Assessment, Engagement, Promising Practices

Engaging and Challenging Teachers – Engaging and Challenging Students

 Kids just know that they don’t have an option to not do their work… I always had successful students, but now everybody is successful… It’s not that the kid doesn’t want to do it. It’s that the kid is unable to do it the way we are asking them to…  It doesn’t make sense to factor in zeros. That is not a true reflection of what kids know; they don’t know nothing… A lot of the mystery of where marks come from is gone now… If they haven’t learned then I haven’t taught them and I am the one who needs to do things differentlyIt really makes me look at how far we’ve come, really, in everything… I think the kids here recognize that they have something special.

– Excerpts from a video of teachers talking about their work and their growth over the last few years.

As part of our ongoing school improvement at Cornwallis Junior High in Halifax, we included the full school community – families, staff, and students – in a comprehensive process to identify our strengths and challenges. We questioned our core beliefs, practices, and purpose, and we sought out ways to offer the best possible learning opportunities.

Our conclusion: Yes, we were a good place, but not equally good for everyone. Some students were not engaged or successful. It was time for meaningful focused change.

We decided to dig deep into our own beliefs and practices, excavate those that were not learning supportive, and focus on developing a strong foundation on which to base improvement strategies. We prepared to make a shift in our way of seeing assessment, and in turn student learning, with carefully targeted, research-based professional development.

We used the works of diverse educational researchers. Rachel Kessler’s The Soul of Education and Parker Palmer’s Courage to Teach led us to deep reflection, trust, and honesty; the work of Rick Stiggins and Ken O’Connor on authentic assessment practices informed our own learning and that of our students; and the broad research related to effective schools and professional learning communities informed our design of an effective student support structure.

In the past, struggling students were encouraged to attend extra help sessions – but the choice was theirs…We were leaving the choice of whether to succeed or fail in the hands of 12-14-year-olds!

We identified two key strategies that could move us forward: 1) targeted and consistent student support; and 2) a focus on outcomes based assessment that supports learning. These strategies are embedded in our processes of reflection and analysis, and in our willingness to embrace change.

Core Strategies

Student Success Support Pyramid

Our original data indicated that only 55 percent of our students were meeting most of the outcomes in every subject. When we looked at report card data, we saw that the comments for students not achieving outcomes were limited to three areas: not handing in work they had completed, not completing homework, and not taking advantage of extra help. We were leaving the choice of whether to succeed or fail in the hands of 12-to-14-year-olds!

In the past, struggling students were encouraged to attend extra help sessions – but the choice was theirs. The majority of those who chose to attend succeeded; those who opted out did not. We realized that students need interventions that are directive, not invitational, and that occur within the school day. So we implemented a Student Success Support Pyramid (SSSP) of interventions that included mandatory extra help and work completion support.

It took two years (2007-09) for us to fine tune our lunchtime mandatory Guided Study Hall (GSH) program, but it is now accepted as an integral part of our academic culture. When a student is assigned to GSH, the teacher notifies the Vice Principal, who informs the parents/guardians that their child will be attending GSH and asks them to make sure that their child brings a lunch the next day. The teacher e-mails the GSH teacher with the work that needs to be completed. After each session the GSH teacher e-mails assigning teachers and the VP, detailing the work that has been completed. The process has been so effective that students now self-assign because they recognize the benefits to their learning.


We believe that effective assessment is central to providing students, and their teachers, with a clear understanding of their learning. This understanding allows students to develop self-advocacy skills that will benefit them throughout their lives. Our school-based in-services have focused on classroom assessment of, for, and as student learning. To support this shift, individual teachers have attended conferences and sessions related to differentiated instruction, formative assessment, mentoring and co-teaching, curriculum alignment, effective schools, the What did you do in school today? initiative, and data collection analysis.

We have moved well beyond the assessment processes that resulted more in sorting students than assessing learning. Our assessment, teaching, and learning practices now focus on supporting every student in successfully achieving the outcomes. We have made great strides toward closing the achievement gap and are working to raise the bar for those students who would benefit from more finely tuned challenges. Establishing and articulating this “right level of challenge” is an important goal as we seek to make our junior high school a place where all students succeed.

Challenges Met

These are some of the challenges that we encountered, and how we met them:

Cultural Shift

  • Developing the level of trust required for deep reflection on our own practice and the naming of our own challenges and strengths so that we can each find our entry point into the process.

It takes time to build enough trust to realize our challenges and show vulnerability with our colleagues.

  • Working through our individual philosophical struggles with forms of assessment that moved us away from punitive assessment practices to true outcomes-based assessment; that eliminated the grading of behaviour; and that allowed for multiple opportunities and multiple ways of representing learning.
  • Shifting from a culture of seeing students as “lazy” or “not caring” to one that sees them as needing more targeted support.

One of the unpredicted benefits from our shift to a true learning culture is the ability to more readily identify students with learning challenges. Once the appropriate learning supports are put in place (often forms of assistive technology or environmental strategies), these students are able to shine.

Student Success Support Pyramid

  • Including the Guided Study Hall as part of the teachers’ regular teaching schedule.

Previously, teachers volunteered extra help, so making GSH a part of a teacher’s timetable created a timetabling challenge. It also signified a commitment to this process of student support. Teachers continue to offer extra help before and after school.

  • Shifting from a sense of “punishment” to “support” for lunchtime interventions.

Lunchtime had been used for detentions, so when we shifted to lunchtime GSH and lunchtime Resource, it took time for students and families to see it as support rather than punishment.

  • Developing a central referral system that kept communication clear among teachers, students, and families.

Initially teachers called home to inform families of the student’s referral to GSH. This became so cumbersome for teachers that they were reluctant to assign students to GSH. When this communication became part of the Vice Principal’s assignment, it worked more smoothly and efficiently.


  • Shifting from assessment that sorts to assessment that informs learning.

Shifting to assessment that not only allows for, but encourages, multiple opportunities for demonstrating achievement and does not punish students for taking more time to learn has been difficult for some to accept. We use the “driver’s licence” analogy to explain our learning model to new staff and to families. We give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning, and we do not average those assessments. When they get it, they’ve got it, just like a drivers licence.

  • Targeting professional development to meet teachers where they were in their assessment practice, while ensuring that we continued to move forward as a group.
  • Developing flexible timetabling that allowed time for teachers to support each other.

There can be great resistance to changing old habits, traditions, and ways of seeing. We believe that all teachers want to be good teachers – the best that they can be – and once they see the benefits of these shifts in beliefs about learning they will move forward with a passion. It comes down to this: once we know something, we are faced with the question “What do we do with what we know?” And there are some ‘knowings’ that are so elemental that they will not allow us to not act. Just as the students know that the supports are in place and they “do not have the option of not doing the work”, teachers need to know that the supports they require will be in place as they proceed on this change journey.

Cultural Shift

As a result of these strategies and meeting these challenges, there has been a shift in the academic culture of our school. We are now engaging students and teachers in what matters most: teachers feeling successful with all students and students feeling successful in their learning. Students recognize that they are expected to succeed and that there are supports in place to help them. They are beginning to understand how to take responsibility for their own learning.

As a staff, our conversations are related to how we can support each child’s learning because we believe each child wants to and can learn. Teachers can name the changes they have made and how these changes have gone to a deep level that causes them to question, even beyond the school setting. We ask ourselves, what are we missing and how can we best serve the students’ needs? We then act collectively to support each student. Our student achievement data indicate that we have made great gains in closing the achievement gap. Currently 89 percent of our students are meeting outcomes in all subjects; our goal is 100 percent.

We are now engaging students and teachers in what matters most: teachers feeling successful with all students and students feeling successful in their learning.

Another result of this shift in the learning culture is that students now realize that “not doing the work” is no longer an option. Supports are in place for students who need them, and we review both student progress and supports on an ongoing basis. As a result, we are now more successful at engaging students where they are as individuals.


There is something special about the way we have learned together and how we now see ourselves as learners. This intimate process has moved us forward with passion and skill, both collectively and individually. We have created the expectation that everyone will succeed. In a true learning culture, students lose the feeling of self-consciousness – lose the fear of being judged. They are comfortable as themselves and as learners. They are able to take risks, and teachers are able to meet them where they are. When we break through the barriers that hold young adolescents back, they can be successful and proud of who they are. They can become the best they can be. 

EN BREF – La communauté d’apprentissage de l’école Cornwallis Junior High à Halifax a suivi un processus de réflexion et d’analyse, établissant deux stratégies clés pour appuyer l’apprentissage de tous les élèves : un soutien ciblé et constant des élèves et un accent sur l’évaluation axée sur les résultats. En intégrant à la journée scolaire et en rendant obligatoires l’aide supplémentaire et l’achèvement des travaux pour les élèves en difficulté, on a supprimé l’option de « ne pas faire le travail », réduisant considérablement le taux d’échec. En évaluant en fonction de l’apprentissage acquis, l’école a beaucoup progressé pour combler l’écart de réussite et travaille maintenant à relever la barre pour les élèves susceptibles de profiter de défis plus adaptés.

Meet the Expert(s)

Helen Castonguay

Helen Castonguay is a school administrator in Halifax with 33 years experience in educational settings. She is retiring as an administrator in July 2011 and hopes to write and consult with schools and school boards on nurturing excellence for all.

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