Rethinking Learning Targets

This week I had the honor of filling in for a primary teacher for about a half hour. We were learning about lions. As expected, several students wanted to share their experiences and knowledge with the class.

One student commented that he went to Africa with his family and saw a lion’s skull during their trip. “Really?” I responded. He went on and explained that they brought the skull home with them on the plane. “Well, that’s something!”

Obviously I didn’t take this information as gospel. Even though his story was interesting, we moved on to the next part of the planned activity. And yet, the creativity in his thinking was something that, if I had more time, I might have encouraged him to put down on paper if he felt so inclined.

There was not a learning target posted for the lesson, but if there was, it would have likely stated something like “I can identify important facts about lions.” That’s great. Kids need background knowledge in order to develop a deeper understanding of bigger concepts that can relate to many areas of life. For example, interaction as a concept that can be revisited over and over throughout a unit of study on biology and the environment. That lens might accommodate more diverse thinking such as the students’ story about the lion skull.

Where do we start? Maybe we can rethink how we craft our learning targets. For instance, what if an “I can” statement became a question? I saw an example of this in a 4th grade classroom (see picture, second target). Posing questions vs. learning statements can invite new ways of thinking while still guiding students to focus on the content or skill to be learned. In my example with the lions, what if we asked, “What is important to know about lions?” Now we could not only build knowledge but also explore author’s purpose and/or generate more questions with students. Engagement goes up, thinking becomes deeper.

My belief about learning targets has changed. I used to think we needed to spell out exactly what we want our students to know and be able to do. “I can” statements are supposed to be in kid-friendly language. Now I’m wondering if in our efforts to ensure students meet standards, we are also diminishing the potential for creative and complex thinking in the classroom. Not so kid-friendly after all.

What are your thoughts? Please share in the comments.

You’ve Got to Believe It to Achieve It

This week our school faculty collectively examined our beliefs about reading instruction. We now own the following beliefs as a staff.

• Choice in what students read and how much they read influences motivation and achievement.
• The easiest texts for English learners to understand are those in which the concepts and vocabulary are familiar.
• Students who do not read well orally can have strong comprehension.
• Rereading is an excellent strategy when comprehension breaks down.
• Students need to do lots of independent reading of self-selected texts.
• Easy access to books students can and want to read is crucial to readers’ success.
• Students need to be taught how to choose “just right” books.
•Kindergarten students are capable of inferring meaning from text.

(For the belief statements in which only one person was not with the group, instructional leadership team members agreed to own those beliefs too.) These eight statements are an increase from the three we agreed upon in the fall. How did this occur? What actions led us to come together and find common ground in five more principles regarding reading instruction?

If you could sum it up in one word, it might be “process”. We had time to read and respond to self-selected resources on the topic of reading instruction in different groups. We worked together in PLCs to examine student work and consider how new strategies might better serve learning. There should also be credit given to the informal, every day conversations we have about our practices in the hallways, the lounge, and beyond the school walls.

So what do these beliefs look like in practice? That is our next step, starting this fall when we begin the process of developing integrated units of study that weave effective literacy strategies and resources into social studies. If we can start to institutionalize our collective intelligence, we will have take a big step toward realizing our mission and vision as a school district.

Summer Book Study: The Listening Leader by Shane Safir

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” 

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

In about a month, we will be reading together our 3rd book selection.

This book was selected because it might be just what we need in our high-stress and low-thanks educational worlds right now. As Safir notes in the beginning of Chapter 1:

Listening is the gateway to equitable school transformation. The “test‐and‐punish” era created a culture of compliance that made it difficult to hear parent, student, and staff voices. Listening Leadership offers a simple yet groundbreaking way of being and leading.

Next are a few questions with answers that seem to come up prior and during a book study on this blog.

When does the book study begin?

We hope to start in early June and go through the summer. The following educators have agreed to read and write about The Listening Leader this summer:

  • Carrie Thomas
  • Annie Palmer
  • Heather McKay
  • Michelle Olson
  • Ryanne Deschane
  • Paige Bergin
  • Rita Platt
  • Jennifer McDonough
  • Jamie Cicconetti
  • Virginia Soukup

Each of these professionals has provided thoughtful and well-written articles for previous book studies.

How do I participate?

First, purchase the book.

Regarding the nature of the online book study, it is hosted on this site. It is not like a Twitter chat, or an in-person book club for that matter. You could almost describe this learning experience as a “slow chat”. Contributors write responses (blog posts) to the common resource. Readers write comments. The contributor may respond to the comments, in which case an actual conversation may ensue.

Blog posts are also shared on various social media channels. Any time a contributor publishes here, I share their post on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Linkedin. If you like what contributors here are writing, I would encourage you to do the same. If people are not on these social media channels, they can subscribe to this blog with their email address or their WordPress credentials. They can also subscribe to this blog’s newsletter.

Can I contribute to this book study?

When this book is selected, a newsletter was published calling for contributors to participate directly on this site. If you have missed this opportunity, readers are encouraged to still respond to the book by posting on their own blog or website. An example comes from the blog “Literacy Pages” around the 2018 book study selection: Meaningful Professional Development. By including hashtags and Twitter handles when sharing out a post, readers and/or the author will more likely see it and promote it.

If you are not comfortable at this time in writing your own posts, then I would encourage readers to comment on what is published. The goal of these online book studies, beyond promoting an excellent resource, is to grow every educator to becoming a literacy leader. The more interaction we have in this forum, the smarter we may become.

Technology-Enhanced Instruction for English Learners

About a year and a half ago, I facilitated a one day workshop on behalf of Missouri’s Department of Education. Participating educators wanted to learn about how technology such as digital portfolios might enhance instruction for the English learners they worked with.

While I felt comfortable sharing about technologies could enhance instruction, I was less confident in how to apply these tools with English learners. In preparation, I reread a section in Regie Routman’s book Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners. She notes that I was not alone in my lack of confidence in this area.

All ELLs need to have high-level curriculum with expert scaffolding and sustained time to apply what they are learning, all done in a meaningful and relevant manner. Part of the problem is that many teachers are unsure about how to teacher ELLs. (299)

Additional research revealed the following four categories of instructional practices effective for English learners that also lend themselves well to technology integration:

  • Family Engagement
  • Scaffolded Learning Experiences
  • Representing and Celebrating Diversity
  • Community Partnerships

The group of teachers in Missouri appreciated the list, so maybe you will too! If you have additional suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

Family Engagement

“True engagement requires bidirectional and ongoing conversations where both teachers and parents share information the child’s learning.” (Tambyraja, 2017)

  • Share information about home literacy activities through a notification/announcements function of a digital portfolio (DP) tool. (FreshGrade, Remind, Seesaw)
  • Teachers can take a picture of a book to be sent home and post for those students, accompanied with ideas for families to explore it at home. (FreshGrade, Seesaw, Smore)
  • Encourage parents to use the DP parent app to email teacher (linked) about questions they have regarding their child’s reading progress, words that were tricky for them, etc to be used for future instruction. (FreshGrade, Remind, Seesaw)
  • Post a survey questions, asking parents to share favorite book titles in their home in the comments. (FreshGrade, Remind, Seesaw)
  • Send “interview” questions through DP for parents to ask their child to guide home reading.  (FreshGrade, Remind, Seesaw)
  • Have students reflect in DP about their current reading instead of a formal reading log, using video, audio, and/or text. (FreshGrade, Kidblog, Seesaw)

Scaffolding Literacy Experiences

“More than 80% of students’ reading comprehension test scores can be accounted for by vocabulary knowledge.” (Rasinski, Padak, and Newton, 2017) 

  • Provide multiple days at the beginning of a unit for students to read and immerse themselves in the focus for the study. (OverDrive, Kidblog, Biblionasium)
  • Offer a choice board in media to explore to build background knowledge around the topic of study. (QR Codes, YouTube, podcasts)
  • Include audio versions of selected texts so students can access literature they are interested in during the study. (Playaways, OverDrive, Audible)
  • Give students choice in a primary text to read during a unit of study, and facilitate a book club with guiding questions and discussions. (Google Classroom, Edmodo)
  • Document student discussions, both in small and whole groups, to prepare for future strategy instruction. (iPad, Apple Pencil, Notability; MacBook, Day One)

Representing and Celebrating Diversity

“No one story can represent an entire group.” – (Adichie, 2009) 

  • Have parents video record or write and share a story from their earlier lives. (Google Drive)
  • Record students reading a text aloud in both English and Spanish. (FreshGrade, Seesaw)
  • Read and record discussions of diverse literature in book clubs/literature circles. (FreshGrade, Seesaw)
  • Examine and organize your classroom library with students, focusing on the amount and quality of culturally-representative text. 
  • Maintain a wish list of culturally diverse books and share it with families regularly to purchase for the classroom. (Amazon, Google Site)
  • Develop a digital pen pal relationship with classrooms in other parts of the world. (Kidblog, ePals)
  • Create a bilingual book with audio, images, and text and share it online for a public audience. (Book Creator, Little Bird Tales)

Community Partnerships

“What we need…is an orientation toward service.” (Sobel, 1996) 

  • Create original content where students teach others life skills, such as how to speak Spanish or how to use a computer. (YouTube, Vimeo, Book Creator)
  • Bring in a local family from another country to speak about their culture and values to kickstart a geography or storytelling unit. (Smore, Remind)
  • Develop a community room for visitors to sit in and learn about the school’s mission, vision and beliefs, offering bilingual resources. (Google Translate, Smore)
  • Design advertisements for local businesses in both English and Spanish as a performance task for a unit on persuasive writing + economics. (Canva, Google Docs, MS Word, Pages)
  • Create a public service announcement (PSA) about a local problem, such as hunger or an environmental/safety issue. (iMovie, YouTube)
  • Assign volunteers to record themselves reading aloud selected literature via audio or video (Google Drive, Evernote, Vimeo)


Adichie, C. N. (2009). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story. TED Talk retrieved at

Rasinski, T., Padak, N. and Newton, J. (2017). The Roots of Comprehension. Educational Leadership. 74(5), 41-45. 

Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education (No. 1). Orion Society.

Tambyraja, S. (2017), The Literacy Link. Literacy Today. 35(1), 12-13. 

Competition and Education

Photo Source: Unsplash

My wife and I attended our first track meet of the year last night. The rain and overall cruddy weather did not sway the student athletes and coaches from completing the events. Our son participated in a team relay, high jump, and shot put. Tomorrow, our daughter will be playing soccer. Another sports season has begun!

I was also an athlete during my school days. I find many benefits with these types of extracurriculars. Speaking for myself, I learned how to be a part of a team, the importance of practice, and how to lose honorably and to win gracefully.

The thrill of competition can be a motivating factor for self-improvement. But it can also come with a cost. Namely, that there is at least one “loser” in every event. We can give out all the participation trophies and ribbons we want, but it does not hide the fact that at least for one day, one person or team was deemed better than another.

As teachers and leaders, we strive to ensure that all students are successful in their learning journeys. There should not be any losers. This belief is spelled out (literally) at every level in education, from the “Every Student Succeeds Act” to a district’s mission and vision to a classroom compact.

And yet our beliefs are not always realized in our actions in schools. For example, academic awards and student recognitions explicitly highlight those who were successful while also tacitly listing those who were not.

I understand there is room for debate on these issues. But I don’t think sports and academics are equivalent experiences. Kids choose to play soccer and track. Education is compulsory. Students and families don’t have a lot of choice in these matters.

So is it possible to harness the motivation of competition and redirect it positively in the world of learning? I say yes: when the student is in competition with himself or herself. They see the purpose and relevance of their learning; they have clear criteria for success; they receive actionable feedback that can help them improve; they are provided opportunities to apply what they’ve learned in an authentic performance task for a real audience. The outcome is someone who not only knows how to learn but also wants to learn more in the future.

How should we measure success in schools?

When I arrived at my current school as principal, one of the first ideas we implemented was a schoolwide writing assessment. At that time, writing was taught once a week as part of a life skill block. My thinking was, if we assess it more formally, then student writing will improve because teachers will see it as a priority and start to teach it more frequently.

And at first, the approach seemed to work. Shortly after announcing the schoolwide writing assessment, one teacher came up to me and asked, “So writing is a focus for the building now?” I was noncommittal in my response but I did not exactly correct her thinking.

The heightened sense of writing as a priority eventually gave way to reality. Specifically, while writing instruction was happening more frequently in classrooms due in part to dedicated professional development, the actual assessment results did not reveal a lot of helpful information. Our leadership spent a whole day in the fall and in the spring calibrating the rubric with samples, assessing writing pieces with partners, and then adding students’ scores to the spreadsheet. For all of this work, we couldn’t make heads or tails if students were collectively growing as writers.

This experience has led me to ask some hard questions. Why is it so hard to measure student success in complex tasks such as writing? Related, why are we as teachers often the only ones who should be making a determination of success? If students should be a part of the assessment process, can the task itself be used for more than just measurement, such as motivating students to learn? 

Defining Success

The dictionary defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”. So knowing what the aim is along with the purpose for our work seems important for students and teachers. Mindless assessment practices should be called into question, but not without a clear understanding of success in the broader sense of the word.

In their article “What Do We Measure and Why? Questions About the Uses of Measurement“, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers address the general culture of organizations and our infatuation with numbers. They note a disconnect between what is being measured and what the goals are of the group, along with how people move the organization toward these goals. 

“The desire to be good managers has compelled many people to become earnest students of management. But are measures and numbers the right pursuit? Do the right measures make for better managers? Do they make for a stellar organization?”

For our challenge, it felt (to me at least) that we were scoring our students’ writing in order to have a valid and reliable way of measuring their abilities. The result was a collective effort that was misaligned with greater goals.

  • There was misalignment between who was scoring the writing and who wrote it. For me, there was little context as I read and responded to each piece. For example, were they excited about the topic? If not, why not? Could the kids also present their work for an authentic audience? I wanted to pull each student aside to ask him or her more questions about their process that led them to what they produced.
  • There was misalignment between what was being taught and what was being assessed. Just because we had a common rubric did not mean the success criteria were clear for everyone in the school. Part of this issue is with rubrics themselves; they are lengthy and often too generic to use as a teaching tool. 
  • There was misalignment between our school’s mission and vision and how we were trying to realize these big goals.We were using simple instruments to give us information about complex work. Yes, kids had to respond to a task that had the potential to encourage students to write. But writing is more than words on paper. There is research involved, peer feedback and revision, and time to simply think, activities not a part of a writing assessment. 

Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers have also observed cognitive dissonance between the necessary actions people should take to realize an organization’s vision and how leaders choose to evaluate success due to a group’s actions.

“We believe that these behaviors are never produced by measurement. They are performance capabilities that emerge as people feel connected to their work and to each other. They are capacities that emerge as colleagues develop a shared sense of what they hope to create together, and as they operate in an environment where everyone feels welcome to contribute to that shared hope. Each of these qualities and behaviors-commitment, focus, teamwork, learning, quality–is a choice that people make. Depending on how connected they feel to the organization or team, they choose to pay attention, to take responsibility, to innovate, to learn and share their learnings. People can’t be punished or paid into these behaviors. Either they are contributed or withheld by individuals as they choose whether and how they will work with us.”

Described in this way, assessment is framed as an essential part of the learning journey toward success. The qualities of a community of learners should be embedded in the mission and vision of a school. Pulling these qualities out so they are understandable by all requires a description of success along with more authentic approaches for developing assessments that allow students to make their learning and thinking visible to all.

Engaging in this work is not necessarily more difficult. As Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers note about organizations that make assessment work for them, “their process was creative, experimental, and the measures they developed were often non-traditional.” It may instead require a shift in how we view success for all students, especially from their points of view. Maybe the word “measure” is itself too basic a label for what we are trying to really do: help students see themselves as genuinely successful and know how they arrived at this point. 

Curriculum Development: Start with Questions (Instead of Standards)

Boredom is a product of ignorance; the more we know about something, the more interesting it becomes.

Kieran Egan

If you could teach your students anything you wanted tomorrow, what would it be? No standards need to be considered. Principals are giving you free rein. What might you learn with your kids?

I would select controlled burns. Why? Because there was one this evening not too far from our home.

My kids had so many questions as we got closer and closer to the “big fire by the high school”. 

  • Why are they burning the oak savanna?
  • I see firefighters by the burn, but they’re not putting it out. Do they want it to burn?
  • Is this safe, so close to our house?

A few of our neighbors, two guys working on a house project, came out and asked me why they chose this evening (they know I am a school administrator). “It’s pretty windy out; was this the best night?” I shrugged my shoulders, not having an answer.

These questions could be an entry event into larger topics of study such as the life cycle or the concept of “change”. Yet our typical approach to preparing for instruction is to first look at the standards, try to determine what students should know and be able to do, and then develop learning targets in kid-friendly language so they know what we will be doing.

While I won’t argue against standards, I believe their role in education has been overemphasized. Kids don’t come to school to achieve mastery in them; they want to become smarter while experiencing joy in the process of learning. By leading with standards, we can turn students off from learning in the process. 

Instead, let’s get more observant about the world around us. We don’t have to look far. Maybe there is not a controlled burn down the street, but I bet there is some history or geography around the corner. How can we look at the ordinary in new and extraordinary ways?

A Preferred Approach

Instead of standards, what if we were to start curriculum development by leading with questions around a subject of focus? The object or idea itself should somehow capture students’ interests and cause them to become curious.

For example, a former art teacher brought in a small loom and placed it on a table. “Kids, let’s gather around and take a look at what I brought in,” she invited. “What are you wondering?” The students had many questions, generally wanting to know what it was and what it did. This evocative object was a springboard for a unit on sewing. Content and skills addressed included mathematics, technology, fine motor skills, and following directions, areas covered well by the standards (and the latter two approved by anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time with five-year-olds).

Questions anticipated by the teacher (essential and guided) and subsequently developed by the students are mirrored by the big ideas of a unit of study. They complement one another as they share a common theme, concept, or issue. As an example, if an essential question for the previously mentioned unit was “What is technology?”, an associated big idea might be “Technology helps people do tasks more easily.” Future instruction would expand on these ideas and inquiries, going deeper into the content and developing skills and strategies to better understand our world.

Maybe the hardest part of this approach for educators is not having all the answers. There is comfort in planning for the next five days. Yet the unfortunate trade-off might be in student engagement. So there has to be a balance between knowing what’s coming and being open to the unexpected.

Exercise: Update Your Consensus Map

Revisit your discipline’s yearlong plan for instruction and reframe them in more interesting ways. This consensus map should list the topics of the units of study which often summarize the major content and performance standards. Everyone in your grade level or department agrees on what should be taught. Consider what our 5th grade team developed when they collaborated on this exercise.

Topic/Strand Theme Title
Citizenship Citizenship/Community Our Place in the World
Political Science Rights & Responsibilities Voices and Choices
Geography Culture/Geography Oh the Places You’ll Go
Diversity Tolerance & Equal Rights A World Without Borders

As you go from left to right, you can see how they thought about their instructional plans in new ways. They haven’t changed the content as much as altered how their students might perceive the curriculum. By combining these topic revisions with big ideas and essential questions, the rest of the unit maps will more likely flow toward learning that is deemed lifeworthy by all learners.