Helping Primary Students to Track their Own Progress Towards Mastery.

A few weeks back, I wrote a bit on the Radical talking about Unit Overview Sheets — a strategy that I use in my classroom to help students assess their own progress towards mastering important outcomes.

My core argument is simple — AND researched based:  Regular opportunities to assess their own progress towards mastering important outcomes builds confidence in learners — particularly those who have traditionally struggled in schools.  In the words of Rick Stiggins and Jan Chappuis, teachers can use student self-assessment to rebuild hope in the hearts and minds of struggling learners.


Several primary teachers stopped by in the comment section and asked me for samples of what student self-assessment might look like in the primary grades.  

Well, Mason Crest Elementary in Northern Virginia has the BEST sample I’ve ever seen.

Check it out here:

The idea is super cool:  Students have rings full of “learning cards” that they use to track their progress on essential outcomes.  Each card details one essential outcome in student friendly language and includes several different tiers of performance.

As a student demonstrates mastery — maybe through an activity in a center or through some kind of task completed with a teacher — they use a star-shaped hole punch to mark their new achievement.  Over time, students end up with a set of cards showing different levels of mastery for different objectives — creating opportunities for both reflection and celebration.

Can’t you just see a kindergartner sitting with their parents during a student-led conference and  using their learning cards to talk their way through their current levels of performance?  THAT would be an awesome example of student self-assessment in action.

Does this all sound good to you? 

If so, here’s a template that I whipped up based on Mason Crest’s work that you can use to make your own learning cards right now.

And no pressure, primary teachers, but we are counting on you!  If self-assessment is ever going to become a regular part of the work that we do in schools, it HAS to start when kids are young.  By middle and high school, kids have already learned the rhythm of schools:  Kids turn in work.  Teachers grade it.

More importantly, by middle and high school, many kids have given up on the notion that they can be capable and competent learners.

That has to change.


Interested in more ideas about how to incorporate student self-assessment into your classroom practices?  Then check out Creating a Culture of Feedback — the book I wrote a few years back with my buddy Paul Cancellieri.  It’s a short read full of practical ideas.  


Related Radical Reads:

Using Unit Overview Sheets to Help EVERY Student See Progress.


Developing Learning Cards for Primary Students


The Best Feedback is GATHERED, not GIVEN



Speaking of Walls.

Blogger’s Note:  I know that I’ve drifted from posts about teaching and technology in the last few weeks (see here and here) on the Radical.  I also know that might bug some of all y’all.  Maybe they make you uncomfortable.  Maybe they seem like a waste of time.  Maybe they feel too personal or maybe they feel too slanted in one direction or another. 

If that’s what you are thinking, many apologies. 

It’s just that this space is mine.  It’s where I sometimes think about the things sitting deep in my mind — and how those things effect who I am as a person and as a teacher.  Sometimes, those things drift away from how to best structure professional learning communities or how to best incorporate student self-assessment into middle school lessons.

Hope you find value in those thoughts, too.  

Speaking of Walls.

I’m struggling today, y’all.

I’m thinking a TON about a girl that I had in my class a few years back who was in the country “illegally”.   Her family had come here from Central America to escape complete turmoil in her home country.  She was a happy kid who contributed in our classroom day after day and who was learning a ton along the way.

In fact, I had no idea that her family had crossed the border illegally until she came to me one day and said, “I’m really scared, Mr. Ferriter.”  

When I asked her why, she told me that the word was out in her neighborhood that ICE was going to come door-to-door looking for “illegals.”

It was big news at the time — partly because the order had been given by the Obama administration and partly because Donald Trump was running for President and insinuating that anyone with brown skin from south of the border was a gang member, a rapist or a general criminal that needed to be deported.

But it was her next words that still sit in the back of my mind and break my heart.  

She said, “My mom won’t even leave the house.  And she didn’t want me to come to school because she was afraid she’d get arrested while I was here and then I wouldn’t know what to do.  But I wanted to be here because I feel safe here.”

Can you see all that is worth seeing in that statement?  

Perhaps most importantly, it’s worth remembering that some of the kids in our classrooms are wrestling with challenges that are a helluva’ lot more important that the homework we are assigning.  Dig a little deeper when an unprepared student riles you up.  You might just find out that schoolwork is the last thing on their minds.

But it’s just as important to note that my student felt safe at school — and safe enough about the space that I’ve created that she could come and tell me something that was weighing on her.

That’s what we should be shooting for, y’all. 

Until ALL of our students — including those from family structures or countries or cultures that are maligned by “the majority” — feel welcomed and appreciated and safe and valued and seen in our classrooms, we have work to do.

And in a divided world where animosity pointed at entire groups of people seems to be everywhere — in every headline, on every newscast, all over our social spaces — our role in creating safe and open spaces for students from groups that have been marginalized is even more important.

Sure — my primary job is to teach academic content to kids.  But it’s just as important that I model acceptance of everyone — especially when the broader world doesn’t.  Academic content means nothing to kids who don’t feel like they belong.

Figured that was worth mentioning, given that our country is about to be consumed (again) by arguments over border walls and illegal immigration this week.  



Related Radical Reads:

Are YOU Standing Up for Tolerance?


Are Our Schools Safe Places for Kids who are Different?


Implicit Bias is Real (and Sneaky). Here’s Proof.


Digital Lessons Teens Can Learn from the Covington Catholic Confrontation.

Let me be honest for a minute:  The #CovingtonCatholic confrontation has consumed a TON of my time and attention over the last few weeks — and I have REALLY strong opinions about what it all means for our nation.  

But I’ll keep those to myself, saving that energy for the efforts that I’m investing in my own kids and community.  My guess is that if you are a part of Radical Nation, you’ve read my bits on equity and race and can probably figure out my thoughts and opinions anyway.  

What I think is worth talking about here on the Radical are the digital lessons that the teens in YOUR life can learn from the entire event.  

Perhaps most importantly, the teens in your life need to recognize that interactions happening in front of cameras or on devices or in social spaces have four unique characteristics that change EVERYTHING (boyd, 2007). 

Gilles Lambert

For better or for worse, digital interactions — as defined by danah boyd, my go to expert for all things tied to teens and social spaces — are: 

Persistent — Events and ideas that are recorded on devices/shared to the web are permanent, y’all.  They are also accessible to everyone immediately — whether they are present in the moment or not.  No one is left out — and actions, both good and bad, hang around forever. 

What does that mean for the Covington Catholic kids?  Decades from now, people will STILL be dissecting the events that unfolded over a few hours at the end of their high school field trip.  

Searchable — When events are recorded and names are attached to content, the thoughts and ideas and actions of any individual become instantly searchable, too. With little effort, anyone can profile peers, accessing information publicly posted over long periods of time.

That means like it or not, the Covington Catholic kids are going to have a TON of uncomfortable questions to answer over the next several years.  Darn near everyone they meet is going to Google them — and the first impression those results are going to return are going to be more than a little loaded.   That’s a big deal.

Replicable — Content added to digital spaces can also be copied and pasted easily. Ideas, events and opinions shared spontaneously can be taken out of context and spread quickly, carrying long-term unintended consequences.

That’s exactly what happened with content shared during the Covington Catholic confrontation — and it’s still happening today, almost two weeks later.  Video clips and pictures and quotes are all being shared over and over again with different interpretations — and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it.

Open to invisible audiences — When interacting in traditional spaces, participants in any event have a good sense of who is watching and can tailor their actions accordingly. Digital audiences, however, are impossible to define. The invisible members of digital audiences — those who inadvertently stumble across public actions and expressions — may interpret ideas differently than they were originally intended.

That’s a part of the argument that the Covington Catholic kids have given in response to the events that took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:  You’ve misunderstood our actions.

But here’s the thing:  Actions or ideas that are recorded and shared are always open for misunderstanding by people you didn’t know were watching.  That’s one of the risks — and uncomfortable realities — of living in a digital world.

(boyd, 2007)

Now remember:  I’m not interested in debating whether or not the #CovCath kids were right or wrong.  That’s not the purpose of this post.  

The purpose of this post is to help you start an important conversation with the teens in your own life because if they are going to successfully navigate today’s digital world, they HAVE to be reminded again and again that mistakes made in front of cameras really can destroy them.

Remind the kids that you care about that pictures and videos of inappropriate or irresponsible behavior are going to become public knowledge.  Remind them that those same pictures and videos are going to be shared again and again — without context or explanation.  And remind them that everything that they do in front of a camera is going to be persistent and searchable.

My guess is that the teens in your life haven’t thought about any of this.

Need proof?

Go back and watch some of the video shared during the Covington Catholic confrontation.  Not only did the Covington kids continue acting in ways that could be considered questionable while surrounded by cameras held by complete strangers, many of them were recording their OWN actions on their OWN devices.

No one stopped in that moment and thought through just what those recordings would become — a persistent, searchable, replicable record of a complete and total disaster.

So what’s the action step for you?  

Find a teenager who is important to you and remind them that their private lives begin only after they walk away from their devices.  Until then, they need to be on their best behavior.



Works Cited:

boyd, d. (2007). Why youth (heart) social network sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), Youth, identity, and digital media (pp. 119–142). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Implicit Bias is Real (and Sneaky). Here’s Proof.

Most regular Radical readers know that I’ve been wrestling with race in America for a long while.  It’s something that I’m pretty passionate about — and I’m more than ready to speak out against any injustice that I see in the world.

But here’s the thing:  I keep catching myself being biased against people of color.

Santi Vedrí

That’s hard to admit, but here’s a tangible example:  I had the chance to work with a group of students from a different school this month on an activity that I was modeling for their teachers.  The class was a perfect reflection of the community that their school was a part of — equally split between white students and students of color and equally split between kids from middle class homes and kids living in poverty.

The lesson went well — it was on a feedback strategy that I dig using in classrooms.  And the kids were more inviting that I expected middle schoolers to be when working with a guest teacher on a new lesson.  There was lots of participation and effort from everyone.

Two kids of color were stars throughout, though — adding insightful comments, asking good questions, and generally leading the conversation. 

I really enjoyed their participation and appreciated the contributions that they were making to the lesson that I was teaching.  In fact, they quickly became the kids I’d call on at pivot points in the lesson when I was looking for an idea that would move the class forward.  I remember smiling at one point, watching them help their partners to think through something that I wanted everyone to try.

On the drive back to my hotel, I remember thinking, “That was cool!  Those kids were on the money.”  I also remember feeling surprised by their participation.  “I didn’t expect that,” I thought.

Can you spot the problem in my thinking?

Two kids of color are the stars of my lesson and I was surprised.

Surprised that they were the leaders of the group.  Surprised that they were asking the most insightful questions.  Surprised that they were adding great comments to our classroom dialogue.  Surprised that they were able to participate so well in a lesson that they’d just been introduced to.

Something in my unconscious mind didn’t EXPECT them to be the most accomplished students during the lesson that I was teaching.  Their accomplishment — their ability to shine in a room filled with other students — was unexpected enough that it lingered in my mind long after I’d headed home.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I didn’t walk into that classroom thinking that white kids were more capable than kids of color.  In fact, when I see that kind of thinking on display in the world around me, I push against it.

But something deep inside my brain did.  Somewhere in there, a pervasive set of beliefs that represent actions I am openly and outwardly opposed to is driving my thoughts.  I can speak passionately about equity and injustice, but the core of who I am isn’t always listening.

THAT’s implicit bias, y’all.  And it’s evil in a sneaky kind of way. 

Sure — I caught myself this time.  I quickly spotted the flaws in my thinking.  And that’s good news because implicit bias is malleable.  It can be unlearned over time.

But as a guy who really WANTS to do better, I’m left wondering how many times those same unconscious thoughts shape my interactions with the kids of color in my classroom.  And what damage are they doing?

I bet that those unconscious thoughts sometimes shape the expectations that I have for the students in my classroom when we start challenging activities.  I bet they sometimes shape the questions that I ask of and the conversations that I start with the kids of color in my classroom.  I bet they sometimes shape the responses that I have to the work turned in by the kids of color in my classroom.  I bet they sometimes shape the conclusions that I draw when I have to make decisions about the choices of the kids of color in my classroom.


So what’s my point?  Why am I writing this? 

Here’s why: I want you to realize that when equity advocates talk about the impact that bias has on students, they aren’t talking about the overt actions of openly racist people that are easy to spot.  They are talking about the unconscious actions of good people like me and you.

Stew in that for a minute, y’all.

More importantly, I want you to see that even a guy like me — who has spoken out on behalf of marginalized groups for years here on the Radical — can spot implicit bias in my own actions.  And that matters because it means that if you look carefully enough, you can probably spot implicit bias in your own actions, too.

If we aren’t willing to confront that reality — to acknowledge that even well-intentioned people are shaped by implicit biases — we are going to continue to fail the kids of color in our classrooms.

And I’m not OK with that.



Related Radical Reads:

Second Guessing My Kids of Color?


After __________, What’s Our Role in Promoting Peace?




Are YOU Standing Up for Tolerance?


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