Student-Led Conferences and Authentic Assessments

Student-led conferences are a growing trend in late-elementary and middle grades, since they have been shown to boost parent response and attendance to conferences and increase student sense of responsibility for their own work.  Using a portfolio of collected work and performance, students follow guidelines that lead a meaningful discussion for all involved.  It also creates a unique opportunity for students to leave the comfort zone of their classroom to communicate with an adult audience.  It creates an opportunity where students must prepare, plan, and present.

These presentations should be a time to showcase the performance of skills and knowledge instead of tests and homework.  Authentic assessment is a showing that the student has taken what she has learned and used it to create something new or to solve a complex problem.  This is what students should be discussing with parents.  And they should discuss the successes as well as the failures.  Sometimes, the failures are even more important and glorious than the successes, since that’s where true learning comes from.

This practice should start to become more standard and not simply trendy.  With the help of classroom technology, it should be easy to adapt student work to eportfolios and LiveBinders, which are magnificent tools for collecting, presenting, and showcasing student work and progress.  The work in setting up the practice is minimal and the rewards and benefits are so very worth it.

What’s better is the idea that student-led conferences pave the way nicely for those end-of-the-year portfolio presentations for grade-level promotion, which we all know should be one way to replace standardized testing!

Check out this resource from to learn how to get started:


The Deal with Common Core in Math (and Science and Social Studies)

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS) over the past two years; I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly and everything in between.  I’m certainly not of the public caliber as many of the most followed, most revered, or the loudest, but I am a serious and growing educator who has been reflecting on this deeply for some time.  So, it’s my turn to weigh in.

Here’s the deal with CCSS in math.  And science.  And social studies.  I will leave the reading discussions for the dedicated reading teachers, since I’m not a reading specialist.  I do consider myself a literacy specialist though, so I will include that discussion here.  I am not yet truly informed on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so I will save that for a later post.

First of all, the Common Core standards are not perfect. But here’s the thing: there will never be a perfect set of standards.  There can’t be.  When the educational system tries to prescribe a list of skills that must be taught at certain levels, the lists will always be a step behind.

It’s easy to understand the concerns of math teachers who know their students will be rising to their classes with some deficiencies.  That’s a struggle that will be overcome.  That’s the optimist in me.  I don’t want to talk about those concerns right now.  If you’d like to read more about the pessimistic side of things, you can do a Google search for “Common Core will destroy America.”  I want to talk about the good stuff (since I sincerely believe that the bad stuff can be overcome with dedication, flexibility, and collaboration).

We are living, growing, teaching, and learning in a new era.  Things change so quickly now that trying to maintain skill standards that will last through the ages is an act in futility.  I do, though, believe that the CCSS is a pioneering model in what could be an evolving set of practices and standards that is easily flexed as the needs of society change.

Here are a few reasons I strongly support the Common Core State Standards Initiative:

First of all, I’m not a certified English-language arts teacher.  I never want to be.  I do proudly consider myself, however, a literacy teacher.  I absolutely love how the CCSS prescribes writing proficiencies to all students in all content areas at all levels.  This is something that I’ve always thought should be done.  Students shouldn’t be doing math all the time; they should be writing about it too!  What’s the point of doing a science lab or investigation if you aren’t going to write about it?  And why in the world would you ever want to give a multiple-choice test in social studies?  Make them write!

Writing is the assessment of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking – the famous 4Cs of P21.  It’s also the path to those skills.  These are the skills of innovation, which is the main focus we should have as educators of any content.  Additionally, writing leads students to slow down and think about what they’re learning, and to reflect on what they understand and on what they need more information.

Additionally, the standards have put into place the benchmarks for college and career readiness.  Speaking, listening, researching, reading, and writing, as well as building inferences, coherent statements, ideas, productions, and models are new structures for educational standards.  They are so important because they ask educators to give our kids skills that will help them evolve with the changing world around them.

Finally, when it comes to math, there are prescribed standards for each level that build on top of each other.  This is nothing new, since it’s basically the way that state standards have always operated.  What I have really focused on are the 8 math practices standards.  This is where we turn consumers into producers.  This is where we lead students to understand mathematics rather than do mathematics.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is not perfect.  It is, however, the best step we’ve taken in a long time toward preparing our students for the global knowledge economy of the 21st century.  We won’t know if we keep using outdated assessments and NCLB.  The CCSS points to a pivot – a point in our country’s history where we begin to understand that we can’t predict the future accurately.  Therefore, we must give our students the tools and skills necessary to grow and change with the world.  We must teach them that content and practice are equally important points of their education, and that being a creative collaborator, critical thinker, and communicator are of the utmost importance.  It’s time we put the tools of the 21st century into the hands of the next generation, so that they may be prepared to lead our country into global competitiveness and growth.  And, equally important, we must give them these skills so they lead productive, fulfilling, and meaningful lives.

A Middle School Math Teacher’s Most Important Job, Part II

Digital Citizenship

21st century students are digital citizens.  One of the problems I’ve always had is finding a systematic method to follow that will help me train my students during the first weeks of school (and throughout the year) to be respectful, helpful, and productive classroom citizens.  I have done a pretty good job of pushing the character traits and allowing my students to help me come up with meaningful classroom rules, but it never seems to be enough.

Next year, I will slate two weeks to making sure that my students are comfortable with my expectations of them as not only classroom citizens, but also global digital citizens.  Common Sense Media offers a free curriculum for middle-grades teachers that seems pretty good.  It’s definitely comprehensive and includes all the media a teacher might need.  It does, however, tend to lean toward the younger demographic at times (grades 5 and 6, perhaps), but it doesn’t seem difficult to tweak it just enough to bring it to 7th or 8th grade level.

In addition to staying safe and secure and treating people right online and in real life, it offers an introduction to efficient searching and source evaluation.  Add this to the library of resources, and follow me as a I put it through its trial run in mid-August!

Common Core Math Standards Report

The implementation of the common core math standards make me a little nervous–mostly just about the way that the states and districts would approach the curriculum and instruction alignment.  Even worse was my anxiety about the assessments–what’s the point of having shiny, new common standards if we’re going to test them with the same tired, ineffectual methods? Reading this report eased my mind and energized me.  This is something that all math department leaders need to read.

Including you…

Recommendation #11: Leverage the implementation of the CCSSM as a nationwide systemic change movement.

I, for one, am on board.  One of the key requirements of the successful move to common core standards in any content area is the ability for the nation to change the way that those contents are taught.  I’ll be looking forward to the next reports to come out from science, social studies, and language arts organizations.

P21 – A Framework for the Future

The real focus here is knowing that our students are graduating from high school without many of the skills that are going to carry them to the next step in employment or college.  The hardest part is getting the general public, policymakers, parents, and teachers—yes, teachers—to understand this fact as well.  For the next few weeks, I want to talk about some of the people and organizations who see the trends of the future—the workplace, the economy, academia, and the global up-and-comers—and who are working tirelessly to keep America in the race.  Today, I will write about a collaboration that culminates in a model that prepares students to be world-class citizens, not just high school graduates.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), through research and contributions from (and in response to) partner corporations, has built a Framework for 21st Century Learning, which is a vision for learning that outlines the skills and concepts that students must master to succeed in life.  The framework has been organized into a graphic model, with support systems as the base and student expectations as the product.  Within its foundational model of “21st Century Support Systems,” P21 has the following listed in order of broadest support to narrowest: learning environment, professional development, curriculum and instruction, assessment, and standards.  In other words, each piece of the model is supported by the preceding piece.  In this model, it is clear that curriculum and instruction are supported and put in motion by the development of the professional educators.

Several states have adopted the framework and have passed legislation that mandates the use of the framework in all aspects of K-12 education, from learning environments to curriculum design and core content to life skills.  With the help and feedback of educational, technological, and other large corporations, the framework has been honed to provide the essential building blocks of a solid, well-rounded education that will not only prepare our kids for the high-paying and productive jobs of the new century, but will also create citizens that are charged with keeping our democracy intact and safe for all.

Please read more about the Partnership for 21st Century Skills at

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