Jan 142018

Planning an inquiry can feel daunting. There are so many decisions to make!

Here are 3 steps that can help you create a well-designed unit based on the Learning Plans in the Concentus Citizenship Resources.


Choose your outcomes, and develop a clear picture of the level of thinking and specific content each one targets. (Tip: Each outcome contains a verb which cues the level of thinking you’re after. This chart can help!)

Now that you know where you’re going, the challenge is to provide students with a vehicle to get there! Thinking routines are vehicles of thought that students can use to get to the levels and types of thinking they need to reach.

One kind of thinking routine is a graphic organizer. Matched to the thinking demands of the outcome, graphic organizers:

Scaffold student’s “thinking steps”,
Support peer collaboration,
Provide visible evidence of student thinking minute-by-minute as they learn,
Allow for responsive instruction that is both nimble and quick!

You can find a variety of options here:
Holt Interactive Graphic Organizers
Capstone Classroom Graphic Organizers
Education Oasis
Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

Another kind of thinking routine is a series of questions which invites and requires precise and deep thinking. Harvard’s Project Zero has developed a number of powerful routines which can be used across subject areas.

You can find them here. (Note: The link contains a video which explains the routines well.)

STEP 3: Now that you know where you’re going and have chosen the thinking routines to scaffold student thinking, it’s time to consider how students will interact with one another as they produce this knowledge. Given that the big picture goal of the citizenship inquiries is to develop the ECCs essential to a Justice Orientation, the way that students relate to one another as they develop knowledge is crucial.

“Discursive Strategies” is a useful term for “how students interact while learning.” For each step in your lessons, there are many options, and you can sequence these purposefully. For example, students can start off by working independently, then confer with a partner, then share with a larger group, and, finally, move back to individual reflection.

Well chosen and sequenced discursive strategies can ensure that:
Each person has voice;
Each person gives and receives feedback which sharpens and deepens thinking;
Each student’s thinking evolves;
The community is strengthened.

Here’s a Teaching Channel video that shows a discursive strategy in action!

Here’s an Edutopia video about a school that takes discursive strategies very seriously!

Here are two good sources of discursive strategies:
Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison, 2011.

Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner, 2nd ed. Himelle & Himelle, 2017.

Focusing your planning on outcomes, thinking routines, and discursive strategies can increase your confidence as you plan and your students’ engagement as they learn.

Jan 142018

The Concentus K-12 Citizenship Education Resources are designed to provide students with continuous opportunities to develop the Essential Citizenship Competencies (ECCs) required for a Justice Orientation. Each unit of inquiry poses questions which challenge students to discover and respond to the root causes of inequity and injustice. The ECCs help them to do this.

Below are definitions of the ECCs, along with questions you can include in your planning, learning, and assessment to deepen students’ justice orientation. Imagine using these while reading, thinking, and learning about a text, an experience, an issue . . .

Students assume that inequities have histories and contexts, and seek to understand both.
What are the Who? What? When? Where? Why? of this situation / dilemma / issue?
What led to this?
What are the most important things we need to know to understand this situation?

Students assume that power matters and investigate the power dynamics of equity and inequity.
Who has power in this situation? How do you know?
Who doesn’t have power in this situation? How do you know?
What kind(s) of power are involved here, and how does one get or lose it?

Students assume that there are multiple points of view and seek to understand what is precious to each one.
Who are the individuals, groups, institutions, and environments involved in or affected by this?
How does each one experience and view this situation, problem, or issue?
What is most precious to each one? Why?

Students assume that rights and responsibilities are integral to each situation, and examine which are upheld and which are breached.
What rights do people have? Why?
Are these rights protected or threatened? How? With what consequences?
What responsibilities do people have? Why?
Are these responsibilities being met or ignored? How? With what consequences?

Students assume that they have agency and influence as citizens and discover ways of using their voice to effect positive change.
What are the sources and causes of this problem?
What are the different changes that could reduce or end the problem?
What strategies can I/We/One use to make this change happen?

Imagine these questions in your students’ hands — in the words that work for them, given their age, grade, & stage.

Now imagine that they get enough practice with the ECCs that they know when they need them.

See them place the question, situation, or issue in the center, and wrap it in ECC questions.

As they collaborate to answer these questions, watch their understanding slowly and steadily broaden and deepen.

If you find words and ways to cultivate the ECCs that work well for you and your students, please share!

You can find a full ECC document here.

Dec 212017

Concentus Citizenship Education Pilot in SPS

I keep hearing the words “Concentus Citizenship Education.” What’s it all about?

In 1990, the Office of the Treaty Commissioner issued a call to the province’s K-12 teachers to integrate First Nations, Metis, and Inuit history, knowledge, and worldview into student learning.

Why? Deep, intercultural understanding is the key to decolonizing citizens’ minds and the province’s institutions.

In 2008, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission issued a second call for a change in pedagogy and citizenship with the words, “Responsibilities Revolution.”

Why?: Citizenship education is the key to ensuring the vitality of democracy, in our classrooms and nation.

The leader in both cases was Chief Justice David Arnot.

2017-2018 SPS Pilot
Saskatoon Public Schools is currently piloting K-12 Concentus Citizenship Education Resources, developed by Saskatchewan teachers. In 8 elementary schools, teachers, teacher librarians, coaches, and administrators are participating in professional learning and working together to integrate units of inquiry. In all elementary schools and collegiates, teacher librarians will be collaborating with a colleague to implement an inquiry from the resources this year.

The Resources
The K-12 online resources embed social studies outcomes and indicators into units of inquiry organized into 3 “Broad Areas of Citizenship.”

The continuum of citizenship education in the Concentus resources is divided into grade bands: K-2, 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12. Inquiries in each grade band share the same essential questions. By engaging with the same questions at increasing levels of complexity over a period of 3-4 years, students develop a justice orientation which combines deep understanding with the skills to effect change.

Essential Questions Evolve as Students Mature
A grade 1 student may explore, “What makes a rule fair?”
A grade 5 student may wonder, “To whom are rule makers responsible?”
A grade 10 student may examine, “How does ideology influence views of social justice?”
A grade 12 student may investigate, “To what extent has Canadian society been organized to reflect the values encoded in Treaties and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?”

As they move through the inquiries, students become increasingly capable of having respectful and constructive “courageous conversations” on controversial, potentially divisive topics.

Essential Citizenship Competencies
Inquiries are designed to foster the 5 Essential Citizenship Competencies (ECCs): Enlightened, Empowered, Empathetic, Ethical, and Engaged. These are the attributes of citizens with a justice orientation – citizens equipped and motivated to challenge the root causes of injustices in our democratic society.

You can find the full resources here: http://concentus.ca/

Talk to your teacher librarian if you are interested in learning more about the resources and integrating them into your work.

Dec 182017

My students are all at different places in their learning. Can accessing prior knowledge help to create engagement and personal connections for the diversity of learners in my classroom?


What is Prior Knowledge?

Prior knowledge is comprised of the lived experiences, ideas and understandings that each individual student brings with them to new learning. It is as unique as the learner themselves and can be accessed to help students better understand, consider, and remember new content.

Why is connecting to a student’s previous understanding or prior knowledge important?

  • reinforces the belief that ALL students have pertinent experiences and knowledge
  • allows students to activate their own experiences and learning in order to apply them to the new content
  • helps students to engage in new content in an authentic manner

Ideas to integrate connections to prior knowledge, before learning, can include previous content knowledge or personal knowledge. Here are some examples of activities which will help to access prior learning:

  • Reviewing previous lessons and making connections before adding a new layer: “Yesterday, we learned about _________ . Did that remind you of anything?” or “How do you think what we learned yesterday, can apply to today’s learning goal?”
  • Brainstorming about a topic to surface associations. To take this one step further you can also group similar ideas into categories. This works well with questions such as: “What do you think of when you hear the word __________ ?”
  • Think-Pair-Share: thinking through reflection, notes or drawing and then sharing with a shoulder partner before sharing out to the group. This strategy can benefit students when there isn’t a right answer, such as asking for them to form opinions or connect an idea to their own life.
  • Anticipation Guide: with a short list of thought-provoking statements which connect to the new learning, have students mark whether they agree or disagree and then share their answers and reasons with a partner. You can also return to the anticipation guide after the learning to compare if their opinions have changed.

By explicitly eliciting the prior knowledge of students you are helping them to access and build information, but you are also allowing all voices in the classroom to present their understandings equally and honouring the diversity of lived experiences which makes up the learning foundations of our students.

Consider further exploration of this topic through excellent resources such as:

Teaching Reading in the Content Areas by Urquhart & Frazee

This is Disciplinary Literacy by Cossett Lent




Dec 152017

If you are looking for an organized and authentic way to respond to the TRC’s calls to action, then this website may be exactly what yo are looking for.

Project of Heart

This fully bilingual website is an educators dream. Project of Heart is a website centered on the learning and sharing of the true history of Indigenous people in Canada. Their stated focus is inquiry, and as such they both;

  • encourage critical thought, and
  • provide eclectic resources for your learning journey.

Not only is this a resource hub set up to be used as a tool for inquiry based learning, but it includes the step by step instructions for doing so. On each of the separate resource pages the inquiry steps appear at the top of the page for convenience.

The very best element of the “Project of Hope” website are these steps for inquiry that lead you through the project. Like all good inquiry tools, the project is only getting started with the resources. To follow the model as outlined, learners must interact with the knowledge and complete their journey with reconciliatory action.

The resources included with the site are valid, historically accurate and whenever possible, primary sources of the history of Indigenous people in Canada. They are divided into resource type and appear to provide a balanced approach to the history. As a resource hub, this site links to videos and documents that highlight Indigenous people telling their own stories in ways that support their own continued journeys as well as historical documents that depict a settler mindset.

While “Project of Heart” was created by a non-Indigenous teacher, that should not detract from its value in any way. Sylvia Smith has received the Governor General’s Award for the site and has gone on to develop valid and rich relationships with Indigenous communities that have made this site a living (and growing) resource.

Dec 152017

I have spent the last 4 days in professional learning focused on how to harness collaborative energies effectively to create effective growth and change.  When they told us much of the learning would involve us practicing things to do in meetings with a bunch of strangers, I wanted to run for the hills.  Like many people I know, I feel like I spend more time than I want to in meetings, and that many of them are not as useful as anyone would want. I was pleasantly surprised to see the standards for collaborative work were very helpful, and that I could use them with adult meetings and with students. The standards made group work much less painful as we practiced the processes connected to them.

Today’s learning is about three key issues (this group loves the alternative first letters, in this case ‘D’):

  • Decide on decision making
  • Develop standards
  • Design the surrounds

The decision making parts related to authentic tasks in the classroom, and to many of the committees I have worked with.

Deciding on decisions-making has 5 key questions a group needs to understand in a common way before a committee, teacher group, or administrator group starts work:

  1. What topics are ours?
  2. Who decides?
  3. Who are we in the decision-making process?
  4. What decision-making process will be used?
  5. When and how will the decision be communicated?

There are five key standards that high functioning groups need to achieve. Many teachers who are familiar good group work in students will recognize the standards, but the standards can be strangely absent when we work together as adults:

  1. Address one topic at a time – the facilitator plays a key role in ensuring focus and identifying items that are important for later discussion but not related to the topic at hand.  An important part of this standard is helping people feel they have a role in self-monitoring relevance, and relating that to valuing accomplishing the goal.  We watched samples of how to clarify a topic, and what to do to ensure it is understood, but most importantly how to help adults understand the relevance.
  2. Use one process – This is a key one because brains need to do different things depending on the intent of a process.  We learned a lot about how to ensure a process is understood well, including that learners understand the purpose of the process.
  3. Balance participation – Balanced participation is significant to me because it ensures groups do the best problem solving and thinking. We learned many process for proving opportunity for balance. I have associated most with professional learning or teaching, not with meetings or groups of adults.  Many of the strategies are discursive or culturally responsive strategies and are very good at sharing power and preventing a few voices from doing most of the speaking. “One powerpoint and one speaker equals one person engaged.”
  4. Understand and agree on meeting roles – like a literature circle, good groups have specific roles, including engaged participant, facilitator, recorder, and role or knowledge authorities.  Some specific norms of collaboration help those roles be more specific.  In many meetings I am involved in, the facilitator and the authority/knowledge person are the same. We discussed why that is an issue. Small strong groups often don’t need a facilitator.
  5. Engaging in cognitive conflict – Groups don’t get better without the opportunity for cognitive conflict. We learned structures designed to help create greater depth in understanding between people.  The teaching distinguishes between C-Type conflict (cognitive, substantive, and issues related) and A-type conflict  (affective, focused on personal anger or resentment).  We tried an assumption wall as a way to increase safety and depersonalize.  It would be good for courageous conversations with students as well.

I can see how a number of these structures can help a meeting be more effective, and high functioning groups elements are awesome for interactive or collaborative learning in the classroom. You can learn much more at the specific process to get there in the thinking collaborative resources. I recommend searching based on your purpose. For those of you who love your cell or tablet, there is also an ap for them.

Nov 232017

I’ve spend some time now in a love/hate relationship with rubrics.

I can see how clearly articulated levels of achievement can guide students, but I also struggle with the limitations which can accompany a box full of criteria. In her book, How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading, Susan M. Brookhart helped me to sort, clarify and articulate my ideas about rubrics which has reignited my relationship with rubrics.

First she defined the purpose of rubrics as “coherent sets of criteria and descriptions of levels of performance for these criteria.” (4)  In the following videoclip, Brookhart explains how rubrics can benefit student learning if they are properly constructed to encourage levels of performance rather than being a list of performance tasks.

What kinds of rubrics are there?

Analytic Trait: has separate sections for each demonstration of skill/knowledge. These are more commonly used and can help facilitate specific feedback.

Holistic: a description for all criteria combined together. Although less commonly used, they can be quite valuable when feedback isn’t a primary goal, such as with final exams in high school.

Regardless of which style rubric you use, they should assess performance.

When is it better to use a checklist or another structure rather than rubrics?

If your information can be measured numerically rather than include described levels, consider using a checklist.

___ Title Page

___ Formatting (APA/MLA/Chicago Style)

___ Has 5 paragraphs

___ Uses a graph/image or other visual representation

What should I avoid when creating rubrics?

To ensure that rubrics measure and provide guidance about the learning here are some common mistakes that you can avoid:

  • Scoring more than one outcome per rubric: Ensure that you have given appropriate opportunity for students to learn and practice the outcomes which are being assessed. It becomes quite challenging to communicate levels of achievement and connect them to the classroom learning/examples with many outcomes.
  • Scoring non-learning (neatness, etc.)These elements may appear in a checklist for students to consider, but the assessment should only consider the achievement of outcomes.
  • Scoring by counting up parts rather than looking for evidence of proficiency in the outcome: Proficiency is the key idea here and is linked to the demonstration of learning against the curricular outcome. Although the parts are important, they should be considered in respect to quality rather than quantity. 
  • Scoring for this students have not been cued to doClear targets are essential to measure learning. Students should have a clear understanding of what learning is being measured and what different levels of learning demonstration looks like.
  • Scoring for products rather than outcomes (16) : With outcomes based assessment, we’re aligning our assessments with the outcomes and weighing a variety of evidence to determine where the student is reliably demonstrating their learning at a given point in time.

What should I keep in mind when co-creating rubrics with students?

Having clearly articulated targets will help students understand where they are at in their own learning and also how they can improve. This has more impact with the following considerations:

  • student friendly language about outcomes (I will know I have learned this when I can…) (93)
  • use samples of student work to exemplify levels of performance
  • draft and revise the rubric with students as their learning evolves
  • have a clear understanding of the indicators used to measure learning

How do I convert my rubric into an average?

Okay, that’s a valid question, but this blog post just isn’t the best format to have such an immense conversation. Without exploring that concept in detail I’ll leave you with one idea to consider… Your rubric doesn’t need to start at 0. What I mean by that is if you have 4 categories they don’t have to be 0%, 25%, 50%, & 100%. There can be ranges and there are models which begin at 50%. My advice is to be thoughtful, clear and consistent to create fairness through assessment.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog and if assessment continues to be an area of interest I suggest becoming involved professionally with committees and learning groups around this topic. Here are some other resources to consider:

Seven Strategies for Assessment for Learning by J. Chappuis

The Feedback Friendly Classroom by McCallum

Leading the Way to Assessment for Learning by Davies, Herbst & Reynolds



Nov 062017

I’ve aligned my grade book with curricular outcomes, now what?

After the initial steps to convert the gradebook to measure outcome achievement, doors in my mind begin to open which question how we assess learning — at least they did for me.

  • What defines mastery?
  • What evidence provides the best evidence of student learning?

This morning a group of dedicated SPS professionals gathered to discuss the emerging possibilities of assessment now that they’ve converted to outcomes based assessment. Through discussion and panel presentation, we explored these questions and more. Although we discovered that no size fits all, it became clear that we weren’t in this alone.

Guskey invites the following three criteria to consider as alternatives to traditional averaging:

  1. Give priority to the most recent evidence
  2. Give priority to the most comprehensive evidence
  3. Give priority to evidence related to the most important skills

I would consider adding a fourth point: Give consideration to the student’s ability to consistently or reliably perform/understand at that level.

We heard from 4 panellists who have each undertaken personal journeys to improve their assessment practices. Here is my loose interpretation of each:

Lisa Aune currently uses a 3 point scale to assess and after consideration she is moving to a 4 point scale to represent mastery of knowledge and skills in the Arts. She also uses a climbing criteria which reflect a growth mindset and considers the complexity of ability at the end of a semester versus that of the beginning.

Murray Guest has changed the conversation in his Physics classes from marks to learning by implementing a 5 point scale of descriptors such as “mastery” and “very good”. He also considers the weighting of complexity when converting to a 100 point percentage.

Sheldon Lewchuk uses the opportunity of a final assessment for students to demonstrate outcome growth and uses this format to provide opportunity to demonstrate new learning in Science class. He then negotiates, with the student, an appropriate mark for that outcome which considers the newly demonstrated skills and understanding.

Candace Elliott-Jensen (me) presented the concept of mark blocking. When grading in English Language Arts, I would mark using intervals of 5% with clear expectations of skills required to obtain each level.

All of these practices have one thing in common: strong understanding of curricula and clearly communicated targets for student achievement. 

For more information please consider the following resources:

On Your Mark by Guskey

Elements of Grading by Reeves

How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading by Brookhart


Nov 062017

Students aren’t able to understand the material I give them.

Is this a concern you’ve grappled with? With content heavy curricula, it’s important that students have the necessary skills to understand a variety of text. A study group of secondary teachers (SLAM) got together to research how students digest text and this is what we found…

There are 6 different areas which contribute to helping students understand text:

  1. Connecting to Prior Knowledge
  2. Essential Vocabulary
  3. Summarization
  4. Inferencing
  5. Making connections within the text
  6. Metacognition

When students have all these skills in place, they are better able to understand text and take on the new content learning.  When there are gaps in these skills, many students struggle against the text rather than focusing on the new content.

What are these skills and how can they help students better achieve in my classroom?

  • Connecting to prior knowledge allows students to activate their own experiences and learning in order to apply them to the new content. This can include content knowledge such as where they might have encountered these ideas or even textual knowledge about how to use text features such as titles and diagrams as precursors to learning.
  • Vocabulary is key within the subject areas. Each discipline has words which unlock the doors to learning in that subject area including: estimation, cycles, theme, monarchy, etc. Knowledge of these terms allows students to begin to collect ideas and reason in a discipline specific manner.
  • Summary allows students to connect the main ideas and vocabulary in a text to create deeper meaning. The interconnectedness of ideas is often foundational to concept attainment.
  • Inferencing is where students consider what’s not explicitly stated in a text. Considerations such as what is the purpose of a text and who is the intended audience.
  • Connecting the text to self, text and the world allows students to apply their personal experiences to the new information as well as apply it to other information or occurrences around them. This process creates a sense of personal relevance for the reader.
  • Metacognition is the ability to reflect about the strategies employed to decode text. Students may understand this best as: what did you do when you didn’t understand or how would you help a friend who didn’t understand.

To help the students decode the subject specific text in your class consider these skills when presenting text.

For more information on this topic consider the following:

Teaching Reading in the Content Areas by Urquhart & Frazee

Start Where They Are: Differentiating for Success with the Young Adolescent by Karen Hume



Oct 312017

As adults who work in educational settings we are trained to lead students through an array of experiences, some that even we are unfamiliar with.  And often when there is a difference in culture, we are more afraid to be wrong then we are curious about what is right.

It may be helpful in Indigenous activities to separate the types of activities into the categories of protocol and ceremony. At times we are overwhelmed by the thought of undertaking ceremony, when really all we need to do is follow protocol. These are not official definitions, think of this more like a helpful framework for approaching different cultural activities.

Protocol: are the rules detailing how certain activities should be carried out and how participants must conduct themselves. Protocols are easily learned and should always be followed as a sign of respect to a culture and its participants.
Examples of protocols include

Ceremony: is an event within which we formally invite the creator to witness our actions. Ceremony should only be undertaken by members of a culture or individuals who have been gifted the ceremony but Elders or members of a community who understand the practice and norms for doing so.
Examples of a ceremony can include

If you are looking for more information about what protocol is and why we use it, check out this blog post.
The beautiful thing about all of this knowledge is that it is only a respectful question away. If you are ever unsure, just ask.

SPS staff follow this link to learn more about our expected practice documents.