Responsive Return Strategies: Crafting Fresh Approaches to Schedules, Grouping of Students and Teachers and Shaping Both Physical and Virtual Learning Spaces

Part 4 of a 4-Part Series
Cross posted from LearningPersonalized

The summer of 2020 is not a vacation for many educators who continue to work tirelessly to engage with their community on how to open school for the upcoming year. Each school and district continues to receive guidance from state, ministry, and national governments which may change suddenly given the unpredictability of the pandemic. In addition, the reality of implementing governmental guidelines may conflict with staff who may have their own children and live in neighboring districts where policies could conflict.

Because of the complexity and uncertainty of how to approach the upcoming school year, agility is becoming the mantra in school response plans as decisions are being considered for a range of return scenarios:

On-site with social distancing precautions.

  • Clearly the initial phase of reentry to school will entail social distancing and sanitizing precautions that will change as the medical community makes headway in the treatment and prevention of the virus.

Home learning via online platforms.

  • The phrase Home Learning certainly is predicated on the use of on-line learning but needs to be distinguished from the fact that on-line learning can occur at a school site or any location.

Hybrid models which combine features of both on-site and online.

  • State education departments will be initiating policies that may provide for parents to have a choice as to whether their students are allowed to stay home or to go to the school setting. There are obvious implications for staff who have their own children in neighboring districts.

There is an array of variables that each school and district must sort through to respond purposefully and effectively. In making your moves to re-enter school this fall, we reference two laws of physics: 1) the whole is sum of the parts, and 2) form follows function. By this we mean, the four programmatic structures that have everything to do with that is possible in the learning programs created for our students. In Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments (ASCD), Heidi and her co-author, Marie Alcock, detail four critical structures and their interplay as paramount in creating that quite literally shape how our curriculum and learning experiences are planned.

  • Schedule. How we use time to structure learning plans.
  • Spaces. How we organize and use spaces to engage with learners.
  • Learner Grouping. How we intentionally group learners to grow their interests, skill sets, and discourse.
  • Personnel Configuration. How we intentionally organize personnel to be responsive to what the schedules, spaces, and learner grouping demands.

The Structural Nest

We have a genuine opportunity to reconsider format decisions in preparation for re-entry to school this fall presents challenges and possibilities regarding the structural ‘nest.’ There is an astonishing natural beauty to a bird’s nest in its form and function. The nest’s structure is responsive to climate, purpose, and available resources in order to be a place where nurturing the young is possible.

Our post generates options for each structure to correspond to the three response plans in consideration by schools and districts based on what we have seen pre-pandemic and in this transition phase. We strongly advise that the format structures are not selected in isolation by schedule, space, grouping of learners, and personnel configurations, but rather orchestrated to work together for cohesion.

Possible Options for Structural Nest

Click here to Review and Download 4-Page Possible Options.

The intention of the chart above is to lay out a menu of options to inspire fresh thinking and encourage you to generate additional options with your school community.

How might you leverage some of those ideas in continuing to develop your own reopening plans? We advocate the drafting of multiple prototypes that reflect these sets of connected choices. As you imagine the possibilities of one option, continue to envision other interconnections that are now on the table. To assist, we suggest a design tool to assist such as the one we have created below:

Link to Continuum Above:

As a design tool, we suggest that teams review and research a full range of options to coordinate schedules, the use of virtual and physical space, possibilities for learner grouping, and different ways staff can be figured. The various combinations then can be developed as prototypes whether on-site, hybrid, or fully home learning based. Certainly, there could be multiple prototypes for any one of the three fundamental approaches that might emerge. With the array of prototypes sketched out, the pros and cons and each can be weighted by a leadership team or task force. What is more, it is quite possible that there may be a start of school in one return scenarios and find that due to changes in either the spread of the virus or hopefully its elimination due to a vaccine, that a school will have to very quickly adapt to another prototype. Preparation and as stated, agility, are key to an effective response.


This blogpost is our last in the four-part series dedicated to developing strategies and approaches to assist schools as we grapple with COVID19’s startling challenges. We have attempted to provide a connected throughline between decisions regarding establishing future forward learning goals, planning curriculum, designing learning experiences, reconsidering assessment, developing learner agency, and structuring formats conducive to implementation. Coupled with the throughline, we took a deeper dive into recommending specific actions to add to the menu of options school communities consider as they shape contingency plans for the return to school.

In writing these blog posts, we do see that there are some seismic shifts that are already having a profound impact on learning-life in and outside of school.

  • Communication directly between teachers, parents, and learners has become paramount.
  • The actual formats and methods for developing activities and learning experiences have become streamlined.
  • Teachers have become skillful at utilizing online learning tools.
  • Curriculum as we have known has now consolidated.
  • Meaningful, ongoing feedback for students based on formative demonstrations of learning needs to replace the old assessment checklist.
  • The structures of school formats are becoming more agile and adaptive.

Moving forward as of this writing, it is impossible to know how long the current crisis will last. Given the resilience and commitment of learners, parents, and educators to see it through, there is great potential for the post-pandemic education landscape. Silver lining is an uneasy phrase to use in application to a crisis as devastating as a pandemic, but we lead with realistic optimism to design a future-forward school that offers safe and brave places for students to imagine, question, analyze, create, and share.

Our Four-Part Series

Part 1: How Will We Return to School? Curriculum Choices in the Face of COVID19
Part 2: Deciding What to Cut, What to Keep, and What to Create in the Design of Learning Experiences for 2020-21 School Year. Providing a tool to assist local educators in making these important choices.
Part 3: What COVD19 Has Illuminated about the Power of Self-Evaluation to Make Assessment Meaningful
Part 4: (WHAT YOU JUST READ) Responsive Return Strategies: Crafting Fresh Approaches to Schedules, Grouping of students and teachers and Shaping both physical and virtual learning spaces.

What COVID19 Has Illuminated about the Power of Self-Evaluation to Make Assessment Meaningful

Part Three in a Four-Part Series

Assessment needs to change as we know it. COVID19 has illuminated the necessity for this change so that our students become increasingly more self-directed and self-evaluating. A significant shift is required so that we squarely focus on giving students a seat at the evaluation table and include them in task design and development of scoring tools that will provide meaningful feedback to improve performance.

A response to remote learning created an understandable scramble for “keeping learners busy” and revealed cracks in assessment policies.

We are in danger of slipping back into what is easy to assess.

When there are too many quizzes and tests, students come to perceive assessments as a process that others, outside themselves, inflict upon them from teachers, parents, test makers and later supervisors, bosses, and administrators. Learners feel insecure trusting their own judgment about the quality of their work when others who carry more influence and power tell us what to think about ourselves.

In our previous blogpost we outlined four critical questions to be applied to curriculum decision making as we transition to school: What to cut out? What to cut back? What to consolidate? What to create? Those same questions are applicable to a discussion of assessment choices. We advocate for upgrading feedback on a range of demonstrations that are performance based, where teachers and students partner on the quality of the criteria, interact with timely feedback, commit to revision, and regular reflection on process and result.

We propose the following five commitments to frame a refreshed approach to assessments that flips from an emphasis on grading to an emphasis on meaningful feedback. After this quick sketch, we will elaborate on each to strengthen your assessment practices in service of growing more self-evaluating students.

  1. Design meaningful demonstrations of learning where students are valued partners in the design process. Students are included in shaping the design of what is being asked (content), how they are managing (process), who it is being shared with (audience), and/or evaluating the quality of the result.
  2. Invest time in co-creating rubrics as a learning tool. Learners become personally invested in a rubric when they partner with their teacher in its creation, otherwise, it’s somebody’s else’s criteria. What is more, they are on the road to quality when they grasp what quality will look like in a product or performance.
  3. Put feedback on the front burner. Feedback helps to improve the work and affirms students’ investment in the learning when anchored to the criteria as well attentive to the student’s thinking. Feedback interactions should ensure credibility, are trustworthy, and offered in the best interest of student learning.
  4. Establish a collection practice where students have ownership over the narrative of their learning. These collections are curated self-selected samples that serve as artifacts of the growth of a person’s produced work over time that details not only what they have learned but how they have learned. In short, lessons learned about my learning.
  5. Invite parents to observe learning rather than focusing on grades. In a distance learning environment, parents have new possibilities for observing how their children are experiencing learning. Recognizing the delicate balance between interfering and rescuing their children from the struggle, parents can benefit from prompts to help their children grow their capacity in self-efficacy as learners.

Exploring each Tenet to Grow Partnerships with Learners and their Families

1. Design meaningful demonstrations of learning where students are valued partners in the design process.

We propose that assessments would become more meaningful if we open up a seat at the design table to develop with learners. Bena and Allison clarify this idea with a metaphor of a tuning board (e.g., typically found in car stereos, recording studios, light boards in theater) to illustrate how to manage the partnership between teacher and students to expand opportunities about the content, process, and impact.

  • Teacher Generated: teacher designs the task for students. Students may have an opportunity to select from a small variety of topics or formats but there may be limited possibilities for students to give voice to concerns about readiness, interest, or pace of development.
  • Co-Created: Increasingly moving toward student agency, the teacher provides parameters to clarify what the demonstration must measure and works with students to design a more personalized perspective by considering the “what” (content), “how” (process), and/or “what form” (product/performance type). For example, the teacher can determine the topic, due date(s), and form, but the students are expected to pursue a line of inquiry that they find compelling in service of that topic. Another example is that the teacher can identify the form (an infographic) and the students examine a range of examples to collectively identify quality criteria to guide their work.
  • Learner Generated: student designs demonstration aligned with parameters that the teacher provides what the demonstration must measure. This is where learners progressively move to greater agency and self-direction. The teacher serves as a valuable sound board for feedback, a coach for review and guidance on next steps.

2. Invest time in co-creating rubrics as a learning tool to guide the process.

The Latin meaning of rubric comes from rubrica meaning to highlight in red. Rubrica refers to the bright red calligraphy evident in liturgical text used by monks to call attention to, that is to highlight specific passages. There is value in considering the root meaning given that rubrics are not intended just for a grade, but rather to highlight and call attention to quality in order to shed light on the choices the learner will make as they craft products and render performances.

When students work to generate a rubric with their teacher, their examination of models, discussion to clarify descriptors, and development of the language, this process increases the connection to the tool and builds clarity on what is being asked. Co-created with teachers, students study a range of professionally developed models that they admire to unpack the reasons why they work well with intended audiences. Invite students to set themselves up for producing quality by posing to our learners IN ADVANCE the question … What makes a quality persuasive essay? What makes a quality caption under a photo? What makes a quality podcast? Then, providing opportunities to examine a diverse set of models within a genre and describing, as the audience, what makes these models work. Where do they see patterns across the various examples? This leads to rubrics that are designed to span across multiple opportunities throughout the year rather than rubrics that are designed for a specific project. Students become self-evaluative.

There will be both form and function criteria when we develop quality rubrics. Form criteria will be technical in nature and function to the content and aesthetics. For example, if students are to create an original podcast on issues of importance to them, the teacher would ask members of the class to bring is a personal favorite of a professionally made podcast to unpack for quality criteria. The teacher can share one as well. As various samples of the podcasts are played, students identify and sort technical categories: editing, sound clarity, sound effects, pace, or match of length of program to message. They would do the same for the function of the piece, that is the content and purpose. These categories could include:

  • match between purpose and audience
  • level of interest generated, the emotional connection to the listener
  • factual accuracy of information that might be in the podcast
  • aesthetics of the intro and outro motifs
  • impact of the entire piece on the listener.

This process applies to our more classical forms for communication. Whether a teacher of high school English or third grade ELA is asking students to write an autobiography, it is highly likely that they will read existing examples of quality to study their quality. The autobiography rubric, too, will have both technical criteria such as mechanics, syntax, paragraph formation; and, content criteria such as engaging content, word choice, and style. In a very real sense collaborative rubric design can be a profound teaching tool that, indeed, highlights what matters most in quality demonstration of learning.

3. Put Feedback On the Front Burner

Feedback is learning. The way students reflect on, engage with, and take action on feedback is determined by a belief that the rubric describes what the student considers to be high quality work. Too often, the feedback is more about task completion or a grade than it is about learning. The real learning takes place when students become self-evaluating throughout the process of developing work. They ask themselves questions such as: Is my work clear? Will it engage the audience? How might I add some aesthetic design features? They develop the courage to not just wait for feedback but to actively solicit it.

Feedback is a courageous act. Developing the voice to seek feedback throughout their work grows student confidence. Perhaps they are feeling uncertain about the power of the ideas they are considering. Perhaps the student is not certain that an audience would understand the message. There needs to be a reciprocal relationship: the person who gives feedback must be sensitive to the learner and offer feedback that is direct, honest and actionable; the person who receives feedback must trust that the feedback, although sometimes difficult to receive, is being given in the best interest of improving the work itself.

The person giving feedback must be a trusted and credible source. They should be sensitive to where the student is in the journey toward completion. It needs to be constructively stated, attentive to the skills and capabilities of the learner, and small enough to provide a stepping stone for the next chunk of work.

When learners request feedback they need to consider:

  • Who are the best people to give me feedback?
  • Who has credibility and someone I trust?
  • What questions do I have about whether this work is “good enough”?

4. Establish a collection practice where students have ownership over the narrative of their learning.

There is the tantalizing possibility for a deeper level of analysis and learner empowerment where the student deliberately and consistently observes, comments, and communicates patterns of their work over time. What distinguishes the experience for students is the opportunity to go beyond the chronological history of producing work — telling a personal story of where the author of this work has been, where they are at this time, and where they are going. We see them in professional fields of practice such as in design or photography. Certainly we have seen them flourish in many school settings. The pieces are evaluated by a student and their teachers along their learning pathway with the clear goals of demonstrating growth and improving the skills of the learner.

We offer two approaches to help imagine and give shape to this collection practice. First is a regular collection practice over the scope of at least a course or grade level organized in four phases:

  • Collection: work samples being collected;
  • Selection: work samples students choose to represent their story;
  • Reflection: from the author’s perspective, why these work samples were chosen as examples; and
  • Direction: what the student sees as the next steps based on what they have learned from the cumulative demonstration of learning thus far.

As students get into the rhythm of this practice, they are taking increased ownership of: what learning goals they are paying attention to; when and how to collect artifacts; detailed explanation to support reflection that is both candid and growth-oriented; and conferring with teacher and other experts to share reflection and consider next steps.

The second approach focuses at a unit level where students are working on a substantive task or set of goals. Our dear friend and colleague Marie Alcock drafted this formative assessment tool for students to engage at the evaluation table with their teachers to inform student work.

Click here to see the full document based essay formative assessment tool as well as a math example and a blank version if you want to give it a go.

5. Invite Parents to Observe Learning Rather Than Focusing on Grades.

For many of us, the first school artifacts your child eagerly brought home were posted on the refrigerator door and we shared the joy of celebrating the child’s accomplishments. Somehow, as children grow up, we forget the pleasure of looking at the work itself and start to focus on a summary judgement of the work — that being the grade. During the Triage phase of COVID19 as parents are at home and observing their child as an online learner , it is opportune for them to examine the work itself and what it reveals.

Five minutes of focused attention speaks volumes to children. From the early moments when the child says “look what I have done” to the parents’ response “Tell me more about it”, students are learning about how to reflect on their work and use evidence in the work to justify the worthiness of the performance. Parents need to distinguish between skill building and applying skills in an authentic performance.

Children are very sensitive to the judgments from those they love. The mind shift for parents is to learn that the judgments should be more about the quality of the performance and less about the grade. Parents are key to providing incentives to learning that are beyond the grades they receive. For example, they can take the time to really look at the work and ask questions such as:

  • “Tell me more about what you were thinking when you were doing this work.”
  • “I see that you were working on using humor in this work. In what ways do you think it grabbed the audience?”
  • “When I saw XX this in your work, I wondered XX.”

Leadership Implications As We Move Forward

During the Spring of 2020, we put off testing and allowed for a more relaxed grading process. As a result, we found that students continued to learn when they were engaged. We also heard a clarion call from students for the need for more feedback from their teachers. It seems that students were interested in doing the work when they understood its purpose, got feedback on whether they were growing their skills and understanding of the work, and were given the autonomy to make some choices about how and when they would do the work. We reflected some of those insights in the five tenets. However, these tenets must be accompanied by a commitment from leadership in the school. This includes all leaders — teachers, students, coaches, administrators.

Leadership is not always positional. It is reflected by a set of behaviors and activities. While we wait for external policies to change, assessment is a key place where leaders can show respect for students in the process of learning. They need to be responsive to student’s need for affirmation as well as being stretched through constructive critique. The following are some suggested activities that will signal how leadership values the five tenets explored up above:

  1. Design meaningful demonstrations of learning where students are valued partners in the design process. 
  • Coach design works with an emphasis on identifying where students can be brought to the design table.
  • Talk with students about their plans for how they will demonstrate their learning.
  • Become an audience for trial runs on their demonstrations.
  1. Invest time in co-creating rubrics as a learning tool to guide the process. 
  • Check in with some students about how they are using the rubrics in their work.
  • Look at learning plans for time allocated for co-creation.
  • Use a faculty meeting for students to share their perspectives on the use of rubrics.
  1. Put feedback on the front burner.
  • Become another source for offering feedback.
  • Observe teacher/student conferences.
  • Use protocols in faculty meetings to provide time for teachers to give feedback to one another.
  1. Establish a collection practice where students have ownership over the narrative of their learning.
  • Invite students to tell you the story of their learning journey.
  • Ask powerful questions to students that help them reflect on what really matters to them.
  • Celebrate growth over time through exhibitions that include a variety of demonstrations excerpted from portfolios.
  1. Invite parents to observe learning rather than focusing on grades.
  • Invite parents to do guided walk throughs so that you can describe what is happening when students are self-evaluating.
  • Use the student led conference as an opportunity for describing the growth students are making rather than using grades as the indicator.
  • Focus on the big picture goals you have for students such as self-evaluating and engage in these goals as life-long essential skills.  Show examples  of how they demonstrate their capacity to persist, think flexibly, solve problems.


If there is a silver lining in the current pandemic imposed separation from learners, we vividly see the necessity and power of their ability to be self-directed. What is more, learners’ direct involvement as partners with teachers in monitoring and evaluating their work is at the forefront.

Recognizing that fundamental program structures will be the nest for implementing the curriculum and demonstrations of learning, in Part 4 we will examine options for shaping conducive environments in our next blogpost whether online, onsite, or in a hybrid environment. Specifically we will explore choices for making orchestrated decisions regarding schedules, physical and virtual learning spaces, the grouping of learners, and personnel configurations.

Building the Future Now: Deciding What to Cut, What to Keep and What to Create

By Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Allison Zmuda

Part Two in a Four-Part Series 

Cross posted from Learning Personalized

As the school year is winding to a close and everyone is desperate for a break, looking toward the opening of school next year is already causing unease. Throughout the world, educators face a critical challenge: how to design aspirational and future forward (post-pandemic) learning experiences rather than a temporary fix (triage). In our first blogpost in this four part series, we proposed the importance of beginning with input from students, parents, and teachers about what they are experiencing, what lessons they are learning, and what they will need moving into the next school year. We also looked at factors to mull over what will matter most in the planning for the year rather than jumping onto the “let’s pick up where we left off” bandwagon.

How can we shape curriculum right now that will best serve our learners for the future?

This blogpost is centered on two key steps to assist decision makers, learners, and families as they make this determination: development of future forward learning goals and using those goals as a north star to examine and clarify curriculum choicesThis work can provide a balcony view to clarify broader learning goals that ideally guide day to day learning choices that teachers and students make—goals that take the long view on determining the strength, approaches, life-skills, and aptitudes needed to support our learners.

  • For teachers in the identification, creation, and/or redesign of compelling problems, questions, and challenges that can give insight into a refreshed curriculum storyline. Otherwise we are more likely to recycle what we have immediately in front of us, to cover old material, and to miss an opportunity.
  • For students as they are becoming more skillful, sophisticated, and strategic throughout their school years. This is especially helpful now when students may feel increased pressure/anxiety in anticipation of pace of learning to “catch up” for what was missed.
  • For the school community in reaching consensus on realistic priorities will be central to our efforts. Otherwise, there may be a tendency to go for the granular, memorize some facts, scramble to construct where “we left off.” It is critical to reach consensus as a school community on learning goals that will serve as a North Star to decision making.


What These Meta-Level Learning Goals Are

Future Forward Learning Goals are overarching, and transdisciplinary. We developed key criteria for these learning goals as well as a few illustrative examples.

  • Reasonable number and scope to capture all aspects of a learner’s life. Goals should cover the range of skills, behaviors, and dispositions that we seek in the long run. We have found that limiting to 10 may be a helpful barometer (not a hard fast rule).
  • Apply to the range of topics and challenges that learners encounter in all corners of school life—curricular, social, and personal investigationsThese lend themselves to both transdisciplinary and subject-specific tasks that can honor existing curricular choices as well as open up the design table to more meaningfully include students.
  • Describe desired complexity and sophistication. These goals can then be broken down in grade level bands for instruction and coaching.
  • Provide clarity for  your target audience(s). We need to pay closer attention to how well we communicate about what we mean when we use broad generalizations.  Fuzzy language implies fuzzy thinking.  

The following examples that were drafted in partnership with Bena Kallick illustrate each of the key criteria listed above.

  • Seek to investigate challenging contemporary global and local issues by pursuing questions or a line of thinking.
  • Use design thinking and other processes to develop solutions, findings, prototypes, performances, and media.
  • Navigate through diverse sources and perspectives to make discerning and thoughtful judgments.
  • Generate, enrich, and craft communication through the strategic use of evidence and command of language.
  • Share stories, ideas, and points of view to engage others to think interdependently and potentially act collectively.
  • Think flexibly, take responsible risks, and listen with understanding and empathy as they  engage with the world.

Establish nomenclature. It may be that your school elects to give these Future Forward Learning Goals a “name” to stake out the ownership and engagement of your community. We encourage you to do so. Whether these are your Meta Level Goals, Essential Learning Goals or North Star Learning Goals, it is important that they belong to your community and will serve as guideposts to make wise decisions moving forward.

Examine Established Learning Goals as a possible starting point. Right now is  a rich opportunity to challenge our thinking about what we truly value through the process of crafting of Future Forward Learning Goals. It is not necessary to start from scratch.  For example, many school communities and have crafted descriptions of  what a Portrait of a Graduate  should demonstrate/look like. These descriptions are in the spirit of what McTighe and Wiggins call “transfer goals”—goals that will be important not only within the life of school but also in their lives well beyond school. We know that these goals reflect college and career readiness, part of the driving force for developing these goals. There are clear meta-level learning goals embedded in IB’s Approaches to Learning that serve naturally to guide decision making. There is also a rich source for essential goal setting in the introductory statements of purpose focused on life-long goals for learners in most standards whether through a national, state, or provincial organization. If  you already are using one of these models reaffirm and reimagine them to reflect the times.

Gather insight and information directly from all members of the school community. Focus on student agency—having their voices inform what they learn, where they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate learning—have been the heart of global conversation with personalized learning for close to ten years. During the current triage phase of our response to COVID19, parents viewed first hand the impact of remote learning had on their children. Lessons are being learned at home right now that are central to planning ahead. Now is the time to pay close attention to our learners and harvest recommendations. In our previous blogpost, we recommended Virtual School Community Summits to bring the community together. Whether the summit takes place in a virtual town hall format or whether it is organized in smaller “zoom room” discussion groups, the mix of parents, learners, and educators seems critical.   Certainly thoughtful surveys that encourage specific and actionable suggestions can prove fruitful. An invitation to articulate essential high priority learning goals can be integrated into discussions and into survey forms. We also recommend following a project called #JustAskUs  supported by the National Parents Union, Student Voice -Prichard Committee, High Tech High, AERO, Big Picture Learning that is developing tools and approaches to directly engage learners in contributing their voice and perspective in reimagining education now and into the post-pandemic period. The title is inspired by Heather Wolport-Gawron’s book, Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement, published by Corwin.  If you wish further information contact the project coordinator:  Masa Uzicanin 

Generate new Learning Goals. Based on our current experience in triage mode, the need for new or refreshed learning goals has gained clarity. While most schools valued the idea of  growing self-direction in students with the move to full-time remote learning, the urgency of growing this capacity has become more paramount. We moved to name a specific element of self-direction, self-management as a way to move from the broader, generalized statement which, in turn,  generated the following future forward learning goal.

Develop self-management skills by making choices for learning and monitoring thinking.

    • Take a bigger challenge and break it down into smaller, doable increments.
    • Set goals and monitor/revise them as needed to optimize clarity, viability, and motivation.
    • Experiment with time management structures to balance focus on task at hand with brain breaks, meeting deadlines, and staying motivated by my thinking.

Another example that is typically highlighted in many Graduate of a Profile statements is collaboration. To clarify this goal, we suggest bringing community voices to engage in conversation about when and under what conditions they feel they can connect and contribute most effectively.

Collaboration is a dynamic between the way people interact and the work they need to accomplish. Many schools often focus on the management of a task to achieve a common objective rather than the relationships that invite social construction. We moved to draft a future forward learning goal that values both.

Engage deliberately and cultivate relationships with all members of the school community to build on, better understand, and be influenced by one another’s ideas and perspectives.  

    • Adapt with increasing skill by communicating with others in a given network to develop more effective thinking by listening and questioning.
    • Recognize how positive relationships impact motivation, openness to new ideas, and connection to the work.
    • Adhere to norms and demonstrates respectful behaviors as one engages with others to help maintain a safe environment that invites all to participate.


Armed with a thoughtful and powerful set of Future Forward Learning Goals, the following is a process for examining existing curriculum to determine what matters most for your learners. While this “weeding” may be painful for some, it is imperative that there is consensus so relieve pressure for coverage and provide more space to generate new ideas with students. We have provided the following graphic organizer to help clarify the process:

Future Forward Curriculum Planning Process 

First, examine and clarify your current curriculum narrative.

  1. Compile existing units of study from your curriculum. Ideally, this can be done in grade level bands (e.g., K-1, 6-8) to ensure the choices you want to make do not put undue pressure on other grade levels to capture essential content. Working in departments on the high school level is obviously important, but it is also equally important to review across a grade level to see what the challenges will be for learners attempting to juggle multiple demands.  
  2. Examine each one and tell a brief story (thumbnail synopsis) of that unit. Why does it exist? What is the essential learning students will be able to continue to develop and transfer when that unit is over? What are the most critical standards to be in the foreground?  
  3. Review the storyline through the scope of the year. Are there connections between the units? What does your curriculum value the most?  

Second, ask yourselves the following questions:

Could you cut out unit(s) of study to make room for deeper investigation and development of key concepts and skills?

  • In any composition there is an editorial review where the question of “cutting” material is central to the whole. What matters most given the time that we have for our specific learners with our specific conditions, we must govern how we decide. The unique situation we are facing, will dictate significantly different learning conditions is a sensible element in our deliberations. (Shortened academic calendar, staggered classroom schedules, alternative attendance on-site if it occurs in your location, increased on-line learning demand).
  • To be clear, when cutting units it will be critical to examine standards that were emphasized in a unit. Given that standards are cultivated over time, it is likely that the faculty teams can readily identify the most critical standards that have been in the “foreground” in the design of learning experiences. It is always a concern to us when we see a unit of study with 30 standards listed (this is not an exaggeration) since these proficiencies take time to develop. Bundling standards that naturally cluster together in student learning is a natural way to align assessments. A faculty team can look at bundled and individual standards to sort out which are the most essential to their specific learners and those that are not.

Could you cut back each unit of study significantly? It is highly likely that educators have already made key decisions to cut back during this current curricular planning Triage phase of COVID19 as of this writing. Given the abruptness of moving to a total online environment over the past weeks, lesson planning may have been arbitrary and left to each teacher. Curricular decisions may have been orchestrated with others in a school, grade level team, department or the process could have reflected both approaches.

Moving forward we suggest your planning teams review the “thumbnail” story of the curriculum through the year to determine places where they may elect to cut back and distinguish the most essential from the less critical material in their units.   The task is to distinguish the most essential elements in the curriculum and place them in the foreground.

  • Skills: Given the importance of cognitive and technical skills in the long term growth of learners, teachers will want to elevate critical skills integral in supporting students within a given discipline as well as sub skills tied to Future Forward Learning Goals.
  • Content cuts: Materials, information, facts, subtopics that are non-essential should be cut given the larger aims and goals of the unit. The tendency to “cover” content needs to be confronted in order to move forward.  Distinguishing content that directly supports and is central to the Future Forward Learning Goals and storyline might prove to be a great challenge but also a rewarding one. Of particular value will be to proactively have our learners show the connections between the key content and that storyline as the curriculum develops. In our previous blogpost, we referenced The Big History Project, which takes a big picture view of key concepts through history where learners construct a narrative based on those key conceptual ideas rather than simply diving into minutiae. The approach exemplifies how your team might step back and layout the conceptual framework that is accessible to learners in any course or learning program. To be clear, the review of these cuts will be ongoing once the new school year commences whether on-site or on-line or both.
  • Assessment cuts: Evidence of learning is bedrock to the design of learning experiences. Coupled with meaningful feedback, our learners can progress in their development. Considerations and decisions about what formative and summative assessments will be the most revealing and helpful demonstrations of learning should be determined as a faculty both across grade levels and vertically. Certainly the impact of state or provincial requirements for public educators and education organization policies (i.e. College Board, IB) is a major factor in decision making. Bottom line, if there are cuts in the curriculum then there will be corresponding cuts in the assessments.

Could you consolidate based on units of study and personal learning progress during the remote learning time?

  • Given the nature of your course or grade level subject area layout, if there are related and clear connections between units then combining them is possible. To consolidate means to combine elements to make a more effective coherent whole. On a practical review of the scope and sequence of a year’s units, we can step back and not only determine what we might cut and where we might cut back, but where we can merge units of study. Consolidation can certainly occur within an existing unit as a teacher reviews and revises elements and activities based on past experience. Certainly interdisciplinary units of study can be a fruitful design consideration when consolidating.
    • It may be that a geology course in a high school begins with a look at the formation of the earth as a planet for the first unit and in the second examines oceans and the third unit looks at land. It seems that these three could be combined to shorten the time and be reframed to look at the early story of planet earth: beginnings and elements.
    • On the elementary level, a fourth grade ELA curriculum might have a sequence that moves from a unit on historical fiction focused on a chapter book perhaps Number the Stars by Lois Lowry , to a unit on persuasive writing on an issue. It seems plausible to combine those two and consider having students take a stand on a critical issue raised in Lowry’s classic work.

Could you create a new unit or module to replace this altogether? 

  • Generating new curriculum units responsive to the learners and to the zeitgeist is an option that seems particularly relevant.  Certainly new units could be interdisciplinary derived from a reconsideration of your existing layout for the school year.  A deliberate lens from multiple subject areas on common topics, problems, issues, and themes could provide a fresh perspective for learners. We strongly recommend the development of phenomena-based learning supporting inquiry into emergent problems and issues in a students life.  These might be framed on a personal, local, or global level but what is key is there is an immediacy to the situation. (NOTE: Interdisciplinary units emerge from the natural connections we see “between disciplines”, that is between the subjects.  Phenomona-based is not anchored in our traditional school day but transcends the notion.   We are not suggesting one is “better than the other”, rather we hope to provide a menu of options as units are generated) .
    • A key organizing focus could be phenomena-based given the emergent issues regarding the pandemic. Whether an individual unit or a series of units, learners could examine the impact personally, locally, or globally. Certainly developmental considerations need to be primary here. Here are some examples:
      • On all levels, learners can document and share their experience both from the onset of the restrictions and the closing of on-site school to the present in their transition to school (whatever form that might take). The unit could be COVID19: My Story, Your Story, Our Stories
      • Secondary students can dive into an examination of the pandemic and/or consider specific angles. For example, as contemporary historians they might develop an annotated timeline since the first reports in November 2019 from China to the present. As journalists they could “cover” certain angles on the pandemic in a series of articles: the point of view of essential workers, impact on a range of families in the community or, the challenge to local government and decision making. Clearly, an area of fascination for all of us is the scientific research and scramble to develop treatments and a vaccine and certainly for our learners that could be covered in an empirical style.
      • Elementary students might engage and develop service based learning projects to thank local health care and essential service providers. Whether in the form of  written communication or in  a short video message, gratitude is appreciated and it is important to display. What is more, it may be possible to actually provide concrete support to members of the local community as the adaptation and easing into functional society occurs.

Leading Future Forward Curriculum Analysis, Revision, and Reimagining

This process needs to be implemented with all deliberate speed to develop a solid draft that functions as a rudder to help steer turbulent waters of where, when, and how learning happens in 2020-21. In teaming configurations whether grade level, grade level clusters (i.e.-K-2, 3-5, 9-10), department, or interdisciplinary teams,  teachers can meet to review their upcoming plans. Likely to be virtual in nature, these formal reviews will be focused on making  collective proposals on what to cut out, cut back, consolidate, and create informed by the Future Learning Goals. Using a collaborative decision making model, leadership in a school or district can coordinate these efforts, document them and share them. Transparency is critical.

Here are two possible starting points to begin the review process:

Have a curriculum that has been consistent for at least 2 years? You could start here.

  • If your school utilizes curriculum mapping on a software platform, your teams can make a deliberate and formal walkthrough of your units and scope and sequence to make determinations about what to cut out, cut back, consolidate, and create.
  • Examine curriculum vertically to identify primary areas of fluency that are vital when students engage in more ambiguous and complex problems. For example, in math: Performs multiplication with multi-digit whole numbers.
  • Teams may want to utilize standards to inform grade level decisions and coordinate vertical choices. What is in the foreground of our subjects given the need to prioritize without putting undue pressures on other grade levels.

Have a standards-based report card? You could start here.

Pay particular attention to growing skill development either within a subject or transdisciplinary. For example, here is a sample from a Grade 1 Writing Report Card. The same focus areas are repeated on the report card through Grade 6.

  • Writing is focused; purpose is clear.
  • Writing includes details and descriptive words.
  • Writing is organized.
  • Writing demonstrates basic sentence structure.
  • Writing uses grade-level conventions of standard English.

Consider how these focus areas support one to draft a Future Forward Learning Goal in formal communication. For example: Crafts a purposeful and polished text in a given genre for a target audience.

Then, grade level or vertical department teams can make informed choices as to what genres to pay attention to both timeless and familiar ones (e.g., poetry, fairy tales, informational statements) as well as contemporary ones (e.g., interviews, emails, virtual chats).

Wrapping Up and Looking Ahead

Decisions on curriculum matters have never been easy.   Educators know that there are certain units of study and learning experiences that are particularly satisfying to teach and are hard to let go. There can be sharp differences of opinion on what matters most for learners between members of a grade level team or department. Conversely, there are great opportunities for collaboration and responsiveness to the needs, especially now, as we work through these decisions. Perhaps there is guidance in looking to the Latin root word for curriculum, which means a path to run in small steps. The familiarity with this path creates ruts that become deeper and make it more difficult to see with fresh eyes. As school faculties lay out a reimagined path in partnership with their learners and families, the opportunity it to leverage specific expertise in service to common and aspirational learning goals. Moving forward into the months ahead, future forward learning goals and a collaborative planning process will inform our choices on what to cut, what to keep, what to create in the curriculum.

Here are two streamlined organizers:
one for future-forward learning goals and one for review and reimagining process.

In our next blogpost, Part 3 in our series*,  we will consider the most meaningful demonstrations of learning to consider as students return to school in light of our future forward learning goals. How might we meet the challenge of determining their readiness to return both academically and emotionally? What types of feedback and grading makes sense as we review student formative and summative assessment? How will we develop self-navigating and self-monitoring skills that have already proven to be critical in remote learning?

*NOTE: We will explore the range of options and key considerations that school leaders, learners, and families might examine as they move forward in our four-part blog series on the Transition.

Part 1: How Will We Return to School? Curriculum Choices in the Face of COVID19

Part 2: Building the Future Now: Deciding What to Cut, What to Keep and What to Create

Part 3 (COMING SOON): Assessment and the Return to School: Engaging Student Voice, Self-monitoring, Meaningful Demonstrations, and Feedback 

Part 4 (COMING SOON):  Responsive Return Strategies: Crafting Fresh Approaches to Schedules, Grouping of students and teachers and Shaping both physical and virtual learning spaces 

How Will We Return to School? Curriculum Choices in the Face of COVID19

By Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Allison Zmuda  

Cross-posted from Learning Personalized

First in a Four-Part Series on Transition*

In the midst of wide-ranging, remote learning efforts during this initial triage phase of the COVID19 crisis, there is a clarion call emerging: What do we do next? The impact of a summer vacation may seem to provide some relief but will likely prove problematic.

What we don’t know.

  • When the return to on-site school will commence.
  • Geographically where and how it will occur.
  • What procedures for social distancing will be in play.

What we do know.

  • That there will be differences in policy responses to school reopening in different regions and different countries as we are seeing now in Denmark. 
  • That there will likely be a resurgence of the coronavirus.
  • That the understandable urge to “pick up where we left off” is a fantasy.

Let us consider real and actionable choices for curriculum design for the return and how we might arrive at those decisions. We will frame our exploration on two fundamental questions:

QUESTION 1: What have our learners experienced?

We need to acknowledge and ascertain the impact of COVID19 on them emotionally, socially, and academically in preparation for making curriculum choices for the upcoming school year. Each school community is its own ecosystem characterised by: a unique student population,  a specific location, demographics, language capabilities, cultural characteristics, degrees of transiency, age range, and aspirations. With this in mind,  our efforts need to focus on the degree of trauma our individual students have experienced that may have prevented them from meaningfully engaging in learning. In Part 3 of our blogpost series, we will explore specific strategies and efforts being made to assess the impact on our learners.

On the academic front, our students have had disparate learning  experiences and wide ranging degrees of engagement. Some of these disparities will be due to a lack of access , conflicting distractions at home, the quality of the programs offered and the level of interest in the experiences planned. Our students will be feeling a range of emotions, some readily apparent and others hidden. Certainly the age of learners will determine our response. In truth, many of our teachers and school leaders will have their own children at home and will be grappling with these questions.

With a central focus on learners, we would do well to include all members of the school community in this preparatory probe: families, teachers, school leaders, caregivers.

ACTIONS to consider:

Documenting and sharing stories. Representing the range of the experience on the part of learners and families, these can be handled directly between classroom teachers and their learners on current online platforms. These stories can also be addressed through organizations and groups that directly seek out and feature diverse perspectives of students to better understand their current situations as well as hopes for when school returns what might be most helpful to consider.

  • Lessons learned—what I didn’t know about myself and others
  • Stories of grief and loss
  • What I miss most about school and want to keep
  • Parental observations of children based on developmental considerations.

Online  forums and story-telling gatherings. The sharing of stories to be thoughtfully heard by others in the community.  (Zoom rooms)

School Community Virtual Summits to Navigate 2020-21. We urge you to host school community virtual gatherings between now and before the start of school so that families can describe the reality of what was experienced in homes to better understand diverse perspectives and guide decision making. These gatherings can continue through the school year whether virtual or on site pending local conditions.

Surveys that directly address questions, concerns and level of student engagement from all members of the school community. What is critical is that survey data not only impact curriculum choices made, but also school leadership present back new and revised learning plans with data from the school community.

Deliberate planning on relationship building in the first weeks of school. Start slowly and begin with two to three weeks of probing with learners about their experience, let them share, document, and begin some assessment of their readiness skills to engage.

Using an existing approach for SEL (e.g., Habits of MindRULERCASEL Competencies) to help with common language, direct instruction, and responsive feedback. The power and push for social emotional learning over the past several years can really help with sense-making and healing. While SEL lessons might previously have been relegated to an “advisory” program or front-loaded at the start of the year, cognitive learning is deeply intertwined with social emotional learning.

Focus on counseling and medically supported approaches to manage trauma. It is critical not to overwhelm an already overloaded, anxious faculty, yet they likely see that it is essential to be prepared. We would do well to draw reasonable and simple strategies for recognizing signs of trauma in our learners. School counselors and psychologists can provide professional development webinars to inform staff and share approaches to assist. In a recent global forum, a Minnesota educator shared with Heidi that his staff had elected to receive professional development training in treatment strategies from PTSD. The faculty has  found it helpful in their interactions with learners and helping manage their own personal situations. It is critical to note that teachers should not be viewed as therapists here, but rather that they have better tools for red-flagging emerging problems.

QUESTION 2:  What will matter most in the design of the curriculum next year for our students?

Clarifying what is expected from staff and students is paramount as anxiety levels about standardized testing, making up for 8-10 weeks of unit coverage, may push people over the edge. Relentlessly focusing on getting units online in the summer months and moving through curriculum at a rapid pace when the school year begins will likely alienate many learners, families, and professionals. Every effort must be made to find out to what extent students were actually engaged in emergency remote learning efforts during the current Triage period. Key determining factors:

Our younger learners may be in a literacy hiatus due to the lack of formal instruction during these formative years. It will be critically important to determine where our children stand in order to move forward with reading, writing, listening, speaking, and numeracy. Frankly, these same concerns hold for other age groups who may be literate but will likely have slipped precipitously in their growth. It is reasonable to assume that there will be an increased learning gap between the end of the current existing online school year. We are suggesting that the readiness of learners needs to be handled thoughtfully in the opening weeks — balancing diagnostic assessment with developing classroom culture filled with optimism, possibilities, and creative choices.

In some communities there will be a sizable number of learners who had limited participation as school transitioned to remote learning for the remainder of the school year. That may be further compounded by the Triage grading system where some school systems have decided that “no one fails” regardless of achievement over the first ⅔ of the year. This may make it more difficult to ascertain individual growth on key skills and concepts essential to build on for the upcoming school year.

When formal and predictable instructional routines stopped, learning still went on. As students gained more control over how they spend their time, there are skills, topics, and ideas that students may have pursued due to necessity, boredom, curiosity, and/or aspiration.

Some OPTIONS to consider:

Examine core curriculum for the year in the remaining weeks of school. Ideally, this would be done with PLCs (e.g., subject area teams, vertical teams in Elementary) where they come to agreement on What to cut? What to keep? What to create? This culling of core curriculum from the beginning of the school year helps create a more coherent curriculum narrative, prioritizing skills and processes with a thoughtful reframing of content over the memorization of granular details. We will share a decision making tool and strategies to assist in making these critical choices in Part 2 in our series.  (*See below).

Recalibrate curricular content goals to emphasize the BIG PICTURE of concepts rather than diving into the granular in all subject areas. An effective approach that has gained international attention is the Big History Project. The premise: rather than teaching minutiae about history, we lay out the big story, the connected sweep of history in a way that allows us to take a deeper dive in a context. This approach can certainly be applied to many of our curriculum areas. So, for example, science teachers in a middle school might lay out their year with a handful of important storyline points or concepts. In Biology—what are the five or six main takeaways that conceptually will engage our learners? What are a handful of key details that will support that investigation? Let us be clear, for those learners who can and will take a deeper dive, there is a wealth of details to explore in any subject. The possibility for pursuing more information can be built into any curriculum design especially when we have self-navigating learners.

Develop a set and series of transition units that focus on reflecting on what their experience has been and what has been the experience of others personally, locally, and globally. These would be phenomena-based and clearly interdisciplinary and certainly designed to match the developmental needs of learners. Taking a humanities lens could consider the stories and social impact through ELA, Social Studies, and the Arts would provide opportunities for self-expression and appreciation for the point of view of others. A STEM lens would point to the science, diagnostic,analytic, statistical, economics of COVID19 but continue to keep the personal, local and global angle. Based on the age of the learners, the curriculum could draw from archives of the event via news sources (Newsela). This could be in addition to a revised core curriculum adapted to the needs of the learner.

Recognize the freedom and responsibility that learners had to demonstrate during COVID19 in planning their time, monitoring thinking, seeking assistance. Their level of autonomy can be strengthened through naming the language of dispositions/HOM, direct instruction  (e.g., managing impulsivity, persisting, thinking flexibly), student self-reporting about ideas and actions they pursued, and providing feedback. For example, here is a survey developed by a school in New Jersey.


What actions and options are you developing in relation to these two questions? Comment below to share your thinking and help expand possibilities for school communities around the world.

QUESTION 1: What have our learners experienced? 

QUESTION 2:  What will matter most in the design of the curriculum next year for our students? 


*NOTE: We will explore the range of options and key considerations that school leaders, learners, and families might examine as they move forward in our four-part blog series on the Transition.

Part 1:  The Return is Approaching: Curriculum Choices in the Transition to School Re-opening raises questions, offers some guideposts, and expands the menu for the design of learning experiences. 

Part 2: Deciding What to Cut, What to Keep, and What to Create in the Design of Learning Experiences for 2020-21 School Year. Providing a tool to assist local educators in making these important choices.

Part 3:   Assessment and the Return to School: Engaging Student Voice, Self-monitoring, Meaningful Demonstrations, and Feedback 

Part 4:  Responsive Return Strategies: Crafting Fresh Approaches to Schedules, Grouping of students and teachers and Shaping both physical and virtual learning spaces 

Media Making: Stereoscopes with Google Cardboard

I recently tagged along on a field trip with local students to the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village in Amherst, NY. The students were learning about New York State History, specifically the area around Western New York. This regional history gem is a sprawling campus that includes both indoor and outdoor exhibits, including real churches, schools, and homes where students and museum visitors can step back in time and see what life was like in the 1800s.
During the tour of one of the houses, the docent shared a device called a stereoscope.
Photo Apr 26, 10 45 23 AM-001.jpg


The students were very excited by this device, which was once one of America’s most popular forms of entertainment. Invented by Charles Wheatstone in 1832, with a patent in 1838, then upgraded in later years by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a stereoscope is basically a pair of glasses with uniques lenses and a platform for holding a special picture that takes advantage of human binocular vision so that two images side by side merge to form a single three dimensional image.


The docent let each student (and the adults who tagged along!) look through the stereoscope which depicted images of life in the 1800s. The kids were amazed, as was I, at the 3-D images we saw. It reminded of the ViewMasters we used to have when I was a kid. And then it reminded me of something even more modern: Virtual Reality.


When the students were done, I took pictures of the stereoscopic images with my phone. I wanted to see if they would work in Google Cardboard headset. I cropped the images to the edges of the stereoscopic picture, enlarged the picture to fit my phone’s screen, and horizontally placed it into the Google Cardboard headset. And what do you know, it totally worked!


I made a short movie that shows the stereoscopic images I photographed at the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village (used with permission) which you can access here:

Note: This is a stereoscopic movie, so plop it right into your own headset to view in 3-D!

So, cool as it is to be able to view stereoscopic images in Google Cardboard, it’s also cool that it opens up some cans of worms of what this discovery means in terms of learning and engagement.

  1. Students could search Google and/or Youtube for stereoscopic images and movies, particularly of historical importance that they can now use as a more dynamic image to analyze for details and draw conclusions from. This level of critical analysis likely already lives in the curriculum, but using the stereoscopic images may provide a new level of engagement that would cement the learning in a student’s brain!
  2. Students could create their own Stereoscopic images as a piece of media that can be viewed in Google Cardboard, or be part of a larger presentation like a movie, that shows not only the stereoscopic images they created, and also what they learned about the content related to the images they constructed. I created the stereoscopic image below using Google’s Picasa tool. I imported the picture of the inside of the one room school house from the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village tour. I cropped it to a square shape, lightened it up a bit, and changed the color to sepia tone. I saved the picture, then saved a copy. I selected both pictures and clicked the “Create” option in the file menu up top. I chose “Picture Collage” with the two pictures. Picasa loaded the two pictures, and I chose options for a Grid Setup, with No Spacing, and a formatted Aspect Ratio of 16:9 (HDTV). Then clicked on “Create Collage” and noted that the now Stereoscopic image lived in the Picasa Folder in My Pictures. I exported the image, via Dropbox, back to my phone and opened it to view in Google Cardboard. Totally worked. You can save the following image to your phone and try it out:


The caveat was a slightly grainy image, but that added to the historical look of it.


  1. This is a new opportunity for media-making with both images and movies, or as part of a larger presentation that includes voice-overs, live speaking, or virtual field trips. While the idea for this was spawned by my visit to the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village, this could really be done with any content, any place, in multiple ways. This is an invitation to something new to think about and hopefully spark some creative ideas by you or your students.
I’d like to thank the people at the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village for permission to use the Stereoscopic Images in their collection as well as their commitment to preserving local history in such an interesting way. If you ever find yourself in Western New York, the Heritage Village is a definite must-see! Perhaps you should bring your own Virtual Reality headsets–there might an opportunity to use them!


Mike Fisher
Ditch The Daily Lesson Plan, available now from ASCD
Upgrade Your Curriculum, available now from ASCD
Digital Learning Strategies, available now from ASCD

Pushing Boundaries: Renewing our Mission

Guest Post from Elizabeth Fisher, coordinator of Professional Development at Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Education Services in Buffalo, New York. On Twitter @elizabethfisher

Hanging on the walls of myriad schools and proudly displayed on district websites, mission statements form the basis of belief systems and goals for the communities of learners within them. These statements usually represent ambitious and exuberant objectives in academics, behaviors, and aspirational goals for being creative or accomplished or striving for excellence.

Curiously, none of them have statements such as:

  • We strive to do well on the state assessment!
  • We are creative insofar as it benefits the raising of test scores!
  • Our students go just above the state average!

In the current educational climate, you would have difficulty finding schools that still maintain their aspirations in the wake of barely understood new standards, over-analysis of data, and dehumanizing teacher evaluations. The system is working hard to stifle creative expression in its teachers, and by extension, its students. Something must be done. Something must be done quickly.

Our missions still matter–and we must rededicate ourselves to making sure that we are on the right track. To paraphrase Justin Timberlake, it’s time to “bring creativity and risk-taking back.” But how do we do it?

We need to establish a climate which includes doing what’s in the best interest of students as well as encouraging each other to become risk-takers. What I offer are three steps teachers can consider doing immediately to bring creativity and risk taking back into our schools so that our mission statements are truly a mission worth embarking on.


  1. NOT YET MENTALITY: No one is ever really wrong, they just may be exploring an idea that either leads to a dead end or opens the doors to new opportunities. If students aren’t understanding it, then they are “not yet” there. We need to provide opportunities which build, in the words of Carol Dweck, a Growth Mindset. We need to be talking with that mindset in mind; maybe adding the word, “yet” to the end of our statements (“I can’t do it, yet.”). Doug Lemov wrote an article called, Culture of Error. I highly recommend reading it and discussing what implications are drawn to improve our practice. What are we already doing that is working? What changes are needed to allow for this type of thinking?
  2. ITERATE: Practice makes progress. Students need time to improve – everyone does, for that matter. It’s impossible to become better at something if you don’t do it repeatedly and receive specific feedback about how to improve. If we want students who can think for themselves then we need to prioritize our practices. Students need time to try things, to revise them, to create. Our state assessments are given under “first draft conditions” – providing no time for process reading or writing. So, why do we operate that way so often in school?
  3. QUESTIONS MATTER: Encourage students to think divergently. One thing teachers can start doing immediately is teaching students how to ask questions. “Knowing the answers will help you in school. Knowing the questions will help you in life.” (Walter Berger, A More Beautiful Question). A new process called the Question Formulation Technique ( is being used in some classrooms to help develop this skill. In a nutshell, the process involves showing a stimulus (a picture or video), having students work in groups generating as many questions as they can, and then discussing the two types of questions (open/divergent and closed/convergent). Students discuss advantages and disadvantages of both types of questions and practice with changing open into closed and closed into open questions. If teachers are always the ones asking the questions then we are not allowing students to think divergently. We are in essence telling them how to think – convergently. This process helps students as they continue to dive deeply into conceptual and content knowledge.


We want students who are confident, independent, and creative. We want thinkers who can ask questions, make decisions, and feel comfortable in their own learning process. If that is what we want, then we need to revisit our mission statements often and reflect on whether what we are doing is in alignment with those statements or not. If not, then we embrace it with “not yet” thinking.

Ultimately, what we want is to give students roots but also to give them wings – we need them to be independent flyers; able to make decisions for themselves, knowing when they can take-off on their own or recognizing when they need the support of others (like birds flying in V-formation). We are responsible for moving our energies forward for the betterment of student engagement and deeper learning; it’s a risky undertaking but worth it. I’m ready to take the risk. Are you?

ASCD Connect 21 Camp- Here we come!

So…what is Connect 21 Camp? 


It is NOT about  the technology.   It is NOT about  the hardware.   It IS ABOUT the expansion of each educator’s command of the new literacies coupled with the design of deliberate curriculum integration possibilities for your setting.


Our focus:   INTEGRATING Digital Learning Directly into Curriculum and Teaching

Our focus:  CREATING a genuinely personalized three day learning pathway full of creative excitement and practical take-backs.


Bridge the gap between the hardware- the tablets, laptops, and smartboards AND teaching and learning!  

  • Connect with our children and young people who are clearly residents of the 21st century hungry for relevant and motivating projects and investigations!
  • Integrate the digital literacy and media savvy productions directly into your lesson plans!
  • Bring the world into your classroom and school through global partnerships and networks.
  • Develop a connected plan to engage your faculty in a long term plan to support a dynamic approach to the integration of the new literacies tailored to your setting.
  • Engage in a range of options from media production labs to digital workshops to film study to coaching sessions.

CHECK OUT the program and our experienced team in detail:

I have never been more enthused about a professional learning experience as ASCD’s upcoming Camp Connect 21 scheduled for August 6-8, 2015, at National Harbor, MD.





“…but that’s not what I teach.”


That phrase was the conversation stopper of a recent discussion I was having with a teacher about assessing student learning. Somewhere along the way, because of new state rules about teacher evaluation and accountability, this teacher had changed the way she assesses her students so that she could get a clean, quantitative measure of what students were expected to learn in her class. And the conversation was difficult to have.


Her High School Art students, her excited and engaged High School Art students, had to take a reductive assessment that amounted to little more than definition regurgitation to prove that they had grown in knowledge over the course of their time with this teacher. The students’ pretest was an unknown list of vocabulary words and art terms that they did not know. The posttest was set to determine if they learned those words and terms. If they performed well on this written assessment, then the teacher would be found to be effective or highly effective in her teaching performance.


“…but that’s not what I teach.”


There’s a scene in the 5th Harry Potter film, The Order of the Phoenix, where the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge (who works for the Ministry of Magic–insert your own State or National Education Reform Commission metaphor here) refuses to teach practical magic. The students remind her that in each of their previous four years at the school there has been an authentic reason to know how to defend themselves with magic.



As long as you have studied the theory hard enough, there is no reason why any of you should not be able to perform the spells under a controlled examination.


Without ever practicing them?


I repeat, as long as you’ve studied the theory!


How does that help us in the real world?


This is school, not the real world.


The conversation with the HS Art teacher was heading in this same direction. She was describing a system that was trying to measure what was, perhaps, not worth learning; at least not worth learning in isolation. Surely the art terms had some worth contextually but were they the primary target of instruction? No.


During our conversation, I looked over at the window sill and saw this:

Photo Jan 20, 9 50 49 AM

I walked over to the variety of mugs, in their final stages of drying, before being put into the kiln. The students had been working for weeks (keeping their mugs in plastic to prevent drying) on perfecting techniques to shape the mugs, the handles, the top lip, and the design of the outside. The teacher explained and demonstrated different techniques and students tried them out, creating their own works of art. Over several weeks and with feedback from the teacher, they came to a point where their work was “Kiln-Ready.” Once it goes into the kiln, it cannot be modified.


The conversation shifted.


“Here’s what you teach,” I said. “Here’s your assessment.”


“Oh, I know,” the teacher said, “this is my destination; this is what I’m driving the kids toward. But I also have to make sure I attack that vocabulary for the test. The actual product is too difficult to quantify how effective I may be.”


We talked more about using rubrics. We talked about elements of art critique and collaborative cycles of feedback. We talked about how the students and the teacher could collaboratively navigate degrees of quality so that a rubric could help students determine when their work was “Kiln-Ready.”


Is all of this reform we’re dealing with that great in theory? Is what we quantify in the classroom more important than what we qualify? Is doing what is easy more important than doing what is right? Because the reality is, at least in this classroom (and classrooms like it across our country), it isn’t practical. We don’t need more REform. We need more TRANSform. We need more NEW form.


We need more Kiln-Ready moments and less Umbridge-style interpretations of assessment. Also, we need to celebrate those teachers, like this one, who understand how important Kiln-Readiness is, in spite of a misguided and ill-informed accountability system.

Mike Fisher


Upgrade Your Curriculum and Digital Learning Strategies, both available from ASCD

A Critical Look At The “Close Reading” Standard

“Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” — English Language Arts Standards » Anchor Standards » College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading » 1
mfisher-164by Michael Fisher
Close reading is not a thing.
It is not a skill. It is not a big idea. It is not new.
It is an iteration of New Criticism in a new Common Core chrysalis. The caterpillar—traditional literary lenses, among them Formalist criticisms, Reader-Response criticisms, and, perhaps, Structuralism—went through a transformation and have emerged as a new butterfly of comprehension and evidence.

Let’s read the close reading standard more closely

If we look at just the words read closely in a contextual way, what do you think the relationship is to the remaining words in this anchor standard? When these two words are separated from the remaining 29 words, a misinterpretation of the standard emerges as a potential separate skill, though other necessary skills here are more distinctly apparent and important (if one closely reads the standard):
  • determine what the text says explicitly,
  • make logical inferences,
  • cite textual evidence,
  • support conclusions.
boy-magnifier-book-trimReading closely then is the magnifierto ensure the suite of four related skills in this standard are achieved. In other words, close reading serves as a magnifying glass strategy.
If we want to dive into a specific portion of text (or comparison of texts) with a purpose, everything that is viewed through the magnifying glass deepens students’ development of the entire anchor standard’s learning expectation.
Using the magnifying glass is not a skill to be learned, it is simply a tool to amplify this standards’ priorities.

Reading closely is never mentioned elsewhere

Consider this: the anchor standard is the ONLY place that the phrase “read closely” is mentioned; it is not used again in any grade-specific reading standards.
When we focus on only a portion of a standard or decide to agree with what vendors tell us, then we lose the intention of the standard. The intention of this standard, and all of the other reading standards, is for students to comprehend what they read. Reading closely is great, but that is not the objective. Reading comprehension is the objective.
In order to get to comprehension, the focus should not necessarily be on all the ways students could closely read a text, but on the evidence students provide for thinking what they think. Perhapsmetacognition could be the real focus. The important words in the standard are not necessarily “read closely…” but rather “…what the text says explicitly.”

The expectations change in sixth grade

ExploringCloseReadingStandard-cvrThe grade level standards are pretty clear about what students need to know and be able to do. At the lower grade levels, they must be able to ask and answer questions about specific details in the text. Then in sixth grade, the verb changes.
In sixth grade, the students have to “cite evidence” that supports their thinking, which becomes sophisticated over time depending on the best evidence to support their thinking and evidence across multiple texts.
These growing expectations can be met through close reading (as a label for textual analysis) and also through new questioning habits that focus on the details. This can be done whether we are developing “close reading” lesson plans or not.

Let’s put “close reading” in its place

Close Reading is a lens through which we view the multiple ways in which we analyze text. Close reading is about the way we use evidence in text and the way we engage with the text when we ask and answer questions about it. Close reading is primarily about developing better comprehension habits.
What do good readers do when they read? They examine. They connect. They decode. They acquire. They discover. They think. They annotate. They visualize. They comprehend. They uncover.
These are the verbs. These are the skills. These are what really matters.
For more about Mike Fisher’s stance on Close Reading, his new eBook, Exploring the Close Reading Standard: Ideas and Observations, is now available on Amazon Kindle ($4.99).
sf114045bMichael Fisher is a former middle school teacher and digital learning consultant who writes frequently for MiddleWeb. He is acontributor to the new Solution Tree series,Contemporary Perspectives on Literacy, which tackles global, media, and digital literacy. In addition to 2012’s Upgrade Your Curriculum, written with Janet Hale, Mike is the author of the 2013 ASCD/Arias book Digital Learning Strategies: How Do I Assign And Assess 21st Century Work?  Find Mike on Twitter @fisher1000 and visit his website The Digigogy Collaborative.

The Heart of the Close Reading Standard

Collaborative blog post by Mike Fisher and Janet Hale.


Despite the amount of publishing and vendor products that employ a contrary interpretation, close reading is really about HOW we engage reading skills. It is not WHAT we engage. Developing “close reading” as a skill is not an essential part of this standard. Instead, it is a methodology, a strategy that is a way in which to reach the heart of the reading standards and the heart of improving comprehension.


The Hows and The Whats


Let’s look at the Common Core anchor standard number one for Reading-Literacy:

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.


The WHATs are clear:

  • Determine what the text(s) says explicitly
  • Make logical inferences from the text(s)
  • Cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking
  • What you write or say must incorporate evidence drawn from text(s) to support conclusions


The HOWs are muddier:

  • While “read closely” is explicitly stated, what literally should be read is left to interpretation as well as HOW one records his or her notations based on defined task, purpose, and audience. For example, one interpretation could be creating an opportunity for students to deeply analyze a speech transcript for its rhetoric and annotate (or annotext) to capture evidence. Another interpretation could be re-reading a section or sections of a narrative focused on characterization and have students using a semantic mind-map to make evidence-based notations.
  • HOW students will be assessed–both the actual assessments and evaluation tools (Who will be the assessor? Teacher…Peers…Authentic audience? What will be the judgement criteria? Rubric…Oral Feedback…Jury Panel?) are not included explicitly in the anchor standard; therefore, open to interpretation.
  • “When writing or speaking” is explicitly stated, which means that students must be able to not only meet the criteria of this anchor standard (R.CCR.1), they must also demonstrate their abilities in conjunction with relational anchor standards, such as SL.CCR.4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.


By no means are the above the only considerations regarding interpretation of the HOWs involved in the close reading of texts. As a matter of fact, it is important to note that while this anchor standard used the term “text”, when reading grade-level specific standards associated with a related anchor standard for both Reading Literature and Reading Informational, R.CCR.7:


Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects of techniques unique to each medium (e.g., lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film).


students must provide evidence by closely viewing media. This opens up Pandora’s box (RL.4.4) in that many teachers have not personally experienced this form of rigor regarding finding evidence in a media format, which involves its own set of terminology and understanding (e.g., how a specific type of shot–extreme long shot, long shot, full shot, mid-shot, close-up, extreme close-up–affects mood and tone).


Therefore, it is up to a teacher, or a teacher team, to interpret this (and other related) anchor standards. Students could determine what a text says explicitly through a digital-product assessment. Perhaps they could visually represent, through an infographic, logical inferences from two related texts. Another option could be to have students collaboratively (SL.CCR.1)  prepare a multi-media presentation that engages multiple HOWs to support the close-reading task.

The Hierarchy


As Mike blogged before, the words READ CLOSELY do not appear in ANY of the grade specific standards for R.CCR.1, further evidence that it is not the intended focal point. This anchor standard has more to do with building an increasing sophistication of how students deal with details in text (as well as media).


Let’s take a peek at the hierarchy through the use of Janet’s CCSS ELA Progressive Continuum App, which helps visualize new learning from one grade level to another.


(Note that bold print indicates new learning for a particular grade level.)


RL.K.1 With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.


RL.3.1Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.


RL.5.1 Quote accurately froma text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.


RL.6.1 Cite textual evidence to support analysisof what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.


RL.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text,including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.


In the lower grade levels students are expected, with prompting and support, to ask and answer questions about details in text. In subsequent grade levels (grade three), students have to begin referring explicitly to specific details within text to answer posed questions. By the time students have reached grade five, they must be able to quote details accurately from the text in their speaking, writing, or multimedia products or presentations. In grade six the verb shifts from “quote” to “cite”, which alone creates interesting conversation with teachers on the interpretation of what this term truly means, and therefore, demands of students regarding evidence. Through grade 12 students are expected to continue to cite evidence using specific details from the text, but sophistication increases including the need to examine multiple pieces of “strong and thorough” evidence. In grades 11 and 12 , students must start discerning textual details, collecting and curating evidence to aid in determining which pieces of evidence (both explicitly and inferred) that most strongly support the analysis of the text, including “determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.”

The HEART of the Close Reading Standard


When close reading the previous paragraph, what would the key idea be? If you had to boil that paragraph down to a single-word emphasis, what would the word be? How about details? The heart of R.CCR.1 is that–it’s all about the details–questions about the details, referring to the details, quoting the details, citing the details, determining if the details leave matters uncertain.


The heart’s “pulse” is the rhythm students create that starts with answering and asking questions to ultimately discover how to best analyze texts. Students need a strong foundation (including quality modeling) in asking and answering questions in order to ready themselves to independently refer to texts to support their reasoning, including the abilities to quote accurately and cite evidence properly.

The HEART of the Close Reading Standard

Final Thoughts


It is extremely important that teachers collaboratively (both across grade levels as well as within a grade level) understand the heart of each Anchor Standard in Reading, Writing, Listening & Speaking, and Language rather than accept interpretations by someone else. Teachers, administrators, and curriculum specialists should be discussing their personal interpretations with one another and coming to agreement on what the anchor standards require and designing curriculum and instruction based on the mutual interpretations.


The implications are that locally-designed units of study or lesson plans, vendor products or state-adopted curricula may not be a perfect fit, which means there will be a need to closely read the resource’s details to determine where the text leaves matters uncertain. Based on your agreed-upon WHATs and HOWs regarding each anchor standard, what do these resources provide that meet your established criteria? Where are the products lacking or appear to be incorrect? Can those involved in the product or resource close-reading experience support their reading using evidence-based conclusions?


The heart of the close reading standard matters. It has a place and purpose, not only in Grades K-12, but for college and careers. Scaffolded skills that live in the “close reading” standard are necessary to ensure students are able to identify details and ultimately lead to greater comprehension of text in a sophisticated manner. But an array of close-reading skills are not meant to be THE only skill sets that matter. Close reading should take place occasionally, when appropriate for task, purpose, and audience. Any methodology used with too much regularity is doomed. Skill sets and their supportive strategies are meant to be strategic…targeted…focused. If teachers read closely with students every single day, it’s not a strategy, it’s a roadblock.




This blog post focused on the analysis (or close read) of only ONE anchor standard. There are 10 reading anchor standards, and collectively there are 32 English/Language Arts anchor standards. What opportunities for empowering educators regarding curriculum design and instructional practice can be manifested by asking them to participate in collegial discussions and deep understandings concerning all of the anchor standards?


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Mike and Janet are the co-authors of Upgrade Your Curriculum: Practical Ways to Transform Units and Engage Students