Using team builders to develop a student-centered culture

Using team builders to develop a student-centered culture by John McCarthy


Team builders are great for helping students develop understanding of global competencies, sometimes called college/career readiness skills. When doing a team builder, the key is the reflective conversation that happens after the activity. I ask the question: “What qualities and skills do you use in order to be successful at this task?”

Participants share out words and phrases, such as: listening, following directions, encouraging others, patience, etc. As participants share, the facilitator records the words and phrases on chart paper or electronically. The results become the team norms for the work to be done that day or during the unit. It’s a powerful way to involve students in shaping the classroom norms.

Here are two of my favorite team builders that I use prior to the reflective discussion shared above.

Game: Clutch


  1. Participants stand in a circle, approximately within inches of the persons standing on either side.
  2. Participants hold up both hands, palms facing upwards at their sides. Palms are approximately shoulder height.
  3. Participants turn their left hand to palm facing down. Next, form a pointer finger with the left hand, pointed down.
  4. Participants place their pointer finger (left hand) on top of the palm of the person standing to the left of them.


When the facilitator says the word “Clutch” the participants attempt to grab the finger balanced on their right palm, while pulling their finger away before the person to his or her left grabs it.


Points are scored by successfully accomplishing both tasks: Grab the finger resting on your palm AND pulling away your finger (your left hand) before it’s grabbed. Both actions completed scores. Completing only one of the tasks earns ZERO points.

I like to play three rounds. The first two rounds are worth one point each. The final round is sometimes worth more so that everyone still has a chance to win. If after the third round there is a tie, then there are co-champions.

Game: Pulse


  1. Participants line up in two even lines. When there is an odd number this game still works well. One team has a greater challenge, or have a person switch sides each round.
  2. Each line faces the other line.
  3. Each line holds hands with people in their own line. There is NO hand holding between participants in one line with those in the other line. Some will make the mistake J
  4. Everyone in both lines close their eyes.
  5. The facilitator stands at one end of the lines holding a pen, marker, or some other token in front—about chest height.


When the facilitator says “Go,” the first person at the opposite end of each line will squeeze the hand of the person next to them. When each person in line feels their hand squeezed, they must then squeeze the hand of the next person. The result is that the “squeeze” pulses down the line. When the persons standing next to the facilitator feels their hand squeezed, they open their eyes and grab the token held up by the facilitator. The first person to successfully do so, scores a point for their team.


This game is played in three rounds. If a team is very slow with squeezing hands down the line in the first round, give them a chance to reflect on the cause. Let them find a solution. Sometimes the facilitator may need to offer coaching so that the next rounds are more competitive. If one team wins the first 2 rounds, the facilitator may end the game or make the third round worth more points.


For more team builder ideas check out Teampedia.

Collaboration: Ideas from Many Voices, Part 1


Collaboration is an important global competency that students need to learn and refine. By the time they enter any post-secondary experience, students with over 10-12 years of honing this skill will be well prepared to forge ahead with new learning and career paths. They will seek out mentors and build strong networks of people with whom they learn, develop ideas, design, and reflect.

How do we ensure that each succeeding generation develop collaboration as part of their core global competencies? Here is the first of a long list of voices who provide deep insights for such an important journey.

  1. Edutopia: Schools That Work: “The Power of Collaborative Learning” Here’s how one school approaches the practice of collaboration with students.
  2. Edutopia index on Collaborative Learning – Find a collection of blogs, videos, and discussions regarding this valuable topic.
  3. Finding Time for Collaboration by Education Leadership – Time is always a commodity that educators struggle with. When it comes to the debate of quality learning, collaboration can be an essential part of learning.
  4. Why collaboration is vital to creating effective schools by the Washington Post is about adult collaboration. It sites research on how collaboration is integral to successful schools and districts. In our efforts to develop collaboration skills in our students, we must not lose site that model and honing our own collaboration skills are necessary if we hope to effectively coach students.
  5. The Mediation Protocol is a set of guidelines used to coach students on how to address problems within their work teams. The intent of the protocol is to empower students to deal with team problems with professionalism and an eye towards resolutions that strengthen the team.

Which resources resonate with you? Comment below or Tweet me @JMcCarthyeds More to come.

Demystifying Differentiation: 6 Myths and Truths

I’m on my way to Columbus Ohio for the Ohio ASCD Summer Conference. I’ll be keynoting the event and presenting during the breakout sessions on several topics relating to putting Differentiation into Action. You can follow my tweets via @jmccarthyeds using #ohioascdconf


My keynote will address some of the misconceptions that exists around Differentiation. The key message is “Keeping Students Inside the Frame” of what we plan and do in education. Too often, all of the legitimate concerns and challenges that educators face are allowed to become the focus. State mandates, standardized testing, (sometimes) overwhelming curriculum, and “limited” time–just to name a few challenges–make educators feel so burdened that a result is student learning get’s lost in the picture. While tackling these challenges, we must also ensure that our charges learn and grow., because someday they will be adults–and they will make decisions with us, and for us.

During my talk, I’ll reference some of the articles that I’ve written for Edutopia in the Myth-Busting DI series. Check them out, and please share them via your social media of choice. Let’s spread the word.

  1. Myth-Busting Differentiated Instruction: 3 Myths and 3 Truths
  2. There’s No Time to Differentiate: Myth-Busting DI, Part 2
  3. Differentiation Is Just Too Difficult: Myth-Busting DI Part 3
  4. Teachers Are in Control: Myth-Busting DI, Part 4

What questions do you have? What other obstacles do you see with Differentiation? Share in the comments. I’ll respond.

Question Formulation Technique: Empowering Student Inquiry

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Question Formulation Technique: Empowering Student Inquiry

The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) by The Right Question Institute is a strong approach to coaching students on generating appropriate and helpful questions for inquiry and during the Need to Know Process. The steps as explained in “Sharing the Power of the Question” by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana in ASCD Express are:

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, critique, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

We want to empower students to ask questions that go beyond the surface. The QFT helps students to develop understanding about the kinds of different questions such as open and closed-ended. Also, when are each useful in certain situations for deepening one’s understanding. To develop sustained inquiry that varies in complexity as needed, QFT provides a structure and common language for students and teachers.

Here are additional resources to develop skill with the QFT.

Steps to Address Student Apathy and Critical Thinking

I got a question from S. Crowder asking how to address student apathy and struggles with developing critical thinking skills through Differentiation for STEM/PBL curriculum. It’s an important concern that is shared by many who truly want their students to succeed. So I’m sharing the post here (with some word edits). I invite you to read the Edutopia article: Quality Instruction + Differentiation: Beyond the Checklist. If you like it, please share it via Edutopia’s social network icons to your colleagues and professional networks. Also, share this blog post to help others with similar questions.

Thanks and enjoy. John McCarthy, @jmccarthyeds or

student 4

STEM and STEAM programs can be great experiences for learners to content with “real world context.” PBL and STEAM (or STEAM) is a powerful team, as I’ve seen from working with schools across the country. So to your two important concerns: Apathy and Higher Level Thinking–Let’s dialog about both.

Students show lack of interest for a variety of reasons. From the students’ perspective, they might believe that the “game called school” is just a daily checklist to get through. Differentiation addresses this in so many ways, so here are 2 to start:

  1. Mediate students’ perception about the STEM (STEAM) PBL curriculum

Recognize that part of student apathy are the boring or negative experiences they’ve had in the past. This is not a critique on teachers, but rather on the outcomes of “coverage” instruction. Address students’ perceptions head on by using relationship building and “truth” telling to convince them to try this different approach called STEM (STEAM) PBL–which the message will be tailored to what different groups of students need to hear. Then ENSURE that the learning experiences ARE different. For example, start with an Authentic Purpose for an Audience.  In this case, get to know students as people and how they learn based on learning profiles and interests. These considerations will get students to have an open mind.

2. Use Readiness (diverse skill levels) to strategically plan & implement instruction

We need to differentiate (sometimes) by Readiness or skill levels. Yes, students can struggle with academic critical thinking because they might not be use to it–in the classroom. But students use critical thinking all the time where–to them–it matters most. Outside of school, they strategize in gaming, shopping (sometimes), or critical discussions about movies, products, and other entertainment.

My teen son and I discussed current gaming technology on desktops vs the growing tech of mobile apps, which let to projecting tech trends for the next 10, 50, and 100 years. The novel, Feed by MT Anderson, entered the conversation. This happened because the topic was something that he cared about and saw value.


The place to start is in two phases:

1st: Use formative assessment data to diagnose student needs–both where they struggle and where they need challenge. Included in this is reflecting on one’s practice to find different ways to teach concepts beyond the educator’s comfort zone. Consider this article as a starting place.  Once you have this information, activities can be crafted based on Readiness needs.

2nd: Teach critical thinking through Think Alouds for modeling and student reflections via protocols like Fishbowl** and Save the Last Word. Debrief the protocol experience so that students can think about their thinking.

Try these first steps to eliminate student apathy and improve their critical thinking skills. What strategies do you use to address either or both?


**the link is to a protocol that uses the Fishbowl. Fishbowl can be done in as less as 5-10 minutes.

3 Steps to Getting started with Differentiation – a response


Edutopia is a great resource for ideas and professional collaboration. In a discussion thread, New at the “Game” of Differentiated Teaching, I was asked to contribute to supporting a fellow educator. In a profession that is based on supporting others, I had to join in.

Rawhide asked a question quite common for teachers who grapple with the challenges of helping learners succeed under difficult circumstances. The question asked was not a simple one. It contained the challenges of large class sizes and limited resources. Where does one start to meet the diverse needs under such conditions? The first part of the answer is, “We must.” Or as the great teacher, Yoda says: “No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try” (Star Wars: A New Hope, episode IV). See video at the end of this post. Here is the post as left on Edutopia’s discussion. May it serve your needs for 3 steps towards differentiating for all learners. 

Let’s begin…

Hi Rawaida, Thanks for sharing this concern and important need to support your students. Sometimes the challenges such as large class size and limited resources pile up until the focus of student-engaged learning and achievement is, at best, obscured. I can layout a lot of options, and perhaps that might be an eventual need for you. For now, I’d like to share 3 steps to get you moving in a direction that taps your own wealth of education experience.

Step One: You already differentiate

Teachers differentiate all the time. They plan a lesson for the day, and like all such plans, it runs smoothly until we implement. When students get stuck, struggle, or disconnect, good teachers make a adjustments to the plan “in the moment.” This is called Intuitive or Reactive differentiation. It can serve well for teachers when in the midst of instruction, but it can feel stressful and not fully hitting the target need. This form of instructional implementation needs to be balanced with “Intentional” or “Proactive” Differentiation. This work is done during the planning, before instruction ever takes place. Please see my article: “Differentiation Is Just Too Difficult: Myth-Busting DI Part 3.” When you look ahead to the learning outcomes your teaching, you know which ones will b a struggle for groups of your students, and which ones will not be challenging for others. Use formative assessment to collect data that you can diagnose student needs. THEN plan the supports for all the students. The key is to reflect on how you’ve handled supports during previous “intuitive” or “reactive” experiences. Use those to revise and craft a support plan in the lesson “before” implementing the next time.

Step Two: All supports begin and end with assessments

High quality differentiation begins at the learning address of the students. We can not be effective with instruction, especially with large groups, unless we know where their skill level resides. Teachers are very good a collecting formative assessment data. The serious problem is that diagnosing the individual student’s needs is not often done, due to a feeling of limited time constraints or large class sizes. “There’s no time,” is often the outcry. Yet if we take the time to diagnose the reason for the learning disconnect, we can craft supports that are targeted. This leads to efficient use of time in the long term. When choosing not to take the time up front, the result is we do many trial and error ideas that end up taking more time, and never quite meet everyone’s needs. The result is frustration by everyone. A solution is to use some version of the Formative Assessment Cycle to diagnose student needs from the data and reflect on practices that could effect a positive change. In an upcoming Edutopia article I’ll share in more depth how to use formative assessment strategies to effectively differentiate instruction. In the mean time, here’s my Edutopia article for differentiating once you have clarity on the assessment data: “3 Ways to Plan for Diverse Learners: What Teachers Do.”

Step Three: If you organize the logistics (time and space), learners will follow

As the first 2 steps show, once we acknowledge our use of reactive differentiation, and start to pre-plan experiences based on a diagnosis of formative assessment data based on the Formative Assessment Cycle, we are well on our way to meeting needs of our learners. But what about large class sizes and limited resources? Grouping strategies is a powerful way to turn a large audience into smaller and manageable learning teams. If I place 64 students into teams of four, I now have 16 groups to manage. There is more to this concept than just grouping students. For example, using roles that students take on for work assignments—such as with Literacy Circles (here’s a Pinterest Resource), or teaching students how to work with difficult participants—such as using a Mediation Protocol, and using Learning Profile cards to intentionally form teams that caters to the strengths of each individual. There are assignment strategies that can be done with informal work groups that helps to manage and differentiate by skill level and/or interest, such as in “5 Good Tools to Differentiate Instruction” or “15+ Readiness Resources for Driving Student Success” or “50+ Tools for Differentiating Instruction Through Social Media.”

These three steps are just to start. Take your time with each one. They will take you a long way to the success you’re looking for with implementing Differentiated Instruction. Also, follow me on Twitter: @jmccarthyeds – and the Twitter chat on the topic: #DI4ALL The chat group meets every 1st and 3rd Mondays at 8 pm EST. You can find more articles on this topic at Please let me know if you have any other questions.

Four steps to stronger and more independent teams

Four steps to stronger and more independent teams by John McCarthy, Ed.S.


We all want the same thing. We want students able to work well with others. Every learner should be fully invested in the collaborative needs of their team so that the work is evenly balanced and highly productive. But the secret truth for most educators is that when a team becomes dysfunctional, we’d like for students to work out the problems themselves, and not need teacher assistance. Because if they could just resolve conflicts themselves, there is a higher likelihood that work quality can flourish.

We want students to work well in teams and address problems when they arise without outside assistance. But students need coaching on team dynamics as much as they need it in developing an in-depth understanding of course content. From my early travels among schools that developed strong team culture, one particular standout was a collection of schools from the New Tech Network. They called their protocol “The Firing Clause”.

The intent was not for teams to fire members who underperformed. No one envisions boardroom scenes, like on the shows The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, where students play Trump-like role of pointing a finger at a peer and shouting, “You’re Fired!”

Interviewed students said that few students got “fired” because issues were addressed early in the Project-Based unit. Some students stated that they got fired from a team only once because they did not want to go through the experience again. The great news is that in these cultures, students learned how to address problems early, and mediate the concerns. The problem is that some teachers who adopted this idea and created a process found that the term “Firing Clause” became a focus of their students and community. The steps for addressing issues seemed more like documentation of an impending firing, instead of mediating concerns before they grow into deep seeded conflicts.

The Mediation Protocol

The key to a successful protocol for such a sensitive and serious matter of team functions is to frame it in concrete steps that promote communication while presuming positive intentionality. Here’s how these four steps work.


  1. One to One meeting by a team member and the student (May occur 2-3 times).

When an issue arises, such as someone not getting their work done or showing disruptive behavior, a team member has a one to one conversation with the person. The intent of this personal approach is to avoid the perception of the individual feeling ganged up on. The focus of the conversation is to find a solution that address the team need, such as “What help do you need to complete work or get it done on time” or “How could the “joking” (aka sarcasm) be reduced because it’s affecting teammates?” Once an agreement is made, the meeting ends. If the terms are not met, there will be another meeting either by the same team member or a different person to help the individual. Many times the problem can be resolved at this step.

  1. Team meeting with the student.

If the problems persists where the student is not following through on the agreed upon solutions, then there is a team meeting. The group reflects on the concerns, sharing each person’s perspective with the intent of finding a viable approach to resolution. The focus is on how the team can support the team process and the person who is struggling. Once a solution is agreed upon, the meeting concludes.

  1. Teacher meets with the team.

During the previous stages, the teacher may facilitate the sessions, but not be an active participant in the discussions. If the team cannot resolve the issue(s) with the first 2 steps, then the teacher joins the team meeting as an active participant. It’s important that the teacher not take sides. Ensure that all voices are heard and the team norms are followed. Make suggestions for possible solutions where appropriate. In the end, a plan is crafted for how the team will resolve the issue so that they can function appropriately together.

  1. Student relocation decision.

This final step is one that should rarely be reached. If the team fails to find adequate resolution, then it’s time to decide if a person needs to be removed or relocated from the team. This is not a “firing.” There are variations to this final step:

Option One: The teacher removes from the team the student who is unable to work with the team, when the first 3 steps have not worked.

Option Two: The team decides if the student who struggles with the team should remain or be relocated. The student has a say as well. Sometimes the gravity of the situation is enough to find resolution.

Coaching through Facilitation

When using this protocol, the teacher will likely facilitate the initial meetings that occur. Students will need guidance on “how” to speak in a constructive and positive way, without appearing to antagonize or put down a team member. Having classroom Norms is helpful when facilitating. Often, the teacher may reword what’s said into positive and professional language. For example:

Student raising the concern: “You slack off too much. We can’t get anything done with you around.”

Teacher, facilitating: “What she means is, the team is feeling stressed about the work, and count on you to take care of your part.”

The teacher facilitates, and does not participate in the discussion and decisions made. Only at step three does the teacher become a participant in addition to facilitating.

Team Norms

Establishing team norms is an important need so that students are empowered to communicate and collaborate in a constructive and positive way. Facilitate the class crafting up to 7 norms that describe the behaviors that will support teamwork and learning. Here are resources to explore this important step. The 3rd link offers an effective strategy for developing the norms and having group buy-in.

Student Empowerment: Keeping the End in Mind

With teacher facilitation and team norms, the Mediation Protocol empowers students to take ownership of their learning environment. No longer are students waiting “helplessly” until the teacher deals with the team’s problem. Following the protocol, students develop communication and collaboration skills that will help them in every phase of their lives, from school settings to the workplace.

Establishing the Mediation Protocol is embedded in coaching students how to work as a team, which uses time efficiently to establish the structure. Culture building takes time. Yet when done well, the long term benefits out weighs the set up process. All it takes is posting the protocol on the wall, alongside the team/class norms, and coaching students through the Mediation Protocol until they are confident with handing situations themselves. That—is the ultimate goal.

Notes from MACUL 2015

Spending 2 days at MACUL conference 2015 was a pleasure and good learning experience. I appreciate the diverse topics that MACUL addresses. As an instructional technology organization MACUL does an excellent job of nurturing the dialog around instruction and learning with support through technology. I look forward to participate next year.

During the sessions that I presented, I get as much out of the interaction as I hope the participants receive. Interactive dialog is a signature component of my presentations, which judging by the full house at the sessions there must be appeal for it.

Project Based Learning Re-boot: 8 Key Strategies to Powerful Learning Experiences

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During this Thursday session, I provided access to a Google Doc for questions that participants could post at anytime during the session. As promised, here are my responses:

  1. Is your presentation available online?   Oh, I see it now!!
    Here is the link to the slide deck handout to the presentation. You’ll find other presentations as well. If you’d like a presentation or workshop at your school, district, or organization, please contact me. I’d love to discuss the support possibilities.
  2. Aside from public audience, how does “post a video about bullying and Romeo… to YouTube” equate to a relevant learning outcome or clear learning target in the context of a PbL unit?
    The skills and concepts that an effective video on bullying are (this is a sampling):
    –based on Common Core 9th grade standards–

    • Persuasive: Wri.1
    • Organization of ideas: Wri.4
    • Writing Process: Wri.5
    • Using technology for a purpose: Wri.6
    • Draw evidence from literary: Wri.9
    • Determine a theme or central idea: RL.2
  3. Resources for Global Competencies:
      Mike Gorman’s blog is one of my major go-to places for ideas on instructional technology, STEAM, and Global Competencies. It’s won awards for a very good reason.
      BIE is an excellent resource for all things PBL. They are a constantly evolving learning organization that dedicates itself to PBL. As of this post, I’ve done contract work for them as a National Faculty member since 2010.
  4. Can you suggest resources of PBL activities to use in class?  I’d love to incorporate more PBL, but would appreciate a resource of ideas to try
    Here is a list of databases for projects and project ideas:

Here are comments about the session, during the session:


Find additional PBL resources here.

MACUL: One Size Does Not Fit All: 20+ Ways to DI via Social Media Tools

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This Friday session was in collaboration with co-moderator of #DI4ALL Charity Stephens @differNtiated4u (website). By session end, we shared 50+ resources via this link to my article on Edutopia. I’d like to give a shout out to all of the foreign language (Spanish and ASL), Math, and Special Education teachers who attend. They represented in a major way to the workshop. Thank you and everyone else for attending.

We used Today’s Meet as the tool for collecting questions during the session. What follows are responses to the questions:

If you do a class hashtag, what about that one student who posts something inappropriate with the hashtag?

This is a coaching opportunity for helping that student learn ethics or digital professionalism. When using hashtags, one must have an account. Students should use the account that you have on record from them. In this way, you can monitor if this situation happens. If the student uses a fake account, a little detective work will still lead you to the person–especially if everyone else is following the rules. Done let the inappropriate actions of one or a small group of individuals wreck the rich learning experiences for other students.

How do you manage 35+ students, some with devices others none?

When there is a limited number of devices, especially when not everyone has one, there is an easy solution. Survey students for who has a device. Use that list to group students so that each team has at least one person with a device. 1 to 1 tech is nice to have, but such a concept should not stop us from making use of what’s available.

I like Tagboards concept, but is very similar that allows you to control posts.

Tagboard is useful as a way to easily review conversations and shared resources based on a classroom or other educational hashtag. It captures hashtag dialog, like #DI4ALL, from most social media tools that use them. Using hashtags is a specific approach for working with students, and communicating with them, families, and community in an ongoing approach. Padlet is useful when you want to be even more intentional around building collaboration skills and offer another product option.

Can Tagboard let you be selective about what makes the board? I have used Tweetbeam.

No. Tagboard captures all social media posts that uses the targeted hashtag.

Does tagboard only show posts from public accounts?

If posts from a private Twitter account can be read by the public than it will be captured on Tagboard. 

Want to increase ways for my PreCalculus students to share thoughts & ideas when solving particular problems outside of school.

Jennie Allen, a co-Moderator of #DI4ALL, is an amazing math teacher who presents on the topic of Differentiating Math. Check out her site and follow her on twitter: @JennieAllan2

#NT2T and for those new to Twitter.

Yes, as we shared at the beginning of the session, having a professional network via Twitter is an incredible resource. Check out these links to connect with other educators who are seeking similar answers: how can I use Twitter for my work. Also, meet Twitter vets who will support you along the way. As of this post, #NT2T meets live every Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m. EST.

Here is the slide presentation used via Emaze:

Powered by emaze

Find additional resources for Differentiation here.

Feel free to post your questions in the comment section below or send me a tweet @jmccarthyeds




Authentic Audiences Purpose: Engaging Students in Learning that Means Something

Authentic Audiences Purpose: Engaging Students in Learning that Means Something by John McCarthy, Ed.S.
Follow on Twitter: @jmccarthyeds –

When my kids get excited about school it’s a wonderful moment. This is especially true as they are teenagers attending a Project Based Learning School. Those moments occur “only” (yes I’m being absolute) when the topics and outcome is connected to the world beyond school. During my son’s freshmen year at Ardis New Tech High School, a Geometry-Art project focused on students creating soup bowls to be auctioned off at an event known at Empty Bowls. Local potters also craft bowls that are donated, like the students’ work, to the auction. The proceeds support the food pantries in the local area. The students learned art and Geometry concepts throughout the PBL unit. At the evening event, parents and community were invited to see the artwork and participate in a silent auction for the bowls of the local artists. Parents got first dibs on buying their child’s bowl J.

The power of that experience remains today because students had a voice in their community. They understood the connections of curriculum and context with the world outside academia. As a parent, I see the growth this experience had for my child and value every opportunity that the school provides in this area. As a PBL consultant, I would like to see such experiences happen more often than the pretend scenarios that tune out students, including my own. Scenarios can be intriguing at first, but lose momentum when students realize that the work will go no where and to no one once it’s done. The results, like most traditional assignments, are submitted to the teacher for a grade—and goes no further.

Having an authentic audience and purpose has so much upside. Students engage into the work, sustained by the energy that the results are purposeful and awaited by an audience beyond the school. It snaps them out of the Checklist Mentality that I discuss in an Edutopia article. They connect the curriculum with real purpose, and not—as students perceive—just academic hoop jumping.

Authentic Purpose = Audience

The key to turning scenarios into real world experiences that students find meaningful is to identify a focus that connects curriculum to a community. Now the term “community” is used metaphorically. Community can be local, national, or global. It can also be the school building or district, although this framing is one I suggest be used less often then the others. We want students to grow into becoming contributing members of the wider communities.

Identify the Essential Curriculum Outcomes

Our curriculum informs on what learning outcomes needs to be addressed for different units or projects, or bodies of work. Identify what students need to know to a deep level by the end–Keeping the end in mind is a common way of putting it. Once these concepts are identified, ask: If students understand these concepts how can they apply them to a purpose for an audience?

Authentic Purpose = Audience

If students understand these concepts how can they apply them to a purpose for an audience?

The answer to this question is one of the options that follows. Each is a way to frame the purpose of the work, and leads to powerful learning experiences that culminate in students having voice in their “community.” Let’s explore each.

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Solving a Problem or Meeting a Need

There are many needs to be solved in the world. The opportunities exist for students to propose solutions to various audiences who may be aware or unaware of the issue. For example, in Texarkana, AR, North Heights Junior High of TASD 7 did a school-wide project where they worked with 6 local businesses on marketing plans to improve their presence in the community. The results would be especially useful for driving consumers into the community from other areas. The four core areas, English, Math, Social Studies, and Science were incorporated at varying levels so that students could make connections to the content with the important task: Help businesses improve their presence. Other experiences could be as simple as helping the school draw in parents of future students by creating welcome packs, including a digital tour of the school’s people resources, so that new students can get familiarized before they step foot through the door.

Advocate for Action

The key to advocating is to create a call for action. Students may not be solving a problem directly, but they are seeking to rally support by others to take action, such as fund raising or holding planning meetings. In Nashville, TN, DuPont-Hadley Middle School of MNPS, 5th graders held a dinner for the community to raise money to support the fight cancer. The dinner honored the work of a children’s cancer ward in a local hospital (video). Students talked about cancer and the economic impact. Tying significant content to the issue for the audience was AMAZing.

A teacher in Ann Arbor is planning an experience where students will research an issue at school or in the community, including interviewing students or residence. They will write letters about the concern to the building principal (school issue) or the local representative (community issue) to convince them to address the need.

Raise Awareness to educate

Sometimes, educating an audience is the ideal approach. Students research a topic, delve into the complexities of the issue, and share the results to support their opinion or suggestions. I’ve visited many schools where healthy eating options is a concern. Projects Based Learning units are designed so that students can create persuasive presentations on the value of reading serving data before purchasing food or show how little exercise occurs if one sits most of the day in school and then at home in front of a computer or other screen time. The key is that students are not just summarizing their findings, but also expressing an opinion or stand.


Sometimes teachers or students may struggle with finding content connections to a community issue or need. This happens occasionally, and may be the time that a scenario is considered. Resist that instinct. Instead, publish the students’ work. Make it available to the public. Post on a blog or wiki that invites comment. Or turn off the comment option for those artifacts that are intended for showcasing only. Prior to publishing, check your district’s policy on what information like student name can be included with the publication. Following such guidelines is critical to the safety of students and the value of promoting their voice. Publication for students means that the audience is not just the teacher and their classmates. The result tends to be higher quality effort and work.

Keep it Real

It’s important to note that each of these options for authentic purpose and audience support each other. The first three options should all be published. There is a level of raising awareness when advocating or solving a problem. In the process of solving a problem, we form a plan the advocates for certain people or groups to take action. To be clear, any of the first three options are valuable standalones for students to experience because they provide a face for the audience. When students can “see” their audience (people or organization) it tends to raise engagement and the need for completion. Steven Levy writes about this in The Power of Audience. Students appreciate purpose and audiences that are not scenarios, but are real. At least that’s what my kids, and others I’ve interviewed, say they value.

Check out PBL Resources and published articles on instruction. Also, here’s a Differentiated perspective on this topic I wrote for Edutopia: 4 Paths to Engaging Authentic Purpose and Audience.

What are other target Authentic Purpose would you add to this list?

New article on Edutopia – Eliminating the Checklist Mentality

This recent article on Edutopia: Quality Instruction + Differentiation: Beyond the Checklist addresses concrete actions that help teachers know what students need. In part, this is accomplished by enabling learners to collaborate in the instructional experience. Three specific strategies are shared, one of which connects to the Need to Know process discussed in a previous post on this site.

Read all about it. If you like it please share through social media via Edutopia and here.