Tag: Learning

#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?

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.

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