week 3, part 2: what’s my mark??

When I started teaching I gave very little thought to my assessment practices. I gave exams and my students wrote papers, and occasionally I assigned a project of some sort. I DID lots of projects and creative things in class, but I evaluated the traditional tasks. That was just what you did. In hindsight, it reflected a highly behaviourist theory of knowledge, an instructivist centred practice. I did focus my assessment on the outcomes, but students needed to reflect the knowledge that I transmitted to them. If their knowledge was different from the knowledge I was expecting, the answer was wrong. Again, my initial practice was so simple, and lacked thought and reflection. With the guidance of mentoring colleagues and further education, my pedagogy quickly changed. The choice I made at the time suggested that the teacher was the sole holder of knowledge. 

My assessment practices now mirror the change in my instructional strategies. I would consider myself now much more of a constructivist in my instructional design and so my assessments  mirror this. For example, I use learning contracts, which I wrote about in my last post. I have noticed that they do focus the students on assessments for learning rather than looking ahead to that all important summative mark. And because students have so much more choice in a learning contract, they have choice in their assessment tools as well. Learning contracts do pose some challenges for the practical elements of reporting, however, as they are designed for formative assessment over a long period of time, and then one final summative mark. So, it becomes a little onerous for the teacher to report regularly via the LMS so parents can see how students are doing before that final mark is entered. Our school and division asks that we update marks every two weeks, with a specific number of assessments over the course of the semester. However, inputting formative assessments into the LMS doesn’t impact the mark and so parents are sometimes unaware of how their student is actually doing because they don’t read the comments in the formative column — they only look for numbers.  I do assess so much more formatively than I used to, and unfortunately, parents don’t always appreciate that feedback as much as the summative assessment. In terms of my formative assessments, I did appreciate that the assessment group offered some tools that I had not heard of, and it was also reassuring to see the study conducted on effectiveness of these tools: “Plickers is an effective tool in aiding
the learning process.” As a classroom teacher I can see the effectiveness of these tech tools in formative assessment, but it is comforting to have the credibility of a study to back up what you think you know.

In the past three years as I’ve become a part of a teaching team that integrates ELA and the arts, I have been challenged multiple times to rethink the way students can demonstrate English outcomes. While some of the writing outcomes still need to be fairly prescriptive – after all there are a limited number of ways you can interpret “compose a 1500 word inquiry paper using external sources” – my team has definitely forced me to think about the way I design and assess other ELA outcomes, especially ones that are not necessarily written. 

Take, for example, one ELA A30 outcome: “Identify the various elements of style used in First Nations, Métis, Saskatchewan, and Canadian texts, and explain how the elements help communicate meaning and enhance the effectiveness of the texts.” I would typically interpret this outcome by reading a poem or short story or novel and breaking down the literary elements that work together to suggest the meaning of the work as a whole. So, we might look at narrative voice, author’s style, etc. and then discuss how these elements impact the whole work. My arts team suggested that we view “text” in a broader context, and do the same process for a dance or a work of art. The skills are parallel – you look at a piece of art, you examine the techniques and elements that work together to create a specific effect. Honestly, at first this was hard for me as it felt like I was somehow slacking, or not being rigorous enough in reading “real” texts – the written word. But as I started to work through these same formative assessments using fine art texts I noticed that we were using the exact same critical thinking skills that we use in analysing written texts. In fact, the two styles of text very much complement each other in terms of the analysis they engender. 


This also brought me to a place of self reflection where I needed to analyze why I privilege the written word over other types of texts. This privilege is certainly reflected in my assessment weighting. Of course, much of the English curriculum directs what we privilege in our assessment, and I’m not trying to devalue the written word. What I am trying to do is trouble how I view the colonialist structure of the curriculum. Why does a formal spoken presentation generate so much more page space than the informal narrative style of storytelling, and thus demand more marks attached to it? These are the questions that I now consider as a result of being a part of a team, and expanding my own pedagogical view. I would say that now, as a result of this class, I have the words to attach to some of these changing beliefs. In 20+ years of teaching, I haven’t studied the theories of knowledge. I’m sure I probably did in my first ed degree, but I was young and stupid and didn’t care about such things. I just wanted to talk to kids. To have the vocabulary to attach to the changes in my pedagogy over the years causes me to think again about my current practice.

Author: Janeen Clark

I am a teacher with Regina Public Schools in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Primarily I teach ELA and Fine Arts, and I am a part of Balfour Arts Collective.

6 thoughts on “week 3, part 2: what’s my mark??”

  1. Janeen,
    Thanks for sharing your process through assessment over your career. I would shame myself for some of the things I did at the beginning of my career because I didn’t know better. Having a purpose behind the way we deliver assessment is so important. I love the questions you ask yourself now around assessment. Decolonizing education is a long process that starts with us unlearning ideas that have been engrained so deeply. I have been enjoying the fact that I can display my learning in alternative ways during my summer courses. This is something I have also been doing within my classroom and want to explore more moving forward.
    I’ve been enjoying learning from you and with you!
    Christina

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  2. Wow! I so appreciated your honesty and sharing your experiences during your career. Like you, I look back on some of my assessment practices earlier on in my career and cringe thinking about it. Was it what we were to do at the time? Yes, but looking back on it doesn’t make it any easier thinking about it. I think there is always room for growth and learning when it comes to assessment, and what works a group of kiddos may not even work with another, let alone teacher to teacher or school to school. There is a lot that goes into assessment practices and how we implement them. I also really enjoyed that you spoke about the academy teaching and how that looks like, and how you have such a great team. I think that the collaboration piece is so critical. Not only does it hold people accountable, but it really gives you a sense of belonging and support that can be missing at times. The planning and creating together is also pretty cool! As always, I loved reading your post and learning more about you and your experiences.

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  3. Hi Janeen, thank-you so much for you response on assessment. Assessment is definitely something that I struggle with in the classroom because it is so strongly rooted in our philosophies, lived experiences and expectations of others. I appreciate how you mentioned that parents are sometimes not appreciative of the formative feedback that we provide. The mindset of that summative mark is still very much something that parents are looking for because that is all they know from their schooling. It can be difficult to shift the mindset from summative marks to the progression of learning especially in the middle year grades. I want to prepare them for high school marking schemes with percentages while at the same time showing my students they can progress in their ELA skills throughout the entire school year instead of just slapping a grade onto an outcome and calling it a day. I have to agree with you that having the vocabulary words to attach to new beliefs around assessment is the first step to changing the narrative regarding the expectations of assessment in the future.

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  4. Janeen,

    I love reading your reflections. After reading this last post, you seem too critical of your prior teaching experiences. As a former student of yours, I have nothing but the highest praise for the way you conducted yourself and the connections you made with your students. I am still close to a few of the students you taught, and once I informed them that I was taking a course with you, they beamed with excitement and reminisced about terrific experiences they had with you as their teacher.

    After reading your response, it is incredible to see how much you have grown and adapted as an educator. Balfour Collegiate is fortunate to have someone as special as you working there. Keep up the great work!

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  5. Janeen, your statement “I DID lots of projects and creative things in class, but I evaluated the traditional tasks” reminded me of something Kelly wrote in her post. When she first started teaching she assessed based on what others were doing. She was following the dominant assessment strategies and with time evolved to find her way of meaningful assessment. I noticed the same trend in your assessment and instructional practices and I wonder how we can model this to new/mid career/seasoned teachers and encourage their voices to be shared at the table when naming and integrating best practices?

    NOW. . this line: “What I am trying to do is trouble how I view the colonialist structure of the curriculum”. Deep breath (that’s me needing one). This line, it struck me to my core. With questions like that, teachers like you who care and walk the walk, with colleagues who have us expand our perspectives of who benefits with all decisions like what the curriculum asks of us and how discourses are prioritized and “graded” I know we will shift our best practices moving towards a future that centers diverse voices using critical thinking and reflection. Your students and school community are so lucky to have someone on this train moving towards education that is aware, messy and disruptive!

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  6. This is a topic that I struggle with. Some of the best work I receive from students is from more open-ended projects, but despite going over the rubric with students, at the end of the day I have to assign it a number. I’ve considered making formative tasks a category unto itself in our grading software. The assignment would have a mark/feedback but would not actually impact that student’s overall mark in the course. This seems fair to me, but then what is the motivation for the student to so the assignment. Often teachers hear “is this for marks?” — what if it’s just practice? What if it’s just to feedback to see how you’re doing before we tackle that big essay?

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