Reinventing My Classroom (and Keeping Myself Honest)

I'm dying to share some things today. I don't have long so excuse the unpolished-as-usual state of things.

In the last few months as I explore a feedback-focused classroom I have sometimes 'slipped' back into old habits. I'm not saying this is a terrible thing, but I have noticed it and have found it frustrating that I haven't been able run my classes exactly the way I dream of running them. 

Today a lovely tweet (thread) by @SusanCampo caught my eye; I was at the dentist waiting for my daughter to get her chipped tooth fixed (hooray for Science!) and saw this:

The podcast she is referencing is wonderful - I had a chance to listen today only because of the chipped tooth! @MonteSyrie has wonderful things to say about the power of relationships, the importance of creating a space where kids feel valued and empowered, and the joys of challenging the status quo. He is worth a follow on Twitter - his tweets often lift my spirits and I wish I could spend time in his classroom to feel what his students must feel. In a later tweet, Susan had this to say:

"I strive to have authentic relationships with students but often slip back into transaction/power/control mode, especially as the days wear on me. It's easy to build relationship when students are happy and doing well, but when you hit opposition or struggle, it's so much harder."

These words resonated with me because they described exactly how I have felt SO many times this year. After having taught a course many times, it is easy (and convenient!) to put your hands on an old lesson or activity when there just isn't time to reinvent something else new. These slips are OK - we are humans, and need to take care of ourselves - but while listening to the podcast I was thinking about how a greater shift in the way of doing things might help me stay on track...and I was thinking that I am getting there, bit by bit.

In one of my classes (Biology) I have been continually frustrated by the moments that seem so traditional, but somehow necessary, since I haven't figured out how to shake them off. So, for the unit we started today (Evolution), I have been working on a completely new way of thinking about things. I was motivated by the following (among other things):

  • Too much documentation work required of me, not enough done/owned by the students (leading to me 'slipping back' into old habits)
  • Despite my best efforts, I was not really offering enough in the way of student choice
  • My students are getting better at having meaningful conversations, and I want to keep that going

So, for the Evolution Unit, I started to develop a sort of 'activity menu' that students could select from. The activities are categorized by learning goal (I have 6 overall learning goals for that unit) and each tells the student how much time the activity will likely take and whether it is suited to independent or group work. The activities each have a 'tile' that looks like this:

Humans love to categorize things, and in my desire to organize things in a thoughtful way, I had two criteria in mind:

  • how creative the activity requires the student to be
  • what depth of thinking is required by the student

With this in mind, I have put the activities on a grid that looks like this:

So, from left to right we move from less creative to more creative endeavours. From top to bottom, we go from knowledge-based activities (important to build understanding) down to in-depth research, discussion, and analysis that will challenge my students and offer them a rich way to engage with the material.

The scale on the left hand side is based on Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DOK) (here's a reference I grabbed quickly...just Google it to find out more). I liked the simple language and could easily categorize the tasks this way. The categories at the top simple describe the type of task: read/watch/write, interact, or create. 

Knowing that a balance of all of these types of activities is important, I am currently determining what the requirements will be for choosing from the grid

  • certainly I'd like to see students to at least one activity from each row (surface understanding to deeper understanding)
  • students need evidence for each of the learning goals
  • considering whether to require activities from 2/3 or all three columns; thoughts?
For documentation, students will be using Google Keep. Thanks to @sashwoodedu for the suggestion and to @MsJenLachapelle and @MsMdance for an amazing conversation about where we can take assessment. Connecting with people is how great ideas are born!

OK, so after documenting in Google Keep, my idea was for students to create a portfolio of their understanding in Evolution. I was a bit stuck on this...couldn't really see how to organize it...and then saw this:

Many thanks to @MrSurti for sharing this at just the right moment! I can't wait to learn more from @robintg. :)  

So, my students and I co-created some success criteria for what 'quality work' looks like (needed something more generic since they will all be curating different types of activities). The current iteration of the Evolution Portfolio looks like this:

On the first page, students identify which artifacts are evidence of their learning (of Evolution learning goals and also some overall course learning goals). 

The second page gives them some guidelines re: self-evaluation. I want them to consider how much they know, but also the quality of the evidence they are sharing.

Starting on the third page, students will select and share their evidence from Google Keep. I included an image from @robintg (shared by @MrSurti), and tomorrow in class we will model how to select and add evidence to the portfolio. 

Whew! That was longer than I thought.

Thank you SO MUCH to all of the amazing educators that helped this idea come to life. I look forward to letting you all know how it goes! :)


  1. Absolutely love this Amy. The idea of developing an Activity menu for your students that allows them to "choose their own adventure" is amazing. I am wondering, do you use this as the structure for your Evolution unit? In other words, is this unit self-guided/self-taught or are you using it in conjunction with implicit teaching as well? Just curious!:-) Thank you for taking the time to share what you are doing. I love reading your posts!

    1. Thanks so much for suggesting Google Keep! :)
      I've structured the whole unit as a 'choose your own adventure.' The students' job is to create their portfolios from the evidence they gather throughout the unit, and I am documenting my observations. So far there have been a couple of small group mini-lessons where required. I spent each of the last two days sitting and visiting with students - it was actually amazing to have so much time to sit and learn alongside them. The quality of their conversations and their time on-task is great so far.


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