Category: Learning

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”.

Summer “Learning”

Summer “Learning”

My son (let’s call him T) does not like school. He is a pretty good student overall, he does his homework without prompting from me, he behaves in class for the most part, he excels in some areas (math) and struggles in others (reading) but, with the exception of recess, he has never been interested in school. He, like all of us, is a learner at his core, he just doesn’t like the way “learning” goes down at school.

During T’s first couple of summers in elementary school, I did what I thought parents were supposed to do to make sure their kids didn’t have “learning loss” over the summer – I purchased summer bridge books. I had him work on the bridge book for about 30 minutes every day in addition to reading 30 minutes every day. He hated those daily 60 minutes. He thought the bridge books were boring and he is dyslexic so reading is really tough. Last summer, the summer before 5th grade, I decided to forgo the bridge books and, without telling him, let T take control of his learning. (Amazingly, he never even questioned the lack of bridge books.) T ended up working on two projects last summer; developing a working pair of human wings and building and sailing a homemade boat.

T tackled the wings first; I tried not to interfere. He started with some research on YouTube (it’s fairly amazing what you can find when you Google human wings). He drew out some plans, made his list of supplies and asked for me to take him to the local hardware store. At the hardware store, he sought the advice of an employee about what materials were the most lightweight but durable and therefore excellent wing material. The employee also gave him some unsolicited advice; “Be careful where you take off from, I don’t want to see you on the nightly news.”. He purchased his supplies using his allowance money, went home and started building. T created about 6 different versions of his wings, testing and tweaking as he went. Ultimately, he only made it a couple of inches off of the ground but he didn’t care, he was thrilled by his success. My only contribution throughout his project was to tell him that he couldn’t jump off of anything higher than 12 inches as he attempted to take flight. As it turned out, I didn’t even need to enforce this rule because he decided a running start down a steep hill would be a better method to achieve lift off. Based on my observations from the side, T dabbled in economics, design thinking, physics, geometry, communications and effective research just to name a few but if you ask him, he’ll just say it was really fun to make human wings and try to fly.

Human Wings “In-Development”

About 3 weeks into the human wing endeavor, T decided to change gears and focus on making a working sailboat. Once again, I stood back and watched my 10 year old direct his own learning. Over the course of the next 4 weeks, he designed, built and successfully launched his boat in not 1, but 2 different Colorado lakes. From the side, I watched him dabble in budgeting, discount shopping, characteristic properties, weather and construction just to name a few, but again, if you ask him, he’ll just say it was awesome to be able to sail his own boat for an afternoon.

Sailboat Trial #1

This summer, T has decided to create an online store and sell some mini crossbows and arrows that he has designed and successfully tested. He continues to tweak his designs and he is currently 1 week into the website design process. I have no doubt that soon I will be able to list off a slew of things this project allowed him to dabble in and again, I’m sure if you ask him, he’ll say it is super fun to be the owner of a store and sell stuff that he made for money. 

As I’ve watched my son over the last 2 summers, I’ve realized that something important is often missing in our schools and classrooms (including my own 7th grade science classroom); the opportunity for kids to discover, develop and follow their own passions and interests. Why is it always the teacher and/or the curriculum that dictates what will be learned and how it will be learned? It seems like we have this entirely backwards. Although he would never call what he is doing learning, T loves “learning” over the summer because he is in charge, he is deciding where he wants to go and he is figuring out how to get there. What would happen if we consciously began to create opportunities in our schools for this type of learning to take place? Where would our students go if we focused on becoming their learning coaches rather than their teachers? What would our students walk away with by the end of every year if they were in charge of their own learning path? I want my own children and my students to love to learn all of the time, not just during the summer break from school. Maybe passion based learning is a great place to start.