Category: Standards Based Learning

Create Learning PERMANENCE Through Reassessment

Like many educators, I want to create a learning environment around a mindset that teaches students to be patient, trust the learning process (and the teacher), and celebrate growth. But there is a powerful force that challenges such conditions. We live in a culture that continues to reward, rank, and emphasize grades over learning, points over progress, and recall over creation. 

It’s time to reassess our culture of learning. By acknowledging and acting on the following truths, educators live up to their professional title and create learning permanence.

All students can learn.
Always return to this central truth as foremost in education.

Learning is a messy process; consequently, teaching all students to learn is challenging work. Continue reading

A Radiant Reflection 2015

Last year at this time, I committed to my one word for 2015: radiate. The time has come to check for accountability to see if I achieved the expectations identified in last year’s post. With humility and gratitude, I reflect on my opportunities for professional development and personal growth in 2015.


Radiate: To move from one’s center requires taking action with direction. It is time to emerge, flow with thoughts, and take action to produce something useful.

In 2015, I resumed my endless quest to promote a culture of learning through innovative engagement strategies, healthy grading practices, and assessment for learning. After years of exploring project-based learning, differentiation, genius hour, feedback strategies, and the paperless classroom, I began working with a personalized learning model in high school communication arts. The process was challenging but the results were rewarding. The efforts of my students and support from colleagues, along with my transparency in documenting the journey, led to a surprising honor. I received the 2015 Herb Kohl Fellowship Award for “the ability to inspire a love of learning in students and motivate others, and for leadership within and outside the classroom.” While the recognition was gratifying, it became a motivator to raise my personal expectations and professional contributions to education. Continue reading

Transparency: Aligning Learning and Assessment

Back to School

Stores taunt shoppers with Back-to-School savings in early July. By mid-August, denial transforms into anticipation. Hallways are waxed. New classroom designs are configured. Bulletin boards become thematic works of art. Pencils are sharpened. School is ready for students.

Educators focus their vision on the master plan for student learning. What worked last year? What adjustments need to be made? And why? Always know the WHY to move forward with purpose. After addressing the WHY, it is time to figure out HOW to set the plan into action. Every day, students should ask and be able to answer: What am I learning today? Why am I learning this? and How will I know I have learned it? 

Visible Learning

We know from the research of experts and from personal experience—in its simplest form—learning must be visible to maximize educational effectiveness. John Hattie reminds us, “Know thy impact.” So, we proceed thoughtfully…

Course curricular units. Planned.
Department standards. Identified.
Visible learning targets. Posted.
Student-friendly language? Yep.

If we can get to this point, we are in great shape; but a new conflict emerges. How do we know students are learning according to expectations? Is there a transparent means of assessing and organizing evidence of learning? This becomes a gap in what well-intended educators want to do versus what takes place in the classroom. Here is a simple plan to align standards, learning targets, and assessment. Continue reading

What Message are We Sending?

Autumn Sun

At this time of year, the inevitable happens.

Autumn Splendor

The splendor of autumn in Wisconsin is replaced by barren trees and morning frost on windshields.

Trick or Treat

Parents disguise their children as superheroes and princesses and send them on a quest to replenish the family candy bowl.

The World Series ends the baseball season, which means I lose a favorite excuse to avoid my To Do list.

And the first quarter of school comes to a close, leaving students and their parents anxious to read report cards.

Throughout the early stages of the school year, I have carefully monitored the progress of my students–with success attributed to community building, differentiated lessons, and standards based learning and grading. Students have overcome obstacles to own their learning in much the same way as highlighted by Rik Rowe in his recent post, “Student-Centered Learning.” My juniors, in particular, are learning to take risks while facing academic challenges, knowing they have continuous opportunities to show their learning. Continue reading

Creative Vision: Potentially Perfect School

Hi friends,

It’s Brian, reporting to you from the future. Don’t be frightened. What I thought was the door to the restroom, actually turned out to be a portal into our future world. You should see this place—pretty rad.

I know what you’re thinking: “Brian’s been playing with the smelly markers again.” Not so, my friends, and I assure you, there was no head injury during transport. Before I return home to the present to continue searching for the perfect school for my children, I want to give you a glimpse of what I experienced (just in case there is some time warp lag memory loss). So check out the letter I composed thanking the administrators who gave me a tour of SBL High School in the Culture of Learning Global School District…


To The Visionary Staff of SBLHS:

I would just like to take a moment to thank you and your enthusiastic staff for giving me a tour of your public school. As the parent of a prospective student in your district, I must say I am most impressed with the warm greeting I received as well as the education I witnessed.

After visiting numerous institutions of so-called “higher learning,” it was refreshing to be welcomed by smiling secretaries in the main office and a cordial support staff. One custodian even stopped writing an inspirational quote on the message board to show me to the fresh bakery in the faculty lounge and cafe. As I enjoyed a long john, I waited briefly for office coordinators Tamra, Lisa, and Rodney, to finish laughing over a humorous tale about how the back up function on the self-repairing copy machine had to be used for nearly an hour yesterday–someone must have tried to make a worksheet…how 2005! Michele, the director of positive relations, was eager to introduce me to the team of administrators assembled in their morning school improvement conference. I didn’t catch all their names, but it was a pleasure to meet Rick, Ken, Tom, Bethany, Darin, and Charity. I most appreciated Lead Learner Hillman’s willingness to guide my tour of the school; her positive energy was reflected by the entire staff.

One of my early observations on the tour was that our intellectually stimulating conversation was uninterrupted by bells. She informed me that students have complete autonomy in the classroom and take responsibility for their education; therefore, bells are unnecessary. How refreshing to see students not being herded to the next class after a learning time limit.

As we journeyed through the hallways–with fresh-brewed coffee in hand–only the giddy buzz of eager adolescents engaged in academic conversation could be heard. Students and staff warmly greeted each other by name and were equally excited to let a new day of opportunity commence. The head learner showed me the library media center, where students are actually invited to read and research; college-level athletic facilities, field house, and fitness center; and the beautiful, park-like, enclosed courtyard–known as the Study Dome–such a visionary design. Lead Learner Hillman then removed herself from the tour, indicating she had to tend to her typical Wednesday routine of contacting parents of courageous risk-takers. Reporting these positive behaviors in such fashion allowed teachers spend more time with students to focus on learning. Novel concept.

Teacher teams were just finishing their morning session of personal reflection, collaborative practice, and activity coordination–they insisted I partake in the day’s adventure. Rik, Oliver, and Brett, several brilliant minds from the STEM wing, introduced themselves, then apologized for having to move on. Today was the day they were taking groups of students into the community to present their research-based projects. The Masters of the Humanities, including Starr, David, and Joy, invited me to their wing. I must say, they were a dynamic, thought-provoking, inspirational group.

From there, I followed Mr. Durst, a teacher of life, critical thinking, and the communication arts, but was slightly apprehensive due to my years of experience as teacher (prior to the breakdown, which my therapist determined to be a result of political targeting, public disrespect, parent grade-grubbing, and student apathy…). I kept thinking this aura of sincerity and optimism was an act, simply fabricated to lure my division-one college basketball prospect son to the district. Mr. Durst informed me that all teachers show up ready to learn along side their students, providing guidance and opportunities for students to grow in their self-generated learning goals. Teachers are empowered to design all curriculum and craft learning standards. Unlike at my former school, Dystopia High, these teachers are respected as professionals and are amply compensated for their efforts to improve their craft. What is this, the future or Finland?

As we entered Mr. Durst’s room–the Clubhouse–I was awed by what appeared to be a replica of Boston’s Fenway Park, inviting and full of possibilities. The sun’s rays were spilling through the skylights in the vaulted ceiling, providing natural lighting for a secure, tension-free environment. In the centerfield section of the room, adolescent seekers of knowledge were already sharing examples of life experiences, connecting to the day’s literary themes. One group of self-regulated learners was in the rightfield bullpen exploring solutions to passion-based problems. I was surprised to see no rows of desks, just scattered tables and an assortment of overstuffed couches and comfortable chairs.

The leftfield wall (known as the Green Monster) housed a giant scoreboard, which is how most traditional teachers of the past used a grade book. Instead, Mr. Durst posts standards, learning targets, levels of proficiency, criteria-filled rubrics, and indicators of student progress. Every time there is a celebration of knowledge, the video board reports growth to students and parents, giving Mr. Durst extra time to provide personalized feedback to each student. He was then able to differentiate future instruction. I was intrigued by an absence of zeros on the scoreboard, but had already asked enough questions.

Throughout the rest of the day, Mr. Durst was true to his clubhouse mantra, “Learn With a Purpose.” At one point, students gathered themselves around the pitcher’s mound for a whole group dialogue to reflect on their learning process and celebrate individual success. The level of respect, shared control, and autonomy was inspiring. I finally found a school that values authentic learning and relationships over high stakes testing, strict curriculum, and punitive grading.

Thank you for providing this parent with hope for my child’s future.


So, my friends, there is hope for the future of education after all. When I return to the present, please join me in leading others to educational enlightenment. For the sake of our children, we must not sit back passively and wait for shift to happen. And to the fixed mindsets of our traditional world, do not fear; you may take comfort with knowledge that schools in the future will still feature chicken nuggets and corn dogs for lunch…although they are all gluten free.

Day 5: Fun With Failure in the Clubhouse

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When students entered the Clubhouse today, the sexy lamp was on–an indication of our first celebration of learning. Today was my highly-anticipated fun Friday activity in which students played their way through a circuit of failure. As my curious juniors and freshmen entered, they were asked to respond to the following mindset statements and journal prompts.

1. Complete the mindset quiz –Read each sentence and circle one number that shows how much you agree with it. 

A. You  have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.

1 Strongly agree 2 Agree 3 Mostly agree 4 Mostly disagree 5 Disagree 6 Strongly disagree

B. Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much.

1 Strongly agree 2 Agree 3 Mostly agree 4 Mostly disagree 5 Disagree 6 Strongly disagree

You can learn new things, but you can’t really change your basic intelligence.

1 Strongly agree 2 Agree 3 Mostly agree 4 Mostly disagree 5 Disagree 6 Strongly disagree


2. Journal–Please respond to following prompts:

*What is your definition of failure?

*How do you typically respond to failure?

After everyone was done, I took students on a tour of the room. At each station, students would have five minutes to compete in a different type of challenge. There would be winners and losers. There would be laughter and frustration…and some cheating at times.

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The carpeted couch area was for handheld video games, such as Super Mario Brothers on the DS, in which students tested their skill against a cyber-enemy. One table had a Rubik’s cube for a timed challenge in which each player had one minute to complete a side. They had to record the number complete out of the nine possible squares.

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The side tables hosted intense games of war and various dice competitions.

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At the large table in the center of the room, card sharks tested their poker skills. To accommodate the poker noobs, the game turned into Go Fish for some groups.

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The front round table challenge was iPad solitaire, so groups could work as a team to finish with as many points as possible. If they won by completing all four suits’ piles in the five minutes, they earned 48/48. I made them calculate a percentage for this one–even if they only had 3/48.

Everyone had failed miserably at some point (or repeatedly) but they persevered. They reshuffled the cards. They reset the video games and tried again. There was serious energy in the classroom and no one questioned our intentions. So, we came back together as a class for a brief discussion to process the highs and lows of the circuit. 

Discussion Questions:


  1. How did you deal with failure today?
  2. How did you react to the success of others?
  3. What factored into your success or failure today?
  4. Are there ways to improve upon today’s performance?

The final event was a whole class coin flip. With everyone standing, I flipped a coin. Those who guessed wrong, sat and recorded an F on their scorecard. For the next round, those eliminated earned a D. In a couple more rounds, the finalist was the only one with an A. In two classes, the runners up got an A-. In another class the runners up only earned a C. Well, that doesn’t seem fair…

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But no one seemed to mind. So I upped the ante. I had students think about their performance, look at their scorecard, and give themselves an individual grade for the day. This was met with some apprehension, especially when I had them write an explanation justifying the grade. Anticipating our extension of today’s lesson, I wanted students to process this ridiculous expectation. Everyone complied, as expected. Wait until I tell them we are removing behavior from this grade on Monday.


As I prepare for that lesson, I envision addressing several necessary points. This is subject to change, but I will be sure to follow through by documenting how it goes. I will return scorecards with growth or fixed mindset results, share characteristics of Dweck’s growth mindset chart, and set the foundation for standards based learning and assessment in this class. 

Discussion Questions

1. Is it fair to grade you on the day’s performance?

2. How accurate was your grade? How does it communicate what you know, understand and can do?

Teams will then create a simple rubric with descriptors, criteria, and levels of proficiency. They will have to eliminate behavior as criteria for evaluation and stick to academic performance. Afterward, they will share rubrics with the class and establish potential strategies for improvement.

I’m still contemplating how to determine teams. They will likely be differentiated by the grades they originally felt they earned or by their mindset scores. I welcome any suggestions to maximize the potential impact of this lesson. 


Day 3: A Foundation Built on Failure

For today’s TeachThought reflection, I turn to the wisdom of John Wooden. His words continue to inspire my thinking and shape my philosophy of education and coaching…


Today was the official opening day of the school year in which all students reported to classes. I stood outside my classroom door and greeted one class of seniors, two groups of juniors, and introduced myself to two classes of freshmen–a healthy sample of our student body. As usual, some students were excited to reunite with friends, share adventure stories and buzz about the latest happenings, while others drag their way down the hall, not at all enthused to be back in class.

In my quest to create a culture of learning in our district, I avoid handing out a course syllabus with rules, curriculum, and grading policies on day one (or two). We need to establish some level of community through relationships build on trust and respect. So after welcoming them to the class….(I pause and quickly scan to see if anyone walked into the wrong room)…we have to take time to get to know each other. I’m not a fan of cheesy name-game-ice-breakers but it is important to give everyone an initial voice in the class. Instead, I dedicate the first few days to identifying and analyzing our learning styles. A self-understanding leads to a greater sense of identity and recognition of our diverse strengths as learners. These discussions launch our study of culture, behavior, human nature, and our perceptions of success.

Because everyone’s definition of success varies, so does the meaning of failure. I have outstanding students. I really do. They are under tremendous pressure due to the expectations of parents, society, and themselves. Many of them stress over grade point average rather than understanding; they play school–compliant, but not truly invested in their education. And this is why I need to be as transparent as possible in communicating learning expectations and performance standards, not only with students, but with their parents as well.

I am finally prepared to guide my students through the year with standards-based learning and grading (despite our traditional system of reporting). In the past, I have implemented pieces of the system, but the transition takes patience and time. Our department has five categories of standards, common assessments linked to learning targets within each unit, rubrics with descriptors and levels of proficiency, and a commitment to have students monitor their progress–all of which will be documented in future posts. My mission, as always, is to help students learn with a purpose.

The new strategy to my approach: I will start by exposing students to failure–fun, everyday failures we hardly notice. Throughout the room will be competitive challenges. Some will challenge the individual, like mastering a Rubik’s cube within a short amount of time, a game of solitaire, and a station of Nintendo DS Super Mario Bros (I swear it’s my children’s). Other tables will feature peer competition, with a determined winner (and therefore, losers). We will have dice and card games where only one person can win before re-dealing. But that doesn’t sound fair…

The key to the activity will be the reflective portion to follow. Why do we continue to put ourselves through the pain of resetting our Mario game before we conquer the level, or reshuffle the cards only to fail again, or even bother with a Rubik’s cube? How do we cope with failure? How do we deal with others’ success? Why does it take longer for some to learn? What can we do to improve the next time? Do we get frustrated, quit, or persevere?

The conversation will set a foundation for this year’s journey. Hopefully, it reinforces what is most important in school and we shift the mindset. Learning must be the priority over grades. As Garnet Hillman (@garnet_hillman), co-moderator of #sblchat, advises, “When learning happens, the grade will follow.” I love that mantra.