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.


Need to Know Process for PBL & quality Units

Updated: June 16, 2016

I’d like to thank Myla Lee for her collaborative feedback so as to ensure that this description of using Need to Knows becomes as effective a support for all grade levels. Follow her on Twitter: @MyTLee3 and myself at: @JMcCarthyEdS


Need to Know Process

Have you ever asked students if they have any questions, and then get in return unresponsive stares? Are there units of study where some or many students seem to fall further and further behind as time goes by? Does it ever seem as if students seem to disengage from the learning experiences?

The answer for all experienced teachers at some point in their career is: Yes.

The Need to Know process (N2K) can have a significant positive impact to addressing these concerns. Often used in Project-Based Learning Units, N2K is a cousin to the KWL strategy in the traditional instructional arena (Reference: One | Two | Three). There are a variety of methods for executing the process, what follows is a core structure. Once implemented, feel free to adjust how you approach the N2K process, while staying true to the Phases.


The N2K process starts on the first day of a PBL or ALE unit (or traditional unit.) After the end in mind is shared, including the major product, performance, or other final assessment, students generate questions about what they need to know about the unit so that they can complete the final artifacts, and all tasks that build towards the culminating event or experience. Here is a photo gallery of examples.

Phase One

Starting the Need to Know process has the potential pitfall of no one asking questions. This is not because the learners don’t have any, but mostly due to their need to have reflection time to put ideas into words. The intent of these following two steps is to provide a structure that honors reflection and collaboration to generate questions before sharing out to the larger group.

  • Use a Think-Pair-Share approach where participants generate an individual list of questions, then share with 1-3 others (Reference: One | Two | Three). Similar questions are combined. The team records questions on a separate post-it note or slip of paper. This prep helps ensure that that students have questions to share.
  • Using a brainstorm format, participants pose questions that the teacher records—on easel paper, whiteboard, or shared file such as Google Docs or Padlet. The teacher may ask clarifying questions, but must not answer any of the questions during this phase, else risk stopping the flow. Nor should the teacher include their own questions. If they add their own questions, students will stop contributing. This move takes ownership away from the students. During later lessons, the teacher can insert their questions at anytime, just not on the Need to Know list–that’s student owned.

Phase Two

A common concern raised by teachers is that even when learners understand content, they struggle with making connections to the project side of the PBL unit. Like referring to the Driving Question on a daily basis, frequent reviewing the N2Ks helps learners see how content is related to the project. It’s a formative assessment check by the teacher and students for the common level of understanding.

  • Revisit the N2K process often every week for formative assessment feedback. The number of times may vary depending on the age and needs of the students. While there are no hard rules for frequency here is a suggested guide:

Grades pre-K to 4: Revisit on a daily basis.

Grades 5 to 6: Revisit 3 to 5 days a week.

Grades 7-12: Revisit 2 to 3 days a week.

  • Teachers can review the questions to decide on mini-workshops or breakout sessions to support specifically identified needs. Running such small groups is helpful to meet the needs of some students while others progress with the tasks.
  • The teacher checks with the participants about questions from the list that have been addressed via instruction. Using a response system such as thumbs up, to the side, and down or clickers, learners indicate their level of understanding:

Thumb Up: I understand the answer to the question.

Thumb to the Side: I have some questions, but I feel comfortable enough to proceed.

Thumb Down: I don’t understand enough. I need more support with that question.

  • If there is consensus of Thumb Up and To the side, the question is checked as addressed. But if even one learner shows a Thumb down, the question remains unchecked, and the teacher has formative feedback that more work needs to be done. The teacher decides how to proceed, whether to review, coach in small groups, or incorporate support into the lessons that follow. Students are empowered because they determine when a topic is fully addressed or needs more work.

Phase Three

At the beginning of a PBL unit, students generally do not know the complexities of the curriculum. If they did, the unit could be skipped. Learners don’t know what they don’t know. As questions are checked off, participants’ understanding deepens until they are in a place to ask the more complex questions. It’s this reason why it’s critical to revisit the N2Ks each week.

  • Repeat the steps from Phase One. Have students generate more questions based on their new level of understanding of the content and concepts. This is indicative when there is group consensus of the new level of knowledge.

Here’s an example of a 3rd grader who generated his/her own Need to Know list based on the on-going project work. There was no prompting by the teacher. The student initiated and advocated the thinking to the teacher.

Why craft questions instead of statements?

Framing N2Ks in question format sets up inquiry opportunities. If we want learners to develop questioning skills than N2Ks is a process to coach them with multiple opportunities to shape their queries. There is a level of mystery with questions that can lead to “uncovering” information or potentially competing ideas. Such questions can raise engagement by learners as they search for answers, which often times lead to deeper and more complex questions.

Need to Know Considerations


The appearance of Need to Know lists can vary. It could be a list:

  • Hand-written on easel paper or a white board
  • Typed in a shared electronic document such as Google Docs or Padlet.
  • Displaying post-it notes on a wall or virtually (see Padlet)
  • Posting sentence strips or masking tape with the written questions
  • Consider having two columns. The left is for questions that are about the content, skills, and concept needs. It also includes needs of the client or target audience based on the final product(s). The right is for logistical and miscellaneous questions that may not directly relate to the project learning or support of the final product.

 Managing Question Generation

When facilitating the participants generating questions, the teacher wants to capture the inquiries as they relate to learning of content so that the key products will demonstrate quality. During the process, some questions will be logistical in nature, such as time frame, material options, web tool choices, or color choices. All these questions should be honored, while at the same time the teacher needs to redirect the focus back to the academic needs. One solution is having a two-column list (see Display section) or having a parking lot for such questions. It’s also fine for the teacher to ask students to refocus their questions back to the academic needs, such as: “What other questions do you have regarding the (insert content/product)?”

(Update 5/9/2015) QFT approach

The Question Formulation Technique by The Right Question Institute is another approach to coaching students on generating appropriate and helpful questions 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.

Here are additional resources to develop skill with the QFT.

 Share your experiences and links to examples of using the Need to Know process in the Comments section below. Several ideas may be added for the benefit of everyone.

Here is a photo gallery of examples.

Read on Edutopia: Differentiation Is Just Too Difficult – Not?: Myth-Busting DI Part 3

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 4.30.56 PM

What inspired this article recently published on Edutopia (see link near the end) are the conversations I’ve had with others over recent posts that attack Differentiated Instruction as something either too difficult to do or simply not worth trying. See my article: Rebutting Misconceptions about Differentiated Instruction here on Opening Paths. Such conversations might sound like banging one’s head on a walnut with the intent to open it, but I appreciate the dialog–especially when the other person is genuinely open to the conversation. Yet even the individuals who don’t appear interested in such a dialog make for interesting conversation. They strengthen my resolve and communication around Differentiated Instruction.

The result is an article on Edutopia. It’s intended to focus on helping those with doubts or genuine frustration to find the first steps towards the possibilities for meeting the needs of all learners. The original title included the word “Not?” I love what Edutopia did with the title. Just giving insight inside my mind when I wrote the article 🙂 If you like it, please share it via your social medias of choice.

student_pilotDifferentiation Is Just Too Difficult – Not?: Myth-Busting DI Part 3



Follow me on Twitter: @JMcCarthyEdS. Register with this site for updates when future articles are posted. See a list of external publications.

3 Tools to Help Learners at THEIR Pace (Guest Post)

I recently wrote an article for Edutopia, 50+ Tools for Differentiating Instruction Through Social Media. I asked readers to share more online tools that could support learners through differentiation. I would add these to the 50+ list. Kimberly Hurd offered three tools that address the most important needs: Assessment and Readiness. These 3 did make the list, but the description used there could not match the enthusiasm and insight Kimberly expressed. She graciously agreed to have her perspective posted here in its completeness.


 3 Tools to Help Learners at THEIR Pace (Guest Post) by Kimberly A. Hurd

Here are three sites that we love in #LS222 that help us with our learning. I wanted to take a moment to share them with you. I  LOVE to help out other teachers learn to use online tools and apps to help students own their own learning and see the power of how digital tools can help out with differentiated learning and hybrid learning. These can be done almost anywhere…at anytime.

Front Row

At Front Row, students are able to do hybrid differentiated instruction using common core math. It is free. It tells the students what grade level they are working in. I also send the information to my administrator as well as to the parents weekly for a “math report card.” I am able to isolate which math skills I would like students to focus on. I am also able to take our testing data and apply it directly to FR by looking at the strands and having the student work in specific strands. I enjoy it because it is not sit and click, it is brain based learning where on the computer or device of choice the students can draw out the problems to help solve the answer. There are also videos to help students (and teachers..because some of those questions are hard!) when they get stuck. There is gamification that ties in with this. Students can see how their peers are doing, but not know what grade level they are preforming at…just seeing them earn points. I get information back from Front Row.

Straight Ace

I chose Straight Ace to help with writing and English skills that we cover. I pre-select the “assignments” that each have 10 questions. I assign about 5-7 assignments a week depending on our skills we need to cover that week as well as where the testing data shows me that the students need to focus. Based on the data, I created 3 sub-groups for the strands and put students in those strands that they need help on. I also created a group for the high fliers who needed something more than fifth grade content to practice to help them show growth on the data we receive. I get information back from straightace weekly to tell me how the students are doing and I use the classroom time to help them through the assignments.

Straight Ace also helps with differentiated math. I have not tempted myself to look at that this year. I am eager to see how that works for next year. Right now the Front Row meets the needs of my learners and I want to stick to that.

Read Theory

At Read Theory, I created a class and I conferenced with each student regarding the reading level that they will be reading in to start off on. The students receive both non-fiction and fiction text with a small handful of questions to go with it. When students are successful in that level, they will move forward in the grade level. When students are not successful, they will be pulled back a level or more to figure out where they are really reading at.

Currently, I have a fifth grader who is reading at second grade level and a fifth grader who is reading at 8th grade level.

That is why this is an excellent differentiated tool.

I much prefer this to RAZ for several reasons. 1) It is free 2) The feedback I get as a teacher is powerful to me. It does not READ ALOUD to the student so that means, that the student must be past an emergent reader.

I am willing to share my passwords with any of you if  you would like to take an inside peek to see the interface for these learning zones. Only Front Row is an app as well.

I hope this is helpful!

MLK: Reflecting & Acting on the Dream


There is much meeting for this day, that represents a way of life and action year round. Starting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here are words from him and others to reflect on and consider. There are videos of MLK speeches at the end of this post. Consider choosing some of these quotes or letting learners choose ones to discuss and reflect. Perhaps ask them or ourselves:

“What will I do to make a difference starting now?” 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Mother Teresa

We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.

Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do… but how much love we put in that action.

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.

Each person must live their life as a model for others.

Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.

At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this. It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in.

Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds will continue in others.

Mahatma Gandhi

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.

Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.

Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Moments through videos

I have a Dream Speech – August 28, 1963

I Have Been to the Mountain top (MLK’s last speech)

Youtube Playlist of other MLK moments

Rebutting Misconceptions about Differentiated Instruction


How do I meet the needs of my students when their skill levels are across the board? Some variation of this question consistently comes up when I coach educators on curriculum implementation such as Project Based Learning or writing strategies. Educators want and need an answer that guides them to taking the first steps towards making a difference for their diverse learners. Lorna Earl explains it best when she wrote:

“Differentiation is making sure that the right students get the right learning tasks at the right time. Once you have a sense of what each student holds as ‘given’ or ‘known’ and what he or she needs in order to learn, differentiation is no longer an option; it is an obvious response.”

Assessment as Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximize Student Learning, Lorna M. Earl, Corwin Press, Inc. 2003 – pp. 86-87

Every teacher recognizes that some students fall behind and need support, while other students surge forward and need challenge that is respectful to their higher level competencies. Using assessments to find where students are, diagnose the situation, and implement appropriate learning experiences is what we as educators are obligated to do. “[It] is an obvious response” (Lorna M. Earl).

So I saddened to read an article that inaccurately portrayed Differentiated Instruction as a failure, and appeared to be a misinformed attack on teachers’ ability to differentiate instruction (DI)–by someone who, based on his credentials, should know better. Dr. James R. DeLisle wrote the article, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work,” in Education Week. Dr. DeLisle argued that “Differentiation is a failure.” His basis for this argument is to cite three articles that on the surface appear to support his agenda, yet on closer review places in question his unwarrented attacks.

The first article, Michael J. Petrilli’s article “All Together Now?” is used by Dr. DeLisle to say that because Differentiated Instruction was ineffective because a researcher is quoted in the article saying, “We couldn’t answer the question,” Hertberg-Davis told me, “because no one was actually differentiating.” This comment represents an issue of implementation system, which appears to have been ineffective. That does not translate to DI being a failure. When the rest of the article is read, Mr. Petrilli shares his investigation of his child’s elementary school who uses Differentiated Instruction as a lens for learning. Here’s an excerpt of what he learned from the principal:

‘“We are committed to diversity,” he started. “It’s a lens through which we see everything. We look at test scores. How are students overall? And how are different groups doing? It’s easy to see. Our white students are performing high. What can we do to keep pushing that performance up? For African American and Hispanic students, what can we do to make gains?”

Since Mr. G.’s arrival five years ago, the percentage of African American 5th graders passing the state reading test is way up, from 55 to 91 percent. For Hispanic children, it’s up from 46 to 74 percent. It’s true that scores statewide have also risen, but not nearly to the same degree.

And there’s no evidence that white students have done any worse over this time. In fact, they are performing better than ever. Before Mr. G. arrived, 33 percent of white 5th graders reached the advanced level on the state math test; in 2009, twice as many did. In fact, Piney Branch white students outscore the white kids at virtually every other Montgomery County school.’

Read the article for yourself. What you’ll find is that Mr. Petrilli, while skeptical, believes there’s a place for Differentiated Instruction. He thinks there should be more homogenous grouping, which is a part of DI. Dr. DeLisle somehow missed this large part of the article.

The second article that Dr. DeLisle references is by Dr. Holly Hertberg-Davis’ article, Myth 7: Differentiation in the Regular Classroom Is Equivalent to Gifted Programs and Is Sufficient–Classroom Teachers Have the Time, the Skill, and the Will to Differentiate Adequately. he used a quote from her without explaining it to support his blanket claim regarding DI. But Dr. Hertberg-Davis was speaking of the challenges for differentiating for Gifted and regular ed due to a push of mandated testing. In fact, Dr. Hertberg-Davis notes in her article:

“Differentiation of instruction both within the regular classroom and within homogeneous settings is critical to addressing the needs of all high-ability learners, including twice-exceptional students, underachievers, students from underserved populations, and highly gifted students. But, like any approach to educating gifted students, it functions best as a critical component within a spectrum of services provided for high-ability learners.”

While concerns are raised, Dr. Hertberg-Davis is not saying that DI is a failure, as Dr. DeLisle seems to want readers to think.

The final article referenced is by Mike Schmoker who wrote an equally misguided article in 2010, “When Pedagogic Fads Trump Priorities.” In Mr. Schmoker’s article, his solution to eliminating DI undercuts the very argument he wrote:

“Thanks to the British educator Dylan Wiliam and others, we now know that the consistent delivery of lessons that include multiple checks for understanding may be the most powerful, cost-effective action we can take to ensure learning.”

When effective teachers conduct multiple checks for understanding, and uncover that one or more students have not achieved the learning outcomes, they draw from a variety of instructional tools to address the needs. This might be small group mini-lessons, one on one coaching, spiraled instruction, centers, or other options that are practices of Differentiated Instruction.

chess by a girl

Dr. DeLisle, I presume, knows this because of his work in Gifted education both at the university and secondary level, including middle and high school. His extensive work over 30 years includes the insightful approach of spending time teaching in a middle school at least once a week so as to stay in touch with instruction prior to post-secondary classrooms. He’s written many books and articles in the field, including a potent article Reaching Those We Teach: The 5 Cs of Student Engagement in Gifted Child Today of January 2012. This article brings forth the voices of Gifted students. Their insights on what they need makes a strong argument of differentiating for their needs. Several student interviews identify qualities of effective teachers: empathetic, engaging, and knowledgeable on how to provide learning experiences that respected students’ intelectual capacity. While Dr. DeLisle’s intent is to promote the needs of Gifted–which is effectively done in the Gifted Child Today article–the students’ words express needs that are shared by all students, and should be considered by all educators.

Yet it brings into question his statement, “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students” (Differentiation Doesn’t Work).

Dr. DeLisle makes this over the top statement about DI, yet he also provides consultations to teachers on how to effectively differentiated instruction in the classroom through his relationship with Creative Learning Consultants via Pieces of Learning, an organization that specifically specialize in Differentiated Instruction since 1989. They have an interesting resources page. One has to ask, what is Dr. DeLisle true motive for attempting to discredit Differentiated Instruction given these facts.

Based on his article, Differentiation Doesn’t Work, one has to ask, does Dr. DeLisle either:

  1. lack understanding about the uses of DI?
  2. believes that teachers are incapable of differentiating effectively (which he implies with several references)?
  3. has a hidden agenda for which he’s attempting to bring down DI in order to achieve another aim?

Is there lack of understanding about the uses of DI?

Dr. DeLisle states “that we’re not exactly sure what it is we are differentiating: Is it the curriculum or the instructional methods used to deliver it? Or both?” By acknowledging his own lack of understanding of Differentiated Instruction he undercuts credibility to oppose it, or he’s failed to transfer his expertise of Gifted Education to that of General Education, or in Special Education, which he’s stated having degrees in. It’s ironic that Differentiated Instruction roots come from the world of GIFTED and Special Education, two areas that Dr. DeLisle has training yet by his own words is “not exatly sure what it is we are differentiating.” Even in Gifted classes there is diversity of understanding, skills, interests, and approaches to learning. Dr. DeLisle should know this.

Are teachers incapable of differentiating effectively?

No is the short answer. Teachers are trained professionals whose job is to provide instruction so that all students achieve. Yes, having students at different levels of skills is challenging. Yes, larger class size makes instruction in general more difficult, but also means differentiation is even more crucial for educators to accomplish their job, in the face of the challenges. Teachers know how to conduct assessments. When the assessments are fog-free, effective teachers analyze the data to determine what students understand and what are their needs–a point made in Dr. DeLisle’s earlier article, Reaching Those We Teach: The 5 Cs of Student Engagement. So if Dr. DeLisle were to follow this logic regarding using assessment data to it’s conclusion, the supports and enrichments that are provided will be meaningful if based on data analysis. Recall the quote my Lorna Earl at the begining of this article. This would mean that teachers are VERY capable of differentiating effectively.


Is there a hidden agenda?

The real agenda of Dr. DeLisle is to advocate for Gifted Students to be placed in wholly gifted classrooms. He believes that heterogeneous classrooms hurt the growth of gifted students, which he makes some compelling arguments for this issue in Reaching Those We Teach: The 5 Cs of Student Engagement. Personally, I see viable arguments for Dr DeLisle’s advocacy for this, having taught honors classes that were comprised of Gifted students. I also see how in some instances the right teacher can provide for Gifted students who are mixed in with other students. There is value to providing Gifted Students instructional time among their academic level peers, just as is done for other students via Guided Reading. Dr. DeLisle just needs to be honest about his true purpose.

To be clear, it’s important to have people advocating for Gifted Students, just as we need advocates for other populations of students. Critiquing education, even how best to help teachers and students differentiate instruction, is valuable so long as the purpose is to improve conditions, and not, pardon the apt cliche, throw out the baby with the bath water.

Education leaders  have an ethical and moral responsibility to use their position of influence and prestige for communicating with honesty and clarity of intent. Readers of Education Week deserve information that is not misleading.

There are advocates, like myself, for Differentiated Instruction used in effective ways, who are willing to have a constructive dialog about how to do right by all students. Those with genuine intentions can  have a thoughtful conversation. The result may likely be that Dr. DeLisle and others who struggle with DI will find the answers they need to better help students. Perhaps participate in the Twitter chat group #DI4ALL that meets every 1st and 3rd Monday of each month at 8 p.m. EST. All are welcome to contact me @jmccarthyeds, including Dr. DeLisle. I invite everyone to join this dialog, post questions, concerns, ideas and stories for our constructive growth.

The bottom line is that students in a classroom tend to be a different levels of skill. One single instructional approach does not work for all students. Assessments tell us what students know and don’t know. To do nothing would be professional malpractice.

Here are resources on applications for Differentiated Instruction:



PLN Resources for a New Year

As we launch ourselves into a new year, which is really the middle of the current school year, here are some resources that helps to grow a PLN. The work of teaching is on-going, and a big part of it is deepening our own learning. Here are some places that can open doors to a professional learning journey…


=> Education Chats List 

This is an exceptional list of the live Education chats on Twitter. You’ll find great groups to follow and attend. For example, #DI4ALL discusses topics on Differentiated Instruction. Meets 1st & 3rd Monday at 8 p.m. EST. Check their website for topic information.

Education Blogs to Put on your Reading List

Besides mine at Opening Paths 😉 here are “some” site to check in for ideas that make you go “Hmmmm” in a thought provoking way.

What other Education Bloggers do you recommend for reading? Please share in the comments below.

4 unit Guidelines toward Meaningful Audience Purpose

A good Project-Based Learning unit experience provides students with an opportunity to make an impact on a community, person, or organization. It’s real–goes beyond the world known as “school.” While this idea has resonance for many educators it’s often felt as an abstract concept. How do teachers consistently bring about an authentic purpose that will be meaningful to an audience?


Identifying key concepts and skills

Every effective PBL unit is based on the essential concepts and skills that students must develop. Without such a base, the work completed lacks substance and focus. These key learning components will enable developing a clear map for structuring checkpoints and supports throughout the experience. It also leads to creating a strong final product or performance for the end of the unit. But here is where we need to be careful. That final artifact needs to have purpose for an audience, beyond being an observer.

If students master the key concepts and skills, how might an audience benefit?

Answering this question is the link to developing rich authentic experiences. How we answer helps identify the audience, revise the driving question, and refine the final product or performance. There are many audiences we can invite. Parents are a popular choice. Their presence has a positive impact on their children, as well as the other students. Yet, parents tend to be a secondary audience. They attend to provide moral support and see the growth of their children, no matter what the academic topic or product may be.

What if students studied simple machines, and then designed playground equipment that reflects those concepts for the school playground. Who could benefit from learning about their designs for possible use? Answer: Principal, School Board, PTO, Playground designers/builders, and engineers. Not parents.

When deciding on a product or performance, use these four guidelines to help determine the purpose for your primary audience:

  1. Solve a problem
  2. Advocate for a need
  3. Raise awareness about a concern or idea
  4. Publish

These guidelines are ways for designing the final product that meets the needs of an authentic audience.

Solve a problem

There are issues and situation that need fixing. Students explore solutions to a problem that a community, individual, or organization needs help. Sometimes the audience may not be aware that there is a problem or an innovative way to improve a system, service, or product that they own. For example, small businesses may lack a social network presence or have gaps in one that currently exists. I discovered this in a bakery in Texarkana, AR. As I stood inside the shop, I got no search results of the store’s existence on Yelp, an app that helps travelers find places to visit. They had a Facebook presence, but that might not be how new customers would find them. Students can work on finding or developing solutions that require them to use their understanding of essential concepts and skills. The final product is now tied to genuine needs by the audience.


Advocate for a need

Sometimes there are needs for effecting a change in behavior, focus, or perspective, such as healthy eating and exercise. Based on the key concepts and skills, what is a change that’s needed for a community, whether it be the school, parents, businesses, local, national, or an international entity? Living a healthy lifestyle could be advocated to the school or local community by providing nutritional menus that are easy to grocery shop and provide minimal preparation. Another focus might be convincing and teaching local communities how to design and build indoor gardens helps reduce the impact of urban food deserts while providing access to fresh vegetables, such as the Green Bronx Machine project.

Raise awareness about a concern or idea

Oftentimes during researching content, students learn about issues and ideas that can have an impact on their lives or that of others. Yet, their target audience may not be aware of the concern or have little understanding. In these instances, students create an awareness product or performance that their audience would be responsive. For example, ease the fear of the public about Ebola by providing persuasive messaging to help the general public understand the disease and it’s means of transmission. Help a community understand the work of a local hospital’s children’s cancer ward cancer so that they might donate money to support cancer research. This was done at Dupont-Hadley MS in Metro Nashville Public Schools. What’s important in each instance, students are not just reporting their research findings, they are using the information to express an informed opinion to persuade their target audience.


Making student work public is critical for the learners to find value in what they do. What’s the point of doing all this work if the target audience never sees the results. Publishing is inherent when focusing on any of the previous guidelines. Sometimes, we may publish for its own sake. This could happen for art (physical or virtual gallery for art lovers) and such ELA tasks as literary analysis (online literary magazine or classroom website of analysis) and writing that is narrative, informational, and/or persuasive (online e-zines, review sites, and classroom websites). In all of these cases there is a target audience—although it just may be more generalized.

Putting a Face to the Audience

shutterstock_7794589When students know whom they are communicating with, their work becomes more targeted and has the potential for becoming more substantive and nuanced. The work must go beyond research, towards application via evaluation and synthesis. This occurs as they reflect and revise their communications to meet the needs of their audience. An expert on this idea is Dayna Laur, who writes extensively about authenticity of work via her blog and a book. Use the four guidelines to find the best audience for the students’ work. It will also result in revising or refining the final product or performance and Driving Question so that all are aligned. There is no better feeling when the primary audience in the crowd nod in appreciation of what the students have shared. When students see the response, they want to do more.

Mentoring makes Everyone Better

breath_shipThroughout my career I’ve been blessed with people who’ve taken me under their wing to guide, advise, and develop. The experiences are eye-opening and humbling. I’m constantly reminded that, to paraphrase Socrates, there is much that I don’t know that I don’t know.

Throughout my career, I take opportunities to pay forward the gifts my mentors have provided me. When possible, I help others along their career, perhaps raise awareness to some about educational practices that took me longer to recognize. I know when I’m mentoring well when I’m learning from the person I’m supporting.

I’m thankful for those opportunities, and I ask that in your career journey to mentor others, and be mentored. Social Network PLNs are great opportunities. The learning is collaborative and mutually beneficial. I currently participate with:

  • #DI4ALL (site): Differentiated Instruction – 1st & 3rd Mondays @ 9pm EST.
  • #SBLCHAT: Standards Based Learning – Every Wednesday @ 8pm EST.
  • #PBLCHAT (article): Project-Based Learning – Every Tuesday @ 8pm EST.
  • #LIVEDCHAT (blog): Every Wednesday @ 9pm EST.
  • #SATCHAT (FB + article): Ed Leadership: Every Saturday @ 7:30am EST.
  • #MICHED (site): Michigan Educators & others: Every Wednesday @ 8pm EST.

Explore this listing of Education-based PLN groups. Uncover the ones that fit your interests and needs.

Who will you mentor in the next 30 days?

Happy Thanks ED Giving!

RAFTs – Engaging to Differentiating Writer’s Voice

In a previous series of posts I wrote about RAFTs, a powerful strategy that engages students into writing, a means to coach students to improve writing, and an approach that when differentiated helps students at varying skills to success at a respectful pace. By popular demand, what follows are all 3 articles in one blog for easy distribution. The original posts are also available for those who prefer that the content be digestible in smaller meals: Part I – Part II – Part III

Bon Appetite!

John McCarthy, Ed.S. (Twitter/Pinterest/Google+)

For more of John’s articles in other publications check:

1st Article – RAFTs Basics: RAFTing the Writing Rapids

How do you get students engaged into writing? Sometimes this question feels like an exercise in futility, used as for abstract debate for the sake of venting frustration. But there are times when the answer to this question is simple: Make the writing interesting and meaningful.


Some people like to write. Lots of people like to tackle an issue or topic of personal interest. While this concept is simple to focus on, the implementation can feel too complex and frustrating. One solution—I would emphasize this is just one—is using RAFTs as a writing strategy. It creates highly engaging topics, and provides a structure that students can easily understand and teachers can coach writing. RAFTs are also great for differentiating based on diverse skill levels.

RAFTs stands for Role, Audience, Format, Topic + strong verb. Here’s the meaning of each part:

Role: Juliet

Provides a perspective or point of view for the writer. Students use the role as way to connect directly with the content focus.

Audience: Romeo

Gives focus to who the writer is communicating. Being mindful of the audience, teachers can coach students on perspectives to explore that the target audience may be receptive. This leads students to think about word choice and what details will resonate with their audience.

Format: Letter responding to marriage proposal

Provides the medium through which the writer will communicate. The product, when assigned, is usually how the teacher needs to evaluate the work. Sometimes the format is left blank to allow the students to chose the product that appeals to them, such as a podcast, video, story, poem, or some other medium. So long as the academic criteria is clear, the format can be open-ended.

Topic + strong verbWedding or Eloping, which could best bring peace to our families?

Communicates to the writer the focus of the RAFT assignment. The topic gives the context for the writing based on the academic outcomes. It creates the scenario or approach towards a real world issue that the students will communicate about. Including a strong verb generates engagement by potentially creating a call to action.

Unit Anticipatory Set

As an opener for a traditional or Project Based Learning (PBL) unit, RAFTs engages students into the big idea and essential learnings to be explored. Crafting a topic that tightly aligns with the learning outcomes gives students context for learning, and opens opportunity for generating students’ need to know more.

Formative Assessment and Feedback

RAFTs make for formative assessment in the middle of a unit. Students demonstrate their understanding that should go beyond the facts to analysis or evaluation of concepts. Used as an individual or small group activity, students process their understandings and connections for deeper knowledge. The results will better prepare them for the later work of the unit. Teachers can use the RAFTS products to give formative feedback to the students to firm up content knowledge, and to coach writing skills.

At the end of a traditional or PBL unit, RAFTs are useful as the final assessment of content knowledge and answering the driving or essential question regarding the big focus of the entire unit. As the final product, students connect the work towards a real world outcome. The key is crafting a topic that pushes students to address an issue within a scenario or for a real world audience. We could revise the Romeo and Juliet example for this purpose:

Focus: Understand how “Romeo and Juliet” by Shakespeare represents the challenges for effective communication and conflict resolution.

Role: Concerned Citizen

Audience: Facebook Monitors and School Community Stakeholders

Format: Letter or recorded multimedia

Topic: Advocate for improved support/awareness against cyber bullying

Once students experience the RAFTs structure and become familiar with it, they embrace it. After awhile, let the students come up with their own Role, Audience, Format, and/or Topic. Or let them develop a combination of certain parts. This gives them voice as to how they want to construct the writing, which increases their buy-in and engagement.

Return to the beginning

2nd Article – Craft of RAFTs: Coaching Writing through RAFTs

During workshops, I sometimes survey the teachers in the room:

Rate yourself on a 5 pt scale.

A five equals, “I can write for publication with confidence.”

A one equals, “I do not like to write, preferring to avoid it when I can.”

Yes, I know… rating scales should avoid an odd number range because people tend to gravitate to the middle number, in this case the 3. But in this instance, who wants to be a 3? If your surgeon self-rated his/her skills at a 3 on a 5 pt scale, wouldn’t you get a second opinion?While a self-rating of 1 is rare, 30% of the audience, at best, self-rate a 4 or 5. Writing skills are so important for students, yet the perception of less than half of their teachers feel confortable or confident with their own writing skills. Such revelations is food for a conversation on a later article, the intent now is to emphasize the need for writing activities that provides a structure for effective coaching and learning.

In a previous article, I talked about RAFTs as a framework for engaging students into writing for purposeful topics. Mentoring students to become better writers is an important process. RAFTs is an effective strategy that can support the coaching process. 6+1 Writing Traits by Education Northwest is the reference that I use in the following conversation. The rubrics are useful for coaching.

Students quickly pick-up how RAFTs work. When combined with teaching the writing process, there are rich opportunities for coaching students on developing their author’s craft. Teachers facilitate feedback conversation where they can pose questions that enable students to uncover the editing needs of their writing. Let’s use a RAFTs example from the previous blog:

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 7.41.14 PM

Role: When the writing needs clarity about author’s intent, students should reflect on the role they are playing, and the intentions and needs of the point of view. This could affect word choice and details that may need to be added and/or changed.

Some Coaching Questions:

  • Word Choice: If the story happened today, what words would Juliet, age 13, use to express her emotions a marriage and family?
  • Details: What details would Juliet share with Romeo to convince him regarding the topic?
  • Details: Which of your details would Juliet have more to share based on her experiences from the play?

Audience: The details and organization of the writing may not communicate clearly to the target audience. Coaching questions could lead to the student considering their audience’s needs and what information would elicit a positive response. Word choice, organization, and details would be areas for writing instruction. Sentence fluency could be another factor depending on the reading level of the audience. Lower elementary students may need a simpler sentence structure than an adult audience. Do we want a 6th grade sentence simplicity or more complex writing structure for an academic audience?

Some Coaching Questions:

  • Organization & details: How are your main ideas ordered so that Romeo would be most receptive? Let’s talk about each together.
  • Word Choice & Sentence Fluency: Knowing Romeo’s personality, how might he react to the tone of this writing?
  • Details: Let’s identify discussion points that Romeo might need for context and/or information to be convinced by Juliet.

Format: Our choice of medium should align with the target audience. Teachers and students explore together the question: Does the medium allow for effective communication of content and complex ideas as intended by the author (Role)? This question looks at organization, details, and word choice that are appropriate to the medium. For example, PowerPoint and Keynote presentations work effectively with minimal text.

Some Coaching Questions:

  • Presentation, Organization, and Word Choice: How should this medium be used to keep Romeo’s attention?
  • Presentation, Word Choice, and Details: What could be used to connect with Romeo through emotions and/or logic?

Topic: How well does the content align to the topic? Organization and details are important coaching conversations to ensure that the focus is addressed.

Some Coaching Questions:

  • Organization and Details: Let’s identify where the content deeply supports the topic and where the information may not relate to Juliet’s discussion points.
  • Details and Word Choice: Where do the main ideas help Romeo agree, and where might he respond with a counter argument based on the topic?

students working3

There are more questions that teachers could devise based on the RAFTs components, the content of the writing, and the students’ understanding and intentions regarding the topic. These coaching conversations will give students a scaffold structure for understanding the assignment and how authors craft writing for a purpose. During the course of a few RAFTs experiences, students will strengthen their dialog for coaching each other by using the components as feedback starters. The teacher’s modeling of the conversation will guide students to coaching each other, which leads to empowering them as stronger writers.

Return to the beginning

3rd Article – DI: Differentiating Writing through RAFTs

RAFTs can ignite engagement and context for learning. Planned with forethought, students can explore a need or problem that exists in the world beyond the classroom walls. An important consideration is: How do I differentiate RAFTs to support my diverse learners? The solution is simple, yet has layers of possibilities when implemented based on an understanding of your students.

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 4.01.31 PMThe key step with differentiating RAFTs is provide 3 to 4 variations of the prompt. Giving students one RAFTs to unpack can be engaging and productive. Consider than the possibilities when students have several choose from.

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 4.01.57 PMThe Learner’s role in Differentiation is based on Readiness, Interests, and Learning Profiles. Use the Learning Profile Cards strategy to collect data on students that will inform differentiation of RAFTs that follow.

Interests are activated by giving students several options to choose from. Take this even further by having a blank option—allowing for students to craft their own RAFTs based on the topic–a great way to foster Student Voice.

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 8.17.57 PMLearning Profiles address how learners make sense of their learning. Learning styles, brain-based learning, and multiple intelligence profiles are generally approaches used for this. With RAFTs, structure the prompt choices based on any of these approaches, such as these examples:

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 7.59.44 PMWhen learning profiles are intentionally integrated into the prompts, teachers can assign them to specific students based on learning data. My personal preference is to let the students choose. Students will either pick the one that makes sense to them the most (learning profile) or pick the topic that intrigues them (interests). It’s a win-win when students choose.

Readiness: Differentiating RAFTs based on Readiness requires the most planning, which results in worthwhile learner experiences. Sometimes students have different levels of a skill or concept. One to two prompts are crafted to match the academic level of each group of students. Having more than one prompts encourages student interests because they have choices. Prompts are assigned based on formative assessment data. The learners, individually or in groups, work at the RAFTs that will stretch them appropriately.

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 8.12.28 PMRAFTs is a strategy that has multiple ways to use for meeting the needs of all students, based on where they are at, and identified needs. Check out the previous articles for a full picture of supporting students through RAFTs.

Return to the beginning