Instructional Strategies

The March 2012 Educational Leadership publication popped through my mail chute and I was thrilled to read its title:  READING ~The Core Skill~.  As an English teacher and reading specialist, I have always believed that reading is the essence, the core, of all learning, in all grades, in all disciplines.   This issue of Educational Leadership features numerous articles discussing aspects of reading research and practice for 21st Century teachers and learners.  As I pondered the ideas presented by literacy experts such as Tim Shanahan, Nancy Fry, and Richard Allington, one major question came to mind:

How can Professional Learning Teams, busy with the day-to-day schedule of planning, teaching, grading, and team meetings, effectively merge the Common Core’s emphasis on text complexity with skill instruction that equips students to comprehend and analyze these complex texts?

Let’s examine what the Common Core writes about text complexity.  According to the Common Core,

One of the key requirements of the Common Core State Standards for Reading is that all students must be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school.  By the time they complete the core, students must be able to read and comprehend independently and proficiently the kinds of complex texts commonly found in college and careers.

Anchor Standard 10 Grades 6-12:  Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity. Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

In Grades 6 – 12, this Anchor Standard for Reading is tailored for each content area of English Language Arts, History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects.

My initial question then divided into three prongs as I contemplated how Professional Learning Teams can determine text complexity while planning curriculum.

  • What exactly is text complexity?
  • How can my PLT accurately measure text complexity for our content area?
  • How will my PLT select materials that enable students to climb the staircase of text complexity?

What exactly is text complexity? 

The Standards Model of Text Complexity consists of an equilateral triangle divided into three obtuse triangles comprised of Qualitative, Quantitative, and Reader and Task.  Following is a summary of each obtuse triangle.

Features of qualitative include:

Level of Meaning for literary text or Purpose for informational text: The text with a single level of meaning and straightforward purpose would be easier to comprehend than a text with multiple levels and a purpose that must be inferred.

Is the structure simple and chronological?  Or is the structure more complex?  Do graphics clearly contribute to the meaning of the text?  Or, do graphics demand the reader’s interpretation?

Language Conventions & Clarity:
Is the language literal or figurative?  Is the language contemporary or archaic?

Knowledge Demands:
Does the text rely on everyday life experiences or content specific knowledge?

Qualitative characteristics refer to the quality of the text and are the most challenging to ascertain.  The PLT must combine qualitative components with professional judgment when assessing the qualitative measure of a text.

Qualitative Components = Quality of a text

Features of quantitative include: 

  • Word length and frequency of words
  • Sentence length

Quantitative Components = Computable features of a text

Features of Reader and Task

  • Background knowledge
  • Motivation
  • Students’ reading proficiency

Reader and Task  = Student plus text

How can my PLT accurately measure text complexity for our content area?

For many years, my staff development partner and I introduced teachers to readability formulae such as Frye and Raygor, based on word length, syllable count, and sentence length.  After completing a series of steps counting both the words and the sentences, the results were plotted on a graph that purported the “readability” (grade level range) of a text.  There are clearly limitations to the readability formulae, for text complexity cannot be simply ascertained by numerical operation.

Rather, the PLT should utilize the lexile analyzer to compute the complexity of a text. Common Core refers to text complexity grade bands and corresponding lexile ranges for each grade band.

Text Complexity Grade Band

Lexile Ranges

6 – 8


9  – 10

1080 – 1305

11 – CCR

1215 – 1355

How will my PLT select materials that enable students to climb the staircase of text complexity? 
  • Refer to CCSS Appendix B for text exemplars.  Theses exemplars are by no means a national reading list, but rather suggested texts that satisfy the components of the triangle of Text Complexity.
  • Compare and contrast texts selected by your PLT to text exemplars to determine similarities and differences.
  • Systematically analyze text by measuring qualitative and quantitative characteristics as well as ascertaining the reading skills of your students.


As you can see, text complexity is truly a muti-faceted issue as educators work to prepare students for college and career readiness.  By understanding the components of text complexity and working with your PLT to select appropriate texts, your team will be on its way to helping students comprehend and analyze complex texts.

Stand by for a future blog:  Strategies to enable students to skillfully read and comprehend increasingly complex texts.

(picture from

What exactly are data-driven decisions?

I am a little worried that the word “data” might be getting a bad and undeserved rap. Let me state up front that I am an advocate of data-driven decisions and no, I am not a left-brained mathematical mind. In fact, I am quite the opposite and once upon a time never imagined that the word “data” would EVER enter my vocabulary as a teacher.

So why am I a convert? Because I know how powerful teaching and learning becomes when teachers use student data to make immediate plans and changes to their instruction.  I will define data-driven decisions as simply using assessment information/student work to respond to student needs. Yes, there are numbers involved and sometimes even large tables in green, yellow and red that at first seem intimidating. Especially if we aren’t used to looking at students in this way! In addition, doing this collaboratively is a mindset shift.
Go ahead and test my hypothesis the next time you have student data to analyze in your professional learning communities.


If teacher-teams analyze common formative assessment results in a collaborative frame of mind with the intent to reflect and plan instruction, then the overall individual teacher workload will decrease and teacher creativity and student learning will increase.

Data Analysis and Short Term Planning

1. What can we infer in general from your data?
2. How will each class approach the topic during the following week?
3. Which students need enrichment within the classroom?
4. Which students need intervention supports within the classroom?
5. Which students need solidifying in the concepts?
6. How will we group students in order to meet their needs?
7. What resources do we need for enrichment, interventions and solidification? Which team members will collect the various resources?
8. What will my lesson plans for the next week look like based on this data?
9. How will we formatively assess during the week to make sure we are on the right track?
10. How will we keep all students engaged?
11. Do we have any questions for a particular teacher?

Click here to view graphic organizer to help analyze and plan.

Now, think about this…

What will instruction look like in the different classrooms?

What will be the similarities between the classes? What will be the differences?

Did teachers have autonomy in answering these questions?

Do teachers need to be creative and innovative in solving this instructional puzzle?

How will teachers sharing the load of educating ALL students lessen the individual load?

Did you have any fun?

The answers to these questions will provide the team with information they need to plan effective and timely differentiated instruction until the next assessment.

Please let us know what you gathered during this process.

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Today, as I sit down to write this post, it is February 5th, 2012, the day when the mighty Giants of New York are battling the ever-so-successful New England Patriots to see who will be crowned the champions of the National Football League.   It is amazing to see, hear and feel the energy that encompasses this culminating game.  TV, radio and the Internet are filled with expert-analysis shows, never-ending news about Brady and Manning and million dollar ads.  Even during my daughter’s high school dance competition this morning, the PA announcer shouted:

Who’s for the Giants? Who’s for the Patriots?

During a break, he even played the Chicago Bear’s 1985 SB Shuffle.  That brought back some fond memories. I shake my head in wonderment, asking myself why so much energy is focused around not only this sporting event, but the other sports from basketball, baseball to hockey.  Imagine if this much energy was focused on teaching our students and teacher preparation.  Just imagine.

I was interviewing potential teaching candidates recently, hoping to get a pulse on undergraduate teacher preparation curriculum. One thing that struck me was the inability for these future teachers to articulate the current discussions in education.  I expected these students to talk about the newly adopted CCSS, professional learning communities, common formative assessments, and response to intervention.  Or at a minimum have a theoretical foundation in differentiated instruction and formative assessment. I wanted to hear them discuss effective, instructional strategies from Hattie and Marzano.  The theme of these interviews was the candidates expressing how energetic and enthusiastic they are. These are great attributes, especially in a new teacher. However, what current skills are they bringing to the profession to help build a 21st century learner?

I have worrisome impressions they are entering a profession without any idea of the true demands and initiatives of what effective teaching is today.

If we are to improve student learning, it is not enough for our new teachers to be trained by their new employers.  It is imperative that teacher training regarding current research begins in teacher preparation courses.  I believe imbedding these five aspects in teacher training programs can make a positive impact on education.

5 aspects to emphasize on in teacher training programs

Common Core State Standards
Learning how to use the Common Core as the vehicle to drive 21st century curriculum will provide students with the necessary skills to be ready for the next level in school.

Professional Learning Communities
Today, building team autonomy is extremely important as we focus our efforts on collectively improving student learning through regularly scheduled meetings around student data.

Common Formative Assessments
Common Formative Assessments give teams an opportunity to measure student data and monitor student progress.  Discussions on instructional methodologies takes place in the PLCs when student data is analyzed.

Differentiated Instruction
What happens when a student or a group of students does not develop proficiency in relation to a set-standard?  What can the teacher do in the classroom to help the student attain proficiency?  How do we, as teachers, vary our instruction and/or content to create the best learning environment possible?

Response to Intervention
What happens if a student continues to struggle in the classroom, even after the teacher has differentiated instruction in the classroom?  What systems are in place for students to get tutorial assistance to attain the skills in the curriculum?  How are students monitored and assessed to ensure skill development?

Focusing on these five aspects will make a difference in our students and help them become 21st century learners.  I want to hire teachers that possess these fundamental skills in teaching our students to be successful life-long learners.


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Congratulations to Professional Learning Teams who are becoming acquainted with the Common Core State Standards!  As you unwrap priority standards, develop curriculum, and select instructional strategies, you will also assess your students’ progress.  Two questions to guide effective and useful classroom assessment are:

  • How can we accurately measure what our students know and are able to do?
  • How should we modify instruction to optimize student performance?

Classroom Assessments, both formative and summative, consist of selected response, constructed response, and performance assessments.  When your PLT delves into constructing classroom assessments, begin with selected response using multiple choice items.   Although multiple choice items can be tricky to write, your PLT can quickly and effectively gather a great deal of data on student progress.   Correctly constructed multiple choice test items reflect the skills and concepts of the Common Core State Standards.

Planning the Assessment

  1. Refer to the analysis of your priority standard by utilizing your SACI template.
  2. Use the unwrapped standard to guide the creation of the assessment.
  3. Make sure that the skills and concepts are the focus of the assessment.
  4. Also keep in mind the level of Bloom’s Taxonomy inherent in the standard.  Your assessment should reflect the same cognitive level that was utilized during instruction.
  5. Keep in mind:  Tests, don’t trick!

Selecting a passage

  1. Topic: The reading passage should be a topic similar to textual readings the students have been doing in class insuring that students are equipped with necessary background knowledge.
  2. Complexity: The reading passage should also display complexity comparable to reading materials used during instruction.  Lexile both your instructional as well as your assessment materials using the Lexile Analyzer. The Lexile Analyzer is an easy way to determine the difficulty of both instructional materials as well as assessment materials.
  3. Remember, your assessment measures the skills and concepts of the standard.  It should not be a test of reading comprehension. 

Crafting the Question Stems

Generate skill based question stems to use both during classroom instruction as well as during assessment.  These stems plus the corresponding answer choices should be clearly written at an appropriate reading level.  Both academic and content vocabulary should be familiar to the students.  Stems and answer choices should be free of unintentional clues.  Examples of question stems follow:

Main Idea:

  • The main argument the author makes about _____ is . . .
  • The passage primarily emphasizes . . .

Supporting Detail:

  • The passage clearly indicates . . .
  • Details in the passage suggest . . .


  • The passage (or author) implies . . .
  • The reader can infer that . . .

Tone or attitude:

  • The tone of the passage is . . .
  • The writer’s overall feeling toward                                                                is . . .

Drawing Conclusions:

  • This passage is probably taken from (source) . . .
  • With which of the following statements would the author agree?

Meaning of Vocabulary

  • As used in the passage, the word                                              means which of the following?
  • As used in this line or paragraph, the phrase or word most nearly means . . .

Answer options

  1. Provide 4 answer options (1 right answer, 1 option that is close to correct and could reflect a misconception, and 2 options that are distracters).
  2. Answer choices should make sense and be plausible.
  3. Answer choices should be uniform in length and grammar.
  4. Avoid using confusing phrases such as “None of the above” and  “All of the above”.

Format of the Test

  1. The priority standard should be written at the top of the assessment.  Students have a right to know what skills are being assessed.
  2. Font should be readable and uniform throughout the test.
  3. Any charts, graphs, or other visuals should be clearly labeled and easy to see.
  4. Passage lines should be accurately numbered if students must refer to a line of text.
  5. If a passage is on one page and the items on another, make sure these pages face each other rather than duplicated on the front and back of a single sheet.

Peer Review

  1. Once the PLT has created the assessment, it’s time for peer review.
  2. Ask each member of the team to carefully “take” the assessment.  Look for features that might mislead your students such as:  typos, confusing vocabulary, questions and stems that just don’t make sense, or  misleading wording.
  3. Revise  accordingly, keeping in mind the twofold purpose of assessment:
  • How can we accurately measure what our students know and are able to do?
  • How should we modify instruction to optimize student performance?

Administer Assessment & Collect Data

  1. Now it’s time to administer your assessment to your students.
  2. As you score the assessment, compile the data on a measurement system such as Mastery Manager.
  3.  With your PLT, examine the data to analyze both student performance as well as the strengths and flaws of the assessment. The data will indicate the effectiveness of your instruction as well as the strengths and flaws of the test items.


Use the data to revise the Selected Response Assessment.

Congratulations!  If your PLT follows these easy steps you will create a multiple choice assessment that accurately measures student performance and can guide the modification of future instruction!


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These three short sentences, read just a day ago, hit me like a thunderbolt.

It doesn’t have to be epic. The intention to be epic gets  in the way of doing work.  I know this, because I’ve tried to be epic.

Professional blogger Ev Bogue, startled me into rethinking the sweeping plans and goals I keep setting for myself as a teacher – yet never quite reach.  Due to an increasing familiarity and understanding of the new Common Core State Standards, and due to participation on a professional learning team (PLT) I’ve acknowledged over the past year that I sorely need to renew the focus of my lesson planning in order to strengthen classroom instruction:  particularly in my senior elective English class.

This semester course attracts students with wildly varied reading and writing skills.  Yet due to the nature of the course, it is possible that students who seem to get away with doing too little, yet pass, are those who are most in need of remediation.

How do I strengthen the course requirements in order to do a better job of reaching these students?

I’d been thinking it would have to be an epic undertaking. But now, because of working with the CCSS, as well as PLT work, I realize the epic work is done.  A focus on renewing instruction in this particular class should be easy for me to begin. Here’s how:

Renewed Lessons

#1   Students self-select independent reading texts in this course.  Use the CCSS Appendix A – sections entitled “Why Text Complexity Matters” and “College, Careers, and Citizenship:  Steady or Increasing Complexity of Texts and Tasks” as an informational piece on the first days of the new semester.  Let students read, analyze and discuss what researchers have found regarding levels of vocabulary difficulty and how college course reading expectations differ from those of our high schools.

#2   Students generally choose contemporary young adult, high interest, best-selling novels.  Use the CCSS Appendix B text exemplars to inform students of expectations for high school graduates reading capabilities.  Require students to choose text in a more thoughtful and direct way, perhaps including analysis of reading level and engaging them in analysis of text complexity.

#3   Students write short reader responses.  Use the CCR Anchor Standards for Writing to tighten up response expectations, including making these timed argument, informative, or explanatory pieces with clear expectations as described in a thorough rubric.

#4   Students share all book selections with the class.  Use the CCR Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening to tighten up classroom expectations regarding the information currently shared in a Socratic format, including research and presentation of authors as well as story line.

Renewal of instruction does not have to be “epic”.  I need to do two things: focus instruction on the standards, and share with students the established expectations of our state and district in order to strengthen and refocus their learning.

It is hard to believe that one-half of the school year is already behind us.  We hope that you have taken an opportunity to restructure your lessons and units around the SACI framework.  We have enjoyed hearing from you on the successes you have experienced in your classrooms.  Please continue to share with us your positive experiences.  You can contact us at

We wish you continued success for the remainder of the 2011-2012 school year.

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As an instructional coach, one of the most common concerns I hear from teachers is the lack of student motivation. Students are not interested in the material, are disengaged, disruptive, and lacking initiative. The Common Core State Standards are rigorous standards with higher levels of texts at each grade level than the present standards in most cases. If my students are not motivated now – what is going to happen when the curriculum becomes more challenging?

Make student engagement a daily component of lesson planning

Here are the daily strategies to keep learners focused and engaged in learning adapted from The Highly Engaged Classroom (Marzano, Pickering & Heflebower, 2011).

Positive student-teacher relationships

Students are more invested in the learning process when they have a positive relationship with their teacher.  Struggling students tend to work hard for teachers they like and underperform when they do not have a positive relationship with their teacher. I am not giving students a free pass and putting the entire burden of motivation on the teacher but ask yourself these questions:

Am I doing everything I can to get to know all of my students and let them know I care about them as individuals?

 How can I gather positive information about students?

 How can I show interest and concern today?

Provide lots of SPECIFIC verbal feedback

Positive is best but any feedback that is specific gives students the information they need to improve and as a result encourages them. When a teacher takes the time to say, “That summary is excellent because you have really made tremendous improvement using your paraphrasing strategies!” shows students you really are paying attention to all of the details of their learning and they feel KNOWN as individuals. It also shows you are also working very hard to make sure they learn and students always respect that.

Tracking Progress Visually

I have found one of the most motivating strategies is to have students track their own progress. This is something often used at the elementary level but seems to dissipate as students age. Adolescents respond very well to tracking their own progress in a visual manner and many students are visual learners so this strategy really resonates with them. Most students respond very positively to monitoring their own growth on learning targets. It is a great tool for students used in tandem with providing specific feedback.

Demonstrating “Intensity and Enthusiasm”

In our data-driven culture, which I encourage, we must remember that teaching is a “feeling” profession.  We already discussed the importance of building relationships but another key component of engaging students is showing our own enthusiasm for teaching and learning. Our feelings about what skills and concepts we are teaching play a very large role in how students will respond.  Find areas in the curriculum that you can show extreme enthusiasm about. Share personal stories and make as many connections as you can to bring the material to life.

We all share a common goal; student learning.  We want our students to do well and succeed.  A combination of a skills-based curriculum around the Common Core and a focused attention in providing an environment through positive relationships and motivation will help our students be more engaged learners.

 For those of you who attended the Rising Student Achievement Conference in St.Charles, IL in December, we have attached our PowerPoint presentation here.

Core 4 All would like to thank all of you who have been reading our posts and have participated in our staff development training sessions and workshops.  We have really enjoyed meeting and working with so many great educators.  Your students are lucky to have such dedicated professionals as yourselves.

If you haven’t done so yet, please get a copy of our eBook titled Implementing the Common Core. It will provide you with a framework to building curriculum around the Common Core.

Finally, we want to wish everyone a very happy and healthy holiday season.  2011 showed us that collectively, we can make a difference in preparing our students to be the leaders of tomorrow.  We are looking forward to an even better 2012.  Have a Happy New Year.

Feeling overwhelmed by acronyms? Or are they getting easier for you too?   PLT’s within our PLC work together in order to commonly assess using the CCSS.  Thanksgiving is past and as we head rapidly towards the end of first semester, I’ve got a handle on what that sentence means.  How about you?  The CCSS make sense – all students, all teachers, all states using the same language with which to teach and assess academic performance.

SACI has become the acronym for the metacognitive step in my own lesson planning.  The more I use it, the easier it becomes to understand exactly what skills my students don’t have, yet must acquire in order to grow intellectually.

Core4All post on August 27, 2011:  “It’s a process, not a program. When thinking about how to improve student learning follow this simple process.

  1. Determine the desired result.
  2. Decide what steps need to be put into place to achieve that result.
  3. Follow the steps.

The SACI template encourages me through its structure to easily connect my instruction to achievement.


First: T-Chart analysis is done on a CCSS.

Second:  skills from T-chart are matched to Bloom’s taxonomy.

Third:  write a specific PfL statement (Purpose for Learning)to share with students

Fourth:  choose and write an assessment – like a quick, student friendly 4-point rubric.

Finally:  plan the learning vehicle – use a good solid, research-based instructional strategy.  Don’t just use it once, use it repeatedly until students walk in asking “are we Flow Reading and Questioning today?”


I’ve found success using a combo of SACI instructional strategies:  “Cues and Questions” combined with “In-class practice (guided to independent).  Implementing the Common Core suggests that it is the integration of proven instructional strategies which allows “students to produce positive results and to improve their academic proficiency” (29).  Read Will Thalheimer’s work from 2003 entitled The learning benefits of questions (  This meta-analysis supports repeated and constant questioning.  Thalheimer writes “The empirical evidence is overwhelming.  Questions are one of the most powerful tools for building learning environments and promoting successful performance.”  I’ve been combining daily questioning during in-class reading and find it keeps students “doing” instead of just “listening.”


Here is a simple yet effective way to handle text, with students “DOING” the work daily.  The bonus is by the end of the unit I have a formative assessment for all students in my class written within my text – chapter by chapter, and symbols for student participation/knowledge on a 4 pt. rubric.

First:  I annotate my own text by developing questions, writing them in the margin.  Then using my “flow” style of reading we delve into our text – fiction or nonfiction – “flow” works well.  I ask students to voluntarily jump in and read aloud as quickly as they are able, reading at most a paragraph sized portion, then giving up the floor to another voice.  My current rule is “6 voices read between your voice and you reading again”.  This rule allows most everyone to feel they had the opportunity to jump in and read.  A bonus for “DOING” is an extra credit point per paragraph read.  Once students practice and get the hang of just jumping in to read aloud, no name calling by the teacher, no interruptions accept “questioning”, the chapter flies.

Students are now actively doing and while they “do” I annotate my text further with reader’s names and problems they encounter in the text.  For example, the photo above shows pages where students misread “khakis”, “accordion”, and “Hmongs”.   I circle words students mispronounce, and because I mark reader’s names in my margin, I know exactly who was having difficulty. I mention as many circled words as possible during questioning, asking students to turn to that page and paragraph of text.   On page 8 you can see I had one question ready in my margin about personification and ten words circled that students mispronounced or skipped.  I turned “khakis” into a question:  “Look back to page 8, first full paragraph and tell me – What was Lupe pulling up as he jumped over the curb to take off down an alley?”

text title Vocab Context Question Factual Question Inferential Question Student Generated Question
Kathy  + +  ≠ +
Jeremy + + +   +

My rubric (see chart) – is a simple class list in a text box of three columns in which I mark correctly or incorrectly answered questions.  I ensure all students are called on by using a homemade card deck -index cards with student names – from which I randomly draw.

Students complete chapters or sections (however your content text is arranged) for homework and return with questions of their own in which to begin the next class.

Give SACI a try and let us know how usable it is in your PLT’s work with the CCSS.

P.S.  CCSS for this series of lessons were grades 9-10 Reading Informational Text 1 and 4 (page 40)

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Halloween evening my colleagues and I embarked on the three-hour car ride from Chicago to Indianapolis to take part in Solution Tree’s 2011 Author Speak, a three-day event featuring 99 authors in the field of education.  I took away some valuable nuggets to share with my staff as we continue guiding our students towards their post-secondary opportunities.

Ten different strands in education were featured.  They were:

  • 21 Century Skills
  • Assessment
  • Instruction
  • Leadership
  • Literacy
  • Principals
  • Professional Learning Communities
  • Response to Intervention
  • School Improvement
  • Special Populations

Being able to listen to the likes of Robert Marzano, Douglas Reeves, Rick DuFour, Anthony Muhammad under one roof for one event was outstanding. I congratulate Jeffrey Jones, President and CEO of Solution Tree, and his team for orchestrating such a world-class event.

I wanted to focus on one nugget I took away from Author Speak 2011: the connection of PLCs, Differentiated Instruction, and Common Formative Assessments.

I participated in a networking session on Response to Intervention, facilitated by Austin Buffum.  We were also honored to have Mike Mattos be part of the conversation as well. Mr. Mattos made a comment on differentiated instruction at the high school level and the difficultly of it having a student load of 100-150 students on a daily basis.  He keyed on several manageable aspects that we all can accomplish in our PLCs to help our students succeed.

PLC Monthly Calendar

Each PLC should create a monthly calendar. On that calendar the team should write down the dates in which the common pre assessment will be given, when the common post assessment will be given and when student results of these assessments will be analyzed in the PLC. This calendar will provide focus and direction for the PLC as they move throughout the unit of study.

Blank Day

In addition to the above mentioned dates, a blank day should also be added.  A blank day is a day during the unit of study in which the teachers would use to differentiate instruction based on the analysis of student data in the PLCs.  This particular day may be used for cooperative learning, expert groups, or focused sessions with students who are not grasping the skills. During this blank day, we can also provide an opportunity for students who have shown proficiency in the skill to work on enrichment activities and enhance their proficiency of the skills.

I encourage you and your PLC to plan the next unit of study around a calendar and focus on these steps:

  • What skill(s) do you want your students to be proficient in?
  • Create a pre and post assessment that measures those skills.
  • Negotiate on when those assessments will be administered and results analyzed.
  • Discuss student results and instructional strategies that worked and didn’t work.
  • Negotiate on the date of the blank day to reteach and/or provide enrichment on the skills and concepts being learned.
  • Celebrate student accomplishments at the end of the unit.

In Rick DuFour’s session on Raising the Bar, Closing the Achievement Gap, he
stressed that we must be masters of time, not victims of time. We have the power to make time valuable for us and our students.

Let’s focus our attention on those skills and concepts that will help our students be college and career ready.

If you attended Author Speak, we would love to know your impressions and thoughts of the conference.

John Wooden, six-time national collegiate basketball coach of the year, lead the UCLA Men’s Basketball team to ten National Championships during his coaching tenure.  He is only one of a few people who has been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame both as a player and a coach.  Why do I bring up Coach Wooden?  Because of this quote:

Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.

This quote is relevant as the themes of student achievement, 21st century learning and the Common Core State Standards continue filtering through our conversations and in the blogosphere.

Questions to ponder as educators:

  • How do we grow as professionals in a field that continues clinging to 20th century methodologies?
  • How do we reveal our deficiencies and become continual learners and collaborators?
  • How do we move away from our comfort zone and do things differently?
  • How do we collectively improve student skills and better prepare them for their futures?

Teacher Learning

I can confidently say that the majority of the school districts in the United States, in some form or another, have a mission statement around the improvement of student learning.  Yes, we want to improve learning, prepare our students to be successful individuals, help them become independent learners, but what have we done to help ourselves in that cause?  If we want to improve student learning, it requires teacher learning as well.

What is the last book or article you read dealing with current educational research and topics?  Do you have a favorite education blogger?  Which educators do you follow on Twitter?    Any good webinars you recommend?

The point I want to make is that we cannot only rely on our undergrad and graduate teacher training, or the one-day, drive-by workshops.  We can improve our teaching by:

  • regularly collaborating with our colleagues
  • discussing student data
  • sharing viewpoints about new research
  • revising curriculum around skills
  • becoming a teacher-leader
  • training your colleagues

If we want to improve student learning, it requires us to improve as well through continual reading, collaborating and processing.  We cannot solely rely on our years of experience teaching and expect to become better teachers.  Skill building is a process and it never stops.

Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.


Share with us a link of an article, a blog post, or book that you read that made you stretch your thinking about teaching and learning.

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Since the release of Implementing the Common Core in December 2010, we have had great conversations with educators across the United States.  Schools and districts are using Implementing the Common Core as a framework to restructure curriculum around the Common Core.  We would like to extend an opportunity to you this week.   If you buy an e-book this week and type in C4A in the promo box at checkout, we will give you a $3 discount off the price of the book.  We feel this is a great deal.  If you are not sure, download the first two chapters of the book for free and see what you think.

Our job is not easy. We need the tools that will help us improve our craft as teachers.  Implementing the Common Core will provide you with a framework to revitalize your curriculum and focus on the skills that will prepare our students to be the leaders of tomorrow.

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As a mother of three and a teacher of many, I am constantly bombarded by student complaints and comments both at home and at school.  So, I decided to go straight to an accurate source, my 14 year old son.  I asked him,

What tips would you like to tell your teachers to make your life, as a student, better?

And, interestingly, his answers were straightforward and made pedagogical sense!

I don’t really know what to study because I don’t understand what happened in class today.
I don’t know what my teacher wants me to do! 
I get too much homework!
The test wasn’t at all what I expected – it was so hard, I flunked it! 

Let’s investigate Teddy’s responses, one-by-one, and see how, as educators, we can improve students’ academic lives.

I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be learning 

The first way teachers can improve students’ academic lives is to be “transparent.”  Providing students with crystal clear learning targets not only give teachers a direct focus toward the goal of the unit, but also provides students with a clear vision of the critical skills and standards of the unit of study (Implementing the Common Core, 2010).

According to Moss, Brookhart, and Long, Knowing Your Learning Target enables students to understand “the destination for the lesson – what to learn, how deeply to learn it, and how to demonstrate their new learning.”  At the beginning of each unit, clearly explain the learning targets.  Pre-assess using a formative assessment that delineates the standards of proficiency.
(See my colleague’s 9/17 blog for an example of such a formative assessment).    As the unit evolves, continue to discuss, emphasize, and develop those skills and standards through the unit plan.

Quick and easy tips include:

-Write the learning targets on the white board for all students to see.
-Include the skills and standards on each handout and unit activity.
-Monitor student proficiency through formative assessments.

By the end of each unit, each student should be able to demonstrate proficiency on the crystal clear learning target.   Again, learning should be transparent and not mystifying.

I get too much homework

Let’s face it – homework is a necessary part of education, but its purpose should be to advance student learning.  Let’s focus our lens and think about the homework we assign.

Look at tonight’s homework assignment:
Quality:  Is it busy work? Does it reinforce important skills and concepts?
Quantity:  Does it take hours to complete?

Did the homework advance student learning?

Keeping the conundrum of homework in mind, I read an interesting New York Times article entitled “The Trouble with Homework”.  Author Annie Murphy Paul gives several suggestions for ensuring that homework successfully advances student learning without being hours of mindless busywork.

Try incorporating her two strategies into your homework assignments:

Strategy 1:  Spaced Repetition:

I always tell my students and my son, that learning takes repetition.  Those multiple repetitions best improve memory when they are delivered in short segments and are spaced over time.  One long cram session does not help embed skills and concepts in a student’s mind.

Strategy 2:  Retrieval Practice:
During homework sessions, students must also practice retrieving the information that was internalized during spaced repetition.  In other words, they must quiz themselves in order to actively recall the information.  According to Annie Murphy Paul, “Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting, so that (self) testing doesn’t just measure, it changes learning.”

So, how can students practice retrieving information during homework sessions?

An example of an effective online tool is, a website that enables both students and teachers to input essential information.  Once the information has been entered, Quizlet provides students with multiple opportunities to self-quiz in the forms of flash cards, interactive online games, as well as sample quizzes.   To see an example of a quizlet I created for the retrieval practice of Literary Terms, click on  7th Grade Language Arts.

Don’t trick me when you test me! 

What is your purpose of student assessment?
To input grades into an electronic gradebook?  NO!
To measure knowledge of trivial facts?  NO!
To punish students?  NO!

The fundamental purpose of assessment is to measure student proficiency of crystal clear learning targets that have been clearly stated and developed, reinforced through meaningful class work and homework, and finally measured via sound assessments (Implementing the Common Core, 2010).

This fall upon attending Parent Open House at my son’s middle school, a parent asked the science teacher, “What are your tests like?” After a moment of thought, Ms. M responded, “When students have been engaged in the unit of study, they are not surprised by the unit assessment.   The assessment measures student proficiency in the skills and standards we have been studying.  Most students think science tests are ‘easy A’s.’”   Hooray for Ms. M!

So what hints can we follow so students feel like our tests are “easy A’s”?
-Sound assessment measures skill growth, not just content knowledge.
-Formative assessments administered before & during the teaching process guide and improve teaching and learning (Ainsworth).

As a reading specialist and as a parent of three, I identity with both points of view – that of the teacher as well as that of the student. To improve the academic lives of your students, keep in mind 3 sure-fire ways:

  • Communicate crystal clear learning targets
  • Construct homework to advance student learning
  • Test, don’t trick

Need a resource to help restructure curriculum?  Implementing the Common Core will provide a framework to revitalize curriculum.

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Students Aware of Standards

Everyone’s saying “Common Core”… and using the standards in different ways.  I’ve been reading, hearing and thinking about the various belief sets springing from CCSS interpretation.   For instance, a Professional Learning Team within a school decides which Common Core standards their department will address.  Or, a publisher highlights which standards their curriculum will address.  But, how will we ensure students have progressed through each standard?  How will we implement and assess this incredibly complex and thorough document?  Lesson plans using the SACI template are one way to prove which and how well the Common Core Standards are being met in your classroom.

How many standards to include in a unit?

Educators all around the country have differing opinions on executing standards-based curriculum. Some feel the Common Core is meant to be utilized one standard at a time: work on the skill delineated by the standard, assess, achieve, then move to the next standard.  Others believe that students should not move on until skill proficiency is met in the specified standard being assessed.  Still others think that only short, abbreviated texts should be used for skill practice.  These approaches provide us with some questions to ponder:

How many standards can be addressed at one time during a unit of study?

How in depth, and of what length, should text be in order to assess adequate knowledge of a standard?

How does a teacher ensure that students are reading text of sufficient complexity, quality and range for their grade level?

Amidst these varied questions I was heartened to read, in NEAToday’s Summer 2011 issue, policy expert Barbara Kapinus’ snippet (p.23) that stated

Rather than reading drills, we’ll ask students to apply reading skills in a broader, ‘real world’ context.

Instead of asking kids to stand in one spot and throw basketballs into a hoop over and over, we’re getting them to play…. and

Gone are the days of summary book reports.  Students will analyze the story rather than rehash the plot.

What I like about these comments is the support they lend to my belief that skills can be learned through both strong nonfiction or fiction texts.  I believe content should be good and rich.  The goal in my classroom is to focus on more than one standard at a time through unabridged text. Work on reading skills through meaningful context is a great way to prepare students for postsecondary opportunities.

As a Reading specialist my belief is that core subjects can successfully focus on skills when balanced with specialized texts.  The old cry was:  all content teachers are teachers of reading.  The new cry must be:  all content teachers are teachers of skills needed to read within our content.  I believe that all Common Core skills are addressable through well designed units which flow around quality texts.

How will I know my lesson plan is designed to develop student skills in a Common Core Standard? 

I pre and post assess using a formative assessment that purposely delineates the standards in which my students need to be proficient.  Here is an example of my unit plan for Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck. First I preassessed student ability on the standards predetermined by my PLT as necessary for incoming freshmen. (Click here if you’d like to see a partial view of the formative assessment I devised.) Then I taught the novel, with all activities and discussions revolving around these same standards.  The unit ends when students take the post-assessment and show mastery at an 80% minimum.

Productive lesson planning

My lesson planning is productive and directly related to the Common Core because my assessment becomes the template for all my lessons.  An unmastered standard can easily be addressed over and over because of text length.  In this way, students continue practicing skills until they do attain proficiency.  Each lesson throughout a text study, is pivotal for ensuring students are competent at the skill demanded. Lessons are easily differentiated as student abilities are noted through class work and either built upon or revisited.

Core 4 All believes that standards drive curriculum, yet it takes rich content, intricate lesson plans, and detailed assessments in order to ensure standards are met.



n. process  pl. proc·ess·es
A series of actions, changes, or functions bringing about a result

There is no magic bullet in education. No one right answer or solution that will meet the needs of all schools and all children. Schools are complicated and highly contextual. There is never going to be one right perfect program that will benefit everyone.

Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that some highly researched programs can greatly benefit students. BUT, no one program will ever be successful without highly functioning teams of professional educators working consistently to bring meaning to those programs into a constantly evolving system.

We are fortunate to have such trailblazing leaders and researchers in education like Marzano, Hattie, Reeves, DuFour, Danielson and Fullan. But, these leaders have not unlocked magical secrets that will lead to success for everyone; instead, they have provided us with fantastic tools to make better schools. It is up to us, in our buildings, to take it to the next level. To make the jump from research to action and make positive, albeit imperfect, things happen.

Moving from research to action

We must create processes and  put into action.

It will not be a pre-packaged program. Effective processes lead to highly efficient teams. As one department in our school explains very eloquently, “Our ultimate goal is to create a highly functioning team”.  I think that really sums it up best if you are looking for simplicity. A highly functioning team of educators focused on student learning will make a positive impact on student achievement.

A highly functioning team relies on multiple processes to keep their work focused and organized.

I’m sure many of you may even be beginning new processes right now as the school year begins. Our high school is implementing a new freshman curriculum. This project alone relied on multiple processes to unfold and the implementation of the curriculum relies on all faculties learning and using the professional learning team process. It is challenging but it will lead us to the goal of highly functioning and focused teams which exist to improve student learning.

When thinking about how to improve student learning follow this simple process.

  1. Determine the desired result.
  2. Decide what steps need to be put into place to achieve that result.
  3. Follow the steps.
As you restructure curriculum around the Common Core, remember to focus your attention on student learning.  For more information, check out AllThingsPLC, by Solution Tree.
Core 4 All, LLC is celebrating its first anniversary!  A big thank you for those of you who have followed us via Twitter, Facebook and WordPress.
Also, we hope  those of you who have bought Implementing the Common Core have been able to develop great units of study around skills and standards. We would love to hear how things are going.


Another school year is upon us.  I hope you have recharged your batteries and are ready to shape the leaders of tomorrow.  Since the inception of Core 4 All in 2010, we have dedicated our mission to helping you not only see the value in the Common Core State Standards and how it can increase student achievement, but also provide you with a framework to develop curriculum at the classroom, department and school levels.  But how do we as educators take the next step and truly implement the Common Core and make it the driving force in curriculum?


I am fortunate to work for a principal who values change. Change to improve student achievement.  Change to help teachers teach better.  Change to help administrators lead better.  Two months ago she handed out two books for us to read over the summer as we work towards building a professional learning community: Getting Started, by Eaker, DuFour and DuFour, and The Collaborative Administrator, published by Solution Tree.  Each of these books provided me with a better grasp of creating professional learning teams for my own department.  But, she recently handed us a third book, Change is Good…You Go First, by Mac Anderson and Tom Feltenstein, that has inspired me to reflect upon how I lead my staff.  It is a quick read, but packed with information.  As the authors write,

…this book is about ideas to inspire, to motivate, and to

Forget for Success

Forget for Success is a chapter that has stuck with me.  This chapter is a synthesis of a book with the same title by Eric Harvey and Steve Ventura.  They talk about how our brains are like closets and over time they fill up.  How true! As educators, we like to accumulate stuff; old lesson plans, supplemental materials, overheads.  How many file cabinets do you have that are filled with stuff that you haven’t used in years?  “You never know if I need this down the road”, is the teacher battle cry.  This year, it is time to throw away those lesson plans on yellow-tinted paper. No you will not need anything from your 3 1/2 floppy discs and you are not going to show any transparencies.

Here is my rule of thumb: If you haven’t used it in 2 years, get rid of it!

In order for the Common Core to make the positive impact on student achievement, we must clean out the file cabinets.  Better yet, not only clean out the cabinets, downsize as well.  A 21st century educator does not have old, out-dated materials. A 21st educator focuses on skills, measures those skills with sound assessments, engages students with relevant content, and uses instructional activities that promote achievement.

An Interview With A Principal

As a mentioned, I have a great boss.  So, I wanted to pick her brain about change.  Change does not come easy, working with over 200 staff members in a suburban high school setting.  But she knows that we all can do better.  Both our students and staff have the capacity to improve.  It is through systemic change that this can come to realization.  So I asked her some questions.

What’s the most important factor a principal should consider when trying to make school-wide change?

The most important thing to consider is what kind of impact the change is going to have on the students.  Change needs to benefit learning, teaching and the school community.  Time is the second most important factor. You cannot expect to make rapid change in a school. The faster you go, the less likely the change will be lasting.

What’s the most common mistake a principal makes trying to initiate a school-wide change?

One of the biggest mistakes is trying to go too fast.  It takes a considerable amount of time to research what is best, to inform staff and students to get them to understand and embrace the change, and it takes time to implement change effectively.  Pushing change from the “top down” is also a common mistake.  Telling people what changes to they need to make without their input is a huge mistake.  They need to “discover” what needs to change and have a part in making the changes.

Any last words of advice for principals who want to initiate change?

Make sure you have key players involved in making change.  Get the administrative staff to understand the need for change, and get teacher leaders involved right from the start with planning and brainstorming the changes. Set some non-negotiables in terms of student and teacher learning, but then step back and let others create the changes to fit their ideas as well as your ideas in terms of what is best for the students and the school as a whole.  Have a timeline in mind, but do not hold fast and hard to that timeline. If it takes longer than you thought (and it will), be patient!  Expect some roadblocks to be in the way, and help others get over those hurdles. Celebrate successes along the way and reward people for their hard work and diligence.  Be prepared to provide training for any new initiative, and make sure that training is an effective use of teacher time. The longer you take to plan and create the changes, the more lasting they will be.

I thank Dr. Audrey Haugan for her time.  Over the last two years, our school has been involved with a major change in restructuring curriculum around standards and skills.  We have experienced growing pains over these last two years, but have also seen great gains in teacher-leadership and collaboration.   These are exciting times in education.  With positive change, we can help develop our leaders of tomorrow.

Homework assignment (I hear the groans already):

What will you do to help make change happen this school year ?

How is your school making change?

Share our blog with your colleagues.

Core 4 All wishes you a great 2011-2012 school year.

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My Mistake

The Core 4 All team has written insightful and powerful ideas over the last year.  If you are a regular Core 4 All reader, you may recall I had set a goal for myself (January 29th 2011 post) to restructure my own lesson plans in order to specifically focus on skill development within the reading of literature in order that I might better equip my students for junior year English.  Yes, I did complete SACI templates for our next two novels.  Yes, the templates looked GOOD.  YES, my students did know exactly what skills they were expected to learn.  However, I completely fell down on the job of rigorously and systematically using a 4-point rubric in order to compile and share data with my students in order that they could – in the words of my colleague’s post of April 2, 2011 – “take ownership of the problem and become accountable for changing.”  I did not succeed in revisiting the skill with students who did not meet proficiency.

My New Plan

I wrote a new SACI template for my summer school, credit recovery class of nineteen students who failed a semester or two of either English III or English IV this past school year.  I chose 4 Common Core Standards.   Click here to see the complete SACI template with the entire Common Core Standard delineated.  In brief they include:

Two Writing Standards:

#10 – Research to Build and Present Knowledge (grades 11-12)
#1 & b – Text Types and Purposes (grades 11-12)

One Language Standard:

#6 Vocabulary Acquisition and Use (grades 11-12)

One Reading Standard:

#2 Key Ideas and Details (grades 11-12)

My Pre-Assessments

Here are two examples of my approach to ensuring students possess the above mentioned skills.  The data I collected through assessments to share with my students, focus on Writing Standard #1 & b and Language Standard #6.

The first pre-assessment to measure CCS #1 & b was to write a letter to the editor of a magazine commenting on their recently published article.  Students were instructed to quote two pieces of evidence to support their stated opinion (claim) about the article’s subject.  The piece was read during class.  Locating and utilizing quotes within the letter would prove they could supply relevant evidence with proper citation.

Students were given a rubric as well as 45 minutes of computer lab typing time.

Here is the breakdown of how the students scored based on the 4-point rubric:

2 students scored in challenge category.
5 students scored in proficient category.
7 students scored in developing category.
5 students scored in beginning category.

The second pre-assessment was a multiple-choice quiz utilizing words made up of 72 Latin roots.   We would focus on learning morphology in order to increase their vocabulary knowledge.  Our school instituted a “Freshmen Vocabulary Project” over the last year, studying 4 Latin or Greek roots per week given in four content classes (English, Social Science, Math and Science).  I am utilizing this same program delivered through power point slides and practice activities.  We learn seven roots per day, take notes, reinforce learning through a variety of activities, and complete  comprehension-checks every morning.  Our class goal was 90% mastery by the end of the semester – which is 12 days in summer school time.  The rubric contained the following measures:

Challenge: Correctly identify all 72 roots.
Proficient: Correctly identify 62-71 roots.
Developing: Correctly identify 58-61 roots.
Beginning: Correctly identify 43-57 roots.
Not meeting: Correctly identify less than 43 roots.

The pre-assessment results?

Challenge level: 0 students
Proficient level: 0 students
Developing level: 4 students
Beginning level:  2 students
Not meeting: 13 students

Student Shock

Low scores!  I shared the data above with my students.  They looked at their individual scores, then compared them to the whole class.  I believe they were shocked to see their scores cast in the light of “Challenge” “Proficient” “Developing” and “Beginning”.   They know I expect them to all be “Proficient” by the end of the semester.  And, they know there will be a post-test on both these measures as part of the final exam.  I can see them working diligently on lessons which focus on finding and gathering support, as well as our root study.  Students have received a clear picture and therefore know exactly what is expected of them.

Teacher Shock

Time!  It takes time to plan, outline and set up the assessment with a rubric for each standard.  It takes time to collect and chart the data. It takes time to show and explain it students.  But, most importantly, it takes time to ensure the same skill is revisited in a similar fashion within the next unit in order to ensure all students achieve the skill.  My students will be writing letters to the editor as we finish Fahrenheit 451 and yet again when we finish Bartleby the Scrivener.   Most important will be the final data to see if all students succeed in reaching “Proficiency.”


The data will reveal all when it comes in at the end of the semester.  These two skills-based lessons have worked so well that I can envision a binder full of Core 4 All SACI templates, perhaps placed in order by CCSS number and standard type, through which I can be assured students are meeting the skills my content area course is required to teach.

Over the past few weeks, I have noticed an increased amount of presence of news articles and advertising around the Common Core State Standards.  States who have adopted the CCSS are currently figuring out how to best implement these new standards.  It is a daunting task; to restructure curriculum around a new set of rigorous standards and skills that will be assessed K-12 by 2014.  States are providing educators with opportunities to review these rigorous standards.  Hopefully, our teaching professionals will have the opportunity to provide valuable feedback on the implementation of the CCSS. I have also seen an increase in education companies marketing new and improved texts and resources around the Common Core.  Education companies  and publishers are also providing workshops for teachers and selling resources on ways to embed the CCSS into existing curriculum.

Where does Core 4 All fit into the grand scheme of things?

For those of you new to our site, here is a little history about Core 4 All. We are four educators, three currently in the field and one who is recently retired.  We have designed a framework to help teachers create curriculum around the Common Core.  It involves a four-step process  (SACI) that provides teachers a systematic approach to design units of study that will give students a deeper understanding of the skills being learned.  Core 4 All believes it is the standard that drives curriculum, not the content.  We use the SACI process as we continue to restructure our units of study and we have witnessed an improvement of student skills based on formative assessments we created around the skills being learned.

Core 4 All provides professional development for educators.  Depending on your district’s needs, Core 4 All will design a workshop tailored to the desired outcomes of your district.  Please contact us ( if you are interested in professional development.

The SACI process can be found in our e-book, Implementing the Common Core(2010).  Implementing the Common Core provides educators with:

Background knowledge of the Common Core State Standards initiative

Benefits of standards-based curriculum around the Common Core

Step-by-step process of creating units of study around the SACI process

SACI unit design template

Each district around this country is working towards meeting the needs of its students to prepare them for college and career.  It is a process that begins pre-K and continues throughout elementary, middle and high school.  Core 4 All understands that each schools’ needs are different.   We do not believe in a national curriculum.  We do believe in a standards-based approach around the Common Core, tied to content that will help students with their post-secondary endeavors.

These are exciting times in education.  Core 4 All’s SACI process will make curriculum come alive.

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I truly believe that in order for our children to be the leaders of tomorrow, we need to move to a standards-based curriculum.  Why do I make this statement?  We have all the pieces in place to make a positive impact on student learning and yet, as a whole, our educational system is not as connected as it should be.  Let’s look at what we have.

Common Core State Standards

The core of teaching and learning must come from these standards.  If you haven’t read our posts since August, I encourage you  to do so.  It provides justification why curriculum around the Common Core will better prepare our students for college and career.  The posts also give educators ideas on how to implement a standards-based curriculum.  If you do not have the time to read all our posts, we have synthesized that information in our free e-book titled Overview of SACI.  E-mail us at and we’ll send you a pdf of the book that you can copy and share with your colleagues.

Years of research by knowledgeable educators

We have of vast amount of information that can help us improve teaching and learning.  The work  of Robert Marzano and his What Works in Schools has transformed our way of educational thinking.  Douglas Reeves and his Leadership and Learning Center has provided us with a wealth of knowledge in the areas of accountability, assessment, school improvement and standards.  John Hattie and his Visible Learning Lab  has been successful in researching instructional strategies that can make a positive impact in classrooms.  Rick DuFour’s work on professional learning communities has provided schools with a framework for a “culture of
collaboration”. There are countless other outstanding researchers that we have read that have given Core 4 All the tools to help educators build a solid curriculum.


Today, information can be shared quickly all around the world.  The days of teachers closing their classroom doors and keeping their curriculum to themselves is over.  In order for a systematic improvement of student learning to occur, educators must build curriculum together around standards, create common assessments, analyze those assessments to guide their instruction and equally focus on teaching and learning. Technology can also help with collaboration as there is a plethora of ways to share ideas via blogs, Twitter, Google Docs and array of other avenues.

Next steps

We will soon be entering the sacred summer vacation.  Yes, we need the time to re-energize ourselves during this time, but it is also a prime opportunity to improve
ourselves as educators.  I encourage you to read the work of Marzano, Reeves, Hattie, and DuFour.  Core 4 All has dedicated its mission to provide educators with the resources to improve not only the learning of students, but also for teachers.

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Recently I was recommended the book How Remarkable Women Lead: A Breakthrough Model for Work and Life by Barsh, Cranston and Lewis. In the midst of lots of negativity in education, I constantly feel the need to “reframe” and counteract with positive thoughts and plans. I refuse to, and mentally and physically cannot, go down that negative-thinking and defeatist path. Barsh, Cranston and Lewis provide examples of leaders who, by engaging and speaking up, demonstrate that individuals CAN make a difference in any milieu.

Engaging is where it all comes together – when you cross an invisible line from being a person to whom things happen to becoming a person that makes things happen. It literally means breaking the bounds that circumscribe your career and your life. Making the commitment to do so is one of the best things you will ever do for yourself. It takes courage. It takes a willingness to fight for what you want, even though you may, be fighting your own resistance and fear. It releases unbelievable energy.
(Barsh, Cranston & Lewis, 2009)

Think about a wish or a goal you have for your class, department or school. How can you make it happen?


Engage with yourself and start taking steps to make things happen. Talk to colleagues and talk to your supervisors. Rally support and begin working towards your goal. You have the power within your system to begin the path toward improving the education of students in your school. This means you accept direct professional responsibility and are not waiting to be told what to do. You take the lead and make things happen and as a result all students will benefit. 

Speak Up

With engagement comes speaking up. Have you ever sat in school improvement meetings silently listening to others but not wanting to speak your mind? Why is that? There are many reasons why people don’t speak up. Some reasons include fear, shyness, resentment, insecurity, and politics. Speaking up professionally and respectfully is crucial if you want your voice to be heard. Cranston, Barsh and Lewis put it best “…you have to speak up to be counted” (2009). Try this. Next time you are in a meeting and you have a thought about the topic being discussed, state it out loud.

When I first became an instructional coach, my principal gave me the classic Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who! She understands the need to listen. She wanted to emphasize to me the simple message that all voices need to be heard for change to be successful and meaningful. Maybe you don’t have a problem speaking up! If that is the case, maybe it is time for you to bring out the voices in others around you. If colleagues are sitting silently – ask them what they think even if it is awkward. Sometimes this will take the group in a completely different and perhaps better direction.

In order to release positive energy into your school – engage, speak–up and listen.

If you are new to our blog posts, Welcome!  Please visit our Core 4 All website.

Last month, Al’s article on RtI for ELLs was published on Reading Rockets. Take a look.

Finally, Al and Susan will be presenting at the North Cook Intermediate Service Center in Des Plaines, Illinois on Friday, May 6 from 12-3pm.  The title of the presentation is An Introduction to Implementing the Common Core as a Vehicle to Drive 21st Century Curriculum.  If you are in the area, please sign up for the workshop.  We will be going through the process of creating units of study around the Common Core State Standards.

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Depending on where you work, you probably have somewhere
around 40 instructional days left in the school year.  It seems like yesterday that we were getting our rooms ready for our precious angels.  But spring is in the air and we have almost made it. We are rounding 3rd base and heading for home (Yes, I’m a baseball fan from Chicago. You guessed it, a Sox fan!).   You may be experiencing students beginning to lose interest (slightly) and the fight to keep them focused increases day by day.  So what can we do to keep them engaged?

Focus on the 3 things to keep students engaged

Sense of Purpose

Toward the end of each school year, we tend to rush through the material so we are able to cover that ever-so-important content.  Instead, go through your remaining units and begin to focus on the skills that you want your students to master.  Is it problem-solving, drawing conclusions, resolving conflicting views, or reading for purpose?  The point is that if we focus on developing proficiency of specific skills, there is a good chance that there is content that can be taken out.  What is the non-negotiable content that best matches the skill the students are learning?  Focus on that content and strip away the rest. Students will appreciate not having to race through content and perhaps enjoy having opportunities to analyze and apply it to new situations.


Face it, our patience runs thinner this time of the school year.  Those little things that may not have bothered us at the beginning of the year are now getting under our skin. We are the adults and it is still our responsibility to act with dignity and have a sarcastic-free zone.  If a student does act inappropriately, handle the situation in a respectful manner.  Each student has the potential to be a leader.  When they become adults, they will have responsibilities, as a spouse, parent, co-worker, manager, or leader.  It is our job to help build those leadership qualities in all of our students.

Trust students to live up to their potential

We may tend to lower our expectations as the end of the school year nears.  It is important to continue to have high expectations for all your students throughout the school year, from day 1 to day 180.  As educators, it is our responsibility to help our students grow academically so they are prepared for the next level.  Keep encouraging students to do the best work they can do and not slack off.  Don’t accept zeros.  Hold students accountable by making sure they turn in all work and complete all assignments. Finally don’t assume students know their current performance in class.  Hold quick meetings to make sure they know what their current grades are in class.

By focusing on these 3 pieces, we can have a smooth end of the year.

How do you keep your sanity this time of year?


If you are interested in learning about an RtI System of Support, click here.  My colleagues and I created a system that is helping students who are struggling academically and it was published by Reading Rockets.

We are always looking for new subscribers.  It is free. Would you like to know more about implementing the Common Core State Standards into your curriculum, click here. If interested, we can send you our free e-book titled Overview of SACI, which can provide background information on the importance of building a skills-based curriculum around the Common Core. Email us at and we’ll email you a pdf of the e-book.

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Last week, we discussed the importance of empowering students by sharing performance data with them in class.  What we experienced was a positive effect on learning as students analyzed their performance data on the skills they were concentrating on during the unit.  Seeing their performance data motivated students to improve their skill development.  The representation of student performance through bar graphs also painted a more concise visual than just grades in the gradebook.

Part II: Behavioral Data

This week, we want to focus on teachers using formative observation data to improve student behavior. As an instructional coach, I met with a teacher to observe her class. In the pre-conference we discussed what areas she would like me to focus on during my observation. After some discussion, we decided I would track student verbal interactions in the classroom as a couple of students tended to dominate the class in a negative way.  I created a data device to use in my observation. I drafted the classroom seating plan and marked where all students were sitting. I then coded the data device to mark positive, negative or neutral verbal interactions with students. During the observation I marked the data device every time a comment was made and coded it.

Data Analysis

I showed the teacher the data and simply asked, “What does this tell you?” The data overwhelmingly showed the two disruptive students dominating the class with little participation from others. The teacher and I had a good conversation and this experienced teacher asked, “Can I show this data to the students?” We both thought that would be a great idea. The teacher then shared the behavior data with the students and asked them the same question, “What does this tell you?” The students were shocked to see the pattern of the class and made suggestions to their teacher on what they would do to improve and change this dysfunctional pattern. The students used the objective data to take ownership of the problem and become accountable for changing. The two disruptive students developed an action plan to improve the dynamic of the class and allow the others students in class to participate more fully.  Since the observation and action plan, student participation in this particular class has improved.


These last two weeks we have focused on how data can be used to improve student performance.  Using data to make instructional decisions is empowering for teachers. Showing students performance data is equally powerful. Using teacher observations as a tool to improve student performance does not need to be intimidating.  By asking a supervisor, instructional coach, or a colleague to observe your class, you can obtain valuable feedback to improve instruction and academic achievement.


By subscribing to our Core 4 All blog (on Home page), we will send you a free copy of our e-book Overview of SACI.

We began this endeavor in August of 2010.  Since then, we have had close to 4,000 hits on the blog, over 50 subscribers, and 72 followers on Twitter.  This may not seem like a lot, but for us, it is truly a joy.  We understand the institution of education tends to be methodical in change.  By following Core 4 All, you are the progressives, you are the change agents, you are the difference makers in your schools.  We would love for you to share your thoughts with us on how you are making change in your classrooms and schools.  Little by little, we will help build our leaders of tomorrow.

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To continue improving our teaching craft, we must come to the realization that teaching content through random classroom activities and assessing students solely on the regurgitation of content through recall questions will not prepare our students for their post-secondary lives.  That is why Core 4 All advocates for a standards-based approach to teaching using the Common Core State Standards and the implementation of professional learning teams that review student data through common formative assessments that measure students’ proficiency of key skills.  Successful professional learning teams use common formative assessment data to drive instructional decisions. All of the data talk in education makes some people weary and others wary.  However, this past quarter I have experimented with sharing student performance data with students and have witnessed the positive effect on learning as a result.

Providing students with meaningful data

Part of my teaching load is teaching English 1.  At the beginning of the quarter, I decided I would monitor student progress on 3 standards. I created a 4-point hybrid (reading/writing) literacy rubric that focused on the 9th and 10th grade Common Core State Standards of identifying central theme, providing evidence and supplying reasoning with literary text.  I gave a pre-assessment to get a base-line measurement of where the proficiency levels are with these skills and charted the results.  I shared results of the pre-assessment with my students by showing them their individual chart.  I literally walked around the room while they were working on an activity and showed them their charts. Then, we discussed our quarterly goal (scoring a three on the rubric). Throughout the quarter I focused on this goal consistently. I immediately noticed the students were not performing to expectations. So, in Schmoker-style instruction (FOCUS), we created a class model of what the writing should look like and coded it by claim, evidence and reasoning. All students copied the model on a bright pink piece of paper and I also supplied a typed copy for the students. Everyone now had a clear exemplar of expectations. We continued to work on these specific literacy skills, among others, throughout the quarter using Romeo and Juliet as our literary text. We wrote often with the same reading analysis and writing expectations.  One day, without prompting from me, many students took out the bright pink piece of paper with the model paragraph and used it as a scaffold while writing.


Throughout, the quarter, I saw growth but kept a steady eye on students who were “flat-lined” either below, at, or above proficiency. Near the end of the quarter right before the post-assessment I shared each student’s individual data chart with them.  The student response was overwhelmingly positive, even with students who were struggling. The clear-cut visual of where they stood on skills encouraged them to work harder and students who had the “perfect upward trend” were very proud and excited.  In addition to empowering students, I now have specific knowledge on where each student is in terms of skill progression. Not just grades, vague ideas and behavioral comments, but hard evidence of the proficiency of the skills being learned in class.

Data should not be a secret for students, but rather used as a tool to guide instruction and motivate student progress. When done effectively using data to make instructional decisions is empowering for teachers. But, using data to empower students to improve learning is just as great.

I encourage you to choose a target goal this last quarter of the school year and create a pre/post-assessment and show the results to the students.  Model the skill, provide guided practice, group practice and individual practice, and chart results with the students. Then post-assess and see what happens.  Share your insights with us!

We would like to thank those educators who have purchased Implementing the Common Core e-book.  We hope you are finding it a valuable resource revitalizing your curriculum.  We also would love to hear your feedback and perhaps any questions or comments you may have.  We also would like to know how you have been using our blog posts in your instruction. Your comments may provide us with a spark for future posts.  You may contact us at

As we have said before, Core 4 All consists of 4 educators who work with students on a daily basis.  We are not professional researchers, but rather teachers who teach, who care for their students and care about their futures.

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Old Way

We have all been there; a stack of essays that need to be graded in front of us and a red, green or purple pen (yes, I said red).  We sit at the kitchen table or in the office with a cup of coffee, tea, or a favorite beverage.  We adjust the stack of papers one last time, take a deep breath and begin to correct.  We correct and mark misspelled words, poor punctuation and capitalization. We comment on organization, content and voice, and at the end of it all, we score the paper based on our trusted rubric that has 5 or 6 clear-cut categories (Voice, Organization, Mechanics, Word choice, Fluency, to name a few). We then return the papers and rubrics expecting our students to be able to read the colorful mess full of corrections and comments, decipher the rubric, and revise the paper.  Did I paint a clear picture?


The course that I teach, Spanish for Heritage Speakers, is a course designed for newly arrived Latino student into the country.  Our main objective is to improve student literacy skills in Spanish.  I have a wide range of abilities from students who struggle with reading and writing in their native language to those that are very literate. It has traditionally been a course that is driven by a variety of fictional readings from a textbook, short stories, novels, and poems. Since the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, I am currently revamping the curriculum and my units of study around specific skills that are important for students to be able to do.  Instead of moving through the traditional content on the textbook, I have chosen content that matches the skills being learned.  In addition to using various readings from the text, I have also pulled content off the Internet and other sources to include current and relevant topics.  During this school year, the students have shown proficiency in the follow major Common Core skills:

-Citing strong and thorough evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text

-Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient

-Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence

-Demonstrate command of the conventions of the Spanish language, including capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing

New Way

We just finished a unit on writing summarizes, a difficult concept for many of my students.  During the unit, we practiced writing summaries many times, during class-time and for homework.  I modeled summary writing, we assessed examples or poorly and well-written summaries and we wrote summarizes together.  We read short stories and articles and summarized the contents in chunks.  Students worked individually, with partners and in groups.  I assessed their skills by reading their summaries outside of class-time and by walking around the classroom as they were working alone and in groups, making quick spot checks. 

The Key

We tend to grade everything in an essay, from grammar, punctuation, spelling, organization, and content.  But, this is time-consuming and in reality the students are truly not focused enough to soak in all the errors they have made at once in the various categories.  Instead, the key to grading writing is to focus in on one particular skill your students are working on. In this case, my final assessment will show my students’ ability to write a summary based on a new piece of work they have not seen.  This is the only way to truly gauge student proficiency of a particular skill.  So as we are moving along the unit, students are practicing this skill through a variety of ways in and out of class with the end result to become proficient in writing an efficient summary of a piece of text. 

I am not advocating for the abandonment of essays with multi-dimensional scoring rubrics. There is a place for them in the curriculum, perhaps once per quarter.  I am asking that we focus our writing assignments to the skill being learned.  Only then can students focus in on the skill being mastered.

By subscribing to our blog, you will receive our free e-book titled Overview of SACI. SACI (Standards, Assessments, Curriculum, Instruction) is our unit design process to create units of study around the Common Core State Standards.

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Ever since I put the Kindle App on my phone, I have been buying e-books. Buying books on Kindle is ranking up there with trips to Home Depot, OfficeMax, and Costco.  The first  e-book I bought was The Confident Speaker, by Harrison Monarth, because a colleague recommended it as we were planning a presentation for a state conference.  The content was good, and learned some tricks to improve my presentation discourse.  After that, I bought Focus, by Mike Schmoker.  According to the app, I have read 29% of the book. There are great points in the book, which have made me reflect on our current teaching practices in the classroom.  I have put that book on hold as now I am reading Anthony Muhammad’s Transforming School Culture.  I have not finished reading the book (63% complete), but it has prompted me to think about what I have read so far and write this blog to confirm the need to implement the Common Core State Standards as the vehicle to drive curriculum.
Are you a Believer or Fundamentalist?
Anthony Muhammad discusses 4 types of educators, which I will focus on two of them; believers and fundamentalists. Believers are those educators that believe that all students can succeed and are willing to expect positive change in schools to improve learning.  Believers put students first.  Fundamentalists, on the other hand, believe in maintaining the status quo and will do what it takes to reject any school reform or change.  It is the self-interest that comes before student learning in a fundamentalist’s frame of mind. So, which camp do you fall into?  I will guess that if you have been reading our blogs, you are a believer, one that sees the need to improve student learning by means of improving our curriculum, assessments and instruction.  But, I am sure you work with many fundamentalists who are trying to persuade you to stay status quo, right? So how can we collectively improve student learning and prepare our students for the opportunities and challenges they face?
2 ideas to move the change train forward
Stop the insanity

Albert Einstein said it best. 

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

As believers, we see the need to revitalize curriculum to better prepare our students.  The status quo of teaching content, testing content, and moving on to the next chapter will not prepare our children for the 21st century society.  Instead, we must focus on skills, skills that will drive our curriculum in the core classes. It is the believers, the teacher-leaders, that can create a positive wave of change, to begin to understand that our current curriculum should revolve around skills and Common Core standards. 
Lead the way

As believers, we understand that there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that contains the answers.  Change is a process.  We must create the rainbow, color by color, because through the hard work of restructuring curriculum, an everlasting pot of gold will eventually be created, which our students can draw from and use.  Continue to read, seek professional connections, and share your successes with colleagues.
One main theme throughout our existence has been the need to revitalize curriculum around the Common Core State Standards.  Implementing the Common Core provides the framework to begin having those conversations with other Believers so that positive change can happen.  Restructuring curriculum takes time and energy.  We can easily decide to stay status quo and complacent and do as we have done. But, are we doing our students justice by doing the same old thing, over and over again, knowing that it is not working for all kids?  I am a believer and will do what I can to convert one fundamentalist at a time so they can too help build that rainbow.

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The implementation of new Common Core State Standards should not be about adding on to existing curriculum but starting anew with a focus on literacy skills and rich content as a firm foundation in all subjects and grade levels.

CCSS + PLC = ISL (Improved Student Learning)

The adoption of the Common Core State Standards, along with a continued nationwide movement towards professional learning communities, has created a sense of urgency to make positive change in schools. Let’s take advantage of the adoption of the new standards as a way to introduce the concept of professional learning communities, one of the most powerful ways to improve student learning by focusing on team goals, results and collective responsibility for all students.  PLCs require major shifts in school cultures.  But, can we morally continue to do what we’ve always done knowing it isn’t successful?  To learn more about the shifts that will take place and begin the conversations among your colleagues, take a look at Getting Started: Reculturing Schools to Become Professional Learning Communities by Robert Eaker, Richard DuFour and Rebecca DuFour.  The authors provide us with a great framework on how to implement PLCs in your school.   Let’s use the adoption of the CCSS as impetus for positive change and continue with the creation of PLCs!

Time to do some weeding

This change, however, is complex and requires a strong focus and commitment. Doug Reeves talks about the importance of high implementation and the effects on student achievement. Only the highest levels of implementation have a positive effect on student achievement. Let this research motivate you to get where you need to be in your class, department or school.  High implementation requires strong leadership and commitment to “weeding” outdated or ineffective programs and practices to make room for new more productive growth.  It is not always easy for some schools and individuals to let go of “stuff” but as our schools undergo change in this challenging economic and political climate we must make sure that we are maximizing our resources to ensure that all students succeed.  This may require asking some difficult questions, making sure we evaluate effectiveness of initiatives, create a systematic protocol to ensure that existing resources are being used properly, and keep student achievement at the center of all conversations and decisions.  Sometimes, we have everything we need but aren’t using it effectively.

Starting from scratch is frightening and overwhelming to many.  But, is it really more overwhelming than adding on more yearly initiatives that are forgotten the following school year?

Our e-book Implementing the Common Core will provide you with a design template to create engaging units of study around the Common Core.  There is no need to create a template.  We have provided you with the framework.  You have the opportunity to customize it to the needs of your students.

If you haven’t done so, please subscribe to our blog by visiting the Home page and click on Free Email Subscription on the top right of screen.

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Two weeks ago, I wrote that the Common Core State Standards was not just another flavor of the month, but must be used as a vehicle to drive an improved curriculum that will better prepare our youth for their post-secondary endeavors. After reading the post, one of my dear colleagues approached me and asked if I had read Michael Schmoker’s new book titled Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (2011) because the blog post reminded her a lot of his thoughts on essential curriculum and instruction. I hadn’t, but I decided to buy a copy on Kindle and read it. I read Schmoker’s book Results Now (2006) where he focused on what really counts in schools and I learned from it.

His main message in Focus is quite simple:

There are three simple things that we must focus on to improve academic achievement; reasonably coherent curriculum, sounds lessons and more purposeful reading and writing.

Thus my title for this post KIS the Common Core. (Keep it Simple)

So, how can I merge Michael Schmoker’s message with Core 4 All’s mission?

I will answer this question with another question: Are we currently preparing the vast majority of our students for successful post-secondary opportunities? If we answered no, what can we do to ensure that our students become ready for their futures?

Four things that will improve student achievement

Focused standards

Teacher-teams must agree on the priority standards (Ainsworth and Viegut, 2006)that students will become proficient in during the course of a unit, quarter, semester, and school year. Standards-driven curriculum. It is the standard that is the core of the unit. A clear message to students that this is the standard we are working on will provide a focused direction in a given unit of study. There are just too many content and skills-based standards that we expect our students to know. It is time to cut-down the amount of standards and focus on ones that will prepare our students to be college and career ready.

Formative Assessments

How often do we really check for student understanding? If it is a test at the end of the unit, then that is too late. We should check for understanding between each phase of the lesson/unit to ensure students are on pace mastering the skill. We can then adjust our lesson based on these check-ups. We can make a determination if we need to re-teach or enhance the lesson. Also, keep in mind what the standard is asking the students to do because the assessment should match the skill. If the skill is asking students to identify the main idea of a narrative passage, we should create an assessment that matches that level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Asking students to analyze the main idea is a mismatch, much different from our original standard because it is a deeper level of thinking on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bottom line: Match assessment questions with the skill being learned.

Viable Content
I cannot say it any better than Michael Schmoker in terms of a viable content:

A viable curriculum includes:
-adequate amounts of essential subject-area content, concepts, and topics
-intellectual skills (argument, problem solving, reconciling opposing views, drawing one’s own conclusions)
-authentic literacy – purposeful reading, writing, and discussion as primary modes of learning content and thinking skills.

The Common Core provides a path for a viable curriculum as long as we give our students the opportunities to read rich text, produce coherent, well-developed writing, and critically think.

Effective Classroom Instruction

Teaching is a tough job and sometimes we may not have the time to read the most current books on education. I am here to say that there are researchers who have written plenty of quality books on learning. Here is a handful:

Robert Marzano, What Works in Schools (2003)
John Hattie, Visible Learning (2008)
Michael Schmoker, Results Now (2006)
Douglas Reeves, Accountability for Learning (2004)

I encourage you to begin reading some of these books because they will provide you and your teacher-team with a framework to create improved units of study that focuses on student learning.

As educators, we must continue to improve our teaching, just as any other professional needs to improve their skills. Complete this sentence: I am taking courses and professional development so I can_____. If we answered “Move up the pay scale” then.. (I refrain from expressing my thoughts.)

Effective classroom instruction brings student learning to the forefront.

If we just focus on these four pieces of a lesson, student learning will improve.

Begin with a clear learning objective and share it with your students.
Model the skill being learned.
Provide students with guided practice.
Check for understanding.

Maybe it is time to strip down the bells and whistles and focus on what our students need most; an effective teacher who helps prepare students to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Core 4 All’s Implementing the Common Core is an e-book that has synthesized the research and has created a unit design template that will help you build units of study around skills and standards. If you are ready to revamp your curriculum, Implementing the Common Core is for you.

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Implementing the Common Core

We hope to think that most everyone by now has probably seen if not read and perhaps even analyzed the CCSS as a first step to curriculum restructuring. If you haven’t, why not?  You have probably also noticed the higher level of these standards compared to what students are presently doing in their schools. One look at the student exemplar models in Appendix C and the quality and level of sophistication is a little intimidating. Some teachers may be asking themselves…

How do we get our students to a higher level of expectations?

The Common Core State Standards have obviously set high expectations for students of the United States and it is our job to help our students become proficient in these standards.

Setting high expectations is one thing but we must think about. So, how can we support high expectations in our classrooms and schools?

8 ideas to support high expectations

1.  Clarity and Purpose
As stated time and again, determining clear learning outcomes per grade level and course team and sharing those outcomes with students is vital as students move towards proficiency.  Mike Schmoker’s brand new book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning is a must read.  He discusses the foundational elements of curriculum and instruction that schools need to focus on first before implementing new initiatives.

2. Use of Instructional Strategies to Build Skills
The CCSS clearly indicate that some skills students will be working on may need appropriate scaffolding.  School or district-wide literacy strategies highlight the importance of literacy and the need for all students to access the curriculum regardless of learning level or language level.

3.  Feedback
Formative, immediate and ongoing feedback on how students are doing against a standard is one of the highest-yield strategies a teacher can use (Hattie, 2009).

4.  Student-teacher relationships
When teachers take the time to build trusting, productive relationships with students, student performance increases.  Students need to know you care and want them to succeed.  There is no time to play the role of  “Gotcha Police”.

5. Engaging Content
Students need to be challenged with fiction and non-fiction texts that engage them in their world and are relevant to their lives.

6. Parent Support
If parents understand and support the curriculum at home, students will perform better. This isn’t always possible but every effort that can be made to include parents in their child’s education will improve their ability to learn.

7. Professional Development
The most effective types of professional development include job-embedded observation, micro teaching, video feedback and practice with peers and mentors (Hattie, 2009). The adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the focus on literacy is a great impetus to revamp professional development practices.

8.  Professional Learning Teams and Common Formative Assessments
Teachers need to rally around the expectations and work toward common goals. Common formative assessment data gives interdependent professionals the tools they need to make sound classroom and school-wide instructional decisions that will improve student learning.

These are truly turbulent times in education.  Education has been on the front page for months now.  The country is expressing its opinions about the tenure process, merit pay, and college readiness.  It is unfortunate that quality teachers, who care so much for their students, are being put on the defense.

We ask that we all come together and agree that setting high expectations for students and ourselves will make for a better future for all of us.  There has been too much finger-pointing lately, blaming one another for not preparing our students well enough to succeed.  Let’s put the fingers away and create a system that ensures the success of the greatest resource of ours – our children.

Please share our blog with your colleagues, parents, friends and neighbors.

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I swore to myself that I would never start a sentence off this way, but I am. Being in education for 21 years…. I can’t continue. I worked with a colleague that began just that way. Hearing the phrase “Being a social scientist for 35 years…” gave us the clue that a five-minute pontification was about to commence with really no end point. So I will just get on with my message.

I have experienced a plethora of school and district initiatives since I began in 1990. I am sure this is just a partial list:

4-MAT Lesson Design
Reading Across the Curriculum
Writing Across the Curriculum
Quality Classroom Assessment
Read to Learn/Learn to Read
Dr. Tim Shanahan’s Model of Reading
Understanding by Design
Classroom Instruction that Works
Cooperative Learning
Differentiated Instruction
Problem-Based Learning

What’s the point?

The point I want to make is that each of these initiatives was intended to improve our teaching. I was involved in a conversation not too long ago with a couple of veteran teachers. We were compiling this list of initiatives that have gone through our district. “What ever happened to these initiatives?” was a comment made by one of my colleagues. “We talk about it at an institute, maybe have a few in-services and then we’re done.” And this made me wonder. Is this a common thought in the minds of most teachers? Do teachers feel that these are just drive-by initiatives? In one year and out the next?

We’ve missed the point

When an educational initiative comes to us, the expectation is that we learn it, through professional development, through discussions, through collaboration, through reading additional resources. We then begin to incorporate it into our units and lessons. In order for us to fully prepare our students through their educational experiences, it is important for us to move out of our teaching comfort zone and learn new techniques, read the latest research, and implement them into classroom practice where it best matches the standards/skills being learned.

Newest initiative

Those of you that have been reading this blog post know that we are advocates for the Common Core State Standards. It is not meant to be a new flavor of the month, but rather the vehicle that will drive our new, revamped, revitalized 21st century curriculum. Implementing the Common Core and using the SACI unit design template will help build relevant and engaging units of study. The Common Core will improve student achievement. How am I confident? It is through the data that I have collected through my formative assessments. The Common Core has provided me and my staff with useful student information where we can make informed decisions about student achievement. We use this data to drive our curricular decisions. Our curriculum is not static, but rather fluid and flexible .

None of what we learn through our institutes and professional development is meant to be a passing fad. It is to help us become better educators which in turn will help us build the leaders of tomorrow.


I would like to give a shout-out to all my new friends I met in Chicago at the National Conversations on English Learner Education sponsored by the US Department of Education.  It was great to meet all of you! I hope we can keep in touch.  I have begun a group on Michelle Rhee’s site StudentsFirst.  The listserv group is called… you guessed it: Common Core.  We can use this group as a way to network and share ideas.

Don’t forget to subscribe to this blog (top right side of Home page) so you can get the newest posts via email.

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Like all of you, I have a variety of levels and students with special needs in my classes. Differentiation is not just a possible strategy for instruction but is an ethical responsibility. All students deserve to make growth and learn. Advanced students need opportunities for challenge. 

It is critical that teachers structure units and lessons so that all students can access a clear standard. Students who struggle must understand what they need to do to meet expectations and students who are advanced must be challenged to meet a more complex learning goal.

The Common Core State Standards are the foundation that teachers need in order to effectively differentiate to the various needs of their classroom.

Step One

Align with the SACI framework by selecting a CCSS standard, or the professional learning team, departmental or grade level designated standard.

Step Two

Break apart the standard and create a 4 point rubric. The rubric/scoring scale is an essential learning tool for teachers AND students (Marzano’s Formative Assessment and Standards –Based Grading). The rubric is an essential component to curriculum planning as it clearly indicates proficiency indicators so that when students fall under the proficiency level the teacher can use the rubric to identify the specific areas in which the student is not meeting. The rubric is an essential learning tool for students. Students can see where they fall on the continuum of the standard. If they are struggling they can see the specific areas they need to improve on. If they are advanced, the 4 on the rubric is a challenge level and allows students who have met proficiency to move ahead to a more complex and appropriate learning goal. The 4, or challenge level, on the rubric is simply the level up on the Common Core State Standards.

Example in Action

Last week my students were working on building research and paraphrasing skills while researching Shakespeare and the Renaissance. Using the research standards in the CCSS, I was able to determine what 3 proficiency should be for ALL students. If students met the clearly articulated goals they earned a 3 proficiency which would be 90%.  This was the goal for all students, regardless of level or special education status.  Interestingly, when the more advanced students met the goal, they packed up their books and said, “I’m done”. That’s when we pulled out the rubric and together walked through their research presentations checking for mastery against the rubric. This allowed students to reflect on the quality and accuracy of their work. If they were indeed “done”, I pointed out the challenge level expectations and guided them onward to the next level.

Was it easy? No.

Did it take time to plan clear learning outcomes and create rubrics? Yes.

Was my rubric perfect? Not yet.

Were there issues along the way that need to be addressed for the next time? Yes.

Were students completely comfortable with this way of instruction? No, but they will be.

Were they appreciative of the clear learning goals? A little!

Nonetheless, I will continue to work away in this manner as I feel that I am moving in the right direction of making sure all students are working to their potential.

We have received great feedback from fellow educators who have created units of study around the SACI Unit Design Template.  Thanks to all of you who have begun to revamp curriculum around the Common Core State Standards.  As Susan stated, it may not be easy at first, but the more you use the Common Core to create your units, the more opportunity students have to master the skills needed to be the leaders of tomorrow.  Implementing the Common Core will provide you with the skill-set to transform and energize your curriculum.

Don’t Forget:
You still have time to submit a grant proposal through Next Generation Learning Challenges (Building Blocks for College Readiness).  Next Generation is offering up to $10 million in grant fund opportunities.  Deadline is March 4, 2011.    Have a great idea?  Instead of letting it just sit in your brain, make it come to life.

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The last four months have not only recharged, but significantly reshaped this teacher’s view of lesson planning.  How?  Happenstance and collegial banter about a desire to write books and share literacy strategies with the teaching community plopped her right into the arms of Core 4 All and one of the coolest e-booksfor teachers on the market today.

This teacher’s awesome plan

Analyzing and using the SACI template has shown me how to rethink my lesson planning, on both the unit level and the day-to-day level.  A rebuilt unit plan was my goal for the start of “The Next 100 Days”.  Yes, I did know the text title upfront that my students were going to read.  Yes, the SACI model recommends that teachers first choose and complete a “T-chart Analysis” of the Common Core Standards to be taught, secondly design assessments and finally, choose appropriate reading materials.  However, because my students had already purchased their text last summer and it is part of the required course curriculum, I did design this unit knowing the text to be read.

The big change 

I put the novel aside while analyzing the skills my students should master this unit.  I forgot the novel while designing my assessments.  So now my lessons are built on a firm foundation of skills as delineated by the Common Core State Standards.  My lessons are no longer simply a variety of engaging activities to take us through a novel, but are lessons specifically tied to skills my students have been told to master in order to successfully complete the final assessment.

Step One 

The goal for my classes this year is success with the Common Core’s Reading Standards for Literature – grade 10 – #10 (CCSS 38).  “read and comprehend literature…at the high-end of the grades 9-10 complexity band independently and proficiently.”  In order to accomplish this I know we must read and read and read some more.  Therefore the skills students need to acquire must arise from their experiences with the written story – both fictional and nonfictional.

Step Two

I completed the SACI Design Template in order to better understand how to achieve increased skill growth in areas with which my students struggle greatly – understanding how a writer finds and puts ideas to paper, locating evidence in a text in order to draw conclusions, and drawing inferences in order to understand messages below the surface.  The SACI Design Template shows specifics on the three Common Core Standards selected for this unit of learning.

The Core 4 All SACI Unit Design Template provides teachers with a systematic approach to creating great units of study, focusing on the Common Core State Standards.  In fact, this template can be used with any skills-based standards (College Readiness, ISTE, ACTFL).

Bottom Line

This particular English teacher took it upon herself to make a change in how she teaches.  This change is happening right now. She did not wait until the beginning of the next school year.  She did not wait until all of her daily lesson plans and activities for the unit were neatly copied and packaged in the Xerox box. She did not wait for a national policy to be implemented. This teacher had the courage to realize that her current system of teaching/learning could be improved.  Even though she is a veteran teacher who has loads of experience working with all students, from learning disabled to gifted, she continues to improve her craft as an educator, preparing her students for their post-secondary experiences.

If you have a story to share or a question to ask  Core 4 All, please comment or drop us an email at

Please continue to share this blog with your colleagues. The positive feedback we receive continues to energize us.

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You probably have somewhere in the vicinity of 100 days remaining until the final school bells ring and summer vacation begins.  I’m sure many of us are asking ourselves, “Where did the first semester go?”  In a blink of an eye, we have already completed one-half of the school year.

Reflect and Task

Before we move forward and focus on these next 100 days, let’s reflect on what your students learned this past semester.  Take out a pen and paper and create a three-column table. I’ll wait. Title the first column Standards/Skills, the second column Content Curriculum, and the third Pre/Post Assessment Results. Focusing on column one, write down the major skills/standards students were expected to master during the first semester.  In column two, write down the content that was taught during the skill building.  Finally, in column three, write down the percentages of your pre-assessment and post-assessment results based on student proficiency of skills learned.  The link below will open the table of my first semester results:

Semester One Skills and Proficiency Table

There were other minor skills taught during the semester, but the table shows the three major standards I focused on this semester in my class.  The first number in the last column of the table represents the percent of students that were already proficient in the skill prior to instruction and the second number represents the percent of students proficient after instruction. (Note: The post-assessment material on the final exam was brand new text that students read for the first time.)

What I learned

Based on this data, I can see that I need to revise my method of teaching how to write an argument since only 50% of my students were able to master all components of an argument paper (bright side;  none of my students were able to develop an argument essay before instruction). In addition, we’ll spend more time practicing theme and central idea, a difficult concept for my students and continue working on making inferences.  The bottom line is that I have hard evidence of what my students are able to do. This will help me guide my instruction for semester two.

Moving Forward

It is vital to focus around the skills we want our students to master.  When we concentrate on content and instructional activities, skills and standards take a back seat.  Try this:

Choose a standard from the Common Core State Standards.

Create an assessment that will measure proficiency of this standard.

Add content curriculum that is relevant and engaging.

Incorporate proven instructional strategies that will help build the skills.

Implementing the Common Core will guide you through the SACI process of unit design focusing on standards.

It is only by re-shifting our focus around standards that will better prepare our students to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Do you want an overview of our SACI unit design process? Email us at and we’ll send you the pdf of Overview of SACI.

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Last week during winter vacation, I was reading some educational blogs and forums.  I wanted to see what types of topics were being discussed.  One particular forum caught my eye.  A teacher raised a question concerning the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and asked what educators were doing now to implement them into the curriculum. As I was reading through the replies and comments, I was amazed at some of the responses.  It actually saddened me to see how intimidated we are as a profession.  We continue to be provincial, skeptical, never truly allowing ourselves to move into 21st century teaching and learning.   In my eyes, the Common Core State Standards will provide students with the necessary skills to be ready for the 21st century global workplace.  But back to the comments I read.

I am overwhelmed with new initiatives and new curriculum.

Really?  New curriculum? Shouldn’t curriculum in its purest and most authentic form be a living document that continually evolves to best meet the needs of our students?  What kind of service are we providing our students if we continue to teach the same curriculum we have for years? The definition of daily teaching needs modification. Teaching as a profession is much more than the instructional component. It also includes professional goals, using student data to inform decisions, collaborative scoring and curriculum design.

The Common Core State Standards are more difficult than current state standards.

And the problem is?  We need to raise our expectations of our students.  Recent studies have shown that college remediation rates are staggering, where over 40% need to take at least one remedial course at a junior college, college or university (reported by the College Board).  In addition, it shows that 23% of young people who try to join the military fail the enlistment test of basic math, science and reading skills (reported by The Education Trust).  Why? Partly because the textual demands of college and career have remained steady or increased while the K-12 reading levels have declined. “Despite steady or growing reading demands from various sources, K-12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century.”  See more details on declining text complexity and the consequences for American students.  Also encouraging, the common core puts a heavy emphasis on reading informational text and critical literacy skills in the content areas.  These are the type of literacy skills that students will truly need for college, career and citizenship in a democratic society.

I don’t want to be told how to teach.

Teachers have been independent contractors for too long.  It is time for us, as a profession, to collaborate more, peer observe more, and critique more to improve our craft.  We cannot have carte blanche to just teach the content we like to teach. This is unfair to students and leaves what should be an expectation of students receiving a solid educational foundation to chance. We all know stories of parents anxiously waiting to find out if their child will get the “good teacher”.  I really hope these days are coming to an end.  Parents should feel confident that all teachers are working collaboratively toward common goals and that when Johnny finishes 8th grade, regardless of his teacher, he will have had fair and equitable access to the same curriculum as all students.  There must be a systematic approach to designing our units of study around the Common Core State Standards, and incorporating 21st century skills. We have always had standards for teaching. The problem is that standards, or clear learning targets, have not been the foundation of our teaching. We don’t teach subjects we teach students and students need clear learning goals and consistency in schools across subjects and grade levels.

Adopting new standards is demanding work but it is essential to our students’ improvement, the profession of teaching and the future of our country that we embrace this movement.

Core 4 All advocates a standards-based approach to improving the achievement of all students.  For a clear framework on implementation check out our e-book Core 4 All: Implementing the Common Core.

Special Offer:  By subscribing to our blog, we will send you our free e-book titled Overview of the SACI Unit Design Template.  If you are a current subscriber, and would like a copy, please email us at

There will never be that ideal moment, that magic pill, that ultimate cure to improve education in one shot.  What we have created is a process to systemically change our own curriculum around the Common Core State Standards to build capacity in our students to become better learners.

As we stated in our blog on Core Training, we must continue exercising our brain and bodies regularly to improve ourselves.

Ready? All right, on the floor and give me 25 Common Core Crunches.


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