Author: Erin Mayer

The Road Less Traveled 6 Weeks into #Gradeless

The Road Less Traveled 6 Weeks into #Gradeless

This post is the first in an ongoing series reflecting on the journey my students, their families and I are taking this year as we go gradeless in our science classroom in an effort to shift our focus to learning and understanding. 

After a successful trial run last spring eliminating grades in lieu of feedback and reflection with my eighth grade science students (The Road to Gradeless), I decided to completely eliminate grades for all of 155 of my sixth and seventh grade students this year.  This summer, with much guidance from my #gradeless plc, I put my vision down on paper (Learning and Grades Parent Letter), shared it with my administrators and was prepared to share with my students and their families.  I had already decided that I would not immediately introduce my grading philosophy to my students.  Instead, I chose to begin the year with a focus on learning, risk taking, problem solving and collaboration.  

Three weeks ago, after I felt that we had begun to create and develop a collaborative, safe, learning community, I explained to my students and their families that they would only be receiving learning feedback from me.  All of the feedback I have received from parents up to this point has been positive.  While curious about this approach and what it will actually look like day to day in the classroom, they appreciate the emphasis on learning.  The response of my students to our feedback driven community has been relatively neutral.  While I believe most of them heard me say we are going gradeless, they are only now just beginning to make sense of what this actually means for their learning.  

Providing Feedback

I decided to primarily use single-point rubrics to provide students with feedback on their learning.  I was introduced to the single-point rubric in a blog post by Cult of Pedagogy founder Jennifer Gonzales, Meet the #SinglePointRubric.  I like the simple structure of these rubrics where the focus is on the learning criteria.  

I am using Schoology to document feedback.  If a student learner has met the criteria, they receive a “Proficient”.  If they have not met the criteria, they receive a “Not Proficient Yet”.  I include concerns, questions and evidence of advanced understandings in the comment column of the Schoology “gradebook”.  I place the emphasis on the “Yet” in not proficient yet, continuing to acknowledge and remind my student learners that learning is messy and that it is ok, and often necessary, to take multiple tries to develop and communicate an understanding.  The end goal and the emphasis is always understanding.  


In addition to providing feedback on each learning activity using single point rubrics, student learners are also keeping a digital portfolio using Seesaw.  I love the simple, but professional, feel of this digital portfolio tool.  I also like that it is easy for student learners to share their portfolios with their parents and other family members.  School-family relationships have the potential to create powerful learning opportunities.  Tools like Seesaw and Schoology help create these powerful relationships.  

At the conclusion of every major learning objective, students select one piece of their work they believe exemplifies their understandings of the learning objective.  In addition to posting their work sample, they are also writing or recording a brief reflection piece summarizing their reasons for choosing the piece of work and why it demonstrates their learnings.  

Traditional vs Innovative Grading Systems

Our school is on a quarter system.  I will still need to enter a traditional letter grade for each quarter.  I have decided that the students will determine this “grade”.  At the end of each quarter, I will act as a facilitator as they evaluate their learning.  My hope is that their Schoology and Seesaw portfolios will guide them in this reflection, providing gentle reminders of their deep and comprehensive learning over the previous 9 weeks.  

Looking Forward

I’m not sure where the next 8 months will lead us, but I am excited to find out.  I will be reflecting on the many components that must all intertwine together as we travel down this road less traveled.  Please share the journey with us.  Thoughts, comments and ideas are, as always, much appreciated!  

#OneWord = Connections 5 Ways I Will Embed Connections Into My Practice This Year

#OneWord = Connections 5 Ways I Will Embed Connections Into My Practice This Year

I am a big picture thinker.  I am often a first follower.  I get excited about new thinking easily.  I embrace change.  I am a risk-taker.  I am creative.  I like to think that I have an innovator’s mindset.  Sometimes though, I get a little overwhelming and lose focus because I’m trying to do to many things.  As I prepare to enter my seventeenth year of teaching science, I have decided to join the #OneWord movement to help maintain focus.  Connections is my #OneWord.

Connections.  Defined by Merriam-Webster as “the act of connecting:  the state of being connected: such as a  causal or logical relation or sequence”.  I will focus on 5 different connections this year:  

  • Connections between content and life.  I first heard about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2 years ago at an education conference.  At the time, I thought the SDGs
    United Nation Sustainable Development Goals

    United Nation Sustainable Development Goals provided the connections I was looking for between what we were learning in science and our world but I struggled to incorporate them into my lesson design and planning.  This year, inspired by a blog post by Jodie Dienhammer I have decided to use the SDGs to help my students and I together decide the focus of our learning.  I am hopeful that incorporating the SDGs in conjunction with problem and project based learning (PBL) will provide the context for students to use, apply and transfer their understandings of science to address problems that they notice in their world.  

  • Connections between school, community and home.  Two years ago I began inviting parents and family members into our classroom as consultants during our PBL units to provide feedback and advice to student teams and as members of vetting panels to which students defended their PBL products.  The students loved sharing their thinking, creations and learning with members of their community, the adults enjoyed the glimpse they were getting into our learning journey and I loved hearing and seeing the honest and thoughtful feedback these important adults provided for my students.  This year I would like to create more consultant opportunities to develop additional connections between school, community and home.  I would also like to help my students reach out to and learn from local and global experts.  
  • Connections with students.  Strong relationships matter in teaching.  Connecting with kids is why I decided to become a teacher.  I wanted to share my passions with my students and help them develop and pursue their own passions.  Many of my current students are native Spanish speakers.  To better connect with my students, I started my own Spanish learning journey this summer.  I will invite my students to join me on my journey this year.  As we connect through Spanish, I hope to model passion based learning for them as well as invite them to help me develop my Spanish fluency.  
  • Connections between the science of learning and lesson design.  As I wrote about in this blog post, learning is the target in our classroom.  This year I will intentionally connect the design of our learning experiences to current understanding of the science of learning.  I am reading Make It Stick and have become quite fascinated with what research has demonstrated in regards to habits and practices that result in both complex and durable learning.  To create opportunities and experiences that develop and enhance higher order thinking, I will weave the authors findings and suggestions into our classroom learning experiences.  
  • Connections with other professionals.  Twitter changed my life a few years ago.  Suddenly, I was able to connect and learn from passionate individuals all around the world.  Unaware, these individuals pushed me to become the teacher I am today and will continue to push me to improve my craft.  At the same time, I am fairly new to my district so it is important that I continue to develop connections and relationships with my district colleagues. 


I am excited for my connections focus this year and am interested in how others view connections.  What types of connections do you think are critical in the classroom?  How do you develop these connections?  How does a focus on connections help students become owners of their learning journey?

Summer Learning Journeys

Summer Learning Journeys

As par for the course, I’ve spent a significant portion of my time learning this summer, both informally and formally.  Informally, I’ve read multiple books including Shift This by Joy Kirr, The Power of a Plant by Stephen Ritz and Suzie Boss, Launch by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani and Make it Stick by Peter Brown.  I’ve spent numerous summer hours catching up with my favorite blog writers and I’ve even been participating in my first informal, but organized, on-line learning experience, The Innovative Teaching Academy, created by A.J. Juliani.  These learning experiences have pushed my thinking, strengthened my resolve to be the best educator I can be for my students and will certainly help me improve my practice.  

Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone

In addition to informal learning experiences, I decided to step outside of my comfort zone this summer and take a stab at learning Spanish.  I have committed to using the DuoLingo app every day for 15-20 minutes and I am taking a graduate level Spanish for Educators class.  If my 18 year old self knew about my newfound resolve to learn Spanish, she would be shocked.  You see, like many, I took several years of Spanish in high school and college but only because someone told me that I had to.  I didn’t enjoy my time in my Spanish class.  As a teenager in East Lansing, Michigan, I didn’t see the relevancy or applicability of Spanish in my life.  I enrolled in Spanish courses because I knew it was one of the boxes that needed to be checked off in order to get into a college of my choice.  In my high school Spanish class, we memorized words and phrases but never discussed application.  We stood up in front of the class and recited short dialogues but never had an immersive classroom environment or experience.  I remember thinking, and saying, that I just wasn’t “cut out” for the languages and that languages were not my forte.  I retained very little of what I learned from four years of Spanish classes.

Language was a Barrier

Almost twenty-five years after finishing my required Spanish courses, I found myself teaching science in a school where almost 50% of my students were native Spanish speakers.  Most of these students were bilingual but many of their parents spoke very little, if any, English.  For the first time in my career, I struggled to connect with many of my student’s parents.  Language was a barrier.  I strongly believe that a student’s success in school is enhanced when there is a strong family-school relationship.  For too many of my students, this relationship was not what I hoped it would be, and knew it should be, because of the language barrier.  I decided early in the year that I needed to learn Spanish so that my students and I could build stronger bridges between school and home.  

My Learning Journey has Just Begun

I love learning Spanish!  It’s challenging but fun.  It requires concentration and effort but I find it relaxing at the same time.  It stretches my mind but it is providing me greater insight into the lives of many of my students.  I’m just two months into my Spanish learning journey and although I know that I still have much to learn, I already feel like I will be able to connect just a little bit better with the families of my students as well as my students themselves once school begins anew in August.  

I am also excited to share this learning journey with my students when we meet again in August.  I am hoping that many of them will be willing to share their knowledge and experiences with me, allowing me opportunities to practice my Spanish skills, participating in immersion opportunities during lunch where we can turn the tables and they can be my mentors and provide formative feedback to me.  I hope this will be a powerful experience for both of us.  I hope that seeing their teacher as a struggling, yet hopeful, student will encourage them to step outside of their own zones of comfort and try new things.  I hope that by sharing my learning journey with them, I will model how powerful and meaningful creating your own learning experience can be.  I hope that I can help inspire them to pursue their passions and interests and share their own learning journeys.  

I’d love to hear about the learning journeys others have taken this summer?  Why did you decide to embark on these journeys?  How have these experiences pushed your thinking?  What will you bring back to the classroom with you this year?  

Learning Space vs. Learning Environment

Learning Space vs. Learning Environment

My science classroom space has changed dramatically over the last five years as I embraced an innovator’s mindset and shifted our classroom learning environment from a teacher centered space where I dictated the course of our learning path including destination points to a student-centered space where students chart their own learning journeys under the umbrella of our science learning objectives with guidance from me.  As I embarked on this change in course, our traditional classroom space began to feel stifling and confining.

Two summers ago, I decided to drastically change our learning space.  I ravaged garage sales and thrift stores and kept a careful eye out for free roadside pickups.  When my students entered our classroom that August, it no longer looked like a typical science classroom.  In fact, it didn’t look like any learning space that most of them had ever encountered before.   Unexpectedly, the students walked in and just looked around, nobody sat down.  They all looked at me as if they were waiting for permission, which it turns out they were.  I invited them to find a seat wherever they felt comfortable and our year began.

I had removed most of the big, cumbersome science lab tables that filled the room before, replacing them with low and high tables.  Many of our ugly, painfully uncomfortable (how can student learners sit in these things for 7 hours every day?) “school” plastic chairs were replaced with a variety of seating choices, high seats, low stools, floor pillows, a couch.  Teachers and students both started to call it the “Starbuck’s café” of the school.  Our transformed learning space encouraged collaboration and creativity.  Students started coming to class early because they felt safe, comfortable and wanted in our learning space.

We made sense of science in this learning space for the next two years, diving into problem-based learning and design thinking.  My students and I loved the flexibility our learning space offered.  We loved being able to rearrange the room to create small group areas for teams to work on their most recent design challenges.  Visitors to our learning space often commented on how welcome they felt upon entering our space.  The depth of thinking my students were engaging in was different.  They were creative, problem focused thinkers.  Considering the impact these changes to the learning space had on the learning that was occurring, I strongly believed the learning space itself was the impetus for the changes I was observing.

Two years later, I had the opportunity to accept a position at another school.  It was a change I needed in my professional and personal life.  The kicker, though, was if I accepted the position, I wouldn’t have my own classroom anymore.  In fact, I would be moving four times throughout the day to three different, very traditional classrooms that I would share with other teachers.  Hmmm…. I thought, learning space is important, it is one of the reasons why I believed my students were so successful.  Always up for a challenge, I decided I would make it work.

I moved around a lot last year (and gained firsthand knowledge of what students feel like throughout their school day).  I packed up all of my classroom furniture and made space for it in the corner of my basement, hoping that I would be able to pull it out again sooner rather than later.  I consolidated fifteen years’ worth of materials, supplies, etc. down to five boxes and I walked into the three very traditional classrooms that I would be teaching science within, two science labs and one math classroom.

As my students and I moved through this year, I started to realize something important.  Not having the learning space that I envisioned was frustrating but it didn’t mean the innovative learning that I had seen the prior two years had to stop.  While we weren’t in what I consider an ideal learning space, at the end of the day, what really mattered was the learning environment, not the learning space.  Deep, innovative learning can happen anywhere.   I didn’t need comfy chairs and choice to create a learning environment where students are comfortable asking deep, thoughtful, hard questions.  I didn’t need flexible seating choices to create a learning environment where student teams are comfortable thinking big and broad, taking risks and failing fast and often.  I didn’t need a space that was easily manipulated and reorganized to create a learning environment where deep thinking and learning was the norm.  Over the course of this year, I realized the importance of the learning environment.  Learning environment, not learning space, cultivates learners.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am still a strong advocate for flexible learning spaces that encourage collaboration, creativity, problem solving and deep thinking.  In fact, when the opportunity arose to move into my own classroom for the upcoming year, I leapt at the chance.  I just believe that the learning space does not need to dictate the learning environment.  So, next week I will pull my flexible seating out of storage.  My students and I will determine how to organize our learning space and create a place where they can put on their best question asking and problem solving hats and get down to the business of deep, hard thinking and learning.  But I will remember that the learning space isn’t nearly as important as the learning environment.  We will create a welcoming environment where student learners feel safe and supported.  We will create a learning environment where student learners think about real problems and issues as they use their science understandings and learnings to tackle these problems.  We will create a collaborative environment that acknowledges the strengths and contributions of every learner, that respects differences in opinions and that honors learner feedback.   Learning spaces are important but, it is the learning environment, created by the learners that occupy it, that cultivates and nurtures deep, positive change.    

“Geeking Out” Thinking Differently about Research in Design Thinking

“Geeking Out” Thinking Differently about Research in Design Thinking

“When research is real, it doesn’t feel like research.  It feels like geeking out.  It feels like learning.”  When I read this in LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, I paused for a moment and thought  “boy, they totally hit the nail on the head”!  I am an inspired learner and when I discover something that piques my interests, I dive in.  Diving in is fun, exhilarating and inspiring!  

I picked up LAUNCH because I am “geeking out” over design thinking.  I have been enamored by design thinking since I was introduced to it several years ago at a district event focused on thinking differently about how professional learning opportunities are created and offered.  After this workshop, I began researching design thinking to learn as much as I could.  My research led me to the Stanford, Creative Confidence by Ideo founders David and Tom Kelley, multiple design thinking workshops and numerous blogs by educators who also saw the promise of design thinking in a classroom setting.  At the same time, I was trying to integrate problem and project based learning into our science classroom.  PBL and design thinking seemed to blend nicely.  

My first attempt at PBL and design thinking was a chemistry unit where students designed, built and tested filtration systems to clean simulated dirty water from rural Dominican Republic or urban India.  It was enlightening to frame the project around the end user of the product and developing empathy for their end users pushed kids to think differently.  

As I continue to use PBL and design thinking to frame our middle school science units, one area where my students struggle is during the “research” phase.  More often than not, there is generally a collective groan of unhappiness and I look out to a sea of misery stricken faces when the word research comes up in the classroom.  Students have visions of notecards and long, boring texts in their heads.  Many students would prefer to completely bypass this stage if given the opportunity.  But we can’t.  Research is critical to the design thinking and PBL processes.  It’s how we come to better understand our problem.  It’s how we develop empathy for our end user.  It provides a starting point to help forge our path.  So, how do we help students make the shift of thinking about research as boring to getting them excited about diving into a topic?  How do we help them get to the “geeking out” stage?  As Spencer and Juliani suggest, maybe it’s as simple as redefining what we mean when we say research.

My 13 year old son is an avid fisherman.  Give him a stick and a hook and drop him off at a body of water and he is in a state of bliss.  He recently purchased his first boat, a fishing kayak.  He’s been thinking about this purchase for awhile.  He got his final paycheck from the spring season of soccer refereeing last month and every time we got into the car, he asked when we could go to the sporting goods store.  I asked the obligatory parental questions of course:  “Have you done your research?”, “Do you really want to spend all $300 of your earnings on one thing?”,  “Can that thing even fit into my car?”.  He had an answer for every one of my questions but it wasn’t until we got to the actual store that I realized the depth of his “geeking out” on this boat.  

Now, my son is not a reader, getting him to read anything is like pulling teeth.  But, he is an inventor and an amazing user of YouTube.  This kid can find and learn about anything using video.  When he was ten, our power went out right before we woke up one school morning.  He is an avid collector of animals and the filter for his rather large Tiger Oscar fish had stopped working.  The fish was not doing well in his oxygen deprived state.  We have a generator for situations like this but we couldn’t get it to start.  My husband and I left for work; my son stayed behind trying to keep his fish alive by continuously churning the water.  I checked in two hours later to see how things were going.  He had been busy.  After using his 3G signal to access YouTube, he figured out what was wrong with the generator and how to get it started so that he could power the filter.  The power was still out but the filter was working and the fish was happy.

So, I should have realized that my questions about his forthcoming boat purchase were unnecessary.  Of course he would have done his research, on YouTube.  He started rattling off a list of features this particular kayak had and why they were necessary for his fishing endeavors.  He went on to tell me about at least ten “hacks” he was planning on making to customize his boat.  I don’t know how long he spent on YouTube geeking out but it was clearly hours.  He was researching, he was learning, but in his mind he was just  following his passions and using the tools that allowed him to best access what he decided he needed to know and understand.  

Spencer and Juliani define research as “anything we do to answer our questions and make sense of new information”.  Our classrooms need to become the safe spaces where students are the generators of the questions that drive the learning.  When we give students the opportunity to discover the answers and solutions to the questions that they ask, this becomes the first step to making the transition from just “doing research” to “geeking out”.  This is a subtle shift in language but a significant shift in student ownership.  Students are now the directors of their learning, “geeking out” happens and teachers are the facilitators and coaches that help student learners navigate their learning journey.  

I am excited to continue to “geek out” about design thinking as I entwine the LAUNCH cycle into our learning space this year.  I also look forward to helping my students find their way to the geeking out stage of the design thinking process.  Like Spencer and Juliani write “research isn’t about reading; it’s about learning”.

The Road to Gradeless

The Road to Gradeless

Inspired by the experiences of Starr Sackstein and Joy Kirr, last January, I decided to significantly modify how “grades” were determined in my 8th grade science classroom. Like many, I teach within a school and a district that abide by a traditional grading philosophy, requiring a final “grade” for each student.  So while my student learners and I were unable to go completely gradeless, we got as close as possible. Going gradeless last semester was a significant change for my students that forced me to critically analyze the feedback I provide to my student learners.

The Shift to Learning over Grades

I have emphasized learning over grades for several years (see my previous blog post, Focus on the Learning: The Power of Mastery), so this shift was a natural progression for me as an educator. I plan our learning journeys using backwards design, starting with the end in mind and then working alongside my student learners to help them navigate towards their target destination. Within each learning objective, I still assess student work, formatively to help learners visualize and evaluate their paths towards mastery. I give specific feedback and also provide a number “score” using a Mastery Grading Scale I created based on Marzano’s work on standards based grading. If I feel that a student demonstrates limited command of an objective, I provide specific feedback to the student to help push their thinking and understanding, but do not provide a score. After learners reflect on their feedback and revisit and revise their thinking, I add a rubric score. While I require those who do not demonstrate at least moderate command to reflect and revise, every student is always welcome to push their thinking and understandings through the revision process. After completing all of the learning activities associated with a learning objective, students complete a reflection on their learning (Space – Learning Objective #5 – Personal Evaluation & Reflection). I also ask my student learners to mini-conference with me about their evaluation & reflection. I let them know that while I might challenge them in their mini-conference I will always respect and honor their assessment of their overall learning. Most of my student learners completed 3 learning objectives during the 3rd quarter and the 4th quarter. This means there were 12 points total in the grade book for each quarter. I used the following scale to weave my 4 point system into my school’s traditional grading system. 

Reflecting on Our Journey to Gradeless

At first, my student learners were excited when I introduced our learning focused system. Eventually they realized that the ownership of learning was placed on them. Some kids embraced this, some kids didn’t. We worked hard on reflections throughout the semester. During the first round of reflections, most kids assessed “how hard they tried” rather than their level of understanding. Although I focused primarily on verbal feedback during the first round of reflections, my limited written feedback also left  much to be desired (Student A, Student B). By the final round of reflections, both my student learners and I were improving. This improvement involved lots of modeling for the students, both by myself and their peers. I also focused on the questioning strategies I used with my student learners as we verbally conferenced on their learning reflections. I also drastically changed the format of the reflection documents. By the end of the semester the student reflections were significantly deeper, more thoughtful, and evidence based and focused more on their learnings and understandings rather than their effort levels (Student A, Student B).

Bumps in the Road to Gradeless

An unanticipated issue I experienced was a handful of students who completed all learning experiences for a learning objective and then did not complete their learning reflections. I wasn’t expecting this and was not quite sure how to handle this roadblock. I decided to address the issue on a case to case basis. I structure my class so that student learners can complete all learning experiences, revisions, reflections and mini conferences during our class time. I ended up working with the majority of kids who did not complete self-reflections 1:1 to verbally help them work through their reflections.

Navigating the Road to Gradeless in the Upcoming Year

As I anticipate the upcoming year, I am considering eliminating the mini-conferences after my students participate in their first round of learning reflections unless I disagree with their learning self assessments or they would like to mini conference with me. I am also thinking of giving student learners the option of completing their learning reflections verbally through a tool like Voxer or via video. I also plan to provide more structures and scaffolds to help my student learners assess one another more effectively and provide specific peer feedback that moves everyone’s learning forward.

I would appreciate comments and feedback from others who are thinking about or are actively making the transition to a gradeless classroom. What successes have you had? What structures have you provided or implemented that have been effective in helping student learners take ownership of their learning? What speed bumps have you encountered and how have you addressed them?

It’s time to change our definition of literacy

It’s time to change our definition of literacy

I teach middle school science. This year, I taught several 8th grade learners who were reading at a K-2 grade level and many who were reading well below grade level; some of these learners are identified with specific learning and/or emotional needs and receive additional services, many of them are not. All of my eighth grade learners will be transitioning into a high school science course load in August. Sadly, due to their struggles with literacy, too many of them will struggle immensely with this load if they have a traditional secondary teacher.  This is a problem; how can we expect students to successfully read to learn when they are still learning to read?

The struggle many of my students will experience will not be the result of laziness, apathy or inability, it is simply the result of inadequate reading skills that are necessary when content must be accessed primarily via reading. Multiple studies have confirmed that students who are not reading at grade level in third grade are significantly less likely to graduate from high school (Hernandez, 2012). The transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” customarily occurs after third grade. By the conclusion of third grade, students are expected to begin to extract information from texts and make meaning of it as they also enhance their vocabulary (Center for Public Education, 2015). As learners move into the intermediate grades, many teachers are able to provide the scaffolding and support to help those who struggle with reading and who don’t fall into the traditional (and might I say ineffective) education timeline continue to access content. Eventually, however, these non-traditional learners (non-traditional only in the sense that how they learn doesn’t quite fit into our traditional education system) enter the secondary grades. They face six to eight content specific teachers, whom, given the culture and organization of the school, may or may not communicate effectively amongst one another about their students. Those students still learning to read are now just expected to be able to read to learn and are being supported in many cases by educators who don’t have experience or the skills to teach them how to read. Here’s where the disconnect begins to solidify.

Over my 15+ year teaching career, I have heard well meaning, well intentioned, dedicated content <img src="underwater.jpg" alt="Those who struggle to read are usually unsuccessful, not because they don’t want to learn but simply because they can’t even begin to access the material in the manner it has been presented to them."> teachers say: “I can’t help these kids, I’m not trained to teach kids how to read”. In secondary content specific classes, I continue to see typical “read this section/chapter/article and summarize/outline/answer analysis questions” tasks being given, sometimes differentiated, sometimes not. Those who struggle to read are usually unsuccessful, not because they don’t want to learn but simply because they can’t even begin to access the material in the manner it has been presented to them.

This is not ok! I am tired of hearing “I can’t help these kids” or “we need to change our expectations because this is the best they can do”. It is my responsibility as a science teacher (and as someone who believes in all kids) to help every single one of my student learners make meaning and understandings of science. True, I was certainly not trained to teach kids how to read but I am passionate and knowledgeable and excited about helping kids understand how science intertwines with their lives. I need to make science accessible to all kids, regardless of their learning style, their strengths or their weaknesses. And truth be told, while this may have been harder just ten short years ago, it’s not now, it just requires a different mindset and perspective. We are surrounded by tools and pedagogies that can help all kids, regardless of their reading level or learning style, access text and information; Newsela, YouTube, audio tools, shared reading and PBL just to name a few. A student that can’t read at grade level, or even close to grade level (yet), can still access and make meaning of secondary science content as long as their teachers help make the content accessible to them.

Don’t misunderstand me, I believe that literacy is a critical skill that provides an avenue for us to be successful in our ever-changing world, but literacy now encompasses much more than traditional reading and writing skills. In “Literacy is Not Enough: 21st-century Fluencies for the Digital Age”, Crockett, Jukes and Churches state “In schools, we need to move beyond our focus on text and expand to include visual media. We need to rethink what our definition of literate is, because a person who is literate by the standards of th<img src="perspective.jpg" alt="I will continue to advocate for a change of perspective and mindset in education that acknowledges every learner is different, knowledge can be accessed, created and shared in many formats and there is never just one “right” path to learning."> e 20th century may be illiterate in the culture of the 21st century.” (Crockett, Jukes, Churches, 2012). Just today, I read a blog post from George Couros in which he says “When we see literacy about more than reading and writing, meaningful consumption and creation of media in different elements should be a norm while continuously evolving.”.  As educators, we must remember this and use an enhanced definition of literacy to help all kids be successful. Every one of my student learners, regardless of their reading level, is a learner. Every learner has strengths that help them learn. All educators must recognize this. I will continue to advocate for a change of perspective and mindset in education that acknowledges every learner is different, knowledge can be accessed, created and shared in many formats and there is never just one “right” path to learning.


Crockett, Lee, Ian Jukes, and Andrew Churches. Literacy Is Not Enough: 21st-century Fluencies for the Digital Age. Moorabbin, Vic.: Hawker Brownlow Education, 2012. Print.

Hernandez, Donald J. How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation. Rep. The Annie E Casey Foundation, 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 June 2017.

Learning to Read, Reading to Learn Why Third-grade Is a Pivotal Year for Mastering Literacy. Rep. Center for Public Education, Mar. 2015. Web. 30 June 2017.

Photo Credits

Keep Throwing Darts at the Dartboard

Keep Throwing Darts at the Dartboard

I recently viewed the A Plus condensed version of Will Ferrell’s commencement address to the graduating class of 2017 at USC: Ferrell’s charge to “keep throwing darts at the dartboard” resonates deeply with me.  This has been a challenging year, maybe the most challenging of my 16 years as a middle school science teacher.  I accepted a position at a new school in a new district.  I had three preps, none of which I had taught before, and I moved classrooms 4 times throughout the day (although this movement helped me gain a much better appreciation of how our students feel during their school days).  This year was hard.  It pushed me way outside of my comfort zone.  It was a year of steep, steep learning.  It was frustrating at times but it was also deeply rewarding.

I love teaching.  My passion is to create learning opportunities and environments where kids push their thinking, find and develop their strengths, are creative, think critically and discover and develop new ideas and understandings.  Creating this environment though is a messy process and requires constant revision and reflection, problem solving and risk taking.  The bullseye on my dartboard is student understanding. Here’s the thing though; the bullseye is on the move, it’s always changing, it’s constantly getting tweaked and sometimes it gets completely revised. The bullseye on my dartboard looks different with every new group of learners in August.  It is modified with every new learning objective that we are working towards.  It is adjusted based on the needs of every learner that walks through our classroom door.  The bullseye on my dartboard must be tweaked every day depending on what happened to each learner earlier that day, the night before, last month or years before.

Every time I throw a new dart at my dartboard, I aim for the bullseye but I know I’ll never quite get there. If I think I have, it’s probably time to do something else because I’ve lost sight of my target.  This is what makes teaching exciting and rewarding but hard.  This moving bullseye gives me the push to take risks and try new things. This year I threw lots of darts.  I completely missed a few times, especially in those first few months of the new year.  But I also think that I threw some darts that were pretty darn close to hitting their mark. Through all of this dart throwing, my student learners amazed me.  They were creators, they were problem solvers, they were risk takers, they were thinkers, they were learners.

I learned as much from my misses this year as I did from those darts that were creeping up on the bullseye.  As I close out my first year in my new school, I look forward to reflecting on what my student learners taught me this year.  I look forward to taking my learnings from this challenging year and recalibrating my aim for next year’s darts.  I look forward to the next school year when I will continue to ‘keep throwing darts at the dartboard”.

Photo Credits: DartboardDartboard with Darts

Challenge, Choice, Creativity, Constraints……Innovation

Challenge, Choice, Creativity, Constraints……Innovation

A snippet of dialogue that occurred multiple times over the last three weeks:  I had challenged my 6th grade TIDE (Technology, Innovation, Design and Engineering) students to design, engineer and showcase something that would inspire and/or impact another person.  Individually or in small groups, they had come up with some great ideas including light-up slime, a website to help people find and donate to credible charities and R.’s idea that involved designing and building a moving vehicle that younger kids could experiment and play with.

The students, using design thinking, began by empathizing with the end user of the product they had decided to create.  After ideating and zeroing in one idea, they were now building their first prototypes and R. was struggling.  In all of our design challenges, there are criteria and constraints.  I believe that constraint begets creativity and innovation.  In this particular challenge, because so many ideas were being pursued, the primary constraint I gave the students was that they needed to create their prototype/s using things that they could find in our room.  I had one motor in the classroom, this was R.’s sticking point.

In his daily productivity logs, R. let me know again and again that he would not be able to successfully create the moving vehicle that he had envisioned unless he had many more motors.  
Four days into the challenge, I almost gave in but then I reminded myself of what happens when we have constraints.  We are forced to get creative.  We are compelled to get innovative.  We are pushed to think more deeply.  And as a result, we often create/develop something that is better, or at least really different, than we originally intended.  I stood strong and kept encouraging him.  Day 6 – Breakthrough!

After being stuck for 6 days, R. figured out a solution.  He spent the next 5 days tweaking and testing and tweaking and testing his prototype until he was satisfied.  When he showcased his work, his smile stretched from ear to ear.  He was so proud that he, on his own, persevered through his struggles and was able to create a final product that met his original criteria.

Merriam-Webster defines a constraint as “the state of being checked, restricted, or compelled to avoid or perform some action”.  Constraints, at least in the minds of my middle school learners,are often perceived as a negative; things to avoid if at all possible.  After a year of multiple design challenges, each with their own criteria and constraints, I have a deeper understanding of the power of constraints.  Constraints can be an avenue to help learners open their minds, get their creative juices flowing and think differently and deeper.  When paired with choice, constraints push learners to be innovative.  Constraints are uncomfortable though and can be met with resistance.   As the learning facilitator, it is critical to create an environment where learners feel free to take risks while receiving encouragement, support, feedback, time and in some cases, scaffolding, to break through their self imposed walls and become problem solving innovators.  Constraints become the wings that allow a learner to fly.

                                                                                     Photo Credit:  Kyle Szegedi (Unsplash)
I’d love to hear how others embed and entwine constraints into learning opportunities.  How do your students respond?  What challenges have you faced?  What successes have you seen?
What is Innovation?

What is Innovation?

Innovation is a commitment.  It means being open and willing to think differently about common and not so common issues, problems, questions and learning targets.  Embedded within innovation is a willingness to take action even when the outcome being sought is not guaranteed.  Innovation can feel like a risk but it can also feel incredibly rewarding.  As I try to innovate in the learning space that my students and I call our classroom, it usually feels messy and chaotic in the moment but fulfilling and comprehensive upon reflection.  I hear the opportunities for learning that innovation creates in the questions and conversations of my students and I see the learning that innovation promotes in the physical manifestations of their problem-solving.  As we work towards learning deeply about the sciences together, innovation looks like inquiry, problem-based learning, engineering design challenges and design thinking.  It looks like collaboration and experimentation with a focus on deep learning, not grades.  It sometimes feels frustrating because deep learning is hard and takes time while turning in a paper for completion is not.   Innovation can also feel lonely depending on where others are in their own learning journeys.  At the same time, innovation in learning feels more inclusive and accessible to all learners, regardless of past performance and experiences, regardless of learning style, regardless of “baggage” that all learners bring to their learning experiences.  Ultimately, innovation both challenges and inspires me to become a better educator and learner.

Photo Credit:  Sky