Gone Gradeless

Here it goes, the blog post I have been writing/rewriting for weeks. Thanks to “peer influence” I will finally publish my ramblings. I am not a big “blogger” but finally hitting publish feels important because after 17 years of teaching I finally decided to take the plunge and put my efforts to something I have long wanted to do – I went “gradeless” in a school that requires term grades and in a community that values the “honor roll” as an achievement.

There is ample research to support the value of standards based grading and several other educators that have been advocating for the same shift. My decision to take this big leap was based on two main factors:

  1. As teachers we all have those statements/comments students make that irk us like no other. For me, it has always been, “is this graded?” I absolutely detest this question, but in a world in which students are told that getting an “A” is what matters most in their day, can I really blame them?
  2. I have long been frustrated by how easily some students achieve high scores, when their learning and thinking was not really challenged, while other students who were not as academically astute busted themselves to achieve strong scores, but in the graded system a “B” was often the best mark they would earn. I had always pushed back on students to continue to reach their full potential, but the score to me always seemed to reflect compliance and aptitude rather than effort and resiliency of each individual student.

At the start of the 2017-2018 school year I took the plunge. It was not easy! Scores were still required in our student information system and parents (and kids) were still set on achieving high honors, (sigh…), but I was determined to make it work. Here were the  five main steps I took in my journey to make this shift.

Step 1: Alert my classroom community – The first step was sharing with my students and their families that I would be going gradeless. Although there were definitely skeptics, the response was quite positive. I made clear that the expectation for my class was dedicated effort to being the best learner they could be, and that students would learn to evaluate themselves on whether their work was WOW worthy.  “Grades” would be achieved based on this dedicated effort.

Step 2: Break obsession with grades and refocus on learning – It took about 8 weeks to get kids to stop asking if “this was graded” for every activity they undertook in my classroom. My simple answer was always, “Just do your best work.” The key factor was asking them to assess that for themselves AND to let them know when I did or did not think something was their best work. There were no rubrics involved. There were assignment goals, directions I felt were necessary for the task to begin and then interaction. Students were not focusing on the “recipe” or the to-do checklist to get credit (aka, a rubric) – they were exploring and making choices in their own learning, often collaborating with peers to find success.

Step 3: Ongoing feedback as the norm – I can’t remember who said this but it is so true – once a student gets a grade they are DONE with that assignment. Not only does this create a waste of teacher time in giving feedback, it strips the feedback of any utility. I was determined to not waste anyone’s time and to instead give feedback when it would be most impactful. Circulating the room or calling students over to my table worked well and ignited powerful conversations with my students. I also leveraged the beauty of  2018-07-29 (1)_LIdigital and opened work in progress to initiate conversation, share feedback and ask kids questions. “Do you think you could add more detail to this?”, “This is interesting, could you explain it to me a bit more?”, “Hmm, I am not sure that looks like a full answer,” or “I am impressed, keep up the great work!” all can have huge impact on learning WHEN the learning is happening. The simple truth is that by the time students handed in their work I already knew if they hit the mark, and had intervened if necessary. Also it was important for students to see assignments to completion – final grades were irrelevant.

Step 4: Create systems for reflection and feedback – When assignments are submitted,  students need to know that we spend time appreciating their efforts. In making this shift to gradeless I chose to focus on what I knew was most important to student learning – feedback that could influence their learning on the next assignment or learning experience. I had used Alice Keeler’s Pull Paragraph add-on last year and was sold on the benefits of quick digital feedback mechanisms. This year our district 1:1 program was extended to the 7th grade, which also meant my 7th graders now had gmail addresses.  This was important because I knew that digital feedback would have even greater impact if I could share through email as well. Using Google Forms, I created a system that requires students to evaluate their own work in order to submit 2018-07-29assignments. I then used Autocrat to take student feedback and my own feedback to create a dialogue about opportunities for improvement and observations of awesomeness. (Next year I plan to add to this to create a running record as opposed to doing it by assignment.) No longer looking for a grade, students started to really appreciate the comments and feedback. They also appreciated the emojis I used on many of my final feedback forms.

Step 5: Get students to “grade” themselves and buy-in – In March my students completed a summative assessment for our Africa Unit. Borrowing an idea from my friend, Jim D’Entremont, students were asked to create sketchnotes for each side of a cube to demonstrate their understanding of the different parts of the unit. By this point in the year, my “gradeless” system was well established. The “work hard and do your best and you shall be rewarded” system was churning in my classroom. A few days 20180406_192446050_iOSbefore the final project was due SEVERAL students came to me and asked for an extension. “Socko, looking back at my first few squares, they just aren’t good. I know what I was to do now to make them awesome, can I redo them?” I always say yes. When students realize they can be better and want to reach higher, why would I ever say no? And it was in this moment that I realized the system was working – students were focusing on their learning and their own thresholds of success.

So the final question – what goes on the dreaded gradebook/report card?  Unfortunately I have to put something there so I decided to enter the assignments and give points for completion.  The larger assignments/tasks are given more points. If students complete the assignment to the level I believe they should be complete, and that has been discussed throughout the assignment, they earn the full points, if not, some points are deducted. The learning and growing are tied to the feedback, so it did not really matter what I put on the report card. Some may say that it is still grading, but I would disagree. These points reflect successful completion of learning missions, they are not a reflection of competence or aptitude. These scores are the necessary reality of trying to be focused on learning and engagement in an educational world that still values scores and data as the hallmark of student success. These scores keep the mamas and papas, and their little academics, who are still so focused on the coveted honor roll, happy.

As I ready myself for year two of a gradeless classroom I am excited to continue to develop models of assessment and feedback that foster rigor, collaboration and engagement.  I am going to focus on student portfolios so that I can involve the families in the process of feedback and reflection. I am excited about the updates in Google Classroom that will make quick feedback to students even easier.  I am excited to continue to learn new ways I can create the best learning environment for my students.

This is going to be a good year.


It Takes a Village

Next week marks the beginning of my fifth year as a 7th Grade World Geography teacher. Each year I have worked to develop curriculum that creates critical and mindful global thinkers and that also instills in them a sense of empathy for citizens around the world.

My goal is to have my students leave my classroom as competent and compassionate global citizens, empowered to make positive changes in the world. 

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To kickoff student learning this year I want to avoid rote tasks and conversations inherently confined to the four walls of our classroom, and instead go beyond these constraints and demonstrate the power of global. I decided to use FlipGrid to do just this.  I used the tool in the spring and my students loved it. Not only could I hear my students thinking, but they were eager to listen to one another in a way that was far more attentive than in classroom discussion. Will the same attention be paid to voices of strangers? I can’t answer that yet. But I can say that the responses recorded thus far are fantastic, and if my students listen to even just a few of these responses, I am confident that my objective will be met. My students will be considering and evaluating the perspectives of others, a skill essential to global citizens. 
Thirty-three voices shared, 67 more to go! The task of creating global citizens takes a village! I hope many will include themselves in this village and record a response.

What does it mean to be a global citizen?

Please check out the responses and share your voice!

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Photo credit: Pixabay




The Past, Sadly, is Present

It seems like walking on ashes. Although it is eerily silent, you can almost hear the pain in the air. You can feel the agony in the pit of your stomach as you consider the thousands of mothers who had to carry their babies to their deaths. I left Auschwitz a different person, and most definitely, a different educator. Since my return from Poland in January of 2015 I have pursued relentlessly to fulfill my pledge to the memory of the 1.5 million murdered on those grounds.

In July I had dinner with my sister while I was in Washington D.C. for a week at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum as part of the Museum Teacher Fellowship. During our dinner I shared details of the incredible fellowship experience. Lectures, discussions, museum explorations, videos – there was simply too much to share in one dinner conversation. Toward the end of our dinner my sister asked me very good questions – what would I do with all of this? Was there more to learn? The second was easy to answer because the amount I don’t know yet is still astounding, but the first question, I didn’t have the answer that felt full enough. Of course I knew that I wanted to teach, but that seemed too simple. It is hard to explain the deep sense of obligation I felt standing in front of the gates of Auschwitz, or the renewed obligation I feel every time I hear the voice of a survivor or read the words of a victim. So I left my answer to my sister’s question simple, knowing that I needed to figure out a way to explain it so that others might feel compelled to take on the same mission.

Sadly on Saturday citizens of this country provided my answer: without education, without confronting the lessons of the past and the warnings of its survivors and victims, we are doomed to repeat the pain and anguish. Outrage poured from almost every group in society. People could not believe their eyes as they watched video and saw images of citizens of this country chanting Nazi slogans and saluting the Nazi and Confederate flags. How could this happen in 2017?  President Obama’s response in the form of a tweet spoke volumes. (This tweet has already become the most liked tweet in Twitter history.)

These racist, tiki-torch carrying, Nazi-saluting individuals were not born haters, they were taught this behavior. They needed to learn the lessons of history and to understand the evil consequences of the hate they spew. They need to listen to Steven Fenves share his frightening and tragic experience during the Holocaust. They need to listen to Jim Waller explain that evil and genocide is perpetrated by neighbors, not by government mechanisms. They need to hear Carl Wilkens share his experience of terror and selflessness during the Rwandan genocide. They need to hear survivors like Alma Zero share her heart-wrenching experience as a 4-year-old little girl fleeing her home in Bosnia and facing hatred as a refugee during the Bosnian genocide. They need to watch Salam Neighbor, and see that the refugees they scorn today are 10-year-old boys like Raouf. They need to watch and/or read Denial, listen to Deborah Lipstadt, and realize the danger of denying the truth of the Holocaust and the evil of Hitler and the Nazis.  They need to spend time, the more the better, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They need to listen to the words Roman Kent spoke at the commemoration ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. They need to feel the ashes under their feet and walk the blocks of Auschwitz. I have done all of these things and I will never forget, nor will I rest until I ensure that others do no forget either.

This is why I learn. This is why I teach.

Note: This is cross-posted on Past is Present – Reflections

Aah, summer…

After 16 years in education I have heard just about all of the veiled and blatant comments about teachers having their “summers off,” having an easy schedule, etc. In the early years I argued these comments, but as I have matured (laughter from those who know me), I now just roll my eyes. I am proud to be a teacher. I love being a teacher. And yet I am probably equally excited about the arrival of the last day of school in June as I am about the arrival of my new flock of inquiring minds on the first day of school. So sitting on my flight bound for Washington D.C. for a week of professional development I can say, without a doubt, that summer has a huge amount to do with my attitude and love for my profession.

From the minute I walk into my pristine and empty classroom in August until the minute I turn in my key in late June, there is rarely a moment to breathe, contemplate and reflect. We all try to do this during the school year, but those moments are often shared with/usurped by other realities and responsibilities of being a teacher. These realities don’t exist in the summer so we can actually have time to reflect and dream, time to consider the possibilities of the new year, time to read, time to create and time to learn. These are essential to classroom innovation and, more importantly, to the emotional well-being of a teacher. 

So here I sit, eager to get to DC and begin my teacher fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I will spend the week with other educators that like me, relish the summer “vacation” as a time to grow as educators. When I return I am looking forward to leading professional development for another group of Massachusetts educators eager to learn. I will attend #BLC17 in Boston, learning alongside inspired and dedicated educators from around the world. I will continue to reflect and dream, filling my toolbox with ideas for the new year. And then I will pack up and enjoy a few weeks recharging with my family as we all prepare for the start of the 2017-2018 school year. I will walk back into school eager for the year to begin because my summer of learning and dreaming put me in the mindset we all want our childrens’ teachers to have. Thank you summer, you are a passionate teacher’s best friend. 

Edcamp Boston 2016 – An inspiration creator

Reading the twitter feed from yesterday may be the reason it is 9:38pm on Sunday night, and I have yet to complete a single item for tomorrow’s lesson. Oops. But even if I went toedcampbos 2016 logo sleep right now, I am confident that I will be a better teacher tomorrow thanks to the thoughtful and meaningful conversations I had with my fellow edcampers yesterday. But because my anal retentive personality about lesson prep will win out, and I do need to sleep, here is my quick run-down of my deep thoughts from Edcamp Boston 2016…

  1. Before I jumped on here to write this post, I was reading the CNN news headlines. We live in a world that is so filled with anger and hate.  As educators, we must remember that one of our most crucial roles is to teach children to be kind and empathetic human beings. Thank you to Henry Turner and Nate Everett for leading an incredible conversation in the “How to create a culture of diverse perspectives ?” session.  There are many discussions that need to happen in our classrooms that are deep and challenging. We cannot shy away from these discussions with our students. We must model for our students how to be good listeners, how to be compassionate to others even when we disagree, and perhaps most importantly, teach them that the identity of any individual is complex and multifaceted and must not be assumed. There is so much anger and hate in our society today, conversations about empathy and identity are essential. I am so grateful to my colleagues in the little Lexington room for this discussion yesterday.
  2. I did not have a single conversation yesterday about an app or new tool. Hallelujah. It is so refreshing to talk about education again. It is 2016. It is should go without saying that technology is implicit in our day, but it does not need to be the focus of our every conversation or every piece of PD. Yes, there need to be opportunities for teachers to become more facile users of apps, tools and devices, but it does not need to be the focus of every conversation.
  3. “Our job is inspiration creator.” I am not sure who inspired me to write that on the notes WP_20160305_14_27_02_Pro wall yesterday during our passion conversation, but it has been in the forefront of my mind today. Maker Spaces and genius hour and choice projects and the like, are all wonderful possibilities in the school day, but they are not always going to be the answer to the curriculum choices we are forced to make on a daily basis.  Our job is to determine what is going WP_20160305_14_27_16_Proto inspire our students to learn whatever material we are tasked to teach. This is not
    always easy, but it is why as teachers we must form strong relationships and trust with our students. We have to know what makes them tick, and they have to know what motivates us as well. Be an inspiration creator and find the entry point.

    And finally…

  4. Kids need recess, or at the very least, longer than 22 minutes to eat and hold a conversation with peers. Yesterday was exhausting. Session to session, taking notes, synthesizing ideas, learning new information…exhausting. Kids do this every day. But wait! We had an hour for lunch! Like is often the case, some of the most meaningful conversations I had were with colleagues during lunch. What are kids Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 11.22.24 PMlosing in not being able to have these interactions with their peers? What are they losing on not having time to debrief and breathe during the school day? Sadly, I do not hold the power to make this change in my school or district, but I do have the power to create change in my own fifdom (aka Room 210). In Room 210 there are no “do nows” allowed. Students enter and breathe for a minute. It makes such a difference. Tomorrow when I do this, I will smile and think of my fellow passionites from Edcamp Boston, then I will set off on my mission to inspire.

Okay, I really do need to plan for tomorrow…

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A special shoutout to my Edcamp Boston organizing commrades, and to the faces that make Edcamp Boston a reunion. You all rock. It is an honor to call you friends and colleagues. Sarah Edson…special award for being the boss and driving all the way out. We will see you in CT on 8/12.


Thinking, Struggling and Pride

Thinking, Struggling and Pride.

Published this post on my other blog, Our Global Expedition, last night but wanted to have it here as well. I am having so much fun in the classroom. I have spent many years trying to decide what my next step should be. I am a driven person so moving forward always seems like the right direction. I am so happy that I took a step backward. Not sure what the future holds, or when the urge will surface to challenge myself to try something new, but for now I am not just content, I am passionate about being a 7th grade Social Studies teacher.

My #1st5days

I posted this today on a new blog I started to specifically chronicle my return to the social studies classroom…

Wednesday marked the 5th day of my role as a 7th Grade Social Studies teacher. After some quality inspiration from my colleagues at #BLC13 in July (see these fantastic videos from Alas Media), some EdCamp inspiration, a little swashbuckling swagger from my favorite pirate, Dave Burgess, and sheer excitement about returning to the classroom as a social studies teacher, I was determined to kick off my year on the right note. I am excited about how it went…I hope my students feel the same way.

A few things I did to start the year:

Welcome my students.

Although it seems like a millennium ago, some of my favorite memories in education are from my first three years of teaching 8th grade American History at the Carroll School in Lincoln, MA. Overwhelming, exhausting and challenging are all words that can describe those years, but despite that I loved every second in the classroom with those kids. I still keep in touch with many of them, and can’t help but bubble with pride when I hear of their successes in life. Above all else, teaching is about kids. Over the past few years I have found myself wondering why some teachers stay in the field when it is clear that they don’t enjoy their students. Well, this is not the case for me. I was extremely excited to meet my students on 8/28 and I was not disappointed. Of course there are the quirky few that I know will challenge my patience, and the handful of shy students who were reticent to share much, but they are mine and I am excited to explore and learn with them this year.

Set expectations for success.

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.41.33 AMI recognize that it is important to be clear with students how to be successful at the start of course, but I have often questioned if this should be  synonymous with a discussion about the percentage breakdown of each grading opportunity that they will see throughout the course of the year. If you set the expectation that success in the class is mastering the grading system, what message does that send to the students? Instead I focused my discussions of success in my class on the behaviors I want to see in my classroom, and the attitude I expect each of them to possess. Sadly by 7th grade the kids are programmed to focus on the grade. I set the expectation that each student in my class was capable of this elusive “A” if they worked hard enough to get it. And most importantly, I shared with them all that the expectation is that they would ALL earn A’s, and that I will do my best to help them achieve it, regardless of whether Continue reading

What I learned on my summer vacation…

Tomorrow at 8 am the 2013-2014 school year will begin officially as I gather with the faculty and staff in the Natick High School cafeteria for the “welcome back” coffee and a morning of district kick-off meetings. Sitting here readying materials for the start of school I am constantly reflecting on my summer. Tomorrow some friends will share stories of their adventures in Africa or Europe, traveling the country or having experiences that I too might have had BK (before kids, for those that are confused), and even though I will ooh and aah over their stories with slight pangs of jealousy (as much as I love an edcamp, it is not quite as amazing as an African safari!), I will carry my truth with honor – I had an incredible summer of learning.

This summer I learned to “Teach Like a Pirate,” or at least I am now ready to teach like a pirate and am a certified #swashbuckler according to Dave Burgess. Between reading the book, participating in #tlap chats and having discussions with colleagues at edcamps and BLC, I am filled with ideas and inspiration to make my classroom an environment where children are inspired to learn. Not so sure that kids will want to buy tickets, but they will be engaged!  This weekend I have been focused on rapport and how I will begin my year. As Dave so wisely describes in his book, creating a community kids want to be a part of starts in the first three days of school. Students will absolutely feel welcomed to our learning extravaganza hosted by me!  Not sure yet if I am going to be able to pull-off the playdoh, but I do have my desks (which I have no choice but to deal with this year) covered with whiteboard paper. I am thinking about replacing playdoh with drawing. It is a perfect tie-in to my next summer learning item…

This summer I learned the power of sketchnotes. Thanks to Brad Ovenell-Carter, his incredible artistry at BLC, and his encouragement, I have a new way of taking notes that benefit me, and will hopefully benefit my students as well. Combining listening and critical thinking skills, tapping on their creativity and hopefully maintaining their attention, I am confident students will learn to process the important messages of class and engage more deeply in the material.  My students won’t have the opportunity to use Paper or the iPad in my classroom, but I will have them sketch their notes on paper and we will take pictures and post them in their digital portfolios.

This summer I learned the power of design thinking, Notosh style with a good question, three people, some paper and a couple of sharpies. Combining the incredible experience I had in Eleanor Duckworth’s course and her “tell me more” strategy to generate student thinking and exploration, the method Ewan Macintosh and Tom Barrett demonstrated resonated greatly with me. I have long felt that the reason curriculum in many classrooms is boring and the antithesis of learning is not due to the lack of technology, but the lack of thinking present. In an effort to “support and scaffold,” many learning opportunities strip away the opportunity to grapple with topics and generate ideas and questions. We need to coach kids to push their understanding, not deliver it to them in “flipped videos” or masterfully created Haiku decks or Prezis.  My students will be forced to struggle with their thinking this year, started with a design thinking exercise in which students will contemplate their ideal learning environment. I am not sure how it will all work, but if I am unwilling to push my comfort zone, how can I expect students to do the same?

This summer wasn’t all about learning new things, but also about relearning/reaffirming ideas that I have held for a while. This summer I was reminded that if I ever have a “redo” I want to become a library and information specialist. I have the pleasure of working in a building with an incredible library specialist, and throughout the summer I learned and collaborated with several others. Without fail the coolest people at any conference I have been to over the past couple of years have been librarians.  In the age of endless vats of information, librarians understand that the game is not to try to cram this information into kids’ heads, but rather to guide students how to find the best information in the most efficient manner and then inspire them to do something meaningful with the information. Thank you to Amy Bloom, Tara MacDonald, Laura D’Elia, Shannon Miller, Michelle Luhtala, Joyce Valenza, Jenny Lussier, Michelle Gohagon and the many other amazing librarians who inspire me daily.

This summer I reaffirmed that being a connected educator is no longer a choice for educators today, it is a necessity. I simply do not believe that educators that refuse to connect beyond the walls of the school building can provide students with a full learning opportunity. Perhaps I am a being presumptuous, or overly aggressive about the issue, but I don’t believe I am. In the course of the summer I learned more about education and my practice than I ever did in a grad class or school meeting.  Refusal to connect is negligent and there is no defense. I am a different educator because of the connections I have made with other educators. Twitter is a lifeline for me now. In just a few minutes I can have my mind blown by ideas and resources shared by educators around the world. For people that prefer to connect in person, find people! Every month there are free learning opportunities for educators. There are many fantastic paid conferences, but they are cost prohibitive for many – so try one of the many free Edcamps, Playdates, TeachMeets. Not one in your area? Organize one! If you organize it, people will come!

And with that, I must disconnect and focus on some of the monotony of school start, including district mandated online trainings, class lists, and other boring stuff that I need to do now before the excitement of the school year takes over. I am looking forward to tomorrow morning, seeing faces I have not seen since June, and hearing about their wonderful adventures of the summer.  I have a friend who spent his summer working at an orphanage in Africa, then traveling and vacationing in Africa with his fiancee. My adventures are certainly not as glamorous as this, but I am confident I am just as passionate about mine.  Counting down to the return of students on Wednesday, I am filled with the lessons of the summer and energized to get rolling this year!

Five Key Considerations for Meaningful Differentiation with Technology

As is often the case when I work with other educators in a workshop or at a photo (1)conference, I leave the experience more jazzed and passionate about what I do. Last week I had the pleasure of leading an EdTechTeacher workshop called Leveraging Technology to Differentiate Instruction. The group was fantastic. On Monday I had the opportunity to connect and learn along with an equally amazing group at Edcamp BLC.  During both the workshop and several sessions at the edcamp I was involved in conversations about topics such as passion and transformation, but the last session I attended at EdCamp BLC was about putting students first.  How do we put student needs first? It all circled back to the discussion I began the workshop with last week about UDL and meaningful integration. To put students first we need to differentiate instruction, and to do this successfully through technology integration we must be mindful. Below are the key considerations that I believe are essential in order for classroom teachers to leverage technology to create meaningful differentiation in the classroom.

1. Start with the learning goal.

Backwards design is critical for technology integration to be successful. Before contemplating what technology device, tool or app to use, the question of what the learning goal for the lesson must first be identified. All too often educators hear about a new tool or device and are understandably excited to use it in their classroom. However, instead of waiting until the perfect opportunity in which the learning need is matched with the functionality of the tool or device, define the learning goal and then determine the tools or resources that will allow the students to accomplish the goal successfully. Boxing learning into the functionality of a tool will rarely have a positive and productive outcome.

2. Consider assessment before assignment expectations.

For every lesson or unit we create for our students, there are skills and concepts we need to ensure that our students have grasped. It is our role as educators to determine not only what these skills are, but also how we will check for understanding.  For many students, particularly those that have learning differences, simply including the words test or quiz on the agenda elicits such a degree of fear and anxiety that the likelihood of truly assessing understanding is nominal. In an effort to differentiate assessment, many educators have used more creative means to assess student understanding. While I applaud and encourage providing opportunities other than tests and quizzes for students to demonstrate their understanding, it is critical that we consider what we need to “see” in order to accurately assess student understanding. For example, if the learning goal is summarizing main idea, do you need to see the summary in print? If so, what tools can students use to accomplish this task? Can students use their voice to summarize? If so, what tools can the student use to accomplish this task? Is there a reason that students should not be provided the choice?

3. Ensure that differentiation is invisible.

A few months ago I was discussing tracking and balanced classrooms with a friend of mine that is not an educator. He asked if it was actually possible to meet the needs of all learners in a class that had a wide spectrum of learning needs and differences. His son has a learning disability and he fears that his child will always be sectioned off, losing confidence and facing ridicule when he needs additional modifications. With successful technology integration, this should never happen. Using collaborative tools such as Google Drive, scaffolding can be applied without anyone recognizing the differences. Have a student that is a slow processor? Instead of handing her a worksheet and asking her to do the even numbers, create customized learning opportunities that are shared digitally. Have students with executive functioning disorders? Support the research, inquiry and planning process.

This year my 8th grade students created short documentaries about a leader of their choice. The goal of the assignment was to use multimedia to convey to the audience why their chosen person is/was a leader. To prepare for the project we first spent time exploring documentary as a film genre, including watching segments from Ken Burns’ Baseball series. This is the notes template students used while watching the documentary and here is the “guide” I distribute to support my students during their research. Neither or these documents is “special” in their base form; however, by using a collaborative document through Google Drive rather than distributing paper or a pdf, I am able to modify and scaffold both for students with ease. I can also provide ongoing, synchronous and/or asynchronous support to those students that need it, or can challenge students that are ready for the next level. Differentiation occurs while simultaneously eradicating the classroom dynamic of segregation that my friend is concerned about for his son.

4. Don’t recreate the wheel.

social media bandwagon

Photo courtesy of timeoutdad.com

We are only human. In any given class we typically have an average of 20+ children. Each child has his or her own distinct learning style and associated needs. In the era of “initiatives” equating to ever-growing demands on educators it is often a challenge to find the time to innovate. Technology tools and apps can reduce the amount of time needed to create differentiated lessons, and most likely, someone else has already thought of these ideas. Use social media (Twitter is my personal favorite), connect with other amazing educators and create a strong professional learning network, aka PLN. Forward-thinking educators like to share. When I need help with an idea, resources for a lesson or feedback on something I have created, I rely on my PLN and am always blown away by the ideas and material that is shared with me. In less time that it used to take me to create the not so perfect one-size fits all lesson I am now able to create differentiated lessons that meets the needs of all learners in my class.

5. Maximize flexibility to increase access and engagement.

The American Disabilities Act of 1990 has served to provide equity and access for Americans with a myriad of disabilities. One regulation stemming from ADA is building codes that ensure access ramps to bypass stairs as well as curb cutouts so that wheelchairs can safely cross streets. On behalf of mothers everywhere, thank you Bush 41 (and to David Rose for providing our class with the perfect example of the benefits of flexible design and UDL). Although these regulations were originally intended photo (2)to provide access to individuals in wheelchairs, stroller-pushing individuals have reaped the benefit of the ramps, automatic doors and curb cutouts. The epitome of UDL, by creating flexibility for one group of people, this flexibility also enhanced access for another group of people. We need to find the same possibility in our classrooms – through physical design, instructional design, instructional support and assessment. When we consider any of these we need to consider how providing flexibility can open access and/or engage individuals in our classrooms. Consider how providing information in both audio and print format can allow the non-readers in your class the opportunity to access information, while also allowing the student with a long bus ride to listen to the information on his way home from school (reading in moving vehicles makes him want to puke). Or consider how allowing students to create videos to demonstrate their understanding of essential questions will encourage a struggling writer the chance to shine while also providing that student that thrives on an audience the motivation to create something incredible and publish his work.  The examples are endless.

My Dedicated 20% Time

ImageAs the buses pulled away from the building on June 25th it is hard to determine who was more excited, me or the students that filled those busses. June was a long month! A year filled with transition to Common Core standards and a new teacher evaluation system was further complicated by crazy weather and a constantly disrupted calendar. When I left the building on June 28th after leading a three day workshop for teachers, I was exhausted. Fast-forward 10 days and I feel like a new person. I have had a wonderful week of vacation with my family, celebrated the 4th, read three books that have had zero value to my profession, or intellect for that matter, gotten some great sleep and have a pretty nice tan. Now I am ready to do what I love to do – dream about the possibilities of the new school year and figure out a way to make them a reality. To me, summer is my dedicated 20% time. It is my time to focus on what I want to dream about, not the initiatives of others.

My goal for the summer is to figure out how to make this mindset a reality in my classroom. How do I create an environment in which students are inspired to explore and learn because they are passionate about the topic? How do I guide students while still maintaining student choice? How do I inspire my students to dream and find a way to make their dreams a reality? How do I do all this while still meeting the expectations of district mandates? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but charting a game plan for the new school year is my goal for the summer.

For some, the idea of spending their vacation time thinking about this would equate to boredom, but not for me. I am excited about the opportunity to engage in these discussions with fellow educators. Next week I have the privilege of leading a workshop on differentiated instruction for EdTechTeacher. The following week is filled with the Desire to Learn’s Fusion Conference, Edcamp BLC and BLC13. I also hope to get to a few EdCamp Tuesdays in Burlington. August brings the MTA Conference, Edcamp CT, and Edcamp Leadership. I will finally read the hundreds of articles and posts I have pocketed, bookmarked and pinned. I will engage in chats and actually have time to explore the endless list of valuable resources that are shared. My summer is packed with opportunities to collaborate with other educators and hopefully generate some exciting ideas for the fall. This is my 20% time. I guess this is how I know that being an educator is what I am meant to be doing. I love being an educator and although I am happy to have a bit more beach time in my very near future, I am already looking forward to the buses rolling back up to the building.