Month: March 2014

Making assessment planning as yummy as cookies

Used by the creative commons license.

Authentic audiences, student voice / choice, SAMR friendly uses of technology, academic mindsets, thoughtful exhibition of student work, big ideas, essential questions, cross-curricular connections, and critical thinking…it’s enough to make my brain burst!

In many ways I feel like going deeper into deeper learning and 21st century pedagogy through the DLmooc and Cohort 21 has been akin to opening pandora’s box of education. Now that I am more aware of all the essential ingredients of this brave new teaching and learning, I feel like I have a duty to include as much as possible in the projects I design for my students. But how can I keep track of it all?

I think it is important to note at this time that while so much of the DLMOOC was brilliantly affirming, little of what I have uncovered through the DLMOOC was revolutionary; I teach in a pedagogically progressive school that has had a institutional crush on High Tech High for many years now. We have been collectively considering the “ingredients” in the above list for many years now and I have personally experimented with many of these elements in my own classroom. However, I have rarely wound most of these items together into one fulsome project. The best analogy I can come up with is that I have eaten eggs and chocolate chips and butter and sugar and flour independently, but now it’s time to throw them together to make something greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, who is ready for some cookies?

Ridiculous List

A ridiculous list

I made a ridiculous list of all the different aspects of deeper learning explored through the DLMOOC and added to this list all the aspects of 21st century learning I articulated in earlier blog posts that I felt were not touched on by High Tech High. Then, I opened a performance based assessment planner I adopted from Wiggins and McTighe Understanding by Design and started to expand this planner to modify it from simply assessing a performance task to articulating all the different components that would make a deep project.

Before I started to plan new projects with this tool, I thought it would be wise to plug in the details from my last project, The Great Debates of Grade 7. This project had some wonderful moments and inspiring achievements, but I felt like there were some key ingredients missing (have you ever tried to make cookies without flour, for example?) for myself and my students. In other words, I want to turn this cookie-soup into something that would make Martha Stewart blush.

ENG SOC Debates

[The Annotated DLAP Debates File]

Once I added all the ingredients into the revamped project planner, I noticed some great areas that could be improved. I added some stickies to the PDF of this planner to highlight what I think I could have done differently (a handy point of reference if I resurrect this project for next year).

Looking through this, I am energized to start considering my next project for when I return from the March break. I know that not every teacher becomes as giddy as I do by the notion of organizing and planning projects, but this template could be a game changer for me in terms of turning good projects into great projects. Moreover, on paper, this seems like a lot: there are many little details that could block me from actually launching a project (will it take me longer to plan my projects than it will to execute them?) and considering so much of the minutia, I might not see the forest for the trees. However, I envision using this tool for a time being: eventually, I hope, this framework will become like second nature (remember making daily plans in teacher’s college and then just eventually embodying the flow of an effective lesson?) to me and something I can naturally consider and execute.

I assume that this planner would make more sense and be more effective if you have some versing in project based learning already. If you have never considered what growth mindsets mean, I don’t imagine that having a bubble on a box with the given prompt will mean anything or promote deeper projects in your practice. So for the PBL neophytes out there, perhaps I will eventually add some useful links  (would this be helpful?) to anchor what I’m taking about.

While I feel like putting this planner together is really selfishly for me to polish my project design, I’m hoping that someone else out there might benefit from this, or (even better) could adopt this and then remix it to take it to the next level. In the meantime, I will be using this to plan out my next project in Grade 7 English, so stay tuned to see how that goes.

Various Versions of the Document

.docx Deeper Learning Assessment Planner (with kind of wonky, but editable, formatting)
PDF Deeper Learning Assessment Planner (with pretty, but unchanging, formatting)
Pages Deeper Learning Assessment Planner (with pretty, and editable, formatting)
The Annotated DLAP Debates File




Revised Action Plan

I have to admit that I have enjoyed the messiness of my journey this year to uncover and articulate my action plan. I knew that I wanted to explore something related to personalized learning and my English teaching specifically, but it really took me some murky moments to understand what I need to improve and develop my practice.

Through my exploration of what “21st century learning” means and discovering more about “Deeper Learning” with High Tech High, I’m realizing my need to design a project planner (similar to Wiggins and McTighe’s performance based assessment) that will allow me to map out and plan for deeper learning. I am noticing that there are so many different components to 21st century / deeper learning (growth mindsets, authentic audiences, thoughtful exhibitions, student voice / choice, SAMR considerations, content mastery, reflection, meaningful collaboration, and self-directed learning comes to mind just to name a few) and it is challenging to ensure that the projects I design consider these numerous, yet essential components.

I want to design a project planning template and reflect on my past debating project, using this template to consider how to improve it for next year. Moreover, I want to publicly share this template for others to use and benefit from.

The Great Debates of Grade 7 (part two)

Debate Composition 2
What I Saw The Students Actually “Do”:

I am a (new) big fan of the “know, do, reflect” model of assessment that came up during the Assessment panel discussion in the Deeper Learning MOOC. Bob Lenz’s model, I think, could be a new way for me to understand how I can structure my assessment tasks in Grade 7 English.

When students had chosen their resolution, they were charged with finding a piece of evidence from Canadian History, a piece of evidence from The Book Thief, and a piece of evidence from anything else (for example: their own lives, another book, an online article, or another example from history / The Book Thief) to support their position. It was fantastic to see students take the “knowing” that they have developed over the term and actually apply it; the resolution acted as the thread which stitched together these seemingly separate experiences (the Native experience of residential schools, the miseducation of Liesel Meminger, and the movie Mean Girls, come to mind). I saw students grappling with understanding whether all education was good education, if oppression happens in their own schoolyard in addition to battlefields, and scouring their knowledge of current events to discover that Malala’s struggle is important and not at all unique). I also saw students think on their feet and demonstrate authentic understanding when they could effectively refute their opponent’s argument with a snappy rebuttal.

I also saw students creatively work collaboratively with other students. They were assessed individually, yet each group member found creative ways to support their teammates. I saw students practice with each other, others explaining the debating form to each other, I saw some students help clarify each other’s arguments, and show problem solving skills when teammates didn’t show up for their scheduled debate.

Moreover, I saw students effectively leverage Google tools and ask each other for feedback through the comments feature of their Google Doc, but also monitor and accept valuable feedback from their teachers.

This is one audio recording of a debate that really shows the student’s understanding of her resolution and the evidence selected to prove her point.

What I Wished I Saw The Students “Do” (also known as the challenges):

As with all projects, there are aspects that did not go quite as planned / hoped. There is a limited amount of time and resources that often translate into significant challenges and shortcomings. For example, for the two weeks leading up to the debates, my colleague was sick and needed time away from school. Then I had my wisdom teeth out and needed time to recover. Then we went on a class trip to Haliburton forest. All of this translated into significant portions of independent time for students, which some students did not take full advantage of. I’m wondering now if we should have prepped them more for this, given them more “pep-talks” about the benefits of managing your own learning, and taking responsibility for yourself. That said, some students were exceptionally competent with checking their Google Doc for feedback and responding with follow-up questions or taking on the feedback eagerly. Then other students needed their parents to get involved in order to realize that they had work to do.

Part of me wonders if those students we had to “chase” down more would have really benefitted from a more personalized learning task. Can you have a more “self-directed” assessment with students as young as Grade 7? Or should you develop their learning skills first before you expect such feats from them? Or are these mini-failures necessary in order for students to understand how to manage themselves differently?

I also wish that students were not daunted by the “form” of debating before this task. If I were to do this project again, I would start the term with a benign debate about something like school uniforms or homework (some topic where the content knowledge is already within the students), so they could get comfortable with the debating structure. Then, when the end of the term showed up, their cognitive energy could just get channelled towards their resolution.

In The Students’ Words:

After the last debate, we had the students fill out a debate feedback form through Google. While this could be deemed as a the “reflect” component of the triangle, I think a more thoughtful reflection (one that the students just wanting to speed through the experience couldn’t just rush through) would be essential.

That said, are are some carefully harvested comments (not even sort of  edited to prove that real students actually wrote them) that show some of the learning the students had during this project:

In regards to your debate topic: complete the prompt “I used to think, but now I think…”

  • “I used to think education was just in a classroom no i think you can be taught nearly everything.”
  • “I used to think, that education could only be a good thing; but now I think it could be both.”
  • “i used to think that risky acts of rebellion will only get you it trouble, but now i think that they can also make change for the world or even just in your household.”

In regards to the practice of debating: complete the prompt “I used to think, but now I think…”

  • “i used to think that people just argued when they debated but now i think that it is much more civilized.”
  • “I used to think coming up with points was easy. Now I think that it takes time to come up with points.”
  • “I used to think that over practicing was good but it actually just makes you more scared.”
  • “I used to think that I didn’t need much practice, but now I think that the more practice you do, the better you get.”
  • “I used to think that you don’t have to believe it to debate it, but now I think that when you are convinced you can convince others better than if you thought that it was garbage.”

So maybe your teachers were hoping you would learn more about “othering”, “resistance”, “or the power of words” and how to support / connect your ideas, but what did you REALLY learn during this experience?

  • “That you have to cooperate and talk with your partners and that you can’t skip workinging on it every time we are is class.”
  • “not to stress yourself out, but also to give yourself more time then you think you might need”
  • “I really just learned how to debate and think on the spot, which was really hard for me before this project.” 
  • “I learned how to work with a partner and how important it is to communicate with your partner when you are working with them on a big project like this.”
  • “I really learned how to look at things in 2 different sides”
  • “I learned that it was okay to feel a lot of pressure and so much nerves.”
  • “I learned that all these topics are debatable and there is truly no answer.”
  • “That Debating is hard and to strt to wor on projects the second you get them.”

Project Tuning:

Considering the Deeper Learning paradigm and the importance of developing 21st century skills in my students, what suggestions (or probing questions) do you have for refining this project in future years? What would you have done differently to help foster deeper learning or a more authentic project?

The Great Debates of Grade 7 (part one)


Be it resolved that teaching students how to make deep connections between disciplines, in a limited amount of time, is a ridiculously challenging experience.

Thank goodness for March break (and the warm sun of Florida) to digest and make sense of this learning experience.

A few weeks ago, I posted about one of the learning tasks I recently posed to my students, The Matrix of Connections, which eventually led into what I am going to be describing here, the great debates of Grade 7. Our amazing Grade 7 social studies teacher and I realized that The Book Thief and Canadian History actually, surprisingly, had a great deal in common. We started by articulating the themes in the novel that we could also see threads of in Canadian History (it really helped, I might add, that my social studies colleague deeply understands Canadian History and I have read The Book Thief no fewer than five times…so we could each scour through the seemingly arbitrary pieces of information to make sense of the whole). The three themes that we articulated were: the power of words, the “other”, and resistance. Each column in the Matrix corresponded to one of these themes; one challenge we posed to the students was to try and name each of these categories. In some instances, the student’s titles were much more insightful than my own (my favourite was the “two sides of words”…wow).

All this connecting was just practice for the debates that would challenge the students to build bridges between Canadian History and The Book Thief and we started with those three themes to develop a selection of resolutions.

Debate Composition 3

Points to Argue Over:

My colleague and I drafted up  15 different resolutions that we thought students could find evidence for and against (not an easy task). In a perfect world, we would have had much more time and generating the resolutions would have been a fantastic, challenging experience in critical thinking for our students. But with the restrictive deadline of March break limiting our timeline, we chose to draft them ourselves. Students chose their top three resolutions that they would like to debate and we put them into groups, considering the delicate social and academic needs of our girls.

  • The most common debate topic: “Be it resolved that education is the greatest gift you can give” and “Be it resolved that the pen is mightier than the sword”.
  • The most complex debate topic chosen: “Be it resolved that the first step of ‘othering’ is portraying yourself as morally superior”.
  • The most provocative debate topic argued: “Be it resolved that there are some advantages of being ‘othered'”.

While my students clearly had some agency in their debate experience, I keep coming back to the “voice and choice” module from the Deeper Learning MOOC, specifically one of the readings by my favourite educational contrarian, Alfie Kohn, in which he argues that students need more democratic classrooms and opportunities to practice autonomy in their own learning. While I gave my students choice over their topics and how they would prove why their resolution should stand or fall, much of this experience was dictated by me (the fact that we were going to debate, the resolutions, the groupings, the kinds of evidence that were valid). While I told myself that these restrictions were imposed due to timing, are there ways that I could open up this project for more voice and choice in future years?

Growth Mindset in Action (literally)



Tagging on to my reflections about mindsets from the DLMooc work, I wanted to share an experience I had as a teacher this past week.

Every winter, the Grade 7 class spends three days north of Toronto in the forest, making peace with winter. This was my first time on this particular trip and I fully embraced the minus 30 weather (that’s in celsius) and all the winter-themed activities, being the enthusiastic teacher I am, even though I fully admit that winter is not exactly my thing.

Our first activity was cross-country skiing. Once we strapped the skis to our little boots, our incredible instructor first taught us how to fall! This is genius, I thought, everyone needs to know how to fail and fail well right from the get go. You need to know the steps for how to get back up and you need to know that falling is totally normal and just part of the process of learning something new. This, I thought to myself, is actually how I should start my school year: teaching my students how to fail well. How do you bomb a test or revise your work based on feedback? How do you take risks and learn from those setbacks? I’m also actually wondering how you design learning experiences that require students to take big risks and experience failure by design…but that might be another blog post. Back to the snow for now.

Once I started to realize that cross-country skiing is just a really cold (or cool) metaphor for academic mindsets, I started to watch and talk to my students in a completely different way. I was watching with interest one student, I’ll call her Sadie, who just kept on falling over and over (and over) again. It was like a mini slap-stick comedy watching this young person take a few strides and then collapse like a rag doll repeatedly. The most amazing thing about Sadie, though, was that she just kept getting back up and had a huge smile on her face the whole time. She didn’t complain once either: she just fell, got back up, tried something new, maybe fell again, and then kept on going. She actually got pretty good too after 2 hours of this process! Thinking about Sadie in the classroom, this pattern is also present: she can take bold risks, she can improve her learning, and isn’t afraid of not being “right”. It was incredible to see how these are linked! Once I saw how important this skill is, I was deliberate in how I praised her in front of other people, “Hey Sadie, I really love how you are just getting back up again after every time you fall. You are really showing so much persistence with learning this new skill. You are going to get stronger and better just because you are not afraid to fall down and it’s not a big deal for you to get back up again.” It’s not as important to just be “naturally awesome” at cross-country skiing and praising that skill; it’s more valuable to praise the effort and persistence, because this is what I ultimately want my students to develop.

But not everyone had Sadie’s mindset. I was at the back of the pack, so I could see most of the group ahead striding forward or falling back. Another student, I’ll call her Rebecca, was really having a hard time. She had little experience cross-country skiing and so was hesitant (like me) about what she was doing. She asked me if she had to do this. She asked at one point if we could turn around. She said a few times, “I’m just not good at this,” especially after she would fall. She also complained vociferously about her cold hands. The way I coached her, I decided, had to be about her mindset, not about her skill. I asked her if she was born being good at volleyball and how she developed this skill, and she said, “I just practiced.” I responded by saying, “Yes. And this is just practicing something different. You have to be okay at being terrible at something for a little while to learn something new.” But I started to see that just telling her to be comfortable with this “stage of sucking” wouldn’t necessarily be enough for her to think differently about her learning. Luckily for Rebecca, she actually started to get better at it over the course of the 2 hours. This was my moment! “Hey Rebecca!” I called to her. “Check out how you have been falling way less over the last 20 minutes. You are slowly starting to get better. You also seem to be having much more fun now too! If you can stick to something through the uncomfortable parts, it can actually become more fun.” Taking these moments to reflect for our students how they are growing is so important. It could be an informal moment in the woods in the winter, or it could be a more formalized report card comments, but students need to hear praise framed with academic mindsets in order to develop this thinking themselves.

I can now see that students with a fixed mindset will avoid and complain about what they find challenging. Off the trail, I am now seeing this in my classroom all the time. Students will disengage from projects that they think they might experience failure with. One student recently told me that our debate project was boring (gotta hand it to young people, they don’t hold back what they really feel), only to then later acknowledge that she was actually really struggling with finding good arguments for her resolution. If I can set up my program to start with learning how to fail well, I wonder if students could approach academic projects like Sadie on skis: ready to take risks and get back up again in pursuit of learning. If I find moments for students to see that it is okay to struggle with something and not being amazing at something often has to happen before we really start to enjoy what we are doing, could students embrace the process of learning as well as the final result? If I cultivate moments to prove to my students that they are indeed growing and changing, would they be more likely to take on bigger challenges because they know they are capable of amazing things?

While it might be possible to see mindset moments in the peace and tranquility of a forest on cross-country skis, it is less easy for me to see how to build this developing understanding into my projects and classroom learning experiences. In the meantime, I think it is incredibly valuable to outwardly praise the evidence of growth mindsets when they show up in my classroom and reflect for students how they are growing and changing overtime to help them see that their intelligence is not fixed. In other words, I am still figuring out growth mindsets and embracing my own “stage of sucking”, for the sake of my students.

Reflections on Feb. 27th Lens into the Classroom: Mindsets

This week, the DLMOOC was focusing on mindsets. While I have read Carol Dwek’s book and have experimented modestly with incorporating the idea of growth mindsets into how my projects are designed, I really appreciated the honest grapplings during the lens into the classroom dilemma. Matt Biller and Kevin Denton from Polaris Expeditionary Learning School. I haven’t yet figured out how to meaningfully include this philosophy of growth, change, grit, and self-improvement into every project I design for my students (although, I do think I’ve had some success with this…more on that later), so seeing how two teachers do it (and how they can do it better) gave me some great ideas.


My top three take-aways From watching the protocol:

1. Grades are a feature of schooling, and not necessarily of learning.
We have just written our report card comments and our parent-teacher conferences are scheduled for this week. A few teachers are starting to notice the challenge with students and parents focusing their attention on the numeric grade, rather than the learning, success, challenges, and next steps. I have often thought how great it would be to just do away with grades altogether (any takers on that one?), but in reality grades are a feature of the system we are part of, so how do we make grades work for growth mindsets? How do we change the focus of grades? I think a huge part of this has to do with how we talk about grades with students, how they set goals around their learning, and use the numeric grades as an indicator of how they are learning. I can’t say this is something I do regularly enough, so something I definitely want to incorporate more of in my practice. Also, this article (about how people at Google hire) solidified for me how important it is to think differently about grades.

2. Learning Goals Can Be Big or Small.
A fantastic idea for how to engage students in the process of monitoring their growth and seeing their own change is to have them set goals. Traditionally, I have had students do this at the beginning of the year (I did not this year though), but building time for this at the beginning of a project or a lesson can really help students see themselves as responsible for their own learning. Also, what a great way to build engagement, accountability, and an element of personalization.

3. You Have to Prove It
Charlie Linnik said, “you have to prove to your students that they are changing over time,” and I love this notion. Collect artifacts of their learning, pass them on to their teacher next year, and review samples of their writing to help them see their development. I once had the opportunity to do this with one student and it was hugely inspirational for her to see that she might be struggling today with expressing herself through her writing, but over the course of a year or two, real progress is made. We get better at what we work on! This, I think, is also a strong case for building a portfolio of student writing over time (like, several years).