Planning to “Grade Less” this September

Tote that says "Does this bag make my assignments look marked?"

It’s the first week of July, and perhaps a little early for our teachers to begin planning for September.

But, before the planning for September begins, I am hoping that I can plant a few seeds to help teachers move away from grades and marks, and towards a model of feedback-based assessment. Here are a few suggestions to prepare for this process:

Design “Backwards”

Begin with the curriculum documents, and list all of the main standards, or overall expectations.

Rewrite in Student-Friendly Language

This is a task that will be most valuable if done with your students, so begin be re-writing a few as models to use in September. You may choose to re-write all of the standards or expectations, but your students will buy in more fully if they have a voice in the process. These could be printed, and then cut into sections. Or you might put them on “post-its”: either physical, or within Jamboard.


Re-arrange your standards or expectations, grouping them in to related clusters. You may be able to label your groupings, and perhaps even write an over-arching expectation or goal. Prepare to facilitate this same process with your students; don’t assume that their groupings will be the same as yours. Remember, your goal is to have them invested in their learning, so try this process out for yourself, but leave the real work for your class in September.

Determine Evidence of Learning

For each group, decide what might be used as evidence of successful achievement of the expectation, standard, or goal. And then list both the task criteria (what will need to be done) and the achievement criteria (what knowledge, understanding and skills will be demonstrated). These criteria can then be used as the basis for feedback, single-point rubrics, or four-point rubrics.

Plan the Flow

Order your groupings in such a way that one leads to the next, and supports the skills and knowledge necessary for progress. Consider reporting periods, and ensure that you have paced your groupings and built in conferencing time so that you will have a mark to put on report cards, if required in your jurisdiction.

Bonus: Connect it all with a Theme

When I was in grade 11, our English teacher structured our course around the theme of “Love”. She was able to connect our study of “that Scottish play” to a poetry unit on ballads, and tease out references to “Love” in almost all of our readings. I still remember how eager we were to talk about “Love” (and then, of course, “Sex”) and make connections between our readings and our current, teenaged lives.

As I designed our first semester of “Introduction to Information and Communications Technology”, which was offered within the Ontario Business Studies curriculum I looked for a unifying theme that would inspire our grade 9 students to continue within the business program. So, we took a course that was heavy on technical skills, and united all the units through the creation of a “Business Plan”. Our students did Internet research to decide on a business. They built an Access database of computer equipment to equip their new business. They designed a style sheet, and then implemented their style in both Word and Publisher. A company logo was developed in a graphics application, and then converted to work both in print and on the web. Their financial projections were developed in Excel. They developed business websites, to promote their new business. And they created PowerPoint presentations to convince their class VCs to invest in their new business.

You may have a theme in mind, or your students may be able to see new themes as they work through the process of rewriting the expectations and standards in the first few days of class. Be prepared to (happily) throw all of your planning and hard work out the window if your students come up with something better. You never know what they might create, and how it might make your semester much more fun for all of you.

School Online – Journal – Days 19, 20 and 21

This should have been only Day 19, but both Saturday and Sunday were filled with work, attempting to connect new teachers to class lists so that classes could begin today.  We were partially successful – but there are still many classes without a teacher, despite efforts by our team over the past two weeks, without break.

On Friday we met to define admin duties, and it was decided that I would take on half of the Principal role, in support of MST. So I spent Saturday pulling data from our files, and grouping teachers by the subjects they are teaching in these first two Quadmesters. I then emailed groups, introducing them to each other, so that they could connect to plan and share the work.

On Sunday it became apparent that many teachers were still to be assigned classes, and another team was busy throughout the day doing so.  My groups are now inaccurate, but at least most of the teachers are able to access the expertise of one or more others.

In the evening I was contacted by one of our Vice Principals, who was concerned that she was hearing from teachers who did not have access to our Student Information System, and did not have class lists with which to contact their students.  So, because I was in transit from my mother’s to home, she agreed to email each of the teachers, asking them if they were ready for Monday.  The negative replies were addressed throughout the evening by the two us, with my taking A-L, and her taking M-Z.

My evening even included a couple of phone calls, walking teachers through several of our processes so that they could email their students. Some of these teachers are bravely stepping into an entirely new way of teaching, and with little support.

Today I began with my university class, learning about how we support Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students from staff in our Provincial Demonstration Schools. It was new learning for me, and a wonderful experience for our about-to-be-teachers. We had an hour-long class together afterward, and we shared concerns for student with hearing impairments in this new online reality. My students have chosen to have me teach with my camera on, but with their cameras and microphones turned off.  It’s eerie talking into the void, with no feedback either through facial expressions or chatter.  I make sure I ask questions that can be responded to with emojis, and I invite them to speak when they have a question that isn’t easily written into chat. It’s awkward, but we are managing, mostly due to the fact that I have known them for a year, and so it’s akin to talking on the telephone with old friends.

When I returned to my computer at noon my inbox was at 163, and it took me until dinner to work my way through. The requests now seem to be focused on students, rather than on getting classes together. And so I was finally able to begin to delegate some of our concerns to our VP team.

Our teachers have been informed of the alpha groupings for VP issues, and subject groupings lead by Principals. So I believe our communication will now be more efficient and accurate, with faster responses.

So, what have we missed? Well, no one knows how to do attendance twice in a day. We have yet to determine duties during the asynchronous support periods, for those who are teaching only one course this Quad. I am gathering counsellor information so that our teachers can consult with their students’ community school guidance counsellors, and that will be communicated shortly. We have yet to plan for professional learning; and there is a great need among many of our teachers to develop their synchronous instruction skills. Parents don’t yet have a system to let us know when their students have been absent with permission. And, with Markbook no longer available, all of our teachers are having to figure out how they will gather, record, and track assessment data.

As I write, I am hearing that Brightspace is down. I can’t imagine how frustrating that is for teachers who have to squeeze lesson prep between dinner and bedtime. And our students who are catching up on the day’s work will be equally frustrated.  I hope it’s just a short “outage”, and that everyone will be back on soon.

I am also still hearing that teachers are confused by our timetable.  On Day 1 our teachers see their period 1 class synchronously, and then provide work for their students to continue working on asynchronously in period 3. Their period 2 class is synchronous, and then they return in period 4 to continue synchronous work.  This is to be in compliance with the Ontario Ministry of Education requirement for 225 minutes of synchronous instruction each day, while still meeting the OSSTF contract requirement for a full preparation period.  On Day 2 this switches, so the period 2 class is seen in period 1, and then asynchronously in period 3, and the period 1 class is now synchronous in periods 2 and 4.  Confused?  Well, hopefully not for long.  I have had teachers who think they can just do asynchronous all the time, and those who want to spend their prep assisting individual students.  While the latter is a personal choice, the former will get some of our teachers in trouble, so I hope they revise their practices.

Tomorrow we meet as a full admin team, and afterward with our MST team.  We will work out priorities for each of us, and processes whereby we will collaborate, and play to each of our strengths.  We are fortunate that we   have qualifications in all of the three areas, and so should be able to be a help to most of our teachers. I’m still not sure when I will actually have a .5 day, or even a .5 week.  But for now our priorities remain our teachers and students, and so shutting down email at noon, or ignoring it for a day, cannot happen.

What do I think we’ll see this week? I imagine that as classes settle, teachers’ focus will shift to some of the larger issues that remain unaddressed. Our students will begin to test their boundaries, and we will be hearing of those who are less compliant, and pushing the boundaries. At the same time I hope that teachers will begin to find time to experiment, and to stretch their skills by trying new things in this new teaching environment.  I am looking forward to hearing their stories; both their successes and dismal failures.  We will have both, but it’s the only way we will learn.

School Online – Journal – Day 14

It’s Sunday, and I’m thinking about how I would prepare for Tuesday, if I were one of our Online School teachers. 

I have now experienced an online “first day of classes” three times in my own teaching.  My classes were all with pre-service teachers, so they were students who were a little older than ours, but I think the general principles still apply.

Connect Ahead

  • Create a student email list, and send a welcome message. Be sure to use BCC for privacy.
  • Post a welcome announcement in your course.
  • Have the students reply to your announcement, or within a discussion
    • This semester I used my Spotify account to create a collaborative playlist.  I could then “share” the code within my announcement so that they could add to the playlist and play the music from there. I asked them to reply to the announcement, to explain their choice of “first day” music. I modelled this by adding “Dynamite” by BTS, and explaining that I loved the beat and their dancing.
  • Remind students that they cannot use their speakers, so they will need earbuds or earphones in order to avoid echo for everyone else.
  • Connect with the other teachers of your course.  In our Online School there may be more than 10 teachers for a single course in each of our Quadmesters. Dividing up the work, and then sharing, will be a lifesaver!

Build Your LMS Framework

  • Prepare your online materials so that they make sense to you, and so that you can explain them to your students.
  • Provide a summary page, or pages, so that students can easily find their upcoming assignments, or task lists.
  • Create PDF versions of important information, so that students can access them offline.
  • Hide most of your online content so that your students can only see the key information they will need. Don’t overwhelm! Most LMSs allow you to set dates so you don’t need to remember to publish every day.
  • KISS – Keep it Simple…..

Practice with your Synchronous Tools

  • Run a practice class with family and friends.
  • Set up your computer facing a window, or with a good light from behind your screen. Otherwise you look like a dark blob, and students cannot see your facial expressions.
  • Get comfortable earbuds or earphones, and possibly ones with a mic built in. (If you use your speakers they will feed into your microphone and create an echo that will distract your students.)
  • If you are using a tool that permits breakout rooms, practice moving students into groups manually, as well as using random allocation.
  • Consider the layout of the screen for your various purposes: seeing student faces, monitoring their chat, checking attendance, sharing your screen. If you can create multiple layouts it will make it easier as you move from direct instruction to collaborative work.

Plan to Build Community

  • Plan to co-create class norms:
    • Who has camera on?
    • How do we speak without interrupting?
    • What do we do if we need to step away?
  • Plan to create opportunities for students to connect with you and with each other:
    • Use the “reactions” to get quick responses from students, much as you would F2F: thumbs up, agree, etc.
    • Create simple polls to gather information, or come to a class decision.
    • Encourage use of the chat, both with everyone and person-to-person.
  • Create multiple channels:
    • Live in Google Meet, Teams, Zoom, Adobe Connect, etc.
    • Discussions in your LMS
    • Email distribution lists
    • Backchannel: WhatsApp, maybe even text?
      • You need a way for students to let you know if they get kicked out of your live sessions, or if their technology is not working.
      • You also need to discuss class norms regarding their use of backchannels, particularly regarding side conversations that might be hurtful or destructive.
  • Design activities that provide students with a “home” group, but let them interact with others as well. They need to get to know each other, and that takes time.
  • When presenting or when sharing a video, put a chat window beside it so that they can discuss what they are seeing and hearing, can ask questions, and you can interact with them.


  • Create a Google Drive, and have students work collaboratively within documents or slides.
    • Create a slide deck with one slide per group. While they are in breakouts, working in the slide, you can easily see who is “there” and can monitor what they are writing.  Then groups can present from the deck, and everyone can move from slide to slide themselves while listening. The deck then becomes notes for the students to refer to later.
    • Create individual docs for each group, in the same fashion as described for the slide deck.
    • NOTE:  Do not assign too many individuals to a single doc or slide. The movements of the others in the group will be distracting, and may cause significant lag.
  • Have students create an online portfolio, shared with you, in which they will present evidence of learning. This will assist you with materials management, and make determination of final marks easier than if you are depending on your own system to track all your students and their work.
  • Use threaded discussions rather than individual emails for your students to ask, and for you to respond to student questions between classes. That way you are creating a FAQ as you go, and students can refer back to them as needed. 

Mentor a Pre-Service Teacher

  • What? More work for me? Actually, no. Our pre-service teachers were ready to head out to their practicum placements at the end of March Break, and that didn’t happen.  So, they are being permitted to work directly with teachers, planning for and designing course materials. They don’t need the paperwork necessary to work directly with students; they’ll be doing that in their official placements this semester. However, many of them need additional hours, and they are available to work collaboratively with you as you plan and prepare.
  • If you are an OCT, and would appreciate the assistance of a pre-service teacher who has extensive experience with online tools (they are in their second semester of online learning themselves), please contact me and I will play “matchmaker”. Our teacher-candidates will be qualified Intermediate/Senior teachers in English, History, Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, General Science, and Health and Physical Education when they graduate in December, so they are well-prepared to assist you.

These are just a few of my ideas. Please suggest yours, or ask me questions in a reply to this blog. Together we are stronger!

School Online – Journal – Day 10

This morning I met via MS Teams with my Principal colleagues, in our monthly association meeting. The meeting was structured around questions we had for our Associate Directors, System Leads, and others with central responsibilities. Many of the concerns will also be relevant for us when our students begin online next week, so it was time well-spent.

Cohort B arrived today, for their “bonus” Period 1 day.  They will also be in attendance tomorrow, with an identical schedule as today, and then will return on Friday for their Period 2 class. They were new, but the teachers are pros by now, and the day went very smoothly.

The issue of transfers to the online school is a contentious one, with both technical and ethical roadblocks. The deadline was last Thursday, but there are many families who missed the deadline and are now appealing to school staff, Principals and even Superintendents. Not only is this an issue for the timetable, it could potentially impact all of our schools when reorganization takes place for the next Quadmester.

One of the challenges today is the list of 74 vacancies that have yet to be filled.  These are long-term-occasional positions for those on leaves of various types. We are “cold calling” in seniority order, and inviting these teachers to join our school. However, the list that we have does not indicate who among them are already committed to similar positions in our bricks and mortar schools.  Several have taken this as an opportunity to change their assignment for the year, neglecting to recognize that they are obligated to fulfil the duties of the position they originally accepted.  So, some of our Principal colleagues are understandably upset when these teachers inform them that they’re switching jobs.  Thankfully there is a consistent message that this is not possible, and they must honour their agreements.

Our numbers are now more than 10,000, and so the timetabling process involves lengthy “simulations”, and is moving slowly as a result.  One glitch today was where there were 10 classes of the same subject in the same period, but the program was putting twice the number of students in five classes, and leaving the other five empty.  No idea why the program might do this, but thankful that there are software developers able to jump in and remedy the situation.

I am anxious to hear which group will become my “school”. We will be dividing into subject-based groupings, so that we can better support the teachers for whom we are responsible. And I am looking forward to being able to respond to emails about teaching assignments with more information than “we’ll be able to let you know once the timetables are built”.

In the meantime, I hope our teachers are working their way through the Brightspace training materials, reflecting on changes they might wish to make to their courses, and anticipating a year of learning and growth.  I hope that the opportunity to work on course teams that could be as large as 10 to 15 teachers will result in stronger connections, better courses, and improved student achievement.

School Online – Journal – Day 7 and a half….

Well, you know we are in a “new normal” when emails are sent out at 4:37 on a Saturday, to respond to changes since Friday.

Our teachers received an email, ahead of the posting of a letter to parents on our board’s website, letting them know that our online population has grown from 54,000 to more than 64,000 in the past week, and so additional time will be needed to build a new timetable, to ensure an equitable and successful start for all staff and students.  For our secondary folks this means that their students will work on a cross-curricular independent inquiry project aligned to our core subject, which can then be reviewed by teachers as a pre-instruction assessment, to gauge where students are in their learning.  Students will have access next Tuesday, will receive their timetables by the end of the week, and will join their classes the following Tuesday.

I’m hoping that this additional time will provide a respite for them, following four days of COVID orientation in their community schools.  And knowing that they will have some time to prepare before launching their synchronous classes should offset the anxiety that this uncertainty might be generating.

I’m thinking that, if this trend continues, we should change our language from “excessed” from the community school to “seconded” to the Online School.  I’m also imagining that for some teachers the fully online will have some appealing features missing from the hybrid community school model.  They will see their students every day.  They will be working with a full class each day, rather than half. They will be able to create a scope and sequence and then follow it in a cycle between synchronous and asynchronous. And they will be able to refine their online processes, and develop expertise.

And those in our community schools, where they see half a class on Monday morning, and the other on Thursday morning, with asynchronous between, and a synchronous session on Tuesday and Friday, will have a more challenging planning task ahead of them. Three different learning environments within one class, and not always in the same sequence, will require that they abandon their linear approach.  It’s likely to be unsettling, but I think it will break down some of the routines, and promote creative solutions to better serve our students.

In both settings this promises to be a year of growth and learning, for both teachers and students.

School Online – Journal – Day 4

After the long weekend, we teachers expect to head back to school, meet our students, and embark on the new school year with excitement and optimism.

This year is different.

Teachers in “bricks and mortar” schools in our district are spending this week orienting students to the new reality of COVID-19. Today they welcome Cohort A of the grade 9’s, and tomorrow it will be Cohort B of grade 9.  Thursday and Friday will Cohorts A and then B of grades 10, 11 and 12. They won’t be together as a class until next week, and then it will be the start of the “Quadmester” rather than “Semester”. Students will be enrolled in two courses, and they will be at school for two mornings, and working both asynchronously and synchronously at their computers at home for the rest of the time. So, teachers will be doing icebreakers and syllabus review for their four groups on Monday, but some will be F2F, some will be asynchronous, and some will be synchronous. No longer can they plan one “Day One” lesson.

But these aren’t even the School Online teachers. These are the teachers who are remaining in the “bricks and mortar” schools, to teach 83% of our secondary schools.

The School Online teachers don’t yet know what they will be teaching, have not yet been told who will be their administrators, and have received no training. They remain in their Home schools, doing primarily hallway supervision and directing the flow of students.  Not a very exciting or inspiring way to begin the school year!

So, today we meet as an admin team.  I am hoping that timetables have been built, and that teachers will soon learn their assignments.

Our “bricks and mortar” teachers can begin to plan their new repertoire of instruction, with some content provided F2F, some asynchronously, and some synchronously.  Since they have Cohort A and Cohort B of the same class, they are also going to need to duplicate the same content and activity in more than one mode, if they wish to follow the same scope and sequence. Or, they are going to have teach in lessons that do not have to follow a specific sequence, if they wish to use the same asynchronous content for both Cohorts. And since Wednesdays will be a “bonus” day for each of the four groups, as soon as we complete week 2 the groups will be out of synch. So many things to consider!

One of our district teachers has built a beautiful planning spreadsheet to help. Check out the twitter account of @miss_jtoor, and her Google Sheet at It’s wonderful to see teachers make sense of their new reality!

But our School Online teachers are in limbo, so their anxiety is growing. They don’t know what they are teaching. They don’t know who they will be teaching. They don’t know their schedule, beyond 8:30 to 2:30. And it is the first day of school!

Tomorrow I will share more details of both our hybrid “bricks and mortar” schools and our online school.