RAFTs – Differentiated for Learner Success

In the previous two articles, we explored RAFTs (Role, Audience, Format, and Topic + Strong Verb) as an instructional strategy, and how to use RAFTs for coaching writers on writing. 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.

RAFTs: Coaching Writing Tips

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:

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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.

Part I: RAFTing the Writing Rapids

Part III of this topic will address how to differentiate RAFTs to meet the needs of all learners.

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 verb: Wedding 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.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this 3 part series about RAFTs:

Formative Assessment Cycle – A necessary good

“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.” –Lorna M. Earl[i]

Formative assessment is about meeting the needs of all students by collecting data on what they know and do not know. Often, teachers do assessments that get this information, record the data, and move on to the next task or lesson. The result is not formative assessment, but summative. Summative assessments record student status for meeting key objectives, and then moving on to a new focus. For every summative assessment, a teacher should consider doing 5-10 formative assessments.

Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 12.25.20 PM

Effective Formative Assessment Cycle basics include the following steps:

  1. Collect data from a learning experience
  2. Analyze the data for what students know and do not know
  3. Reflect on the data to plan interventions and/or extensions/enrichments
  4. Implement plan of action
  5. Repeat steps 1-4

1. Collect data from a learning experience

Teachers provide learning experiences for the purpose of helping students meet specific learning targets. Each lesson has a specific outcome that students should be able to demonstrate, whether it’s a basic skill that requires 40-60 minutes, or a complex concept that may be addressed over a series of “building block” activities across several days. Tracking students’ progress daily is critical for ensuring that they do not fall behind without being noticed. The last thing anyone wants is to spend days or weeks on a unit, and discover only with the summative assessment that students were stuck early on.

Use a variety of assessment strategies to gather data on student learning from each lesson, such as Exit Cards, KWL Charts, Need to Know Charts, and Gallery Walks. Ensure that the method used targets the heart of the skill(s) and/or concept(s) that students should acquire. The following example shows the complete cycle. Step one reflects the purpose of this section:

Exit Cards—sometimes called Ticket Out the Door
This is a quick strategy that some schools use as a daily assessment tool.

  1. Given 5 minutes at the end of a lesson, students answer 1-3 questions based on the learning target. Index cards or half a sheet of paper is all that’s needed.
  2. On collecting the cards, the teacher reviews them for learning target accuracy.
  3. Consider making three piles, like a golf score:
    1s: Cards demonstrate strong knowledge of the learning target.
    2s: Cards demonstrate partial knowledge, with minor gaps.
    3s: Cards demonstrate lack of understanding, with major gaps.
  4. Teacher reviews cards for trends and grouping needed to reteach or incorporate skills and/or concepts into the next lesson.
  5. Teacher creates a plan of action based on the cards.

Cards may be discarded once a plan is in place. Remember, it’s a quick assessment to determine what adjustments are needed based on who and how many students did not successfully gain the expected learning outcomes.

2. Analyze the data for what students know and do not know

With formative assessments, looking at the data for purposes of providing support, enables teachers to think about the students’ demonstrated work in terms of what parts represent the learning target, and what kind of errors exist that are a barrier to progress. A score of 50% or 85% gives next to no information about what a student knows and does not know about a topic. This is one important reason for not grading formative assessments. Grading loses the purpose, which is to inform students and the teacher what are the learning needs. In the Exit Card example, steps 2-4 are key actions for unpacking and diagnosing the root of learning disconnects. Assessment data is often analyzed by looking collectively at the scores by all of the students. Sometimes, sampling is used to check on a few student results. These strategies can be useful, but they can miss important information at the individual level. Once students are identified by their degree of understanding or not understanding a concept (Steps 2 and 3 from Exit Card example), it’s important to take an individualized evaluation for the cause of student learning gaps. In the following math example, consider the assessment result by two different students’ work on 2-digit multiplication. One student would be rated as a 2 and the other a 3 from Step 3 of the exit card example. What clues from their work identifies the students’ needs?


Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 11.29.47 AM

Both students lack understanding of aligning the second row to being with the Tens column. Student B may also struggle with multiplication. Consider how their needs might be addressed in a small group regarding alignment, and individually with Student B on multiplication. Diagnosing cause of student gaps makes reteaching and coaching targeted and time efficient.

3. Reflect on the data to plan interventions and/or extensions/enrichments

Once student(s) needs are determined, a plan of action can be developed (Step 4-5 from the Exit Card example). As we saw with the math example, the diagnosis is specific and requires differentiation. Alignment may have been a trend among several students, which could be addressed as a small group mini-lesson or a whole class review at the beginning of the next lesson. The multiplication skills issue may not be a common need or be addressed effectively as a whole class review. Let’s not forget the students who are way past 2-digit multiplication. What do we do for them to ensure they are growing? The lesson activities will need to be differentiated, and the formative assessment results help to ensure that the coached learning experiences are targeted to what groups and individuals need.

4. Implement plan of action

This step in the Formative Assessment Cycle starts the process again. On implementing the plan via lessons and coaching, new formative assessment activities will need to occur to track if the students who were falling behind are back on track, or need more supports, framed in different ways. It’s also an opportunity to see if other students ran into stumbling blocks, or are clearly ahead of the pack, thus needing more complex work that challenges them.

Some might raise the concern about time expenditures to follow a Formative Assessment Cycle when there are pressures to forge ahead with curriculum demands. Such demands and a Formative Assessment Cycle are not at odds. Using daily quick assessment strategies like exit cards or non-graded quizzes gives important feedback about the success of a lesson. What teacher or administrator exists who would prefer to be blind to whether or not students are successfully learning based on the lesson implementation? Or another way to put it, if an educator’s job is to ensure that all students are learning, then tracking success and gaps is essential. Reteaching blindly wastes time both for students and teachers. A Formative Assessment Cycle helps ensures that now child fall between the cracks, much less falling behind. Per Lorna M. Earl, it’s an obvious response to facilitate successful learning for all.

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

Constructivist Learning in Common Core/State Standards Environments

This post is a companion to a Presentation (handout)  at MACUL 2014 by @jmccarthyeds. You can find dialog from that session on Twitter at #OPATHS or go to tagboard.com/opaths/

How can we support constructivist learning in Common Core Environments?

Last year at Ardis New Tech, they did an event called Innovation Days. It was inspired by the 20% Rule, an account by Daniel Pink in Drive, where he talked about how Google gave it’s employees one day per week to work on personal projects that they are passionate about, to experiment and innovate. The results have included such products as Gmail and Google News. At Ardis, they adapted the experience into a 3-day experience. Students explored areas of interest to develop products or ideas with other like-minded peers. The teams worked either in a high tech location because of their needs, while others worked in other parts of the building. Some topics included research, creative writing, culinary arts, and computer game development. The third day was for presentations. All teams presented, and all students attended presentations, which occurred simultaneously in different segments of the building.

This student experience, like the others that will be shared, happens because of a an understanding and commitment by educators that students thrive when they have support to construct their understanding; and that the Common Core, as with any statewide standards, when understood for its key concepts is not a barrier to student-friendly learning. In fact, the experiences can be quite liberating.

So what makes constructivist learning possible in Common Core environments? Here are six understandings that help the process:

  1. Collect data on student interests, perception of content, and how they process understanding
  2. Establish and coach clear academic criteria
  3. Teach/coach collaboration and develop collaborative partnership
  4. Eliminate assessment fog
  5. Teach/coach inquiry
  6. Establish culture of constructive feedback

This list could easily be expanded. For anyone considering exploring a constructivist approach to their classroom, the idea can be quite daunting. These six ideas are a way to start the process with a high degree for a successful launch. The first two can be addressed in your order of preference, but both are equally important for setting the foundation that allows for a successful learning partnership with students.

Collect data on student interests, perception of content, and how they process understanding

Getting to know students is critical to any type of successful work relationship. In the world of Differentiated Instruction, work begins with knowing a person’s strengths, interests, and background. This is especially true with building a constructivist environment. An effective strategy for gathering such information is Learning Profile Cards.


Students fill out Learning Profile Cards in 15-20 minutes, and can be used immediately. Teachers find benefit from this strategy with students from kindergarten to graduate school. Getting a student’s perceptions of their confidence level in their learning styles, areas of personal interests, and core academic skills–like reading, writing, and computations–helps to know how they will engage in tasks. Any task that requires skills that they feel they lack confidence may lead to students resisting the work or becoming disengaged. Knowing this helps teachers to anticipate structures of supports based on learning styles and interests leads to success. Through relationship building, teachers can show empathy before students get to the point of disengagement.

Establish and coach clear academic criteria

A key non-negotiable for success is that the teacher must have a deep understanding of their content standards. This means being able to unpack them for key concepts and skills, and know how to use student-friendly language to help learners understand the academic focus for themselves. This base helps for developing effective academic criteria.

Academic criteria is the heart of what skills and concepts that students must demonstrate in the various products, including the final product or performance. If the criteria are clear and understandable by students, then the final product or performance does not need to be defined. Students can freely design and develop products or performances of their choosing so long as what’s created demonstrates the academic criteria. Here are examples of the power of clear criteria:

At Lakeshore Public Schools in Southwest MI, students studied FrankLloydWrightfamous Americans and their accomplishments. One student researched Frank Lloyd Wright. As part of his presentation, he created one of the Architect’s homes inside Minecraft, a world builder game that many play at home and with others online. He included part of his presentation as a recorded introduction of the design.

At the York County School Division (YCSD) in VA, high school students took Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion and developed tutorial videos to translate the concepts into language that others could understand as an entry point into the content. Another class did a similar process for a Social Studies unit about the Jamestown Settlement (Video). More examples from YCSD can be found at these two posts from the Superintendent, Eric Williams:  A and BThe work is based on YCSD initiative: Transformative Learning, which is led by many staff.  Characteristics include:

  1. Mastering content and skills
  2. Students own the learning
  3. Authentic Audience
  4. The learning has meaning and purpose beyond school work

At Ardis New Tech in Ypsilanti MI, students in Algebra Squared (Algebra II content), students applied their knowledge of logarithms to usage with 401k plans. They sought to answer the driving question: How can we use exponential and logarithmic equations to manage money?  The students’ presentations must demonstrate the mathematics while persuading or informing adults on the value of such plans. One student team decided to create a video in the spirit of an SNL interview skit.

When academic criteria is clearly defined, the possibilities are endless as to what students can come up with to demonstrate their understanding. Allowing such voice leads to increased engagement on the work.

Eliminate assessment and grade fog

The emphasis is on “Academic” criteria because sometime logistical requirements get mixed in as part of the assessment. This muddies the assessment, leading to assessment or grade fog. For example, in one middle school class, students were given a research assignment to explore a famous African American and his/her contributions. One requirement was that the final paper be in a five paragraph format. A student who wrote seven paragraphs was assessed as not following directions. Following directions was not an explicit assessment category. Social Studies content and informative writing were the targets, which the student demonstrated in seven paragraphs.

Logistical requirements are best used as guidelines for submitting work. When work misses a logistical checkpoint, have the students revise the item in question, if time is provided. Otherwise, give the student feedback on the missed logistics, but do not include it in the grade to avoid academic inaccuracies.[i]

Teach/coach collaboration and develop collaborative partnership

Collaboration is a critical skill set when constructing knowledge and conducting explorations. Students do not magically know how to effectively collaborate.  While there are many collaborative experiences that occur in classrooms, students need coaching on the language and skills for collaboration. Otherwise, they do not realize what they are doing is more than group activities. There are many good resources to help coach students such as Team builders and Rubrics. Some are listed at the end of this post.[ii]

While several of the previous examples reflect this process, such as Ardis New Tech, here are examples:

In Novi Community School District in Novi, MI, 4th graders embarked on a project that started with the district “Superintendent challenged the students to make their learning transparent to the community.”[iii] The teacher provided an overarching focus, which the students used to design their own driving questions. A driving question is the major focus of a project. The students in collaborating on crafting their own meant that they were also setting their own course throughout the unit.

In Dupont-Hadley Middle School in Metro Nashville Public Schools (TN), the students participated in an interdisciplinary project about cancer: Cell-a-brate. One of the students was a 2-time cancer survivor. Students learned about cells and the difference from cancerous cells with the intent to raise awareness about the need for more support by adults to help find a cure. They organized a Spaghetti meal to raise funds for the local hospital’s Children’s Cancer center. Much of the work required students to work together for research, messaging, and the charity event. This project received national attention through ASCD Express.

Teach/coach inquiry

The skills of asking inquiry questions is complex. The inquiry process helps students delve deeply into content and building understanding. The experience may start small, as part of a specific activity or event, and expand into a cultural approach to learning. The skill set is also required of teachers as to how to structure inquiry and the kinds of questions that help support the experience or culture.

WSC Academy in MI embarked on to such an experience when there students explored a need for a snack food cart. Typically lunch is off campus, and the students wanted to figure out how to make food purchase options available, while complying with health and other governmental regulations. The interdisciplinary project lead to much exploration as the adults did not define what the final proposed plan could be. Students intently dug into various ideas and issues in the course of their study. In the end, they presented their recommendations to school officials. Impressed with the students’ work, the school leadership continues to work with them to possibly bring one of the proposals to reality.

National School Reform Faculty has a wealth of protocols for developing thinking among students and staff. The Pocket Guide to Probing Questions is an excellent tool for helping students learn to ask questions that stretches one’s thinking. It’s also a process that teachers will find successful in helping students work through their thinking.

Establish culture of constructive feedback

Constructive feedback is more valuable, and palatable to students, then constructive criticism. Students and adults think of criticism as wholly negative, which is not the intent in education. A culture of constructive feedback helps a person or team to make a product or idea better than its current draft. Sometimes the change is dramatic, and needed; but other times the improvement is modest, and worthwhile.

There are many protocols that can be found or created based on giving good feedback. A good guide is “How Am I Doing?” by Jan Chappuis[iv] Also, it’s good to include starter stems for any conversation, such as:

  • “I like…”
  • “I wonder…”
  • “What if…”

Such a structure takes time to develop, but once in place, students are empowered to support each other, and free the teacher to coach where needed.

While there could be more steps to nurture rich constructivist learning in a Common Core environment, these six will get you a long way on the journey. Whether you begin small or big, start with the first 2 understandings, and you’ll have the base you need for students to prosper. Then delve into the remaining 4 to make the experiences for your students and yourself rich with learning and engagement.

[i] Standards Based Learning (#sblchat) is a great Professional Learning Network on Twitter that discusses many topics about assessment and grading practices. As of this writing, there is a standard Twitter session at 9 p.m. EST on Wednesdays.

[ii] Teampedia.org is a great resource for free team builders. Check out the category: Collaboration. A place for Collaboration rubrics is the Buck Institute for Education. They have collaboration rubrics for different grade spans, and versions that are aligned to CCSS and non-CCSS.

[iii] Quote from Myla Lee’s teacher reflection about this amazing experience. Myla (@MyTLee3) leads a district initiative to implement Project Based Learning. As of this writing, she is completing a successful first year.

[iv] Article can be found at ASCD Educational Leadership, September 2012, p. 36-41.

Collaboration: Virtual & Instant with Tagboard

During a PLN twitter #satchat[i] session on a Saturday morning, Charity Stephens[ii], a teacher, shared her use of Tagboard.com with her students. The students studied grammar—different elements of pronoun usage. When Charity introduced hashtags to support the work, one of her students introduced the idea of Tagboard.com. Like any excellent teacher, Charity naturally welcomed the student’s idea and incorporated it into the lesson. Working in teams, the students posted their ongoing work products on a classroom tagboard, so that all of the teams could compare their answers, formatively assess their work and that of the other teams. The lesson and using tagboard enabled students to support each other in making sense of the work, rather than a traditional approach where students would complete their individual work and await the teacher to tell them what’s correct and what’s wrong. TwitterPLNSatChat

This lesson experience by Charity and her students exemplified engaged student voice, where the students did the major work, while the teacher could facilitate and coach students where needed.

Tagboard[iii] is a website where you can capture any conversation that includes a specific hashtag. It captures content from 6 different social networks, which offers flexibility from where users who share the same hashtag can participate in the learning dialog.ilitate and coach students where needed.

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For example, I could create #jmcEng1 for students in a first hour English class to use for dialog and resource sharing about concepts and content. Or I could use the same hashtag for students in all sections of 1st year high school English—thus breaking down the artificial barriers for collaborative learning dialog between all students studying the same work.

In the past week, I conducted 3 workshops where I used Tagboard as a professional learning network (PLN) collaboration tool. Hudson High School staff in WI spent 3 days learning about PBL and developing solid PBL units for their students. The staff highlighted key concepts and shared digital resources to support their work. In VA, York County School Division assistant principals and instructional coaches shared their reflections with the group for effective support of their teachers. Tagboard was a means to capture great insights, and possibly for the ongoing work in their division-wide commitment to Transformative Learning and Transformative Project-Based Learning—which is it’s own amazing story. In MI, WSC Academy staff used Tagboard to reflect on quality assessments and eliminating #gradefog. Each group has a unique hashtag that they were encouraged to explore it’s continued use along their PLN journey as a staff:

  • school-wide, during department and staff meetings
  • division-wide, across leadership conversations and reflection of the postings after a dialog event on practice and implementation

I also find it’s use valuable when teaching college course and online courses. Using a common hashtag like #edu5410, the ongoing conversation and level of participation can be tracked and analyzed. Students have an easy way for instant asynchronous conversation via their phones and tablets. Later, they can check tagboard for a balcony view of the conversation for their own reflection regarding active collaboration and ideas to dig into for more dialog.


From the K-12 students, college students, and their respective Education staffs, hashtags and social networks are mediums for active and deep conversations around learning, reflection on practice, and related resources. Tagboard is means to capture such active voices in an easy format for analysis, reflection, response, and collaboration.

Try it!

Would love to read your comments about using Tagboard with students and/or staff.



[i] #satchat is a PLN of educators who dialog about educational topics and issues to improve understanding and explore different perspectives. Meets on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. est.

  • Some other PLNs to create a Tagboard for are:
    • #pblchat on Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. est
    • #nbtchat is another PLN that meets on Sundays at 8:00 p.m. est.

[ii] Charity Stephens is an innovative teacher. You can find her ideas by following her on Twitter @differniated4u

[iii] Tagboard offers free and paid accounts. I’ve only used the free version. Refresh rates may vary. I tend to do manual refreshes, which seems to work after about a minute on posting comments with a hashtag.

Links Teachers Use Today pt1

At every workshop I facilitate, I share several resources that support teacher’s supporting student learning. Recently in Nashville, TN, I asked the teachers to share resources that they use in working with students. What follows is the list they generated. What might you add to the list via the comments to impact student learning?

  1. www.watchknowlearn.org
    Free educational videos on many topics.
  2. www.mathscore.com
    Hybrid Edugaming for mathematics.
  3. www.tagxedo.com/
    Make word clouds in creative and interesting ways.
  4. www.apimages.com
    Great API pictures. Mostly available to Tennessee residents.
    Go through Nashville Public Library
  5. hotspotshield.com
    Hotspot shield (for iPad, have to buy and download app for VPN)
  6. www.illustrativemathematics.org
    Explains math concepts that include illustrations. Show concepts in different ways.
  7. www.typingweb.com
    Typing practice online.
  8. www.khanacademy.org
    Mathematics explained through videos. Create courses to track the work of students’ practice.
  9. www.smartpiggybank.com
    A site that helps parents teach children how to use money.
  10. www.nctm.org
    ational Council of Teachers of Mathematics
  11. tweentribune.com
    E-Zine for different grade levels.
  12. http://www.neh.gov/divisions/education/summer-programs
    Here are many opportunities for teachers to attend summer institutes that deepens their learning and professional development.
  13. newseum.org/todaysfrontpages/
    See the front page of newspapers around the world.
  14. www.usgs.gov
    United States Geological Survey resources.
  15. keepvid.com
    Capture video from Youtube to play offline.
  16. http://portaportal.com
    Enables online storage of bookmarks.
  17. http://guest.portaportal.com/burnell4
    4th Grade Gen Ed Content Games / Links
  18. http://nlvm.usu.edu
    National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, a math resource
  19. www.prezi.com
    Non-linear presentation tool
  20. www.learnzillion.com
    Common Core explained.
  21. yaymath.org
    Videos by students to help students.
  22. www.bibme.org
    Bibliography maker
  23. audioboo.fm/about/education
    A tool for capturing video of students.
  24. http://www.livebinders.com
    Virtual binders for students and teachers.
  25. http://www.teacherspayteachers.com
    Teacher to teacher buying and selling instructional resources
  26. rubistar.4teachers.org
    Rubric development site
  27. www.rcampus.com
    Rubric Social Network site
  28. www.readworks.org
    Resoruces for reading instruction

Writer’s Block Breakthrough

cartoon sandboxThere comes a time after a lesson when the students are directed to write on a topic. An enlightened teacher will give students choices or let the learners choose their own topic. But often times, there are students, sometimes most, who can’t seem to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

The reasons for this block varies. It might be that the student has so many ideas in their head that it’s difficult to choose a start. Brain freezes occur, or the voices in the student’s head may tell them they have nothing “worthy” to contribute. I’ve witnessed this in students with the writing task of a major paper or journal, to drafting for a 6 word story. I previously blogged about the Window Activity, and here is another effective protocol.

Fastwrite – Quickwrite Protocol

This protocol helped my students find their writing voice and built their stamina to write. It’s simplicity makes the results so amazing.

Step One: Fastwrite (aka Quickwrite)

Have students write about a topic–one given or one of their own choosing. Follow the following rules:

  1. Write without pausing–do not stop writing for any reason.
  2. Do not stop to make corrections. Leave errors on the page and move forward.
  3. Write whatever comes to mind regarding the topic.
  4. When stuck, repeatedly write the same Target word, until you come up with another idea or detail to write.drawing_the_path

The physicality of writing helps students/writers to generate ideas and details. This process enables students to unload their thoughts and not worry about grammar mechanics. The target word represents the topic idea or theme. The roving teacher will spot students repeating the target word, and can assist them in becoming unstuck.

When time is up–recommend 5-20 minutes, depending on experience–instruct students to…

  • Read their writing and circle or underline three key phrases that catch their interest. Option: Have the students pair up to read what they wrote. This activity can generate ideas to circle. Or, have them talk about why they picked the 3 phrases, which will percolate ideas for the phrase to choose for Step Two.
  • Next, have students skip a line and copy one of the 3 phrases they chose.

Step Two: Freewrite

Have students write about their chosen phrase for a length of time that is double the time from step one. A good metaphor is taking a magnifying glass to the phrase and expand the details about the phrase. Follow the following rules:

  1. Unpack the phrase with as many details as you can think of.
  2. Feel free to pause for thinking about the next detail you will add.
  3. If you get stuck, skip a line and copy the next of 3 phrases from Step One, and write more details about the new phrase.

Where fastwrites enabled students to pour out their thoughts on a topic, freewrites allow students to organize their ideas and deeply focus on the phrases that they identify as important or relevant. Used as a second step, students have material from the fastwrite to compose and organize their ideas into coherent writing.

Final Thoughts
To prepare for this protocol, students need opportunities to improve their writing stamina,  something of particular need long before they take a standardized timed writing exam or compose a lengthy paper. My approach is to start with lots of fastwrites, starting at 3-5 minutes and than building up students’ writing muscle to 20 minutes. In 2-3 weeks I’ve gotten students from 2nd grade–my son–to high school students to effectively sustain non-stop writing for lengthy periods of time. This protocol could start with a 5 minute fastwrite, followed by a 10 minute freewrite. The structure works best when the freewrite is at least double the time of the fastwrite. For example, if done in a class with 40 minutes, a 20 minute fastwrite might mean a 30-40 minute freewrite that spans two class periods. Of course, feel free to adjust these times as needed. The key is how valuable is the student thinking and depth of the key learning targets.

Concept-based Driving Questions

There are coffee tables across the world that–if they could talk–could tell stories about conversations among professionals. One possible scenario are the tables that shared the conversations of such influential thinkers as Lynn Erickson, Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and others. Years ago, I met Lynn Erickson who’d just given a talk at the Summer Institute of Academic Diversity (SIAD), hosted by Carol Tomlinson, one of the leading pioneers of how effective Differentiated Instruction is discussed and influences classroom instruction today. Susan Allan is another influential pioneer on Differentiated Instruction. Lynn’s talk about concept based instruction open doorways in my mind that even today have a profound effect on my lenses for education. Like Understanding by Design (UBD) and Differentiated Instruction, Concept-Based Instruction had a profound impact on my professional growth with Project Based Learning (PBL) and effective unit design.

students1Whether for Project Based Learning or enriched units of study, having a solid question that students answer by what they complete as the final product and/or performance is critical. This is also true in business and school improvement initiatives. A good driving question enables a staff to delve deep into the work and produce rich solutions and plans that go beyond surface-level action. Creating good over arching questions that frames a unit for deep inquiry and connects learning to our lives is a daunting and challenging task.

Earlier, I talked about Driving Question Basics, which provides a foundation of what characterizes good questions.

DQ Tri Elements

What follows, builds off of these basics. Often when teachers craft driving questions, the struggle is how to connect the core content and concepts to the project/unit outcome AND make it engaging so students are hooked.

There are five steps:

Step 1: Identify 1-2 key academic concepts

Step 2: Choose a universal theme

Step 3: Craft a statement that begins with the stem: “Students understand that…” Include the words from steps 1 and 2.

Step 4: Transform the statement from step 3 into a question.

Step 5: Revise the question so that it is in student friendly language.

Now let’s take a closer look at each step.

Step 1: Identify 1-2 key academic concepts
Review your essential standards that students will need to deeply understand by the end of the unit. Unpack those standards for the key concepts. Choose from those concepts the ones with overarching effect. For example, from the 8th grade Common Core English standards on writing:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.1 Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.1a Introduce claim(s), acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.

Concept: Counter Claims

Step 2: Choose a universal theme
A universal theme is an idea or concept that is timeless and/or cross-cultural. Some examples include peace, conflict, love, justice, tolerance. Doing a search using the key words- universal themes list -you’ll find lists that are mostly literary, or try- universal themes and generalizations -to find lists coming mostly from the Gifted and Talented world, but quite useful for all students.

Theme: Justice

Step 3: Craft a statement that begins with the stem: “Students understand that…” Include the words from steps 1 and 2.
It’s important that the stem be used as is. The resulting statement will get to the heart of what students (or participants in adult work groups) need to deeply understand from the project/unit experience. In UBD, this would become a Big Idea for the project/unit.

Students understand that…exploring meanings from counter claims helps us to convince skeptics on the justice for ideas and people we advocate.

Step 4: Transform the statement from step 3 into a question.
This is a critical step for crafting the Driving Question. The results will be in teacher language. That’s okay. This step is about framing a question that maintains the value of the overarching understanding composed in step 3. The resulting question will maintain the key words from steps 1 and 2, but could be rephrased in different language.

How can we use counter arguments to our viewpoint to convince skeptics on the justice needed for those who we advocate?

It’s tempting to stop here because the content is present in the question. This question will work well as an essential or guiding question (Wiggins). It helps students understand important content and concepts that must be included in their answer to the Driving Question.

Step 5: Revise the question so that it is in student friendly language.
The final step is for making a question that can hook students into the unit. The academic concepts may not be present in the language, but is implied.

How can we convince others of the justice of our cause?

Once these steps are completed, you’ll have a good draft for a Driving Question. As the PBL Unit or traditional unit is further developed, the question will be refined.

Note: the driving question is tied directly to the final product/performance. What students do by the end of the unit to demonstrate their proficiencies should also answer the Driving Question.

Here are more examples of this process by teachers. The results are initial drafts that will be further refined as they develop their Project Based Learning Units.

Science & Social Studies

  1. Key Concepts: Environment and Marketing
  2. Theme: Nature
  3. Students understand that…environmental science can be marketed for revenue.
  4. How can environmental science be marketed for revenue?
  5. How could exploring science at our Outdoor Education Center be used to make money for the district?


  1. Key Concepts: Volume and Surface Area
  2. Theme: Capitalism
  3. Students understand that…volume and surface area can affect (capitalism) cost of packaging.
  4. How does knowledge of geometry help manufacturers design packaging?
  5. What is the best way to package a select product?

Grade 5 Interdisciplinary Team Project

  1. Key Concepts: Scientific Method (Science), Statistics (Math), and Informational Text (English)
  2. Theme: Forecasting
  3. Students understand that…they can use statistics and informational texts to help predict future weather events.
  4. How do statistics and informational texts help predict future weather events?
  5. How can we inform our community about the dangers of severe weather?

Student Voice & Minecraft PBL

Last week during the snow days, or rather the Freeze days of -30+ degree weather, my son spent those two days writing and revising a proposal, sharing its content with his peers, and analyzing work by others for critical logic flaws and idea development. The weekend prior he spent researching several ideas, and then pitched them to me as a sounding board for him to decide on what direction he would go. The many hours that this project entailed consumed much of his free time. The end result was a detailed, well-thought out persuasive proposal that he submitted to an organization that runs a Minecraft server (this is a virtual world where players can interact with each other as an option to the single-player default program, read the resource article at the end for more such sites: Top 15+ Best Minecraft Mods 2018).

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.23.11 PM

Here’s the kicker: This was not a school sanctioned assignment. It was a contest run by SuperCraftBrothers. This gaming organization were preparing an upgrade and asked their users to recommend new character classes to be developed. The response was so overwhelming in a short amount of time, SuperCraftBrothers posted a new submission deadline that cut the timeline by two weeks. At this time of update, there were 467 submissions.

Consider this: The players, mostly of school age, were designing a new character class that had to be unique, intriguing to other players, be balanced in power, and fit the branding of the SuperCraftBrothers gaming world. Submitters had to describe with sufficient details the character class, and use their persuasive skills to convince the judges why their character class stood out from the rest as the best fit for the game. The original posting would be the perfect introduction of a PBL Unit, or Entry Event in PBL vocabulary.

Original Anouncement

If this work was part of a class project, consider just the 9-10th Grade English Language Arts Common Core standards that were being practiced (Note: for non-common core there are equivalent such as SOLs in VA and TEKs in TX):

Text Types and Purposes

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Production and Distribution of Writing

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task,  purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1–3 above.)
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.5 Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of Language standards 1–3 up to and including grades 9–10 here.)
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Conventions of Standard English

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.2 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

On February 1st, the announcement will be made as to the proposals that will be accepted. How many students do you think are going to be checking the results? How many of those same students show the same enthusiasm for the results of a traditional or scenario-based paper? It could be made to happen with change in the final product having a possible impact on an audience outside of the classroom.

Game on!

Want to learn more about Minecraft: