Category Archives: PLCs

Developing Learning Cards for Primary Students

One of the instructional practices that I am the most passionate about is using Unit Overview Sheets to give students opportunities to assess their OWN progress towards mastering required outcomes during the course of a cycle of instruction.

(See here, here and here).

The way that I see it, we do our students a disservice when all of the goal setting and assessment done in a classroom is done by teachers simply because the most successful learners are also almost always the most reflective.  If our kids don’t get comfortable with identifying their strengths and weaknesses — or believe that assessment is the job of  every learner — they will struggle in a constantly shifting knowledge-based economy.

Don’t take my word for it, though. 

Instead, Check out John Hattie’s research on the instructional practices that have the biggest impact on student achievement.  Four of the top fifteen highest leverage practices identified by Hattie — self-reporting grades, teacher clarity, feedback and metacognition — can be easily integrated into classrooms using Unit Overview Sheets with students.

What makes Unit Overview Sheets even more powerful is that their development can focus a collaborative team of teachers.  

Deciding on a small handful of essential outcomes for each cycle of instruction is an approachable practice that also helps to ensure that every student at a grade level or in a school has access to a guaranteed and viable curriculum.  What’s more, unit overview sheets can be used to write assessments and to determine remediation and enrichment needs on a learning team.  One document, then, serves as a starting point for every conversation, simplifying what can oftentimes feel like overwhelming work.

But here’s the hitch:  The unit overview sheets that I typically use with students are almost always text heavy.

Check this one out, for example.  While it’s incredibly useful for my sixth graders, the fact that there are SO many words and SO little white space makes the document age inappropriate for students in grades K-3.

So I’ve been tinkering around with a new idea for primary teachers that I am calling Learning Cards.

Here are a few samples.

My thinking is that a Learning Card will include ONE essential outcome at a time — so the samples linked above would be printed on card stock and then cut in half.  Instead of passing out a Unit Overview Sheet at the start of a cycle of instruction and asking students to refer back to it time and again, teachers might share one Learning Card per week with students — a simple step towards keeping students from being overwhelmed by expectations.

Like Unit Overview Sheets, Learning Cards will share expected outcomes in age appropriate language — and I still prefer the I Can Statements suggested by Rick Stiggins and his colleagues at the Assessment Training Institute.  Learning Cards, however, will also include pictures and/or other visual cues that can make the learning target approachable to non/early readers.  I’ve been getting those pictures/visual cues from The Noun Project website — but any source of interesting clip art would work.

And like Unit Overview Sheets, Learning Cards include a system for students to track their own progress towards mastery, but they are limited to two choices:  NOT YET and YOU BET — terms originally brainstormed by a group of brilliant teachers at Flynn Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont.  My thinking is that students would color the NOT YET box — maybe in red — for any Learning Card that they thought they were still struggling with.  When they were confident that they had mastered the outcome, they would color the YOU BET box in green.

If it were my classroom, each student would hang their Learning Cards on a book ring.  That would make them readily accessible for review.  Students could pull out their book rings once or twice a month, sorting their Learning Cards into NOT YET and YOU BET piles.  Better yet, students could use their cards during student-led conferences, walking their parents through the outcomes that they had mastered and the outcomes that they were still struggling with.

Finally, teachers could use the Learning Cards to quickly sort students into remediation and enrichment groups — and could bring learning cards to PLC meetings as a reminder of the skills that kids were struggling with across entire hallways.

Does any of this make any sense?  What are your first reactions to the notion of developing Learning Cards to use in primary classrooms?  What changes would you make — either to the structure of my Learning Cards or to my suggested strategies for using them in the classroom?  

Looking forward to hearing what you think!

Related Radical Reads:

Is YOUR PLC Identifying Essential Targets Together?

Asking Students for Feedback on Unit Overview Sheets

My Middle Schoolers LOVE Unit Overview Sheets!


Three Lessons on Intervention from Mike Mattos and Austin Buffum

One of the real treats of my work with Solution Tree as a Professional Learning Community Associate is being able to learn regularly from REALLY bright people.  Recently, I had the chance to hear Mike Mattos and Austin Buffum — two of the three minds behind the RTI at Work process — talk through some of the most important lessons that schools interested in intervention need to learn.

Here are three takewaways:

Tier 1 Intervention isn’t really an “intervention” at all.  

Instead, it’s ensuring that ALL kids have access to high quality initial instruction around essential grade level standards.  And the key here is that ‘all kids” means ALL KIDS — including those who are several grade levels behind or who are identified by special programs labels or who have limited proficiency with the English language.  If some students don’t have access to essential grade level standards or learning targets because they are in remedial classes that have different priorities, your school has an equity issue that needs to be addressed.

The essential question to ask for students who have fallen several grade levels behind ISN’T “Can kids master essential grade level standards?”

Instead, the essential question to ask is “what can we do to get kids to master essential grade level standards.” That shifts collective attention towards action.  Ensuring high levels of learning for all only starts when (1). we realize that we CAN move every kid forward and when (2). we readily call out the  flawed assumptions about students that define learning — and learners — in traditional schools.  

Notice that attention remains focused on ESSENTIAL grade level standards.

That word “essential” is powerful, y’all.  Our work becomes more targeted and more focused — and WAY more doable — when we identify a small handful of instructional priorities that we want our students to master.  If your learning team is trying to tackle EVERY grade level standard in your collaborative work with one another, you will become overwhelmed before you even begin.  Instead, work together to define the outcomes that matter the most and spend your collective energy assessing that learning and providing multiple opportunities for your students to master that content.

Any of this make sense to you?  More importantly, are these core beliefs a part of the work that YOUR PLC is tackling?  

If not, why not?


Related Radical Reads:

Structuring Tier Two Interventions in a PLC

Interventions are NOT Optional

Grouping Students for Learning in a PLC

Presentation Materials: Solution Tree #atplc Institute

Over the next few days, I’ll be working alongside the super motivated educators at Solution Tree’s PLC Institute in Louisville.  The goal for most of the participants will be to find ways to polish their collaborative practices in order to help kids learn.  Together, teams from individual schools will study everything from the core beliefs that support learning communities to the nuts and bolts of making collaboration more efficient and effective.

I’ll be delivering three different breakout sessions at the Institutes.  Here are the materials for each session.  Hope you find them useful:


How to Use Digital Tools to Support Teachers in a PLC

For professional learning teams, collaboration can be nothing short of demanding.  Developing – and then organizing – collections of shared materials, making important decisions, and communicating with colleagues across grade levels and departments often requires additional time that classroom teachers just don’t have.

As a result, many teachers question whether or not the costs of coordination outweigh the benefits of collaboration in Professional Learning Communities.  In this session, full-time classroom teacher and Solution Tree author Bill Ferriter introduces participants to a range of free digital tools that 21st Century learning teams are using to make their collective work more efficient – and therefore, more rewarding.  Participants will also discuss ways that tools that facilitate collaboration can be used to make differentiated instruction doable.

Download Session Slides

Download Session Handouts

Student Wiki Sample

Zaption Sample

Student VoiceThread Sample

Using Digital Tools Quick Guide – A series of tools for facilitating collaboration between teachers.

BYOD Quick Guide – A series of tools for facilitiating learning in a BYOD classroom.

Teaching the iGeneration Quick Guide – A series of tools for facilitating learning with technology.

#kinderchat and @mattBgomez – Oftentimes, participants in this session want to see examples of digital tools being used in primary classrooms.  The best source for those examples is the #kinderchat hashtag and Texas Educator Matt Gomez.

For more information on using digital tools to facilitate collaboration or classroom instruction, check out Bill’s newest books — How to Use Digital Tools to Support Teachers in a PLC and Teaching the iGeneration (2nd Edition).


Small Schools and Singletons:  Structuring Meaningful Professional Learning Teams for Every Teacher

The PLC concept resonates with most educators, but making collaborative learning work in small schools or for singleton teachers can be challenging.

In this session, participants will explore four different models for creating meaningful professional learning teams for singletons and teachers in small schools:  The creation of vertical teams studying skills that cross content areas, designing class loads that allow teachers to teach the same subjects, using electronic tools to pair teachers with peers working in the same subject area, and using student work behaviors as an area of focus for nontraditional learning teams.

Download Session Slides

Download Session Handouts

Sample of a Student Survey as Common Assessment


Our Students CAN Assess Themselves

In the spring of 2012, Canadian educational change expert Dean Shareski issued a simple challenge on his blog when he wrote, “So I’m wondering if you’re ready to let your students assess themselves. Not as some experiment where you end up grading them apart but where you really give the reigns over to them?”

Dean’s challenge resonated with Solution Tree author and sixth grade teacher Bill Ferriter, who had always been dissatisfied with the grade-driven work being done in his classroom.  This session will introduce participants to the tangible steps that Bill has taken to integrate opportunities for self-assessment into his classroom as a result of Dean’s challenge.

Download Session Slides

Download Session Handouts

Download Editable Copies of Materials and Activities

Download REVISED Unit Overview Sheet

Download Student Sample of Unit Overview Sheet


And don’t forget:  You can read all of my PLC related posts on the Radical by clicking on this link.  


Related Radical Reads:

The Power of PLCs

Five Resources for School Leaders Starting PLCs from Scratch

These are OUR Kids

More on My Beef with the Term “Instructional Leader.”

Dear Principals of Professional Learning Communities,

Can I push your thinking for a minute?

I’d like to suggest that learning teams — NOT school principals — should be the primary source of instructional leadership in PLCs.  I’d also like to suggest that using titles like “the instructional leader” to describe the role of the principal in a PLC is incongruous with the core principles of professional learning communities.

Here’s why:  In the best professional learning communities, teams of teachers relentlessly question their practice together in service of student learning.  They design and develop ways to measure the impact of their instructional decisions and then take action based on what they have learned.  Their primary goal is to amplify the best teaching strategies on their hallway in the interest of seeing every student succeed.

On high-functioning teams, questions are asked, new ideas are tried, evidence is gathered, and changes are made over and over again in ongoing cycles of collective inquiry.  Teachers begin to trust each other and to tap into the professional know-how of their peers whenever they are struggling with a genuine problem of practice.  They take a “these are our kids” approach to their work — constantly sharing and reflecting and revising together.

That intellectual symbiosis — the genuine sense that every teacher can benefit from the individual expertise of their collaborative partners — is the pinnacle of PLC work.  Teams who reach that level of collaborative development go beyond merely surviving the school year.  They THRIVE, energized and empowered by the realization that they can tackle anything together.  

Leadership around instruction on high-functioning learning teams happens organically every time that individual teachers step forward to help their colleagues solve a particularly knotty problem.  What’s more, high-functioning teams learn to lean on the right leaders at the right time and to use the power of relationships to influence the practices of their peers in deep and meaningful ways.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I am NOT trying to diminish the role that principals play in the success of schoolhouses.  In fact, I would go as far as to argue that nothing matters MORE to the success of the school than the actions taken by principals.

On top of the never-ending list of managerial tasks that fall on your shoulders — things like garnering support in the broader community, monitoring upgrades to the physical plant, and making sure that the busses run on time — you help to articulate a core mission and vision for your building.  You provide direction by ensuring that every action aligns with that core mission and vision.  You build capacity in teachers — both as individuals and as teams — to tackle the kind of collaborative study of practice that matters.  You serve as an intellectual sounding board when teachers and teams stagnate.  You hold people accountable for doing more and being better than they ever thought possible.

ALL of that work is powerful and important and the key to the development of high-functioning PLCs, but I REALLY DO worry about the consequences of calling it “instructional leadership.”  

Why should teachers believe in the power of collaboration around practice if leadership around instruction — the fundamental task of classroom teachers and learning teams  — is officially given to the principal?  Similarly, why would we believe in the expertise of our colleagues when formal titles suggest that leadership around instruction is the responsibility of the principal instead of practitioners?

In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that the best PLC principals don’t even want to be “THE instructional leader” of their schools.  

Instead, they want to create the conditions that enable teachers and learning teams to provide instructional leadership to one another — and by constantly sending the message that expertise around practice belongs to practitioners instead of principals, they leave their learning teams and teachers empowered to accept responsibility for finding ways to meet the needs of every learner.

Does this make any sense?

I guess what I am trying to say is that if you want teacher teams to truly believe in their power — and their professional obligation — to influence practice, remind them that THEY are the instructional experts.

Whaddya’ think?


Related Radical Reads:

My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

What Do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

Three Lessons School Leaders can Learn from Sherpas


When Was the Last Time You Asked Students for Feedback?

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve been working hard at developing a system for keeping kids posted on the essential outcomes for the units that I’m required to teach at school.  While I know that’s a pretty basic practice, it is also an essential one.  Most experts — think Hattie, Reeves and Marzano — will tell you that kids are more likely to meet your expectations when they know just what those expectations are.

The tool that stands at the center of my efforts is a unit overview sheet that my kids keep in their notebooks.  Here’s a sample.  I ask the students to pull their unit overview sheets out several times during the course of each unit to reflect on the progress that they are making towards mastering the skills, content and vocabulary that we are wrestling with in class.

Overall, students really dig having the chance to reflect around the progress that they are making.  Need proof?  Then check out this summary of a classroom survey on unit overview sheets that I conducted in 2013.

After a powerful conversation with my principal this week, I decided to check in with my students again to see if they had any thoughts on ways to improve our unit overview sheets.

So I started Thursday’s lesson by asking my students to answer three simple questions: 1). What do you like about our current unit overview sheets?  2). What would you change about our unit overview sheets? and 3). What do you think of the way that we use unit overview sheets in class to reflect on the progress that you are making?

(slide by Greg Pearson, @gpearsonEDU)



 The feedback that I got from my students was AMAZING.

My students reminded me that our unit overview sheets were valuable and pushed me to use them more often in class.  They offered suggestions on how moments of reflection should be structured and caught me by surprise when they argued — almost unanimously — for fewer opportunities to reflect with peers and more opportunities to reflect as individuals.

They also gave me really practical suggestions for improving the structure of our overview sheets.  Specifically, they wanted more room to record learnings over time so that they could turn their unit overview sheets into study guides, some kind of answer key so that they could check to see that their written reflections were accurate, and a simpler self-rating system that was easier to visualize over time.

I immediately revised our unit overview sheet, working to incorporate their suggestions.

Here’s what I came up with:


It’s a THOUSAND times better, isn’t it?  I love that there is more open space on the paper, which will make it less intimidating to struggling students.  I also love the new rating system, the fact that there are more places for students to record more grades from classroom assignments, and that there is now room to break learning objectives into several smaller sentences instead of one large paragraph.

But here’s what I REALLY learned this week:  The kids in my classroom are MORE than capable of giving me feedback if I am willing to listen.  

They were thoughtful and reflective and thorough in their comments to me.  They were kind and supportive, but also pointed about what they thought needed to change about the way that we were using our unit overview sheets.  What’s more, they were incredibly proud of the fact that I made changes to both the structure of our documents and to the process for using those documents based on their ideas.  In a way, I think they felt a sense of ownership and agency over our classroom.  They also had the chance to see me reflect and revise and accept feedback and criticism — life skills that we give a lot of lip service to in schools without ever modeling in action.

That stuff matters, y’all — and I guarantee you that it will happen more frequently in MY classroom.  How about yours?


Related Radical Reads:

Is YOUR Team Identifying Essential Learning Targets Together?

Writing Student Friendly Learning Targets

My Middle Schoolers LOVE Our Unit Overview Sheets