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.

My Learning Journey with FreshGrade

As a teacher, I have always been a little sad that I could never see my own children in their school learning environments. I spend my days teaching other people’s children, but really had no idea what my boys were doing in their classrooms. As is typical, the boys had very little detail to share about what they did at school each day, though I did make a point to ask specific, direct questions to find out about their learning. As a mom, I dearly wanted to be a part of what my boys were doing each day, so that is the eye with which I look at my own classroom practice and what my students’ parents might be looking for.

I happily have parents and grandparents come in to help with my students, but the reality is that many parents work and are not able to be at school. So here was my challenge: knowing how I felt as a parent being left out my own child’s school experience, how could I facilitate an experience that would help my students’ parents feel more a part of our classroom community and their child’s learning journey?

About four years ago I began blogging. I started with a class blog and then branched out to my students having individual blogs. My students’ parents appreciated the window into our classroom these blogs offered and I got nothing but positive feedback. But I wanted to expand that practice to a more comprehensive space for communicating student learning. The blogs are great and I do still keep them up (though my class blog has been a little neglected of late), but I didn’t feel that they were appropriate places to give feedback. I wanted a private way to share what my students were learning and a way to communicate with their parents that allowed me to confidentially share descriptive feedback and assessment.

Last spring I heard about a new e-portfolio system called FreshGrade. From all that I heard and saw, FreshGrade was what I had been envisioning for my classroom practice. I didn’t start using FreshGrade right away, but took some time to reflect on my blogging and how I wanted to transform the communicating of student learning in my class. I had to start with WHY I wanted to change what I was doing and how I was reporting to parents. I think my reflection above covers the WHY…I wanted parents to feel more involved and aware than I had been in my own children’s education.

In October I went to the CUEBC conference to learn more. In particular, I wanted to hear what Ian Landy and Kyle Timms had to say about e-portfolios. I didn’t know that FreshGrade would be the thing that would transform my communicating of student learning, but I went in with an open mind to hear what Ian and Kyle had to say. Ian’s school uses FreshGrade. Kyle’s uses Scholantis, a different e-portfolio system. Both looked like excellent programs, but what swayed me towards FreshGrade is the fact that it is app-based.

For anyone who knows me, my iPad is like another appendage. I am constantly photographing and video recording my students so that I can share their learning with their parents. In the past it was all stored so I could blog after school, but with FreshGrade I have the option to share the moments of learning as they are happening. The fact that FreshGrade had an iPad app (and it’s FREE) allowed me to give it a try without having to invest any money.

FreshGrade has the capacity to share photographs, video, audio recording and notes at the touch of a button. Daily I have the opportunity to capture the learning in my classroom and share it with my students’ parents. I was even able to video record our Christmas concert performances and have the videos uploaded and shared to parents within minutes of the concert finishing.

The Teacher, Parent and Student apps allow all stakeholders to take part in the conversation about learning. The teacher and student have the capability to upload content and all three have the opportunity to comment back and forth about any item included in the e-portfolio. This dialogue builds the relationship between teacher, student and parents and facilitates communication that relates to pertinent visual, audio and written educational artifacts.

As an example, I regularly sit and listen to my students read to me. I assess what strategies they are using and offer verbal feedback to them. In the past, I would take notes to keep in my file for report card time. Now, with FreshGrade, I can video record my students reading so their parents can hear me making suggestions and giving feedback verbally to the student.  This modelling can help the parent give similar feedback when working with their child at home.

One of the most poignant uses of FreshGrade this year came when one of my students’ mother ended up on bed rest in hospital over an hour away from home.  She was expecting a baby and needed medical attention, so she was kept under doctor’s care.  Unfortunately that meant that her daughter couldn’t come and visit each day, purely because it was so far to travel.  For a five-year-old to be away from mom (and vice versa) like this is really quite traumatic.  Over the course of the mom’s hospital stay, I was able to share her daughter’s learning milestones with her via FreshGrade so that she could still be included and informed even though she was not physically at home.  I was even able to share video of her daughter reading her very first book.  Thank you, FreshGrade, for making that possible!

Confession: I am not great at pencil and paper work.  I prefer digital record keeping.  But until now I did not have a manageable, FOIPPA compliant tool to use. FreshGrade is FOIPPA compliant and stores all it’s data in Canada. It is easy to use, it is intuitive and it makes sense to me.  When the odd question or technical issue comes up, FreshGrade’s wonderful help desk is readily available to answer questions and to offer suggestions as to how I might better use their platform. I really appreciate the promptness and thoroughness with which they deal with issues.  That is not to say there haven’t been frustrations in my journey, as there have been a few.  With every new thing there is a learning curve, and a whole process of “figuring it out”.  I think I am now comfortable in sharing this learning…the why and the how I have come to where I am now.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t more learning to do.  Even good things need a little tweak here and there, but I am happy with how things have worked out so far and I will continue to use FreshGrade next school year.

I sent out a survey to all of my students’ parents after having used FreshGrade for a few months.  Unanimously they all answered that they liked FreshGrade better than a traditional report card. Here are some of their comments:

“We love it because we are a split family and it’s sometimes hard to communicate with the other parent regarding report cards and to be up to date with our child’s progress.”

“This system of communication is essential for parents to be involved in their child’s learning path and support learning activities at home. I like that the items reported in the portfolio are varied (physical activity, writing/reading, numeracy) and that evidence in collected in through using complementary technology (eg. video to show reading skills, sound clip for counting skills). Although I have not used the parent comments function, I think that this could replace the paper-based student planner for day to day parent – teacher communications.
I highly support the future use of this communication tool.”

“I think this has been great! It gives my husband and I a visual of everything out daughter is doing day to day. And it’s great for the kids as well to share there work.”

“As with other young children, sometimes it is difficult to pull information about what they did in class and what they are learning. The FreshGrade format helps us to understand what he is learning on a regular basis so we can talk about what is he doing in class in more specific detail. It is also wonderful to be able to see pictures of him interacting in class and watch videos of his activities. He is always so proud to be able to share these bits of information and we are able to use it as a platform to discuss his learning. We love the regular updates of his learning as opposed to a term based system.”

“I think that this is a great idea. This makes me feel more involved in my child’ schooling.”

“As is expected, (name) generally responds with a weary “I don’t know” when we ask him about his school day so it’s really amazing to have a direct channel to his education and personal growth when outside of our presence. We’re thoroughly enjoying following his progress through FreshGrade.”

“So far so good, I am really enjoying the updates, I seem to get more information this way and I can follow along with all the great things Mrs. Hiebert is doing, thank you so much for being a pioneer in the program all our children are lucky to have learned from you.”

“This style of report card is what I grew up with as a homeschooler. Very detail oriented so that it allows parents to see visually where their children are excelling and what areas need working on. For example: the sound of lower case letter k and weather it can be written out or not. allowing a parent the freedom to help a child with this letter therefore allowing the teacher more time to see improvement rather than indicating “satisfactory” results with lower case letters. It also allows dual income families or busy single parents to see their childs art projects as well as others in the class, therefore allowing you as a parent to see if their child is in line with the other students in terms of learning curves. Most of all, FreshGrade allows me to feel support around my child’s learning, and more confident in what my child needs help with or what they are accomplishing or what other children of their same are achieving. It really helps promote peace of mind especially for our modern dual income working family. Thank you FreshGrade!”

I am thankful to have had a few educators travel on this journey with me.  In particular, Tracy Cramer and Kim Anderson from Langley School District as well as my FreshGrade mentor, Ian Landy from Sorrento, BC. Without the three of you, I likely would have given up long ago.  Nothing worth doing is ever going to be easy from the beginning.  I am grateful that you stuck with me and helped talk me through some of the challenges I encountered.  Here’s to making next year work even more smoothly and successfully!

I would love to hear about others who have used FreshGrade or any other e-portfolio, for that matter.  Please share your why and your how and we can learn together.

My Day At The Inquiry Hub

I teach Kindergarten. In doing so, my job is quite different from that of a secondary school teacher, and yet it’s not. We all have students to teach, and we all want our students to be successful. So, at the invitation of David Truss, the Vice-Principal of the Inquiry Hub Secondary School in Coquitlam, BC, I spent the day in high school.  I believed that I have much to learn from them, and I was right.

I had heard great things about the Inquiry Hub, most recently the news that they had won the Ken Spencer Award for a Innovation in Teaching and Learning. The amazing thing about that award is not only winning in itself, which is a great accomplishment, but what the school is doing with the $7,500.00 prize. The teachers and administration are giving that money to the students to fund their inquiry projects. That’s right…THE STUDENTS.  And from what I saw today, I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate or effective way to spend the money.  The students put great thought into their proposals for spending “their” money and I can only imagine the ownership and pride they will take in the learning that happens with what they purchase.

I was given a tour of the school by Kassandra, a grade 9 student who explained how the school was organized. Class organization, use of space and time. She is a great ambassador for her school. She answered all of my questions and helped me start to understand the culture of the school community.

It was interesting to see how the students decided to go about their work…some in groups, some by themselves, some chatting and collaborating, some working quietly. Certainly not unlike any other classroom, but perhaps more independent and self-directed. Having a good sense of self-regulation would be a must at Inquiry Hub, as much of the students’ work is self-directed with guidance from their teachers.  There was a music studio being built.  Music composition was the focus of another inquiry.  One group was designing a mural for the side of the school and another was working on short story writing.

A student named Owen showed me the Inquiry project that he and his twin brother had worked on…assembling a 3-D printer. He excitedly told me about how they logged their hours of work and built the entire thing from scratch, then proudly showed me some of the things they had printed. I told Owen that he needs to share what he has done. Here is his blog about his project: . Documenting your process and sharing with others is a big part of learning.

Another student named Meghan told me about her inquiry project about special effects make-up. Unfortunately the Internet was down at the time, so she couldn’t share the photos of her work with me. Her project reminded of the Independent Directed Study course my son, Matthew is designing next year, but instead of make-up effects, he will be studying practical effect character design.

One student named Jay did a project where he designed a virtual piano using Leap Motion technology. It was amazing to see his fingers dancing in mid-air as the virtual piano played on his laptop!




One of the most noticeable projects at the Inquiry Hub is the Urban Garden.  Today a concrete slab was being poured amongst the planter boxes so that the school could have an outdoor meeting space.  The staff and students all placed handprints in the curing cement…a sign of true community.  The benches and picnic tables that will be placed on that slab will, I am sure, be used often.  The garden itself is an ongoing project by students Shauna, Sophia and Hannah.  I found a YouTube video of the girls explaining their project…what a great idea!  And I can’t wait to read the book they are writing to help me design a community garden at my school.

Remember how I said that the Ken Spencer Award money was being spent by the students?  It was fun to see that in action when the girls who are planning a mobile kitchen for the school got to pick up the supplies they had budgeted (and collected coupons for) from Bed Bath and Beyond.  I am sure that some of the produce from the urban garden project will make its way into the mobile kitchen.  What a great blending of learning projects!

Not only did I get to observe and learn from the teachers and students at the Inquiry Hub, I also got to share a little bit of what I have been working on for the past eight months.  Blog posts are upcoming on exactly what I have been doing, but today I shared with them how FreshGrade e-portfolio system could be a good way of collecting evidence of their students’ learning and sharing that with their parents and eventually (hopefully) exporting that as a portfolio to share with potential universities and employers.

It was an absolute pleasure to spend the day at the Inquiry Hub.  Thank you, David, for inviting me to share in your space.  The learning community you have at the Inquiry Hub is very special.