Category Archives: Student work

It all started with my PLC…

One of the greatest parts of this position is I still get to dig into my own learning with colleagues – and a whole network of educators. Although I know my primary responsibility is to oversee the structure and support all the PLC’s at Graded, I just need to give a special shout out to my PLC on Digital Tools and Metacognition, as they have inspired some provocative steps of how I can support teachers in a blended environment. I’m focusing on three case studies across divisions to determine how digital tools support teachers’ reflection and leads to deeper practice in the classroom.

Case Study 1 : Kelli and I have been thinking about how to build a culture of thinkers in the first grade classroom. Here’s the journey so far…

  • Kelli and I started imagining what a classroom of thinkers would look like – Turning to Project Zero, we read an article about the practical application of thinking routines in the elementary classroom.
  • We used twitter to capture the most salient points of the article so we could pull a summary through coding using hashtags

Twitter Anchor

  • I went into Kelli’s room for an observation of the learning environment of a common instructional routine, the readers’ workshop. Even though she’ll be instructing toward “thinking” at different times, we’ll use this as our baseline to chart the shift of the student culture.
  • It just so happened that I checked my twitter account at the start of a #PYPchat that was sharing ideas about building a culture of thinking! (You can explore twitter chats and schedules here.) I jumped in and shared Kelli and my thinking – and the strategies in play. In exchange, other educators from around the world were sharing what they are doing in their classrooms.
  • I curated the best ideas of the chat, using our anchor tweets to align strategies and resources through Storify – the central tool that I am investigating as part of my PLC inquiry.

Storify with Kelli


What is emerging is a cohesive narrative that integrates research, classroom practice, Graded’s expectations for Teaching and Learning, and the voices of 30 other educators pursuing how to nurture a culture of thinking within similar environments across the globe. I’ve been reflecting a lot on how this changes my role – and the skill set I need to continue to build to best support teacher’s growth and student success.

It also begs a response to the question, “So what?” What impact will this work have on the success of Kelli’s first graders’ as thinkers? I know from the initial stages, we were able to build a much richer toolbox of strategies than Kelli and I would have been able to accomplish as partners. I hope by organizing our thinking and linking it to the goals we set from the beginning, we’ll be able to determine importance among the chatter of ideas and see deeper transfer to the classroom. The power, however, resides in Kelli’s commitment to creating the best environment for students. In a mere two weeks, Kelli’s claim, “they’re just not thinkers” has changed to “my kids are geniuses”.  I look forward to sharing reflection as the story unfolds – and appreciate the tools that support holding the story, creating an opportunity for our learning to be in service to Graded’s classroom and beyond.  I’m deeply grateful to colleagues like Kelli that inspire and energize me.


How do we share the learning?

There are always a few articles that remain as anchors for my thinking. These are places I go back to in an effort to recalibrate the work. Often they are instructional, curricular or assessment based. My friend Steven’s article, The Power of Audience resonated deeply with me as I observed learning across Graded’s campus last week. There are learning experiences that naturally lend themselves to an audience – and in fact, fall flat without one. The perfect example is music. Tuesday night, as I listened to Robbie conduct the semester culmination of band classes, Steven’s comment, “the most effective way to engage  students in learning is to create an authentic audience, giving them a sense that someone else (besides teachers and parents) cares about their work. They need to have a vision of a product that matters. They need to learn content and develop skills to complete the product,” rang true.  And I began to reflect on where do students have a vision of a product that matters? A product that results in more than a grade in a grade book?

Clearly, the yearbook itself is much like music – audience is essential. But the stages along the way matter as well. Forward to Karin and yearbook and a panel of 10 teachers and administrators evaluating four different designs for the 2011-2012 yearbook.  It would have been easy to isolate this experience within a class, with classmates voting on the strength of proposals of their friends. Instead, as we probed the thinking that served to inform their designs, I was reminded of  the work of Graded’s Project-based PLC Group and the audiences that exist to serve student learning on a daily basis. (If you scroll to attachments, there is an article that serves to highlight different examples of audience, called “A Hierarchy of Audience”).

Finally, the 4th grade team also provided another example of the powerful role of audience in their “math games for parents” event. As I wandered through the classrooms, I was struck by students’ ability to teach their parents some rules and mathematical concepts that had a few mom’s and dad’s scratching their heads, including a certain superintendent that we all know.

I’d like to challenge Steven’s conclusion, “When student work culminates in a genuine product for an authentic audience, it makes a world of difference.” I propose that we don’t wait for a culmination, but take advantage of serving students’ learning along the way.

… so how would you know you learned something if you didn’t get a grade?

“I don’t know,” was her response. And she looked at me with great confusion.

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to meet with two middle school students for “make up”  student-led conferences. We gazed intently at their laptops as they walked me through work they completed, observations of MAP scores and a self-assessment against some work behaviors (“I work hard in class all the time” – sometimes, always, never…) Unfortunately for them, I recently read Kohn’s The Case Against Grades and they were a captive audience coached to respond to my probing questions.

They were both well-prepared and I had been part of a thoughtful conversation with middle school teacher leaders on how to improve a potentially powerful structure. It seems things are off to a good start. Slides had been compiled to guide a story of the beginning months of school – but when it came to the question of “how do you know you’re learning,” they both hesitated, and started by going back to the grade to prove  they learned.

Kohn claims that, “Grades don’t prepare students for the ‘real world’ – unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant.” I’ve taught in non-graded environments, and although I believe deeply in the learning culture that emerges,  it was always a struggle. Learners need feedback; they need tools to help them measure their growth. They need to know where they are in relation to where they want to be. The question to me isn’t about grades, it’s about having a deep understanding of what the grade represents.

As we continued through her conference, one student spoke deeply about her goal – to play midfielder on the JV soccer team. Why? “It’s the hardest position – you need to defend and attack — you need to have endurance. You need to be a well-rounded player.” She knew exactly where she needed to grow to achieve her goal. It gave me pause of how I can support students in speaking with the same clarity in other areas.  As we continue with our curricular review and build shared clarity around strategies for communicating learning targets to students, I’m confident we’ll see consistent dialogue from the soccer field to the science lab about what it takes to advocate for learning. Our school-wide goal around assessment is intended to foster exactly this culture.

It is exciting to watch  practices emerge across the Graded campus, and hear thinking percolate about the importance of reflection as noted in a number of PLC Groups. Like the middle school students, I, too am tackling going beyond what I do – to consider what it means, both to the organization and to my own practice.