“Ian has the ability to be a great student when he puts his mind to it.
He must learn to concentrate in class.
He must learn his multiplication tables.
He must learn to get along with his classmates.
Has the ability to write good compositions.
Writing is neat.
A more serious attitude towards school would be beneficial to Ian.”
- Term 1 Progress Report for Ian Fero, Grade Four, Mr. Seki
On report card weekend for many students I thought it would be a great idea to pull out some of my old report cards and take a look at a few of them. I was hoping that I would find some pretty good content for this blog post and I was able to find this fine example from grade four.
There has been a lot of discussion about progress reporting to parents over the last number of years, particularly after the Calgary Board of Education went to a 4-point reporting scale for K-9 schools. I realize that some parents might be looking for some insider tips into what their child’s report card really means. So, here are some simple tips to understanding your child’s report card:
Moving to a twice-a-year reporting process makes “no surprises” even more essential. What this means to me is that a parent shouldn’t have to wait until a January or June report card to gain an understating of how their child is achieving in their current grade. Teachers are asked to engage in regular communication with home (email, phone, or face-to-face) to identify any potential struggles just so you are informed in a timely manner, on what’s exactly happening at school.
We Celebrate Student Strengths
Every student, no matter where they’re at this particular moment in time, has achievements worth celebrating. Knowing and identifying which areas a student is most successful in is a key part of the reporting process. We want you to know what those things are, and hope that you know we respect your child for the talents and gifts that they bring to school. One of the constant comments from parents that I heard in my early days of school administration was “all I hear is the negative from the school”. If this is true, then this is a problem, so we always begin by acknowledging the positive things. We care for your child and want them to be successful.
Construct a Plan
What I have always tried to do is ensure a plan for improved success is communicated in the report card. One of the things I have always rejected is the comment implying that achievement is a matter of an enhanced effort at home (ex. “Ian would benefit from practicing his multiplication tables at home”). While a partnership between school and home is essential for student success, it is not ok to put this burden entirely on the home front. As a school, we want to examine our organization of supports, beginning at the classroom level, to ensure we are doing all that we can to improve student learning at school. If we want students to be successful at school, then we need to help them at school with support from home.
Indicators, which in our reporting system are a 1-4 scale, are the numeric attempt to summarize a semester’s worth of achievement. Trying to do this in one number means that a teacher needs to take all of the data accumulated over time. The student story toward that indicator is so much more than just a number. The comments are where the teachers spend most of their time when constructing the report card. As mentioned, we want these comments to be strength-based, but we also try and identify areas for growth, and of course a plan. The time, care, and attention that go into your child’s report card comments are significant and should be viewed as the most important part of the report.
Know the Language
There are a couple consistent messages that occur in almost every report card and provide a deeper understanding into your child’s progress if you know what to look for. These key phrases are “independently” and “with support”. When we use the word independently, it most often means that a student can understand, demonstrate, and maybe even extend, concepts taught. This represents ideal student achievement. Conversely, students who complete the same tasks with support indicate that, at this time, they require assistance engaging with those particular concepts. Support can encompass extra time, repeated instructions, modified expectations; one-on-one or small group time with a teacher or an Educational Assistant, or the help of manipulative or assistive technology. Another word that matters in report card comments is "consistently." Ideally, students are able to replicate successes consistently across the curriculum, and from concept to concept.
Mom: “Teacher, how does my child rank in the class?”
Teacher: “Through my assessment, I rank your child in the top three in my class.”
Mom: “Wow, that’s great. I am very happy to hear that.”
Teacher: “Well, I wouldn’t say that. This is the lowest class of achievers I’ve had in years.”
You may have seen this quick anecdote as it’s widely circulated in various forms. The key point is that there are too many variables in play when looking to compare your child’s achievement to that of their peers. Keep your parental focus on your own child and where they are at this time. Report cards are not standardized assessments, and therefore cannot be used for student-to-student comparison across classes, schools, or districts.
Possibilities are Endless
The report card is a snapshot in time. Perceived excellent achievement does not open doors for your child, just as perceived poor achievement does not close them. Todd Rose, Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor, tells his story in his book The End of Average and in his TED Talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eBmyttcfU4. While interesting, his story is not unique. He talks about finding his passion and calling much later in life, and working in dead-end jobs before he discovered his path. He also states that every person has specific strengths and talents, and a jagged profile meaning no two learners are exactly the same. What does matter is that your child needs your support and encouragement, as well as that of thier teacher, to be successful.
Based on the report card comments I received in term 1 of Grade Four you could probably surmise that I was in for a rough ride that year. I remember my mom and dad coming home from parent-teacher conferences and thinking I was done for. While I can’t say my parents were thrilled with my report card and follow-up conference, they did say that my teacher really liked me and wanted me to do my best. He moved my desk and told my parents that he was going to “work with me” to realize my potential. My dad also told the teacher that if he had any more problems with me that he wanted to know right away, and made it clear to me that he’d be following it up with a pretty direct conversation with me (children of the 80s can read into what a “direct conversation” with dad really meant). After all of that impact, here are my year-end report comments:
“I am very impressed with the work Ian has put forth on his book reviews.
Keep up the good work Ian.
Ian is a very nice boy who participates well in all activities.
Behaviour has improved.
Good luck in the future.”
Thanks Mr. Seki, Mom, and Dad. It was onward and upward from there…for the most part.
Recently, I watched the Brett Morgen documentary Montage of Heck, an authorized biopic about the life of Kurt Cobain: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4229236/
For some context, I was in my early twenties when Nirvana hit with Smells Like Teen Spirit. I guess I was old enough to have my angst in check, but young enough to enjoy the music. Old enough to buy my own CDs and not worry about curfew, but young enough to still be making some questionable choices. I was a fan of the band, and would say they were on a pretty heavy rotation. I can remember eagerly awaiting the 1993 release of In Utero, and purchasing the album the day it came out.
What I wasn't at the time was a huge magazine or tabloid reader. In the days pre-dating the internet and social media you really only knew bands through their music. To be honest, I didn't really know Kurt Cobain, or the troubles he was going through. When he passed in 1994 I already felt like I'd had a lifetime with him and the band even though they had only released 3 studio albums, and a fourth if you include MTV Unplugged in New York. I remember knowing about Courtney Love, and his drug problems, but I never knew the extent. On the day he died, I remember feeling very sad, but when I watched this documentary it hit me harder than it did on that day over 21 years ago.
I found myself thinking about Kurt from the lens of the teacher and a parent. The whole documentary played out to me like a series of missed warning signs; like calls for help that went unanswered. I saw Kurt's creative genius as the blessing and curse of intense, unacknowledged, untreated ADHD. What I found myself asking were things like "What would you do if that were a student at your school? Would you notice the signs? What would you do? Would you have been able to make a difference?" Of course, there are no certain responses, and that's what's making me think of him and his plight more. When the credits rolled, I felt very sad.
Since viewing Montage of Heck, I've downloaded the entire Nirvana catalogue and have been listening to it on my iPhone via Apple Music on a few long walks, just as I did back in the early 90s (except on my Sony Discman). I have moved past the sadness, and into the place of enjoying the music once again and a place of appreciation for the work of Morgen, and the gift he gave me to allow me to revisit my youth and the music that influenced me.
In March 2000 I wrote an independent inquiry for an undergraduate class entitled Reggio in North American Schools: To What Degree is Transfer Applicable which I recently went back and took a look at. In many ways, this paper represents some of my earliest reflections.
I remember being introduced to all things Reggio by my outstanding field advisor, Gail Danysk, who remains a great educator. It was Gail, and the work of Pat Tarr at the University of Calgary that sparked my interest and quickly got me thinking about how quickly I could get teaching and start to "do Reggio". A couple other key pieces fell into place right away for me. First, my initial teaching role was in kindergarten, and second, I had a very supportive, arts-centred principal in Carmen Roman.
Early on, I knew that I could not simply "do Reggio", but I did realize that I could take the best elements and bring them to my practice. As I look back over 16 years ago, I can see how my beliefs in the Reggio model have influenced my career in education.
I have maintained that the child is always the lead character in their own learning, the main focus, and the their own best advocate. Regardless of age, the child always knows which way they learn best, and it's our job as educators to watch, encourage, and set up opportunities for them to let this play out in our classrooms. Listening to student voice in the classroom is a critical part of this process, and the child needs to be able to express themselves openly, honestly, and directly with the teacher and classmates.
Parents are also critical partners in this process. It's not a case of sending your child to school and hoping for the best. It's about being a critical part of the teacher - child - parent triad. This is a supportive, trusting relationship, where all parties work on behalf of what's best for the child.
The teachers who have the most advanced assessment practices are always the best researchers. This isn't about going out and doing research, but rather conducting research in the classroom. These teachers are able to listen to children as they learn to find out what they really know, and where they want or need to go next. They implicitly know each child as a learner because they have spent the time with them, and also because they are flexible to let things play out despite what might be on their agenda.
Some other elements that remain critical parts of my teacher and leadership practice that have a Reggio influence include:
1) the importance of play
2) creating opportunities for wonder
3) celebrating and incorporating the beauty of nature
4) valuing the role of collaboration: student - student, student - teacher, teacher - teacher
5) utilizing the documentation process to make learning visible
6) taking pride in how the school looks and message it relays to all who enter
So all these years later would I say I was able "do Reggio"? I guess I would say that I have been able to confirm my initial beliefs, and realized that if you start off your own journey looking to simply copy or replicate Reggio that you have missed the point altogether. I would say it's about being Reggio-inspired and ensuring that it lives each day in not only your mindset, but your actions.
I was thankful that someone thought enough of that initial paper to have it published, and pleased that it's still available on the internet on the University of Calgary site. Please feel free to share some stories of how your practice remains Reggio-inspired.
Sometimes you can really shock yourself.
While I wasn't a new teacher, I was a new teacher to my school. I was the youngest teacher on my grade team of four teachers and I was still trying to figure things out. At that time of my teaching career I would say that I was a good "ideas man", as in I had all the ideas of things that could make effective, engaging lessons for my students, but I wasn't a great implementer. Most of these good ideas got left on the cutting room floor partially because of my lack of follow-through, but also because I was overruled by my more experienced teammates.
Thankfully, I had a great, inspiring team partner who helped me work through this awkwardness. She believed in my ideas (as I trusted hers) and throughout the year, helped me put them into action. I remained quite reserved in our grade team meetings however, often deferring to my more experienced partner to lay out our plans. As the year went on, the team split into two different camps with one content to deliver content in a more traditional way, and the other intent on doing things a bit differently. While we were all very friendly with one another, we accepted that we were operating under different pedagogical frameworks. Our grade team meetings quickly faded away and we only met to organize bigger events such as Outdoor School.
A meeting about starting a new club was one of the reasons we came together as a grade team. One of the things I was very passionate about was providing clubs and extra-curricular opportunities for our students, particularly in the area of athletics. This meeting became very frustrating for me, because I was told time and again by the other members of the team (not my team partner) why clubs were not always workable at the school. As a new teacher to the building, I didn't have any history, so I trusted them and just went along, focusing on my teaching. The interest in running clubs faded to the background for a few months.
The groundswell of student grumbling started once the snow hit the ground and outlets like the recess soccer game became less available. The behaviour incidences picked up, and everyone became a bit more edgy. I remember talking to one of my students and asking him why things were so off the rails and his immediate response was "recess is so boring". Recess boring? If recess was boring, we definitely had a problem.
I decided that I was going to start a Floor Hockey Club. I checked in with my school admin, and they were supportive. I checked in with our PE specialist, and she was supportive too. I checked in with my students, and we had 4 in 5 commit to a floor hockey club. Things were rolling fast, and my idea was on the way to becoming a reality. Then, I met one of my grade team partners in the hallway. The exchange went like this:
Him: What's this I hear you're going to be starting up a floor hockey club?
Me: Yep, hoping to start after the Christmas break. The kids are excited!
Him: You can't do that. It won't work.
Me: What are you talking about? I already asked around and everyone agrees.
Him: Listen, we have a lot of things on the go in January. It's the start of our big push toward exam prep, and we need to focus on our curriculum. The students get very distracted by clubs, and especially sports clubs. They don't focus well when their mind is on these things. Trust me, we've tried it before.
Me: Well, I think it would be helpful to them to blow off some steam and run around a bit.
Him: What about the kids who can't play after school? You know we have a lot of kids that have other obligations.
Me: I talked to the kids and they don' t think it will be a problem.
Him: I didn't really want to say this, but some of the other teachers on staff don't like the way you're changing things up here. If you start a club, then we're all going to have to do a club. Maybe just slow things down. Take a year to get to know the school.
Me: WHY DON'T YOU TRY TO STOP THINKING OF ALL THE REASONS THIS CAN'T HAPPEN, AND START TO FIGURE OUT JUST ONE WAY TO HELP MAKE IT HAPPEN?
Wow! I surprised myself with that. It was very much out of character for me. I didn't want to be disrespectful, but I was passionate about what I wanted to do because I thought it was the right thing to do for the students.
Today when I look back on that little outburst I call it a career defining moment. From then on I started to gain the confidence that my ideas, good or bad, were worth exploring. I started to trust my gut instincts, but more importantly I started to listen to my students. Their voice became more prominent in my planning, and I didn't (and don't) hesitate to run something by them first.
The Floor Hockey Club was an instant success, and the benefit extended well beyond the students. Other teachers who had wanted to do clubs of their own started to put things together for other students in the school and a prominent change in culture began. Ultimately, I was most happy when my grade team partner (the one who I had the disagreement with) when he told me he wanted to start a soccer club in the spring. We planned it out together, and he began a great run as the teacher lead of our leadership club of older students who would referee and organize our younger ones on the soccer fields at recess. A couple years later at his retirement, he told me that taking on that leadership club had been one of the most rewarding parts of his career.
I wonder what would have happened if I had just backed down that day in the hallway. I wonder if I would have found my confidence to pursue my passions. I do know that that key phrase that came blurting out of my mouth that day has become one of my leadeship mantras. As we start a new calendar year, I want to resolve to keep that at the fore of who I am as a leader. I want to always try to find a way to make things happen.
(and for those of you that look at this blog post graphic and get a little song in your head, send me a comment and let me know what it is)
I am an elementary school principal, passionate about engagement, innovation, and learning from the unique skills and interests of students and fellow educators.