An Ode To Not Being A Leader…Or A Follower

Why Do You Need to Be A Leader?

not a leaderOh wait…you don’t!

One of the most overused terms in education today is the word LEADER. When you think about leaders in your schools who are they? How many of them hold system wide titles of LEADER?

-instructional leaders

-student leaders

-administrative leaders

-curriculum leaders

-lead learners

My experience is that some of the people in the education system who are labelled as leaders are not really leaders at all. Rather they fill a role of disseminating information and top down educational pedagogy to the masses (teachers) in an effort to create a homogenized system. For some educators, this is rich nourishment for the teaching soul which provides direction on how to best teach their students. If you happen to be a member of this particular group I think that is great. So long as you objectively question what best practices are being shared and adopt only those that will best serve your students.

There is however another group of educators out there (of which I am a member) who find the number of ‘leaders’ identified in our system and the expectation that everyone should be a leader to be somewhat problematic. My concerns are 3 fold:

1) Most leaders are not selected by their peers and often do not reflect the experiences and identified areas of need deemed important by many educators. This results in people being placed in ‘leadership positions’ who are not truly leaders of the people they have been selected to lead.

2) The pressure being placed on teachers and students alike to ‘be a leader’ (in the educational mold) is counter productive. There are many like myself who are not interested in being what the system deems as being a leader and does not feel comfortable placing those expectations on students. Susan Cain’s  book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, discusses how society has placed negative labels on introverts and artificially elevated the importance of being an extrovert. I have many students over the years who have crumbled under the pressure of being bullied into being what they are not, in the attempt to make them fit the current narrow definition of a leader. 

3) It is OK not to want to be a leader…or a follower! Using Twitter, PLC’s, interaction with colleagues and engaging students voice, I am able to work collaboratively with the world around me without the power based (inconsequential) label of leader.

I do not want to be led by others and I am not interested in being an institutional leader. Rather I want my students and I to learn to make personal connections with anyone and everyone who can help us accomplish all of the things we wish to accomplish. I have no time or energy for labels, succession plans, hierarchies etc.

In the end, I just want to work with anyone who can help me achieve my goals, help my students achieve their goals and assist anyone who can use our help or expertise.

So please, when you come to my classroom, check your ‘leader’ label at the door. We are all working, learning and sharing our talents which each other.


If you have any comments I would love to hear them.


TLAC 2015 (Collaborative Learning in the Arts)

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
Pablo Picasso

“Creativity takes courage. ”
Henri Matisse

TLAC (Trillium Lakelands Arts Camp) is only 4 days away. It brings together approximately 400 of our boards most creative grade 7-12 students and educators to learn and share our love of the arts for 6 days at Camp White Pine. This will be my sixth year attending and it always one of the highlights of my year. As a teacher I get to spend time learning from and with so many talented and wonderful students. I get to see first hand how the arts positively impacts so many of our students, staff and guest instructors. Watching these kids create spectacular pieces of visual art from their imaginations, learn to play and then present a number of pieces of music, develop complex dance routines, write and perform emotionally powerful spoken word poetry and choreograph/present a full music theatre number always leaves me humbled and in awe.

When the school year begins to weigh heavy upon my shoulder a trip to TLAC always revives my teaching spirit. While the artistic skill of these students leave me amazed and the expertise of the instructors always provide me with great ideas to take back to my own class, it is not the products of their work that inspires me. Rather it is the inclusive and positive energy they give. Their youthful enthusiasm is infectious. Their willingness to accept and support everyone is inspiring. From the moment they depart their buses they are ready to share this unique experience TOGETHER. It does not matter if you have never been to TLAC or don’t know anyone there, the positive ‘vibe’ brings everyone together.

In my mind it is what the ideal school should be. Student and adults learning from each other, following and sharing their passions/expertise and located on a beautiful piece of property where your 4 walls are the water, forest, sky and ground. I can’t wait to get there on Sunday…and I look forward to sharing a laugh with you all.


How I Run A No-Grades Classroom

no grades picture   by Mark Janke

Many people question how a no-grades classroom can work, how can a teacher run such a class and still complete report cards? What is important to remember is that there are many ways to run a no-grades classroom, this piece explain how I do it and how it has benefited my students.

First I do assign the students grades, they just don’t see them. just like every other teacher I have a mark book filled with numbers that attempt to represent my students learning. While I may not personally believe the number helps my students learn (in fact I find it a hindrance), I do ensure that I am doing what is expected of me as a teacher. In my class students are given marks/numerical grades whenever they ask for them. It just so happens no student has asked me for a grade since early October.

My classroom is built upon an inquiry based learning model with student/teacher created success criteria and teacher feedback (I continue to try to attempt more peer and self feedback). It is our belief that all students need to focus on how to improve their skills and develop pride in their work. This pride must come from inside, and not be based on a number assigned by a teacher or peer. Students tell me they love the freedom they enjoy to explore topics and areas of interest yet they also feel the burden of having to take more ownership over their own learning. They agree however that the occasional stress they feel with driving their own learning is far less than they felt when receiving numerical grades. The students explained to me that after seeing a numerical grade they were unlikely to read any comments.

As a class we focus on providing feedback on specific skills we deem to be important. We use the feedback rubric (posted below) as it provides success criteria for the assigned task, an easy to read/follow format and specific feedback on student/teacher created indicators. If a student receives feedback in concerns box it means they have not yet achieved the expectation (which would correspond to a level 1 or 2). If the expectation is highlighted or checked they met the expectations (level 3). If they receive feedback in the mastery box they have exceeded the expectation which would generally be a level 4. Using this method the students have a general idea how they are doing based on the location of the written feedback and the nature of it. And yet there is no grade, level or numerical assessment.

science epic fail pic

I have seen many of my students flourish using this tool and by eliminating numerical grades. Stress has decreased, focus on improving specific skills has increased which has resulted in improved work and greater confidence. I can’t imagine going back to the assigning of grades. That being said, I do record them and make them available to any student who wishes them.

If you would like to know more please feel free to ask.

All the best,


Make School Different: 5 Things We Need to Stop Pretending

I have very much enjoyed reading the diverse posts at #makeschooldifferent of late. I just can’t help adding my Top 5 to the virtual discourse, so here goes…

1. We need to stop pretending… to celebrate differences in our staff and students and actually embrace them. There are many educators trying to change the culture of the traditional school. This includes developing new types of relationships with students in an effort to promote the most positive and productive learning environment possible. Too many teachers, administrators and parents are afraid of change. In doing so they themselves become ‘barriers’ to creating a unique educational experience that every student deserves.

2. We need to stop pretending… that every student needs to be a vocal leader who loves school. In an effort to create a positive school environment and turn out ‘ good character robots,’ some teachers attempt to force all students to be ‘leaders.’ I am all for encouraging students to be kind, respectful, happy people. Not everyone has a bubbly personality or is interested in taking up the next great cause selected by the teacher. This does not make them a bad person.

3.  We need to stop pretending… that just because we call something an authentic learning task (or real world learning task) that it is. For example, when we ask our class to calculate the area of a back yard which is 10m by 14m, and have them figure out how much it would cost to build a fence, this is not an authentic learning task. Do we do this at home all of the time? The answer is no! If we were to go buy the materials and build the fence, we can then call it an authentic learning task.

4. We need to stop pretending… that learning needs to happen in a classroom with a teacher looking over a student’s shoulder. Depending on the grade level, teachers need to get out of the way and let students learning on their own. We should be there to assist them not micromanage them.  

5. We need to stop pretending… that the positives of grades and standardized testing outweigh the negatives. Simply…they don’t

Hope you enjoy or don’t enjoy my list. Either way, I hope it adds to the discussion.

I challenge all educators from TLDSB to share their Top 5.

Can Throwing Out Grades Help Students with a Mental Health Illness?

You bet it can!

It also helps nearly all of our students reduce personal levels of anxiety. Don’t take my word for it, here are two examples of how my grade 7/8 students this year are experiencing a no grades classroom for the first time.

eliminate grades

Student A is an above average student who routinely works hard to produce her best work. Last year she would routinely worry about what grade she would receive on completed work. Often asking me to look at her work ahead of time and provide a preliminary grade so she would know how much more work she needed to do to achieve a higher grade. When she occasionally submitted lower level work for her (as well all do at times) she would begin to spiral out of control with worry about failing.

This year, without grades she is a much happier/positive person and is now finally enjoying the learning process. Recently we talked about how this year was different than last year and she told me it all comes down to not having the pressure of grades. Several times last year she came to me stressed that she lost marks (in this case 10%) on her writing piece (she got 90%) and how she could get to 100%. This past week she laughed about how much pressure she felt to get a certain grade and how she hated school because of it. Without grades she now focuses on the feedback provided and is finally able to celebrate the good that she is doing and focus on improving her skills to be ready for high school next year.

Student B is a hard working student who has academic and anxiety challenges. She explained to me that she was dumb. That it took her longer to complete her work than the ‘normal kids’ and that her grades proved that she is simple not smart and never will be. There is nothing that makes a teacher feel worse than to hear these words…you all know what I mean. She began this year with a high level of anxiety and little hope for her learning future. Her challenges with anxiety began to spiral out of control and led to some significant challenges.

After spending a significant amount of time working with her to understand the nature of her fears we realized it led back to her perception of her peers and the crushing finality of grades. Removing grades from the equation resulted in a fairly quick change in her feelings. As she expresses to me, I can now see past the number as there isn’t one. There are things I can do really well, but I did not know this before. I still struggle and get frustrated by things like math, but now I can usually get it by working hard.

In the span of a couple of months, Student A and Student B have reduced their anxiety levels about school in general, developed a more open mindset about learning in general (especially at school) and are much more invested in the learning process.

Elimination of grades = decreased anxiety

Elimination of grades = increase in positive self-esteem

Elimination of grades = focus on mastering skills, not achievement of a number

Elimination of grades = a more open mindset to learning

***Any students who wish to know their numeric grade on an assignment may simply ask me and I will provide it. No one has asked in the past 6 months.

Learning or Achievement

“Grades are history” is a profound way of thinking about the difference between achievement (the past) and learning (the present and future).

This one of those ideas I wish I had articulated myself…thanks @pmillerscdsb!

I could not agree with you more.

Learning Momentum

What is our purpose? Our why?

Most people want to say learning. Student learning that carries on beyond the classroom. But the further you get from the student desk, the harder it is to say that, and mean it. Get far enough away from the student desk and it sometimes becomes less about learning and more about achievement. More about standardized scores, grades and averages. When you can’t see and hear and experience student learning directly, it is easy (and understandable) to look for measures to know how well our children are learning. The trouble is that these measures are limited in what they can tell you, just as they are limited in what they can tell the student.

Achievement is about the past.
Learning is about the present and future.

Students often see grades as an end point. Grades are history. Whether it’s an A or a D, a grade says “That’s it…

View original post 281 more words

Thanks to our IL and friend!

We are now less than one month away from our TLDSB Dragons Den pitches. All 27 groups have finalized their products/business and are continuing to gather research and find ways to improve their products and plans.

However I want to spend a moment talking about one of our adult collaborators (Mr. Peter Yungblut). Last year he assisted us by interviewing parents and students involved in our collaborative learning project.

This year, he has been working hard behind the scenes to gather dragons to listen to our student pitches and ask important questions. The inclusion of local business leaders and educators will provide the students with a real world experience (something we are striving for as educators). Peter’s hard work and dedication to the project is continuing to improve it, He continues to make strong connections with our community and use them to provide all the students with an authentic learning experience. In the beginning our project included 3 schools and over 100 grade 7/8 students. Now it not only includes them but also community members who can bring their expertise and experience to our students. This is what education should be about!!

On behalf of everyone who is involved in the Dragons Den, thank you Peter for being so dedicated to this project, our students and creating a unique learning experience in our board!


PD – Kudos to the ICT Staff at TLDSB

Most educators will tell you anyone who listens that there is nothing more frustrating than being forced or subjected to PD sessions that are a total waste of time. The outrageous demands placed on educators today coupled with the finite time we have to achieve them, means that we need every minute to count. With this in mind I want to dedicate this blog to the ICT staff at Trillium Lakelands District School Board.


Over the past 4 years I have been involved in several technology based initiatives and programs at our board. These include the Integrated Technology Champions program, the Innovation through Inquiry Program, Digital Learning Classroom initiative and a recipient of a Program Enhancement Grant. All of these programs are designed and run by our dedicated ICT staff members.

Their efforts have enabled my students and I:

-to not only integrate technology into our learning environment, but Redefine HOW WE LEARN (SAMR model) AND HOW WE SHARE IT WITH THE WORLD (Twitter, YouTube, D2L & our classroom website)

-to consistently choose the most appropriate type of technology to complete any given task (IPad, laptop, Google Drive, online application etc.)

-to engage in learning with students from other school – collaboration and group projects through the web (Dragons Den)

-to be aware of our digital footprints and how to shape them to our advantage

-to understand that netiquette is a core value of all digital relationships

-to push the boundaries of our understanding and move outside our comfort zones (infographics, sharing completed work with the world)

-to view technology, AT ITS BEST as a powerful tool which can be used to develop our best selves, while AT ITS WORST  as a video game console which can create a generation of copy and pasting plagiarizers. 


Many of the best aspects of my classroom, powerful assignments, engaging learning opportunities, positive learning environment, integration of technologies to redefine our learning outcomes can be attributed back to conversations at PD sessions led by our ICT department. Every session I have attended over that last 5 years has left me excited to return to school to share these ideas/suggestions with peers and students. How many workshops can you say that you have been to where you know there will be several ideas or learning processes that can be brought back to your classroom and will improve the learning experiences of your students. While our leaders continually provide us with training on new programs, apps, and ideas for how they could be used, they always look to see what we are attempting to achieve with our students and how we work together to share our best practices with others.

In particular I would like to thank Jeremy and Tina for all of the time and effort they have put forth over the past few years. They consistently hear the whining, complaining and attempt to fix all of the many things that tend to go wrong with technology on a daily basis. Their patience and understanding when overwhelmed by teachers’ anxiety, frustration, anger and downright rudeness is inspiring to me. Thank you to all of the ICT staff, especially those we never see. We know you are working for all of us.

Keep up the great work.

Student Voice…A Powerful Tool, Misunderstood Toxic Element or Both?

If you have read the title of this post and said to yourself, this guy is crazy. Please do not pass judgement on me until you read the entire piece. Like everything else I welcome all opinions and feedback.

I am an intermediate teacher who believes that student voice is a critical aspect of my learning, teaching, professional reflection and key to a successful classroom. When however it is implemented poorly or completely misunderstood by those who are forced to implement it without a plan , it can quickly become a poison which can cause conflict and dissension in any school setting.

The term ‘student voice’ has become the catchphrase at many school boards in Ontario and a pillar of many board improvement plans over the past few years. It is a term that is overused in education today and rarely honoured by those who espouse it most. It has become the catchphrase of many educators and administrative upcommers and wannabes who hope to make a lasting impression at meetings, interviews, camp fires etc.

The Capacity Building Series (published by the Student Achievement Division of the LNS) refers to student voice as a metaphor for student engagement. It is a means of bringing students into the role of co-learners with both teachers and parents in a positive collaborative framework.

student voice visual                                                                   student voice visual 2

While nearly all educators agree (in theory) this could be a powerful tool to encourage students become more engaged in the learning process, it has often been implemented with blinding speed by upper management with far too many negative unintended consequences.

Principals have been bullied into demonstrating how they are using student voice to improve learning in their schools. However it has been implemented in a forced homogenised manner which often leaves teachers feeling abandoned by their principals and at the mercy of their students.

First and foremost, challenges experienced in the education system over the past few years has placed a significant strain on parent-student and parent-teacher relationships. Traditional high level of respect for teachers has been replaced by anger, frustration and disrespect. These feelings are most often experienced by parents and communities who then pass this anger or distrust on to their kids. This has directly resulted in students having far less respect for teachers, schools and an ambivalence toward school work in general.  This negative cycle becomes perpetuated by students received negative message from parents about schools and their teachers and thus becoming increasing disrespectful toward teachers.

All of this has resulted in an abnormally high level of student entitlement (with little accountability being placed back onto the students).

In many places this misrepresentation of the spirit of student voice has resulted in student feeling empowered to actively pressure education professionals to do what they want without a sense of the responsibility that comes along with it. Additionally parents are being fed this false belief that they can use their negative voices (in the guise of student voice) to push personal agendas and force changes upon schools. The difficultly with this is that principals and teachers (who work on the front line) are caught in the middle of this. It has additionally become a new weapon to be used by parents, students and administration to push personal agendas in an attempt to stifle the teacher voice.

My reflection here is that student voice is a critical piece of the education model if and when it is introduced and monitored carefully. Unfortunately that is not likely to be the case.  Current evidence suggests it will be yet another new board initiative that will be poorly incorporated and quickly swept under the rug as a new catch phrase comes from a fire side chat to blow us in yet another direction.

Oh, what could be!

Student Voice is (1280x495)

Replacing Traditional Grades with 4 Words

I wish the idea was originally mine, it seems so simple and intuitive. How are traditional number and letter grades related to student learning? Yes…yes we have all heard the weak arguments about grades representing a students level of achievement related to curriculum expectations. However, this does not answer my question….how are grades related to a students learning? The actual answer is they are not! The sooner we all get on board with this reality the better our instruction practices and our students will be.

Recently I have been reading Tweets and writings from Mark Barnes and Joe Bower. These two men clearly explain the importance of learning being about the exchange of information (feedback) with students and not about providing subjective numbers on a report card or offering rewards and punishments. Barnes’s article entitled “HOW 4 SIMPLE WORDS CAN SOLVE EDUCATION’S BIGGEST PROBLEM” does a masterful job of explaining how subjective grading does little to help students learn. It is simply a relic from the past. Real learning requires the student to be engaged in reflective conversations with their teacher. I add that we need to hear and discuss with our students their ideas, points of view and perspectives on their own work so that we as educators have enough information to truly provide accurate, empowering feedback. Otherwise it is a note on a page (or rubric) which the students can not fully appreciate of understand.

Mark Barnes advocates what he calls the SE2R model:


  • Summarize — Provide a one- or two-sentence statement of what was accomplished.
  • Explain — Give a detailed, objective explanation of what learning is demonstrated and/or what is missing, based on the activity’s guidelines.
  • Redirect — When learning outcomes are not demonstrated, redirect students to prior learning or to seek help from the teacher or a peer.
  • Resubmit — Ask students to resubmit activities, projects or assessments, after they’ve returned to prior lessons and models and made changes to the work. This way the teacher can re-assess for mastery learning.

Our report cards do not need numbers, they should be records of the reflections discussed by the teacher and student during the term. It should indicate the strengths, areas of need and next steps to achieve the identified goals. Our statistically driven society (which has been hammered into our students by peers and parents) has resulted in an increase in student anxiety and compulsion about grades. Far too often I am spending time with students and parents trying to persuade them that the numerical grade is far less important than the actual learning. Why are we so fascinated by a subjective number on a page and less interested by the qualitative description of the actual development of the child? I am still astounded by this fact.

When I look through the Ontario Curriculum I find the enormity of it to be disheartening. I believe that mastery learning based on feedback from the teacher during reflective conversations with students should be the goal of all educators. We need to start focusing more on how well our children are learning and less on how much!