Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Power of Collaboration

There is nothing more gratifying, in my opinion than watching people work together to achieve a common goal.  In a previous post, I shared how members of the 4th-grade team at Red Cliffs Elementary School in the Juab School district collaborated to create a personalized experience that combined choice and data to differentiate.  I was so empowered by what I saw that I captured the story of both teachers. My point was to illustrate an exceptional practice that benefitted all learners and how this might have never come to pass had they not embraced the spirit of collaboration.  It goes without saying that together we are all better, and leveraging others' collective intelligence will only strengthen both individual practices and school culture.

It is rare for me actually to see differentiation during my school visits. Now, this is not to say that it's not happening, but in over thousands of different classroom visits, I have only seen it a handful of times.  The week following my work with the Juab School District in Utah, I traveled to Elmhurst Community School District 205 in Illinois. My week-long visit there was a follow-up from 2019, where hundreds of classroom walk-throughs were conducted with a focus on improving digital pedagogy.  Extensive feedback was provided to district and building leadership, and a plan was developed to begin implemented specific strategies for growth over a period of time.  It was during the return trip that I once again saw differentiation firmly in part of a personalized learning experience. 


Upon entering the second-grade classroom, students were observed either completing their list of must-do activities or if they finished a choice board.  Activities were differentiated, consisting of slight alterations in choice board activities, based on proficiency data. The teacher, Lauren Joyce, was observed providing targeted instruction for a few remote learners. Some kids were already at mastery and were able to move forward along their own path. I also noticed Katie Murphy, the instructional coach, playing an active role in the classroom. This was a fantastic lesson that genuinely personalized the experience for all kids where they got what they needed when and where they needed it. 

Naturally, I wanted to capture Lauren and Katie's story, which you can read below.

Teaching during this past year has definitely challenged me, Lauren, to view things a little bit differently and has forced me out of my comfort zone in many ways. Teachers have had no choice but to instruct online, and students have had no choice but to sit on the other side of a computer screen for hours on end. I have had to adapt and think outside the box since I had never taught this way before. Because of the pandemic, this year has been unpredictable and has constantly been changing. Our students have been in school in three formats; all remote, hybrid, and now entirely in-person. I was hesitant at the start of the year about starting small group instruction given the circumstances. I had trouble envisioning what small group instruction would like in a remote and/or hybrid setting.    

District 205 has given us the opportunity to have an instructional coach at each elementary building. For the past four years, Katie and I have worked closely together on different classroom instructional strategies. This year, I knew I would need her support more than ever, especially in leveraging the best instructional strategies using technology. One of my biggest goals this year was to provide purposeful and engaging differentiation in math to meet all learners' needs in my classroom. I had somewhat of a vision about what I wanted this to look like but wasn't sure where or how to start. I often see things as "big picture" or what I want my end goal to be. Katie helped me utilize student data to bring my vision to life. Together, we looked at student data and decided which students demonstrated mastery of math standards and wanted to create more rigorous learning opportunities for these students. This is how Katie helped my big picture vision begin to come to life. A classroom environment was created that integrated the following structures and routines:

  • Collaborative conversations
  • Independence
  • Choice (must do may do) 
  • Self-advocating 

This year has really taught me that we can teach with resilience and still allow for learning to be fun. Katie and I want to make sure learning is engaging and effective. We think with this approach to teaching; we are seeing the students thrive in any setting. They are excited about math as it is personalized through voice and choice while also emphasizing critical thinking and problem-solving. Collaborative conversations with groups help to create the expectations for speaking and listening for them to follow as they work together. Below is a description of what Eric saw during his visit. 

  • Goal was to differentiate math based on pre-assessment data based on proficiency of standards while providing students choice along with teacher instruction
  • Collaborative groups and structures were established where students could work together 
  • Opportunities to follow a unique path to meet or exceed the standard were developed
  • Resources were made available in Google Classroom, such as anchor charts, the daily agenda, and a Google Form for students to communicate with a teacher around their learning.



One thing Lauren emphasized to me through email was the importance and influence instructional coaching has had on her instructional practice while also improving the classroom environment. She has significantly benefited from Katie's help, guidance, and feedback over the course of their time working together. Katie is the person she goes to immediately with any and every idea she has; her support has genuinely made Lauren a better teacher.

I don't think I would be willing to try some of these things if it weren't for her giving me a gentle nudge and supporting me every step of the way. Additionally, the students view Katie as a member of our classroom community. She has even been given the title "Class Celebrity."

Lauren and Katie exemplify the power of collaboration and the positive impact on both kids and school culture.  The moral of the story here is to work smarter, not harder, and great things will happen.  Be sure to leverage all the resources you have available, the greatest of which are the colleagues in your school.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Differentiating in the Personalized Classroom

I love visiting classrooms around the country to not only support but to see educators in action.  In my opinion, I learn just as much, if not more, from them as they hopefully do from me.  During the spring of 2020, I connected with the Juab School District in Utah and began what would be two years of longitudinal work to help them take personalized learning to the next level.  The pandemic derailed our planned first face-to-face day. As a result, Royd Darrington, the assistant superintendent, asked me to create asynchronous models for the staff to watch at their own pace. The first was an overview of foundational instructional strategies and pedagogy, while the other five focused on voice, choice, path, pace, and place. 

During the summer, I worked with the entire staff and visited each school to make some observations while offering feedback to the principals. Recently I visited the district where I met with each school to visit classrooms and see how they were progressing with personalized learning. Little did I know that my visit to Red Cliffs Elementary was going to blow my socks off. Upon entering the 4th-grade classroom of Jordan Jones, I saw probably the best examples of differentiation I have ever physically seen in real-time.  One of the hallmarks of personalization is the purposeful use of data, which can be used to group, regroup, facilitate targeted instruction, or differentiate. Upon questioning Jordan, she was implementing all of these!  There was also choice in the form of a must-do and may-do that varied for each group. Below is the picture I captured.  

I could not contain my excitement and awe, so I decided to reach out to get her perspective on this activity. Below is her detailed explanation of what I saw and why she created this activity. 

I have done small group instruction for years. Although it felt differentiated, most of the time, each group was receiving nearly the same instruction. I had a hard time grasping how to personalize instruction to my students' needs because I didn't truly understand which skills they were missing. This year, I have been dedicated to using and analyzing data. This has completely changed my classroom. I can honestly say that I know my students this year better than any other group in past years. Learning how to read and understand student data is what started me onto this personalized learning path.

Starting out this year, my students were in 4 reading groups, similar to what I have always done. Students each went to the same groups, and when the timer went off, they would rotate to the next one. It worked, but it was far from personalized. I had data, and I knew what students needed, but I wanted to find a way to truly make my groups targeted and intentional.

This is when we (my teammate and I) came up with the Must Do; May Do idea. There are certain things that I want each student to complete each day, but these are different for different students. Each group has its own Must Do, and May Do activities. Must-Do activities are intentional activities that target individual student needs. May Do activities help reinforce content and skills that have been taught in class. Some activities stay the same each week, while others change. I have found that mixing up activities with different technologies has helped keep students actively engaged.

While students are completing these individualized activities, my instructional assistant and I can work individually or in small groups with students. In these groups, we use data to identify reading and/or phonics skills that students have not yet mastered and then teach them explicitly. Data is the most significant piece of the success of this format of teaching and learning. Groups are formed based on DIBELS data and data from our i-Ready Reading digital component. Students who are working on skills with myself and my instructional assistant are reassessed every three weeks. This helps me know whether the interventions and instruction that are being given are working if the student has mastered the skill, and what to teach next.

During the week that Eric visited my classroom, students completed a Padlet as a Must Do. On this Padlet, students had to write a character analysis paragraph about a character in a book that we have been reading. We chose a Padlet to complete this task for multiple reasons. The first was to help engage my students in a new way to complete this specific task. In class, we had written these on paper, as well as on Google Docs. The second reason was to allow students to see how others had written theirs. This gave students the ability to read their peers' writing and possibly use them as a model.

I have never felt so confident in my teaching. This year, I can honestly say that I am the best teacher I have ever been, and I am growing every day. I feel confident that my students are getting the instruction and practice that they need. My students have learned to make choices that help them learn the most. I had a student last week say, "I don't care how long it takes. I am here to learn. I like to learn."

A few days later, I learned that Jordan had a partner in crime on the 4th-grade team and collaborated on this activity.  So naturally, I needed to reach out to Crissa Peterson to get her take as well. Success is typically a team effort, and it was so refreshing to hear how shared goals are achieved by working smarter, not harder.  Below is Crissa's take on the activity. 

My teammate and I felt that we needed to create a personalized learning experience that was meaningful and engaging to our students. We didn't want our students just completing activities as busywork. We wanted all of the activities to have meaning and value for that specific student. In order to create our groups, we looked at a few different data points. We used DIBELS data, a Phonic Screener for intervention (PSI assessment) that aligns with 95% group phonic skill interventions; we also used the iReady reading diagnostic results and then teacher discretion. From these results, we grouped students with similar learning needs/levels.

We also wanted to create activities that emphasized what we had been working on during our ELA module and All-Block tasks. We knew that Padlet would be a great option because students can share ideas with one another and modify them later if needed. It gave them a chance to enhance their typing skills as well while reinforcing the ELA standards we had been working on during that unit. We also felt that Nearpod was a great way to assess learning. It is an engaging and interactive tool that provides instant feedback to our students.

In creating our groups, we wanted to give our students voice and choice as well. In doing so, we decided to make our groups using the "must do" and "may do" templates. Each group is assigned different personalized "must do" and "may do" activities," so this means students are doing a variety of assignments throughout the block of time. Using this platform also allows the students to work at their own pace, and it also will enable students to master a standard/skill before moving on. "Must do" activities are the activities that are required for students to accomplish. These are personalized for them based on their learning needs. If students have finished their "must-do" activities, then they can go to a "may do" activity for the last round.

Students often tell us that they love being able to choose the order they complete their tasks in and that the activities frequently change for them. I, as a teacher, love that it gives my students the freedom and accountability to finish their assigned activities while keeping them engaged. Most of all, I love that I am personalizing their learning activities based on their individual needs and providing them the opportunity to work at their own pace, all while using technology and interactive tools.

Personalization is about giving all kids what they need, when and where they need it, to succeed. The dynamic combination of differentiation, choice, and targeted instruction does this. By capturing Jordan's and Crissa's story, I hope that other educators will not only see that this is doable whether or not we are in a pandemic but results in an equitable learning experience for learners.  

Sunday, March 14, 2021

8 Elements of Effective Coaching

I absolutely love coaching educators in small groups.  During these sessions, I get to see firsthand how they are implementing ideas and strategies into practice to grow.  While giving keynotes and facilitation workshops is something I love, both lack an ongoing component, which is one of the most critical aspects of professional learning that leads to scalable results.  While one-and-done and drive-by events are great at establishing the why once the excitement dies down, people are often clamoring to figure out how to make what they just heard a reality in their specific context. Having multiple touchpoints and small groups allows for more engagement, personalization, mentoring, feedback, and the time to dive more deeply into concepts.  

There are so many ways to implement coaching effectively, but some specific strategies are listed below:

  • Ask questions
  • Listen intently
  • Be non-judgmental
  • Align ideas to research and evidence
  • Model strategies
  • Provide honest feedback
  • Create a safe environment that encourages conversation
  • Utilize positive reinforcement

The other day, I facilitated a coaching session with leaders as part of a year-long partnership with the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) on digital leadership.  The stage was set in separate large group sessions described below:

In order to fully understand the impact remote learning has on teaching and learning, we must be purposeful in the role we play in supporting and leading teachers in a digital environment. We must inspect what we expect. The only way to do this is to roll up our sleeves and jump into the digital learning environment with our teachers and students. To best assess our current levels of teaching and learning performance in a digital environment, we must understand how to collect the evidence that helps shape our overall understanding of learning now and in the future. 

Once we have gathered the appropriate evidence of teaching and learning in a digital environment, participants will be led through the process of analyzing and interpreting evidence collected in an effort to understand the current conditions teachers are creating, and students are learning in each day. Once there is an understanding of the current landscape, practical ways will be shared in how to coach teachers to keep sound instructional design at the forefront of teaching and learning.

During these touchpoints, I offered specific ways for leaders to successfully gather and interpret evidence of teaching and learning to be in a better position to lead pedagogical change. In between two major workshops have been many small sessions where participants have been tasked with bringing evidence to illustrate how they are successfully leading change in their districts and get valuable feedback.  Each coaching cycle has been designed to personalize the experience for all participants.  My facilitation partner from KDE, Ben Maynard, has been incredible at using Google Jamboard for participants to upload artifacts, ask questions, and brainstorm strategies that the leaders hope to implement in the near future.  

During one session, Jill Angelucci, an assistant principal from George Rogers Clark High School, shared an extraordinary artifact that resulted from professional learning that had been implemented throughout the year.  Since things have been challenging during the pandemic, her school wanted to move beyond the challenges and instead focus on the positives.  What they came up with was having teachers routinely present on what’s worked well. In my opinion, this was genius and not only shared effective practices but also built people up in the process.  

Teachers presented for approximately 30 minutes once a month on Thursday. Below you can see an example of what was created using Canva as a result of the sessions at Jill’s school. You can see all of them HERE

She was able to model digital strategies and ways for teachers to incorporate voice, choice, and path into their learning. It created a second piece to the overall strategy of ‘Think Tank Thursday’ where they continually share and identify other strategies made available to all staff. This was all accomplished while students were remote and almost entirely through Google Meet sessions. Innovative use of space and time was made available, and they plan to continue this while kids return to the building.

The artifact above was one of many that have been shared during the longitudinal work with KDE.  The effective elements of coaching listed earlier in this post weren’t just used by me, but instead the entire group. It was a collaborative process where tangible outcomes were shared and analyzed.  Coaching takes the “why” and moves educators along a continuum of effectively leading change and what can be used to show success.

If you are interested in discussing what a coaching cycle can look like in your district or school send me an email ( 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Digitally-Enhanced Exit Tickets

I love coaching as it provides a lens to see how teachers and administrators act on feedback to grow and improve. It also provides evidence that strategies aligned to research and sound instructional design are implemented in practical ways. Even though this year has been dramatically different as a result of the pandemic, I have found myself even more busy supporting districts through job-embedded and on-going professional learning.  Whether face-to-face, hybrid or remote, the elements of learning and good teaching remain the same.  

No matter where I am, one aspect of instructional design that I often identify as an area for growth is closure.   I have written in the past how important including this strategy is, no matter the grade level of students or the content being addressed.  Closure draws attention to the end of the lesson, helps students organize their learning, reinforces the significant aspects of the concepts explored, allows students to practice what was learned, and provides an opportunity for feedback, review, and reflective thinking. It is hard to determine the effectiveness of a lesson or whether learners understood the concepts presented without some form of closure.  

While there are many strategies out there, the exit ticket is probably the one that is utilized the most. While learners can solve problems or answer specific questions related to the content or concepts addressed, more general prompts can also be used, such as:

  • What exactly did I learn?
  • Why did we learn this?
  • How will I use what was learned today outside of school, and how does it connect to the real world?

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Dr. Nathan Hall, the Corinth Middle School principal in Mississippi.  I have been coaching in the district for over two years now and have written extensively about how the schools' staff have been open to innovative change with the evidence to back it up.  Below is a message that Lori Snyder, one of his 7/8th grade math teachers, sent him regarding using exit tickets for closure:

I had asked about a program for my exit tickets.  I need something like Padlet that allows them to enter their answer anonymously but will not show everyone's answer until I am ready.  I want to use it for real-time feedback. The trouble with Padlet is that they can see everyone's responses as they are posted, and some are copying others' answers instead of doing their own work. Mentimeter won't let them type in numbers. Canvas discussion is not anonymous. You had said something about asking Mr. Sheninger before he came for his next visit.

After thinking about it, I suggested GoSoapBox.  Dr. Hall then passed this along to Ms. Snyder, and her feedback is below:

When they are online answering, the barometer at the top tells me if they need help.  After seeing that some require the problem worked out, I add it to the exit ticket page.

It is always a great day when a teacher or administrator shoots me an email looking for ways to improve.  Little did I know that I would see the GoSoapBox exit ticket in action a few weeks later.  As I conducted my monthly coaching visit at Corinth Middle School, here is what I saw in Ms. Snyder's class:

  • Students solved math problems on dry-erase desks and then submitted their answers.
  • Their work was added to their notebook, which both they and the teacher could refer to see where issues were.
  • The teacher was able to see where misconceptions were immediately.
  • Names were removed from public view, so students weren't embarrassed.
  • The teacher was able to address issues that the majority of the class was having right away by modeling or re-teaching.
  • Individual students who had misconceptions were emailed after school to maximize class time.

I am so proud of this teacher for looking for ways to implement exit tickets using technology.  From the bullets above, you can see the many positive outcomes one small, yet significant, change made.  The key lesson here is that there are always elements of practice that can be tweaked, adapted, or changed in order to improve.  Great educators never stop chasing growth. 

Corinth has been selected as an Innovative District and will be presenting at the Model Schools Conference this June in Nashville. To learn more and register click HERE.