Establishing Culture Through Core Value Reflection

As a young teacher, I was just trying to get by. As I’ve grown in the craft of teaching, I am convinced that reflection is invaluable to create a classroom culture. It’s important for students to have time to reflect, but it’s also vital for an educator to reflect on his or her practice. Knowing what soft skills you want to impart to students allows you to plan with purpose. After much reflection, my core values include autonomy, mastery, purpose, collaboration, risk-taking, embracing failure, joy and kindness. To teach those core values, I intentionally set time aside to interact with students around them

While I usually tried to do these things early in the year, they are just as relevant in February. Here are eight steps that I have taken to share those values with students:

  1. I taught routines and expectations—While we built expectations together, both what was expected of students and what was expected of me, I taught those collaborative routines and expectations through practice, modeling and re-teaching. I had every student go to the supply closet and get a pencil at some point in the first week. Even though I wanted to stray from the opening routine early in the year, I stuck to it because I wanted it to stick throughout the year. 
  2. I taught kindness—Instead of hoping that students would be kind to each other, I modeled kindness and explicitly talked about how to be kind and respectful to one another. We made a list of what kindness looked like and posted it. Having the conversation, writing about kindness and posting a visual representation of it set the tone.
  3. I took breaks with my students—For me, it was often a quick game of look up or a movement break of some type, but we got into the habit of breaks and, most importantly, got back to work. It became normal to take a quick break and then get back to it although it took a little time for that to develop.
  4. We talked—I wanted to get to know the students, but I also wanted them to get to know each other. Sometimes, we spent too much time gabbing, but it paid off later in the year when they were asked to be more introspective and more thoughtful in their interactions with others. I also knew my students well. Through the talking and the writing about themselves, I always felt confident that I knew a lot about my students.
  5. I had clear learning targets and I could assess them—Students are naturally uncomfortable when they don’t know what to expect. I wrote learning targets on the board, and they were assessed weekly.
  6. I let them complain—It wasn’t always easy. I didn’t always agree with them, but I listened. We were always careful to avoid criticizing people. We would criticize ideas instead, and often there was a nice discussion that opened up both sides of the argument.
  7. I apologized when I needed to—Humility is one of my favorite traits in others, and I try to model it for students. It isn’t easy. I don’t like it, but it humanized me and showed them it was ok to make mistakes.
  8. We embraced process over products—The evolution of the process-thinking, idealized by the growth mindset, has always been a part of my thinking. As a piano player and former athlete, it was always obvious to me that skill-building takes failure to succeed. Some people don’t like the word failure because it seems so final. You can call them setbacks or challenges if you want. They mean the same thing to me. I always liked this quote by Winston Churchill, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

The most important step for me was to define what I wanted the classroom to look and feel like, and to do that, I reflected on the values that I wanted to share with the students. This was a process, over several years, of trial and much error, but I feel confident that students have a better experience in the classroom of this veteran teacher than they ever did when I was a young teacher. I learned that hoping for behavior to be a certain way is not enough, even if I model well. Behavior and values must be explicitly taught and discussed.

If you haven’t spent time reflecting on what matters to you as an educator, I encourage you to think about those times when you felt encouraged and purposeful after a day with students. What have you given to students that can’t be measured by tests? Those are probably your core values.

Learning From A Fresh Start

Hey everybody! It’s been awhile, and life is a little different these days for me. I’m learning a lot and really enjoying life. I’ve stepped away from the classroom and education in general for a bit, but it has given me a lot of time to think about teaching.

So, I’ve decided to work on a book for new and young teachers. I want to impact the next generation of teachers, and I hope to share a realistic look at the teaching profession along with an approach to teaching that is effective, invigorating and healthy.

One book that I returned to was Professional Capital by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullen. If you haven’t read it, please do. It is an insightful look into transforming teaching from all levels. One aspect of the book that I liked was how it looked at the false stereotypes of teaching based on the experience that we have all had in school. Two of my favorite false stereotypes include:

  1. “A precious gift possessed by a few ‘born’ teachers.” This one strikes me because I have always considered myself a true believer. I was that young and enthusiastic idealist who wanted to change the world. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it takes more than that to be a great teacher.
  2. A data driven enterprise, like business…” I cringe whenever I hear the analogy of education to business. Data are important, but it is not the most important thing. It is only a tool used within the larger construct of education to gain a perspective.

The book also speaks to silver bullets, the big ideas by politicians that sound great on paper but don’t work in the real world. I’ll admit, I love big ideas, but I’ve been on the ground too long not to realize that theory is not reality.

So, I’m trying to encourage young people to take a view of education that allows a steady trajectory as a teacher. Working with other teachers to improve, teaching and learning are at its heart four things:

  1. Learning is messy
  2. Teaching and learning are personal
  3. Power is in the collective
  4. Risk-taking creates change, but failure is part of the process

I’m trying to come up with some great graphic or mnemonic device. I’ll take your ideas.

By the way, I just read a great article about apathy in schools, so if you’ve read this far, I will offer it as a link.  Just click on link!

Hope you’re staying warm if you’re in Wisconsin!

Three Questions That Shifted My Thinking

Thank you to Joy Kirr for finally putting some of her thoughtful and innovative practices together in Shift This. I don’t know Joy, but I do owe her a big thank you for curating the 20 Time LiveBinder and answering an email when I was just learning about 20 Time. Since then, I have successfully adopted a day a week for passion projects and led professional development on the topic.

While I don’t want this to be a tribute to Joy Kirr (Ode to Joy), I do want to look at three questions that I took from Shift This that will shift my perspective on teaching. While I appreciate and will use the practical tips like positive notes and creating a class collage to send to parents, what really struck me were the larger philosophical tenets that she starts from in this book. I don’t think they are directly stated, but they sure do come through clearly.

1. How can I be a more humble teacher?

  • I love this: “Putting my ego aside and starting to cater to the students’ needs made all the difference.” Sure, there has been a shift in my teaching from the role of content master to coach over the years, but there is room for further shifting. This driving question makes me want to be more reactive to students, both in the moment with instant feedback and listening, and the next day by designing lessons that fulfill their needs. I want less of me and more of the student happening in the classroom.

2. How can I make myself uncomfortable and take risks?

  • For each of us, risk-taking differs. Some don’t like to be embarrassed (I thrive on it), and some don’t like to reach out to fellow teachers (that’s me). If I am to be more humble, asking if what I am doing is right for students, then I have to cede control. I have to allow students to have some control of the classroom, and I have to allow teachers in and open up conversations that are uncomfortable, asking difficult questions. I want to do more of both. I like when the students “run” the class, and I want them empowered. I don’t like having the hard conversations with teachers…but I’m going to because I will make myself uncomfortable for the sake of the students by impacting the building.

3. How can I build a professional learning network that supports growth and brings new ideas and challenges to me?

  • I’m fairly new to Twitter and blogging. I retweet when I mean to love or respond. I’ll get it eventually, but the level of thought and interaction is inspiring. I need to be intentional in creating my PLN, and I have to learn that it is ok to be vulnerable. I admit that I started wanting to give a good impression, but I’m beginning not to care about that. I just want to grow and learn, and I am beginning to trust that those who I am learning with are full of grace and favor for one another. The presence of a PLN impacts a large group of people.

So, thanks Joy Kirr, for being a catalyst for these thoughts. I’ll bet the kids love you and your classroom because of your authenticity and thoughtfulness. Shift This is inspiring, tangible and not overwhelming, and I think that is what you were shooting for.

Student-Created Rubrics

If we want students to learn how to learn, we have to teach them how to direct that learning. To do that, we need to help them set goals and look at their own progress.

That’s why I am a proponent of student-created rubrics. I want students to understand what they are doing, why they are doing it and how to measure their own progress.

I’m not a genius, but I am a risk-taker. I know that trying things helps me stay energized and keep learning. I also consider myself a late bloomer. I went to school for seven years to be a teacher (not a doctor), got married at 41, received my masters at 45, and I think the best ideas are yet to come…so I keep trying new things.

To get kids focused on targeted self-assessment, we start small. I give them choices on pieces of writing, and the student and I both assess the work for those choices. For example, if I have them write an argument paragraph, I have them choose whether they want to emphasize the level of elaboration, the evidence itself or the structure of the argument. Of course, I want them to work on all of them in unison eventually, but by establishing a focus for each and adding to it in future pieces of writing, they get better in that skill area with an attention to detail. I offer the same options in another argument paragraph and ask them to choose a different options. What do you know? All of the areas improve in each iteration.

I do the same thing with language concepts. Commas, sentence types or capitalization? What’s your focus for this piece?

Of course, that means we take several swings at each piece of writing. That, in itself, is vital to growth.

So, when 20% Time rolls around (the students use the second semester Fridays for these products), you bet I’m going to have them self-assess.

I am not a graphic artist, but I have a student who wants to work on charcoal drawings for her 20% Time project. Great!

The student created learning targets (exactly as she wrote them):

Charcoal Drawings

Learning Targets:

  • Students will learn to draw accurate and detailed illustrations using both charcoal pencils and charcoal blocks. This will help them recognize shadows and where they are placed.
  • Students will learn how to incorporate a multitude of information in a small paragraph about what they achieved in each drawing. This will help them learn how to make their writing short and to the point.

Notice the why on each one. That was a mandate from me.

Learning targets aren’t that hard. I showed them some common core standard language, and we practiced with some of the writing that we’ve done in class. They have seen these for years, and it clicked with just a little practice. Then it was time for the rubric. We use rubrics for everything, so they were familiar with them.

The rubric based on those learning targets looked like:

4 3 2 1
Drawing: Obviously put effort into learning how to draw with charcoal drawings. Anatomy and shading does not have to be perfect; this is an assessment on accurate use with charcoal. Experimented with most utensils, but could have tried to use more for the finished products. Used only a few things to draw with, and did not try to challenge abilities with difficult items to draw. Drawings may be unfinished and the user may not have experimented with charcoal pencils and blocks.
Writing: Paragraph is short and concise. Talks about both troubles and successes with the process. Paragraph may be slightly lengthy and might tell unnecessary information, but still works. Writing may be more than one paragraph, and talks about details that do not matter to the final product. Paragraphs do not talk about struggles or successes in the project, and may only be a few sentences.
Time usage: Used time efficiently, and did not stray from work for long. Wasted some class time, but still managed to complete the project on time. Got distracted easily and did not focus on the drawing. May have taken frequent breaks to chat with other people. Did little to no work, and may have not finished project on time. Talked with others and did not use time wisely at all.


I thought that she did a great job. Would I tweak it a bit? Probably. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that this student has created her own direction, and it really wasn’t that hard to get her to do it. I have 100 other examples, too. This is a real possibility.

It’s not just about choice. It’s about choosing a direction, understanding its purpose, and striving for mastery through self-assessment. At least that’s what Daniel Pink says in his book, Drive.

Empowering students to learn how to learn not only creates passion in students, but in us as teachers. To see the level of engagement in May is exciting for all of us.

Student-Created Lesson Plan for 20% Time

I took a risk today. It paid off. I like to try things. Some work. Many don’t. This one did. I teach 8th grade, and at this time of year, we grind to engage and to challenge. Building on the successes of the year, this is the time to really show what they know.

I asked students, in lieu of a pitch proposal, to design a lesson plan for their 20% Time as if the class would do it. I asked for seven components of the lesson plan:

  • Title
  • Learning Targets–A learning target is what a student will learn or be able to do including a rationale of why it is important
    • For resources, refer to common core standards (Google it) or refer to the shared doc–Argument On Demand Assessment for learning target styles.
    • If it is easier, use the phrase: Students will be able to…
  • Materials–Include all materials that the student would need
  • Schedule–Include dates and where the student should be on certain days. Be specific. A calendar would be impressive.
  • Procedure--This is the step-by-step process that the student will need to be successful and achieve the learning targets
  • Product–Explain what the product at the 20 Time Fair will look like
  • Assessment–How will you (as the teacher) know if the student is successful? Do you need a rubric? Do you need the student to produce something?

They had pre-written these ideas in a couple of different forms, and we pulled them together today. It was spectacular.

Watching students try to decide what they were going to learn and how they would assess it was wonderful. Watching them struggle and then succeed (to varying levels) made me feel like a teacher. Not everyone hit the mark, but the thought that went into why they were doing their project and how they would know if they were successful was enlightening. Students know a lot more than we give them credit for. They know what is quality and what isn’t.

Below is an example of one lesson plan. He’s going to code. His rubric is better than I could have done. He’s thoughtful, and will be fully engaged in 20% Time. And that’s the goal.

Ready, Set, Code

April 20, 2017

Ready, Set, Code!

Learning targets:

  1. Students will be able to design a game plan using flow charts and graphic organizers.
  2. Students will be able to transform the plan into a functioning game using the Unity game engine that will be playable at the end of this project

Materials: A computer with the Unity game engine development environment installed, plus paper for planning.


  • April 21: Begin planning
  • April 27: Continue planning/start scenery
  • April 28: Finish scenery
  • May 5th: Start programming
  • May 12th: Continue programming
  • May 19th: Finish programming/do blogs


  • Planning using flow charts and graphic organizers
  • Laying out terrain in Unity
  • Implementing game programming

Assessment based on 3 criteria: Planning, implementation, and creativity.


  • 4 – Extensively used graphic organizers and flow charts to map out the game before even touching a computer
  • 3 – Utilized flow charts and graphic organizers to plan
  • 2 –  When told, used graphic organizers to plan sometimes
  • 1 – Started programming without planning, went back to plan later
  • 0 – No evidence of planning


  • 4 – Game works flawlessly
  • 3 – Game has 1 to 3 bugs present, one of which minorly affects gameplay
  • 2 – Game has a major bug that affects gameoplay
  • 1 – Game has several major bugs, game is unplayable
  • 0 – No functioning game


  • 4 – Game idea is unique, has never been though of before

  • 3 – Game idea is creative

  • 2 – Game idea is a “spin-off” of an existing game

  • 1 – Game is a copy of an existing game

  • 0 – Game is exact replica of existing game

I’m a proud teacher today, not just of the ones who nailed it out of the park, but the ones who struggled and kept going. And you know what…I’m proud of myself for trying new things, giving kids a chance to stretch, and struggle myself.

It was a good day.


Three Ways to Balance Student Agency and Rigor

As a passionate person who wants to go all in, I have to fight a myopic approach to teaching. Right now, I am on the choice and innovation train, and it is hurtling in one direction. However, yesterday I sat in district professional development listening about rigor and teaching content, and it gave me pause. Am I facilitating choice and autonomy to the exclusion of rigor?

I don’t have that answer, yet, but I do know that I believe in variety and balance for students. As Ken Robinson describes in his TED-talk, students are naturally diverse with diverse needs. I often argue that I could design the most engaging class complete with cake and ponies, and there would be one student who would rather sit in the corner and read. So, we need balance.

Incorporating both student agency and rigor is the challenge that I like to address with colleagues. We think and talk about our role as educators, and the changes in that role. I made this graphic to spark a discussion among my colleagues:

Students need context to understand content, and we as teachers often can provide that. However, content is available to students, and they must learn to sift the wheat from the chaff to evaluate and process that content. So, what can we do to make sure students have agency and are being stretched to do their best learning?

Three Ways to Balance Student Agency and Rigor

  1. Student-created assessments–As a writing teacher, I offer the standards in kid-friendly, I Can, statements, and allow them to choose what they will concentrate on for each piece of writing. I build my mini-lessons around their choices. For each student, there must be an element of Content, Craft and Language. Their own self-assessment is usually more insightful than my assessment of them. However, I keep full license to assign the final grade. For 20% Time, I have students create their own learning targets and assessment rubric. This could be adapted to any content area, I believe.
  2. Students teaching students–Sometimes I formally set up areas of expertise for students. For example, one student was named the Hanging Indent Queen, and all hanging indent questions went to her. She wore her crown (construction paper) proudly. More often, though, it is the informal moments. A student came up to me the other day with a question about transitions. One boy near us chimed in a suggestion, and a conversation began. I slowly backed away. Students can help each other when the culture of students teaching students is established.
  3. Students holding each other accountable–Some of this comes in group and project work when students rely on the work of others to move forward as a team. Other times, students are simply inspired by the work of others. One powerful tool for accountable is the ability to be a Critical Friend. Peer assessment and immediate feedback, taught well and applied well, is one of my most effective tools to raise the level of rigor in the classroom.

Even as I write this post, I want to do these things better and more consistently. I want to raise rigor and give agency more effectively. As teachers, doubt can spur to be better or make us retreat to a safe place. I choose to get better.

3 Questions to Get Ready For Monday

I love Mondays! I know that I am not normal (with this and other things). I see it in other teachers and, especially, students. I embrace the possibilities of the week. After a great weekend, with Wisconsin weather in the 70s, it’s time to refocus on the week. To do that, I use these three questions:

1. What is the one thing students need to learn this week?

This isn’t an easy task. To boil it down to one thing, I have to allow for the idea that we can’t do everything. For example, this week, students are giving their TED-style talks about the 20% Time Project that we just completed. I will be giving feedback about their speaking content and skills, but the one thing that they have to understand and practice this week is empathySpeaking is important as a student and future employee, but empathy is important as a person, and I want more than anything for students to be better people when they leave my classroom than the day that they entered it. My instruction, conversations, and actions will be focused on teaching and modeling empathy this week. It is the have to of the week.

2. What do my students need?

I have a 25 minute drive to work, and instead of listening to sports radio, like I do most days, I spend Monday mornings thinking about the 127 students that I have. While I don’t usually get them all, I try to list them and think about each one personally. What do I know about their personal lives? Last Thursday, a student found out his parents are divorcing. That surely will affect his work. There were basketball and lacrosse tournaments over the weekend.  It was one student’s birthday this weekend. I have to remember to ask about her party. There’s no way that I can remember everyone or everything, but I try to remember why I am doing this: students.

3. What am I grateful for?

I started this exercise after reading an article about gratitude, and it really works for me. I love my job. I have autonomy. I have a core group of teachers who I trust. I have fun with students and enjoy watching them grow. It would be easy to complain about work or worry about it, but it’s not like I am working on the roads in the hot sun. I get to hang out with great kids with huge futures and influence them.

Try it!

These questions may not work for you, but maybe you can find a way to refocus on what is really important to you as you enter your work week.

Have a great MONDAY!

Taking a Risk

“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I had a teacher approach me the other day. He has been teaching for about 20 years. His geography units are consistent (aside from some moving boundaries), and he uses the same materials every year. The content is taught, and the students can do well on the unit exams. The students and the teacher are both comfortable. Maybe too comfortable.

But something changed. He told me that he wanted to try something new. After watching my students put together their 20% Time projects, he told me that he wanted to engage students rather than keep them comfortable. I was excited, and, to be honest, a little surprised. I’m the kind of teacher who has to try new things. Partially, I try them to inspire and engage students, but a bit of me just tries things to see if I can pull them off. It gets me all fired up!

My colleague and I designed a unit around choice. Article choice, video choice and product choice. I warned him…YOU MUST GIVE UP SOME CONTROL AND THAT’S A RISK.

That’s where I think we, as teachers, get stuck. Giving up control is hard. Taking a risk is hard. In the end, though, when students have more control of their learning, it turns out to not be such a risk. AJ Juliani talks about it in his post 10 Risks Every Teacher Should Take With Their Class.

The reward of risks is the opportunity to watch students do things that they didn’t think they could do. What happened in my colleague’s classroom? Energized students. Students teaching other students. A massive decrease in complaints about boredom or monotony. Choice put the onus on the students to engage.

Taking a risk is not easy, so I always encourage colleagues to start small. What is one risk that you can take in the next week that will take the responsibility off of you and encourage your own students to figure it out for themselves? Let’s stop giving the answers and give students the opportunity to find the answers and learn how to learn.