Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What Were You Looking For While You Visited My Classroom?

Throughout the past two years, I have found myself in more classrooms observing teaching and learning than I have at any other point in my career. It is exciting to see the complexity of tasks our students are navigating at every level. The depth of conversations I have had with our teachers and principals have never been greater. 

After a recent classroom visit, a teacher sent me a follow-up email and asked what I was looking for during my short stay. It’s a great question, and one I’m happy I was asked. During a ten-minute visit to a classroom, I am generally looking for evidence of three things: classroom routines, positive relationships and clear learning targets. 

Classroom routines shorten the transition time between tasks, help students predict what is coming next and reduces (if not eliminates) most student management issues. Positive student-to-student and student-to-teacher relationships are the foundation for learning in a classroom. Students do not learn from, nor do they collaborate with, people they don’t like. The last variable I am looking for is well articulated learning targets posted in language students can understand. When students have a clear understanding of what the focus of their work is and what they should be learning, they are better able to make meaning out of what they are being asked to do. Learning targets are not “to do” lists. “Students will research the Bill of Rights,” is not a learning target.  “I can explain how the struggles of the Colonists in Massachusetts impacted the writing of the first amendment to U.S. Constitution,” is an example of a learning target.  

Throughout my classroom visits I have observed many examples of good learning targets. I continue to be impressed by the quality of work and depth of knowledge our staff holds. 

An elementary principal sent me the article below. The piece begins with the most current research that supports the importance of using learning targets at all grade levels and goes on to talk about what good learning targets are and are not. Please take five minutes to read this short article and match your learning targets against the author’s criteria.   

Learning Targets On Parade

An 8th grade math teacher is introducing a lesson on exponents, and we’re watching a video of her class. The purpose of her lesson, according to the material that accompanies the video, is for students to discover and then describe the rules for multiplying exponents. But you’d never know it from the lesson. The teacher defines exponents and illustrates exponential growth with cubes and then with a graph. Students get excited about this and begin to ask questions about exponential growth, only to be told that’s not what their lesson is about today.
On the board, the teacher shows students how to multiply exponents and then tells them to begin work on a worksheet. By the time the students actually start doing their work, most of us watching the video feel misled. First we thought the students were going to learn about growth, and then we thought they were going to discover their own principles for multiplying exponents. When it’s all said and done, all they got to do was reproduce the teacher’s logic on a worksheet.
This video is a great argument for the importance of learning targets. Teachers who watch it can see that students have a hard time figuring out what they’re supposed to be learning and why. For example, one student excitedly asks, “Oh, would that be a parabola?” and the teacher replies that they’ll talk about that in a future lesson. (If you want to see for yourself, watch the first 10 minutes of the video

What the Research Says
Clear learning goals help students learn better (Seidel, Rimmele, & Prenzel, 2005). When students understand exactly what they’re supposed to learn and what their work will look like when they learn it, they’re better able to monitor and adjust their work, select effective strategies, and connect current work to prior learning (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, & Wiliam, 2004; Moss, Brookhart, & Long, 2011). This point has been demonstrated for all age groups, from young children (Higgins, Harris, & Kuehn, 1994) through high school students (Ross & Starling, 2008); and in a variety of subjects—in writing (Andrade, Du, & Mycek, 2010); mathematics (Ross, Hogaboam-Gray, & Rolheiser, 2002); and social studies (Ross & Starling, 2008).
The important point here is that students should have clear goals. If the teacher is the only one who understands where learning should be headed, students are flying blind. In all the studies we just cited, students were taught the learning goals and criteria for success, and that’s what made the difference.
It’s not enough for a teacher to plan a learning target and tell students about it once. Writing a learning target on the board but not having students do anything with it during the lesson won’t harness the learning energy these studies describe. This sort of lip service to learning targets is what Marshall and Drummond (2006) call conforming only to the “letter” and not the “spirit” of assessment for learning. A learning target theory of action calls for teachers to design the right target for the day’s lesson and use it along with their students to aim for and assess understanding. Students have the learning target in mind as they do their work, and they filter what they do during a lesson by asking themselves how this activity or assignment will help them hit that target.
Having a learning goal for students means more than just having a great learning target for today’s lesson. All the learning targets from a sequence of lessons must add up to a larger unit goal or state standard. It’s also not enough to have only the larger goal. Students experience learning one lesson at a time, so they need to know what they’re supposed to be learning during each lesson. Each daily learning target needs to add a subsequent level of challenge or increase students’ understanding or skill from the previous lesson and prepare them for the lesson that follows.

What Are Learning Targets?
A learning target describes, in language students can understand, what students will learn in today’s lesson. That description can be accomplished through words, pictures, demonstrations, or other experiences; it doesn’t have to be in an “I can” statement. A learning target should
  1. Describe for students exactly what they’re going to learn by the end of the day’s lesson.
  2. Be in language students can understand.
  3. Be stated from the point of view of a student who has yet to master the knowledge or skill that’s the focus of the day’s lesson.
  4. Be embodied in a performance of understanding—what the students will do, make, say, or write during the lesson—that translates the description into action. A performance of understanding shows students what the learning target looks like, helps them get there, and provides evidence of how well they’re doing.
  5. Include student look fors (sometimes called criteria for success) in terms that describe mastery of the learning target rather than in terms of a score or grade.
Learning targets should describe learning, not activities. If you find yourself describing an activity (Students will write five sentences), ask yourself, “What will the students learn by doing that?” (I can write sentences that tell complete thoughts).
Also, because teachers are so used to thinking in terms of unit goals or other “chunks” of the curriculum (learning long division, learning how to do persuasive writing, learning about photosynthesis), they sometimes repeat the same learning target day after day to give students more practice with the skill or concept. To plan a series of lessons in which students see where they’re going and help you get them there, you need more than that.
Each day, students should know what new content they’re learning and how they’re sharpening their skills. Are they learning a new concept? Extending understanding by building on a previous concept? Combining concepts to form more sophisticated understandings? Practicing a skill for accuracy or fluency? Applying a skill they already know to new content? Clarifying the target helps students understand exactly what they’re supposed to focus on, helps them monitor their learning, and—because autonomy and control are major motivators—makes learning and practice more engaging.

Learning—Or Doing?
Let’s start with a counterexample. One teacher we know started a unit on literary language with this goal: “ Students will learn that point of view and figurative language help tell a story.” In her mind, that became the learning target for all the lessons in the unit. So the daily learning targets she presented to students were statements like these: The students will put examples of figurative language on cards and sort them according to type, The students will identify two examples of simile and two examples of metaphor in Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves, and so on.
This teacher had some good ideas for potential performances of understanding. The part she skipped was showing students what all this activity would help them learn so they’d see the purpose in the activities and know what to focus on. The reallearning targets could be summarized like this:
  • I can define simile and recognize examples in literature.
  • I can define metaphor and recognize examples in literature.
  • I can distinguish metaphors from similes.
  • I can explain how metaphors and similes enhanced the storytelling.
  • I can describe and identify examples of different points of view.
  • I can explain how the point of view affected the story.
One or two such targets add concepts and skills in small increments each day.
There are several advantages to spelling out learning targets by describing what students are going to learn and then embodying them with plans for what students will do, rather than rolling them all into one. When students have learning targets articulated in this way, they can answer the question, “What are you trying to learn?” They begin to see learning as growing a body of knowledge and skills, rather than checking off a series of assignments.
As for the teachers, they begin to see the activities they select as samples from among all the other possible things students could do to learn today’s lesson, rather than as the purpose for the lesson itself. This helps with all sorts of instructional moves, including differentiation for various learners’ needs and extension of learning for those who can already do the day’s activity.

What It Should Look Like
The two examples that follow show how a parade of learning targets builds a learning trajectory that leads students to a larger instructional goal. Moreover, they clarify the difference between what students will learn and what they will do.

In an Elementary Classroom
Ben Golab teaches 2nd grade at Lenape Elementary School in Ford City, Pennsylvania. His mathematics unit on subtracting with double digits consisted of a series of five lessons. The first lesson’s learning target was, I can subtract a one-digit number from a two-digit number without regrouping (borrowing), using cubes. The performance of understanding included modeling subtraction problems of this type with math cubes.
The discussion and questioning focused on concepts of numbers and operations—for example, that no regrouping was needed because the cubes representing the top number were numerous enough to take away the number of cubes representing the bottom number. Mr. Golab also told his students how what they were doing with cubes today would lead to what they would do with pencil and paper tomorrow.
The learning target for Lesson 2 was, I can subtract a one-digit number from a two-digit number without regrouping, without using cubes.
Lesson 3’s target was, I can subtract a one-digit number from a two-digit number with regrouping, using cubes. During this lesson, as for the others, the teacher circulated around the room and gave students feedback. He used strategic questioning to help students see that regrouping using cubes in subtraction worked in the opposite way from how they regrouped using cubes in addition, emphasizing mathematical reasoning. He said, “Remember for subtraction we start at the top of the problem to decide about regrouping, not at the bottom like we do for addition. Which number is bigger here, top or bottom? Do you need to regroup?”
For Lesson 3, the teacher focused especially on one of the criteria for success—I use regrouping when the problem needs it, and I don’t use regrouping if it doesn’t.When students couldn’t make this distinction, the teacher pulled them aside and worked with them on problems that didn’t require regrouping until they were ready to move on to problems that required regrouping.
Lesson 4’s learning target was, I can subtract a one-digit number from a two-digit number with regrouping, without using cubes. Again, students realized that they were building on their concrete learning from the previous lesson to learn how to subtract using paper and pencil. Most of them came to this realization on their own, because moving from Lesson 3 to 4 followed the same pattern they used to move from Lesson 1 to 2—from cubes to paper.
Lesson 5’s learning target was, I can subtract a two-digit number from a two-digit number with regrouping. Students applied what they had learned about subtracting two-digit numbers that required regrouping in the ones place; they were just adding one more piece—subtracting in the tens place.
These learning targets moved students step-by-step from readiness—they already knew about one-digit subtraction and how to represent numbers with math cubes—to the larger learning goal of two-digit subtraction. This learning goal was the destinationfor the parade, not the learning target for each lesson. Each lesson took the students one step farther down the road.

In a Secondary Classroom
Joe Cali’s 10th grade government class at Ford City High School in Pennsylvania was studying a unit on the federal bureaucracy. The teacher planned a series of eight lessons. In previous units, the students had examined the powers of the president of the United States and how they carry into the three branches of government. They had examined the checks and balances designed into that structure and their relationship with presidential power.
In this unit, students were going to learn how to categorize the federal bureaucracy into three subunits (the executive office of the president, the cabinet departments, and the independent agencies).
The teacher had three goals for the unit. Students would
  • Have a better understanding of the complexity of the federal bureaucracy.
  • Realize that the design of bureaucracy puts some agencies within the reach of partisan politics and some theoretically outside that reach, although still subject to some political pressure because they were created by either the president or Congress.
  • Be able to identify the various workers’ roles and the budget involved in each type of agency and, by doing so, come to a better understanding of where federal taxes go.
In the next unit, the students were going to study federal taxes.
Mr. Cali didn’t use “I can” statements for his learning targets. Rather, he focused on a clear definition of the content that he coordinated with performances of understanding, activities that the students engaged in for each lesson that translated the content into action (see “Learning Targets and Performances of Understanding for a 10th Grade Government Class”). 
This parade of lessons and learning targets led to the larger goals of understanding the federal bureaucracy and the various agencies’ relationships with politics and taxes.
One way Mr. Cali kept the lessons coherent and unified was to continually explain how each lesson fit into the bigger picture. For example, he pointed out how students’ previous learning about the powers of the president and Congress was part of the background they needed to understand why different federal agencies were created, how their learning about the responsibilities of the different agencies was part of the background they needed to understand the agencies’ funding requirements, and how their learning about funding requirements would be part of the background they would need to understand federal taxes in the next unit.
Notice, too, that some of the daily learning targets called on students’ reasoning skills to put some of these pieces together themselves. Using learning targets in these ways, in lesson-sized steps, helped students reach a larger understanding of the federal bureaucracy.

More Than Fanfare
Every lesson needs its own reason to live. One of those reasons is that today’s lesson builds on the learning from yesterday’s lesson and leads to the learning in tomorrow’s lesson so that the learning targets form a parade that leads to the achievement of larger curricular goals and state standards.
Some authors call those larger goals learning targets, too. We prefer to save the termlearning target for individual lessons, for two reasons. One, using target for the lesson-sized learning goals and goals or standards for the larger learning goals avoids the confusion that comes with calling two different things by the same name. Two, having a special name for the lesson-sized learning goal emphasizes the idea that every lesson needs one. Students should never feel as though they’re simply repeating the same thing today that they did yesterday.
When the learning target for today’s lesson builds on yesterday’s learning and leads to tomorrow’s learning, and when all the learning targets in a sequence of lessons lead students to achieve a curricular goal or standard, learning will stick.

Brookhart, S., & Moss, C. (2014, October 1). Learning Targets on Parade. Educational Leadership, 28-33.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Past Successes and Future Plans

Throughout the 2013-2014 school year, over 70 members of the Beaver Dam Unified School District (BDUSD) and community worked to develop a system-wide strategic plan that will span the next four years. This group studied and reviewed every area of the school district from academic achievement to facilities and operations. The plan our learning community created contains four-year core strategies supported by yearly key performance objectives, which are broken into monthly milestone goals. We will publicly report our progress every 90 days to the BDUSD Board of Education and publish our progress on our website for all to monitor. We will share our plan with the entire community within the next few weeks.  Before we look ahead to the next four years, let us take a minute to look back on the past four.

During the past four years, our school district and community partners focused on reaching our dashboard goals we established in 2010. We have published our progress toward our dashboard goals every year on our website ( We are proud to say we have made considerable progress toward achieving these goals, and in most cases, we exceeded our benchmarks. Our progress over the past four years has been highlighted by our high school receiving state level recognition as a pacesetter school in the area of Advanced Placement course access and excellence in exam scores. In 2013, BDUSD received the highest rated state report card in the area, and three of our elementary schools were honored twelve times as Wisconsin Schools of Recognition. This progress and recognition is a tribute to the dedication and work ethic of our students, their families and the world-class staff working in our schools.  

In addition to our advancements in academics, our school board kept a laser-like focus on maintaining and improving the condition of our facilities. Since 2011, our school district completed eight million dollars of facility improvements including a complete electrical upgrade at our middle school; complete remodel of our high school science wing; an addition of six classrooms to Prairie View Elementary School; and upgrades to our roofs, parking lots and HVAC systems. In addition to these improvements, our district completed a three million dollar technology upgrade resulting in district-wide, public Wi-Fi and a significant influx of laptops, iPads and Smart Boards.  

Our school district completed the above eleven million dollars of work without asking taxpayers for more resources, while at the same time reducing the local tax levy and mill rate by more than 12%.  We are proud to hold the lowest mill rate in the area.  

It is always enjoyable to look back at past successes; however, it is equally exciting to look ahead to the progress we will make in the future. We simply cannot wait to share our plans for the future through the implementation of our 2014-2018 strategic plan.  Our strategic plan will arrive in your mailboxes in early November.  Thank you for reading and please never hesitate to call, email or stop and see us anytime you have a question or issue to address. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Don't Forget The Obvious!

At times in education it is easy to be distracted by the plethora of new programs, resources and initiatives promising to increase academic achievement. New initiatives can be a sign of a dynamic institution, or it can be indicative of an organization without direction. Change is part of life; in fact, change defines life. As we grow our knowledge, adopt new resources and explore promising technology applications, we need to be sure we do not lose sight of time-tested educational practices that have long proven to advance academic achievement. At the front of that list is the amount and rigor of reading and writing tasks we ask our students to complete daily. As I stated at the start of the school year, if we are not asking our students to read and write at rigorous levels every day, we are doing our students a grave injustice. This is something we have to be reminded of each time we think about photocopying a worksheet or handing students a crossword puzzle.  
Below is an excerpt taken from the Huffington Post, written by Pam Lowe, a Curriculum Director in Holcomb, Missouri.  Ms. Lowe's article speaks to the importance of not losing focus on those criteria that can be most effective in helping our students grow their skills and abilities.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Award Winning Tradition

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has chosen South Beaver Dam, Lincoln and Jefferson Elementary Schools as Wisconsin Schools of Recognition for their academic achievement in the areas of reading and math. Wisconsin Schools of Recognition are acknowledged for their exemplary work in breaking the link between poverty and low academic achievement through rigorous programming and attention to individual student needs. Student growth in reading and mathematics at the award winning schools is in the top 10% of schools from similarly sized districts, grade configurations and demographics. The three schools being honored are the only elementary schools within the Beaver Dam School District eligible for the award.  South Beaver Dam’s, Lincoln’s and Jefferson’s successes are reflective of the hard work and dedication by all district staff, students and parents.  

The Beaver Dam Unified School District has received twelve (12) Wisconsin School of Recognition honors, two (2) schools have been recognized as Federal Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence, and Beaver Dam High School was recognized as a Wisconsin Advanced Placement Pacesetter School in the State of Wisconsin for excellence in exam scores last year. 

The Beaver Dam Unified School District continues to be a progressive and rewarding environment in which to grow, learn and work as our students, staff and parents continue to lead the way in student growth and achievement.

South Beaver Dam, Lincoln and Jefferson Elementary Schools will be recognized at a ceremony at the State Capitol on October 13.  

Another great day for Beaver Dam Schools!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Working Together

Our schools are a reflection of the society in which we live.  When society experiences great strides forward, our public schools reflect these advancements.  Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well; when society struggles, the challenges will be found in our schools.  Our local community, state, and nation are continually searching for ways to battle bullying behaviors that seem to permeate too many facets of our lives.  The Beaver Dam Unified School District (BDUSD) is not immune to these problems and they can be serious obstacles to learning that we deal with on a continual basis.  Our staff has never been more committed to preventing and combatting bullying in our schools.  We partner with local law enforcement, county agencies, and private entities to stamp out these behaviors, including the implementation of more than 25 proactive programs. A small sampling of our efforts is bulleted below.
·         Ongoing training for all staff in non-violent crisis intervention strategies
·         Middle School Safe School Ambassador program
·         High School Link Crew mentor program
·         Character Counts initiatives
·         Restorative Justice program
·         Annual climate, safety, and security surveys
·         High profile guest speakers focused on mistreatment and bullying
·         Peaceful playground initiative at Jefferson School
·         Cyber-bullying parent and student presentations
·         Love and Logic parenting seminars open to all families
·         Updated comprehensive district bullying policies
·         Elementary level conflict resolution classroom lessons
·         Multiple student-led drama presentations focused on anti-bullying
·         Elementary, middle, and high school peer relationship mediation initiatives
·         Student created anti-bullying public service announcements aired on the Charter cable network
·         Implementation of Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) programming (district wide, 2014-2015)

Anti-bullying efforts are an area of aggressive attention for our school district.  We will continue to do everything possible to deal with and eliminate these behaviors from our schools and community.  Starting in August of 2014, we will organize and lead an anti-bullying steering committee comprised of school district staff, parents, and community members that will meet quarterly to review district data, brainstorm effective strategies, and help us continue to move forward in reducing these behaviors in our schools.  If you want to be part of this effort, please contact me.  If you are struggling with these issues, work with your child’s teacher, contact the principal, or if you still think there is not enough being done, contact me.  It would be disingenuous to say that stamping these behaviors out of our society and schools will be easy or quick; however, you do have my most heartfelt promise that we will continue to work tirelessly on this issue, we will continue to make progress, and we will always work together to guide our students and empower their futures.  

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Students, Parents and Cell Phones

I spent the better part of six wonderful years as a high school and middle school assistant principal. My main task in both roles was to preserve school decorum through the management of student behavior issues. Cell phone use was always on the top of the list of concerns. I began my career trying to push cell phones out of our students’ hands to the extent that I even researched the installation of a signal jammer. My view of cell phone use in schools has drastically changed since that time. Cell phones can be a vital tool for parent communication, safety response and, when managed correctly, can be a powerful classroom tool. Cell phones have and will continue to permeate every aspect of schools and society. To try and stop cell phone use is akin to the Dutch legend where the little boy sticks his finger in the dyke to stop a leak, only to have seven more leaks open. Let's focus our efforts on teaching responsible use of these powerful devices.  

As parents we face relentless badgering from our children who we have not yet allowed to have a cell phone. When and how we walk through this rite of passage with our children is a very personal decision. Several days ago I came across the rules below that a parent put in place when she gave her son an iPhone for Christmas. The rules don't only speak to everyday phone use, but to large societal issues with which we need to help our children. The rules below were taken in part from Michael Smith's Principal's Page The Blog, which can be found at

1.  It is my phone. I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you. Aren’t I the greatest?
2.  I will always know the password.
3.  If it rings, answer it.  It is a phone. Say hello, use your manners. Do not ever ignore a phone call if the screen reads "Mom" or "Dad". Not ever.
4.  Hand the phone to one of your parents promptly at 7:30 pm every school night and every weekend night at 9:00 pm. It will be shut off for the night and not turned on again until 7:30 am. If you would not make a call to someone’s land line, wherein their parents may answer first, then do not call or text. Listen to those instincts and respect other families like we would like to be respected.
5.  If it falls into the toilet, smashes on the ground, or vanishes in thin air, you are responsible for the replacement costs or repairs. Mow a lawn, baby sit, stash some birthday money. It will happen, you should be prepared.
6.  Do not use technology to lie, fool, or deceive another human being. Do not involve yourself in conversations that are hurtful to others. Be a good friend first or stay the heck out of the crossfire.
7.  Do not text, email, or say anything through this device you would not say in person.
8.  Do not text, email, or say anything to someone that you would not say out loud with their parents in the room. Censor yourself.
9.  No pornography. Search the web for information you would openly share with me. If you have a question about anything, ask a person – preferably me or your father.
10.  Turn it off, silence it, put it away in public. Especially in a restaurant, at the movies, or while speaking with another human being. You are not a rude person; do not allow the iPhone to change that.
11.  Do not send or receive pictures of your private parts or anyone else’s private parts. Don’t laugh, unfortunately people do this and sometimes they are arrested. Someday you may be tempted to do this despite your high intelligence. It is risky and could ruin your teenage/college/adult life. It is always a bad idea. Cyberspace is vast and more powerful than you. And it is hard to make anything of this magnitude disappear – including a bad reputation.
12.  Don’t take a zillion pictures and videos. There is no need to document everything. Live your experiences. They will be stored in your memory for eternity.
13.  Leave your phone home sometimes and feel safe and secure in that decision. It is not alive or an extension of you. Learn to live without it. Be bigger and more powerful than FOMO – fear of missing out.
14.  Download music that is new or classic or different than the millions of your peers that listen to the same exact stuff. Your generation has access to music like never before in history. Take advantage of that gift. Expand your horizons.
15.  Play a game with words or puzzles or brain teasers every now and then.
16.  Keep your eyes up. See the world happening around you. Stare out a window. Listen to the birds. Take a walk. Talk to a stranger. Wonder without Googling.

17.  You will mess up. I will take away your phone. We will sit down and talk about it. We will start over again. You and I, we are always learning. I am on your team. We are in this together. It is my hope that you can agree to these terms. Most of the lessons listed here do not apply to the iPhone, but to life. You are growing up in a fast and ever changing world. It is exciting and enticing. Keep it simple every chance you get. Trust your powerful mind and giant heart above any machine. I hope you enjoy your awesome new iPhone. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

To Help Students Learn, Appeal to What They Value

The following article was taken from Heidi A. Olinger's blog as posted on  The full citation is below the article.  Enjoy!

A Hunger for Recognition
Greg was among my toughest students in a tough year of teaching high school. Physically he attended class, but academically he was missing. He was a freshman invested in his image with older students he deemed cool, and academic achievement was not a group value. He was disruptive and disengaged. But Greg began to care about school the day that study hall rules changed and he could not leave the classroom -- not even to buy snacks. He quickly became hungry and morose, and, already the enemy, I was doubly so for enforcing the rule. Before me was a hungry boy, so I emptied my briefcase of every snack I had: a soft apple, a Power Bar, Dum Dums. I put these in a pile on his desk and said that was what I had.
His face smoothed in surprise. He sat up a little and opened a notebook. The next day he brightly offered to replace the bumper on the old truck I drove.
The start of Greg's visible respect for school was simultaneous with my visible respect for him as he wanted to be seen: wild, misunderstood and in need.
To know why it is important to understand what students value, I encourage everyone to reflect on how they feel -- and perform -- when a school leader knows and acts on what is important to team members.
Now think about when a leader ignores or disrespects team and individual values. How does it affect performance?
I have learned this: discovering and appealing to what students value has the power of a "return on investment" of their eagerly engaging in and owning their learning. And that is the pedagogical gold ring.

Getting Inside Their Heads

Following are practices for uncovering student values. Each may be used alone. However, they yield more accurate information when applied as a set throughout a school year or term.

1. Ask in Writing

This shows students, from day one, that you care who they are and what they value. I have asked the following of multiple groups, from fifth graders to college sophomores:
  1. Describe your last [science/math/English] class.
  2. What did you like best about the class?
  3. What made the best class you have ever taken the best?
  4. What made the worst class the worst?
  5. What do you do when you are not in school?
  6. What is important to you?
  7. What do you expect of me, the teacher?
  8. What would you like me to know about you that I haven't asked?
For questions 3 and 4, students have one answer. Can you guess what it is?
"The teacher."
Closely read students' answers on what made a teacher the best or worst, rendering a class the best or worst experience. Ever.

2. Have a Conversation with Each Student

A one-on-one conversation can have significant results -- it humanizes you, and it provides insight on where students are emotionally. Prepare only a few questions, with the goal of gaining in-depth answers. Here are examples:
  • How is class going for you?
  • What do you enjoy about class?
  • If you could change anything, what would it be?
Listen and record the responses. Remember, when you request feedback, be willing to hear the answer. Be a compassionate observer of what you see, as well as what you hear.
Scheduling the conversations before a project or exam gives students an opportunity to ask questions they might not otherwise pose.

3. Remember When

I design and teach STEAM curricula to appeal to girls, and the fourth and fifth graders with whom I am lucky to work can keenly demonstrate Newton's Third Law of Motion. They will tell you how to save yourself should you ever be free-floating in outer space.
They easily grasp this cornerstone of physics, a lesson many others do not encounter until senior year, because I frame the learning with three things important to most tween girls:
  1. Horses
  2. Clothes
  3. Their latest crush
Dealing with a Crush is vital to girls, as it was in the dark old 1970s of my preteen years. I obsessed about boys, so now, to help explain that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," I relate force to the effect of capturing a boy's interest by ignoring or walking away from him. His interest in a girl will be equal in force, I explain, to her deflecting his request to meet at a dance or lunch. "For every action" (the girl exerting force by walking away from the boy she likes) "there is an equal” (the boy likes her, too) “and opposite reaction" (he moves toward her to further the relationship). As with boy and girl, forces always come in pairs.
Frame your physics lesson in terms of how a girl can successfully handle her tween crush -- valuable when you are 11, 12 and 13 -- and the learning soars.
The nonacademic passions, social intrigues and fads we would dismiss are among the things students value and, ironically, are a springboard for learning. What are your ideas for uncovering and working with students' values? Please share your thoughts and experiences.

Heidi Olinger's blog can be found at
Olinger, H. (2014, January 15). Retrieved from

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Teaching's Holy Grail

When I left college almost 20 years ago and was searching for a teaching position, there was a set of interview questions that were fairly common across the school districts with which I interviewed. One of those questions asked if teaching was an art or a science. It was a good, thought-provoking question without a clear answer. One could make a strong argument on both the art and science side of the question. The answer 20 years later is much clearer; teaching is a science. I can hear the groans and counterpoints coming, and I will be the first to admit that our best teachers are fantastically artful in their presentation. I will also admit there is a fine line between good acting and good teaching; however, there is a bevy of current research, summarized in reader friendly publications, that clearly identifies the most impactful teacher-controlled variables in increasing academic achievement. We are in great error if we are not implementing these strategies with fidelity in our classrooms every hour of every day.

Let us start with Marzano, Pickering and Pollock’s jewel Classroom Instruction that Works, Research Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. This book is a meta-analysis that identifies the instructional strategies that have the highest probability of enhancing student achievement for all students in all subject areas at all grade levels. The nine most effective strategies are outlined below from most impactful to least.

Instructional Strategies
Identifying Similarities and Differences
Summarizing and Note Taking
Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition
Homework and Practice
Nonlinguistic Representations
Cooperative Learning
Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
Generating and Testing Hypothesis
Questions, cues, and Advance Organizers

We know the instructional strategies listed above, when implemented with fidelity, have been scientifically proven to be some of the most impactful approaches to teaching and learning that we have at our disposal. It is of paramount importance that the strategies identified are implemented with fidelity, meaning they are used by teachers in ways that are consistent with the research done by Marzano, Pickering and Pollock. We are remiss if we simply see homework listed as an effective practice and assign the next chapter to be read for the next class or assign 25 of the odd problems in the book to be completed while at home. We are equally mistaken if we take a position that all homework is ineffective and our students will not complete it. We need to study the practice of assigning homework and understand what variables need to be implemented for this practice to be effective. If we do not assign homework or we do not assign homework properly, we are missing an opportunity to help our students grow. 

John Hatte’s book, Visible Learning – A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, reveals what Hatte calls “teaching’s holy grail.” The foundation of Visible Learning is built on research encompassing millions of students. It analyzes the largest ever collection of evidenced-based research and showcases the most impactful variables that improve learning. Noted below are four contributions from teachers that have shown to critically influence student achievement.

1.     Microteaching:  Mini lessons to small groups of students that are analyzed by colleagues (in person or videotaped). The analysis should include an intense reflective review of the lesson.

2.     Teacher-Student Relationships:  Students do not learn from people they do not like. It is as simple as that.

3.     Expectations:  It is widely understood that all teachers form expectations about student ability and skill. These expectations have a momentous effect on student achievement. For a better understanding review the Pygmalion Effect at

4.     Teacher Clarity:  The ability of the teacher to communicate to the student what the objective of the lesson is and what success will look like.

The two compilations of research explained are only a small sampling of available research that clearly articulates the most impactful variables that are within the control of the teacher to positively influence student achievement. How many of the strategies outlined do you as a teacher use every day? Are there strategies or approaches you use that are not listed? Are they effective? How do you know?

Curriculum resources, standards and technology (education hot buttons) do not increase academic achievement by themselves. Teachers engaged in disciplined research, making disciplined decisions and implementing disciplined practices will guide students and empower their futures through increased academic achievement. Let us become leaders in student growth and achievement together.