‘Bad Moms’ and Why Parents Need Professional Development, Too


This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

“Organizations only improve ‘where the truth is told and brutal facts confronted.”Jim Collins: Good To Great

(This is part two of a two-part series of posts on parents. Please note, this post refers to the community where I reside, not the community where I am employed).

Last week, I wrote Teachers Make The Worst Parents which explains how I struggle being both an educator and a parent. I find it almost impossible to separate my roles when engaging with my childrens’ teachers. Well, my conflict of interest is not limited to other educators; it also extends to other (non-educator) parents, particularly PTA members.

I used to think my feelings toward PTA members stemmed from a subconscious jealousy (sure, I would love to volunteer for one of your events or be a room mom, but they all seem to be between 8AM and 3PM and I have a job which happens to be educating children).

Or, I thought because I am an educator, I was more aware of how the PTA doesn’t seem to gather or use feedback from parents, teachers, and students to operate. Rather, they employ a top-down (and usually inefficient) approach to attempt to engage the community (as always, we will be selling pizzas to raise money to buy graduation tshirts for students who cannot afford them).

But, then, I saw last summer’s sleeper hit comedy “Bad Moms” which parodies a suburban PTA chapter and it’s members. Scott Mendelson from Forbes Magazine said: “movies like “Bad Moms” don’t get to $100m+ from a $23.8m opening unless the people who saw it liked it and talked about it with their friends.” And, all of a sudden, I realized other parents, whether they are educators or not, also felt disenchanted with the PTA.

In particular, this scene resonated as a crowd-favorite:

Gwendolyn: Now, I called this emergency PTA meeting to address an issue that radically affects the safety of our children. The bake sale.

Amy: Is this a joke?

Gwendolyn: Now, this is a list of the toxic ingredients that are absolutely banned from the bake sale. No BPA, no MSG, no BHA, no BHT. Plus no soy, no sesame, and, of course, no nuts or eggs or milk or butter or salt or sugar or wheat. Okay?

I have friends who are active in the PTA. I understand the importance of food safety. I also understand that the truth is said in jest and if “Bad Moms” is the current or perceived reality of parent teacher organizations, this partnership is in trouble.

“A little perspective, like a little humor, goes a long way.”Allen Klein

Being able to see other perspectives is a powerful communication and leadership skill and undoubtedly also one of the hardest concepts for people to master. Unless humans make a conscious effort to see things from another person’s point of view, the path of least resistance is to point fingers and make the other party “wrong.”

In fact, that is exactly what I did when I initially drafted this post. I did not have trouble rattling off all of the outdated and irrelevant activities my local PTA continues to promote. I did not struggle to list examples of how the PTA has marginalized working and minority families, and I certainly did not have a difficult time citing ways some PTA members use their roles for personal gain rather than to support the PTA’s mission: to advocate for all children. (pta.org)

But, I couldn’t seem to publish that draft. Something didn’t feel right, and that something was the hypocritical nature of the post. While I am deeply disappointed to live in a community where many PTA members are so lacking in perspective that it gives Hollywood fodder for movies, I also recognized I hadn’t considered the PTA’s point-of-view.

So, I attempted to remove emotion and intellectually consider the other side’s perspective. In doing so, my parent/educator conflict once again got in the way. This happened because I am privy to information and experiences that non-educator parents are not. I know that there is a vast difference between the “school” I experienced as a student and the “school” I experience as a professional educator. And, this I believe, is precisely the problem: because all parents are former students, they mistakenly feel as if their experiences with school give them a level of educational expertise.

Look Back To Move Forward
The PTA was created in 1897 to be a “voice for all children, a relevant resource for families and communities, and a strong advocate for public education.” Throughout history, the national chapter of the PTA has been responsible for instrumental changes to the landscape of public education like the creation of kindergarten classes and healthy lunch programs.

But, what, if any, learning specific to the field of education have members had since 1897? What level of understanding do chapters have about district initiatives? If the PTA is truly a partnership between parents and teachers to benefit all students, don’t parents need relevant professional development as well?

As an instructional coach, I am very proud to see more and more school districts implementing the most effective form of professional development for teachers: job-embedded instructional coaching (read more about coaching here). In contrast, parents are usually informed of changes rather than involved with the change.  This severely limits parents potential for true understanding. Parents are educators’ partners, and we need to ensure that we include parents on our journey and not just tell them about our trip.

What is the solution? A new type of PLC.
Educational PLCs (professional learning communities) use a systems approach to allow for teacher autonomy while working collaboratively on teams to achieve common goals with shared accountability. In the book, On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities, contributing author Richard DuFour highlights the three big ideas of effective PLCs:

  1. Ensuring that students learn- shift from focus on teaching to focus on learning

  2. A culture of collaboration- create and use structures to promote working together

  3. A focus on results: establish a goal, work together to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

I believe three similar big ideas could also be the operating system for parent-teacher organizations also called PLCs (parent learning communities):

  1. Ensure students are the beneficiaries- shift from focus on what parents want (or what has been done historically) to focus on student interests and needs

  2. Promote an inclusive culture: create and use structures to guarantee the diverse perspectives and needs of all community members are heard and considered

  3. Focus on results: establish a goal, cooperate to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

The infographic accompanying this post provides suggested guidelines for parent learning communities. This new take on PLCs coupled with professional development would provide parents greater learning opportunities and a way to implement their learning. If resources allow, instructional coaches should be considered a primary form of PD using a team coaching approach.

As with any change, altering the way parent-teacher organizations function will take time. I am a strong believer in evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change so long as we take steps to get there. What do you suggest is the best first step?

Questions or comments about this post?  Connect with Lisa on Twitter.


Learning Progressions: Student Need and Student Choice

corwin_connect_featured_button1This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.


“Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.” William Jennings Bryan

Students are not reborn every September. They are not new to education or to subject-area content. Their desire to learn is innate. While students may get a “clean-slate” each September and have the opportunity to make a new first impression, they are, in fact, the same learner they were the year before. They have the same needs, the same perception of learning and school, and the same eagerness (or perceived lack thereof) that they had on the last day of school the previous year.

Why, then, do we feel the need to re-identify what students need to learn and how they need to show their learning? Why do we hear comments like, “they should have learned this in grade  x” as if educators are then absolved of ensuring that skill or content in question was acquired?

What if, instead, curriculum and instruction were so vertically aligned that teachers were able to take evidence of student proficiency and academic behavior from years past, and use that data to immediately start filling in gaps and advancing learning right from day one? How might this approach affect student learning? How might teachers be better able to differentiate?

While this may seem unrealistic, it doesn’t have to be. By using the information we can garner from high quality assessment and tapping into the power of vertically aligned learning progressions, moving individual students along appropriately can become educators’ reality.

In Visible Learning for Teachers, author John Hattie writes:

“This [learning progressions] is to ensure that appropriately higher expectations of challenges are provided to students: teachers need to know what progress looks like in terms of the levels of challenge and difficulty for the students such that if they were to interchange teachers across grades and between school, their notions of challenge would synchronize with the other teachers’ understandings of progress. This does not mean that there is one right trajectory of progress for all students… Instead, it is more critical to analyse closely how students progress….there is also the question of how to move each student forward from wherever they start through these levels of achievement…”

Rick Wormeli, one of the foremost experts on differentiation, also sees a need for consideration of learning progressions in addition to lateral needs when differentiating for students. In Differentiation From Planning To Practice, Grades 6-12 he writes:

“Tiering generally refers to the way teachers adjust instructions and assessment according to the learner’s readiness level, interests and/or learning profile. I’m not sold on this brief definition as it seems to reflect more lateral than vertical adjustments.”

We are doing students a disservice if we are not intentional about the progression of their learning. What Hattie and Wormeli both describe is another way to differentiate via learning progressions. Learning progressions should be regarded as a fifth way to differentiate in addition to the four generally accepted categories (content, process, product, and learning environment) in which we can differentiate for students (read more about these categories here).

Student learning progressions are different than the learning progressions of the standard. Standards progressions are macro. Here, we are referring to “micro-progressions” within an unpacked standard that allow students to move up one rung of the ladder at a time to reach the standard itself. We will know what student learning looks like and be so deliberate in our planning that we truly meet students where they are and fill the gaps to stop the “they should have learned this” and “we need to move on to the next unit in one week….”

Students need to be viewed as individuals who have different needs that must be met in a particular order for them to be successful. This means teachers will be inclined to vary the type of differentiation they employ rather than just choosing to differentiate “content” or “product” for any given assignment.

This leads us to our next point. For differentiation to be effective, it must be targeted to both the student needs and learning progressions.  A popular method of differentiation by many educators is “student choice”.  Typically, teachers offer students a variety of options and students choose the one or some that they like best. While we wholeheartedly support giving students choice as this builds ownership in the learning process, all choice is not created equal.

For instance, I (Lisa) gave my children a choice for dinner last night. I was tired, rushed, and didn’t feel like cooking. So, I gave them a choice of McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s. While they may have voted me “mom of the year,” I certainly didn’t offer them the best choices for their nutritional needs. Similarly, we sometimes we offer students choices that are not appropriate for their needs and may even muddy the learning process when the learning intentions are not clear.

Take, for example, the tic-tac-toe style choice board that many teachers give students.  Students get to “choose” learning activities based off of their personal preference, not necessarily their need. For teachers, this may seem like differentiating, but, without a targeted goal, action plan, or progression, students are just working to complete different tasks, not necessarily growing.

Take a look at this example of a choice board on The US Constitution:

Constitution Tic Tac Toe — Learning Progressions

While some of the tasks on this choice board may meet the needs of certain students, the likelihood that students will choose the three in a row (assuming the boxes are aligned) they need to grow academically, is improbable.  Additionally, the idea that a student would be able to clearly understand the learning intentions and success criteria (Hattie) from this choice board is equally improbable.

So, what do we suggest?

We suggest to offer students choice (in choice boards or other formats) by using student learning progressions.  In contrast to the tic-tac-toe board above, look at the stairstep example below which accounts for one of the civics learning progressions outlined in the new social studies C3 framework:

Learning Progressions

By considering student need in addition to student choice, teachers can better ensure they are effectively differentiating to affect growth in their students.

Below is a helpful list of questions you can use in with your grade level/department colleagues to create choice boards based on learning progressions:

  • What is the learning intention for this lesson/unit?
  • What prior knowledge do students need to complete this?
  • Where do they need to go next? How do I know this?
  • How will students know where they are going and how to get there?
  • How will I provide feedback?
  • How can I incorporate choice?
  • How can students suggest options which demonstrate their learning?
  • How will the students know if the success criteria has been met?

How do you use learning progressions to differentiate for your students? We would love to hear other suggestions that help best meet the needs of our students. You can connect with us on Twitter @lisa_westman and @stephlarenas.

Teachers Make The Worst Parents


This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

(This is part one of a two part series of posts on parents).

My husband and I are both educators, and as luck would have it our oldest child is the student who educators commonly refer to as “that kid.”  From the moment he was born, our son has been strong-willed, inquisitive, and likes to push the limits (we have no idea where he gets this from).

Teachers often describe our son as “spirited” or “rambunctious,” and he frequently gets in “trouble” at school. In fact, our son got in trouble in his very first classroom setting: the hospital nursery. Yep, that’s right. Our newborn was “kicked-out” of the nursery after a brief 45-minute stay because he was bothering the other babies by crying too loudly.

As he has grown, our son has maintained this dynamic personality, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We appreciate his sense of humor, and ability to engage in lively debates. However, we also recognize that our son defies the definition of a “good” student and can be perceived as a challenge. Because of this, my husband and I become closely acquainted with our son’s teachers over the years. And, while it pains me to admit, at times my husband and I have been “those parents.”

Difficult parents are part of the job for educators. During my career, I have certainly had my fair share of “those students” and “those parents” (you can read about one of those incidents here). But, education is no different than any other profession. Just as doctors have difficult patients and businessmen have difficult clients, teachers encounter difficult customers as well. The key to successful relationships with difficult clients (parents in this case) is to determine what the parent wants and then try to deliver.

But, what do parents want?
Distinguished educators and authors, Todd Whitaker and Douglas Fiore, make a simple claim in their book, Dealing With Difficult Parents. They assert that all parents want the same thing: what is best for their child. However, problems arise because parents don’t always know what is best for their child or how to communicate this desire.

Whitaker and Doulas present profiles (single parent, economically disadvantaged, etc.) and behaviors (yelling, defending their children, unresponsiveness) of demanding parents. None of these groups or actions describe my husband and me. We fall into an entirely different category of difficult parents, perhaps, a much more undesirable bunch. We belong to the category of parents who are also educators.

Ideally, parents and educators are partners in the education of their children. So, in theory, a teacher-parent would make for a perfect partner. But, many times, the opposite occurs as teachers (myself included) feel threatened by educator parents.

Why do teachers feel threatened by educator parents?
Whitaker and Douglas address the notion of teacher defensiveness when they encounter difficult parents. The authors write:

“If we are truly caring people, then as teachers, principals, and superintendents, we should never feel defensive when we deal with parents. We might feel awkward, uncomfortable, intimidated, but we should not feel defensive. If we are making all of our decisions based on what is best for students, then this defensiveness should not be occurring. If we do feel defensive, then it is probably because we, or someone we are attempting to support, has done something wrong.”

The Best Defense is A Strong Offense
And, the best offensive play for educators is effective communication. Peter DeWitt, author of Collaborative Leadership, (yes, I am a guest writer for his blog. No, he didn’t ask me to plug his book; I am plugging his book because it’s awesome) writes: “Make sure you use positive words when talking about students, teachers, and school. It may sound silly to offer this advice, but we hear one positive for every ten negative statements.”

This statement is so true, yet we often don’t realize the words (or the tone) we use are negative. Take the two examples below which both address our son’s inability to focus/engage in learning. Notice how word choice and tone contribute to the message:

Example #1: “Your son has demonstrated an increased attitude of disengagement in classroom activities (whole group, small group, and independent work). He selectively chooses what he will and will not participate in. As I stated in his progress report, “it is a goal for him to become more invested in his learning.”

Example #2: “Good morning! I wanted to let you know that your son received a card change in library this morning for not engaging in the lesson. When he and I chatted about it after he returned to class, he said that he was having a hard time focusing today since he found the lesson to be boring since he already knew the information. I was impressed that he was able to openly talk about how he is feeling and just wanted to keep you in the loop. I will continue to help him practice effective problem solving and from what your son tells me, I know you are doing the same at home.”

Our son presented with the same issue. The teachers responded differently, and so did we.

With example #1, we responded with a battery of questions for the teacher. What interventions had been put in place? What was different about the activities he was choosing to participate in? How did she know it was a choice? Whose goal was it for our son to become more engaged, his or the teacher’s?

With example #2, we responded with gratitude. We felt like we had a genuine partnership with the teacher. In spite of the fact we detested the school’s mandated public shaming system (card changes), we were able to get past our negative feelings because we were so appreciative of the teacher’s positive and collaborative approach.

Reading this back now, I can see the difficult parent in myself in example #1. I can see why the teacher became defensive. We put her in the hot seat.  But, as Whitaker and Fiore report, we acted the way we did because we wanted what was best for our child. And, perhaps, as Whitaker and Fiore suggest, our line of questioning caused the teacher to feel defensive because she knew she had done something wrong.

In reflecting on my reactions to my children’s teachers over the years, I have developed a list of items to consider when communicating with educator parents (and all parents for that matter).

Rather than listing attributes of the child, what concrete examples of behavior, academic, and social-emotional behavior can I share?

  • How can I best communicate the steps I have taken thus far?
  • How can I best communicate my plan moving forward?
  • How can I show (not tell) the parent I want to partner with them in the learning process?
  • How can I positively report negative actions?
  • How can I ensure I am proactively communicating with parents?
  • How can I mitigate the fact that this parent may (subconsciously) feel jealous that I get to teach her child?

This list is not comprehensive and we surely need to consider each parent situation individually, but it’s a start. What works for you when working with difficult parents? I encourage you to share your experiences so we can all grow as educators and parents.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Is the Internet the New Sex Ed?



Photo credit: EdWeek Teacher

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

In 1995 I enrolled at Indiana University as a Freshman. As I struggled to determine my major (journalism, education, or business), my dad offered me some very solid advice. He said, “Lisa, whatever you major in, just be sure to take psychology courses. That will help you in any field.”

And, he was right. My first college course was Psychology 101. In that class, I learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Grasping this basic psychological concept has proven tremendously helpful in understanding people, their motivations, and their reactions. Maslow categorizes the biological needs of humans into five categories:

1) physiological-food, sleep, air

2) safety- shelter, protection from danger

3) belonging- love, affection, being part of a group

5) esteem- self-respect, respect for others, feeling accomplished

5) self-actualization- achieving individual potential

Once we have our basic (physiological) needs met, we attempt to exert control on numerous aspects of our lives as means of survival. (Wikipedia)

However, sometimes we confuse our internal locus of control (what we choose to do, how we react) with our external locus of control (what others do, outside forces).  Striving to manage external forces gives us a perceived sense of control and we superficially feel better. However, this sense of control is a facade, because, no matter how hard we cannot control external factors.

This confusion frequently occurs in our efforts to keep ourselves and our children physically and emotionally safe both at home and at school. For example, take the long-standing debate over whether or not sexual education should be taught in school. Both proponents and opponents of sex ed attempt to control the content which students should/should not be exposed.

Regardless of the side, both parties seek the same thing: to control what students learn about sex to protect them from engaging in activity that could be harmful. We exert our external locus of control to feel as if we are protecting our students. For more than half of the states in our country this “control” takes the form of abstinence-only sex education programs. (NCSL)

“We (educators) will teach you (students) sex ed, but, we will protect you by only teaching you about abstinence.”

But, the role of an educator is not to protect students by covering content. The role of an educator is to protect students by ensuring they develop rich critical thinking skills and can protect themselves.

What is frustrating to me is a parallel I see between this protective approach to teaching sex ed and a similar approach to teaching research skills in today’s classrooms. In an effort to keep children “safe” educators and parents exert external control. This week alone I have seen the following examples:

  • Students are forbidden from using Wikipedia because (the teacher) deemed the site “not credible.”

  • Students are not able to use online sources for a research paper because they are too tempted to copy and paste (plagiarize).

  • Students are not allowed to Google answers to questions because this is cheating.

“We (educators) will let you (students) research, but, we will protect you by only allowing you to use [this] source.”

While these attempts to control research conduct are grounded in the best interest of students; this effort is in vain. We can not control the ease of access to vast amounts of information that students have nor can we control the accuracy of the information available. But, we can control how we teach students to use and analyze the information.

And, this is not my opinion. This is a fact and our obligation to students. The Common Core writing and research standards which vertically align learning expectations for K-12th-grade students prescribe the following as expectations for a 5th-grade student:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.6 With some guidance and support from adults, use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others;

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.7: Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.8: Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; summarize or paraphrase information in notes and finished work, and provide a list of sources.

So, how do we keep our students safe?

Let students use Wikipedia and other sites they are inclined to use. Credible researchers corroborate their findings with other research.  If students find conflicting information they will need to search more and compare additional sources which is what we want. Teach students how to verify information. Offer them actionable feedback throughout the research process. Engage in discussion about how to decipher if an argument is credible and how credibility is perceived by others. Teach students about confirmation bias and why understanding a counterargument is vital to fully understand any argument.

Don’t make books a punishment.  Making the internet off-limits for student research is an unrealistic expectation and will certainly create resistance and resentment amongst students. Books can add depth to an argument backed with information from the web. Help students discover this breadth.

What should you do if students copy and paste? First, determine if this was intentional or inadvertent. “Plagiarizing” can be tempting for students because someone has already said what they want to say. The original author has likely stated the content more succinctly than the student thinks they can. Plagiarizing is not necessarily done to “skirt the system.” Point out how the student has done a quality job finding evidence and then work with them to incorporate evidence without infringing the author’s work. Either way, explicitly teach and offer feedback regarding how and when to paraphrase and cite work.  If the problem persists, consider altering the assignment to help the student avoid copy and pasting.

Look at Google as a friend, not foe.  Did you Google something today? Were you “cheating” or being resourceful? Google is like a calculator; an instrument which makes accessing information more efficient. With the right content and task, Google can powerfully impact and advance learning. Embrace the power and celebrate that we no longer need take up time or cognitive space memorizing facts. Facts will naturally be committed to memory with repeated exposure and authentic application. Adapt questions and tasks to require higher level analysis and synthesis.

Most importantly, take a step back and consider what you are trying to control and why. Temptations in life will always be present. Misinformation will also always be present. A teacher will not be. The sign of a solid education is when our students have the tools they need to rely on their internal locus of control and make informed decisions when we are not there to “protect” them.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.


Relationships: The Yin to Feedback’s Yang

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.


Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

This week marks the kick-off of my school district’s second annual yearlong mini-conference; a progressive approach to professional development which grants teachers an opportunity to deepen their learning of a topic of their choice. I facilitate the cohort version of this conference.  For better or worse, when teachers choose my course they are with me all year. Therefore, my goal is to ensure an engaging and worthwhile program.

As I prepared the first session of this year’s cohort, I had a flashback to last year when I received my class list.  I immediately noticed my building’s Assistant Principal, Courtney Goodman, had signed up for my course.  She would be a member of our cohort and “observe” me facilitate all thirteen hours of the professional learning I had planned.  Even though Courtney and I had worked together for several years, when I initially saw her name on my roster, I was quite nervous.

Well, fast forward one year, and this time when I saw Courtney’s name on my class list, my initial response was, “YES!”  The reason for the change in my reaction is simple; the feedback Courtney offered me throughout last year’s course proved invaluable. In fact, with each subsequent session,  I looked forward to receiving her emails and having conversations about the sessions. Courtney’s feedback helped me go deeper in my facilitation, and her questions helped me reflect on both my participants’ and my outcomes.  Additionally, having frequent opportunities to converse with Courtney strengthened our relationship.

One Sentence Can Change Our Learning
Recently, I heard a keynote speech by Jo Boaler (founder of Stanford University’s YouCubed and math mindset guru.). Boaler shared results from a recent study of high school students regarding feedback:

“All of the students wrote essays and received critical diagnostic feedback from their teachers, but half the students received an extra sentence on the bottom of the feedback. The students who received the extra sentence achieved higher grades a year later, even though the teachers did not know who received the sentence and there were no other differences between the groups. It may seem incredible that one sentence could change students’ learning trajectories to the extent that they achieve at higher levels a year later, with no other change, but this was the extra sentence,

I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you.”

The results of the study Boaler referenced provide another example of the correlation between relationships and feedback. As I work to apply my learning from John Hattie’s meta-analysis of highly effective instructional practices, what becomes more and more apparent is how effective influences work in conjunction, not isolation, to positively affect student achievement.

Feedback and student-teacher relationships rank amongst the practices with the highest effect sizes at .75 and .72 respectively (above a .4 is considered effective).  (Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers)

Statements like “I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you” contribute to a safe environment where mistakes are considered opportunities to learn. Students know the teacher is genuinely interested in their learning and therefore quickly build trusting relationships with them. When students (like all humans) trust and respect the person giving them feedback they are more likely to implement the comments.

In addition to a strong relationship, the feedback in it of itself must be considered. All feedback isnot created equal.  Feedback done right is reciprocal; it should enable the student to go deeper, and simultaneously inform the teacher’s next steps. Additionally, feedback only works when a goal is mutually established and understood by the teacher and student (you can read more about goal setting here). Once a goal is set the student must have a solid idea of what success looks like (success criteria) and the steps to achieve success. (learning intentions).

Hattie explains that there are four levels of feedback:

1) Feedback related to the task (for new learning/right or wrong)

2) Feedback related to the process (some degree of proficiency)

3) Feedback which promotes self-regulation (high degree of proficiency)

4) Feedback which elicits reflection

Additionally, quality feedback should answer one of three essential questions: Where am I going? How am I getting there? Where do I go next?

The level at which feedback is given will vary based on student need. As students delve deeper into their learning, the feedback should align accordingly to challenge and engage students appropriately.

Last year, my assistant principal gave me task feedback (participants were engaged…) however, she primarily gave me feedback at higher levels (I wonder how you can reiterate… to ensure a shared understanding…).  This was the feedback pushed me.  I never felt defensive or dismissive about the comments. I felt thankful.  I valued what Courtney shared as I knew she cared about the learning of our participants and about my growth as an instructional coach.

Our students have similar needs. They also thrive when offered personalized feedback.  For many teachers, providing this level of detail to students seems unattainable; doing so seemingly takes copious amounts of time.  This is one reason the majority of teachers tend to give task-based feedback only (scores, grades, progress toward a standard, etc.).  While task-based feedback is certainly necessary for students to set goals and get started, other levels of feedback are needed for students to go further in their learning.

Perhaps you have heard or even said something along the lines of, “I would like to provide this level of feedback, but, I don’t have enough time to do so…..”  Well, you are not alone.  “There just isn’t enough time” is a common sentiment amongst educators.  In fact, a recent survey of 20,000 teachers conducted by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that 76% of teachers cited time as the thing they wanted most.

But, I am not sure time is what’s needed. Instead, we need to use our time differently. I often wonder, when we cut out giving feedback to “save time”, for what are we using that time? The answer, I believe, is to allow for more content coverage. But, this is like running in a hamster wheel.  Students have a constant picture of where they are, but no path and no opportunity to go any further.

So, rather than concentrating on all the content that “needs” to be covered, shift the focus to assessing students’ current reality. Work with students to ensure they know where they need to go, strengthen your relationship with them along the way as you offer feedback at stopping points.

When students receive feedback suitable for their needs, they feel valued and are more likely to apply the given feedback.  Ultimately, building relationships while providing targeted, actionable feedback will significantly increase the probability of student growth.

While changing the way we provide feedback may seem like a difficult undertaking, remember, “The greater the challenge, the higher probability that one seeks and needs feedback” (Hattie 21). Collaborate with a trusted instructional coach, colleague, or administrator.  Or, reach out to me. I am happy to provide more information, examples, direction, and feedback.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Do your EdTech Tools Really Innovate Student Learning?


In 2009, after a brief hiatus to stay home with my young children I returned to the classroom. I taught a 6th grade gifted integrated English language arts and social studies program. Right out the gate, I asked students to write a narrative essay describing the theme of their life. I used this piece as both a baseline assessment of their writing skills and an opportunity to learn more about my students as people. While the assignment helped me accomplish my goals, my learning was much greater; by giving this assignment I also discovered Google Docs.

No one taught me about Google Docs. I didn’t hear about it in a training. I didn’t read about it on Twitter.  My students and I “found” Google Docs by conducting a Google search for “share papers without printing or emailing.” My students and I had a problem. We were equally frustrated with the tedious process of printing or emailing essays back and forth as attachments. So, we found a solution.

No one in my building had even heard of Google Docs. Moreover, some of my colleagues (at the time) questioned the safety and integrity of using a web-based medium for student assignments. Nonetheless, my students and I pressed forward with using Google Docs. Initially, (and by initially I mean for an entire school year) we used Google Docs entirely wrong. I had all students log into my account and create documents with their names, rather than create accounts and share with me. But, this was a start. 

Google Docs (now G Suite for Education) continues to revolutionize innovative possibilities for both teaching and learning. I could write a blog post on this alone. However, with the quantity of EdTech products of on the market (2174 available products to be exact) I find too often that anything “technology” is oftentimes considered to be an “innovative” learning tool, and frankly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Basically, I see that there are three types of EdTech tools:

1) Tools that allow for student and teacher innovation (examples: movie making tools, blogging tools, infographic makers, Google Apps for Education)

2) Tools that can make the tasks that surround student learning more efficient (adaptive assessments, student performance platforms, Google, YouTube)

3) Tools that make teaching more efficient (automatic grading programs)

There is absolutely a time and place for all types of tools.  But, I caution all educators to ask themselves:

“Are your EdTech tools innovating student learning or are they trying to replace the teacher?”

Specifically, is there a tool that you are using to make your job easier but adds little or no value for students?

I think back to my impetus for using Google Docs. My students and I had a mutual need; we wanted to be able to collaborate on the same document, we wanted to be better able to manage drafts of papers, we wanted to avoid printing issues. We found a tech solution that met that our need in Google Docs. Google Docs enabled more effective and efficient collaboration methods and feedback capabilities. However, it still allowed me (the teacher) to gain insight about my students and discover their passions. Having this information was critical for me. I needed this knowledge to help students pursue their passions (view examples here).

Teachers and students will always have needs and will always look for solutions. For example, I recently saw a tweet from an educator who asked for recommendations for the “best app or program to grade essays and short answer questions.”  Many people responded with suggestions, but it seemed that even more offered words of caution about using a tech tool for a skill that really requires the human brain:  sentence length can cause erroneous scores,grammar errors that are actually correct are highlighted as being wrong, no ability to understand student voice or inflection. Regardless of the disclaimers, apps that have been created to grade student writing may make teaching more efficient but they certainly do not promote innovation or help foster a growth mindset in our students. In fact, due to the lack of appropriate feedback and removal of the human relationship piece that is vital to learning, I believe tools like this may be detrimental to promoting creativity, which is a key component of innovation.

I do realize the problem automated grading systems solve: having to physically grade.  In the traditional sense of the word, grading takes a lot of time… for the teacher. Writing can also take a lot of time…for the student.  Time is an extremely valuable commodity, but so is learning. If a tech tool only makes teaching more efficient it really isn’t an innovation tool at all- it’s simply a way to remove the teacher from the assessment process.  Of course, there are times when this can be helpful (i.e. multiple choice items, true/false questions, etc.).  But when students are being asked to share their thinking through writing, a computer algorithm just can’t do what a teacher can do with regard to critical feedback or feedback beyond spelling and grammar check.

Think about it. This may not be a popular notion, but it’s true. Some tools may solve a problem only for teachers which is totally fine. But, some of these tools do so at the expense of student learning.

Therefore, I caution educators to give great consideration to the Edtech tools that are used with the intention of helping increase student learning. Instead of looking to tools to solve all issues, reach out to your PLN for potential solutions which might not involve technology, but will require a true innovator’s mindset- solving a problem in a way that, at first, you didn’t realize was possible.

I’ll get the ball rolling, besides using automated grading systems, what other methods have you found helpful to efficiently give students adequate feedback? Please share.

Actually, I Wasn’t Listening to Anything You Said


This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why–sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking.” Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, The Creativity Crisis, Newsweek

I didn’t do my homework last night.

I think our house is haunted; has anyone ever died here?

I cannot find my keys.”

These were three comments made by my children just this morning (ok, one was from my husband).  And, these were three bids for attention from my family that I did not acknowledge appropriately. I reprimanded my son, diminished my daughter’s annual autumn fear of ghosts, and I ignored my husband. Until recently, I wouldn’t have given my responses a second thought.  My family spoke, I responded appropriately. Therefore I was listening to them. However, this wouldn’t be accurate or fair to them. I heard the words they said, but I wasn’t listening.

I could make an excuse and say, “family is different. I don’t need to use the same listening skills with them that I try to use with colleagues,” but, the truth is, good listening is a full-time job. We can’t turn it off and on again. I made this realization last spring after attending Jim Knight’s Better Conversations workshop and reading his book by the same title. Knight suggests that we aren’t always objective self-evaluators. He writes:

One way to improve conversations is to identify what we really want to believe about how we interact with others.  We are not slaves to our beliefs. We get to choose them, but to do so, we must surface our current beliefs and then consider what alternative beliefs might better describe who we are and who we want to be.”

My belief was that I was a good listener. I actively listened to what others were saying, let them drive the conversation, and responded accordingly. In an effort to confirm my beliefs, I filmed myself facilitating a roundtable discussion with other instructional coaches, and I was shocked when I watched the footage. I saw myself falling prey to some of the biggest listening predators: interrupting, asking questions from my point-of-view, and offering solutions disguised as questions. (For transparency’s sake and to model vulnerability, you can view a clip here).

Why did I do this?

Stephen Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says that highly effective listeners:

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Covey explains, however, that the majority of people do just the opposite. They seek first to be understood, to get their point across. Most people prepare answers without actually listening to their conversation partner because they listen autobiographically. When people listen in this way, they typically respond in one of four ways: by judging (speaker is right or wrong), by probing (asking questions from their point-of-view), by offering solutions, or by analyzing based on their personal experiences.

I realized I had spent years listening autobiographically. I had also spent years thinking that this was an effective way of listening. I also realized, that sadly, I had also probably spent years listening autobiographically to my students. To me, this was the biggest shame.

Educators have the unique opportunity to shape the next generation of adult listeners by modeling effective listening with their current students. Teachers and administrators (including me) often claim we encourage students to advocate for themselves. But, the question is:

When students advocate for themselves are we actually listening?

I would venture to say that surely some educators are listening, but, on the whole, we have room for improvement. Simply put, listening with the intent to understand can be even harder to do with children than with adults because of inherent differences in life experience and status. Therefore, adults may unproductively listen to children in one of the following ways:

  • With superiority: The teacher is in charge. The teacher needs to be understood before the students can express their thoughts.
  • By being defensive: Students comments and questions (why do we have to learn this?)may feel like an attack. Therefore, we stop listening to what students are saying to prepare our rebuttal.
  • By presuming: We assume we know what or why a student is saying something without asking clarifying questions to truly understand why. (I didn’t do my homework/student forgot).
  • By not being present: The timing of questions/comments from students may not be ideal only increasing our urge to prepare answers without fully listening.

Due to such listening blocks, many students’ attempts to advocate for themselves fall on deaf ears. Even though educators may not intend to listen inattentively, the results are the same. Students will eventually stop trying to engage us in conversation, and we are perpetuating the use of ineffective listening.

What can we do to become better listeners?

We can make a concerted effort to be better listeners to anyone with whom we engage in conversation: adult or child. We will likely find that our students learn more, we will learn more, and our students will more productive conversations with each other. If we can suspend judgment, let go of status, and really listen, we undoubtedly will be better able to meet the needs of all students. The biggest success, however, will likely be that our students will grow up to be more effective adult listeners.


Try this in your classroom or school this week. As you respond to students:

  • Keep an open mind and assume positive intent.
  • Be present, (as hard as it may be) and don’t multi-task when talking to students. If a student approaches you at an inopportune time, offer another time to talk and follow-through on that meeting.
  • Ask unbiased questions (Can you tell me more? What makes you think that? Why did that happen?) rather than leading questions (Did you hear what I said? Did you forget again?)
  • Respond to student responses with additional questions rather than statements (What would happen if you did that? What does that look like to you?)
  • Try not to take student comments about expectations or assignments personally, (when will we ever need to know this?) and refuse to become defensive. Instead, ask questions  to try to understand the impetus for why students make such comments. Look at the comments as suggestive feedback. Maybe something can be done.
  • Don’t be quick to offer a solution. Instead, collaborate with students to problem-solve.
  • Seek to understand your students before you ensure their understanding of you.

What else can you suggest? I encourage you to share your questions, successes, and struggles; I’m listening.


Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

How to Differentiate for Success on Standardized Tests


This post was originally published on Corwin   Connect


Recently I wrote a guest blog post on differentiation for Peter DeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in EdWeek. I corrected five common misconceptions regarding differentiation and offered suggestions for implementation.
The response to the post was in large part quite positive, however, there were a handful of critics. I expected as much, as differentiation is a highly debated concept. I was able to compartmentalize all of the critiques except for one. Many teachers explained that standardized tests prevent them from differentiating because ultimately all of their students take the same test.
This perceived barrier to differentiation is both inaccurate and potentially counterproductive to student learning. In fact, the only way all students will be prepared for standardized tests is by differentiating instruction before the test. If instruction is not differentiated, many students will take state/national tests after months or years of feeling apathetic or discouraged toward learning. Regardless of testing, neither mindset is advantageous for students and contributes to negative self-fulfilling prophecies like, “It doesn’t matter how I do on this test, school will always be boring for me” or “I always do bad on tests, and this will just be another example of that.”
Please know, this post is not a promotion of standardized tests. The reality is students are required to take them. There is a time and place to debate the effectiveness, validity, and application of these tests, but for now, I prefer to direct my energy into employing methods that meet the needs of students and promote a love of learning without compromising test scores.
So, how can we differentiate the content (what students learn), process (how students learn) and product (how students demonstrate learning) and still expect them to do well on a standardized test? We do this by not focusing on the test, but by focusing on our students’ learning needs instead; achievement is a natural byproduct of differentiating.
In Getting Started with Rigorous Curriculum Design and in this short video author Larry Ainsworth explains how a systems approach to planning units of study centered on assessment for learning and appropriate differentiation ultimately prepares students for (summative) standardized tests.
Let’s look at an analogous situation: annual physicals and bloodwork. Every July I visit my doctor for a physical. In the twelve months in between blood tests, I do not wake up every morning and think “I am going to eat healthily and exercise today to get a 198 on my cholesterol test.” Rather, I try to eat relatively well and exercise regularly because I know what steps I need to take to reach my goal of being healthy.
That being said, one year my cholesterol was elevated. Considering that my husband also sees the same physician and also had high cholesterol, I assumed my doctor would prescribe the same treatment: medication. But, he didn’t. My test results suggested a different intervention would be more appropriate. My doctor simply suggested I change parts of my diet. The result? Three months later my husband and I had our cholesterol levels rechecked and we were both in the normal range.
When I think of standardized tests, I think of them like my cholesterol test. I don’t look at the number as my goal—my goal is for students to learn. The number on the test is simply a way for me to check that my students are learning. The tests are one measurement of my effectiveness as a teacher. Truth be told, some years I was more effective than others. During my “less effective” years, I never thought I was a “bad teacher”. I thought I had an opportunity to reflect on my practice and make some changes.
Similar to how numbers are not my goal as a teacher, a number on a standardized test is rarely an authentic goal for a student. But, learning goals tied to testing can be hugely impactful for student growth if properly set. A happy medium can be found. I find the following rules of thumb to be quite effective for goal setting with students:
Create the context: Have an open and honest conversation with students about the test. I always told my students that the test is just one measure of their success. I even admitted that when I was a student I performed better on other types of assessments. I explained that my goal as a teacher was for them to learn and become critical thinkers and that tests in them of themselves are exercises in critical thinking. I promised them that all the learning activities will prepare them for the test even though we wouldn’t take a whole lot of tests throughout the school year.

Ensure a common understanding of the test: My school district gives the NWEA MAP test. I administered the MAP reading test to my students which gives information on three strand areas: literature, informational text, and vocabulary acquisition. Every year I had many students who either couldn’t remember or couldn’t explain/give an example of literature vs. informational text. Therefore, students and I met one-one to ensure a common understanding of what exactly would be assessed (standardized tests or otherwise). Without a comprehensible understanding of these terms goal setting would have been done in vain.

Collaborate on goal setting: The most attainable goals are goals that are feasible, measurable, and sustainable. By measurable, I am referring to a way for the student to determine if they are meeting the goal, not a number on a test. Every year my students would amaze me by setting super creative goals. For instance, one student set a vocabulary acquisition goal for herself. This student was going to “acquire vocabulary” by keeping a dictionary in her bathroom. Every morning when she brushed her teeth she taught herself one new word. Then, she used this new word in class later that day (orally or in written form). This student never missed one day. Furthermore, when I planned instruction, I had information to better tailor group work to offer and monitor opportunities for this student to grow in her goal area as well as the other skills/standards assessed.

Discuss this process with your team or PLC. I had the luxury of having students in their reading class. However, standardized test scores are an accumulation of learning in ALL classes, not just reading, writing and math. All teachers who teach students should know students’ goals and plan to reach their goals so they can plan instruction accordingly.

As differentiation expert Rick Wormeli said, “Differentiated instruction and standardized tests are not oxymoronic… Students will do well on standardized assessments if they know the material well, and differentiated instruction’s bottom line is to teach in whatever way students best learn.”

Instructional Coaching: Finally, an Easy Choice

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.


Want more posts like this? Please read: The Pendulum is not Swinging Back, The Next Great Tool for Teachers: Instructional Coaches, and  Thank you for making me cry. Also, be sure to check out the infographics page for other applicable resources.

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Last I Checked, Compliance Isn’t a Learning Standard

compliance or learning final (1)

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

For five years I took the same route to work. I was comforted by the familiar surroundings. I could listen to music, drink my coffee, and be alone with my thoughts. I never considered whether or not this route was the most efficient way for me to get to work. Then, one day there was an accident on the highway. I needed to find an alternate route. I entered my destination into Waze (I love this app!) and immediately learned there was a much quicker way, one that would save me time regardless of a back-up on the highway.

As I usually do, I connected this personal experience to my professional life. When I was in the classroom, how many practices had I utilized out of habit without evaluating their effectiveness? The answer was simple- too many.  I required my students to keep reading logs even though the logs did not provide insight into my students’ reading development or interests. I gave all students summative vocabulary tests every ten days regardless of their readiness. I assigned final products with mandatory components without student input. This reflection led me to make the larger realization that many of the tasks I required students to complete were exercises in compliance rather than learning.

This summer, for the third time, I read Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie. In his book, Hattie shares the results of a meta-analysis of 15+ years of research involving thousands of students to provide evidence as to what really works to improve learning. Hattie writes:

“The aim is to get the students actively involved in seeking this evidence: their role is not simply to do tasks as decided by teachers, but to actively manage and understand their learning gains. This includes evaluating their own progress, being more responsible for their learning, and being involved with peers in learning together about gains in learning….fostering active learning seems a very challenging and demanding task for teachers, requiring knowledge of students’ learning processes, skills in providing guidance and feedback and classroom management. The need is to engage students in this same challenging and demanding task….start lessons with helping students to understand the intention of the lesson and showing them what success might look like at the end.”

Hattie stresses that teachers and students must have a clear and shared understanding of both the learning intentions and success criteria. Students need to know what to do to be successful, and they need to see examples of what success looks like. In Visible Learning, Hattie uses a driving analogy to illustrate the importance of success criteria:

“Imagine if I were simply to ask to get in your car and drive; at some unspecified time, I will let you know when you have successfully arrived (if you arrive at all). For too many students, this is what learning feels like.”

With this perspective, let’s re-evaluate having students complete reading logs. I asked my students to keep reading logs to “ensure” they were reading independently. My learning intention was to foster my students’ love of reading while simultaneously strengthening their reading skills. I didn’t ask myself what success would look like for this task and therefore required students to complete an assignment that was misaligned to the learning intentions. With reading logs, students succeeded by reading an arbitrary number of pages each quarter. This task certainly did not foster a love of reading for my students, and moreover, the logs didn’t provide any insight into the progression of their reading skills.

Now, with the availability of research like Hattie’s, we can better determine the effectiveness of the practices we employ in our schools and classrooms.  We need to dig deep and ask ourselves the right questions. We need to be prepared for the realizations we make when we look critically at ourselves. Inevitably, we will recognize some of our practices promote learning and others do not. What we may find is we can group practices into two overarching categories: those that cultivate learning and those that promote compliance. Items rooted in compliance hold students accountable regardless of learning. Those created using research-based high impact methods encourage academic and social-emotional learning, growth, and success.

In addition to applying educational research, we must also leverage the power of personal reflection and collaboration to determine the effectiveness of our teaching practices.

I find self-reflection followed by collaboration with a colleague to be the most powerful way to make sustainable changes to the way I teach. To guide my reflection I ask myself the following questions:

  • Why am I asking students to complete this task?
  • How does this task provide information about students’ progress toward the success criteria?
  • Does this task promote collaboration (student-student and student-teacher)?
  • Does this task promote student ownership?
  • Does this task take student readiness into consideration?
  • Does this task promote a positive rather than punitive learning community?
  • How will I know this task is effective?
  • What will happen if I stop having students perform this task?

After I answer these questions honestly, I take a deep breath and consider the changes I need to make. I remind myself that change is a difficult but necessary part of life. I also tell myself that making a change does not mean that what I did in the past was “bad.” Rather, making a change means I have received new information that is too valuable for me to ignore.

When I am ready, I share my reflections with a trusted colleague. I collaborate with this person to determine a plan to guide the change I seek to make. I attempt to adhere to my plan even when there are bumps in the road. I try to look at setbacks as opportunities to improve further rather than reasons to stop. Most importantly, I strive to keep my eyes on my success criteria: the growth and success of students.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter @lisa_westman

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