Student Empowerment

As we enter the second month of school, I’ve had a chance to talk with many of you about your goals for the year and hear what you want for yourselves and your students.  So many of us have talked about the desire to see students take responsibility for their learning and truly engage.  No doubt, increasing student autonomy and ownership of learning is a work in progress, nation-wide.   The good news is there are some easy steps you can take to help build these habits in students.

When we explore responsive instruction and attempt to meet students where they are, this requires a bit of metacognition on the part of students.  Before they can buy-in, they not only need to understand what they’ll be expected to know and do in terms of skills and process, but they also need to know where they stand now.  Students tell me they appreciate “I Can” statements more than lesson objectives because they’re often written more simply and students can see a progression of skills and concepts among them.  (This doesn’t mean you should ditch objectives.)  Students can pick out “I Can” statements to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, but sometimes need help aligning the statement to specific tasks or applications they might perform in class.

Another great way to improve student autonomy is through the use of rubrics and success criteria.  Students not only reported greater understanding of tasks when given a rubric, but teachers reports greater time-on-task for students when students referenced a high-quality rubric.  When a peer is involved in assessing one’s work against a rubric, student-ownership and attention to quality increases two-fold.  Crafting a quality rubric or set of success criteria is also easier said than done.  If you’re not sure of the quality of your rubric, test it out on your students – their feedback, and the quality of their initial work, will give you a good idea about how to improve it.

For some other ideas about empowering students to take ownership in learning, check out this article summary from The Marshall Memo and consider how you can build lesson-closure routines around this teachers’ idea:

Getting Students Actively Involved in Consolidating Their Learning

In this article in The Reading Teacher, Kathy Ganske (Vanderbilt University) recalls that when she was in elementary school, her father would ask almost every evening what she’d learned in school that day. Knowing the question was coming, she recalls, “I kept my eyes and ears open throughout the day for potential candidates for demonstrating understanding…”

When she became a teacher, Ganske began to ask her students as they waited for their afternoon buses what new ideas, concepts, facts, or processes they would share with someone at home. “At first, students were slow to generate responses,” she says, “but that gradually changed. In anticipation of the talk, they sifted through our day’s journey, as evidenced by the occasional announcement of ‘I’m going to hang on to that one!’ that punctuated our classroom learning. The end-of-day wrap-up provided a satisfying sense of closure, and the recap of learning made students aware of what they’d accomplished.”

A few years later, Ganske took this a step further: her second graders began to publish a Friday parent newsletter of the week’s learning dubbed The Koko Report (in honor of the class’s bake sale support of Koko the gorilla and the Gorilla Foundation). It emerged from a meeting on the carpet in which Ganske jotted key content areas on chart paper, had students suggest other events – field trips, visitors, special projects, birthdays – and together they constructed a web of the week’s learning. Initially students had difficulty remembering what had happened during the week, but the routine improved their ability to retrieve information from several days ago. “[U]nless we make a conscious effort to help them solidify their learning,” says Ganske, “they may lose a great deal of it.”

Next, students signed up as “reporters” to write brief articles, working in groups of two or three or occasionally solo. “The talk and recording of information jump-started and deepened students’ recollections of our week,” says Ganske, “and the web provided support for their beginning writing skills, as did the discussion and feedback that took place in the small groups.” Students brought their reports to Ganske, who typed them on a blank newsletter template. After a group edit and the addition of a few teacher comments for parents and guardians, the Koko Report was photocopied and sent home. The whole workshop took 45-60 minutes.

Convinced of the value of daily or weekly closure/remembering/consolidating, Ganske researched the topic and was surprised to find that very few studies had been done to document its impact. “We need to be sure we plan time to cycle back to the what, why, and how of students’ learning to help them actively synthesize the parts into a whole,” she concludes. “Lesson closure provides space for students to digest and assimilate their learning and to realize why it all matters.”

“Lesson Closure: An Important Piece of the Student Learning Puzzle” by Kathy Ganske in The Reading Teacher, July/August 2017 (Vol. 71, #1, p. 95-100),; Ganske can be reached at

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Welcome Back!

We’re back in full swing and it feels great to hear the buzz of students and see the excitement on their faces.  Each school year brings an opportunity for students and staff alike to hit the restart button and get a fresh chance at building healthy habits, forging lasting relationships, and being a better student, teacher, learner.  Over the last few days, I’ve had conversations with students and teachers about their goals and what makes this year one of redefinition.

Consider the student whose middle school experience was characterized by average achievement, boredom, struggle to get along with peers, and the angst and anxiety of dealing with her parents’ separation.  Enter ninth grade:  “I don’t know that many kids here, but it’s okay; I didn’t have many friends in my old school anyway.  Everyone in high school has been so nice and there are actually kids who will look at me and help me find a classroom.  The teachers have been nice too.  No one has even yelled at kids…not yet.  I don’t think I have a teacher who would yell, well I don’t know yet.  And I can take art…and dance in the same year.  I LOVE to dance and everyone in dance seems so friendly and they all love dance too.”  How can you help this student make the most of her reinvention?  What supports will she need?

Consider the student who is in her third year, but has credits enough to be only a sophomore.  She’s been in three schools and assigned to home teaching in only two years.  While there’s no doubt some of those school placements have come as the result of poor decisions on her part, others are the result of the family moving to a new area.  In just two years, the family has had to move three times – pack up all your belongings, move into a new room, new neighborhood; make new friends; get along with new teachers.  “Friends” in most of those neighborhoods only wanted to be friends (or enemies) because she isn’t afraid to stand up for, even fight for, herself or her friends.  Her family and those who are real friends know her to be creative, take initiative, and demonstrate a keen business sense.  After all, she makes and sells her own jewelry and promotes local music and rap shows which draw hundreds of people – all using social media (for all the right reasons).  How can we guide this student to the academic success she’s certainly capable of?  How can we help her harness that initiative and intelligence to remake a junior year colleges will fight for?

Consider the veteran teacher who has always been successful, meticulously planned, and has great relationships with colleagues, students, and families.  She’s feeling as though it’s getting harder and harder to relate to students raised on instant gratification, on sound-bites of information on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat – where people are, let’s face it, often ill-informed – and mean.  She’s reinventing her approach too – “I’m making small groups work for me.  Not only does it make sense as students come to me with varying skills and degrees of understanding, but it helps me get to know kids in smaller settings.  That wouldn’t have happened in the past when I taught to the whole class the entire period.”  How can we, as peers, support and encourage her to be persistent, keep learning and trying new things?  How can you change some of your own practices to make a new difference?

Consider the first year teacher, fresh out of college, ready to change the world?  She’s not only figuring out best practices for planning and managing a classroom, but let’s toss in BCPS One LMS, SIS, Instructional Tools, Digital Tools, Microsoft 365…  “All that is a piece of cake – the technology makes sense to keep everything organized and efficient.  It’s learning the curriculum and trying to gauge what will interest my students that I think about most – and I think grading will take up time later too.  I’m just trying to plan the best lesson every day – and not have too much or too little planned.  I figure it out more every day.”  How can we help this teacher maintain her eagerness to change the world while supporting her in forming quality planning habits and instructional practices?

It’s an exciting time, for sure!  While there isn’t necessarily one of us who has all the answers to the questions posed above, together we can find solutions.  Here’s to fresh start and an excellent school year!



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Teachers Need To Reboot Your Systems

This week’s Leadership Column is courtesy of Ted Winner

As we approach the end of another school year, I was challenged to find a set of articles that would be relevant to educators in the last days of the year. Technology is a wonderful tool, but at times it also can increase educator stress and anxiety. You deserve an opportunity to reboot your brain in order to clean your internal hard drive for next year. I located two articles on the subject that I thought would be helpful. “Summer Break: Tips for Teachers Who Need to Rest and Recharge” and “How Teachers Can Recharge This Summer”(links for both articles included at the end)

A quick summary

  1. Take a break from technology- I particularly like the “I’m away from the office message on your work email, noting that you’ll only be checking it intermittently during the summer.”
  2. Rediscover the pleasure of reading a book- Revisit an author that has inspired you in the past.
  3. Spend time with kids but not in charge of them, often we forget the why we decided to do what we do.
  4. Go on a real vacation, be it a day trip or a week long get away. Do something that’s for you and your family.
  5. Catch up with TV Shows, you know that box in your room that keeps your pets company during the school day.
  6. Tackle the Three Biggest Issues in Your Classroom.
  7. Get Physical, prepare your body for the upcoming year. A house (your mind) is only as strong as its foundation (your health)
  8. Reconnect with Friends and family-Life is too short to let them slip away
  9. Review Your Finances- How do I survive an extra two weeks before my one day pay check
  10. Redecorate-Your classroom-plan what your room will look like next year. Add to it throughout the summer.
  11. Take a day to do nothing “Be a Slug”.

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Rejuvenation and Reflection

This week’s Leadership Column is courtesy of LaTonya Wallace

As we close out the school year, we often have opportunity to reflect on our successes and failures as an educator. We all go through this process, whether we are a classroom teacher, secretary, counselor, building service worker, and/or administrator.  Why? Because we have the most rewarding career there is and that’s to be a champion for young people.  Most of the time, when I meet with teachers they use the end of the school year to highlight the accomplishments of their students.  They typically speak about the student who they thought they couldn’t reach.   The common thread for them is “relationship”.   

Many educators take the summer months to rejuvenate their bodies and minds, but while they are doing this they often reflect on the students they couldn’t reach. The good thing about this is, we all get a chance to do a re—do to inspire and champion around students in the upcoming months.  As I took time to reflect on my closure of the school year, I came across a great read! I hope it helps you to start a new year when working with your students!


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Things To Keep In Mind

This week’s Leadership Column is courtesy of: Marga Ugarte-Caffyn

As we finish out the school year, we are trying to muster the energy to get through the rest of testing and final exams. As teachers, we tend to think of others before ourselves. As I am working with my newcomer’s class on healthy habits, I need to look inward at what healthy habits do I have and which I need to make a part of my day.

P.M.A.: Positive Mental Attitude

Many of you have heard me say this often. I try to make it a daily motto. Our jobs can be physically, emotionally, and mentally very draining. The slightest situation can send us into a tailspin. Try to stay positive. When things are out of control, spend your energy dealing with the situation in a positive manner. It took me a long time to learn that when something is in my control, I can spend the energy to influence it. However; what is out of my control, don’t waste the energy. Especially in a negative manner, it’s too draining.

Listen to Your Body (Rest and Nourishment)

I realize after many years, that if I am tired or need rest; it’s best to listen to my body. I will eventually get done what needs to get done. I make an effort to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. It really makes a difference.   Eating lunch is something I need to work on. How many times do we rush from class to other tasks and not take the time for lunch? This has always been a work in progress for me.

Pick Up a Book; Put Down the Cell Phone (iPad)

As much as I complained about my son and the students’ obsession with electronics, I am guilty of the excessive screen time in the evenings.   This is something I need to put into my daily routine. We need to limit screen time (especially before bed, or during bouts of insomnia.) Unplug and open a book. This is my goal.


Some of you are doing a great job sticking to an exercise routine. We all know, at least 30 minutes a day can make a big difference. So, what am I waiting for ????

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Celebration of Teamwork

As we close in on the end of the school year, we have much to celebrate.  Once again, OMHS was named among the nation’s top high schools by The Washington Post.  This is due in no small part to your cumulative efforts as teachers and your demonstration of and belief in our students’ capabilities.  Many who know of our changing population would say this is an impossible feat, but we know better than to allow the labels students are assigned to define their capabilities or our beliefs in students’ achievement.  Maintaining and cultivating those beliefs in our school and community culture takes teamwork.

The distance we have come in our Lighthouse Journey is to be celebrated as well.  Consider your initial instructional goals from the start of the school year and look at the learning and progress you and your colleagues have made to investigating formative assessment as a process and seeking ways to involve students in creating success criteria and evaluating their own learning.  While there is certainly more to learn and distance left in this journey, we’re all making positive progress nonetheless.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the teamwork it takes to endure a school incident such as the one that took place on May 9th.  It takes everyone of us to listen to kids, hear what they are saying, and respond with care and compassion.  It takes strength of team to love and care for a child who doesn’t yet love himself.  It takes strength of team to ease students’ uneasiness and anxiety.  It takes strength of team to raise kids to believe in themselves, their school, and their community – this is the true testament of your strength and your teamwork.

I appreciate everything you bring to your role as individual teachers and the strength you bring as a team.  -Abbey

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This week’s Leadership Column is courtesy of Cathleen Russell

One of the challenging aspects of our profession is keeping our content and instruction fresh and engaging. For me, I learn a lot from my colleagues. We have a lot of amazing teachers in this building! I also love going to conferences, taking relative and engaging PD, and reading books.

Here are some of the resources I turn to regularly to keep me going …

  • Cult of Pedagogy Podcast

This Podcast is done by a former middle school language arts teacher. She has a lot of really great guests on the show and tackles the current issues teachers are facing in the classroom today. She tries to reach out to all levels and issues so I recommend searching by topic to find content that is relevant to your classroom.

  • Check out some college or university syllabi for your content or course

In music I’m always wondering what the colleges our students are going to really want them to know and what they should be prepared for. For the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to work on the Music Technology curriculum and that field is constantly changing. By keeping an eye on the changing trends I can keep my content infused with fresh and relevant info.

  • Go to a conference!
  • I always feel refreshed and ready to tackle my classes after attending a conference, or just a good solid PD. Find something out there that is very specific to what you teach. I’ve formed some great relationships during the downtime at conferences and have teachers I can bounce ideas off of. Even though some of us are in big departments we might be the only teacher who teaches a specific class or area of our content. It can get lonely – don’t let it!
  • Get online!
  • Binge watch some TED Talks (there are new ones all the time!), join an online group and find teachers you can connect with. There are lots of Twitter chats and other online groups you can find to suit your needs. Look for some teachers online who are getting active and jump on board with their initiatives! It’s always refreshing to find other teachers who feel the same way you do! (Not an online type of person? Read some books! Become a Barnes and Noble member – the discounts and the coupons are great!)
  • Get your National Board Certification
  • I am a huge supporter of this. This was one endeavor that greatly shaped a lot about the teacher I am today. Seriously, look into it. It forced me to look at and critique my instructional strategies on a deeper level than I ever thought possible and changed a lot about how I plan for, and deliver my lessons. I can’t recommend this highly enough.
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