Go Slow to Go Fast

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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The beginning of a new school year brings both excitement and anxiety. We are excited to see our students and start on the path of learning for the year, but we are also stressed with the logistics of getting started. Room setups, technology infrastructure, processes, curriculum planning—we have a lot to do as educators to make the year start off in a positive and productive way. We are also pressured with the idea of limited time. “I only have a year to get through the curriculum” or “We need to start the unit now” may be some of the thoughts that creep into your mind. Breathe. Those things will come, but only if we take time to slow down. All of us—teachers, students, administrators, and parents—need to slow down at the beginning of the year.

What’s the Why?
Things happen so fast that we often forget to ask why? Between assemblies, field trips, meetings, and so forth, when do we take the time to ask why? Why are we doing this? What’s the reason behind this? Why is this useful? Tradition can be important, but it can also be a prisoner. If we commit to asking why, we commit to continuous improvement as a school and as teachers. When you explore the reasons for doing something, you will feel more confident in your decision and establish a sense of purpose. If there isn’t a why yet for something you do, maybe it is time to craft one. My team of instructional coaches sat down and created our shared purpose for how and why we work together so that all decisions are informed and aligned. Take some time to do the same before you make decisions or jump in. Slowing down to think about the why is crucial and important for school morale, mission, and vision.

Focus on Culture
This, of course, is nothing new, but it’s really important to take time to build and rebuild the culture of your school. Are there new issues around school culture to address? Are there school culture initiatives already in place to build upon? Consider addressing culture at both the school and classroom levels. Are they in alignment? Are students receiving mixed messages? There is and should always be time to slow down and focus on school culture. Take time daily, or perhaps take entire days, to work solely on culture. When you rush to the curriculum, you miss a valuable opportunity to set and sustain culture. When you focus on culture, student achievement will naturally follow suit.

Take Time for Yourself
Don’t forget about your personal life. Take care of your mental and physical health. Build in norms and routines to support yourself. Reflection is a way of thinking, and you may need to set sacred time aside for reflection as you start to get more and more busy with different tasks. What do you need to do to slow down and take care of yourself? Some of the teachers at my school and I meet regularly for mediation every Monday morning. Look at your week and find ways you can incorporate things that provide a sense of calm and focus.

Remember, we all need to go slow to go fast. When we take time for ourselves, our school and classroom culture, and our shared purpose, we can feel confident about our next steps.

Do No Harm: Flexible and Smart Grading Practices

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


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My Edutopia post When Grading Harms Student Learning generated a lot of buzz. Grading is an emotional subject, with strong-held opinions and ideas. I was really excited to see discussion on all sides of the issue. The best feedback for me was that, while many readers agreed with parts of the premise, I hadn’t been specific on support strategies. Thank you for that feedback — it was specific, actionable, and created the need and excitement for a follow-up post. While there are many tools out there that help address concerns around redoes, zeroes, not grading homework, and more, here are some of my favorites:

Address Behavioral Issues Affecting Academic Achievement
Points off for late work may not motivate students. I know that when I took points off for late work, some students just accepted their losses. It didn’t address the behavioral issue of late work. Similarly, it didn’t address the problem of incomplete work. I needed to figure out a way to motivate students without using points as a method. I had a form, similar to Myron Dueck’s late or incomplete assignment form (click the link and scroll down to Figure 1.3), which tried to address what was getting in the way of turning in work on time. Here, students identify those issues, from heavy course load to procrastination, and then set a new goal for completion. They also identify the support structure they might need. These forms are great behavioral issues assessments that are responsive and not punitive. It’s an approach that truly helps students to be ready for a future when it’s much more detrimental to turn in work late.

Request to Retest
This is a great way to put the student in the driver’s seat of what they’ll redo and how they’ll redo it. It puts the onus on them to be self-advocates for their learning and helps them set goals for improvement. In a request to retest form (PDF), students reflect on their score and the concepts or skills that they failed. They also identify next steps on how to improve their test. While this is specific to a more traditional test, it could also be used for other major assessments that have many components or concepts.

Redo Parts of an Assessment
Some assessments that we give students have very clear categories. For example, a history exam might assess multiple concepts or ideas, or an essay might assess thesis and organization. Here the data is easily disaggregated. If this is the case, you might have a student redo only the parts that he or she needs, leaving the rest as is. That also means that you have to re-grade or reassess much less. It saves you time as an educator and helps you really target your assessments. Again, this may not be a useful strategy for assessments that synthesize concepts or skills, but rather for assessments that can be easily disaggregated.

Reflect on Assessments
One strategy that I’ve seen many educators use is ongoing reflection throughout the assessment process, whether we’re talking about a small quiz or a major exam. For example, after students complete an assessment, they reflect and discuss questions such as:

Were you prepared for this test? How did you prepare?
How long did you study the material outside of class?
Did you feel more confident about some parts or sections than others?

These questions allow students to recognize their strengths and weakness in what they need to learn, and how they can better prepare to learn the material. What I also enjoy about this strategy is how it connects to behavioral issues that get in the way of academic achievement, addressing them directly in a non-punitive way. It also helps students and teachers plan for redoes that may not be full redoes, saving teachers and students time and stress.

Pick Your Battles
You know your curriculum. You know that some assessments and assignments are crucial in showing evidence of learning. Other assessments, mostly formative, are simply check-ins and don’t affect the grade much or at all. These smaller assessments may not be worthy of redoes or late/incomplete assignment forms. On the other hand, bigger, more comprehensive assessments may present better opportunities for offering redoes and addressing behavioral issues. As a master educator, you can pick your battles and focus on what matters most in terms of assessment. Use your best judgment!

Again, It’s About Hope
I hope that you find these tools useful in your classrooms. We need to be realistic and recognize that, no matter what we try, we may not get all students to do the work that we want in class. But we do have an opportunity to rethink how we assess students and create systems that allow for hope of achievement rather than relying on antiquated systems that haven’t met the needs of all students.

It’s All About Impact

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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I’ve had the honor of working with Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey to implement the FIT Teaching process with teachers around the country. We have focused on setting purpose for learning, creating a culture that thrives, intentionally planning and scaffolding lessons, and establishing a formative assessment system to provide feedback to students and “feed forward” instruction. The FIT Teaching process seeks to create a cohesive tool for teachers to reflect on areas of practice, celebrate success, and set goals. These elements of the FIT Teaching process focus on the classroom and what teachers do. A pitfall of all the focus is forgetting the ultimate goal of the work—the impact on student learning. Impact is imperative. How do we know that what we have intentionally planned and executed in the classroom mattered? How do we make new decisions based on that impact? These are critical questions to the work of all educators, and in the new ASCD publication “Intentional and Targeted Teaching: A Framework for Teacher Growth and Leadership” authors Fisher, Frey, and Stefani Hite add the critical element of impact.

It’s All About Short-Term and Long-Term Growth
Although daily checks for understanding are critical to informing instruction and knowing what student do and do not know, the idea of impact focuses on different short-term and long-term growth assessments. Examples of short terms assessments include benchmark assessments and criterion- or norm-referenced tests. These might measure weekly impact or focus on a unit of instruction. It is also important that these assessments are not simply viewed by one teacher alone. Teacher teams, PLCs, and departments need collaborative time to analyze the results of short-term growth assessments to look for patterns and trends and make informed decisions on next steps for instruction.

In addition to short-term growth assessments, we should also look at long-term growth assessments. These long-term growth assessments focus on transfer goals—goals that can transcend units, disciplines, and standards. How do we know we are working toward an ideal graduate that is future ready? We need to provide students opportunities to demonstrate rigorous and meaningful transfer goals through performance assessments to see impact on student learning.

It’s All about Growth and Leadership
What is so powerful about impact is the opportunity for us to grow as educators, both at the classroom and system levels. At the classroom level, it allows assessments to be useful rather than punitive. It allows teachers to not only create powerful assessments that measure impact on student learning but also reflect on daily teaching and learning and lead change in their classrooms. Analyzing student impact also allows for reflection and growth at the system level, where leaders can constantly ensure decisions focus on student learning. By focusing on impacting student learning, we can grow and lead our schools in cycles of continuous improvement.

Get these FIT Teaching resources from ASCD to strengthen the teaching practices in your school, and move your students’ learning from where it is now to where it should be.

6 Tips for Engaging Capstone Projects

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


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It’s that time of the year, the race to the finish, only weeks until school ends for the summer (at least for many of us). With the pressures of testing behind us, we often have a bit more freedom to create curriculum and activities for students. We can try out new ideas, give students more choice in what they want to learn, and celebrate the learning that we’ve accomplished this year. One way that many educators like to do these things is through capstone projects, year-end culminations that often invite students to engage in choosing what they want to learn, as well as how they learn it. Capstone projects are a great tool for personalizing learning, and they’re effective for creating even more student engagement. Here are some tips to create excellent capstone projects.

Ensure “Main Course, Not Dessert”
This is always a good reminder. While capstone projects often draw on the entire year’s learning, it’s important to pose this question to students as well as reflecting upon it ourselves as educators: What new learning will occur in this capstone project? This is key to ensuring that a capstone project isn’t simply a fun activity (although that’s still a good intention), and it helps in creating a project that’s more challenging and truly focused on new learning and experiences. This new learning could be in a different context or topic from what the class has done so far, it might require a variety of skills that they haven’t previously combined, or it could be a synthesis of sorts. Reflect on how you can ensure that there will be new learning in your capstone projects.

Take It To Another Level
Projects should focus on depth, not breadth. If you have the ability to allow students choice in what they learn, consider having them revisit a previously learned concept, topic, or skill. To ensure not only engagement but also “Main Course,” create rubrics with students that focus on their going deeper into the content. Instead of “meeting standard,” focus the assessment and learning on “exceeding standard.” When students engage with a challenge, we should take them beyond the opportunity to review learning by pushing the learning even farther in a capstone project.

More Voice and Choice
This is nothing new, but we can always think of new ways to offer choice to our students. At the end of the year, after we’ve pressed through most of our required curriculum and standards, we may have some wiggle room on what students can learn. We might offer choice in one way, but not in another. Perhaps we want to spiral review a writing skill for all students, but offer them a choice in what history topic they want to learn about. Or we might need students to learn a math concept that we haven’t yet covered in the curriculum, but they can choose how they want to learn it and connect that concept to the real world. Have students make personal, meaningful choices. See my previous blog about voice and choice for ideas about how to create more engagement.

Make a Difference
One of my favorite ways of taking capstone projects to another level is through service and making a difference. When students see that their work matters, they will be engaged. There are, of course, lots of opportunities to make an impact outside of the walls of the classroom, whether in the community or globally. There are also great ways for students to make a difference in their own lives once they understand the personal impact that’s possible. Start by asking then how they want to make a difference in their capstone projects.

Tell the Full Story Through Assessment
Often, capstone projects involve what could be called a portfolio of student learning, which includes many steps in their yearlong journey. These assessments, graded or not, are valuable artifacts that serve as a photo album of a learning continuum, rather than simple snapshots representing individual moments of learning. Capstone projects are about growth, and both teachers and students can use assessments from the capstone project as well as earlier in the year to celebrate the growth in learning. Students, parents, and teachers deserve to see this growth in order to be proud of their learning from the entire year as well as during the capstone project.

Experiment With “No Grades”
Often we use grades as a way to get students to learn rather than addressing a root problem — our students are not engaged. While you might want to grade students on their work, you might also try the experiment of moving students away from grades as a motivator, and instead focus on the learning. Rather grading every part of the capstone project, consider grading only the capstone component. This is also in ideal place to start the conversation with students about how they want to be and should be graded. Consider using capstone projects to start a culture shift away from grades and toward learning.

I love implementing and watching students implement capstone projects. I’m inspired by the ways that teachers structure these projects and by the amazing learning that students share. Capstone projects are truly an opportunity to create meaningful learning along with powerful engagement and impact. How do you create engaging capstone projects?

Three Tips for More Engaging PBL Projects

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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Project-based learning (PBL) is a powerful tool to promote student engagement. It allows students to investigate real-world challenges and problems and create high-quality work for authentic audiences. It allows students to work collaboratively and individually to learn the content and skills they need to be “future ready.” Books by John Larmer and Suzie Boss are great tools to get started designing these high quality projects, and educators can reinvent projects of the past to make sure they are truly engaging. Here are three tips to consider as you design and redesign PBL projects for your students to make them even more engaging and focused on learning.

Allow for Failure
In my Arias Publication Freedom to Fail, I give many tips and advocate for the power of failure as a learning experience. Many PBL projects focus on real-world design challenges, and just like in the real world, designers fail. In fact, many intentionally fail quickly to learn. As educators, we, too, can allow for failure in our projects. We can tell students upfront that they will learn and design high-quality products, and it will be ok to “get it wrong.” Students will be more likely to take risks and innovate—and then engage to learn more material.

Set Up Flexible Classroom Spaces
The classroom environment should communicate a message of collaboration and innovation for PBL. We should experiment with different spaces so collaboration is natural and easy. PBL is a great way to individualize learning, and different seating arrangements like standing desks and bean bags can allow the space to be personalized based on what students are doing in the project. Students can move in a fluid fashion and receive feedback from their peers, revise their work, or get direct instruction from their teacher as necessary.

Provide Opportunities for Student Voice and Choice
This is crucial to any PBL project. There should always be an element of choice in what students produce, who they work with, and how they work. This will look different depending on age, time of year, experience with PBL, etc. We know our students, and, therefore, can make great decisions around voice and choice. However, we should also trust our students. We might be hesitant to give them choice, but we know there are many ways to do so (e.g., time, place, products, and people). We can jigsaw content and allow students to choose their team members, the products they want to produce, when they will share benchmarks and final products, where they want to work in and outside of the classroom, etc. The possibilities for voice and choice in PBL are endless, and we should embrace these choices to empower students and create better student engagement.

There are many ways to revise and improve PBL projects to make them more relevant and authentic. Educators should take part in this revision process to create engaging experiences that encourage student learning.

Strategies for Multi-Grade-Level PBL Projects

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


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When we get really excited by and really effective at implementing project-based learning, we start creating projects that become much more complex. We integrate multiple subjects, leverage more technology tools, co-teach classes, and have projects that last many weeks or even months. These projects are exciting, but a complex project brings more complex challenges. One of those challenges is integration and implementation across different grade levels. Such PBL projects are uniquely complex because schools have different learning outcomes and standards (sometimes drastically different), and also physical structures that create walls against rather than opportunities for collaboration. Here are some strategies and ideas to consider when planning and implementing multi-grade-level PBL projects.

Similar But Different Learning Objectives
Although there will be different learning outcomes because there are different grade levels involved in the project, many learning objectives and standards are similar from one grade level to the next. Learning is always recursive. We learn writing skills one year and get better at them the next year. We learn a science concept in middle school and then learn it again in a more complex way in high school. These are opportunities to integrate across grade levels in a more manageable way. Look for recursive learning outcomes and standards to make manageable assessment choices.

Same Focus, Different Driving Questions
As we know, creating the “just right” driving question can be really challenging, and that challenge becomes greater the more you integrate. With a multi-grade-level project, the complexity of the project may be hard to fit into a single driving question, especially since the learning outcomes are different across the grades. A multi-grade-level project might have a common theme or topic, like water quality or community issues, but the driving questions will vary for different teams or grade levels. In order to focus on specific learning outcomes or standards, be open to similar but different driving questions.

Multi-Grade-Level Collaborative Learning
It can be powerful when students learn together, and we can have students learn from their peers in different grade levels. We all bring our expertise and passions to learning. Younger students can learn from older students and vice versa. Know your students and their strengths and challenges. Form teams or help students form teams based on these strengths and challenges. Don’t let age or grade level get in the way. You know your students best, but while considering age difference and the complexities it brings, don’t let that hold you back from exploring other possibilities. As students work and learn across grade levels, have them contribute to group products or investigate different foci. Multi-grade-level learning also presents an opportunity for teachers to assess collaboration skills and for students to learn these skills from one another.

Individual Products
In terms of assessment, it’s crucial that students are assessed individually. We all want to know what our children know, which may mean an individual product to showcase that learning. Remember, these products can show learning itself or a variety of learning outcomes, some of which may be different than a collaborative product. Teachers and students can decide on the level of voice and choice for these products as well. When implementing a specific multi-grade-level project, an individual product can ensure a laser-like focus on specific grade-level outcomes for an individual student. This also allows students who prefer to work alone the chance to do so. In their case, make sure that they’re able to create an individual product.

Flexible Learning Spaces
Instead of a third-grade classroom here and a fifth-grade classroom there, treat classrooms as open spaces where collaboration and purpose, rather than grade level, is the focus. What could each room have that would make it a unique and powerful place to learn, and how will that support elements of the PBL project? Perhaps one classroom would focus on science content and labs, with materials to support the inquiry. Another classroom might be set up with technology tools for learning. Maybe there can be a “feedback” room where students give and receive feedback from others. With flexible learning spaces, teachers become flexible as well, and they help facilitate learning based on the purpose and unique setting of the room. Don’t forget hallways and other non-traditional spaces — they can be ripe places for learning, especially when it comes to PBL projects.

Many of us have already tried these multi-grade-level projects with success. They are rich opportunities to have students learn from other students of different ages, and they present a great opportunity for us, as educators, to learn and grow in our own implementation of PBL.

In the comments section of this post, please share your own thoughts about and experiences with multi-grade-level PBL.

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