Why Aren’t My Students Completing Challenge Assignments?

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Whether through remote learning or in the classroom, it can be frustrating when our most capable students do not embrace the challenge and enrichment activities that teachers assign. What is holding these students back, and how can teachers provide additional support to help students achieve their potentials? 

Re-energizing students to embrace both in-school and remote learning challenges starts with reflecting upon and addressing issues that may underlie three, sigh-wrapped excuses sometimes overheard from advanced learners:

Student Excuse #1: “This Challenge Work is Boring.”

Potential Issues and Suggestions for Teachers…

Issue: My “extra challenge” work generally engages students in my classroom. But with remote learning, even my advanced students seem disinterested.

Suggestion: Because your assignment works well in the classroom, the problem may exist within the lesson delivery. Try creating a motivating “hook” by providing different contexts to introduce learning such as online chats, videos, podcasts, or snail mail.

Issue: The inquiry project I provided centered around engaging video clips and current events, but the advanced students didn’t even click the links.

Suggestion: Do students feel that these assignments matter? Is the assignment personally and culturally relevant to students in the classroom? Try centering the project around a topic that directly impacts the student and/or the student’s community. Students can create a presentation, solution, or opinion letter to share with other students in a school display, in the local news, or with a panel of stakeholders. At the outset of a project, motivate students by letting them know the “audience” with whom they will have the opportunity to share purposeful work.

Issue: I chose an engaging enrichment project for students about oceans; surprisingly, my advanced students didn’t dive in.

Suggestion: Perhaps it is time to provide students with more choice. For limited choice, try challenging your students to come up with questions about oceans–such as questions that cannot be answered with a single “Google search.” To provide even more choice, allow students to choose a topic of interest and then come up with several questions about that topic. From their own lists, students can evaluate questions and choose the most provocative one to explore. 

Issue: My student was initially interested in the biographical research project about famous women in STEM but never turned in the poster.

Suggestion: Students may stay engaged with projects that challenge them to create something new, so think of some fresh ways for students to show what they have learned. The possibilities for new products are limitless… a student-written “page” from a diary that talks about an important day in the subject’s life and why it mattered, a drawing of three “gifts” that would have been most appreciated by the subject, a movie clip about the life of the subject, a mobile featuring several symbols that represent the subject with a written rationale for each symbol…

Student Excuse #2: “This Challenge Work is too Difficult!”

Potential Issues and Suggestions for Teachers…

Issue: I know the work is not too difficult for my student. If he would just read the directions… 

Suggestion: Sometimes it is tempting to assign challenge work to advanced learners with the assumption that they can embark on their own. However, sorting through directions, especially with a multi-step, challenge assignment can be daunting, even for capable learners. Try setting aside time to meet with students to read and talk through directions together.  If enrichment is being offered to the entire class, take a moment to fully explain the project and the directions during a weekly or daily “enrichment project highlight.” Another idea–ask students to outline or repeat the directions to you before starting the project.

Issue: My student seemed enthusiastic about solving this multi-step math problem, but as soon as she came to the tricky part, she gave up.

Suggestion: Advanced learners may shut down when challenges arise because they are used to completing them with ease. Moreover, because some advanced learners become accustomed to knowing the answers and receiving recognition for achievement, they may fear that making mistakes or failing might indicate that they “are not smart enough.” In order to help these students develop a more positive, growth mindset, educators need to help them understand that struggles and mistakes are a part of learning. Like all learners, they need tools and strategies to confront challenges when they arise. Try working with your student to create an “action plan” for meeting challenges when assignments get difficult and help is not immediately available. Strategies may include:

    • When the answer to a question or problem is not immediately apparent, focus on trying the problem for 5-10 minutes. If after that time, a solution is not clear, write a specific question about the problem and/or what is not understood to submit to the teacher.
    • Step away from the problem to do another activity. Return to the assignment later with fresh eyes.
    • Create a list of online/text resources and references that may provide hints or guidance.
    • If computation is the challenge, substitute “easy numbers” and try the problem again.

Issue: My advanced student usually completes enrichment work at school but often does not even finish grade level work at home during remote learning.

Suggestion: Unique challenges can arise during remote learning when teachers are unable to personally observe students. In this case, try reaching out to the student to touch base about the learning experience at home. Be mindful that access, skills with, or preferences for technology can impact learning. Especially for younger students, this may also be an appropriate time to collaborate with a student’s parents or caregivers. In addition to informing you about issues or events happening at home that are impacting student learning, parents can provide valuable insights by sharing observations. A few questions that you might ask parents include the following:

    • Does your child show more sustained attention/interest in certain subjects?
    • Are there activities that your child is especially motivated to complete (e.g., problem-solving, writing projects, videos)?
    • What teacher-assigned challenge/enrichment activities engage your child?
    • Are there activities that your child tends to finish quickly and/or appears to have already mastered?
    • In what subjects does your child struggle or show frustration?
    • Are there patterns that you observe (e.g., times of day, surroundings) in which your child seems more engaged in learning?
    • How does your child respond when challenged? (e.g., Does your child ask questions or try multiple strategies to find a solution? Does your child tend to avoid difficult or unfamiliar learning tasks?

Student Excuse #3: “I Don’t Have Time to Do This Challenge Work.”

Potential Issues and Suggestions for Teachers…

Issue: My advanced students earn 100% on the practice math problems and reading comprehension questions that I assign, but they never take the extra time to do challenge work. 

Suggestion: Although advanced learners may enjoy school work, they may prefer to fill their “extra time” with other interests, friends, or hobbies. So how can teachers encourage them to make time for a more meaningful, deeper project? It may be unnecessary for advanced learners to complete that page of practice problems or a list of reading comprehension questions assigned to students who are working at grade level. Instead, try assigning two or three of the more difficult problems/questions from the grade-level assignment, and replace practice problems and lower level questions with an enrichment activity.

Issue: My student seemed excited about the assigned enrichment project and indicated that she would complete it, but she never turned it in.

Suggestion: Advanced students may not excel in every area, and sometimes executive functioning skills need special focus. Distracted by other time commitments, interests, and misplaced papers or assignments, advanced learners may struggle to follow through with assignments. The following supports may help your students follow through on assignments and increase student ownership:

    • Provide an online or written “checklist” of the components of an assignment that need to be completed during the day/week.
    • When the project is assigned, ask your student to estimate how much time each component will take and create a schedule indicating the days/times reserved for work on the assignment. (It is helpful to have the student approve this schedule with both the teacher and the parent. Encouraging communication between parents and students may help to avoid family scheduling conflicts that can impact progress, especially with respect to long-term assignments.)
    • Sometimes advanced learners have many ideas and find it difficult to settle on one topic or choice for inquiry and research projects, or to settle on a strategy for problem solving. This can be overwhelming for some students and may make it difficult for them to get started. Try front-loading the activity with time set aside for students (1) to engage in divergent thinking and brainstorming, and (2) to evaluate options and choose a question or strategy to explore.

Issue: I give up on coming up with projects for my advanced learners. I have no idea what my students do with all of their time when they could be learning.

Suggestion: We may not be certain about how advanced and gifted students spend their time, but most assuredly their intellectual energy goes somewhere. Asking students about their interests and hobbies can be a great start for understanding conflicts that may impact learning. Even better, it can fuel ideas for individual or small-group interest-based learning projects. Start by asking students to write a “how to” or create a lesson to teach an aspect of their favorite activity.  For students who have intense interests, learning models, such as “Genius Hour,” where students can explore their own passions, provide an engaging springboard to motivate student learning and invention. Try seeing where the journey takes your advanced learners when you give them the reins.



Seeking Enriching Summer Outings for your Children? Travel Back in Time

58448745890__2DE2966D-E3DB-44D4-84A0-3E1132798812Do your summer family plans include visiting a United States historic site with your children? If not, perhaps it is time to rediscover a less-trodden path.

Although history presents a treasure trove of knowledge, visits to historical sites in the United States are decreasing. In fact, a study reported by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016 found that “The percentage of people reporting at least one [historic site visitation] in the previous year fell by more than a third from 1982 to 2012, with declines across most age groups.[1]

Statistics also show that the number of students pursuing a history major has declined more than for any other major. [2] Perhaps this to some extent reflects public education’s  focus on encouraging Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (“STEM”) skills to prepare learners for the 21st Century job market. Moreover, over the past several years state testing has focused primarily on assessing mathematics and reading skills.  

Although the study of History may seem to be on the educational “back burner” these days, it remains critical that today’s children — tomorrow’s leaders — have a deep understanding of their past and learn from the lessons it teaches. Visiting historic sites is an engaging way for parents to nurture our children’s appreciation and understanding of the past, as well as the experiences and perspectives of those from different cultural backgrounds. 

If you are traveling “back in time” this summer, here are 8 suggestions to enrich your child’s understanding of history by maximizing your visits to historic places:

1). Explore the Website: Before visiting a historic site, check the website to find information about tours, maps, and special events that may be happening on the day of your visit. If pictures are available, take a virtual tour of the site with your child and ask him or her to identify points of interest for the visit. (See, for example, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site – Collinsville, Illinois)

2). Visit the Library: Before your visit, shop the library for books about the site(s) you plan to explore on your adventure. Display the books in your home where your child can access them and read about the site. (Be creative and look for books from multiple genres: non-fiction, poems, fiction, and picture books that may talk about the place you are visiting.)

3). Bring Background Music: What music did the people who inhabited your site at the place and time enjoy/create? To enrich the experience, bring some relevant music along for the car ride!

4). Choose/Map Specific Points of Interest: Before visiting, show your child a map, book, or website about the site.  Your child should pick 2-3 points of special interest to him/her. If there is a site map, be sure to ask your child to locate points of interest and use the map to find it when you are at the site.  

5). Talk About Perspectives/Points of View: Frequently, a historic site will present events from a variety of perspectives/viewpoints that represent different cultures, roles, and socio-economic groups. Challenge your child to identify different perspectives represented at the site (for example child vs. adult; minority perspectives; socio-economic). Role play by having each family member take 30 minutes to view the site “in the shoes” of another person-(e.g. a woman who lived at the time, an indigenous inhabitant, a government leader, a child, an immigrant). Respectfully share your thoughts, revelations, and questions; this may open additional questions for your family/child to explore and research after the visit. 

6). Encourage Questions: Have your child brainstorm several questions he/she may have about the historical site and choose 2-3 questions to answer on the visit. Your child should record these questions and look for the answers during your tour. With your supervision (and as appropriate), encourage your child to ask questions of tour guides/volunteers as needed to direct them to answers and/or collect additional information.

7). Try a Recipe: Research recipes from the time period and/or region of the historic site. (Sometimes recipes are available on site-for example in a pioneer village.) Try a recipe in your kitchen at home.

8).  Keep a Travel Journal: Keep a family scrapbook of the historical sites that you have visited.  Include maps of the sites, pictures, and notes about observations made on your visit. In the back of the journal, create a page of sites that are on your list to explore in the future.   


*For historical sites to visit in Illinois, explore the Illinois Office of Tourism Website-Historic Sites in Illinois


[1 ]”Humanities Indicators,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Feb. 2016. Retrieved at https://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=101

[2] Schmidt, Benjamin, M.“The History BA Since the Great Recession.” Perspectives on History. The American Historical Association. November 26, 2018. Retrieved at: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2018/the-history-ba-since-the-great-recession-the-2018-aha-majors-report


“Fudging It” — So Much for the Easy Way…

The following is a summary of this morning’s attempt to make “easy” holiday fudge

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(1).  While mixing ingredients, I discovered that I bought “evaporated milk” instead“sweetened condensed milk.”

(2). While trying to substitute “evaporated milk” for “sweetened condensed milk” by boiling the evaporated milk with sugar, I observed as the concoction overflowed over the stove and onto the floor–a very sticky mess!

(3). While cleaning up the mess, I noticed that I melted the wrong kind of chocolate chips in the microwave.

(4).  While pouring the whole, sad mixture into the pan to refrigerate anyway, I realized that I forgot to spray the pan with non-stick coating as the recipe required.

It was a clear disaster, but I’m gearing up to try it again…  

Why not just pan the whole thing?  What could possibly make me want to try again when something that is clearly “easy” for others is so difficult for me? Perhaps I am energized by a few boosts that teachers may find particularly helpful when supporting struggling students:

  • A yummy looking picture of completed fudge: A clear goal in mind about what I am trying to achieve.
  • My desire to include the fudge with a box of cookies that I am mailing to my brother: An authentic, personally relevant context.
  • A walk to the store today, in which I will focus on purchasing the correct type of chocolate chips and a can of the correct “sweetened condensed milk”: A chance to segment the task into smaller, more manageable sections.
  • Stepping away from the fudge disaster to write a blog post: A break to recharge and to rebuild confidence.
  • Per my husband’s suggestion, thinking about heating up my creation to make splendid hot fudge sundaes. An opportunity to engage in creativity and high level thinking skills regardless of learning level.

Perhaps the most impactful way to gain perspective about how to help students to overcome learning challenges is to reflect upon what keeps us going when we “fudge it.”


Ideas for Keeping Discussion Flowing in Reading/Language Arts

20170414_1208091.jpgWith a drought of instructional time, how can teachers support rich, deep whole-group discussion?  Here are a few tips to help purposeful, student-centered discussion flow when class time is limited:

  • Have students choose an engaging, high level question that students may work to answer as a group.  Try providing a short list of teacher-written/textbook questions or student-written questions from which the group can choose.  For example:
    • How would you describe the character in the story as a person?
    • What were the true causes of the event?
    • What is the best evidence that the character made the right choice?
    • What is the most important lesson in this story/chapter?
    • Why do two characters have a different point of view?
  • Once a question is selected for exploration, decide on a time-frame for the group to find the best possible answer.  (Example: We have 8 minutes to find the best answer/textual support for this question. Let’s listen, focus, and build on each other’s ideas for 8 minutes and see what answer we find in that time!
  • Step out of the middle of the discussion; so that students can call on each other.  One student speaks at a time, and students who wish to contribute raise their hands when the student who is speaking has finished his/her thought.  Then, the student who finished speaking should call on the next student. Having students call on each other enables the teacher to monitor the discussion, taking notes on who is participating.  Or, the teacher may wish to record student points and evidence on the board as students engage in discussion.
  • Challenge some/all students to take notes during the conversation and to share the group’s conclusions. (Another idea is for half of the class to discuss one question for a few minutes while the other students take notes/synthesize the discussion.  Then, the roles can be reversed.)
  • Require students to keep books open while discussing text and cite evidence/page numbers to support their ideas.

Be mindful when turning on the the conversation faucet. With a bit of practice and commitment, student-centered discussions may gush out of just a few minutes of dedicated class time.

The “Gifted Identification Trap”

IMG_3252As a former gifted teacher and gifted program coordinator, I recognize the importance of identifying gifted and high-ability students for accelerated and/or enriched classes to meet learning needs. Nevertheless, educators in districts fortunate enough to have gifted programming must not imprison themselves and their students in the “Gifted Identification Trap.” This trap is sprung when high level differentiation and knowledge of gifted pedagogy is undervalued for grade level classrooms because identified students leave the classroom for accelerated/gifted instruction.

For example, let’s take the case of a fourth grade classroom teacher—we’ll call her “Ms. Solo.” As Ms. Solo begins the school year, she glances at her class list with highlighted names of five students identified for the “gifted program.” At 9:57 a.m. she chirps, “Time to switch classes for math!” Five students scoop up their newly polished pencil cases and leave to meet with the “gifted teacher.” Now, Ms. Solo is free to focus on meeting the needs of the rest of the students.

…that is, if she can dislodge herself and the students seated in front of her from the tentacles of the “Gifted Identification Trap.”

Let’s meet some of the rest of the students:

  • Melinda just missed the gifted program by a point on her testing. Although they may have appealed, her parents decided not to do so.
  • Jimmy has lived in the United States for three years after arriving from Mexico. At the time of his arrival, he knew no English and Spanish is spoken at home. He has already obtained average scores on his reading tests, and his math performance is above-average. He has a passion for writing stories.
  • Tina is an African American student with a single parent who is a manager at a local restaurant franchise. Tina scores above average in mathematics and loves to write her own math problems. She taught her third grade classmates to design and build model cities out of cardboard.
  • Tom can tell the class anything about birds. He has read every bird book in the library and has memorized 70 bird calls. He loves to solve equations and does so at a sixth grade level. However, he is slow at solving fact problems and his inconsistent scores did not place him in the gifted program.

Given the opportunity, could Melinda, Jimmy, Tina, and Tom also thrive in accelerated or enriched classes? If grade level instruction best meets their current needs, what differentiation support would be appropriate?

As this scenario suggests, “giftedness” includes so many facets and definitions that establishing equitable, defensible measures to identify them creates a complex and sometimes sticky web. In fact, despite years of research and debates about the best ways to identify gifted students, too many children with high potential are “missed.” A persisting “Excellence Gap,”–a difference in high level academic achievement between subgroups, such as low-income/high-income is one compelling manifestation of this reality. [1]

Fortunately, the story of Ms. Solo and her students has a happy ending because they steer clear of the “Gifted Identification Trap.” This is because administrators and teachers in Ms. Solo’s district reserve resources and energy to move beyond the “identification” protocol for developing talent and meeting learning needs. In addition to establishing an equitable identification process based on multiple measures, Ms. Solo’s district does the following:

  • Professional Development: The district requires professional development for all teachers that focuses on identifying and meeting the needs of gifted learners including those with twice special needs and those from underserved populations [2].
  • “Watch List” for Students Who Demonstrate Potential: With professional training, teachers like Ms. Solo are encouraged to look for students who exhibit gifted characteristics, achievement, and/or learning potential that may not be demonstrated through their test scores. The teachers might refer these students to the gifted program and/or put their names on a “watch list” for classroom differentiation and encouraged participation in school enrichment opportunities.
  • High Level Instruction: For students of all learning levels, teachers have resources, participate in book studies, and engage in professional development to provide instruction that builds critical thinking skills, engages students in high-level questioning, discussion, and problem-solving.
  • Enrichment Opportunities: The district provides an after school enrichment program for all students, including those in the primary grades, to interview adult “mentors” in STEM and other professional careers, participate in hands-on mathematics problem-solving and science experiences, and develop creative interests.
  • Parent Outreach: As part of its outreach, the school offers a parent coffee, evening program, and a newsletter that provides information about enrichment opportunities through libraries, museums, corporations, and the local park district. Any scholarship or transportation options are also presented to assist with practical considerations. Notification is translated as appropriate for families who do not speak English.
  • Student Growth Monitoring: The district monitors the growth of all students, including those in the gifted program, and regularly re-assesses and develops accelerated programming to insure that instruction continues to match student learning needs.

Although the story of Ms. Solo and her district is fiction, the implications are real. As we struggle to meet the needs of diverse high ability learners, we must avoid sinking into the “identification trap” quicksand. Let’s not miss any opportunity to grasp a low-hanging branch and unleash the amazing potential in all of our students.


[1] See Plucker, Jonathan A. and Peters, Scott J. Excellence Gaps in Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press (2016).

[2] The Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”) requires that training to meet the needs of gifted students is addressed in district and state plans. Title I funds may also be used to identify and serve gifted and talented students. Title IV funds also available for providing enriched opportunities for students in underrepresented subgroups. Illinois Association for Gifted Children (“IAGC”) Website, https://www.iagcgifted.org/Every-Child-Succeeds-Act.


Gifted MisBehaviors: A View Through Two Lenses

img_2497Now that I am approaching fifty, my eyes are changing and I have two pairs of glasses. My “close” glasses are for reading. My “far” glasses are for watching plays from the balcony. It is easy to get these lenses mixed up, but I can’t bring myself to do the bifocal thing because, let’s face it, it’s difficult to adjust to two lenses.

Like with my glasses situation, I use two “educational lenses” in my roles this year as both an elementary school assistant principal and a district-wide K-8 gifted coordinator.

As a gifted program coordinator, I see that teachers and parents readily refer children for programming based upon “gifted behaviors,” such as insatiable curiosity, intensity, and the ability to ask and understand complex questions.

As an assistant principal who manages much of the school’s discipline, children are referred for different reasons–most which involve a failure to follow school norms.   As with my mixed up glasses, I sometimes find myself looking at misbehavior through a “gifted” lens, and a variety of referral questions emerge…

Misbehavior Referral? Student doesn’t stop activities when it’s time to stop, and has difficulty transitioning from one activity to the other. Gifted Referral? Why is the student so engrossed in activities? Gifted students can find it difficult to stop an activity when their minds are engaged. Is the student exploring them in depth? Could it be difficult for this student to leave certain activities and subjects behind? Would this student benefit from some uninterrupted time to work on a passion project?

 Misbehavior Referral? Student pushes humor too far and is therefore disrespectful. This was not a time for jokes. Gifted Referral? Verbally gifted students find plays on words, figurative language, and humor to be irresistible. Is there an opportunity that would help this child to explore humor and figurative language in a positive way?

Misbehavior Referral? Student’s responses do not match the situation; the student gets upset or angry over insignificant things and acts out. Gifted Referral? Gifted students can be sensitive and emotionally intense. Some are perfectionists. Why was this student so upset? Could perfectionism or an acute sense of justice have triggered the behavior? Would this student benefit from an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue about these ideals?

 Misbehavior Referral? Student keeps talking out of turn when asked to be quiet. Gifted Referral? For a gifted student, the ability to use advanced vocabulary and to express oneself eloquently may be a source of self esteem and pride. Although this student needs to listen and show respect for others, how could we make sure that this need for challenge and expression in the area of language arts is met in the classroom?

Misbehavior Referral? Student appears to have no respect for the rules and questions everything. Gifted Referral? Does this student understand the reasons for the rules? When it comes to students with a profound sense of justice, the reasons behind the rules matter.   Creatively gifted students may challenge the rules and prefer to try “their own way.” Could this student who “bumps up against the rules” be a strong candidate for gifted programming?

Of course we cannot presume that misbehavior is related to giftedness, nor can we ignore it for that reason. All children, including gifted ones, need limits; in schools, we need consistent, respectful discipline, and appropriate consequences for misbehavior. “Turning a blind eye” to misbehavior by calling it “giftedness” would not only be unsafe, it would cast aside our responsibility as educators.

However, as we see and respond to misbehavior, taking a glance through the “gifted” lens could produce a revelation. Among the discipline referrals, might we catch a glimpse of a gifted student who is paradoxically being overlooked because of “gifted misbehavior”?

For me, switching spectacles back and forth may work in the short term, but for the long term, it may be time to adjust to one pair of glasses through which I can see “close” and “far.”

Likewise with gifted misbehaviors; time to put on the bifocals.

Packing Up My Classroom: What I’m Taking With Me

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Last week, I packed up my classroom after ten years of teaching to begin a new chapter in my career as an elementary school assistant principal/gifted coordinator.   Perhaps because these years have been so full, I was surprised that the boxes and bags I packed fit so easily into the trunk of my car.

What am I taking from my teaching experience to my new role as an administrator? I prefer to travel light, so I’ll condense it down to one item – respect for this beautiful, challenging, and impactful profession.

Whether making a U-Turn or simply changing lanes, it can be difficult to take a new road in life. Years ago, when I “packed up” my career as a lawyer to follow my dream of becoming an elementary school teacher, I worried that others would think I “failed in the law.” When I shared this concern with my education program advisor, his wise response emboldened me: “Yes, they will…Do it anyway.”

So I did it anyway. And over the last ten years, I have developed a profound respect for teaching. A teacher’s work is never done, and there is always more to learn.

As a teacher, I’ve learned that a positive classroom community that welcomes diversity and builds trust is essential for learning. Without such a community, instruction is like dancing on air, and it can’t last very long.

Moreover, I’ve discovered that when students come to school, teachers cannot always “see” their joys and sorrows.   We do not see all of our students’ interactions with others, and we may even have difficulty seeing their talents, struggles, and obstacles that they have already overcome. When working with students, I have learned to acknowledge these sight limitations.

But despite such challenges, I’ve found that teachers can and do make a difference, and it is the wonderful relationships we build with students, families, parents and colleagues that make it all happen.

As I pack up my classroom, I am bringing along a respect for teachers everywhere.

I don’t have many boxes or bags, but my heart is full to bursting.

Instant Grit? A Recipe for Teaching Perseverance

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“Instant Grits.” I smile to myself when I see them on the store shelf, because as a Chicagoan, I always associate grits with vacation ease in a warmer climate. Grits are supposed to take time—you sit down and savor them with honey and biscuits.

As an alternative to instant grits, a “grit” I’ve encountered in professional development sessions has potential:

In the education arena, psychologist Angela Duckworth asserts “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint”[1] According to Duckworth’s research, “grit” is an essential ingredient for success—even beyond I.Q.

So, as teachers we may ask, “Can grit be taught? If so, what is the recipe?…Can we just add water?”

For some, grit seems to be about prolonged attention span and perseverance even when activities are not immediately rewarding. This idea of “grit” sounds akin to pitting cherries, shelling peas, or husking bushels of corn. The world is full of mundane tasks for “teaching” grit in this way.

Yet, in the classroom, it does seem more palatable to teach students to develop grit by striving and persevering for their own goals, rather than chasing unfulfilling ones. In light of this, some educators suggest that “grit” can be naturally fostered by having children identify their own passions or engage in project based learning.

I do believe that passion projects bring joy to learning, and even students who otherwise lack “grit” may choose to stick with projects that are authentic and meaningful to them. But passion projects are unlikely to guarantee instant grit. Deciding what one’s passion is in the first place requires a respectable bit of perseverance for some students. Moreover, on the road to pursue passions, some students “fall out of love” with their projects when challenges arise. Perhaps in order to prepare students to achieve excellence in any subject, we need to make “developing grit” a more intentional part of our daily routine.

One suggestion I have heard during discussions about teaching “grit” is the idea that “children need to fail.” Rather than being coddled and protected from failure, children need to learn to scrape themselves off the ground and try again.

Although I will never know the complete recipe for “grit,” from what I have tasted, I find that the essential ingredient is not found in failure, but in student success.

Teaching grit means helping students to see the connection between individual effort and excellence, and this can apply to any subject. As teachers, the challenge is to teach “grit” everyday. Celebrating effort and realizing the results – even incremental results – again and again is what motivates students to develop the habit of striving.

Given this reality, the secret ingredient for teaching and learning “grit” may be time.

…time to develop and create thoughtful work products.

…time to revise work to achieve excellence.

…time to break tasks down and master each part of a skill

…time to practice each skill until it comes easily

…time to recognize progress

…time to celebrate success

…time to reflect on what could have been done differently

…time to change direction

…time to try again

…time to ask questions

…time to come up with new ideas

We may need to make time from scratch.  But there is one thing for certain —

There is no “Instant Grit.”


[1] “The Key to Success? Grit.” Angela Lee Duckworth:. TED Talks, April 2013 Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit?language=en&gt;.


“Question Me An Answer”

Question me an answer bright and clear.
I will answer with a question clear and bright.
Even though your answer may be wrong 
my question will be right…

The Right Question

From Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s song, “Answer Me a Question” performed by Bobby Van in the 1973 movie, “Lost Horizons.”

Teachers fuel meaningful, deep, classroom discussions with questions that deepen student knowledge and encourage critical thinking.

Although asking questions may sound simple, teaching resources for questioning abound. We have Webb’s “Depth of Knowledge” that designates four levels of activities of increasing cognitive complexity.We have the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy with six levels of knowledge including Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating and Creating.

In fact, for teachers who wish to help students develop questions at a “higher” level there is a dizzying array of Bloom’s Taxonomy “question stems” out there for students to write questions from a template of “high level” starters such as “”What would happen if…”, “How would you improve…” “Would it be better if….”, and “What evidence can you find?”

As a teacher of high ability students whose mission is to encourage critical thinking and deep exploration, I have piles of print-outs filled with question stems. Yet, I seldomly reach for them.

Questions are personal creations; they grow from the raw, grasping desire to know. Answers are out there—but questions come from inside of us—from the heart. For me, reaching for “question stems” for students feels like I’m reaching for a defibrillator.

 So yesterday when we discussed Laurence Yep’s memoir, The Lost Garden, in our Sixth Grade classroom, this is what we did:

  • The students took a few minutes to think of the most interesting questions that they could ask about the memoir.
  • In small groups, they generated four questions that they felt would make an interesting class discussion about the book.
  • After reflecting on these questions as a group, they wrote a brief reflection explaining why these questions were likely to spark an interesting conversation.
  • After the students wrote their questions and discussed their answers, I compiled the questions to create a list.

Today, I introduced a table that provided the four levels of Webb’s “Depth of Knowledge” (Level I: Recall and Reproduction, Level II: Basic Application of Skills and Concepts, Level III: Strategic Thinking, and Level IV: Extended Thinking).  We talked about kinds of questions that would fall into each group. Then, I showed the students a chart that sorted their questions about The Lost Garden according to the Depth of Knowledge level each question reflected.

The students immediately recognized that their most interesting discussion questions fell under higher depth of knowledge levels.   However, they found that none of their questions reached the highest level, “Extended Thinking.” So, we discussed how we could ask even more thought-provoking questions about society and culture that related to the novel.  To find answers, we recognized that we would need to extend our thinking  by exploring a broad variety of sources and authors.

As the class ended, the students were soon revising and enriching their queries to probe for deeper meaning in the text. They were searching for better, more intriguing questions!

I’m not sure what answers my students will discover.  However, I hope that if one day these students reach for my pile of “question stem defibrillators,” it will be when they recognize the warm, lively heartbeat of discussion – authentic, high level questioning.

…And their questions will be right.

Find more information on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge levels at NYC Department of Education Website
Find more information on Bloom’s Taxonomy at Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching Website

Public Transportation: A Learning Destination Worth Visiting

IMG_1938Are you planning a downtown adventure with your child this summer? Public transportation is not only an economical, efficient way to reach city attractions; it can also be a fresh “destination” for learning.

Rather than tow your child along as you navigate the train or bus schedule, engage her in the journey.  Look over the departure and arrival times and answer questions together. At what platform will the train stop? How many hours can we stay downtown if we take the 8:00 a.m. train and leave on the 2:30 p.m. train? Should we choose to walk or to take the bus from the station?

Challenge your child to read the train schedule, to explain the subway map, or to choose the correct bus. Not only will your child to gradually learn to navigate the city with adult supervision; he or she will experience how to reach a goal by making real, responsible choices in an authentic context.

Best wishes for a safe, fun, and memorable trip!

Looking Back on the Year

IMG_1917Another school year has sped by and I am again looking “through the rear view mirror” at another journey in the classroom.  Although bumper to bumper end-of year parties, assemblies, and classroom textbook return may create a sizable jam, I find that building some reflection time into those last few classes is essential.

Here are five “fuel efficient” ways for teachers to assess how the year went and to make next year even better:

  • “Scale” Response: A simple classroom feedback scale is an excellent tool to help students communicate general feelings about their classroom experience. Soliciting anonymous student feedback about what was “too much,” “too little,” or “just enough” during the school year takes only a few minutes, but can provide invaluable insights for improving instruction.[1]  These are also easy to administer online with survey tools such as Google Forms.
  • “How-To” Pamphlet: At the end of the year, our students are the “experts” on being in our classes. Accordingly, I encourage students to share their expertise by making “pamphlets” to guide next year’s students through a successful year. A black sheet of paper folded into thirds with such headings as, “The Year in Summary,” “Tips for Success,” and “This Year’s Highlights” provides a terrific end-of-year wrap-up and a peer-supported welcome when school resumes in the fall.
  • Pre/Post Assessment Review: In my language arts class, at the beginning and end of each year, students take a pre-assessment and post-assessment in which they answer the same literature analysis questions.   At the end of the year, I distribute these assessments for their review (before teacher feedback/grades are shared). Challenging students to identify two or three specific areas of improvement on their own reinforces a sense of “ownership” of their learning. Moreover, encouraging students to share their observations provides a wonderful “wrap up” discussion about the year’s accomplishments, learning trends, and accomplishments.
  • Written Student Reflections: Student self-reflections are another meaningful way to collect information about whether “it was a good year.” They also provide insights about student understanding, readiness for additional challenge, and activities that students find particularly meaningful. Student reflection questions that yield meaningful feedback may include prompts such as: What challenged you the most this year? What about this class would you enjoy? What would you change about this class? If you could plan a lesson that would improve this class, what would it be? (I have sometimes found some wonderful, fresh ideas for instruction this way!)
  • Invite Parent Feedback: Keeping school-home communication avenues open throughout the year is essential for classroom teachers. In addition to the fact that strong family-school partnerships support student learning, children will sometimes share perspectives with their families at home that they do not express at school. At the end of the year, sending home a form for parent written reflections and suggestions is one way to invite summative feedback from parents. Also, a simple email or phone call to parents at the year’s end to celebrate their child’s success, provide suggestions for summer practice, and/or identify areas of strengths and challenge is a natural way to open dialogue that can potentially deepen a teacher’s understanding about the overall classroom experience.

[1] Dr. Richard Best modeled the “too much” “too little” “just enough” categories to collect feedback in his graduate class in Educational Leadership at National-Louis University.  This idea for collecting feedback to be helpful both when leading professional development sessions for colleagues and when teaching elementary students.

Content Knowledge: Let’s Hear it For the Underdog!

photo from Microsoft Word Clip Art



As educators, is our lamenting that there’s “too much content to teach and not enough time” drowning out our enthusiasm about the “stuff” of learning?  In the tug-of-war of professional priorities, do we too casually make content knowledge the underdog?

For elementary school teachers, professional development related to Common Core State Standards, assessment, differentiation and social-emotional learning is important for keeping up on best practices.  But how much time per year do we spend expanding and deepening our own knowledge about the content that we are teaching?  If we teach Social Studies, Reading, Science, or Mathematics, do we set aside time to expand our knowledge and explore topics of personal interest related to these subjects?  Do we regularly enjoy meaningful discussions and share resources with our colleagues about these topics?

As educators, when we make it a priority to pursue and share content knowledge among ourselves, we naturally convey to our students a sense of renewed excitement about the “stuff” we are teaching and learning.

So if we haven’t cheered for content knowledge lately, let’s do it together…

Hooray for the amazing pleasure of learning lots and lots of new things!


Spring Morning: Bringing Schools To Life


This morning was the first warm Monday that Chicago has experienced for a while — the sun was bright, and there was a high temperature of around 45 degrees.  As I stood at my crosswalk post, the sunshine revealed a crowd of diverse families and students entering the school doors, bringing the school to life again.  

How do we keep our schools alive?  Quite simply, school leadership can keep our schools healthy by building connections with the families who nourish them.  In fact, the following types of activities/practices offer a few ways that educators can bring families and schools together:

  • Welcome parents and family members to school and greet them as they come to the door. 
  • Schedule a rich variety of inclusive school events at different times throughout the year so that families with diverse schedules and interests will be able to attend and feel welcome. 
  • Routinely provide opportunities for parents to share their perspectives about the school and to better understand the needs and interests of families.  Such opportunities can range from one-to-one interactions, to coffees, town meetings, and surveys.
  • Engage with the community, understand its assets and struggles, and develop relationships with business owners, community leaders, and institutions. 
  • Take walks through the community, getting to know the surrounding neighborhood and its residents.
  • Understand the needs and preferences of families for communication avenues, so that school communications cross language and cultural barriers, and all families feel a part of the school community.  

As the weather turns warmer, it is a wonderful time for teachers and principals to look for new ways to step outside and open doors for the diverse families that are our schools.  Let’s keep it “spring” all year round.

Ubi Caritas


UntitledDuring these days of tight school budgets, schools must make it a priority to support and treasure programs in music and the visual arts. One important reason for this is that we find so many talented, inspiring teachers in the arts who fill the school experience with creativity, meaning, and joy. In fact, here’s a personal story …

I remember myself as an eighth grader. As one of six siblings, all of whom played the violin, I had grown up in Corning, New York with music and was also a serious student. So, when the conductor of the high school Choristers, Mr. Perry, led an information session for incoming freshmen, I asked him, “What should I do if I’d much rather sing in the Choristers, but I’ve been told I should take Latin instead?”

He quipped with a laugh, “That’s easy! Join Choristers!”

So, I did.

For me, singing in the high school chorus was an experience that brought joy as well as learning. We sang a wide variety of music, explored musical theory, practiced singing in multi-part harmony, and learned how to perform with dynamics and expression. Mr. Perry’s content knowledge was extensive, and his musicianship and high standards for excellence were captivating. His rehearsal room was always filled with laughter.

When I think of what makes a great teacher, I think of Mr. Perry who developed personal relationships with students and demonstrated time and again how with perseverance and practice, a cacophony could evolve into beautiful music. Mr. Perry was authentic and approachable—and the learning that took place in his rehearsal room was lasting and genuine.

In high school, when I followed Mr. Perry’s advice to “Join Choristers,” I found that true joy in learning came, not by thoughtlessly following a course set by others, but by following my dreams—a journey that led me to teaching. In the end, I never took a Latin class, but from Choristers my heart is filled with beautiful song lyrics that we sang together—in Latin.

At the Copy Machine


            I have heard that the true nature of a person reveals itself when “no one is looking.” There is no truer place where “no one is looking” than the elementary school copy machine.

            The two copy machines at my school churn out paper for over 600 students; they are always warm. Warm – like the teachers who stand in line waiting to use them as they ask, “Are you in a hurry? Do you want to step ahead of me?”

            And then there is that fifth grade teacher with a classroom right across from the hallway copy machine. I suspect he knows how and where the copier “clogs” just by the noise it makes.  After school, I’ll see another teacher standing there with the machine beeping and flashing, trying to decipher the “fix it” diagram on the machine display.   Ten to one —before the teacher finishes reading, that fifth grade teacher has already opened the doors, removed the jammed paper, pulled the levers, and restarted the job.

             Are you into corporate team building? Standing at our elementary school copy machine may be the most meaningful professional development opportunity out there.

            In fact, one of my most memorable learning moments as a new teacher happened at the copier. I remember waiting for my turn to use the copier as a “veteran teacher,” who was just a year or two from retirement was straightening his finished worksheet stack.  He looked so composed.  Yet for me, as the machine whirled, images of student behavior issues, new curriculum, and parent calls cranked through my mind—everything new; everything impossible.

          When it was my turn to use that machine, I lifted the tray to set my paper down on the glass.   Then, something sparkling caught my eye — two pieces of dark chocolate wrapped in pink foil resting on the ledge by the “start” button.

           “The dark kind is good for you,” he gently advised as he walked away.

-Patricia Steinmeyer

Jumping In


This week, at Keuka Lake, New York my forty-nine-year-old husband enjoyed swimming with the kids–jumping into the lake off the dock repeatedly. When he emerged from the water in a state of pure euphoria, he announced, “It doesn’t matter whether you are nine or forty-nine…jumping off the dock into a lake always feels the same.” I couldn’t agree more.

Yet, I remember that as a nine-year-old staring down into the smooth, glassy deep water—I couldn’t bring myself to leap. I was too afraid.

Eventually, I overcame it. Maybe it was my father, who patiently waited at the end of the dock for me to jump in, promising to catch me if I went under. Maybe it was my mother, who waded in the water with me until I gradually gathered the courage to swim in the deeper water. Maybe it was one of my brothers and sisters, who jumped in laughing, making it look like such fun. So now at forty-seven, I can leap right in laughing and shouting; I have learned to override that split-second tinge of fear—but it nevertheless remains an element of the jump.

For me, like jumping off the dock, plunging into a new year of teaching brings back childhood sensations. The distinctive, soapy-rubber smell of fresh school supplies, the click of a new lunchbox fastener, the early morning dew on the grass, the fog lifting as we set off. The first day of school has a sensory experience all of its own—clean, smiling, hopeful.

How will the first day of school 2014 actually feel for teachers, parents and students? With so many school rules and procedures to convey, paperwork to complete, and “rigorous” curriculum to deliver in preparation for state testing, we may be tempted to dive in mindlessly. However, in her book, The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other, Harvard University Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot discusses the powerful role that childhood experiences have in forming teacher and parent attitudes toward school. In parent-teacher conferences, she observes:

There is something immediate, reflexive, and regressive, both for parents and teachers, about their encounters with one another, a turning inward and backward, a sense of primal urgency…The adults come together prepared to focus on the present and the future of the child, but instead they feel themselves drawn back into their own pasts, visited by the ghosts of their parents, grandparents, siblings, and former teachers, haunted by ancient childhood dramas. (Lawrence-Lightfoot 4)[1]

This observation reflects a crucial understanding that the innate responses formed by our own experiences of school—positive and negative—have profoundly deep implications for our children now and in the future.

The truth is that on the first day of school, while many of our children celebrate “jumping” into a new school environment, others may not. For educators, it takes patience and time to encourage those who hesitate to adjust to the “deep water” of new relationships, expectations, and challenges. Consequently, external classroom demands that tempt teachers to hurry, “toss the students in,” and mechanically tread water to keep afloat with curriculum and testing schedules may result in a learning experience that doesn’t even get our toes wet. After all, when it comes to both school and deep water, “It doesn’t matter whether you are nine or forty-nine…jumping off the dock into a lake always feels the same.”

[1] Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara. The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.