Archive for February, 2012

STAAR Writing: A short story in 26 lines or less with an interesting plot and engaging characters…. REALLY??

Monday, February 13th, 2012

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

A very short, short story by Ernest Hemingway

I have a 9th grader (a boy no less)!  While some boys may enjoy “the inner music that words make,” mine does not.  So when I learned that he would have to write a short story, with an interesting plot and engaging characters in 26 LINES OR LESS I panicked!  I began looking for mentor text that would support his STAAR endeavors!  I didn’t find any short stories in textbooks; well, not short stories that were less than 26 lines.  I found lots of excerpts, but no mentor texts.  Then I turned to the ‘un-academic’ database…..GOOGLE.  That’s where I found my answer:  micro-fiction or flash-fiction. I wasn’t concerned about whether it is called micro or flash fiction; I was just thrilled that there was a genre out there that modeled for my son (and his other 9th grade counterparts) of what they were supposed to write!

Flash fiction is a genre of short story writing that presents “a singular moment, a slice of life, a sketch” in 55 to 1000 lines.   In an information age of Twitter and hyperlinks, flash fiction is a way to engage our reluctant students in the elements of short story writing.  Even if we take the Hemingway story as an example of flash-flash fiction, we can see that there are characters (some implied), there’s a plot, there’s conflict—in just 6 words! Imagine the fun kids could have with 50 to 900 more?!

At the latest TCTELA conference, Harvey Daniels used an example of flash fiction for literature circles.  He examined a work titled “Waiting,” by Peggy McNally that came from Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction.  Let’s examine how many short story elements McNally used in just 255 mere words:

[click sample for a larger view]

So, is writing a fully developed short story in 26 lines (or less) a bit daunting?  YES!!!  But it is comforting that this is neither a new task nor a new genre.  It’s a genre that is published and, therefore, there are mentor texts for my son to digest.  On June 22, ESC XIII will offer a workshop on the topic of short story writing with David Rice, a world-renowned author (workshop # SU1223130).  He will share strategies that will prepare students for the STAAR literary composition.   Until then, you may want to access some of these resources:

Books Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories, edited by Jerome SternFlash Fiction Forward, edited by James Thomas and Robert ShapardSudden Fiction: American Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James ThomasField Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, edited by Tara L. Masih



Masih, T.L. Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Brookline: The Rose Metal Press, 2009.

Stern, Jerome, ed. Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Thomas, James, and Robert Shapard. Flash Fiction Forward. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 

TEKS Referenced / TEKS Based Resource Calibration

Monday, February 13th, 2012

There is so much “stuff” here …what do I use?

I don’t seem to have any “stuff” to use…what do I buy?

Money to spend this year?  Budgets to create for next year?

These are but a few questions heard in meetings, hallways, teacher lounges and the like.  Sometimes the sheer volume of materials to wade through is overwhelming while other times it may feel as if there just isn’t any resource to be found.  This may differ from content to content and even differ from unit to unit within any given content.  If you have ever felt as though you are simply racing against time and the system itself to “fit it all in” or as though you are spinning your wheels because students seem to “have it” only to just as easily have “lost it” over any given time frame, perhaps simplifying the instructional decision process by simply targeting the intent of the TEKS will help.  Admittedly this is far easier said than done, but wouldn’t we all love it if at the end of day we had a base of solid “go to” resources absent of ambiguity and rich with potential?  As the practice becomes second-nature, arguably an art form, we are able to focus our time and energy on each of our students with confidence that we are covering appropriate content and at the appropriate cognitive levels for our students.

Certainly we can launch an in-depth study of works by Robert Marzano, Mike Schmoker, and others noteworthy in their field…but really?  Do we all have that kind of time?  Although their work on defining Standards-based vs. Standards-referenced education serves as wonderful appetizers to full blown educational debate, when push comes to shove we are in our classrooms with our students each day and we make countless instructional decisions fueled solely by the intent to help and serve our children in their journey.  Part of the beauty of teaching is keeping hold of an eclectic set of items and resources because you just never know when or if you can use it again. Part of the danger of teaching is keeping hold of an eclectic set of items and resources and pulling from this comfort zone regardless of assignment or how many years have passed.  Admit it: there is a purple mimeograph copy somewhere in your files.   It may even be entitled something very similar to something you currently teach.  Does that make it the best instructional choice?

Consider this:  TEKS based vs. TEKS Referenced Materials.  Has a ring to it, doesn’t it?  If we focus on TEKS based materials in our original or main instruction we are then able to support and supplement with TEKS referenced and additional TEKS based items.  After all, we teach children, not subjects.

TEKS based:  resources tightly aligned with the content and cognitive level of the standards

  •  Example: A lesson addressing Science TEKS student expectation 2.7c focuses on distinguishing natural vs. manmade resources; combine this with Scientific Investigation and Reasoning TEKS student expectation 2.2d where students record and organize this information using pictures, numbers, and words within their science notebooks (TEKS 2.4a).

TEKS referenced:  resources loosely aligned with the direct standards but support the overall understanding of the concept; they may be considered “in the same ball park.”

  • Example:  In addition to reading non-fiction text on natural vs. manmade resources, a guided                         reading group explores a fictional leveled-reader short story in which the characters choose resources to gather and build a class project.

We would not rely on the TEKS referenced story to address the TEKS directly or to support student experiential learning, but we would choose this title to help support and solidify the idea of choosing and using resources which in turn helps the overall conceptual learning related to the standards.

One final word of caution:  sometimes less is more.  Let’s suppose that you begin your elementary unit on life cycles and you have come across a poster that you believe includes your grade level’s standards.   All six of the elementary grade levels contain TEKS related to life cycles.  For argument’s sake we will take the role of a 4th grade teacher covering 4.10c: explore, illustrate, and compare life cycles in living organisms such as butterflies, beetles, radishes, or lima beans.  Does the poster below support this student expectation in the TEKS?


image found, February 2012 at  

One could argue that the basic information is indeed found within this poster (content).  Of course just having a poster doesn’t elicit the required cognitive level of the standard and that would have to be incorporated into the lesson itself, but take another look at the content.  Sometimes resources are lacking content but other times, as in this case, they contain too much content and the original intent is lost for many students.  The extraneous information can easily muddy the water for many students.

What is the moral of our story? When considering resources, whether to utilize for TEKS based instruction or to purchase for future use, one must consider three questions:

1. Does the content align to the TEKS?

  • (Consider: TEKS based or TEKS referenced. This impacts how you would use the resource.)

2. Is the student cognitive level at the depth and complexity required in the TEKS?

  • (Consider: Are there means to combine a content student expectation in the TEKS with a process skill or other skills-based TEKS to increase the rigor?)

3.  If the answer to Question 1 and/or Question 2 is no, then you must ask if a small adjustment or tweak (resource calibration) could be made relatively easily to calibrate the resource to the standards.

  • No?  Then it is time to “retire” or share this resource with another grade level or course, if appropriate.  By the end of the unit, you will have streamlined your toolkit and saved time in the long run.

Remember, we all have favored lessons, resources, and vendors.  Companies and non-profits may even provide a correlation document aligning our state standards to their product.  For example, textbook publishers assign TEKS throughout the publication. As professional educators, there is no substitute for evaluating and calibrating resources before we use them.

Of course we know that things are much easier to say than to do in real time, but this practice can easily become second-nature and prove invaluable when designing lessons.  Want more information or practice evaluating and calibrating a variety of resource types?  Region XIII has offered several professional learning sessions doing just that; keep an eye on E-Campus, join the content list-servs, or request a visit from a specialist to learn more.


Rhetoric: It Ain’t a Four-Letter Word, Y’all!

Monday, February 13th, 2012

“The very ordinariness of rhetoric is the single most important tool for teachers to use to help students understand its dynamics and practice them.” (Roskelly)

Whether aware or unaware, the 21st Century student is steeped in rhetoric on a daily basis—Facebook, Twitter, movies, advertisements, conversations, school, books, music.  Colleges have instituted a freshman level course on it—to help students think more critically.  Its origins are as old as philosophy.  AP English teachers have been teaching it for decades.  What is it?  Why should I care?  How can it help me with STAAR?

According to Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, “rhetoric is the art or the discipline that deals with the use of discourse, either spoken or written, to inform or persuade or motivate an audience, whether that audience is made up of one person or a group of persons.”  The origins of rhetoric began in 5th century Greece.  At this time, the primary purpose of rhetoric was to aid public speakers.  During the Middle Ages, rhetorical techniques began to be applied to the art of letter writing.  But it was not until the Renaissance and the invention of printing that we saw the art of rhetoric being applied to all forms of writing.  It is hard to ignore rhetoric’s ubiquity in our everyday lives and its strong historical background.

With the advent of the STAAR, rhetoric’s relegation to AP level courses is no longer justifiable.  If we are to prepare students to – take a deep breath –  “analyze whether a writer’s historical support for an argument is relevant” (analytical composition on released STAAR), take a position on whether what a person thinks or does is of greater importance (persuasive released),  “explain whether a person must always be acknowledged in order to have accomplished something” (expository composition on released STAAR) or to “analyze how words, images, graphics and sounds work together in various forms to impact meaning” (eligible TEKS), we must equip them with some basic rhetorical skill sets.  Even if not all students will be tested on the persuasive essay, ALL students could encounter questions regarding persuasive techniques in the multiple choice sections of STAAR and MOST of the tested compositions will benefit from rhetorical understanding. Furthermore, our goal as educators has always been for students to communicate and think critically in order to be successful beyond their school years, test or no test.

Teaching rhetoric does not have to be complicated, like memorizing the technical term for every type of metaphor ever invented (metonymy and synecdoche, really???), but we can start simply with the 5 Canons of Rhetoric: the connection between speaker, audience, subject (context and aim).


The 5 Canons were established as a way of codifying rhetoric.  Not only can the Canons be used to deconstruct arguments but also a means to construct them; it’s the idea that we read like writers and write like readers.  (I will be speaking of the Canons as a generative tool for students’ writings but, conversely, students can use them to understand readings.) The 5 Canons are Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory and Delivery.  Though Memory deals solely with spoken rhetoric, the other four Canons are still relevant in our modern classrooms. First, Invention is the act of finding something to say, i.e. a topic and then, as Aristotle would posit, “discovering the best available means of persuasion.”  In 20th century composition studies, this act is called prewriting.  During the Invention phase, the writer considers the subject, audience and speaker.  What does the writer know about the subject? Will he/she need to research?  What examples can be used to provide support for the writer’s thesis?  Who is the audience, what does the writer know about them and how can he/she move them?  How can the writer establish credibility so as to come across as trustworthy?  What tone should he/she use?  During the Invention phase, the writer must also consider context and purpose.  What background information might the reader need in order to better understand the argument?  What is the aim or purpose of the argument?  To explain?  To move to action?  To console?  As we know, we lay the groundwork for good writing during the prewriting phase.

The second Canon is Arrangement, the selecting and organizing of ideas and arguments.  Arrangement mirrors the
drafting phase.  Naturally, compositions should have a beginning, middle and an end, but this organization is vague and TEA has communicated, “NO FORMULAIC WRITING WILL BE TOLERATED ON STAAR!”  If a formula is perceived, students compositions will drop into the lower score category.  So what’s a teacher to do?  Rhetoric has a solution.  Teach

students how to read like writers by having them analyze the organizational structures of “real” writers.  If we’re looking for 26 line sample essays to show students organizational patterns, then we’ll be looking for a long time because they don’t exist (especially not right now).  Once students become proficient at discovering the myriad ways authors organize their writings, we can have students play around with these structures in their own writings.
There is no simple answer or formula.  Students need to be able to create their own text structures, to look at the information they have compiled during the prewriting phase and decide the best method of arranging it.  Flexibility is key.  It’s messy but it is the only way to put the five paragraph essay out to pasture.




The third Canon is Style, “proper words in the proper places.”  In English classes, Style is comprised of diction, imagery, details, figurative language and syntax, to name just few.  Style can be incorporated during the drafting or the revising phases (or both).


The fourth Canon called Memory involves the memorizing of speeches.  Since it doesn’t pertain to our classrooms, I will mention it and move on.  We can make students aware of the fourth Canon and explain its importance to speeches but it is mostly irrelevant to the written word.Finally, the fifth Canon is Delivery.  In Ancient times, Delivery referred to body language, voice volume and inflection, but in modern composition studies it is more closely related to Publishing.  In this phase, we can teach students how to merge“words, images, graphics and sounds…to impact meaning” (eligible TEKS) through the use of technology.   This is 21st Century communication (and a tested student expectation).  Instead of using computers merely to type up final drafts, we should be teaching them use every available means possible to communicate their ideas—using computers to their fullest potential.  Students should be considering things such as: What is the best mode of delivery?  A Power Point? A blog?  A Prezi?  A Website?  How can I embed graphs, images, sounds and/or video to strengthen my aim?  Finally, we can have students present their final products to authentic audiences such as their peers, other teachers, or special guests from the community.  It is important for students to realize that people write for real world situations and not just for teachers; providing authentic audiences for our students is one of the best ways to make writing purposeful and fun.  The caliber of writing students produce exponentially increases when they consider delivering their writings to “real” people. (Insert image 5)students aware of the fourth Canon and explain its importance to speeches but it is mostly irrelevant to the written word.

OK—if you’ve gotten this far, you must surely realize that I am a rhetorician at heart.  It’s my “jam,” as I like to say.  But I also hope you can see rhetoric’s relevance with regard to the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named…aka STAAR.  If we’re looking for answers, this is about as close as we’re going to get.If you’d like to learn more about this subject, Professor Tom Buckley will be presenting a workshop titled “Rhetoric 101.”  Tom is the resident rhetorical guru at UT Austin—and my former teacher and current friend—where he prepares future generations of teachers how to teach writing.  Look for it coming soon to an E-Campus website near you!Corbett, Edward P.J., and Robert J. Connors.  “Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student.” 4thEd. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.Lunsford, Andrea A., John J. Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters.  “Everything’s an Argument.” 3rd Ed. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s, 2004.

Roskelly, Hepzibah.  “What Do Students Need to Know about Rhetoric?”  AP Central. Website. 12 Jan. 2012.

Searching for Rigor

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Rigor.  This word may be a topic of conversation that many of you are avoiding right now.  This may be related to the curricular chaos you have experienced this year with the increased numbers of historical figures and more standards in a compacted instructional pacing.   With the coming of the STAAR assessment in May, you may be more concerned with getting through the tremendous amount of information with the students rather than challenging them to think critically.  In the book Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools (1998), authors Daniels, Hyde, and Zemelman believe, “Complete ‘coverage’ in social studies inevitably results in superficial and unengaging teaching, like painting a room—covering plenty of square feet but only one-thousandth of an inch thick.”  Moreover, they state, “Students of social studies need regular opportunities to investigate topics in depth” (p. 139).  A common mistake is to equate in-depth for copious amounts of time, but this doesn’t have to be the case.  A well-planned Socratic questioning session with students may do more for them than taking PowerPoint notes for half of the class period.  As you search for rigor, you really have to look from within and evaluate what you are doing on a daily basis.  This search should start first by reflecting upon where rigor can be found in the standards.

Although this standard certainly looks like a Science student expectation, it is found in all K-12 Social Studies courses: Use a problem-solving process to identify a problem, gather information, list and consider options, consider advantages and disadvantages, choose and implement a solution, and evaluate the effectiveness of the solution.

So how exactly does it translate to the classroom when you have no new resources?  One recommendation is to be intentional.  Look for free resources that will help to stimulate problem-solving issues to pose to your students.  Just a few weeks ago I caught a 10 minute segment on PBS NEWSHOUR that led to me the website for the Center for Investigative Reporting. They are undergoing a yearlong examination of the global food supply and the world’s growing population in the series, Food for 9 Billion. World Geography students can use the audio and video segments to investigate the countries being showcased and use the website to further examine and compare world food statistics.  This is a great opportunity for them to discuss the problems that will arise with global population growth.  Are there solutions to these problems?  If so, what could be effective solutions?  This kind of problem-solving allows students to evaluate the issues on their own and make decisions based on what they read, hear, and view.  To really spark interest, try connecting the in-class discussion with Hans Rosling’s 5-minute population exploration, The Joy of Stats: 200 Countries, 200 Years.

Here’s another student expectation that is ubiquitous in K-12 Social Studies, but worded differently throughout the various grades: Explain the difference between primary and secondary sources and examine those sources to analyze frame of reference, historical context, and point of view.

This may be one of the easiest to integrate for rigor, but is often replaced by the textbook.  The argument may be, “Hey, the textbook is a secondary source.”  Yes, it is, but the textbook is one of many resources that should be used in the classroom.  Here’s an example of a primary and secondary source pairing that could enrich student learning in the World History classroom.

Examining Primary Sources


Ibn Battuta’s 1348 account of the Black Death

I went to Horns and found that the plague had already struck there; about 300 persons died on the day of my arrival. I went to Damascus and arrived on a Thursday; the people had been fasting for three days…. The number of deaths among them had risen to 2400 a day…. Then we went to Gaza and found most of it deserted because of the number that had died…. The qadi told me that only a quarter of the 80 notaries there were left and that the number of deaths had risen to 1100 a day…. Then I went to Cairo and was told that during the plague the number of deaths rose to 21,000 a day. I found that all the shaykhs I had known were dead. May God Most High have mercy upon them!

1350 account of the plague in Scotland 

In 1350, there was a great pestilence and mortality of men in the kingdom of Scotland, and this pestilence also raged for many years before and after in various parts of the world. So great a plague has never been heard of from the beginning of the world to the present day, or been recorded in books. For this plague vented its spite so thoroughly that fully a third of the human race was killed. At God’s command, moreover, the damage was done by an extraordinary and novel form of death. Those who fell sick of a kind of gross swelling of the flesh lasted for barely two days. This sickness befell people everywhere, but especially the middling and lower classes, rarely the great. It generated such horror that children did not dare to visit their dying parents, nor parents their children, but fled for fear of contagion as if from leprosy or a serpent.

                                                                          John of Fordun (d.1384), Scotichronicon

The students should be reading, viewing, and examining various sources as an on-going process. Leading students through primary and secondary source analysis can open up interest and pique curiosity to people’s lives long ago. In this case, the secondary source map can be used to make ties and provide a spatial understanding of the spread of the Black Death. You can also make an ephemeral correlation to issues and pandemics today. The Center for Disease Control has a brief plague page that has simplified information on the transition and distribution of plague in our modern world.

The last student expectation on rigor exploration has different verbiage at various grades, but is still present throughout Social Studies: Create written and visual material such as journal entries, reports, graphic organizers, outlines, and bibliographies based on research.

For this standard, the rigor is in what the students are producing and creating. You should provide opportunities for students to research, evaluate, and reflect on the information they have learned. A concrete example is this leader report card with Napoleon Bonaparte as a model example. The assignment would be to have students evaluate Bonaparte’s leadership and impact based on the reforms made under his authority. The student research would be focused on the French leader’s time in power and overall impact.

Now that you have seen a few examples of rigor in the Social Studies process skills, consider the following quote from a recently published article from Education Service Center Region 20 entitled, “How do you Identify Rigor in the Classroom?”  The authors state, “Rigor is evidenced through the observation of a number of essential components of rigor: content acquisition, critical thinking, relevance, integration, application of concepts, long term retention, and student ownership of learning.”  As a teacher, none of this can happen if you are not actively seeking new ways of reaching your students by pairing both content and rigor.  Yes, this takes time, intentional planning, and firmly rooting yourself in your content standards, but the rigor-reward will be great.

 *If you are looking for primary sources related workshops, ESC Region XIII will be hosting two workshops this spring – Teaching with Primary Sources and Document Based Questions for the Social Studies Classroom.  Go to Region XIII e-campus for more information.  (Workshop ID: SP122647, SP1223152)

a humorous look at what rigor is (not) in the Social Studies classroom, check out the following link



Bullis, D. MacDonald, N. (2000). The longest hajj: The journeys of Ibn Battuta, Part 3: From traveler to memoirist – China, Mali, and Home. Saudi Aramco World, 51, No. 4, Retrieved January 29, 2012 from

Damian, L., Dykes, S., Martinez, J., Zwart, L. Final report card: Napoleon Bonaparte. Presented to R. Hernandez, HCHS.

First incidence of black death in Europe and Asia, 1333-1369.  Retrieved January 29, 2012 from

Hyde, A., Daniels, H., Zemelman, S. (1998). Best practice: New standards for teaching and learning in America’s schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Jenkins, R., Goldhorn, J., Webb, M. How do you identify rigor in the classroom?  Retrieved February 2, 2012 from

Ibeji, M. (2011). Black death. BBC: British History. Retrieved February 2, 2012 from

T-STEM Project-Based Learning: Craft a Driving Question

Monday, February 13th, 2012

T-STEM Project-Based Learning:

The Texas High School Project (2010) defines Texas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Project-Based Learning (T-STEM PBL) as an inquiry-based instructional approach, in a real-world context, where students generate pathways and products that meet defined, standards-based outcomes.  This broad definition outlines the basic tenets of project-based learning that facilitate the integration of STEM and non-STEM disciplines.  Specifically, T-STEM PBL places an emphasis on providing a rigorous learning experience for students by meshing PBL principles with STEM concepts thereby increasing both student engagement and connectedness to real-world STEM issues.

The National Science Foundation (2007) states, “In the 21st century, scientific and technological innovations have become increasingly important as we face the benefits and challenges of both globalization and a knowledge-based economy.  To succeed in this new information-based and highly technological society, all students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.”  Through the integration of PBL and STEM, students engage in complex problem-solving that allows for multiple solutions while fostering research and collaboration.  Additionally, these authentic tasks allow students to develop skills and technical vocabulary utilized in specific STEM career fields.  The Transformation 2013 T-STEM Center provides PBL support to teachers as they learn to write driving questions that spark interest and propel students through a project.

Craft a Driving Question:

When a teacher begins planning a PBL, knowing the reasons why driving questions are used will assist in developing the right question for a project.  When students ask “Why are we doing this?” or “When will I ever need this?” the rationale for using driving questions becomes apparent:

  • To promote student interest:  The purpose of a driving question is to give students a reason to solve a problem or issue facing them.  Good driving questions will promote student interest and generate excitement for the upcoming tasks.
  • To direct students toward project goals:  Students often do projects without seeing the purpose behind it.  With a driving question students will have clear direction towards the project goals.
  • To address authentic concerns:  Driving questions should address authentic concerns.  How is the material used in the real world?  Select a question that would make the material relevant to the student.

An intriguing driving question is at the heart of an effective project, setting the tone for the entire PBL and focusing on the overarching concept of the PBL.  To consider how the guiding question relates to the real world, take the “big idea” for the project (what students will accomplish) and convert it into a realistic problem-based scenario that an employee might experience in the workplace.  Next, craft this into a problem or question that cannot be easily solved or answered.  It should be open-ended and composed of many parts that students can explore on a variety of levels.  Driving questions should elicit higher-level thinking, and students should be expected to use their critical thinking skills in order to derive an answer to the question.

Driving questions must also be linked to learning objectives so that students are gaining both knowledge and skills as they work towards the project’s answer.  Furthermore, the driving question must emphasize a high level of challenge so that students are not simply walking through review activities, but are fully engaged throughout the process.  Finally, when developing a driving question and PBL lessons, it is important to keep in mind the scope and sequence of both district curricula and the TEKS.

Four types of driving questions
There are four types of driving questions:

1.       Abstract, conceptual:  An abstract driving question is one that is answered by conceptual analysis. These questions are answered through logical argument.  There is no single, correct answer, and it is not easy to answer these questions with a one-word answer.  Students will need to justify their response to these abstract, conceptual questions through a variety of activities.  Examples:

  • What makes a book a classic?
  • When do we grow up?
  • Should art be censored?

2.       Concrete:  A concrete driving question is one that is answered mainly by the analysis of empirical evidence.  Students will need to do research to prove their answer.  In this case, there is a right answer, but there are several ways to approach the answer.  Examples:

  • Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?
  •  Is the water in our town safe to drink?
  • What effect does population growth have on our community?

3.       Problem-Solving:  A problem-solving driving question is answered by offering a reasonable solution.  For a problem-solving question, students have to work together to generate a solution to the problem.  Examples:

  • How can the government use monetary and fiscal policy to address an economic crisis?
  •  How can we create an effective networking system for a corporation?

4.       Design Challenge:  A design challenge driving question is answered by creating and executing a design that effectively meets requirements.  Here, the students are to use the engineering design process to answer the question.  Examples:

  • How can we design a local theatre that meets size limits and seats the most people?
  • How can we design a museum exhibit about World War II so that it appeals to diverse groups in our city?

The development of a driving question is central to the inquiry process and it must be established before deciding on project activities.  Furthermore, the natural outcome of effective project-based learning is a project completely driven by the question or problem statement and facilitated by the teacher.  To obtain more information on PBL and driving questions, view the following videos and contact us via our Transformation 2013 website (


Watershed Project: Craft the Driving Question

The Gender Project: Craft the Driving Question




Larmer, J., Ross, D., & Mergendoller, J. (2009).  PBLStarter Kit: To-the-point Advice, Tools and Tips for 
Your FirstProject in Middle or High School.  Novato,CA:  Buck Institute for Education.

National Science Foundation (2007) “National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the U.S.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education System.” Retrieved February 1, 2012,

Texas High School Project (2010).  “Texas Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Academy

Design Blueprint, Rubric, and Glossary.”  Retrieved February 1, 2012,

Putting PD back into PDAS

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Feeling stressed out by the mountain of data piled up on your desk?  While the AEIS Reports, report cards, benchmark tests, and a wealth of other data can sometimes seem overwhelming, they offer school leaders the critical information that informs powerful decisions for individual, campus and district improvement.  In fact, these data sources provide the driver for the following system of continuous improvement, developed from a belief that we can always better both our education system and the skills of the individuals within that system.


from PDAS Instructional Leadership Development, 2005

Begin by analyzing the data to identify trends that occur in student achievement.  As patterns begin to emerge, goals for areas of need begin to present themselves, allowing you and your staff to strategically target professional development resources for the greatest impact on instructional practice. Formative evaluations of student and teacher progress, the results of mid-process interventions, provide information which can then be analyzed to reassess the originally established needs and recalibrate goals and objectives, initiating the next cycle of improvement.

Your Professional Development and Appraisal System (PDAS) data can help you see campus wide trends that can lead to professional development for your entire staff, a department, or a handful of teachers.  Consider your options as you approach the formal campus improvement planning process:  Professional Learning Communities; internally provided, targeted professional development; off-site professional development; and book studies, to name a few. No matter what strategy you decide on for your campus, applying this process of continuous learning and improvement on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis will significantly impact classroom practice and student learning.

The Driverless Car: Flexibility and Imagination

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Imagine having the technology to have cars that drive without a human driver.  Think about it for a minute.  What will that mean for our daily lives?  How would that change your morning commute?  What other inventions may occur as a result of not needing to drive? Recently National Public Radio did a short story on the Driverless Car Technology and where it is now.  (  The driverless car technology is on the horizon.  What other inventions are coming that will change the way we think and how do we help prepare our students for this future that sounds like science fiction?

It is often said we are preparing our students for jobs that don’t exist right now and to use tools that we can’t even begin to imagine.  Our challenge is to use the tools we have now to prepare our students for this future.  In pondering this question and reading many articles, two main themes became very clear: flexibility and imagination.

We want the best schools but we seem to be stuck in the way things have always been done.  Parents and teachers expect school to look like the school they attended.  To prepare our students for their future, and not ours’, we need to realize that there will be major paradigm shifts in what is meant by “going to school.”  One small example of flexible thinking is how some schools are using online tools and websites like the Khan Academy site to “flip” their instruction.  Students don’t have traditional homework but they go home and watch instruction, and return the next day ready to practice with a content specialist.  Think about the implications of this model and how it dramatically changes the look of traditional homework.  A student may not need to complete a set of practice problems but watch a video or play a game and be ready to talk about and work on problems related to these experiences!  Not only do we need to be flexible about what it means to go to school, we must be flexible in our thinking about instructional technology.  We need to embrace the fact that whatever we have is going to need to be upgraded or it will become outdated quickly. This means that we will have to learn new technologies at a fast rate alongside our students.  As educators we must also remain flexible in our thinking and learning; we can no longer get our degrees and be ready for the rest of our career.  We must be the life-long learners that we are preparing our students to be. We must continue to learn and explore in order to create the best learning for our students. We must be willing to change and keep changing.

Let’s go back to our driverless car; you’ve probably seen one.   It might have been in a cartoon or movie, something viewed as wildly imaginative.  A lot of our own inventions were once just a part of someone’s imagination, something to make life easier, more productive or maybe just more fun.  To help prepare our students we need to provide opportunities for them to use their imaginations and to be creative.  Our original education system was designed to create workers, ones who could follow directions and do repetitive tasks correctly.  As our world is transformed by new knowledge, new technologies, and new connections, we can see that traditional tasks and roles being replaced or becoming useless.  We have to begin to imagine that some of what we teach now is not going to be useful at all; some of our content will become archaic.  Some of our techniques and strategies will become cumbersome as technology and other inventions will make things easier.

Imagine a classroom that is not a room.  Imagine a school day that is not a day, defined by bells and defined schedules.  Imagine a grade level that is not defined by an age.  Imagine teachers learning alongside their students, collaboratively and cooperatively.   Just imagine!

More fuel for your imagination may be found in these links to articles which were read in preparation for creating this article.  Some of them contain slightly controversial subject matter. We are sharing them only as different viewpoints, not as endorsements. This site offers 32 short chapters with paradigm shifting ideas and thoughts.  Be sure to watch the animation, it is fun! This link ties together goals of our original education systems and looks ahead to what will be needed.  This site has a “book” feel to it. This article talks about personalizing learning with technology tools  and gives some examples of how some schools are already changing.





Using Electronic Portfolios to Assess Student Growth and Mastery

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Have you ever given serious consideration to the idea of having your students collect and assemble learning artifacts into a well-organized portfolio?  Perhaps the idea is intriguing because your best intuition tells you that you can better assess real learning when growth is monitored over time instead of in one short event, such as a test.  According to research, a portfolio is “A purposeful collection of student work that illustrates efforts, progress and achievement in one or more areas.” (Paulson, Paulson, & Meyer, 1991). Portfolios are practical ways to showcase learning and demonstrate mastery of concepts.  The portfolio development process (leading to showcase) is a practical way to accurately depict growth in pursuit of that mastery.  The common goal of maintaining a portfolio is to continuously develop a purposeful collection of work and create a vehicle for constructive, developmental learning.

Technology tools have matured tremendously since the early days of discussing electronic portfolios.  Schools and teachers have tried, often with limited success, to use file servers, html web pages and more to create a showcase. But the barrier-to-entry and learning curve often made any attempt not worthwhile.  New tools, including those provided to all Texas educators through Project Share, have removed almost all of the hurdles and road blocks to successful and enjoyable e-portfolio development.

Ponder the major learning benefits for your students….

  • E-portfolios are effective in helping students become critical thinkers and aiding in the development of their writing and multimedia communication skills
  • E-portfolios help students become more technology literate
  • E-portfolios develop critical thinking skills and challenges learners to make connections among peers, professionals and learning experiences and to real-world applications

Categorize student e-portfolios into two categories: Formative/Learning portfolios and Summative/Showcase portfolios.  Formative/Learning portfolios:

  • Are intended to personalize learning experiences and provide a vehicle for collaboration, communication, and review by peers and professionals
  • Provide teachers with evidence of learning over time
  • Allow learning patterns to emerge which allow for the creation of personalized learning plans
  • Form the foundation for artifacts that will eventually end up on display in the Summative/Showcase portfolio.

Summative/Showcase portfolios:

  • Are organized after the work is completed over time, cleaned up and professional – removes elements not of interest to a non-participating reviewer
  • Provide opportunity to share authentic examples of work that represents more than grades
  • Work as a tool to focus interests and strengths on career goals and markets skills and characteristics specific to the target market and audience

As you consider how to begin an e-portfolio initiative, remember these important cues:

  • Students should organize and classify work into universally important abilities, such as communication, decision making, global perspective and aesthetic engagement.  Don’t be tempted to organize by unit title or other narrow topics.  You will need to think about your assignments and which major concepts they address.
  • Utilize rubrics to guide the learning along a path of increasing performance and quality.
  • Work with students to define both academic and personal goals for a long range showcase.  Coach them in understanding that the audience for their portfolio will evolve over the years.
  • Younger students will need much more structure and direct instruction than high school aged students.  Senior portfolios should be extremely self-directed.
  • Provide encouragement and opportunity for students to include artifacts from activities in enrichment areas and outside of school that fit their goals.

Finally, and most important of all, consider the sharing and reflecting components of e-portfolios as absolutely critical to the process.  This is likely the place of most discomfort and hesitation.  It is too often and easily skipped.  However, student work should be reviewed and constructively commented on by (as appropriate) teachers, peers, community, professionals, parents, and more.  Furthermore, the most essential step of all is the student self-reflection on selected artifacts.  For each included work, students need to write a personal narrative concerning the what, why, and how of the work as well as thoughts, comments and feelings about the level of learning, needs for improvement, pride in achievement and remaining questions.

There is still a list of critical questions for district IT, classroom practitioners and administrators that need attention for success.  Additionally, selecting the appropriate electronic platform can make or break a successful e-portfolio initiative.  Teachers are encouraged to learn the process of e-portfolio development by learning to create and maintain a simple professional e-portfolio for reflective practice and as a model for learners.  To assist with these needs, Region XIII offers targeted support services to ensure you have the technical and pedagogical knowledge that will empower you to succeed with e-Portfolios.  To discuss what we can do for you, send an e-mail to

Hebert, E. The Power of Portfolios: What
Children Can Teach Us About Learning and
Assessment. San Francisco: Jossey Bass,
Rolheiser, C., Bower, B., & Stevahn, L. The
Portfolio Organizer: Succeeding with Portfolios
in Your Classroom. Alexandria VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Development, 2000


Technology Tools Aligned to Type 2 Accommodations for Spelling

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Are you looking for technology tools aligned to Type 2 Accommodations for spelling? This matrix lists multiple options and provides live links for further information about each tool. You may access further information at


Download the Technology Tools Aligned to Type 2 Accommodations in Spelling PDF document below.

Also, don’t miss the  Lunch and Learn FREE Technolgy Webinar

Topic:  Type 2 Technology Tools for Spelling

Date: Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Time:  12 noon to 1pm

Reserve your Webinar seat now at: