Interview Reflections: The Most Important Question

It’s the time of year when parent-teacher interviews are occurring, and as a planning time teacher I still find it odd that I won’t be conducting any unless at the request of a parent as I don’t have a homeroom. This period was always an exciting albeit nervous experience for me and I imagine many of the parents and guardians I have spoken to over the years.

When I think of interviews, I think of the multiple conversations that have come out of that night that stick in my mind. I remember biting my tongue as some parents talked of goals that I thought were not necessarily unattainable, but perhaps not indicative of their child’s personality or talents. I fondly recall seeing ‘repeat customers’ and talking about how similar or different the younger sibling was and discussing the older child’s progress in middle school. I even had one interview where the parent asked me for bunny care tips as she found out I also had a rabbit!

It took me a few times, but I eventually got the idea to always begin with the same question. Something I thought was a perfect springboard to discussing the progress during the year:

“How is your child enjoying the class?” or “How do you like the class?”

So much of the report card is spent discussing grades, but to me the child’s happiness is paramount to their success. With this question, I am able to find out info around their rapport with me, concerns and home, or conflicts with peers. Then I try my best to work with the staff to make things work before they leave my class in June. It may be true that school isn’t the favourite for most kids, but given these uncertain times, asking for the child’s state of mind regarding coming into the building every day can point to a lot of reflection regarding the starting point for learning skills and general well-being.

Children were not really encouraged to attend interviews when I was in school, and I wonder as well what I might have said with my parents during my time. But I think a lot of teachers would be pleased to know that I am following in their footsteps.

Survival tips

I am not talkative. I will share my voice in writing though. Perhaps it is more a function of selective participation rather than voluntary silence. Writing provides me with some permanence, albeit only in pixels, as much as it does a chance to reflect on the words I do choose to share. Instead of my mouth going off like a cannon. I can chew on my words a bit more before spilling my thoughts on a page. In short, it has been quite a month and if I am going to survive the next 9, I will need to get some things off my mind.

Most of this September felt like driving in the dark of night and every oncoming car had its highbeams on. I found it hard to see where I’m going and it hurts. With so much time staring at a screen now, the additional online professional learning is blurring my vision and I am starting to develop an aversion to screen time. It has me thinking twice about how much I want to integrate tech in my classroom right now too. 

I see your high beams are on, but do you have to drive in my lane?

I have been trying to make sense of the way the government ghosted education, the rising COVID case numbers in schools, and the unconscionable decisions being made by many school boards regarding hybrid learning

This is also what hurts:

Of course it has been completely safe to go back to school this year even though cases are nearly 5 times higher than September 2020.
We have HEPA filters in every classroom. Mine must be hidden somewhere.

Of course the hybrid model will work for families instead of dedicated Elementary Virtual Schools. “Teachers will figure it out.”
We have figured it out by the way. It sucks.

Of course the glaring gaps in equity and decisions made “for all” only benefit the privileged who have the wherewithall and choice as to whether their child stays home or not.
Here’s a terrible camera and headset so you can syncronously miss being present in your physical and digital classrooms. 

It is very clear that the “brain trust” tasked with these decisions declared, “We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas.” I can’t shake these questions: When was the last time any system leaders taught an online class on a daily basis? Where is their compassion, consideration, or consultation with current classroom educators? Why in good conscience would anyone with mental health as a pillar in their foundation allow this to happen? How did they lose their way so completely at the expense of their most valuable resources? It is dizzying. 

How about the feeling of knowing you are going to pass out just before passing out? That’s how it felt when the news of having to teach the hybrid model came down from the folx above. This decisive disconnect was dropped on us without a single consideration of the trauma it would cause in and out of classrooms. It was at that moment when I went into survival mode. I needed to “guard my heart and mind” from diving into dark spaces as it was very clear that no one else was going to do it for me. 

This realization got me thinking about what I needed to do to keep a grasp on my sanity and professionalism in order to do my job in these conditions. Here is what I have come up with so far:
1. Guard your heart and mind. Don’t get caught up in actions and activities that will only stretch you thinner. It’s okay to let someone else lead a meeting or division, run a club (when permitted), or welcome a student teacher. You are allowed to focus on you first. 

2. Resist through rest. I saw this in a tweet from @MsDhillon6A and it really resonated with me. Educators are notorious for taking on too much. We are doers and getters of things done, but we also need to pace ourselves. Teaching is a marathon not a sprint. It takes stamina and determination to maintain a steady pace. The 2021-22 school year is a great time to learn to say no and to let go of extra activities that drain the life out of your practice, body, and spirit.

3. Set boundaries with colleagues, students, admin, and families. There is nothing wrong with having office hours from 8 until 5 pm Monday to Friday. That email reply from the weekend will wait until Monday. You deserve work-life balance not work-work-life imbalance. 

4. Do something for yourself. Take a personal mental health day. Practice good sleep hygiene. Walk, yoga, play pickle ball, or call an old friend who you used to work with to touch base. I like to read, cook, and work on my not so secret goal to be a stand up comedian. As a primary teacher on occasion, I am used to tough crowds so I am half way there. 
And finally, 

5. Don’t silo yourself away. You do not have to go through any of this alone. Share your frustrations, joys, ups, and downs. It is another year unlike any other. Teachers need to know that there are tens of thousands cheering for each other to make it through the day in the service of our students. Tag me anytime via Twitter  if you are having a rough day and need to share. Watch how the #onted family is there to rally and offer kind words of support. 

I’m going to listen to Gloria Gaynor now? Feel free to join me.


Please note: ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.

ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

Top Ten Tips for Attending Virtual Professional Learning for Educators

So much learning is happening virtually now and it is amazing.  I recently attended a virtual EdTech Conference in Nebraska!  This is an opportunity I never would have been able to take advantage of before the pandemic.  I have attended a number of virtual conferences during COVID and I’ve also organized and facilitated virtual learning over the last year and it is a different way to get your learn on!

In order to really get the most out of Virtual Professional Learning here are my go-to suggestions:

  1.  Organize your time and your conference selections in advance.  If there are many choices, take the time to do the research on the session and on the presenter. If there are digital links for presentations on the conference site to add into a digital tote-do it before your sessions so that you aren’t tempted to leave the session in order to do so.  Thank you ISTE LIVE 21  for the digital tote feature!
  2. Be PRESENT.  Be mindful and intentional about your learning.  If it isn’t the kind of learning that you were expecting, hop over to another session otherwise you’ll be resentful of wasted time and learning.
  3. Put your “out of office” email message on and don’t check your email.  If you were in an in-person setting, checking your email would be rude. This is time for your learning so treasure and protect that time.
  4. When possible attend LIVE sessions not asynchronous or previously recorded sessions.  LIVE sessions have opportunities to engage and ask questions which makes the learning is deeper.
  5. Have a PLP (Professional Learning Partner) or two! No one really wants to go to a conference by themselves. Some of the best learning takes place when you share what you learned in a session that your PLP wasn’t able to attend! You double the learning!
  6. Participate in the learning.  If there is a chat feature then put who you are and where you are from in the chat.  Ask questions, engage and connect.  This is where you grow your Professional Learning Network.  In a face to face conference you would sit down and meet new people.  Think of how you would engage with others in a real conference setting.
  7. TWEET! TWEET!  Get the conference hashtag, follow it, retweet and tweet about your learning and the presenters.  Follow those presenters and give them a shoutout. Take a picture of the slide that they are sharing and post it (without people’s faces and names in it.)  It is awesome as a facilitator to see the tweets afterwards.  It is timely feedback and motivational for the presenter.
  8. Take notes.  My PLPs and I recently collaborated on note taking using a Google Slide deck while attending a conference.  We pasted links, took screenshots and put notes of important information into the slide deck so we have the learning for later.
  9. Participate.  As a presenter, it isn’t nice to present to the empty boxes on Zoom or Webex. Just as in person, it is nice to see the reaction of the audience to pace yourself and to know that they are still with you! That being said, if you are eating or dealing with your dog or family or have decided to multi-task, leaving your camera on can be distracting for the participants and the presenter.  If there is a question asked in the chat, respond! There is nothing like being a presenter left hanging.  If there is a poll, a word cloud, a Jamboard,or a Kahoot, play along! The presenter created these things in order to make the presentation interactive for the adult learner.
  10.  Take Breaks.  Make sure you look carefully at the schedule (and the time zone) in order to plan your screen, water, coffee, bathroom, movement or snack breaks.

The most important thing to remember is that the presenters put time and effort to share their learning and expertise with you.  It is nerve-wracking to present to a group of educators.  Tech savvy people have tech issues too.  Give presenters grace and remember to thank them and provide feedback for their work and expertise.  They will appreciate it!


Student-led end of the year conferences

As we wind down towards the final report cards, I find myself wondering how I will be organizing my yearly student-led conferences. Each year on June 1st (or the first school day in June), I met with students one on one to discuss their upcoming final report. This gives students time to ask questions that relate to their final report. This year, I was wondering how I could run these conferences as a remote teacher (and having never met these students). I decided to use a sign up sheet with five minute intervals and then use breakout rooms for my interview spaces.

To introduce this activity, I told students that they would have the opportunity to ask questions about their upcoming report and to work towards improving some of their learning skills or doing some extra assignments to add to their lower marks. This is how the interviews with my grade sevens went:

  • Students created multiple questions to guide the interview such as:
    • What is my best learning skill?
    • What is a subject I should look for an extension in?
    • How can I bump up my math mark?
    • What subject should I look to participate the most in?
    • Am I lower than the class average in any subject?
    • Can I add to my grades in certain subjects or is it too late?
    • Are there any next steps you have for me?
    • How am I doing in health?
  • Students were given a personalized action plan which we worked together on, to come up with additional tasks that they could complete to improve their marks/ learning skills
  • Students were beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to bump up their lower marks
  • Students that had been idle for a while came to life!

All 30 student interviews took place yesterday. I emailed families to make them aware that their child had an interview on MS Teams and that they would have an opportunity to bump up their marks in time for their final reports. Parents were thankful for the opportunity and mentioned that they would encourage their child to work on these activities.

Today (the day after the interviews) I noticed a few students that had been silent for the past few months were starting to participate again. One student even led the discussions today in history, science and math. This is something that occurred as a result of a little encouragement and a private five minute discussion. Having students actively interested in their learning and the outcome is so important, especially in remote learning.

Student led interviews and feedback sessions are something that I was taught in my first placement as a teacher candidate. My associate teacher called over a student one at a time and let them see their “lower” mark and encouraged them to bump them up. It didn’t work for everyone but for some students, I noticed it gave them the extra drive and determination to finish the year on a positive note.

I know that it is already June but I wanted to make sure that students are not surprised when their reports come. I tried doing this in May in the past but I find June works best as reports are around the corner and students are looking to showcase their learning a few final times. I am so excited to get to some fun activities this month but I know these interviews can get students to really care about their final reports. This turns it into a working document rather than a piece of paper that students never care to read. They are proud to show their parents their areas of improvement and their marks rather than throwing it in the nearest garbage.

It is still early in June so you could try it out in your class and see how it works! Not everyone cares about their “marks” but for those that do, this is a powerful tool to motivate them even a little bit further.

Happy June everyone and enjoy your weekends 🙂

Going Gradeless in Elementary – Part 2

In my last post, I shared a little about the work that we’ve been doing in our classroom about taking a position and being able to effectively argue. Students have been learning to write argumentative essays and the importance of making sure that they offer supporting details to back up their positions. In this post, I will be sharing insights from students who believe that grades should be eliminated in Elementary schools. 

No to Grades

“Grades do not always show what a student is capable of.”

As the student read this essay, it brought tears to my eyes. It’s the end of May and if we haven’t already done them, we know that class placements are going to be underway very soon. During these placements, students are often reduced to the level given by their current teacher and it’s something that is passed on to the next. 

While sharing her experiences in Math, this student stated that there are times that she just doesn’t get the concept but having the opportunity to have someone pull up a chair and explain it has made all the difference to her. She’s capable and sometimes just in need of a little support. The mark on her report card doesn’t always reflect her in her entirety.  For her, specific feedback on what and how she can improve is important. From there, she can make those improvements and it also helps future teachers to see how they too might support her in her learning on an ongoing basis. For her, the learning skills portion of the report card is important because those are the skills that we should be focused on building, because the content will change over time and our access to the content will also evolve. 

“Grades are not good for mental health. They often make you feel stressed, which can lead to anxiety.”

This student shared that it’s stressful being a kid. Their bodies are changing and their brains are changing too. Managing physical and psychological changes, while having to pretend everything is ok at school is hard. Citing not wanting to worry people and the added stress of not being successful in school, because of your grades, is just too much. This student wonders if there are any studies that have gone into the impact that the stress of grades has on students. They were pretty interested in learning about the education system in Finland and wondered why more countries haven’t taken a similar approach to have a later start at school, more recess, and a lightened load with homework. 

As I read these essays, I realized just how much of an impact the pandemic has had on my students. While they’re on every day and handing in their assignments on time and with care, it really hasn’t been easy. Many are concerned about whether or not we will go back to in-person learning this year and what their transition to middle school will be like. Without answers, they’re left to wonder and that’s producing a significant amount of stress and anxiety on young people who we keep congratulating for their resilience. 

“Teacher comments, on the other hand, can help parents and students, by telling them how well a student is doing in class.”

It’s interesting how many students spoke about receiving quality feedback and opportunities to implement the feedback. Having feedback on a report card is great but it is also seen as somewhat final. Not until the next one, do they have the opportunity to see a change unless the feedback is ongoing. My students are also looking for honest feedback. Many have said that on report cards they have gotten Cs and when they have read the comments, they sound as though they met with success and yet for them, they know that it is still approaching success. 

This comment also speaks to the relationship between home and school and making sure that parents know how their child is doing along the way. For many, they said that they see the school year as a journey in learning and that to them, marks are somewhat final. They want and need to know how they are doing; how they are improving; and what still needs to be improved upon. 

The debate continues on the idea of going gradeless in Elementary. Even the students are divided in their opinions but it’s clear that the current system isn’t working effectively for all. We’ve heard a lot of talk of “reimagining”. Assessment and evaluation is just one area in education that needs further inspection and action for change. I’m hoping that we can move past the talk and into action.

Going Gradeless in Elementary – Part 1

As a class this past month, we have been learning about arguments and how to effectively write an argumentative essay.  From debating the importance of a digital detox to the role of social media in our lives, we’ve enjoyed arguing our positions on a variety of topics; understanding the importance of having supporting details to back up our positions. 

For one of our essays, students reflected on the idea of going gradeless in Elementary. After reading a couple of articles and watching a few videos, students were finally ready to pick their positions and set about organizing their ideas for their essays. Using a persuasion map, students reflected on the information presented and their own thoughts, ideas and experiences, and considered their 3 best reasons for their position. Once finished, they set about writing their essays and I was incredibly surprised by their positions. Many students actually supported the idea of keeping grades but suggested changes that should be made to render the grading system more effective. 

In this post, I will be sharing some of the insights of the students who believe that we should continue with grades in Elementary. In part 2, you’ll have the opportunity to hear the arguments from the other position. Hold on to your hats, these students had some incredible reasons either for or against our current grading system. 

Yes to Grades!

“Good grades lead to scholarships and opportunities for post secondary education.” 

When I hear young students – I teach 10- and 11-year-olds – talking about scholarships and post-secondary education, it always blows my mind. I think that there was always an expectation for me to go to University but I don’t think that I started to worry about grades until I was in Grade 10. It was then that one of my teachers suggested that I do something other than Sciences as I “wasn’t good at them”. I think it was at that moment that I decided that I was going to be a Scientist and I started paying attention to my grades and considering what courses I needed to take in order to prove that teacher wrong. 

While I know that the idea of “success” is drilled into us at an early age, it’s remarkable that these students are already equating their worth or their future employment outcomes based on grades they are yet to attain. I say yet to attain because I really wonder what marks in Grade 5 mean to students who are in Grade 11 or 12.  Many of my students claim that I am a hard marker and this statement alone suggests that grades have a certain level of subjectivity from one teacher to the next. 

Within this particular essay, the student reminds us that the requirements for entry into post-secondary education or for scholarships are directly related to marks and as such, getting rid of marks would require us to change the acceptance criteria for both. Unless we are willing to change the entire system, getting rid of grades at the Elementary level seems counterproductive. 

“School is a replica of life for youth, as stress and competition are present everywhere in the world. Grades are used to measure a student the same way that income is to an employee.”

The argument of school as a microcosm of the world. Those who succeed in the game of school will succeed in the game of life. If only this were true. While I believe that much of what we experience in our years in the education system certainly has an impact on future outcomes and experiences, there are many people who were not necessarily “good” at the game of school, and who have become quite successful in their own right, in the game of life.

This idea of better grades equating to a better job and in turn more money is one that is held by many of my students. It’s a narrative that they have learned along the way and begs for further inspection. I consider many people who are highly educated and still struggle to find jobs for a variety of reasons. I think of newcomers, those with differing abilities, and those who are racialized and face systemic racism. While these play a role in students’ experiences within school communities, the reality for adults who are newcomers, have differing abilities, and/or are racialized, tends to have different layers of impact. 

Do grades now really determine future success? Is managing the stress of grades equal to managing the stress of a job in the future? My students tend to think so. 

“Accountability. If you know you are getting marked you will actually do the work.”

Many students argued that when they are getting marked on something, they actually work harder, which makes me wonder about the intrinsic value of learning. Isn’t that the whole point of school in the first place? To have a desire to learn, rather than a desire to get a gold star? Wait…we do give out gold stars in school too.

During our discussions, students mentioned that if an activity or task was seen as being a practice for an upcoming culminating activity or test, they may not put in as much effort because they know that it’s just practice. On the other hand, for the final task itself, they would be sure to hand in better work because they know that the expectation is higher because this is something that the teacher sees as valuable and worthy of a mark. This made me wonder about my own methods of assessment and evaluation and what I value and in turn have imparted on my students as valuable. How have I contributed to this idea of getting the work done because there is a mark attached to it? Is it more important than the learning along the way?

So there you have it. These are just some of the reasons why my students say that we should keep grades in Elementary. I must admit that even among those who think we should keep grades, there was significant mention of teachers being able to justify the grades through feedback. So even when a grade is attached, feedback is still something that students want. In part 2, I share the other side of this argument.

Anti-oppressive student placement cards

Anti-oppressive student placement cards

With the focus on anti-oppressive pedagogy, my board of education is advocating for schools and teachers to consider their past practices in supporting students. This, of course, includes writing report card comments and student placement cards that are inclusive and equitable in nature. I will cover report card comments in a later blog.

In this blog, I’d like to address the past practices of the placement of students into classes

Past Student Placement Cards:

  • Gender: Blue cards for boys, Pink cards for girls
  • Academic success: High, Medium, Low (circle one)
  • Language: High, Medium, Low (circle one)
  • Math: High, Medium, Low (circle one)
  • Special Education Support: formal/informal IEP (circle one)
  • English Language Learners: Steps of ELL for Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing
  • Students to place in same class with:
  • Students to not place in class with:
  • Attendance issues: Yes/No Reasons for absence:
  • Student Behaviour: Big “B” and little “b”
  • Parental issues: Big “P” (big parent problem)

In looking closely at these descriptors, it seems obvious that they are obviously oppressive in their approach.

With feedback from teachers about student placement cards, themes came from their comments and conversations. These included (some points will naturally overlap):

Focus on student

Gender Neutral

  • No colour coded cards
  • Preferred gender identification (e.g. she/her, they/them, he/him)
  • Gender identity (e.g. male, female, transgendered, gender nonspecific)
  • No balancing the number of “boys” and “girls” in classes

Learning Styles/Personalities

  • Extrovert, introvert, a little of both
  • Academic and Non-academic strengths
  • Academic and Non-academic needs
  • Consider placing students with “supportive” friends
  • Consider students seeing self identity in teacher’s identity (i.e. BIPOC, Racialized)
  • Ask students who they would like to have and not have in their class
  • Ask students what type of teaching style they prefer
  • Consider who they like to collaborate with
  • Resources required to support needs (i.e. Behaviour Teaching Assistant, Office Support, Educational Assistant, public health nurse for medical issues)

Student conference/feedback/questionnaire

  • Extrovert, introvert, both
  • Academic and Non-academic strengths
  • Academic and Non-academic needs
  • Consider placing students with “supportive” friends
  • Consider students seeing self identity in teacher’s identity
  • Ask students who they would like to have and not have in their class
  • Ask students what type of teaching style they prefer
  • Consider who they like to collaborate with
  • Greatest strength, greatest need academic and non-academic
  • What I want my teacher to know about me …

What sparks student’s interests?

  • Favourite subjects, topics, interests, passions
  • Hobbies
  • Art, Music, Drama
  • Sports
  • Things they do out of school

Focus on Classroom

Class Composition

  • No stacking classrooms with students with IEPs
  • Consider number of introverts with extroverts
  • Consider placing students with “supportive” friends
  • Consider students seeing self identity in teacher’s identity
  • Ask students who they would like to have in their classroom
  • Ask students what type of teaching style they prefer
  • Level of emotional and behaviour support needed (Behaviour Teaching Assistant, Office support)

Learning Environment

  • more structured, less structures
  • style of teachers
  • types of learning tools in class
  • more tech savvy with more techy teacher
  • Hard of Hearing in quieter class with lower noise level

Focus on Community

  • consider 1st language of student
  • put students who speak the same language with same language, supportive friends
  • build community of same language speakers in school

Parental conference/feedback/questionnaire about child

  • ask parents how to support their child next year
  • Student is an extrovert, introvert, both
  • Academic and Non-academic strengths
  • Academic and Non-academic needs
  • Consider placing students with “supportive” friends
  • Consider students seeing self identity in teacher’s identity
  • Ask parent who they would like their child to have and not have in their class
  • Ask parents about preferred teaching style for their child
  • Greatest strength, greatest need academic and non-academic
  • What I want my child’s teacher to know about my child
  • Students to help create a parent survey to learn about what is important to the school community, school families, and students

This is not a complete list, nor have I actually developed student placement cards that reflects these themes – there is a draft below. I also have not developed a survey to collect this data – but I will ask my students to do this as part of a math assignment.

The purpose of this collection of themes is to spark discussions and thoughts about developing anti-oppressive student placement processes that will support students and teachers in the business of learning.

This is a start. I’d love to get feedback on developing student placement cards further – please leave a comment below.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston, PhD

Draft of Student Placement Card/Information

  • Identity: Female – Male – Gender Neutral – Trans – Other
  • Pronouns: She/Her, He/Him, They/Them, Other
  • Personality: Introvert-Extrovert-Both-Other
  • Racial Identity: BIPOC, FMNI, Mixed, Other
  • Special Education Support: formal/informal IEP (circle one)
  • English Language Learners: Steps of ELL for Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing
  • Language(s) spoken at home:
  • Favourite Subjects: Language, Media, Math, Science, Social Studies (History/Geography), Phys Ed/Gym, Music, Art, Drama, Recess, French
  • Least Favourite Subjects: Language, Media, Math, Science, Social Studies (History/Geography), Phys Ed/Gym, Music, Art, Drama, Recess, French
  • Supportive Student Friends:
  • Students who need a break (from each other):
  • Medical Needs/Fears:
  • Favourite Things To Do (away from school):

Any suggestions? Please make a comment below!

Teaching dance and health online, yikes!

Happy week after spring break everyone!

Is anyone else feeling super impressed with their students and their ability to get right back into things after a week-long break? I have never been able to say that before so I thought I may as well express these feelings of joy while I can.

As we get closer to the end of our school year, I am quickly compiling numerous tables with expectations, activities and number of periods needed for each subject. Since I have such an engaged group, I want to cover as much as I can so they are ready for their grade eight year. I think I’ve had about ten nightmares related to teaching dance and health since I started my online journey in September. I knew I wanted to start them sooner rather than later so we had time for more relaxed subjects in June. 

So, Tuesday our first day back this week, we started dance and I was overwhelmed with the amount of participation. I wanted to keep things manageable so I started with this specific expectation:

  • Exploring cultural forms, specifically, looking at the evolution of dance over time.

We watched an eight minute long YouTube video called “The Evolution of Dance”. Using what students saw in that video as well as researching on their own, students posted sticky notes on our jamboard link, sharing anywhere from 50-60 different styles of dance. We started in the 1950s and went all the way to present day. One student went so far as to share a comment about how nowadays, dances become popular overnight due to trends set by “celebrities” on tiktok. This app allows a worldwide stage for new and viral dances. This was such a great connection and was something we were going to address the following class. I was very nervous to teach dance, but I am glad I started with some discussions and video sharing. I have never taught this topic and was unsure of how to get a group of 33 grade seven students to dance, but I was able to see such engaging conversations take off around the evolution of dance. An engaging lesson for any who are skeptical about this hard to each subject (especially in a virtual space).

I am also gearing up to teach the health curriculum for the first time in my career. We were asked to send a letter home to parents where it outlines the expectations we will be covering. We also made parents aware of the exemption form that they would be required to fill out if they are requesting an exemption (as per board policy). These are the topics that I will be teaching this year to the grade seven students:

  • Describing the dangers associated with computers/social media and identify protective responses 
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the link between mental health problems and substance use 
  • Explaining the importance of having a shared conversation with a partner about delaying sexual activity until they are older  
  • Understanding consent and the importance of communication 
  • Identifying sexually transmitted, blood-borne infections and describe their symptoms   
  • Identifying ways of preventing infections and unplanned pregnancy 
  • Mental Health Literacy  
  • Substance use, addition and related behaviours 

 The following resources will be used to assist in the delivery of this unit: 

  • Ontario Curriculum sample questions  
  • OPHEA guidelines

We will also be able to attend a lunch and learn for more information as well as hear more about these topics at our staff meeting. For a teacher who has never taught health, never talked about these topics in an online setting and never met their students, it can be quite an intimidating subject. However, I know these topics are very important to talk about and my students are well versed in the importance of learning sensitive things, especially in today’s society. I am hoping I will be able to cover these to the best of my abilities and I look forward to reading the OPHEA resources before doing so. 

If any teachers have tips/tricks for dance and health, I am all ears! For now, these are my go to plans for the two subjects. As for the other subjects I still need to cover, even though they have their challenges, are pieces of cake compared to the unfamiliar dance and health!

Enjoy your weekends everyone and hang in there, we almost made it through this wild and unique year! 


Student-Led Conferences

Writing report cards and IEPs during COVID-19 was frustrating and stressful. COVID-19 has exposed deep inequities that affect families disproportionately, and it has impacted teaching, learning and assessment in significant ways. There are so many challenges to assessing and evaluating students on-line, and there are many strengths/skills that cannot be measured on a report card.

Needs Improvement
The current assessment, evaluation and reporting practices and procedures needs improvement. Ontario schools reflect a colonial, Eurocentric approach to curriculum and assessment that privileges some students over others. Report cards and IEPs measure students against standardized levels of achievement, which fail to recognize multiple and different ways of knowing. There is extensive research about the impacts of systemic racism and educator bias, which construct certain students as “failures”.

Most of our professional development is focussed on how we can meet the diverse needs of students and make the curriculum more inclusive; however, we also need to think critically about how assessment and evaluation practices reinforce racial inequity, and privilege student “success” and belonging. How might we transform our assessment and evaluation so that all students feel empowered to achieve excellence, and feel successful?

Collaborative Assessment
Student-Led Conferences are one example of how educators might disrupt traditional forms of evaluation, and facilitate a more collaborative approach to assessment. In a previous blog, I wrote about how collaborative assessment actively engages families, educators and students as co-learners, and helps to build trusting relationships that are reciprocal.

Student-Led Conferences, goal-setting and self-evaluation are powerful examples of how collaborative assessment can center student voice, support meta-cognition, and develop critical thinking and self-reflective skills. Collaborative assessment can increase student engagement and motivation, and has been shown to impact student achievement and behaviour.

What is a Student-Led Conference?
Every year, I prepare my students to facilitate a Student-Led Conference with their family in February and June. This is an alternative to the Parent-Teacher Conference, and often tells a counter narrative to the report card. Usually, there are 4-5 conferences happening in the classroom at one time, and I will rotate between families to listen and add to the discussion. These conferences can last anywhere between 15-45 minutes.

It is my hope that Student-Led Conferences support all students to feel successful, because they create meaningful opportunities for students to identify their strengths, and share evidence of how well they are meeting their learning goals. They also invite families and educators to share responsibility in the teaching and learning process.

What happens BEFORE a Student-Led Conference?
At the beginning of the year, most schools invite families to visit the classroom and meet their child’s teacher to learn about the curriculum expectations and classroom routines. During this discussion when I introduce our learning goals, I also share information about collaborative assessment and Student-Led Conferences. I explain the benefits, provide resources, and invite families to ask questions.

As we begin to build relationships and honour all of our “multiple intelligences” and different ways of knowing, I encourage students to set individual short-term goals that are “just right” for them. We talk about our strengths and struggles as we learn about different folks who have worked hard to overcome barriers and achieve excellence. Older students might engage in diagnostic surveys to find out how they feel about different subjects.

Every student will develop a portfolio, which will hold samples of work that demonstrate growth and learning in concrete ways. Some of these work samples will be chosen by the student and others will be chosen by educators. For example, I always include goal-setting and self-evaluation, as well as our monthly unedited, unassisted writing samples in their portfolio.

In January and June, in preparation for a Student-Led Conference, students will look through completed work, and choose samples of work that they are proud of. In my class, students staple a piece of paper to this work and write about why they are proud of it. Students also have the opportunity to look back at work samples, and identify how they know they are growing. This process can take several days, and it is a great opportunity to reflect and set new goals for Term #2 in January and/or for the summer in June.

Student Voice:
Before writing the report card, I always ask students to reflect on their Learning Skills and Work Habits and complete a self-evaluation. As a class, we might discuss each skill and generate “success criteria” and specific examples that relate to our learning together. I often try to include student voices in the report card, and quote their writing and self-reflection. It is critical that students understand the criteria by which they are being evaluated, and that they have opportunities to share their thinking about themselves as learners. It is invaluable formative feedback for educators and families.

During COVID-19, our Student-Led Conferences have continued on-line. I created a Google Form, and asked families to help their child answer questions about their learning. The form included opportunities for students to identify their strengths and areas for improvement in different subject areas, as well as the Learning Skills and Work Habits. These “stars” and “wishes”, or “GLOW” and “GROW” comments helped to guide our discussion during our virtual Student-Led Conference. I shared the screen and asked the students to read their ideas aloud, and invited families to share feedback. I was only able to support one conference at a time, but I believe it was worth the extra time.

What happens DURING a Student-Led Conference?
Student-Led Conferences will look different depending on the age of the student. In the early primary years, I provide families with a checklist and sentence prompts to help support the discussion. Older students can follow a script to lead the discussion. During a Student-Led Conference, students will share their portfolio with their family. Families are encouraged to listen, ask questions and share what they notice about their child’s growth and progress. My role is to circulate around the room, listen, and contribute observations and reflections to the discussion.

What happens AFTER a Student-Led Conference?
After a Student-Led Conference, I provide a template and ask families to write a letter to their child. This letter describes what they are proud of, and how they will help their child to achieve their learning goals. In my experience, families have found the Student-Led Conference to be meaningful and informative.

One Kindergarten parent wrote:

It really opened up space for dialogue about what types of learning matter to our child, some of which were a pleasant surprise to us that we can carry forward at home now as well. Also, being able to experience his learning environment at school from his perspective was deeply gratifying for us and self-esteem building for him. He was so proud to show us around the space and really demonstrate the independence he’s building there. Grateful for the entire process and so heartened to know that he is in a classroom and school environment that really values the agency and intelligence of children!
(Parent comment, 2018)

Student-Led Conferences are a powerful tool that educators can use to honour the multiple and diverse ways that students learn and share knowledge. They provide a counter-narrative to the report card, and engage families, educators and students in a collaborative learning relationship that celebrates student achievement with pride and possibilities.

Video Resources:
Grade 3, Grade 6, Grade 7/8 Student-Led Conferences
The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat Webcast Professional Learning Series, Ontario Ministry of Education

Preparing for a Student-Led Conference, New Zealand

Student-Led Conferences: Empowerment and Ownership, Chicago

Snow Day = No School Day

ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students. ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

As an elementary special education teacher, I teach in a hybrid class of some students learning synchronously online and some learning in-class. It’s a juggle of competing agendas as teaching online and in-class are very different due to different ecologies of learning. Ecology is defined as “the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment; it seeks to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them.”

In-class ecology of learning

In-class learning happens in a physical environment of personal connections. In-class students learn by watching and listening to teachers while they also complete their work. Teachers can address specific students’ needs by reading body language and answering students’ questions.

Classroom learning is personal in nature.

In-class ecology is based on interactions between participants that occur face-to-face with the opportunity to directly deal with students based on need. Needs are determined by teachers being able to assess students’ needs by their knowledge of student learning profiles and emotions identified via body language. Classrooms also provide students with opportunities to interact with other students and move while learning.

Classroom learning is fostered by relationships and the interconnections between students, parents, and teachers.

Online ecology of learning

Online learning happens in a virtual environment of auditory connections. When students learning online, they learn mostly by listening through a screen via an online platform. Teachers explain concepts through images and speaking with little or no eye contact with students. As students often have their cameras off (i.e., their choice to protect their privacy at home), teachers cannot assess students’ level of engagement nor can they assess students’ understanding of lessons. Further, since students learn via camera, they miss the opportunity to engage in learning by manipulating objects such as with math manipulatives or creating experiments in science.

Online learning is void of the personal nature found in classroom learning.

Through a camera, teachers cannot develop the fulsome relationships key to the evaluation of students’ understanding and need for support. In addition, teachers are highly limited in the understanding of students’ learning profiles or emotional needs.

The assessment of work is also a challenge as teachers cannot directly witness products or collect observations in assessing success criteria. Conducting assessments via conversations is challenging as other students are literally in the same space as the student being assessed.

Online learning falls short in the building of relationships and interconnections between students, parents, and teachers. As the act of learning is fueled by personal interactions and relationships, without them learning is constrained. Online learning, especially for students with special education needs, is not an effective venue to learn. Further, online learning disproportionally impacts students who come from lower social economic backgrounds where the additional resources of time and money may not be available to support learning from home.

Online and In-Class Learning have different ecologies

Overall, it’s taken me many months to delineate what works synchronously online and in-class via the hybrid model. As learning about how to teach is based on experience, I’ve had some lessons that were not to be repeated and through this process I know what works with my current class of students.

In-class and online teaching “Flip-o-Rama”

Tuesday, February 16th, 2021 was the day my in-class students were to return to school. My online students would remain online but follow along in class via a camera (which was finally provided to me by my board of education after a year of teaching online learning.) But Mother Nature decided not to have us return to school via a big dump of snow – a snow day was announced via Twitter.

My lesson plans for this day were based on teaching in-class at school. We were to get our classroom organized, go over new Covid protocols, discuss plans for our science projects, and learn about anti-racism. I did not plan for another day of teaching online.

I was informed via Twitter by this message “On Feb. 16, 2021, all buses are cancelled & school buildings are closed to students due to inclement weather conditions. Learning will continue at home through remote, synchronous instruction, where possible.”

I understand the need for students to continue their learning and I have been working over 6 days a week to make this happen. I have been stepping up to “learning through remote synchronous instruction, where possible” by making it possible every day since September 2020. As a teacher, during the Covid-19 pandemic, I have worked hard to meet every additional expectation presented to me by my board of education. I have made “where possible”, possible.

Just Pivot In-class to Online

The challenge I face is that I cannot “just flip a switch” (i.e. or pivot) to go from planning for in-class learning to synchronous, online learning. It is not an easy, “flip of a switch”, transition. The reality is that I need to plan more for online learning by making sure students have the materials they need to participate in lessons.

My greatest concern is that, in the future, once the pandemic passes, Snow Days (i.e., inclement weather days) will automatically become online learning days. This will result in teachers having to flip from in class learning to online learning within hours of inclement weather announcements. Parents will have to arrange their day to accommodate their child’s online school by monitoring their work and supporting learning activities where possible. It’s a big ask for teachers and parents.

Setting a precedent for online learning during inclement weather days is a slippery slope.

I can see boards and ministries of education using inclement weather online learning to move more students’ learning, online.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deborah Weston, PhD