Week Nine Reflection

The timing of the topic of assessment could not have been better than this week. My current “pleasure reading” book* is Rick Wormeli’s Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. I have to say, I have never felt as compelled to mark up a book as I do this one. There are underlined sections and stars and many, many notes in the margins. Each chapter leads to another that is even more interesting and applicable. Seriously…mind blown!

I took the time to think back to the different stages of my teaching so far and the roles that assessment played in each of those stages. I can break my teaching history up into four different subgroups, each with a different group of students in a different location. The first stage of my teaching started right out of college. The year was 1998 and I was eager, if not naive, about my place in the teaching world. My first group of students were likely my toughest, both in terms of what they needed academically compared to what I had to offer and from a behavioral standpoint. My ability to look at the whole picture was extremely limited by the small size of the frame about which I looked through. It has been a long time since that classroom, but I can only think that I gave many one-size fits none, end of unit assessments and used little, if any, formative assessment in my instruction. I’d like to formally apologize to those students.

My second stage of teach was the year of no textbook. I’ve already written about that class and how my perceptions on differentiation and assessments were changed by the experience. What I haven’t written about were the other classes I was teaching, which included 7th grade math and 7th grade science, along with a computer science class that I co-taught. Both the 7th grade classes had textbooks which had recently been adopted and followed NCTM and national science standards. They had built-in formative assessments, but I don’t remember either of them being particularly rich in differentiated tasks. The computer science class was learning Office and followed a pretty scripted curriculum which my co-teacher was in charge of. Because I was teaching these four preps (with no prep period) each morning, then taking a full load of college classes in the afternoon, I didn’t do too many differentiated activities in the 7th grade or computer science classes. I was grading homework (which I would not do at this point) and doing a lot of hands-on science with the 7th graders, but not actively using formative assessment.

My third stage of teaching was in a standards-based district in Alaska. Formative assessment was the name of the game, even though I wasn’t actively calling it that. Each student needed to demonstrate mastery on all the different standards (strands) within a level with 80% proficiency or better before taking an end-of-level assessment to determine if overall mastery had been achieved. Each student had a portfolio and all documented information was to be stored there. I mentioned in our Twitter meeting that I was able to teach the concepts to mastery and the students had no problem passing the tests, even though I was not teaching them how to take the tests nor the specific problems that were on the test. I knew each of my students very well, and only allowed them to take level tests when I was certain they had mastered the material. This made summative assessments painless in my classroom. All of my students passed every level assessment they took. The formative assessments were ongoing and part of the activities we did every day. That was data for me to look at and determine where each student was in the continuum of mastery and what still needed to be addressed. It was data to help a student see the progress she had made over the past three weeks. It was data to share with parents and administrators to show gains and areas of challenge. These formative assessments helped drive instruction!

My fourth stage of teaching was a quick stop as a reading intervention teacher. In this position, I used formative assessments on a weekly basis. I was working with a fairly large population of students and needed to know if my instruction was effective for each and every one of them. I used the data to reorganize groups if needed, add additional support, provide classroom teachers with feedback, make special education recommendations, show students growth from week to week, and exit students from my program as needed.

My experience, like those of my classmates, with assessment has been and varied and interesting journey. I loved reading through this week’s blog postings and sharing information as a group on Twitter. I feel that for the most part, many of us are torn between what we feel is best for our students and what our districts are telling us needs to happen in regards to assessment and grading.

*I just finished The Martian by Andy Weir, and thought it was phenomenal. The problem-solving in the book is beyond comprehension!


Using Formative and Summative Assessment to Enhance Intrinsic Motivation

Essential question: How can I use both formative and summative assessment to enhance (or at least not interfere with) intrinsic motivation?

It should come as no surprise to anyone that high-stakes testing is not a way to intrinsically motivate students, but assessment does have a place in positive learning environment of students. While the United States as a whole does a very poor job of using assessment, both formative and summative, to build student confidence and encourage learning, there are countries that successfully use these forms of assessment to motivate their students. Finland is a great example. In an article for Smithsonian Magazine, LynNell Hancock (2011) explores the reasons for the success of Finnish schools. “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. Linda Darling-Hammond (2010), a professor of education at Stanford University, writes in NEA Today:

According to the Finnish National Board of Education, the main purpose of assessing students is to guide and encourage students’ own reflection and self-assessment. Teachers give students formative and summative reports both through verbal and narrative feedback. Inquiry is a major focus of learning in Finland, and assessment is used to cultivate students’ active learning skills by asking open-ended questions and helping students address them.

It’s as if we are trying to put the cart before the horse when we teach to a test instead of teaching concepts to mastery. Students who master concepts and understand how to problem solve will do fine on tests, but teachers must know how to use formative assessment along the way to make sure that learning is happening. If we, as teachers, are merely talking heads in our classrooms, many of our students will be bored, not actively engaged, and likely fall behind. In order to compensate for our poor performance, students may resort to cheating. Cheating is more common when students experience the academic tasks they’ve been given as boring, irrelevant, or overwhelming (Kohn, 2007).

From my experience, when you teach a child in a way such that the child becomes a true master of the material, creativity isn’t lost. This is because the child is allowed to master the material in a way that is suitable to the child with guidance from the teacher, not in a way merely dictated by the adult. Formative assessment is a key component of the guidance the teacher provides, the results of which can allow the teacher to help the student move forward at an appropriate pace or redirect learning to guide the student toward mastery. As a teacher, the sooner I know when a student has plateaued in the acquisition of a particular concept yet not reached mastery, the better it helps me find new ways to engage the student and keep his or her learning on track.

Assessment is a natural part of a differentiated classroom. Formative assessment should happen frequently so the teacher can know which students need more assistance, which students are on track to master concepts, and which students might need supplementary materials or projects. We must remember that even in our assessments, differentiation may be necessary. These are individuals, all at different points in the learning process. Carl Wheatley (2015) states that, “Kids are not cars, and learning is not manufacturing, and great education is only possible if we don’t get confused about that” (pg. 15).

What do assessments look like in my classroom? As suggested by Tomlinson and Moon (2013), most of my grading takes place toward the time when students are reaching mastery of the subject. This doesn’t mean that I am not assessing students throughout, just that formal grading is done when students have had the opportunity to gain knowledge about a subject, rather than when they are first learning how to find their way around the concept. During this earlier period, students receive feedback on their progress, with motivational suggestions or thought-provoking questions included to help them deepen their understanding of the concept. I would never expect a student to start a unit on plants and be able to diagram the entire process of photosynthesis at the end of the first week for a grade. What I would expect is to see a greater understanding of the concept as time goes on, whether through completion of assignments, feedback in class, or student self-reflection. None of these activities would receive a “grade” though, much like I wouldn’t “grade” a baby on its ability to walk during the stage when it is crawling.




Darling-Hammond, L. (2010, October 1). What we can learn from Finland’s successful school reform. NEA Today. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/40991.htm

Hancock, L. (2011, September). Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful? Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/?no-ist=&no-cache=_page%3D2&page=2

Kohn, A. (2007, October). Who’s Cheating Whom? Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/whos-cheating/

Tomlinson, C. A., & Moon, T. R. (2013). Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD). Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

Wheatley, K. F. (2015, February). Factors that Perpetuate Test-Driven, Factory-Style
Schooling: Implications for Policy and Practice. International Journal of Learning, Teaching, and Educational Research Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 1-17. Retrieved from  http://ijlter.org/index.php/ijlter/article/viewFile/261/pdf



Week 8 Reflection

This week’s topic of brain-based learning really had me thinking. The scientific part of the reading (what’s parts of the brain do what) was not new to me, but the reading that focused on how stress can have a direct impact on learning was a good reminder of how fragile some of our students really are. Behaviors which are often passed off as poor manners or disinterest may be an indicator of stressors in a student’s life. As educators, we need to take a step back, evaluate the situation, and proceed in a manner that will be beneficial to that student, and in turn the entire class.

During our Twitter session, we talked about some ways to identify low socio-economic status students in our classroom. To some degree, I was that low SES child. Growing up, my family lived on an income far below the low-income threshold. We wore hand-me-down or second-hand clothes, never ate in a restaurant, didn’t take vacations, and drove cars that barely made it from Point A to Point B. My mom knew how to stretch a dollar further than anyone I’ve ever seen, which meant meals never came from a package or the freezer section, we had a garden, and we raised our own meat. My dad was chronically ill and suffered from mental illness and his unpredictable behavior created a lot of additional stress in our lives. He maintained a job, and did it well, but brought the stress of it home to the family. There was plenty of fighting involving financial situations, yet my parents did not disclose their financial difficulties to anyone outside the immediate family (no reduced or free lunches, no food stamps, etc.).  Each of my siblings handled the stress of the family in different ways. Some were peace-keepers. Some hid away from it. One thing was universal: we didn’t talk about it.

When I look back at my family, I wonder, how did the six of us all manage to graduate not only from high-school, but also from college? What factors played into this? First, my mom is a college graduate herself. She was our primary caregiver and each night she would read to us before bed. We read thousands of books during my childhood, exposing us to rich vocabulary and fantastical worlds which we would recreate during play time. School was always considered a primary focus and the idea that we might not go on to college was never even brought up.

During the three years I spent teaching primary grades (K-3) in a rural Alaskan village, I had several goals. First and foremost, I wanted to prove to myself that with the right circumstances in place, these students could learn exactly what the “average” primary student could learn. I was on a personal mission to shoot down all the nay-sayers I had met along the way who had labeled these kids as unsuccessful or unteachable. Academically, I wanted all of my students to be able to read and do math at grade level. I wanted them to be problem solvers, intrinsically motivated, and proud of their academic accomplishments.  I knew I couldn’t be their teacher forever, but I wanted to give them the best possible chance I could to make it to graduation. Socially, I wanted to give them hope. I wanted them to be able to envision a future where they were doing something they loved because they had learned the skills to do it. I wanted to give them choices, to show them that the world could be theirs after graduation: technical school, college, subsistence. The options are endless. We talked about careers that they could do elsewhere or bring back to the village, about what they thought the village might need in twenty years (nursing homes was big on the list for the six and seven year olds as they had seen many elders have to leave the village to live in Anchorage near the end of their lives), and how they might fit in that picture. Of those eighteen kids, all are still alive (a huge accomplishment in rural Alaska) and sixteen have graduated from high school. Those sixteen all passed exit exams for graduation and most are pursuing some form of further education. Obviously, this was not a controlled experiment, I am not the only educator to have touched their lives and encouraged them to succeed, and I am heartbroken for the two who did not graduate. My classroom was a second home for three years for some of these students and I am sure they changed my life more than I changed theirs.

What is brain-based learning and how can it inform problem-based learning and differentiation?


“You have much, much more to do with how your students turn out than you may have thought,” (Jensen, 2005). I was at a reading conference years ago and I heard words spoken by the keynote speaker that still resonate with me today. I cannot quote them, but I will paraphrase. The speaker said:

It is up to each teacher to teach each child to the child’s fullest potential each day. Yes, their home situation may not be ideal, but when they are in our classroom, we cannot use that as an excuse to under-serve them. In fact, those are the students needing the most attention and care, the most positive interactions, the best that we have to offer. They may not get those positive interactions anywhere else, but they need to get them somewhere in order for their brains to develop in a positive, proper way. During the time that they are in our care, we need to care for them. 

At the time, I did not correlate the speakers words with brain-based learning, but after researching for this week’s blog post, I can see how everything he was saying was directly connected to the concepts of providing a safe, stable environment which is the primary foundation that needs to be in place before learning can happen.

Brains are designed to change (Jensen, 2009). Jensen notes that we are born with six basic emotions hardwired into our brains: joy, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness, and fear. All others must be taught, including those that are critical in helping children function both socially and academically in a classroom. In an ideal word, babies grow into young children and thrive in caring, nurturing homes where parents interact with them in positive ways and teach them skills like patience, empathy, cooperation, embarrassment, gratitude, and forgiveness. Our flexible, changing brains allow this to happen. But what about the child who is not afforded this type of upbringing?

These children are our students, too. They might be the boy who reaches out and grabs something from his neighbor without asking. Or the girl who laughs at, instead of encourages, her classmates when they make an error. This is where we, as educators, need to reach out to these students and help them learn how to process the emotions they are lacking. We can teach by example. In difficult situations, we can make this learning part of our daily curriculum. In a caring, non-confrontational environment, we can help bridge these gaps in student brain development, building positive neural pathways, and reducing behaviors as a result.

Some of our students will come to us with more stressors in their lives than others. We might not know what is happening during the time a child is not in the classroom, but there are often indications based on behavior and academic performance that can give us indications that a student is under a great deal of stress or experiencing fear. In Nine Things Educators Need to Know About the Brain, Louis Cozolino (2013) writes:

Evolution has shaped our brains to err on the side of caution and to trigger fear whenever it might be remotely useful. Fear makes us less intelligent because amygdala activation—which occurs as part of the fear response—interferes with prefrontal functioning. Fear also shuts down exploration, makes our thinking more rigid, and drives “neophobia,” the fear of anything new.

Stressful situations trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which interferes with neural growth. Prolonged stress impairs our ability to learn and maintain physical health.

How can we help our students decrease their stress levels so that their brains can have a chance to process the information we are addressing in our classrooms? Providing a consistent, caring, positive environment where students feel welcome and safe each and every day is one way. Incorporating stress-management techniques into the daily routine is another. Getting these students to feel a sense of security in their learning environment is key to helping them reach their academic potential.


So, how is brain-based learning related to problem-based learning and differentiation? One of the underlying principles of successful problem-based learning is that students work cooperatively. In order to make PBL successful, we need to teach the basic skills of cooperation, especially to those students coming to us without such instruction from parents. Neurologist Dr. Judy Willis (2011) writes that in order for children to retain information, they need to apply it. This is critical, because working cooperatively on problem-based learning can help build and strengthen the neural pathways that may not have been built during early childhood. Differentiation can help alleviate additional stress some students might feel during problem-based learning, thus freeing up their brains for a better learning experience.



Cozolino, L. (2013, March 19). Nine Things Educators Need to Know About the Brain. Greater Good. Retrieved from  http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/nine_things_educators_need_to_know_about_the_brain

Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with Poverty in Mind : What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD). Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the Brain in Mind (2nd Edition). Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD). Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

Willis, J. (2011, October 5). Three Brain-Based Teaching Strategies to Build Executive Function in Students. Edutopia. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/brain-based-teaching-strategies-judy-willis

Week 7 Reflection

Problem-Based Learning is an incredibly interesting topic to read, think, talk, and write about. In fact, I’ve been subbing at an elementary school for the past six weeks and the teacher in the classroom next door to mine introduced me to the Brightworks School in San Francisco (http://www.sfbrightworks.org/) a few weeks ago and I have been intrigued ever since about how this school operates.

While Brightworks is project-based learning, which differs slightly from problem-based learning, it is still an excellent example of what students can achieve when they are not inhibited by the boundaries of a traditional classroom environment. That said, this school operates under a very different set of constraints than public education. Tuition for the 2015-2016 school year was $26,350. That, in and of itself, leads me to speculate that this group of students is more homogeneous (higher achievers) than a typical classroom, and I suspect that parent involvement is quite high. I still believe that, with modifications, this type of learning environment could be successfully implemented anywhere with the proper knowledge and classroom management style.

In a fifth grade science class this week, students were learning about the different classes of levers. While this was a hands-on activity (Foss kit), it was not problem-based or even project-based learning, merely a continuation of lessons on simple machines. Students have been working with Class-1 levers for the past few weeks and are comfortable with that set up. This week, I asked them to create a different type of lever and the only direction I gave them was that they needed to move the fulcrum to the very end of the lever arm. One student asked me how the rest was suppose to be set up, and when I told her it was her job to figure that out, she replied, “You are the teacher. You are suppose to give us the answers.” That says a lot. Did I give her the answers? Of course not. Was she able to figure it out with the help of her partner? Yes. I asked her how it made her feel to be able to figure the answer out on her own. She replied, “I feel really proud of myself.” Then, I asked how she would have felt if I had just given her the answer. “I wouldn’t remember it tomorrow, but I’ll remember how this works forever.”

This week was a good time to think back on my own teaching and where I could have made changes, even small ones, that would have created a more authentic learning environment for my students. There are too many to count, but it is a good reminder that when I am in the classroom, I need to be more mindful of not only what my students need to learn, but also how they need to learn it.

Challenge! An ill-structured problem suitable for PBL

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about an ill-structured problem. Naturally, my mind was driven in a scientific direction, but I also wanted to make it a cross-curricular problem. Although there are plenty of problems involving species extinction and global warming, I kept returning to the idea of ocean pollution. I’ve seen some great recent inventions geared toward cleaning up man-made litter in our oceans, but I wanted to see if I could generate a problem that gets to the root of the problem: Why do people litter?

Mathematics: How large are our oceans? How many tons of waste are currently estimated to be in them? How has this number changed over the past ten years? The past 50? What percentage of the oceans are now actually waste? How does this percentage impact the decisions of individuals when they need to decide whether to bring a soda can home or throw it overboard?

Science: What is really in our oceans? How did it get there? What impacts does it have on marine life? What impacts does it have on water quality? What efforts are being made to reduce pollution in oceans? Who is in charge of monitoring what can and can’t be disposed of in the ocean? Who helps clean up unwanted waste?

Social studies: What is the history behind using oceans as repositories for our waste? Has the policy on dumping garbage in the ocean changed over time? What happens to attitudes about throwing garbage in the ocean when a person knows no one is looking?

While this is just a preliminary overview of what I would do, I envision this PBL unit happening in a middle school or high school science classroom. While I would leave the specific methods up the students, I could see the use of online surveys, contacts being made with industry professionals (NOAA, US Fish and Wildlife, waste management companies), and connections with home and community norms regarding acceptable behaviors with garbage.

What practical structures could we use to implement PBL in our classrooms?

When I think back on my education, I see the stereotypical image of an American classroom with its tidy rows of desks filled with quiet, mostly on-task students, working individually on the same assignment. The students are all reading from the same text book and writing down the answers to the same generic questions at the end of the chapter.  The teacher (pre-internet) is sitting at his desk, reading the newspaper or working on plays for the upcoming basketball game.

This reflection makes me think, “What did I learn from this type of environment?” I learned that I was really good at skimming a page for information and answering questions without even reading most of the material. I learned that if I read the questions before I did the reading, I could answer them more quickly and accurately. I learned that if I was quiet, I could write notes to my friends when I had finished answering those questions and my teacher would be none the wiser. Looking around that room, I also learned that I was not alone in my skim and answer technique.

So there we all sat, quiet, “busy,” and really not learning a thing, not engaging on a level that would help us assimilate the information we were suppose to be learning with any real-life or current events.

As a teacher, I have become less and less focused on a silent classroom (except during testing week, and even then it feels out of place). I want to know what kids are thinking. I want them working together to solve problems, whether it be how to include an adjective in a sentence, how to set up a math problem, or whose turn it is to pass out papers. The real world is not a place where all the answers are neat and tidy and all the instructions are included. I want to prepare my students to succeed in that world because they have successfully navigated a model of it my classroom.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL), as defined by Barrows and Tamblyn (1980), refers to “the learning that results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem”. While problem-based learning is typically used in higher education setting such as medical schools or with other groups of high-achieving students (think gifted and talented), there are ways to provide practical structures to make it a viable method of instruction in a regular classroom setting with a heterogeneous group of students. According to Brush and Saye (2001), collaboration is a key component of PBL learning environments, as it allows students to draw on each other’s perspectives and talents in order to more effectively devise solutions for the problem(s) at hand. Yet, specific structures must be in place (e.g., positive interdependence, individual accountability) for students to work productively together. Sara Hallermann (2013) writes that collaboration is a requirement in PBL. When students work in project teams and interface with people beyond the classroom, they have conversations about what they are learning, [find] possible answers to the Driving Question, and [learn] how to create project products.

Teaching students how to work collaboratively is critical to making PBL a success in the classroom. Providing shortened post-hole (short problems that can be used when teachers don’t want to design their entire course around problems but do want to introduce one occasionally (Stepien & Gallagher, 1993)) PBL experiences for students can help them gain confidence in their abilities to work through problems without the direct supervision of a teacher. Gradually increasing both the length and complexity of these lessons helps students of all abilities make a smoother transition in PBL classrooms.

Providing scaffolding for students as they progress through a PBL unit is another way to provide practical structures for students. While these aren’t typical worksheets, many predetermined “check-in” points can help guide and redirect students in the PBL process. A great resource for these handouts is provided by the Buck Institute for Education and can be found at http://bie.org/objects/cat/student_handouts. Here, there are forms for presentation plans, project management logs, work plans, and contracts among others.

A third foundational piece for developing an effective PBL environment is teaching students how to self-reflect. Because PBL is a process where there is not one defined answer, students will need to approach tasks from different angles and think about how their contributions are helping the entire team. Many students have a difficult time with the task of self-reflection, so teaching this important skill either through post-hole units or even prior to implementing PBL units can make the process a smoother one.

This is a learning environment which can be quite challenging for some students. It is important to have expectations in place, including what the students will be assessed on. Rubrics provide students with guidance in their tasks and can be used for performance as well as behavior and participation. Having a behavior component in place can help with classroom management as students transition to a less structured type of learning environment than they are typically use to, but one which mimics the real world in many ways.


Barrows, H. & Tamblyn, R. (1980). Problem-Based Learning: An Approach to Medical Education. Retrieved from http://apps.fischlerschool.nova.edu/toolbox/instructionalproducts/edd8124/fall11/1980-BarrowsTamblyn-PBL.pdf

Brush, T., & Saye, J. (2001). The use of embedded scaffolds in a technology-enhanced student-centered learning activity. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 10(4), 333-356.

Buck Institute for Education. (2016). Student handouts. Retrieved from http://bie.org/objects/cat/student_handouts

Hallermann, S. (2013, December 17). The role of PBL in making the shift to common core. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/pbl-role-shift-to-ccss-sara-hallermann

Stepien, W. J., & Gallagher, S. (1993). Problem-based learning: As authentic as it gets. Educational Leadership, 50(7), 25-28.