Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


Sssssalutations Ssssstudents and educator friendsssss. It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged but I’m back today with an exciting collaboration between Darlene Senick, a High School English teacher and Hobbyist Herpetologist at North Tonawanda High School in Western New York and students in Michael Thornton’s multi-age class at Agnor Hurt Elementary in Albemarle County, Virginia.

A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Thornton was asking another colleague on Twitter about her pet snake and I tweeted back to him that I knew a snake enthusiast...Ms. Senick. She agreed to share her knowledge and pets via Skype, so we set a date and started planning.

Ms. Senick is snake hobbyist and shared a lot of information about her snakes with Mr. Thornton’s Multi-Age group. The students in Mr. Thornton’s class collaboratively contributed to a Google Doc where they each asked a question that they wanted to know about snakes. These questions are the heart of the learning here. Some of the questions are what I would call DRIVING questions: questions developed by the student that may potentially grow with new content and experience. (Alcock, Fisher, Zmuda, in press) The students shared these potential driving questions:  

  • What is the most poisonous snake in Virginia?
  • How far can a snake strike?
  • What is the most venomous snake in the world?

These questions had very specific answers, though they might inspire additional similar questions to help focus the learning around content and concepts.

The students also shared what I would call PROBING questions: questions developed by students (or by teachers) to deepen understanding and make the thinking visible. (Alcock, Fisher, Zmuda, in press) Examples of these questions included:

  • Do snakes change their attitude throughout their life?
  • What inspired you to be a Herpetologist?
  • Did snakes evolve from other animals?

These questions require more than just a simple answer and would prompt additional questions and conversations.

Because the students created a collaborative Google Doc, Ms. Senick was able to both answer some of the questions during the Skype video call and answer individual student questions directly in the document after the video call was over.

The reason I’m excited about this entire scenario is that it incorporates the best of what we know about instructional practice with the contemporary capabilities we now have at our disposal. Let me break it down.

These students in Albemarle County, Virginia were being taught by a teacher more than 500 miles away. They were experiencing snakes in a way that a book could never offer and they were able to virtually interact with someone via social media who had knowledge and experience to share. This person had information that the students needed and they leveraged contemporary means to get to her. The teachers were dependent on the students for the creation of questions, which were used to guide the video chat and the students were able to experience the language of the discipline, the content and concepts associated with snakes and their adaptations, and have a memorable experience that they are likely to remember for a very long time. Hashtag #MentalVelcro

They learned about coloration, habitat, how and why snakes shed their skin, the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes, how they use their tongues, how they drink water, and what they eat. Check out the intact snake skin that Ms. Senick shared, complete with eyes and mouth! How cool is that?

This type of learning opportunity is one that I hope to get to participate in more and more. It was easy to setup, in fact, all of this resulted from two tweets, six or seven emails, and sharing Skype usernames. Social Media brought us together, the questions helped guide our instruction, and then the magic happened: real learning. Real, excited, engaged, enthusiastic, and passionate learning happened. And the teachers were as engaged and enthusiastic as the adults!

With opportunities like this, learning can (and should!) happen anywhere. We’re not bound by geographic barriers. We’re not bound by traditional school structures. We’re not limited to what is within the four walls of the classroom.

What this is, is amplified learning. It is learning that is inclusive of all learners wherever they may be. It is learning that happens when we push beyond traditional barriers and mindsets and seek to do extraordinary things.

Many, many thanks to Darlene Senick and Michael Thornton as well as their students for an awesome collaborative learning session. If you’d like more information about creating Skyportunities or connecting and collaborating with other classrooms around the world, check out these resources:

Read more about Contemporary Learning Opportunities here:

Follow Mike on Twitter: @fisher1000

Alcock, M., Fisher, M., & Zmuda, A. (2017). Designing the Quest. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
In Press

Friday, September 2, 2016

Giving the Gift of Reading is Beyond Valuable & Thanks to Our Libraries it’s Free!

Guest post this week from Kathy Kinney of

Even though my mother never finished high school she was a reader and she passed her love of it on to me - and I do so love to read. She took me to the library, and provided me with access to those books, and they became a big part of me. As a child if I loved a book I would re-read it once a year. Some of my yearly favorites were: Cheaper By the Dozenby Frank Gilbreth, Jr and his sister Ernestine Gilbreth Carey; Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein. It might seem like an odd combination of books - two biographies and a fantasy tale but what they had in common was living life in a fun, creative and adventurous way. That was the kind of life I wanted as a child and it is the kind of life I created for myself and lead now that I am grown. And that is what the library provided to me, a gift that stretched my imagination and developed a life long love of reading.
Contest image 2016   That’s why I created my Be-a-Famous Writer contest, to help stretch the imaginations of young students. This year the theme is Libraries! What could be a better word for K-4 students to write about?  Just look at the images of these libraries!  I can think of a lot of stories just by looking at these, and maybe your students will too!
                             Library           Library 2                Library1
I read everyday for entertainment, comfort and to keep my imagination toned and ever ready for my next adventure. Giving someone the gift of reading is beyond valuable and thanks to our libraries it's free. So why not share the gift of reading with every man, woman and child you know - and of course don't forget to gift yourself. Get a library card!
And if you are teacher, be sure to bookmark my writing contest. It is open for entries starting September 1st and run to November 15th.  It's free to enter. The winners of the writing contest get to build their own library, as their classroom is filled with books in every format from my amazing sponsors

Mackin title card.001   CantataLogo 3c     Tales2go new logo    Capstone_Logo      Powells

Here are some fun books about the library to use as inspiration to get your students excited about writing their own story!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Hacking Standardized Test Results

Hacking Standardized Test Results

The Problem:

Schools and parents are starting to see their standardized test results roll in. For individual teachers and students, the lauding or damning begins. It’s all about accountability, right? It’s all about systemic improvement, right?


The Hack:

If the test results are not specifically being used to improve student learning then they are more about policy and not teaching and learning. Any other purpose, including teacher evaluation, school ranking, teacher efficacy, etc. is about those policy decisions and not necessarily supportive of improving student learning. If we can partition the data itself from the ways in which it is being used unrelated to learning, then we can analyze what is worth analyzing for the sake of instructional programs and real student impact.

This partitioning must also include any biases we might have about the assessment. A standardized test is only good for what it was designed to do and usually that design takes into account a large population of potential test takers. It doesn’t mean the data are useless, nor does it mean that other assessments will be useful in determining student proficiencies.

Specifically, we can drill into data reports and look for trends that will enhance our curriculum data (units, lessons, etc.). Schools need both curriculum data and assessment data in alignment  in order to have what Bena Kallick and Jeff Colosimo call a “Data Informed Culture.”

What You Can Do Tomorrow:

Analyze the standard.
Look at your students’ performance on missed questions. Pour over any documents released by your state or test designers in order to better understand what each question is asking. Were the answers close to correct? Test designers will often provide distractor analysis. Did students misinterpret what the question was asking? Use released test maps and documentation to compare the assessed standard to your taught standards to make sure all of the discrete skills are being taught. Standards are checkpoints. Some of them are made up of multiple skills a student must demonstrate proficiency for. The assessment may be a telling reminder that some skills are definitely engaged and that others might need more attention. This is especially true for teachers who did not design their own curriculum but instead rely on a vendor/purchased/downloaded curriculum that they do not subtract from or add to based on their knowledge of their students.

Limit your action plan.
If your state or test designer didn’t publicly release test maps, work with your district data leaders to track them down. Look for versions of data reports that tell you how often a standard has been assessed over several years. If the current year’s assessment is the only time that a particular standard has been addressed over the last few years, then it is not necessarily a priority in your action plan for this coming year’s planning. Your priority is with standards that are addressed in the assessment every year or most years. Your energy is better spent on those standards that are assessed often.

Look for thinking.
I’m asking you to think back to college days here. Go back to Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge levels. All standards, Common Core or otherwise, can be boiled down to one basic throughline: increase thinking. When you look at your assessment(s), standardized and benchmark/quarterly/summative, what do you notice about multiple levels of thinking? This might be evident through questions that assessed the same standard, particularly if there are different question types. There may be anomalies that suggest that students do well on lower level questions but not on higher level questions.  If students are being asked to demonstrate high levels of thinking, particularly across multiple assessments, then those same high levels of thinking should be represented in instruction and resources used for instruction. If there is a mismatch in thinking levels between instruction and assessment, then there will be a mismatch in performance. If students have to evaluate on the assessment but the instruction only addressed description, then the assessment data will likely show the disparity.

Intervene logically.
Make sure students TRULY need scaffolds and interventions related to the data. If the standardized test is the only metric to determine extra help or interventions, be careful. Think about all variables involved. Look for other data to inform the decision: benchmark or quarterly assessments, formative data, past years’ performance, and intuition. If the assessment design includes questions that students faltered on but contained questionable distractors or multi-step constructed responses, consider how close the student's’ score was to whatever the proficient cutoff is. If it’s statistically insignificant (read: close), then it is likely that no intervention is necessary. If a student’s score is very low and it’s hard to determine where their specific improvement areas lie, then additional assessments, metrics, and data will be useful in targeting a specific improvement plan. Focus on student deficits the way doctors focus on symptoms. One symptom doesn’t give much information for a diagnosis. Multiple symptoms taken together paint a picture of what the action plan will be.

Analyze other assessment data.
Check your summative/benchmark/quarterly assessments for their alignment to both the standards featured in the standardized test as well as the ones you are responsible for. If you want to map out an assessment for the purpose of comparative analysis, you could use THIS TOOL for doing so. Mapping an assessment for question type, standards alignment, and thinking level is a worthwhile experience for discovering the degree of parallelism between assessments, i.e. how closely they align to each other in scope, coverage, and knowledge demands. This is an important step in aligning curriculum data and assessment data. If we truly want to reach the goal of a data-informed culture, then it’s worth our time to consider how deeply aligned our assessments are.

Doubledown on reading.
I can’t repeat this enough. Runners need to run to improve. Readers need to read to improve. The most important thing we can do to improve overall student performance is to give them ample time to read at their instructional level during the school day. The more they read, the more they know. The more they know, the more access they have to difficult texts or multi-step math equations. The more access they have, the higher the probability that they will be able to successfully solve problems / answer questions. Independent reading is a gift. Give them that gift at school.

Continued Data Meetings
To maintain high levels of alignment between curriculum data and assessment data, continue to discuss it throughout the year where the conversation can be about current assessments rather than just the summative standardized one. Continue to look for trends in the data both as a class and in terms of individual student performance and look for links back to the documented curriculum. Look to grade level standards below and above the grade you teach to inform your knowledge of how proficient a student is with skills that get more sophisticated over time. Look at questions all students did poorly on, is there an easy fix or misconception that can be addressed in follow up instruction? Do students falter on specific question types such as constructed response questions? (Which are also a higher thinking level question as students are asked to “put it all together” for a proficient response.) In short, don’t let data be a once a year conversation directed toward performance on one test.

Questions or comments? Contribute below or contact Mike on Twitter at @fisher1000
For more on Hacking Standards and the Common Core specifically, visit Amazon for Hacking the Common Core.

*Note: Information contained in this blog post is an amalgamated remix of work I’ve read about, experienced, provided professional development for, and had professional conversations about over the last few years of Common Core implementation. To discover more about how to use data to improve student learning,  inform instruction, and align curricular goals, consider the following:

  • Using Curriculum Mapping and Assessment Data to Improve Student Learning by Bena Kallick and Jeff Colosimo
  • Driven by Data by Paul Bambrick Santoyo
  • Protocols for Professional Practice by Lois Brown Easton
  • The Data-Driven Classroom by Craig Mertler

Photo credit: user SHHO (2010) under Content License

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review of Hacking the Common Core!

The nice folks at MiddleWeb reviewed Hacking the Common Core! Thanks, Rita Platt--I appreciate what you wrote!

View the review HERE

The book is on Amazon HERE

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Have a Summer of Fun with Reading and Writing!

originally posted on MiddleWeb

Now that we are all fully heading into the summer, I thought it would be a good time to talk about summer reading and writing and how to get kids to continue with their literacy efforts over their break.
Over the weekend, we had a great #HackLearning chat on Twitter (Sunday’s at 8:30 AM) on promoting summer reading, and a lot of great ideas were shared. In the interest of expanding that conversation, I’d like to share a few ideas to help parents and teachers #HackSummerLearning!
The best thing that teachers can encourage their students (and parents) to do over the summer is to simply read and write. Kids can read anything of interest, preferably at an instructional level (which might necessitate teachers sharing reading level information with parents). Teachers can then encourage parents to have a daily or every-other-day reading habit.

A pleasure, not a chore

Sometimes parents get lost when the expectation is to keep up with reading logs and document every page their kid reads. Remove that accountability and use the honor system to help encourage parents to keep up with reading.
Or even better, leverage social media to replace the reading log and have students and parents tweet to a teacher or school-specific hashtag sharing their favorite moments, titles of books, plot twists, favorite characters – anything!
Don’t make the reading just a student event. Even if the students are older, ask that parents read to their children and have discussions about what’s happening in the books the kids are reading for themselves.
Additionally, summer is a GREAT time to start co-reading events where the parent(s) and the child read the same book and have discussions about happenings and inferences.
Another option is “post mortems” where everybody talks about the book in general. We are doing that this summer with our nine year old. We’ve been waiting years to share Harry Potter with her, and this summer is the summer of Harry for us. My wife and I are so looking forward to sharing this with our daughter and can’t wait to rediscover “the magic!”

Read the rest of the blog here!