Lessons Learned from Coaching, the Finale

This final post in this three-part series is a celebration of the great educators I get to work with in the Dell Mentor Certification process. We’ve had some rewarding moments together, and my current cohorts are no exception. In Jim Knight’s book he notes, “Coaches make it possible for teachers to take time to have real conversations about teaching.” It’s sad that many teachers don’t get that time to reflect with someone, because it’s really powerful when teachers do have that time.

“Coaches make it possible for teachers to take time to have real conversations about teaching.”

Jim Knight

First-Order Challenges Often Mask Second-Order Barriers

I’ve been a fan of Peg Ertmer’s work for a while, so you should know how great it is to be able to work with her on our technology integration textbook (under revision for the third edition, by the way). One of my favorite pieces of Peg’s is a think piece she published a while ago in ETR&D (1999) about how second-order barriers often underlie the more often mentioned first-order barriers, and are the true barriers to effective change. First-order barriers are extrinsic barriers that are often relatively easy to address. They can be perceived as things like a lack of time, limited access to devices or support, or lack of professional development. I agree with Karen Cator, the former EdTech Director for the U.S. Department of Education, when she said at an ISTE conference that there are lots of ways schools can and do address these types of barriers. First-order barriers can be and often are overcome through simple strategies of resource allocation, scheduling, and varied modes of services.

Time is one of the most often cited first-order barriers; however, it’s easy to observe and catalog where teachers spend their time and find ways to help them better organize their time to get a bigger payoff. They can even use technology to save time, as technology can easily perform routine teaching duties, like taking attendance, assessing knowledge comprehension, and recording evidence of student work. Even limited access to devices and PD can be overcome through strategic—and sometimes creative—use of resources (time, people, and money) and getting people across a school or district to work together rather than in silos. But once that happens, technology initiatives often have to deal with the underlying intrinsic barriers to change, or second-order barriers.

These barriers often relate to our very own philosophies and perceptions of who we are and how we think people should act, especially ourselves. Since I work in education, second-order barriers often relate to a teacher’s basic understanding of what a teacher should be, how they manage a classroom, and how students should behave in that classroom. In other words, second-order barriers can be challenges to our foundational understanding of what we think and know to be true about ourselves and our profession. Pretty heady stuff.

The Power of Coaching

During a visit this school year with one of my Dell Mentor cohorts, the candidates observed classrooms and then participated in a role play exercise to practice their coaching conversation skills. Some had the option to pretend to be one of the teachers we observed or they could choose a professional issue they were working on as the focus of their conversation with their peer. What resulted, literally every time, was magic.

In one, a young teacher worked with one of the other coaches on what to do with students who complete their work early in class. He noted that some of his students rushed through their work and would begin socializing at the end of class and it became disruptive. He wanted them to remain quiet and busy. When questioned, he noted that the students that finished their work early also often did well on their assignments, so he didn’t have the leverage of poor performance to get them working. After some conversation, and working through our summarizing and clarifying questioning techniques, I asked, “Does it upset you that they finish early, even though they’re doing well?”

His response was a vehement, “YES! They don’t act the way I did in school! They don’t push themselves to do more.” At this point, it may be obvious, but we went from discussing the first-order barrier of keeping student busy during class to the underlying, second-order barrier of a perception that his students have different motivations or possibly work ethics when it comes to a topic this teacher is passionate about. It was really quite a breakthrough facilitated primarily by his conversation with a colleague. What resulted afterward changed the direction of the conversation and the types of support he was offered.

That type of breakthrough seemed to happen each time one of my groups completed their role play. At another school, one of the coaches pretended to be a teacher we observed and started out asking for help on using a technology, but her colleague helped uncover that the teacher was really seeking approval from her students. In another, a veteran teacher had a conversation with her younger colleague that began with frustration with students and parents. She had been trained in and was trying more student-centered pedagogies and her students were pushing back. They “just wanted to know” what to do without having to take on so much responsibility for their own learning. The underlying challenge her colleague uncovered was that this new approach changed her role in the classroom so much that she was feeling a bit uncomfortable. It was very different from what she, and her students, had done in the past, but she felt the gains in learning were well worth it. In all of these conversations, having someone—a trained someone—to share concerns and open up became a great catharsis.

These teachers are lucky because they had someone to talk with. Upon completion, these newly certified Dell Mentors will be additional resources for the school district to support more collegial conversations. Having a trusted someone to talk with about your teaching–whether a coach, an administrator, or another teacher–is an important component for helping teachers feel and be successful. I appreciate the honor of working with so many coaches and teachers and look forward to learning more from them in the future.

Please note: Over the past year I helped develop the process for Teachers and Mentors to become Dell Certified and was happy to work in two school districts that had educators successfully complete the process. This work is coordinated by Advanced Learning Partnerships for Dell Education. 


Ertmer, P. A. (199). Addressing first- and second-order barriers to change: Strategies for technology integration. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 47(4), 47-61.

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching. A partnership approach to improving instruction. NSDC.

Lessons Learned from Coaching, Part 2: Assumptions

This is the second in a three-part series on my reflections of coaching teachers. In 2016, I helped develop and launch the Dell Certification process for Mentors through my work with Advanced Learning Partnerships. The focus is to help new coaches develop skills to help others reach their goals. The first lesson learned was about what I see as the true role of coaches—to build the capacity of others to reach their goals. This second takes a nod from coaching expert Jim Knight.

Listen for Contradictions to Your Assumptions

The above is a piece of wisdom hidden in the work of Jim Knight’s (2007) popular book on instructional coaching. Most coaches I’ve met have read the book, many completing book studies on it. I’ve participated in several book studies with it myself, sometimes as a participant and sometimes as a facilitator. There are a lot of great ideas in the book and in the work of the Kansas Coaching Project (now the Instructional Coaching Project). Some day I may write about the value of Knight’s “Big 4,” which provide a hierarchical framework for beginning coaching conversations, but the idea of assumptions is one that deserves a bit of exploration.

“But first…a story.” (If you’re one of my former students, this is where you’d insert a groan.) After the classroom, I’ve been coaching different groups of educators for the better part of a decade. If you count back to the beginning of my teaching career, when some of my middle school boys referred to me as “the band coach,” then I’ve been doing it all my career. I was working with a new district this past year that had me literally running from one coaching visit at one school to the next over a series of 3-4 days. Luckily, the district have some excellent EdTech coaches that were able to build a stronger coaching bond with their teachers and could continue the coaching conversations in person when I couldn’t be there. It’s a tough model to implement—the outside expert—but it works well when there is someone on the ground between visits.

I tried to see each of the 30 or so teachers I was working with three times over a period of a few months. The goal was to help each teacher develop a personal goal for the coaching visits and to ultimately help them implement new skills in their classrooms, either with my help or having me observe at the end. As might be expected, the teachers ranged in their levels of technology proficiency and willingness to collaborate. One in particular seemed reluctant to meet, often finding last-minute scheduling conflicts, so I had to be persistent and flexible in order to get into her classroom.

At our last session, I watched as this English teacher led her students through a traditional grammar lesson followed by the exploration of a text in which students explored a website she had given them to explain historical references or figurative examples in a text they were reading. The students had to find specific examples and describe their genesis using the website and hand write their responses on paper. I was very underwhelmed. This was technology coaching, after all. There was very limited technology use, despite all the students having access to their own laptop and a district Google account with all the resources that provides.

In our debrief, I walked in with my assumptions clouding my vision. I assumed this teacher just didn’t want to try new technologies, didn’t trust me, and wasn’t going to make any progress on her goal. She had skipped our last session, after all, and this class just wasn’t what I had hoped to see. What unfolded, was just the opposite.

When I asked about the very traditional grammar lesson and whether she had tried other—perhaps technology-based—alternatives she commented enthusiastically that “Yes” indeed she had! She had picked up on the mention of an online grammar resource in our initial training sessions and said her kids had really enjoyed it, but they had exhausted the limits of the free version. She had convinced her principal to seek funds to provide access to the site for all teachers in the school. Wow.

When I asked about whether the kids might possibly find and record information in another way, perhaps using a shared Google doc and perhaps the research tools, as we had gone over earlier in the year (Harumph!), she commented that again, “Yes, they had been using Google docs.” But this lesson was more about building background knowledge and knowing her kids and some of their challenges simply with keyboarding and using the new resources, she thought the paper-based route would help them get through this foundational lesson quickly so she could apply that knowledge in a more substantial matter later when the tools would have greater benefit.

She thanked me for the resources that had been introduced and for the opportunity to work through some of them. Most of all she enjoyed collaborating with other teachers across the district and having the time to share ideas. She said the whole experience had really been beneficial to her. Just because what I saw that day didn’t set my little techno heart ablaze, it didn’t mean that this particular teacher hadn’t been pursuing her own goals for technology use. Again, it was a good lesson for me. I had to step back and refrain from imposing what may have been my goals for her. Not all teachers are going to be as enthusiastic about technology the way I am, but that doesn’t mean they can find ways to support teaching and learning in their classroom. As a coach, I need to remember to keep helping people move forward by making progress on their own goals, not necessarily to the same place I want to be, and especially to not assume that if I don’t see something that it’s not happening.


Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching. A partnership approach to improving instruction. NSDC.

Lessons Learned from Coaching, Part 1: Building Capacity

Over the past year I helped develop the process for Teachers and Mentors to become Dell Certified and was happy to work in two school districts that had educators successfully complete the process. This work is coordinated by Advanced Learning Partnerships for Dell Education. The process helped me to reflect upon and energize my own coaching skills, and reminded me of a few ideas I need to keep focused on. This post is a first in a series about lessons I learned–or had to re-learn–during my coaching work this past year. I’ll keep returning to them in my own work and hope you find them helpful, too.

In the Dell Certification process for Mentors I use an eclectic approach. I include ideas from the work of Jim Knight, Elena Aguilar, cognitive coaching, from my mentor and friend Dr. Sharon Harsh, along with other tidbits I’ve picked up along the way. The focus is to help new coaches develop skills to help others reach their own goals. Despite the certification from a company known for technology, we practice listening and questioning and step back a little from jumping on the technology bandwagon to have deeper conversations about what educators need and want.

Coaches build the capacity of others to reach their goals.

John Ross (channeling Sharon Harsh)

My friend and mentor, Sharon Harsh, taught me more about capacity building through her own actions than I could find in any book. Working with her was a real highpoint in my career, because she helped me to understand the ultimate way coaches help build capacity—whether the capacity of individuals or organizations—and that’s through helping others reach their goals. We did this work formally through a contract with the U.S. Department of Education in the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center. I’ve taken that philosophy with me in my own coaching and try to help new coaches understand how that can impact their work.

Just a note of caution: This is my philosophy of what coaches do. In every school and district I work with, we have conversations about what is expected of coaches. We also talk about what coaches should not do. Those are interesting lists. I haven’t found one yet in which this philosophy doesn’t fit, but you should know where I’m coming from. That’s a good ELA strategy, know the author’s bias. This is mine.

Why do people become coaches? We’re in education, so it’s not really about the money. It’s also not because of the power. What power?!? Any coach would heartily laugh at that one. Teachers (and others) become coaches probably for many of the same reasons they become teachers—to help others. And like when we were new teachers, new coaches are excited about the potential. We’re eager to get into other peoples’ classrooms and get to work. To “fix” things.

I see that often with new coaches, including myself. And since I work with technology, I used to often lead with the technology solution. Learn this gadget, or try this resource. But very quickly we learn that not everyone comes to the coaching partnership with the same eagerness and interest in using technology. They may be open to some ideas, but new coaches have to realize the people they work with have their own interests and motivations. You can’t build their capacity without knowing what these are. So coaching relationships often start with setting goals and then working to help people achieve those goals.

Capacity can be measured by goals achieved

One of the first things coaches can do is to help others write reasonable goals. There are very few educators who have not heard of the SMART goal-setting process (Wikipedia has more about SMART goals), but I’ve run across fewer still that can actually use it to set reasonable goals for their own growth. When goals are about something you’re already doing, those are accomplishments, not goals. When they’re so large you can’t reasonably accomplish them, those are aspirations (not to mention frustration). One of the first steps a coach can take is to spend time—repeatedly—to set and monitor reasonable goals with the educators with whom they work.

Tech cart before the horseA well-written goal is like a roadmap. It tells me where you want to go, and as a coach, I then have a guide of how we might get there—together. That’s tough for a new coach, especially if you’ve been hired to help a school or district integrate a bunch of new and expensive technology. You want to lead with the tech cart. You want to share all the great things you did in your classroom! But it’s not your classroom any longer. You’re a guest, and if you keep your colleague’s goals in mind, you’ll become an integral part of that classroom.

Goal Example 1: In order to foster creative and innovative thinking in my schools, I will explore digital storytelling to present information found with online research tools. I will monitor my progress toward this goal by using the TIP Chart to self-reflect, guide my planning, self-evaluate my progress to ensure that I am moving toward the next step on the chart. Goal Example 2: In order for students to compare and contrast Plains and Woodland Indians, students will create a Google presentation on the lives, living conditions, food, clothing, and tools of the Native Americans.
Which of these would you want to coach to?


No coach is intentionally going to go in and try to take control, but being problem solvers, we tend to want to “fix” things, sometimes working on things that others don’t even think need fixing. So, there’s more I’ve learned from working with coaches, and I’ll share them. Next time.


Resolutions for a New Year

It’s that time of year. Time to make resolutions, hopefully ones I can keep. I got to add a big checkmark on my ToDo list today and check off one of those resolutions—one a year in the making. I updated my website! That was a personal resolution for 2016, so I made it just under the wire. I’ve been doing better this year Tweeting out from my visits to schools, but my poor blog has sat lonely and untouched for the past year. I hope promoting WordPress up as the primary framework for my website will make it much easier for me to update what’s happening while I’m on the road visiting schools.

My goal this year is to share out at least one post from every trip I make to districts across the country. I have such a good time visiting different school districts, but as I tell most of them—unfortunately for the—I’m usually the one who learns the most from my visits. I get to see how authentic instruction or new technology integration resources or a myriad of other strategies and tools play out in classrooms in districts across the country. I try to bring as much value as possible to the districts I visit. This is usually through the conversations we have—whether easy or not. But I have to admit that ultimately I learn the most visiting district after district.

So, for this year, my resolution is to share more of what I learn here. Moving my WordPress blog to my primary site should help. It’ll be easier to share from hotels across the country. Wish me luck on my resolution and hope it doesn’t take another year to come to fruition.

Personalizing Professional Development

Many of the schools I work with are riding the personalized learning wave. In fact, in response to a recent question in one of my districts, “Yes, this is probably the most common education trend I’m asked to work on in my districts.” In addition to working in schools and districts, some of my work includes collaborating with state education agencies that are also championing personalized learning and are trying to determine a state’s role in supporting districts and schools as they take efforts to personalize learning.

Personalized learning receives significant emphasis in the new National Educational Technology Plan. It’s the focus of the very first goal of the plan which encourages that “learners will have engaging and empowering learning experiences in both formal and informal settings…” (p. 7) and specifically calls out personalized learning as a means for supporting this goal. The release of the new plan was eclipsed by the signing of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—on the very same day(!)—but proponents of personalized learning suggest it also plays a role in this new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Recently, personalized learning got a boost from the report Continued Progress from the Gates Foundation. Researchers found that students in the schools included in the study showed significant growth in math and reading when involved in personalized learning programs. This growth appears to be substantially larger than a national sample of students that do not participate in personalized learning, and—most promising—students that started out at lower achievement levels showed the greatest gain.

With all this positive momentum, and a growing body of research encouraging personalized learning, what’s the next step? To again quote some of the educators I work with, “If we want teachers to personalize learning for students, we also need to personalize professional development for teachers.” Great idea! How do we do that?

Personalized Learning Framework

I like to start the personalized learning conversation by trying to figure out exactly what people mean when the use the term personalized learning. Like many terms in education, it means different things to different people. And it’s not a clear dichotomy. It’s not like you do or don’t personalize learning. Many teachers personalize aspects of learning, to varying degrees. I often use these three scenarios, which are based on a review of literature and practice and perhaps a few actual teachers I know. Every time I use them, the scenarios help educators realize the variety of components that can be personalized as well as the range of ways these components can be personalized.

I don’t have similar scenarios for professional development. I guess that’s something for my New Year’s resolutions. But you can think about the components of personalized learning that undergird these scenarios for personalizing learning for students and tackle one or more as you personalize professional development for teachers. Below are just some suggestions based on my work. (By the way, the report from the Gates Foundation describes 5 components that support personalized learning if you’re interested in a different framework.)

Personalized Learning Framework Component What this can look like for educators
Learning Targets Educators work with their administration, PLC, a mentor teacher or others to develop personal learning targets for their personal and professional growth plan.
Curriculum Educators access a range of relevant artifacts and resources with guidance from teachers, coaches, or experts in the field. They may complete some anchor or foundational activities but are given flexibility in terms of accessing content and developing skills and knowledge.
Pedagogies Educators rely on PD providers, PLC members, and colleagues as learning experts who use resources, technologies, and methods that are relevant to the content areas being studied but may vary by the need of each educator.
Resources Used Educators use a range of personal and school-provided devices, accessing a range of print and digital resources from school, home, and elsewhere. Schools and districts may provide a minimum of devices and resources but allow educators choice in terms of using external resources if their relevance is justified.
Assessment Educators engage in ongoing series of pre-, formative, and post-assessment opportunities to determine their current levels of proficiency and monitor and adjust their own learning goals. Pre-assessments help educators determine appropriate learning paths and summative assessments occur on-demand at the time educators feel they have completed requisite activities or feel confident about their skills and knowledge.
Pace Educators make decisions about what is learned when, advancing through content at their own pace and spending more time on topics of interest or those in which they feel they need more practice. Educators have a contract or individual learning plan (e.g., professional growth plan) that guides their overall progress and work in concert with PD providers to ensure they’re moving at an appropriate pace and utilizing the best resources.
Place Educators access content and complete activities from any place at any time. The school is still likely a center of support where educators can schedule or contract with PD providers to guide their learning, receive explicit instruction when needed, or seek consultation about what they have (or haven’t) mastered.
Grouping Educators self-select team members to participate in learning based on the skills, expertise, and experiences of others. Grouping may be similar to workforce grouping in which teams of individuals with diverse expertise work together to address problems. Group members use a range of synchronous and asynchronous tools embedded in or connected to a learning platform to organize, conduct, and share their work.
Learner Characteristics Individuals’ abilities, prior content knowledge, and content experiences are known, monitored and leveraged in PD activities, as are their interests, emotions, life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and other unique needs and characteristics.
Voice & Choice Educators are given a good deal of choice but have to justify their selections. A learning platform links to or provides access to a variety of technologies and resources in varied formats that educators use to monitor and regulate their own learning. Educators learn at their own pace to complete discrete units and receive credit based upon completion, not time spent.
Facilitator’s Role Student learning is activated by facilitators or experts and supported by the use of a learning platform. Educators work collaboratively within and across grade levels and departments, depending on the desired outcomes. Facilitators focus on helping educators develop skills for lifelong learning and developing self-directed learning skills. Facilitators interact with educators in person and through the learning platform to provide equitable access to high-quality resources and interactions.
Interaction with Learning Platform A learning platform plays a key role in providing access to high-quality resources and professional growth opportunities. Educators access the platform independently to identify activities and resources vetted by PD providers or master teachers to help them achieve their learning goals, perhaps rating resources based on how helpful they are. They use the platform to create their own learning journeys and share their learning, such as through a dynamic e-portfolio. They use the reporting tools to monitor their progress and share their status with administrators and PD providers.

Many of these components make sense and are indeed being employed by PD departments in districts across the country. For example, many teachers create their own learning goals for their personal professional development plan and there are many opportunities for educators to access professional learning from any place on their own time. There are a few key ideas, however, that I believe make this framework unique—especially compared to the type of professional learning I participated in as a teacher. I suggest the following should occur to move to the most mature levels of personalized professional development. Let me know what you think.

  1. Device neutrality. Educators should be able to access professional learning using whatever device they feel comfortable with and have access to. They shouldn’t be limited to accessing professional learning only at school within a restricted online environment; although, those educators who want to access PD at school (and many do) should be supported through the provision of resources and the opportunity to collaborate with others.
  2. Increased reliance on pre-assessments. Just as students are increasingly encountering pre-assessments that help place them within a relevant learning path and giving them credit for skills and knowledge they already possess, personalized PD incorporates pre-assessments that honor educators’ existing skills and puts them within a path that is appropriately relevant and challenging.
  3. Technology supports personalization. In our current place in time, there’s almost no way to manage personalization for a range of teachers, whether a school faculty of a dozen teachers or a district with thousands, without using technology. For the most part, this is done through a learning management system (LMS) that can automate many processes, like enrollment; pre-, post- and ongoing assessment; generating and managing portfolios and other artifacts; recording completion and certification; as well as the ongoing interactions between educators and PD providers. The LMS can also provide access to content resources and activities that educators can explore independently or in groups. There are a lot of LMS out there, the trick is finding the right one for you. That’s a topic for another post.

We know that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to professional learning doesn’t work, yet it’s still a common approach to professional development. There’s no reason to continue that ineffective process and leverage what we know about personalized learning with students to generate high-quality PD for teachers. Let me know how you’re doing this in your own schools and districts. I’d also be interested in any questions you may have or examples you can share.

Note: I’d like to thank one of my former principals, Dr. Barry Beers, for originally suggesting this topic, which has come up over and over recently in the schools in which I’m working. To learn more about Barry’s work check out his book Learning-Driven Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Principals from ASCD.


Rethinking Rubrics: Rubrics that Make You Think

In 2010, my colleague (and mentor) Dr. Sharon Harsh was presiding over a meeting with staff from the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center (ARCC—our organization) and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), with whom we had collaborated for five years. She was summarizing the trends in education from the past decade or so and going out on a limb by making predictions of trends that were soon to influence education. She hit them right on the head, especially with one prediction: learning progressions will become prevalent and guide the work educators do at all levels.

Simply put, learning progressions describe the most likely steps people will take when developing new knowledge and skills. For example, before students can combine fractions with different denominators, they have to recognize what fractions are and understand what they represent. They have to know that a larger number in the denominator doesn’t mean it’s a larger fraction. Later they come to understand how different fractions are related—focusing on how to express two fractions with equivalent denominators, then unlike denominators. There’s more, but that’s a portion of the idea of how some concepts related to fractions progress.

Sharon got this so right! Learning progressions strongly influenced the way new standards were developed. And state departments of education, including VDOE staff in the present, are developing and sharing the learning progressions behind their standards so teachers can better understand how students master standards within and across a grade level. Teachers, too, are developing learning progressions at a finer grain that help them understand how students develop skills and knowledge within a single standard (like the idea of combining fractions above). I find learning progressions really intriguing, but I’m a little geeky like that.

Applying Learning Progressions

I’ve long used rubrics to support my instruction and to score student work. In the graduate class I taught, every activity used a rubric, and the students got all of the rubrics on day one and were encouraged to use them as they worked through activities. I’ve never really given multiple-choice tests. Ever. I’ve also helped a lot of teachers develop rubrics, especially when they need to assign some sort of score or grade to complex problems or projects. In many cases, a multiple-choice question isn’t the best option.

Below is an example of a rubric I created in the past. It’s typical of many I’ve seen. If you’re a student who wants to score well, you don’t make mistakes. As you make more mistakes, your score is lower. It seems logical, at first.


Learning Outcomes

Novice Developing Approaching


Grammar and mechanics of language The product contains numerous (7 or more) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or 3 or more errors in spoken language. The product contains several (4-6) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or 1 or 2 errors in spoken language. The product contains a few (1-3) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or no more than 1 error in spoken language. The product contains no errors in grammar, punctuation, or capitalization of written text, or no errors in spoken language.
Solve multistep problems with fractions The student does not show his/her work, presents incomplete work, or inaccurately presents work in regard to the guidelines. The student designs a solution that has more than one error in calculation. The student designs a solution that has no more than one error in calculation. The student designs a solution that meets the guidelines with no errors.

While this is a pretty typical rubric, it isn’t really very helpful for promoting learning. Why? It’s not the number of errors that’s important, it’s the kind of errors that students make that’s most important. If a student makes two or three errors, but there’s no clear pattern to them, it may just be a mistake because of a lack of time or sloppiness. That doesn’t tell me anything about what they do or don’t understand or how I need to re-teach them. But when a student makes consistent errors, like using “its/it’s” incorrectly over and over, or writing too many run-on sentences, or confusing larger denominators with larger fractions, then I know what to focus on. I needed something that showed me common errors, as well as that progression of how learners move from being a novice to mastering the standard.

Improved Rubrics

I’ve finally been able to connect that sage prediction that Sharon Harsh made with my own practice. Since standards are based on learning progressions, we should be monitoring where our kids are along those progressions. This helps not just teachers, but students too! Both can see what skills and knowledge they’ve mastered, where they need to go, and even suggestions as to what steps they might take to get there. Some might recognize that this is also a critical component of using formative assessment strategies to support learning, especially as proposed by Margaret Heritage (e.g., Where am I going? Where am I now? How do I get there?).

So over the past couple of years, I’ve been pushing myself to improve my rubrics. Instead of just counting errors, which tells me little about what my students truly know or can do, I’m now designing rubrics that describe the progression of learning students go through when mastering a content standard.

Please note: In the examples, the scoring categories are labeled as Learning Outcomes, but many teachers will recognize that the language used is drawn from actual standards, in these examples, the Virginia Standards of Learning, Common Core State Standards, and a WIDA ELD standard. So, in this way, the rubrics are actually standards-based. In fact, they’re probably more standards-based than any forced-choice assessment can be, at least for sophisticated learning outcomes.

Now when I work with teachers on complex problems or performance tasks, we co-develop rubrics that describe learning progressions. See the examples below created recently with some great teachers from the Crestwood School District in Dearborn, Michigan. These are rough drafts, but even at this stage I can see the progression learners go through for each of these learning outcomes. I learned this from these teachers, but every time I do this, the discussion we have about learning progressions is great.


Learning Outcomes

Novice Developing Approaching


Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.  The student’s product does not contain a clearly stated opinion or goes off topic and there’s no evidence. Possibly no reasons. The student’s product does include a clearly stated opinion, but lacks support through reasons that are expanded or supported by evidence from the texts. The student’s product does include a clearly stated opinion with some evidence, but the reasons lack coherence, may not be clearly sequenced or organized. The student’s product contains a clearly stated argument (or point of view) with reasons supported by evidence drawn from the texts and is clearly organized and coherent.
Students read informational articles on globalization to consider its impact on their lives (e.g., Internet, mass media, food and beverage distributors, retail stores).   The student’s product includes an opinion but does not include information from the articles. There’s no indication the student has or can read the articles. The student’s product contains phrases or some keywords from the articles but may not be explained or connected to a position related to their lives. The student’s product includes some examples from the articles but they may not support their position as it relates to their lives. The student’s product includes citations of examples from the articles that support their position and relates those citations to their lives.
Make a line plot to display a data set of measurements in fractions of a unit (1/2, 1/4, 1/8).  The student’s product does not create a line plot or creates something different from a line plot. The student’s product contains a line plot with simple fractions (e.g. ½ and ¼), with fractions out of order (because of denominator). Something’s out of order. The student’s product contains a line plot with points inaccurately plotted, so it does not match the data, though the fractions are in order. The student’s product contains an accurate line plot that displays the appropriate data and the fractions are in order.


Summative assessment is just one use of this type of rubric. Now that we’ve described learning progressions for these standards, these rubrics have multiple uses. Teachers can hand them out at the beginning of any unit, lesson, or activity that uses these learning outcomes so students know what they can do to get the grade they want. It saves teachers time because they don’t need to create rubrics for every activity, just for each standard. More importantly, students can use the rubrics to monitor their own progress. Schools wanting to move towards mastery learning or standards-based report cards can also use these types of learning progressions to truly describe what the difference between an A or a B (or other two grading categories) really means. It’s not just a score, it’s a point along mastery. Finally, this type of rubric is helpful when talking with parents. When parents want to know, “Why didn’t my kid get an A?” teachers can show parents exactly where their child’s current performance is along the progression and where they need to get to master the outcome (and get that A!). Maybe in the future, parents will ask, “How can I help my kid master the standards?” Maybe.

Why Audience Matters

In the past week I’ve had reminders from two great educators in different parts of the country who remind me why audience matters. This is something that comes up often in my work but not something I believe many classroom teachers routinely think much about. For a long time, there were only a few things classroom teachers could do to expand the audience for student work. But the audience for student work is now unlimited thanks to the many safe ways that teachers and students can share work beyond the school walls. And that can be a game changer.

Let’s begin with this quote from David Dulberger, a dynamic fifth-grade teacher at Emma K. Doub School in Hagerstown, MD. His review of Piktochart actually prompted this post. In his review (which you should read if you’re interested in creating infographics, but you should probably bookmark his blog for ongoing great ideas), he makes this statement,

“I have found that my students are inclined to work harder on projects that will be showcased to an audience greater than their parents and me. By simply clicking the publish button, my students know that their work can, and often will be, viewed with more than just our classroom community. The concept of having a 5th grade student publish an infographic to the web may sound outrageous to most people, but my students, and many others around the world are more than capable. “

This is a simple, yet powerful statement. When student see value for their work outside of the classroom–when the audience is greater than just the teacher or their peers–they often feel the pressure to do a better job. That’s the power of audience. Simply by changing the audience for student work, students will want to do better.

The importance of audience is underscored by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their popular instructional design model, Understanding by Design. I use UbD when working with teachers on curriculum design, especially designing performance tasks. A key component of their framework for performance tasks is identifying a relevant audience, and as often as possible, I encourage teachers to design tasks with an audience that goes beyond the classroom to make the tasks more relevant to their students.

Need more convincing? Consider this e-mail from Becki Price, another fifth-grade teacher (just coincidence), but she’s in Round Rock, TX, where I had the privilege of working with a cohort of teachers using Chromebooks. Teachers in the cohort were trying new ideas for student projects, and Becki reflected on a science project. I didn’t get to see it in action but was able to chat with her about it during my last visit. Here’s what she says,

“I wanted to share with you that we wrapped up our first project for the second semester. I took the ideas you shared with me and the student’s projects are posted on my webpage for the world to see! The kids are really excited about this, and some are suddenly not pleased with their final product since it’s out there for everyone to see and compare.”

The Audience Continuum

Perhaps because I taught music, I had the concept of audience drilled into my head all of my career. Everything we did was ultimately for some audience outside of the classroom. We prepared concerts and shows for parents, the community, and competitions across the country. Many school music groups now have their own Facebook or websites with videos of performances that make it even easier to share their work.

But what about a regular classroom? What can those teachers in other content areas do? Digital technologies, as illustrated by these two great teachers, make that easy. Whether using a secure website, a blogging service just for kids, or allowing older students to use social media or other means to promote their work, there’s no reason any teachers shouldn’t be able to “break down the classroom walls” an expand the audience for student work.

As a final example, I use a portion of The Continuum from the Dubuque Community Public Schools (see below). This portion of The Continuum provides guidance for teachers to plan for and implement lessons and activities that promote student communication and collaboration. In terms of audience, my standard story is as you move up The Continuum and you’re trying to promote student communication, the level of audience for student work should increase.

That interprets to moving from an audience of one–just the teacher–to the rest of the classroom. From there, that middle line is really important. It represents the break between inside and outside of the classroom. Moving beyond the classroom means that student work is viewed first in the larger school or family-centric community, but ultimately by the world. In the two fifth-grade examples, note the impact of making the audience the world: same content standards and same learning goals + largest audience possible = increased student interest, engagement, and desire to succeed.

The Continuum

Expanding audiences for student work

Now it’s your turn. Take a lesson you’re working on (or that a teacher you know is working on) and explore ways of expanding the audience. Very often it takes very little work. You may have to explore a new tool, like these teachers did, but chances are most teachers have access to a range of free and easy tools they can use to expand the audience for their students’ work.


Supporting Formative Assessment with Technology

A few strands of my work have come together recently, and they focus on using technology to support formative assessment. This has been one of the most common requests recently from teachers/schools I’ve been working with and is the focus of two additional projects I’ve been working on. (You can skip directly to the tools here. Updated with two new tools on March 2.)

Through my work with the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center (ARCC), I’m collaborating with staff from the Virginia Department of Education to pilot a statewide cadre of teachers exploring formative assessment. Teachers from six schools across the state are working through training materials developed by Dr. Margaret Heritage and the Center for Standards and Assessment Implementation (formerly the Assessment and Accountability Center).

Margaret Heritage's book

Formative Assessment by Margaret Heritage

Dr. Heritage is probably the nation’s foremost expert on formative assessment and has been implementing and studying formative assessment strategies in multiple districts for years. (Check out her book on the topic!)


What Dr. Heritage does is provide concrete steps teachers can follow to embed formative assessment in their teaching. I agree with Heritage when she notes that formative assessment is not a single “thing” or event. It’s not a quiz. It’s not a test. It’s an ongoing dialog between teachers and students that ids designed to collect evidence of where students are in their journey of mastering skills and knowledge.

From my perspective, I overlay this idea of formative assessment being a process to the selection of relevant technology resources. An online quiz or a classroom responder (clicker) is itself not a formative assessment tool, unless used that way. For that reason, I’ve grouped a range of digital resources that can be used formatively, but you have to first identify the way you want to use it. That’s the trick to picking any technology for classroom use, actually. Figure out what you need to accomplish, then find a resource to match.

Check out the resources here

This is not an exhaustive list, and it was just updated this past week after my visit to Dubuque where I learned Infused Learning is on the way out and GoFormative.com is a new resource to be considered. I’d appreciate hearing from you about the digital resources you use and how you use them to support formative assessment so I can update this over time.

10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

I actually look forward to “Top 10” lists that sum up educational trends of the year. They always have new things I’ve missed or resources I need to investigate further. They’re much better than those stupid year-end predictions that never seem to come true, like “This will be the year of…(fill in the flavor-of-the-moment resource)!!”

This year I decided to create my own list. There’s no empirical research behind it; no data to prove their popularity. These are just a few digital resources for teachers that I’ve observed in classrooms across the country. This year I truly made it “coast-to-cast” by working in districts from Pawley’s Island on the coast of South Carolina, to Redlands, California—just shy of the Pacific—and many in-between. These are resources I see teachers using or ones that teachers have introduced to me presented in no particular order. It was hard to keep it to 10, so I didn’t.

  1. Socrative. If I had the data, I bet Socrative would be the most popular digital resource I’ve seen in schools this year. It showed up a few years ago as a polling tool, but the updated version and new data reporting tools make it even more useful. I know some teachers like Today’s Meet, but Socrative is far more powerful. Whether used as a quick formative assessment or for actual quizzes or tests, Socrative provides teachers with a range of data—some that can be represented visually on the fly—that can confidentially be tied to individual student records for monitoring purposes. I’d be really surprised if someone in your school isn’t already using Socrative.
  1. Blendspace. This media-blending tool seemed to find a larger audience this year, probably due to the addition of assessment and data monitoring functions. I’ve used Blendspace in the past because it’s just so easy to find and link resources, but the additional functionality takes this resource beyond just a fun curation site to a powerful classroom tool.
Performance task presented in Blendspace

Performance task presented in Blendspace

  1. Kahoot! is really a hoot! O.K., it’s just a quiz game, but kids love it. I thought the gaming nature would only appeal to younger students, but I’ve seen Kahoot! even enjoyed by high school students. The concept is simple, but the graphics and music seem to make forced-choice quiz review or actual quizzing more engaging. Turn it around and have your kids come up with the questions to raise the cognitive demand.
  1. WeVideo. It’s about time video editing was free, easy, and online so we can get to our files from anywhere. There are others out there, but I have probably seen teachers and students using WeVideo more often this year than other video-editing tools, even MovieMaker and iMovie. With WeVideo, platform doesn’t matter, and you can use what you know from these older video tools to create your own videos for flipping your lessons, or have your kids create video-based digital stories, lab reports, documentaries, and on and on.
  1. Tackk. No one’s had to use HTML to create web pages for a while now, and sites like Weebly and Google Sites have made it easy for students and teachers to create attractive sites for assignments and projects. Tackk is a new entry in this market and shines above most others simply because it’s just so darn easy! Kids can focus on the content and quickly get an attractive web page up to share their work. Commenting and chat are built in, so the usual monitoring of social networking components is necessary, but we teachers should be already doing that with our students instead of avoiding these powerful tools.
  1. Thinglink. How quickly things change. Yes, we can all easily create, edit, and post video from devices like our phones—something that used to take expensive tools and software. Thanks to Thinglink, we can also now annotate videos and images with the click of a button. How cool is that? I’ve seen some interesting biographies and book reports using Thinglink, but there are many possibilities. Think of the exploration of primary source documents in multiple formats—very interesting possibilities. There’s a public and an education version.

Seven through 10 are some Google Tools you may or may not know about. I find a mixed bag of teachers who do or don’t know about these free, powerful tools that can add to their classroom. Very often, I seem to be in districts where teachers don’t realize the district has their own Google Apps for Education (GAFE) domain. This alone provides a wide range of security and functionality if your GAFE administrator sets it up correctly, so I’ll focus on some things you can use within your own GAFE domain or externally. I’m saving Google Class, possibly for next year. It’s still a little new to make the Top 10.

  1. Usage rights. Let your kids search the Web for images and what do they do? Almost every kid I see goes to Google Image search and copies and pastes directly from the found set—no concern for attribution or whether the image is even legally available for use. Most don’t even visit the site where the image is actually located. I even see watermarks and copyright symbols printed on images in student projects. Google’s made it easy to find images students can use in their projects through their Search Tools. Complete the image search as you usually would, then select Search Tools, and pick one of the Usage Rights. I suggest “Labeled for noncommercial reuse with modification” to get the maximum number of options, unless kids are just going to copy and paste, in which case they can use “Labeled for noncommercial reuse,” which implies no modification. You choose what’s best for your purpose.
Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

  1. Research Tools. Open any Google doc or presentation, select the Tools menu and click on Research: Up pops the research pane that allows you or your students to do a full search of text, images, or other from within your document—including filtering by usage rights (see #7). You can add links to primary sources on the Web directly in your document, and auto-generate a list of citations following MLA, APA, or Chicago style. Why isn’t every teacher using this?
Using Google Research Tools

Using Google Research Tools

  1. Google is connecting everything, even people. Google Hangouts are basically multi-point videoconferences that can be supported by computers, tablets, or phones. There’s no need for expensive web- or videoconferencing services. Google does it for free. And just like email (or Gmail), Twitter, or other social tools, you can share images, text, and links.
  1. I personally haven’t used Moderator, but since I work in several districts with GAFE, teachers report to me it’s an easy way to support a class discussion if you’re not using a learning management system (e.g., Edmodo, Canvas, or even Google Class). It’s a discussion forum. Simple. Easy.

And the +! It really was hard to narrow down the choices. In addition to my top 10, this year I’m going to spend more time with two presentation tools that teachers tell me are easy to use and highly engaging. eMaze was described to me by a teacher as a cross between PowerPoint and Prezi but easier to use. It sure looks it. Powerpoint is so abused in classrooms and Prezis often make me queasy, so I’m interested to see how eMaze stacks up. PowToon is another presentation tool that I’ve heard of for a couple of years but I haven’t really seen any students using it in the schools I visit. It looks like it might take the place of xtranormal (not sure what’s going on there!) that was popular several years ago. The learning curves looks a little steeper for PowToon than eMaze, but I’m old and kids will probably figure it out far faster than me.

There you have it. Just a smattering of fun and helpful resources I see in classrooms across the country. I know there are plenty more, but many teaches often tell me, “I don’t need to know everything. Just give me 1 or 2 good tools that work.” Pick one and let me know how it goes.

Tech-tonic Shifts: What can school leaders do to support change?

Please note: This is the fourth and last in a series of posts in response to a request from Susan Swift, a language arts teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, IA, who is writing a book on technology integration. 

So, now you’ve gotten started. You’ve bought some new materials, perhaps some technology devices or new curricular materials, or you’ve brought in some trainer to help spread the word. Boxes have been opened, people have been trained…now what?

Unfortunately, this is when a lot of initiatives fall short. They’re frontloaded with planning and training, but the resources aren’t put into place to nurture and sustain the effort. I can tell when I visit a school or district with a follow through problem when teachers (or other staff) talk about “what we did last year,” or even the year before and there’s no clear connection from year to year or initiative to initiative.

This also happens in those districts or schools with implementation overload. Every year someone introduces new materials, new methods, new devices with no clear long-range plan that ties them all together. I was visiting one school where the faculty complained they had “too much” training. They were introduced to so many things, they said it was like a buffet. But in the end, as one overwhelmed teacher told me, “Just show me 1 or 2 things that works and give me time to really learn how to use it.”

I developed the following guidance for school leaders implementing technology initiatives in their schools, but they could help anyone charged with implementing change. You’ll see some advice repeated from earlier, but that just highlights the importance of some of these strategies. This list began with advice from Margaret Heritage (2010) but I’ve combined some items and school it down to be a little more manageable.

  1. Communicate. This bears repeating. School leaders articulate, and constantly communicate, the value of any change effort. This begins with and returns to the vision, but it has to be relevant. If it’s not important to school leadership, it’s not important to teachers. Administrators who don’t buy in to a change effort can actually derail it. School leaders help everyone–teachers, other staff, parents, students–understand the importance of the initiative and reinforce it through multiple and varied communications.
  2. Support. School leaders provide explicit support to their teachers and staff related to the effort. People participating in and impacted by the change will need different kinds of support. Often, this implies new kinds of support. Determine what kind of support is needed. Be specific. Avoid platitudes or overgeneralizing. Yes, teachers need professional development, but what kind? Lesson study, observations, time to collaborate? Yes people will need time, but what kind of time specifically? Time to collaborate, to plan, to experiment? Identify the types of support and prioritize those needs.
  3. Dedicate time: School leaders find and protect time to engage in real work around the change initiative. Change efforts require ongoing time for meeting, reflection, and discussion. If these times succumb to other meetings or duties, the change won’t occur. Many schools have professional learning communities (PLCs), some just in name only. Any change effort, if worth doing, should be incorporated into existing PLC efforts. Every PLC meeting should result in some tangible outcome related to the change effort.
  4. Embed and connect: School leaders make connections to other initiatives. Teachers don’t have a lot of time, so even the best intended initiative won’t be effective if they don’t understand how new initiatives support existing initiatives or processes. School leaders should make these connections explicit, communicate them often, and tie them together. If a new technology initiative is implemented, school leaders help teachers understand how it will impact or support lesson planning, instruction, classroom observations, communications with students and parents–everything.
  5. Allocate resources: School leaders make strategic decisions about the allocation of resources that support the initiative. Not all resources require new funding. New initiatives should be implemented as an effort to addressing an existing need. Is literacy an issue? How will the change initiative support literacy? Conduct an analysis of what does and doesn’t work and get rid of those that don’t! Too many schools hand on to legacy programs that are ineffective just because “that’s the way we do it around here.” It can also help to get staff from different departments, along with the budgets they oversee, to get together and see how a new effort can support their work. Very often, technology initiatives can support multiple programs (e.g., Title programs, special education, literacy, and technology programs) and can be made affordable when budgets are combined across programs, something that may not be attainable by a single program’s budget.
  6. Take risks: School leaders establish and nurture an atmosphere of risk taking and learning from mistakes. School leaders will have to consider how they deal with taking risks and making mistakes. Teachers are not the only ones who will be trying new things or having to learn new skills. School leaders should be sure to learn alongside teachers by determining which trainings and meetings they’ll participate in with teachers. They may also want to consider which meetings they won’t participate in, in case teachers want some time to practice and work on their own.
  7. Acknowledge and celebrate! School leaders comment on, encourage, and celebrate teachers who demonstrate positive aspects of the initiative. Whenever a school leader visits a classroom, they should be sure to recognize aspects of the initiative (catch teachers doing good things drawn from the initiative) and comment on and encourage teachers who are doing so. And plan for and implement celebration! What celebrations are already in place where teachers and others can be acknowledge for the work their doing? Can they be acknowledged at staff meetings, daily announcements, with letters or cards, in newsletters, or on digital media like the school website, Facebook page, or other means? Celebration is fun and encouraging but often overlooked.

I encourage school or change leaders to do an analysis of existing strategies and processes that support each of these seven strategies. Include people responsible for them, such as the school secretary that puts together the school newsletter where you’re going to acknowledge the good work of your teachers, or the department heads that are going to carry your message back to their colleagues on a daily basis. Determine what works and whom to involve.

You may also need to develop or implement new strategies. For example, some schools may have department meetings but not really PLCs. If you plan to support the change effort with teachers from multiple departments, schools may need to find and adopt a PLC model to help organize those meetings and make them more effective.

In summary, I suggest that we, as an education community, know a lot about implementing and sustaining successful change initaitives. Unfortunately, we, as individual educators, may not always know about this body of knowledge nor about the strategies necessary to successfully implement change. Hopefully this brief overview provides some concrete ideas and strategies for those either leading or succumbing to change efforts and will find it helpful to make those change efforts more successful.


Heritage, M. (2010). Formative assessment. Making it happen in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.