Using Unit Overview Sheets to Help EVERY Student See Progress.

I had a rewarding moment on Tuesday, y’all. 

I opened my Twitterstream and found this message from a participant in a one-day workshop that I offered on meaningful feedback practices in Kansas in early January:

Then, a WHOLE BUNCH of other folks in Twitter expressed interest in the tool that Jessica was talking about in her Tweet — which I call a Unit Overview Sheet.

Now, I’ve written about Unit Overview Sheets here on the Radical before (see here, here and here), but I promised to summarize my thinking about Unit Overviews and to share a few resources in a new post.

So here we go:

I make a Unit Overview sheet for every unit in my required curriculum:  It details the essential learnings for the unit in student friendly language AND it includes “doing tasks” that students can complete to prove that they have mastered an individual concept.

The most important section of a Unit Overview sheet are the rating bars:  Two or three times per week, we pull our Unit Overview sheets out during class for short (no longer than five minute) conversations about the outcomes we are working on.

During those conversations, I’ll say things like, “We’ve been working on the first objective today in class.  Do you know more about it now than you did at the beginning of class?  If so, change the rating on your rating bar.”

That gives my students LOTS of chances to see that they are making progress as learners.  They may only move from a one to a three on their rating bar — but that’s still a win.  Every kid gets to say, “I know more now than I did when we started class AND I’ve got a way to prove it.

Struggling students dig the vocabulary section on each Unit Overview sheet:  Sometimes when we are looking at Unit Overview sheets, I’ll say, “We were talking about __________ today during class.  That’s in your vocabulary list.  If you think you could define that term for your parents, check it off of your list.”

For struggling learners, that’s a TON of chances to feel like a learner.  Every single check mark that they get to make indicating that they know a word from our unit is REALLY validation — “I AM a learner because I learned a TON of vocabulary words during this unit.  Look at all my check marks!.”

I never collect Unit Overview Sheets:  My goal with Unit Overview Sheets isn’t to generate a grade.  I’ve got plenty of formative and summative assessments that I can use to rate my students mastery of concepts already.  My goal is just to make my learning intentions clear to my students and to remind them that they can track their own progress towards mastering those intentions.

Now, my kids don’t always buy that at the beginning of the year.  That’s because EVERYTHING in schools are graded in their minds.

But constant reinforcement during those two or three check-ins per week eventually leave them convinced.  “Guys, this is for you — not for me!  I want you to see what you know and can do already.  So be honest — what are you doing really well?  Where have you grown?  Where do you still have some growing to do?”

While my Unit Overview sheets are a sound, research based practice (making learning intentions clear to students and proving to students that they are capable learners are consistently ranked as high leverage instructional practices by researchers like John Hattie and Bob Marzano), my REAL purpose is to give every kid chances to see themselves as  learners.

That doesn’t always happen when grades of any kind are used as the primary tool for communicating progress to learners.

Is this making any sense to you?  

If so, here’s a sample of one of my Unit Overview sheets.

And here’s a sample of a completed Unit Overview sheet.

And here’s a blank copy of a Unit Overview sheet that you can use to get started.

Lemme know if you have any questions. 

This is probably the most important change that I’ve ever made in my classroom practice.  I’m passionate about it — and more than willing to help you get started too.

Oh — and you can learn a TON more about effective feedback in Creating a Culture of Feedback — the short book full of feedback strategies that Paul Cancellieri and I wrote a few years back.


Related Radical Reads:

My Middle Schoolers Actually LOVE Our Unit Overview Sheets!


Developing Learning Cards for Primary Students


When Was the Last Time You Asked Students for Feedback?


The Best Feedback is GATHERED, not GIVEN


Simple Truth: Standards Based Grading isn’t ALWAYS a Win.

OK.  So I had a long conversation the other day with an elementary school principal who works in a district that is considering shifting from traditional letter grades to a standards-based report card.  He wanted to know how I felt about standards-based grading.

The truth is that I have really mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, standards-based reporting gives everyone — teachers, parents and students — more detailed information about the progress being made by learners.

Unlike traditional letter or number grades — which bundle tons of information about student progress into a single indicator, standards-based report cards explicitly detail smaller sets of essential outcomes in each core subject and then give students individual mastery ratings for each of those essential outcomes.

That level of reporting matters.  

Perhaps most importantly, it allows for more targeted intervention and extension for individual learners.  Given that time for learning in schools is already limited, spending every moment in a productive way matters — and that is a heck of a lot easier when we know exactly what it is that a student knows and is able to do.

It also allows professional learning teams to spot gaps in their own instruction.  If every student on a hallway is struggling with an individual concept — something that would be a heckuva’ lot easier to spot in a school that has adopted standards-based grading — the team would know that the practices they were using to teach that individual concept needed to be improved.

But as the dad of a kid who struggles in school, standards-based grading has been a complete and total disaster. 

Here’s why:  My daughter comes home with interim reports and report cards that are COVERED in “2s”.  That’s the grade given when a student is demonstrating inconsistent mastery with required concepts.  We rarely see anything higher than a 2 on her interim reports or report cards.

And while I rarely challenge those ratings — I think they are probably an accurate reflection of my daughter’s performance on the tasks that are being used to evaluate her ability — the sheer volume of them has had a hugely negative impact on her own sense of self as a learner.  There can be close to twenty ratings on her interims and report cards and darn close to NONE are higher than a 2.

For my kid, each of those ratings reinforces the notion that “she’s just a two and she’s always going to be a two.”   At least in a traditional grading system, she’d only see four or five “low scores” on her report card.  The fifteen to twenty low marks she gets on her standards-based report card just feels a whole lot worse to my nine year old.

And for me as a parent, the sheer volume of twos can feel overwhelming.  Of course I want to do my best to help her improve at home — but I don’t know where to start because she seems to be struggling with every essential outcome.  In a lot of ways, I’ve got too much information to really be useful.

Worse yet, I’ve caught myself feeling hopeless about my own kid, doubting whether or not she’s a capable learner given that she’s constantly earning dozens of twos and rarely earning any threes.  Because I get that same information year after year and rating after rating — literally hundreds of ratings at this point in her school career — it’s difficult to remember that my kid is a learner, too.

I think the key takeaway here is that unless we are careful, standards-based grading is still GRADING, and grading — if done poorly — can result in a fixed (instead of a growth) mindset in learners.

Grading may have value as a tool for reporting on the skills that students have mastered and the skills that kids are still working to master, it is essential to create effective feedback systems for students in order to ensure that every kid can spot places where they are making progress as learners.

Any of this make sense?

(And PS, Matt Townsley:  I’m expecting a response from you!)


Related Radical Reads:

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?


New Feedback Activity: Not Yet/You Bet Lists


Giving Effective Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process [Activity]



Be Someone’s Conversational Follower.

Alan Levine — the mind behind the CogDogBlog — stopped by the Radical the other day and left a brilliant comment in response to my recent post about the importance of reinvesting in deep conversations in social spaces.


Alan wrote:

Until Dean tweeted I had no idea twitter was so plagued by banal retweeted inspirational quotes!

A problem there is the assymetry of response potential. If I was relatively new to Twitter and asked the same question, the crickets of response would compel me away from conversations. Dean has the power of a significant number of conversational followers many others lack.

I’d prefer more people do what you’ve done here- bring the ideas and conversations back to blog space which used to be the place for back and forth conversations.

There’s two important takeaways in Allen’s comment that I’m going to run with in 2019:

First, I’m going to make a commitment to being a more “conversational follower.”  

Alan is right:  Folks who have been around for a long time in social spaces — or folks who have earned a significant amount of attention/recognition for their work — are far more likely to have strong conversations happening in any social space that they participate in.  Others may rarely see that same level of interaction with the content that they share and/or questions that they ask.

That changes the expectations that we have for social spaces.

So what’s the solution:  I’m going to work harder at being a “conversational follower” for more people.  Responding more frequently to more people is a simple way that I can start to influence the expectations that people have for interactions in social spaces.

Second, I’m going to make a commitment to extending conversations in both my own blog space and in the comment sections of the blogs written by others.

Early in the Web 2.0 #edumovement, blogs — and their comment sections — were FULL of provocative, back and forth conversations about teaching and learning.  It wasn’t unusual to see dozens of comments after darn near every post.  Now, comment sections are often completely empty.

So what’s the solution:  Not only do I plan to do more reacting and responding and extending to the ideas of others in new posts here on the Radical, I also plan to recommit to starting dialogue in the comment sections of other people’s posts.

That’s probably the right place for extended conversations anyway.  There’s room for deeper thought and articulation, which is what I think is missing from the work that teachers are doing in Twitter.

In the end, my goal is to both to add and to find more intellectual value from the time that I spend in social spaces. 

More information doesn’t really help anyone to improve.  It’s deeper reflection and conversation that matters most.  I can encourage those behaviors in others and feed them in myself by becoming a conversational follower and reinvesting in blogs as a forum for extended interactions.

Any of this make sense to you?

More importantly, are you willing to make the same changes in your patterns of social participation?


Related Radical Reads:

Something Weird is Happening on Twitter Right Now.


The Digital Equivalent of Strip Malls.


Lathered Brilliance, Superman Underoos and Social Media Spaces




Something Weird is Happening on Twitter Right Now.


Something weird is happening on Twitter right now.

Check it out in the stream of comments that follow this Dean Shareski tweet:

Do you see what it is?

A REAL CONVERSATION!  With some intellectual give and take.  With people expanding on one another’s thoughts.  With people offering differing viewpoints.  With a few lighthearted jokes added to the mix to make everyone smile while wrestling with an important idea.

What if we tried to do that kind of thing more often?

What if instead of using social spaces to simply share content, we made a New Year’s Resolution to engage in more conversations with one another?  What if we made a commitment to ask more provocative questions or to play the Devil’s Advocate more often?

What if we promised that for every inspirational quote we share, we will ALSO respond to something shared by one of our thought partners in a genuine attempt to start a conversation?

Wouldn’t we all learn a little bit more if conversations like the one that broke out in response to Dean’s tweet were the norm rather than the exception to the rule in our social spaces?

And isn’t figuring out how to use social spaces for something more than inspiration one of the reasons that the notion of “personal learning networks” resonates with educators so much?

Aren’t we trying to figure out how to help our students leverage the power of networks to learn more effectively and efficiently?  Does that REALLY happen when all we are doing is liking and retweeting edufuzzies at one another?

Just wondering out loud here.

And wishing that social spaces were about something more than building an audience.



Related Radical Reads:

Do We Value People, or Just the Content they Share?


The Digital Equivalent of Strip Malls.


A Twitter Pushback. . .




Top Five Radical Reads of 2018

One of my favorite things about the end of December and the beginning of January are the summaries that bloggers share with their networks detailing the posts that drew the most attention in digital spaces.  By pulling the best pieces to the forefront, they make it easy for me to quickly find important thoughts that I missed in my feed reader during the course of the year.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Since 2011, I’ve done the same here on the Radical, spotlighting the five posts that had the highest number of page views during the previous calendar year.  

For 2018, those posts were:

Are You Monitoring Your Relationships with Your Students?   –  One of the things that I’ve become the most passionate about over the last few years is the importance of building strong relationships with our students.  Here’s why:  Students aren’t going to invest in our learning spaces if they don’t believe we care about them.

But here’s the thing:  While we all SAY relationships matter, we actually DO very little to make sure that every child feels that they have a connection to the important adults in their building.  That’s changing for me this year.  I’m surveying my kids regularly just to be sure that they feel noticed and appreciated too — a process that I describe in this post.

A Note to My Child’s Teacher.  –  For those of you who don’t know, I have a nine year old daughter who is my whole entire world.  But she’s never been good at playing the game of school — and she’s never been appreciated by any of her classroom teachers.  That’s had incredibly negative effects on her as a learner.  She doesn’t like school, she doesn’t feel like she is welcome in school, and she doesn’t believe that she can do well in school.

So I wrote an open letter to her teacher at the beginning of the school year asking him to give her a chance because she deserved one.  That’s what you will see here — and as you read it, I want you to think about whether or not you have a challenging kid who could use your support.  EVERY kid deserves that.

(Oh — and by the way, my kid hit the jackpot.  Mr. Z is amazing and my kid finally feels like she belongs. THAT has been the highlight of the year for me.)

Four Tips for a New Administrator from an Old Teacher. — After twenty five years of full time teaching, I’ve seen it ALL when it comes to school leaders.  I’ve worked for folks who were inspiring and who motivated everyone around them.  I’ve worked for folks who were authoritarians, demanding that everything be done when and how they wanted it done.  I’ve worked for folks who were “faking it until they could make it” and others who were just plain faking it.

So when a young friend of mine reached out for advice after landing her first job as an administrator, I was more than happy to give her a bit of advice on how to influence people who have been working in classrooms since before she was born!

Writing Student Friendly Learning Goals — One of the things that I’m proudest of here on the Radical is that I am often sharing ways to take philosophical ideas and make them more practical.  That’s exactly what you will get in this post, where I explain the reasoning behind posting your objective on your board each day — and then show you a way that I do that own work in my classroom.

The best part of this post:  It’s a DECADE old!  Literally wrote it in 2008.  And it STILL appears year after year on this “Top Five Posts” list.  That means it resonates, y’all.  So give it a read.

Technology is a Tool, Not a Learning Outcome  —  Another post that appears on this list year after year is this bit, which shares my take on the role that technology should play in our classrooms.  It’s thinking that still drives me today — that when we fail to put pedagogy first in our decisions, we make crappy decisions!

If you dig this bit, you might also like the updated version of the graphic inside the post, which I published back in March.  You might also dig this bit, which goes into more detail about the notion that technology is a tool, not a learning outcome.

Some of my favorite posts of the year didn’t make it into the top five.  Give ’em a look, though.  You’ll get a sense for who I am as both a person and professional:

The Perfect Response to a Child’s Misbehavior

Lead Smarter Tip Five:  Quit Dismissing the “Negative” People in Your School

Five Tips for Giving More Meaningful Feedback to Students

I’m Not Google Certified.  Does That Make Me a Bad Teacher?

Strong Relationships with Students Matter.  Here’s How.

In the end, 2018 has been nothing short of a wild ride — filled with new opportunities, new instructional experiments and new lessons learned, both personally and professionally.

Through it all, Radical Nation has been there — reading and reflecting and challenging and questioning.  For that, I continue to be incredibly grateful.  Here’s to hoping that you’ll stick with me into 2018.  I’d miss you if you were gone.



Related Radical Reads:

Top Five Radical Reads of 2017

Top Five Radical Reads of 2016

Top Five Radical Reads of 2015

Top Five Radical Reads of 2014

Top Five Radical Reads of 2013

Top Five Radical Reads of 2012

Top Five Radical Reads of 2011