Why do we always want to go straight to the end?

The other day, I heard a meaningful analogy from a wise and respected educator in this state.

“It’s like giving a fourth grader a calculator before they understand the process of long division.  Once they have done the work behind the scenes in their brain and know the what and why of the process, then a calculator becomes a valuable tool.  Before then, it actually is a hindrance.”

This was in reference to a discussion we were having at a SLDS workshop about how it’s necessary for each school to make their own plan for using data instead of looking to take someone else’s lead or looking to have it done for them.

So many times in education, I believe we look for the end – the tool – the quick fix – the magic pill – the what can be taken from someone else and used as our own – the end.  It’s common.  I understand why it happens; the atmosphere around education is fast, busy, and always changing.  It lends itself well to the mentality of simply “cross these items off the list.”  Our entire educational system is set up in a way that fosters the notion and belief in the end.  The end of the nine weeks, the end of the semester, the end of the school year – all of these train our brains to think in the manner of this too shall pass and be over so let’s just get it “done” for now.

When in reality, that kind of thinking is damaging to the very work that needs to be done.

The calculator will not teach a fourth grade student how to understand long division.

A data matrix made by me and handed to you will not teach you how to use data to impact instruction in your classroom.

A report ran by the SLDS will not teach your leadership team how to find trends and then analyze their meaning.

The process of getting to the end is where the learning and real magic happen.  It’s in the sitting down and hammering out exactly what makes sense for your district,  your school, your classroom, and your students because every single one of those subsets holds a unique set of answers – ones that can not be answered by outside sources.

I know that when I was a fourth grade classroom teacher, my most successful teaching moments came not from lessons I found somewhere and printed off, but rather came from me sitting down with my goals and knowledge of my own students to plan learning experiences that aligned with both.  My high-five worthy teaching experiences came when I went through the entire process of planning quality instruction myself.

Do the process and in turn, you will understand the process because you will have had to wrestle with the ins and outs to make the tool yourself.

Imagine if the students had the same mentality we tend to have when something new is thrown at us.  Imagine if they always wanted someone else to do the work for them so they could quickly get to the end.  Imagine if they wanted a ready made tool handed to them to put their name on and turn in to check off their list.  We wouldn’t go for that with our students; we shouldn’t go for that for ourselves either.

Five Steps for Structuring Data-Informed Conversations and Action in Education by the U.S. Department of Education (2013) is a useful and powerful resource to start the process of using data to impact instruction and make informed decisions.  It is not a quick fix, nor a magic pill; it’s definitely not the end.  It is, however, a framework to begin the discussions which need to happen to begin the process of truly understanding.

Student Data Conversations

I say this frequently, “Nothing should be a secret to the student.  They are step number one in effectively using data.  If they don’t know why they are taking an assessment and what their results mean for their own learning, then we are defeating ourselves before we even start.  We can have the best plan in the world for changing our instruction based on the data, but if the students don’t know what the plan is and where it came from it won’t be effective.  Bottom line.  They are key.”

It’s one of my many soap boxes, this notion of actually involving the students in the wheel-like process of using data.  So, when I attended the session “Taking Charge of Student Data Conversations” at the National Learning Forward Conference in Nashville, I was nodding my head along the entire time.  The presenters were all from Metro Nashville Public Schools; Mary Larens Seely, Michele Young, and Arielle Sprotzer shared their expertise straight from the field as they all work with student data on a daily basis.

The book much of their inspiration comes from is Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Using it Well by Chappuis and Stiggins.  I have it on order now and can not wait to dig in to see what other knowledge can be gained and I encourage you to as well.

“Student involvement is the central shift needed in our traditional view of assessment’s role in teaching and learning…Students decide whether the learning is worth the effort required to attain it.  Students decide whether they believe they are capable of reaching learning targets.  Students decide whether to keep learning or quit working…”


–Chappuis & Stiggins

Flowers, Weeds, and Seeds

As I sit here on this icy Monday morning in North Dakota reflecting about my time spent last week in Nashville for the National Learning Forward Conference, there’s one theme that keeps coming to the forefront – improve.  All of the sessions I attended were focused around the notion of improving.  The context was changed for each, but the underlying principle remained.

Get better.  Do different.  Make changes.  Improve.

Hoffman-Boston Elementary School is a prime example of what can happen when an improvement mindset is truly in place at the administration, teacher, and student level.  Dr. Donna Snyder, along with Maria deOlazo, presented “Creating Conditions for Successful Student Improvement” about their time at Hoffman-Boston as the principal and literacy coach.   The first item they questioned, first of themselves and then of the entire staff, was which comes first when improving – culture or instruction? There’s an immense amount of research backing both stances, but both Snyder and deOlazo had a hunch there was something missing with the normal approach of picking one.

What they found after their successful time improving Hoffman-Boston was that truly one can’t come before the other, but rather they must happen simultaneously right alongside each other.  That is when true improving occurs.

The activity they worked through with the entire staff to start the process of identifying what was needed in their culture and instruction was “Flowers, Weeds, and Seeds.”  This simple, yet profound experience would work with many different types of organizations.  The basic premise is to have everyone brainstorm their list of flowers (current successes), weeds (strategies or items to reduce or eliminate as they are no longer beneficial), and seeds (new initiative ideas).  Once everyone has individually defined their own set of beliefs in all three categories, Dr. Snyder brought them together to have a frank and honest conversation.

This really stuck out to me as something that is needed at the very base level of improving.  We must first be able to admit defeat in areas, celebrate success in others, and not be afraid to come up with new ideas to take us to the next level.  Start today in any area of your life.  Draw three boxes on a piece of paper and label each one with flowers, weeds, and seeds.  Let your brain turn off, don’t think too much, and see what comes about.

Then, work to do something to improve.

Data Unicorns & Utopia

As I travel around this fantastic state of North Dakota, I am noticing a theme – a theme of two camps of data consumers.  The first camp tends to naturally be inclined to accept the necessity of data as well as hold the innate ability to take action with that data.  The second camp tends to be frustrated with the collecting of data and/or the notion of what to do with it once it’s there.  A dichotomy exists and I couldn’t help but start to think about why.  Why is there a positive feeling for some and a negative for others?

So far, my answer is simple.  It appears to me that some are lacking the knowledge, skills, and professional behaviors necessary to truly be using data effectively.  It doesn’t make them wrong or bad, it just makes them have a need for learning to occur.  This makes sense to me.  As a previous fourth grade teacher, I know there are always gaps in knowledge from one student to the next.  Some can grasp long division right away without much instruction; it just comes to them.  Others take more explicit instruction, more breaking down of the steps, and more repeating of the process.  Neither camp of fourth grade long division students is better than the other; they are simply different and they need different resources and teaching.

Same for data consumers in our educational world. The naturally inclined data users don’t need as much to get them going while the frustrated data users need more, they need deeper, and they need it soon as we all know using data to drive instructional decisions isn’t going anywhere in the near future.  A great tool for starting to learn more about the foundational background information is the SLDS Data Use Standards: Knowledge, Skills, and Professional Behaviors for Effective Data Use document.  It was written by a team of 28 members representing 13 states, including the previous ND Data Steward Cory Steiner, with the goal of increasing the effective use of data by teachers and administrators to support student learning and success.

I have said before, and will continue to say, that whatever we do today…should affect a student tomorrow.  Data is under this umbrella and I’m so glad to know this resource was primarily written with the intent to support student learning as that is the crux of the need for data in the first place.  The document is extremely reader friendly and explains many categories within each of the following three main headings.

Knowledge:  Familiarity with the nature of data and concepts underlying data use; includes the learning and theory that education communities need as a foundation for using data to improve educational outcomes.


Skills:  The ability to access, collect, analyze, interpret, act on, and communicate about data using appropriate tools and representations in a manner appropriate for the educator’s professional role and responsibility.


Professional Behaviors:  Habits of professional actions based on value and beliefs that underlie an educator’s practice as it is related to data use.

This resource can be found on the Educational Technology Council’s main webpage on the right hand side under links and I highly recommend using it to help take those currently experiencing data frustration to a more “feel good” place with it.  Use it as step one to starting the data learning process.

I can be a bit dramatic so bear with me as I say this next part and please remember I’ll always be an elementary teacher at heart.  This time I’ll leave out the songs, claps, and cheers but I will say this…

I do believe we can truly go from data frustration to data utopia if we have all of the necessary pieces working within ourselves first – if we have the right knowledge, skills, and professional behaviors.  We can get there, to a place where one might really feel the need to jump in the air and exclaim, “If unicorns really existed, this would absolutely be where they live.”

And yes, this is me.  I feel like I live in data utopia and my goal is to help everyone else get there too.

Focusing on One

“Focus on what is happening at the moment.  Appreciate what is right about the situation and build on it.  Pay attention to what is important now.”


–from The Present by Spencer Johnson M.D.

I am absolutely as guilty as the next person about letting my thoughts spin while trying to listen or complete a task.  My plate feels full and this leads to the spinning.  We all have full plates, every single one of us does.  It seems more so now than ever we extend ourselves to the maximum capacity at all times.  Always plugged in.  Always available.  Always a phone call, a text message, an email away…

Lately when I first begin my SLDS workshops or SEED training days, I talk to participants about the importance of staying present.  The importance of using our gift of the time we have together as just that, a gift.  To treat it as a time to stop thinking about all of the spinning plates we have and instead, focus on one.  Focus on the one item “happening at the moment.”  Focus on learning what we came to learn.  I go so far as to say that we simply are not going to check our emails, our phones, or try to squeeze a little bit of work in here and there.  I feel confident in saying those words as I truly believe we actually end up stressing ourselves out more by trying to accomplish something on top of the already something we are working on.  We think we are being more productive, but the reality is contrary.  We are being our own Achilles heel.

Again, I am as guilty as the next person of this spinning mentality getting the best of me at times.  I continually work on the skill of remaining present, sometimes I win and sometimes I lose just like every one else.  I have noticed during those “win” workshops and training days, we really do feel satisfied – happy even.  We are paying attention to “what is important now” and I dare say this leads to feeling less stressed.  Even though the email goes unchecked, the texts go unanswered, and the normal work does not get done, our time together is fruitful and we leave feeling better.  Quite the antithesis of leaving feeling worse, feeling like there is more added to our already full plates.

The State Longitudinal Data System can seem overwhelming; it has numerous reports and more data than imaginable within those.  So right now, let’s focus on one item to help start the learning process.  The State Longitudinal Data System brochure was put together by SLDS Communication Committee which includes members from all different aspects of the system.  The purpose of the committee is to guide and support information sharing among SLDS constituents.  The brochure can be found on The Education Technology Council’s homepage under the links on the right hand side.  I suggest if you feel overwhelmed at the thought of delving into the SLDS, start here.  Read the brochure.  It’s one simple thing to start the process rolling.  Then, sign up for an upcoming SLDS workshop on the EduTech website and we will work through it together.  One sitting still plate at a time.



Owning the Slippers

I’m in a personal book club.  We meet the last Friday of every month no matter what and that’s just the way it is; it’s important.  We value the time it takes to read the book and we value the time even more that it takes to discuss the book, sharing with each other makes the reading have even more impact.  This is precisely how I feel about data.  The time it takes to collect must be valued and treated with its own level of respect, and even more so the time it takes to be together to analyze and make action plans holds power.

Our August book was Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.   During one of my evening reading sessions, I came across a weaving of words that will most likely stick with me forever.

Let me set it up a bit…

The words of the century came in the book after a well known African children’s tale was referenced.  A tale about a miserable merchant who hated the fact he had no money and held a lowly job.  His disdain and feelings of shame became so intense he couldn’t stand the sight of his battered and beaten slippers anymore. He tried over and over again, in many different ways, to get rid of them.  But every time he did, more disaster struck.  Catastrophic disaster.  The reference to this made in Cutting for Stone comes when the character named Ghosh is in an Ethiopian prison (Kerchele).  There is an old jailbird who tells stories every night to the prisoners.  As they were drifting off, the old man said, “That merchant might as well build a special room for his slippers.  Why try to lose them?  He’ll never escape.”  The old man then died in his sleep while imprisoned.

Flash forward to Ghosh talking to his son after he is out of prison.  He says while discussing life and its twists and turns, “The old man was right.  The slippers in the story mean that everything you see and do and touch, every seed you sow, or don’t sow, becomes part of your destiny…”

And then they came, the weaving of words that will most likely stick with me forever.

“Ghosh sighed, ‘I hope one day you see this as clearly as I did in Kerchele.  The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t.  If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more.  Not only our actions, but also our omissions become our destiny.’

Owning the slippers.  Owning the slippers on our feet.  How beautiful.  How perfect.

I couldn’t help but think of data as being a pair of slippers on the feet of all us in education – ALL of us in education.  Many hate their data slippers, many are ashamed of their data slippers, and many try over and over again in a variety of different ways to get rid of their data slippers.  But here’s the thing, just like the merchant’s disastrous outcomes from trying to run from his reality – education running from or trying to cover up its data slippers, the reality, has negative affects.

Owning the data slippers, accepting the data slippers, and then using them to indeed have one simple outcome.

The one simple outcome education should always be going for – affecting a student tomorrow.

Whatever we do with data today – whatever we do with anything today in our field – should affect a student tomorrow.