Category Archives: teaching

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 3

This post is the third in a series about my journey with Standards Based Learning and Grading.

Removing the Behavior

Ready to start making a change?  One of the easiest ways to start reforming grading practices is to remove the behaviors or process.  Encouraging positive behavior is a very important component of what we do as educators, but process has no place averaged in with proficiency or mastery of learning targets or standards.  When we muddy the grading waters with behaviors, we render the grade meaningless.  Our goal should be to accurately and clearly report the proficiency level of our students regarding standards at that moment in time on a report card, along with a separate process report explaining classroom behaviors.


Once you remove the behaviors and compliance from the grade, what to do in order to teach important life skills like responsibility, caring, and respect? Helping students become good citizens is high on my priority list.  We work together to develop good study habits and collaborative skills.  We discuss work ethic, timeliness, goal setting, and meeting expectations; these items are simply not included in their academic grade.  Forming relationships with kids and creating class culture will contribute much more to positive behavior than a grading system that is punitive.  When kids are acting irresponsibly or inappropriately, it is time to step in and guide them, not give a participation grade.  We have to assist our students to become the adults we know they can be.  We must model the behaviors we want to see, demand the same behaviors from our students, and lead them to make good decisions.  Our students bring us their best each day, we have to meet them where they are in order to move forward.


We work to facilitate learners, not to build compliant robots.  The professions and jobs that our students will fulfill do not require factory model, inside the box learners.  They will need innovative creators who will move this world forward into the next era.  If our students are encouraged to be compliant, maintain the status quo, and keep learning safe, how will we progress?  We must demand more, drive learning, and challenge our thinking.  As lead learners, we must continually grow ourselves and model the behaviors we want to see in our students.  Model learning.  Take risks.  Demonstrate timeliness.  Demand critical thinking and problem solving.  And above all…form relationships.  Show students that you care about their growth and development.

I have this sign hanging in the front of my classroom to always keep our focus on what is most important…

image from venspired.com


Many times, our world seems to lack caring, thoughtful relationships, and promotes irresponsible, disrespectful behavior.  I would like to model something different for our next generation.  I would like to show them how their behaviors are always their choice, and that these choices impact their future.  Grading has no place in these discussions and lessons. Life is not something that is done to you…make sure your impact is a positive one.

Best self, best work

It is the mantra at my school this year – Best self, best work.  Our administrators started the year at our kick off assembly talking to the kids about this phrase and what it would mean for their school year.  Each day since, the morning announcements end with “Best self, best work.”  The kids have actually started to say it along with my principal each morning.  So, I began to reflect…

What does it mean for me?

My favorite thing about this mantra is the idea of best.  Best doesn’t mean perfect or flawless.  Best isn’t the same thing every day for every person.  Best challenges without insisting on the superhuman.  Best is never ending, there is always room for improvement.  I would hope that our best shows growth throughout the school year.  Our best will give us a redo the next day, and the day after that.

The next piece to the mantra is self.  We each bring our own individuality to our learning community.  We need a variety of passions and strengths to give our students what they need each day.  Each member of the community needs autonomy to learn in their own way, students, teachers, and administrators alike.  Learning is a personal, individual activity and schools provide a place where we all share the experience.  We form relationships that in the end better ourselves at least as much as the academic studies, if not more.

And finally, not to be left out is the concept of work.  Learning is full of vigor and hard work.  If we don’t bring our best self, the work may seem impossible and more difficult than it actually is.  Learning is a demanding process, not to be taken lightly.  Work is a key part of the mantra, it is the promise that it won’t always be easy, but if you bring your best self and persevere, you will succeed.

The expectation is clear – bring your excellence, bring your individuality, and bring an inquisitive persistence to seek knowledge.  I can’t help but smile when I imagine the greatness that will abound if everyone just subscribed to this simple request each day.

Best self, best work.

Let’s go outside!

I said the magic words today in class…the ones that make students’ faces light up and cause smiles to emerge.  “Let’s go outside!”

It was a beautiful day today, temperatures in the 70s and partly cloudy.  Why keep these kids inside all day wishing they could just get a moment or two outside?  It is not that the activity we were doing couldn’t be done inside – of course it could.  But the beauty lies within this question…could we go outside for that?  Could we take advantage of the nice weather before yet another harsh Chicago winter bears down on us?  One of my goals for this year is to move my kids outside the walls of our classroom more often.  We can not only go outside, but use the other spaces within the school to provide a change of pace and setting.

Too many of our students go through the monotonous motions of their day – every day.  A simple act like moving our class to a different locale will make today memorable.  It takes an activity that might be easily forgotten and turns it into a shared experience of something different and fun.

Here they are outside!

Here’s to making every day as unforgettable as possible! 

Anticipating the genius

You are a genius and the world needs your contribution. –Angela Maiers

It all started this summer on twitter.  I was looking through my feed, and something caught my eye.  I kept on seeing “genius hour” being spoken about.  Naturally, I was curious and decided to find out more.  The more I found out, the more I loved the idea.  This was a concept I could get excited about!  My students could pursue their passions in my classroom and really own the experience.  They will impact themselves, their classmates, and even the world.  

I just finished up my first week of school, three days with my new students, and it was quite an experience.  We started by getting to know each other, exploring our learning environment, discovering how we would find success, and even had some fun!  Monday begins our journey with genius hour, and I can’t wait.

I am looking forward to next week so much – eagerly anticipating what passions my students will pursue.  We are going to start our first session with an explanation of the genius hour concept and then have a brainstorming session.  I am going to provide different prompts for my students on large paper throughout the classroom.  They can add as many ideas as they want, and we will narrow it down later on.  Here are my ideas for the brainstorming posters:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you wonder about?
  • How can you change the world?
  • What breaks your heart?
  • What bothers you?

Once I feel we have exhausted our ideas, it will be time to collaborate and begin to make decisions about topics.  Students will be encouraged to work in small groups, but if there is an individual that would like to work alone that is acceptable.  Throughout the first semester, the focus will be learning about our topics in the realm of Spanish language and/or culture.  We will share out in December our findings and new learning.  The students can choose how to present the information they have learned.  Second semester, I will ask them to take their new learning and figure out how they can change the world with it.

I hope Mondays take on an entirely new reputation in my classroom and become something we look forward to.  I will be blogging about our journey as we make new discoveries, learn language, and explore different cultures.  I will let you know next week how it goes!

Ready, set…

The new school year is right around the corner, today is Friday and this coming Wednesday is opening day.  I am thrilled to welcome my new students, introduce them to my learning environment and start the journey.  I am working with my space a little differently this year; below are a couple before pictures of my classroom.  I always love to see the transition from plain walls and boards to a lively space ready to receive students, so this year I decided to take pictures and document a bit.

I am so fortunate to have a large room and tables to work with, and I want to make sure I arrange my room carefully for what I have planned.  I tend to move things around a lot depending on our needs, but to begin the year I need four groups, so that is my table configuration.  I also wanted to leave a lot of bulletin board space open for my students this year.  I moved all my other decorations (posters, etc.) to the walls to leave my largest board for student work and a smaller one for gamification stats.

When students arrive, they will get a ticket with two pipe cleaners attached as they walk in the door. The ticket is a glimpse of the adventure they are about to embark upon, and the pipe cleaners will soon let me know a bit more about them.  This year will be framed as one huge journey, with stops at each theme (unit), but the ultimate destination will be learning.  We will take different paths to the destination, but the expectation is that all will arrive in the end.  The pipe cleaners are mimicked off of Dave Burgess’ idea in his book Teach Like a Pirate, he uses play-doh the first day to have the kids mold an item that tells him something about themselves.  I will be doing the same thing with less messy pipe cleaners.  This gets all my learners engaged on the first day and helps me get to know them at the same time.  There is visual, auditory, and kinesthetic input, and a fun atmosphere on top of it all.

I look forward to seeing how the first day plays out and I am sure I will be blogging at some point during the first week to share my experiences.

Have you set up your learning environment yet?  Share and we will all benefit!

To open the year

The first few days of school are crucial to set the stage for the year. I have spent significant time thinking about how I want to open the year and what I would like my students to leave either saying or thinking about my class. Here are my thoughts…

  • This is going to be fun!
  • She actually knows my name and wants to learn about me.
  • I wonder what we are going to do tomorrow?
  • Is she that way everyday?
  • I will find success in this class.

Fun is first on the list because I want my kids to look forward to coming to class. We can absolutely accomplish our goals for the year while having a great time in the process. There will be smiles starting the first day and every day following (can you tell I am not one of those don’t smile until after Christmas people?). Not everything will be easy, but stress levels can be reduced for a difficult task by making the learning environment an enjoyable, fun place to be. Each day will start with music not only because I love it, but because music is such an important part of the adolescent life. I started this last year and my kids would tell me how it was like entering another world when they came in.

Relationships are of utmost importance  I get to know my kids names within the first couple of days but I must not stop there. The primary focus during the first week is to form those critical relationships. I need to get to know my students as fast as humanly possible and let them know that I am a person as well. I am not some entity that lives at school, but a mother, wife, reader, learner, runner, and more. If I can give them a window into my passions, hopefully they will give me a glimpse of theirs.

Keep ’em coming back for more! One thing I am trying for the first time this year is to leave them hanging a bit at the end of each day.  This has worked countless times in books, television shows, etc. Why not use a little anticipation in the classroom? I have seen my children in the days leading up to Christmas and the excitement is palpable. Now, I don’t expect that this will be to the same level, but the same principle applies.  I want my class to be engaging, interactive, and a little different each day. Do you remember from your school experiences the class that was the exact same each day? Was it your favorite?
  
I want my students to wonder if I can possibly keep my enthusiasm level up for 180 school days. I love teaching and this should be present in everything I do. I also love Spanish and can’t wait to introduce them to a new language, new cultures, and a more global perspective. Enthusiasm is contagious, and I am ready to let it spread and grow in my classroom  And on the days when my enthusiasm wanes? If I have worked this out correctly, my students will bring enough to share with me.

Success will need to be loosely defined in my class before we pursue it. I will give my students the standards and let them determine the path to achieve mastery. I say loosely because I don’t want to stifle my students creativity or achievement by setting the bar and just waiting for them to get there. I want to encourage them to go beyond, the possibilities are endless. There are only so many things that I can imagine for them, but they can go much farther.  I tell my students that we will find success no matter the struggle and that it is worth all their effort.

So, as I am planning the specific activities for the first few days of class, this is what I am going to keep in mind.

What do you want your students to say and think after your first week?

It’s not the destination, but the journey

As my family and I get going on our cross country minivan tour to Yellowstone, I am reminded that vacation is a great time to let your brain relax a bit, reflect, and let the creativity shine through.

We are taking this trip with my parents and my brother and his family, and I cannot help but notice the uncanny comparison to teaching.
We are all starting from different places, various parts of Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, even New York.  We are all going to end up at the same destination…hmmm, sound familiar?
What a great analogy to the differentiated classroom!  I will find out your starting place, and help you find your best route to the learning destination.  Each student will have a different path, which makes the process messy but fun.
How to travel?  That is an individual choice as well.  My parents are flying, we are driving our minivan, and my brother’s family is renting a 15 passenger van.  We are headed west first, then will head north.  Others will head north first, and I am not sure of the flight pattern the airplane will take!  The routes and means of travel mean nothing, all have chosen the best way to arrive at the destination.
There are various stops along the way for my family, but they are different for the other parts of the group.  We all take our own journey, taking care of individual needs whenever necessary.  I couldn’t be happy making all the stops that other pieces of our family are taking, and I am sure they wouldn’t be pleased with all our stops either.  We again must keep the end goal in mind while making the best individual decisions possible.
And when we all finally end up together, we can share our individual travels and reflect upon the journey.  It will be that much sweeter to reminisce together, much like it is for our students once a major learning target has been conquered.
This is something I will definitely share with my students as we get started this year.  What a great analogy of what their year should be like in my class.

Finding passion

This week I attended Staff Development for Educator’s Extraordinary Educator Conference.  It was a wonderful experience where I got to meet some of my educational heroes like Rick Wormeli and Dave Burgess in person.

The conference experience was like many others, you feel such a rush of excitement when your opinions are validated and thinking challenged.  You want to run, no sprint back to your classroom and conquer the world!  You have ignited the fire, and rediscovered your passion for teaching.

The cool thing was that I had a colleague and administrator along for the ride to share my passion with.  We bounced ideas off each other as we travelled to and from the conference each day.  We shared perspective not only from the classroom view, but from an administrative one as well.  We did something fantastic…
(I know you want to know what we did, but I am learning to use some presentational hooks to keep you in anticipation!)

In a session with Dave Burgess, he talked about three ways we find passion as educators.

1. Passion within our content areas – what things can’t you wait to teach in your curriculum?
2. Passion within our profession, but outside our content area – why did you become a teacher?
3. Passion outside our profession – wait, what?  there is life besides teaching?

Later that day, we were reflecting on our experiences and my assistant principal tells me that in her role it is difficult to be a jack of all trades, and that she had, up until now, been passionate about what I was doing in my classroom because I was passionate about it.  She would come into my classes and feel the excitement through me and my students.  I know she trusts me and I am eternally grateful that she encourages me to take risks and try new things in my classroom (she also reminds me to slow down sometimes and smell the roses!).  But after going to this conference, she was able to learn more about why I am so passionate about what I do and the decisions I make.  Then the fantastic thing happened…
(Are you ready for it???)

The three of us ignited our passion together.  We had a brainstorming session on the way home our last day.  A social studies teacher, a Spanish teacher, and an assistant principal giving ideas, making them better, helping each other.  We used our passions from our areas, our reasons for being in the education business, and our interests outside school.  It was a fantastic collaborative learning experience.  One of those unforgettable times when we laughed, figured out some cool stuff, and were inspired by each other all at the same time.  We didn’t want the conversation to end so the discussion will go on via technology as the summer continues.  Our kids are in for quite an experience this school year.

We all found passion that day…how do you find yours?

Jump In!

Today I participated in my first edcamp. I first happened upon the idea of these camps this spring via twitter, and when the opportunity to join one from my home this summer presented itself, I jumped at the chance.

Enter EdcampHome put on by some wonderful people Kelly Kermode, Karl Lindgren-Streicher, David Theriault, and Shawn White.  This was a risk for me, because it would all happen using technology that was new to me.  I had a few short weeks to make sure that I knew enough about Google+ and Google Hangouts to try it, but I wanted in on the fun!

I practiced “hanging out”, followed the video tutorials leading up to the camp, and the day arrived.  I was excited and nervous as the time approached for the experience to begin.  I was ready to see what topics presented themselves and to contribute to a productive conversation.  Many people who had attended edcamps before had mentioned the importance of putting yourself out there to facilitate a session, but that would not be me.  I was new at this, and I needed to watch one before I jumped in.

Or so I thought…

We watched the opening GHO explaining how the day would work, and then it was off to the session board to see what every one’s ideas were.  I looked for a few minutes and then in a moment of courage, I submitted a topic.  There were so many ideas going up on the virtual bulletin board, surely mine wouldn’t be one of the ones chosen, but it was.

No time to be nervous, I jumped in and facilitated a discussion on best practices in grading.  You can find the link to the GHO here.  I cannot say enough about the entire edcamp experience, both facilitating and participating in discussions.  I am very excited for the next opportunity!

Ok, so on to the soap box I go for a moment…

If we are going to model the learning experience for our students, we have to jump in.  We need to take a risk, no matter whether we are nervous or scared.  Learning is a messy process with attempts, failure, redos, and eventually success – which was admirably modeled by our leaders today.  In order to get the most out of the experience, we must contribute.  I did today, and I am better for it.  Thanks EdcampHome!

Leaving the comfort zone

I spend a lot of time forming relationships with my students throughout the school year, and it is one of the most important things I do as an educator.  It helps me reach them and facilitate their learning to the best of my ability.  I try to consider their preferred learning profile and interests as we discover and grow together.

One goal I have for this coming school year is to make sure I push them out of their comfort zone as well.  Sometimes I get too caught up in trying to make sure they are working in their best possible environment that I forget the power of working in a slightly uncomfortable one.  There is so much growth possible for students when pushed just past what is comfortable.  If the visual-spatial intelligence is their strength, have them work in the linguistic area for awhile.  If a student is a very practical thinker, challenge them to be creative. Get the visual learner out of their seat for a kinesthetic experience.  You may get a lot of weird looks and doubtfulness, but remember you are taking a risk along with them…time to model!

Risk taking is such an important part of the educational process, but it is easy to bypass. Why challenge someone to work outside of their comfort zone when they are perfectly happy where they are? I have to push through the push back and help these kids grow.  We are not always able to work in the best environment, and we must know how to handle adversity.  I must show them growth is the goal and failing is just a natural part of the process. All of us are faced with tasks in our lives that can be seen as uncomfortable, difficult, and even boring.

How do we as educators help them? Let’s model the correct behavior. I am honest with my students about how I handle difficult situations (and it’s not always perfect – I’m a learner too!). Lead them to look at life as countless learning opportunities. Remind them that they are in control of their emotions, actions, decisions, and destiny. Experiences that may seem routine, unimportant, or overly challenging can be turned around at the drop of a hat. Empower your students to take control. Let them in on this little secret – they have the power to make each part of their day (school included) awesome.

If we can successfully help our students handle tough situations, they may just jump at the chance to throw caution to the wind when we ask them to take a risk!