Tag Archives: level up

Notice success, celebrate multiple milestones, level up

Learning intentions are more than just statements to convey to students what the learning is composed of; they are a means for building positive relationships with students. (Hattie, 48 pag.)

It is what I didn’t notice.  The bell rang. As always, I heard a chorus of “Thank you, Ms. Gough. Bye, Ms. Gough.” It was normal practice – and a much appreciated practice – for my students to say thank you and goodbye as they left for their next class.

I thought to myself “what a great class, everything went well, and they are so nice.” I busied myself straightening my desk, organizing paper, and mentally listing off the things I needed to do before my next class rolled in.  Eat lunch was at the top of the list.

Then, I sensed it. I was not alone.  It is what I didn’t notice.  There she sat, so still, except for the river of tears falling out of her beautiful, sad, green eyes. The river ran off the desk and pooled on the floor. “What is wrong?” I asked as I sat down beside her.

As I gently placed my hand on her arm, her shoulders began to shake as she said “I f..f..f..failed!” Whoosh, another flood of tears.

Now, she had not failed from my point of view. Her test score, damp as her test was now, showed a grade of 92 – an A.  And yet, she deeply felt a sense of failure.  As we sat together and looked at her work, we discovered that there was one key essential learning – in fact, a prerequisite skill – that caused her to stubble.

Tears, still streaming down her face, she said “I don’t know where I’m going wrong. I don’t miss this in class, but on the test, I fall apart.”

The point is to get learners ready to learn the new content by giving their brains something to which to connect their new skill or understanding. (Hattie, 44 pag.)

So, of course, the stumbling block for this sweet child is a known pain point for learners who master procedures without conceptual understanding.  Consistently, she expanded a squared binomial by “distributing” the exponent – a known pitfall. #petpeeve

When our learners do not know what to do, how do we respond? What actions can we take – will we take – to deepen learning, empower learners, and to make learning personal?

Kamb’s insight was that, in our lives, we tend to declare goals without intervening levels. We declare that we’re going to “learn to play the guitar.” We take a lesson or two, buy a cheap guitar, futz around with simple chords for a few weeks. Then life gets busy, and seven years later, we find the guitar in the attic and think, I should take up the guitar again. There are no levels. Kamb had always loved Irish music and had fantasized about learning to play the fiddle. So he co-opted gaming strategy and figured out a way to “level up” toward his goal:

Level 1: Commit to one violin lesson per week, and practice 15 minutes per day for six months.

Level 2: Relearn how to read sheet music and complete Celtic Fiddle Tunes by Craig Duncan.

Level 3: Learn to play “Concerning Hobbits” from The Fellowship of the Ring on the violin.

Level 4: Sit and play the fiddle for 30 minutes with other musicians.

Level 5: Learn to play “Promontory” from The Last of the Mohicans on the violin.

BOSS BATTLE: Sit and play the fiddle for 30 minutes in a pub in Ireland.

Isn’t that ingenious? He’s taken an ambiguous goal—learning to play the fiddle—and defined an appealing destination: playing in an Irish pub. Better yet, he invented five milestones en route to the destination, each worthy of celebration. Note that, as with a game, if he stopped the quest after Level 3, he’d still have several moments of pride to remember. (Heath, 163-164 pgs.)

What if I’d made my thinking visible?

What if I’d connected this learning to how 3rd graders are taught multiplication of two digit numbers by decomposing into tens and ones.  What if I’d connected this learning to how 3rd graders are also taught to draw area models to visualize the distributive property?

What if I’d shared my thinking and intentionally connected prior learning in levels?

By using Kamb’s level-up strategy, we multiply the number of motivating milestones we encounter en route to a goal. That’s a forward-looking strategy: We’re anticipating moments of pride ahead. But the opposite is also possible: to surface those milestones you’ve already met but might not have noticed. (Heath, 165 pag.)

How might we help our learners level up, experience success at several motivating milestones, and notice successes that might otherwise go unnoticed?

By multiplying milestones, we transform a long, amorphous race into one with many intermediate “finish lines.” As we push through each one, we experience a burst of pride as well as a jolt of energy to charge toward the next one. (Heath, 176 pag.)

Taken together, these practices make learning visible to students who understand they are under the guidance of a caring and knowledgeable teacher who is invested in their success. (Hattie, 48 pag.)

Hattie, John A. (Allan); Fisher, Douglas B.; Frey, Nancy; Gojak, Linda M.; Moore, Sara Delano; Mellman, William L.. Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning (Corwin Mathematics Series). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Heath, Chip. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

PD in Action: #LL2LU Math Formative Assessment #TrinityLearns with #MVPSchool

This really says it all:

Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 5.12.19 PM

Isn’t this what we want from professional development? I learned something yesterday that I can (and do) put into practice today. How often does that happen? Well, it happened twice today.  Stephanie, #MVPSchool’s @TeachingSteph, and Vicki Eyles, #TrinityLearns @EylesMath, joined forces yesterday to design a learning progression and a leveled assessment to lead learners to level up.  The tweet above gives evidence that Stephanie put her learning into action today.  Vicki met me at the door at 7:15 this morning on her way to the office to print the leveled assessment for our 5th graders.  Awesome!

Here’s some of the feedback from the day:

I believe in the process and had time to actually complete an assessment that I can use in my classroom tomorrow. It was so helpful to collaborate with others on the project.

I need to be able to assess my students as they are learning. I always find that students are telling me that they don’t know or understand, and I would love for them to focus on what they know and work from there.

It was very beneficial to learn about the difference between “I can” and “I can’t” statements and learn how to refocus our students. To learn how to word statements that will allow students to focus on the target and to create an assessment that will help communicate with both students and teachers about where students are and where they are going.

So…here’s the story:

What if we build common formative assessments that communicate how to level up, ask targeted questions, and motivate learning? Teachers of 3rd – 6th graders from Trinity and Mount Vernon met yesterday to learn more about Leading Learners to Level Up. Shelley Paul (@lottascales) joined us to co-facilitate and offer perspective from a beginner’s mindset.

We started with the 4-minute overview and “sat in the seat of a learner” as we took the leveled assessment on adding fractions.  With such a small group, we used the fishbowl time to hear multiple perspectives on the learning progression of the adding fractions formative assessment.

The mashup of growth mindset with learning progressions and standards-based feedback was clear to these teacher-learners.  We should write learning progressions to empower our learners to identify their strengths and ask questions to grow.  Using “I can…” statements offers learners the opportunity and the language to identify what they can do and advocate for what they want/need to do next.

Working in grade-level teams, we drafted learning progressions with “I can…” statements for a learning outcome.


Once we drafted a learning progression, we stopped to collaborate and offer feedback.  It was awesome!  We used Post-it Notes and the protocol I like…, I wish…, I wonder/What if… to offer each other positive, constructive, and directed feedback.

LL2LU Feedback

Illustrating the power of social media and connected learning, John Burk (@occam98) immediately added to our learning by replying to the tweet of the above image.

Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 5.31.49 PM

Feedback on our feedback with, I might add, a new resource for our teachers. Wow!

Once we adjusted our learning progressions based on the feedback, we worked to write  leveled assessments that would offer learners the opportunity to show what they know.  You can see artifacts of the work in the learning plan at the bottom of this post.

Embracing a do the work in the workshop philosophy, we took time to complete these leveled assessments.  Then, the magic happened.  Yes, another round of feedback.  Each teacher-learner took every leveled assessment and worked through it as a learner.  It was a spectacular way to calibrate expectations vertically.  Every assessment was vetted through teachers and admin-learners. Everyone received written feedback as well as face-to-face feedback.  Candid feedback…questioning feedback…growth-oriented feedback.

Intentionally, we paired these teacher-learners by the grade they teach.  Our hope was that our teacher-learners would share best practice, strategies, and bright spots that work in their schools.  We were not disappointed.  Our learning plan called for a session where we would regroup and work as a vertical school team to review, discuss, and calibrate levels in each assessment.  While we did not formally separate into two school teams, there was lots of discussion to calibrate expectations? Finding plateaus and steep jumps in curriculum always happens when vertically aligning these learning progressions and leveled assessments.

As a team of 20, we agreed to meet again in a couple of weeks to discuss how the impact of these learning progressions and leveled assessments.  We also plan to accept the challenge of writing a learning progression and a leveled assessment of one topic to learn more about vertical alignment of curriculum and expectations.  I’ll keep you posted.

Even in the briefest of communications, people develop and share common models that allow them to communicate effectively.  If you don’t share the model, you can’t communicate. If you can’t communicate, you can’t teach, learn, lead, or follow.  (Lichtman, 32 pag.)


Lichtman, Grant, and Sunzi. The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School. New York: IUniverse, 2008. Print.

Leading Learners to Level Up – #LevelUpMath #LearnFwd12

At Learning Forward 2012 Conference in Boston, Jeff McCalla and I offer a session as described below:

Learn to model practical classroom formative assessments that naturally offer differentiation. Hear stories and gain artifacts from National T3 instructors as they share their struggles and successes as well as their students’ struggles and successes in middle school and high school math. Develop processes and tools for creating formative assessments that integrate technology and motivate student collaboration.

Our “lesson plan”

  • Quick introduction using Dan Heath: How to Find Bright Spots
  • Ignite talk, shown below, to overview the why of learning to create leveled formative assessments
  • Formative assessment using TI-Nspire Navigator for Networked Computers to get to know our audience
  • Enter workshop mode – our challenge is to let the participants choose the path that we take.

In our description we say “Hear stories and gain artifacts from National T3 instructors as they share their struggles and successes as well as their students’ struggles and successes in middle school and high school math.”  Here are some of the stories and artifacts that we plan to use:

  • Learning from Leveling, Self-Assessment, and Formative Assessment
    I spend about the same amount of time with these formative assessments as I did when I gave quizzes, but now my job is more interesting.  It is problem-solving, coaching, and having conversations with my learners.  They have the opportunity to critique their work and report back to me.  I feel like I’m coaching rather than judging.  My learners talk to me about what they can do and what they need.”
  • Helping Students Level Up
    The change in response from our students is remarkable.  The improvement in our communication is incredible.  Students now come in after school, sit down with me, and say “Ms. Gough, I can write the equation of a line if you give me a slope and a point, but I’m having trouble when you give me two points. Can you help me?”  Look at the language!  We are developing a common language.  Our learners can articulate what they need.  Regularly in class a child will ask “Is this level 3?”  They are trying to calibrate our expectations.
  • How do we use the December Exam as Formative Assessment
    In Algebra I, we aim to get “in the weeds” about this reflection and intervention.  We want every child to reflect on what they could demonstrate well and where they need additional help.  We do not want them to move to high school and geometry next year with any doubt or weakness if we can help now.  But, how do we know who needs help?  We collect data, but we let our learners do the data collection.  We need to be informed; they need to be informed.  We are a team working toward the goal of mastery or proficiency for all learners.
  • Informing Assessment:  Need to Check for Acquisition of Skills over Memorization
    We used our leveled formative assessment to identify a need, a gap, in understanding.  Our learners and our colleagues are helping us find the path to teach and learn.  Isn’t this the way it should be?  We should struggle to learn, but shouldn’t we struggle to learn together?  Shouldn’t we learn what needs to be learned rather than what is in some book written x years ago?
  • Level Ups with Formative Assessment to Improve Communication and Skill
    An unexpected by-product of this type of formative assessment is the leveling up of their vocabulary.  Rarely does a student now say “I don’t get it.”  Much more often a child will come by after school and say ‘I need help writing the equation of a line when you give me a point and the slope.’

In our session, we model using technology to make these type of assessment easier and more manageable to deliver, implement, and process.  We share video evidence of increased peer-to-peer communication and collaboration. We also share teacher-made classroom ready assessments as a jumping off point to “develop processes and tools for creating formative assessments.” 

We have several documents to share. If interested in having copies of these leveled formative assessments, please email me using jplgough dot gmail dot com, and I’ll share the Dropbox folder with you.

Helping Students Level Up

Formative assessment takes many forms. I generally put these forms into two categories: formal and informal.  Informal formative assessment happens all the time, planned and unplanned through questioning and observation.  As I float through the room and look at student work, I am assessing struggle and success.  As they work together to calibrate their work and communication, they formatively assess for struggle and success. 

Formal formative assessment happens when my learners are challenged to scrimmage with the information we are learning, when they go one-on-one with assessment items.

We’ve been struggling with the traditional descriptors for the Guskey-style 4-point rubric.

Level 1: Beginning
Level 2: Progressing
Level 3: Proficient
Level 4: Exceptional

How do you explain to a 13-year old that they are progressing rather than beginning? How do you explain to a parent that their child is proficient but not exceptional?  Do you have time to sit down one-on-one with every child and counsel them with the level of feedback to help them improve?  Feedback is powerful and necessary for growth.  We have 15 essential learnings with multiple learning targets for the year.  How can we develop an assessment system that helps our learners self-assess and calibrate their understanding?  How many times does a child come back after school and say “I don’t get it.”  They can’t ask a question.  They don’t know what to ask. 

We have been saying…

Level 1 is what was learned as 6th graders.
Level 2 is what was learned as 7th graders.
Level 3 is the target; it is where we want you to be as 8th graders. 
Level 4 is the challenge for those ready for more. 

While not totally accurate, it has helped our young learner understand and gauge how much work needs to be done.  These descriptions worked well as long as we were learning about linear functions.  These descriptions failed me this week.  My descriptions failed us this week.  Modeling learning, we try again.  Here’s the new attempt. 

Level 1:  I’m getting my feet wet. 
Level 2:  I’m comfortable with support.
Level 3:  I’m confident with the process.
Level 4:  I’m ready for the deep end.

The success we’ve had offers our students the opportunity to level their understanding of each learning target in the progression of an essential learning. 

We started our linear functions unit using asking our learners to identify their understanding of each learning target using the Graphing Linear Functions Rubric shown below. 

We then gave them a diagnostic assessment to help them calibrate what they thought with what they could produce.  (It was very interesting, and the process prompted many discussions about what we think we can do versus what we can do.)  They immediately asked to complete the Graphing Linear Functions Rubric again.  They asked to chart their own progress!  After each formal formative assessment, students returned to the Graphing Linear Functions Rubric to chart their progress and to seek intervention or enrichment.

As we progressed through the unit, we used leveled formative assessments to continue to self-assess and calibrate.  The components of these formal formative assessments include

  • Assessment questions.  Questions are leveled using the language of the essential learnings.
  • Answer key (answers only).  Students self-check and then correct in teams.
  • Table of Specification.  Students calibrate their work level with the expected level.
  • Solutions.  Students can use our work to improve their communication and understanding.
  • Differentiated Homework.  Students are assigned (or choose) work at an appropriate level, working to level up.

The table of specifications helps our learners self-assess and calibrate their learning and understanding as we are working through the targets and skills.

The change in response from our students is remarkable.  The improvement in our communication is incredible.  Students now come in after school, sit down with me, and say “Ms. Gough, I can write the equation of a line if you give me a slope and a point, but I’m having trouble when you give me two points. Can you help me?”  Look at the language!  We are developing a common language.  Our learners can articulate what they need.  Regularly in class a child will ask “Is this level 3?”  They are trying to calibrate our expectations.

We are now able to differentiate and intervene for and with our learners.  I have always struggled with what to do for my fastest learners.  I need them and their peers need them to coach and work collaboratively; they need to learn more.  Finding the right way to balance these needs has been a struggle until now.  My favorite story about enrichment happened last week.  MR – very quiet, hardly speaks in class – literally skipped down the hall talking to me from 2 doors down.  “I left class yesterday confused about level 4, but I used your work from the webpage last night and now I’ve got it!” 

Self-assessment, self-directed learning, appropriate level of work that is challenging with support, and the opportunity to try again if you struggle are all reasons to offer students formative assessment with levels.  Making the learning clear, communicating expectations, and charting a path for success are all reasons to try this method.

Sending the message “you can do it; we can help” says you are important.  You, not the class.  You.  You can do it; we can help.

In addition to reading the research of Tom Guskey, Doug Reeves, Rick Stiggins, Jan Chappius, Bob Marzano and many others, we’ve been watching and learning from TED talks.  My favorite for thinking about leveling formative assessments is Tom Chatfield: 7 ways games reward the brain.

If you are interested in seeing more formative assessments, you can find them sprinkled throughout our assignments on our webpages.

The TI-Nspire files shared during my T³ International Conference in San Antonio are linked below:

I’d love to know what you think; do you have suggestions or advice?