Category Archives: 02 – Teaching, Learning, & Assessments

Effective Peer Coaching

To use the word ‘coach’ to describe an educational coach almost seems like a misnomer. The term ‘coach’ implies one person has skills and insight that the other does not. Terms like ‘supporter’ or ‘collaborator’ seem much more fitting. Modern coaches and their peers “are learning with and from each other, as they co-plan learning activities, model, team-teach, observe, and reflect. This is a collaborative relationship that requires meaningful discussions about ways to improve teaching and learning [that] are likely to challenge current practices.” (Foltos, 2013) In other words, coaching is not a one-way street where one party is being spoon-fed tips and tricks!

The balance between coaching and collaborating is one that needs to be set early in the relationship. As part of collaborative norms for coaching, Foltos suggests using the concept of ‘joint accountability.’ Joint accountability can only occur after coaching pairs have both explicitly committed to norms for both their individual and collective responsibilities. The scope of this accountability may change depending on the task at hand. Is the coaching relationship a year-long one? Or is the focus narrow to a specific unit or new technology implementation? The scope and purpose of the collaboration should guide the norms being established.

Having norms in place can prevent the type of spoon-feeding or learned helplessness that can arise when teachers misunderstand the purpose of an educational coach. What this looks like on a practical level is the use of probing questions to guide the teacher through inquiry. The role of the coach in solving a problem is to help the teacher think critically and perhaps consider the issue through a new lens. Ultimately, “the collaborating teacher develops the answer that he or she brings back to the classroom to implement… [drawing] on what he or she learned with and from the coach.” (Foltos, 2013)

Another element critical to the success of a peer coaching relationship is the willingness and commitment of the participating teacher. A successful coaching relationship can only exist when the participating teacher is “open to collaboration and want[s] to improve teaching and learning. The willingness to collaborate and improve is essential.” (Foltos, 2013) Just as it is with young students, buy-in is critical. A teacher must be in a position of wanting to learn and willing to try new things. Likewise, the coach should not enter the relationship with preconceived notions and solutions. 

Giving teachers voice and choice in the coaching process is essential. While many districts assign coaches to teachers, this is not the best practice. Teachers should never feel they are “being punished and forced to change.” (Foltos, 2013). Instead, teachers can be given opportunities to partner with coaches who are interested in collaboration. This is where the term ‘coach’ can hinder the success of educational coaching. Shifting away from the model of having a handful of “expert coaches” working with a large population of teachers, peer coaching can be much more accessible and amenable to teachers. For example, an English teacher can coach a Social Studies teacher who is interested in implementing Close Reading in his/her classroom. Or a teacher who is passionate about assistive technology can work with the resource specialist in exploring new tools for students. 

Ultimately, a great deal of time and energy must be exhibited by both the coach and participating teacher in order to make the coaching relationship successful and beneficial for all parties. Though this can seem like a lot of work, the effort pays off when “…you can take risks and try out new ideas, instructional strategies, or different approaches to the curriculum and discuss the results with a trusted colleague.” (Robbins, 1991)


Foltos, L. (2013). Peer coaching (1st ed.). Corwin.

Robbins, P. (1991). How to plan and implement a peer coaching program. Washington: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tools to Evaluate 21st Century Teaching

Earlier in the EDTC program, I blogged about Future Ready Schools which is an initiative aimed at evaluating a district’s current progress in terms of meeting 21st-century learning goals. The feedback I received from my peers was that it seemed like an interesting program, but left little support for teachers wishing to independently identify their own areas of possible improvement. For this week’s post, I wanted to focus on evaluation tools available to teachers for self-assessment or coaches for mentor feedback. While many options exist for teacher feedback, my focus was on observation tools that support teachers in implementing 21st-century learning skills in support of ISTE coaching standard 2: “Coach teachers in and model incorporation of research-based best practices in instructional design when planning technology-enhanced learning experiences.”

Before considering frameworks for evaluation, it’s important to establish what is meant by the term ’21st-century learning.’ I found the above graphic from the Partnership for 21st Century Learning to be helpful in considering the interconnected skills required of 21st-century learning. 21st-century learning focuses on deep rather than shallow learning, opportunities for real-world problem solving, overarching themes that cross disciplines, and equipping students with the ability to process, filter, and synthesize information from a variety of sources.


Evaluation Tool 1: Council for 21st Century Learning

The Council for 21st Century Learning is committed to supporting 21st-century learning by offering consulting and training to districts and schools. Their work begins with a diagnostic to identify areas of need. Support is then provided through coaching, workshops, and presentations. One thing I find interesting about C21L is that they emphasize two components for successful implementation- in and for. Learning IN the 21st-Century involves the use of technology to process, interact, and publish information. Learning FOR the 21st-Century refers to the experiences and skill sets necessary to thrive when interacting with technology such as critical thinking and collaborating. C21L has publicly shared many resources on its website that are available for all teachers to use.

The following observation form is designed to be used by coaches or administrators when completing walk-through evaluations. The checklist format makes it easy to take note of the various elements within the classroom environment. I appreciate how comprehensive this list is. In addition to types of technology use (by both student and teacher), there are places for feedback on the types of instructional strategies being used, student grouping, and even levels of Blooms’ taxonomy. Instead of using this checklist solely for evaluative purposes, it would also be a powerful tool for teachers to utilize when planning or reflecting on a lesson.

Evaluation Tool 2: Strengthening Your Reflective Commentary

This tool was created by AJ Castley and included in various methods on the Warwick Learning and Development Centre for teachers to self-assess. The form provides teachers with 7 open-ended questions to consider their teaching across 3 areas: teaching, assessing, and curriculum design. Within each broad question are more particular questions designed to walk teachers through a deep analysis and reflection of what went well and what could be improved within a given lesson. Some of the guiding questions include “Why did you do it that way? How else might you have done it?” I thought this tool paired particularly well with the conversations my 6105 class has been having about probing questions (see my earlier post on Inquiry Method for Educational Coaching).

These questions on this form facilitate strong self-reflection for teachers choosing to use individually. The framework would also work well for coaches looking at ways to draw out reflection from a teacher. Another way to utilize these reflection questions is to frame discussion within a PLC about a lesson or unit.

Evaluation Tool 3: Learning Design Matrix

One of the resources shared in my 6105 class this past week aligns with my exploration of feedback tools. The Learning Design Matrix was adapted from Eeva Reeder, a frequent Edutopia contributor on Project Based Learning. Within the four-square matrix, teachers and coaches can consider elements of a 1) Standards-Based Task, 2) Engaging Task, 3) Problem-Based Task, and also how technology enables and/or accelerates learning of that given task. Rather than viewing the matrix as a comprehensive to-do list, it is helpful to choose several key elements and consider how a lesson you’ve taught or want to teach fits within those elements.

Coaches can use the matrix when evaluating a teacher’s lesson or unit or when assisting them in planning. One activity we completed in class was reviewing a teacher’s unit plan and reflecting on the unit in light of the matrix. My classmates and I found elements of the matrix being used in the unit with success and then considered how we could improve the unit plan using other elements from the matrix. It was an extremely enlightening exercise.

The Inquiry Method for Educational Coaching

Inquiry is a powerful tool used by teachers to foster curiosity and independence within students. Instead of spoon-feeding content, students reach their own conclusions. Popular options for incorporating inquiry in the classroom are 20-Time or Genius Hour where students explore a topic of their own choosing. Inquiry is about more than just student-driven projects; it’s also a methodological shift where you respond to questions with other questions instead of simply providing an answer. For example-

Student: Why does the character react like that?

Teacher: Let’s consider the character. Pretend that you are his same age and have his same motivations and fears. What would you feel like if your best friend betrayed you?

Inquiry is truly an art. Having seen the power of inquiry for students, I wanted to consider its application and impact when used by technology coaches to support teacher development. One component of ISTE Coaching Standard 2 is to “coach…and model incorporation of research-based best practices in instructional design.” (, 2017)

Why Inquiry?

  • Avoid learned helplessness and empower teachers: Foltos points out that taking on the role of an expert who has an answer for everything can do more harm than good when coaching teachers: “Successful coaches realize that routinely taking on the role of expert with answers is the wrong path toward collaboration and capacity building.” (2014) A downside to simply providing answers without encouraging independence through inquiry is that teachers come to rely on the coach. Inquiry, on the other hand, is empowering.

Implementing Inquiry as a Coach

  • Begin with specific need: Instead of one-size-fits-all professional development, scholars like John Dewey encourage teachers to identify specific content-area problems and then explore possible solutions. This problem-solution method is effective because it “unleashes an inquiry process in which the quest first for definition, then for resolution becomes a compelling necessity” (Demetrion as cited in Ermeling, 2012). Coaches can play a valuable role in guiding teachers toward identifying needs and then creating plans to meet those needs.
  • The three lenses: Ermeling presents a fascinating argument for why educators seeking to grow with the inquiry method must learn to see their subject matter through three lenses. The first is the lens of the researcher which asks the teacher to “formulate hypotheses, collect data, rely on evidence for decision-making, and generalize from findings.” The second lens requires an educator to “sequence and connect students’ learning experiences.” The final lens, that of the student, “represents an educator’s capacity to view instruction through the eyes of the student, anticipate their thinking and use this knowledge to build experiences.” (Ermeling, 2012)
  • Creative data sources: To measure the efficacy of any newly implemented strategy, teachers are encouraged to collect data which can then be shared with a coach before planning the next steps in the inquiry cycle. Evidence should drive reflection, analysis, and next steps. Coaches can assist teachers in moving beyond traditional assessments in order to gather data. In Ermeling’s exploration on the features of the inquiry process, he includes “student work, student interviews, student questionnaires, checklists, self-assessments, portfolios, systematic classroom observations, test results, [and] audio or video recordings from the classroom” as valid data points for teachers and coaches to consider. (2012)
  • Give it time to stick: Inquiries that expand throughout several months or even the entire school year are preferable to short, brief inquiries. The reason for this is so that a coach and teacher can definitely state what cause produced what effect. (I would add the personal caveat that what works for one group of students may not for next year’s batch.) This investment requires a shift away from a focus on the “length of time or number of strategies” and towards “persit[ing] long enough to arrive at some important findings–tangible and explicit cause-effect connections between instructional decisions and student outcomes.” (Ermeling, 2012)

Tool of Inquiry: Probing Questions

Probing questions are an effective tool of inquiry which “are designed to get the teacher to think more deeply about and develop answers to the issues important to him or her.” (Foltos, 2013) Probing questions can and should be used at any point in the Inquiry process described in the previous section.

Do’s and Don’t of Probing Questions

Don’t ask if you have a preconceived answer in mind

Do paraphrase the teacher’s perspective before beginning

Do use open-ended questions

Don’t be afraid of simple questions

Original source: The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation by Elena Aguilar

Found via: “Effective Communication & Questioning When Coaching” by Ann Hayes-Bell


When I think about using inquiry in coaching, I am reminded of the following Proverb: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. The beauty of inquiry is that you can give a teacher the tools necessary to investigate and solve future problems for themselves.



Aguilar, E. (2013). The art of coaching. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.

Ermeling, B. (2012). Improving Teaching through Continuous Learning: The Inquiry Process John Wooden Used to Become Coach of the Century. Quest64(3), 197-208. doi: 10.1080/00336297.2012.693754

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer coaching (1st ed.). Corwin.

Foltos, L. (2014). The Secret to Great Coaching: Inquiry Method Helps Teachers Take Ownership of their Learning. Learning Forward35(3), 29-31. (2017). ISTE Standards For Coaches. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Oct. 2018].

Google Forms and the Power of Self-Assessment

Mention the word ‘data’ in a staff meeting and you’ll see teachers stifle eye rolls and sighs. Because we know what’s coming next…graphs and charts depicting test scores from the prior school year or quarter showing us all the ways in which our students didn’t meet the districts’ lofty goals. This isn’t the kind of data I want to talk about today. I want to talk about data that is meaningful and student-driven.

Data collection and analysis is part of the ISTE Coaching Standard 2h, “…model effective use of technology tools and resources to systematically collect and analyze student achievement data.” Being a self-professed Google junkie, I knew I wanted to cover Google Forms for this post. Then, after researching the many ways Google Forms can be used for data collection, I discovered a post on the blog Lindsay Ann Learning which suggested using Forms for student self-assessment. I’ve used Forms to gather and analyze multiple choice data, but this post opened my eyes to new ways to use Forms for data. It also challenged me to consider how I define “quality” data. Is it the percentage of students who chose the correct letter answer, or is it growth over time as defined by a much broader set of standards and demonstrated through reflection?

What is meaningful self-assessment?

  • A process in which students “1) monitor and evaluate the quality of their thinking and behavior when learning and 2) identify strategies that improve their understanding and skills. That is, self-assessment occurs when students judge their own work to improve performance as they identify discrepancies between current and desired performance.” (McMillan & Hearn, 2008)

Why student-driven data?

  • Students regularly provided with the opportunity to self-assess and reflect on their own learning are more likely to recognize the elements that led to success: hard work, effort, and studying. (Fernandes & Fontana, 1996)

New Data Idea 1: Collect data in the form of student reflection

To test out this new way of collecting data, I made a sample Research Project Self-Assessment in Google Forms. I incorporated the advice shared on Lindsay Ann Learning including using linear scales with an odd number of choices (to ensure no middle-line stances), incorporating open and close-ended questions, and writing questions designed to measure self-perception of learning. Here’s what data from that self-assessment might look like:

Class-wide data as seen from Google Form Responses tab


Sample student report with change over time (click to enlarge)


New Data Idea 2: Give the power of the rubric to students

Rubrics. I have a love-hate relationship with them. Why? They’re so helpful in understanding where a student is at and why, yet almost no student actually reads through them! That’s why I appreciated Jennifer Roberts’ idea. As part of her Memoir Self-Reflection (which you can make a copy of here), students must read through her rubric and rate themselves on each element.

Photo credit: Google Form ‘Memoir Self Evaluation’ made by Jennifer Roberts

Research supports the value of rubrics in helping students meet learning goals. As stated by McMillan and Hearn: “[P]roviding evaluation criteria through rubrics…helps students concretely understand outcomes and expectations. They then begin to understand and internalize the steps necessary to meet the goals.” (2008)

New Data Idea 3: Exit tickets for quick reflection

Exit tickets as formative assessment are nothing new in education. However, using Google Forms to streamline this process can help you easily gauge how students feel about their own learning after a lesson. Here’s a sample Exit Ticket I made. Taking a minute at the end of class to allow students to self-assess can inform instruction before you dive into assessments and projects with a large portion of your class potentially in the dark.



Next Steps

Self-assessment data should drive instruction in your class in the same way that traditional high-stakes testing instruction should. Below are some next-steps you might consider when using self-assessment data to drive instruction.



Fernandes, M., & Fontana, D. (1996). Changes in control beliefs in Portuguese primary school pupils as a consequence of the employment of self-assessment strategies. British Journal Of Educational Psychology, 66(3), 301-313. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.1996.tb01199.x

Google Forms for Data Collection. (2016). Retrieved from

McMillan, J., & Hearn, J. (2008). Student Self-Assessment: The Key to Stronger Student Motivation and Higher Achievement. Educational Horizons, 40. Retrieved from

Roberts, J. (2017). Self-Evaluation Google Form for Students. Retrieved from

Kiddom: A Tool to Support Standards-Based Grading and Individualized Learning

This week’s post was inspired by a Standards-Based Grading system I observed while subbing in a middle school math class recently. In the class, students were using the Schoology LMS (Learning Management System) to view the math goals (dubbed proficiencies) they had not yet reached for the quarter. They then took that information and sought out resources posted online by the teacher in order to help them meet those goals. Proficiency was demonstrated through quizzes posted online by the teacher. To study for each proficiency, students explored linked Khan Academy videos and completed various practice activities.

The system appealed to me for several reasons. Most importantly, students were aware of those skills they had mastered and which needed more practice. They also had the self-sufficiency to find and use the appropriate resources to help prepare to meet those goals. Students had a high degree of ownership over their learning and technology was providing both students and the teacher with data to analyze learning.

ISTE Educator Standard 6a asks educators to, “Foster a culture where students take ownership of their learning goals and outcomes in both independent and group settings.” While the system I observed used technology to meet those goals, I wanted to explore other tools available. I am not a big fan of Schoology and I was also curious about LMS systems designed specifically for Standards-Based Grading.

First of all, what is Standards-Based Grading (SBG)?

Standards-Based Grading is a method of assigning students a grade based on mastery of concepts instead of averages across multiple miscellaneous assignments. Ideally, the goals of a course should be driven by standards. Those goals are what is being measured in an SBG system. Instead of traditional letter grades, you may see terms like ‘Developing, Approaching, Mastery, Exceeding.’ These terms are sometimes converted to a number scale 1-4.

Why the shift to Standards-Based Grading (SBG)?

  • Traditional grades are inconsistent. Mastery based on standards is a much more qualitative learning measure than a traditional letter grade which also represents a student’s motivation, interest, and level of home support. Traditional letter grades also tend to be very subjective. What one teacher deems an A+ paper, another might assign a B-. SBG is much more objective. A grade is assigned based on whether or not specific learning goals are met (example- ‘Student used text evidence to support their analysis’).
  • Traditional grades rarely reflect mastery. As Scriffiny argues, “If we base our grades on standards rather than attendance, behavior, or extra credit (which often has nothing to do with course objectives), we can actually help students grapple with the idea of quality and walk away with a higher degree of self-sufficiency.” (2008)
  • SBG better promotes growth. Like many teachers, it frustrates me when students focus on making the minimum grade and moving on. Learning becomes a siloed, once-and-done experience. It feels inauthentic and drives students away from intrinsic motivation. Teacher and author John Spencer connects traditional grading to students’ fear of taking risks; “…when they see that their grades are based upon mastery rather than averaging, they realize that mistakes are an integrated part of the class flow.” There is value in these risks and mistakes because “when students can see [mistakes] as a natural part of the process, they can use mistakes to guide their reflection and ultimately celebrate their successes and the mistake-laden journey that led them there.” (Spencer, as quoted in Ferlazzo, 2016)

What is Kiddom?

In searching for ways that technology can support SBG and student ownership, I discovered a blog post by Angela Watson discussing Kiddom online. Kiddom is a Learning Management System that supports Standards-Based Grading for teachers in grades K-12. free for teachers and students. Dozens of standards are available including state-specific standards, Common Core standards, the ISTE standards, Next Generation Science standards, and even Social Emotional Learning standards.

Much like Google Classroom or Schoology, Kiddom serves as an online grade book and classroom. After setting up your class and inviting students, you can use the Kiddom library of lessons or upload your own assignments. Kiddom is fully integrated with Google Doc and you can incoporate lessons from popular sites like Newsela, Khan Academy, and IXL Learning. For each assignment, you can choose multiple standards and rubrics. You can choose between pre-populated rubrics and creating your own.

Kiddom also supports blended learning since you can include non-digital assignments and input the scores based on a rubric. To get an idea of what Kiddom looks like from a student’s perspective, check out this blog post.

How does Kiddom support individualized learning?

The data available to teachers give an accessible and visually appealing overview of where individual students and the class as a whole are at in terms of meeting set goals and overall standards. You can see some examples of that data on the page ‘What Insights Do My Reports Offer?

Using that data to inform instruction, assignments can be given to specific students based on their level of mastery. This is ideal for providing either extensions, extra practice, or remediation based on student need.


How can Kiddom support student ownership?

Kiddom uses the following graphic to depict the learning cycle that is possible with Standards-Based Grading and the Kiddom software. It’s similar to many cyclical education models where the student defines the tasks and sources, completes the task, reflects, and refines.


Using the reporting tools, students have the ability to view their progress toward specific goals. Kiddom provides a student-centered video tutorial for how to interpret reports on Kiddom. Below is a snapshot of the overall view students and parents can see from the Kiddom dashboard. Clicking on individual assignments within a standard reveals comments and the rubric used to assess the work. In this way, students know what they need to do in order to improve their mastery.

Another neat feature that Kiddom provides is the ability to teach using Playlists. Playlists support student choice (as I’ve previously explored). Playlists can be used to offer multiple ways to learn and show you know. Additionally, they can be assigned to specific students based on need or interest. One way I can envision using this tool in the Language Arts classroom is to support digital literature circles where each group is reading a different novel.

Are there any drawbacks?

The level of teacher investment and interest in the Kiddom system will likely impact how successful the tool is in supporting student ownership and individualized learning.

Kiddom offers a powerful set of tools if fully utilized. If not fully utilized, I can see this being a glorified online rubric system. For instance, if a teacher is only checking a box on a generic pre-populated rubric and not providing any comments or additional support/differentiation, it’s kind of like using a Ferrari only to transport your kid to soccer practice. It gets the job done, but you don’t need this tool if that’s all you want to accomplish.

To be successful, detailed feedback should be provided by the teacher along with additional support as needed. This is easily accomplished through the differentiated assignment options. Students should be given the option to refine and resubmit work. Standards-Based Grading is about a mind shift as much as it is a grade shift.



Ferlazzo, L. (2016). Response: ‘Freedom to Fail’ Creates a Positive Learning Environment [Blog]. Retrieved from

Kiddom – Collaborative Learning Platform. (2018). Retrieved from

Scriffiny, P. (2008). Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading. Retrieved from

Townsley, M. (2014). What is the Difference between Standards-Based Grading (or Reporting) and Competency-Based Education?. Retrieved from

Credibility, Citation, and Curation: a 21st Century Take on Research Skills

Throughout this quarter in the Digital Education Leadership MEd program, I’ve been working on a unit plan that encompasses the Understanding by Design teaching model, Common Core English Language Arts Writing standard 8 which deals with research skills, and ISTE Student Standard 2c which asks students to consider the rights and obligations of using others’ intellectual property online. This blog post serves to outline the process I took in applying the Understanding by Design Model as well as sharing the unit plan I created.


In my prior district, all of our 8th-grade students completed an interdisciplinary research project where the English teachers, History teachers, and librarian worked together to assist students as they researched an issue of their own choosing within the umbrella of Human Rights. By far, the most difficult aspect of this project for students was in determining which sources they should use. Even when given a specific database to use, students had difficulty in determining the best source when multiple options were presented. The problem was compounded when using Google to find outside resources. Too frequently, students attempted to use websites that were not credible or they simply chose the top results on Google. As a teacher, I was so focused on the end result (a presentation supported by a digital presentation tool of student choice) that I didn’t spend enough time thinking through this critical element of the puzzle. Throughout the quarter, I was asked, “Is this a good source?” much too often. Other teachers argued that students’ online research should be limited to school-subscribed databases like SIRS to avoid this issue altogether. I felt (and continue to feel) passionately that effective, real-world searching skills are necessary so I diverted from the department norm. However, I clearly could have done a better job of scaffolding the individual research skill sets.


I began my unit by formulating an essential question: How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources? I then broke my question down by considering what I really wanted students to accomplish. I followed the advice of Wiggins and McTighe: “Curriculum should lay out the most effective ways of achieving specific results” (14). Or, to put it simply, begin with the end in mind. The end result of this backward design thinking was the separation of the unit into four skill sets.

  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Effectively searching requires that students find online sources that are credible. It also requires students to evaluate multiple sources in order to determine which source best meets their research needs.
  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Ethical sourcing of information online requires that students avoid plagiarism by giving credit to source authors/creators. This includes knowledge of HOW to cite (MLA format for the English classroom) as well as the knowledge of WHEN to cite.
  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Finding information online requires that students do more than just pop their essential question into Google. Students can use Boolean search operators and advanced search options to get better quality results.
  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Using sources online can take many different forms. Regardless of the end project (be it the traditional research paper, a blog post, or a paper poster), students need to know how to actively read and interact with online sources.

Stage 1 of the Universal Design process includes the identification of desired results.

Established Goals (with standards)

  • Students will effectively and ethically find and use online sources. Throughout this unit, students will: 1) use search terms effectively, 2) assess the credibility of each source, and 3) use online information while avoiding plagiarism and citing sources.
  • Unit addresses CCSS ELA Writing 8 (which covers researching, evaluating, citing, and synthesizing multiple sources) and ISTE Student Standard 2c (the respect of intellectual property online). The unit is appropriate for students grade 7-10.
What essential questions will be considered?

  • What tools can be used to find relevant sources online?
  • How can a reader determine if information online is trustworthy?
  • What makes one source more beneficial than another in terms of answering an essential question?
  • How can writers avoid plagiarism and properly credit their sources?
  • What does it look like when researchers actively read and interact with sources? Why is this important?
  • Why is it important to curate and publish information online?
What understandings are desired?

  • Students will understand how to refine their online searches for more precise results.
  • Students will understand what makes an online source credible and relevant to their research.
  • Students will understand how to use information from online sources in a legal and ethical way.
  • Students will understand how and why to actively read (using notations, underlining, and comments) online sources.
  • Students will understand how and why to curate information online.

Stage 2 of the Universal Design process includes the identification of acceptable evidence.

For the unit’s performance task, I wanted to include an authentic and engaging way for students to demonstrate their understanding of research skills. When I came upon a blog post on curation from Jennifer Gonzalez, the idea for a project was born.

Show You Know with a Curated List: Students will research, evaluate, and critically respond to a topic of their choosing. The research and evaluation process will look similar for all students, but the topic and curated list is unique to their interests. They can choose to explore a future career, a hobby, social or political concerns, etc. The end result will be a curated list published online via  A curated list is essentially a collection and synthesis of information on a single topic from a variety of sources. It requires the traditional research elements taught in the ELA classroom with the addition of analyzing and evaluating the quality of sources in order to meet a specific publishing goal. For example, “3 Must-Read Harry Potter Fanfictions” would involve the creator’s personal preference and also their ability to summarize the stories and persuade readers to read them. Instructional topics such as “So You Want to Play the Drums” require students to present their findings in a sequential way that is clear enough for a beginner to benefit from their curated list. In addition to the academic benefits, curated lists are an ideal classroom tool because they require higher-order thinking and they may be published to an authentic audience (at teacher/parent discretion). Student example on differing interpretations of free speech. On the platform, students customize each element of their list (title, photo, and commentary). Because of this, the possibilities really are endless.

Stage 3 of the Universal Design process includes the specific learning experiences that will guide students through the learning process.

As I frequently do with my teaching, I blended existing online sources with unique sources I made specifically for this unit. My unit is broken up into the 4 skill sets I identified in Stage 1: Strategic Searching, Credible/Quality Sources, Credit Given to Authors, and Meaningful Interaction with Sources. I used a puzzle piece metaphor to help students visualize the various skills coming together to support solid research. This metaphor extends to the student note page which provides students a way to collect evidence from class discussions and work through an essential question for each skill set. At the end of the unit, the note page is a reference sheet that students can use in the future for any research assignment (including the performance task). Below is my complete, 2-week unit, “Credibility, Citation, and Curation: a 21st Century take on Research Skills.” To access the resources linked within, please open via Google Docs, here.

For a preview of the Performance Task (and explanation of curated lists) please check out the video tutorial I made below.


Understanding by Design was not a new concept to me, but it was extremely helpful to take an existing learning objective and rethink the learning process using the framework. If my experience is like that of other teachers, the best practices we learn in our credential programs occasionally must be sacrificed in the interest of hundreds of papers to grade, clubs to advise, meetings to attend, and lessons to present.

I’m thankful for the opportunity through my MEd program to take a deep dive into previously taught material while considering the lens of the ISTE standards. ISTE Student Standard 2c is a key component of any research project. Students must learn when and how to credit other sources. Students often think that they only need to credit a source if a direct quote is used. Or they change a few words and believe that is not plagiarism. For this reason, I wanted to incorporate not only the formatting guidelines of MLA, but also give students practice with crediting the various types of note-taking (quotes, paraphrasing, summarizing, etc).

Part of the Understanding by Design framework is evaluating what it means for students to truly understand the material you are presenting. Through the Performance Task, students were asked to apply the various elements they’d learned about research in publishing a curated list of sources and information on a topic of their choosing. I love the idea of having students create a curated list of sources because it is an ideal project to demonstrate knowledge of searching strategies, website evaluation, proper citations, and synthesis of information. Throughout the project, students much choose the BEST source, not just any source, and the justification they write allows their thinking in this aspect to be visible.


Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2008). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Exploring Computational Thinking via the Backpack Redesign Challenge

When tasked with exploring computational thinking skills, I must admit that my first reaction was to question the practical application for those of us not teaching computer science. What role can computational thinking play when teaching history or English? It turns out that computational thinking can support problem-solving in a variety of subjects. We use elements of computational thinking on a daily basis without even thinking about it.

What are computational thinking skills?


  • How can we take complex problems and break them down into simpler tasks?
  • Everyday Example: Making cookies is a complex task that can be broken down into smaller, simpler tasks such as mixing up the dough, forming into shapes via cookie cutters, and baking.
  • Academic Example: Writing an essay is a complex task that can be broken down into smaller tasks such as developing a thesis, gathering evidence, and creating a bibliography page.

Pattern Recognition

  • What similarities, differences, or patterns exist within the problem?
  • Everyday Example: Obeying the basic green – yellow – red pattern for traffic signals ensures that traffic moves safely through an intersection.
  • Academic Example: Pattern recognition is required when categorizing rocks as either igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary.


  • What general principles exist within the problem? What unimportant details can be ignored?
  • Everyday Example: Any map with a compass rose can be interpreted if you are familiar with North, South, East, and West directions.
  • Academic Example: To be classified as a fruit, a food must be seed-bearing. This is the key principle. Factors like taste can be used to describe the food as a fruit, but they shouldn’t be considered due to the variable nature of human taste buds (ie- one person thinks bananas are delicious and another hates them).

Algorithm Design

  • What steps are needed to solve the problem and how can the steps best be organized?
  • Everyday Example: Getting ready in the morning is a multi-step process. Certain steps must be performed in a specific order. For example, you must put on your socks before you put on your shoes.
  • Academic Example: In math, the mnemonic device PEMDAS (“please excuse my dear aunt Sally”) helps students remember the order of mathematical operations.

What is the “Backpack Redesign Challenge”?

The Backpack Redesign Challenge was created by the Institute of Design at Stanford. It is one of many projects available on the school’s Wiki page. Though no longer being updated, there are many exciting projects still hosted on the Wiki. The challenge is completed by students in pairs. The goal is to create a better backpack for your assigned partner. The following step-by-step instructions are adapted from the PDF guide posted on the Wiki.

Step 1: Interview (5 minutes per partner)

  • Conduct an interview to find out your partner’s likes and dislikes about their backpack. What needs do they have that aren’t being met? What do they look for when choosing a backpack? Jot down notes or sketches as your partner shares.
  • Note: Students should generate their own questions, however, it is helpful to give them examples of open vs close-ended questions (“Do you like your backpack?” vs “What is your favorite part of your backpack and why?”)

Step 2: Insights (1 minute)

  • What is your takeaway from the interview? What stood out to you?

Step 3: Empathy (3 minutes)

  • Identify your partner’s needs based on the interview.
  • Create a needs statement: {Partner} needs {fill in the blank} because {fill in the blank}.

Step 4: Brainstorm (5 minutes)

  • Jot down your ideas for a redesigned backpack taking your partner’s needs into account.

Step 5: Prototyping (8 minutes)

  • Create a prototype for your partner using provided supplies.
  • Note: For time purposes, students aren’t making an actual backpack. They should use poster paper, markers, crayons, and other art supplies to bring their vision to life for their partner. Encourage labels (ie- solar panel for cell phone charging).

Step 6: Feedback (5 minutes per partner)

  • What worked about the design? What could be improved on?
  • Note: A possible extension activity is having the student pitch their prototype to their partner or even to a panel of judges (other students or teachers/staff members).

Step 7: Reflect (3 minutes)

  • Which parts of the process were most challenging?
  • Describe the moment where you had your best idea?
  • How well did you capture your partner’s needs?

How does the Backpack Redesign Challenge support computational thinking?

Typically, redesign challenges are thought of as tools to teach design thinking (ISTE student standard 4). However, the process required to successfully take an existing design and improve on it lends itself particularly well to introducing computational thinking skills to students in a non-intimidating way. Substandard C of the computational thinking standard asks “Students [to] break problems into component parts, extract key information, and develop descriptive models to understand complex systems or facilitate problem-solving” (, 2017). In the case of the Backpack Redesign Challenge, the problem is identifying the needs of the user and developing a better backpack based on those needs.

Each component of computational thinking is covered with the Backpack Redesign Challenge:

  • Decomposition: Based on the information gathered during the interview portion, students must identify the elements of existing backpacks that work for their partner as well as elements that aren’t meeting their partner’s needs.
  • Pattern Recognition: Certain similarities exist within all backpacks and must be factored into the prototype. For instance, all backpacks have the same purpose…to easily transport items. All backpacks also must have a way to be carried conveniently. The variables lie in the partner’s needs. Based on the variables, alterations must be made to the standard design. As students are prototyping, they are constantly considering which elements to keep (similarities) and which to replace (differences).
  • Abstraction: At its core, a backpack serves to conveniently carry items. What this looks like and how it works are elements students must create based on their interview. Another aspect of abstraction is deciding what the most critical elements are. As students carry out the interview, they may receive conflicting data or ideas that don’t seem feasible. It is their responsibility to determine which pieces of the design are most critical in meeting the needs of their client–aka partner.
  • Algorithm Design: The process of the redesign is in itself an algorithm: students must interview their partner in order to gain insight to their needs, students must then reflect on these needs and convert them into tangible design choices, students then take the changes that need to be made and combine them with the existing elements of backpacks, and finally students receive feedback on their design.

Taking the Challenge Further with Data

One of the sub-standards within ISTE’s computational thinking standard for students is to gather and analyze data digitally and then use that analysis to guide the solution to a problem (5b). I immediately thought of Google Forms, which is a very powerful (yet extremely easy to use) tool for collecting and analyzing data.

After students go through the interview and backpack redesign process with a partner in class, why not open the challenge up to a broader audience using Google Forms? Data can be collected safely from fellow students, family members, teachers, and even the public at large (if shared through social media).

If you’re not sure how to get students started on Google Forms, this video is an excellent introduction which can guide them through the creation of their survey. After sending the survey out and collecting responses, this video will guide students through the process of transporting their data into Google Sheets, working with various types of graphs, and publishing the results via Google Slides. Students can then use the Google Slide to share their data, insights, and backpack redesign prototype with the class or teacher. If students select the Google Form option to collect responder’s emails, the presentation could also be shared with anyone on the internet who took the survey. This enables students to still benefit from the feedback piece of the project. Another interesting option would be to have students pitch their data, insights, and prototype to the class who could then provide feedback and judge if the ‘clients’ needs were met through the redesign.

This extension task with Google Forms encourages students to be deliberate and strategic with their questions. In digital format, they don’t have the ability to say, “That’s interesting, can you tell me more?” So they must be sure to phrase questions and choose data input types (short text, long text, multiple choice, checkboxes, etc.) that will yield the most valuable information. For this reason, I think it is valuable to carry out the traditional challenge with an in-person interview before switching to Google Forms.

The collection of data from multiple sources introduces a new challenge for students. What to do when you receive conflicting data? For instance, one person loves traditional backpack straps and another prefers a shoulder bag style…which do you decide to implement into your design and why? While challenging, these type of decisions mimic real-world decisions that companies must make all the time. What a great opportunity for students to have an authentic experience!


A Taste of Design Thinking: Redesigning the Backpack. (2012). [ebook] Institute of Design at Stanford. Available at: [Accessed 4 Mar. 2018].

Computational Thinking for Educators. (2018). What is Computational Thinking?. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Mar. 2018]. (2017). ISTE Standards For Students. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Mar. 2018].

Valenzuela, J. (2018). How to develop computational thinkers. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Mar. 2018].