Primary Preoccupation

A grade one teacher inviting the world into her classroom

Primary Preoccupation - A grade one teacher inviting the world into  her classroom

Making Math Thinking Visible with iPads

I’m not a big fan of using technology as a digital way to do what can be done on paper. We use iPads in my classroom.  I’ve seen lots of online examples of students using iPads to make a “good copy” of their writing or to practice number facts, but to me that is like buying a Ferrari to only drive six blocks to church each Sunday.  It works, but what a waste! The power of technology is the power to create.

My students create many different artifacts, but the most meaningful are those in which my students show their learning and their thinking in ways that are far beyond what a worksheet could do.  When they make a video or screencast of what they have learned, I can hear and see their thinking. I can also hear confidence or hesitation, self-corrections or errors in perception. Consider these math examples produced by my students.


Sharing Learning

I love it when I can watch a video or a screencast that a student has created and know that the student has grasped the concept that we have been working on. For example, when I saw this, I knew that the creator was beginning to count by twos.


And this student knew how to count using groups of tens and counting on with ones.


Sharing Thinking

But what really gets me excited is when something that a student creates shows me not only that the student can DO a process, but that he or she UNDERSTANDS the concept as well. A worksheet might show me that this student understood the concept of capacity, but this video shows me that he not only knows which container holds more, but that he can also explain how he knows that. His learning could transfer to another situation.


This student understands the concept of heaviest/lightest and understands how a balance scale shows you this.

When my young students’ math learning and thinking is visible, I can better understand their thought process, and am better able to help them to learn. Isn’t that my goal as a teacher?

[Note: All of the screencasts in this post were created using the Draw and Tell app by Duck, Duck Moose.]

Assessing Student Progress Using Blog-Based Portfolios

This article was originally published on the Powerful Learning blog of Powerful Learning Practice.

A Great Tool to Continuously Assess Progress

In my classroom, each of my grade one and grade two students has their own blog. These blogs also serve as digital portfolios. Throughout the school year, the children post artifacts of their learning from all subject areas, including writing samplespodcasts of reading fluency,photos of artworkexplanations of mathematics concepts and videos that summarize their learning in science, health and social studies. (Note: The videos linked to in this blog post work best when played through Google Chrome.)

The children have these online portfolios for many reasons, including an authentic audience, parental engagement, and the opportunity to create an online community. We also use these digital portfolios for assessment, but not in the “this goes on the report card” sense that you might expect.

Formative Assessment

I am continually doing formative assessment in my classroom — that is, assessment for learning. As I watch the students, listen to their questions and answers and see the learning artifacts they produce, I am constantly gauging their understanding of a concept and their readiness to move on to the next one. Experienced teachers do a lot of this kind of immediate, ongoing assessment without much conscious thought.

This continuous formative assessment is one of the primary purposes of our digital portfolios in my mind. The artifacts on my students’ digital portfolios inform my teaching and help me to meet the particular needs of each of my learners. The chronological nature of blog posts lets my students, their parents and me see where the children began and where they are at present. We can think together about where we want to go next.

In fact, we use what is posted on the student’s blog as the starting points for our discussions at our student-led conferences where we look (with parents) at what they have posted and set goals for the next term.

Verbal explanations I have always used formative assessment in my classroom, but our digital portfolios give me much richer information than our paper portfolios ever did. Because my young students are still beginning writers, it is often difficult for them to explain their learning through writing. They can, however, explain their learning verbally. There are lots of apps (including my current iPad favorites Educreations and Draw & Tell) that record voice over an image. These digital artifacts allow me to understand a child’s thinking in a much deeper way.

For example, I recently asked my grade two students to record their thinking while solving a two-digit math equation that involved “borrowing.” They were all able to demonstrate for me that they could do the process involved in solving this kind of equation. If I had been using paper for this that would have been the end of my understanding. Because the students had recorded their thinking at the same time using a screen-casting app, I could tell that although they could all do the mechanics of the problem, most of them could not enunciate that they were actually borrowing a ten. Clearly more learning needed to be done. If I had been using paper portfolios, I would not have realized this.

When my grade one students explained the addition strategies that they knew using a screen-casting app, I had only to watch their videos to realize which students needed further instruction for which strategies.

Self-assessment is part of our formative assessment process. Self-reflection is important to any learner, whether old or young. While I ask my students to self-assess frequently, I have only recently begun asking them to include this as part of their portfolio. I intend to make this a more regular habit. KC-using-ipads

Summative Assessment

There are some occasions when I think a student’s digital portfolio can be used for summative assessment or assessment of learning.

For example, at the end of units of learning in science, social studies or health, I ask my students to create a project that shows what they have learned about that particular topic. We talk about digital and paper choices they could make for sharing what they know (despite our 1-to-1 iPad environment, markers and poster board are still extremely popular). Then we make an anchor chart about what they should include in their project.

One of the criteria for these end-of-unit summaries is that they must be put into a digital form that can be posted on their blog. Making a video that shows the artifact they have created along with a verbal explanation of the necessary information is the most popular way to do this. Once the students have completed the assignment, I have a rich record of their learning. I use these projects as summative assessment.

The important thing that makes this assessment summative is that the students know, before they start, that this is going to be used as a final assessment. They also know what needs to be included and the criteria that I will be using when I judge it.

Sometimes No Assessment is Necessary

A few of the items that my students post to their portfolio are for neither formative norsummative assessment. KC-student-illustrationThese are posts that are selected by the students themselves to show the things that they have chosen to learn on their own –  either during an indoor recess (we get more than our share of these during the winters in Saskatchewan), at home, or after they have completed a project at school. These posts include drawings of SpongeBob SquarePants, pictures of Lego creations or videos of dominos falling.

While these creations have nothing to do with our curriculum, they are important to the child and thus important to include as part of their digital portfolio.

The beauty of digital portfolios is that as the children and I are constantly assessing their learning in a formative and summative way, the students are also demonstrating their growing knowledge for a wide audience and learning about digital citizenship and appropriate online behavior. What great by-products of the assessment process!

Whose Conference Is It Anyhow?

A few weeks ago, some of my students and I made this short video to show how they feel about blogging. It’s also in my soon-to-be-released book. (End of commercial, I promise.)

What does a blog have to do with student conferences? As one of the children mentions in the video, my students use their blog as an online portfolio. That is, a digital record of what they have been learning and doing in our classroom. That portfolio is the focal point of our student-led conference.

The Portfolio Belongs to the Students

I’ve blogged before about why my students have digital portfolios. The writing, videos, images and podcasts that are part of each student’s portfolio are at first likely to be selected by myself, but as the year progresses, the students take more and more of a role in this choice. Sometimes I ask everyone to post about a certain outcome on their blog. If that is the case, the students usually have choice as to the medium they chose to use. For example, we recently posted about what we had been learning in math and, with several apps to choose from, some students chose to use Educreations while others chose Draw and Tell.  Other times, the students themselves choose what they want to post. During the spate of indoor recesses we had this winter, many of the students took pictures of their recess “creations”, whether falling dominos, Lego creations or villages with 3D blocks and posted these on their blogs. If we have all completed a paper artifact of some kind, I will remind them saying, “if you’d like to post this on your blog, go ahead”. Some do and some don’t. When we were using pastels and practicing perspective, I offered this option. About half of the students chose to post their drawing.  It is their portfolio, so I want them to have some choice about what it contains.

The Conference Belongs to the Students

Twice each year, my school division holds student-led conferences. I ask my students to choose three things that they think they have done well to share at this meeting. Before the conference, I meet briefly with each student to find out what he or she has chosen to share. I do sometimes have criteria. For example, at the conferences we just held, I asked that one of the posts they shared contain writing so that we could discuss that.

When it is time for the conference, the students, with varying amounts of support from me, talk about each of the artifacts that they have chosen, focusing on what they have done well and what they would like to get better at.

I am so proud of the growth in skills and confidence that my students displayed during their conferences. One of my students, who spent our conference last fall huddled on her mother’s knee, answering with only nods, head shakes and occasional words, confidently stood up in front of her parents and with only a little prompting from me, shared aloud what her learning had been for each of the artifacts she had chosen. I felt like I would burst with pride.

Another of my students’ mother could not be present during the conference, so her father made a video of “her presentation” to take home to share. The students know what they need to learn. Our conference is a chance for them to share their progress toward that target.

The Goals Belong to the Students

Another of the objectives of the student-led conference is for the students, with input from myself and from their parents, to set a goal for the next term. Our report cards have a section for goal setting that includes student strengths, goals and steps the student, their parents and I will each take to help meet those goals.  I am always prepared with some options for this, because although the student is not familiar with our curriculum, I do want the student to have some choice. Because I usually teach grade one, the goal we choose is often a reading goal, but if the child is doing well in this area, I will sometimes have some suggestions in other areas as well.  Once the child has chosen the goal, we discuss what the student, their parents and I will each do to help in reaching that goal. The student feels ownership because he or she has been involved in choosing it and in deciding how it will be met.

Like my students, I too am on a learning journey. I get choice in my learning goals. This blog is my space and I get to choose what I post and when. As much as I can, I want to provide those same opportunities for my students. It is their conference. They should have some of the choices that ownership implies.


It’s Your Choice…You Choose

 I have been thinking a lot about the importance of choice lately.  Recently, I ran into the parent of a child I previously taught, and it reminded me of a moment when I gave an answer to her child that I now regret.

Last spring, at the end of a unit of study about plants, I asked my students, as a culminating project,  to make an artifact of some kind to show their learning.  We wanted to put this artifact on our blog, so we talked about several tools that they could use to show their learning. I no longer remember all of the options, but I know they included writing an article for their blog, drawing a picture to post on their blog, making a book using Storybird and making a video using Sketchcast.  I wanted them to have a choice of what was best for them to use.

One boy came up to me to ask if he could use Vocaroo, the voice recording tool we were using that year.  To my shame, I said “no”.  I think my reasoning was that I wanted him to have the opportunity to practice using text, and all of the other options could have included written words.

What you need to know about this child is that although he is verbally bright, he has a severe text disability, so severe that he could recognize only about 20 words by the end of grade one.  Obviously, anything involving text brings him great frustration.

Fortunately, it did not take long for me to come to my senses and assure this child that using a voice recording of his learning was indeed an option for him, but my shame in my moment of realization made a deep impact on me.

I will never forget our short conversation because of my emotional response and because it made me stop and re-evaluate what I was doing as a teacher who says she values choice.  All of us have strengths and weaknesses, and while it is important for us (and our students) to work on those things that we are not good at, it is also important for us to have a chance to show our learning using a medium that can help us to best capture that knowledge.

If the choices don’t include all students in a way that is relevant to them, is it really choice?

The What is Clear, but the How. . .

Clarence Fisher, responding to a post by David Jakes, talks about the challenges of assessing contributions in a networked classroom.  It made me sit up and take stock of the way I assess this in my classroom.  My students are not at the Wikipedia editing stage, but can blog and comment, as well as add to primary oriented wikis.   

I allow my classroom blog to be a showcase of my students’ emergent writing.  From their first post to their last, I do not edit or revise their work, although I am constantly encouraging them to do this themselves.   Instead, if I think that the student’s spelling might not be understood by the reader, I will add a note in brackets to indicate what the student intended to say.  (I have been reading emergent writer for a long time, and so I need to remember that what is clear to me might not be clear to someone else who does not read six-year-old writing every day.  I have been called on this.)  At the end of the year, the students and I can look back at all of their posts and clearly see the improvement in their writing abilities, as can their parents.  Assessing their blog entries is the easy part. 

By this time of the year, most of the students’ writing can be understood by the uninitiated, and I encourage them to comment on the posts of their friends, and other primary classes that we have as blogging buddies.  Aside from the fact that their writing in general improves every time they write, how can I assess the comments that are sent to other blogs?   

Last Friday was a school holiday, and one of Mark Ahlness’ students, Alec, took the time to send seven thoughtful and encouraging comments to my children.  I did email Mark to tell him about it, but otherwise, how would Mark even know that this out-of-school interaction took place? 

I have way more questions than answers.  Maybe I need to add to that self-assessment tool 

Six Year Olds CAN Self-Assess

Since we just finished report cards and parent-teacher-student conferences, I’ve been thinking a lot about self-assessment.  I have tried this often in the past, but met with little success.  Part of this has been the age of the children that I teach.  Six year olds in general think they can do anything, and the self-assessments that they have done for me have, with the odd exception, reflected this.  Also, in retrospect, I realize that I created too many different self-assessments, so that the children never felt comfortable with one before I had moved on to another.

Primary self-assessments usually ask students to reflect on their strengths and then colour in, for each area, one of three pre-made faces: one with the mouth turned up, one with the mouth turned down and the other one that I never know what to call (the mouth isn’t turned up or down, it’s just straight across).  I have prepared self-assessments in lots of curriculum areas, but have always been discouraged by the fact that almost every child had a paper full of coloured happy faces.

Despite my lack of success, I have really wanted to make this work.  This past fall, borrowing heavily from the work of Dawn Kesslering, I designed a new self-assessment tool that included components from all the strands of our language arts curriculum and our math curriculum as well as some personal and social indicators.  When we used the tool together last fall, it took us about forty minutes to complete, and I had to explain for each of the thirty-one areas what each of the faces would mean in that context.  When we had our conferences, I asked the children to share two things from the tool that they were good at and one thing that they wanted to improve.  The parents and I smiled at each other over their heads as they explained how good they were at subtraction (we hadn’t done any yet and none of them understood what it was) or how well they left spaces between their words when they wrote (very few of them did).

We redid the same self-assessments last week just before our conferences, and I was amazed at the honest and accurate reflection they were able to do.  Only one or two students still felt they could “do it all”.  What really surprised me, though, was the way they were able to pick out areas that really were strengths for them, and zero in on areas that they wanted to improve during the conference with their parents.  Lesson learned.  I can’t wait to see how they do in June. 

Then there is the intriguing fact that out of thirty-one items, the twins, in separate interviews, picked out exactly the same ones to show their mother. . . 


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