Seeing is Understanding

by Tricia Ebner

When I have a chance to watch a little bit of TV, I often turn to HGTV. There is something about watching Drew and Jonathan Scott or Chip and Joanna Gaines describing the transformation of older, run-down homes into their clients’ “dream homes” that captivates me. Maybe it’s because I know without those computer animations, I simply couldn’t envision the promise those experts often see in older properties. It reminds me of the old adage claims that “Seeing is believing,” but sometimes I think it might be more accurately worded as “Seeing leads to understanding.”blog post graphic 3.20.17

This also applies to the changes we’ve seen in standards and assessments in Ohio in the past five years. When Ohio first began transitioning standards and assessments, one of the most frequently asked questions I heard was, “But what do these things look like?”  As we’ve become more practiced and experienced with our standards and assessments, our questions are becoming more refined. Now the questions are more likely to be focused on specific standards and how assessment questions get at the heart of those standards.

We can now easily see how standards look in assessment items by examining assessment items from a number of resources. In a recent meeting, we wanted to see how reading literature standard 7.3 in different items. (RL 7.3: Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact.) By using’s search bar and typing in RL 7.3, we quickly found several assessments that included the standard. Looking at these items specifically tied to this standard helped us better understand the standard “in action” in assessments. Now we can use this understanding as we continue to develop our own assessment questions. Analyzing these items helped us identify the structure and vocabulary used in these kinds of questions.

Moving forward, we will continue to use the practice and released test items available on the testing pages of the Ohio Department of Education web site, along with the lessons and mini-assessments available on Having examples readily available means that the “renovations” I may need to make to my own lessons and assessments doesn’t have to be a guessing game, where I cross my fingers and hope for the best. Instead, just as the renovation experts on HGTV have computer simulations to help homeowners envisions changes to their structures, we have computer tools that can help us see how standards translated into assessment items can look. Indeed, seeing can lead to understanding.  


What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

March is the PITS: Strategies for Overcoming the Transition to Spring Blues

by Dr. Bryan Drost

I don’t know what it is, but the month of March seems to suck no matter what role I have played in education: student, student teacher, classroom teacher, principal, curriculum director, county curriculum director. Kids get on our last nerves, staff members threaten to quit, testing anxiety is amongst us all, behavior referrals are up, and the threat of not being able to make an institutional impact weighs heavily on administrators.

Maybe it is a result of the rollercoaster weather that we seem to experience in northeast Ohio (last week we had a sunny, near 70-degree day and followed by a next day drop to 20 with blizzard-like conditions, only to be followed by the next day with spring showers).  If it isn’t that, maybe it is a microcosm of Huberman’s teacher life cycle (1989). Personally I think it might be a function of not having a day off between President’s Day and spring break. (My superintendent friends and colleagues out there, take note!)

Now it isn’t likely that the school calendar will change any time soon, but there are things that we as educators can do to help drag us out of the PITS.  I encourage you to try these as we enter that period of year where we think, “I should have listened to my parents and found a different career!”

P = Play some music in your classroom.  Kids as much as teachers need variety in the classroom.  This is the perfect time to engage with students in various ways while you’re reviewing key concepts, and what better way than to incorporate music?  I’m partial right now to this song on mathematical practices that is great for reminding students what they need to do when they attack challenging problems in the math classroom. If you are a language arts teacher try this one related to writing types.   If you yourself just need a break, check out any of the carpool karaoke songs with James Corden; you’ll be glad you did!

IInstitute mindfulness into your classroom. Yes, I know it’s a buzzword right now, but it really does help to create calm and manage stress for both adults and kids alike.  If you check out this website here, there are great activities to help support students’ focus.  I really like the mindful or mindless character analysis activity (why not hit some standards while we are taking time to breathe), or the marble roll activity (which reinforces problem solving skills in math class).  You can also add in any of the strategies here with rich math tasks found on Achievethecore or Illustrativemath.

T = Take time to learn about your students.  I had the pleasure of being in a social studies classroom last week.  As I watched this teacher, he took one minute out of his class period to ask kids about anything that was on their minds.  Interestingly, this was a technique that I learned from one of my most treasured professors of education; ironically, we both found out we graduated from the same undergrad program nearly 20 years apart!  Not only does this technique help you remember why you are an educator, it helps you find innovative ways that can connect kids to your content.  One student’s question that I overheard was related to congressional changes to national healthcare.  This turned into quick lesson on principles of American government. Student motivation up, teacher frustration down!

S = Schedule yourself for a conference.  When I started teaching, my second-year teaching mentor (don’t ask me why I didn’t have a first-year teaching mentor!), recommended that I schedule a conference in the month of March. At that time, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving sub plans, grading when I came back, etc. He finally broke my stubbornness down, and I am so glad he did because it has proven to be my best trick for keeping myself sane during the spring revival. Do take those two days to go rejuvenate at a local, state, or national professional learning event. You don’t have to commit yourself to presenting (lesson learned there multiple times), but you will feel better as you engage in conversation with educators across your content area.  It may be a bit too late to schedule that this year, due to purchase order deadlines, etc., but I strongly recommend that you book yourself for this for next year now!  It does wonders for the soul.

It’s entirely possible to beat the spring blues by following these four ideas: Play some music, Institute mindfulness, Take time to learn about your students, and Schedule yourself for a conference. These changes of pace and perspective can make a huge difference in our moods and attitudes as we enter the final stretches of the school year.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.


Three Simple Literacy Strategies for Test Preparation (and more)

by Tricia Ebner

As spring testing season approaches, teachers are reflecting on students’ progress and planning to address those skills and concepts that might need reinforcement. There are three simple ways every teacher can support the skills students need to use on their spring assessments, regardless of the content area.

  1. Review the importance of reading questions carefully. Sometimes skipping one little word makes all the difference between choosing the correct response and choosing a distractor. This is something we can practice with students throughout the year, on formative and summative assessments in our classes. Use think-alouds occasionally to show students how we can read and analyze what a question is saying, and how doing this helps us answer the question. Have students discuss questions in small groups, coming to consensus about what they have to do in order to answer the question. Taking a few minutes to utilize these strategies from time to time can reinforce these skills and encourage the habit of reading questions carefully.
  2. Require the use of evidence in responses. This is another universal skill and concept. The use of evidence is important in any subject area. When we require evidence to be used in supporting responses to questions, we’re encouraging and reinforcing the need for critical thinking and reasoning. (One tip here: number the paragraphs on any multiple-paragraph text you plan to have students read. This makes it easier for them to refer to specific evidence, whether it’s in a discussion or written response.) Asking for evidence doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding the question, “What does the text say that supports your response?” Some teachers require students to put the page number or paragraph number in parentheses behind their answers to questions as a means of encouraging students to verify their answers within the text.
  3. Use the Academic Word Finder to identify those vocabulary words students need to become comfortable with. This tool quickly finds those terms for you when you copy and paste text into it. By entering text, selecting the grade level at which the text will be read, and letting technology work its magic, you will soon have a list of vocabulary terms appropriate for readers at a variety of reading levels, also making it useful for differentiation. (To learn more about how the Academic Word Finder can be invaluable for differentiation check out this blog post.)


Incorporating these three simple steps can make a difference in our students’ learning, growth, and even confidence on assessments. Embedding practice in reading questions carefully, requiring evidence, and developing academic vocabulary throughout the year are universal skills for any grade level and subject area. Test preparation doesn’t have to be packets of questions or a couple of weeks of drills. When we incorporate strategies such as these, we’re preparing our students for learning, growth, and even the spring assessments.


A View of Cuba Through The Eyes of An American HS Student

By Char Shryock,  Dir. of Curriculum and Instruction for Bay Village City Schools and Allison Shryock, Senior at Avon Lake High School.

Over the long President’s Day Weekend, my daughter Allison, along with 9 other members of the Avon Lake High School National Honor Society and their advisor, Jeff Arra, had the opportunity to travel to Havana, Cuba with To Cuba Now. []  I feel strongly that the best way to build an understanding of other cultures is to give students the chance to meet students from other cultures.  What follows is my daughter’s account of her trip, a trip that no student from my generation would have been able to take.

In her words…

I had a chance to go to Cuba.  That was the reason I wanted to go.  It was Cuba. I didn’t really have an idea of what to expect. Now that I have been there, I want to go back. Cuba is beautiful. I always felt very safe. No one is allowed to own a gun. There are very few homeless people, since the government provides housing and a free education.  The food was delicious. We did have a lot of guys honking at us and trying to talk to us!  I am glad I got to go to Cuba now, because I think that over the next 50 years, they won’t be so far behind, it will be a much different place.

The first thing I noticed after we landed and went to the hotel were the cars. The old cars were cool.  The nicer old cars are taxis. The cars that the people drive were not in the same good condition. I liked that the traffic lights have a timer countdown for green, red and yellow!  Everyone was outside. It was a lot like Spain when I was in Sevilla this past summer. You see people sitting out talking. There is not a lot of cell phone coverage in Cuba, although people we met had phones.  I didn’t miss using my phone, because we all spent time talking at lunch and dinner too.  It was easy to speak Spanish with the people in Cuba. They did not have an accent.  The people are friendly. They have a lot of pride in their country.  We were fortunate to have a guide and a bus driver who wanted to be sure we saw everything on our government approved itinerary.

Our hotel was nice.  I shared a room with one of my friends.  We could buy WiFi cards to use at the hotel, but the WiFi still wasn’t very dependable.  People who really want something that must be downloaded from the internet can order the files, and they will be delivered to them on a jump drive.  The water system in Cuba is not in good shape. There are not many public restrooms, so you use the restrooms in the hotel or restaurants.  I learned that you always leave a tip for the bathroom attendant. There wasn’t always toilet paper, so we carried Kleenex packs with us. The toilets didn’t always flush.  We take access to plumbing and safe drinking water for granted.  There are very few stores. People have identification cards which they can use to get food and medicines.  One of the first places we got to visit was the University of Havana.

We had the opportunity to talk with 2 students at the University of Havana.

The University of Havana was small compared to college campuses that are in an Ohio city, like Cleveland State. We got to go into the auditorium building where they hold graduation.  All education in Cuba is free, so it is a highly educated country.  When they are going to begin college students select what college majors they want. They then take 3 tests, kind of like our ACTs. The points students get on the test decide what major they will get. If you get the right points, you get your first choice. If you don’t then you work your way down your list until you find a major that matches with the points you earned.  There are no double majors. Students can go through college once, then go back if they want to add a second major.  There are other universities in Cuba, but the University of Havana is the only one with an engineering program.   At the university, the only place they have WiFi is the library. It was interesting that all the students are required to take English to graduate, but the classes aren’t very good. Only one of the two students that I got to talk with could actually speak fluent English.  His family had provided him with private tutoring in English. In Cuba, the only private schooling that is allowed is for English or Music.  The campus had a lot of courtyards and open air spaces between the classroom buildings.  One thing that is very different on the Havana University campus is the fact that there are no college sports teams or athletic facilities.  Athletes in Cuba do get to compete in the Pan American Games.

We visited Las Terrazas Community and The UNESCO Sierra Del Rosario Biopreserve.

The K-12 school that is part of the Las Terrazas Community.  All the students who attend the school live in the community. They go to school 11 months out of the year.  There was one library for the school, but there were many books in the library.  There is a community library as well. We got to see the school’s computer lab. There is no WiFi, but the students were using Google Paint on the computers in the lab.  The school was really a lot of smaller buildings around a courtyard or greenspace. Each classroom was in its own building.  Students wear different colors of uniforms for different levels of school. Red is primary school, yellow is middle school, blue is high school and brown is for students in technical school. The only book in English that we saw in the school was a dictionary but all students in the school are required to take English. While we were in Las Terrazas, we also had a chance to go to a coffee plantation and see the giant grinding stone that were part of coffee processing in the past.  The community is located near the Sierra Del Rosario mountains.  

The food was really good.

Dinners were chicken, rice and beans or ropa vieja (pulled pork with tomato sauce and vegetables, this was my favorite.) Even though the main ingredients were the same, each meal had a different taste.  A lot of restaurants also served an appetizer of plantain chips.  There was no Coke, but I tried their coke-like pop, Tukola.  There was only one brand of pop, Ciergo Montego. The average price for our dinner at a nicer restaurant was 6 Cucs (pesos).  

You can’t use American credit cards in Cuba, so I took Canadian and American money.

Cuban currency is the Peso, but it is usually referred to as Cucs. The exchange rate changed every day, so some days it was better to exchange Canadian currency, and other days American currency had a better rate.  Gas prices were interesting. There are  3 types of gas in Cuba. The lowest type is for the cars the people drive  and it costs 80 cents in Cucs. The middle type is for military vehicles and it is 1 Cuc per gallon. The last is 1.20 Cucs and it is for nicer cars.

There were a lot of car dealerships , but inside the dealerships there weren’t any cars. The average monthly salary for most people was 25 Cucs.  I realized that most of the kids on the trip were carry 150 – 200 Cucs with them at any given time.  We were rich.  We had been asked to wear very casual, not too flashy clothing because many of the people we were going to be meeting can not afford to buy expensive clothes.  Part of the community service that we did on the trip was contributing over the counter medicine, toothpaste and clothing to the Convento Las Virginias.  

We also visited a community center, and a few art galleries.

The center was local project where kids could go to take art and dance classes. Kids can sell their art there.  We also met dancers from a local dance company. The dancers were really good, and, they expected us to be able to do the same salsa moves. This is not like American dancing, and we weren’t very good.   We visited a number of art galleries, and got to hear a local band.  Music and art are very important to the Cuban culture. Fidel Castro supported the arts.

Old Havana was pretty.

There were many plazas and there was a lot of renovation going on. We visiting the Ernest Hemingway house.  It was away from everything else and surrounded by trees. The Cuban people called him Papa. He wrote many of his books while he lived in Cuba and knew Fidel Castro.  The buildings reminded me of a lot of the buildings I saw while I was taking a class in Sevilla, Spain this past summer.

There is a historic fort in Havana called El Morro Castle.

Every night at 9:00 the reenactors, dressed as historic soldiers, fire a cannon as part of the reenactment of the attack by the British in the 1700s. The night we were there, 2000 people were at the event.  A big book fair was taking place in Havana and there were many Canadians attending the event.  We also walked along the The Malecon. It is a seawall walk along the Atlantic. In the evening everyone sits and hangs out here.

Fidel Castro led a revolution in Cuba.

Students from the University of Havana started the revolution.  In the walls along the marble steps going into the Museum of the Revolution, you can still see bullet holes.  One of the displays in the museum is a wall of caricatures of the American presidents ,making fun of them.  

There are pictures all over the city of Che Guevera and signs saying, “Fidel Lives In Us” and “Viva Cuba Libre.” They have a lot of pride in their country. Because it is difficult for Cubans to leave their country and travel like we can, they have a different perspective on other countries. There are no study abroad programs at their university, although foreign students can apply to attend. Because of this, some Cuban think that all of their monuments or statues are the biggest or the best in the world.   We learned from our guide that all men have to serve 2 years in the military, but for women military service is voluntary. The Cuban healthcare system is well developed. They feel that they have really advanced medicine but don’t share with us because of the embargo.

On our last night in Cuba, I sat and watched my friend playing soccer with a group of students in the park across from our hotel.

I talked in Spanish with two parents who were sitting with their children watching the soccer game too.  Some of the teenage boys watching the game were talking about both of us. It was funny, they didn’t know I could understand them. At one point the dad I had been talking to yelled out to them, “You know she can understand you”. This could have been a park in Avon Lake. I am glad that I went to Cuba. Our guide, Ernesto, and all of the other people we met were interesting to talk to and happy that we wanted to know more about Cuba. I learned about their culture, and the importance of art and music.  I saw the impact of not having access to a lot of different kinds of products or money to buy a lot of things. I left all of my over the counter medicines and travel size products in the hotel room for the maid.  I now have a much clearer picture of Cuba, beyond what we learned in history class.

University of Havana


Currency and Travel


A view from our hotel

The city of Havana

Some of the cars

A view of the Sierra Del Rosario Mountains

Encouraging Reading

by Tricia Ebner

In the past few years there has been a strong focus on close reading to foster deep understanding and analysis of text. It’s also important, though, for students to continue reading lots of books, stories, articles, and poems. One of the key strategies in growing and strengthening vocabulary is through volume of reading.pablo-44

This can get particularly difficult as students move through their middle school years into high school. As studies become more involved in upper grades, the homework load can increase. Schools also offer more extracurricular activities, including clubs and sports. The demands on a student’s time increase, and oftentimes, pleasure reading slips down the priority list. I’ve observed this drop in reading among my eighth graders. In my school, my eighth graders are in English language arts for 50 minutes a day, while sixth and seventh graders have more minutes of ELA instruction. This makes it difficult for me to provide significant, routine independent reading time. I considered requiring a reading log. Past experiences with reading logs weren’t successful, though. Avid readers were annoyed by them, and reading logs only served to make reading an even less-appealing activity for apathetic readers. I needed to find a way of encouraging reading without making it a chore.

I decided to try quarterly “book projects.” Each quarter I ask students to read a book entirely out of class and then prepare some kind of presentation about the book they’ve read. In the first quarter, students select a book and then choose from a variety of options for presenting, including a Siskel-and-Ebert partner review kind of presentation. For the second quarter, I take a bit of time to explain Paul Harvey and his “The Rest of the Story” segments from years ago. Then students select a biography and prepare a presentation to share their own “Rest of the Story” segment about their biography subject.

The third quarter project is my favorite. We call it the “Outside the Box” project. This project challenges to read something they would not normally ever pick up. They need to read at least 75 pages of whatever they select and then prepare a presentation about it, sharing what they liked, what they didn’t like, and why.

Last year was the first I tried this particular project, and it seemed to be the favorite of our projects for the year. A number of students read books they said they would never have selected normally, and discovered a new author or genre they had never imagined themselves liking. One boy, for example, shared that he had picked Twilight by Stephanie Meyers because what could be more opposite of his reading tastes than sparkling vampires? By the time he gave his presentation, he was halfway through the fourth book in the series and readily admitted that the books were far better than he had expected.  

We are about a month away from presentations for this project this year. When I explained the project to my eighth graders, several of them went to each other and asked classmates to select books for them. It didn’t take long for my students to check out books that they normally wouldn’t have selected. Another way I know this is an engaging project: already students have finished their books and prepared their presentations, and the due date is March 13.

I’ve decided to have my students give oral presentations rather than write a review because it’s a great opportunity to practice speaking and listening skills. My students prepare three to four minute speeches, and as they listen to their classmates, they note titles and authors they might want to consider reading.  

I am still trying to figure out the best approach to fostering a love of independent reading in busy eighth graders. While I continue to consider possibilities, these quarterly book projects are encouraging independent reading, and we know that ongoing reading is one of the best ways to continue strengthening reading skills.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

Flexing Student Writing Muscles

How a 4th grade team created flex time to help students be more reflective about their writing once a piece is done and get better at critiquing their own writing to improve on it.

By Char Shryock,  Ohio Standards Advocates State Captain

What happens when you pair fourth graders from two separate classes, being sure that at least one is comfortable typing in a Google Doc, and ask them to collaborate on a piece of argumentative writing?  If the students are in Kelli McMaugh and Dawn Robinson’s classrooms, great writing happens.  These two teachers at Westerly Elementary in Bay Village, Ohio decided to create flex time for writing by rethinking their daily schedule.

During the first Friday flex time, the class watched as Kelli and Dawn modeled a partner discussion.  Then the students selected from 4 possible topics, Sports Teams, No Homework Policy, Lockers or No Lockers, or No Sugary Treats.  Using a blank sheet of paper, the partner teams worked together to create their own graphic organizer and a solid topic sentence.  Instead of writing sentences right from the start,  they were given 5 minutes to pick the topic, 5 minutes to generate their topic sentence and 5 minutes to brainstorm bullet points.  The remaining hour was spent using their graphic organizer and working in a Google Doc to write a first draft.

The following Monday, the teachers split the pairs up, creating small discussion groups. The groups were able to look at draft paragraphs shared on Google Docs one at a time.  For each draft, they discussed how they would decide if it was a good paragraph. With the teachers as facilitators, the kids generated a checklist of characteristics including a hook, middle organization, transition words, and closing sentences.  With each draft, they refined their thinking about their checklist.  The end result? Because all of the drafts were included in the discussions, students saw a wide range of paragraphs within their combined classes.  Kelli and Dawn heard comments from students that included, “ I am going to work on hooks” or “I need to use my reference sheet for transitions more”.  All of the students thought concluding sentences are hard!

Kelli McMaugh shared her reflection after the first set of flex writing times, “ I was excited because they were completely engaged in looking at the pieces. Because they were looking at a variety, a range, they could see that everybody had things to work on. It was authentic because I wasn’t teaching what to look for, they picked it out,organization, using specific sentences.”

She also reflected on how the writing flex time has helped her to use class time in a more powerful way, “I feel like so often they get their writing done, it takes a week to grade, and they don’t care anymore. It is so much more valuable to see it Friday then Monday, the take-away was much stronger. It was evident that at least half of them needed some additional teaching on transition.”

Both Kelli McMaugh and Dawn Robinson are continuing to refine their own thinking about how to best use the flex time.  They both agree that giving students time to collaborate and reflect on writing has given their students the opportunity to become stronger writers.

Writing Resources:


Test Prep: Literacy Assessments

by Tricia Ebner

As we turn our calendars from January to February, one of our school-year realities begins to come into focus: the state assessments are on the horizon. This raises the annual question and dilemma for many of us: what is the best way to prepare our students for these assessments?

The answer is simple and complex, all at once. The best possible test-preparation we can give our students for the Ohio literacy assessments is solid, well-crafted, standards-aligned instruction and activities throughout the school year. After all, our assessments are based on nothing more and nothing less than Ohio’s standards. Having a laser focus, daily, on students’ needs and the standards and expectations of our content and grade level is optimum.

While this this is true, many of us still want to do something to reinforce test-taking skills and strategies. After all, we want to be sure our students can approach the assessment with confidence, not feeling nervousness over the testing platform or format. There are three simple strategies we can use to help our students become familiar with test and question format as well as the technology platform.

  • Give students frequent practice with questions designed in the same format as the state assessment. By taking a little bit of time to study how questions are structured, especially the multi-part questions and the technology-enhanced questions, we can craft the same format of questions for texts and skills we are currently addressing in our classrooms. Is there a critical vocabulary term in a piece your students will be reading soon? Why not craft a two-part question as a means of working with that word and also showing students how that kind of question might look on the spring assessment? If you have technology readily available, consider crafting these kinds of questions on a web site such as Edulastic, which gives students the technology practice as well as the question format practice. Another good strategy is having students work on their writing tasks on the computer, using whatever word-processing program is readily available.
  • Use released passages and items on occasion as a practice tool. I’m going to reveal my bias here: I am not a huge fan of test-prep packets. I resist spending a week on packets, with lessons focused day-in and day-out on passages and questions. Instead, I select a passage and question set that we then use for bell work over several days. My students have been much more willing to meaningfully engage in an analysis of a question or two at the beginning of class, and then move into our more routine work. I’ve also found that these “bite-sized” efforts tend to be better for my students who struggle with test anxiety. Usually we’ll work through two or three passages and related questions over the course of a few weeks. I always make sure we address a literature passage and a nonfiction passage that addresses the history/social studies or science/technology standards.
  • Use the practice test or half-length test. Putting the kids on the platform and having them work through released or practice items is also helpful. Personally, I don’t have my students keep a paper-and-pencil record of their responses; instead, I have them jot down the item numbers of questions that give them more difficulty, and then we “debrief” on the experience after everyone is finished. Again, I try to keep this activity low-risk and low-stress.pablo-41


Our statewide spring assessments are important in a number of ways, from students showing what they know and can do to building and district report cards and even our own teacher evaluations. When I keep specific test-preparation activities balanced with our routine class work, and I keep the activities low-risk and low-stress, we all approach the spring assessments with confidence. As a result, my students are more likely to give their best efforts and performance, and I will see more accurate data about what they know and can do, and what areas of instruction might need improvement for the next year. Keeping a balanced perspective on assessment keeps the focus on learning and growth, and that’s a win-win for everyone.

In case you missed it: the Ohio Department of Education announced on Friday, February 3, that it has released half-length practice tests on the Test Portal. You’ll find released items from the Spring 2016 assessment there as well.

How have you faced a lesson-planning challenge? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

The Challenges of Teaching College Credit Plus

The persistent inner voice  questions me daily.  How do I build and maintain a post-secondary course culture in my high school classes?  I’m a second-year college credit plus (CCP) English teacher.   I’m also a professional and a standards advocate.

Ethics and guidelines matter to me.Though it would be easy to teach students the same way I taught AP English or even a junior or senior English class, CCP Comp 101 and 102 are not traditional high school courses.  High school students are taking these courses for transcripted college credit.  Therefore, the college board requirements and the 11-12th grade Ohio writing standards are no longer my guide.pablo-39

When we first received this teaching assignment 2 years ago, my colleague who also teaches CCP Comp and I knew that we needed to meet with our community college’s English rep.  Since collaboration is an integral aspect of our high school teaching culture, it was natural to reach out and link arms with our higher ed colleagues.  Building rapport took time because we were not on the same campus and assumptions about our domains (secondary vs higher ed systems) needed to be clarified.  However, after orientation and emails, we built the communication bridge.

I’ve learned and developed my approach to instructing the CCP classes.  Initially, I believed that there were no guidelines.  I foolishly thought I had total freedom because my erroneous assumption was that college instructors do their own thing.  Ha! The guidelines that the college English department has for Comp 101 and 102 have clear objectives and learning outcomes.  From rhetorical knowledge, to critical thinking, reading, and writing, students would be building their knowledge of the composing process.  They would be developing collaborative skill, applying knowledge of writing conventions and be composing in electronic environments.

My second awareness hit me when theory and practice collided.  Yes, based on test data, many students were college ready and most of them had the college-ready “survival skills,” of self-direction, independence, self-advocacy, ability to handle the rigor of the syllabus and keep the pace, and thoughtful ownership and engagement in developing their writing skills.  However, they are still 16 and 17 years old. So, making professional decisions about whether to hold steadfast on expectations or to seize the opportunity of teachable moments became commonplace.  For example when a girl came to me and asked how do I cite a work in an anthology, I sat down and cognitive coached her through the process instead of giving her the answer or telling her to go figure it out.  While many others navigated the electronic resources on their own, those that cared but were slightly lost needed extra attention.  Therefore, incorporating conference time aka office hours into my syllabus, and encouraging students to initiate the contact has been helpful for CCP students.

No matter what, CCP requires students to be accountable. As well, teaching CCP demands my accountability to the college and to my students.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

The Power of Good Questioning

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

During one of my first post-observation conferences as a novice teacher, my principal told me that while I had many strengths as a teacher, my questioning skills were weak. He said I needed to improve those in order to continue strengthening my practice. It was something that I stewed over for days afterward, but then I began to reflect on my practice and expectations. I wanted my seniors to be highly engaged, excited about the British literature we were studying and eager to share their ideas in discussion and writing. I was working really, really hard to generate that kind of engagement, and yet nothing was happening. The texts were rich, the writing tasks seemed solid. When I was truly honest with myself, I had to admit the questions were the weak point. It simply wasn’t possible to generate the kinds of rich discussion I wanted with basic who-what-where questions. I needed to pose better questions.

While this observation and my subsequent realization happened over twenty years ago, my reflection on question hasn’t stopped. At the time my first principal made his observation, the internet was new enough that I didn’t have access to it. (Yes, this was shortly after dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth, or so it seems to my middle school students today.) I read all I could. I perused the college textbooks I had kept. I searched my growing library of English Journals from NCTE. As I worked on my master’s degree, I read resources in the university’s library.

My quest for asking good questions still continues. While I have changed and improved, my students have also changed. The types of questions that resonate well with my 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are those that dig deeply into our studies. When I ask deep, powerful, open-ended questions, we all learn. The connections and insights students make through these kinds of questions are key. They foster critical thinking. Asking these kinds of questions also models the kinds of questions students need to ask independently, of themselves and their reading and research.

I’ve found the lessons on the web site to be particularly strong and powerful. They’ve helped me better understand what strong, solid question about text look and sound like. Recently I used the questions surrounding the short story “Eleven.” After reading the text independently, we began going through the text a second time, this time stopping to note various plot, characterization, vocabulary, and writing style choices. At one point, I asked the student to consider why Cisneros had chosen to start five sentences in the first few paragraphs with the word “And,” a question suggested by the lesson plan on the web site. As they shared various thoughts, the class realized that this approach conveys a more conversational style and gives the narration the voice of an eleven-year-old. Then one student said, “It reminds me of what Gary Paulsen did in Hatchet.”

This kind of powerful connection was possibly largely because of the kinds of thoughtful questions we were discussing. Asking questions like this gets students to consider the author’s purpose and reflect on how writing style can support the purpose. The critical thinking that goes into answer questions like these and then extending them into observations and connections with other texts is powerful. It’s also the kind of reading we need our students to engage in as they continue learning and growing in this 21st century.

The challenge of questioning in the classroom isn’t one solved quickly. There are no five-minute strategies to developing strong, powerful questions. It takes time, effort, and practice. Sometimes question sets I have developed have been flops, with students quickly answering in short, surface-level responses. Every flop has taught me more about crafting better questions. It’s a journey and process, and one that is well worth pursuing. By crafting deep, powerful, meaningful questions, we are helping students to stretch their learning, use texts as resources, and become more independent, empowered learners.

One tool for crafting good questions about text is the “Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions,” also found here on the www.achievethecore web site.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

How To Encourage A Wonder Mindset In Elementary Classrooms

By Char Shryock, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Bay Village City Schools

When was the last time you stopped to wonder about something? Sometimes in our quest to get in 90 minutes of reading, 45 minutes of math, lunch, art, music, and phys ed in our plan for the day, we miss those moments of wonder.   Building in wonder time into a lesson can open new windows into the thinking and problem solving process of your students.  I have been working with a kindergarten class this year,  integrating science, math and ELA.  These kids are “wonder-full”.  I like to start off a discussion by making my own wonder statement.  This past week I wondered why the back side of the Moon looked different then the front side.  This led to a great conversation with the kids.  Some things they wondered about included, how big is the Moon? How do we know? How old is the Moon? How does the Earth move?  How do clouds move? Could astronauts feel the Moon moving?  By leaving space for wondering in my lesson planning, I gave the students a chance to engage in building their own learning path.  From this discussion, I was able to select a read aloud book, The Darkest Dark, written by Chris Hadfield.  Students wondered about the darkness of space, and what the Earth looked like from the Moon. We found pictures of the Earth taken from the Moon and from Mars. We talked about the size of the Moon. For a math activity, we learned the words circumference and sphere.  Using fact statements about the Moon and Moon exploration, we worked with the numbers 6,9, 12 and 27, talking about which number was bigger, and how many more or how many less one number was from another. Then we wondered about what moons from other planets looked like? How many moons are in our solar system?  All this from a 5 minute wonder conversation.  

Do you have 5 minutes in your day to build in wonder time?  The first step in building a wonder mindset is for teachers to model wondering by doing “ wonder think out louds” for students.  The next step is to create collaborative discussion norms that encourage all students to wonder out loud, without any immediate judging of the idea or question.  Teacher facilitators can capture the wonder ideas and questions, then, with the class, make decisions about prioritizing or clarifying the list as a way to plan additional lesson or small group work.  The last step in building a wonder mindset classroom is creating hands-on centers and selecting read aloud books  that encourage wondering.  A wonder center might include blocks, Legos, Hot Wheel cars and track, coloring materials, craft sticks, glue, a variety of interesting pictures, magnifying glasses and anything else that will encourage kids to act on their “I wonder if…” ideas. Sounds a lot like a makerspace!  Informational text sets are great starters for wondering.  Students who want to learn more about something can use the text sets to find answers to “I wonder why… “ questions.  Pictures and stories can be the spark for additional wondering.

Once a culture of wonder starts to grow in a classroom, feedback can continue to grow a wonder mindset in children. Start feedback on an activity with, “ I wonder how you might try this in a different way?” or “ What else did this make you wonder about?” or even “After reading/listening to this, I began to wonder about ____”.  Student reflection journals might include wondering pages or boxes to capture their wondering as they work they way through reading, science, math or other lessons.  Build a wonder board in your classroom for kids to post their wonderings. Help them connect to classmates who may be wondering about similar things. This is a great way to start a collaborative project!

Resources that focus on wondering include: