Deeper Learning: Recapturing the Joy in Data Driven Schools

by Colleen A. Ruggieri

While recently contemplating why so many learners choose to use outside instructional supports (Internet articles, SparkNotes, etc.), to complete their school assignments, I decided to ask a few middle school, high school, and college students about their attitudes toward their homework and classroom assignments for all subject areas. Their responses were eye opening, problematic, and alarming. During our discussions, there were surprising commonalities in the responses between grade levels, all of which should be contemplated.

It is possible to get good grades without ever reading an assigned text. This seems exaggerated and impossible, but students at all grade levels convinced me that it could be true. One high school student shared her philosophy: “If you listen to your teacher, take notes, and read SparkNotes for a novel…or an online article for a government assignment, you can get an ‘A’ and pass the state tests. I don’t have time to actually read all of the books, but I still want to do well. I know it’s kind of cheating, but it works.” An important assessment issue associated with this approach is that there is no deeper learning occurring as students progress through school. Grades are providing false positives, as learners have not developed authentic skills for reading, analyzing, and synthesizing ideas.

Traditional, worksheet driven instruction no longer inspires learners. My personal experience with this student response came in my own household. My son, an active learner, was not completing his assignments. It was only after some serious investigation that my husband and I learned that he was folding up his worksheets and creating origami animals out of them. Of course, we were disappointed that he resorted to civil disobedience. However, we had to chuckle at his ingenious approach to avoiding the work. In the end, we had to sit him down and emphasize the importance of completing his work, even if was less than inspirational. We often wonder when kids lose their zest for learning. Worksheets can be authentic instructional tools, when used in moderation, but today’s students are different from those moving through classrooms twenty years ago. Students are living fast-paced, multitasking lives; successful teachers will find ways to engage their students through active learning.

bookLearners want to succeed; most define success by passing the tests and getting  good grades. It would be untruthful to tell any aspiring student that grades and test scores do not matter. In order to test my assertion, I took this concern into my college classroom, and assigned Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It is important to emphasize that I challenged my students to read the text—independently and without any notes beyond the text’s annotations—for themselves. To provide a comfort zone, I told them that I would not give them daily quizzes. Instead, I prepared response prompts, and I asked them to record their thoughts and analysis to each section, to the best of their ability. Many students shared that this was one of their first experiences of actually reading an assigned work. Some found the experience “overwhelming” and “daunting.” These were college seniors who had two weeks to read the two-hundred-and-twenty-four page text, and their mindset seems to be symptomatic of an educational system gone awry. However, by removing the layer of potentially punitive test scores during the reading process, most of my students actually tried to read the text and appreciate Walden on a level that went well beyond literal summarization.

Real Learning: What Can We Do? While processing all that I heard from students, I picked up a copy of Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. I appreciated the candid call for change in teaching practices: “Innovation is the lifeblood of progress. It is nursed and nurtured in the arms of failure; in collaboration; in creativity; in curiosity; in passion; in tenacity and grit and optimism” (Beers and Probst 107).  The authors note that educators begin their planning with the best of intentions. However, things change as instructors become too heavily focused on test scores. For example, computers—though potentially innovative tools—have led to the use of electronic worksheets. Ultimately, while we have written new standards for students, procedural practices must also change. With this in mind, here are a few suggestions:

Remember that test data is just one stroke on a student’s academic portrait. Test results are used for rating and ranking, and this reality creates stress for districts and teachers. However, it is important for parents, educators, and community members to realize that one digit does not a success or failure make. A deeper look at the data—and where it shows a need for improvement—should serve as a guide to greatness, rather than a punitive measure for denigrating a district’s efforts. Likewise, students should look at their own data in the same way. Teachers and parents should sit down with learners and discuss what type of snapshot the scores are providing about a student’s progress.

Rather than feeling the need to “cover the material,” educators must be supported in their efforts to drill down and design lessons for deeper learning. Spending more time on a challenging text—and giving students the time to read, think, and process what is in that document—will change the nature of instruction. Stress is a killer, and too many teachers and their classes feel like a hamster on a wheel; the quest to finish one task and begin another is exhausting and counterproductive. By allowing students to spend more time to read a challenging work, they won’t feel so defeated that they immediately look for its online summary. By avoiding the notion to “tell them what the text means,” teachers will bring back the joy of reading and allow their learners to discover the meaning for themselves.

Reading, writing, speaking and listening “for real” should be implemented in every classroom and in the home. Students want answers to life, and their questions should become part of the school curriculum. Districts and classrooms have approached this by adding essential questions to assignments (What are the dangers of racism? What is the true meaning of success?), and this must continue. Beers and Probst emphasize that we must stop using monologic questions—questions with only one right, or best answer (152). Instead, teaching students to appreciate the dialectical tensions that exist in the world will make them think deeply about solving problems. Students see dialogic questions as authentic, and they are much more willing to complete their assignments if they see real meaning in them. Parents who talk to their kids about such questions extend learning and make their children understand that what happens in a classroom is setting the stage for life.

Final Thoughts Standards and tests can be terrific tools for teaching and learning. However, it is important for everyone involved in students’ lives to see the bigger picture.  Data, used inappropriately, can be damaging and divisive. However, by transforming our approach to teaching and learning, and using data to inform our work, we will be helping learners to find their joy, understand why they are being asked to complete their assignments, and live fuller lives that transcend their years in school.

Work Cited:
Beers, Kyleen and Robert Probst. Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. Scholastic, 2017.

About the Author: Colleen Ruggieri, a recipient of The Martha Holden Jennings Foundation Master Teacher of Ohio award, has worked as a National Board Certified English Teacher. She is an English education professor at Ohio University, and she is a past-president of the Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts.

Writing Purpose vs Writing Tools In A 21st Century Classroom

By Char Shryock   Dir. of Curriculum, Bay Village City Schools

What is the difference between the purpose for writing and the decision on what tools you use to actually write?  I took a moment to look at my own handwritten note taking over the past few weeks.  I am a native cursive writer. I grew up in a time when I had many opportunities to write and read cursive handwriting. What I found was an interesting hybrid of printed and cursive letter formation in my own writing, sometimes within the same word.  The fact that students in elementary school currently use their handwriting skills to write down their ideas goes along with what Virginia Berninger from the University of Washington found when study children through 6th grade. A Washington Post article quoting her research, along with that of others, suggests students can use handwriting to quickly capture an idea, and develop their own handwriting style once they have learned the fundamentals.  She does not advocate for time spent on handwriting drills.   I learned to write cursive because it was a writing tool,  a way to put my thoughts and the thoughts of others down on paper so they could be referenced at a later date or as a way to communicate with someone who was not in close proximity to me.  Now, students in our district are learning print (manuscript) and then cursive as a way to reinforce their foundational reading skills, helping students to make connected letter sounds on paper to mirror the connected letter sounds they are reading.  There are many writing tools, both technology based and manual, available to them to help them capture and organize their own thoughts and the thoughts of others. 

With the ready access to digital means of communication, including increasingly dependable and accurate speech to text technology, students are no longer using cursive as a consistent tool for  written expression.  Students in grades K-3 do spend time on handwriting and letter formation as part of the process of developmental reading as well as a tool for written communication.  Beyond 3rd grade, instructional time is increasingly focused on the content of what they are writing, not necessarily the tool or format that they chose to write with.  Teachers do continue to emphasize legible handwriting when appropriate, with the student having choice in the use of print (manuscript) or cursive letter formation or even more likely, a digital way of writing.  As our society shifts to a more digital environment, we as educators need to consider what skills students should spend time in school learning and practicing.  Ohio’s Learning Standards for Writing and Language emphasize the need to be able to read and listen to a variety of texts both literary (fiction) and informational (non-fiction), find evidence to support ideas from those texts, synthesize and analyze information and then write about  it in a way that will make sense to others who are reading or listening to it.    Printing (manuscript) , cursive, keyboarding, and speech to text, are all tools to help students convey this information.  

As you move through this year, think about opportunities your students have to read and listen to a variety of texts, in a variety of formats. Students need many opportunities to write using evidence from a text, regardless of the format of this writing.  Twenty-first Century learners will need to analyze, synthesize and make inferences from the work of others. They will need to be able to share this analysis, and express their own innovative ideas, in the format that is best suited to convey their work.  Conversations around the role of cursive in classrooms can be the starting point for a deeper conversation on the tools and resources students need to share their thinking and continue to grow as effective writers and communicators.

Proposed Policy Related to Writing:

The  proposed legislation, Ohio HB 58, that would add to section to 3313.60 of the Ohio Revised Code the following language:

  1. The board of education of each city, exempted village, and local school district and the board of each cooperative education school district established, pursuant to section 3311.521 of the Revised Code, shall prescribe a curriculum for all schools under its control. Except as provided in division (E) of this section, in any such curriculum there shall be included the study of the following subjects:

9)Handwriting instruction in kindergarten through fifth grade to ensure that students develop the ability to print letters and words legibly by third grade and to create readable documents using legible cursive handwriting by the end of fifth grade.

Interesting Resources:

We’re all in this together: Reflections on assessment

by Tricia Ebner, M. Ed., NBCT

This past week I had the opportunity to attend the NCME Special Conference, ‘And the Twain Shall Meet,’ bringing together psychometricians and classroom educators. It was exciting and a bit intimidating to be sharing the same space with experts and researchers like Neil Kingston, Susan Brookhart, and Dale Whittington. From the opening panel discussion between Margaret Heritage and Neal Kingston to the final sessions Thursday afternoon, these three key ideas resonated throughout the conference.

1. We’re all in this together.

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the “us vs. them” trap, especially in this era of high-stakes testing. It’s easy to view those responsible for crafting large-scale summative assessments as people focused on writing complex test questions, focused on getting the data needed without considering the children taking the tests. Classroom educators eagerly study released test items, looking for those little nuances that might help them–and their students–unlock the secrets to better performance. Yet the world of educational measurement is concerned with student learning and works hard to ensure the measurement tools provide good information for teachers, students, parents, policymakers, and the community at large. Those writing and analyzing assessments are truly interested in student learning and growth. Psychometricians know that large-scale, standardized assessments are only one piece of the “puzzle” of a student’s learning profile. Yet they also know that providing good feedback through assessment data is important in helping students, parents, and teachers assemble that learning profile. Classroom teachers, administrators, and test developers are all on the same team, working together.
2. There are standards for classroom assessment, and they make a lot of sense.

9.17.17 blog post graphicTo be honest, I didn’t realize these standards existed. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit this. After all, we have standards for our content areas, standards for professional educators, standards for professional development. We really should have standards for classroom assessments–and we do. They were designed to be relevant and aligned to data collection, management, and use, and to provide feedback to students. The central question driving the development of these standards is critical: What makes good, effective classroom assessment? It’s a terrific question that deserves thoughtful discussion and reflection. (If you’re curious, the standards are available via Amazon.)

3. In all of our work, students are at the heart.

Whether we are focusing on crafting better formative assessments so that we can more directly, intentionally address specific needs, or we’re part of a team working on a major standardized test, we are ultimately doing this work because we care about students and their learning. This theme came through repeatedly, starting with the opening discussion between Dr. Neal Kingston and Margaret Heritage. In their discussion, looking at assessment from perspectives as psychometrician and classroom practitioner, they repeatedly stressed the reality that what we do is important for students. As we discussed the many challenges of assessment in education, it was clear that all of us are truly focused on the students. Ultimately, assessment is meant to help us uncover what students know and can do, so that we can continue to guide and support their learning and development.

Certainly, test developers and educators can learn a great deal from each other. As educators, we challenge our students to continue learning and growing. Now let’s challenge ourselves to deepen our knowledge of assessments, reflecting on how we can make use of the data more effectively and efficiently. Not only we will we benefit from this work, but the most important people in education will benefit: the students.

Three APPS to Help Support Students with Special Needs: Helping all Kids Grapple with Grade Level Expectations  

by Dr. Bryan Drost

I had the best time with teachers the last few days—curriculum mapping away.  It’s what curriculum directors live for: discussions of vertical and horizontal alignment.  However, about halfway through the second day I could tell that I had “lost” two teachers: more specifically, two intervention specialists.  Attempting to bring them into the conversation, we had a bit of a heart-to-heart, and this phrase came out “My kids can’t do these standards.”

My heart broke with these sentence: of course, part of it is that we haven’t made the shift that students with special education needs are part of the “ALL” in all of our students, but at the same time, it was clear that these teachers needed some strategies to help work with their students. Although I knew that in the short time I had to work with these educators, I would not be able to solve all, I did know that they were capable and that they could use APPS to help students acquire our college and career-ready standards.

As we worked together, I shared with her my version of the acronym APPS for technology integration within the classroom: how will an application help students Acquire meaningful content standards; how will an application help students Progress through meaningful feedback; how will an application measure Proficiency of student learning, and how will an application Support the student in learning content.  (You can find more examples of this in my blogs on Achieve the Core’s Aligned blog at

The following are three APPS that I shared with her that I believe you too can use to help redefine your classroom and facilitate higher order learning activities that encourage self-directed learning and ongoing assessment for our students with special needs as well as the rest.

One of the concerns with some special needs students is that they can’t read the complex text that is required on them at grade level.  Research has consistently proven that we need to make sure kids get exposure and regular practice with grade-level text.  In other words, simply giving students texts that are not at their lexile level is problematic.  So what to do?  Why not try one of these free Google tools.  Take on an grade-level text, maybe from Newsela. Download the freeTextTeaser extension.  TextTeaser allows students to summarize the content from a webpage as a list of sentences or in paragraph form.  What’s really great is that you adjust the output using a slider to give different detail levels of the passage or article.  This gives teachers the opportunity to frontload texts for students so that they can participate in those rich, on-grade level conversations while the intervention specialist is working in small-group or one-on-one with helping the students make sense of the larger passage. An alternative to TextTeaser is SMMRY, a tool that performs basically the same task.TextTeaser

Desmos is my second APP for you all.  Often, students with special needs that are struggling math need some type of visual to represent mathematical relationships and as a result, when this isn’t provided, will shut down and become frustrated.  To be frank, many of us need those visuals.  In addition to helping provide a visual, Desmos harnesses the social nature of online interactions into meaningful math inquiry.  For example, by using the Function Carnival tooll, students are given the freedom to experiment with functions and are given direct feedback that allows them to revise their thinking and improve their mathematical practices and improve on that sense of perseverance. Lastly and what is most powerful about this tool is that the system also gives teachers the ability to randomly pair students with electronic devices, allowing students to create questions and challenges for each other based on aligned content. This can help students with special needs as it provides a model for mathematical thinking. Check it out at  In Ohio, at least, keep in mind that this is a crucial tool that students need to be exposed to as this is the same calculator interface we will be using on our State Achievement Tests.DESMOS

My final app is really one that can be used in all disciplines, and isn’t limited to say math or ELA.  As students progress into higher and higher grade levels or as content gets more and more challenging, it is essential to help students see the relationships between ideas. Often times students with special needs that have difficulty with organizing information need support in keeping ideas and these relationships straight. Ideament is a great app that allows you to draw a diagram – a mini map, concept map, flow chart, etc. and convert it to a text outline and vice versa.  This is a great way to help students with special needs organize information for something that they need to write, but also can be used to in relationship to text.  For example, copying and pasting a portion of text into a word document will allow the software to create a diagram of the text to help students organize this text and make sense of the relationships amongst ideas, perhaps say in a science text. Students also have the option of manipulating these diagrams to reorganize them in ways so that they too can learn how to process the information.  Although it is appropriate for all students, adults can benefit from it as well. I used when I started writing this blog!Ideament

While these APPS don’t solve everything, they do transform classrooms as areas of grade-level learning for all students.  Through the use of APPS, I know that you will discover additional ways to help support all students.  I encourage you to respond to this blog or e-mail us to tell us how you’re using them.  I’d love to learn more too!


Thought Partners: A Critical Relationship for Professional Growth

by Marcia Pool Rutherford, Ed.S. & Tricia Ebner, M. Ed., NBCT

A term heard around education circles recently is that of “Thought Partners.” It’s a term used in the business world that has practical application capabilities in the education world.  Essentially, it means having a pair of listening ears sharing and challenging  your thoughts and plans about a particular topic. But while it might seem like a Thought Partner should share similar perspectives and ideas, that’s not necessarily the case.

The Thinking Collaborative, an organization committed to developing and supporting thinking and collaboration within groups, identifies three specific traits of thought partners. First, Thought Partners challenge each other’s thinking, pushing each other to consider ideas from different angles. Thought Partners can help change each other’s thinking and actions. The critical feedback can help a person see a situation differently, prompting a different way of thinking about it and even provide different actions in addressing the problem. Finally, Thought Partners can share information and spark ideas that lead to substantial change. Through the discussion and feedback Thought Partners provide to each other, both partners may ultimate make significant changes in the work they do.  

A Thought Partner isn’t necessarily a colleague with whom you work in a structure such as a team or PLC. The relationships and culture within these kinds of work collaborations don’t always allow for the honesty and critical thought required of Thought Partners.  A Thought Partner isn’t necessarily a friend in the social sense, either. Thought Partners are those to whom you turn when you want a critical eye and ear providing feedback on an idea or action. As the Family Engagement and Title I Coordinator for a digital school, Marcia Rutherford and two others were tasked to build a tiered interventions system which would impact all of our teachers and students.  Within the collaborative discussions, which took place via email, online and face to face, a relationship developed among the three that was honest, productive and motivating.  We all felt we were free to add our voice to the project even though there were contrary opinions. Moreover, our own strengths came to the forefront; we could not come to any discussion without ‘knowing our stuff’.  Difficult discussions were welcomed because we trusted the others’ opinion and knew our own craft would be improved.  We were better for it and because of it.  .  

Thought Partners are valuable resources. In our work as educators, we sometimes need a more objective ear and eye to provide perspective. When I am wrestling with an idea I’d like to try within my classroom, turning to a Thought Partner can help me better identify the strengths and weaknesses within my idea. What might initially seem like a great idea may have flaws that I hadn’t considered, but my Thought Partner, through careful listening and reflection, can raise questions that lead me to see aspects of the idea that need improvement. A Thought Partner is a sounding board. It’s also a true partnership. Not only do I ask my Thought Partner for feedback, but I also provide feedback when he or she needs it.

Think of it in this way: children working in maker spaces often rely on those around them to be Thought Partners. They will ask others for their reactions and suggestions to what they are building, all in the interests of improving the design and completing a successful project. They are using their knowledge and confidence about familiar resources to create something new, and the honest feedback from others is valued. As educators, we sometimes need a similar sounding board. By working in tandem with a Thought Partner, we have a sounding board willing to listen to our ideas and provide feedback.

There are some key principles guiding Thought Partners’ work with each other:

  1. A Thought Partner should challenge one’s thinking. He or she isn’t meant to be a cheerleader, necessarily, serving solely as confirmation that the decision you’re making is the best one. There may be times when a Thought Partner does that, but perhaps even more important are the moments when the partner shares a different perspective or raises potential issues that hadn’t been considered yet.
  2. A Thought Partnership is a true partnership. There is give and take. A Thought Partner must be willing to ask those thought-provoking, critical questions. As Thought Partners, we need to be willing to have those honest conversations.There is a mutual understanding that even though the feedback may be more negative, it is shared with the mutual goal of learning, growing, and moving forward.
  3. Thought Partners don’t necessarily have to be geographically close. Some partnerships may not meet face-to-face in the same space. It’s a relationships built around the common goal of improving practice. In fact, in some ways it may be best if the Thought Partner isn’t a colleague on the same staff or in the same district. The objectivity that comes with distance allows for a different perspective and possibly more honest discussion. Hearing how others in different parts of the country have faced similar challenges can be reassuring and inspiring.

As the 2017-18 school year unfolds, it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on our partnerships. To whom might you turn as a potential Thought Partner?  If you have a Thought Partner, how can you continue to build and support that relationship? What discussions can you have with a potential Thought partner to begin a more collegial dialogue?  Take time to assess your needs as a teacher and identify others who share the same struggles.  Let the discussion unfold and let the relationship develop naturally.  The benefits of developing a Thought Partnership are tremendous for students and educators alike.

Changing Roles: Opportunities and Challenges

by Melissa Dills and Tricia Ebner

As Ohio begins the 2017-18 school year, some educators across the state are not just updating lesson plans or trying new technology tools. Some educators are stepping into new roles, with new opportunities and challenges. Educator Melissa Dills, formerly a kindergarten teacher in a northeast Ohio school district, is moving into a role as a technology integration specialist serving grades K-6 in the same school district. Meanwhile, educator Tricia Ebner, formerly a gifted intervention specialist serving grades 6-8 in a northeast Ohio school district, is moving into a role as a consultant with an ESC. On the brink of their new roles, they’ve taken a few moments to reflect on these transitions.

Both Melissa and Tricia are excited about the impacts they can make in the coming year. Melissa says, “I’m most excited to have an impact on both students and staff at the elementary schools.” She is looking forward to being a resource and support for colleagues who may have been a bit hesitant to try new technology resources. Tricia is eager to support teachers and principals as they work with programming and instruction for gifted children. Both are also excited about their own learning in these roles. “Since Ohio adopted new operating standards for gifted education this past spring, we are all learning lots about how these standards will look in practice,” Tricia shares. Melissa adds, “I truly see myself as a learner and look forward to all that I’ll learn from everyone that I’ll be working with.”

While there is a great deal of excitement with a new role in education, there are also challenges ahead. In Tricia’s position, she’ll be working with several different schools and districts on a number of different professional development and program projects. “I’m going to be learning how best to organize my work and myself as I balance all of this.” Melissa sees a similar challenge in her work: “I anticipate there being a learning curve in all areas. Serving grades K-6 will be a challenge due to the sheer number of staff members I want and need to reach.”

Moving into these kinds of roles doesn’t mean student learning standards are no longer a concern. In Melissa’s role, she’ll be working with both content standards and Ohio’s newly-revised technology standards, which encompass three disciplines: information and communication technology, society and technology, and design and technology. Melissa is excited about how content standards and technology standards can be woven together into engaging lessons. She also sees an important principle in this: digital citizenship. “I look forward to helping elementary teachers introduce digital citizenship to our youngest learners to lay a foundation of responsibility in a digital world.” Tricia also has a strong focus on student learning in her work. Because she’ll be engaged in supporting teachers in their work with gifted children, she will be helping teachers craft differentiated lessons and activities aligned to Ohio’s standards while still providing an appropriate level of challenge. “The standards are the starting point; I’m excited about collaborating with teachers to support gifted children’s ongoing learning with the standards.” Student learning and growth, starting with Ohio’s learning standards, is still a key focus for these two educators.

Preparing for new roles also has been a focus this summer for both Melissa and Tricia. A conversation with a colleague gave her some insight into the preparations she needed to make. Melissa shares, “Recently, a fifth grade social studies teacher said she’d love to work on a map unit together, integrate technology into what they already do. As I asked what skills they’re working on at that time she replied, ‘simple map skills.’  In my mind simple map skills consisted of knowing the difference between land and water on a map and globe.  I realized very quickly that becoming more familiar with content in each grade level will help me better understand the needs of each grade level. Tricia talked about needing to learn much from the team she will be part of. “I know there are going to be elements of my work that I don’t have any idea about yet, and I’m so glad I’m going to be working as part of team because I know they’ll help guide and support me as I soak up all I need to learn and do.” Melissa also appreciates the support she knows she’ll receive from administrators and colleagues. Both educators also see value in connecting with others through Facebook and Twitter. “Having a terrific PLN (professional learning network) on Twitter has given me opportunities to interact with others from across Ohio and the country, all focused on doing what’s good and right for kids. My PLN is a terrific resource and inspiration,” Tricia adds.

Both Melissa and Tricia have sought advice from others in these transitions. At a summer conference, a teacher leader who recently transitioned to work at her state’s department of education encouraged Tricia to cherish the successes she has, because the feedback in these roles is different than the feedback at the classroom level. “That make sense to me,” Tricia said, “because in the classroom, I was constantly getting feedback from my students. In my new role, I’ll still get feedback, but it’s going to be different.” Melissa got some advice from a colleague when she had a moment of mixed emotions surrounding her move. She was packing up items in her classroom when she came across a much-loved book. “I had read that book for 12 years. (I can’t say many things in my room had been used for 12 years, but this was a great book!) Not only had I read it for 12 years but 12 years’ worth of students had heard that book!  As a few tears rolled down my cheek, a good friend and colleague walked in my classroom. I felt guilty feeling sad. I full heartedly wanted this new position and had worked for years to obtain it. She gave me the best advice in reminding me that it’s perfectly normal to feel sadness and excitement at the same time.” Having guidance, wisdom, and support from others will make the transitions into these new roles smoother.

8.20.17 blog post image

A new school year is filled with transitions. Students are transitioning into new grades and subjects taught by teachers new to them. Teachers and administrators face transitions to new technology, policies, and procedures while also getting to know new students. All of us, whether we are changing roles or not, are facing change. When we support each other, keeping our students and their learning as the top priority, we make the transitions smoother and easier. As John C. Maxwell said, “A word of encouragement from a teacher to a child can change a life. A word of encouragement from a spouse can save a marriage. A word of encouragement from a leader can inspire a person to reach her potential.” Whatever our role in education may be, let’s continue to support and encourage each other as we guide our students toward reaching their potential.   

Planning for Classroom Shifts

by Ashli Breit & Cheryl Bledsoe, 6th Grade Teachers

While contemplating how to best meet the needs of students, we read Shift This: How to Implement Gradual Changes for Massive Impact in Your Classroom by Joy Kirr.  The ideas seem so simple, yet are far-reaching and exciting for the possibilities in the classroom.  Five small shifts were selected to begin the year: the Daily Question, virtual space, no homework (combined with choice boards) and feedback.  These shifts were incorporated into the plans, rooms were rearranged and syllabi have been updated.  Let the year begin!

The Daily Question will set the tone for the classroom: I am interested in you as a person and what you think matters.  Some of the questions are low investment (what is your favorite ice cream topping), while others ask the kids to be more introspective (Which do you think would be the hardest to live without: eyesight, hearing , smell?).  ‘What percentage (of your waking hours) did you spend outside this weekend?’ provides insight into who the student is outside the classroom, and ‘How many tries will you give yourself before you give up trying?’ provides a window into the work ethic being faced in the classroom.  This small shift will take minimal time as students enter the room, placing their magnet on the answer, but can have significant impact on relationships built within those four walls.

In a perfect classroom, students would have complete choice and voice in what they learn each day and how they learn it; in a world of high-stakes testing, this may merely seem a pipe dream, but it doesn’t have to be.  Homework and choice boards seem like a logical place to begin shifting our mindset about student learning.  As we prepare learners to be college and career ready, we must reflect on our own experiences in those realms.  When we walk out of a college class, professional development, staff meeting, project meeting, etc., we determine what we do from that point: file the information, explore the topic more, or study and ponder what we have heard.  Why have we been unable to allow students that same choice in their own learning?  Assigning no homework seems an easy step in that direction and is another small shift being implemented.  

Joy is right, “Everything is worth a second glance.” When I read the section in chapter 4 about creating/updating your class website, the only thought I had was ‘been there, done that’. We had made multiple classroom sites to put on our district page. Parents looked at them the first week of school and that was about it. I’m glad I didn’t stop reading because of my bad experiences in the past. Everything is worth a second glance, and we are very excited about the shift that Joy inspired in our classroom sites.

The main job of sites this year will be to help us communicate with our parents. We will be including our mission, curriculum, standards and videos just like Joy encouraged us to. Our hope is to allow students to be the curators of the class calendar and photo pages as the year progresses. Right now our sites are at the beginning stages. We have a lot to add, and I’m sure a lot to tweak, but we are hoping that this shift in the role of our classroom site will be a bridge between our classrooms and our parents.

Nightly reading (with reading logs) has been assigned 5 nights a week every week in our classrooms, but we had to consider the actual effect of this homework.  Too often, students were not completing the reading and it was frustrating to them and to us.  It was decided that we would give the students a choice to read and participate in the classroom reading challenge, or not to do so.  That being said, there are still required reading projects (student selected novel) every quarter and students are responsible for deciding when and how to accomplish the reading to complete those tasks.  This small shift gives students power over their learning, while modeling real-life skills such as time management and organization.  

Along with that, is more student choice in what they do in the classroom as well.  There are standards that must be taught and even a curriculum map to guide us, but within that map are multiple opportunities for students to complete work in a manner of their choosing.  Choice boards have been developed to guide the process in some areas, and Genius Hour will be used to tap student interests in a long-term project about a topic they select.  This inclusion of student choice fuels engagement, lets learners shine in areas we may not otherwise see, and gives them a unique voice in the classroom.

All throughout the last school year, we worked tirelessly to give our students feedback on their writing assignments. We stayed up late and got up early to make sure that every student had comments made on their assignment. We thought we were really helping our students. There were only two little problems with our strategy. One, students weren’t reading our comments. Two, some students didn’t understand the changes we were suggesting. We hadn’t built in the time to discuss our feedback with the students so that they could truly grow as writers.

After reading chapter 7 of Shift This, a light bulb went off. We weren’t giving quality feedback to our students. We thought we were, but we weren’t. Then, the brainstorming began. How can we make this shift? How can we give students feedback that is meaningful to them? We decided on a two-step plan. First, we will give students time to collaborate and give each other feedback. We will model what quality feedback can look look like and give our students feedback starters like Joy suggested. Second, we will build in small group time where we will give skill-directed feedback and allow time for students to work on making corrections. Our hope is that not only will these shifts make our students stronger writers, but they will show our students that we truly care about them and helping them through the writing process.

Change 8.13.17Change is hard, but can be very effective.  Is every shift going to make a positive difference?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Will there be stumbling blocks and adjustments?  Probably. But the shifts will certainly move the classroom in a direction that is engaging and productive for students.  We are excited for our shifted class to begin!


Capturing Student Interest: Problem-Solving on the First Day of School

by Tricia Ebner, M.Ed. & NBCT

Take a moment to think about this: what do most students experience on their first day of school in your school building? What is the first day of school in your classroom like for them? After years of spending that first day going over the classroom rules, expectations, and procedures, I decided it was time for a change. I needed to do something to liven up the experience and make it more engaging for my students and me.

I’ve turned my first day of school into a problem-solving activity. I’ve tried to find different ways of doing this. For example, last year my family and I took a cross-country trip. As we traveled, I purchased postcards at various locations, and I took a few minutes to write welcome postcards to my incoming sixth graders. Along with a welcoming message, I asked them to bring the postcards to the first day of school. To increase the percentage of students bringing postcards, I posted a note on my classroom door, reminding students to bring postcards, so that when they toured the building at schedule pick-up, they and their parents would see the reminder. I  also bought a few extra postcards, so that those who forgot could still be involved in the activity.8.6.17 blog post graphic

On the first day of school, I had a map of the United States hanging on my board. After checking the roster and making a quick run through names, I gave students their challenge: they needed to take their postcards, and using any information they had on those post cards, they needed to figure out where I had been, and when, with a goal of identifying my travel route. I didn’t give them any other instructions.

It was fascinating to watch the students work on the challenge. At first there wasn’t much organization. Some just sat and read the postcard again. Others approached classmates to see where their postcards were from. Eventually, the class began to organize itself. Students got into groups based upon where their postcards were from. Then they began to notice other thing about the post cards, such as the postmarks. From this, they began to sort out travel dates.

Ultimately the class needed a little bit of help, but they figured out the travel route. They gained some time interacting with each other, using their reading, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. I gained a wealth of knowledge about my students. Observing them showed me the leaders in the class, and those who were content to sit back and let someone else take their postcards and solve the challenge. I saw how they handled disagreements. I also saw who could work well together, and who quickly moved off-topic when working together. The knowledge I gained in the first day was valuable as I began to organize the class for a project-based learning activity. My students were engaged in the work, and a couple even commented that the class period had flown by far more quickly than they would have expected of a 70-minute class period.

As you begin thinking about ways to launch your year with your students, I challenge you to consider this: what kind of hands-on, problem-solving activity could you use? What could you challenge them to do that will show you their communication and critical thinking skills? Try it out! See what you might learn, and how it might set the tone for the year ahead.

Need ideas for problem-solving situations you might use? Consider taking a “mystery” approach, whether it’s to share something about yourself or your class.


How to Use A Logic Model For Evidence Based Action Planning Planning

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

Planning for action around learning goals or building goals can take many forms in the classroom and in your building.  Most traditional action plans include space for defining the goal, documenting what steps you are going to take to achieve it, and who will take the steps.  I have spent the past year working with a Logic Model as an evidence based approach to action planning.  What I like best is the focus not just on planning action, but collecting evidence that the action is complete along with evidence of the impact of that action.  Logic Models encourage you to have conversations around assumptions you are making about the work.  Often, these assumptions, when not discussed or addressed, lead to frustration and communication gaps.  For the past year, I have used Logic Models in planning for whole district initiatives, like our high school chromebook roll-out.  I have also used Logic Models for smaller goals, including keeping a focus on text complexity and writing good text dependent questions.  Logic Models could also be modified to be used as templates for Unit Planning or differentiating instruction for English Learners or Gifted Students.

The first step in starting a Logic Model is to identify your goal.  This might be a set of standards based learning goals that will be the center of an instructional unit.  The goal might also have a broader project or initiative focus.  Ideally, you should be collaborating with your grade level team, building leadership team or district team to frame your goal.  Next, connect that goal to the broader vision.  How does this work fit into the broader work of your classroom, building or district?  Once you have identified your goal, the next step is not to start planning action.  Instead, take time to talk through the assumptions you are making about the students or staff that are going to be impacted by the work.  What prior learning or experience are you assuming they will bring to this work? How are you going to connect this goal to their existing practices or beliefs?  The reflection on assumptions will also help you to identify possible barriers.  Identifying a true barrier that will need to be worked around, or an attitude or mindset that may need to be shifted in order for the goal to succeed, will help in thinking through possible action steps and evidence of outcomes.  Planning the action steps can be done next.  As you think through action steps, identify resources you have or will need.  Resources can be time, materials, human capital, or financial. If you don’t have access to the resources you need, include in your action steps a plan for acquiring that resource.  The real benefit of the Logic Model is in the last two steps.  Take time to identify what evidence will be gathered to show that the action has been completed.  This might be an agenda, minutes, emails, anecdotal records or student work.   More importantly, have a collaborative discussion on what evidence of impact or outcome of the work you will want to see or hear.  What will teachers or students or staff sound like, or act like if the action step in having a impact on moving them toward a goal?  

There are 4 levels of outcomes to think about when deciding on the mindful collection of evidence of impact.

Level 1: Reaction

At this level, evidence of impact might be pushback or a lot of questions on why we are doing this or learning this.  Often this evidence of impact is overlooked, or is seen in a negative light.  Really, it is evidence that the learners are having to re-examine their own thinking or beliefs and seeing how this new information or idea might fit or not fit into this.  Pay attention to the pushback comments or questions.  You may need to adjust or add an action step to help move this group forward.

Level 2: Learning

Evidence of learning might include a shift in questions from “Why are we doing/learning this” to “How do I…?” or “Maybe I could try…”  Much of this evidence will be anecdotal comments heard in a class or in a team meeting.  You might consider using a Google Form or a Reflection document to capture these comments and shifts in thinking.

Level 3: Behavior/Attitude Shifts

By the time students or staff start to show evidence of Level 3 outcomes, they are trying out the new skills, applying the new strategies in a small setting or as a pilot, or starting to grow their own learning around the goal. You might hear students expressing a more sophisticated approach to a task, or hear teachers talking about applying strategies or ideas to an upcoming unit.  

Level 4: Results

This is full buy-in.  There has been a change in attitudes or in skills that is evident across an entire class, grade level, building or district.  Students or teachers regularly demonstrate their new learning or skills in their daily work.  A common vocabulary has been developed and everyone now has incorporated the new skill, strategy or idea into their own belief system.   Evidence at this level might include shifts in district or grade level data, requests for additional “next step training”, increase in student success or the success of a subgroup.  

I have learned a lot about using Logic Models from the team at Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success Teacher Champions Fellowship.  Using Logic Models has really changed the way I think about planning and following up on my own work, both as a Curriculum Director and as an educator leader.  I have now started to create 2 folders in my Google Drive at the beginning of each new Logic Model to help me gather evidence of the work I have done, and evidence of the impact of my work.  Focusing on evidence of impact at all four outcome levels has really nurtured my own positive mindset about my work and the work of the teams I am a part of!

This LINK will take you to a blank logic model in Google Docs.  Feel free to make a copy for yourself by clicking on FILE —MAKE A COPY.  

This LINK will take you to a Logic Model that has reflection questions for each component.

Blank Logic Model WIth Prompts



Using Model Essays: Writing Show-and-Tell

by Tricia Ebner, M.S. Ed.

During the past few days, I had the opportunity to attend a conference with teachers from across the country as we prepared presentations to showcase some work we have been doing over the past year. One of the comments I heard more than once was, “It helps to see what other presentations look like.” We like seeing examples or models as we work, so that we have an idea of the target we are aiming to hit.

Our students are no different. They, too, like to see examples of what their work my look like. When it comes to writing, we have two excellent sources of models for students to use. One is through the Vermont Writing Collaborative models available through Achieve the Core. This collection of student writing samples provides the student writing samples as well as annotated copies of the samples. Another is the Practice Test Scoring Guide for the Ohio State ELA test, available through the student resources page on the ODE web site. This provides a range of student writing samples to the prompt on the practice test, along with the scoring guide and rationale for the scoring level.

A good way to use these resources is to begin by providing students with the rubric used for that kind of writing. Consider using your building or district’s writing rubric, or you may want to use Ohio’s rubric for informative/explanatory writing or argumentative writing, depending on the student model(s) you’ll be using. Having students read through the rubric carefully, annotating key words and developing an understanding of what it means, is important. Once students have an understanding of the rubric, handing them student samples, without annotations or scores, and asking them to evaluate the samples against the rubric, is a powerful exercise. I’ve found it works well to have students work individually at first and then come together within small groups to discuss their evaluations. When I use a variety of student samples within the same class, I have the groups share their evaluations while I project the clean writing sample on the screen. The discussions around the qualities of these essays help students not only see model essays but also the process of how to go about reflecting and evaluating their own work.

As you’re beginning to think about organizing and preparing for the school year, consider including a lesson or two looking at model essays and evaluating them. By taking time in the first few weeks of school to do this, students will have a strong sense of the targets they are aiming to hit during the year. When we have an idea of what our work could ultimately look like, we can see more easily the path to reaching that goal.