Friday, February 27, 2015

Let it Snow or Let it Go: Evaluate your Instructional Activities

There are two competing thoughts about snow this time of year. The first thought of snow is one of wonder, beauty and anticipation. For people like me who live down in Texas, we see snow once every two or three years, so the mere thought of snow coming down brings fascination and excitement to my children's eyes.  I have to admit that I get pretty fired up about it as well.

Now the other side of the spectrum about snow elicits wonder but for a completely different reason.  My friends from the north who have been under several feet of snow for the better part of the  last two or three months express wonder about the snow.  They just wonder when it will ever go away.

Instructional Activities are like Snow

When a new activity is presented to the class, students will engage if and only if the task is interesting and relevant to them.  The higher the relevance, the more interest the activity will generate.  When used sparingly and more importantly at the appropriate time for meaningful learning, instructional activities can bring a lot of joy and excitement to learning.  When the activity is highly interesting and effective, students will want to know when the activity will return. 

When an instructional activity is overused or worse used as the primary learning tool of the class, students will wonder when the lesson will ever end.  Because the activity returns again and again, day after day, student engagement becomes snowed under by mundane redundancy.  If not addressed quick enough, students could become frost-bitten from the effects of the activity or frozen to learning all together.   If you need an mental model of what I'm talking about, see Ben Stein in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off".

"Let it Go" or "Let it Snow"

To ensure that your student engagement doesn't get snowed under by the overuse of an activity, here are some warning signs that will tell you whether the activity needs to stay or go.
  • Neurons freeze
  • Unhappiness accumulates
  • Motivation plummets
  • Behavioral issues increase
When teachers of excellence notice these warning signs, they make adjustments, and they determine what causes student apathy to the lesson.  If they need to, they find a new activity, because they understand this fact about learning.  Instructional activities are not the learning.  They are a tool for learning.  These teachers figure out how they can utilize a new or different activity to warm up their students to learning because they understand that student engagement changes like the weather.

At the end of the day, all of us can predict when students are becoming numb to any of our instructional activities.  The key is to be observant and responsive.  We have to understand that students have different affinities for learning and various reasons that they choose to connect or disconnect from learning.  After all, it is their learning, and when we focus on making learning fun and relevant to our students every day, they will never let go of their wonder and anticipation for learning.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Save Texas Seniors

One in 10 Texas Seniors may not graduate this year due to standardized testing.

Yes, 1 in 10.  Below is information that I received from TASA, Texas Association of School Administrators yesterday that outlines a bill in the Texas Senate that would give schools flexibility in the same way that they give schools flexibility with students in grades 5 and 8 who fail to meet the SSI (Student Success Initiative) requirements for promotion to the next grade.

Right now, Texas touts having the 2nd highest graduation rate in the nation at 88%.  If these seniors do not get some relief to the stringent testing requirements under STAAR EOC, I am certain that the Texas' graduation rate will drop significantly.   The chances of them passing STAAR EOC after graduation drop significantly because many of these students will choose not to return to school to get the remediation for this test.   While I do believe that all students must demonstrate proficiency to graduate, I believe that students must have multiple options to demonstrate that mastery, which is why I firmly support Senate Bill (SB) 149.

Here is what Senate Bill 149 would do to provide schools options to help all students graduate.

From TASA Communication 

SB 149 would allow school districts and charter schools to create individual graduation committees for students to determine whether a student qualifies to graduate despite failing to pass one or more EOCs. The committee is modeled after Grade Placement Committees in grades 5 and 8.

The Individual Graduation Committee (IGC) would include the following:
  • principal or the principal’s designee
  • teacher of the course in which the student failed the EOC
  • student’s school counselor
  • student’s parent or person standing in parental relation to the student, or a designated advocate, if applicable
Additional talking points for SB 149 include:
  • Students must still pass all courses required for graduation.
  • The vote for allowing the student to graduate must be unanimous.
  • The IGC may require additional measures for the student to graduate, including extra remediation and completion of projects or portfolios in the subject area in which the student failed the EOC.
  • The IGC is required to consider the following:
    • teacher recommendations
    • student’s grades in related courses
    • student’s score on the EOC
    • student performance on the any additional measures required by the IGC
    • number of remedial hours completed
    • student’s attendance
    • student’s performance on TSI
    • completion of dual credit courses, pre-AP, AP, IB courses
    • student’s rating of “advanced high” on TELPAS
    • student’s score of 50 or greater on a CLEP exam
    • CTE certification
    • any other academic information designated for consideration by the school board
TASA, other administrative organizations, TASB, and principal and teacher organizations all expressed support for SB 149 during Thursday’s hearing.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

5 Strategies to Inspire Commitment to Learning

How big a role does involvement play in the arduous task we call learning?  If you think about it, getting all kids involved in learning can be a challenging task.  With all of the learning styles, attitudes about learning, and perceptions that students have about content, great teachers are like sales associates in their approach to hook all students in learning.

But I'd like you to think of involvement in this way.  When kids or adults don't feel included in any task or worse, they feel like the task is being done to them, the chances that they'll take ownership of the task are slim to none.  To synthesize this idea further, read this Stephen Covey quote.

Source:  "Motivational Quotes"
Compiled by Mac Anderson

Evaluate your Student Commitment

To determine the level of student commitment to learning in your class, answer these questions.
  • What percentage of your students are committed to the learning in your class?  
  • How many kids are engaged in learning before you even begin your lesson?  
  • How many students are independently seeking support for concepts that illusive to them?
  • How many students are interested in learning about your content from other students in the classroom?
It's natural to have students that are not committed or even involved in the learning opportunities that we provide, but how we respond to these students determines whether or not we can convince them to choose commitment. 

5 Strategies to Inspire Student Commitment in Learning

  1. Leadership - When kids have the opportunity to help lead the learning, participation grows,
  2. Examples - When examples of student work are used as teaching tools, students motivation increases.
  3. Advancement - When students see how learning tasks help them grow in their abilities and knowledge, they become more committed.
  4. Real-world - When learning is tied to the real-world topics and issues that students can connect with, involvement grows.  The more relevant the learning, the more committed the learner.
  5. N-It-4-Me - Every lesson must be able to be able to answer this ever-present student question, "What's in it for me right now?"  If you can sell your content to your client, the student, chances are they will not only buy what your teaching but sell it to their peers on your behalf.  That's the ultimate form of student commitment to learning.

Learning can't occur at high levels without commitment.  How we intentionally engage kids in class everyday plays a huge role in determining whether or not kids will choose to get involved and ultimately commit to their learning.  When it comes to learning, remember this.  When kids are cognitively and personally involved in their learning, they will commit to any task that you put in front of them.

Friday, February 20, 2015

You Have Got to Try Mentimeter

What is your bell ringer activity tomorrow?  Why not try a poll?  How about an open ended response or a multiple choice question?  Even better, why not give students a rating scale?

But have Kids do it from their Cell Phone.

Mentimeter is a new program that you can use to engage your students in answering rigorous questions and enter their responses with their cell phone.    The instantaneous results will give you and your students automatic feedback to tell you where instruction needs to go, and it'll tell kids what they are lacking in their learning.

Try out My Mentimeters!!!

To get the full experience of mentimeter, get out your cell phone and go to and enter the code 84 44 64.  Then enter your response and watch the graphic below.

In ONE Word, describe a School of Excellence

go to and enter the code 94 02 43.

Rate all 4 Decades of Saturday Night Live 
(In honor of Dean Shareski)

Go to and enter the code 57 98 92.

Rigor, It's All the Rage...

Rigor is all the rage these days, both literally and figuratively speaking.  Everybody from the President on down believes that students must have more rigorous curriculum, more innovative instruction and challenging assessments to prepare them for the 21st century, for a college ready future, for a solid career pathway, and for whatever else we want kids to accomplish in America in the next decade.  But here's the question.  Can anybody that politicizes rigor tell us exactly what rigor looks like?

Diane Ravitch likens the perception of rigor to rigor mortis (a strict and rigid curriculum), and Barbara Blackburn (author of Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word) said, "People don't know what it means".  These two experts are right.  Rigor is one of the most confusing buzzwords today, and it has a different meaning depending on who you ask.  So the question becomes this.  How can administrators and teachers work together to define what rigor must look like to inspire kids to achieve success at the highest levels?

For more thoughts on rigor, click HEREHERE and HERE

Rigor Me This.

The problem that I see with rigor is not that we don't have rigor in our classrooms.  It's that we don't have an aligned understanding of what rigor must be so that students will be inspired to reach our rigorous expectations.  What teachers and leaders need is a common language about rigor, so that when someone says, "We Need More Rigor!", everybody knows what that means for kids.

To help educators work together to have some focused conversations about what rigor must mean, I whipped up this table comparing what it is and what it isn't.  My hope is that all educators within an organization will have meaningful discussions about rigor and create a common understanding, so that together they could make a rigorous school instead of rigorous classrooms.
Rigor is NOT
Rigor Is
More work
More appropriately
challenging work
Cognitive engagement
Q & A
Classroom discussion &
student collaboration
Hard classes
Rich learning environments
Hard work
Cognitive work
Selecting Correct
Making the best decisions from multiple correct responses
Depth of Work
Depth of Knowledge
Knowledge &
Creativity &
Based on the
verbs in a standard
Based on the
complete standard
Frustrating and
Challenging and

What would you add?  

12 Ways to Empower Student-Driven Learning

As a teenager, I hated driver's ed. Hated it... There was nothing more frustrating than sitting in that dorky car with the badge of shame on the car door that read "STUDENT DRIVER".  Every day I went to driver's ed with two thoughts. "How many more days until I can stop driving around town with this loser label on me, and how can I get rid of this teacher monitoring my driving?"  The day finally came when I was able to shed my scarlet letter of mobility as well as the driving instructor from my car.  I was finally able to drive all by myself.

So who's driving your students' learning in your classroom?

Kids disconnect from instruction that puts them in the passenger's seat. Quick-paced learners become annoyed when they have to wait for slower students. Slower-paced learners shut down when they aren't moving fast enough to keep up with the class. To truly own learning, students must be in the driver's seat. They need to have tasks and activities that engage them at their level and in their modality.   If you think about it, learning is a personal activity just like driving is. In order for kids to own their learning, the teacher can't be the one always driving them around town.  

Image by

Here are 12 Ways to Empower Student-Driven Learning

  1. Empower kids to find more than one way to solve a problem. 
  2. Build in collaboration time among students, so they can share their thinking with one another. 
  3. Create a mindset where wrong answers are great teaching tools, not horrible mistakes. 
  4. Provide activities that don't penalize slow-paced learners for not finishing quickly. 
  5. Have ongoing extension activities where faster-paced students can work on a personalized project tied to their interests. 
  6. Lecture only when it is information that the majority of the class must hear. 
  7. Intentionally integrate student discussion and conversation into instructional activities. 
  8. Encourage students to use technology to learn more about your content in a way that fits their learning style . 
  9. Provide students opportunities to preview new content before you teach it. (Flipped instruction)
  10. Limit the amount of time that students have to sit and wait.  The longer they wait, the more disconnected they will become. 
  11. Select activities that cognitively engage minds, not keep them busy.
  12. Provide activities tied to the student's interests. If they aren't interested, they won't own it. 
Please add your thoughts in the comment section.

Let Kids Take their Learning for a Spin

Driving for the first time was the most liberating experience for almost everyone of us.  Being in control as I sped down the road for the first time was awesome because finally being in the driver's seat was the best feeling in the world.  Learning is no different.  When kids have choice and control in determining their own personal pathway to learning, students will surpass engagement and be empowered to drive their learning.

Will School Accountability ever move into the 21st Century???

In 8th grade, I failed my first class ever.  I made a 68.48 in language arts.  Yes, .48. I failed by .02 of a point!  I did the math. I argued with the teacher and pleaded my case, but there was no changing her mind.  The grade was final, and there was nothing I could do about it.  It was the worst feeling ever knowing that I was officially a failure, but what made it worse was knowing that I didn't fail because of English. I failed because of my behavior.

My initial response was to blame the teacher for her inflexiblity, but I couldn't.  Her decision was one that was grounded in systemic approval and acceptance.  Calculating behavior and other non-learning factors into a student's grade was not only acceptable, it was the grading system.  What I learned was this; a grade really wasn't a reflection of learning; it was a combination of learning, compliance and other subjective factors.

Well, if I thought the embarrassment of my grade was bad, I had no idea just how terrible the consequences of my grade were going to be.  I was a member of the National Junior Honor Society.  Not any more.  I made the All-Region band, but now I was out.  Because I "failed", I was now a member of the Texas "No Pass-No Play" club.  I had earned a new distinction, and it wasn't one that I was proud of.

So What's in a Grade?

Well, if you've been in education for any amount of time as a teacher, student or parent, you've asked this question at least once. "How did you come up with that grade?"  Whether it was a failing grade, an 89 or a 79, frustration or confusion has arisen when trying to determine any grading policy. 

Well there's lots of ways to come up with a grade, but the best definition of a grade was written way back in 1957. 

Source:  Mike Mattos

So Let's Grade Schools on a 20th Century Scale

Well it only makes sense to give schools a grade. After all, we give kids a grade, right?  The system was good enough for us when we went to school, and we have to have some way to communicate how good of a job that schools are doing.  But before we slap a rating on schools, I would like to analyze current grading systems and the consequences and confusion that follows. 

1.  Met or Didn't Met Expectations

This is such an arbitrary system, and it's hard to understand why one school met expectations while another one didn't.  There are so many factors that contribute to the rating, and a simple notation of meeting or not meeting the mark confuses more than it conveys.   For example, schools in need of improvement often receive the label due to one of a multitude of indicators that were negatively affected by a few students. This overall designation of deficiency gives the community at-large the impression that the entire school is failing. 

2. A-F Rating System

How do you determine who gets an A and who gets a B?  What's the difference between a D & an F?  At the end of the day, if your school doesn't make the A, you're not good enough. At least that's what the grade will communicate to stakeholders when they read the score on the front page of the paper. The problem with this system is that a letter grade doesn't tell the whole story, and it doesn't communicate the factors that comprise the grade. Furthermore, the grade tells the community that your school is awesome, acceptable or awful. 

Fixed Minded Accountability  is so 20th Century, Let's  Measure Schools in the 21st Century

If learning is about the growth of an individual student, then let's have a system that gauges a school's growth.  The problem with fixed accountabilty systems is that the ratings don't show progress.  We preach the importance of learning as a  process over time.  We need an accountability system that affirms the performance of a school and measures the school's growth.

Here is one way that we could use to assign a grade based on 2 factors:  a school's growth in helping more kids learn at higher levels and a school's performance compared to its peers.

School Accountability Focused on Growth

+The school made sufficient growth from last year in helping all kids learn.+The school's performance is above the average performance of like schools.
OThe school maintained it's current progress from last year in helping all kids learn.OThe school's performance is on target with the average performance of like schools.
-The school declined from it's performance last year.-The school's performance is below the average performance of like schools.

A rating system like this would give stakeholders a good perspective on a school's overall academic health.  Is the school improving and is the school performing above similar schools?  In this table, if a school is declining and performing below its peer schools, you can easily tell that significant change needs to be made.  If a school is performing below the average performance of its peers but is growing, you can also tell that systems are working and need more time to bring the school up to acceptable levels of performance.  The idea is this.  A school shouldn't be judged on a single set of data based on a single year, but the school can be more fairly evaluated when it's performance is evaluated over time.  After all, isn't that what great teachers do for kids.

What are your thoughts?

A Random Act of Kindness for Every Teacher

Tomorrow is February 17, National Random Acts of Kindness Day.  Educators are some of the hardest working individuals in the world and have the biggest impact on the future of our world.  And with all of the demands and challenges that teachers and administrators face, it's not only overwhelming.  It can be downright impossible for them to see the differences that they are making.  Educators often hear about it when they fail to reach their goal, but how often do they hear how much they're appreciated?

So here is my challenge.  

Let's let all educators feel the power of the most undervalued yet most powerful random act of kindness ever.  Sure, you may be thinking that I'm talking about money, gifts, A NEW CAR (in my Price is Right voice), or some other trinket of appreciation, but I'm not talking about that.  I'm talking about something bigger, something better.  Here's what I'm talking about.


Tomorrow, I challenge you to reach out to educators that impact your world, that spend more time with your kids than you do and let them know how awesome they are.  No complaints tomorrow.  Save that for February 18.  On Tuesday, February 17, show a random act of kindness to an educator.

Here's How You Can Show Your Appreciation for Educators

  • Pick up the Phone and give them a Call
  • Send a Surprise Email
  • Post on Facebook how much you appreciate a specific teacher(s)
  • If you have time, stop by the school and tell them thank you.
Educators do so many things behind the scenes that they will never be recognized for.  Tomorrow, February 17 is  our day to let them know just how great they are.  A random act of kindness is special because it's not expected.  It has the power to inspire and even change lives.

What do you say?  Will you join me?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Overcoming the Failure Mindset

When you hear the word, failure, what thoughts come to mind?  Is it the end of the world, or the beginning of learning? Do you see doom and gloom or an opportunity for improvement?  Failure is a fact of life, but how we view failure and more importantly how we react to it has huge implications on a student's potential for learning. 

No matter your response to my first question, you haven't always viewed a child's failures as crippling limitations. If you think about it, children fail more in the first 3 years of life than at any point thereafter, and at no point did any of us think our children were failures. In fact, our parental statements communicated hope, encouragement and an eternal belief in our children's ability to grow and mature. 

To prove this point, we've all heard statements such as:  "He isn't walking yet", "She isn't out of diapers yet", or "We haven't broken him of the pacifier yet". No matter how concerned we became, we never uttered statements like, "He'll never walk", She'll always be in diapers!", or "I guess he'll suck on that pacifier forever!!!"  No matter the deficit or delay, we believed that our infant children would grow out of their infantile ways because we believed in the "Power of Yet"

Watch this short video by Carol Dweck and read this infographic from @wayfaringpath and ask yourself this question.   

Do you believe in your students and your own abilities enough 
that you know you can help your students 
grow from their failures and reach their potential?  

As educators, it is critical to remember that all students can learn and grow, and they do it at their own pace and in their own unique way.  We must also remind ourselves not to allow a student's failures of the day to drive our beliefs about his potential.  If we can't convince ourselves that students can overcome their failures, there's no way that we'll be able to help them believe they're anything other than a failure.  After all, someone saw more potential in you, and despite your flaws, that person gave you the support and encouragement to turn your setbacks into strengths.

Embedded image permalink
Source:  @wayfaringpath: Growth vs Fixed Mindset Graphic for Elementary