Category Archives: Authentic Tasks

Thinking about the first day of school already-or not!

I have posted this, or something similar, at the end of June before, but I always think it is a good time to think about it.  Or at least, a thought for you to tuck away for some time later.

Just maybe, over the summer, sitting on the patio, paddling in a canoe, relaxing in a deck chair, watching the sunset, running, or whatever it is you do, you might think about school.  I always find that my mind drifts there every once in a while, and often a lot of my deep planning gets done—the ideas that anchor me.

Which day of the year will you have all eyes on you?  The keenest students? The least amount of student misbehaviour?  The first day of school.  So, try thinking about how you can capitalize on that to engage your students in the deep thinking and exciting work you want them to do.  Often we think, as teachers, that we have to set down all the expectations on the first day of school or the rest of the year will be chaos.  You do have to live and model your expectations, but I’m not sure you need to talk about them.  Maybe that class agreement is something to save until later in the first week.  By then, I suspect your students will have already figured out your expectations and the activity will go a lot faster.

Let’s think about the first day of school from a student’s point of view.  They are excited to be back and meet their new teacher and see their friends.  they are excited to use their new and shiny pencil crayons.  They actually WANT to do some work.  But frequently it is a day of “sit and get”: one teacher after another going over the rules and expectations.  Really, our rules aren’t any different than last year’s rules.  And most rules are self-evident.  We don’t really need to talk a lot about keeping your locker tidy since I doubt any of our students would think that our expectation was to do otherwise (although they may act that way over the course of the year!).

In some schools/classrooms, there is a feeling that we need to ease students into school with a week of fun activities.  I don’t think so.  First of all, they just had 10 weeks of fun activities or camps.  Second, if you describe your first week as “fun”, then my default you are saying that real school is not “fun”.  You may want to have a few team building activities, but I would urge you to have them be within the context of curriculum.

Why not have that first interaction with your students be challenging? Be engaging?  Be creative?  Set the tone for how learning will take place in your classroom.  Pose a question, get them creating or writing or exploring or problem-solving.  Hook your students in right away.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Read aloud the best short story you know, or the first chapter of the read aloud.
  • Introduce writer’s workshop with idea generation activities so that they are itching to start writing.  You could even start writing. Do a quick write about what you didn’t do this summer, or the best small moment, or what you wished you had done.
  • Introduce a complex but open ended problem such as “How could you measure a puddle?” Or, “If all the  students lay head to toe, how far would we reach?” Or, “What are all the different ways we could arrange the desks in this classroom?  Why are the advantages and disadvantages?”  Or, “If we all joined hands, in the whole school, could we encircle the school?”.  Check out these sites for some great problems: or or
  • Get in teams and create an obstacle course that will challenge the rest of the students. Or, read the rules to Harry Potter’s Quidditch and figure out how to create your own version of the game (without the flying broomsticks).
  • Have some equipment available and have students figure out how to move an object from point A to point B without carrying it.  Or, review structures, movement and friction by having groups create a marble maze that goes the slowest.  Or, provide students with a stack of newspapers and masking tape with the challenge of building a piece of furniture.
  • Put out a variety of art supplies and have students begin to experiment with texture and line with mixed media.  Have them create and critique a piece in the first week that can then be their jumping off point for the remainder of the year:  what did they like? What would they want to do differently?
  • In any subject present a problem to solve by the end of the week.
  • Start the year with a week of genius hour where students can learn about and present about a passion of theirs.
  • Have students create a class song on their instruments or in garage band.  Show them a clip from “Stomp” and have students create their own number.
  • If you teach kindergarten or grade one, you have to teach them to “read” on the first day–even if it is just a shared poem.  Let me take a copy home to read to their parents.
  • Just start your course–but not by lecturing, or reviewing, or a really big diagnostic test.  Start by engaging your students in the kind of learning you want them to be doing all year.

I am sure for your subject area you have thousands of ideas.  Often I hear teachers saying that we need to ease into school.  Maybe that is not true.  Maybe we should jump in with both feet and just start.  When our students go home after the first day of school, we want them to go home full of excitement, joy and enthusiasm for learning.  It is up to us to create those conditions.  The first day of school could be the best day ever..until the second day of school.


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Using Drama and Narrative to Teach Concepts

Here are just a few things that I have seen lately that use drama or movement to help kids understand tricky concepts.  Students like to be up and moving and working with their peers.  Plus, drama can give them a concrete visual that may not be apparent to them on paper.

  • Pat (and probably others but I ran into his class—literally as they were in the hall) had his students pick a pivotal scene from the novel to act out. When students do this they have to do a number of things: figure out the difference between dialogue and narrative; figure out the personalities of the characters; figure out which scenes are pivotal.  They also practice their lines so they end up doing a lot of repeated reading which we know is good for fluency.  Drama in language arts doesn’t have to be a full length play.  Think about how students can turn what they are already reading into drama.  Think about using some plays as reader’s theatre.  Think about assigning students different characters to play and having them have a quick conversation about an event in the story.  Think about having a student be the main character in the read aloud who sits beside you; every once in a while stop and ask the “character” how she or he is feeling.
  • Ruth took over the foyer and had her students being soldiers and superwomen in a growing pattern. Kids were predicting and noticing how the pattern grew. You could give kids a pattern like AABCC and ask them to act it out.  What about acting out x + 3?  Student who can transfer skills from one modality to another have a deeper understanding.  Asking students to act out a math problem before they start will increase their understanding of the problem.  Often students begin to solve a math problem before they really understand what is being asked.  Students may often be stumped by simple algorithms (5 – 0; 33/33; 27 x 1) but when you ask them to tell a story about that algorithm in cookies, then it all makes sense–or sometimes you have to translate the algorithm into a cookie story and then they get it.
  • Cam and Marina (and maybe others) have been working on telling the “narrative “of history. History is often a vague and confusing subject of Acts and Treaties and Wars. Students don’t really understand that all that happened because of real human events.  A simple dramatization of the event increases understanding immensely.  You don’t need props or a script, just place some students, give them a role and have them act out the story you tell.  Get audience participation by asking what the different groups might be thinking or feeling.  Cam has had success by breaking the narrative in to “chapters” so that each set of events is a chapter in the historical narrative.  Students can refer back to an event by looking at the synopsis of that chapter-who was involved and what happened.   I heard through the grapevine that Ken was doing the narrative of particle theory but I didn’t get a chance to see it.  Apparently the solids slow dance like grade 6s and the gas molecules run around like grade 3s playing soccer.

There is actual research that suggests that students learn best through narrative due to our human cultural interest in story.  When you have a confusing or difficult concept then tell a story.

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Rubrics versus letting kids “give it a go”

I must admit that I don’t love rubrics.  They take a long time to write and sometimes it is hard to know what they actually say, even when I wrote them!  In fact, when I have marked using arubric I often find that it is not helpful to me at all:  either I put down things on the rubric that arent’ true once I mark it or I have used such vague language on the rubric (e.g. “uses effective communication strategies”) that I don’t really know what I am looking for.  So, if I am having difficulties using the rubric then maybe the kids are too????

Rubrics and checkbrics became popular because traditionally the assessment of student work was done in a vacuum.  Teachers couldn’t articulate what they were looking for and students had no idea what to produce.  Research showed that when teachers knew how they would be assessing a product ahead of time, and shared that information with students, student achievement increased.  Except what the research didn’t say was that it was really, really hard to come up with a good rubric or good set of success criteria for a checkbric.  What the research didn’t say was that even if we shared it with kids it might take them a long time to get it.  What the research didn’t say was that sometimes our rubrics and checkbrics led students to produce formulaic work that was devoid of creativity and simply a case of task-completion.

Assessment is the hardest part of teaching, and it doesn’t really get easier because the more you refine your teaching practice, the more you have to change your assessment. And it is important that teachers have a clear idea of what they are looking for when they assess and that we let students in on the secret.  But….I do think that there are some instances where we need to give ourselves permission to not be too clear, at first.

When students are first learning how to do something (such as write a response to reading, write in writer’s workshop, develop a scientific report, solve a math problem, play a new piece of music, give an oral report or any other task that you know that students will have multiple opportunities to try over the course of the year) let them muck about with it first before handing out the rubric.  This accomplishes a few things.

One, it gives students a chance to try something without thinking you are going to MARK IT.  Even if you say it is ‘just formative’ you will get some worried and uptight kids who think more about “getting it right” than about thinking it through. This doesn’t mean you don’t have mini lessons, offer suggestions or teach.  But, see what happens with your students risk-taking if they aren’t comparing their work to a rubric or exemplar  right away.

Second, it gives you a chance to breathe and think and look at student work and then decide what exactly do you want the success criteria to be.  Are you getting what you want or not?  Is this particular task going to provide you with rich information about your students?  Is it at the right level of challenge?  If you were marking these what would you be looking for?  If you work in collaborative teams you could do some teacher moderation and determine what you really think students at your grade level will be able to do after some more instruction.  And, what are the next steps?  If you decide the task isn’t really getting at what you want, you still have an opportunity to change it, revise it, rethink your approach.

Third, it gives you an opportunity to co-create rubrics, anchor charts and checkbrics with your students.  Often, when we jump to the co-creation stage before students have had a chance to try the task and even think about the criterion.  If they have had a chance to give it a go, and perhaps work with the peers or have a look at their peers’ work, they will be in a much better place to help determine the success criteria.

Fourth, it will help you to avoid students producing products that are carbon copies of each other.  After all, in a critical thinking environment, there should be some room for creativity and individuality.  I want my tasks to be open-ended enough that these things are possible.  If you do want cookie-cutter products, then give an example and a rubric and some instructions and most students will comply.  But if your task is more complex than that, it may be worthwhile to let students try things out a bit first.  After a few attempts you can share some exemplars of work to help students link the teaching in the mini-lessons to the student work.  From there your class can gradually arrive at a collective understanding of the success criteria.  The advantage is that students will now have an opportunity to see that the success criteria can be met in a variety of ways.  I might write about the Rebellion of 1837 in narrative form and you might write about it in an editorial but we could both meet the success criteria of having identified the key historical points and presented the information from a specific historical perspective.  You might present your math solution using an algoriethm and I might show my solution in diagram form but we both have shown complete solutions that someone else would understand and identified the answer.

Fifth, if you adopt this stance you are more likely to create tasks that provide students with multiple entry points and many opportunities to practice.  If you always create the rubric immediately and mark every attempt against it, there is a chance that your rubric or checkbric is no more than the instructions for how to complete a task.  Completing a task is much different than learning through doing (see this post for more).

The only rule is that there are no secrets; students shouldn’t be surprised when they get back a graded piece of work.  In fact, their self-predicted grade should be close to the actual grade.  Beyond that, take a deep breathe (particularly if you are trying something new), give kids and yourself a chance to try things out, use their attempts to plan out your next steps, and guide them through teaching, small group instruction and the co-creation of success criteria.  And then continue to give them many opportunities to try it out before you “grade” their work against that rubric or checkbric.

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Student Engagement is More Than Having Fun

At a workshop last week, the speaker reminded us that “student engagement” is not the same thing as “having fun”.  Student engagement is one of the current catch phrases in education.  We know that engaged students are more likely to learn more.  But what is student engagement exactly and how is it different than having fun?

Vygotsky talks about engagement as a sense of “flow”.  That state when you are so engaged that time flies by.  It is described as an optimal challenge—not so difficult that anxiety kicks in but not so easy that boredom sets in.  When I think of “fun” activities, I don’t usually think of challenge as necessarily being part of the fun although I have often found challenges to be fun.  So what can teachers do to create situations in which there is high student engagement?

  1. Ensure sufficient background knowledge.  A grade 8 class will be starting literature circles in a few days.  The novels have themes that the teacher feels will be complex or foreign to the students.  He arranges for the students to do some background knowledge research on the topics before they start reading.  The students are surprised by some of the information they discover and now are keen to start their novels.  The teacher has ensured that the students will not get lost in the plot because he has provided the students with sufficient background knowledge.  Without the background knowledge many of these students would have ended up confused in their novels.  Confusion does not lead to engagement.
  2. Encourage curiosity. A 3 year old is curious about everything (Why? Why? Why?).  We see less of that as time goes by.  But I don’t think that people grow less curious. Perhaps the school system is too rigid to encourage curiosity and students quickly learn that school is about doing what the teacher wants, not asking questions.  Although, as the teacher, you need to follow the curriculum and can’t really go off in any direction at all, you can create conditions of wonder.  You can start the science unit with an experiment instead of the theory (I wonder why oil and water don’t mix but salt and water do); you can pose a question in geography (I wonder why people choose to live in cities instead of the country).  And your wonderings don’t have to be big questions.  You could bring in an odd object and have students figure it out (like a dragon fruit or an old rotary phone); you can ask a question (I wonder how ducks talk to their babies to warn them of danger) and have students use google to search possible answers.  Here is a great article about the power of curiosity and learning:
  3. Provide opportunities for social learning. When we are really interested in something, we like to talk about it.  We like to bounce our ideas off others and this helps us to refine our thinking.  Conversations which are the most engaging are those where there is a free exchange of ideas and no obvious answer.  Watch a group of kindergarten students trying to build the tallest tower with blocks.  They spend a lot of time talking about the problem.   When students work together to solve easy math problems, usually the faster student does the work.  But when students have a problem to grapple with and their collective math knowledge is required to solve the problem, they are very engaged.  When students engage in literature circles that mimic adult book clubs (I have never been handed a role card at book club; we never talk one at a time around a circle), they love their books and deepen their understanding.  One grade 7 class is so engrossed in their dystopian literature circles that the librarian has had to start a wait list for books that students want to read.  Not only are students talking about their books in their own literature circle but they are talking among circles about books.  In that class, reading is a social event (except when you walking in during reading time you can hear a pin drop).
  4. Tell stories: Everyone loves stories and when we can present content in story format, students tend to remember it longer.  We know that the narrative format helps to create visual imagery for students.  Use analogies; show movie clips or photos; tell them about your own experiences; think aloud as you are reading a novel.  Next time you listen to a good speaker at a workshop or on a Ted Talk, take notice of how he or she uses narrative to illustrate a point.  “Let me tell you a story…” is an engaging technique for everyone, even adolescents.
  5. Make it real. Kids know busy work when they see it.  They will do it because you told them to; they might enjoy it because who doesn’t like to do the occasional word search; but it isn’t the same as engaging.  Be careful that you aren’t just creating one “fun” or “cool” activity after another.  Engagement happens when students can connect their learning and know that they are developing their skills.  Not only do we want to create optimal challenges but we want students to feel successful.   Knowing that you are getting better at something that was challenging creates engagement and a willingness to persevere.  Sebastian, age 13, told me today that BEDMAS with integers was “easy schmeasy”.  I know that two weeks ago he did very poorly on the same assessment.  But his teacher continued to provide optimal challenges and returned to the concepts over and over.  Now he feels confident, successful and engaged in mathematics.

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Multiple Entry Points into Learning: there is no such thing as average

We know that in any given learning situation students arrive at different places.  When I first started my teaching career at the intermediate level, I was quite convinced that if only the previous teachers had taught them better, my students would know what I needed them to know before I started with my part of the curriculum.  Really, how is it that they could arrive in grade 7 without understanding fractions, or the capital of Canada, or how to use quotation marks???

And then, I had to teach grade one.  I had to teach them how to read!  And, worst of all, everyone would know if I didn’t because I’d have no previous teacher upon whom to place the blame.  But, what I discovered was that even in grade one my students were entering the school system with a wide variety of skill, knowledge, behavioural and interest levels.  Despite all my efforts, some of them just weren’t ready to read yet.

For a while now I haven’t liked the term “diagnostic assessment” because when I was assessing my students at the beginning of a learning cycle based on the end-of-the-cycle expectations, mostly I figured out what I already knew:  they didn’t know much.  Leveling student achievement at this point wasn’t that helpful to me.  What is helpful is figuring out their entry point:  what do my students already bring to the table that will help them access the skills and knowledge I want them to learn?

When I begin to design the early tasks and activities that students will do, I want everyone student engaged, curious and be able to add something.  Each student needs to feel s/he is successful at the beginning of learning if I am going to have any hope of convincing them to keep trying and learning.  Let’s look at some easy ways to do that:

In science, I eventually want the students to learn about density.  If I start with having the students read definitions for density and scientific explanations about density I risk losing a bunch of them right away.  But if I begin, like a science teacher I know, by posing the question, does the weight of an object influence whether it will float or sink, every student in my class can participate.  Every student can create an experiment and observe what happens.  Every student is now intrigued and curious about what happened.  I can move into the science now, in whole group and small group lessons, with everyone on board.  I may still need to differentiate by reading the textbook, providing more guided practice to some and so on, but I have a much better chance at succeeding now that everyone is on board.

In math, if I give out a fractions worksheet, the students who understand fractions are bored.  The students who don’t are stumped.  But, if I present an intriguing problem about fractions such as how could we fairly divide 4 chocolate bars among 8 people? Or 3 people? Or 7 people? And even offer students a choice about which problem to solve, then everyone is involved.  Everyone is learning about fractions.  I also have the added bonus of being able to figure out a lot about what my students CAN do with fractions, not just that they can or cannot do the worksheet.

In reading, I could have my students all read the same novel and do the same reading assessment tasks.  Except, my classes have always had students with a wide variety of reading and interest levels.  Even if it is my favourite book of all time, chances are there are some students who are just not interested in that text.  Are their assessments really a valid representation of how well they read if they hated the book so much that they didn’t finish, or didn’t attend?  And what if the book is too hard for them?  What if it is too easy, or they’ve seen the movie, or read it before?  If I give students some choice (not complete choice because it has to be manageable for me, too) I am much more likely to get a truer sense of my students as readers because there is a much better chance that they will actually be reading the book.

When we talk about multiple entry points to learning we are talking about two main ideas.  One, I need to recognize that my students come to the table with different background knowledge, interests and abilities.  If I don’t start where they are, I risk losing them all together.  Think about learning to ski.  If you had never skied before, and started on the black diamond hill, would you really learn?  Would you go back for lesson two?  And secondly, I need to create activities, tasks and problems that will allow all students to access the learning at the level they are starting at, not the level I wish they are at.  Open-ended tasks will work much better for that than closed.  Our goal is to get every student to the same end expectation, but if we don’t begin the journey at each student’s beginning, we risk not getting them to the end at all.

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Rethinking diagnostic assessment as entry points

It being September, I had quite a few good conversations about diagnostic assessments this week.  Quite a few years ago, the practice with diagnostic assessments was to give students a task that was similar (or exact) to the summative assessment.  The reasoning behind this was that you could then demonstrate growth for each student.  You were sure that you were teaching them something.  You were able to measure academic achievement.  And while these are all good teaching practices (you want to teach them something and you want to be sure that you have) there were problems with this type of diagnostic assessment:

  • Teachers said that they already knew the kids didn`t know X because they hadn`t taught it yet. This is certainly true for some subjects such as teaching Pythagorean Theorem for the first time or the War of 1812.  Why would we really expect most of our students to already know that?
  • Students hated these assessments because they usually didn’t do well. I wouldn’t want to do something that made me feel dumb no matter how many reassuring things the teacher said.
  • Teachers didn’t really use these assessments. It told them something they already knew.  They felt they were doing a lot of marking for no increase in understanding about their students.

The purpose of diagnostic assessment is to discover the entry points for students.  We do want to know what knowledge the students are bringing to the table when we embark upon a new unit/learning cycle.  It is important to realize that all students bring some knowledge with them.  Good teachers identify this knowledge and understand how it fits into the content they are about to teach.

We were talking this week about teaching integers in grade 8.  There is no reason to expect that very many of our students already know how to multiply and divide integers.  The few that may already know this will identify themselves early on.  However, it is useful for the teacher to know what the students do remember about integers.  Therefore, the diagnostic assessment will help the teacher to identify how many students remember how to place integers on a number line, how many remember how to add and subtract integers, and most importantly for multiplication and division, how many remember how to create zero pairs (and now all you non-math people are thinking you should go back to grade 8).

Let’s suppose I was teaching grade 2 math and know that I need to teach students to add and subtract two digit numbers with and without regrouping.  Some of my students may have already been taught the formal algorithm by their parents.  Most won’t.  Giving a test on this is only going to tell me that most students can’t do it.  But, I do want to know other things:  who has one-to-one correspondence, who knows their facts, or has strategies to figure them out, to 20, which kinds of manipulatives are the students comfortable with (block ten, open number line, hundreds boards), who is able to represent numbers in tens and ones).  Once I know those things I am in a better position to move students forward.  I cannot assume that all students are bringing the same mathematical knowledge to the table, but all of them are bringing something.

Diagnostic assessment needs to be fair and get you the information you need.  Look carefully at the assessment tool you are using and make sure that it is designed so that students will be successful if they can.  For example, we were looking at a commerical reading assessment and recognized that on one question most students could probably answer it but that the terminology was not familiar.  So, we rewrote the question and changed the wording.  On another question, rewriting it with a graphic organizer would allow more students to be successful.  Diagnostic assessment is worthless if the student knew the answer but the question was unclear.  As the teacher you may then think that the student doesn`t know something that he or she really does.

So if you rethink the concept of diagnostic assessment as determining the entry points for learning, you may find it a more useful exercise.  Many times it doesn’t even need to be a formal assessment.  In writing, just ask the students to write something.  In science you could have the students do an experiment and see how they go about organizing themselves to complete it—you now have some information on their approach to the scientific method.  In math, you may simply wish to have students solve some problems on the little whiteboards and show you their answers.

The goal of diagnostic assessment is to inform your teaching.  In order to help students make connections between what they already know and what you hope to teach next, you need to know their starting points.  And you have to start at their starting points.  Once I have determined the entry points for my students in writing, that is going to determine which mini-lessons I can do as a whole group (most of my students will benefit), but more importantly, which lessons I will need to do with specific small groups of students.

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Knowing Stuff: The balance between content knowledge, and the inquiry processes

Every year our board produces a video.    I got to watch it (twice) this week.    It is very good.

One of the messages is about how our board prepares students for a very complex future.  I started thinking about how education has changed (or not) in response to our global community where information and knowledge is at our fingertips 24/7.  Historically the teacher was the keeper of all knowledge.  If you didn’t go to school and listen to the teacher, you didn’t know stuff.  But, when was the last time you wondered about something and didn’t find the answer instantly by googling it?  Today, it is easy to find out stuff.  So what is the teacher’s role now?  And, what about the stuff—don’t kids still need to know stuff?

Kids do need to know stuff.  They need to know how to read and how to read critically because there is more information to sift through.  It is far more efficient to know your timestables and addition facts than to pull out your phone (I almost wrote calculator!).  But, I would pull out my phone to solve 3425/49, knowing though, whether the answer was reasonable or whether I’d mis-pushed the buttons.  It is helpful to have an understanding of the geography of Canada, our history and how the scientific elements are organized.  We can’t get along without knowing stuff.  When you know stuff, then learning other stuff makes more sense.  When you know stuff you can access more.  When you know stuff, you can talk to people.

But other things are also increasingly important to know how to do.  It is important to be able to solve problems creatively, especially since most of the jobs our students will do have yet to be invented.  It is important to be able to think critically.  It is important to know how to find the other stuff you want to learn and how to synthesize it with what you already know.  It is important to be able to work collaboratively.

In the days when the teacher was the holder of all knowledge, it took a long time to pass all the knowledge on and we sort of left the other stuff until later, maybe.  The idea of school was the transmission of the stuff.  Today we need to find a balance of learning the stuff and the process of learning.  That’s your challenge.  Sometimes we think that in the “new” way of doing things is only about the process and that we aren’t supposed to teach the stuff.  We think that we have to have kids doing inquiry, doing projects and collaborating all of the time and that means we don’t have to worry about the stuff.

We do need to worry about the stuff.  First of all, rich problems, rich inquiry and rich collaboration all work much better around a strong knowledge base.  And, the problems, the inquiry and collaboration are the processes for arriving at the stuff.  When we have students work in pairs or groups problem-solving in math, the ultimate goal is that each student will learn the stuff.  When student develop inquiry questions in the social sciences, they are learning the stuff as they answer their questions.  When students engage in the process of writing for a specific audience and purpose, they are learning the stuff of the writer’s craft.  In the past, we taught the stuff and then let them do the higher order thinking.  Now, we learn the stuff as we are doing the higher order thinking.

So, the teacher’s role is still about getting kids to know the stuff.  But the process by which students learn stuff has shifted.  Instead of telling kids the stuff and having them memorize and regurgitate, they learn the stuff through the processes of inquiry, collaboration and problem-solving.  As they are learning the stuff, they are also learning to think creatively and critically, to solve problems, to synthesize and evaluate information and to work with others.

As you begin your year, think about how you set up your students to know the stuff through processes which develop their creativity, flexibility, and curiosity.

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Do you create in your classroom a culture of “done” or a culture of learning and improving?

Do you create in your classroom a culture of “done” or do you create a culture of learning and improving?  A culture of “done” implies task completion.  Very quickly students begin to see school as a list of tasks to complete.  Completion is the goal, not the process.  Within a culture of “done” we also tend to create a culture of “correct” because “done and correct” is the ultimate goal.  But, “done” frequently supersedes “correct” and students become satisfied with getting the work done.  Most often, these tasks to complete are routine, unchallenging and mundane.  If you want your students to move past task completion, you need to recreate your culture.

On one of my summer walks I was listening to a Freakanomics podcast about failing.  The gist of the podcast was that human beings don’t like to fail, and, in fact, will persevere with projects even though it is quite clear that it is not going well, just to avoid the feeling of being wrong.  Isn’t that the same as “done”?  It lead me to think about how we develop classroom cultures.  How often do we make it okay to fail?  Do our students see failure as a chance to learn or as something to be avoided at all costs?  Do we model saying “I don’t know”?  Do we help students to see that their mistakes can lead to greater learning?  Do we develop tasks that are challenging and difficult and require hard work to achieve?

Let’s think about the student who is working through a math problem in a small group.  The problem is challenging for the students but not impossible.  As they work through the problem together they are receiving feedback about their mathematical thinking each time they do not get the correct solution.  They receive feedback from each other as they discuss the problem.  Once they arrive at the solution, they get feedback that grit and resilience pay off.  What would happen if the teacher had gone in and rescued them the minute they went off on the wrong track?  Their feedback would have been that this problem is too hard for you.  Does that mean that the teacher has no role at all?  Definitely not.  It is the teacher’s job to observe and enter into the math conversation to offer the exact amount of feedback or direction that will allow the students to move forward, without telling the students what to do. I often suggest to teachers that they give their little piece of feedback and then WALK AWAY.  Walking away tells the students that you trust them to arrive at the solution.

Let’s think about a workshop environment in reading and writing as a means of moving away from “done”.  If a student is engaged and making choices about his or her writing, completion happens when the piece meets the criteria the student has set out.  The piece says what the student wants it to say.  The teacher now provides feedback that helps the student meet the writing goal (e.g. “I’m not sure that your lead hooks me as a reader.  What were you trying to do here?”).  If a student has choice in what he or she reads and has opportunities to discuss the text with others, then “done” happens only when the student has a good understanding of the text.  In both instances, students are learning that a deeper feeling of accomplishment requires engagement and perseverance.

I hate doing laundry.  It is a mindless, never-ending chore.  I am always happy to be “done”, except the next day rolls around and there it is again.  Laundry is task completion.  I love solving problems.  I love being challenged and having to think hard.  In those instances the time flies, I persevere, I check and recheck to make sure I have it right.  When the problem is solved I am proud and I know that it is done, because I have determined it to be so.  As you begin the new year, think about the tasks you set, the culture you create, and move away from laundry-like task completion.


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Filed under Authentic Tasks, classroom environment, Effective Feedback

Multiple Entry Points into Learning


Differentiation, multiple entry points, small group instruction, individualized instruction, IEP’d students—how do we incorporate all of this with a seemingly packed curriculum and many students to teach?  Some days, we long for the average student.  In fact, the notion of the average student would suggest that it would be ok to teach to the middle and then the students on either side would just cope.  They would be able to find something.  The problem is, they don’t.

We have a professional responsibility to teach to each student and we know that each student brings different skills to the task.  With the case of students on an IEP, we have specifically told parents that we would be teaching something other than the grade level curriculum.  While we have certain end goals in mind (for both IEP and non-IEP students), what we need to be thinking about is how we get there.  That is where the curriculum document does NOT constrain us.  We do have the professional freedom to design our classrooms and lessons so that multiple ways of attaining the end goal are possible:  we can change the pace, the quantity of work, the number of opportunities to practice, the delivery of the material and, many times, the choice of topic.

The more constrained we are in the design of our lesson/activity, the less likely we are able to meet the learning needs of all students.

  • A photocopied worksheet is very hard to differentiate—either you get it or you don’t.  If you really get it, it is too easy.  If you really don’t get it, it is too hard.  There is only one entry point for most worksheets.
  • Worksheets offer very little choice.  Worksheets that offer lots of choice might as well be blank pieces of paper and we save on the photocopying.
  • Assigning the same number of questions for all students to do is only good for some.  If the student is struggling, s/he is already discouraged.  If the student gets it, s/he is bored (and there is no research to say that over-practicing a concept makes you learn it better).
  • A workshop environment with the teaching in minilessons is engaging for students and lets students determine their own entry level.  Don’t forget, you are still the teacher, and can guide students up or down as required.
  • Inquiry learning allows students to ask the questions about which they are interested.  This provides a variety of entry points as students determine their own interests and questions.  Students of all levels are more likely to be engaged if they are interested in the topic.  Don’t forget you are still the teacher, and can veto questions or guide students in the direction that meets the curriculum expectations.
  • You can create learning situations/problems/provocations that have different levels of difficulty.  Rarely will students choose the inappropriate level.  Don’t forget, you are still the teacher, and can help guide students in their choices.
  • If most of our lessons are to the whole group, we are teaching to the middle.  Try rethinking how you deliver information so that you minimalize whole group times and increase small group time.  We say we don’t have time for small group instruction, and we don’t if we use it all on the whole group.  There are some students who need more of your time and some who need less.  Fair is not equal.
  • The more you, the teacher, is involved in setting all the work tasks, the more you are constraining the learning of your students.  The more open your tasks are, the more students will be able to enter into meaningful learning.

As you plan for term two, challenge yourself to try something new that you think might engage more students in learning.  You might feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but no one will die.  And, don’t forget, you are still the teacher and if it isn’t working you can always change your mind.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, Differentiation, learning golas, small group instruction

Book Clubs and Non-fiction Text

I am guilty, as a female, of reading mostly fiction.  So when someone asks what I am reading, I invariably default to the novel in which I am engrossed despite the fact that at any given time, I am probably perusing at least 2-3 nonfiction texts as well,  the internet daily, and a few journals or periodicals. On a daily basis, I probably share more about my nonfiction reading with friends and colleagues than I do my novels.  We know as teachers that we need to engage our students in both fiction and non-fiction text.  We also know that many of the boys in our classrooms may gravitate towards nonfiction more readily than fiction.  A friend of mine was wondering about literature circles with nonfiction text and how those discussions might look.  And, as a teacher, how might one respond to reader’s notebook entries about nonfiction text.

As always, I began to think about how real readers (usually me) interact with nonfiction.  We need to treat our students like real readers and give them the same authentic experiences.  When we read nonfiction we are generally looking for information.  So when students discuss that information they might:

  • discuss the cool and interesting things they discovered
  • talk about how their new learning fits in with what they thought before
  • reread any confusing parts and try to make sense of new information or things they don’t understand (often we reread nonfiction many times as we grapple with new concepts)
  • talk about how the diagrams or pictures support their new learning
  • evaluate whether they think the author is reliable (and this is very important when doing research, reading websites, looking at primary sources)
  • think about other texts or places to gather information that they may now wish to know since their interest has been sparked

If part of your literature circles or readers’ workshop is to have students write letter to you about their reading, the above points could also be part of their letters.  As a teacher, it is important to write back as a reader.  When other readers tell me about their nonfiction reading, I usually relate it to things I already know about the topic, questions I might have about the information, and why the person is interested in the topic.  So if a student was reading about hurricanes and had written to me, I might respond back with some comments about the facts s/he had told me, some questions I may have about hurricanes, and maybe a confusion that I might have.  I could ask the student to tell how his/her interest in hurricanes had come about and what, if anything, they were planning to do with this new information.  I might relay some information I had about hurricanes and wonder if it were correct according to the student’s source.  We could even chat about whether depictions of hurricanes in film and literature were truthful according to the facts.

Don’t shy away from talking about nonfiction text with your students just because your comfort level is fiction.  Next time you are reading some nonfiction, think about yourself as a reader and how you are interacting with the text.  That is always the best way to guide how you can help students to learn to be a proficient reader as well.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, Literature Circles