined the work of a selection of students and looked for evidence of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation level thought.

Ethical Considerations

I am aware that some students are uncomfortable with using technology for communication purposes in an English class. While the English curriculum document supports and encourages the use of technology, I wish to be sensitive to the feelings of all of the students in my class. For that reason, technology use is simply another option I provide to students in order to differentiate instruction.

I have also spent time talking to students about how to limit their personal risk when working online. The Ning is only open to students in our class so they are permitted to use their real names. Any samples of student online work used in this study will have surnames deleted to protect privacy.

Data Analysis

I took screen shots of student work on the Ning and then used the following criteria to look for evidence of different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in student work. Specifically I focused on analysis, synthesis, and evaluation:

Knowledge * observation and recall of information

* knowledge of dates, events, places

* knowledge of major ideas

* mastery of subject matter

Question Cues:

list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, collect, examine, tabulate, quote, name, who, when, where, etc.

Comprehension * understanding information

* grasp meaning

* translate knowledge into new context

* interpret facts, compare, contrast

* order, group, infer causes

* predict consequences

Question Cues:

summarize, describe, interpret, contrast, predict, associate, distinguish, estimate, differentiate, discuss, extend

Application * use information

* use methods, concepts, theories in new situations

* solve problems using required skills or knowledge

Questions Cues:

apply, demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, show, solve, examine, modify, relate, change, classify, experiment, discover

Analysis * seeing patterns

* organization of parts

* recognition of hidden meanings

* identification of components

Question Cues:

analyze, separate, order, explain, connect, classify, arrange, divide, compare, select, explain, infer

Synthesis * use old ideas to create new ones

* generalize from given facts

* relate knowledge from several areas

* predict, draw conclusions

Question Cues:

combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, what if?, compose, formulate, prepare, generalize, rewrite

Evaluation * compare and discriminate between ideas

* assess value of theories, presentations

* make choice based on reasoned argument

* verify value of evidence

* recognize subjectivity

Question Cues:

assess, decide, rank, grade, test, measure, recommend, convince, select, judge, explain, discriminate, support, conclude, compare, summarize

Character Study Performance Task

As the project progressed it began to take on a life of its own. In my grade 11 university class, students were given a character study assignment. The purpose of this assignment was for students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the characters in The Great Gatsby. I wanted students to have a rich understanding of the characters’ motivations and relationships to other characters as well as their importance to the overall novel so I created a performance task that allowed them to interact in role with other students. In order to provide some differentiation, I gave students two options from which to choose:

Option A required students to imagine that Facebook was around during the time of The Great Gatsby. They could use the Gatsby Ning to create a page for their character complete with status updates, photos, blog posts, groups, etc. More importantly, this assignment allowed them to interact with other “characters” from the novel just as they interacted with their friends on social networking sites.

Option B required students to create a monologue to deliver in role. They also had to create a list of questions for the other characters in the novel. After they preformed the monologue in a small group, other “characters” asked them questions and they took turns responding in role. This assignment still allowed students to interact within role. I recorded these monologues.

I anticipated pros and cons for both assignments. While students had had opportunities to work with the Ning before trying this assignment, they were still mechanical users of the technology. On the other hand, I hypothesized that the fact that students would have more opportunities to read and consider before formulating responses would lead to richer discussion. I suspected that students who chose the monologue might write pieces that demonstrate better factual knowledge of plot and character, but that their responses to the questions might not demonstrate as much ability to apply their knowledge and understanding since they did not have as much processing time as the students working with the ning.

Twenty students chose Option A and seven students chose option B. Three of the students who chose Option B were absent on the day of the assignment which meant that they didn’t have the opportunity to participate in the “interaction” portion of the activity.


I used the same rubric to assess both options, but I found Option A very difficult to assess:

Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4


Limited understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4)

May not contain enough information

Adequate understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4) Thorough  understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4) Thorough and insightful understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4)


Weak communication of ideas and may not  be  appropriate for format chosen and / or may a number of inconsistencies Adequate communication of ideas  appropriate for format chosen may contain inconsistencies with character portrayal from the text Clear communication of ideas  appropriate for format chosen and consistent with character portrayal from the text Sophisticated  communication of ideas  appropriate for format chosen and consistent with character portrayal from the text


Limited transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters” Some transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters” Good transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters” Excellent transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters”

It was much easier to assess Option B for knowledge and understanding since Option B was a more traditional assignment. Option A was challenging because there were so many different elements that students could include as evidence of their understanding. Because I’d never done an assignment like this before, I couldn’t anticipate the types of evidence students would include. Below is an example of a page that I would use as a level 4 exemplar:


This student chose an appropriate image and page layout for his character. He also had a number of status updates that demonstrated his knowledge and understanding of the character, as did the groups he chose to join.

One of the elements I was most interested in assessing was also the most challenging. It was very time-consuming to track the conversations between students on the Ning because I had to click a number of different links to follow the conversation thread. Below is a composite of the conversation between two students, one acting as Tom Buchanan, the other as Daisy Buchanan:

Daisy Tom

While it was interesting to watch the interactions between the students “role-playing” their different characters, I also found that this particular activity did not allow them to access the more complex levels of thought. Most of the discussion and interaction took place at the Knowledge, Comprehension, and occasionally application levels. When “Tom” replies to “Daisy”: “Because, there is stuff to be done…it is none of your business don’t ask,” it’s clear that the student playing Tom has and understanding of Tom’s character. He is evasive and aggressive and the student is able to respond to “Daisy’s” request using the same tone.

When comparing this interaction to the discussions that happened in the monologues, the Ning conversations did appear to be more “authentic” because students had some time to craft their responses. There was also more of a flow in the conversation in the Ning version. That being said, some of the monologues did a much better job demonstrating knowledge of character than the Ning pages did. I have included an audio file of the conversations that you can listen to by clicking below:

Monologue and questions

While both options worked well, I felt that the Ning could be used in a more effective way which led me to the blogging project for Othello.

Reflective Blog Post Performance Task

The blogging task evolved from a desire to ensure that students would take more ownership for their learning and be aware of the ways in which their initial thoughts and impressions changed as they read Othello. Rather than posing questions for them, I wanted the students to ask their own questions and use their peers (as well as me) as sounding boards and resources. A blog seemed to be a perfect format for that.

To begin, I explained to students that there was a difference between a blog and a journal:

Untitled 2

Some students were anxious about having other students read their work. I encouraged them to share their work and explained why it was important. Then I also showed students who were particularly anxious, that they could adjust the settings on their ning so that only their “friends” could read their posts. “Friends” were people they chose to add as contacts on the ning. Not all classmates were automatically “friends.” While students knew how to use this feature, very few of them made use of it after their first post.

Below is the outline for a level four blog post.


I made use of modeled and shared writing and wrote a blog post with the students and had then provide me with feedback before they were expected to write on their own.

It took some time for students to understand the concepts of tags, hyperlinks, and inserting photographs. I thought it was important to teach appropriate use of technology and show students that they had to give credit to images they found online and that just because it was online, didn’t mean they had permission to copy it.

In the example below, Alex, a student who typically performs in the level three range, blogs about the end of the film adaptation of Othello. He begins by making a personal connection with Emilia. He then uses specific evidence from the film to support his contention that  “the director did an excellent job of showing Emilia’s emotions.” The image supports the post nicely and Alex uses a hyperlink to appropriately reference the image. He has, however, forgotten to use tags to help identify key ideas in his post

Poor, Poor, Emilia. - Othello

While I do not think this post shows a high degree of synthesis, analysis, or evaluation, it is interesting to see what happens in the comment section of the post. The first comment is by a stronger student who is able to add more ideas to Alex’s initial thoughts.  Then Alex considers the comment and responds with the new thought about divorce.[5] There is certainly some synthesis happening here that might not have happened without the comment feature. The comments about Emilia are also interesting because they were not prompted to write about Emilia. This was a topic they found interesting and chose to write about.

The next post was written by a student who performs in the level four range, provided that she finds the task engaging. Blogging seemed to be something she was very comfortable with. She even drew her own images and added them to her blog posts.

Animal - Othello

In this post, Mallory has used clear tags to help other students identify the topics she’s blogged about, specifically the idea of conscience. I find it really interesting that she also chose to include a song that she was listening to that reminded her of the play. She includes a hyperlink to the song in the comment section of her post. What’s missing from this post is a reply to the comment posted by another. It would have been interesting to see what Mallory thought about this idea of conscience. The students are—without prompting from the teacher—beginning to pose very interesting and thought-provoking questions. They are certainly working within the range of syntheses and evaluation.

I find the next example particularly interesting because it comes from a student who usually scored a level two on her assessments. What is interesting is not so much the post itself but the conversation that occurs in the comment box.

Iago Has a change In Plans (good vs Evil) - Othello

The first comment is mine. I occasionally posted questions and prompts to encourage students to extend their conversations. Another student, Ian, jumped in to the conversation and posed a new thought–that Iago is finding that victory isn’t as sweet as he had hoped. Vanessa considers this though and responds which prompts some thoughts from Jesse and Mallory. Jesse, Vanessa, and Ian’s comments cause Mallory to reexamine some initial thoughts she and then draw some conclusions.

Conclusions and Implication for Professional Practice

The value in blogging is not so much the initial post itself, but the conversations that it ignites. The real thinking occurs when students reconsider their initial ideas, change their minds, or come up with new thoughts. A conventional reader’s journal does not allow students to do this because the journal response is the finished product, whereas a blog is organic. The comment feature encourages collaboration and deeper consideration.

The tagging feature allowed students to classify their ideas. Then other students who shared similar interests could see all the posts on that particular topic which would be a great way to have students brainstorm for a culminating task such as an essay.

In the future, I would emphasize the importance of blogging at regular intervals. Some students left all their posts until the end of the unit and missed out on the “conversations” and didn’t get to see their ideas develop of change. I would also work harder on modeling the difference between a level two or three comment and a level four. Students put much more emphasis on the original posts than they did on the comment portion. I would also make this project a stepping stone to a culminating task where students used the tags to develop ideas for an essay, debate, seminar.

It would also be interesting to collaborate with students from other classes and indeed other schools. I have been experimenting with ning in my media class where my students are commenting on the blog posts of students in a different school in a town two hours away. I think this piece of web 2.0 technology presents teachers and students with very exciting and rich opportunities to learn collaboratively while encouraging students to think reflectively.

[1] Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Writing in the 21st Century: a report from the National

Council of Teachers of English” February, 2009.

[2] The term “digital natives” popularized in the paper “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” by         Marc Prensky in 2001. Recently, David White, a social/educational media researcher at            Oxford University has argued that we should instead talk about “digital residents” and           “digital visitors,” but for the purposes of this paper, “digital native” will serve as a more      accessible if less accurate term.

[3] Edmodo is a social networking site that is specifically developed for teachers and students. They can post assignments, questions, and notes as well as submit assignments.

[4] Specifically, I wondered if I would see more analysis, synthesis, and evaluation level   thinking in the responses on student blogs.

[5] It’s also interesting to note the time of the responses. Neither of these responses happened during class time. Students continued conversations begun in class on their own time outside of class.

ENG4C Unit 2

The big idea for this unit is “Relationships and Identity” or “Relationships and Choices”. It is based on the fantastic Fourth R curriculum that is a joint project by TVDSB, CAMH Centre for Prevention Science, and The Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children (UWO). They have created curriculum for a number of different courses including a book club for ENG4C that explores issues such as eating disorders, mental health, sexual identity, bullying, violence, peer pressure, and substance abuse.  I have supplemented the book club lessons with lessons on reading strategies and media connections. The culminating task is a reading portfolio where students select evidence from the unit to demonstrate their mastery of (I hope!) a variety of reading strategies, speaking and listening strategies, understanding of content, ability to make connections, etc. They will explain their choices in an informal report that will serve as practice for the report the write in the next unit.

In the next unit, students will be completing a research report connected to one of the themes in their novels.

The overall focus for this unit will be the Reading and Literature Studies strand of the Ontario ENG4C curriculum.

Again I invite your questions, comments and suggestions!

One more thing: When looking at this on the blog, you can choose toggle full screen by clicking on the square in the right hand corner of the document below. It will make it much easier to read.

Eng4c Unit 2


I’ve learned so much this year that it’s tempting to throw myself into every initiative that comes across my desk and to want to change everything about my teaching all at once.

It’s tempting.

It’s also INSANE!

So I’ve decided to set some priorities for next year, and I’m following the model that my friend Kevin shared with me, that he learned from a speaker in his Master’s class. This person held up one hand and said that he was so busy he decided that he would have five priorities (Get it? Five fingers? Five priorities. I guess you only get to have six priorities if you’re the bad guy who killed Inigo Montoya’s father, in which case you’re going to die anyway so…) not just for work, but for your life. If something doesn’t fit one of those priorities you have to say no. Easier said than done, but I’ll give it a try. I just need to figure out what my priorities are.

Well first of all, it seems important to me to make sure that my relationships with my family and friends should be at the top of my priority list.

Then health. That can be physical, mental, and spiritual.

Yikes! That only leaves three left for professional priorities!

All right, well we all know that I want to find ways to bring more web 2.0 into the classroom even if I don’t have a beautiful shiny wifi Apple-sponsored computer lab (But seriously, that would be amazing).

Two left!

Assessment and Evaluation: No big surprise there. I want to continue to refine my understanding of good assessment and evaluation practices and how to bring together the ideal and the reality in order to support students. I like this one because it encompasses a lot of other things that I’m passionate about.

One left! Well people keep asking me what my ultimate goal is in this profession. Do I want to go into admin? Do I want to go back to the board office? Do I want to go to grad school? For now, I’ve decided that my ultimate goal is to be a really really good teacher. To some people that may not sound like a terribly ambitious goal, but it is to me. I think it’s easy to become complacent in this profession. I think that you have to keep pushing yourself to get better and to continue to see yourself as a learner. I never want to have the attitude that “I’ve been doing this for 20 years; there’s nothing new anyone can tell me about teaching.”  So my fifth priority is to view myself as a professional learner. That may sound a bit too vague but I know what it means.

So that’s it for now. I may come back and revise these later. Do you have any priorities or goals for next year?

I am a Nerd

I prefer the term “geek” but in this case I am a nerd. At least I’m in good company. Thanks to my pal and colleague Heather, I got to go to the lovely town of Glencoe this past Friday and see assessment guru Damian Cooper.

Damian Cooper is so passionate about the topic of Assessment for Learning that he literally bounces around the room while he’s talking. I for one particularly appreciate the fact that he comes from a secondary English background and that he’s not so far removed from the classroom that he doesn’t understand the all of the “in the trenches” realities that teachers deal with on a daily basis. He also doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. I found myself hanging on his every word.

He identified what is for me one of the biggest struggles with the assessment in Ontario: the ministry says it supports the idea of assessment for learning, but its policies and procedures don’t provide the support teachers need to implement these ideas. If we really believe that work habits such as punctuality, attendance, etc. are important, then they need to have some weight behind them. Learning skills need to show up on transcripts–otherwise they have no teeth. If a student can’t be given an academic penalty for not submitting an assignment or not submitting it on time, then there needs to be an appropriate behavioural consequence–again, something with teeth.

The part that I’m still not entirely clear on is this issue of deadlines. I understand that some students need more time than others to complete assignments. But I also understand that if I’m told I can hand something in between October 1st and October 15th, I’m going to wait until October 15th, even though I’m intrisically motivated and understand the importance of receiving teacher feedback in order to improve. I’m okay with not deducting marks for late work, but I still think there needs to be a real perceived penalty in place for not meeting a deadline, and I think that as long as students are required to complete a credit within a specific time frame and as long as teachers are required to submit “marks” at regular intervals, we need to keep deadlines. I also think teachers need the flexibility to extend deadlines or provide individual extensions depending on the circumstances of the student. I hope Mr. Cooper wouldn’t disagree with that. I’m very tempted to email him and ask.

I would also like to ask him some more specific questions about designing down and the Ontario curriculum for secondary English. Specifically, I’d like to know what he considers the Big Ideas to be for specific courses. As I’ve probably said before, it seems much easier to come up with a Big Idea for a subject like history than it does for English.

And yes, I did get him to sign my book, but so did Heather. So there. 

Assessment and Evaluation Blues

Feeling angsty about this topic. Decided to blog it out.

For a recap of the situation that has given birth to my angst, read my previous post.

I understand current theory about assessment and evaluation. I’ve read Wiggins and Stiggins and McTighe and Cooper. I’ve written and spoken–with great certainty–about designing backwards, “not rehearsing it if it’s not in the play”, and assessment for learning vs. evaluation of learning. So why is it that when I sit down to put together a sample summative assessment task for grade 10 applied English (a course that I’ve taught a number of times) I get stuck? It’s driving me crazy.

In an attempt to figure out why I’m stuck, I’m going to be metacognitive (and slightly schizophrenic) here and outline my process and then try to figure out where I’m going wrong.

I pulled out the curriculum expectations and studied them to try to get a sense of what the big ideas are in the course. Ah, well here’s the problem with that: There are too many expectations! I know that, which is why you have to use your professional judgement to decide what those big ideas are. Right. And how did that work for you?

Not very well. They’re all very vague (which should be a good thing because it allows for more professional judgement) but it makes it pretty hard to pull out a big idea. For example, here are the overall expectations for the Oral Communication strand:

1. Listening to Understand: listen in order to understand and respond appropriately in a variety of
situations for a variety of purposes;
2. Speaking to Communicate: use speaking skills and strategies appropriately to communicate
with different audiences for a variety of purposes;
3. Reflecting on Skills and Strategies: reflect on and identify their strengths as listeners and speakers,
areas for improvement, and the strategies they found most helpful in oral communication situations.

What do I do with that?

Well here’s what I did with that: I tried to figure out what how you could create an essential question for each of the strands, but before I could do that, I started to think, “Hey, if it’s an essential question, shouldn’t it cross strands?”

So I looked at the other strands too and came up with something like: What rights and responsibilities do we have as both consumers and creators of information?

I was quite pleased with that question. Then I started to think, how is this an essential question for 2P English? Isn’t it an essential question for all English courses? That was a little paralyzing, so I tried to move forward and thought, what does it look like to use that question to guide the curriculum planning?

Well, quite frankly, it’s not a very engaging question. It puts a very preachy spin on everything, and when you go back to look at the criteria for an essential understanding, I’m not sure I could say that it IS essential for a 2P student to understand that they have rights and responsibilities as consumers and creators of information.

When I went back and looked at what the 2P English teachers thought were essential for their students the list included: being able to support opinions with facts, write a proper paragraph, cite their sources properly, etc.. First of all, those are all writing expectations and writing is only one of the strands in English. Second, they’re all skills. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what we want from our students?

English isn’t just about skills! That came as a bit of a revelation to me after spending that last 9 months looking at literacy skills. I have a slight case of tunnel vision. If we reduce English to a skills course, we suck the soul out of our discipline. Why do people read? Why do they write? Why do they speak? Why do they create? It isn’t just to develop skills. It’s about power and personal expression and a desire to make and see connections.

But how do I justify that as an essential understanding? By the end of this course, it is essential for students to understand that communication is what makes us human. That’s a pretty heavy cross to bear. Yikes!

What I’m stuck with now though, is the summative task for 2P English. What do I want the students to understand and be able to do and what will the evidence be? I have mindmaps and half-completed charts with coded expectations and big questions covering my desk and I’m no further ahead. Why is this so hard?

Sigh. If you’ve got this figured out, please tell me.