Gradeless #IMMOOC

Thinking about starting a school from scratch is a scary and exciting idea. I’ve had many conversations with friends and colleagues that involve dreaming about our ideal school. Reading the book and screening the documentary, Most Likely to Succeed (Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith) had a profound impact on how I think about school. It’s amazing that while the needs of our world have changed, the structure of school has not changed much over the last 100 years. Separating subjects to be taught in silos, having students in a class for x amount of time for x amount of days, and organizing grade levels by age are all primarily organizational structures, rather than learning structures. Of course, I believe that schools need organizational structures. I also believe that we could improve in creating structures that allow students access to what they need, when they need it while giving them the opportunity to create, develop collaborative skills, and pursue passions.

There are two ways that the term “grade” is used in school. One way is to identify a cohort based on a learner’s birthday. A child that is 8 years old spends their day with other 8 year old students. The expectation is that all of these students are to be proficient on the same set of standards by the end of the year based on their birthday. Another use of the term “grade” is to give rank or value to student work as well a overall performance in a subject. What would school look like if it was gradeless? Since we are dreaming of a school from scratch, this is what I think of first. A “gradeless” learning environment.

In this environment, learners would move through content and skills as they demonstrate proficiency, like a competency based model, where time is a variable. Of course, I would want learners to be able to spend time with age alike peers- AND it would be great for them to collaborate with older and younger learners depending on the learning experience. It wouldn’t be an either/or, but an AND. Gradeless in terms of age could be more of a concept or mindset than anything else. A system could still organize students by age, but personalize the experience. For example, not all 3rd grade learners would be interacting with the same content at the same time for the same amount of time as their age alike peers in any given academic year.  Many schools and districts are working on ways to personalized learning like this through blended structures.

What does a grade (rank or value) mean? What does it tell students about their level of understanding and what they are able to do with their learning? I looked through one of my third grade report cards and was actually surprised to see that a report card today doesn’t look a whole lot different. I received several different grade marks for standards within different subjects and “citizenship” grades. The report cards (past and present) don’t say much about what learning looks like. That is probably why most of time spent in conferences is focused on talking about individual learner habits, goals, celebrations, and areas of growth. I believe that students should know what they are learning, why they are learning, and be able to describe their level of understanding based on a rubric (standards referenced/standards based). As learners move to high school grading becomes more high stakes because of college implications. Many systems that utilize standards based grading still use an equation to get to a letter grade because of this. So ultimately grades, are still used as a way to sort and filter students that may or may not be successful in post-secondary school. I earned a D+ in my last very last undergraduate course. I knew that I already had everything that I needed to graduate and the majority of the class grade was attendance and participation. I knew that in the “real world” my future employer would probably not ask me to bring my college transcript to an interview. In other words, that D+ would have no impact on my future success.

If I were to start a school from scratch, the mindset would be “gradeless.” Students would co-create with teachers their personalized path, moving at the appropriate pace, determining together what success looks like and how it will be demonstrated. Students and teachers would design and create together. Passions would come alive at this school. School would be the primary place to not just consume, but create. Learning would be treated like the continuum that it is- and all along the way, students would be archiving their learning through a blog or website. By the time they graduate, they would have an entire body of evidence to share with universities and employers, showing the impact of their learning with much more meaning than a report card.

There are probably 101 reasons why this wouldn’t work, yet it’s worthwhile to consider- to imagine what parts of our dream school experience we could actually bring to life!

Invitation for Innovation #IMMOOC

I recently began blogging. In fact, this will be my third post. I am looking forward to reading all of the blogs related to The Innovator’s Mindset Open Online Course. #IMMOOC  I also appreciate having this opportunity to help me create a cadence of accountability in my blogging journey. One of this week’s blog prompts is “Why is innovation in education so crucial today?” Right away, I think about my two school-age children. My daughter is in 3rd grade and my son in 1st. My daughter loves everything about school- even the worksheets. She comes home from school and plays school and she is really good “doing” school. When my son became school age, I had a huge wake-up call. All of a sudden all of the things that I appreciated about him so much were almost working against him in the game of school. He wasn’t good at sitting still, he loathed worksheets (especially filling in a 100’s chart daily in math), and never felt like he had enough “center” time. His curiosity, eagerness to move, and desire to create and play- all seemed like attributes that made it harder for him during his Kindergarten year. Thankfully, he had a wonderful, compassionate teacher that was open to dialogue about making some changes to help him be and feel successful.

In his Introduction, George Couros referenced the video “An Open Letter to Educators” featuring university dropout Dan Brown. Brown said, “You simply need to understand that the world is changing, and, if you don’t change with it, the world will decide that it doesn’t need you anymore.”

It got me thinking, are kids deciding they don’t need school anymore? And if they are deciding this, are they in some cases correct in their thinking? We are blessed with having the world at our fingertips. All it takes is a cell phone and a google search, and I can teach myself to do almost anything that I couldn’t do before. My six year old son knows how to use Siri to search and loves watching kid created video tutorials. In the video below he is describing what he purchased while we were on a vacation. He forgot one of the names of his cars, and instead of getting frustrated, he simply states that he will use his phone to look it up.


Do I believe that school should just be replaced by a search engine and we can all stay home? Absolutely not. I do, however, believe that as the world around us changes, we need to adapt to create a more meaningful school experience. School used to be one of the primary proprietors of knowledge. I wonder what school would look like if it were the primary place to collaborate, create, and pursue passions for adults and students? There are many teachers and leaders in many schools pursuing this. Little by little, we are re-imagining and re-focusing our efforts to reflect what our students and our world needs. As the world changes, we are being given a continuous invitation to innovate.


See, Inspire, Empower: the making of our mission.

The writing of our school mission statement was something that took much longer than I had originally expected. I facilitated many learning experiences and at one point our staff even joked about drowning in a sea of words. This process of idea and belief gathering from our students and staff took almost a year. I actually felt frustrated for a while when we still hadn’t landed on something short and easy to remember to share with our learning community. Then I decided to take a step back and remember that efficient is not always effective, and I needed to be present and honor the process. We had the opportunity to re-imagine our school DNA. We had the opportunity to synthesize our beliefs about the “why’s” of school and create a new path. Thank goodness we came together as a staff and went slow to go fast. Now we have a mission statement that truly defines us and helps us keep a laser light focus on what is important. Now that we have created this new mission statement, our work has only just begun. This will never be something that we can simply check off. Rather, it will continue to serve as our compass. We will continue to aspire to live our mission. Every opportunity, experience, and initiative must pass the mission test. Does this move us closer to “seeing, inspiring and empowering the lifelong learner and leader in all of us”? There is an amazing sense of pride and purpose in creating a shared mission. I can see it and feel it among the adults in our building. It left me wondering how we could better connect our students to our mission.

In a recent learning experience I threw this thought out to our students: “Our mission statement is just words on a wall, right?” Thankfully they disagreed with me. They all knew what a mission statement was, just not quite sure what our school mission statement actually meant. Individually and collectively, we defined the power words: see, inspire, and empower. I gave them no initial definition because I didn’t want them worrying about redefining the “right” answer. Of course, they had amazing ideas. Here are a few of them.


See: Look at things in your own way. See through peoples mistakes. Have different visions. See with your heart. Seeing the leadership in someone where others don’t.


Inspire: A flicker of creativity. To help others grow- it is everyone’s job to inspire. Someone who energizes you to be a better person. People can inspire others to do things never done. When people look up to you or you look up to people.


Empower: Give someone the power and strength to do what they live to be. To have power in what you are doing. To be the power of yourself. Give opportunities. Give people confidence to do things that they think they can’t. Make us all stronger to do things.

I was very moved by these responses. Collectively, they had similar ideas, yet each student had a slightly different personal connection. This experience helped me make more connections to our shared mission. Each day, we have the amazing opportunity to choose what we see. We can choose to see the greatness in others, or we can choose to focus on deficits. Choosing to see greatness will have a profound impact on our actions. When we “see” greatness, words and actions of inspiration and empowerment are more likely to follow. It’s on us. It’s all of our responsibility to see greatness in not just some of us, but all of us. I love that our mission statement is inclusive. ALL of us. “All of us” means that we choose to operate not in scarcity, but abundance. The lifelong learner and leader in ALL of us!

Mission Statement Picture

Tell your story.

I have always dreamed about blogging and sharing stories because I am inspired on a daily basis by those that allow themselves to be visible and vulnerable through sharing. What has stopped me? Silly things. Not making the time, wondering where to start, wondering who would want to read it. I have been challenged by friends, mentors and colleagues, and yet I waited. Today, I feel called to start. Especially today, I am reminded that everyone has a story to tell. Nine years ago today was one of the most joyous and heartbreaking days of my life. My first son, Jenner, was born on this day. Except his arrival was different than most. This sweet boy would not come home with me. I would never have the chance to interact with him alive in the outside world. This was unexpected and something that I couldn’t fathom or begin to understand. One might wonder why I would consider this day both heartbreaking and joyous? It was joyous because the moment I laid eyes on him, I felt love like I have never felt before. The moment I said goodbye to him, I knew that I would be inspired to keep him alive. I quickly learned how brave I could be and that going through all of that was worth it, because I became a mom. Jenner became my “why”, my purpose. Today I have four beautiful, healthy children that are also my “why”, and it doesn’t stop there. All kids are my “why”.

So why am I sharing this and what does this have to do with an education blog? In the book, Love Warrior, one of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, talks about peeling away costumes so that people can see who you really are. I feel like to really know me, you need to know my story. My story impacts my mission and my mission impacts the work I do every day. I believe the same to be true for our students. Each student has a story, and that story impacts what they carry with them every day. It is nothing new to say that cultivating meaningful relationships proceeds learning. When we think of our best teachers and mentors, we most often think of those that invested the time to know our story and inspire us to find our voice. As educators, we have the most amazing responsibility to invest in, care for, and empower our students. I work among many educators that are masters at this. We also have the opportunity and power of connectivity to share ideas. Here are a few ways that we can invest in relationships with students:

  1. Talk to them. Get to know your students by taking the time to talk, and not just about content, or school, but about their life. You may have heard of the 2×10 strategy. This refers to talking to an individual student for two minutes each day for 10 days. The student drives the conversation and can talk about anything on his or her mind.
  2. Ask them. Students are our greatest and often most underutilized resource. Ask them what they want to learn, what their strengths are, what they are passionate about, why they come to school. This can take on many forms: class meetings, interest inventories, student reflections, question of the day/week.
  3. Greet them. One of my favorite parts of the day is greeting students in the foyer in the morning. I have a calendar reminder for this every day because sometimes I can get so caught up in what I’m working on and forget that the 500+ reasons why I come to school each day are arriving and deserve a warm welcome. I never regret taking the time to welcome students, but I do regret the days that this doesn’t happen.
  4. Share with them. Share your pieces of your personal and professional life with students. I loved when my teachers shared stories about their life. I never thought, “Oh man, I wish that we had that 90 seconds back to practice more math facts or spelling words.” In the building I work in, we all post our mission statements outside of our classroom space. I love walking through the building and seeing educators model their own learning and growing through their mission statement.

I look forward to learning and connecting with you. We are all on this journey together!