How can we improve student learning while saving teacher sanity at the same time? In this edition of the Roundtable, Tim Cavey hosts a stimulating conversation around feedback and assessment in the English classroom. Guests included Marisa Thompson, Matthew Johnson, Gina Benz, and Tyler Rablin.
Questions That Guided Our Conversation
2:26 – Describe your journey with English assessment. How dark did it go for you, and where do you see teachers assessing their way to BURNOUT?
10:07 – What are some practical tools and STRATEGIES that actually improve student learning in the English classroom while saving teacher sanity?
31:04 – What else can you say about your present PHILOSOPHY of instruction and feedback? How do we need to think about assessment differently?
49:51 – Who are the voices and INFLUENCES that you learn from in this space?
53:21 – How can we learn with you going forward? Tell us about the work you’re most proud of and let us know where we can CONNECT.
As of this post, I’m still appearing weekly on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Twitch at 8:00 a.m. Pacific Time/11:00 a.m. Eastern Time. I’d love to see you join us and would be happy to feature your questions and comments on the show!
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JULIA FLISS is a sixth grade ELA teacher, activist, world changer, Sustainable Development Goals Ambassador, lifelong learner, creative, and yogi who lives in Evergreen, Colorado.
No More 12-Hour Workdays
When asked to recall a low moment in her professional journey, Julia makes a quick distinction: with the right perspective, low moments can better be viewed as growth moments. Every bit of adversity presents an opportunity to learn.
One of the more impactful growth moments for Julia was her move from Denver West High School, an inner city Title 1 school, to a school in the mountains of Colorado. As challenging as the shift was, Julia was thankful for the ways in which her mindset was strengthened: it helped to give her a broader understanding of her value as an educator.
Before the move from Denver West, Julia’s formula for work was 12 hours a day – an unsustainable pace that made her a prime candidate for burnout. After a period of reflection, she realized that she was modeling unhealthy behavior for her students, so with the change in teaching contexts came a change in her professional philosophy and personal boundaries.
She decided that it was okay to define healthy boundaries, create personal prosperity, and live a life that allowed her to be the best version of herself … and by doing so, be able to serve her students better.
“For me, it’s not about going without or giving up in order to serve – it’s about living into each moment and creating a reality where everyone has everything they need in every moment.”
UN Sustainable Development Goals
Julia dreams of some day visiting the United Nations centers in New York City or Washington to speak about the Sustainable Development Goals in person. She is committed to the SDGs because she is committed to her students and their future.
“They deserve a classroom without walls – a global learning community that prioritizes collaboration, collective wellbeing, and taking action for the good of people and the planet,” she explains. The SDGs provide the platform and the launch point to help students engage with these important efforts and connect with other like-minded agents of change around the world. They give access to kid-driven inquiry and design that is exciting, invigorating, and now at our fingertips thanks to technology.
As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” and the UN sustainable development goals provide the common language to go about that work at any grade level.
Julia’s favorite goals are 4 and 16 – a fusion between Quality Education and Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. “Quality education requires a coming together, a looking in the mirror, a grassroots connection that helps us create access for every child to get what they need in order to learn. We are not going anywhere as a planet or as a species until we reach out our hand to every single person on the planet in a way that creates systemic change.”
Why Should Educators Build a PLN?
Julia is a committed networker and community builder, and she believes it’s our responsibility as educators to model the kinds of people that we’re encouraging our students to be. If we want our kids to be global citizens, we need to demonstrate what that looks like. Looking outside of our classrooms and our buildings gives us greater perspective on our own behaviors and a reference point for our professional practice and learning.
With all the benefits of global connections, the question becomes … why not? Why not connect and learn more? As Jen Williams says, being a lifelong learner means investing in our own growth and evolution as an educator.
Julia’s first years of teaching at Denver West High School taught her to develop professionally without waiting to be professionally developed. As a result, her career has been marked by digging in, asking, connecting, and sharing professional learning.
Important first connections included George Couros and his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, which prompted her to get on Twitter. From there, Julia found Jennifer Gonzalez who then led her to Marisa Thompson, someone Julia calls a huge mentor from the moment they connected. From Marisa, she connected with the whole #TQE family.
Simply by watching and listening on Twitter and in other spaces, Julia was inspired to find her tribe: other educators who shared her professional values and ideals for education. “I feel like our opportunity as educators to be the best we can be is truly by building on each other,” Julia explains.
“#BetterTogether could not be more true. It’s just gold. Any teacher who is hesitating to connect should just try it. Get out there, jump in, take a risk, and try it.”
Seeing Other Classrooms at Work
When I asked Julia for an example of something in eduTwitter that is setting her on fire today, Julia pointed to the opportunities to see inside other teacher classrooms. “When someone is willing to share what kids are doing, what they’re trying out with students, what they’re revealing about what didn’t work well, when there’s an authentic moment of learning that truly provides a window into their world, that lights me up. I will always find those posts to dig in, learn more, and celebrate.”
What Else is Setting Julia on 🔥 in Education
Zooming out on education, Julia is energized by the movement of change within education today. So many educators are coalescing and combining their efforts to support student-driven learning, global collaboration, the rewriting of curriculum, and rethinking traditional practices. The power of the PLN is about more than just professional learning: it’s about working together to reshape our education systems and change the planet for the better.
A Professional Goal: More Collaboration
In her current context, Julia serves on a sixth grade language arts team, and from a practical standpoint she would love to find more time to collaborate with her teammates. The times that they do find to share passions and identify opportunities for interdisciplinary learning lights her up and makes their teaching practice richer.
“It’s about strengthening our community of teacher-learners so that we can impact our community of student-learners,” she says. This year, she’s been using the UN sustainable development goals to build a framework for meaningful teaching and learning on her team and for their sixth grade students. When kids feel that team approach to learning, it helps everyone to grow, get excited, and get on board with meaningful work that leads to global change.
Passions That Bring Her Alive
Julia has always had a passion for spiritual growth. For her, this starts with being a solutionary, and it helps that she lives in a cabin in the wilderness – something that allows her to connect with nature every single day. She also draws inspiration and guidance from meditation, and she’s passionate about art and travel.
“I’m a life liver,” she says. “I believe that we truly learn from our experience of the world around us, and I believe that we create our reality.” For that reason, she’s learned to be thoughtful and strategic about the moments, experiences, people, places, and opportunities that she surrounds herself with. The human experience is a gift to be fully and intentionally realized.
Personal Productivity Practices
Her mindfulness practice is the key to helping her stay centered and do all that she does, Julia says. She gets up daily at 4:00 a.m. to get on an elliptical, explaining that she needs quiet time and unplugged time to get away from all notifications and interruptions. The right morning practices set her on fire for the rest of the day and give her the energy to be her best self for her learners and colleagues.
Resources That Ignite Julia’s Practice
Over on Twitter, Julia recommends following the Human Restoration Project (@HumResPro on Twitter), an organization of educators that makes it their mission to bring back the humanity to education. “They’re amazing,” she says. Julia also shouts out her beloved wolfpack – fellow educators who have the bug, push the envelope constantly, and challenge each other to be the very best they can be. These educators include Abigail French, Kellie Bahri, and Donna Guerin.
The edtech tool that has really gets Julia excited right now is Zoom. “I love the ability to connect with people, kids, and classes from around the world in a way that transforms the screen from passive to active. It’s a learning opportunity to have a window inside another classroom, to talk with an expert, or to see something that is happening in the world in ways that wouldn’t be possible without it.”
Julia’s book pick is The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries by Zoe Weil. Zoe is passionate about raising a generation of students who are committed to being the change, and she is the co-founder of the Institute for Humane Education.
After saying some very kind things about the Teachers on Fire podcast, Julia shouts out The Human Restoration Project as another podcast that she gains a lot of inspiration from. Follow them on Twitter @HumResPro.
When it comes to best value on YouTube, Julia points to TED-Ed. “I can’t speak highly enough of TED-Ed,” Julia says. “My kids crave it.” Not only is the content from these talks helpful, but Julia points to the many applications of claim-evidence-analysis that can follow.
We sign off on this great conversation, and Julia gives us the best ways to reach out and connect with her learning. See below for details!
MARISA THOMPSON is a mom, wife, HS English teacher, professional development facilitator, instructor at the University of San Diego, traveler, and a liver of life. When people ask her what she does, she sums up her multiplicity of roles by simply saying “I’m in education,” and she wouldn’t have it any other way, she says.
Disillusioned by Education
When asked about a low moment, Marisa recalls her earliest visions of the kind of teacher she wanted to be. “So much of it came from Hollywood,” she says. But a few years in, she realized that she was not the teacher that she thought she wanted to be. By her seventh year, her disillusionment had grown to the point that she decided to leave the classroom entirely.
After a period of reflection and time away from the profession, she came across the idea of flexible seating on Pinterest. She pitched the concept to a principal, and his reaction took her by surprise.
“Great,” he said. “Go do it!” This yes was such an encouragement because it proved that her voice mattered and that her ideas could lead to transformative work. What followed was seven years of further growth and exploration.
When you first start trying the TQE Method in your classroom, there will be growing pains for you and the students at first, she warns. But they will go away. The more you use it, the more the practices will start to become comfortable, organic, and powerful. Your students will start to engage in the kind of rich discussions that we all remember having in university or grad school.
It’s about giving students the time, space, language, and culture to safely engage in the sharing of ideas like never before. The TQE Method is now appearing in classrooms at all levels and all subjects, and Marisa couldn’t be happier.
When it comes to feedback for students using the TQE Method, Marisa looks for quantity simply because participation is essential. But her assessment is based primarily on two things: reading comprehension and author’s purpose. Can students analyze a choice that an author made and describe how it helps an author accomplish their objective in a text? Students who can demonstrate these skills with consistency are demonstrating mastery.
On Fire for TED Talks
Something else that is setting Marisa on fire for education is her students’ recent TED Talks. They focused on communicating effectively with audiences, exploring concepts of happiness and success, and sharing authentically. Marisa watched as her students actually put aside rehearsed notes to speak from the heart, and the results were powerful. It was a first-class example of the link between vulnerability and compelling communication.
Projects and Pursuits
One of the things that Marisa is trying to do in her current classroom is to get away from class novels. Literary freedom works, and it’s good for kids, she says. On the other hand, shared conversations and connected experiences with texts are everything, so she’s looking at ways to combine both goals.
Marisa’s ultimate passion away from education is travel. Although she didn’t grow up in a wealthy home, she’s been traveling for as long as she can remember and has now visited at least 20 countries. She’s taken students to a number of those countries and always finds it a valuable learning experience to see other cultures and other places.
Voices and Resources That Inspire Marisa’s Practice
If you’re looking to follow someone new on Twitter, Marisa recommends @JuliaFliss. “The work that she does is soulful,” Marisa says. It’s big picture, everything-is-possible, and it’s filled with positivity and optimism. She is all about working with people and changing the world.
No edtech tool has been more helpful to Marisa this year than Pro Keys, a Google Chrome extension that allows you to build and customize your own feedback shortcuts. Marisa has used this tool to go from 160 hours to 4 hours of writing assessment completed at home this year thanks in large part to this tool.
It’s not easy for an English teacher to pick favorite books, but Marisa points to two classics in particular: East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
Dr. DOUGLAS FISHER is a Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University, where he trains future administrators and institutional leaders. He is also a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, a high school that he co-founded some years ago as a kind of lab, a practical context in which to continue the work of education research and innovation on a practical level.
A Career in Literacy
Dr. Fisher is a highly accomplished researcher and author in the field of education. He is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame and is the recipient of an International Reading Association Celebrate Literacy Award, the Farmer award for excellence in writing from the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Christa McAuliffe award for excellence in teacher education.
Around 15 years ago, Dr. Fisher found himself in a trying situation with his students. He was struggling to connect with his students in the ways that he was accustomed to connecting, and relationships were not coming easily. The experience was discouraging enough that he found himself starting to question whether the profession was even for him.
“Parents send us the kids they have. They don’t keep the good ones at home.”
Then, while attending a conference later that year, he heard a speaker say “Parents send us the kids they have. They don’t keep the good ones at home.” This quote spoke to him in a profound way, filling him with renewed gratefulness for the privilege we hold as educators to care for the children of others.
The public trusts us with the responsibility of teaching, training, and “loving up” their kids, Dr. Fisher observes. Sometimes we just need that reminder of the tremendous honor that is education. After the conference, Dr. Fisher returned to the classroom with renewed commitment and dedication and has never looked back since.
Dr. Fisher recently co-authored This Is Balanced Literacy, Grades K-6. When asked to elaborate further on this idea of balanced literacy, Doug is quick to point out that the concept has been around since the 1990s, when there was a lot of debate going on between phonics and whole language approaches. Kids need sufficient experiences with foundational skills, experts argued, including systematic and sequenced steps to growth in literacy. They also need meaning-making experiences that include reading comprehension and thinking about writing.
Since this time in education, the conversation about balanced literacy has largely moved to discussions about the value of whole group versus small group instruction. In this book, Doug and his co-authors sought to move the literacy conversation back to a focus on the balance between skills and knowledge learning. As they developed their research with this focus, they also started to take a closer look at the balance between reading and writing.
Current estimates suggest that the average elementary classroom spends up to 80% of their literacy instructional minutes on reading and 20% on writing. In the words of one of Doug’s colleagues, “Every writer can read, but not every reader can write.” Truly balanced literacy instruction requires us to ask these questions of our practice:
Are we using our literacy minutes effectively?
Are we making sure that our students are properly building both reading and writing skills?
Are we including both direct and dialogic instruction?
Are we making sure that our students are consuming both informational and narrative texts?
Studies show that narrative or fictional texts dominate the reading diets of elementary students – informational and expository texts may not be receiving the attention they deserve.
So how do we balance these tensions: direct and dialogic instruction, narrative and expository, reading and writing, skills and knowledge? This book offers the authors’ take on the best ways to thoughtfully integrate all of these methods and strategies in the literacy classroom.
For more on balanced literacy, listen to Doug’s two co-authors explore this concept further.
The Balanced Literacy Workshop from Corwin Press
Dr. Fisher and his co-authors currently offer a workshop that explores these strategies further in practical ways. This professional development event includes deep dives into reading instruction, writing instruction, assessing learning, impactful teaching practices, class engagement, coaching, and more. Workshop attendees will ask:
What should balanced literacy look like in the classroom?
What are the evidence-based strategies that we can adopt in the whole class environment?
How can we engage students in high-level collaboration using academic language that allows the teacher to sit down with small groups of students for more specific, targeted instruction?
There is no one way to teach literacy, Dr. Fisher points out. There are many right ways, but there are also wrong ways. This workshop unpacks the menu of effective options for instruction that literacy teachers have at their disposal.
A Quick Suggestion on Literacy Instruction
When asked for one quick tip or perspective on literacy instruction, Dr. Fisher reminds us that our literacy strategies accomplish different things at different stages of student learning. There’s nothing wrong with surface learning and the strategies that bring learners to that level, but when we move from surface to deep learning, our tools change, and when we move from deep to transfer levels of learning, our strategies change again.
As teachers, the question must be: what will unlock literacy for that learner right now, exactly where they are?
Visible Learning Plus
Visible Learning Plus is a specialized coaching program offered by Corwin Press, Dr. Fisher’s publisher. In Corwin’s words, this program will “Connect and harmonize existing school and system initiatives, build internal capacity, and harness the collaborative energy of educators to accelerate student learning and maximize time, energy, resources, and impact.”
In simplest terms, Visible Learning Plus mobilizes John Hattie’s research on learning and helps schools understand and elevate the impact of their practices on student learning. Corwin’s coaches and consultants help school leaders and teams get to the bottom of the question of impact: Is what we are doing working? The program also seeks to strengthen collective efficacy – how can teaching teams improve their beliefs, practices, and procedures in a cohesive, engaged, and synchronized way.
One thing that has really captured Dr. Fisher’s thinking of late is the whole issue of teacher credibility and its impact on learning. He’s done a little bit of writing on this topic and has started to dig deeper into the research in order to learn more. When students view their teachers as credible, they learn a lot more from them. The following critical questions determine your credibility as a teacher:
Are you trustworthy?
Are you competent?
Do you show dynamism or passion?
Do you have proximity and closeness with your students?
All of these factors influence student learning in powerful ways, and the good news is that they are changeable behaviors. Significantly, a teacher can employ proven instructional strategies, but if their students do not view them as credible, the strategies lose their effectiveness. As professional teams and learning communities, we should be constantly asking how can we help each other improve our credibility in the eyes of our students.
Personal Passions: Travel and Exercise
When he’s away from his research and the halls of academia, the things that most energize Dr. Fisher are travel and exercise. He never stays with one mode of exercise for too long, so his activities range from running to spin class to trapeze.
A Personal Productivity Tip: Block Time for Writing
Dr. Fisher puts time into his calendar to do his writing. This is blocked time that he treats as a job – he does not allow email, phone calls, or other distractions to interfere. He believes that every educator has a book in them, and many educators want to write, but it requires making that time non-negotiable. Although he is thrilled when other people enjoy and consume his writing, he writes primarily to clarify his own thinking.
Voices & Resources That Inspire His Practice
Over on Twitter, Dr. Fisher recommends following the amazing @BreneBrown, renowned speaker and author of such books as Dare to Lead.
In the world of edtech tools, Dr. Fisher is a fan of what PlayPosit can do to improve learner engagement with video content. Get to know this tool a bit better by following @PlayPosit.
At the top of Doug’s podcast lineup is Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzales, one of the largest podcasts in the education space today. If you’re not already following Jennifer on Twitter, connect with her @cultofpedagogy.
On YouTube, there’s no beating the classic TED Talks. Dr. Fisher is still a fan of the medium, the content, and the incredible learning that TED continues to share with the world.
When he has a few minutes for Netflix, Dr. Fisher is watching Money Heist. It’s a fascinating series about a band of bank robbers who plan an elaborate heist in Spain, and Dr. Fisher is also using the series to brush up on his Spanish.
We sign off on this helpful conversation, and Dr. Fisher gives us the best ways to connect with him online. See below for details!
NANCY FREY is a Professor of Educational Leadership and Literacy at San Diego State University at the graduate and doctoral levels. She’s also an instructor at Health Sciences High and Middle College, a secondary charter school which she co-founded 13 years ago with Doug Fisher and others. The school runs from grade 8-12 with about 700 students, and her teaching practice there helps to make sure that the ideas she advocates for in her research and writing actually work in practice.
When asked about a low moment, Nancy thinks back to the time she spent teaching in south Florida. One year, Hurricane Andrew hit the area just days before school opened. The storm exacted a heavy toll on the communities across the region, causing her district to expand very quickly due to damaged and destroyed schools in nearby counties. More significantly, almost every additional student came into the district with significant emotional trauma.
It was a difficult year that even made Nancy challenge her place in the profession, partly because she felt so unprepared to offer the guidance, comfort, and support that her learners truly needed while also promoting their academic growth and development. Thankfully, with a mix of inner commitment and support from colleagues, Nancy remained an educator, and she now credits this year with giving her valuable experiences and perspectives regarding trauma-informed education.
What is Visible Learning?
Visible Learning is the terminology used to refer to the research engineered by John Hattie, who used a meta-analysis to review hundreds of academic studies in an effort to determine what truly works in education. From this research, he and his team have created an index of what he calls effect sizes: how do different interventions positively or negatively affect learning outcomes?
With close to 300M students represented in these studies, this research can say with authority what works and what doesn’t in education. Supported by the groundbreaking research and resources from Visible Learning, schools and districts no longer need to guess about where to apply their energies.
Taking Your PLC to the Next Level: PLC+
In PLC+: Better Decisions and Greater Impact by Design, Nancy and Doug Fisherlook at the power behind professional learning communities and apply the latest research to suggest ways to take PLCs to the next level. The ‘+’ in PLC+ is you – what it is that you bring to your learning community.
The book organizes the PLC+ process around five key questions:
Where are we going? What is our destination?
Where are we now? Take a situational assessment.
How can we move learning forward?
What did we learn today? How are we enriching ourselves as a PLC so that we can continue the work that we’re doing?
Who benefited and who did not? This is the essential question of equity.
These questions are grounded in four universal values:
Individual and collective efficacy – belief in our ability to effect change.
In Nancy’s view, PLCs and our perceptions of them have tended to become more restrictive over time. Twenty-first century manifestations of PLCs should actually integrate well with PLNs in the sense that every member of a PLC must remain engaged in a PLN in order to further support their own learning and allow them to better contribute to their PLC. Other strategies like micro-learning and learning walks must be parts of robust PLCs as well.
Building Literacy Through the Tools of Metacognition
When I asked Nancy for some quick advice for the literacy classroom, Nancy pointed back to John Hattie. Do you know your impact? Do you know when your students have learned something? These are the questions that must drive everything we do in literacy and throughout K-12 education.
In the literacy classroom we must also ask ourselves how we are bringing students into the learning. This goes beyond ensuring content relevance – it means that students must understand WHAT they are learning, WHY they are learning it, and HOW they will know that they have been successful in learning it. Learning intentions and success criteria must be made clear to learners in every lesson, and when it comes to English classes, progress tends to be incremental – they’re generally not leaving a 30-minute lesson with a brand new skill.
Other Areas That Are Setting Nancy on 🔥 in Education
Nancy is very intrigued by the ways that technology is being effectively embedded and woven into instruction today. She points to the ways that our views of technology in education have changed from past decades: from computer lab to essential tool. Technology tools can be a double-edged sword, however, because technology itself is no assurance of learning, and in fact, we still don’t fully understand how technology changes the ways in which students learn.
Today, high school students walk around with computers in their pockets – devices more powerful than the computers that first sent spaceships to the moon. On the one hand, these phones can be the bane of a teacher’s existence, but on the other hand, educators must better harness this technology in order to advance learning.
The questions around phones and phone policy in schools are not easy ones to answer, but we must continue to struggle and learn in this area. (Editor’s Note: Check out my exploration of this issue at On Schools and Cell Phones.)
Is Handwriting an Essential Literacy Skill?
Should pens and pencils remain part of the writing classroom? Nancy says that students should be exposed to a wide continuum of learning experiences. Evidence also suggests that the motor functions involved in writing seem to inform the abilities of young learners to break the code (decode letters and words). Young children should know how to engage in print and cursive, and older students should at least have the capacity to sign their name. Nancy shares her experience from a recent class of seniors – many of whom struggled to sign a document in cursive. Yes, young learners should learn how to keyboard, and voice-to-text will continue to change the nature of composition.
Professional Goals for This Year
Nancy’s annual and evergreen goal is to ask: How can I be a better teacher this year? If that isn’t a question you’re asking, Nancy chuckles, it may be time to look for a new profession. Lately, Nancy has been writing about the intersection between teacher credibility and collective efficacy and the ways in which these two constructs can support and promote the other.
Nancy is also intrigued by the ways that students learn about their own learning through practice tests. Do students know what they’re learning and what they’re not learning?
Personal Passions Outside of Education
One activity that ignites Nancy’s passions and brings her alive as a human being when she leaves the halls of education is her work with kettlebells. She has participated in functional fitness workouts with kettlebells and the kettlebell community for the last six or seven years, and she is consistent. “Strong is the new skinny,” she says. She hits her gym about six days out of seven, and it’s formed a big part of her personal wellness.
A Productivity Habit: Meditation
The personal habit that has been making the biggest difference for Nancy in the productivity space is meditation. She meditates for 15 minutes after waking up each morning, and she finds that she is more productive as a result. It’s time to be quiet, to be mindful, to be self-aware, and to slow down. Nancy uses the Calm app and is competitive enough that her personal streaks are important to her, and she even appreciates the badges earned over time.
Voices & Resources That Inspire Nancy’s Practice
On Twitter, Nancy is a big fan of the #G2Great hashtag and regular Twitter chat.
As far as edtech tools go, Nancy loves what smartpens do for learners and learning in the classroom. There are so many uses for smartpens that fit within UDL and increase equity for all learners.
Nancy’s all-time favorite read is Tis: A Memoir by Frank McCourt. This classic describes the life of an English teacher in New York City from an earlier time.
In the world of podcasts, Nancy’s pick is Disgraceland, which unpacks the spectacular missteps and disasters that have followed countless pop music stars. It’s a guilty pleasure and Nancy can’t get enough of it.