A Conversation with Chris Besse, president and COO of FreshGrade

Making the learning process accessible to students, teachers & parents

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        Connie Bosley

Editors Note: This is part of a new series on edCircuit. Connie Bosley is a professional writer with a Masters Degree in Education and a passion for EdTech and its role in the future of education. In this series, Connie will talk with EdTech leaders to explore their world and the value they bring to learners.

FreshGrade is a portfolio and assessment platform designed to make the learning process visible and therefore more accessible to students, teachers and parents. The company is heading into its fifth year. It has made remarkable progress in its home country of Canada, and is now being adopted by districts across the US.

finger words boardIn a recent interview with Chris Besse, president of FreshGrade, Besse talked about his enthusiasm for the program and how it helped parents become more engaged with their child’s learning and contributed to deeper learning for students. He also explained why teachers love the FreshGrade program.

Besse moved from a successful leadership role in a major Canadian K-12 publishing company in Toronto, Nelson Publishing Company, to President and Chief Operating Officer of FreshGrade located in British Columbia. The decision was a big one for Chris, but after exploring the new company he knew he had to make the change. “I liked what they were trying to do… make a change in the way schools communicated with children and their parents and focus on student achievement.

It goes back to FreshGrade’s founders and their frustration with the education of their own children. Lane and Steve (company founders Lane Merrifield and Steve Wandler) didn’t know what learning was taking place at school for their kids. They investigated and found it wasn’t the school’s fault because there was no method or program that allowed the parents to see and understand what was going on in their child’s classroom.

There are three traditional ways parents find out about their child’s learning: a report card which is often months after the fact, the teacher-parent conference and usually those are quick. It’s a little like speed dating; they don’t really learn a lot because there is no context to what is really happening. The last is the child who, when asked ‘what did you learn in school’ all too often will answer ‘Nothing’ or ‘I don’t remember.’

According to Besse, that’s why FreshGrade was born. Both Merrifield and Wandler were already successful in the technology field. Merrifield was co-founder of Club Penguin, the largest virtual world for kids. He was acquired by Disney for $350 million and continued under Disney for five years before the entrepreneurial bug bit him again. Wandler was the creator of YourTechOnline and Metabridge, both enormously successful. Wandler and Merrifield wanted their next success to be about helping children, and they found common ground in the creation of FreshGrade.

“We wanted to provide the tools for the teacher to document and capture the student’s learning as it happens through the school day,” Besse explained. “Learning is dynamic and if you can capture that, it is very powerful. FreshGrade is bringing the parents into their child’s learning, as a participant.” Besse talked about the work of John Hattie that points out the five main drives to student learning tied in with FreshGrade’s approach:

1.  Formative assessment or looking at learning as it is happening

2. Collaboration of students working together

3. Teachers providing ‘just in time’ feedback to students

4. Students can self-reflect and be conscious of their own learning

5. Parent engagement - research shows the child will do better academically if it is there

“We are providing real context around the learning. Here is the learning journey Johnny is having today and this is in the context of the learning goals that we are trying to provide. What we are hearing is that we are changing the conversation from ‘what did you learn at school today?’ to talking about what the child learned today,” said Besse. “It’s providing that collaborative engagement between the parent and the child. We talk about ‘helicopter parents’ (parents that hover over the teacher). FreshGrade created the opposite because you are bringing parents into the Know. Parents helicopter because they don’t know what is going on so there is fear. The teacher can now provide the parent with a window into what their child is doing in class. The parents become real partners with the teachers.

Teachers become like champions because they are showing the parent the incredible work they are doing. Using our free app, the teacher can capture the evidence of learning and immediately send that information to the parent. Parents actually see and hear their child learning. They are getting more relative knowledge of their child’s learning.

Our portfolio stores the evidence of learning and gives the story behind the grade. It allows the child to comment on his/her learning, it gives the teacher’s input and parents are encouraged to give their input as well.

One story comes to mind, that of an autistic child who never had looked people in the eye. One day at school, it was captured. The teacher was engaging with the child and he looked at and spoke to the teacher. The parents were in tears… it was a breakthrough moment for their child and his learning. The ability to capture learning in a portfolio is so powerful. It was a special moment for the family and teacher. A tremendous moment.

FreshGrade is flexible and can fit into an existing Learning Management System that is already in place in a district. It adds a more complete picture of the student’s learning and is quite complimentary to a LMS. It is easy to learn for teachers, parents, and students.

Another thing we are finding out is that a lot of kids are going home and sharing what they did with their parents. When asked ‘what did you do at school today,’ they can show you. They have it right there in their portfolio. The conversation about what they learned in school today begins, in some cases, for the first time between the student and parent.

Our platform allows the teacher to set up an activity, decide how they want to assess it whether by a traditional letter grade, percentage or use of a rubric or established standards - whatever assessment they want to use. Within that is what is it the student is intended to learn or what the learning goal is.

Teachers can show what the standards are for that grade level and explain the difference between one score and another in a way that makes sense to students and parents. At the end of the day, the parent can understand what the grade really means.

FreshGrade is a time saver for teachers. Teachers can collect and collate all the year’s learning into one place every day. When it comes time to inform the parent, they simply go into the portfolio and they see and can show what learning has taken place.

The Portfolio provides a boost to student ownership of his or her own learning. Kids actually start to own their learning and understand where they’re at. When they own the decision, they are more engaged.”

The teachers are trained how to use the program’s tools and Besse commented that “if the school district wants additional training for interested parents, FreshGrade is happy to provide that as well.” FreshGrade has a well-designed website as well as a selection of YouTube videos to educate parents on the features of the parent account.

FreshGrade is making in-roads for its population of English language learners, a growing segment of the population they are serving. “To deal with the language issues that many districts face, FreshGrade is launching a new addition this summer through Google Translate so that all input or learning artifacts will be translated into any language,” said Besse. “So perhaps for the first time, parents can see their child learning as well as what the teacher is saying and how their student is responding.

We encourage children to communicate in their mother tongue with their parents to show the learning they experienced. But we are also working on foreign language editions of the entire product to support second language families as best we can.

Learning is a journey and now with the window into everyday learning, it engages the parent and student as never before,” Besse added. “This relationship is invaluable to increasing student achievement and engagement. Using FreshGrade tools, the teacher, student and parent become collaborators in the child’s learning and achievement.”

About Chris Besse

Chris is the President and COO of FreshGrade and is passionate about growing and transforming the education sector. He has more than twenty years of experience as a director and contributor on numerous Boards and Committees exploring innovation and excellence in education. He currently sits on the Board of Directors for Feed the Children.

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