“Hey, It’s Working! What Else Do We Know That Stinks?”

We already know that feedback is a great way to stimulate student reflection and critical thinking, but it may very well be one of the biggest contributing factors to creating a growth mindset.  Paul Black also tells us that “It is the nature, rather than the amount, that is critical when giving students feedback.” (Black and Wiliam, 2002). This may actually be simpler than we think.  Simple reactions and observations (like the one pictured below) are a great place to start.

Let me tell you a story about one of my feedback experiences:

It’s late summer of 1995, or maybe ‘96 – that decade was kind of a blur for me – and I find myself at the World Tug of War championship (it’s a real thing) in Madison, WI.  No, not as a contestant, as entertainment.  I was playing in an original blues/r&b band, and it was our job to ensure that everyone had a good time after a hard weekend of “tug-of-warring.”  To be honest, we weren’t excited to be there – not exactly our type of crowd.  We suffered through the first set during which we received some very clear feedback from our audience:  they were definitely not engaged or motivated by our efforts, and they didn’t have to format their feedback into “wonders,” or “wishes” for us to get a clear picture about our progress towards the desired outcome.  Our regular repertoire wasn’t working.

O.k.,  time to engage some critical thinking and problem solving skills, display some flexibility and perseverance, engage our creativity to brainstorm some divergent solutions, take a risk, and [insert other applicable skills from the 4C’s and 21st century skills here]…  In any case, it was pretty obvious that we would have to do something.

That’s when our band leader turned around and called a song we’d never played as a group before.  This might not have been so bad, except that it was a tune that our collectively unwritten music snob code made it a total embarrassment to play in public. However, we were desperate, so it was time to be open and responsive to new and diverse perspectives and incorporate group input and feedback into our work.

Slowly but surely, our disinterested audience began to drift towards the dance floor, and a small contingent of them actually began to look like they might be enjoying themselves.  We ended the song and our band leader turned to us on the bandstand and yelled,

“Hey, it’s working!  What else do we know that stinks?”

So who is the teacher and who is the student in this story?  Does it really matter?   In hindsight what really seems to be important is that the band and the audience were engaged in a learning loop and working towards a common goal. I would be willing to bet, however, that if someone in a position of authority had given us “advice” (prescriptive feedback) in the form of telling us what to play or how to play it, the evening wouldn’t have ended as well as it did.  When a specific suggestion came from a peer (our band leader) as a response to the crowd’s reaction, though, we were able to collaborate effectively to reach the desired result. The audience’s reactions, our leader’s observations, and our willingness to take action on the feedback that we observed are what helped us to close the gap.

One of the biggest factors that pushed me towards implementing a more feedback oriented approach in my classroom was (what I perceived as) a lack of student engagement and motivation.  My students didn’t seem to be engaging with the material that I presented and producing evidences of understanding at a level that I interpreted as proficient, so I would assign more practice…only to receive, at best, the same results, and, at worst, student refusal to continue at all.   Finally, I realized that what I was wanting from my students was better work, but all I was giving them was more work, and while these two things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, there is definitely a big difference between them.

Check out this great example of how clearly communicated goals, and specific peer generated feedback can help to generate improved quality in student work.

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These days I’m doing my best to create situations where students have to communicate with each other regarding the quality of each other’s work and identify what they need to do to improve using their own critical thought processes before they submit their work to me for assessment.  This has made my work easier and clearer in the following ways:

  1. While my students are collaborating and communicating regarding each other’s creativity (which also generates opportunities for them to think critically about their own work), I can observe and assess their progress in these important areas. Plus, it frees me up to observe student engagement with content standards, and watch learning emerge from confusion.  These observations can get recorded and reported in powerschool.

  2. When I finally am able to assess their work on content-related standards, I am more confident that the products that they are submitting or presenting are not first iterations done in haste shortly before the due date. This also makes me more confident that the reports I’m making in the form of grades are more accurate and meaningful.

  3. When my students do fall short of the mark, I am able to provide them with feedback that connects their academic success to their proficiency in the 4C’s, and this, in turn, creates a learning loop that reinforces and encourages positive student behaviors and a growth mindset.

Sometimes it works great!  Other times…not so much.  Nurturing this learning loop and growth mindset is still a lot of hard work, but I’ve found that it is much more rewarding than chasing down “late” assignments.  I’m definitely always on the hunt for good ways to enable and facilitate student collaboration.  Got any feedback on how you keep students engaged and motivated to produce high quality work?  Please feel free to comment below!



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Student Engagement

Student Engagement

Students become engaged and invested for a variety of different reasons.  While the initial “hook” varies widely from student to student the professional challenge of leveraging student investment for academic achievement takes deep thought and continuous work.


A few years ago Dr. Rodenburg was wondering what student responses would be to the question “What are you most excited about when you walk through the school door in the morning?”  For fun I remember asking my then 9 year old.  His response, “Breakfast and the conversation.”  His hook was conversations about whatever was happening in the sports world with a morning supervisor.  This hook played out throughout the next few years as my son, a reluctant reader, got up each morning to review the sports news in the newspaper so he would have the information he needed to engage, at a highly competent level, in the conversation.

Over this past year, we (Technology Department Staff) have had an opportunity to interview a hundred or so students about what engages them academically.   I don’t think it will shock anyone to learn that technology, in and of itself, was not an academic engager.  Being engaged as a contributor to the “conversation” was a theme from many students.  The students we spoke with had ideas and wanted to be able to contribute their ideas and expand on them through deep discourse with others.  These students also reinforced many of the key factors from research on student engagement.  Students insisted they want to be self-directed and competent.  Students who were provided online environments indicated a feeling of being more independent and this gave them a sense of control over their learning.  Our whole team was impressed with our students desire to have ownership in their learning. One big take-away on student engagement was the progress we could make by building relationships with students that leverage what already “hooks” them.

Use the hook to get students actively involved and emotionally committed.  Then, as a professional community, collaborate together to leverage this student energy for cognitive investment across all subjects.


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Drilling Down to a Balanced Assessment System

Can differentiating between formative and summative assessment be as simple as making soup? As Paul Black describes assessment practices, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment; when the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” Even though there are multiple definitions and analogies to clear up the differences, there isn’t a more powerful way of increasing one’s understanding than experiencing formative and summative assessment as a learner in a real-life situation.

The difference for me was clearly articulated when I, the “student,” picked up a drill for the very first time while my dad, “the teacher,” provided me with a balanced assessment system. Smarter Balanced, our state’s assessment consortium, is an advocate for the importance of this system, which is defined below:

A balanced assessment system — which includes the formative assessment process as well as interim and summative assessments — provides tools to improve teaching and learning. The formative assessment process is an essential component of a balanced assessment system.

Connecting the four attributes of formative assessment defined by SBAC to everyday practices can increase our understanding of this ambiguous process.


Refer to this Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium document for more information:  Four Attributes of Formative Assessment

So, how do these four attributes connect to real-life experiences?

As was mentioned in the second paragraph, the importance and intent of this seemingly ambiguous process was clarified when I became a “student.” A drill is something I never needed until I moved into a new home where blinds needed to be mounted, beds and dining room chairs needed to be put together, shelves hung, etc.  After attempting to begin a few of these projects with a Phillips screw driver, I knew there had to be another alternative. On a cold day in January, I made a trip to Ace Hardware and bought a Dewalt drill, which was on sale. I looked at that foreign object just like a first-time mom with no babysitting experience looks at her brand-new baby . . . not sure how to hold it or simply what to do with it.

If my dad and I were in an educational setting, he would have given me the following learning targets to clarify intended learning.

  • I can adjust the settings to make the bit turn to the left or to the right.

  • I can drill different sized holes with a drill bit.

  • I can develop a sense of flexibility in the bits I use as I am working with different projects.

  • I can explain what the numbers mean on the handle and am able to use them effectively and appropriately in a variety of settings.

  • I can explain what the numbers (1 and 2) mean on the switch and am able to adjust the settings appropriately in a variety of situations.

  • I can create a project by using a variety of bits and screws.

Not only did my “teacher” understand the outcomes, but I did as well.  It would have been extremely helpful to have a self-monitoring tool, similar to the one we used at the middle school level while teachers were becoming familiar with standards-based grading.  Click here to view this tool – one that would have given my dad and me specific steps in what the “student” needed to do in order to be proficient in each learning target.

As an effective “teacher,” my dad gave me multiple opportunities in different settings (mounting blinds and TVs, hanging towel racks, assembling dining room chairs, etc.) to elicit evidence. Collecting evidence of learning was either spontaneous (click here for a list of formative assessment ideas) or a planned event (completing the final product) .

Interpreting evidence Through observations, conversations, and the quality of the products, my “teacher” and I were able to determine my strengths and possible gaps in my understanding.

Acting on evidence As I was practicing the learning targets, my “teacher” provided “timely, descriptive, and actionable feedback” during the learning process.  While hanging the blinds, the drill bit wasn’t catching onto the screw. My dad said, “If you don’t put enough pressure on the screw, it will continue to give you problems.  Once the bit is lined up properly, focus on applying pressure to keep the bit from leaving the screw.  You may also want to decrease the speed to see if that helps.”

As a learner, I was extremely grateful that my “teacher” didn’t assign practice tasks that were not meaningful.  Practicing the task of making the bit turn right or left when I had already reached proficiency would have been frustrating and there would have been a delay in the opportunity to obtain proficiency in other areas.  In order for the learning to keep moving forward, it is critical for teachers to know where each individual student is in regards to reaching proficiency.  As a teacher, this can be somewhat overwhelming, but when students are also documenting their progress, it becomes a team effort.  Refer to the self-monitoring sheet below that these Algebra II students are using in Mr. Nate Welstad’s class.

Students complete the sheet as they move closer and closer to proficiency.  Under each learning target, there are suggested “practice” problems for those students who haven’t reached proficiency yet in that area. Like me, I am sure his students appreciate the opportunity to take control of their learning by practicing the skills that they have identified as partially proficient.

Whether it be the soup you are making, a product you are assembling, or skills you are learning in Algebra II, providing or obtaining effective feedback during the formative assessment process is critical in the learner’s success in reaching the end goal.

What steps are you taking as a teacher, parent, administrator, staff developer, etc. to assist your “learners” in moving towards proficiency? Are you engaging them in a balanced assessment plan?


Up next:

“O.K., great – I’ve got a balanced assessment plan…now what?”  How do I implement good feedback practices?  What does it look like in powerschool? How will I know if my plan is helping my students move past proficiency?  How do I manage all of this?  Stay tuned for some thoughts on these issues…until then, feel free to post your questions or ideas in the comments section below.”


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Voice and Choice

One of my most inspirational yearly projects is working on a team to plan and produce the student “voice” component of the district opening day. In one way or another we gather a sample of students and ask them to describe their most positive learning experiences. Each and every student in these interviews speaks of times when they were highly engaged and passionate about learning.  They also speak of the conditions that best supported this deep learning.  The “standout” conditions include having caring and passionate teachers, working on more in-depth projects, and having input and choice.

When I think of student choice I think of co-constructing the learning experience with students. Admittedly, accomplishing this takes some rethinking of traditional practices.  Thankfully there is a whole continuum of strategies one can use to provide more student choice. The choices students described in the interviews fell far below co-construction and yet they still rose to the top of what students described as their best learning experiences. Students described how they felt more valued and trusted when they had choices and input. The choices students referenced included simple things such as choosing a research topic, choosing how to present (methodology), and choosing between several books or projects.

As we think about how to engage students in their own learning consider ways to increase the student voice and choice opportunities in your classroom.  Moving from the simple to more complex with students as co-constructors of learning that includes student voice and choice in content, process, product, and evaluation.

For ideas on how to cultivate more voice and choice in your classroom check out this article  5 Ways to Give Your Students More Voice and Choice on EduTopia at: http://goo.gl/DDQeit.



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Creativity & Innovation in the Classroom

In the visioning work conducted by Bismarck Public Schools, the number one theme for the BPS ideal graduate was the ability participate in creative problem solving.  This includes utilizing knowledge gained to generate and test new ideas, think independently, and engage in curiosity-driven research.  How, then, do we develop this skill within our students?

If we look at the definition of “Creativity” in the context of a 21st Century Learner, we will find the following six domains:

  • Idea Generation
  • Idea Design & Refinement
  • Openness & Courage to Explore
  • Work Creatively with Others
  • Creative Production & Innovation
  • Self-Regulation & Reflection

You will notice that only one of the domains includes the creation of a product.  Often we limit the evidence of “Creativity” to the ability to produce a product that includes the use of color, design, and technology.  Limiting it in this way removes the problem solving element of the 21st Century Learner.  To engage students in all of the creative domains, the task given to students cannot be so contrived that it automatically limits the students’ ability to engage in creative problem solving.

In the article “How Inquiry Can Enable Students to Become Modern Day de Tocquevilles,” Joshua Block, a teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, reflects on creating learning opportunities:  “This is not an assignment where there’s one right answer and where I have a specific vision of what the final product will look like,” Block said. “I give them the framework and students fill in the gaps. They do it through their own curiosity and creation.” That is a key takeaway for teachers interested in teaching with inquiry. If students are really allowed to bring themselves to their work, their final products won’t all come out in the same form, but that doesn’t mean those products can’t all be evaluated using the same rubric and set of standards.

Many discussions regarding the 4Cs reveal intertwining of collaboration and creativity. In his new book, “Show Your Work,” Austin Kleon has coined a new term: “scenius”.  It combines the power of collaboration, particularly through social media, and creativity.  It is the idea that creative genius doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  “Creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds” (Kleon, 2014).

I invite your comments on how you have encourage creativity and creative problem solving in your classroom.  What tasks have you assigned your students?  How have they responded to those tasks?  What classroom behaviors did you see in response to those tasks?

If you would like to continue the conversation, please consider joining our Twitter Tuesday Chat by following #learnbps on Tuesday, February 24 at 8:30 PM CT.  The topic is  “Creativity & Innovation as a Game Changer.”


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When are we collaborating and when are we cooperating?

Just out of curiosity I started typing collaboration vs cooperation into Google.  I didn’t get past the “s” in “vs” before the first suggested searches were “collaboration vs cooperation” and “collaboration vs teamwork.”  I clicked a few results and read a little to help me define the difference.  I liked how Kozar (2010) summarizes these differences: “cooperation can be achieved if all participants do their assigned parts separately and bring the results to the table; collaboration, in contrast, implies direct interaction among individuals to produce a product and involves negotiations, discussions, and accommodating others’ perspectives.”  Nelson (2008) also simply explains that cooperative work is a way to ensure you stay out of each other’s way until the work is finished and that a cooperative task, could in the end, be done by one person given enough time and resources.

Recently I was part of a few vision meetings where we got to hear different groups talk about what a Bismarck Public Schools’ graduate looks like in the 21st century.  We heard a lot about what many are calling the 4 C’s (critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration).  At the end an administrator asked the students who had been talking about collaboration, “How often do you get to work in groups?”  Those that said they were given time to work in groups said that most of that time was parceled out to individual members of the group to be put together at the end.  Kozar’s and Nelson’s very definitions of cooperation.  For example students are assigned a group project to present on the phases of mitosis.  Student one takes prophase and metaphase, student two takes anaphase and telophase, student three takes cytokinesis and agrees to do all the talking.  They break up and agree to have their parts done by the end of the week.  None of the students learns the other’s part and no one gets a full picture of how cells replicate their nucleus but the work gets done.  On the athletic court we go far beyond cooperation all the time.  Imagine a basketball practice where teammates are sent to different parts of the court to learn their individual parts of the offense and defense never knowing what the other pieces look like.  Then on game day are asked to put it together into a seamless showing of skill and teamwork.  Players on our teams often know their teammates roles as well as their own.

So how do we enhance cooperation to the level of collaboration in the classroom?  Several of the 8 essential elements of Project Based Learning (PBL) are a good place to start.

A need to know

When projects are based on significant content a strong need to know often comes forward.  By giving students a strong connection between what they will learn and how they will use it goes a long way toward sparking an interest in learning.  When students make those connections in a group, they are more likely to work collaboratively to produce a quality product.

Student voice and choice

Giving students a voice in the project requirements and a choice in what gets accomplished as well as how time for the project is budgeted will encourage students to work collaboratively toward a goal they can all get behind.  Giving students a chance to become passionate about their work will spur collaboration.

21st century competencies

This one has a pretty obvious connection since one of the 21st century competencies is collaboration.  The projects students work to create should give them multiple opportunities to use and enhance their competencies in order to be prepared for a career in the 21st century workforce.

In-depth inquiry

By asking students to go beyond the textbook or Google to find answers that require students to bounce ideas around and learn from each other forces cooperation to the level of collaboration.  By requiring students to use their strengths together to accomplish a goal that goes beyond what can currently be read on the Internet will require students to collaborate.

A public audience

Lastly a public audience can provide an outlet for the knowledge that students gain from their collaborative practice.  Imagine the power of being able to present a project that you and a team worked to create to experts in the field.  Business projects to chamber members, health and science to doctors and nurses, government projects to local and state leaders.

Cooperation is not a bad word in education.  I was taught a long time ago by Muppets on Sesame Street that cooperation was a good thing.  By our own students’ accounts much of their group time is spent cooperatively.  Toady our students need to be able to cooperate and collaborate effectively.  In order to provide both opportunities we need to think of them as different skills.

I miss the science classroom often and wish I could step back now to replace my mitosis project with a meaningful project that encouraged students to develop skills like collaboration and critical thinking while learning important content aligned to our standards.

PBL is not the only answer to spurring collaboration in our classrooms.  I would like to see folks leave comments below that share your own strategies for encouraging our students to collaborate.


Kozar, O. (2010). Towards better group work: seeing the difference between cooperation     and collaboration. English Teacher Forum. 2, 16-23.

Nelson, R. (2008). Learning and working in the collaborative age: A new model for the workplace. Video of presentation at Apple Education Leadership Summit, San Francisco CA. www.edutopia.org/randy-nelson-school-to-career-video.

Solis, A., Lamar, J., & Olabuenaga, G. (2014). PBL 101 Workbook. Buck Institute for Education. Novato, CA.


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Student and Parent Communication: Beyond Grades


awards.jpg One of Oprah’s defining moments occurred in the fourth grade when her teacher, Mrs. Duncan, told her how proud she was of Oprah’s hard work.  From that moment on, Oprah knew that if she worked hard and did well, people would remember and value her.

While we know that positive communication contributes to a child’s success, we sometimes forget what communication can look like beyond the gradebook; we sometimes forget how powerful (and life changing) a positive comment can be.

Schools and teachers implement a variety of strategies to recognize students for exhibiting characteristics that are valued in the school community.  A survey of BPS principals reveals various types of recognition strategies used within our district: many teachers and teams send out some type of “Great News” postcards; some schools issue certificates or “Brilliant Behavior” slips to students for positive actions and attitudes. Middle schools award student of the month status to students who exhibit positive leadership and who have contributed to their community and/or school.

Along with these strategies, teachers and principals at all levels are encouraged to call parents to share positive feedback about students.  In fact, making that call was a challenge issued by Superintendent Uselman at the beginning of the school year and again in the latest Intercom (http://goo.gl/MzG2fU). One parent spoke of getting a call about her child: “I was nervous at first and then surprised to hear from my child’s teacher.  The quick check-in that was made was just to say she liked having my child in her class.  Small thing but gave me something to mention to my child that connected both of us to school.”

Along with positive feedback about a child’s behavior, parents also want to know about the education and learning that is happening in the classroom. In order to address this need, at least one school in our district sends out weekly parent emails with information related to school procedures, standards-based education, goals and data, project-based learning, etc. “The topic changes each week based on feedback from parents and what questions they have about our school and how we operate.”

Within this same school, teachers also have a closed facebook page on which about 90% of teachers post weekly (if not daily); these posts include success stories of the day/week, instructional program information, videos of students showing evidence of learning, videos of students showing a math strategy so parents can use it to help at home. “The parent feedback has been over the top about communication.”

From weekly updates to those 1-1 conversations that uncover a specific incident revealing the character and academic strengths of a student, we can never underestimate the power of positive communication with parents and students.

Check out Tuesday’s Twitter posts regarding parent communication (archived to the right of this blog), and tell us about your strategies or experiences with parent and student communication by submitting a comment below.


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Professional Collaboration is a Learning Essential

Collaboration is one of those terms that means different things depending on who you ask.  You could survey 20 people and get 20 variations.  It is because of these variations that we must first clarify what collaboration means in Bismarck Public Schools.

The 4Cs Rubrics, adopted by Bismarck Public Schools, goes beyond the traditional view of working “together” to include other skills.  The rubric defines collaboration this way:

Picture Courtesy of http://www.lumaxart.com

  • Collaborate with others
  • Demonstrate ability to work effectively and respectfully with
  • diverse teams
  • Exercise flexibility and willingness to be helpful in making necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal
  • Assume shared responsibility for collaborative work, and value the individual contributions made by each team member
  • Work productively in teams for sustained periods of time to develop high-quality products

Working from that definition, we must determine what effective collaboration looks like and feels like in our district, our schools, and our classrooms.

The High School Collaboration Rubric outlines clearly the “Advanced Proficient” level.  In our discussions with the 4Cs Rubric Work Team, we have agreed that this level could serve as an exemplar for adults in the work place.  In the link provided, you will find the proficiency scale.  Take a look at the 4 – Advanced Proficient level and think about how you work with colleagues and students in light of the skills mentioned.

A great way for educators to participate in a synchronous professional collaboration is to join one of the education Twitter chats. BPS hosts one of these chats every other Tuesday. You can follow the conversation at #learnbps.  Join us on Twitter in 2015.  All sessions run from 8:30 – 9:00 p.m.

January 13 – Professional Collaboration as a “Game Changer”

January 27 – Parent/Student Communication as a “Game Changer”

February 10 – Student Collaboration as a “Game Changer”

February 24 – Cultivating Creativity as a “Game Changer”

March 10 – Student Voice as a “Game Changer”

March 24 – Authentic Assessments as a “Game Changer”

April 14 – Student Engagement as a “Game Changer”

April 28 – Creating a Culture for Feedback as a “Game Changer”

How to follow #learnbps:

  1. Use Twitter –> twitter.com
  2. Use Tweetdeck –> tweetdeck.com
  3. Use Hootsuite –> hootsuite.com

Did you know…that you do not need to have a Twitter account to follow the Twitter Tuesday #learnbps chats? Just follow the #learnbps hashtag.  However, we want you to Be a Game Changer and join the team by participating in the conversation! Not sure where to start on using Twitter? Go here for some great starter tips: http://goo.gl/LRDJeV

Need a reminder to join the chat? We’ve got you covered. Click here to have a text sent to your phone 10 minutes before #learnbps starts.

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Modeling – Essential for Learning

Think of some of the important skills we learn in life – walking for example. How did you learn how to walk? Did you sit and hear a lecture about it? Did you complete a worksheet? Probably not. You learned how to walk by watching the people around you. Then you tried it yourself, most likely taking a few spills, then getting up and trying again.

Adults do not walk around stumbling, to make one year olds feel better about their walking skills. We model the correct way to walk – and this shows a one year old what to aim for. Perfection does not happen the first or second time. They keep trying and eventually become proficient at walking. The same philosophy holds true for literacy skills (and other content area skills as well). If we want proficient readers and writers, we need to “show” them what we expect. We should never expect our students to do something we have not modeled for them first.

Modeling is an instructional strategy that calls the teacher to demonstrate a new concept or approach to learning while the students observe and process the strategy. The next step is for the student to try the strategy with guided practice and then independent practice. Research has shown that modeling is an effective instructional strategy in that it allows students to observe the teacher’s thought processes. Using this type of instruction, teachers engage students in imitation of particular behaviors that encourage learning. Modeling can be used across disciplines and in all grade and ability level classrooms.

You might be wondering how to model reading comprehension? Comprehension happens inside our brains; it is invisible. “Think-alouds”, a type of metacognitive modeling technique, has been described as “eavesdropping on someone’s thinking.” With this strategy, teachers verbalize aloud while reading a selection orally, describing things they are doing as they read to monitor their comprehension. The purpose of the think-aloud strategy is to model for students how skilled readers construct meaning from a text.

Students need to know that reading and writing are not easy–it is OK to struggle! We LEARN when we struggle, and our students need to know that teachers struggle when we read and write just like they do. The important thing that students learn is what to do when they start to struggle as a reader or writer.

When thinking of the importance of modeling, I am reminded of the Chinese proverb: “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember, Involve me, I’ll understand.” To me, modeling is the glue that holds the learning together.  Modeling our own thinking can be messy and uncomfortable, but it needs to feel real and authentic.

If you want more information on the importance of modeling in the classroom, Kelly Boswell has a new book out in February titled Write This Way- How MODELING Transforms the Writing Classroom. The audience for this book is K-5. Teachers in Grades 6-12 may find Write Like This, Teaching Real-World Writing Through MODELING & Mentor Text by Kelly Gallagher useful in learning how to incorporate modeling in middle and high school classrooms.

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From Masks to Motivation

During my second year of teaching, I was blessed with an 8th grade student who taught me a valuable lesson about motivation.  The student, whom I’ll call Roger, began the year doing little, or more often, none of the work I assigned.  Each day he came to class, and each day he left—with his pencil as sharp as ever.

One day, shortly after I had handed out a unit test, Roger cut holes in the test for his eyes, nose, and mouth, and then ran around the room using the test as a mask!  We proceeded like this for three quarters of the year, with me hounding Roger to do some work, and Roger avoiding the work at all costs.  I hate to admit it, but I had a bit of a fixed mindset about motivation—some kids were motivated to do school work, and others weren’t.  Roger just wasn’t motivated, and I didn’t think he ever would be.

But shortly after the start of the 4th quarter, a magical thing happened.  We were learning about the Pythagorean Theorem, and Roger did a few problems in class. I asked him if he would like to work on the homework assignment in my room after school, and he did.  He began coming to my classroom during my prep time to work on math assignments, and when it came time to take the test on the Pythagorean Theorem, Roger put his pencil to his paper and began to take a math test for the first time that year.  During the test, he came to my desk after every problem to see if he had done it correctly.  Finally, another student suggested that he pull his desk close to mine, so he wouldn’t have to keep going back and forth.  He did just that, and while he needed lots of reassurance that he was doing just fine, he completed the test on his own.  He had learned the Pythagorean Theorem, and I learned that anyone can become motivated to do anything at any time.

Why did Roger become motivated to learn so late in the year?  I’ve often wondered about that, so when I heard about a book study at Simle using Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, I jumped at the chance to join in.  Daniel Pink describes three elements of motivation.  He summarizes decades of scientific research as he explains that the elements of autonomy, mastery, and purpose lead to far greater motivation and performance than extrinsic motivators do.  Of course, many students are motivated to learn because of extrinsic factors, but many teachers in BPS are capitalizing on the elements of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to maximize intrinsic motivation.

Autonomy relates to having control over things like what we do, how and when we do it, and who we do it with.  Teachers are increasing student autonomy in big and small ways.  They may allow students to choose a topic to learn about or simply allow them to choose a partner.  Last year, one teacher showed me a Google spreadsheet that had all of the “I can” statements for the course listed.  Students then attached a piece of evidence—maybe a photo, video, or written paper—to the appropriate spot on the spreadsheet to demonstrate mastery of a learning target.  It was a way to allow for an incredible amount of student autonomy.

Mastery involves the ability to continue to get better at something that matters.  Lately, I’ve seen several middle school teachers use a tool to help students self-monitor their progress toward a standard.  Students know they can continue to learn more and reassess to demonstrate mastery throughout the year.  The learning isn’t done just because the test is over, and that gives students a better chance at mastery.

The element of purpose is connected to our drive to do things that matter.  When I taught math, I often had a hard time connecting the work we did in class to something that really mattered to students.  Students didn’t buy my explanations of how it would be useful in the real world someday, they wanted it to matter right now, in their current real world.  As teachers throughout the district learn more about project-based learning, students are becoming engaged in work that has a clear purpose. Students are helping people, solving problems, and making cool things, and are intrinsically motivated to learn all the while.

How are you keeping students (and yourself) motivated to learn as we move into the second half of the year? What lessons have you learned about motivation? Please use the comment field; it would be great to hear what’s working for you!

Do you want to hear more from Dan Pink?  Check out this short video.

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Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.


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