Monthly Archives: March 2014

Starting those tough conversations…

I had the wonderful opportunity to listen to Mr. Rick Wormeli (@RickWormeli) yesterday via a webinar on Standards Based Assessment and Grading. I found myself agreeing with everything he was saying, and it was a great reminder of why I am standards based in my classroom. I then realized my next step…

My take-away from today was that I need to start having tough conversations with some of my colleagues and administrators regarding grading. I don’t want to be overbearing or pushy, but this reform needs to happen. We need to refocus our classrooms and schools on learning rather than grades. I feel the ‘moral imperative’ as Mr. Wormeli puts it to facilitate change and progress in this regard. It begins with discussions of purpose surrounding grading as well as beliefs behind grading practices.

Mr. Wormeli said that 80 percent of the switch is a shift in mindset, while the other 20 percent is the nuts and bolts of implementing Standards Based Grading. This is huge. The paradigm shift to standards based learning and grading is of utmost importance. Helping others understand why our grading system could improve in accuracy and integrity is something I hope to do.  We cannot let implementation stand in the way of grading and assessment reform. There are so many ways to manipulate or support grade book programs, inform stakeholders, and even report things like letter grades when we are mandated to do so.

Paradigm shifts take time – this may be part of why I feel so strongly about starting conversations. I do not expect anyone to just change their thinking and be ready for standards based culture instantaneously. But if we don’t start talking about it, nothing will happen.

I am so glad I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Wormeli speak. Grades get falsified in so many ways, and this needs to stop. We must begin some of these difficult conversations now in order to move forward together. The purpose of grading and beliefs behind practice need to be worked out and decided upon together so we can make the shift to healthier grading for our students.

The freedom of being a beginner

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

-Steve Jobs


As I reflect on this school  year as well as the past few, this quote resonates with me. The years have been successful overall and the easy thing to do would have been to keep on doing the same thing year after year in my classroom. But I am restless. I believe that there is always room for improvement and growth for myself and my students.  I try to innovate and do new things each year. It keeps me learning, and it reminds me of what my students experience every day as learners. I am most creative when I don’t rest on my laurels or previous successes, but rather push myself into new territory.

The release that the quotes speaks of is actually a great feeling (to be honest, it is a little scary at first, but stay the course!). When we allow ourselves to be human, to fail, and to be a beginner at something there is a definite sense of freedom. The pressure of perfection and being immediately successful falls by the wayside. I know deep down that eventually I will find success again, but the journey and struggle to get there is so rewarding. It fuels my intrinsic motivation to know that success is out there and it is my job to trailblaze the path.

My students are novice language learners, so true beginners in every sense of the word. They bring such an enthusiasm to class each day even though they will need to creatively seek knowledge and will get pushed out of their comfort zone frequently. They know that the path for their learning may be very different than the student sitting next to them. They have the freedom to chart their own course to proficiency and mastery, and through this process, they feel that lightness Mr. Jobs mentions. My students understand that creativity and innovation will be essential to their success.

Mr. Jobs says that getting fired was the best thing that happened to him. I am not saying everyone needs to be fired from a job, but we cannot stagnate in our careers either. I am also not arguing that students should not be released from our classes, but in the same fashion, they must also keep moving forward. We have to try new things and remember what it feels like to be a beginner at something. The heaviness of stagnation is immense. When you get to the  point of stagnation, what do you do? Do you go back in the file cabinent and pull out the old lesson plan – previous success, or do you reach out to other educators, other resources, and try something new?

Get creative and let that slightly uncomfortable feeling wash over you. It will inspire you to new greatness. When we are released from the pressure of being perfect all of the time, the door to success swings wide open.


Standards based grading in a traditional world

It is the elephant in the room at times… I really want to change to Standards Based Grading, I understand the thinking behind it, I know it will be better for my students and the culture of my classroom, but…

How do I accomplish this when the rest of my school is traditional?

This is a question I get asked often, as I am one of very few in my school district that are standards based. I work in a large district, so many times my students are only standards based for my class, and then spend the rest of their day in a more traditional setting.

I feel that the first step in this transitional feat is to genuinely make the paradigm shift to Standards Based Learning and Grading. Make the commitment to change the culture of your classroom. Once you have made the shift, it seems impossible to go back. I cannot imagine returning to a traditional grading system. I am driven to provide my students the best learning experience possible and I refuse to let a traditional system get in the way. Once you believe learning is paramount over assigning points, scores, and letters – you are probably past the point of no return. You will not sacrifice student learning because of the system in place.

After you make the paradigm shift, it is time for some creativity. I have had to create my own system within a system. I am required to give letter grades at progress report time and semester. I made my computerized grade book work for me, not against my beliefs. I designed learning experiences and aligned assessments to my standards and values as an educator.

Another concern I hear frequently is regarding pushback. Won’t my parents, students, colleagues, even administration push back against something so different? The short answer is yes. You will get feedback both positive and negative about making the change. The key is to take all of it and grow and learn yourself. Communicate with all your stakeholders as much as possible about why you chose to transition. Explain that you made the shift in the interest of student learning, growth, and improvement. Help them make progress along with you.

If this still feels daunting, know you are not alone. I implore you to stay the Standards Based journey no matter how difficult. We stand together for our students. We need to create cultures that support our students, not ones that encourage compliance and fear. Reach out for support when you need it, there are plenty of people who believe in this structure and are willing to help you, myself included.

The courage to leave an impact

Welcome to my new website! In January of this year, I was challenged by my PLN (Professional Learning Network) to select a word to guide me through 2014. I chose the word Courage. I wrote a post highlighting six different ways that I would practice Courage as 2014 progressed. One of the six was my vow to be courageous and leave an impact. I want to leave an impact with my students each school year as they leave my classroom, much like they each leave their own with me. I also want to work on a different type of impact this year. I want to leave my impact, even if small, on the educational world.

I have already had great opportunities this year  to talk with other educators about Standards Based Learning and Grading via a number of outlets. I have participated in Google Hangouts, written on my own blog, written guest blog posts, facilitated discussion at various edcamps, and even got the opportunity to speak at a school district’s Teaching and Learning Conference. I co-moderate #sblchat on twitter every Wednesday night at 8 central with Dr. Darin Jolly @drjolly, Mr. Rik Rowe @WHSRowe, and Ms. Michele Corbat @MicheleCorbat which allows me to discuss Standards Based Culture with educators from around the world each week.

It has been an incredible year thus far to say the least and my Courage has grown. The launch of this website is another way for me to make an impact and positively move learning, assessment, and grading forward. Please leave any comments you have for me as I develop it. I would like to create a resource for educators looking to make a change in their thinking or anyone who is on the journey with me to make learning the priority in our schools and classrooms.

And to finish the first post for my new site, I must give a huge thank  you to my husband Mr. Shawn Hillman @ShawnHillman for designing and creating this site.

Looking forward to continuing the conversation with you here and I appreciate all the support I have received from my PLN thus far in 2014. Here’s to Courage!



The power of the zero

My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.-Abraham Lincoln

As human beings, we will fail before we succeed, and sometimes we fail many, many times before we find success. If this is human nature, then I wonder…why isn’t this behavior encouraged, or sometimes even allowed inside our schools? Why do we cut off student learning in order to teach them some lesson of responsibility? Wouldn’t a better decision be to demand that they learn? We must insist that our schools become places of learning rather than houses of compliance.

The “zero” unfortunately carries a lot of power in education. Some teachers not only use it, but at times seem to enjoy doling zeroes out as the ultimate punishment. Should we allow the concept of zero to have this much power in our classrooms and schools? My answer is no. There is no room for ‘zero learning’ in a school. This is an oxymoron at best and a disservice to students at its worst.

There is no allowance for discontent with failure if we use zeroes. Students are permitted to move on to new concepts with little or no proficiency. Or worse yet…a student gets a zero but is actually quite proficient with a standard and the instructor never took the time to find out. Or the worst of all…a student is proficient, the instructor knows it, but the student did not turn in an assignment, so the zero is given.

Students need the time and space to fail, persevere, possibly fail again, and eventually find success. With curriculum guides and inventories, high stakes testing, and the factory model instructional methods we are given as teachers, no wonder some of the behaviors I previously mentioned have developed over the years. I am challenging us as an educational community to stop the madness. ‘Covering’ material and allowing students to move on without truly learning simply must cease.

I challenge you to quit using the zero. Don’t allow it any power in your learning environment. All a zero indicates is a lack of evidence, so treat it as such. Seek evidence of proficiency and when it there is room for improvement, work together with students to achieve mastery. We determine what we allow to be powerful and have control in our classrooms and schools. Let’s teach our kids to never be content with failure, but to treat it as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Learning is the most powerful force in education.

Maintain or move forward…you decide

There are two primary choices in life; to accept conditions as they exist, or accept responsibility for changing them.
-Denis Waitley

I love the simplicity of this quote – either accept how things are or decide to make a change. Accept the status quo, or move beyond. Sit back and take life as it comes, or grab it by the horns and make positive change.

I have spent the past few years of my teaching career not only deciding to make change, but also transforming my classroom into a learning environment conducive to growth and collaboration. This has been no simple task however. It is difficult to make the choice each day to think outside of the box and challenge my learning so I can do the same for my students. Beyond making the decision, it is even more difficult to follow through and take action. But this is where we hit the sweet spot in learning and growth. It is that uncomfortable place when we try something new, extend our minds just a little further, and move beyond fear to take action where learning goes to the next level.

The quote also speaks to accepting responsibility. It implies a moral imperative to change things for the better. This is a value that I want to instill in all my students. I want them to continually seek knowledge, grow throughout their lives, and leave a positive impact on the world in their own special way. I want them to accept responsibility for the world in which they dwell, and choose to make it great.

As I said above, this is no easy undertaking. Some days, it takes every ounce of my energy to accept responsibility for making my classroom all it can be. And there are days…you know the days. Those days when you leave school and know your best was maintaining that status quo. On those days you feel badly, but I want to ask you to stop. I have those days too, we all do. The fact that you recognize when you have them and commit to making a change the next day is so powerful and commendable. The fact that we can accept responsibility for all our days, both the good and the bad, is also part of what this quote encompasses.

So go out without fear. Take the good days along with the bad, but make the commitment to transform this world for the better. Don’t accept things as they are, make the choice to grow, learn, and improve even when it is scary, difficult, or seems impossible. Grab life (and learning) by the horns and make the change!

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
-Mahatma Gandhi

Trailblazing Standards Based Learning

It is a ‘real’ winter this year where I live…there has been snow pack on the ground for awhile now and we have had many record breaking cold temperatures.  The wind has had its way with the snow, moving it back over what has been shoveled and snow blown, only to have us head back out bundled up from head to toe to move it once again.

This is what it feels like at times in my standards based learning environment. Just like the shoveler who keeps plugging away, but the snow and wind keep redefining his task. I keep working, doing whatever necessary to facilitate quality learning experiences for my kids no matter how many times I have to revise, rework, or start over.  Working to create respectful practice and appropriate assessments is a constant battle because of our changing standards, changing environment, and most importantly, our changing students.  Sometimes it feels like we are trailblazing a new path for each class we teach, and for every student.

Trailblazing is hard work, but worth every moment. It is worth all the struggle, all the hardship, and all the toil. Trailblazing reminds me how important it is to consider not only each class as unique, but also each and every one of my students as an individual.

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

We have to create our own trails and paths with our students in order to help them learn. I also love the idea from this quote about leaving our trail behind. This is our impact on the world, what we leave it with. I hope to help as many people in this world value learning. Just like the shoveler creating his path through all the snow and wind, I will trail blaze as long as necessary to ensure my students learn. This is the true reward – watching our students leave the classroom changed for the better, successful, and motivated to grow.

We have had to persevere this winter against the snow and wind, but I know that warmer weather will soon prevail. And much in the same way, summer will come for us as educators as well. A time to prepare for the next trailblazing session, readying ourselves for the diverse new population that will walk through the door.

Courage 2.0

“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”   – Walt Disney

Well, as you can see, is underway – albeit slowly (for now).

Looking forward to sharing the conversation here once we box things up and move over.  Until then, find me at or on twitter 

Thanks for stopping by!

A new endeavor

As my one word for 2014, I chose Courage. This year I have decided to be courageous both inside and outside my classroom. Courageous for not only the learning of my students, but for myself and other professionals in the education world.

This summer I will be embarking on a new endeavor and I hope you will join me! I am ready to continue some of the wonderful conversations I have had with educators from around the world by hosting a Standards Based Learning and Grading Summit in the Chicagoland area.

This will be a great opportunity for learning and professional growth. I will be presenting and facilitating discussions surrounding the following topics:

  • Purpose(s) of grading
  • Writing standards
  • Unpacking standards
  • Standards based learning
  • Formative and summative assessment
  • Reporting and separating process (behaviors), growth, and achievement
  • Impact of Standards Based Learning and Grading

Interested? Please fill out the form below and registration information will follow soon!

An early bird discount will be available – details coming soon!