Adopting good ideas

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and it’s not that I have nothing to post about – it’s that there has been so much, so fast this year, that it’s been tough to focus on one idea and develop it into something worth reading. It’s been overwhelming. I think that’s the way many students have been feeling, especially the new members of our student news staff. I did something this week that, I hope, makes a difference.

Earlier in the semester, my news magazine editor (both online news and news magazine are produced by one staff, but separate editors) suggested that some of our returning members mentor, or “buddy”, our four new members. Two of these four had intro to journalism last year, but the other two had only good qualifications and impressive drive. The “buddy system” was working somewhat. The editor, herself, took her buddy with her to interview the principal. They both got interviews for two different stories. However, I still saw the newbs (term of endearment) working but still seeming like they weren’t quite sure how to approach a task or maybe even what to ask or whom to ask it of. In short, I didn’t see enough connection between all the staff members.

In a brief staff meeting on Monday, I went down a list of stuff they needed to know for the week and included specific “Jane will adopt Jill as a buddy”, pairing up all the new members with established staffers. THEN, I jokingly said I’d even considered designing adoption certificates and bringing cake, but I’d run out of time. At the mention of food, they all got excited. We decided to make Friday our adoption celebration.

So there I sat, at my dining room table Friday morning, just out of the shower with my cup of coffee, realizing, “Oh, dear Lord. I didn’t make the certificates.” This was largely brought on by the GroupMe texts I noticed from the night before as the kids checked in with each other about what they were bringing. So I pulled InDesign up on my laptop screen and quickly designed adoption certificates. At the last minute, I scootched everything up a tad and added nine signature lines at the bottom. I made a certificate for the adopter and one for the adoptee. I got them printed off as they were coming into class.

Someone made the suggestion that I use the large, wooden T-square left behind by last year’s editor. I think they wanted me to knight them (as he did when he promoted them to editors), but I chose to use it as a gavel. I’m telling you, this was all quite impromptu. I have no guide but my hyperactive mind and a certain flexibility that allows me to leave the script.

I called them to order by rapping the T-square on a desk. With my certificates stacked in front of me on a group of desk tables that also held sugar cookies, home-baked chocolate chip cookies, some pumpkin sandwich cookies, a pumpkin-cream cheese roll and two bags of potato chips, I asked the adopters to stand. All on my left, they did so. I asked my adoptees to stand and as they did, I noted that they were all on my right. (I’m hoping the mingling will begin soon.)

In wedding vow fashion and off the top of my head, I asked the adopters if they promised to guide and direct and check regularly on their adopted members. They agreed. I asked the adoptees if they promised to ask questions, look to their adopters for guidance and help when they needed it. They agreed.

Then a teacher walked in to give me some softball information I’d asked for an hour earlier. I told her we were in the middle of an adoption ceremony, I’d be right with her. She laughed a little.

Then I told them I was also borrowing from my Methodist background and the baptism ritual – assured them no water was involved – and asked the entire staff to accept these new members into the family and promise to also help guide and direct and be good friends. They agreed. I may have rapped my gavel again.

I ran around giving each person their certificates and directed their attention to the signature lines on which the rest of the staff should sign. They began signing all the lines on all the certificates and eating stuff and going off to interview people and writing their stories, and I hope it makes a difference.

That’s really all there was to it.

I’ve been known to do similar goofy things, some with planning and forethought, like the adoption ceremony for the yearbook in 2013, from which I took most of what we did this week. I went much more in depth for it, though, so check it out if you want more.

Then sometimes, like this week, it’s pretty much on a whim, like the time we had a funeral for a corrupted memory card. His name was Peter.


This was way back in 2009 or 2010, but as I recall, they couldn’t get the pics from the card and we determined it was corrupted. They asked me, “so we just throw it away?” I probably responded with something snarky, like, “unless you want to have a funeral or something.” And the fun began.

Someone pulled a Little Jug juice container from the trash can and proceeded to cut it length-wise on all but one long side, creating a casket for Peter (we name all our equipment and cards for checkout purposes). She filled the casket with tissue, lacking satin. Someone googled images of candles and flowers for us to print and hold at the service. Peter’s casket was placed on some stacked books with another tissue creating a sort of carpet beneath.

Someone mentioned Peter’s wife, and before I knew it, a smaller SD card (we’d just gotten our first camera that used SD instead of CF cards) was propped below the steps, holding her own tissue. We gathered round, someone said a few words, while someone else was smart enough to capture the moment. That was the dominant photo on the yearbook spread that year.

Ya gotta have a little fun or the work becomes drudgery. Amiright?

Sweepin’ the ‘stakes

This week my newspaper and yearbook staffs attended Spring Media Monday at the University of Oklahoma. It was a really sweet trip, for a number of reasons.

No. 1: I geeked out when I learned that Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, was the keynote speaker. Of course, that was a month ago, and I’d been looking forward to it ever since. He didn’t let me down.

I went to introduce myself to him before the program started and was surprised he seemed to recognize my name. Could have been that I’ve subscribed to, and been a fan of, the SPLC Report Magazine for years (it’s my favorite) or it could be that I’ve been in contact with the SPLC a couple of times over the years with student press ethical or legal issues I wasn’t sure how we should handle. Or it could have been that I tweeted a couple times in the previous weeks about how excited I was that he was speaking. He favorited my tweets.

LoMonte spoke inspiringly on student rights, how the Tinker and then Hazelwood cases have affected those rights over the years and the work being done now on behalf of students, state by state, to solidify press rights at both high school and college level. Inspiring.

No. 2: Students and I attended learning sessions on everything from graphic design to writing headlines and cutlines to creating documentaries and copy editing. The kids reported they had learned some cool stuff. So did I.

No. 3: The best part is always the awards ceremony at the end of the day. First director Melanie Wilderman very, very quickly announced the winners of individual submissions in the three Oklahoma divisions. It’s rapid fire. I was poised with the notebook and pencil, ready to scribble down our placings as others did the clapping and cheering. We racked up eight first places, two staffers grabbing two each, and one pair of designers sharing for an awesome Star Wars spread. There were seconds, thirds and honorable mentions in between.

Then we settled in a little tighter, gripped our chair edges and leaned forward just a bit. The overall newspaper (and online and magazine) ratings go like this: merit, honors, highest honors. The slide appeared above for our division, displaying those with merit, then honors – I never understand the cheering for this level of ratings. I guess if you’re a struggling publication, learning your way, but we’re darn close to professional. In my nine years, we’ve never had less than highest honors, because we understand how to report, use AP Style and basically design news. We always have room for improvement, but we know the basics well. Then comes the slide for highest honors, and there we are with a few Oklahoma peers.

Next up: Of those with highest honors, two or three are selected for All-Oklahoman. Again, the Demon Pitchfork has always been awarded this honor, so it was no surprise to see our name on the slide. But then it was time for a little breath-holding – in rapid-fire fashion.

The last point of interest is when one paper is selected from those ranked All-Oklahoman to be the Sweepstakes winner, and this is what we fight for every year. As we are struggling to pull together stories and meet deadlines, we ask ourselves if the story is good enough for Sweepstakes. When we get to Late Night, that once a month evening of pizza, party and procrastination, we are supposed to get the pages all designed and work out the bugs. But we realize belatedly that no one got art for three stories, so we lament that we’ll lose our opportunity for Sweepstakes. At the day-after press deadline meeting when the editors talk about what went well and what didn’t, the elephant in the room is Sweepstakes. Will that text-heavy page 3 ruin our chances? Will the blurry sports photo on page 9 kill us? And what about the misspelling in the opinion page headline? We’re doomed.

But not on this day. This day we celebrated that we did more good than goof. The Demon Pitchfork won Sweepstakes.

The importance of this accomplishment was summed up by one of the co-managing editors the next morning (the other had a vocal music competition elsewhere – why are these kids so busy?!), when he told his staff that the last time the Pitchfork won Sweepstakes was when he was a freshman, the year before he joined staff. It was a major goal, one he’d been able to help the rest of the staff realize. There was lots of pride, but there was still work to be done. He read off some of the judges’ specific ratings and suggestions for improvement.

I love Media Mondays, not only for what the kids get to participate in and the accomplishments we get to celebrate in our work, but for getting to connect with people from around the state who do what I do. Most schools have only one journalism teacher – a singleton. These are my opportunities to share stories, ask advice and just connect.

If you are a journalism adviser and have not connected to your state organization, you should really do so. Scrounge up the funds from somewhere, and find a way to make that connection, go to those conventions. Those are your connection and they are memories your students will have for the rest of their lives.

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….”

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.

The power of the fork

"A fork in the road. Which way should I go?" by Nicholas Mutton via CC ShareAlike 2.0

“A fork in the road. Which way should I go?” by Nicholas Mutton via CC ShareAlike 2.0

The fork is thought to have originated in Ancient Egypt. However, the proverbial fork in the road probably originated with Eve.

How many times in a day are we met with such forks, decisions that need to be made, usually on the spot, especially if you’re a teacher?

“May I go to the bathroom,” says the student suddenly standing in front of me as I’m moving around the room helping the class with the writing assignment.

*Quick calculation: How far are we into class? Is this a student who takes advantage of me for bathroom privileges? Has she already left class more than once this week? Am I about to address the class with instructions? Make a decision. Yes or no.

I am approaching a student who is not on task for writing assignment.

*Quick calculation: What was his topic? Had he started already? Had he run into interviewing obstacles? What was the last interaction I had with him? Is he prone to accepting feedback or prone to frustration and potential meltdown with too much pressure? Make a decision. Gently ask about status or demand he get back on task.

That last one, I feel I’ve dealt with dozens of times daily the past couple weeks with a newspaper staff mid-production cycle and a yearbook staff sitting on one publisher deadline while another peers over the horizon. And with two intro to journalism classes learning feature writing and the art of interviewing, I’m checking in with all temperaments of students all day long.

Those are little forks. We also have bigger forks, forks that have the potential to make or break us.

Our district just hired a new superintendent. Those of us at the classroom level of the hierarchy wonder, how will this change things in the coming year(s)? Will this person be a top-down mandate maker, establishing rules and sending memos from headquarters like we see at government levels? Or will this person go into the buildings where the children and teachers are, see how things are going, build relationships and really get to know the people and what their needs are? Will this person fight the mandate-makers for what is right and best for the children? I’m hoping for the latter.

The law and mandate makers are so busy from their place on the hill, out of the trenches, trying to find ways to test and make sure teachers are doing their jobs (though no testing of students can accurately do that), make sure students are doing their jobs, that they are not only taking time away from teaching and learning, but they are taking the joy out of teaching and learning.

Students these days barely know anything but drill and test. I have found that students in this atmosphere largely fall into one of three categories:

There are the rebellious, who are tired of being told what to do, how to do it and what they are to think of it. They are given so little choice or voice in the place where they spend the majority of their day growing and developing, they are angry at the world and they are in your face about it.

There are the apathetic, who have given up. They’ve tried to be creative and let their inner artist have a say, only to be shut down and told they’re wrong. So left thinking they are inadequate, they’ve given up and do nothing.

There are the compliant who have followed the rules, studied, memorized, or marked C when they weren’t sure, they’ve colored in the lines and maintained their 4.0 to the best of their ability, but it’s done nothing for them. They await the next instruction because without that, they have no clue what to do next. The world will crush them.

We need that leader who will come in and see what is going on, who will ask those of us in it every day – and I mean everybody, from teachers and staff to students – what needs to happen in order for all of us to be successful. We need someone connected to other successful educators from around the nation and the world.

So I’m at one of the bigger forks in the road. I can worry and look for all the ways things are going badly and could get worse. Or I can keep doing my best, lifting up students while still trying my best to hold them accountable, and looking for all the ways things are going well. I can put my faith in the future and things improving in my district and in my state. It’s tough, sometimes, when all the other forks in the drawer get tangled, but I’ll do my best.

What fork in the road are you currently contemplating?