About Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 14-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he did time as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example (readingbyexample.com), tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. His book about digital portfolios will be published by Powerful Learning Press in the coming year.

What questions should we be asking ourselves before assigning digital work to students?

This is a brief post, for a couple of reasons. First, I am writing it on an iPad Air because I am tired of typing on my laptop. I just finished updating my manuscript for an upcoming ACSD Arias book regarding myths about technology. Second, during my research for the book I created a graphic regarding the question that serves as the title for this post. It didn’t make the final cut, but I still think it is worth pondering. Here it is:

Hopefully the brevity of this post will allow for more comments and room for thinking. The topics of homework, adolescence, ubiquitous technology, and the kind of work we are asking students to do in today’s always-connected world weigh on my mind. 

Where do you weigh in?

Rethinking Rubrics

In our Google+ Community on digital portfolios for students, we have been discussing the pros and cons of rubrics. Yes, they spell out what is expected regarding a summative assessment for a unit of study. Differentiating between levels of understanding can help teachers more efficiently assess assigned performance tasks of student learning. For teachers who are now evaluated within the Danielson Framework for Instruction, the focus is on a rubric.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what’s the problem? Clear expectations and easy-to-apply assessment tools can make the learning lives of students and teachers more manageable.

This may be exactly why there is a problem. Assessment is not an easy practice to apply. Expectations for what excellence looks like for student learning can become more confusing when we parse out an understanding of mastery in the name of efficiency. Plus, there is the debate about defining poor performance. How much attention should a “1” really be given? Why is a “1” (see: failure) even an option offered to our students?

In this post, I propose three alternatives to rubrics when designing units of study. I am not anti-rubric; rather, we should consider the possibilities when designing instruction for deep student understanding and strong skill development.

Possibility #1: Analyzing Exemplary Pieces of Student Work

This approach works really well with skill-focused learning, such as writing. Showing students what is expected to achieve excellence with examples from past learners can have a better impact.

Below is an example: A mastery wall of student writing, compiled by grade level teams as a mid-year informative writing check.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 10.43.28 PM

How might sharing and analyzing exemplary student work be an improvement over rubrics?

Possibility #2: Standards of Excellence

I don’t know if you have noticed, but the Common Core State Standards, especially the literacy anchor standards, read like a rubric. Each phrase within the standard addresses a specific understanding or skill. Standards of excellence are paragraph-length descriptions of what a student should know and be able to do after a progression of learning activities. What is described is what is expected. Anything less is scored below a “4”, largely at the discretion of the student + teacher discussing the work.

Here is an example I created for a unit of study on narrative writing:

As an author, craft an original story, real or imagined, that has a beginning, middle, and end. This story shall have an attention-grabbing lead, rising action that keeps the reader going, and a satisfying conclusion. It shall be free of confusing language and grammatical errors. In addition, your story shall be both entertaining and informative.

How might crafting a standard of excellence be an improvement over rubrics?

Possibility #3: Novice vs. Expert Understanding

If the concept of a rubric is hard to depart from, consider this alternative. It comes from the Understanding by Design framework by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. The teacher determine what is a basic understanding derived from a unit of study, and contrasts that with a deep understanding which warrants a high level of recognition. Here is an example from a 4th grade unit on state history and geography:

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 11.11.20 PM

Both effort and skill development are recognized within this assessment.

How might differentiating between novice and expert understanding be an improvement over rubrics?

What are your thoughts on this topic of rubrics and alternative assessments? Please share your thinking in the comments.

Update from readingbyexample.com: An article, a post, an opportunity, and a reading celebration

Having trouble navigating Twitter? Check out an article I wrote for EdTech K-12, on how to use this social media tool for better professional learning:

How Twitter Can Power Your Professional Learning

Continue reading

Recommended Chapter Book Series for Early Readers (by our two kids)

Freddie Fernortner: Fearless First Grader by Johnathan Rand (Audio Craft Pr Inc)

I like this series because it’s mostly fiction, but kind of realistic. In the first book, The Fantastic Flying Bicycle, has wooden wings attached to it with fabric. A fan in the back pushes the away from the rider. If you paddled really hard, it might happen.

– Our 8 year old son

Greetings from Somewhere by Harper Paris (Simon & Schuster)

This is about two kids who are going on a trip around the world to see different places. At almost everywhere they go, there is a mystery to solve.

– Our 6 year old daughter

Magic Animals Friends by Daisy Meadows (Scholastic)

It’s about two girls named Jess and Lily. There’s this cat named Goldie who always visits them, in case they are in trouble. The evil witch name Grizelda who tries to stop their fun.

– Daughter

My Weird School by Dan Gutman (HarperCollins)

These books are some of my favorites from 2nd grade. When you first read one book, you can’t stop reading the whole series. Each one is about a specific teacher and how they are weird. There are sequels to this series. Mr. Jack is a Maniac is one of my favorites. The school gets a wrestling teacher who is chased away by a bear. The two main characters, A.J. and Andrea, have to use what they learning from Mr. Jack to be beat the bear off.

– Son

Looniverse by David Lubar (Scholastic)

This series is about a kid who is walking home from school, but accidently lands on the curb. He finds a coin with the letter “S” on both sides with “Strange, Stranger, Strangest” on both sides. Strange things start to happen to his friends, such as drinking two sodas and becoming a human floatie.

– Son

Piper Green and the Fairy Tree by Ellen Potter (Knopf)

It’s about a girl how has a fairy tree in her front yard. That means that she puts stuff in it, and the next day, she gets something in return from the fairies. Piper put a strawberry in it, and she got an earring.

– Daughter

The Critter Club by Callie Barkley (Little Simon)

The Critter Club is about four girls who run an animal shelter. They help hurt animals, and sometimes the animals stay there a long time. I want to read this next book, #11.

– Daughter

Horrible Harry by Suzy Kline (Puffin)

This kid likes all sorts of horrible things, such as slime and bugs. He has a crush on this girl in class named Song Lee. My favorite is Horrible Harry On the Ropes. In gym class, he makes a bunch of excuses not to climb the rope because he is afraid of heights.

– Son

What are some of your favorite chapter book series? Please share in the comments.

Joint Finance Committee Launches Assault on Wisconsin Retirement System #wiedu

Update (7/7/15, 12:00 P.M.): The Wisconsin Retirement System change was taken out of today’s vote on the Wisconsin budget.

According to an email sent this morning from Kathleen Marsh of MoveOn.org,

The Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee has inserted an anonymous #999 stealth provision (27a p. 9) into the Wisconsin State Budget that drastically changes the way in which our Wisconsin Retirement System is governed.

Below is a screenshot of the specific provision. Highlighted is the main concern.


What this means: Instead of having representation from both parties on this committee that oversees our retirement system, whoever is in power at the state level, Republicans or Democrats, will have total control over how the system is run. This is not good.

Kathleen Marsh states that Wisconsin public employees have one of the best pension systems in the world. This is true. According to Pew Research, the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) is fully funded to meet all of their obligations (Source: http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/0001/01/01/the-widening-gap-update). No other state has this level of success; many are facing budget problems. In fact, Governor Walker touted this success as an accomplishment back in 2013 (Source: http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2013/jan/06/scott-walker/walker-says-wisconsins-pension-system-only-one-cou/).

Why is this happening?

That is the big question. Find out by calling your local legislators today (I’ve already started). Click here to find their contact information. According to Kathleen Marsh, they plan on voting on this as early as tomorrow. Also, share this post with other Wisconsinites who would be affected by this unnecessary change.

O.W.N. – A Mnemonic Device When Having Coaching Conversations, Online or Otherwise

In a previous post, I shared some of the main points from an excellent resource for school coaches and leaders, Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time by Linda G. Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly (Corwin, 2010).

In this post, I want to expand on part of that text – the conversation itself – and show how I have applied this knowledge to online spaces.

Source: Galymzhan Abdugalimov via Unsplash

Source: Galymzhan Abdugalimov via Unsplash

Here is the passage itself that I am referring to:

In coaching conversations, instead of giving advice, the school leader supports her staff by paraphrasing what is said and asking powerful, open-ended questions that lead to deeper thinking. (p 57)

Instead of trying to commit this quote to memory and then recalling it when I am engaging in discussion with a colleague online, I created this mnemonic device to help me remember this process.

O.W.N. = Observe, Wonder, Next Steps

Each attribute connects with a part of the previous quote. When I make an observation of what someone else says, I am paraphrasing that which was shared. Wondering is synonymous with “asking powerful, open-ended questions”. If I have done the first two steps really well, then it should naturally lead to deeper thinking and next steps in the learning process.

Here is an example, from a book study I am currently facilitated within a Google+ Community, on the topic of digital portfolios for students.

1. I posted a question for everyone to respond to at their leisure (our conversations are asynchronous).

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 8.07.12 AM

2. One of the participants responded to this line of questions.


3. After others in the community “+1’d” her response, and deservedly so, I responded in the comments of her post using the O.W.N. framework.

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 8.13.50 PM

Looking back, do you see where I paraphrase what she said (observe) and asked open-ended questions (wonder) to promote deeper thinking (next steps)? Below is an annotated image that breaks down this process.


My observations took up the majority of my response. I think it is important to recognize all the positives we see in objective ways before guiding the learner toward other possibilities. First, any advice I might give may be wrong! Second, this open-ended language gives others in the community the opportunity to chime in and be the expert on the topic, Third and most importantly, the person on the other end of this coaching conversation (Shireen, in this case) is much more likely to be responsive to new ideas. I am not telling her what to do. I am provoking thinking (“When you frame your questions, how do you ensure…”) and offering a new perspective (“…and avoid deterring creative thinking?”).

I feel like this conversation went pretty well, based on her response.

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 8.14.12 PM

I responded with a brief affirmation, which concluded our conversation.

This is a decent example of a coaching conversation, which could have occurred online or in person. To be honest, I could provide many more examples of what not to do! Sometimes I give advice without asking first (the job of a mentor, not a coach). Other times, my question is too leading to where I think that person should go. This is an additional benefit of the mnemonic device O.W.N. – the acronym itself is a visual reminder that the person on the other end of the conversation should be the one constructing the knowledge and “owning” their learning.

One final advantage of structuring our coaching responses in this way in online spaces is that others in the community start to emulate your language in their own responses. It doesn’t even have to be explicitly stated. People see how you connect with others as the facilitator/coach, how the recipients respond, and then they often follow suite. I encourage you to try this method out in your interactions. Let us know how it goes.

Coaching Conversations in Online Spaces

I’ve recently started a book club around my text on digital portfolios for students. We are currently discussing Chapter 1 in a Google+ Community, using a thought-provoking question or statement for the participants to respond to asynchronously per day.

As we discuss in this online space, I have come back to a text I’ve used in the past regarding coaching:


This text was referenced in a connected coaching course I took with Lani Ritter Hall a few years back. It is a very practical resource for school leaders and coaches. At less than 100 pages, I can quickly go back and find the most salient points to reference in my work with connected educators in online spaces. Here are a few of my favorite parts of the text.

Coaching conversations differ from typical, spur-of-the-moment conversations. First, they are highly intentional rather than just friendly or informal interactions. In addition, coaching conversations are focused on the other person – her strengths and her challenges, and the attributes she brings to the conversations. A third characteristic of coaching conversations is that their purpose is to stimulate growth and change. In other words, coaching conversations lead to action. (p 3)

This is a lengthy quote. Let me break it down into the three main attributes of coaching conversations:

  • Highly intentional
  • Focused on the other person
  • Purpose is to stimulate growth and change

With each response to someone’s post in our Google+ Community, I try to apply these characteristics. My comments are considerate of where the person is at in using digital tools for student assessment, and where they want to go. This awareness helps me remain focused on the person and their situation, for example by noting specific details they shared in their initial post. My overall purpose, to stimulate growth and change, can be realized by keeping my comments objective and my questions open-ended (“You stated that you want to focus on building a better audience for your students. What activities and tools might allow for you to make this happen in your classroom?”)

When you are a committed listener you focus your full attention – mind and body – on what the other person is saying. You listen not only to the words expressed but also to underlying emotions and body language. In other words you listen to the essence of the conversation. (p 30)

This is where having coaching conversations in online spaces becomes a challenge, for the obvious reasons. We cannot read body language or assume underlying emotions. It is more difficult to express ourselves in this way within this medium. What I try to do is use positive presuppositions (52). This means assuming that the other person has the best of intentions, and to respond in a manner that allows for the person to expand on their ideas. This “pulling out of their thinking” again involves making observations and asking wondering questions.

One of the benefits of learning in online spaces is the spaces of silence that naturally occur, especially in asynchronous situations where time is not a factor in posts and responses.

Committed listeners…recognize the value of silence in conversations and avoid unproductive listening patterns that interfere with the deep listening of coaching conversations. (p 30)

One of our teachers pointed out the benefits of silence during a prior online learning community. “When you are not expected to answer a question right away, it gives you time to thinking and reflect on possible responses.” This period of reflection can allow learners to develop smarter responses, an advantage of learning online vs. in person.

I became very intentional about trying to separate my coaching from my mentoring. I tried to be transparent when I was mentoring, ask permission before I did it, and most importantly, to be intentional about not doing it. (p 92)

There is a fine line between coaching and mentoring. “In coaching conversations, instead of giving advice, the school leader supports her staff by paraphrasing what is said and asking powerful, open-ended questions that lead to deeper thinking” (57). Mentoring is different. A mentor gives direct advice, in fact telling the person on the other end of the conversation what he or she might want to try in their practice.

I am sure there a few members in our Google+ Community that would like to be told what to do. However, it is more important that they arrive at a deeper understanding for student-centered assessment on their own terms when possible. Of course I will offer advice when asked. But I believe the best learning happens when we can build a deeper understanding together, with the learner doing the lion’s share of the work.

This short animation, also shared during the Connected Coaching course with Lani Ritter Hall, nicely sums up this concept for me of coaching and learning in online spaces.