Category Archives: Reflection

Centering Relationships & Routines

Many of the routines of the school day have been frayed by the pandemic. From kids unable to engage in work to walking out of class altogether, we are seeing norms and relationships stretched and tested like never before. This might even be described as “normal” right now — as in that it’s the norm, it’s typical and (sort of) expected (note: not “normal” in the more colloquial sense of ‘the way it’s supposed to be’). It makes me wonder if intentionally centering relationships and routines could help ease things?

That’s what teaching is, isn’t it? It’s about being in community with young people. At least that’s what has been true for me. Sure, it’s also about “teaching” them things – but a wise person once said we don’t teach subjects…we teach children. And they sure teach us a lot, too.


It took me a while to learn how to be with my students. My first year teaching, I danced between tight control and laissez-faire. My students waffled from rebellion to no boundaries. (Spoiler: neither really worked out like I’d hoped.) It was kind of a mess. But it was a caring and connected mess. We had fun at least. But I still hadn’t figured out how to be. What was my role as the “adult” in the room? As the teacher?

Sometimes we call this part of teaching “classroom management”, but the more I think about that term and what it implies the less I like it. I don’t want to “manage” students; I want to nurture their learning. I don’t want to have “control” of my class, I want to engage them. I don’t want to instill a culture of “compliance,” I want to co-create a community of caring and curiosity.

Routines that become…routine

In the summer following my first year teaching, my team attended a Developmental Designs professional development workshop. And it was a game changer. (Full disclosure: I am such a believer in the Developmental Designs ways that I have become a trainer.) I learned a different way to be in relationship with my students. I learned how to share power and scaffold responsibility so that my students could partner with me and one another in co-creating our learning space. And I learned very concrete ways to accomplish these aspirations.

It was in this workshop that I first learned about Boynton & Boynton’s research on classroom management and the importance of proactive management. Essentially, the Boyntons found that if we spend 40% of our time building relationships with and among our students, and 50% of our time establishing and practicing routines, we’ll only need to dedicate 10% of our management time to reactive strategies — dealing with things that aren’t going as intended.

Too good to be true?

It kind of sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But after aiming for that formula for several years (and practicing routines ad nauseum), I found it to be mostly true. And while these numbers may not hold up in the collective trauma that is school-during-covid, I still believe that we find our power to fly in relationships and routines.

But how?

According to Boynton & Boynton’s research, approximately 50% of our “management” efforts should be directed to developing and practicing routines. In my experience, no routine is too small: how to sharpen a pencil, how to move a chair, what to do when the bell rings. All of the seemingly small, inconsequential things that somehow halt the flow.

Are you noticing any patterns of where things are going not-so-well? Is it when students enter the room? Is it transitions? Is it independent work time? Make a list of important routines (bonus if you can do this with your colleagues and students). Then, hone in on a couple of these routines and think about how they should go. What are the steps to success? Break it down into super small parts. First do this yourself. Then together with students — leave room for their ideas and suggestions. How could we make this better/more effective/quicker/less disruptive? What are the benefits to us as a group if this goes well? Why would it be important to make sure this happens smoothly?

Practice, Practice, Practice

Then, practice. And practice some more. Like, literally get up and do the steps you just articulated. Have the students practice. It will feel silly! That’s ok. It’s also ok if it takes half (or all) of your class to get this important routine down. Because this is an investment in the future. As they say in Developmental Designs, “go slow to go fast!”

Then tomorrow, perhaps a quick reminder of how the routine goes. And don’t forget to notice success! If it took 17 fewer seconds for students to transition today, that’s something! If you accumulate enough of that “saved time” you could even celebrate with a game of silent ball!

Finally, when routines begin to slip again (and they will, especially after a long weekend or vacation, but really any time), practice again. Invite students to review the routine, why it matters and take a minute to practice. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

Photo by Laura Rivera on Unsplash

Building relationships & community, all day, every day

The other 40% of proactive classroom management, according to the Boyntons, is building relationships. Getting to know these young humans with whom we spend our days. Sharing our stories, laughing together. And thriving learning communities are built of strong relationships.

You probably already have structures for building relationships in place. Advisory, anyone? But the magic of advisory can be woven throughout the day when we take the time to get to know one another. Consider how PLPs or identity units might help you get to know students, or how student clubs might pique interest and engagement.

Some teachers do a check in at the beginning of class – a quick whip around where everyone is invited to say whatever’s on their mind. They make time for games and to have fun together. They ask students about their lives, their passions, their worries, their hopes. All of this. Because how we show up matters, so let’s cultivate a culture of caring with and among our students.

Perhaps it even takes priority over teaching content. Yeah, I said that. And I believe it. But it’s not either/or— building strong relationships and a collaborative culture forms the foundation for learning. This is something we talk about a lot around here. Check out Nancy Doda’s Relevance and Relationships, Once Again, or Rachel’s Start the Year with Building the Culture, or Jeanie’s Student-centered Personalized Learning Starts with Identity

The other 10%

According to the Boyntons’ formula, if we dedicate 90% of our energies to relationships and routines, then we’ll only need to spend 10% of our time responding and redirecting behavior. While that number may seem comically low this year, there’s something to be said for investing our energy in building things in the direction we want them to flow rather than playing Whack-a-Mole when things go awry.

So I’m curious what happens right now, in this unprecedented moment, if we recommit to routines and relationships? While it surely won’t be a panacea, it can’t hurt, right? And it will probably bring some comfort, too. How might you strengthen routines and relationships this week?

Pandemic Teaching: Self-Care Edition

For all of us teaching through a pandemic, even the self-care can feel wildly, insurmountably difficult.

Let’s do something about that.

This year, the beginning of the school year — a time that is typically filled with joy and excitement — is fraught. It’s complicated. Some of us are doing alright, others are working hard just to keep it together. Sometimes we’re doing alright one minute, and not okay the next. Then the positions reverse.

But… we’re in uncharted waters here. We’re all doing hard things. I mean, it’s hard to know the right thing to say to you right now.

Juggling a very literally brave new world

This week I’ve been trapped in the cycle too. Feeling like ‘I’ve got this!’ one moment, then later collapsing in a puddle from the overwhelm and  the exhaustion.

It’s a lot.

Luckily I have friends and strategies. And while neither “fix” my feelings or solve the world’s problems (though I do have some amazing friends), both help me navigate and find my balance again.

So in case you are in need of navigation help or rebalancing, here are a few things that have brought me some solace. Maybe they’ll work for you too.

“Settle the ball.”

Sometimes there are so many things on my mental to-do list that I’m exhausted just thinking about it. And I spend an incredible amount of energy keeping track of all of those things in my brain.

Which I why I was so excited to hear Brene Brown talk about “settling the ball” on her podcast Unlocking Us. She describes the frenzy of watching kids play soccer; when they wildly kick at the ball while it’s still in the air.

And she suggests that right now, responding to life this way: by wildly swatting at everything that comes at us.

But what if instead, we gained control of this pandemic ball by settling it? By grounding it. And then by *choosing* how to respond rather than just reacting. Having watched my share of kids soccer games, this resonates.

For me, settling the ball looks like me sitting down with my notebook making a list of all the to-do’s and loose ends filling my brain. The things I’m carrying. Once I’ve put them down (on the paper at least), I can step back, prioritize, plan. I’m slowly making this a daily habit. It’s helping bring some order to the chaos of our current reality.

What might it look like for you to settle your metaphorical ball?

Big rocks of self-care

A few years back there was an urban myth about a professor demonstrating priorities by putting rocks, pebbles, and sand in a jar. The big idea was that if you fill the jar with sand first (the little things) then you wouldn’t have room for the big rocks (the important things).

While oversimplified, the message holds: we need to prioritize the big rocks.

When it comes to self-care, my big rocks are sleep, movement, and food.

Self-care isn’t always yoga and journaling (although it totally can be!). Sometimes self-care comes in a more boring form. But it’s so important. So if I’m feeling wobbly, that means I may need a snack, a walk, and/or an early bedtime (or even a nap).

You already know the one about putting your own oxygen mask on first. Figuring out your big rocks helps you do this.

Stop. Sit. Look out the windows and feel your breath in your lungs. Feel the way your body knows how to push it out again. Now, what are your big rocks?

Make it smaller

Last month we wrote a post with our best back-to-school advice, and I’m sticking with what I said. Some of the best feedback I’ve heard is: “How can you make it smaller?”

We need to embrace the “less is more” philosophy and just do less. Do less, but do it better. And do better by doing less.

For the same reasons that many of us err on the “inch wide, mile deep” approach to curriculum, honing our focus and priorities can serve us well in this very moment.

We can’t do it all. We never could, even though we’ve never stopped trying. But let’s just stop. Stop trying to do it all. Even if the ‘all’ is already pared-down. Pare it down again. Make it smaller. Sift it out to a handful of big rocks.

Let the rest go.

A powerful side effect of this form of pandemic self-care is that our students may benefit from this smaller, focused agenda. An engaging project that we all care about, a good book to share, and some rich math and problem-solving discussions. Oh yeah, and some connection time. It can be enough for this moment.


This brings us to the last, and perhaps the most important part: we need to keep making time for connection. All of us humans, teachers and students, are floating around in this sea of uncertainty and weirdness, together. Distanced. We need each other. And we need time to ourselves.

Occasionally even if I’ve had enough sleep, snacks, and settled my metaphorical ball, I’m still not okay. This may mean I need to connect. Reach out and phone a friend.

Sometimes we just need someone to listen to us. To let us unload, complain even. Sometimes that’s all we need. Being witnessed.

And sometimes we’re looking for that nugget of wisdom, some advice to help us take our next step.

This week I’ve been lucky to be both the initiator and receiver of these calls. I helped a friend settle her ball, and another friend put her foot firmly on my ball and pointed to the goal. It was just what I needed. Who is on your phone (text/email/Zoom) a friend list?

Pandemic teaching self-care

So pandemic teaching self-care might look like making time to pause and get it together, or it might be sweet or salty snack. It might be a supportive conversation with a friend or and connecting with students about life, about how it’s going. Creating space to be human together.

At school, advisory might be a big rock. What else? What are the other big rocks for you and your students?

However we go, we’re going to get there. We’re going to get through this weird time and hopefully come out on the other side with a little more clarity about what is important and how to take better care – of ourselves and each other.

So let’s go, gently and with grace.


Video evidence & reflection for student-led conferences

How PAML scaffolds screencasts for students

Students and their families at Peoples Academy Middle Level have participated in student led conferences for a number of years now. What’s new this year? The opportunity for each 5th and 6th grader to tell the story of their learning through video evidence and reflection. It’s these “Learner Story” videos they share at their conferences.

Let’s examine how one middle school in Vermont invites their learners to create video evidence and reflection for their PLPs. Now let’s see how Peoples Academy Middle Level fosters and supports this process that then re-feeds the PLPs in question.

The setup

Many Vermont educators facilitate identity building work at the start of the school year. They do so through teacher advisory and as part of Personal Learning Plan (PLP) development. Students explore the questions “Who am I?” both as learners and as integral members of their school community. Knowing students well means we are better positioned to support them on their learning journeys.

Yet, often this identity work stops after this initial back-to-school and PLP prep ends.

Enter: the student-led conference

A teacher-generated video example launches the project. Students consider how to meet the requirements of sharing learning aligned to clear targets from their interdisciplinary project-based work:

  • Include at least 5-6 pieces of evidence from Expedition
    • Explain in writing or speaking:
      • What was the assignment?
      • What did you learn?
      • Did it meet a learning target?

Expedition at Peoples Academy is an integrated studies course team taught by seven educators. Their driving question?

How Do Communities Thrive?

Students select evidence of learning to reflect on. And they *explicitly* link this evidence to clear learning targets. And they do it with video stories.

Izzy’s “Learner Story”

Spoiler: it’s a video.

Let’s jump right in to 6th grader Izzy’s Learner Story, below, then look at how the PAML educators support and guide students with the creation process.

Amazing, right? So good. So comprehensive and clear, and quite a few signposts guiding you through Izzy’s learning journey! (Btw, a big THANK YOU to Izzy and the PAML folx for sharing that video.)

Now let’s reverse-engineer it:

Check out the full slide deck PAML educators share with their students. It spells out how students should:

  • review the learning they are engaged in;
  • curate their evidence;
  • and tell compelling visual stories of how they met shared learning goals.

It provides a solid foundation of instruction for getting students to sit down and think concretely about what to include in their videos.

(Grab yourself a copy of this fabulous resource by going to File > Copy.)

The slide deck asks students the following questions:

  • What’s your story?
  • What have we done?
  • How are you feeling about your student-led conference?
  • What do you need to include in your Learner Story?
    • A link to your math and expo slideshow
    • 5-6 pieces of evidence from Expedition (boom: examples!)
    • What you learned
    • Whether it met a learning target
  • What are you proud of? What didn’t go so well? (Rose and Thorn protocol) What could you do differently next time?

And finally:

  • What are you looking forward to next?

Format: keep it simple

Video evidence and reflection, as a term, can conjure up visions of 20-minute documentaries with a full cast and multiple dance numbers. And yet, PAML keeps it simple with screencasting.

Stop! Pedagogy time: focus on skills over tools

Sylvia Tolisano in her post  12 ideas for amplified forms of digital storytelling  explains what she sees as a strategic choice to include video as a medium. In this way, digital “Learning Stories” amplify the learning because they tap into “previously unknown possibilities.”

Documenting by capturing evidence of learning and sharing it in a strategic way allows for the development of a learning story. Take digital portfolios to the next level and go beyond the accumulation of disconnected artifacts to curate strategic evidence of learning. Create connections (chronological or non-linear) between them. Make reflections and metacognition (the thinking about your thinking) visible. Make your learning process and your growth visible. The learning story can become an inspiration for others, when you share and make your learning trials, obstacles and mistakes visible to others. The act of documenting and telling your learning story can become an integral part of the process of learning itself.”

Peoples Academy teachers value both the process and product.

Students revisit, reflect upon, and synthesize their learning as they create these Learner Stories. In this way, teacher advisors say they’ve learned so much about the students in their advisories simply by watching the videos as they help students prepare for conferences.

Multiple ways to create Learner Stories?

Check out Richard Byrnes’ list of digital storytelling resources for your students to share their Learning Stories.

(Want to know more about Student Led Conferences? We’ve gotcha covered. Plus, check out Katy Farber’s Padlet.)

Now, how might you create opportunities for all learners to reflect on and represent their growth through digital storytelling?

To the emotional resilience of educators

I remember coming home from teaching in the evening, and changing clothes. I would sit down in the darkness of my bedroom, and pause. Sometimes, I would sit there for several minutes. Embracing the silence. The stopping of to-dos. Those few short minutes when no one needed something from me. After attending to the emotional, educational, and social lives of 23 sixth graders, I sometimes struggled to settle into my family life. I wasn’t quite ready to be present, to listen, to make dinner and help with homework.

Emotional labor

Caring for children is what Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her 1983 book The Managed Heart, first called emotional labor: managing one’s own feelings in order to manage others.”

Teachers engage in emotional labor every single day, all day.

They are constantly managing the feelings of their students, and then managing their own feelings in response. It’s how we react, what we do, what we say, and how we feel, that is a constant changing landscape for teachers. And, according to this Edutopia article by Emily Kaplan, “It’s work that is often invisible and under-compensated — and it’s also really, really hard.”

Hochschild continues, calling teachers the “shock absorbers of an overwhelmed system.” When systems fail — family, school, or society — students feel it. And teachers absorb the shock.

“People can blame the teacher because too much expectation has been placed on the school system,” she said. In other words, when students fail to get what they need—from their families, from schools, from society as a whole—teachers are expected, unfairly, to pick up the slack. And when they inevitably fail to do so, they feel personal and professional guilt, which they must suppress for the broader good: Emotional labor begets more emotional labor.”

So, what to do. The system places too much on educators. And so much of teaching is relational. Relationships with students, colleagues, families. It is emotional, relational, in a system that is often overwhelmed.

It is time to recognize the emotional labor of teaching, as, well, labor.

Too many choices

Have you ever stared at all of the choices of shampoo, completely at a loss for which one to pick? Did this happen at the end of a teaching day? That is no surprise, according to new research that points to the dangers of overwhelm that is decision fatigue. A situation in which the brain simply gets too overwhelmed from having to make all the choices.

Cue Dave Matthews: “It’s a typical situation / In these typical times / Too many choices, yeah”.

Teachers make 1,500 decisions a day. That is a lot of decision-making. And, according to the New York Times:

“No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways.”

This is probably why, “What do I make for dinner?” Seems like an insurmountable decision at the end of a teaching day. It’s not just the fatigue of being on your feet, being on and being available. It’s decision overwhelm.

Compassion fatigue

In addition to decision fatigue, teachers often face something researchers are calling compassion fatigue. This is often related to secondary, or vicarious trauma, that teachers experience from working with students who are facing trauma in their own lives. Educators live alongside with students, hearing them, finding ways to help them, interpreting their behavior, and being a first responder and mandated reporter. Their stories, their feelings and life experiences stay with educators long after the school day is over. This is very real and impactful.

Educator and writer Alex Shevrin Venet has written a great deal about trauma informed education practices and compassion fatigue. In this piece, Shevrin Venet reminds us:

“Social and emotional support for teachers also helps buffer the effects of secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma—when teachers experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder because of the stress of bearing witness to others’ trauma.”

We see this often invisible and undervalued work regularly when in schools. While we have lots of societal work to do to reduce the pressure on the educational system, as Hoschild notes, we have to work in our spheres of control to make this job of teaching more sustainable.

We see you doing this work. 

And we want you to feel your best when you return to the classroom. How? Well:

By building resilience

For this I turn to the work of Elena Aguilar, author of the book Onward, a month-by-month guide for building resilience for teachers. This book would be an incredible focus for staff meetings for the whole school year. Her thesis though, moves beyond individual resilience, toward having the strength and resources to improve education systemically as a result of personal work.

“If we boost our individual resilience, then we will have more energy to address organizational and systemic conditions — to elect officials who will fund public education, organize against policies that dehumanize educators, and push back on punitive assessment policies and scripted curriculum that turn teachers into robots and students into depositories to be filled.”

Building resilience often involves helping educators establish routines of self care and boundary setting. These can help teachers recover, rebound, and reset after days of emotional labor, decision making, and responding with compassion to their students in ever evolving situations.

By setting boundaries

Teachers care. Often they care so much that they might not set boundaries. They might respond to emails when they should be sleeping. Or they might carry the emotional labor of their jobs well into the night. You can help.

School leaders? Show what it looks like to set boundaries. Clarity is kindness (credit to Brene Brown!). You can ask folks to mute email from 5pm to 6am unless emergencies/urgent. I have been scheduling email sends until the next morning instead of sending them at all hours of the day or night. I must consider– is this worth interrupting a teacher’s free time over? Or could it wait until the next morning? Usually, it can wait.

Teachers? Decide what you need and schedule those things with no guilt or negotiation.

  • Is it outdoor time?
  • Quiet time?
  • Knitting, catching up with a friend?
  • A decent bedtime?

Put it on the calendar. Make it a priority. And decide what hours you are “open” and “closed” for emails, phone calls, collaboration. What timing works for you? Do you work best fitting in self-care in the morning, or later in the day? Play with your schedule until you find something you can arrange to support you fitting in routines that support *your* wellness.

Then try to honor these commitments as much as you can. You are worthy of this level of management and support!

Education work needs boundaries or else teachers’ lives can get absorbed. I’ve seen this happen. Educators can burn out like shooting stars. It is everyone’s job to support educators building boundaries around self-care, family time, and protect their ability to live full lives.

And by pausing.

A friend of mine pauses at the door to her house when returning from school. She looks at the doorknob, takes a breath, and says, Leave It Behind.

Transition to home, to the roles of caregiver, spouse/partner, friend. It is a small moment of mindfulness, but the visual of the doorknob works for her, every day. I took a few moments each day after school when changing, and prioritized spending time outdoors.

How can you pause? What might it look like?

Is it yoga? A digital detox break? Tea and a riveting book? Crossword puzzles, or skiing in the Vermont woods?

Pauses are brain breaks, and we know kids need them, especially in our 24/7 world. But so do educators. The world can be too much: loud, needy, constant.

I remember hearing the wise words: put yourself at the top of your to-do list. As in, how will you take care of yourself today?

We all could use a pause.

We see you and we are so glad you’re about to take a break in the action of the school year. And while some of you have side hustles and caregiving requirements and travel planned, tell us some of the ways you plan on giving yourself a little self-care for during the break. Because really, for ourselves, for our students, we all need to come back in the new year rested, relaxed and rejuvenated.

emotional resilience

What works for you to build resilience, boundaries and pausing? We’d love to hear about it.


Increasing student engagement in PLPs at Williston Central

It’s about providing choice in reflection tools

getting started with action researchPersonalized Learning Plans (PLPs) across the state have taken many different forms and serve a few different purposes. One common thread among educators is a wondering of how to increase student engagement in the PLP process. How to make it more meaningful and relevant. Michael Willis, Jared Bailey, and middle grades student Hudson, accepted this challenge and over the course of the year, conducted action research on what might actually work. The three of them presented the results of that research to a packed audience at the Vermont Middle Grades Conference at the University of Vermont, this past January. Below, you’ll find a video recording of the presentation that includes the presenters’ materials. And below that, we’ve laid out that recorded presentation as a text for you to read, again accompanied by the presenters’ materials. A huge thank you to Mr. Willis, Mr. Bailey and Hudson, for sharing this story.


Solving the mystery of PLPs

Mr. Willis: “Last summer was the fourth MGI (Middle Grades Institute) that I’ve been to and I decided that I would do something around student engagement in PLPs. One, I don’t know that much about them. I hadn’t had any practice with the kind of official version using Protean, which we use in Williston. As a third and fourth grade teacher, I had done goal setting and reflecting and using blogs.  But, that was all fine and good until you put the label of “PLP” on it. Then it seems that the attitude, as probably a lot of you know, starts to suddenly change.

I was just texting my daughter (who is now in high school) and she asked what I was presenting on, and I told her and she went, “Oh, that’s boring. PLP is so boring.” I asked her why? She said she didn’t know. So there’s this shroud of mystery around them. So I thought I would try to engage students differently by just giving them some different options of how to reflect.

Putting the pieces together

I did want to try and give students some options of how to reflect. The idea of setting a goal wasn’t brand new. The idea of collecting evidence wasn’t brand new, but the idea of how to reflect? That was kind of a sticky wicket. I thought, well, maybe video, maybe audio, maybe some photos, which they were pretty comfortable doing. Maybe just: how could it be less about writing? So that’s where this came from. I did this survey in the beginning of the year:


What did our data say?

Well, the opinions were all over the map in terms of what students think about PLPs, specifically. But in terms of what they thought about reflecting, the majority of students still prefer written reflections. I thought it was interesting if given the choice, students chose writing, yet nobody’s seemed to like the idea of having to do that writing. It’s a mystery!

"How would you like to show evidence of your learning?" 42% chose writing, 11.5% chose video, 38.5% chose drawing & sketching, 26.9% chose audio and 15.4% chose "Other".                                  

The fifth graders were really my trial group. Two times a week we meet in skills group and we do a number of things. But over the last month or so we’ve been thinking about PLPs.

Enter Sketchnoting!

Can you Hudson, talk a little bit about what your experience has been with goal setting and having to collect evidence?

Hudson: I did start out. I did write a goal but it was just hard because I had to write all the other responses to that goal, like my evidence. Then I did something called sketchnoting and it’s like you basically draw a quick sketch and then you draw and then you write like a few little captions. And it just like helped me out a lot.

Mr. Willis: When I said that they were clear in their opinions about having choice, I wondered if they really believed that they have a choice. It occurred to me after talking to Hudson was that maybe they didn’t know they had all these options. You’re going to find that both the fifth and the sixth grade believe that having choices is important yet… I don’t know if they thought they had choices available.

"How important is having a choice in the way you get to do work?" 53.8% scored it highly important.


Reflection doesn’t have to be museum quality

Last summer, I first heard of sketchnoting. Now, I’m a writer. I communicate better in writing and I’m not a drawer. I told Hudson my sketchnoting would be stick figures and well you said to me—

Hudson:  It doesn’t really have to be like a perfect sketch, like museum or any kind of… quality.

Mr. Willis: That to me? Is perfect news. And I think that’s the message that so I just dove right in. Now, I’m also the kind of person who doesn’t necessarily do all of this reading first, to be honest. I just dive in. We did a month-long integrated unit about trash and waste, relating to content areas. We called it garbology. That’s a new word, Google Docs didn’t recognize it. We piloted it. Thank you. I showed them a video from Brainpop about waste management and said there aren’t a lot of rules here, go for it.  Not every student liked it. Below you can see definitely one of the kind of flashier, more complete versions that I got. But the idea that a student could do this without much instruction, without much guidance really sold me on the idea of, well, maybe it could be used for a reflection on your PLP.

One student’s sketchnote on waste management. Click or tap to enlarge.

Sketchnoting from a student perspective

Hudson, the reason that you’re here is that sketchnoting did appeal to you. Right? You said it doesn’t have to be a museum piece. How does writing make you feel?

Hudson: It gets me a little stressed and I just feel like it’s writing [the same thing] all over again every week.

Mr. Willis: What is it about writing that kind of gives you that feeling?

Hudson:  Just staring at a screen and typing the whole time when you could be drawing and doing quick little like notes just like what I really like to do.

Examples, organizers, and responsibility, oh my…

Mr. Willis: I learned that students would reflect on their PLP after the summative activities in the unit. One of their complaints is that we only do this after summative activities and I thought, well that’s true, but one thing at a time. How can we make that action, that activity perhaps be a bit more engaging, and have this idea of choice? Here’s a student example I thought was interesting:

Mr. Bailey was doing the social studies piece. This idea of this graphic organizers came first and I thought was interesting with this student taking responsibility. They’ve got the goal listed to take initiative and responsibility for learning. This person actually, you see the picture of the house. We don’t always chat. I’m busy teaching the math piece and they’re doing theirs and seeing the student reflect and say, look, I did some of this at home. I did it in class.

That was new for me. I had no idea that student was even doing that. I know the student loves to draw. So, this seemed like a natural choice for this one but the learning that I got from it, I’m not sure would have come out in writing. I appreciated that piece.

An example of visual reflection via sketchnote

"Let's hear from our student guest!"Now, Hudson and his tablemate, Tommy really were two that dove into this idea of being able to use sketchnoting, this idea of visually reflecting. Hudson, what does this show about your work on the integrated unit?

Hudson: Well, this just shows all my classwork that I did on computers and on paper.

Mr. Willis: What made this work for you?

Hudson: Well,  it wasn’t really writing, but it was, so, I used like a cycle WeVideo and it was kind of cool and just like put in like little clips of videos. Then I got good sources. Like what I said, good sources makes for good products. I don’t mean a product like a computer kind of product, I mean a good piece of classwork.

Mr. Willis: I like that you’ve got those visuals. So those people who don’t end up in Washington that have no idea about what we did during our unit, I’m feeling like we look at this graphing shows up in math. What’s this on the left hand side? You said it brought up a genuine problem.

Hudson: It was about how marine animals and animals are getting sick in the oceans

Hudson: Yeah, are getting hurt by that.

Mr. Willis: Then the top left hand one, what does that detail mean? So, you’ve got this drawing, it’s pretty detailed…

Hudson: By detail I mean, I added stuff for like color coding and…

Mr. Willis: Now, was that a goal of yours, detail?

Hudson: Not really.

Student opinions on sketchnotes

Mr. Willis: A couple of the top two students, you can see this idea of what Hudson was saying. “I don’t feel the pressure”, “I don’t feel this idea that has to be perfect when I do it”, “I can see my thinking” and they can communicate visually. The bottom two I thought were interesting because they are people that actually, students that actually do choose the words that they’re feeling like either not a fan of drawing or if it’s notetaking, it’s hard to keep up.

A sign of success: students revisiting their reflections

Mr. Willis: I’ve got to wrestle with this idea of how using it to take notes during learning, which is I think maybe the next step into math as I was saying earlier. But also I think the reflection piece though, there is no real timeline. It isn’t really like you have to be done at the end of the class. Hudson saying it’s something I can revisit. I’ve noticed students want to revisit a sketchnote more than they want to go back and revise the paragraph. I’m sure that that’s not something that I’m sure that’s something you’ve heard before as well.

“Let’s Recap”: A tool for reflection

Mr Willis: I did go back to something that I had used in the past. It’s called Let’s Recap. Let’s Recap is great because it organizes video reflections from students. You can send out a prompt, they get to join code. They with their Chromebooks have the ability to film and record answers to a question you put out there. They get a little window that pops up and they record themselves. Then you can then take this video and embed it in something, or share a link. Students can download it to their own files. My students downloaded their videos and inserted them into their Protean PLPs. That’s what Williston is using; they all have their own Protean accounts.

Video reflections from Let’s Recap

Here are four Williston students reflecting on… reflecting on their PLPs.

We did have them practice off a script here. Some will be just kind of, and this is me and here’s my reflection. You can tell you in practice a bit more. The fact that you get him to talk with those transferrable skills language. We did have them set goals and in the past I believe it was maybe as something as simple as I want to get my spelling homework.

Transferable skills help students see cross-curricular

Mr. Bailey: Now with these transferable skills goals, they’re able to pull evidence from other places. Our district has transferable skills which go on to become graduation standards in grades nine through twelve.

Champlain Valley School District's transferable skills, along with the evidence students provide to show they've achieved them. Click or tap to enlarge.
Champlain Valley School District’s transferable skills, along with the evidence students provide to show they’ve achieved them. Click or tap to enlarge.

We’re having students pick one of those transferable skills as their goal, to really help them see the cross-curricular piece of all the transferable skills. It was much harder to track them last year when a kid had a personal goal of scoring in the soccer season, because then they were like, well, it’s not soccer season right now. So we have no evidence this week. Most importantly, what we’re doing with intentionality is having them take a deeper dive into that transferrable skill, see it spread across their day and outside of their life in school rather than having them pick a personal goal, an academic goal, and trying to juggle the two. Pick one goal and let’s go deeper on that and see it kind of come through in all your classes.

What did we accomplish?

Mr. Willis: If you had to choose now and or say at the end of the work that we’ve done over the last couple of months, do you feel like you have more choice now?

Hudson: Yes, like I said before, I thought it was just writing for a long time. Now, I have like three or four new choices that I can do.

Mr. Willis: What does that feel like, in terms of when the assignment comes now?

Hudson: I can just think into it instead of thinking, oh, I have to write again. Do another sketch here or maybe do a video recording.

Mr. Bailey: You were saying in the lobby that it kind of feels more freeing. That you’re able to think more about what you want to say in the reflection, rather than having to worry about making it fit into a writing piece.

Mr. Willis: Right.

Mr. Bailey: He’s able to focus much more on actually what he wants to say and the quality of the reflection, because he’s not having to try to figure out how to do a high quality reflection and then transfer that as a writing piece. Additionally, I did use Let’s Recap as a way of having students reflect on: how do you feel about the newer choices?

What’s next?

For me, the Protean learning curve is what we all need to keep working on. I think just the micro of it, the minutia of sharing and making it public? Just the pieces of that. As I’ve heard from a lot of workshops, finding more time to do it is tricky, and that’s what makes me think that this evidence collection needs to be able to happen anytime. I’ve yet to really do that as well as I want to.  I do want to give an actual survey using Google Forms, but the video feedback is what I use for now. I don’t know if people are familiar with Protean or if you’re using it, but these videos and sketchnotes can be uploaded right into the evidence of a PLP in Protean.

These are flexible pathways for reflection

Kind of like taking a flexible pathway and putting it in a flexible pathway! It’s that idea of if we’re going to give students flexible pathways for learning, let’s give them flexible pathways for reflecting on their learning. Subsequently, what we found at Sterling and what Michael’s brought to the table and is his year with us, is this idea of giving them multiple cause. We were so text driven in their reflections.  However, that doesn’t really seem to fit with the philosophy of a personalized learning plan.

The idea is to find tools that make you successful and to learn how to play to those strengths. As a result, coming up with a variety of options for reflecting on a personalized learning plan is a light bulb moment for us and the rest of the team. So that’s been great.

Hudson, thank you for coming. I appreciate you presenting with me. Thank you very much.


Tools for broadening reflection

There is very little learning without reflection. John Dewey himself noted:

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”

So how do we get students reflecting in a way that is creative, dynamic, has choice, and doesn’t promote groans and sighs? We move away from “Please write 7 sentences about your learning,” and into other options, both with virtual and by hand options.

But, let’s consider, why reflection?

According to Ireland’s National Council for Curriculum and assessment, reflection helps students:
  • become more aware of the knowledge and skills that they have developed, growing confidence and self-efficacy;
  • identify their strengths and areas for growth and development;
  • create new goals and develop and action plan for future learning;
  • gain greater understanding of their own learning preferences and  take more responsibility for their learning. (NCCA, 2015 (.pdf)).

Sound pretty dang aligned with the goals of personalized learning to me!

Also, the research is super sound about the benefit of reflection in both project-based and service learning. Without solid reflection, learning is limited and diminished. (cite).
Reflection can come in many forms other than the dreaded 7 sentence paragraph.

Visual Reflection


You can create choices for reflection by using a reflection menu to have students pick from. Model the tools first for students, showing them how they can use a visual as the basis of their reflection, and share either verbally or with limited words about what they created.
Here is a reflection menu I recently created for the faculty at the College of Education and Social Sciences here at UVM.

Audio Reflection

We have many tools at our finger tips for audio students reflection.  One sits right there, called QuickTime, and students can record a bit of audio anytime. This can be less intimidating for students who don’t want to be seen but being heard is okay. The reflections can also be gathered into a nifty podcast as a project, as well, as we have shared here before, like this oh-so powerful podcast of student reflection of what they want you to know about school.
Audio can also be a lovely addition to any written piece, having students practice their reading fluency and expression, by embedding a little QuickTime link, like Sarah Adelman at Cabot did with her fifth and sixth grade students on their This I Believe essays. Check out this beautiful one about removing snow!

Video Reflection

Some educators are using Flipgrid to elicit reflection and make it a more social experience. Flipgrid describes itself as a “social learning platform that allows educators to ask a question, then the students respond in a video. Students are able to then respond to one another, creating a web of discussion. Responses can be fifteen seconds to five minutes in length. There are both paid and free versions of Flipgrid.
Check out this one created by the Tarrant Institute Staff last year to describe what we are thankful for (a lot!).
And here are the middle school students of Cabot describing some of their work in the Cabot Leads service learning program. We used Flipgrid to record student and teacher reflections on this program.

Add them all up for some creative reflection

I am just loving Book Creator lately. Have you seen it? It’s an incredibly easy to use book creator students can use to make projects, reflection, share info, just about anything. You can add images, audio, video, drawings, and snazzy graphics. This one is a page from a core values activity I did with the Burke Town School teachers. We reflected on our core values as educators, trimming them down to just three, then created a book to express those values.

What are some of your favorite out-of-the-box ideas for reflection? A 3D sculpture reflection? Do tell!

3 tools for exploring character with middle schoolers

Who am I and who do I want to be in the world?

tools for exploring character and identityWhat do I stand for? What is the good life and how can I live it?

These are questions that most middle schoolers (and adults)-hopefully- grapple with at some point. And this philosophizing usually begins in middle school. Which means that middle school is prime time for guiding students through an exploration of their identity, values and character strengths. And spoiler alert:  they think it’s pretty cool, too!


My students made visual representations of some of the character traits as we explored their meanings. Doesn’t he look curious?

My school year typically started off with a lot of community building and exploration of self.  We used things like learning style quizzes and interest inventories to gather data about ourselves. We shared our data with each other and used it to understand who we were as a community and how we could support ourselves and each other in learning.

This exploration laid the foundation for our personalized learning environment: we all knew that Simon was more focused when he stood and that Ana needed to hear and read something to really get it.

As I’ve gathered resources and tools for this work, I’ve come across a few that are too good not to share!

Flexibility means moving in unexpected directions with grace. (And it can make your face red, but just go with it!)

1. Let It Ripple Film Studio’s Science of Character film

This little film is a GIFT!  In 8 minutes it inspires, explains, and instigates discussion and curiosity about character.

Don’t believe me?  Check it out for yourself.

I used this film to launch our work on character traits.  Cloud Films also provides some great supporting resources for digging deeper including discussion guides.  I’m especially fond of the Periodic Table of Character Strengths. We used this table to explore some new vocabulary and make connections to our literature studies.

Think all of this sounds good?  Let It Ripple also provides resources for National Character Day, which happens annually in September.  The timing is really perfect!


2. Character Growth Card

This lovely little PDF was a game changer in my classroom.

This little form narrows down and explains 8 main character traits (grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, curiosity, and zest). Once my students had a clear idea of what each trait was, they assessed themselves on each trait on a scale of 1-7. Then they gathered feedback from others- the form suggested that students ask 5 teachers to assess them for each trait, but for a couple of reasons we found it better to seek input from both other teachers and peers.

Once they had their feedback from 5 other people, they averaged those 5 scores and then compared the average to their self-assessment.

Check out how zesty she is!

Then, using that data, they identified one character trait to grow and develop.  And it wasn’t necessarily their lowest score- it really came down to which trait they wanted to work on.

This provided a great opportunity to connect to their PLP– my students did a little research on their trait, developed a SMART goal, and documented both the goal and their progress in their PLP.  One student, for example, wanted to work on gratitude.  See her plan, below.

This little gem was created by Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab (see #3, below), but it doesn’t seem to be available there anymore.  Never fear though, it’s still available in a few other places online, like here and here.  If you like it, you should definitely save it somewhere in case it ever disappears completely!


3. Character Lab

Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab website provides a wealth of fabulous -FREE- resources. Based on the aforementioned 8 main character traits (grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, curiosity, and zest) this site offers a variety of tools for both teachers and students. These tools are new, so I didn’t get a chance to use them with my students, but they look great.  Dig deeper into each trait and learn about the ways they show up in our lives. And be sure to check out the Playbooks, which help you and your students explore and grow these traits.

Angela Duckworth is probably the biggest champion for grit; her TED talk on the subject has over 14 million views, and classroom across the country have adopted variations of her work along with Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets. There is great value in this work, but we also need to be mindful of the ways that equity, race, and socioeconomic status can impact this view.  We want this work to empower — not disempower — our students.

How have you helped your students develop their character?

The power of documentation in meaningful learning

Exercises for an LMS

year-end reflection tools and activitiesThis past spring, a small group of Stowe Middle School students gathered to help their teachers and peers solve a problem. As students worked on independent interest projects, they periodically reflected on their learning. All were interested in finding ways to make this reflection meaningful, for both students and teachers.

But what does meaningful reflection look like? And how can we scaffold exercises that create meaningful reflection?

Continue reading The power of documentation in meaningful learning

When students share their work, it deepens the learning

Lessons from an exhibition

These days, I’ve been thinking about the reasons we ask students to share their work. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the connection that a public exhibition provides for parents and community. But as I wrote that piece, some other ideas were percolating in my brain about what happens when we share our work with others.

And then I got to experience those ideas for myself.

Continue reading When students share their work, it deepens the learning

3 types of videos for showcasing content areas

Structures & examples for student filmmakers

videos to showcase content area learningMany students love working with video. Students can create videos for any subject to show specifically what they’re learning, how they spend their time and to demonstrate proficiency. But it’s not always obvious how you, as an educator, can help students see the connection to  specific content areas.

Let’s take a look at some examples and think through how to scaffold students in sharing their work.

Continue reading 3 types of videos for showcasing content areas