Touring Surrey Schools: Communicating Student Learning

Recently I had the opportunity to spend the day touring the Surrey School District to learn about all that their organization is doing in their Communicating Student Learning project.  I knew bits and pieces of their story already, but our visit filled in many more details of a beautiful, complex, developing picture.  The Inquiry Based Learning Team project I have undertaken this year is based on how it is possible to better communicate student learning through the use of e-portfolios (in this instance, FreshGrade) and how that can enhance student achievement.  The other IBLT members are:

Angeline Mushumanski (Kindergarten Teacher at Prince Charles Elementary)

Cameron Friesen (Principal of Prince Charles Elementary)

Deirdre DeGagne (Technology Helping Teacher)

Karl Wodtke (Curriculum Helping Teacher)

Our day started off meeting Karen Fadum (Helping Teacher, Curriculum and Innovation) who was our host for the day.  Karen had graciously organized the details of our tour and accompanied us on all of our stops.  I am thankful to Karen for being so hospitable, and for taking the entire day to lead us through our discovery of what great things are happening in School District 36. I can imagine the responsibilities of her job are rather overwhelming as the district paves this new path in education, but she has met the challenge head-on and is a wonderful ambassador for her school district and their project.

At our first school, MJ Norris Elementary, our team had a chance to visit classrooms and talk with teachers who were on the journey of using digital portfolios to communicate student learning.  Surrey School District has approximately 2500 teachers using FreshGrade, a digital portfolio system that I have been using for the past two years.  As with any new endeavour, the pathway to using FreshGrade is not a smooth one (nor would it be with any other system).  There is ALWAYS a learning curve.  There is ALWAYS something that will try to get in your way of learning. And there are ALWAYS times to step back and re-evaluate and re-adjust our methods.  The teachers that we spoke with were honest and generous with their comments.  I appreciated their openness and willingness to have us ask questions and disrupt their day.

My first take-away from this day is NO NEW PROJECT IS EASY.  Yes, FreshGrade is an easy program to use.  Yes, it makes sense. Yes, I believe that it is the best tool (for me) to communicate student learning. BUT, it takes time to figure out the best way to use this tool (as it would with any other tool).  No one should be discouraged because something takes time.  Anything worth doing well will take effort.

Some of the teachers we talked with asked me to share how my portfolios are organized, and I happily shared with them.  Currently, I am using “I can” statements to organize the activities within my students’ portfolios.  I like this because it basically summarizes the big idea, curricular competency, or curricular content (these three are all part of our redesigned curriculum) that my students are aiming to learn.  In discussion after sharing this, the other teachers mentioned that they had tried to use “I can” statements in their portfolios, but what their parent population had taken this as a mastery statement and that the learning had finished around this competency.  My parents have never questioned me about the “I can” statements, and all seem to understand that the learning continues beyond that.  I will have to think about this further.

My second big question of the day: IS THERE A BETTER WAY TO ORGANIZE MY STUDENTS’ PORTFOLIOS?  The beauty of FreshGrade is that each teacher has the capacity to make the portfolio individualized for each student.  In being so open-ended, it also means that it takes some tweaking by each teacher to see how best to present the information within the portfolio.  We all must figure out what suits the needs of our classes.  I did not share my students’ portfolios with their parents last year until the end of term 1.  I needed that time to discover how to best present the evidence of learning and even then changed tactics through the course of the year.  This year, too, I have changed strategies to best suit what I am sharing of my students’ learning.

The second school we visited was Cambridge Elementary.  Principal, Antonio Vendramin and Vice Principal, Kelli Vogstad shared  with us the initiatives that they have undertaken to make their school what it is today.  Their obvious regard for teacher autonomy and their role as administrators who support teachers was evident in everything they said.  The mutual respect was palpable. Antonio and Kelli both lead with the understanding that relationships are key in all learning.  When they arrived at Cambridge two years ago, the school’s technology department consisted of an overhead projector shared between two teachers.  Now, each classroom has between 5-6 devices (iPads, iPad minis or laptops), the students are sharing their learning on FreshGrade and both administrators are a part of that learning because they are included in EVERY child’s portfolio.  Now *that’s* powerful! Twenty-four out of the Twenty-six classrooms in the school use FreshGrade to communicate student learning instead of using traditional report cards, and in each of the classrooms we visited, the students were excited to show us how they upload their work and reflect on their learning.

Some highlights from our visit include; seeing a Kindergarten student explain how to code the movements and speaking for a Dash robot using the Wonder Workshop app; listening to a grade six girl describe how she designed a miniature house to be 3D printed and how she documented her learning in FreshGrade; seeing the warm, inviting learning spaces throughout the school; watching grade 7 students play with Sphero robots in the Learning Lab…making them jump ramps into a tub of water and using a chariot and a cube video camera to record the movements of the robot.  I think their whole school should be called the Learning Lab, actually.  It is a Lab in which I would love to be a scientist.

Even though we were there to see how FreshGrade had transformed the sharing of learning, the learning was always at the center of the conversation.  Like I mentioned before, FreshGrade is the tool that is used to communicate…no different than saying I use an iPhone rather than an Android phone.  IT’S ALL ABOUT THE LEARNING!

Lunch was spent talking and sharing at the Surrey School Board District office.  Joining us for conversation were Elisa Carlson, (Director of Instruction, Curriculum and Innovation) and Joe Tong (Helping Teacher, Curriculum and Innovation). Elisa shared with us the story behind the district’s project for communicating student learning and how the district came to choose the FreshGrade platform to start that journey.  Especially poignant for me was to hear Elisa tell us how moved she was to receive an invitation to her youngest son’s portfolio…a full-circle moment for her, having worked on this project for four years.  Her passion for transformation in education focusing on what is best for kids is evident in every word Elisa speaks. Joe is new to the helping teacher position, and he spoke to how the secondary teachers are starting to investigate how an e-portfolio might fit into how learning is shared with our redesigned curriculum.  Joe’s success in using FreshGrade at a secondary level will certainly be a great example for other teachers to follow. Also joining us was Brette Barreiros, a Kindergarten teacher from Walnut Road Elementary, who showed us how she organizes her students’ portfolios.  Her presentation actually blew my mind a little bit, as her organization is completely different than mine. I focus on the curricular competencies in my “I can” statements, and she uses the Big Ideas as her focus.

I have so much to think about…always going back to  “WHY DO I DO THIS?” and “HOW DO I WANT TO PRESENT INFORMATION SO THAT PARENTS WILL UNDERSTAND?”

Our final visit was to Robyn Thiessen‘s grade three classroom at Green Timbers Elementary.  Robyn has been a part of the Communicating Student Learning project from the beginning and is a wealth of knowledge.  She regularly shares her expertise in the use of FreshGrade, as she presents both in person at many conferences and in webinars. Her students were welcoming and excited to share with us how they love to show their learning.  The calm, caring environment is one in which I would love to learn on a daily basis.  When asked what advice she had for someone new to using FreshGrade, Robyn said “Start slow…start with one thing and do it well, then add to it as you feel comfortable.”  What great advice.

Shifting our thinking in how we report to parents and involve them more in their child’s learning is not an overnight switch.  Gradual change is often better than an abrupt change.  Baby steps are how we start a long journey.

Being the “lone nut” and going outside the Ministry of Education Reporting Order (with permission) is no small task as the rest of the province watches their every move.  The Surrey School District has taken a leap of faith, knowing that there is a different, better way to share the journey of learning that our students embark upon.  They are acknowledging that the teacher is not the sole owner of learning, but that the students and parents are all stakeholders what we call “doing school”.  I am thankful that our colleagues in Surrey have taken this step and that I am able to be one of their first followers.  As we in Abbotsford experiment and learn more about the possibilities of making our students’ educational experience more visible as they take ownership of that learning and sharing, I am grateful that I can look to my colleagues in Surrey to provide the inspiration to keep going forward because it is what is best for kids.

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