Exploring Criteria for Success


This past week I’ve been observing how students reflect on their learning. This observation originated from a brief conversation that I had with an administrator about the need for students to be aware of the mastery learning objective. Depending on the lesson, I feel like being aware of the goal upfront is important as students have an understanding of what’s expected. Although posting an objective brings awareness and is easy to check-off during a class walkthrough, it doesn’t necessarily impact student learning.  At the most, posting the objective may direct students to informally question the connections that they’re making in relation to the goal. To ensure that students are making a personal connection to the goal I believe they need to have ample opportunities to reflect on progress made towards the goal.


That reflection process becomes important as students start to recognize their own growth over time. This year I’ve been giving students time to review assessment results and compare their results to specific math standards. In the past students have used math journals and a reflection sheet to document their progress. At this time of the year students are using it every 2-3 weeks and it’s a bit sporadic. I’m trying to become more consistent with giving students time to compare their academic progress to the expected goal. In general, I want students to become more capable of self-assessing their own progress. I believe moving towards a criteria for success model may help.

criteriapicI first heard of criteria for success during a Skillful Teacher class that I took awhile back.  This past year I’ve been experimenting with using it more frequently.  I’ve been finding that the criteria for success communicates what meeting the standard looks like. It also tells students if the product that they created is good enough to meet the standard. I think of it has an expectation gauge. If students can recognize that they’ve met the criteria for success then they’re meeting the minimum expectation for that particular assignment. Josh Hattie has been quoted as saying a visual learning school is “when kids know what success looks like before they start.” See Hattie’s video here for a more in-depth dialogue on his view on criteria for success. My first thought of criteria for success revolves around the idea of rubrics. But it doesn’t end there. A decent rubric can tell students if they’ve produced work that has met the standard. Personally, I feel like a rubric can’t be used for all assignments and projects. A criteria for success can also take the form of a checklist or list that describes the qualities of a proficient project.


Should the criteria for success be used for every lesson? Right now I’m tackling this question. I’m wrestling with it because students complete so many activities and assignments that narrowing it down to just one a seems unmanageable. Also, sometimes students work on projects that last a couple of days. In those cases, does the criteria for success stay the same and do students periodically revisit it accordingly?

I’ve been using criteria for success checklists over the past few days and am analyzing the results. I’m finding that students are intentionally reflecting on whether they’re meeting the posted objectives. Students that analyze their own performance have opportunities to also set goals and move forward. I see potential in using this model as students become aware of their own performance level compared to the standard.


New Twist to Curriculum Night

Curriculum Night

My school’s curriculum night took place last Tuesday. Like past curriculum nights, I had a presentation prepared and intended on having it last around 20 minutes or so. The majority of my class parents visit during this time to discuss class curriculum, policies and happenings for the new school year. The presentation went as planned for the first 15 minutes or so. I fielded a few different questions and landed on my last slide for the night. This slide is actually from a Tweet Fawn sent out.

I left the slide up for a few seconds so the parents could process the information. I did get a few strange looks from parents and knew I had to clarify what the slide meant. After about 10 seconds of silence I went into explaining what each section meant to me.   My paraphrased comments are below each section.

  1. Be less helpful:

I feel like parents and teachers attempt to help whenever the need arises. It’s innate to help when our kids struggle. We’ll even show the student a process or way to complete the problem. Instead of doing this I’d like to suggest that as a team, we help students develop individual perseverance. It’s okay to help, but let’s not complete problems for students. This doesn’t help them long-term in having students develop a conceptual understanding of particular math concepts. Give students opportunities to struggle and develop their own math identity.

  1. Asking them to make estimates often

At a very young age we ask students to estimate. One way in which we practice this skill is through Estimation180. Students are asked for a low, high and just right estimate. Ask your child to create similar estimates at home and in the community. One benefit is that students start to identify when their estimates are reasonable or not. This “reasonableness” plays a role in students’ understanding of the magnitude of estimates. So many opportunities exist to make estimates. Carefully pick situations where your child can make estimates with a variety of units.

  1. Asking them to help you calculate something

Giving your child opportunities to do this can help students practice their computation skills. More so, calculating items mentally can lead students to round or estimate their answer. That mental computation is powerful and reinforces number sense concepts that are being discussed in class. It would be interesting to observe how your child calculates the sales tax in Lake County – 7% compared to Chicago’s Cook County – 10%. Ask your child how they came to the solution.

  1. Asking them what do you notice? What do you think? How do you know?

I believe this goes with the first item of being less helpful. Instead of giving students an answer or specific process, ask them why they’re completing certain procedures. Ask students for input. Look for the reasons why they’re taking certain actions. Ask them to prove why procedural steps are taken and encourage your child to take a “proof” approach when completing problems.

  1. Not saying , “I was never good at math.”

It might seem obvious, but students hold onto comments like this.  I may hear them from time to time in school. Students tend to take sayings like this and use them in response to a negative math experience. Like I said earlier, I’d like students to develop their own math identity and be confident in their own ability. I’ll also mention that sometimes our non-verbal actions also play a role here. Regardless, being aware of these types of statements can help my students and your child create their own perception of math.

I spent the last five minutes of my presentation on the points above. I really felt as though the audience resonated with these statements. It was honest and I felt like parents needed to hear this perspective. During the night, parents were able to walk through the school and see new bulletin boards, shiny technology, new curriculum materials, sign up for parent/teacher conference and meet their teacher. All of those are great, but I thought this last slide made one of the largest impacts of the night.

Vertical Learning

Vertical Learning
Vertical Learning

Last week I had the opportunity to visit a Downers Grove middle school for #samricamp. I’d like to give an appreciation shout-out to the DG58 staff and administration for putting on another excellent PD event. I’m always impressed with their ability to organize events and invite all interested educators and administrators to their school.

All of the sessions that I attended were insightful and I have many ideas to think about for the new school year.  I found the last session with Matt and James to be especially useful. See their presentation here. They facilitated a session on the idea of vertical learning. The session started off with questions related to why schools group students by age.  We then delved into what matters as educators engage students in learning. Both questions spurred conversations about differentiating instruction so all students can grow. The consensus was that all of our students come into our classrooms at different levels.  Regardless of their age, students have a “starting point” as they begin and progress through a school year. Sure, educators may group students at similar levels but in reality all students are at different levels of understanding. If all students are expected to show growth, how do educators show and document that growth? I organized my thoughts and came away with something to consider for the upcoming school year.

There’s a need to reorganize our resources

Typically I find most elementary resources labeled by a grade level, not a learning target. For example, a fourth grade class will use a fourth grade district-adopted math and reading text. The English and Science texts are matched to fourth grade based on a publisher’s recommendation. More often than not, teachers are trained to use these types of resources with a certain grade level. Most of the workbooks, worksheets, and journals are all associated with that grade level.

I feel like issues arise when students aren’t ready or have already learned concepts for a particular grade level. What do teachers do then? Instead of “covering” the curriculum teachers should be inclined to emphasize learning targets. What learning targets have students met? Some teachers use pre-assessments and pull groups or use a form of a workshop model. Teachers then scaffold the skills that match learning targets. Formative checkpoints along the way help align instruction, but without resources a workshop model has limits.


Teachers need to have access to resources that match their students’ needs. This can look different depending on your school. Some elementary schools have a resource room with K-5 content spread throughout an array of cabinets. In those cases, teachers can visit the resource room to grab a needed text for a group of students. This can be a valuable resource for teachers although having a resource room isn’t always an option. Also, what happens when students are showing mastery of skills above fifth grade?  What then?  Other schools have staff development educators, resource teachers, or instructional coaches that can point classroom teachers towards resources that might be helpful. Again, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes teachers create or find resources outside of their school to meet the diverse needs of their students. Many educators on Twitter locate and share resources that help with student differentiation. Other educators visit different schools to observe instructional practices that can be incorporated in a different setting.


Regardless of how resources are organized/obtained, I believe there needs to be a plan to communicate the organization to staff. Grade level texts are one resource that can be utilized to help students master concepts and grow. Supplementary resources exist and online/print material should match the curriculum being implemented. I believe the onus shouldn’t necessarily be placed directly on a school district’s shoulders, but they play a pivotal role in what resources are used in the classroom.

Students are expected to show grow regardless of their starting point. Having conversations about how to achieve that vertical learning and how to access resources is important.  I believe having these discussions with staff will benefit students long-term.

Student Surveys and the Reflection Process

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Yesterday was the last day of the school year for my students.  The end of the school year tends to be filled with excitement and pride as students transition from one grade to another. During this time of the year I usually give my students a feedback survey. I tell the classes that I’ll be using the information to change next year’s classes for the better.  I’ve been using this method for the past few years and find it valuable in preparing for the fall.  Most of the questions that I ask tend to stay the same while I add a few others depending on what I’m focusing in on for the year.  This year I asked a few questions related to feedback and student refections.  These particular questions stem from some of the district’s initiatives, as we’re emphasizing Hattie and Dweck’s research.  Next year we will be focusing on them even more and I believe they’ll be part of a formal walk through process.  So I gave the survey to 50 3 – 5th graders and collected the data.  The survey that I used can be accessed here.

I took the 50 students responses and had Excel calculate the averages for all of the questions. Below are few highlights from the feedback and reflection questions.  I used a 1 – 10 rating, with 1 being all the time and 10 being never.

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My takeaways:

I have to keep in mind that elementary students are taking this survey.  It’s valuable, but I feel like a third grader will perceive a question possibly different than a fifth grader.  Regardless, the data is valuable in my mind.  I looked over the numbers and shared this information with another class.  After showing the data we had a great conversation about reflecting on our learning.  Our conversation looked at the connection between allowing reflection opportunities and how they impact our learning.  We started connecting parts of the survey as a cause/effect scenario.  The conversation wasn’t too deep, but worthwhile as students made connections.  We decided that reflecting on our learning can be impactful, but not necessarily help a person understand a particular concept.  Feedback, reflection and opportunities to take action need to all be place. What seemed to be lacking this year were opportunities for students to reflect AND take action based on that reflection.  It’s important to reflect, but without any action or change in perception the act might not be reaching its full potential.  I decided to write an informal flow chart indicating the process that the classes tended to use.


I told the students that one of my homework assignments over the summer is to provide ways to make student reflection opportunities more efficient.  This is something I’ll be revisiting in the fall with my new classes.

Surface Area and Conceptual Understanding

Surface Area

My fourth grade class has been exploring a measurement unit for the past few weeks. We’ve been discussing the difference between area and volume. This has been a bit challenging as many students can apply area and volume formulas but struggle when finding surface area. Students were confusing area and volume and weren’t sure when to use a specific formula.  The idea of area being squared and volume cubed has been emphasized but still not cemented.  It seemed that students knew much more about the formulas and not as much about the conceptual understanding. To strengthen students’ understanding my class started a surface area activity late last week.  Click the image below for the template.


Students were asked to pick one box in front of the classroom. I had many different boxes to choose from. Many of them were board games or boxes I borrowed from other teachers. It’s near the end of the school year and some teachers are moving classrooms so there were plenty of boxes. All of the boxes were rectangular prisms. Once students picked a box they took a picture and then found the dimensions. Students then took one piece of butcher paper and created a net based on the dimensions found earlier.

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Students created the net and then wrapped up the box. Students were able to immediately identify whether their measurements were off or on target. It took some groups multiple attempts to find a correct solution. After students wrapped up their box they took a picture. Before and after pictures were sent to me via Showbie. I printed them out and the students placed them on their sheets.


It would have been great to print these out in color, but at this time of the year our school’s color printer is out of ink.  After the activity students reflected on how their perception of area has changed over the past week.  After listening to a few student reflections I’m deciding to keep this activity for next school year.

Higher-Level Math Tasks

A few days ago I started reading Principles to Actions Ensuring Mathematical Success For All as part of a book study. As I was reading in preparation for our first session I came across a few ideas worth highlighting. Pages 18 and 19 discuss the four levels of cognitive demand in math classes.   Along with expectations, these demands are often revealed in tasks or assignments that students are asked to complete.

The book describes lower-level demands as tasks related to memorization and procedures without connections. Memorizing rules/formulas and following procedures is often related to lower-level demands. Students often understand what’s expected when lower-level demands are required. Generally one answer or procedure is evident with this type of task. Worksheets that have students practice rote computation skills without words could fall into the lower-level demand category. Higher-level demands are procedures with connections and often require considerable cognitive effort to achieve. Anxiety is often a part of higher-level demands, although this may be because students don’t see these types of tasks as often.

After reading this page and looking at the different examples I started to reflect on how elementary math classrooms are organized. Math practice is needed, but students should also be given time to explore, discuss and make connections in a low-risk environment. I find more lower-level demands in math classrooms than higher-level, but an ideal ratio is challenging to ascertain.

So after reading pages 1-35 I decided to use an example of a higher-level demand activity with a fifth grade classroom. This particular class is learning about fraction multiplication and division. Students have learned in the past to multiply the numerators and denominators to arrive at a solution. To delve a bit deeper in their understanding I decided to use and adapt one of the tasks in the book. I first grouped the students into teams and gave each team 12 triangular blocks and a whiteboard marker.

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Students were asked to show a visual model of 1/6 of 1/2. Some students knew the answer already but seemed unsure of how to show the answer visually. Many of the groups weren’t quite sure on how to approach the construction of the fractions. They understood the abstract and procedural but had a challenging time visualizing the fractions.

After seeing the students struggle a bit I’m glad that I decided to have them work in pairs. Students started to build models of 1/2 using the 12 triangles. Some of the groups came to a conclusion that two different sets of six triangles shows half. Then from there students started to think of what’s 1/6 of the 1/2. Students took out 1/6 but then debated on the value. Some groups said that the answer was 1/6 while others were confident that it was 1/12. Eventually the students decided that 1/12 was the correct solution.


I went around the classroom and took some pictures of the different creations. Not everyone created the same type of model. This was a great opportunity to highlight some of the different models that arrived at the same solution.


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Afterwards, I thought that offering exactly 12 triangles helped but limited the choices for a visual model. The student models were somewhat similar as a result of the level of scaffolding. As students reflected on their actions in this activity I heard some interesting conversations. Students were aware of the procedure to multiply fractions less than one, but started to visualize the model through this activity. I thought this might be one way to introduce fraction multiplication at the fourth grade level.  I also thought that this activity was well worth the time and I’m looking at incorporating additional high-level cognitive demand activities in the future.

Teaching Algebra Through a Different Lens


I recently taught a lesson on pan-balance equations.  In my curriculum pan-balances are taught as a precursor to more in-depth pre-algebra.   My students seemed to understand simple pan-balances and found that the balances (like an equation) needs to be balanced to work.  The majority of students had no problem with questions (like these) involving oranges, apples, paperclips, etc.

Day Two

During the next lesson I introduced the idea of variables with equations, like 2x + 4 = 18. Students seemed to understand, but less than the first lesson.  I brought everyone up to the classroom whiteboard and practiced many problems with the students.  The students who understood always seemed to raise their hands, while students who didn’t completely grasp the concepts tried to blend in with the carpet.  Students became less interested in what I was teaching when I started writing equations on the whiteboard.  Unfortunately, I felt like I was losing a battle here.  The more the students seemed to not understand, the more I felt the need for direct instruction.  Near the end of the lesson around half of the students seemed confident to proceed to the next algebra lesson – solving for x on both sides of the equation.

I had to change something.

Day Three

During the next day I decided to change up my instructional approach.  I remembered back to when I first learned algebra and the confusion that I used to experience.  My school memories of algebra started and ended by watching a chalkboard and overhead projector, as my teacher wrote and erased equations on the board.  This was the only way to learn algebra, or so I thought back then.  Using my experience  I decided to change the instructional medium.

I started my next algebra lesson with a quick review of pan-balances.  Students seemed to gain confidence as we had a conversation about the importance of using algebra in careers outside of the classroom.  We watched a quick BrainPop video on algebra and it’s uses.  Instead of using the whiteboard again, I decided to take out the iPads.  I already downloaded an app called Hands-On Equations a few weeks ago.  The students were quickly motivated and I modeled how to use the app under the document camera.


The class and I went through a few problems together until I thought they were ready to proceed.  I allowed the students 20 minutes to explore the app and lessons. The students were expected to complete at least three lessons and reflect on their experiences in their math journal.   What was interesting was that the students immediately took control of their own learning and utilized the app at their own pace.


After approximately 20 minutes, I asked the students to write in their journal how they felt about their journey with pre-algebra.  The majority of responses were positive …

“I now understand why we use algebra”

“I never thought algebra could be so much fun”

“Having a picture of the balances helps me understand the concepts better.”

The Takeaway …

After hearing their responses and reflecting on the outcomes, I’m becoming more motivated to vary instruction to better meet the needs of my students.  Varying the instructional approach can give students multiple opportunities to grasp concepts that can be particularly challenging.  Your students may benefit from a bit of instructional change from time to time.

photo credit: ajaxofsalamis via photopin cc