A Tale of Two Posters

If you're a student, choose which class you'd prefer to be a part of. Choose which teacher you'd most likely work harder for.

This one?
Available for 8.95 on eBay

Or this one?

                                                              Feel free to download.

 If you're teacher, choose wisely.   Words matter.


What Entry Point? Where? Some Thoughts on Prescribed Curriculum and Backwards Design

As districts and administrators lean more and more towards curriculum demands on teachers, it’s no wonder that the significance of the entry point in backwards design is somewhat lost. It’s also no wonder that many teachers are wondering how they can ever be considered designers of learning when so much of it is “required.”  

English teachers are told, “Students need to read Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Giver.” Math teachers are told, “Students need to be able to calculate the area of a circle, solve quadratic equations, and apply the Pythagorean theorem.” Science teachers must “cover” concepts from Geology, Astronomy, and Meteorology. 

So anything to do with real “choice” on an entry point is nowhere to be found. It’s “done been chosen.”

Thus, while planning a general unit might be fine with a requisite entry point, it’s very difficult for teacher to plan units using the backwards design approach because it requires much more thought and careful decision-making. And making careful decisions about something that may not interest you just won’t end up being of the same quality. Though the design might be fine, it lacks the pizzazz of other units we’ve created. So, how can we muster up enthusiasm with prescribed curriculum?

Confession: I’m an English teacher who really doesn’t care for poetry. I do see its significance, and I know how to analyze it ten ways to Tuesday. But when I’m told, teach these poems in a poetry unit, I get a little de-motivated. 

  Okay, I get really de-motivated. 

        Okay, okay, I would rather have a root canal.

That’s when I know I need to get creative. That’s when I know I have to get that pizzazz back in designing said unit.

One strategy— if you’re faced with a required entry point of a text, standard, topic, or skill that just doesn’t seem to move you— is to consider what aspects of that entry point are relevant to students’ lives right now, today. 

For example, if you’re required to have students write a Rogerian argument paper (a skill required by your district), you’ll want to reach outwards towards their reason for writing the paper (to convince their parents of something that they determine is necessary). More than likely, since the topic is inherent, the students will be a bit more juiced about the focus, which, as you’re planning, will get YOU more juiced and creative in your backwards planning.

If your district requires a particular standard, say, 3.NS.1: Read and write whole numbers up to 10,000. Use words, models, standard form and expanded form to represent and show equivalent forms of whole numbers up to 10,000 in the second nine weeks, and that particular standard is…ehhh…one that you kind of dread, another strategy is to challenge yourself in determining how you can focus on and stimulate students' kinesthetic intelligence. Sometimes, giving ourselves a creative challenge, particularly one that will ultimately benefit under-served learners, is enough of a boost to get us pumped for teaching the unit. The design flows more freely. 

Finally, if you’re required to teach a topic that is taught on an annual basis (such as bullying, drug abuse, character choices) and, thus, is likely to garner unwilling, unmotivated whininess from students (“We did this lasssssst yearrrrrr…."), consider where you can incorporate student choice. Students often “tune out” of topics that they think they know all about, so in that instance, planning for them to take charge of the topic is one way to handle it. There is a unique joy to planning a student-led project that allows for greater passion to emerge. You can “see” it happening, and it’s exciting! 

Any and all of these strategies might work for entry points. For my dreaded, required poetry unit, I've tried the kinesthetic challenge and life-relevance. Both worked out beautifully separately and in combination. So much more was learned because I took the time to challenge my own creativity in order to spur on my passion.

So, where is your entry point, ultimately? It’s in your enthusiasm, creativity, and passion. Go get ‘em, tiger!


Want to effectively integrate technology? Make it invisible.

I facilitate online professional development for teachers on integrating technology in their classrooms, and one of the participants—a high school art teacher—came up with a powerful insight into the whole concept of integrating technology. He said: 

The technology should be invisible.

In that one short statement, he was able to capture the essence of effective technology integration. We don’t want the tool to be the focus, nor do we want the tool to drive the learning. Rather, the goal is to put the learning first and allow the use of the tool to be so seamless, so natural, so smooth as a means to reach the objective, that it is…invisible. 

For example, you may have just discovered PowToons or Quizlet. These are both fabulous tools! However, if you’re thinking, “Oh wow! I want to use those with my kids!” then you’ll want to stop.

If your goal is to use the tool, then the technology will not be invisible—it will be a glaring neon sign that reads

                                     Heyyyy, We're Doing Technology Nowwww

Further, once the novelty has worn off, your students will potentially be turned off to the tool as they will not see its value of transfer. They’ll only know that they “did a PowToon” or “did a Quizlet” in class.
Maybe that’s how we can judge whether or not our integration of technology is effective. If you ask a student, “What are you doing in class?” and the answer is anything along the lines of “I’m making a video” or “I’m drawing a Bitstrip” then, your technology is too visible.

Rather, your goal is to keep the learning as the objective. You want the kid to say, “We’re trying to solve a mystery” or “We’re coming up with solutions to a problem in our community.” 

HOW they look for ways to solve that mystery (through internet research) or share that solution (video, blog, infographic) shouldn’t be the focus. 

So, the question is, how do we make our integration of technology invisible?
       1. Ask big questions. What kinds of questions do you want kids to be thinking about as they move into the lesson/unit? Generally, the use of clearly relevant how, why, or what if questions tend to stimulate more thought.

       Why is there still racial tension in the U.S., today? (high school)
2. Based on those questions and your state standards, create learning objectives. What should the student be able to do by the end of this lesson unit? 

       By the end of this lesson, unit, the student will be able to:

  •  Discuss multiple perspectives on the issue.
  •  Identify at least four valid reasons for the persistence of racial tensions in the U.S.
  • Support their identified reasons with evidence from recent data and statistics.
  • Posit two or more plausible solutions for easing tensions, based on research.

 Standard: Students are able to develop well-reasoned argument, posit solutions with the      
use of evidence from research.

3.  Determine what technology tools will aid the students in reaching those objectives. Even   better, offer students a choice of tools. In the examples above, the most logical technology tools are:

  • A curation tool to gather and house research (Pinterest, Symbaloo, or other)
  • A word processing tool (Google docs, Word, or other) OR
  • Another publishing tool (Podcast, blog, Glogster, or other)

 Nothing fancy. Hopefully, in response to the question, these kids would say, “We’re talking about why there’s still racism,” and not “We’re making a Glogster thing.” 

Make it invisible

You'll find more teaching strategies in our book, Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers. Some former students and I collaborated on the development of best strategies for secondary educators. Check us out!


Think Classroom Leadership, not Classroom Management

Classroom management is not just the application of theories, strategies, and methods. We can also think of it as a form of leadership.  Many of the kinds of decisions we make in the classroom are those that leaders make, such as a vision and mission for the class (through the development of curriculum), guidance towards objectives (through assessment), and the day-to-day interactions that encourage collaboration and cooperation (behavioral discipline/procedures). 

Of course, we have some duties that we see as managerial, such as completing paperwork on deadline and adhering to policies, but leaders have duties. Those duties don't drive their focus, though; they are professional in following through. A manager thinks:  "I've got to finish this report.:" A leader thinks:  "This report is going to help me better understand what this student/class needs to be successful."

This idea of leadership mindset in place of classroom management is relatively new, however.  In their review of the nation’s teacher preparation programs, Teacher Prep Review 2013, Greenberg, McKee, and Walsh (2013) emphasize the movement away from the traditional training regimen of classroom management (that of presenting strategies and methods) to instilling a “professional mindset" (p. 6). The idea being that those learners with a leadership mindset have the basics they need in order to respond to a variety of issues or circumstances.

The ability to respond to a variety of issues is what new teachers struggle with because they may have learned Strategy A, but they don’t see how strategy A works in Situation B. However, if they can grasp that they are leaders of people and not managers of behaviors, they may have an easier time. This image offers a strong visual:

In general, a manager functions more like a boss, making all decisions and expecting compliance. The leader involves his/her followers in the decision-making and models expectations, which leads to the embracing of principles as opposed to mere compliance.  The difference in students' behavior and contributions to the class when the teacher possesses and conveys a leadership mindset, particularly at the secondary level, is remarkable. 

In his study of teachers in Mississippi, Burkett (2011) found a strong correlation between a teacher’s ability to manage a classroom and his/her leadership traits.  His study showed that those teachers who were effective leaders demonstrated greater efficacy in classroom management. It isn’t such a huge leap, then, to consider that when teachers understand that classroom management is a form of leadership, they may approach situations more effectively. 

Stanford’s Graduate School of Education (2013) takes this theory of classroom management as leadership very seriously, to the extent that they have renamed their secondary management course to Classroom Leadership and Management: Secondary. The course emphasizes that a “tool box of simple management behavioral techniques” (Stanford, 2013) will only get new teachers so far with students. By exploring the core of behaviors and philosophies, the teacher candidates are exposed to a completely different mindset in moving forward, that of leadership and decision making.  In essence, they are provided with instruction in how to be classroom leaders, which offers a cohesion of theories and methods introduced to learners.  

One secondary educator noted that in his teacher preparation coursework he was "inadequately prepared in the day-to-day, immediate management techniques that would have made [his] first few years successful” (Greenberg, et al., 2013, p. 46).  I wonder how he might have felt more prepared had he known that he was a leader and not a manager, had he known that he didn’t need a bunch of techniques as much as he needed a mindset that conveyed greater collaboration with his students.


Burkett, M. C. (2011). Relationships among teachers’ personality, leadership style, and efficacy
of classroom management
. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. (UMI
number 3455430) 

Greenberg, J., McKee, A., & Walsh, K. (2013). NCTQ teacher prep review 2013 report. Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality. Retrieved from http://www.nctq.org/dmsView/Teacher_Prep_Review_2013_Report

Milton, S., Curva, F. & Milton, A. L. (2011). Teachers from Florida teacher preparation
                programs: A report on state-approved teacher preparation programs with results of
                surveys of 2009-2009 program completers. Retrieved from: http://www.fldoe.org/profdev/pdf/ProgramCompletersSurvey2011.pdf

Stanford Graduate School of Education. (2013). Classroom leadership and management:

You'll find more strategies for implementing a leadership mindset in our book,
           Teachers. Some former students and I collaborated on the development of best 
           strategies for secondary educators. Check us out!


Helping Teens Understand the Value of Intellectual Traits


We know that we want to teach high school students to think critically, but where is the best place to start? In a situation where the most you seem to be able to get out of a kid is “This sucks!”-- where do you begin? 

The Paul and Elder framework for critical thinking has three main components--standards, elements of thought, and intellectual traits--which can help us out. 

The movement of the components of the framework is cyclical as the thinking (if properly implemented) perpetuates and improves itself—that is, the standards must be applied to the elements of thought in order to develop the intellectual traits which help us better evaluate our thinking based on the standards, which are applied to the elements of thought, and so on… So, determining where to “jump” into the cycle is a decision we want to carefully consider.

One of the best hooks we can use for teens is anything that points directly back to them. Tressidder (2010), certified family, parent, and teen coach, notes that teens are “by definition, narcissistic.”  Ask any veteran high school teacher and you’ll hear rousing support of that point. This is Generation Me! I’m thinking we can use that inherent narcissism to draw students into the cycle via the intellectual traits, which focus on the thinker.

High schoolers will no doubt be interested in whether they have certain traits (such as Intellectual Courage and Intellectual Autonomy), and they might also have some misconceptions about Intellectual Humility. The opening discussion on the traits will need to be very compelling and open. The introduction is half the battle as we have to somehow convince the most stubborn, narcissistic group of inhabitants on the planet that intellectual traits are desirable and worth the effort to cultivate.

In a society where it’s all about the “bling,” it’s no easy task. We have to convince adolescents to do what most adults don’t do: look at things from multiple perspectives in a reflective, mindful way, basing their decisions on relevant facts as opposed to opinions and bias. 

Here’s what might work. (Again, this is just a way to begin the discussion. The idea is that you’ll revisit the traits throughout the year—this isn’t a one-time deal.)

Pre-assessment: Have students write down what they think about these statements (or possibly create a quick online survey with a Likert scale that runs from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree:

When I have to solve a problem, it’s important that:

            I make sure I have all the facts, and if I don’t, that I can identify that I still need to gather              information.
            I don’t take things for granted and that I ask questions.
            I endeavor to see things from the other person’s (or others’) point of view.
            I don’t give up, even when things seem frustrating.

1.  First, we’re not going to discuss the definitions and “go over” the traits. Rather, we want them to pose a problem to figure out.  We want them to “do” something. Just telling them all of this stuff will most likely turn them off to it.

Give them some options: write down a problem you’re having or have had with someone else (that you’re willing to share), examine a problem you’ve seen other people having with each other, or consider a problem that you’ve seen evident here at school.

2.  Have them summarize the situation in one part and offer their thoughts about the situation in another part. Clarify that the first part is similar to a police report: just the facts about what happened, when, and who said what. The second part is what they think about the first part.

You’ll probably have to give them a model. You might find a relevant scenario at The Daily Dilemma to use for a parallel. Follow through on each of the steps.

3.  After they’ve posed their problems and noted what they think about them, it’s time to share. You might consider a collaborative online approach, here, such as an online discussion forum, Google docs, Padlet, or another online app. Students comment on each other’s thinking and provide their own thoughts and advice.   

4.  Then, we have them reflect on their thinking about the problem. Introduce the concept of Intellectual Traits. Provide students with a handout or link to online doc with relevant questions as definitions for the traits. Consider starting with these four from Elder and Paul (1998):

  • "In this situation, what do I really know? What do I think I know but am not completely sure of? What do I need to learn? What do I still need to figure out?" (intellectual humility)

  • "Am I uncritically accepting what I have learned, or do I have the courage to question what I have learned? Am I afraid to question certain beliefs or practices because I may be rejected for questioning them?" (intellectual courage)

  • "Am I honestly trying to imagine this situation from this other person's point of view? Can I accurately state another person's point of view--which is in conflict with my own?" (intellectual empathy)

  • "Am I thinking through this issue in a way which does justice to its complexity, or do I come to a conclusion too quickly? Do I give up when figuring things out becomes frustrating?" (intellectual perseverance)
I find these four traits to be the most tangible of the list, so students might be able to grasp them a bit more readily.  We want them to use these questions to reflect on their thinking. Their goal is to review the second part of their submissions to determine the extent to which they’ve reflected the traits. This is going to be clunky—don’t expect perfection.

5.  Your role at this point is to ask questions designed to elicit deeper thinking and guide students in the right direction with their evaluations of their thinking. This might be a good spot to incorporate some questions based on the standards as a sort of segue:

·        Clarity: How clear is my thinking? To what extent is my point readily understood by myself and others?

·        Accuracy: How accurate is my thinking? To what extent is my information true and correct without distortion?

·        Precision: How precise is my thinking? To what extent is my information exact and specific to the necessary level of detail?

·        Relevance: How relevant is my thinking? To what extent does my information and input relate to the issue at hand?

·        Depth: How much depth is there to my thinking? To what extent am I engaging with the complexities of the issue?

·        Breadth: How far my does my thinking reach? To what extent am I considering the issue within the necessary contexts and relationships?

·        Logic: How logical is my thinking? To what extent do my conclusions follow from the evidence?
        Significance: How significant is my thinking? To what extent can I identify and focus on the most important aspects of the issue at hand?

·         Fairness: How fair is my thinking? To what extent am I able to avoid privileging my own biases?
(You’ll find a nice image for these at University of Louisville Posters)

6. After these exercises, consider having students take the survey again. Has their thinking changed? If so, why?  This final reflection may help them arrive at the conclusion that intellectual traits are worth having.  Again, this will be something that you have keep reinforcing over and over, but I hope that I’ve given you some inspiration for where to start!

You can also find additional free resources.for Paul and Elder’s Framework for Critical Thinking on their site, specifically designed for high schoolers. 



Elder, L., & Paul, R. (1998). Critical thinking: Developing intellectual traits. Journal Of Developmental Education, 21(3), 34.

Tresidder, T. (2010, Jan 30). Narcissistic, needy, or normal? What’s really going on with my teen? Retrieved July 28, 2014 from http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/narcissistic_needy_or_normal_what_is_really_going_on_with_my_teens_behaviour