Tuesday, August 22, 2017


In the Harry Potter series of books and films, the baddiest of the baddies, Lord Voldemort, is so dreadful that he is often referred to as “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” He strikes such fear in the hearts of others that the mere utterance of his name is completely terrifying (not to mention, what’s up with that creepy reptile nose?).

In education in Texas, there’s another word that provokes similar fits of terror in young and old alike: STAAR. The pronounceable acronym of our state test—in addition to its not-too-distant high school cousin, EOC—raises the pulse rates of all who hear them.  

I would like to add STAAR, EOC, AP Test, final exam, MAP, and the name of every other high-stakes test to a list of Words-That-Must-Not-Be-Spoken.

What would happen if teachers never mentioned the names of those assessments until a few weeks before they took place? What would happen if no educator ever told kids, “You’re going to need to know this for the [insert name of test here]”? What would happen if we completely eliminated any language that insinuated that what we are teaching or practicing is important solely because they have to know it to pass a one-day, three-hour ordeal nine months from now?

Here’s what I think could happen:

Teachers could teach meaningful lessons focused on the TEKS and guide students toward rigorous content-area habits of mind that would prepare them for much more than just a test. And, because the learning was guided by the assessed objectives, they would be prepared for the test without preparing for the test!

Students might believe that what they are learning matters beyond one silly test because they see the usefulness of the learning in a real-world context.

Learners wouldn’t be beaten down by mind-numbing practice problems, fake multiple choice items, and tedious bell ringers swiped directly from released tests or test-prep workbooks. Instead, they could move away from a multiple-choice world of predetermined responses and enter a realm where students get to generate their own answers.   

Students would believe that their teachers care about their learning, not just about their standardized test scores.

School could be fun. Did I just say that? Fun? I did. Fun! Or if not fun, at least not miserable.

Students who are worriers—and there are more than a few of them out there—won’t spend the majority of the school year paralyzed by anxiety as they endure the 150-day countdown to the Big Test.  

A week or so before the test, teachers could tell their students, “By the way, there’s an end-of-course exam coming up next week. The reason I haven’t already mentioned it is that I’ve been so busy teaching you things that it slipped my mind. No need for you to worry about it. You’ve got this. I’ve prepared you. All you have to do is show them what you’ve been showing me all year.”             

It’s kind of an exciting possibility. Let’s make a pact. I won’t say the Words-That-Must-Not-Be-Spoken if you don’t say the them. We can teach what we’re supposed to teach, make learning exciting, create a culture of happy scholars, and have a fantastic school year.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Party Invitation

Your teacher is having a yearlong party….and everyone is invited.
That’s the message—the invitation—I want students to receive on the first day of school from every one of their teachers. I’m not talking about a wild, out-of-control, call-the-cops-and-shut-this-craziness-down kind of party. The type of party I’m thinking of is one where everyone is excited to attend, has a good time, meets and learns from interactions with others, and leaves with lasting memories and anticipation for the next get-together.
But it’s not easy to make such a life-changing experience happen. To learn how throw a superlative party, it’s a good idea to consult the experts. Emily Post was someone who knew how to entertain a houseful of guests. This wealthy, white East Coast socialite with her finishing school education and extravagant inheritances, though clearly not representative of most of America even during her lifespan, rose to prominence in the 1920s as the nation’s leading authority on etiquette and proper comportment. Her seminal 1922 book, Etiquette, and the website of the organization she started, The Emily Post Institute, provide some gems for educators as they ponder how to pack some punch into the “party” they’re planning for the upcoming school year.
According to the writers at The Emily Post Institute, party organizers should consider “Six Ways to Be a Good Host.”  Fascinatingly, these time-tested party tips also apply beautifully to what we as teachers do in our classrooms with students:
1) Invite clearly. Include necessary information for your guests in the invitation: the date, the time, the place, the occasion, the host(s) and when and how to respond “yes” or “no.” Add any special information such as what to wear or what to bring, say, for a pot-luck. (All quotations in blue are from emilypost.com.)
Most of us don’t get to invite students to be in our classes; students either sign up or they don’t, and schedules are magically assigned by a counselor or a computer. We may not be able to decide who shows up at our party, but we have the chance as we communicate with students, parents, and adults on our campus to make sure our language, tone, and body language send the message that we truly believe everyone is invited into our classrooms.  Eliminating phrases such as “isn’t honors (or AP) material” and “doesn’t belong” can go a long way to changing our own perceptions of our students. No longer will our party be like Studio 54 with a bouncer at the door ready to block the entrance of the undesirables. We can make sure every student is on the guest list. Having guests with wide and varied backgrounds, interests, perspectives, and experiences makes a richer party with livelier and more engrossing conversations.
2) Plan well. Take care creating your guest list. A great group of people will make any party a success, even if it rains on the picnic or the food is a flop. Get everything ready—your meal prepped, the table set, your party space tidy, refreshments ready—well before your guests arrive, so you’ll feel relaxed from the very beginning.
That part about getting everything ready before your guests arrive is spot-on advice for teachers. If you’re scurrying around trying to complete last-minute plans, write the learning target on the board, return unanswered emails, gather supplies, update Google Classroom, and put the finishing touches on a PowerPoint presentation as students enter the room, you start out the period agitated, and students can sense that. If you feel relaxed and can fix your attention on your students from the outset, class will run more smoothly for you and for the kids. Excellent preparation ensures a seamless flow of activities and efficient, unobtrusive use of materials, which lets your “partygoers” know that you’re the one who has taken meticulous care to make this the best party ever.
3) Be welcoming and attentive. Make sure guests are greeted warmly, then made to feel welcome throughout the party. Look after each guest as much as you can. If you notice a guest with an empty glass or if there’s one person standing alone, take action and remedy the situation.
Meet your students at the door. Learn their names AND how to pronounce them correctly. Show every student consideration and hospitality. What is hospitality? Emily Post addressed the topic herself in Etiquette: The atmosphere of hospitality is something very intangible, and yet nothing is more actually felt—or missed.” Students may not be able to tell you when they feel welcome in a certain teacher’s class, but they are acutely aware when they don’t. Remember that each student is a guest in your classroom and, as such, deserves to be treated with the highest level of kindness and hospitality. The ancient Greeks had a word for this, xenia. In their case, the kindness they showed strangers stemmed from their fears that the stranger might be a deity in disguise who might strike them down if they didn’t treat him well. In today’s world, teachers should just be hospitable because it’s the right thing to do. Our hospitality expert again provides some sage advice on the topic:
“If you take some one under your roof, he becomes part of, and sharer in, your life and possessions. . . . You receive your guest with a smile, no matter how inconvenient or troublesome or straining to your resources his visit may be, and on no account do you let him suspect any of this.”
-Emily Post, Etiquette (1922)
A welcoming teacher has an extraordinary poker face that never lets that one student (or his classmates) know that he drives the teacher crazy or is an ever-increasing test of patience. I am still working on perfecting that skill.
4) Be flexible and gracious. Your soufflé falls. Or one friend arrives with an unexpected guest. The ruined dessert? Have a fallback. The uninvited guest? As discourteous as it is for someone to spring a surprise on you, be gracious. No polite host would ever send an uninvited guest packing.
Guess what? You’re working with kids. Something is going to go wrong. Things will happen that are not as you planned. Frequently. Some timid teen is going to show up in your room on the first day of school with your name on her schedule, and you are going to have no prior knowledge that she is coming...and may not have a spare seat in your crowded room for her. Have a plan B and a plan C. Welcome that student like you would all the others and find a spot for her, even if it means giving up your own desk chair for the day. I assure you that students are a whole lot more nervous on day one than you are; the way you handle those unexpected surprises makes an indelible first impression.  
5) Be the leader and the spark. It’s your job to run the show and let your guests know when it’s time for dinner, or dessert, or charades. Circulate among your guests, introduce newcomers, and stay with each group long enough to get a conversation going.
This timely tip has two components, both of which are important for party-planning teachers.
Be the leader. You’re the one in charge of your classroom, but you can walk a fine line between host-in-charge and dictatorial tyrant. Have you ever been to a party where the host met you at the door and began rattling off a list of things you could NOT (underlined and bolded and perhaps in all caps for emphasis) do? “There’s ABSOLUTELY NO chewing gum at this party. Using your cell phone WILL result in a ZERO. DO NOT talk to one another unless I give you permission to do so. DO NOT get out of your seat. And, if you have a question, DO NOT blurt it out.  Those who show up to the party late will receive a warning the first time and then will NOT be invited back next time. . . .” If your host greeted you with that tirade, I suspect you wouldn’t stick around that party for long. A good party planner welcomes guests, orients them to what they CAN do at the party, and trusts that they will behave in a civil manner. Nine times out of ten, when the party is well-planned, responsive to the needs of the guests, and run by an amiable host, the partygoers will behave. When and if a problem occurs, the host speaks with the offending guests in private because no one likes to be shamed publicly. The Puritans did the public shaming thing in the early days of the colonies in New England, and the Puritans didn’t exactly establish a historical reputation for having fabulous parties.
Be the spark. A host is the spark of the party, igniting the enthusiasm of each guest and getting things rolling. In the classroom, teachers kindle the fires of learning, but they must begin by building a strong classroom community. That involves taking a personal interest in every student, getting to know them all. For party hosts (and educators) who can’t be bothered with getting to know every guest, our friend Mrs. Post has some harsh advice:
“Introspective people who are fearful of others, fearful of themselves, are never successfully popular hosts or hostesses. If you for instance, are one of these, if you are really afraid of knowing some one who might some day prove unpleasant, if you are such a snob that you can’t take people at their face value, then why make the effort to bother with people at all? Why not shut your front door tight and pull down the blinds and, sitting before a mirror in your own drawing-room, order tea for two?”
-Emily Post, Etiquette (1922)
(Ouch, Emily. But thanks for speaking the truth.)
6) Be appreciative. Thank people for coming as you bid them good-bye. And don’t forget to thank anyone who brought you a gift.
As your guests leave your classroom each day, let them know you were glad they made the effort to show up and participate. Modeling gratitude and appreciation builds capacity in your students to share their gratitude and appreciation with others.
Odds are highly unlikely that a teacher would receive an actual gift from a student on the first day of school, so the idea of thank-you notes seems irrelevant in this unwieldy educational metaphor. Though there may be no Starbucks gift cards, tacky coffee cups, or apples left on the teacher’s desk, the teacher-as-host has the opportunity to notice and be witness to the gifts the students bring with them every day— those character traits and habits of the mind the teacher can reinforce through praise. By pointing out the gifts in our students when we spot them, we celebrate what we value and generally see more of it down the road. Mrs. Post touches on this idea when she writes about the actions of the ideal partner at a bridge party:
“The ideal [bridge] partner is one who never criticises or even seems to be aware of your mistakes, but on the contrary recognizes a good maneuver on your part, and gives you credit for it whether you win the hand or lose…. Also, to be continually found fault with makes you play your worst; whereas appreciation of good judgment on your part acts as a tonic and you play seemingly ‘better than you know how.’”  
-Emily Post, Etiquette (1922)
The power of appreciating the gifts in our students is that is makes them “better than [they] know how to be. “  It is so easy to find faults in things. I’m a champion at it. Fault finders don’t win popularity contests. Those who find and celebrate the good things others do, however, bring out the best in those around them. People want to be around them; they want to come to their parties.

My wish for everyone who reads this is that your classroom is a party all year long and that students learn, achieve, grow, connect, and surpass their own expectations as well as yours. May you be the “host with the most” and have cheerful students who are excited to return to your classroom every single day. What are you waiting for? Get the party started.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Your End-of-School Checklist

With a little over a week to go before your summer break, you don’t have the time or the motivation to read anything too long or too thought-provoking from me, so this one is going to be short and sweet. It’s a checklist of 5 things I want you to do before you leave for the summer.
1.  Find a student who has worked hard and has improved in your class this year—not one who received the highest grade on his or her report card but one who should be proud for having come a long way. Privately let that student know that you are proud of his or her hard work and have noticed the improvement and growth. Students get so focused on grades that they don’t often feel validated or noticed for their progress. Be intentional about pointing it out and you might provide some momentum that carries over into the next year and beyond.
2.  Leave yourself a note somewhere where you will find it when you return to school in the fall. Tell yourself something nice and motivational, but, more importantly, remind yourself of something you want to make sure you remember to do differently next year to impact student learning or to help you maintain your sanity. The beginning of the school year can be a blur. Let this note be a reminder of what is most important to your wise end-of-school self that your harried back-to-school self needs to know.
3.  When you sign students’ yearbooks, don’t put comments about anything that reinforces a fixed mindset. Don’t write about how smart, creative, athletic, talented, or beautiful your students are. Those seem to imply fixed abilities that students either possess or don’t. Provide descriptive feedback about traits that are under their control and show the positive choices or qualities they have demonstrated. Most of the time, praising the behaviors you like to see when you see them brings them to the attention of the students and causes them value those behaviors in themselves.
4.  Say thank you to a colleague and to an administrator for something they do or have done to make your year better. Everyone likes to know they’re appreciated, and busy times are when people need to hear it most.
5.  Peruse the bookshelves at work and find one book you can read over the summer to help you grow professionally. Don’t take too many. You mostly need to read things for fun during your vacation, but a little professional learning during your break might give you some new ideas to start next year afresh. If you’re not a reader (yet you’ve managed to make it to bullet point 5 in my list), maybe you can commit to some professional learning online.
Thank you for all you do to improve the lives of students, to build community in your school, to change the trajectories of lives, and to support your fellow educators. Thanks for the late hours, the early tutorials, the after-hours event attendance, the feedback providing, the parent phone calls, the positivity, the perseverance, the problem solving, the patience, the planning, and the other duties as assigned. Your hard work and dedication make a difference. You are a hero.  

Enjoy a well-earned summer break.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Two Ideas to Let Steep During Your Summer Break

One of the joys of summer during my childhood was sun tea. There was something especially wonderful about filling a big jar with water, dropping in a few tea bags, and letting the tea steep in a sunny spot in the backyard for the afternoon. A tall glass of sun tea with a sprig of mint snipped from the garden and a squeeze of fresh lemon surpassed the quality of traditional boiling-water-brewed tea and, not surprisingly, the instant Nestea or Lipton varieties. Perhaps the difference was merely in my brain, but I’d like to think that allowing the tea to brew slowly over a long period of time produced something superior.

Ideas are a lot like that. The ones we let steep for a long time are often better than the ones we cook up in a jiffy. When I have a problem to solve, I often find it’s useful to let it marinade over time rather than try to solve it in an afternoon. The summer is the perfect time to passively ponder over something that you can put into place at the beginning of the new school year.

If you don’t already have a burning question you hope to ruminate over during your vacation, I have two suggestions of topics that, because of their complexity, might not present easy answers at first but could transform your teaching practices in the fall if you had an opportunity to think about them in depth:  the state of your gradebook and your classroom expectations.

The State of Your Gradebook       

Grading has been a hot topic in recent years, and, if the chatter I see in my Twitter newsfeed is any indication, it’s not going away anytime soon. There’s a call for change in schools because people have realized that our long-held practices about grading don’t accomplish what grading is supposed to.

Your gradebook should do more than just provide a numerical proclamation of a student’s performance in your class. The numbers are meaningless unless your gradebook provides worthwhile, usable information about a student’s progress toward mastery of objectives in your class. This means that every entry— major or minor— communicates to students and parents what a student does or does not know or know how to do. This also means that things such as “completion” grades and “participation” grades need to go. Teachers embracing gradebook reform have to rethink what their gradebook looks like, what constitutes a meaningful grade, how many grades need to be taken, when and how students can redo an assignment to reach mastery, how this intersects with the district’s curriculum, and what this looks like in a teaming situation with multiple teachers teaching the same class on a campus. Such change will certainly necessitate discussion among teachers and administrators and some re-education of students and parents.

Wrapping my head around this boggles my brain because it’s hard to unlearn something that was a part of my upbringing in the school system as well as my accepted practice for decades of classroom teaching. I’m convinced, though, that it’s time for a change, and this is something I might need a summer to ponder to figure out for myself.  

Clarifying Classroom Expectations
A second thorny topic has to do with classroom management. Once upon a time, I’d spend hours over the summer devising a new set of rules and consequences to be unveiled on the first day of school to a new crop of future offenders. What behaviors are unacceptable? How many times should a student be allowed to leave the room and for how long? How many warnings occur before something terrible happens? How will I display my rules and consequences so my students will know what dreaded fate awaits them if they violate my policies? Should I underline the word “not” each time it appears on my list of rules, put it in boldface, italicize it, or do all three?

The reading I’ve been doing lately on the subject of classroom management says that punishment it out and expectations are in.

Effective teachers teach students the behavioral expectations for each activity that occurs in their classroom: how to enter and leave the room, what to do when the tardy bell rings, what reading time looks and sounds like, what happens during group work, what to do when you finish an assignment early, and what to do if you have a question or need assistance. At the beginning of school, teachers communicate, practice, and model these expectations, and then they hold their students accountable for them consistently throughout the year, reteaching as necessary and reinforcing the desired behaviors as they observe them.

What this means is that I need to spend some time clarifying my expectations for myself. What situations are likely to occur in my room, what do I want the students to be doing in each instance, and how can I communicate those most clearly to my students at the beginning of school? Setting up clear procedures at the outset is the best way to have a classroom that functions smoothly throughout the year, and that requires clarity in the mind of the teacher. I’d let that one brew over the summer so I have a clear picture in my mind when it’s time to go back to school in August.

Sun tea doesn’t take a lot of work or effort to make, but the result is worth the wait time. Similarly, having an idea in your head— one of the ones I suggested or one you’ve dreamed up yourself— gives you something to ponder in a low-stress environment, the kind where the best ideas develop slowly over time without a lot of conscious work on your part. Maybe you’ll have some inspiration and clarity in a moment of unconscious reflection that will pay off for you in the fall.  

I just read on the internet that sun tea might harbor deadly bacteria because the water doesn’t get hot enough to kill the bad microbes in your tea. So don’t get so gung-ho about the nostalgia that you poison your family and friends. Maybe you could enjoy a snowcone instead. The metaphor isn’t as good, but at least it won’t kill you.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Riding Into the Home Stretch

Have you ever been on a horseback ride? I’m not talking about the kind where you take a horse from the barn and gallop freely through a meadow in whatever direction you please. I’m thinking of the ones where you and a whole crowd of other city slickers pay money to hop into a saddle and ride slowly in a long line of horses along a dusty trail in a loop that the poor animals have walked several times a day for years. The horses follow one another mindlessly out of the barn and know the path by rote. Riders have the illusion of control, and they receive instructions about how to slow down, speed up, and turn the horse by kicking gently or moving the reins. Ultimately, though, the horses are in charge. What these horses want to do—in my experience—is walk lethargically with their noses uncomfortably close to the backsides of the horses in front of them.  

There is a moment in such horse rides, however, when the horses realize that the stable is just around the bend. They start thinking about hay, oats, and water and about getting these annoying tourists off their backs. At that point, for the first time in the ride, the horses perk up and try to break into a trot—or perhaps a canter—to get back to the barn. This is the only time in the horseback riding experience where the rider has to make any effort to exert control because the horses have reached the home stretch and are determined to get this ride over with.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in schools across the country at this very minute. Students have realized that the end around the corner, and they are resisting all control as they gallop into summertime.

At this point in the school year, I have three pieces of advice for teachers (who, I hope you have realized, are the riders in this extended metaphor):

1.  Hold on. The last weeks of school can get pretty bumpy. Even the kids who usually make great decisions will do something stupid. Several are going to quit working altogether and try to scrape by, making end-of-the-year grades a nail-biter for you and for their parents. There will probably be a random pulling of the fire alarm or some other shenanigans. Things will be done that try your patience. Don’t freak out. Be the adult in the room. Someone needs to be thinking calmly and rationally, and it might as well be you. And the kids won’t be the only ones testing your fortitude. Your principal will probably add on some extra paperwork, a meeting or three, checklists, sign-out sheets, textbook inventories, goal conferences, and other end-of-school fun and games. Make a to-do list and check off tasks with a smile, knowing that there’s a break in your future. Don’t let stress overwhelm you. You’re not alone. Everyone is feeling it. Hold on, and you’ll get through.  

2. Maintain control. The state tests are over, the AP test party is coming to a close, and final exams seem further away than they are. But there is instructional time remaining, nearly three weeks’ worth. If you don’t fill the time with something worthwhile, you’ve (A) wasted some opportunities to teach your students things that will make them smarter, more skilled, or better prepared for whatever the world is going to fling at them in the future, and (B) inadvertently communicated the idea that the real purpose of school is to prepare students for the state tests.  The mentality that the rest of the year is playtime since the STAAR test is over harms students—and the teachers they will have down the road—by reinforcing the test-prep mentality and eradicating authentic learning. The last few weeks of school should be a time for students to pull everything together, reflect on the year’s growth, set goals for the future, and showcase what they have learned in your class throughout the year. It’s a time to enrich, to extend, and to move beyond the basic skills. It’s also a time to keep students busy; that’s the best way to keep them in control until the final bell rings on the last day of school and you send them out into the world. We only have a limited time with our students to help them become literate, functional, thoughtful, competent, independent adults. Shouldn’t we take advantage of every moment?  I’m all for letting students have some say in what they are learning and how they learn it, but they don’t get to decide that their choice is just to hang out and do nothing for the last three weeks of the year.  

3. Enjoy the ride.  Kids are awesome. That’s why we got into education, right? So don’t forget to take the time during these final weeks to enjoy your students. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t smile at the beginning of the year and has forgotten that at some point it’s okay to do so, now is probably the time to retire the frowny face. Don’t let your ever-growing to-do list turn you into a grumpasaurus. Laugh, especially when things get crazy.  Keep the pacing in class relaxed but productive. Form some happy memories. You don’t want your students’ final memories of you to be “that teacher who yelled at us until she broke a blood vessel in her neck the week before exams.”

I wish you a safe and enjoyable ride to the end of the school year and hope that you’ll leave with happy memories that will keep you coming back with renewed excitement for another lap next year.     

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Common Language

All I wanted was a washcloth.

After a 19-hour flight from Dallas followed by a full day of sightseeing in the summer Sydney sun, I checked into my hotel, thinking only of how wonderful it would be to wash the layers of sunscreen off my travel-weary face.

My hotel bathroom was well equipped with hand towels, bath towels, tiny soaps and shampoos, but nary a washcloth was to be found. I called down to the front desk, and asked if housekeeping could please bring me a washcloth. The person on the phone, who spoke Australian English, seemed a little flummoxed by my request but said she would take care of it.

About 45 minutes later, there was a knock on my door. When I answered, a hotel staff member handed me a tall pile of hand towels, smiled, and walked off. At this point, I was too tired to think, so I simply assumed that perhaps washcloths aren’t a thing Australians use. After all, it’s surrounded by ocean. Maybe everyone just brings their own loofah with them when they travel.

The next day, I mentioned this confusing incident to some Australian friends at lunch. At my mention of the word “washcloth,” they looked at each other with perplexity. So I did a little charades while describing the item I was looking for. In unison, my friends replied, “Oh, you mean a face washer!”

That night, back at the hotel, I called to request a face washer and within 15 minutes had a supply to last me the rest of my stay.

Sometimes, even in a place where everyone speaks a common language, knowing the preferred terminology for something can make all the difference.   

The same is true in schools. When there isn’t some standardization across the school, we risk confusing, frustrating, or completely losing the students. If a student goes to five different academic classes and several electives in the course of the day and each teacher has a different tardy policy, a different term for the activity the students are expected to be working on as the bell rings, a different policy for late work, a different test makeup policy, a different idea of what note-taking should look like, and a different organizational scheme for notebooks, the student has to juggle six or seven separate sets of guidelines throughout the day.

The power of AVID Schoolwide is that schools establish a common language and present instruction with a unified voice across the school. If the entire faculty of a school shares some basic understandings and terminology—about what the note-taking process entails, how students should organize their materials, where and how students should keep track of assignments and due dates, what a Socratic Seminar or Philosophical Chairs discussion looks like, how students are expected to use academic language, what students should be doing when they read critically in all classes, and how collaborative structures can enhance instruction and deepen student learning—students succeed with fewer impediments.

Imagine a student who experiences three so-called Socratic Seminars in one month of school in three different classes. In one class, the students and teacher arrange chairs in a circle, and the teacher introduces various topics for discussion and debate. The subjects for discussion range from school dress code to the winners of the MTV Music Awards. There is no grade, nor is there any follow-up activity. In another class, the students circle up and discuss a teacher-generated topic about a novel they had been reading. During the discussion, the teacher tallies the number of times each student speaks and assigns a grade determined by “participation and quality of discussion.” In the third class, the teacher gives students an article to read and annotate for homework. At the beginning of class the next day, students in triads generate questions for discussion. Students form a circle of desks and engage in 30 minutes of discussion to deepen the class’s understanding of the article. The teacher only interrupts to remind and encourage students to use the academic language stems they have been practicing in class. The following day, the students begin writing an essay about the article using the notes they took during the discussion to help them.

At the end of that month, if you asked that student to explain Socratic Seminars to you, you’d probably get a muddled answer since the student had three disparate experiences that were all called by the same name. If the faculty at that campus had only had  a shared understanding of the purpose and procedures of Socratic Seminars, students could focus on deepening their skills for rigorous academic discussion rather than learning to navigate the rules in multiple environments.

The AVID Site Team is a powerful force for maximizing the impact of AVID for all students on campus. With members from many content areas, the Site Team can determine what best practices should be disseminated across the campus and provide staff development to help establish a common understanding among the faculty. Having high-impact instructional practices in place for critical reading, note-taking, academic language, content area writing, collaboration, and organization is the passport students need to transfer learning and build overall academic skills throughout the instructional day.  

With a common language for instruction, we can keep students from driving on the wrong side of the road academically. When the academic language barrier is removed, everyone can work toward shared goals that will open doors down the road for success in college and careers.

Monday, April 17, 2017


We’ve all done it. Each one of us is guilty. And some of us don’t even know what we are guilty of.

Here’s an example of a time I was unknowingly guilty:  My English students were in the midst of a study of Romeo and Juliet. My main goals during the unit were to familiarize my students with the language of Shakespeare and equip them with the reading strategies they could use to analyze difficult poetic text. In a planning meeting, our team came up with an assignment we thought our students would enjoy completing. We provided four options students could choose from:  
  • working with a group to rewrite a scene into more contemporary language and perform their modernized scene for the class
  • illustrating a scene from the play in a comic-book-style format
  • writing diary entries from the perspective of Romeo or Juliet about the events taking place during the play
  • watching or reading a contemporary adaptation of the play and writing an essay about parallels with Shakespeare’s original text
We gave the assignment, the students chose their options, and they set out to work. We crafted a generic rubric that would apply to all four options and awaited the student creativity.

What we were guilty of, even though we had the very best of intentions, was not aligning our assessments with the instructional goals. The goals, as I stated earlier, related to students’ abilities to comprehend Shakespearean poetic language independently. The assessments, depending on what students selected, measured a variety of things. Acting out a modern scene in a group assessed the ability of one person in a group to be able to rewrite a scene from the play and for all the members of the group to perform the script effectively. The comic book tested a student’s ability to draw but not necessarily to have a keen understanding of what the language means, especially if the student paid attention to the scenes from the film I’d showed in class and could render them on paper. The diary required insight into character, an understanding of the plot, and some writing ability. The modern adaptation analysis assessed whether a student could write a compare/contrast essay (or, perhaps, the student’s Google skills).

None of the options we gave our students was terrible. They simply had little to do with the objectives of the unit and were thus not an accurate assessment of student learning. Furthermore, the four assessments didn’t even assess the same skills. A student could strategically select an option that played to his or her strengths and never have to demonstrate actual learning of a curricular objective.  

Every teacher has had a planning brainstorm about something that would engage students and has inserted it into the curriculum without spending the time to think about how the new idea fits with unit objectives. WIth more deliberate planning, however, we can make sure we never commit this instructional crime again.

Two questions developed by WIggins and McTighe in The Understanding By Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units help me think about how assessments align with unit goals:
  1. Could students do the proposed assignment(s) well but not really have mastered or understood the content in question?
  2. Could students do poorly on the specific assessment(s) but really have mastery of the content in question? (p. 53)

In the case of my Romeo and Juliet assignment explained above, I can answer yes to both questions, which isn’t a good thing.  

Yes, a student could give a convincing and impressive performance of a modernized scene from the play without knowing anything about how to read and interpret Shakespearean verse.

Yes, a learner who knows how to read Shakespeare could make a C if she didn’t have the art skills to draw a comprehensible comic book rendering of a scene.

Yes, a student could write an awesome diary from Juliet’s perspective with only knowledge gained from watching the film or reading the Sparknotes online.

Yes, a kid could analyze West Side Story as a Romeo and Juliet adaptation without reading a word of Shakespeare.  

It’s clear that when we were planning this assignment, we were thinking a lot more about activities than we were thinking about understandings. Though our Romeo and Juliet project gave the students choices of several potentially interesting activities, the activities we designed weren’t valid measures of the student outcomes we claimed to be seeking.  

When we string a bunch of activities together to create a unit, we often commit the crime of not having activities line up with unit objectives. Another crime we could be charged for at the same time is lining up activities that do not work together to ensure student success on the final assessment. In an effectively-designed unit, the activities the students do are carefully planned and sequenced to prepare learners to transfer their learning to the final authentic assessment. Anything that is incongruous with the end goal should probably be avoided.  

When we realize we are guilty of misaligned activities, we have to make some hard, sad decisions to say goodbye to some beloved old friends.

I’d have to say goodbye to that AVID assignment where students researched various colleges and worked in teams to create a scrapbook that showcased their findings and “memories” of their fictional first year in college. In reality, a group could get a good grade for putting together an attractive scrapbook and have learned little about college itself; conversely, a group lacking scrapbooking skills could know a lot and not be able to show it.

I would have to sever ties with that day the kids loved when they brought in Greek food while we were reading Homer’s Odyssey because how does making (or buying) a pan of baklava demonstrate any understanding of Greek epic poetry?

I’d bid a tearful farewell to any quiz or test where I asked the students to recall the speaker of a quotation from a novel, short story, or play because I never taught any unit where the learning objective was, “Memorize a text you read once, maybe twice.”

I’d realize I had to let go of most of my artworks depicting scenes from books, artistic vocabulary posters, anything involving paper mache or a trip to Hobby Lobby, and all other activities and assignments that don’t measure skills I have taught or help students develop skills necessary to be successful on an assessment of their skills and understandings.

People who disagree with me on this are probably thinking, “This buzzkill thinks we need to get rid of everything that is actually fun and enjoyable to the kids!” That’s not the case. I’m a firm believer that fun and authentic learning are not mutually exclusive terms. There is fun in discovering a new book, reading it, and engaging in worthwhile conversation about it with another reader. There is fun in exploring a topic in depth, posing student-derived questions about the learning, and seeking the answers. There is fun in learning how to do something you couldn’t do before and using that new skill to solve a real-world problem. There is fun in debating a topic and using logical support to buoy your argument. With careful planning and attention to learning goals and outcomes, you can make learning fun and engaging.

The next time you are planning for instruction, ask yourself those guiding questions to make sure you’re not guilty of a goal/assignment mismatch. Your instructional coaches will be happy to do our best to help you remain crime-free...at least in terms of curriculum and instruction.