Start the New Year by Articulating Your WHY

One of the most thought-provoking books I read last year was Simon Sinek’s Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. In his book, Sinek talks about how successful individuals and organizations communicate. Instead of explaining what they do, they start with why they do it.

  • What is our purpose?
  • What drives us?
  • What are we passionate about?

Explaining what we do is a lot simpler than putting our why into words. It is also less effective. “There are only two ways to influence human behavior,” Sinek says, “you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” The way to inspire behavior is to clearly articulate what we believe. Those who believe what we believe will follow us, buy our product, or invest their time and energy into our cause.

School Leaders Must Articulate Their Why

Though much of the book focuses on businesses and industry, I was struck by how relevant Sinek’s words in the context of education. I’ve worked with so many school districts that are embracing technology and blended learning models, but they do not communicate why this shift is important to teachers. Without a clear sense of purpose, it is easy for educators to become disillusioned and frustrated by the time and energy required to shift their teaching practices.

The best way to approach any significant change is to start with why. Be crystal clear about the value of the change and make sure everyone within the organization understands the why driving the change.

  • How will it improve the students’ experience as learners?
  • How will it free teachers to spend more time on the aspects of their job that they enjoy?
  • How will this create more dynamic and relevant learning?

If leaders are clear about their why, teachers are more likely to buy in and take risks. Similarly, teachers will be more effective if they articulate their why for themselves and explain their why to students.

An Exercise: What’s Your Why?

As we begin a new year, I encourage every teacher to take a few minutes to think about why you teach and then complete your version of the golden circle pictured above.

  1. Start with why you teach.
    • What is it about your job that excites you?
    • What drives you to work with students?
    • Ultimately, what are you trying to achieve?
  2. How do you do what you do?
    • How are you attempting to achieve your why?
    • What strategies do you use to manifest your why?
    • What do you do each day to stay focused on your why?
  3. What do you do?
    1. When people ask you what you do, what do you say?
    2. What are your various roles?

This exercise is harder than it sounds. We all know on an unconscious level what excites, motivates, and drives us, but putting that into words is tough. Several months ago, I sketched out my own golden circle with my why in the middle, my hows in the center ring, and my whats in the outer circle. When I feel frustrated or disillusioned, I revisit my why. It reminds me why I am in education. It is grounding and inspiring.

I hope this exercise serves to ground other educators as we begin 2018! Happy New Year! Thank you for being part of my learning network.


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Rethink Your Grading Practices

This year I have posted several blogs about grading and assessment. I encouraged teachers to stop taking grading home for two simple reasons:

  1. Grading in isolation robs us of the opportunity to have conversations with students as we assess their work and, ultimately, makes feedback one-sided and less effective.
  2. Grading at home robs us of precious time with our families, time to relax, and time to create dynamic learning experiences for students.

When I tell teachers I have not taken grading home since January of last year, they are immediately interested. They want to know exactly how I have managed that as a high school English teacher.

I explain that I use blended learning models, like Station Rotation and Whole Class Rotation, to create the time and space needed to move assessment into the classroom. If students are working 0n an essay, I dedicate one station each day to providing real-time feedback as they write.

Teachers want to know what the other students are doing while I am engaged in my real-time editing station. Below is an example of a station rotation lesson for my 9th and 10th English class. I work in a 90-minute block schedule so I can move my students through four 20 minute stations. I also coach teachers who teach traditional 50-minute classes and they have a four station two-day rotation. In that model, students hit four stations over the course of two days.

When a formal assignment is due, I use my teacher-led station to have individual grade conversations with my students. Instead of leading a station, I design a self-paced hyperdoc lesson or a station rotation that does not require that I lead a station. Then I meet with individual students to grade their work while they sit next to me. I explain what I am seeing in terms of their skills and talk them through the rubric and their scores. Before we end our conversation, I turn to them and ask, “Do you have any questions?”

These grading conversations take about 3 minutes because I do not try to grade every single aspect of their paper or assignment. Instead, I select 2 or 3 specific skills to assess for a score. In the rubric below, you’ll see I’ve select claims and analysis. There are other aspects of writing covered in the rubric, but I don’t try to assess them all for every single assignment.

Most teachers I work with struggle to limit the scope of their assessments. They use complex 5 or 10 point rubrics and assess every aspect of an assignment. This is overwhelming for students who are attempting to master specific skills. 

Assessments are most effective when the scope is limited to two or three skills that students can focus on improving.Click To Tweet

When I assess their first piece of argumentative writing, I may only provide assessment scores for 1) the quality of their claims and 2) their analysis of their evidence. Then on the second argumentative essay, I may focus on 1) quality of their evidence and 2) analysis. As they write, they receive real-time feedback on all of their writing, but when it comes time to give them an assessment score, I keep my focus narrow.

When I lead workshops on assessment and grading strategies, there are always a few teachers who protest, “I don’t have time to provide feedback in the classroom or have grade conversations. I’m barely getting through all of the curriculum.” When I hear this, I wonder how much students learn when we race through content but do not dedicate time to supporting the development of specific skills. Students need feedback to improve their skills. This should happen in the classroom where the teacher can act as a coach.

Teachers who are tired of taking stacks of grading (real or virtual) home and want their feedback to be more meaningful should use the new year as an opportunity to explore different approaches to teaching. Using video content, multimedia lessons, and technology tools combined with blended learning models can create more time and space for teachers to work directly with students.

If you are interested in learning more about blended learning models, check out my newest book Blended Learning in Action.

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Student-Generated Real-Time Word Clouds

Who doesn’t love a colorful word cloud? But what I don’t love is the time it takes to input all of the words to create one. My motto is that students should do the work in our classroom, not me. Well, I work a little, but I don’t want to do the lion’s share of the work. The person doing the work is doing the learning, so my students do the heavy lifting in our classroom. That’s why I was so excited when I discovered Mentimeter!

Mentimeter–a cloud-based interactive presentation software–is super easy to use and has a robust free version. It provides the user with several different ways to engage a class, but my absolute favorite type of question is the word cloud.

Think about a question you want to ask students and select the type of question you want to use.

Click the “word cloud” image and type your question. For example, at the start of our unit on social media, I asked my students “What words come to mind when you think of social media?” I was curious to see what words they would associate with social media.

Once you’ve created your slide, you can project it for students. It will have your question, the link to, and a six-digit code at the top. When students go to, they’ll see a window like the one below.

As they submit their words, the word cloud updates in real time on your projected slide. Words that are repeated by multiple students appear larger in the cloud to reveal areas of commonality and agreement. My students associate social media with their friends above all else. Other words that were repeated by multiple students included, socializing, memes, communication, interaction, and public.

These word clouds are a powerful strategy to generate ideas, engage the class in conversation, and facilitate an analysis of word choice and meaning. I love that I did NOT have to create it. The words are entered directly by the students without being filtered through me.

It’s worth checking out some of the other question types too. There is a limit to the number of slides you can have with the free version, but it has worked wonderfully for me!

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