Waxing Philosophical: The Purpose of Education

There are so many articles, blog posts, and books about the purpose of education that it might seem odd to see yet another one. However, this might be a good exercise for any teacher to try, if only to determine his or her own views on the subject. Reading about it, or listening to someone speak of it, is one thing; forming an argument is quite another.

If you ask almost any teacher why he or she entered the teaching profession, you are likely to hear something like this: “I want to help people, especially the kids.” And if you were to ask those same teachers what they think the purpose of education is, you are likely to hear that it is to help students learn what they need to know to become effective, productive, and happy people as they mature into adulthood and beyond. That is true.

That is not the whole story, though, and we all know it. History tells us that many schools were established centuries ago in the colonies to teach children how to read the printed word. The Bible was a popular text, for example, as Protestantism indicated that reading the Bible for oneself was virtuous and recommended. Instead of relying on the minister to show one the way, it was important that a Protestant was somewhat self-reliant and able to speak to passages in the Bible that were relevant to the situation in which they found themselves.

History will also tell us that as the country industrialized, so too did the education system. School became the main venue for teaching students how to work hard in factories, pay attention to directions, and do basic things like reading, writing, and math (the 3Rs). When you read literature about this priority in education, you will often see a photo of students sitting in rows of desks with their hands folded in front of them, patiently listening to the teacher. This helps the reader connect schooling to aspects of industrialization such as the assembly line.

Finally (at least in this post), schooling was used as an assimilation vehicle, too. As immigration to the United States increased, schooling provided the children with the opportunity to learn about what it means to be an American, and to learn English. Schools’ practices related to this varied widely, of course, depending on the location. Assimilation continues to be a priority today.

Some controversies surrounding public schooling can be traced back to the inequitable quality of education that groups of students received based on their location and the funding available to the schools / school districts. In higher-income areas, students enjoy more advantages: better technology, more experienced teachers, pristine infrastructure, and more extracurricular activities with up-to-date facilities. My high school benefited from affluent alumni; we received donations all the time to keep our facilities thriving. We needed those donations, as the school district was always in a financial bind. But other high schools in the district were not so fortunate, and it showed – crumbling buildings, ineffective faculty, disengaged students, and few resources. I subbed in one school district that featured a bank branch in its high school as well as its own TV studio from which students would broadcast the news during homeroom, and in another school district where trash cans served to catch rain as it leaked through the roof, and teachers had to buy their own copy paper. The quality of education was strikingly different. The affluent school district allowed teachers more freedom to innovate, and encouraged its students to develop 21st Century Skills. The poorer district forced teachers to use a ‘standardized’ curriculum that was scripted and required teachers to be literally on the same page each day. The students and parents lined up once a week to receive donations from the Panera located in the town adjacent to theirs. The students learned hand signals and cues to keep the class on track. My ‘favorite’ was “Clap once if you can hear me,” to get the students to quiet down. If that didn’t work, the teacher asked, “Clap twice…” and then, “Clap three times…” – you get the idea. There was also a procedure that involved snapping one’s fingers, but I can’t remember exactly when that was used. Teachers in this school spent a lot more time on classroom management than they did on fostering collaboration and creativity. No, it was not the kids who were to blame; it was the adults’ view of the kids’ capabilities that was.

Therefore, it would seem (to me, at least) that the practice of education often runs counter to the expressed purpose of education. In my study of education over the years, I have found the following expressed purposes of education. Some we can all agree with, others are worthy of debate, and some just make us cringe.

• To prepare children for adult lives
• To help them become “God-fearing” people
• To prepare them to become effective and informed citizens
• To inspire students to be creative, innovative adults prepared for jobs that don’t exist yet
• To further humanity down the road of progress
• To “produce” adults who know how to follow directions
• To “provide” the knowledge they’ll need to succeed in their profession
• To lift children out of poverty
• To help the nation become a melting pot of cultures that all get along
• To help children learn how to learn so they can be lifelong, self-directed learners
• To encourage children to approach life as fierce competitors, prepared to win
• To develop critical thinking skills that will protect children from charismatic and overly ambitious people
• To demonstrate that geographical boundaries are no longer as relevant as they’d once been
• To convince children that all can learn once they understand their own processes, and can construct knowledge
• To push children beyond their perceived limits and barriers
• To instill in children a realistic confidence in themselves – and others
• To promote collaboration in the world of work and regular life
• To enculture children in the content areas they study, which they may someday enter as academics or professionals
• To explore “strange new worlds”
• To inspire children to become teachers too
• To further the cause of education’s continuous improvement
• To identify the special and support their development

Those who have been disappointed by the U.S. education system may add the following.
• To give kids something to do
• To turn them into “sheeple”
• To help them “ace” standardized tests and become “standardized people”
• To control children’s thought processes and mold them into those that best serve authority
• To show children what their “place” is in the world
• To keep children tied to their communities
• To regulate the knowledge that students have access to
• To teach kids irrelevant stuff they’ll never use again

I think that the purpose of education emerges school by school, and perhaps even classroom by classroom. A beautiful principle that makes up the American Idea is that divergent thought is supposed to be supported. Even in the age of standardized testing, teachers still expressed themselves through their practice, and this is wonderful. What would help these creative, compassionate, passionate teachers would be to provide them all with the same access to tools they need to educate 21st century kids to use 21st century skills. What would be wonderful is to see the schools in any neighborhood in terrific condition, radiating hope for, and confidence in, the students it serves. Its doors would be open to the community, allowing anyone who wanted to learn the chance to do just that. If we could agree on just these simple things, perhaps we could fulfill the purpose of education so many teachers go into the profession believing to be most important: to help children become happy, healthy, productive, passionate, compassionate, critically thinking, creative, and loving adults.

How Assessment Was Born

Once upon a time, in a place long forgotten, the first teacher helped a willing and enthusiastic student learn something new.  As they proceeded on their educational journey, the student eventually demonstrated a deep and thorough understanding of the task, content, and concepts.  They paused along the road, and the teacher turned to the student.

“You are ready,” the teacher said, in a language no one remembers anymore.  “Let’s see whatcha got.”*

Thus, assessment was born.

*Yes, I know that sentence is grammatically flawed.  It’s dialog, so it’s allowed.  🙂 

Six Facets of Understanding and the All Souls Trilogy

This post was originally published on September 8, 2014. Its message is still meaningful today, especially as we are challenging kids to take on increasingly complex texts.

I would like to thank Deborah Harkness, Jennifer Ikeda, Grant Wiggins, and Jay McTighe for making this post possible.  Without Harkness’ story, Ikeda’s brilliant narration of that story, and Wiggins’ and McTighe’s research on the facets of understanding, this post would not be possible.  If I have misconstrued or misunderstood any of their work, I apologize.  Please leave a comment that corrects my understanding.

Apparently, we English-speaking human beings use the word “understanding” and “understand” with wild abandon, applying the word in different inconspicuous ways, in different and the same contexts.  That’s probably fine for most conversations, but when we are assessing others for understanding of a concept or skill, we really should be talking about the same type of understanding.  Fortunately for us, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have done the academic “heavy lifting” for us, and have identified six facets of understanding by which we can assess our students.  Now, we need to integrate that vocabulary into our assessment practices, both in terms of assessment development and results analysis.

We can apply these six facets of understanding to the novels recently published by Deborah Harkness and brilliantly narrated by Jennifer Ikeda.  The trilogy is called the The All Souls Trilogy ( a brilliant play on words that I will let you figure out for yourself) details the development of Diana Bishop, a complex woman who grows to understand herself and her purpose in the world.  The three novels that make up that trilogy are A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life.   When she reaches the level of self-knowledge, Diana is a very powerful being who has released the fear of the unknown and embraced the capriciousness of fate and the future.  What fun would it be to combine the study of a Bildungsroman trilogy such as this one with the six facets of understanding!  I believe it would be an incredible learning journey for teacher and students.


When we truly understand, we can explain – via generalizations or principles, providing justified and systematic accounts of phenomena, facts, and data; make insightful connections and provide illuminating examples or illustrations (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Diana is described early on as a precocious child with a photographic memory that helps her to “do” school with aplomb.  She graduates high school early.  After figuring out what she wants as a major (History), she then graduates college in record time.  After pursuing her Ph.D. at New College, Oxford, she accepts a position at Yale, publishes a couple of books, and is granted tenure at a very young age.  Her specialty is the history of alchemy, a practice and philosophy that is the precursor to chemistry.  She accomplishes all of this while denying an important part of herself – that she is a witch.   After failing to demonstrate any abilities as a witch (she can’t even cast a spell to light a candle), Diana buries that part of  herself and moves on to trying to be as human as she can be.

While on sabbatical from Yale, Diana returns to Oxford to study at the Bodleian Library.  She is preparing a paper she will deliver at a conference when she requests a book that will change her life forever – Ashmole 782.  She is finding it difficult to put the paper together; with all of her “knowledge,” she still seems unable to have that “a ha moment” where things come together in a coherent way.  She is nervous beyond nervous about her task and thinks that she will not be ready to present by the time of the conference.  I submit that until this point, Diana worked hard to try to explain alchemy “by the books.”  Like all book worms, she can lose herself in the research, trying to make connections among the various tomes in which we look for answers.  Diana can cite resources for days on end and principles derived from those resources, but the big picture still alludes her – and she knows it.  She tries to derive understanding while denying that alchemy and magic have any connection.  Her cognitive dissonance demonstrates her stubbornness and is quite frustrating, actually.  It’s my opinion, too, that she doesn’t even understand why she chose alchemy as her specialty.  Her aunts, especially Sarah, consistently chide her for refusing to see the connections between the two.  One could say that after years of study, Diana still has a cursory or surface understanding of alchemy, a “book smart” understanding.  It’s not understanding in terms that Wiggins and McTighe would classify as true understanding.  Rather, she is relying on recall and her ability to put pieces together to sound good to those not as familiar with the subject.  I digress, but perhaps one of the reasons she chose such a topic was because she did not want to delve too deeply into a topic reachable by others and have to use those parts of herself she was trying to bury to truly understand it.

Diana’s understanding will change, just as mine did when faced with the overwhelming task of synthesizing my knowledge to produce understanding.  That change starts with the moment she touches Ashmole 782, and her self-imposed exile from the big ideas of alchemy…and life ends.


When we truly understand, we can interpret – tell meaningful stories; offer apt translations; provide a revealing historical or personal dimension to ideas and events; make the object of understanding personal or accessible through images, anecdotes, analogies, and models (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

The way that Diana approached understanding was how I muddled through high school and college, too, until I had to write a paper on Hegelian philosophy and its impact on politics.  I presented it to a professor whose Ph.D. focused on the philosopher.  It was the first time I received an F on a paper in my entire academic career.  Dr. Riley told me, “Heather, you simply don’t get him and his influence.  Rewrite the paper and dig deep this time.”   Once I accepted that I needed to develop a personal and accessible understanding of the topic, the paper started to take a much different shape.   My fear of failure had realized itself; Dr. Riley’s prediction that I could fail and not die was proven true.  I had to struggle with the fact that I was not a “natural” intellectual, just a book smart person who wanted to be.  I learned that to be intellectually cognizant of my subject, I had to marry prior knowledge and experience with new information, construct new theories about it, and defend those ideas coherently.  I could not simply restate what I found in a book.  That was terrifying.

I started over, put aside the paper I had written, and created something completely different.  Dr. Riley’s reaction: “Now, that’s the Heather I know is in there somewhere.”   It still does not come easily to me and I struggle with creating such demonstrations of understanding, but now I realize that it’s not supposed to be easy.  Anyone who purports to be an intellectual and says that it is easy or comes naturally to produce understanding of a subject that is accessible to others is lying.  We as teachers need to specifically instruct our students to work hard producing understandings.  We need to model that complex process, too, and be willing to admit failure at times so that students don’t think it should be easy.


When we truly understand, we can apply – effectively use and adapt what we know in diverse and real contexts[.] We can “do” the subject (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

It is not until Diana uses her witchy gift of time travel to visit the 16th century, and works with Mary Sidney in her alchemy lab that she truly starts to understand the practice and philosophy.  Diana says to her husband Matthew that it is good to be a student again, to have more questions than answers.  With each experiment she and Mary work on, she learns how to “do” alchemy in ways that books would never have taught her.  She enters into a cognitive apprenticeship with her friend and mentor, learning by doing and constructing her own understanding.

Diana revels in the questions of alchemy while also learning more about her powers as a witch.  She has accepted the fact that her parents had spellbound her as a young child before they traveled to Africa where they died.  Her mother Rebecca had a premonition that she and her husband Stephen would die there.  They needed to protect their young witch from being discovered as a very powerful being.  Both of her parents could see what kind of witch she was going to become.  They would not be alive to protect her from those who would want to examine – or destroy – her.   They did not see any other way.

The bindings her parents had magically wrapped her in had begun to unravel prior to her visit to the 16th century.  (To find out why and how that happened, read the books.)  Her powers were unpredictable and oftentimes dangerous to herself and others.  Throughout the novels, she repeatedly talks about not understanding her magic.  It is through reflection, experience, and the relationship with one other witch like her that she learns how to “do” her magic, which is quite different from the craft her aunts practice.  She can’t rely on books to understand how to control and use her powers, nor can she rely on other witches like her to provide answers, only guidance.  She has to figure it out through application of them, just as she comes to an understanding of alchemy by applying her working knowledge to real experiences.  Why?  Well, Diana isn’t just any witch.  She’s a weaver, a type of witch who can create spells, not just cast them.  Weavers cannot rely on the work of others.  Her father, a weaver and time-walker also, even advises her to just let spells and techniques go “in one ear and out the other” when they meet in the 16th century.  She would have to figure out her own spells.  She would not be able to cast spells others had conjured, much like the alchemists had to break previously unbroken ground to make any progress toward understanding nature and revealing its secrets.

As if her life had not been hard enough.


When we truly understand, we have perspective – see and hear points of view through critical eyes and ears; see the big picture (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Toward the end of the story, Diana and the other characters see the big picture, namely, their roles in the grand scheme of things and how all of the pieces of their individual histories fit.  They are able to adopt another’s point of view if needed by synthesizing the knowledge they have of a situation and that person’s psychology in sophisticated ways.  Knowledge, experience, inference, and the “educated guess” converge often.

Diana realizes that to understand her chosen specialty and her magic, she has to approach life much differently than she had in the past, let go of the crutches upon which she leaned, and acknowledge her strengths and weaknesses.  Probably the most important thing is this: Diana realizes that she is not independent, but interdependent, in many good ways.   Being able to see something from another’s perspective occurs with the realization that we are interdependent.  We can’t survive without the elusive “other.”  We must understand one another.  That doesn’t mean we have to accept the other’s point of view as our own; just that we have to be able to see it.

In today’s classrooms, the big ideas and essential questions of a subject area are much more important than they used to be.  Contained within them both are the collected and carefully chosen perspectives harvested from years of research, wondering, and wandering through the content of the subject area by respected minds in the subject area community.  Both of these important components of a curriculum are intended to help students gain perspective about what they are learning; they are beacons in the murky waters of content.  They are part of the circle of academic life.   Think about that one and let me know what you think.  Is my point of view about big ideas and essential questions correct or can you suggest alternative ways to understand them?


When we truly understand, we can empathize – find value in what others might find odd, alien, or implausible; perceive sensitively on the basis of prior direct experience (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

“You have a lot to learn about vampires.”  Diana hears this often from her in-laws.  Basically, they mean that she hasn’t a clue about what it means to be a vampire, the rules of the “pack,” and the need to keep secrets.  As her emotional connection to her family grows, as she learns more about herself, and as she lets go of her preconceived notions, she learns and understands them much better. 

It turns out that they have a lot to learn about her, too, and she’s the only one available to teach them about who she is and why she is special.  We readers see all of the characters become more empathetic as they become a family in the truest sense of the word.  They learn to appreciate the others around them, stop segregating themselves from creatures unlike them, and even allow humans within their circle. They stop thinking that they know best, or that their sieur knows better than anyone.  In an effort to survive, vampires had always put their faith in their leader, their alpha.  Now, they realize that in order to survive, they need to put faith in others.

[pullquote]”Impossible n’est pas français.” – Ysabeau de Clermont[/pullquote]Toward the end of the book, it seems that the characters think nothing implausible, whereas before most decisions or actions are unacceptable, unimaginable, or some other word that starts with “un,” “im,” or “in.”   One of the humans, Diana’s best friend Chris, sums it up best when he says something like, “I’m a scientist.  I’ve been trained to suspend disbelief and take in the facts.”  In relationships, that is an important first step toward empathy.  Put your own feelings aside and try to find value in the feelings and positions of other beings. Empathy has no room for knee-jerk reactions, nor a reliance on tradition or rigid rules of engagement.


When we truly understand, we have self-knowledge – show metacognitive awareness; perceive the personal style, prejudices, projections, and habits of mind that both shape and impede our own understanding; are aware of what we do not understand; reflect on the meaning of learning and experience (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Self-knowledge is a quintessential part of the plot of this book.  Without all of the characters learning more about themselves – how their history plays a part in their present and future, what habits help and hinder them, what they know and do not know – none of the growth they experienced would have taken place.  In Diana’s case, letting go of her fears, and embracing her power and weaknesses left her as a fully-realized human being “with a difference,” as her friend Chris decreed about all of the creatures that were in the book – witches, vampires, and daemons.

In my opinion, all teachers should strive to help their students acquire the self-knowledge as described above.  Hopefully, it won’t be as hard for most students to realize as it was for Diana Bishop.  🙂


Harkness, D. E. (2011). A discovery of witches. New York, NY: Viking.

Harkness, D. E. (2012). Shadow of night. New York, NY: Viking.

Harkness, D. E. (2014). The book of life. New York, NY: Viking.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


Just 1 Article from RE-ENVISIONED – The Movement to Re-imagine Schooling – Makes Me Want to Join

This weekend, an email from Library 2.0 came in with a link to a fascinating interview with Steve Hargadon.  Steve is the founder of Classroom 2.0 and co-chairs the event “Hack Education,” among many other activities.

Here is a quote from the article that got me thinking

So we're at this moment historically, like you and I have talked about before, where most of the institutions that we have in our lives feel very much like they're weighted towards the institution and not the individual. And that's kind of a sign of a moment in a culture where people are going to say, "I want to live a simpler life. I don't want to buy a car. I don't want a house mortgage. I'm willing to live simply," and this has happened before, and it's not the first time, but I think we're seeing it pretty dramatically right now. Steve Hargadon

So, what does that mean for the future of schooling?  Read the article for yourself by clicking the link below and let me know what you think!




5 Reasons and 5 Ways to Use a Classroom Blog during Formative Assessment

This post was originally published in February, 2015.

Formative Assessment: What is it?

If you already know all about formative assessment, I recommend skipping to the next part of this blog post.

According to the CCSSO (The Council of Chief State School Officers),

Formative assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes (FAST SCASS & McManus, 2008).

The first thing to notice about this definition – and something that tends to get lost when training teachers on formative assessment – is that formative assessment is a process. It is a practice used by teachers and students while in the instructional period to inform one’s teaching and learning. The idea of formative assessment often devolves into speaking of types of formative assessment, which is natural when teachers discuss it together with summative, diagnostic, and benchmark assessment types. When we speak of the latter assessment types, we often give examples of these tests, which occur at regular intervals and result in a terminal classification of some sort, such as a grade or competency level. Formative assessment, however, is an ongoing process that often does not result in a grade or a mark. According to the PA DOE, “there is no such thing as a ‘formative test’” (Pennsylvania Department of Education, n.d.). Therefore, while teachers and students may make notes about a student’s or a class’ progress, those notes do not end up in a gradebook, a test database, or a transcript. With student performance management software, a teacher can keep a record of formative assessment, if he or she wishes, but only for analysis, not for grading. The records can be used for teacher-student conferences, for example, to show the student how much he or she has progressed since the beginning of the unit. In other words, those records become evidence of formative assessment.

Another important thing to remember about formative assessment is that it is a two-way form of communication. Teachers and students must participate in the process for it to be effective.

In my opinion, a third important aspect of formative assessment is that it must take place within an environment where students feel supported, cared for, and respected. When students feel this way, they are more likely to take risks, make mistakes with confidence, and strive toward mastery of a skill or concept. Formative assessment should be used to support progress toward a goal, not to expect perfection.
Physical education teachers, coaches, senseis, and music teachers use formative assessment all the time. Rarely do they expect someone to master a skill immediately. Rather, they want to see someone try, then to commit to practicing those skills they find challenging. Two key words here are see and practice. When teachers practice formative assessment, they are looking for evidence of learning. They then give feedback to the student, who returns to practicing with new ideas for mastering the concept or skill, often after sharing their concerns with the teacher. The teacher encourages the student to keep working at it, whatever “it” is. The teacher explains where the student is progressing and what he or she needs to do to keep progressing. If the teacher sees evidence of near mastery or mastery, then it is time to celebrate the student’s success and present him or her with more challenging material.

During formative assessment, teachers will often scaffold instruction to better support the students as they work on a unit of instruction. Teachers can choose which scaffolds will work best based on their observation of the students. One scaffold could be re-teaching the concept or skill in a different way, for example. Another scaffold might be using a graphic organizer to help students organize their thoughts. A third example would be to let a student use an audiobook to support a reading assignment. These choices are made after observing students, and are examples of differentiated instruction.

The West Virginia Department of Education provides a great list of formative assessment tools at this link. Teachers can adapt at least four of these activities for use with a classroom blog.

  • Observations: This formative assessment tool was described pretty thoroughly above, so I won’t describe it again here.
  • Questioning and Discussion: Teachers who use Q&A and Discussion effectively can gather a lot of information about their students’ learning. Asking questions that do not allow for “yes/no” answers or regurgitating facts learned are the best questions to ask. Using “wait time” effectively will generate more thoughtful answers. The teacher can then take notes about the Q&A or discussion and make adjustments to instruction as needed. This formative assessment tool can also be used to mitigate misconceptions before they take root.
  • Exit Slips: When I think of checking for understanding, I immediately think of exit slips, a technique I first encountered when training adults to use software. Back then, they called them “smiley sheets.” Basically, students answer questions in writing about the lesson and the teacher uses the responses to adjust instruction and address misconceptions. The only problem I have with this technique is that the teacher usually has to wait until the next class period to intervene, and that might be too long a wait.
  • Learning / Response Logs: I call them journals, but you may disagree. When students keep a journal of their learning, they improve their writing skills, but also provide the teacher with great clues about how they are doing with the material worked on in class. Teachers can respond to these logs, which gives students great feedback they can use to better understand something, overcome cognitive dissonance, and relearn something they misunderstood.
  • Constructive Quizzes: These quizzes (sometimes called “knowledge checks”) are opened and closed during the class period, and the results are immediately shared with the students. A discussion about the results can help students understand the material better and relearn what they misunderstood.

5 Reasons to Use a Blog during Formative Assessment

Why use a blog during formative assessment?

It becomes an archive of student understanding.
All entries made by your students: blog posts, comments, image suggestions, poll responses, video submissions, PDF uploads, and anything else you can think of are stored in the blog’s database. You can retrieve them at any time for reflection on instruction or conferences with the students, parents, or administrators.

It gives students a chance to practice sharing their ideas.
When students respond to blog entries, they are practicing informal communication and learning how to express themselves in ways that others will understand. Other forms of informal communication, such as text messaging, are great, but when young people get into the workforce, they will have to know how to communicate informally in standard English. It’s unlikely that the word “you” will be replaced by “u” any time soon, for example. Hopefully, no teacher would accept that in a blog entry or comments!

WordPress has a plugin that helps me proofread my writing. It’s called After the Deadline. Before I publish a post, AtD analyzes it and makes suggestions for improvement, including correcting misspelled words, eliminating passive voice, and replacing jargon with a more appropriate word. I clicked the AtD button on the editor toolbar while writing this paragraph, and you should see the “suggestions” they have for me to wade through in paragraphs above this one! This plugin is also available as a browser extension, and I would highly recommend that your IT folks install it so students can benefit from a proofreader. It doesn’t catch everything, of course, but if we can improve the spelling skills of just one eighth grader, I think it’s worth it.

You and your students will have a web presence.
There are probably hundreds of education blogs out there, written by scores of teachers, students, parents, concerned citizens, researchers, “thought leaders,” and others. Why add your class to that large population? Why not? At this time (February, 2015), there is another wave of controversy coming – this time pushed by the reauthorization of the ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Our legislators are arguing over the merits of Title I portability, testing, and accountability programs. Now would be a great time to have students speak to the subject, as their careers as students are going to be affected. Students demonstrate and practice their critical thinking, organizational, and writing skills when creating posts like these. The blog platform organizes this content to make it easy for you to review, just like an editor would review a newspaper article before it’s published. Once published, other stakeholders in education might see the posts. Who knows where that will lead? Most importantly, though, being able to publish to the world about important issues might give your students a sense of pride and purpose.

Man, I love the Internet.

You can flip your classroom.
You may have heard the term “The Flipped Classroom,” but you may not know its history. Two teachers from Woodland Park High School in Woodland Park, CO, named Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, created the first flipped classrooms. Click the link in the previous sentence to read the article they wrote about how they came up with this idea. Why they decided to flip their classrooms is important:

One of the problems we noticed right away about teaching in a relatively rural school is that many of our students missed a lot of school due to sports and activities. The nearby schools are not nearby. Students spent an inordinate amount of time on buses traveling to and from events. Thus, students missed our classes and struggled to stay caught up.

As the flipped classroom has been interpreted and reinterpreted, using class time for active learning has become the focus. Students study the information they would normally be “given” in class during prep time (aka, while doing homework). For example, they might be asked to watch a YouTube video of a lecture on frogs and an introduction to the dissection lab they will be doing in class. During class, the students are actively working on concepts, skills, or constructing knowledge. Again, for example, while in class they dissect the frog in front of them (or visit the nurse because they passed out). What would have taken two or three class periods using the traditional classroom model – a lecture on frogs, a lecture to prepare for the lab, and the lab itself – might only take one class period.

Class time is precious, and the flipped classroom idea helps teachers to make the most of it by eliminating the lecture and letting students get to work. It’s the “working meeting” of the K-12 world. When students are doing more than listening, teachers have many more opportunities for formative assessment, because they are able to see behavior related to learning, to listen to students and not talk at them, and to create plans with students to adjust (scaffold) instruction when students need more help.

It teaches your students about digital citizenship.
Digital citizenship is a popular topic today. How should we use technology responsibly? That’s a small question that leads to a multitude of other questions. Just as we can’t learn to tie our shoes without actually tying our shoes, we can’t learn about using technology responsibly without actually using it responsibly. We made mistakes when we were learning to tie our shoes; we’ll make mistakes when learning the tenants of digital citizenship. Better, in both cases, to make those mistakes within a supportive, caring environment than to make them when the consequences are much more dire. If your blog is set up properly, the outside world will never see the mistakes that your students make, but you will be able to use their work product to teach them about what responsible technology use looks like. When you see students making mistakes or misusing technology, and then take steps to correct them, you are trying to help the students learn the tenets of digital citizenship. Think of those tenets in terms of learning outcomes. Once you do, you might find it easy to see that you’re practicing formative assessment.

Here are some ways to keep your students safe when using the classroom blog.

  • Receive permission to have a classroom blog and to allow students to contribute to it.
  • Ensure that your blog only allows comments to show after the comments have been manually approved.
  • Add your students to your blog as contributors, so they will be able to write posts, but not publish them.
  • Make sure that your users’ display names only show the first initial of their last name, not their full name.
  • Do not allow users to use a picture of themselves in their profile; instead, they can use an abstract graphic that best reflects their personality.

5 Ways to Use a Blog during Formative Assessment

Before asking minors to post anything online, make sure that you have received permission from administrators and parents / guardians.

How can you use a classroom blog during Formative assessment? Here are five ways.

To Deliver a Bell-Ringer Assignment
At the beginning of class, any number of things could happen. Students need to ask the teacher questions, so they stroll up to the teacher’s desk. The teacher needs to take attendance, so she is trying to answer the question as she rubbernecks around the student to see who is in their seats already. Students see that the teacher is distracted, so they start talking to each other about the game last night, or that party they are going to this weekend. The noise level rises, and the minutes tick by until five minutes of a forty-five minute period has been wasted on what we call “housekeeping” issues.

Instead of that, try posting a bell-ringer assignment to the classroom blog and create a routine for your class that includes going to the classroom blog at the beginning of the period. The assignment should be relevant, meaning it is aligned to the learning objectives and standards of the unit you and your students are working on. It should not take just a few seconds to do, either, but no longer than five or ten minutes, I think. Some examples of bell-ringers include: writing prompts, a problem set based on the math concept the students are studying, an ungraded quiz built using a poll plugin, and a riddle about a scientific topic that the students need to solve. There are many sites on the Internet that can give you ideas for bell-ringers. Instead of asking students to write their answers on paper, have them use the comments section of the blog to submit their answers. In the case of a poll-quiz, students can usually submit their answers using the poll embedded in the post.

To follow are some examples of polls and quizzes you can create with polldaddy.com. WordPress sites work very well with Polldaddy, but other sites like surveymonkey.com can be used too.

Note: Examples have been removed.

To Deliver a Homework Assignment
Click this link [link removed… sorry!] to see an example of a homework assignment delivered using a classroom blog. In this example, I pretended that I was in a traditional classroom. Our lecture that day had been about the short story element called “conflict.” I gave them a recap of the lecture, then asked them to read the story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry and respond to the post with the conflict(s) they discovered in the story and to explain their answer. None of the comments will be visible until I approve them, so I can control which comments end up on the blog and which do not. As I review the comments, I can assess the students’ learning, make changes to instruction if necessary, or celebrate their accomplishment with them during the next class.

To Deliver a Lecture at Home
Your blog can become home to lectures that you record and upload to Screencast.com, YouTube, Vimeo, SlideShare, Reveal.js, Office Mix, or any other site. You might use many products to create your lectures, so why not have one central place to store links to them? That makes it easier for you and for the students, in the long-term. Storing links to them along with other materials makes the most of blogging platforms such as WordPress, which are really content management systems that people overwhelmingly use just for blogs. WordPress has so many more capabilities, many of which I’m just starting to discover.

Here’s an example of a post [link removed… sorry!] that contains a YouTube video called “Training the Accidental Trainer Lecturette.” After creating the slides and recording the video, I uploaded the video to YouTube. Then, I created a post, embedded the video, and wrote a short description of the purpose of the video below it. If I’d wanted to check students’ understanding of the content, I could have added a poll or a quiz to the post for them to complete, or asked them to answer some questions using the comments section.

Since formative assessment is a process that requires communication between teachers and students, it’s good to mention that you can reply to comments, too. Usually, the person who made the original comment receives the reply through email. This is a great way to give your students feedback and encouragement.

As a side note: Posts can be tagged with keywords to make them easier to find, and organized according to category so they display on “Pages” within your site. So, you could have a page for “Homework,” “Lectures,” “Bell Ringers,” “Projects,” or whatever other category makes sense to you.

To Record Team Meeting Minutes
If your students are working on a team project, ask the note taker to record the team minutes in a blog post, and let them know you are monitoring the posts. As an administrator, you would be able to see these drafts when you want, so while they are working in a team and the note taker is recording the minutes, you will be able to follow along. The trick to this would be to preview the post, instead of viewing it in the editor. Refresh the post every few minutes or so. Be ready to jump in when you see an issue brewing within the team. This is a great way to assess students’ listening and collaborative skills, and help students become better teammates with constructive feedback.

I guarantee that the students will be excellent note takers by the end of their time with you, if they know you are watching. Well, all right, perhaps not. One can dream though, right?

To Create Learning/Response logs (Journals)
This last suggestion might have been the first one you thought of, actually. Students can use the classroom blog for journal entries if they are in your system as contributors. Once they submit their journal entry, it goes into a “Pending Review” status. Well, it does on WordPress, anyway. As the administrator, you are then able to read those posts and make comments on them using the comments box provided. This allows for collaboration between you and the student on all sorts of topics: writing skills, grammar, spelling, thought process, organizational skills, the content you are working on, and the list goes on. You can ask the student to edit their work according to your suggestions, and recommend ways they can improve their writing and organizational skills. As the students practice writing these journal entries and receive your guidance, they will become better writers and thinkers.

You do not have to publish these posts, although you might want to publish the stellar ones. That would be up to you and the student.

I’m sure there are many other ways to use a classroom blog during formative assessment. I welcome your comments below. Thanks for reading this article.


The references in this section are for those sources that I did not link to in the article.

FAST SCASS, & McManus, S. (2008). Attributes of effective formative assessment. Washington, DC: The Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from http://www.ccsso.org/Documents/2008/Attributes_of_Effective_2008.pdf
Pennsylvania Department of Education. (n.d.). Assessment Creator. Retrieved February 1, 2015, from http://www.pdesas.org/module/Assessment/questions/search/

Exploring Literary Genres Using Infographics

This post is related to the post published last week: “Text Structures and Signals in Infographic Form. 

For this assignment, we were asked to create an infographic on literary genres.  I used Canva again, and found it easy to organize my thoughts.  I hope you like it.   Click the document link to open it.

Text Structures and Signals in Infographic Form

Creating Infographics with Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, and Finally Canva

The image below is a novice’s attempt at creating an infographic.  It took over a week to conclude that trying to create this monster with Illustrator or Photoshop was an exercise in futility.  Canva became the tool of choice once all hopes of making something beautiful from scratch were dashed.


Text-Dependent Analysis became a hot topic among educators once the Common Core State Standards were published. One aspect of TDA is the understanding of text structures.

I created the infographic to complete an assignment within a professional development course offered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.  This course, “Text-Dependent Analysis,” helps teachers to learn more about a strategy that has gained attention since the Common Core State Standards were published.  The CCSS emphasize close reading across all subject areas and teaching those skills that students need to analyze a text using the text itself as evidence and for drawing conclusions.  Students will be better prepared for college and career if they learn this strategy.  They will ask better questions of whatever text is in front of them and be more capable when faced with challenging texts.

As with most good courses, we students are not just learning about the course topic, but we are immersed in it.  In other words, instead of just learning about TDA, we are doing it.  That’s what the infographic is all about, I think.  Think of it as a graphic organizer, a tool that becomes very important to those doing TDA.   We create this graphic organizer to help us better understand the article upon which it is based.

As usual, I did not follow the directions, though, when working on the assignment.  The assignment mentioned three online infographic tools to use for the assignment, one of which was Canva.  So, what did I do?  I started with Illustrator and Photoshop.  I could have finished the assignment in a couple of hours.  Instead, I think I clocked over 20 hours on this assignment!  Why did I make things so hard on myself?  Oh, that’s just me.  Each time I end up frustrated like that, I think I have learned my lesson.  Alas, no.

The good news is that I relented at last.  I think the graphic is good, and I think students should learn to create their own, so the assignment has put grand ideas into my head.  Don’t worry though.  I won’t make them take the route I took.  I’ll tell them, “Trust me, just use Canva.”