An interview with Shelly Johnson

To find out more about the K-12 Innovation Project this year I sat down to have a conversation with Shelly Johnson, Principal at Salt Spring Elementary. Shelly is a member of the Steering Committee for this year’s K-12 Innovation Partnership focusing on ‘Communicating Student Learning.’

The project promotes the use of student-led conferences, pedagogical narratives (learning stories), and e-portfolios to report student learning to parents and to more deeply engage students about their learning.

A survey completed in early May by over 100 parents revealed diverse views about these shifts in reporting. I wanted to clarify, from Shelly’s perspective, what this shift means for student learning, for parents wanting to support their child’s learning, and for teachers organizing instruction and assessment.

DL: Please describe for us what the shift in reporting practice has meant for students at Salt Spring Elementary?

SJ: This is a district wide initiative, and includes teachers from schools across the Gulf Islands. At Salt Spring Elementary we had 3 classes that pursued alternative ways of communicating student learning. Two classes did student-led conferences, and another used a digital report card that incorporated student-led conferences.

Our students are a lot more engaged when they are involved compared to a report card where it’s a often a bit of a mystery. With traditional reports, students are often not sure where a grade has come from. This year, grade 5 students helped to create the framework for the digital report card and the student-led conference. They know why they are gathering information about their learning, and are able to describe what they’ve learned as well as what’s next in their learning.

It’s about making the reporting process more meaningful.

DL: How has the shift impacted teachers?

SJ: Teachers are inspired to continue. They want to continue. It’s not going to be perfect, especially the first time around. We’ve had a lot of feedback from parents that will help us to make this better.

Teachers acknowledge that this was as much if not more work than traditional reports. Teachers are also telling me that it’s much more valuable: it’s part of the student learning experience, it’s happening in classrooms, students are making sense of their own learning.

Even though it’s likely more work, teachers are seeing the benefits of this for students, and they want to do it again next year.

DL: What kinds of things are you hearing from parents that have students participating in the project?

SJ: This initiative was well received for the most part. Feedback from parents often described it as a beautiful experience. Some parents indicated that they really missed the report card. They enjoyed the students being part of the student-led conference, but they still expected a report card. On the other hand, parents felt like they had a better understanding of where children were at when they participated in the conferences. The parents involved with student-led conferences indicated they had a better understanding what was happening in school.

DL: In the recent survey conducted by Gulf Islands schools, parents expressed a variety of views. One parent wrote, “I am interested in how (my child) learns over time – what he is improving on and where he needs to go next, not how he compares to others.” Another parent expressed a concern that, “I’d like to have a clear understanding of my child’s learning with a grade that reflects where my child is at.” How do you respond to this concern?

When parents say they want to know achievement levels of their kids, this is great feedback for us. We can make changes to reflect this.

As educators we met to discuss what’s next. Teachers agree that we want to provide good information about achievement levels of their students. We don’t want there to be any surprises.

At the heart of this project is a dialogue. We want to have kids have a voice, the parents to have a voice, and the teachers to have a voice. We want to hear about concerns. A report card that’s a piece of paper is not a dialogue. When we have a student-led conference, or an e-portfolio there is opportunity for all parties to be involved in the conversation. For example, in our grade 5 e-portfolio the students describe where they’re at with their learning, the teacher responds to the student’s assessment, and the parent observations, comments or questions are also included.

DL: Making change is no easy task. What are you most excited about with the shifts you are seeing?

It’s the student engagement piece. The kids learn a lot through this process. We know the research says having a student examine their own learning and think about what’s next increases that student’s ownership of their learning. And that’s what we’re seeing. When students are assessing their own learning, they’re setting goals, and planning what’s next. Report cards don’t engage in the same way.

The world is changing… to get a job you’re often expected to share a portfolio, not just submit a job application. It’s not what Microsoft wants. We don’t get ‘grades’ in the real world.

DL: What can we expect next with this project?

SJ: There are going to be teachers pursuing this further as they’re learning about and implementing the redesigned curriculum. There will be teachers who will be more comfortable to continue our current practices for now. We have a committee examining our experiences this year, and discerning what we heard through the surveys, and we’ll be bringing educators together to plan forward.

DL: Thanks for your time today, Shelly.

photo: Boe Beardsmore
photo: Boe Beardsmore

 

The BC Ministry of Education, Learning Division, produced a video in early June and expressed a “thank you for allowing us to capture your story.” The BC Ministry is sharing the Gulf Islands K-12 Innovative Partnership video with educators, parents, and students around the province.
The video can be found here.

Doug Livingston
Director of Instruction – Learning Services