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Tuesday, April12, 2016

blossoming tree branchI love spring! It is that time of year when leaves begin to bud and flowers begin to bloom. It is a time of rebirth and fresh starts. The same happens each day in school – each day can be a fresh start, each lesson sparking a new birth of knowledge.

Recently, the middle school principal asked if I would begin working with our middle school Language Arts Professional Learning Community. Attending the PLC conference in Minnesota last summer and being in a book study with our superintendent focused on the book Learning by Doing, I looked forward to applying what I had been learning about the value of PLC work. This was my time to see how the PLC process could bloom.

Our building had tried PLCs several years ago and to me they simply settled into being another meeting. The value of what they could accomplish had not been made clear to me. I did not want to make the same mistake with this group.  

My first meeting with the middle school language arts PLC began with the words, “When we meet, we will not discuss managerial issues. Our entire meeting will be focused on data, instruction, and how to best meet the needs of our students.” I wasn’t even sure how I was going to keep us on that track, but I knew we needed to have that as our vision.

In order to focus on instruction, we had to start with unwrapping our English-language arts standards. Our work began with standard one - citing textual evidence:

  • 6.1 – Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says implicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • 7.1 – Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • 8.1 – Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

We broke the standards down by looking at the verbs and nouns. We asked: How is each grade level different? We began to take apart each standard and compare what the expectations were.

We decided to create our first common formative assessment (CFA) by agreeing on texts to assess the standard with our students. One of the teachers was not happy about the process. He wanted to use the book he was currently using in class to have them cite textual evidence. “Why can’t I just use what I am doing in my class?” he asked. My response was that the key was to see if our students could transfer this ability to other texts besides the one used in our classroom. Begrudgingly, he acquiesced and completed the CFA with his students.

PLC members brought their data to our next meeting. We sorted the responses into groups – who met the standard, who did not, and who exceeded it. I asked if there were any surprises. We discussed the new challenge: What were we going to do with those who did not meet the standard and what were we going to do with those who exceeded the standard? How could we enrich those who were ready to move on? How could we take what we were doing in our classes and move our students to the next level with this standard?

In order to enrich those who exceeded mastery, we examined the grade 9-10 standard to see what would be expected at that level. For those not meeting the standard, we looked at the standard below our grade level. We discussed how we could vary the depth of knowledge by what we were requiring of our students.

When our discussion ended, the teacher who opposed the process whispered to me, “This was a great process. I really got a lot out of it.” I could only smile.

The process of unwrapping standards is occurring across our state as we strive to improve instructional practices. The process of PLC work is valuable as we share common standards, have rich discussions about those standards, and analyze our instruction. When our group leaves our meeting, we have a clear picture of what the standard should look like in the classroom. This brings us one step closer to a guaranteed and viable curriculum.

Bailey & Jakicic (2012) state: “Collaborative conversations about what the standards mean, what proficiency looks like, and how best to assure all students learn” (page 1) leads to real improvement in student achievement. The result of this examination and implementation of common formative assessments provide teachers with a way to develop strategies to help all students learn. We are continuing to unwrap the standards one at a time – using common language, having the same high expectations, and developing a clear picture of what we expect our students to know and be able to do. As we move forward, our discussions will broaden beyond the standards toward sharing specific instructional strategies with data to prove they are effective.

From everything I have read, effective teams have a culture and a structure that helps everyone clarify their curriculum, monitor student learning, and provide differentiation so all students learn. Through PLC work we are on our way. We may be only in the spring of this process, but excitement is taking root as we begin to see the value of our PLC work.


Points to Ponder

  • How are you ensuring a guaranteed and viable curriculum in your classroom?
  • What process do you use to unwrap standards in your area?



Bailey, K., & Jakicic, C. (2012). Common formative assessment: A toolkit for professional learning communities at WorkTM. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

DuFour, R. (2006). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.


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Tuesday, March22, 2016

Students and teacher playing math games.Welcome back to Voice from the Field! This is the time of year on the farm when we re-evaluate and make plans on how to improve crop yield and animal production. In school districts, instead of working on improving crop yield and animal production, we are working on improving student achievement and instructional quality.

We are well into the school year, and we need to look toward a strong finish to the year while keeping our eyes on the big picture of improving our practices. It is time to roll up our sleeves and dig in as we seek ways to enhance practices within our classrooms.

A shift in math

When examining the implementation of the Iowa Core, the area that is receiving public attention is math.

Math instruction is significantly different from the past. Several years ago in math, the problems were answered one way – the teacher’s way – and each step had to be followed with no variation. Today’s math classes have students determining the best way to solve problems, the way that each individual can best understand the math concepts. The Iowa Core math classroom is filled with discussion using metacognition – stressing active student thinking, and with three common questions:

  • How did you solve it?
  • Why did you solve it that way?  
  • How does your solution compare with your partner’s solution?

According to the Iowa Core website, rich mathematical tasks involve teaching through problem-solving with problem-based instructional tasks. These tasks are at the heart of teaching for understanding and provide a deeper understanding of how these math concepts can be applied to solve problems outside of the classroom.

Derek Roberts, Maquoketa High School math teacher, says, “I love when kids ask ‘when will I use this?’ Sometimes what we work on you will rarely use outside of math classes, but what you will use every day is the logical thinking, the backwards problem-solving.”

From the Iowa Core website, the ideal vision of problem-based instructional tasks include

  • Helping students develop a deep understanding of important mathematics;
  • Emphasizing connections, across mathematical content areas, to other disciplines, and especially to the real world;
  • Making tasks accessible yet challenging to all;
  • Providing an opportunity for problems to be solved in several ways;
  • Encouraging student engagement and communication;
  • Using connected multiple representations; and
  • Encouraging appropriate use of intellectual, physical, and technological tools

Rich mathematical tasks involve problem-solving but also involve using distributed practice that is meaningful and purposeful. Meaningful and purposeful learning not only applies to student learning but also teacher learning.

The math studio

In some districts across our state, the Area Education Agencies (AEAs) are providing professional learning in the form of a studio framework. This is an example of job embedded professional development that takes place in the math classrooms.

Teachers learn engaging instructional strategies and use peer observation to assess the impact on student understanding. This format is used to encourage purposeful, genuine questions to learn about students’ mathematical thinking.  

Our AEA is assisting teachers in districts to use the studio process.  They facilitate discussions focused on math research-based strategies and use multiple formats including video to provide an opportunity for peer observation. According to Sarah Harbaugh, numeracy coordinator for Mississippi Bend AEA, “Any time teachers can view another classroom or have a peer observe them using a researched instructional strategy is a win.”  

Numeracy Consultant Kim Awalt explains there are multiple ways to deliver a studio model. A classroom studio is implemented where a strategy is selected to use in a classroom based on a “snapshot” of data and classroom observations.

Within a Professional Learning Community, teachers bring back a lesson where the strategy was used along with student work samples to discuss results in a collaborative framework. This lesson may be in the form of a video or reflective log shared with co-workers. Discussion focuses on enhancing instructional practices and analyzing how the strategies were implemented.

This type of professional learning is not “one and done” because it is embedded throughout the school year. This process may include informal observations by peers in the classroom as an educator models the strategy. Follow-up discussion occurs on how it was taught, its purpose, the effects on student achievement, and next steps based on the data collected.

In the studio model, classrooms are looked upon as a place of action research focused on student understanding. Teachers ask, “How do our students respond when I use these strategies and how is that better or worse for improving student understanding?”  Ms. Harbaugh states, “This type of reflection creates an opportunity for teachers to look at instructional impact on the understanding of ALL students.”

She goes on to explain that “in math we are stressing active student thinking. We want our students to analyze problems and think through efficient strategies to solve the problems. Teachers are preparing our students by slowing down and taking the race out of math. They prepare lessons that allow students to apply their learning to new problems and compare strategies with one another.

“Math time is viewed as an exploration and should be filled with student voice. Students inquisitively ask questions of one another and share ideas. It is no longer enough to memorize the steps to pass a test. Students will enter a technological world where information is at their fingertips, so our schools are challenged to ensure our children have the skills to analyze the abundance of data in their lives and apply it to creatively solve complex problems.”

Bringing in others

In some districts, special education teachers are brought in with a focus on co-teaching in the math classrooms, while in other districts, instructional coaching is just starting to set the foundation for a studio approach. In the districts that want to extend the impact of the studio framework to other subject areas, discussion is focused on the question: How do we take best practices in teaching and spread them throughout the building?

A studio model of professional learning is a framework that can extend to all content areas in a district. The framework encourages collaboration, communication, and critical thinking – the three C’s of the 21st Century. According to Tony Wagner, author of Change Leadership, we must create collaborative inquiry for continuous improvement. With an emphasis on working strategically, the studio is one method that focuses our attention as educators on continuous improvement.


Points to Ponder

  • How does your school support learning and teaching?
  • How are you assuring that learning involves deep understanding?
  • What role does the PLC framework provide for enhancing student achievement in your district?



Iowa Core:

Teachers Development Group:


  • Five Practices in Orchestrating Mathematical Discussions – by Smith & Stein
  • Number Talks:  Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies (Grades K-5) – by Parrish
  • Making Number Talks Matter (Grade 4-12) – by Humphreys & Parker
  • Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching - by Boaler


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Tuesday, February16, 2016

corn fieldI am but one voice in a field of many - just one voice with a place to speak providing an opportunity for many to respond. Iowa is known as a state providing Fields of Opportunities. So too will this blog provide an opportunity for those in the field to speak through my words or their own - a place to speak about the good, the bad, and the ugly of Iowa Core implementation.

During the 2014-15 school year, I was given a rare opportunity to give voice to what was happening in schools across Iowa as I traveled over 15,000 miles making visits to every Iowa county as the 2014 Iowa Teacher of the Year. It was an honor to see personally the dedication of school districts toward creating learning that comes alive for students.

In those travels one of the points that triggered a great deal of conversation both in districts and in communities across our state was the implementation of the Iowa Core state standards. During my term, I delivered several speeches on the Iowa Core to various community groups from Rotaries to Optimists along with retirement organizations and Lions Clubs. In the context of this speech, the quote of famous coach John Wooden came to mind: "Failure is not fatal but failure to change might be."

If we are to be relevant to today's student where information is but a click away, it becomes crucial that we work with students on what they do with this information. In every Iowa classroom we must guide our students to be critical thinkers who can meaningfully communicate and collaborate in a fast-paced world. This is a shift we must make, and the Iowa Core is a game changer for how we change practices in our classrooms.

The Iowa Core state standards provide the impetus to make us deeply examine the learning we expect to take place. It goes beyond a list of skills to master by providing a focus on what students are to be able to do with what they are learning while providing a common focus for all instruction across our state. Through the Iowa Core we are assured all grade levels across Iowa have similar learning expectations, expectations that are both rigorous and challenging.

The development of the Iowa Core is an answer to deepening the learning experiences in our classrooms. It is an answer to the call that came out in the early 21st Century for more rigorous, relevant, and results-directed curricula and instruction incorporating critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication. The focus is not on what activities we are doing, what texts we are using, what themes we are presenting. The Iowa Core state standards simply provide for us a backbone upon which to build instruction. The strength of the standards lies in their rigor and relevance and does not prescribe for us curriculum or teaching techniques. They give us a framework upon which to build authentic learning in the classroom. The selection of curriculum, the application of creative instructional techniques, and the use of characteristics of effective instruction are left to the discretion of local school districts and teaching teams.

Several years ago I served as the "Voice from the Trenches" for Iowa State University pre-service teachers. The intent was to provide that personal voice for those not yet in the field from a practicing teacher, a voice that described the weekly ups and downs, ins and outs of teaching in a classroom with living, breathing students. That is the intent of this blog - a voice from the field to describe progress in the implementation of consistent state standards. Honest reflection is a strong learning tool and can make us painfully aware if what we do in the classroom has the impact we desire for our students. Through reflection, we pull ourselves back and thoughtfully consider the impact of our instruction on learning. This blog will be a reflection of work in my district and other districts as we work tirelessly to bring alive in our classrooms the Iowa Core state standards.

If one carefully examines the Iowa Core website, you will find excellent ideas on the implementation of Iowa Core in the classroom. Resources include Characteristics of Effective Instruction, an Iowa Core Implementation Guide, and Universal Constructs: Essential for 21st Century Success. All of these resources will help us as we implement consistent state standards that will enable our students to be critical thinkers in today's information rich environment.

This is an exciting time to be engaged in education across Iowa - both exciting and challenging. I look forward to learning with you and sharing the Iowa Core journey as a "Voice from the Field."

Points to Ponder:

  • How has the Iowa Core been a game changer in your classroom?
  • How is it affecting the way you teach and what students are learning?


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