I have a confession to make. I have been teaching for thirteen years, but I rarely see true student engagement in my classroom. Of course students do the work I assign (for the most part), but it is just a means to the end for most assignments – another hoop for them to jump through.

However, this year I’m teaching in a new problem based learning program at Seycove called FLIGHT.  So for the past few weeks, I have been working with the grade 10’s on a project involving interviewing seniors from the community to get a biographical story and creating written, visual and oral products based on the information.

As part of the project, students have built and painted their own ‘shadow’ boxes as a final presentation piece for the various components of the assignment. That meant going outside of my comfortable English classroom and heading down to…

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Love this! Totally agree! I wrote a related blog awhile back:

Barking and Talking

I invite my middle schoolers to bring their headphones to class. It’s not just because the year is 2012, or because stringy white ear buds are as ubiquitous as skinny jeans that sag beneath boxers. I want them to use their music and headphones for at least a few reasons…

It’s a beautiful way for students to attain instant solitude when it is needed in a class of near-thirty. Whether it’s listening to your favourite playlist, an audiobook, or a podcast exploring your passion, there’s a place for being in one’s own head in the sometimes-melee that is a middle school classroom.

Learning partners can find paired solitude when doing invaluable partnered work and thinking. It’s a hygiene-obsessed person’s nightmare, but it often aids the best kind of group work – that which occurs between two, not more, people.

I have so many metacognitive students. When left to their own…

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Great blog post!

Granted, and...

UPDATE: Cool. This post was nominated and made the shortlist for Most Influential Post of 2012 by edublog. I’m really honored!


What if the earth moves and the sun is at rest? What if gravity is just a special case of space-time? Following both counter-intuitive premises revolutionized science and ushered in the modern world. Could a similar counter-intuitive thought experiment advance education from where I believe we are currently stuck? I believe so.

The educational thought experiment I wish to undertake concerns curriculum. Not the specific content of curriculum, but the idea of curriculum, what any curriculum is, regardless of subject. Like Copernicus, I propose that for the sake of better results we need to turn conventional wisdom on it is head:  let’s see what results if we think of action, not knowledge, as the essence of an education; let’s see what results from thinking of future ability, not knowledge…

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Thinking Through the Roadblocks: PBIS

Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) is a school-wide  framework that offers buildings the opportunity for culture change.  Implemented well, within a response to intervention (RTI) system that offers a wide array of creative, comprehensive options for academic and behavioral challenges, research on PBIS is promising.  It reduces the need for special education referrals.  It reduces the number of suspensions.

Most common misperceptions?  

  •  PBIS is all about extrinsic rewards.
  • All kids don’t “need” it, so why should we do it?

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

PBIS is a comprehensive framework that is most effective when embedded in the school’s improvement plan/goals AND in collaboration with an RTI model around academics.  The beauty of PBIS, really?

  • develops predictable routines in common areas
  • creates common language for staff and students
  • focuses on teaching routines/expectations instead of punishing
  • helps staff think through expectations for activities and procedures
  • helps administrators think through expectations of staff and students
  • keeps staff and administration communicating about their school culture
  • helps school teams develop alternatives to suspension

Reward systems are part of PBIS and research across many buildings indicate it works.  However, reward systems are only a small part of the bigger picture.  During our professional learning and implementation support, we encourage buildings to determine if this part is necessary for them.  If they are not comfortable with it, we help them implement without.  After all, if the data indicates the climate is fine, why tamper with what works for them?

PBIS is not needed for you?  This may be true for teachers who  are incredibly effective at building relationships.  Maybe you are consistent, positive and  able to manage all difficulties within your classroom.  But look around.  Is this true for every classroom in your building?  District?   Is it possible that your building or district needs it, despite your success?   The consistency, predictability  and routines that PBIS supports offer are vital for children who come from chaotic, unpredictable communities/homes.  Your demographics may not include these students.  They may, but you might be effective regardless.   Still, the benefits of PBIS done well are clear.  They work for everyone, everywhere.  This is about the building, not the individual teacher alone.

So, what does it take to become a high implementor of PBIS?

(1) Teacher commitment to the initiative needs to be developed and reinforced. Communication of guidelines and the rationale for practices could facilitate teacher buy-in. Systematic use of data to demonstrate the effectiveness of PBS practices was also linked to teacher buy-in.
(2) Clear implementation guidelines should be provided to all school staff through a structured system of professional development and information dissemination. The guidelines need to help teachers respond positively to an often diverse population of students. They also need to encourage consistent and appropriate implementation of the rewards system based on a shared understanding of PBS in the school.
(3) Systematic data collection and use allows teachers and administrators to monitor the nature, location, and frequency of smaller disciplinary infractions before they become larger issues.
(4) Including student input in data-based decision-making can be useful in addressing barriers associated with the rewards system, including selecting appropriate rewards and monitoring the consistency with which rewards are offered.
(5) PBS orientation/training for new and substitute teachers could increase the consistency of application within the school. Similarly, refresher training may be needed for more experienced teachers. However, given the limited resources for professional development and the experience of some teachers with PBS, creativity in how to provide the training – to whom, when, and in what format – will be needed.


Positive Behavior Support in Delaware Schools

Identifying Implementation Barriers and Facilitators in PBIS


Poverty and Education: Solutions?

Poverty affects education.  It affects test scores.  It affects teacher and student motivation.  It is related to just about every possible negative life outcome you could imagine.  In the US, about one-quarter of our children are raised in poverty,  the same percentage of students drop out of school without diplomas.

These figures are an outrage.  Still, much of the school reform efforts actively ignore the research on poverty in education.  They focus instead on test scores and gaps between high scores and low scores within a building. Teachers are being held accountable for these gaps.  Some are losing their jobs.  Having tried to fight  the effects of poverty in highly segregated areas, others are exhausted, dispirited and have quit.  Politicians cannot even say the “P” word, let alone address the effects systemically.  And so the fingers point to the people on the front-line.  Everyone wants an answer but they are looking in the wrong places.

Educators around the globe engaged in a Twitter chat with the hashtag:  educhat.  This is a once weekly event.  Yesterday’s topic was:  If it is the poverty gap that is the major force stalling improvement in the American education system, how do we address that issue?

The majority belief emerged:

  1. Poverty is not an excuse:
  2. Teachers must pull up bootstraps and teach well

This belief set is certainly vital and adaptive.  I think it is a given that good teaching is a must.  But there is more.

Frequency, Intensity, Place

It would seem that your beliefs would vary, depending on your experience.  If you are from an economically and racially diverse community you may not feel the same way a teacher in the inner city does.  Having a few kids in your class with high needs is different than having the majority of your kids with high needs.  Your typical classroom in a racially and economically segregated area that has a high % of families living in poverty will include large class sizes and children with immense needs.

This we know:

Children from poor families do worse than kids from middle-class and wealthy families; children do better if their mother has a college degree, and overall, children of all ethnicities and races do better in schools with less than 25 percent of the student population from low-income families.

There is plenty of research suggesting that students of color are disciplined more harshly than their white peers.  

A cultural shift from zero-tolerance policies is needed in our schools. One research-based alternative, known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), is gaining momentum among educators as a way to improve overall school climates, as well as academic performance, while keeping children in the classroom. PBIS has been successfully used in both urban and rural school districts and in districts with high and low concentrations of poverty.

Implementation of PBIS is a key provision in several class action settlements reached between the SPLC and school districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. The results have been promising. For example, two years after PBIS was implemented throughout the Jefferson Parish, La., school district, the out-of-school suspension rate for special education students was cut in half. Out-of-school suspensions for general education students dropped 24 percent after the first year.

PBIS implementation is just one of the ways we’re working to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. We’ve also launched campaigns to address the use of alternative schools to warehouse students and deny them the educational services to which they are entitled. In addition, we work to ensure that youths most likely to be pushed out of school receive individualized support to increase their chances of graduating, to address racial disparities in school discipline practices and to increase parental engagement in the formation of school discipline policies and practices.

Current attempts at reform, focusing on test scores and charter schools, are short-sighted.  More importantly, they miss the core issues and leave many kids behind.  Additionally, housing policy in most communities encourages the economic segregation that causes pockets of unmanageable distress.  Solving small problems is different than solving huge, pervasive problems.

My belief is that the answer is “both/and”, not “either/or”.  With the economic re-segregation and enormous gaps between the haves and have-nots, the job of “overcoming the debilitating effects of poverty” is going to take more than just good teaching.  Note:  I did not say that good teaching wasn’t needed.  In fact, I suspect NOBODY has ever said that in education.  That is always expected.  Instead, we need to look past that  and out into the school community as there is much evidence that good teaching is not enough for the long haul.

Until we pair good teaching in economically diverse neighborhoods with the kind of comprehensive support that Nelson and Canada are providing in Chicago and Harlem, we will be placing band-aids on deep wounds.  And anyone who has skinned their knee knows:

band-aids don’t last after the first bath.

Thinking Visibly with Building Effective Relationships

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My partner and I facilitated the thinking and learning of nearly 50 teachers at Building Effective Relationships with Students.  This is a favorite session of mine because of the topic:  student engagement.  The challenge for us was to inject some new learning about facilitation into the lesson plan for adult learners.  Having just been to several sessions of Harvard’s Project Zero and Cultures of Thinking, we had some new tools in our belt.  Specifically, we would be using some of their thinking routines.   Our goal:  deeper learning; more engagement; richer assessment.  We were hopeful that the day would be valuable for everyone and that they would walk away with a slightly different mental paradigm regarding students who are reluctant to bond with everything “school”.

The morning conversations hovered around motivation, engagement and relationships.  The afternoon was spent unpacking Robyn Jackson’s book How to Motivate  Reluctant Learners.  They left with plenty of tools to use on Monday.

The Thinking/Learning

We created the lesson plan with outcomes in mind.  The main goal was that teachers would move to a more internal locus of control around student engagement.  While many factors lie outside of us, there is plenty we can do to increase the likelihood of students engaging in their learning, their school and their classes.   The routines we used from Making Thinking Visible were from the Understanding thread.To assess progress toward that goal, we decided to do the 3-2-1 Bridge Routine.  The outcomes of this activity would reveal both pre and post thinking so that we could see if there was a shift in how they viewed students who failed to engage.  The results from the bridge portion of this activity were awesome!

We used several other routines to assist at different parts of the day:  the headlinecolor, symbol, image; and chalk talk.  These routines can be used with any age group and any content area!  There are also routines around creativity, truth, and fairness.

The Engagement

What struck me most was how engaged the learners were throughout the day.  We created many opportunities for people to digest and synthesize concepts through thinking ,  discussion and application.    The beauty here was that the learning was collaborative in nature.  People thought carefully about what they already knew and felt, synthesized new concepts,  then shared with one another.  Discussion happened often.  People incorporated the thinking of other’s into their own learning.  There was reading, drawing, movement.

Additionally, we were able to weave texting polls and back channeling with  When relevant, we lead them to websites, blogs, and other resources (twitter, Additionally, five people joined twitter and three now are curating their own!

We are using Edmodo for implementation support.    Our space there is loaded with resources and will be updated regularly.  Fifteen participants have joined.  The handouts were not given to participants but are on Edmodo electronically.  We hope more people will join.

Preparing for this event was exhausting because the routines were newly learned.  But I am quite certain the outcome for most everyone was what we had hoped.  I can’t wait to try more routines soon.  Hoping the days of “sit and get” professional learning will be over for everyone, including the facilitator!

Engagement Made Visible

What surprised me most was the level of engagement with the teacher, the learning and with their  peers.  This was a bonded tribe.

Today I was fortunate to observe a class of seniors at Clarkston High while they worked on an assignment in their IB Theory of Knowledge course.  The teacher was a master (and a funny one, too, which was a delightful bonus).  During the entire session, all kids were engaged in thinking, learning and collaborating.  The discussions  were collaborative.  They pushed the thinking of their peers.  They developed consensus.  They were truly thinking deeply and completely engaged.  They laughed and wrote.  Wrote and talked.  This was real collaborative learning.  

The observation  was part of the classroom walk through( pre-conference) for  Project Zero Michigan’s professional learning  in Clarkston.  People attending had come from  Singapore, Brazil and many  US states.  All were here to learn how to make thinking visible for their students.  

The purpose and goals of Visible Thinking:

“Visible Thinking is a flexible and systematic research-based approach to integrating the development of students’ thinking with content learning across subject matters. An extensive and adaptable collection of practices, Visible Thinking has a double goal: on the one hand, to cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions, and, on the other, to deepen content learning. By thinking dispositions, we mean curiosity, concern for truth and understanding, a creative mindset, not just being skilled but also alert to thinking and learning opportunities and eager to take them”.  

As Donna Roman states in her blog entry  Making Thinking Visible:  “This is an incredible way to use fairly simple classroom teaching routines to help us become better teachers and to promote deeper thinking, and creative, independent, problem-solving in our K-12 students.”

A significant story emerged during the adult reflection period after observations.    One biology teacher, who was among the last to buy-in to Cultures of Thinking at the high school,  told how the first routine she tried allowed her to understand one of her learning disabled students better.  The student typically scored low on all tests in the past.  One of the “routines” used in Cultures of Thinking allowed students to set the stage for deeper inquiry by essentially helping them formulate questions about new concepts.  The teacher was astounded by the deep thinking this routine exposed in her student.  She remarked how her assessment will need to change because current methods fail to paint an accurate picture of her students.   Visible thinking helped her see who this student really was as a learner and thinker.  

I am at the ground level of understanding of Visible Thinking and the Cultures of Thinking, but the vivid picture painted today leaves me hopeful and curious.  I want more time to see this in action with kids.  I want to participate in the county  labs.  I can see application in every class, including  the learning experiences I have with adults.  

Moving from traditional teaching styles to those that are more progressive, student-centered will certainly change the dynamics of engagement.  My learning continues to evolve.  


Starting with Routines  The ways in which students go about the process of learning

Starting With Ideals collection of routines designed to develop appreciation for important ideals

  • Thinking Ideals  Help students gain deeper understanding of content (using the four ideals)

Starting with Documentation  How to  capture, record, and reflect on the thinking students are doing in your classroom.

Study Group Materials Set of protocols—that is, structures for conversation—to keep the group clearly focused

Looking At Opportunities   A tool for assessing Culture of Thinking

Making Thinking Visible (blog entry by @donnaroman