News from the pathway to student self-assessment

Students must take ownership of their learning. That’s what it all boils down to.

That concept is new and challenging to many, if not most, of them.

I began this school year on a new path to implement a no-grades school year. Students would receive continuous feedback from me, both verbal and written, the written occurring on Google docs, on hard copies of their work, even on sticky-notes, as it turned out. This feedback – with no letter or number attached – would provide them the real information they needed to improve their work, continue to develop their skills, to shoot for the target again. Isn’t that how we learn most things, from riding our bikes to manipulating our parents? When something doesn’t work, we apply the feedback (skinned knees or lectures), and we go back to the drawing board (or back on the bike), and we try again … and again. Soon we’re flying down the street with a trick or two to show, and we have Mom thinking it was Dad’s idea and vice versa. Feedback helps us grow and develop much more than does a number like 72, and that’s how I explained it to students and the (very) few parents who inquired.

And so it began.

Working with the students

Yes, students did the work – at least the students who would have done the work anyway. So grades are not the driving force behind getting kids to work. There were a few, as there always are, who didn’t do the work for one reason or another, and grade or no grade, they did not complete assignments. Some loved the opportunity to re-do content until they got it better and better, learning from feedback how to construct better sentences, what to capitalize and where description can improve a piece. Some simply appreciated it on a simpler level. Some followed procedure (or not) and mostly did what the teacher wanted. For those few, it was hard for me to tell whether they preferred this do-over at no cost over one-and-done with a grade.

Knowing reflection was a big part of what I wanted to implement, I “assigned” reflections, showing them by example what I expected. To say some got it and some didn’t is pointless, because that’s how everything is in the classroom. The real problem here, was that I was still providing feedback on the assignment itself and didn’t follow-up well on the reflection portion, so not everyone did it. Since I didn’t follow-up, I lost credibility.

Posting to the gradebook for transparency

When I posed my plan to my principal, I described how I could create the assignments in our digital grade book (we use Infinite Campus) as I always had, using standards as tasks (instead of homework, daily work, tests, etc). But then, instead of posting a grade, I would make the assignment worth zero points and mark it as either “Incomplete”, if they were revising from feedback, or “turned in” when they were finished. In the comment section, I would compose a tweet-sized remark based on Mark Barnes’s SE2R feedback system, with a more complete explanation on their document. That all actually worked for the most part. I did fall behind in posting what I had planned, just like many of us fall behind on grading. For some classes with more specific assignments, it was easier. For some, creating the “assignment” is what held me up, as three of my classes are very differentiated.

Teaching reflection and self-assessment

Though reflection had been an issue earlier, I did require it at the end of the semester. Taking an idea from Sarah Donovan, I had them write it in the form of a letter to me, reflecting on the main standards our work related to, describing that work, their experience and how it did meet, did almost meet or did exceed the standards, and assessing themselves for a grade. I provided a guideline for what constitutes an A (over and above), a B (on target, basically), C (might not have finished everything or done all revisions), D (did some work, but too little to assess well and little revision) and F (no evidence). Then I began meeting individually with them. I have six classes, five preps, but relatively small class sizes, so I was able to get through all in about three days. My classes are Reading for Fun, two sections of Intro to Journalism, Newspaper production, Yearbook production and Digital Communication.

Conferencing with students

In the conferences, I would pull up their reflection from Google Drive (had usually already read through them and offered feedback) and we discussed it. This gave me a chance to talk to them about what assignments they enjoyed, what they found tough, why some were never finished (I had a list on a clipboard showing what assignments were finished or not for each student. For DigiComm students, I just had to pull up their blog as evidence of what was/was not done; for Reading, I used their Gdrive reading log). I even asked some of them what they thought I should add or drop to make the class better. In most cases, they were pretty spot-on with their grade. The fact that they had to cite evidence from their work to back up their grade request is where owning their work comes in.

When my old grading self wanted to creep in and make me second guess my strategies or how accurately the students had assessed themselves, I reminded myself that, learning cannot be measured. If I’ve been arguing that grades and grade-point averages do not reflect real learning, then why would I now worry that the grade the student and I have settled on isn’t accurate? Everyone is different, so their learning will be different. What’s important, I believe, is how they approach learning. That’s where I want to make an impact.


Though we went through the entire semester with feedback instead of grades, and each student either took advantage of learning and progressing or didn’t, at the end of the semester, they had to be the judge of how they did, and I think that was the right way to do it. They saw that they had had control of their learning, their grade, the entire time. Some realized it early on; some not until that conference. If they did have to give themselves a C or even a D, I asked what they could do differently next semester to learn more, improve skills, complete work, meet deadlines. The answers usually came from them, but I could make some suggestions when it seemed they didn’t know how to improve, how to use resources to their advantage. They have control, and that’s what I wanted them to see. One told me he wanted a B, but figured he deserved a C. We talked about his work, what he had and hadn’t done, what others had helped him with or taken over for him, what he could have done differently. It was a good discussion. Then we looked at the grade guidelines again, and the difference between a B and a C was unmistakable. So I asked what he could do differently next semester to earn that B or even an A – he’s perfectly capable. He made suggestions that were all pretty good. With that, it was resolved that, though he accurately assessed himself at a C this time, he could easily do better. I know he wanted me to “give” him a B, but then he’d have had little motivation to do differently next semester. He gave himself the grade he knew he’d earned. And he gave himself a plan to do better. #owning.

A few students who had not taken responsibility for producing their content, also did not take responsibility for writing the reflection or assessing themselves. These were not at school for their conference. I am left with no choice but to assess for them, and this displeases me. I want them to own their experience like everyone else has.

Making improvements to the plan

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. I do believe feedback instead of grades is the better way to go. I believe self-assessment is a good eye-opener. But as I reflect on my part in all of this, I, too, have goals for the coming semester:

  • Talk up front about owning, about controlling their own learning experience. Make expectations more clear.
  • Plan ahead better. Avoid flying by seat of pants from time to time on lessons or about when the deadline is expected.
  • As I plan lessons, post assignments in Infinite Campus so I can more easily post feedback when it’s time.
  • Get feedback to students sooner. It’s more effective if received right away.
  • Make sure I’m not just working with the squeaking wheels. Too many try to fly under the radar. They count, too. May have to keep a blank roster spreadsheet on a clipboard and note when I’ve connected with whom on what assignment.
  • Set aside time every week to post to the gradebook. This will mean that I have to tell students who have dropped by to ‘hang out’ and visit that I have work to do, but I have to do it. Students hang out in my room at lunch, before and after school and even during my plan period. I want my journalism lab to be open for my journalists and for students who need to catch up, and I want to be a listening ear for students who need one, but I have to draw a line. I have a commitment to the students in my classes for timely feedback and a proper learning environment.
  • Finish some critical reading:
    • Finish Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment. This is an all-in-one, simplified version of what I’m trying to do. Much of it, I already have implemented, thanks in no small part to my friendship with Starr and her openness to sharing what she has learned, but I haven’t had a chance to finish reading.
    • Starr Sackstein’s Teaching Students to Self-Assess. I got it late in the semester, too late to get a good plan for teaching reflection in place.
    • Finish Erik Palmer’s Well Spoken. We’re at crisis level getting students to present or even speak within small groups. Too much cram and test. We’re not teaching life skills like communication, and I want my students to have this advantage. I want to implement more, early, easier opportunities to speak before presentations.
    • Finish Don Wettrick’s Pure Genius. In another post, I discussed my disillusionment with Passion Projects in my digital communications class this semester. It’s too valuable to scrap, so I need to fine tune. I need my own passion back.
    • Read George Couros’s The Innovator Mindset. Amazon’s one-click has nearly gotten me in trouble, but I think this one will be valuable. Just need to find the time to read so I can improve my capacity to motivate my students to create and innovate!

Do you have experiences to share, advice to offer or questions to ask? Let’s get a conversation going.


Ding, ding, da-ding, ding!

Pinball machines.

Remember those? I have memories of being sent into the 7-11 (in the nicer part of the town where I grew up) or “Little Jim’s” (in the less nicer area) to purchase cigarettes for my mom who didn’t want to get out of the car. In either store, there was that “ding, ding, da-da-ding, ding, ding!” coming from a corner of the store. The pinball machine.

Pete Townshend even wrote a song about the wizarding aspects of pinballing.

I, however, am not a wizard, though I hear the “ding, ding, da-da-ding, ding” in my head a lot lately. Only it really sounds more like:

“Snider, can you edit my story?”

“Snider, only four people met their deadline today. See if you can talk to the others.”

“Hey, I sold an ad, but I have to go to class. Can you take this?”

RRrrrrriiiiiinnnggg ….

“Snider, you want me to get the phone?”

“What are we doing today?” (this as newspaper goes out and intro to journalism comes in)

I forgot to go to the bathroom last hour. Wonder if I have time before the bell? That’s me in the Italics.

“Mrs. Snider, I’m not going to be here next week. Can I have my work?”

“Snider, can you write me a pass? I was downloading my pics of volleyball.”

“Who left their stuff? Can I even sit here?”

“Snider, lady on the phone wants to know if she bought a yearbook, and if not, do you have any left?”


Attendance. I need to do attendance. What am I doing with these guys today?

“Mrs. Snider, you want us to finish what we were working on yesterday?”

“Yeah, do that.”

“I can’t do mine. Jimmy has our notes and he’s not here today. What do you want me to do?”

Knock on the door. Because we have to keep them locked now. Thanks, Adam Lanza.

“Snider, can you write a note for me? My 8th hour counted me absent yesterday, but you asked me to cover volleyball practice. I downloaded the pics last hour, remember? Oh, and I shared my story in your folder. Have you looked at it yet?”

Knock on the door.

“Mrs. Snider, I never got my senior pictures in the mail. The office said to check with you?”

“Ding, ding, ding, da-da-da-ding, ding….”

Active vs. passive learning

One of the changes I am trying to incorporate in my narrative-feedback-instead-of grades classes (NFIG) this year is allowing the students to seek knowledge instead of having me serve it up via lecture/slides/notes the way I have in the past. Frankly, I believe that I try to be a good lecturer, using that method as little as possible and keeping it varied, interesting and informative.

Nevertheless, I’m still being the sage on the stage, no matter how entertaining. And, frankly, it’s often exhausting. Even if I’m entertaining, the kids are still on the passive end of the learning. And after reading ROLE Reversal, I saw that that needed to change.

Flipping the learning

Taking an idea from Mark Barnes’s book, I used a lesson for my Intro to Journalism students, one in which we learn about news elements, and I flipped it. I explained briefly what news elements were – elements that make news, news. Not all stories qualify as news. We read newspapers and talked about the stories and what drew us to them. Throwing those words on the board headed us in the right direction. But the set of “news elements” is what we needed to round up and define. I told the classes that depending on which text you read or what slide presentation or PDF document you find online from a journalism class or teacher, this set of news elements will vary. Some say there are seven, some say eight, some say 10. Their task, then, instead of watching my slide presentation and taking notes or taking notes from my very good textbook, Inside Reporting, by Tim Harrower, was to find the news elements themselves. I grouped them into threes and fours and had them use whatever means they wished: phones, computers, those cool textbooks. As a group, they were to discover what the common list of news elements was, and define the terms they had decided upon. I gave each group a sheet of blank 11X17 and access to colored pencils and markers so that they could posterize their list and definitions.

Near the end of the hour, I started with one group, putting their terms on the board and having others from the group define it for the class. I moved to the next group and did the same. In some cases, they had a common term. In some cases, they had a different word, but we decided it was the same as one on the board. For example, first group said “immediacy” and second group said “timeliness”. Same thing. Sometimes another group would come up with a term that the first groups hadn’t. An occasional term was a similar topic but not an element of news, so we discussed how that didn’t fit like the others did, though it was relevant in a different way.

After all the terms were on the board, including the duplicates by another name, we decided as a class which ones would make up our list.

Creating artifacts for portfolios

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and will have to continue this next week. I plan to have students create their finalized list of terms in some form to help them remember. They can create their own slide presentation in Google slides or PowerPoint; they can create a digital poster in Smore or another app, digital flashcards or some other creation. The creation will help in retaining the information, as well as be a resource for later. They can save the artifact in their Google portfolio folder for referencing later on, and it serves for meeting both a vocabulary standard and a technology standard. When they begin reflecting on standards to assess their learning for the quarter, they can reference this to back up what they learned and the request for the grade they believe is reflective of their learning.

Reflecting on what needs improvement

Now, a few things did not go as well as I’d wished. While about half or more of the groups were so anxious to get to the searching that they had a hard time listening for all the instructions (that darn sage on the stage wouldn’t stop talking), and they did just what I had hoped, a couple groups did struggle. I noticed one group not talking to each other. They seemed to be researching independently, as if they were going to compare notes after a brief time, so I let them be for a bit. Another group was crowded around one of the journalism lab’s iMacs, and appeared to be quite focused – and they were, just not on the right thing. When I checked in on them, one said, “we found our story.” Indeed, they’d found an interesting news story, one I’d have filed under “oddity” if I were filing under news elements. But that wasn’t the assignment. The main spokesman hadn’t understood the assignment, but hadn’t sought to clarify. The others didn’t think he was looking for the right thing, but were largely hesitant to bring up that point. I think one girl had said as much, but no one paid attention, so they continued reading the odd story. I restated the assignment, and I discussed how, as a group, each has a responsibility to make sure the work is on track and that each is being held accountable.

Heading back to the independent studies group, I saw that they were still studying independently. One had a laptop and was jotting down the elements she was discovering. But the others were not sure what they were supposed to be doing so were using their phones for a variety of things, some related to the assignment, some not. They were, however, not collaborating at all. So I talked about collaboration, how they needed to talk to each other, compare what they were finding, make decisions together and share tasks. They really struggled with this and the awkwardness was palpable.

I need to figure out how to teach collaboration. I need to differentiate a bit between my two sections because one works well with collaboration, and one does not. I shouldn’t let them off the hook of talking to people; I just need to figure out how to help them ease into it in a way that doesn’t make them too uncomfortable.

Have you considered flipping your teaching so that students are responsible for gathering their info? How would that look in your classroom? And if you have students who are hesitant to work with others, how do you handle it? Comment, and let’s get a conversation started.

Giving away freedoms

After a few days of getting-to-know-ya activities (that actually helped us get to know each other a bit in non-threatening, kind of fun ways), I decided it was time to learn stuff, and employed one of my favorite lessons ever, especially the way I did it this year.

We learned about the First Amendment. Like a dress-up chest of mom’s and dad’s old favorite clothes and accessories, we tried it on so many different ways, they may actually not forget.

When they entered the class that day, I handed them a piece of paper and told them their Bell Ringer was to write down all of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment that they could recall. These are mostly freshmen and sophomores with a few juniors and a senior or two sprinkled in. I saw dread, I saw surprise, I saw total confusion. I heard, “the what?” I explained I only need to know what they, themselves, knew, that there was no reason to borrow info from a neighbor. They weren’t turning anything in; there was no grade. I just wanted to know how much they knew. I promised they’d know more by the end of class.

After a few minutes, I challenged them to tell me the ones they knew. When the most well-known was called out, Freedom of Speech, it rang bells for a few others. We got the next two on the board, Freedom of the Press and of Religion, before the well ran dry. This happened in both sections of this class. But in one class, one young man was onto something as he struggled with a concept – protest – but it took several others to toss words about before we came up with “gather,” and I helped them on to “assemble”. They didn’t get “petition” until I projected the 45 words on the screen for them to see.

The next step was to define the freedoms. As I’ve done in the past, I asked them to think about how they would explain each of the freedoms to a class of fifth graders. This took a little while, too, as they struggled to interpret what the freedoms really meant, too. I helped a little and we got them defined with a little purpose tossed in.

A new slide on my presentation asked which freedom they thought they could live without, which took us to the most interesting part of the lesson and the part that made it all stick.

Which one would you give up? This created discussion. If you give up speech, what would happen to your free press? If you give up the right to assemble, what happens to your practice of religion? That did it, and they began a lively discussion with each other that didn’t necessarily involve me. I had them vote. Which would they give up? The first class voted to toss press first. I exaggerated my offendedness (is that a word?). I am a journalism teacher! How will you get by without freedom of the press? What about being a watchdog for the government? The other class tossed the right to assemble first. We wondered at how that would affect their lives.

But we weren’t finished. When they realized they were going to have to toss another right, they began to worry a little. I knew some people had abstained from the first vote, but I couldn’t let that happen from here on out. With four freedoms remaining, and, as it happens, four corners of the room existing, the remedy to that was easy. I took four of the pieces of paper they’d used for scribbling down the rights they knew and I wrote big, the remaining rights, and had students tape them to the walls (or door or cabinets) in the four corners of the room. Now we’d vote with our feet.

What would you toss next? The students considered, and they moved to the area of the freedom they thought they could live without. I counted heads and the freedom with the bigger number was scratched from the board. But then I’d ask a few students why they voted the way they did. Sometimes that generated a brief discussion. Sometimes we realized a misunderstanding and a vote changed.

We did this until only one freedom remained. In one class it was Freedom of Religion. In the other it was Freedom of Speech. We had a minute or two to discuss our results and wonder about a world where we only had that one freedom and how not having the others would make things different.

I asked them if they thought they’d remember their five freedoms the following day, the following week. They were pretty sure they would.

For homework – and I told them I rarely assign homework – they were to survey 5-10 people to see how many of the freedoms they knew. Just jot down names and how many of the freedoms that person knew. We’d tally the next day. Almost all of them did this – or faked it pretty well. They were very interested in the results. They discovered lots of people knew none, several people knew one or knew those top three. One young man was alarmed when no one in his family knew any of them.

Did I grade anything? Nah. Was it fun and engaging? Yep. Did we learn stuff? You betcha.

The Plan: NFIG?

My first try at Google Draw

My first try at Google Draw

I’m not a risk-taker. I plan. I envision. Before I set anything in motion, I learn all I can, and I imagine, play out all the possible scenarios in my head. I want it right before I begin. That’s not to say I don’t handle failure well. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, actually. Failure can be part of the planning process if you look at it in a bigger picture kind of way. It didn’t work that way; let’s try it another way.

In that way, last school year was planning and trying out small changes in order to transition to “The Plan.” I want to use narrative feedback instead of grades. But I’m afraid to ask.

The directive at my high school for the past several years has been “two grades per week.” I did express to my principal two years ago that I did not like that rule and explained that it didn’t work with my classes. And I’ve learned so much more since then.

Last year I implemented a few things I knew I could:

  • No zeros. A 50 is an F, and that only happened when no work was turned in.
  • No reduction in points for late work.
  • I quit making students feel guilty for needing to go to the bathroom. If you gotta go, you gotta go. Just let me know. Guess what? It was not abused.
  • I had my publications students (newspaper & yearbook) grade their own production weekly. This involved setting goals, keeping a log, reflecting and assessing. Frankly, they didn’t like it much.
  • I provided written, narrative feedback (and taught students to peer edit), so that they had multiple chances to improve work before they turned it in. I had kids thank me for this service.
  • In some cases, I mini-conferenced with students to arrive at a grade on part of an assignment. I need to build my confidence on conferencing.

These changes did make some improvement, but where I really wanted to see improvement – more student participation and assignment completion – well, these changes weren’t enough to effect the kind of improvement I’d hoped for. They weren’t enough because the biggest change I needed to make was still a glaring problem. There were still grades. Kids were still labeled “D”, “F” (I can’t win. I don’t know what to do.), even “A” (I don’t need to work very hard; I’m already there).

Now I need to go full throttle: No grades. Well, I’m calling it “Narrative Feedback Instead of Grades.” NFIG? Not as pretty as TOG, but I think Throwing Out Grades gives the wrong impression, and I have to worry about that as I pursue The Plan.

I spent a huge chunk of yesterday writing up, in narrative form with lovely bullets and bolded parts, my proposal as I plan to present it to my principal – soon as I gather the courage and he has a chunk of time in his schedule. School starts in three weeks. What I produced yesterday was five pages, but I included links to reading material with summaries and a page or so of FAQs so I’m prepared for what he/they might ask me.

For you, dear readers, I will try to be brief (but it’s hard. You see how I wordy I am?)

The Plan

  • I will use narrative feedback instead of grades. On assignments, this will look like Mark Barnes’s SE2R formula (Summarize, Explain, Redirect and Resubmit). This feedback will be on their Google Doc in most cases. In cases where there is a hard copy, I’ll (egad!) handwrite it, being careful to remember that students now have little training in cursive (omg). In the online gradebook (we use Infinite Campus), I will check the “Incomplete” box and write a brief (I swear I can) version of the SE2R in the comments section. When the student turns in his/her final version, I will check the “Turned In” box and make a new note (leaving the first in place, each with dates), that the goals were met or exceeded. I think this can work. An administrator or parent should be able to see this through the online portal, and wouldn’t this bit of information be more informative than a 72?
  • I will “unpack standards” with the students, an idea borrowed from Starr Sackstein. I do have to decide WHICH standards. Oklahoma repealed Common Core and is in the process of finalizing new standards, so we are one more year with what we used before, PASS. I “invented” journalism standards to use last year by doing a mashup of what I saw from other states. So my options are: CCSS ELA + ISTE or the new Oklahoma standards in draft form + ISTE. My journalism standards were too tedious, I decided, and they don’t apply to digital communications. Either way, the “unpacking process”, as I will apply it, means the students and I will learn them, simplify them, tossing what we don’t need, combining some, and putting what’s left in their language. Through all this, they should have an understanding and ownership of them. How to do that with five classes of four preps (2X intro to journalism; newspaper; yearbook; digital communications) still puzzles me. Input? What we come up with will be the categories I use in the online gradebook where my peers use “daily work”, “quizzes”, “homework”, and “tests” or something along those lines. As I create an assignment in InfCamp, I will note which standard it applies to. When it hits two or more, it’s entered that many times so that we focus on each standard; i.e. a writing one and a tech one. Whew, I gotta work on brevity.
  • I will teach reflective writing. I learned last year (and, really, before that) that it isn’t common sense. Few “get it.” Reflective writing, especially as it has to do with self-assessment, standards and evidence, has to be explained, modeled and feedback given, just like other work. Hopefully by grade reporting time, they’ll be used to it and will be able to manage reflective self-assessment with evidence for the grading period. I plan to use Starr’s book on reflection as my Bible for this. It will be published in October. She has also written about reflection quite a bit on her blog.
  • Students will create digital portfolios to curate their work, track their progress and do their reflection writing. Intro to J and DigiComm have always had blogs on WordPress, and I’ve encouraged newspaper to have blogs also, but the whole thing needs fine-tuning. Here’s what I’ve come up with: Choice. I love that idea. All my students use Google Drive. It’s the one thing they all have in common. So – eportfolios can be as simple as a folder in their Drive marked “eportfolio” with obvious organization within. Or, students may choose to create a Google site. I’ve only dabbled in this myself, but I don’t mind learning alongside my students. Absolutely love it when one of them teaches me something and you can visibly see their pride swell as they get up to show the others. Students could also opt for using their WordPress blog, though to me, that may be too public to be reflecting on their progress and grade, but it’s up to them. And if they come in telling me they have experience with Weebly, that’s cool too. Gimme the link. If one starts with a Google folder but after a few weeks gets brave and decides to create a site, well, we probably have a tech standard he can tie to for some reflection on progress. The goal is to curate work and track progress so that they can be ready for self-assessment at grade-reporting time. And that reflective self-assessment? I’ll probably go the “choice” route again: written in a Google doc; screencast; video; Voxer; whatever; but a conference will happen too.
  • In each class, I’ll have One Big Ongoing Assignment, handy for when some finish a project early and others are still working or reworking. Also great for sub days or THOSE days when I just don’t have my stuff together. For newspaper and yearbook, it’s obvi: their publications and anything extra they want to put into them. For DigiComm, I’ve had them do Passion Projects (just bought Don Wettrick’s Pure Genius and can’t wait to dig in), but I had a tough time figuring out how to do this for Intro. In Mark Barnes’s ROLE Reversal, he talks about having his 7th grade ELA students do a Read All Year (RAY) project with lots of novels and big team goals. There’s no grade attached, but there are different activities kids can do when they complete a book. So I borrowed and tweaked this idea with a little help from Mark. I want my kids to read long-form narrative journalism. That could be feature articles in magazines (think TIME or The Week) or book-length journalism (think All the President’s Men, All the Right Stuff, Into the Wild). Collections of essays and journalist biographies could work, too. Time to go to some used book stores. I’ll contract with each student, just outside his/her comfort zone, but quantifying will be tough. At Mark’s suggestion, we’ll count pages instead of books. So for the first grade-reporting period (9-weeks or semester, I haven’t decided), a student might contract for 150 pages (small book or multiple longish articles) up to 300. I’ll set up some sort of celebration board where kids can post accomplishments, but I also want to encourage them to do something for each piece they read, though I won’t be keeping tabs (they will, in their portfolio). They could write a review, a reflective blog post, a mini review on Instagram or Twitter with a shoutout to the author, discuss the item with classmates in a small group “book talk”, create a book trailer or just Vox about it. I’ll pose it as collecting info for our library of potential reads. Classmates and students who come after will appreciate having another student’s take on a piece to help them make a decision about reading it. One thing I envision is a tab on the class website that functions as our “library” with the book and article lists. Some articles could be linked to their sources online, but in all cases, student responses could be linked beneath each title as a reference to future readers.

So there you go, too many pages, but that’s my plan. Now I just need confidence to ask for permission and to get it all in motion. How can you help me? Can you poke any holes in this? Offer any suggestions for improvement? Suggestions for proposing? Did I help you with anything?

Instinctive practice, with a lack of terminology

Fortunately or unfortunately, I do not have an education degree. I have an English degree but am alternatively certified as a teacher in Oklahoma. I felt really inadequate at first, even though I had teacher after teacher tell me that they don’t really teach you anything in those classes anyway – you learn it by doing it.

I learned it by doing it – and by reading about it. And by networking with other teachers everywhere. And by talking with my students and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.

Educational lingo used to make me feel dumb, but I figured out I’m doing most of it, just not labeling it the same.

Collecting and analyzing data:

There was this one time, I stood before my class of intro to journalism students and had just gone over ten different types of feature stories. I had described each and given multiple examples and they could see these for reference in their textbook. They were to be brainstorming ideas – three of each type – AND NO ONE WAS WRITING ANYTHING DOWN. OK, a couple of the students had managed to write down an item or two, but by and large, these kids could not think of, or would not chance coming up with, ideas of their own for this feature story idea brainstorming task. Under 10 types, at three per, a real go-getter would have come up with close to 30 ideas. Some kids had four or five ideas; half had nothing at all. One or two had maybe a dozen.

We ran out of class time as I tried to encourage them to think of more ideas. I made it homework, but even the next day, no one had come up with anything more.

I mentally collected data: Kids cannot/will not create story ideas.

I mentally analyzed data: Kids are so used to bubbling scantrons, they do not know how to create ideas. Or, they are afraid of being shot down for having the “wrong” answer.

Possible solution: Provide more opportunities to practice creating. DO NOT shoot down ideas. Build confidence. Model, model, model.

This collecting and analyzing of data was not done with exams, scantrons, reports or meetings, but it was done.

Providing formative feedback:

OK, so in the beginning of my career, formative feedback was
1. verbal: “Yes! That’s right!” or “Close, it was …” or “Not the answer I was looking for, but you make a good point.” or “Tell me what you mean.”
2. Physical: pat on the back, high five, air knucks, thumbs up, pointy finger to lips in a “shhh..”, subtle shaking of the head in a “no”, standing beside a perpetrator so that my presence was felt.
3. Written: I loved writing notes in the margins! The first assignment for my English 1 freshmen was to tell me about themselves, and I could always find a connection to make note of in the margin. It wasn’t until later I realized most couldn’t read cursive. Ah, well. I did same with their formal paragraphs, essays, even tests, to explain what might have been misunderstood or ask a question of them that might clarify where they went wrong. In news and yearbook, this was the method we used for editing story drafts. After two or three editors had done the peer editing, I took a run through it, using proofreading marks and margin notes, noting things that worked well and ideas for improvement.

Then along came Google docs and our world was changed forever. For some reason, either because I am maturing as a teacher or because the commenting feature makes it easier to do so, I do not usually correct errors so much as point them out. Typing is so much easier than writing in margins, so I explain why it needs to be what it needs to be or why another option might be better. I get nearly as wordy there as I do in blog posts. I can be witty, too. But I can easily comment:
its=possessive; it’s=it is;
or another favorite: everyday=one word as adjective “my everyday shoes”; or every day= two words, as in “every single day”.
I’ve heard kids from across the room go, “Oooh, I get it.” I even go on lengthy descriptions about run-ons, trying to teach the concept in the comment feature.

Guidelines for peer feedback:

I had someone ask me in a chat this week about my guidelines for peer feedback. Guidelines? I’d never thought about it. The kids figure out how to give feedback to each other by how I model giving feedback. In publications classes, drafts must go through a few staffers/editors before I see it. And I tell them that I’m mainly there to keep us from getting sued. I want the editors to take on the responsibility of good editing. Of course, that has to be built, and some years are stronger than others. I start from scratch in my intro to journalism classes. In the intro classes, when they begin peer edits, the comments are inevitably “it’s good,” or “great job,” or “I like it.” It takes a little work from me, a little preaching about how anyone’s work – including mine – can be improved, and we’re all here to help each other get better.

As I provide feedback, “good lead”, “run-on”, “no first- or second-person”, “watch the editorializing – who’s opinion is this?” “read aloud – doesn’t make sense”, they begin to offer similar advice to each other. In Google docs, I can see the comments they’ve given each other, and when I see good edits, I praise the editor. When I see a story go through with a “good job” and it’s full of fragments and uncapitalized “i”, I look to see who commented and I ask her how she let that go. Doesn’t she want to help her classmate get better? Eventually, they catch on, and I hear the kids thanking each other. Thanking each other.

Once they are on yearbook or newspaper staff, I hear editors telling new staffers that they need more sources or asking where they got certain information. I see an editor leaning over the shoulder of someone laying out a page and explaining headline hierarchy and how he needs to align with the rails and my heart pitter-patters.

Guidelines for peer editing? Nah. I just model what I’d like them to be able to do. I praise when I hear it done right, and I talk to them privately if it’s not going right and offer suggestions for improvement.

Projected Outcomes:

Um, OK, again with the modeling. Even in the early days, I instinctively knew I needed to provide a model if I wanted students to produce something. I like models so I know what’s expected of me. Why wouldn’t they need the same? “This thing here? This is what I project you will come up with – or something similar …” If I want creativity, I show them several that are vastly different, so they know they have room to explore.

This year, though, experimenting with Standards Based Grading and then leaning toward Feedback Instead of Grading (known by some as TOG, or Throwing Out Grades), I developed what I’m calling Target Sheets. One thing that seems handy is for the kids to know, not only the product they are to come up with (feature story or seven photos that exemplify rules of composition), but the standards they are trying to meet or exceed. Whether I “grade” them or have them assess themselves, it’s fair to show them what we are all shooting for. So I developed these target sheets that describe the project, indicate essential questions the assignment should address and show the standards, with a 4-0 rubric, that the assignment will be assessed on. I provide the target sheet at the beginning of the assignment so kids can see what the requirements are. They are to hang on to that so they can refer to it throughout the project (doesn’t happen much yet), then turn it in with the finished product (rarely happened, and I found myself having to print additional copies). In some cases, we assessed some of the standard(s) together in a mini-conference. In some cases, due to time or the project, I assessed, but provided written feedback and the opportunity to rework the project. Some did; some didn’t. I do realize most didn’t because there was already a grade on it. I blame time constraints and the fact that I was under some pressure to put in so many grades within a certain time frame.

My main point here is that I worked to make the students aware of what the project outcome was as well as what their skill/standard outcome was. I believe that was an improvement over what I used to do.


I’ve always instinctively dwelt upon absolutely everything. Little did I know that we call this reflection, and that it’s good for you, like spinach. I’m always rethinking and reinventing wheels. Now I try to do it a bit more formally, and I encourage my students to reflect as well. In fact, I require it to the extent possible. In an effort to avoid the subjective and punitive nature of grading, but still meet most of the demands of my job, I had my publication students weekly 1. project outcomes (make goals on a daily log) 2. note on that log what they did daily. 3. reflect (did he do all he set out to do? what could have gone better? what was he proud of?) and assess (based on guidelines we set earlier in the year, what grade does she give herself for the week in productivity?).

Some really did reflect, and I was proud of what they discovered about themselves when they did that. They often set new goals or adjusted how they approached certain tasks. Some just jumped through the hoops and wrote something that might satisfy the teacher. I’m hoping they get it at some point. In my network of lead learners, I have resources for teaching reflecting that I will lean heavily upon for the coming year. It’s not instinctive for everyone. It must be taught, and I will spend more time teaching it, which will be worthwhile.

In my constant quest to get better at my job, I’ve lined up a good reading list for my summer, and I offer it to you:

Role Reversal by Mark Barnes

Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes

Digital Student Portfolios: A whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment by Matt Renwick

I also recommend a couple of Twitter Chats and a Facebook page:

#sunchat, Sundays at 8 a.m. CT

#TTOG, Teachers Throwing Out Grades, ongoing slow chat (also Facebook page)

#DI4all, Differentiated Instruction for all, next chat July 6, 7 p.m. CT

Follow these Tweeps:





What are some of the wheels you would like to reinvent? What are some conversations you would like to join or start? Feel free to start here.

Injecting passion into class

Eleven weeks of school left. We’re on the downhill slide, and from the vantage point I have as of Thursday, I think it will be a scenic view. I feel good about the rest of the year.

It is so tough to keep kids engaged, but I believe, as I’ve said over and over, that if you give them voice and choice, you’re ahead of the game. You’ll never get 100 percent participation, and there will always be units to be covered that don’t excite many of them, but the drill of reading, taking notes, taking tests doesn’t enthuse anyone. The compliant may be comfortable in this arena, but it doesn’t challenge them.

Introduction to Journalism

Last week I prepped a Google slide presentation to go along with my History of Journalism unit, I usually use the textbook, Inside Reporting, and an outline for the students to take notes on. I usually lose a few of them, and I realized they like visuals, but seem to be allergic to text books, even good ones. On the presentation I was able to load photos of some of the journalists and the documents from history, and it made a huge improvement in class engagement. Actually, the part I was most surprised by was simply presenting the first slide: “The History of Journalism,” and several kids got excited. Seems they’ve been looking forward to this part for several weeks. Do they get this excited for their history classes?

With each slide, each segment of history, I was able to supplement with some additional info, sometimes tying the content to something relevant to today, to me or to them. They were shocked that television used to go off the air at 10 p.m. after the National Anthem. The discussion was good. Next, they’ll each choose one of 30 journalists from history up to the present to research. They’ll choose their favorite digital presentation tool (Google Slides, Prezi, Dipity) and show us what they learned. I always look forward to these presentations. Some of the kids get a little nervous, but I tell them it’s good for them, like spinach. We encourage each other with questions and applause. One day, I want to video these.

Digital Communications and Passion Projects

A little later than planned, I’ve introduced Passion Projects. I showed a couple brief videos to get their minds headed in the right direction. I started with an inspiring talk by Sean Aiken about passion. Then we went right into Genius Hour and how Google’s take on letting employees spend 20 percent of their work week working on projects has worked its way into the classroom in the form of projects. With some guidelines such as the need for a guiding or essential question, the requirement of research beyond “Googling it” and a final presentation somewhat like the TED talks we’ve watched throughout the semester, students get to choose a project to learn something they are interested in. Some know right away what they want to explore and are able to make it fit within the guidelines. Some struggle, after years of being told what to do and how to do it (color within the lines, dear), (mark a, b, c or d, and if you’re not sure, mark c), that they have real trouble generating ideas. They simply haven’t been allowed to choose something for themselves. Now, faced with the opportunity, they are stumped.

Giving them the “homework” assignment to come up with some ideas, we met the next day in class to share. Drawing on my own experience, I set it up like my newspaper staff’s meetings. We gathered around the center of the room, and one by one, each shared the idea he or she had. The rest of us (mainly me, but after a while others pitched in) put in ideas or helped the person narrow it down or figure out what, exactly the project should be or what research element might help or what steps they might include. Collaboration rocks.

It was beautiful. I have one wanting to experiment with fashion merchandising. No, she doesn’t own a store and can’t really buy anything, but she can look into shadowing a store manager, and she can research designers and brands and what styles and designs are upcoming, and she can simulate what she might choose for a summer or fall collection. Great ideas going on there.

Another is planning to write a short story or novella. He loves to write, so he knows his steps include coming up with a plot and characters. We suggested a few ideas for research – like finding someone who might offer critique services or even some competitions he might enter his piece in.

One young lady dreams of restoring old homes. As fortune would have it, our city has plenty and she has a connection with a realtor. So she plans to visit one or more of these homes, take pictures and do some sketching to reflect what she might do if she owned it. Her research involves all kinds of design ideas. At the end of class she told me how excited she was about this project.

What skills will they develop from this? Research, communication, technology, trouble shooting, presentation, and failing and learning from failure.

I have the luxury (many luxuries, actually) of being able to implement this in my one semester elective class. I’m the only one who teaches this so I do not have to align with anyone else. It’s a digital communications class and they are using skills in the standards I use for the class. I also have a Mac lab in my room because I teach journalism and advise newspaper and yearbook. I’ll go on teaching an app at the beginning of each week and requiring an assignment regarding that app, but these will be with passion projects in mind.

There is no reason teachers of any subject couldn’t take this idea, size it for the time they have to put toward it (20% of the time remaining in the latter half of the year? Latter half of the semester?) and put energy and excitement into their classes. Write a grant for some iPads or Chromebooks, and let kids use their own devices. It makes a world of difference when the kids look forward to coming to your class, when they ask if they can come in during lunch, when they share with you what they’ve learned, the obstacles they’ve hit and gotten around. Does it inspire absolutely everyone? No. But engagement increases in a very obvious way.

Do you already do some form of Passion Projects in your classes? What would it take for you to consider implementing Genius Hour/Passion Projects?