Supporting Students’ Agency – Take Two!

Last year, was the first year in my career as an educator where I tried to my best to respect and support my students as agentic learners. There were many successes, many frustrations and a whole lot of learning. This year I am it again! Hoping to continue to challenge and change my own beliefs and practices and hopefully do a better job respecting and supporting my students’ agency.

This year I have changed schools and joined a team of like-minded educators, who are also interested in re-thinking education, pushing the boundaries of “doing school” and innovating the PYP. Our initiative is called Studio 5 and it has been amazing to be a part of it so far.

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We are in the process of organizing ourselves so we can share, in detail, what we are doing, why we are doing it – and the part that is usually most appreciated by teachers – how we are doing it. When that blog is up and running I will be sure to share the link here.

For now, I just wanted to take some time for myself to reflect – What approaches have I kept from last year… What have I changed and improved… What new things have I tried… and most importantly how it’s all been going so far.

Morning Cafes

Each morning is a slow start to the day – meaning students can come up to class any time they like between 7:45 and 8:15. During this time all 4 homerooms are open and offer something different and the students roam freely from room to room, building, creating, playing and enjoying each other’s company.

Student Written Rights and Responsibilities

Using the Visible Thinking Routine “Growing Definition” students came up with a list of rights for the time they spend at school.

Student Voice

Providing lots of opportunity for students to voice their thoughts and opinions including using the Visible Thinking Routine “Compass Points” to collect their needs, worries, excitements and suggestions from the first day of school; having an ongoing place in the room for students to document problems, questions and ideas; asking students to complete surveys with honest feelings about school, learning and themselves.

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Student-Planned “Bonding Day”

At the beginning of the year, each grade attends a “Bonding Day” to help students and teachers get to know one another and begin to build a strong sense of community. Instead of teachers planning and running this day for the students, the students planned and ran this day for themselves. This involved researching activities, putting the plans together, testing out their games on each other and their parents, receiving/analyzing/actioning feedback from multiple sources, advertising their game and finally -when the day came – running their activity.

Re-designing the Learning Space

Since we are trying to break through the typical notion of “my homeroom” and create a collaborative culture where all Studio 5 students are learning and working together, instead of having students set up their own classroom, we had the entire Studio 5 student body re-design the whole Studio 5 area. This required having students really understand the “why” of having them design their own learning space as well as having some interesting discussions on planning and making decisions on behalf of a large group of people. In order to make this happen, students connected with others across the grade who shared a similar interest, collaboratively conducted research and collected data, put together a video proposal on Flipgrid and if they received majority support from the community they could put their plan into action.

Inquiring into Learning

We used the Frayer model to tune into what we thought “learning” meant, then we used the process of “Growing Definition” to come up with a shared understanding of what “learning” means to us. We used this definition to create criteria to help us know that learning has happened (can be seen below along the right side of the day plan template). We also spent time thinking about how learning happens and who we are as learners. Finally we “looked for learning” by identifying the learning that had happened over the past weeks – even if we weren’t aware of it at the time.

Building a Culture of Initiative (Not Permission)

I was also cautious not to quash curiosity and any initiative my students were taking to pursue a curiosity or interest. Whether it was building, designing, figuring out if a lime could power a light or how best to make a wad of clay stick to a glass wall… I tried not to stop them or stand in their way.

Planning Their Own Day

I started having students plan their own day the same as I had done last year by giving them a blank template that had the timings of periods and empty boxes. Thanks to collaboration and amazing team members, I was able to fine tune and improve this process. I started to use the MOSCOW method to help students see different priorities for the day and I amended the day plan template to build in space for not only what they were doing, but also why and how. One of the best improvements to the day planning process and template was building in a focus on ATL skill development.

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Inquiring into Reflection

In order to help students get to know themselves as reflective learners, and to become more aware of their reflective preferences, we discussed and experimented with many different approaches to “how” we can reflect as well as “what” we can reflect about. From here students will (hopefully) be able to make informed choices each day when reflecting on their learning. Students are also working towards using their daily reflections to inform the choices they make the following day when completing their day plans.

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C.A.R. Time

The first period and last period everyday is “C.A.R. time” where students are supported by a learning advisor to “Choose. Act. Reflect”. The groups are small enough that the advisor can meet with each student in the morning to offer advice on planning their day and again in the afternoon to encourage deep and meaningful reflections about the day.

Student-Led Workshops

In our Studio 5 model it was important to us that students felt empowered to lead their own workshops for other students. In order to get this process started, students first used the “Gradual Increase of Independence” to reflect on things they can do independently, as well as things they would need to be taught, helped with and things they could teach others. These reflections were then shared in a central place so students could start to see both workshops they might want to offer and workshops they might want to participate in. From there students took initiative to plan, advertise and facilitate workshops on a range of topics.

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Optional Teacher Led Workshops

As much as we wanted students to be empowered to lead their own learning, we also wanted to make sure we were a part of their learning too! So in attempt to move away from the typical mandatory, full class lesson model, we began to offer optional workshops that any student – regardless of which homeroom they were in – could sign up to attend. Workshops ranged from read alouds, to creative writing, to math concepts to tech skills.

Building a Culture of Passionate Readers and Writers

In our Studio 5 model it is important that students are developing their literacy skills – but we want to be careful that this does not infringe on their agency as learners. So we have been focusing more on creating a culture of passionate readers and writers – with the help of advice from blogger Pernille Ripp – focusing on what we can do to help them want to read and write. We try to make books visible, accessible and valued; we encourage students to use and enjoy the beautiful school library; we ensure space for students to share book recommendations with one another; we encourage reading at any point in the day; we invite students to become reading buddies for younger students; and we provide options and opportunities for practical and creative use of language.

Developing Assessment Capable Students

In order for students to be able to lead their learning, they must have access to all the usual behind-the-scenes process teachers engage in. For our first stand-alone math unit we wanted to support students in not only understanding what is expected to be learned by the end of the unit, but also how they could figure out what they may already know. We supported the students in using the “Gradual Increase of Independence” to self-assess where they thought they were for each math learning outcome. But more importantly, we discussed the difference between thinking you know something and being sure that you know something. We discussed the role of providing evidence and gathering feedback from experts to ensure you are on the right track. Some students decided to create a Google Slides presentation to house their evidence and others preferred to collect their evidence in a notebook. Some students used a teacher as an expert, others used an older sibling, parent or peer. As students received feedback from their experts, many of them made changes to the placement of the learning outcomes along the Gradual Increase of Independence.

Parent Voice

Similar to ensuring that students feel their voice is heard and valued, it is equally important to ensure that parents feel their voice is also heard and valued. Sending home a Google form was an amazing way to better understand their child, their family and their perspective on the purpose of school.

Student-Written Reports

I am so excited that our administration supports the idea that if students are truly owning their learning, they should be the ones to write their evaluation of learning report. To help them in this process, we used the Visible Thinking Routine “Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate”. First we had students reflect on everything they had done in the Who We Are unit, then we had them think about how those learning experience helped them develop two self-management and two social skills as well as how those experiences contributed to their understanding of “Who We Are”. From there, students used their concept map to reflect on questions in a google form. Next week, students will then turn these responses into a cohesive paragraph that will be used as their official written report for the Who We Are unit.

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My reflections…

  • it has been amazing to be surrounded by like-minded educators who are also striving to respect and support students’ agency during their time at school
  • approaching these initiatives as a grade level, as opposed to a single class has provided much more opportunity for students
  • having an administrative team and head of school with a similar vision has helped to alleviate some of the fears associated with innovating and taking risks in the classroom
  • letting go of exactly what I did last year has been hard, but the growth and progress from letting go and being open to my team’s ideas and suggestions has been amazing
  • the days are so enjoyable – the vibe is relaxed and free; there is always a buzz in the air filled with conversation and laughter; students and teachers are interacting as partners in the learning process; it all feels very humane
  • the parents have been amazing allies in this process, providing lots of supportive feedback about what we are trying to do and how it has been a positive experience for their child
  • there is still so much preventing us from being able to truly support students as agentic learners – practices and procedures deeply embedded in the current paradigm of schooling limit the type of true agentic environment we dream of
  • I am still a learner… I have much to learn, unlearn and re-learn about how best to work within a system and yet at the same time push the limits of that system

What is your feedback about what we have been trying so far?

How can we continue to improve as PYP teachers in support of student agency?

How have you been respecting and supporting your students as agentic learners?

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Stay Critical, Not Cynical

A few weekends ago I was at a conference and something said by the key note speaker – Sir Kevan Collins – really stuck with me.

He was talking about our school and all the amazing, progressive, innovative things we are doing… which got us all proud and perked up!

And then he asked us:

How will you be sure that that what you are trying to accomplish, is actually being accomplished? How will you know if what you’re doing is “working”? 

And then you could feel our collective consciousness pull back in contemplation.

This was especially impactful for me, as I had just joined the school and the Studio 5 initiative. This meant I was part of a specifically experimental team, trying to challenge the traditional model of school in pursuit of more student-directed, agentic learning.

How were we going to know if what we were trying to accomplish was actually being accomplished!? How could we be sure that our crazy experiment was working?

Obviously the answer was clear – and it was the point he was building towards in his address – with putting on the hat of risk-taker and innovator, also comes the need to put on the hat of researcher.

Maybe not capital R, published-in-a-scholarly-peer-edited-journal, “Research”, but definitely the small r, how-will-we-know-and-measure-the-effects-of-our-innovation, “research”.

I’m not new to the practice of educational research. I completed a major research project during my MEd last year. But that felt different. That was research mandated by my university, required by my coursework and necessary in order to receive my degree. It was research I had to do… so I did it.

This is also research I feel I have to do, but for totally different reasons. I want to know the effect of our our innovation. I want to document and share the potential impact of our model with other educators. I want to know, for myself as a risk-taker, if I’m accomplishing what I am trying to accomplish.

When it came to our innovations, Sir Kevan Collins urged us not to be skeptical, but to be cynical. And although I agreed with the heart of his message, I did not agree with his word choice here. I think both words have a negative connotation — neither capture the eternal optimism and hope I feel about the risks I am taking with my team this year. I don’t feel I need to stop believing in what I am doing in order to be able to conduct valid, reliable research.

So this year, I will pull out, dust off and re-fit my research hat… not because I have to… not because I am skeptical… not because I am cynical… but because amidst my dreams and hopes and passion for change I want to ensure I stay critical.

I have no idea where to start.

Wish me luck…

Assessment done with students, not to students

This year I have tried to approach assessment differently. I wanted my students to feel that assessment is something I do with them… not to them.

I have made many shifts in my assessment practices to try and accomplish this goal:

Discussions about assessment

As a class we discussed the difficulty of trying to measure a human’s learning and I shared that there are many different approaches to trying to figure out what a student has learned in school. We discussed a handful of approaches for measuring learning and then we tried each of them out within the context of our unit.

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Co-constructed success criteria

Instead of teachers sitting behind closed doors, deciding what ought to be learned by the end of a unit, I made those decisions collaborative with my students. I used the structure of growing definition where first students brainstorm on their own, then they combine ideas with a partner, then they merge thinking with another set of partners, then a foursome with a foursome and so on until the whole class builds a list together. Once their student list was created, I consulted our school curriculum documented and added any knowledge or concepts they might have left out. This list then became our success criteria that we used throughout the unit.

Student chosen summatives

Teachers and teaching teams spend hours, upon hours, discussing and trying to figure out how students can best show their learning at the end of a unit. This year, instead of choosing that choice for them, I handed that decision over to my students. When we approached the end of the unit, I would ask “How best can you share your learning from this unit?” Some students who felt most comfortable expressing themselves orally would submit a vlog or request a one-on-one conference, other students who felt they best expressed themselves in writing would submit a written text, and others who felt they could best express themselves visually would produce a mind map, or concept map or cartoon – some sort of visual to convey their new thinking and new knowledge.

Triangulation of perspectives

Oftentimes as teachers we are the only – and ultimate – voice of assessment. Sometimes we tokenistically invite self and peer assessment, but rarely are those assessments equally valued. So this year I wanted to take a flatter, more democratic approach to assessment. Whether it was diagnostic, formative or summative, we always followed the same three steps: first the student would assess themselves, next they would find a peer to offer their perspective, then purposefully last, I as the teacher would share my perspective. What they end up with, is three different perspectives… all equally valued.

  

Interchangeability of diagnostic, formatives and summatives

Instead of approaching diagnostic, formative and summative assessments as assessments that you do at the beginning, middle and end of a unit – I took a much more fluid approach. If a student did a diagnostic and demonstrated all the knowledge and skills that were expected they could decide to use that as their summative and then either choose to extend themselves in this area of continue with a personal inquiry of their choice – thus the diagnostic becomes the summative. If partway through the unit a student demonstrates the required knowledge and skills, then that formative can then become their summative and they would have the same choice of extending or free learning. And finally, on the “last day” of the unit if a student completed a summative and had not yet demonstrated the necessary knowledge and skills they could choose to continue to learn, and therefore turn that summative into a formative and re-take the summative at a later time when they felt ready.

Decision making conferences

When it came time to enter “final marks” into the report card, I would sit with each student individually and have a conversation about where they thought they were in their learning. They would look back at the assessment data and tools and share where they thought they were and then I would do the same. Together we would agree on a mark that we both felt comfortable putting on the report card.

Taking it to the next level…

All in all, it was a great change in practice! I think my students felt empowered to have a voice in their learning and in the measurement of their learning. I think students felt their perspectives were respected and valued. And on a personal level, it felt much more humane and much more like a partnership in supporting their learning journey!

Upon reflections from this year and visions for next year, here are a few ways that I would like to take the approach of ‘doing assessment with students’ even further:

Individualized success criteria 

I enjoyed the process of co-constructing success criteria with my students, but to take that further I would love to personalize that process even more and have students design their own individual success criteria. Flipping the question “What should we learn but the end of the unit?” more towards “What should I (or do I want to) learn by the end of the unit?” This would open up some great conversations with students about choosing how they might know they have been successful at learning something or acquiring new skills. Here is a blog post with an example of how one teacher approached this.

Beyond triangulation of perspectives

This year I think I did a pretty good job shifting the assessment power away from myself as a teacher, and equally distributing it between myself, the student and a peer. However, I would like to push that model further and perhaps figure out a way to include the perspective of parents, industry experts or community members. I don’t think it would have to be all 6 sources every time. I think there could be a lot of authentic learning in having students decide which assessment perspective is most helpful in a specific situation.

Student written report cards

The only part of the assessment process my students were kept out of this year was reporting. Moving forward I would love to see students take a more equal role in writing their own report cards. Here is a great blog post with some suggestions I hope to be able to follow in the future.

How do you ensure assessment is something done “with students” not “to students” in your classroom or school?

Student Agency vs. Reading Instruction

It is no secret that this year I have been trying to create a classroom culture that respects and supports’ my students’ agency in their journey as learners. One of my biggest challenges this year has been figuring out how traditional approaches to reading instruction can fit within a model designed to help students take back ownership of their own learning.

I’m currently completing my MEd capstone on student agency and in my research I came across a very provocative quote from Mary Chapman (an early learning expert at UBC) and I can’t seem to get it out of my mind:

“At the end of the day, if they don’t like reading and writing and they don’t do it unless they are forced to… what’s the point?” 

If my students only read and write when they are forced to read and write… what is the point, indeed.

So naturally one of my fundamental goals this year has been to create a culture of passionate readers and writers – with the help of much advice from Pernille Ripp. But moving from helping students learn to love reading… to helping students become better readers, is where I feel the waters start to get a little murky.

When I think about the commonly accepted approaches to helping students become better readers through the lens of student agency I begin to question some of our approaches. There are currenlty many common approaches to reading instruction under the microscope by many teachers – reading longs, mandated home reading programs, etc. – all of which I agree with. However, in addition to critically questioning these approaches, my learning tension tends to extend to other strategies for reading instruction – namely traditional approaches to guided reading.

When I think about guided reading through the lens of making students better readers I can see  benefits. But when I think about guided reading through the lens of student agency I can see red flags. In traditional approaches to guided reading the teacher chooses what, when, where, why and how the student reads. So I wonder, where is their voice and ownership in this activity? And how does this impact their love of reading?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not under the misconception that children magically learn to read and we as teachers don’t have a role in helping that to happen. But if I think back to the quote about students only reading when being forced to read, and how a lack of agency in the process likely contributes to this, then I begin to wonder…

How can we get the benefits of guided reading without sacrificing students’ agency in the process?

I have no magic answers, but I do have a few ideas about some possibilities….

I think a first step is shifting the culture of forced feedback to found feedback. Currently, we are giving students feedback about how to become better readers – whether they want that feedback or not. Which begs the question, how effective is unsolicited feedback. If we are telling students how to become better readers, and they don’t care – how much action is being taken based on that feedback? Again, don’t get me wrong I respect and recognize the neccessity and power of feedback in the learning process, I just wonder if there is a way to help students want to gather feedback, instead of just giving it to them.

I think order to create that culture of “gathering feedback” we need to start by asking the question “who owns the learning?” In a traditional approach to guided reading the teacher is doing the learning to the student. The locus of control rests with us as the teacher. We are making all the choices about why, what, how, when and where. The students merely shows up when we tell them to, reads what we tell them to, does what we tell them to and thinks about what we tell them to. They may be “active” in the sense that they are reading, speaking, thinking, and sharing, but they are not “agentic” in the sense of experiencing ownership over their own improvement as a reader. I think until this transfer of ownership occurs we can’t expect students to seek out feedback about how to improve.

I’m not saying scrap all approaches to reading instruction or stop guided reading altogether. I’m just saying that I think it’s time we reinvision these approaches. I think we need to be careful that our best intentions to create strong readers – aren’t creating strong readers… who only read when forced to. I think we as educators need to be asking questions like:

How can we empower students to know themselves as readers so they make informed choices about how they can improve?

How can we give ownership back to the students so that they are signing up to be part of a guided reading session?

How can we get the benefits of reading instruction without compromising student agency? 

How can we create better readers and writers without creating readers and writers who only read and write when forced to?

What if?

I started this year with a dream to build a fair, free, democratic classroom where students have agency over their own learning… and to be completely honest, it has been quite difficult. Most days I feel like I am trying to jam a round peg into a square hole. There are so many constraints and structures that run deep within the current system of school, that it has been difficult to circumvent them.

This year I have tried to change my practice to fit within the system, but I’m beginning to wonder if those goals are fully achievable without changing the system itself.

So I have begun to wonder…

What if curriculum, instead of being multiple pages with hundreds of bullets, was simply “find out where students are and help them move along”?

What if assessment, instead of being focused on achievement, measured and celebrated the amount of progress made by a student?

What if school goals, instead of being focused on an percentage increase of reading scores, focused on a percentage increase of love of reading?

What if reports, instead of being written solely by the teacher, were written collaboratively by the student, their family and the teacher?

What if timelines, instead of being based on pre-determined start and finish dates, were driven by students’ learning needs and interests?

What if grades, instead of ranking and labelling with letters, numbers and words, changed exclusively into feedback that advised students about how to improve and where to go next?

What if day plans, instead of being written by the teacher, were written by each student?

What if standardized tests, instead of measuring skills and knowledge, measured how much students enjoy school and find it beneficial to their life?

Sir Ken Robinson urges us that reform of the current system is not enough – it’s a complete learning revolution that is needed. Based on my experience this year I would have to agree. I think that making small shifts within the system is not enough, we as educators need to continue (or for some of us begin)  critically looking at and discussing what parts of the school system are harmful to or a hindrance of student learning. It’s time to stop talking about how best to jam a round peg in a square hole, and time to start talking about how to change the whole itself.

What revolutionary, systemic “what ifs” would you add to the list?

Throw out the day plans and follow your students 

Many educators today are faced with students who want to discuss nothing other than the US election… even in countries outside of America. My class was no different. So when one of my students asked “Can we spend some time today talking about the election?” I had two options.

1. Say no and offer an explanation about our lack of time due to assessments, report deadlines, and being behind in our unit…

Or

2. Throw out the day plans, clear the schedule and go for it.

I chose the latter. I told the students that if they were interested they could come participate in a class discussion about the US election. About 90% opted to be part of the discussion and the rest of the class followed along with their pre-planned schedule. I decided to take on the role of facilitator, to allow students to explore their own and each other’s perspectives and ideas, instead of listening to mine.

It was great on so many different levels:

From a social/emotional stand point…

My students had very strong emotions about the US election. This gave them a safe place to share that they were sad, worried, upset, nervous, and confused. There were moments of tears and moments of laughter – lots of big, genuine emotions… noticed, named and shared within the safe space of our classroom community.

From a learning stand point… 

We learned about democracy. We learned about the US electoral system. We learned about the US branches of government. We inquired into the composition of the house, the senate and the cabinet. We learned new words like “advisor”.  We learned about the different states in the US. We discussed concepts of power, influence, and prejudice.

From a critical thinking stand point…

We discussed the importance of reliable sources and recent information. We learned how to ask the very important question “how do you know that?”. We talked about facts, opinion,  bias, rumour and propaganda.  We compared sources of news (BBC, CNN, SnapChat, ,YouTube).

Students wondered if you could ever be sure about the reliability of a source. Students questioned whether the current electoral system was the most fair way to choose a president. Students challenged the notion of children not being able to vote. Students were curious as to why there can only be one president and why it can’t be a shared position.

From an international mindedness stand point…

Students compared the US electoral system to that of their home country – Canada, Portugal, Kuwait. Students explored the concept of open-mindedness. Students discussed the desire to learn more about their own country’s government. Students discussed international relations. Students explored the common humanity of all people, regardless of colour, culture of religion.

It was open. It was honest. It was amazing.

As educators, we often spend hours among hours trying to plan for learning that is significant, relevant, challenging and engaging… when often times the most significant, relevant, challenging and engaging learning is not something we plan for in advance, but instead something we need to listen for and notice.

And most importantly, when those moments of opportunity appear, we must be willing to throw out our day plans and follow our students.

A class misunderstood…

I knew this year was going to be hard. I knew that I wanted to take risks, innovate, and try new things. I knew that many people would have different perspectives and opinions about what I was doing. I knew that I would have to stand up for my beliefs, my philosophy and what was happening in the classroom. I knew that I would probably have to explain myself… justify myself… defend myself…

I just didn’t know my students would have to as well. 

Today one of my students was chatting with me at recess and sharing his frustration that many people think all we do is play.

“Miss, it is not okay that they think all we do is play all day because we do a lot of learning and they don’t think we do. It’s not fair.”

I tried to sympathize with his frustration and tell him that we can feel confident in the amazing learning that takes place in our class and that I know what it feels like to be misunderstood. The he told me something very interesting.

“Miss, it’s not only students who misunderstand us, it’s also teachers.”

… oh really!? Tell me more about that!

“I was walking to the library with myself and a teacher stopped me and asked where I was going. I told her I was going to the library. She asked my name. I told her. She asked who my teacher was and I told her. When she found out I was in Miss Taryn’s class, she asked if we actually ever do any learning in there. So I told her, yes we do so much learning. Then she asked what we were learning about it. I told her we were learning about relationships and perspectives. Then she asked if all we are learning about is relationships and perspectives how are we doing any math. So I told her were learning about perspectives and relationships in math. Like how everyone has a different perspective when solving  problem and that numbers and shapes are connected in many ways.”

Then a different student who was sitting close by chimed in…

“Yeah, the exact same thing happened to me! I was walking in the hall and a teacher stopped me and asked my name and my teacher. When they found out I was in Miss Taryn’s class they also asked if we ever did any learning. So I told her we do a lot of learning. She asked about what. I told her about relationships and perspectives. She asked if we were learning any knowledge. I told her we were learning so much knowledge like relationships that happen in nature, human relationships, perspectives in art, how technology affects relationships and more!”

I can’t remember a time where I felt more proud of my students. Not only are they able to understand our approach to learning, but they are able to advocate for it, and defend it! When confronted by a teacher, they were able to explain our concept-based approach to acquiring knowledge. They were able to point out the transdisciplinary way that we have been approaching math and literacy. And most importantly they were able to be critical thinkers and confidently share an opinion different from an authority figure in a respectful, but self-assued way.

They might not get us…. but we definitely get us!

The initial frustration at being misunderstood by students and teachers has turned into a class inside-joke. Now my students kid with one another and me by saying  “we don’t learn  anything”, “no learning in Miss Taryn’s class”, “all we do is play all day”.

The cherry on top (as if it could get any better!) was a student who came up to me after this conversation and said…

“Miss I’ve been thinking. What are the point of grades? They are just letters and numbers – but it’s so hard to make a letter or number that measures our learning. I think I’m going to write a blog post about it to share my perspective on this issue.”

My school’s mission focuses on creating critical thinkers and contributing world citizens. Check and check.

… even if that comes at the cost of being misunderstood and misrepresented…

we can take it.