Revving up for The Test

Now that a fall has passed without administration of a large scale test for the first time in several years, I find myself anticipating the approach of Smarter Balance this spring with many different emotions.


My first inclination, as with many other people, I suspect is a bit of nervous anticipation for myself and for my students. Will they be successful? Have I taught successfully to each of my students? Will they do the best they can? These and other questions rush through my head. There is so much great learning that takes place in my classroom, and so many great conversations that learners engage in. But will these result in success? My butterflies continue to ponder and fly, working up a tizzy until the “big day”. Which brings me to my next point.


I’m a data junkie. The economics major in me still surfaces, feeling that numbers can prove things that feel elusive without quantitative evidence. Large scale tests can help to confirm what schools are doing right, help provide clear areas where growth can be made by teams and schools, and creates a starting point for so many valuable conversations about student learning. There’s nothing like the excitement of seeing that a particular teacher was a major positive outlier in a certain subtest or group of standards. A diamond among us! Without the numbers, the strength of my colleagues can remain hidden and untapped.


My last emotion lies in questioning the entire process that we fall victim to each year. Why are we testing kids so much? A desire to just close the door, teach, and NOT subject students to the stress and anxiety brought on by testing also prevails. Reading about countries like Finland, who choose not to test students until the end of High School, makes me question our entire process. Are we really doing what’s best for kids when we test them over the course of several days and many hours? Are we so low level in our collaboration that we can’t evaluate ourselves as teachers without subjecting learners to arbitrary measures of their knowledge? And furthermore, when I start to think about the investment of both time and money that has been poured into the testing, I can’t help but wonder if our resources couldn’t be better utilized to help kids.

So where do you stand? How are tests useful in your schools? How might they also distract us from our real purpose as educators?


Student Engagement

After reading this recent Article about student engagement, I find myself continuing the ask about the importance of the data that we collect, or more importantly, how we use the data that we collect. Perhaps, at times, we are missing the boat when we are honing in on specific skills and not keeping the focus on engagement. If students are engaged, the rest of these skills will come. That doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t understand or pay attention to student data and pre-assessment criteria in their planning, only that when a teacher plans, engagement should be the number one priority.


The question then becomes: How do teachers engage students in meaningful learning? Here’s my top five. What else do you do to engage learners?

1-Use technology to create

I’m not just talking about plugging kids in to Khan Academy, using gonoodle for brain breaks, or socrative for assessing. These are all great tools that I use with frequency, but creating new content keeps learning relevant and fun. It allows students to tap into creativity, collaborate with teams,  and learn problem solving skills as they work to understand how to do something new. In one of our recent projects, students wrote edited, and published a newshour highlighting some of the most important events of the Revolutionary War. When students are working towards a common goal, and creating a new twist on old ideas, they are learning more than a textbook can ever teach.

2- Use student choice

Students need to feel invested in their own learning. This means that teachers need to compartmentalize the things that they need to be in charge of and the decisions that are better left to students. How should we keep track of our behavior? What will we do in our classroom when we feel threatened or unable to learn to our fullest potential? How will we hold one another accountable for treating one another with respect? These are all questions that can and should be answered by students, not only at the beginning of the year, but reflected upon and re-evaluated as the culture of the classroom shifts and changes.

3- Move

Movement needs to be incorporated throughout the day. Using movement to help with content (body motions associated with new word definitions or rules in math) to moving across the room to buddy up and share thinking with others throughout the day are little ways to include movement, but we also need to let kids write outside, complete science experiments outside the walls of the classroom and engage with our surrounding environments. Movement keeps the brain fresh & the body invigorated.

4-Make Connections

Understanding each student as a unique individual and taking the time to understand who he or she is outside of school is critical. Take the time at the end of each week or day to think about students that haven’t talked to during the day. What will you do to connect with them? Perhaps it’s time to peak into their writing and leave them a note about something you notice. Reach out with an email to the parents noting something that you’ve noticed about their learning. Connect with them as a human and not just a learner! This builds respect. When a student feels cared for, understood and needed by those around them, they are better able to engage in their learning.

These items don’t happen everyday in my classroom, but they are worth reflecting on. Building a renewed focus on engaging students can help them succeed with the academic standards that we expect.

Keeping One Foot (at least) Grounded in the REAL Work


I just returned from “the trail” with 160+/- students, over one dozen colleagues, and 30+/- community members from a 10 mile hike on the Eastern Trail. On a brisk, typical Maine spring day (meaning that you just never know whether it will be a day for shorts and t’s or full blown winter gear), this large group entered into the wilderness on a culminating authentic learning event. This day included walking with learners of all ages, engaging in rich conversations, building relationships, and making the learning real, purposeful, and lasting. Goal setting and encouragement were pervasive. Because of this, everyone was successful, in that goals were reached, healthy habits were modeled, and community was strengthened.

And, I was able to keep one foot (metaphorically speaking) grounded in what really matters in our schools. I “walked the talk” so to speak as I spent time engaging in a meaningful experience with others. I could have stayed behind to write that state required SIPS plan, responded to a variety of emergencies throughout the day, answered the phone, supported teachers with NWEA testing glitches, or problem-solved with the lunch ladies around lunch count accuracy issues our school continues to face. I could have attended a contentious IEP meeting or met with a teacher to develop an action plan. But, I chose to walk beside them…

Let’s not fool ourselves. With all of these conversations around proficiency-based education, Common Core implementation, and standards-based reporting transitions, we cannot lose sight of what really matters: student engagement, a sense of belonging, and investment in goal setting, not to mention the development of civic and environmental responsibility along with a healthy spiritual sense of self. We’re quickly losing sight of the foundational components of a sustainable society. Our schools lack this focus as curriculum developers break academic expectations and learning outcomes down into fragmented, discrete levels of knowledge and skills. Let’s turn our attention to Pasi Sahlberg’s leadership in Finland, where creative play and equality are valued above excellence as deemed by standardized assessments. The lesson from Finland, allow children to develop in a more natural way, through investigation, play, and a focus on community.

SAMR – Who knew? I guess I did…

Ok, so I may be a bit slow in my self reflection on this one, but I had never seen this model explained before (SAMR – The common truth). It serves as a great cornerstone to really understand from a professional viewpoint how technology is used and, more importantly, can be used in schools. After struggling through a week of students drafting, filming, and editing their Revolutionary War newscast, the article gave me a sense of validation for putting the time into the project.

My students were overjoyed at the idea of producing a newshour that featured some of our understandings of important elements of the Revolutionary War. Some of the highlights included using the green screen (How to Use Green Screen in class) to help students report “on the scene” as a reporter during the Revolutionary War.

Many questions still linger for me. Is all the work that a teacher puts into structuring this “unstructurable” type of learning worth it? How can we measure the learning that occurs through these experiences? Can a rubric really capture the teamwork and creative problem solving that takes place? And the big whammy: Is this better than a traditional classroom learning experience? Why, or why not?


Second Order Change & Mindset

Second Order Change requires a collective, lively, and sustainable growth mindset, a phrase being thrown around in educational circles these days. Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset, urges readers to engage in some deep metacognition and personal reflection. Through this process, a professional educator carefully considers her unique lens on various hot button topics (am I approaching this problem with a fixed or growth mindset?). In order to make this essential transformation, one has to make the leap from problem identification to proposing and implementing creative solutions. This shift in thinking sounds something like, “Throw me a problem with our school and I will work collaboratively and think creatively about the many possibilities.” Each issue in our struggling systems presents an opportunity in a growth mindset culture.

I yearn to work in a school where the thinking described above prevails, where creative, problem-solving, and bright individuals join together to tackle the greatest challenges: helping all children reach proficiency, igniting a spirit of inquiry in all learners, working closely with parents/communities for the well being of all children, and on and on. While there is no shortage of issues that seem to be rapidly intensifying, there is, however, a shortage of growth mindset individuals in our schools. Without this major cultural shift, many of our attempts to address these challenges are futile. All stakeholders need to be invested in the vision and serve as a passionate and dedicated activist as steps are taken each day to achieve the desired results. This level of dedication and focus can only be achieved when a unified force works toward a common goal.

To say that I am not there, that the above thinking does not reflect my current learning community, would be putting it mildly. While there are pockets of evidence that growth mindset exists and lurks in the halls of our school, periodically giving me a glimmer of hope and encouragement, much of my daily work right now is engulfed by responding to fixed mindset questions, probes, and criticisms. As one of my colleagues so eloquently put it, “It’s like a game of Wack-a-Mole.” It’s time to put the breaks on this hampster wheel model of school change and shift our collective focus to building a culture of reflection, support, and creative solutions.


Spiraling vs. Mastery?

I’ve been struggling lately with the pedagogies behind a spiraling curriculum and the need to assess mastery of standards at measured intervals. While I wholeheartedly believe that targeted instruction helps students to master learning targets, or standards, there also needs to be time set aside to explore concepts without the intent of mastery. I sometimes worry that with an increased push toward mastery of standards, teachers lose the forest for the trees.

Yes, we need to keep the trees healthy. In essence,  we need to assess student mastery of specific skills, identifying what might hurt the tree in the long run.  When there are areas of weakness detected, educators have a responsibility to address those holes in a timely and targeted fashion. There are a wide range of instructional resources to increase practice on specific skills for students, as well as many different grouping strategies to address student needs.  If we aren’t able to find these trees that need attention, the forest will not flourish.

On the other hand, professional teachers have a responsibility to take care of the entire forest, exposing their trees to sunlight, water, and nutrients, so that they may grow. We need to design larger units of instruction that expose students to higher level thinking skills, complex concepts, and worldly events that we DO NOT expect mastery from. Exposing students to these more challenging skillsets sets them up for success in the future. They will be able to master new concepts later down the road because they have been exposed to them in context and over large spans of time.

So, where do you stand? How can teachers balance the need for mastery of standards while also nurturing an entire forest of learners?

Targeting Instruction


There are many things that I believe are critical to student success, one is limited choice, and another is targeted instruction in areas of need. While standardized testing isn’t always my favorite thing, I think that educators need to use the data available to them to make informed decisions about instruction. If we aren’t using the data that we are collecting for the good of those specific students, then why are we collecting it?

After seeing mostly good results on my classes Fall to Winter MAP tests, I am going to continue small group interventions in areas of weakness for each student. This means that each student will be placed in a skills group based on his/her lowest subtest score. This does group kiddos together with varying RIT scores, but allows me to give direct instruction in topics that crossover multiple Lexiles, while still allowing students to practice the skills with texts appropriate to their independent reading level.

After reviewing data from our second round of NWEA MAP testing, I created a structure in my classroom where I am able to work wtih small groups, while allowing other students to have choices WITHIN their level of need. Once a week, students will meet with me and the rest of the week, they are working independently to complete their tic-tac-toe board by practicing a skill on an independent text.
Here’s the tracking form that I have used to help students and myself keep track of what they’ve learned and practiced.   Winter Skills Groups