There’s something about summer.  As a child, it had endless possibilities.  As a teen, there began the anxiety of planning for the coming school year. And as a teacher, this anxiety combined with excitement, beginning with the first “Back to School” ads at the end of July.

This is my first year since I was five that I am not returning to school in September. I will be teaching one day per week at Ontario Tech University, but the rest of the time will be my “dissertation time”, as it has been for months now.

You’d think that this would mean I am able to get so much done!  But that is not the case. Each day takes me back to my childhood, and the endless possibilities present much more compelling options than coding interviews in Nvivo, or drafting my literature review.

There’s also the “how are you enjoying retirement?” questions, with an expectation that I have been filling my days with all those things that I couldn’t do as a teacher or administrator. This would be easy to answer if I actually had things on my “bucket list” that I hadn’t already tackled.  But, every summer since I can remember, I have used my summer vacation to make music, quilt, catch up with friends, and relax my calendar- and clock-watching.  This has built a habit of play during the summer months, a habit that is not serving me well at all. This year I have a dissertation to write, and it doesn’t have the real deadline that the return to school served for me in past years.

So, despite being retired, and no longer having to prep for the new school year, I am actually getting less accomplished than I did when working full time. I think I need to add some structure, through goals and a routine.

Here are my goals for the next month, to be ready for September:

  1. Complete the “in vivo” coding of my 26 interviews.
  2. Ensure that I am truly using the language used by the teachers I interviewed to develop my themes. (Not just those that I have read in my literature review, and been talking about on Twitter.)
  3. Try out “in vivo” coding of my literature, looking for connections to the language that emerges from my interviews.

If I can get this far in the next five weeks, then I should really be able to begin writing in September, when I am hoping that my goals will align with the world around me as everyone heads back home from the cottage, and back to school.

Do you have any advice for me, to help wean me away from the self-regulation support that working in a school provided?  Message me @terrywhitmell or!

The Best Assessment

hans-peter-gauster-252751-unsplashI’ve spent the past few months interviewing teachers who have chosen an alternative to marks in their classroom assessment.

Here’s what I’ve learned from them:

  1. A single number contains very little information.
  2. Clear criteria, in the form of standards, expectations, big ideas, or over-arching learning goals, are absolutely necessary.
  3. We can empower students by our transparency.  When they know what they need to learn, they are empowered to do so with or without us.
  4. Learning maps help teachers plan, help students self-assess, and are wonderful tools to share with parents, administrators, and colleagues.
  5. Students need our expertise to “notice and name” their learning, and to give them the vocabulary to use to tell us what they have learned.
  6. Our memories are short.  Our students need portfolios, so that they can connect their learning over time, and between “courses”.  We need to be able to look back in order to reveal their growth, and help plan for learning.

The technology that teachers use does not really matter.  Good assessment plans can be paper and pen.  They can be a Google classroom, with its related tools.  They can be online portfolio and assessment tools like Sesame, Freshgrade,  or Seesaw.

What is important are the relationships:  teacher and student, expectations and evidence, effort and results.

So, get to know your kids, get to know your curriculum, and keep the conversation going.

Check back here for more conversation over the coming weeks.




“Going Gradeless”: Experiences of Ontario Teachers Moving from Marks to Feedback-based Assessment

Are you an Ontario secondary teacher, who is moving away from grades?  I’d love to hear from you:

I am currently a doctoral candidate in the Educational Leadership and Policy program of the department of Leadership, Higher Education, and Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. I am doing this research as part of the requirement for the completion of my PhD dissertation, under the supervision of Dr. Carol Campbell.

Overview of the study

The purpose of the research revolves around teachers’ navigation of challenges faced as they choose to go “gradeless”. This study aims to gain a deeper understanding of how teachers conceptualize assessment and the use of grades, how they operationalize assessment processes within their pedagogy, how they see this impacting the school and classroom culture, and how they navigate within the policies set at the school, board and provincial level.

The name of this research project is:

“Going Gradeless”: Experiences of Ontario Teachers Moving from Marks to Feedback-based Assessment

Examples of questions that I have in mind but may or may not ask depending on themes that emerge as our dialogue evolves are:

Please set the context by describing your teaching experience.

Please describe your journey.

How did you come to consider the option to “go gradeless”.

How has your assessment practice changed?

What has the impact been on your students?

What roadblocks have you encountered?

How do you feel about this change?

What do you think are the next steps for you? For your school?


Your part in the research, if you agree, is to participate in an informal interview, of 30 to 60 minutes either face to face or via Skype or equivalent, where you will share some of the assessment decisions you have made, and how these have been influenced by your education, experience, current context, and professional community. The interview will be informal, will last approximately one hour, and will be audiotaped with your permission in order to create a written transcript. The interview will begin with guided questions, as well as open-ended probes, to allow for flexibility in the range of topics discussed. Participation is completely voluntary, and should you decide to participate, you may decline to answer any questions, or end the interview at any time. Once the interview has concluded, you may also contact me by phone or email up to three months following the interviewto ask to withdraw from the study, and request that the entire verbal and written transcript of your interview be destroyed.

Confidentiality and Risks

Your responses will be treated in the strictest confidence, as per the University of Toronto ethics guidelines. There are no known risks associated with participating in this research study. Potential limitations in my ability to guarantee anonymity minimal, as any data collected will be confidential, and all identifying information relating to you, your school or your board will be removed and given pseudonyms.  All paper-based data such as field notes will be stored in a locked filing cabinet at the researcher’s home. All digital data gathered from the study will be stored in a password-protected electronic format on a laptop computer. Only the researcher and supervisor will have access to the data. At no time will your responses be judged or evaluated, nor will any value judgment be placed on your responses as there are no “right” answers. Some of the verbatim examples provided might be published without the participants being identified, to illustrate the overall results of the study.All data in the form of transcripts, field notes and documents will be destroyed one year after the completion of my doctoral degree.

Potential benefits

There will be no compensation for participating in this study, however participants may benefit from the experience by self-reflecting on your teaching practices, explore assessment options, and clarify next steps for your own professional growth. You will also be contributing to the professional growth of the researcher, her colleagues, and other graduate students of OISE.Your input will be adding to the current literature on classroom assessment, and may help educators and policymakers to deepen their understanding and drive change. Results of this study may be used in reports, conference presentation and publications. Interested participants will be sent a summary of the research findings by email.

For any further details, please contact me at, or my thesis supervisor Dr. Carol Campbell at If you have any questions related to your rights as a participant in this study, or if you have any complains or concerns about how you have been treated as a research participant, please contact the Office of Research Ethics, or 416-946-3273.



Terry Whitmell, PhD Student

OISE, University of Toronto

252 Bloor Street West

Toronto, ON, M5S 1V6, Canada



Twitter Chat – What fun!!

A month ago I submitted a blog post to, and was thrilled to have it accepted for publication.  (

In addition to this honour, I was also invited to co-host a Twitter chat, on the Sunday following its release date.  Although I had participated in Twitter chats, both slow and fast, I had never had the opportunity to plan and execute.

It was entirely enjoyable, mostly due to the guidance of my co-host, Aaron Blackwelder (       @AaronSBlackwel1). He introduced me to Tweetdeck, and shared a planning document that included all the steps we needed to take to prepare in the week beforehand.

We used Google docs to collaborate, and we worked through the week to brainstorm questions, put them in sequence, and confirm the flow of the hour. Aaron then placed each “tweet” in an image, so that both the image and text could be tweeted.

As co-host, I then “pre-wrote” a series of tweets, beginning with introductions, followed by six questions, and ending with a “thank you”.  With Tweetdeck, I was able to time each of them to appear according to plan.  I was also able to create my personal responses to each question as we’ll, and set them to be released during the conversation.  By using Tweetdeck, and I was then free to moderate:  respond, encourage, and keep the conversation going.

When the evening came, it was, as Aaron promised, a “whirlwind”.  As long as everyone included the #tg2chat hashtag, I could monitor all tweets using a search in Tweetdeck, and connect with everyone online.

I learned so much, both from the participants and from the process.  There were also some participants who were busy at the designated hour, and who joined in the next day by responding to each tweet with the #tg2chat hashtag.

Would you like to see how it happened?  Just search for #tg2chat, and scroll back to October 15, 2018.  All of our questions, and the responses from our chat participants, can be enjoyed now, a month later!

And if you like what you see, join #tg2chat this Sunday, and let’s get talking about “feedback”!



Implicit Bias – What’s in a Name?

This year our “Family of Schools” leaders are reading Deep Diversity, by @Shakilwrites

On page 4, I was struck by Choudhury’s story of receiving a business card for a local optometrist, with a name that evoked images that led him to hesitate to call for an appointment.

I realized that I had made conscious decisions throughout my life, based upon my experiences of this unstated manifestation of prejudice.

I am a cis, white, middle-aged woman, who was born in Canada and whose first language is English.  But I have not always been known as Terry Whitmell.

  1. My parents named me “Terry”, registered my birth as “Theresa Elizabeth”, and thereby satisfied family expectations that I had a saint’s name as a middle name, that I had a version of the Hungarian name “TERÉZIA”, and that my name was easy to pronounce.  My father’s name had been initially registered as Lajos, but changed during the second world war to Louis, due to a wish to appear more “Anglo”.
  2. My surname at birth was Tusz.  This is a name that rhymes only with somewhat rude words:  goose, loose, noose, caboose, moose, etc.  And, it is easy to mispronounce as toots, tuzz, tuss, etc.  To add to this, it means “hostage” in Hungarian!
  3. When we moved between grade 1 and grade 2, I chose to have my parents register me at school as “Theresa”, since I was getting tired of being told “you have a boy’s name” and “you should spell your name with an “i” not a “y”.
  4. When we moved between grade 7 and grade 8, I chose to have my parents register me at school as “Terry”, since it was “way cooler” and lacked the “Mother Teresa” connotations.
  5. When I married, I was determined to keep my maiden surname, but was marrying a man who felt strongly that a family should have one name.  We were open to “Tusz-Whitmell” or “Whitmell-Tusz”, but the pronunciation issues and the challenges they would present to our future children resulted in my changing my name to Theresa (Terry) Elizabeth Tusz Whitmell, and he retained his birth name.

Why did my name matter to me?  Why did it matter to those who read my name in print?  Why did it matter to those I met?

  1. Our names anchor our memories.  I am a different person as Terry Tusz, as Theresa Tusz, as Theresa Whitmell, and as Terry Whitmell.  Different groups know me as each of these, and some of the names are tied to a location or period of time in my life.
  2. In print, I am gender-neutral.  This is a HUGE advantage as a woman, to have gender off the table.  To those who only know me via email, I can be anyone.  And usually they assume “male”.  The years that I spent as a computer technology coordinator in our school board were made much easier by this initial assumption.
  3. It is so much easier to have a name that people can pronounce, and which they can remember accurately.  I still receive emails addressed to “Terri” or “Terrie”, but I assume that this is not a personal slight.  However, my name is almost always pronounced correctly when I am introduced, and that eases the following conversation.

My experiences make me acutely sensitive when meeting people for the first time.  I take great pains to pronounce names correctly, and to ask for spelling so that I can find them in social media, and use their name correctly when sharing our conversation with others.

I often meet students who say “oh, it doesn’t matter” or “however you say it is OK”, and I press them to help me pronounce and spell their names correctly.  I am still working on how to learn more about the origins of names, without making them feel uncomfortable.

Our Student Information System allows us to record both legal name, and “preferred” name.  When I encounter a preferred name that is obviously an Anglicization of the student’s real name, I will often engage them in conversation, and discuss if this is who they see themselves as, or if it has been a convenience imposed by their parents or chosen by themselves.  We allow our students to change their preferred name as requested, and it’s interesting to see how some of them will move through several identities during their four years with us.

Milennials now present themselves to the world as more than just a name: we see selfies, YouTube videos, and blogs that present a richer personal image than my name did decades ago. I just hope, for my students, that these media artifacts are an asset, not an invitation to prejudice for those who meet them.

I am still struggling with my unconscious bias towards the familiar, are you?

Why not Gamify School?

I just read @jess__bloom‘s blog post “The Gamification of Work“, and I think we could substitute “school” for “work”.

Our Ontario secondary school program requires our students to work for four years, to earn 30 credits.  In each credit there are a series of Overall Expectations, with Specific Expectations within each. There are 18 compulsory credits, and 12 optional, and once you earn them you are granted a diploma. If you achieve to a certain level in your final year, you will also be granted the title of “Ontario Scholar”. In addition, our post-secondary institutions require some of these credits for admission, so there’s the reward of admission to one of our top universities or colleges.

What if we had software that tracked each expectation, and provided a visual for each one that was achieved? I’ve played games such as Diner Dash and Klondike, and found them both addictive and satisfying.  I think that turning our students’ achievements into high scores and “conquered lands” might be a fun and effective way to support students’ sense of accomplishment.  It might just be the feedback that they need to persevere!

What do you think would make the best “world” for us to build online, to represent four years of secondary education?

PhD Comprehensive Exam

It’s a weekend of procrastination as I prepare for my upcoming Comprehensive Exam. This has been very productive, as I have already hit 14,000 steps on my Fitbit by mowing the lawn, and I’ve enjoyed this week’s Modern Learners Podcast (#44 with Dr. Susan Blum) which has extended my thinking about learning, schooling, policy and assessment.  One of the areas that Dr. Susan Blum and Will Richardson agree on is the value of feedback rather than marks.  And they discuss in the podcast the use of a portfolio as an alternative to traditional evaluation methods.  Despite this positive learning experience, I am not really any better prepared for my upcoming exam than I was this morning.

My Comprehensive Exam, as designed by the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education for our Educational Leadership and Policy Program at OISE (Ontario Institute of Studies in Education) at the University of Toronto, is a wonderful example of the type of assessment supported by Dr. Blum and Will Richardson.

The guidelines (Comprehensive Examination Guidelines) direct the candidate to create a portfolio linking five artefacts to seven skills, and to write an original paper.  The portfolio of artefacts and reflections, and the original paper are then presented to an examining panel in a 90-minute session.  In my case, this is scheduled for next Thursday.

Here is the introduction to my portfolio:

The original paper (Terry Whitmell May 2018) focuses primarily on policy in the context of social diversity. The issues of leadership and change are referenced as they relate to the implementation of policy.  The five artifacts were chosen as representative of a similar focus, and illustrate achievement of the seven areas of knowledge, skills and abilities:

Research Design
Conducting Research
Analyzing Data
Communicating Research Results
Knowledge of the broader field of education leadership and policy
Knowledge of Major Theoretical Frameworks in the Field
Synthesizing Existing Literature
Implementation of 21st Century Competencies Requires Revolution not Renovation
Reflection 1
Gandhi Freire and Civics Education
Appendix A
Appendix B
Reflection 2
Survey Proposal: Use of Learning Goals & Success Criteria to Support Student Engagement and Achievement
Reflection 3
Classroom Assessment Practices of Early-Career Ontario Secondary School Teachers
Reflection 4
What Motivates Teachers to Lead Change?
Reflection 5

In my presentation, I will connect these five artifacts and the original paper to a conceptual framework that I developed while writing a literature review of 21st Century Modern Learning:

Conceptual Framework for Comprehensive Exam Presentation

As you can see, much of my work deviates from Educational Leadership and Policy, into Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, and I am seeing challenges with our current structures that separate the two.  My paper explores some of these structures, where the intent of policy results in very different outcomes once the policies are enacted in the classroom. In my conceptual framework, I see learning theory at one end, and educational policy at the other, and the framework of “Know, Do, Be, Live Together” in the middle.  If learning and policy both aligned with this simple framework, keeping the “bigger picture” in mind, we would have a much better learning environment for our students.