That’s A Great Idea, But..


I’m guilty of it. Like standing in the subway, waving goodbye as the doors slide shut, I’ve been exposed to ideas that I don’t jump on board with because “that’s a great idea but it won’t work for my students”.

And sometimes, it’s true. Not everything that comes down the pike is actually a good idea. Not everything that someone else is doing is a good fit for us and what we are doing. Indeed, not everything we ourselves envision is workable, or the right time, or the right circumstance.

But I wonder how many times what we really mean is, “That won’t work for ME“. Maybe it would require more time. Maybe it calls for us to change something we are already (comfortably) doing. Maybe it would require more (different) planning. Maybe…we might fail.

With the constant flow of ideas that pour into education, we are smart to engage in active analysis as we sort through, consider, and decide which to try out. Not everything can, or should, be done. That being said, I think we’d be wise to make sure that what we dismiss as “unworkable” is being dismissed for the right, and accurate, reasons.

As we consider the ideas that come at us, here are some questions to ask ourselves, along with some thought-starters:

Ask Think
Which of these areas is directly tied to time?
Is this an opportunity to reexamine how I’m spending my time?   Consider my priorities?
Which of these involves my resistance to change?
Is this an opportunity to further develop my flexibility? Can I seek   out support?
Which of these reasons is tied to a fear of failure?
Is this an opportunity to further develop my growth mindset? To take   a measured risk?

 Here are a few more questions:

Ask Think
What are the feelings of my team?
Am I being a team player; considering the needs and desires of those   with whom I serve?
What are the priorities of my superiors?
Am I aligned with the goals and missions of my school, department,   organization?
What outside forces might impact the success of this?
What suggestions might I make which could help with implementation?

And here’s a final question that I think gives us the greatest insight of all:

What is best for our kids?

With all the ideas coming down the pike these days, it reminds me of a subway station, watching the trains as they pull up, load, and leave. Boarding another that comes along. Making decisions based on where we are, where we want to be, and what we think is the most direct route to get there. All the while keeping a watchful eye on the other trains. The other passengers. The other destinations which we have yet to travel. Watching. Waiting. Wondering.


By considering the questions above, my perspective becomes clearer. I stay aware of my own areas of strength; current level of comfort. I also stay aware of my own ongoing opportunities for growth and those hidden roadblocks that I want to pay attention to. I think we are all most effective when these things are fluid, and not fixed.

It goes without saying that we want to keep traveling on those roads that are working, and keep working to improve them as we go. But we should always keep in mind that there are other ideas, other trains, other methods out there. And they just might lead to an even grander destination. At the very least, you might find that you have boarded an even smoother ride.

Here is a quick video from Zig Zigler on the importance of evaluating where you are:

What ideas are you currently pondering? What trips do you think you might want to take, and what are the roadblocks that are currently stopping you? Can you remove them? Can you detour around them? Or, could those roadblocks become a part of your trip?

Video downloaded from youtube via True Performance-Online Motivator on 2/14/14


Are You Setting Goals Or Making Wishes?


You’ve collaborated with your students to set goals. Now what?

Just like our students, we also set our own goals.  Whether it’s losing weight, saving money, or taking up a new hobby, we set these goals with good intentions and self-motivation. At that moment.

And then, the moment passes. When we don’t take the time to look for measurable progress toward our goals, and celebrate the small successes, we lose our motivation. “Well, it’s been three days and I haven’t lost a pound. Why bother”. Pretty soon, we start slipping back into old routines. Another pair of shoes.  Another night in front of the TV. Another donut.

Isn’t it the same for our students?

Setting goals with students is the first step toward progress, but it isn’t the only step. It isn’t even the most important one. Because if we fail to help them identify and celebrate progress–if they can’t articulate that progress– we’ve set a goal that won’t be reached. In essence, we’ve done nothing more than make a wish. And wishes, unfortunately, don’t always materialize- even if said with great determination. Even if they are written down on really cool student goal sheets. Even if the student can articulate that goal.

Legally acquired and altered via solarseven/shutterstock.com.

These wishes need to be goals. And if goals are to be reached, they must be monitored, checked, celebrated and adjusted. By doing so, the goals become resolutions. Things we resolve to do. Not just things we wish for.

Scenario One: Let’s say I resolve to lose weight. I start eating salad every day. But if that isn’t getting me the results I want, I need to do some adjusting. Like adding in exercise. Drinking more water. So I do those things, and after a week I notice (by looking for progress) that I’ve lost two pounds. I feel very affirmed and continue on with my goal. Resolved.

Scenario Two: Let’s say I want to lose weight. I start eating salad every day. Except for the day my family drug me to the Mexican food place or the rodeo, where they only serve nachos.  I notice nothing on the scale after a week. I am defeated and decide to not weigh myself for a couple more weeks. Pretty soon, I’m back to doing things I did before, my goal completely forgotten. It wasn’t working anyway. My resolution fails because it wasn’t really a goal or a resolution.  I neither followed up on it, nor adjusted it as needed. It was a wish.

This week I’ve been thinking about the goals my students have set. How often are we coming together to look for those small, but magnificent, steps toward progress? Even a small step forward gives us all a renewed sense of confidence and commitment. Am I adjusting the action plan based on progress (or lack of)? Am I celebrating those little victories and reinforcing commitment? Are you?

When we see the results of our efforts,  we re-commit. We drive forward because we see that small progress as confirmation that what we are doing is working. That the goal is a resolution, one that we can achieve if we keep at it. It isn’t just a wish.

Let’s commit to action. Let’s look back at the goals we have set for ourselves, and our students.  Ask questions, find and celebrate progress, reset goals and actions where needed, and devote the time to regularly measuring the progress we are making.

When our students can articulate their progress, and not just the goal, they are committed.  And that is resolve.

Now, I think I’ll go have a salad.


Empowering Families Through Student-Led Conferences


One of the best things I’ve done this year was to implement student-led conferences. This was a learning experience for me! I definitely stepped out of my own comfort zone here by turning over the conference to my students.

I want to see students as critical thinkers in all areas,  including an awareness of their own progress. To be comfortable in recognizing struggle and seeing it not as a defeat but as a place to employ strategies and devote energy. To be aware of strength areas and informed about how they learn and demonstrate that learning.  To be comfortable and aware enough to share this information with their own families.

We know we are experts in something when we can teach it to someone else.

This is about life-long learning habits.  Below is the system I used this year, along with the documents I created to support it. I will also share what I am learning through the process.

Pre-Meeting First Conference:

The first step is to share data with my students. Because I teach all subjects, we discuss everything! Fluency targets, comprehension areas, math standards. I show them their own information alongside each area, and we discuss and celebrate the “wins” and “struggles”. I want them to see areas for growth as just another step on the journey, but I am careful in how this information is shared. Knowing each student well at this point, I feel comfortable in knowing how to share this information and how to have these conversations. I start always with the positives. If we come to an area where they are showing little progress, I have that conversation with them in a meaningful but positive spirit.

The focus is not on “how you compare”, but rather on “what progress you have made”.

They Do/I Do

About three weeks before the parent-conference days, I give each student this Student Led Conference Form and have them complete their section. They do this independently and I am careful to encourage them to think about it before answering. I tell them to be transparent, honest, and thoughtful as they think about and respond to each section. After a few days, I collect these, review them, and then complete my own section of  the form. You will see that I included a behavior section as well as a “learning targets” section (more on that further down).

Goal Setting

We then begin brainstorming goals. Along with their input, we identify specific, measurable goals both short and long term, and complete that section of the form together. I like coming up with short term goals that I am confident they can reach soon. I think this sets them up for success and by doing so, empowers them to continue striving to meet those long-term areas for growth.

Learning Targets

One thing you will notice about my student-led conferencing form is that it contains a section on “Learning Targets/21st Century Skills”. I did this purposely because I am of the belief that I don’t teach content, I teach kids. I think there is a place for “learning skills” in general and I also like that it isn’t content specific. We all have areas that we are great at and areas that we struggle with. Kids are no different. But “learning skills” removes the barriers that they might see in, say, math. If they can identify a learning goal, it can transfer over to the weaker content area and lead to improvement in something they may not have a lot of confidence in. For example, if a student believes “I can’t do math” (many do), but can identify “problem solving” as an area to target, this is a direct correlation minus the self-imposed defeatist attitude they may carry into that content.


Throughout the weeks leading up to the conference, students are in charge of collecting work that showcases their skills, improvements, and celebrations. They also collect work that supports the goals they have identified. This is kept in a folder with the SLC form we have already completed. They are in charge of keeping this data folder until the week of the conference. I have yet to have anyone misplace it. This becomes a very important folder! Within it lies their own thoughts, ideas, dreams….story

Meeting Schedules

Have you ever noticed how many parents will show up for their child’s performance in a play or choir concert, but then fail to respond to these conference requests? I have. It’s apparent that many may have either had their own negative experiences with school, or experienced a difficult and unhappy conference in the past. About two weeks prior, I send out information to parents asking for a conference. I let them know that their students will be leading it, and that they are eager to share their triumphs and their goals. I have found that parents are very eager and responsive when they anticipate that their students will be holding this meeting. It won’t be the teacher handing out information. It won’t be a conference in which the teacher is “talking to” them; instead, it is a gathering, and their students are leading the show. The unease that many parents may feel toward parent teacher conferences seems to evaporate. I had 24 out of 24 families schedule a time! The students are really looking forward to their “appointments” leading up to this time and they talk it up at home!

Parent Input Form

I send the parents their own  Parent Input Form to be completed ahead of time. I ask them to return it to me prior to the meeting. By reviewing this ahead of time, I am more aware of what they are wanting to discuss and can add to our meeting documents and conversations as needed. I also note if they have concerns that they want to discuss privately and make arrangements for that to happen after the student has shared.  I have heard great feedback on this from my parents! They really enjoy the opportunity to submit what they want to discuss and know it will be brought into, and be an integral part of, our conference.

Meeting Week

I collect all folders and then organize them by day of appointment. If I have four conferences scheduled for Monday, I have them organized in order of time slot. It is easy then to pull them out and begin the conference. The prep work has already been done and I am ready to meet with parents and share the conference with my students. No time is wasted in walking around “gathering” my grade book  or grabbing work from student’s desks or binders. We get down to business!

Meeting Day

meetingweekI have students bring me any journals they want to share, with pages they have marked. It might be a reading response journal, a writing binder, a science journal. The excitement is felt this day as students anticipate their meeting! Parents are eager for this time and so are their students, who prior to this normally did not even attend this meeting!

When the conference starts, I thank them for coming, and explain again that their student will be presenting most of this information. The student begins by sharing out their great triumphs, following the form in order. I have coached the students ahead of time; we have practiced their conference and I have shown them how to stop after each section and ask if there are any questions or input from their parent (they have note card reminders in their hands as they go through the conference).  I do this because I am trying to structure it so students don’t go so quickly. Plus, I want them to be able to field questions as I think this helps solidify understanding and adds to the conference by giving parent and child an opportunity to engage in discussions.

I lead the data discussion myself with students taking the listening role. They are fine with this because I’ve already shared it with them. But there is more to the data story itself than what I have typically shared with students and so this area is the one I talk through.  At this time, if there is a need to meet privately with the parent I excuse the student. There are some conversations that a 9 year old really does not need to be present for, and the decision to share that is left to the parent. It’s a consideration I think is important to give.

Sharing Work

During each section, the student pulls out and shares the work that he/she has collected which ties to that strand of the form. They discuss the work using note cards which they have already completed and attached to each sample. This saves time and also gives them “talking points“. I have seen this to be a very good thing because many of them are so nervous at the conference, and might otherwise stumble over words! It also helps them refer back to their goals.

Parent Input

If parents have shared on their input form that they want to discuss reading, or have a specific concern about math for example, I try to have that worked into the section as we go through it. If it doesn’t relate to one of these areas already on the conference form, then at this time we have parent share time. I have already invited them to give input (via the parent portion form) and so this time is specifically reserved for them to share thoughts, questions, and suggestions. They also have this time to reflect and discuss anything that their student or I have shared thus far. Normally, I have heard “well, everything I wanted to know about has been covered”!

I then ask them what I believe is a very important question that often goes unasked, “What goals do you have now for your student“? I have found that most are kind of quiet at that moment because I suspect they’ve never really had that asked. We discuss their goals (many of which the student has accurately identified already).  I note this information on the parent goal section of the conference form and now I have it to plan activities for their student that supports that goal. The student also takes note of this and will then be charged with incorporating this into their own learning. We make that an integral part of their goal setting and daily work. The parents really enjoy having this type of impact!

I include personal goals because it gives me insight into the family and it provides a way for me as a teacher to support home/personal goals within the classroom.

Follow Up

About two weeks after, I have students complete a follow up which you can find here.  They report out on how they are doing with regard to their goals, and the parent’s input during our meeting.  This has opened up a lot of communication for my families; they often tell me that they discussed this at dinner, etc.  I’ve even heard about them being hung on several refrigerator doors! About two or three times is all that is needed for my parents and kids to tell me that they are engaging in ongoing dialogue about learning and progress. This is the most beneficial aspect of these student-led conferences. Family impact.

Time–And Other Questions We Ask

www.pics4learning.com pics4learning.com

The most common question I’ve been asked about student-led conferences is, “how long do you spend with each family”? My answer is: I spend as long as is needed.  I normally schedule these conferences in 30 minute blocks of time. If some are going to need to be longer, they are longer. I try to be aware of that and schedule accordingly. In the rush to get through multiple conferences, teachers sometimes decide to schedule back to back conferences in 15 minute segments, rushing through one to get to the next. I don’t agree with this. I think this time is far too valuable, and the lasting impact potential too great, to approach it that way. I use the two “late night” days we are given for this, but I also use about two weeks of other time. I want this to be meaningful, and for me, that doesn’t happen in that quick of a way. I don’t think of this as just checking off something on a list. I want it to matter. And things that matter, take time.

Followed by time, I’m asked about how I convey concerns with the student present. I don’t know why we shy away from this. I think it’s important that students are aware of areas where there is a concern. However, if it is something that can’t be framed in a growth-mindset way, if it is something that is of a delicate nature, this is taken care of in a separate, private conference. I think it’s important for all students to have the opportunity to shine and learn to lead a conference, so they engage in these regardless. Separate, additional conferences are scheduled as needed.

Bottom Line: We are in the kid and family business. The meeting itself is just a starting point, but it is a vital part of the process in developing habits, building relationships, and giving students a pathway to become actively engaged in their own education and learning.

The Little (Big) Extras

In starting student-led conferences, I have seen a great increase in parent engagement. Communication is at an all-time high, but more importantly, we have truly developed a bond and established a relationship upon which I can build throughout the year. We are truly partners.

Feel free to use my forms, system, or any other tidbits of help that I might have provided in this blog post. What are some suggestions might you have to grow in this area? I welcome and value your input!


4th Grade Writing Battles Begin!


My students have been working hard on their writing this year. We are currently perfecting our skills in the area of expository writing. As we head into Black History Month, as well as our upcoming Alamo unit, we’ve been reading and learning about people that are considered heroes. We have had great conversations about traits that a hero embodies, and began identifying heroes in our own lives. We have explored ideas such as empathy, courage, belief, truths, strength, love, peace, and wisdom.  We have read about people, we have listened to songs with hidden lyrical references (U2’s Pride), and we have had very deep conversations on how other people can have such powerful impacts on the world, and on each other. We then looked inward and considered our own unique “hero” traits and possibilities!

My students were then asked to write about a person they consider a hero, in expository form.

We revised and edited as we went along this past week, learning about different strategies such as: beginning with a quote, powerful conclusions, creative transitions, and voice.  We also continue working on our conventions (our weakest area) and supporting details.  Now that they have published their final Hero Expository Writing, my students are ready for our next Teach Like A Pirate experience:

The 4th Grade Epic Hero Expository Writing Battle!

For this experience I will use several hooks. I’m wearing camo tomorrow to kick off this unit. I will have this battle music playing as they enter the room 🙂

The room will be divided into East vs. West, and gear (essays, rubrics, highlighters) will be distributed. Gold coins will be given to each victor as we go through the battle phases. After much thinking, looking for ideas, discussing possibilities with my twitter PLN, and consulting with my Army veteran son, I am (finally) prepared to share our upcoming experience.  Feel free to use this in any way you see fit!

                       The Mission/Prompt: “Write About Someone You Consider a Hero”

The day you’ve trained for all year is upon us.  All of your learning about what traits embody a hero has come down to this. The class has been divided into 2 brigades-The East vs The West. Each of you will be assigned to a brigade. Within those brigades, you will be deployed to one of three battalions. You will determine your names. Choose wisely, as the winner’s camp will be bestowed the honor of being our First Epic Expository Writing victors!

Armed with our Hero Expository Essays, and persuasive skills, essays will battle head to head for victory in each category on our writing rubric. You will not battle your own paper, but rather, one that fate has thrown your way! Be advised: You must collaborate and be able to JUSTIFY the awarding of each battle victory based on merit and skill-citing our rubric as evidence of victory. Let it be noted that throughout the battles, a paper will never cross paths with it’s original writer.

Phase 1: Preparation for Battle

Papers have been collected and divided among two brigades. Now,  3 Battalions (4 students each)  will be deployed through each brigade. You will become experts on the papers you hold, scoring each paper on EACH SECTION of our writing rubric. Papers will engage in one-on-one combat for the victory in each category. These battles will determine the victors in each of 6 categories on our rubric:

  • Content & Critical Thinking
  •  Introductions & Conclusions  
  • Fluency/Transitions
  • Topic Sentences & Details
  • Voice and Word Choice
  • Conventions

Note: It is possible for a paper to win multiple battles; however,  a stronger brigade will be formed if each paper in each battalion can secure at least one victory.

Once each battalion has declared a winner for each of 6 categories, these papers will now battle against the 2 other battalions.  You will come together with the other battalions at this point. You must be an expert on your winners and the rubric, and be able to justify  each paper on merit. You must also be able to listen to the reasons behind other selections. At this point it is no longer about battalion winners—you want to find Brigade Winners.

At the end of each battle, the Brigade will emerge with 6 battle winners, one for each rubric section.

Phase 2: In phase 2 of this mission, the two brigades will go head to head as they each defend and justify  papers. Focus on the skill each paper represents in each writing strand using our rubric. You must provide justification both verbally and in writing for each paper you are defending. You are now battling for overall writing effectiveness-skill in each category.

Phase 3: We will celebrate as an “army of writers”  our victors in all categories, as well as the overall winning papers.  You will have justified and decided upon 6 overall winners. From here we will enter the Ultimate Battle: As a class, we will now enter a round-robin tournament, pour over these 6 papers and rubrics, and determine 4 Epic Battle Winners. These 4 will demonstrate skill in all of the writing rubric categories.  They will be bestowed the honor of being named an:

Epic Hero Expository Writer.

As such, these 4 victors will be spotlighted on our upcoming Standard Based Bulletin Board. Selected by the class for their skill and merit, you as classmates will have chosen our SBBB spotlighted work, and written justification defending each paper that meets the standard for expository writing. These will be the commentaries that will be posted next to each victor on the board, so write a compelling and thorough justifications!

Phase 4: Personal Battle Reflections:

1) How did this activity challenge your critical thinking skills?

2) What did you learn about the craft of writing as a result of this activity?

3) What new goals will you now set for your own writing?

At the end of this battle, you will each be epic heroes–battle-tested and eager for the next quest. In a most honorable of fashion, we will celebrate, reflect, and set further goals.

Good Luck To You All-Let The Battles Begin!


Pictures courtesy of:

Sheila. quill.jpg. June 2009. Pics4Learning. 2 Feb 2014 <http://pics.tech4learning.com&gt;

Keeney, Carolyn. shield.jpg. 1-Apr. Pics4Learning. 2 Feb 2014 <http://pics.tech4learning.com>


On Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning


As an article I recently read on Edutopia reveals: “Researchers generally agree upon five key competencies of SEL (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor & Schellinger, 2011 (10)). These competencies provide the foundation for maintaining high-quality social relationships and for responding to the challenges of life”:

Image credit: Edutopia

“Responding to the challenges of life”.  What a simply powerful way to describe our purpose. As educators, as peers…as people. Some of our greatest thinkers and writers suggest this could be one of our very reasons for existence.  At the least,  is the perhaps the heart of our calling.

In thinking about this, I began to wonder about how we are addressing these important features of learning. Specifically, how we might leverage our time and resources, possibly even redesign our current practices so that they  help build and solidify SEL skills while impacting academic gains. In the spirit of transparent thinking, here is a belief of mine:

Simply doing more doesn’t necessarily lead to learning more.

We are doing great things. There is always more we can do. Both statements are true of schools today. But simply adding more to the plate won’t necessarily get the job done. We might need to think about things in terms of quality vs. quantity.  By bringing in rich opportunities for our students to create and design, problem solve, and participate in worthwhile and meaningful activities, we provide opportunities for maximizing learning and addressing the above five target areas. But how?

Recently, I was inspired by a twitter chat and the flow of ideas that followed on a totally different topic. As usual, I began considering the ideas alongside my current thoughts on the SEL model, and a few ideas began to rumble around in my brain. Here are five of them:

  • Student Clubs. These could be as varied as our students’ interests, needs and goals. Driven by students, they provide opportunities for becoming involved and invested in the school community. They establish a forum for collaboration, problem solving, and pursuing personal passions–skills that translate into other academic areas and are necessary for developing life-long learners and habits of mind. Think gardens, yoga, painting, historical studies, and book clubs. Innovative ideas such as MakerSpace and Genius Hour.  Could we bring in businesses to share expertise with students? There is great potential here to make connections with larger communities while giving students a purpose.
  • Student EdCamps.  Students given opportunities to reflect on their learning, share ideas, and learn with and through other students. We like this idea for teachers–why not for students? If we truly want a community of learners, we must think about giving them more-or different-ways to own it.
  • Community Fairs.  Our students become experts on a wide range of topics….let’s let them create and lead these multi-year events for our community. I’m thinking booths, performances, markets, classes…. the impact potential here is great. We have a plethora of creative educators who can (and should) be brought on board to make things like this the standard rather than just an idea.
  • Service Learning and PBLs. We must seriously consider the valuable learning opportunities that exist here. Aligning skills across curriculum (think history through Art, math through Music) while having a path to impact the local community builds big ideas and fosters generalizations. When we can make connections, reflect, and apply skills across different areas as we engage our students in authentic experiences, we are truly engaged in a learning process rather than a learning task.
  • Teacher Learning.  I think one thing that needs to happen, for us to really begin identifying more ways to make use of our data, is to give teachers real, doable ways to collaborate and create.  I like the idea of having ongoing PD, with teachers capturing and reflecting on that via Teacher ePortfolios throughout the year. These would be shared with administration during mini-evaluation checkpoints–as an avenue for feedback, recognitions, and suggestions.  

We are doing awesome things in education today. We have brilliant and talented educators in place whose passion and love for kids is truly spectacular. Is there room for doing more in the way of addressing our students’ social, emotional, and academic needs? These are just a few ideas and questions I have had lately while thinking about how we do school.

What do you think? What roadblocks do you see with these ideas? Do we need to think about extended time? Or should we think about making different use of our current time? Where do you see some missed opportunities? I’ll blog out my thoughts on those questions as they become more blog-able. I would love to hear your feedback and ideas…I think this is truly a conversation that’s ready to be had!