Use Essential Questions To Drive Professional Learning

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 >

Essential questions aren’t just for classroom and student learning; they can also be used for adult learning. Open-ended, provocative, and intriguing, essential questions can provide an excellent framework for exploring teacher and schoolwide learning. Many schools, districts, and teachers use essential questions to drive student learning. For example, for a larger district initiative on assessment, the essential question might be “How will all stakeholders know we are a standards-based district?” Or, the essential question might be more specific to a teacher, such as “How can I use assessment to work smarter for my students?” Or, there might be questions around ideal learning and engagement, such as “How do I know my students are truly engaged?” and “What does engagement mean to my students?” The possibilities are endless, and these essential questions can provide excellent touchstones for professional learning.

Keep the Focus
One great part about essential questions is that they can give us a focus. All too often, there are too many initiatives occurring and no sense of cohesion. Through essential questions, we can focus our work, whether that be on assessment, personalized learning, parent engagement, or school culture. Instead of choosing many essential questions that can distract our focus, we should select a limited amount of essential questions to focus professional learning and create a sense of purpose, excitement, and cohesion.

Be Open or Apply Open-Ended Thinking
If we truly want essential questions to drive our professional learning, then we need to be open and use open-ended thinking. What does that mean? That means that teachers may be doing different things to investigate essential questions. Teachers might participate in workshops, attend webinars, visit classrooms, and complete book studies. Not all of these activities will be mandatory for all teachers, as we all have different learning needs to address in our essential questions. Essential questions can help us personalize professional learning, but only if we are willing to be flexible in their implementation.

PLCs and Choice
One way to ensure personalization and choice is to have different PLC groups investigate different questions. PLCs are a great way to accomplish open-ended thinking in a structured environment. These groups have clear deliverables and protocols to support structure while giving teachers space to explore in personally meaningful and professional ways.

Remember, it is important to revise and revisit these questions often. As we learn, we refocus and create new questions that move us toward deeper learning. The same should be true of professional learning. With essential questions, we are not only modeling great learning but also empowering all stakeholders in education to take action and nurture the whole child. By using essential questions, we can push all educators to teach for understanding in the classroom. How do you use essential questions to drive your professional learning?

Back To The Future To Improve The Present: Whole Child Reflections

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 >

Although a new year of school brings new beginnings, it also allows us the opportunity to reflect on the past year and think about what we did to make it such a great year. The same can be said for the five tenets of the ASCD Whole Child approach ( By the end of the year, our classrooms are usually “well-oiled machines” where students are engaged and challenged in their learning, feel safe and supported, and are healthy in every sense of the word. I’ve had the privilege of visiting so many classrooms where this is happening. We can learn from our past experiences to better prepare ourselves for the upcoming school year and find ways to create a learning environment now that truly fosters the whole child. Why wait until the middle or end of the year to make sure students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged? Let’s go back to the future to improve the present (i.e., reflect on how we ended last year in order to change and improve our current actions). Here are just a few of my reflections on how we can do this.

Engaged With Technology
By the end of the year, I see some of the most purposeful uses of technology to support instruction and assessment. When we use technology carefully and intentionally to help our students learn, we can sustain engagement. Haphazard technology integration can create a short “buzz” in the classroom, but purposeful use of technology—to flip the classroom, allow students voice and choice in their assessments, and more—can create better, more sustainable engagement for our students. We can start this journey toward strategic technology integration now.

A Safe Growth Mindset
When students feel safe, they can grow. I’ve visited classrooms where students are always asking questions and trying new ideas without fear. They feel safe in not knowing the answer, and they feel safe in receiving feedback from their peers and teachers. How can we create a culture of critique and revision, where students continually seek feedback and ask deeper questions to grow in their learning? We can start by modeling a growth mindset as teachers and encouraging the process of peer critique and feedback. We can scaffold students to ask great questions. Let’s start creating a safe space now for our students.

Supported Through Relationships
By the end of the year, we’ve built strong relationships with our students. But we can start to build these relationships now by using formative assessment tools to get to know all parts of the child. We can use these assessments to look at data and academic achievement, but we can also use them to know how our students learn, their passions, and their family life. This balanced data can allow us to know our students better at the beginning of the year and establish relationships with them to ensure we target the right kind of support.

Challenged through Project-Based Learning (PBL)
Sometimes I hear people say, “I don’t think my students can handle PBL at the beginning of the year.” Although it’s true that we need to build a culture for PBL, I think, if appropriately designed, it can be successfully implemented at the beginning of the year to give students the right amount of challenge and rigor. PBL can create a place where students learn content with an authentic challenge. Our students deserve to be challenged all year round, so let’s start now.

Healthy Without Anxiety
Health is a big category in terms of supporting the whole child. While we may initially think of physical health, we can also think of mental health. When students enter our classrooms at the beginning of the year, they often have high anxiety levels, which is not healthy at all. By the end of the year, this anxiety in the classroom is usually gone. We can mitigate anxiety as soon as the year starts by standing at the door to welcome students, creating norms with them, and openly committing to supporting them in their times of stress. We can also tell students that failing is not the end but rather the beginning of learning. By acknowledging that anxiety exists and working actively to remove it from the classroom, we can create healthy students now.

The reflection process can also be replicated as a means of professional learning. This “Back to the Future” protocol ( can be done in the early stages of a process (whether designing a unit of instruction or setting the classroom culture). It allows you to reflect on the past and think about specific steps you can take to make your vision for the future happen. How will you go back to the future to improve the present this school year?

ASCD Professional Learning Services in Action: Implementing FIT Teaching® at Anaconda High School


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 privilege of working with the fantastic teachers and school leaders at Anaconda High School in Montana as they work to improve their instructional practice by implementing the Framework for Intentional and Targeted Teaching® strategy. The FIT Teaching strategy, as it’s more commonly known, focuses on establishing a purpose for learning, designing instructional practices that allow for the gradual release of responsibility, and creating formative and summative assessments to inform future instruction, all while fostering a positive school culture. What is exciting about this strategy is that it focuses on all four elements simultaneously. Often when we work to improve schools, we only focus on one area. We might take a year to focus on an assessment or a school’s climate. With the FIT Teaching strategy, however, we understand that all these elements of education are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, rely on each other to make learning possible for every child. For example, assessment allows us to know our students and craft the right types and levels of instruction. It can also help build a positive culture within the school. If we spend time building that culture, great teaching and learning will follow.

Beginning the Journey
To start the FIT Teaching process at Anaconda, ASCD staff and I put together a pre-assessment for the teachers and school leaders to fill out. We wanted to model formative assessment to drive instruction, just as teachers do for their students. This data collection allowed us to craft an implementation plan. Together with the school’s leadership team, we looked for areas of pressing need and areas in which teachers already had a level of competence. In addition, we decided to use a teacher leadership model to build capacity so that the implementation would be sustainable, regardless of teacher or leadership turnover. This is a key facet of effective professional learning. We want to make sure the learning sticks, and we want to empower educators to take ownership of the great work of delivering professional learning to their colleagues. In addition, we looked at the school’s existing initiatives and instructional practices so that we could align the FIT Teaching strategy with this work. We didn’t want it to be “another thing” for teachers to add to their plates; instead we wanted it to make what they already do well even better.

Blended Learning Approach
I wish I could visit the teachers more than I do, but I also know that is not financially feasible. Thus, we took a blended learning approach to help Anaconda implement the FIT Teaching framework. We started with an on-site visit to give the school an overview of the strategy and make some decisions as a team on which element to start with. In this case, we selected purposeful learning as the first focus, followed by gradual release of responsibility, and finally formative assessment. We are now at a point where we are focusing on culture, but we are still continuing the great instructional and assessment work we have invested in. After the initial on-site visit, I spent a day in the classrooms, coaching, observing, and assessing teachers to determine what would happen next. This allowed our PLC meetings, which also occurred in person, to be effective and aligned to teachers’ needs. In between these coaching visits, teachers sent me lesson plans, reflections, and video tapes of themselves for feedback. This allowed for a continued partnership and relationship even when I was not able to be there. Now, we are also in the process of selecting PD Online® courses to provide additional support for their implementation of the FIT Teaching strategy.

Next Steps
The teacher leaders at Anaconda have successfully taken on the task of implementing the FIT Teaching strategy at their school, and I appreciate all of their work. I know they have busy lives as sports coaches, parents, and even members of other PLCs at the school. They have been reflective, open to feedback, and great thought partners. I will be seeking their feedback through a coaching survey. The leadership team and I will also look at the implementation plan to revise and refocus it. We will work together to craft their professional learning activities for next year, when the teacher leaders will take the reins and continue the FIT teaching process. Through all this work as an ASCD Faculty member, I can honestly say I have learned as much from the experience as they have.

4 Lessons Learned From Common Core Implementation


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 >


So it’s been a few years since the Common Core, and wow, has it been a wild ride! Some states have dropped the CCSS altogether and replaced them with similar standards. Some still have the CCSS, but have opted out of the tests related to them. Parents are also choosing to have their students opt out from these high-stakes tests. Some teachers are reporting the rigorous learning happening in their classrooms, while others are concerned about the appropriate level of the rigor. Textbook companies have been called out on their true lack of aligned materials, and great teachers have been creating their own lessons and units to meet their students’ needs.

Throughout all this, schools and districts have spent a lot of time on implementing the standards. I’ve had the privilege of visiting many schools that are implementing the CCSS and have learned a lot from these visits. Here are some of my major takeaways for making sure that implementation works.

A View From the Front Lines

Ongoing and Job-Embedded Professional Development
I’ve asked teachers about the professional development they have received for CCSS. Those who are struggling received a “spray and pray” two-day institute (or similar) on the standards. We know this doesn’t work, and yet we still do it — and it has got to stop. Teachers deserve more. They deserve to be supported in an ongoing manner. Why are teachers bitter about these one or two professional development days? Because they know that they won’t likely receive much support afterward. Who wouldn’t be bitter? Those teachers who feel successful speak of instructional coaches that supported them, planning time to work on lessons and units with other teachers, reflection protocols, and common meeting times to look at student. This should be commonplace!

Clear Connection to Instruction
Standards themselves are abstract and not clearly connected to the how of teaching. Teachers who struggled were able to comprehend the standards themselves, but weren’t given tools to refine their teaching in order to meet the standards. On the other hand, those teachers who were successful received instructional tools like text-dependent questioning or close-reading strategies. Maybe their school implemented CCSS through an engaging model of learning like project-based learning or understanding by design. Here instruction was the focus, and teachers knew how to align to the Common Core through practical strategies and curriculum design.

Focus on Assessment, Not Testing
Although the high-stakes tests were in place, I found that many schools didn’t focus so much on these tests. Yes, they embedded test-like performance assessments and similar practices into their curriculum, but they focused more on great assessment practices. They assessed how their students were learning and used that information to inform their instruction. They helped their students set goals, and they set clear outcomes for learning. They created their own more engaging assessments of learning. They focused on what assessment should be, not how to react when it gets out of hand.

Leverage Teacher Leaders
Capacity building, focusing on teacher leadership, and telling great teacher success stories can build a culture of success. I visited some schools where, in addition to providing professional development to all teachers, they asked for volunteers and selected teachers to serve as leaders. These teachers in turn would lead professional learning, invite other teachers to visit their classrooms, and build exemplar lessons and units to support their colleagues. Here, the implementation was sustainable. Now there was a group of highly-skilled teachers who would remain to carry on the work, and their skills were honored and leveraged.

The Right Way
Frankly, using the implementation of the CCSS as a case study, I think the ideas above should be considered no matter what initiative or focus is being introduced within a school or district. All teachers should know how professional development relates directly to their practice. All teachers should be given practical tools for implementation. All teachers should receive ongoing, embedded professional development. They should be leveraged for their expertise and leadership. And finally, we should focus on assessment and move away from our focus on standardized testing.

I urge all leaders in the education field to live up to these practices as they lead their teachers, schools, districts, and states in implementing new teaching practices and methods.

Engaged And Inspired: Learn To Motivate And Challenge Each Learner


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 >

ASCD is excited to offer a new Professional Development Institute (PDI) on student engagement. This PDI, which uses a new model of learning, will help to unpack what student engagement really is and provide practical tools that can be used immediately in the classroom to increase student participation and achievement. Through materials from a variety of highly acclaimed authors and guidance from an expert ASCD Faculty member, participants will learn how to decide when to implement certain strategies in order to successfully engage students and ultimately increase their own effectiveness.

A New PDI Model
As mentioned, this PDI will use a new, more engaging model—the blended learning model. With this model, participants will learn about student engagement through both digital and on-site activities. Initially, participants will read online materials, watch webinars, and collaborate digitally with other participants. Next, they will come on-site to reflect on what they have learned and dive deeper into specific strategies for student engagement. Together, participants will determine how to implement the strategies they learned in their classrooms to meet the specific needs of their students. Finally, participants will get the opportunity to implement their ideas in their classrooms. They will use digital tools to continue to collaborate and share how their implementation went. This blended learning model seeks to practice what it preaches—that is, to allow participants to experience first-hand the elements of and strategies for student engagement.

Intentional Practical Strategies
Through this PDI, participants will not only learn practical strategies to increase student engagement, but they will learn how to determine when to use which strategies. We all know that some strategies work better for different circumstances—some work better for text comprehension, while others work better for reflection or independent application. Participants will discover how to align specific strategies to cognitive objectives so that they are using the right engagement strategy, not just any engagement strategy. In addition, participants will use new rigorous standards as a guide for determining what cognitive objectives and strategies will be needed for a lesson, and then they will design that lesson for their class.

Educator Effectiveness
Student engagement is one of the topics educators talk about most when it comes to professional development needs. Educators everywhere constantly express concerns about student engagement, and they want specific advice and feedback to help them better engage their students. Because student engagement is such an important part of classroom instruction, it is also becoming an important part of new teacher evaluation frameworks. Essentially, student engagement is a quality indicator of teacher effectiveness.

We hope that this new PDI, using a unique blended learning approach, will encourage participants to not only learn about student engagement issues but also to collaborate with one another as they try to determine the best strategies to implement in their classrooms and ultimately become more effective educators.

Learn more about this ASCD institute.

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