Is it time to get uncomfortable and re-think assessment and evaluation?

I’m not one to back away from “uncomfortable conversations,” and I think that this blog post may lead to one. Lately though, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about marks, rubrics, feedback, and the role that parents play in this complex process.

As a Kindergarten educator, I thankfully haven’t had to assign marks in a couple of years now. I love how Growing Success: The Kindergarten Addendum focuses on assessment from an asset lens. Assessment is really about knowing where the child is at, his/her biggest area of growth, and what he/she needs to work on to move forward. Learning is seen in a positive light, and students are at the centre of this learning. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the way that learning should be. 

But in the last few months, I’ve had many interesting conversations with other educators about assessment and evaluation thanks to the Reading Part 1 course that I’m taking through our Board. As part of this course, we’ve explored rubrics, Growing Success, and parent communication as it connects to assessment and evaluation practices. It’s through these conversations that I’ve heard many comments that I’ve also heard before.

  • Parents aren’t involved enough in their child’s learning.
  • Rubrics tell parents how their child is doing.
  • Parents respond to bad marks or problem phone calls. 
  • Parents want marks.
  • Children need to know how they’re doing.

These are comments that continue to bother me. Why? I have yet to meet parents that don’t want to know how their child is doing AND aren’t willing to support their child in the best way that they know how. As Aaron Puley reminded me years ago now, we cannot assume that parents know how to support this learning at home. 

  • Are we providing suggestions?
  • Are we making these suggestions accessible to all parents?
  • Are we giving parents and students the time needed to try out these suggestions at home? 

Many families have busy lives. Parents may work shift work. Children may be involved in extracurricular activities. This doesn’t mean that they won’t work on these home suggestions, but may need more than a day to do so, or may benefit from options that can support learning on the go: be it in a car, on a bus, or on a family walk. 

I think that we also live in a world where marks have been the norm for a long time. If we want parents to understand the benefits of feedback or how assessment can be communicated through an asset lens, then we have to introduce them to these other options. We have to talk to them about the benefits of these different approaches. Answer their questions. Read the documents together. Have a good conversation about them … and be willing to have these uncomfortable talks because kids are worth it!

When I was in the Faculty of Education 18 years ago, a professor told me, “Parents give us the best that they have!” Their kids mean the world to them, and they want to know that we care about them as much as they do. Just like educators, parents know the most about what they’re accustomed to. If we’re trying a different approach, we need to communicate this to them, and help them see the benefits of an alternative option. We have to be open to discussion and some new learning together!

Here’s my biggest concern: for as long as I can remember, educators have told kids and parents to “look at the comments. Don’t focus on the marks.” And then, we all seem a little shocked when everyone does the opposite. Why? If we’re toting the benefits of rubrics (largely mark-based) and highlighting problems (instead of successes), wouldn’t people see the most value in a mark that quickly communicates, in a pseudo-standardized way, where their child is at? If we want students and parents to look beyond the mark, maybe we need a less mark-based approach all the way up to the report card. If the grade is the biggest focus, what does that say about how we communicate learning and how others view it? I know that there are pockets of changes happening in Ontario. Is it time to make a gradeless option (at least prior to report cards) an even bigger movement? I think that it just might be.


Let Them Do It!

The other day, I had an epiphany: we really don’t solve problems for our kids. This is new for me. The amount of independence that we build and support in our Kindergarten children at times amazes me. It’s beyond what I’ve done before, and it’s because of my amazing teaching partner, Paula, that our students have gotten to the point that they’re at now. Let me explain.

My epiphany started on Friday morning, when a child came up to us in the forest. Another child was accidentally poked with a stick in the nose, and his nostril was bleeding slightly. The child that was hurt seemed fine, and he slowly came up behind the student that came to tell us about the problem. Paula looked at his nostril, and before she could say or do anything, the girl who approached us said, “I have Kleenex in my pocket. Look: a package!” She then took one out and gave it to her friend. He wiped off his nose, and used a second one just to be sure that all of the blood was gone. The two students then went back to play together. No tears. No additional intervention from us. Problem solved.

Fast forward then to the couple of times that students had to get dressed and undressed for the cold, outdoor weather. It looks as though winter has arrived in Ontario. Trying to get 27 three-, four-, and five-year-olds packed up for home and into snowsuits can be stressful at the best of times, but not if your partner is Paula. Then it’s much calmer. We don’t do the dressing for the students. 

  • Will we talk through problems with them? Yes.
  • Will we suggest friends that can support them? Yes.
  • Will we ensure that there is enough space and time to get ready? Yes.

But with the exception of three zippers that I did up on Friday, I didn’t touch another snowsuit, coat, or pair of boots. I calmly listened to Paula sing, “Who’s going to be ready? Nobody knows but me!,” on repeat. There’s something incredibly soothing about this song … at least for me. And then I watched the children attack the dressing problem.

I had to remind a few students about items left behind, and one child forgot to put on her snow pants and had to start again, but she still managed to do it. A couple of children took longer to finish, and while I’m sure that I could have intervened and sped up the process, I didn’t. Neither did Paula. Even as the other children left with their parents and one child was still getting dressed, I stood at the door and tried to talk him through the rest of the process.

  • Was it stressful? A bit …
  • Was I tempted to intervene? Yes.

But even with dad waiting at the fence, and then slowly making his way into the Kindergarten playground area, I stopped myself from getting this child dressed. For you see, there’s something to be said for independence and problem solving. There’s something to be said for accomplishing a task, even when it’s really hard to do … and for Kindergarten students, getting dressed in snowsuits is a really hard thing to do. So just like Paula, I ask questions, I use visuals, I sing the steps, but I don’t solve problems for the child. 

  • At times, this means that a child goes home without an item.
  • At times, this means that dressing takes longer than usual.
  • At times, this means that we may be delayed in going outside.

But this also means that children leave at the end of the day feeling “competent and capable,” just as our Kindergarten Program Document emphasizes. I think that the value of this feeling outweighs a few misplaced items and additional time. 

I can’t help but think about the times that I’ve heard educators say, “My Grade ____’s can’t solve problems. I need to help them with everything.” I think that I was one of these educators before. But now I wonder if I created these problems. 

  • Did I let the child struggle?
  • Did I give the child time to meet with success?
  • Did I use questions and other prompts to help the child through the problem solving process?

Maybe with our best of intentions to help children, we actually create the problems that we later lament. I think that I needed Paula to help me see the value in the struggle and the benefit of letting kids be independent … even when it can be a frustrating experience for us. I’ve began to wonder, do we intervene because this is what kids need or what we need? What’s the value in the learning that comes from the little, daily struggles and forgotten items along the way? Our Kindergarten children are reminding me just how independent ALL kids can be!



Who’s Missing? A Closer Look At Reading.

Yesterday, I dropped my car off at the mechanic in the morning to get the car ready for winter (and hopefully not too much winter parking 🙂 ), so my wonderful teaching partner, Paula, drove me back at the end of the day to pick it up. Our drive to the shop provided plenty of opportunities to chat and reflect. It was during this time, that we got on the topic of reading and writing. This year, our Board has a goal of having “all children reading by Grade 1.” As part of this goal, the Board has hired numerous reading specialists that work with the Kindergarten and Grade 1 educators at all of the schools. Reading has definitely become a huge topic of discussion at school, especially in the primary division.

As we were driving, and later as we were parked, Paula and I spoke about this focus. She mentioned something that I hadn’t thought of before: the addition of these reading specialists have all of us far more aware of — and vocal about — the reading and writing that we’re doing in the classroom. Does this mean that we were not focusing on these areas before? Not necessarily … but now they’re definitely at the forefront of our learning. 

This can be a great thing! I think of our students this year, and their huge interest in letters, sounds, and words. This interest actually began in the forest, with finding some letter sticks. Now every day, children are searching for these letters. They’re stopping in the middle of play — and sometimes even in the middle of tag games — to comment on letters that they find. They’re thinking critically about these letters, and how making changes to part of one — or even seeing the letter from a different perspective — can lead to the creation or identification of new letters. This week, one student noticed that she can use her body, in addition to sticks, to make letters. Then another child moved from focusing on individual letters to combining letters and writing (and reading) words. This is absolutely amazing to see … and I love that these investigations are child-led. Paula and I support the learning through the questions we ask and the opportunities we provide to extend this interest, but the kids are the ones that are truly excited about this kind of reading!

A post shared by Aviva (@avivaloca) on

I think that our Board focus on reading makes this outside interest even more wonderful! Maybe it even helped us extend it more than we would have without this focus. We may have heard the initial comment about “finding a letter,” but we wouldn’t have gotten so excited about it, and helped our students become equally excited. Now they’re the ones driving this investigation, and we all benefit from this interest that links with the Board goal. This I love!

But then the other day, I had a conversation that reminded me that we cannot lose sight of children and their developmental levels. We have a student teacher that comes into our class a couple of days a week. When she was in the other morning, she spoke to me about one of the children, and mentioned how she tried to extend some of his learning. When she pushed for some writing that included the use of letter-sounds, he struggled. He was very reluctant to engage, and ultimately, wandered off. She asked me what she should do, and I mentioned that maybe this push was beyond his “teachable level.” He’s still really young. He’s just starting to hold a pen, pencil, and marker. He identifies many letters of the alphabet, but is still developing his fine motor skills, which will ultimately help him with writing. He may not be ready for the pencil/paper work that she was trying to do with him, and is actually still developing his phonological awareness skills and hearing sounds in words. So play word games with him orally. Create letters out of different items that matter to him — from Lego to sticks to blocks — and even investigate letters in books while reading together. Use beads, playdough, plasticine, and paint to develop fine motor skills, but be responsive to him and insert this learning when he’s receptive to it. Maybe now isn’t the time. 

And this was the reminder for me that while we focus on letters, sounds, reading, and writing, that we do so with children at the forefront of our decisions: matching the task to the child. Paula and I speak a lot about “taking the child’s lead,” and does this also hold true for reading? This is what we’re doing when we extend the letter learning that’s happening outside in the forest, and this is also what we’re doing, when we extend the writing interest that’s happening in the classroom.

Oral language is a key component of reading and writing, and it’s an important part of the literacy expectations in the Kindergarten Program Document. Our conversation in the car yesterday reminded me that I also want to focus more on the oral language opportunities that are happening in the classroom. I love documenting the authentic reading and writing that’s happening through play, but who’s missing in this documentation? Would a look at oral language help capture the learning of these other students, and what we can do to extend their learning. I’m becoming even more aware of what I see, hear, and document in the classroom, and what I don’t. I’m wondering if I need to make some changes. What do you think, and what do you do? Reading definitely matters, but when we watch those children that aren’t quite there yet, do we become even more aware of what we need to do to get them there? I think this car conversation helped me become attuned to some missing pieces.


STOP! Is that bathroom occupied?

Today I was reminded of just how amazing kids can be! Let me explain. For our current round of V.I.P., students were asked to create a sign that we could use in our indoor or outdoor classroom. Today’s V.I.P. created two signs, and he also thought about the best uses (and locations) for these signs. 

The funny part about this presentation is that B.’s mom mentioned to us that he thought the stoplight would be good for the bathroom. We all wondered about this. But as he was presenting today, and then after he shared his thinking, the stoplight really did seem to be best-suited for this bathroom area. 

Incredibly enough, after B. hung the stoplight by the bathroom, all of the stress around if the bathroom was occupied or empty, seemed to vanish. Children immediately knew to press the “green light” if it was free, and press the “red light” if they were going inside. A couple of children pressed the “yellow light” when they were washing their hands “because then it will be free really soon.”

Not only are children making sense of text — in this case a stoplight — as they use it, but the creator of this sign solved a big Kindergarten classroom problem: the bathroom conundrum. If you haven’t spent time in a Kindergarten classroom lately, you may not be aware of this problem, so let me explain. Three-, four-, and five-year-olds often struggle with knowing when to close and open the door of the bathroom. They leave the door open when it should be closed, and vice versa. Many children have become used to this now, and adjusted, but for some children, this is incredibly stressful! Some students don’t want to go to the bathroom without an adult keeping guard at the door for fear that somebody will walk in on them. But with the use of the stoplight, the problem disappeared! Students remembered to press the “green” and “red” buttons as needed, and both educators and fellow classmates knew if the bathroom was free or occupied. 

Seeing this problem solving unfold today made me realize that we can never underestimate what children can do! One of the frames in our Kindergarten Program Document is “Problem Solving and Innovating,” and I think that this stoplight usage today was a great example of both! As much as we, as parents and/or educators, may attempt to solve problems for kids, often, if given enough time, children have the best ideas of all. For 11 years, I’ve taught Kindergarten and dealt with these bathroom woes, but a working stoplight with a few instructions from our V.I.P., changed everything today. What have you learned from a child lately? Listen closely. If you’re like me, every day will lead to some new learning!


Turning Reading On Its Head!

I love how blogging provides an opportunity for discourse and a look at different perspectives. That said, often when we write blog posts, and provide questions to inspire debate — or even just conversation — there’s often a lot of agreement with the initial post. This is why I love what happened during dinner on Wednesday night.

After a jam-packed day of talking and sharing at Minds on Media, I was thrilled to go out for dinner with some fellow educators at the conference. I got to spend the night with Timothy, his amazing son, Max, who helped present on virtual reality at the Minds on Media event, and Michelle.

During our dinner conversation, we started to talk about reading. I made a comment that I’ve made many times beforethat it’s really sad to see the limited amount of “for pleasure” reading that happens nowadays. Very few children seem to read — and finish — books just for fun, and I continue to contemplate why this might be the case. Usually when I make a comment such as this one, fellow educators agree with me, but Michelle did something great on Wednesday night: she pushed back. She disagreed. 

Michelle gave an alternative perspective. She said that maybe the problem is how we view “reading.” We’re looking at reading as “finishing a book,” but what about the reading that happens in video gamesSome games require so much reading and thinking that completing a game would be equivalent to finishing an incredibly long book. And students need to read, and think about what they read, in order to meet with success, finish the game, and get the points. Michelle, Timothy, and Max all discussed different games where this is the case. As somebody that has very little knowledge of video games, I still cannot remember the names they mentioned, but they all agreed that the reading requirement was huge. 

Is this kind of reading good enough? I initially pushed back. Shouldn’t children have to read books? Aren’t they better? I shared my concerns about the amount of time in front of a screen — and I still have these concerns — but then Michelle mentioned how much reading is done on a screen. She’s right. As I spoke about the benefits of books, I thought about the great mystery novel waiting for me on my iPad that I was hoping to finish reading that night. This is the kind of reading that excites me, but maybe video game reading is the kind that excites other people: both adults and children.

I then started to think about the EQAO Reading Surveys that students complete in Grades 3 and 6. Often there are many children that articulate that they don’t like to read, but would these results change if children (and adults) considered video game reading under the “reading umbrella?” Even if these digital text forms are taken into account, I wonder how many children think about this when they complete these surveys. I wonder how many adults would consider “video game reading” as valuable reading time. Michelle asked me if this matters, and I think that it does.

My own concerns around video games and screen time impacted on how I viewed this kind of reading. This made me wonder though, what’s the message that I’m giving to kids? If children work through more difficult decoding tasks as part of these games, but struggle with some lower level texts, do they still see themselves as capable readers or do they see themselves as struggling? How do we perceive them? Michelle is making me wonder if our opinions on video games — and sometimes even our lack of understanding over how the games work and the skills needed to succeed at them — impacts on the message we give to kids and how children view themselves. 

Our deep conversation continued throughout dinner, and ended with Michelle sharing her thinking around media literacy as an “umbrella for all other literacies.” It’s really how we take in information and interpret the world. Michelle shared The Association For Media Literacy Website, which includes fantastic blog posts that really link reading, writing, oral communication, and media literacy. This made me think more about how I’ve addressed media literacy in the past. It was often an afterthought. Usually a quick viewing of a video with students or the creation of a poster, allowed me to assess this language strand. But what kind of disservice was I doing here for kids? Could a deeper, more critical look at media literacy, actually help address the reading goals that our Board is focused on achievingI wonder if it’s time to re-think reading and the impact that media has on reading AND on student success at reading. What do you think? Let’s extend this conversation that started on Wednesday night over The Falls!

A beautiful look at The Falls! They really do look like a dragon in the morning. #bit17

A post shared by Aviva (@avivaloca) on