Are the trees still growing up?

‘The trees are still growing up!’ Decades ago, a colleague, Bob Thomas, exclaimed at one of our meetings, “If you’re truly stressed and feeling overwhelmed, wake up each morning, look outside and ask yourself, ‘Are the trees still growing up?’” I used to smile in acknowledgement, but I never really understood what he was trying to say until April 2020 during the height of the pandemic’s first wave. This simple act of looking to nature for normalcy had a calming and steadying effect.

At this moment the world is far from normal. In Ontario, spring break is now a memory, students and educators have returned to on-line learning. Recently I wrote to my blog partner saying my heart was in conflict with my brain. My empathetic heart can only imagine how parents, students and educators are coping; my brain pushes me to continue to share insights from 30 years of making connections between assessment, instruction and reporting. So, after checking outside to see the sun shining and the dandelions starting to push through the green grass, I take a deep breath and return to writing the third post in the series Planning for Grading, hoping that a few gems of wisdom may support you in navigating this most unusual year.

In the first post of this series, Where do I go from here?, we affirmed that determining a grade is a thinking process over time rather than an event occurring a few days before the end of a reporting period. 

“I used to think that determining the grade happened just before report card time. Now I am thinking that the process begins with proactive planning at the beginning [of a sequence of learning.]”

Educator reflection, Assessment Inquiry UCDSB, 2017

Recall the components of the process in order to determine a grade:  

  • Visualizing and planning where you want the learning to go;
  • Organizing, gathering and monitoring evidence of learning;  
  • Selecting relevant data that accurately reflects students’ growth over time;
  • Analyzing trends and patterns; 
  • Interpreting the trends and applying professional judgment.

Our second post, Are you a planner or a pantser?, describes the thinking process of intentionally planning for grading. As we continue to ponder the question, ‘How will planning for grading at the beginning of a reporting period support my ability to provide a fair and accurate summary of the learning at the end of the reporting period?’, this third post provides some ideas on how to organize, gather and monitor evidence of learning in real time.

Engaging the organizer in you

You have a vision of where you want the learning to go. Now you need to develop the tools and strategies to allow you and your students to be able to capture evidence of their learning as it is happening.   

  • How might we (the students and I) organize and plan to manage evidence of learning over time?
  • How might we capture and monitor the learning while it is happening?

Organizing for Grading: Going Deeper 

Organizing and managing evidence of learning for a class of students can quickly become an overwhelming task. The right tools and strategies will help! The assessment evidence that is documented for each student will consist of the actual product or record of the learning (e.g. tasks, performances, things that the learner says, does, and writes) as well as the feedback, score or grade that is assigned to each assessment. For a full picture of the learning, you’ll need an efficient way to organize both of these kinds of evidence.

For the feedback, scores and grades, you’ll want an organizer that will support your understanding of what students know and can do, so that trends and patterns will become evident as you and your students monitor their learning. Here are some things to consider when designing a tracking template:

  • Organize a tracking template by big ideas/overall expectations aligned to related learning goals:
  • Envision how learning experiences will generate a variety of assessment data;
  • Provide a place to record assessments and dates;
  • Identify the purpose of each assessment: assessment for, as and of learning;
  • Provide a place for anecdotal notes documenting learning from conversations and observations, learning skills and work habits, etc.;
  • Decide whether the tracking template will relate to the whole class or to individual learners.

Capturing artefacts of learning as well as the assessment information related to them will help communicate with learners and parents about the learning, and can make visible the learner’s areas of strength, focus for improvement, and growth over time.  

Here are some considerations for how you and your learners might capture and monitor the learning:

  • Identify how the use of a portfolio or a digital learning management system can support capturing and monitoring artefacts of learning over time; 
  • Engage students in gathering and compiling their own evidence of learning based on success criteria;
  • Establish a monitoring routine where learners are taught to document and reflect on their learning, and given time to do so;
  • Have students reflect on whether there is sufficient evidence to show their learning for each big idea/overall expectation; if not, work out a process whereby they can request additional opportunities;
  • Develop a process where students can indicate readiness to demonstrate their learning.

What might this look like?

Follow the thinking of a grade 8 teacher of Science, Math and Language returning to a virtual setting as they apply these considerations to their practice. 

“There isn’t much time left in this school year but I am clear in my mind where I want the learning to go. I want students to make sense of this crazy year through an investigation of how systems work together (Grade 8 Science, Understanding Structures and Mechanisms, Systems in Action).

The template I’ve designed to organize and capture the learning continues to evolve. I’ve copied the three big ideas from the science curriculum and made the connection to big ideas and overall expectations in mathematics and language, and have used these as my main organizers for capturing the evidence of learning. My template also has a place for the learning goals that will be foundational to learning over the next few weeks.

As my students and I gather evidence over time, I will record the results in my template, listing each assessment, its purpose (AfL, AaL or AoL), and the scores. I plan to record the scores as levels, so that it will be easier to monitor progress over time.

I’ve decided to keep a separate record for each learner so that I can include space to make anecdotal notes about their Learning Skills and Work Habits, and record evidence that I gather through conversations and observations. Also, there is space to record significant strengths and areas for improvement when regularly conferencing with learners as learning progresses.

Here’s the tracking template I’ve come up with so far:

Sample Tracking Template

* view this template

I’ve started a list of possible success criteria. I plan on sharing learning goals with students and co-constructing success criteria. I know it is worth the time and effort. I will use the co-constructed criteria and insert these into checklists or other assessment tools as needed (e.g. a single point rubric) to encourage self assessment and provide opportunities for feedback.Working from home, it’s even more important that students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them.

I’ve planned instructional strategies that will result in a variety of assessment information and will support me in making instructional decisions [i.e. assessment for learning]. I’ll ask students to create a concept page showing me what they already know about how systems work then, periodically, I’ll ask them to reflect on their learning [assessment as learning] to add or delete ideas from this page. At the end of the unit I will ask students to talk to me about their initial ideas with what they have learned. This conversation coupled with the concept page artefact will help me judge their understanding [assessment of learning].

This template will ensure I have evidence at reporting time, but will also help me, and my students, to track learning over time. I’m planning to protect some time to observe and talk with students about what they are learning. We will anchor our conversations by applying success criteria to the artefacts (eg. images, videos, documents) they are saving in their digital portfolios. I’ll also carve out time for myself to type up anecdotal notes. From these notes, in preparation for writing report cards comments in June, I will pinpoint and record significant strengths and areas of improvement throughout the term. Although it will take some extra time during the term, this will definitely be a time saver for me when it comes time to prepare for reporting.”

How does organizing for grading help? 

It all comes down to organizing your way to success. Preparing a pathway to understanding begins with you, the educator. Having a clear vision, drawing from curriculum and relevant life scenarios, then designing or choosing tools to capture the learning in real time defines your role. The burden of managing and documenting learning should not rest uniquely on your shoulders. Engaging students in the assessment process by working alongside each other to describe success requires intentional planning and organization. After all ‘we are all in this together’ (in more than one way!) Stay safe; stay healthy! Keep learning!

One last thought and a call to action: Share your organizational strategies with us using the comment box below. What has worked well for you in the past? What strategy have you tried this year that will become a ‘keeper’? 

Brookhart, S. (2017). How to Use Grading to Improve Learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

EOCCC. (2013)., Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus: Growing Success for Students in Catholic Schools, A support document for the implementation of Growing Success:  Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools, First Edition covering Grades 1 to 12, p.72-73


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