Rethinking Seat Time: How Work Based Learning is a Game Changer for Students

On a beautiful Spring evening I walked up to a warehouse in a light industrial section of Richmond, CA. I heard music playing and community members socializing and celebrating. Bright eyed youth dressed in formal serving wear with aprons were expertly serving hot appetizers and engaging with party goers about each choices’ ingredients

fullsizeoutput_29feand flavors. These students were finishing their final project for a program called Plant to Plate organized by West County Digs, a local non-profit that works with school gardens in West Contra Costa Unified School District. 16 High school students learned how to grow food by reclaiming an abandoned garden plot and teaming up with local chefs to expertly prepare what they grew. The event culminated in a presentation of gratitude to the parents from their teens in the form of flower bouquets inIMG_9703vases that the students had also created and a graduation ceremony where the students received a professional chef apron and a personalized trowel to commemorate there experience.


This Plant to Plate program exemplifies what our teens need most: motivating career themed experiences. Teens naturally are curious and driven. This teen energy is amazing to behold but can also not mix well with traditional sit and get modes of content delivery. For a lot of students, this antiquated mode is ineffective and becomes frustrating for both students and their teachers. The confines of a classroom with textbooks and a sage on the stage teacher has left so many students behind. Work Based Learning (WBL) opportunities, especially those that are thematically integrated into high school course work, offer a promising shift in how students value their education. If students value their education and know in their bones that what they are experiencing will help them find a real career, they will perform.

Students experiencing success, even if small, is key to motivation. Motivation is the key to learning!

What is your district or school doing to provide more Work Based Learning opportunities for students? I’d love to hear your comments.

Here is ConnectEd’s Work Based Learning Toolkit which has great resources to plan WBL.

If you would like to donate to West County Digs so more teens can benefit from programs like Plant to Plate, navigate here: Donate to West County Digs/Earth Island






California Model Five-by-Five Placement Reports & Data for Accountability Dashboard Indicators

Five-by-Five Colored Clickable Tables!

The new CA accountability system is here! It combines five Status and Change levels creating a five-by-five grid that produces twenty-five results. The colored tables provide a way to determine the location of a school or district on the grid and is a great way to see a district at-a-glance!

Performance for state indicators is calculated based on the combination of current performance (Status) and improvement over time (Change), resulting in five color-coded performance levels for each indicator. From highest to lowest the performance levels are: Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, and Red.

The five color-coded performance levels are calculated using percentiles to create a five-by-five colored table (giving 25 results) that combine Status and Change.

Here is an example English Learner Indicator report

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The reports are available for:

The Chronic Absenteeism Indicator is not ready for prime time yet. Stay tuned. State data on this indicator will be available in the fall.

For easy access to the reports navigate to the California Model Five-by-Five Placement Reports & Data portal.

Enter the district into the field to access the 5 X 5 Report. You can click on the interactive report to expand the view.

One of many powerful uses for this handy data view is to conduct Community Asset Mapping by indicator. Since you can see the district at-a-glance, teams can identify potential school site assets in the district for potential replication of best practices.

What else might the reports good for?


College and Career Readiness: Expository Reading and Writing Course

The Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC) is a High School English class that leverages high interest, non-fiction text and rhetoric to prepare students for the rigors of college reading and writing demands.

In the current assessment landscape for California, students need to score a Standard Exceeded on the ELA CAASP (Smarter Balanced) or receive a 3 or higher on an AP English exam in 11th Grade in order to be “College Ready” and skip the Early Placement Test for CSU and UC Admissions. Here is a graphic:


Students have an opportunity to be “Conditionally Ready” if they take the ERWC as their senior English class and receive a “C” or better. This is HUGE for many students.

I am proud to support ERWC teachers!

Here they are in action:



Try This! Best Practice Catalyst Card

A Best Practice Catalyst Card is a half sheet sized card that has a strategic and digestable amount of new content on it to share during professional development, team meetings or in a coaching session. The Best Practice Catalyst Card focuses the work, acts as a conversation starter, can manage overwhelm and provides formative assessment of knowledge about the new best practice.

Here is an example that addresses best practices for English Learners:


Common Core: From Learned Dependence to Learned Independence


During workshops that aim to deepen knowledge of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I hear a consistent message from teachers – “My students are already behind with the current standards so it is no surprise they struggle with the new, more rigorous standards?” Or, “My students are high performing but we are afraid they won’t perform well on the SBAC Assessment performance task.” These are valid concerns. Often our instincts are to scaffold pretty heavily so students don’t experience too much difficulty. We want them to feel comfortable in class and stay as motivated as possible. In some cases, complex text and challenging math have been systematically removed from the hands of our struggling students albeit with the best of intentions. The consequences are stark. Many students, especially our lower performing students, have become very dependent learners and have not built the academic muscles necessary to excel at the table of scholarship. While our high performers don’t struggle as much, they too are pretty dependent and how well are we meeting the needs of those kids who already know it? Students at all performance levels need 21st century skills so they can have options when they graduate.

The key shifts in the CCSS ask us to interrupt this dependency cycle by ensuring that all students experience complex texts and tasks that require critical thinking and deep levels of engagement. There is a key document linked here provided by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium outlining their emphasis on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that is not a “one size fits all” approach but rather utilizes “flexible approaches that can be customized” that “gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn.” The CCSS challenge us to think K-16 for all learners. But how will we do this?

Consider using provocative, ambiguous questions to frame learning and provide real world lenses to set purpose for authentic learning using technology to enhance engagement. Put engaging, relevant text related to the question in front of students frequently starting off with shorter, accessible complex passages working towards greater text length and complexity reading goals. Students need to learn how to annotate and summarize text across content ideally utilizing consistent procedures. We need to make the invisible, the language of our disciplines – text structures, academic vocabulary – visible to students so they can express the sophistication of their thinking and access core content successfully.

Most importantly this work needs to be built in collaboration with teachers! In my collaboration with teachers around Common Core, I see that teachers really get it! They understanding the need to move students towards independence and how time crunches and incoherence have led dependence. When given some tools to collaborate – to sort, anchor, calibrate and share ideas, teachers and instructional leaders have the expertise. We just need to get them the right tools and get out of their way!

Common Core and Assessments: Creating a Performance Task Culture in Classrooms

One of the biggest shifts for educators coming from Common Core is to re-think the way we assess students. We are coming out of the multiple-choice standardized testing era and entering a new world of testing. But is it really new? The Common Core shifts testing from more rote memorization of content and process of elimination to the performance task! Well what exactly is a performance task and how does this differ from what we currently know as standardized testing? A performance task requires students to apply their knowledge. Students must do something with content. But isn’t that what real writers and mathematicians do? Exactly! The Common Core performance task seeks to make assessment more authentic and connected to college and career readiness by focusing on real world applications of knowledge. Sound simple? Well it is and isn’t. Part of bringing our education system into the 21st century is to recognize that there has been a big disconnect between what and how we learn and school and what colleges and employers require. CEOs have made it clear that they need candidates that have solid writing skills and can think critically on their feet. Businesses need folks who can collaborate, work effectively on teams and have strong presentation and technology skills. Time and time again, successful candidates not only have the steak but also sizzle! So how then do current forms of assessment align to 21st century skills? They don’t! That’s where the Common Core performance task comes in. Imagine a student at a computer. First she will watch a video and take notes on screen as she watches. Then, she will read a few articles also taking notes while she reads. Next she will complete constructed response questions in writing and finally, she will write a well thought out essay from a prompt using all of the materials she has been exposed to as resources for her essay – on demand and all on the computer. This is what a Common Core English Language Arts performance task looks like. Students will do something with content. Similarly in math, students will be presented with math problems that don’t have just one right answer but multiple possibilities that give them the opportunity to show what they know and also get partial credit for knowing some and not all of the math. A 6th grade Math performance tasks asks students to design a community garden with a set amount of variables in an hour and a half. Again students are asked to do something with content.


So what does this do to the landscape of teaching especially in the culture of teaching to the test. I’ve actually heard some teachers say that Common Core assessments are worth teaching to. The jury is still out on how the testing will get rolled out and we have a long way to go to feel that confidence. However, it is clear that we need to rethink how we do business in school. If students are going to engage in performance tasks then we, as educators need to create a performance task culture in our classrooms. A performance task culture will mean getting out of kids way so they can do stuff with our content. We need to bring back portfolio assessment and problem based learning. We also need to have students perform on demand in authentic ways so they build their muscle as critical thinkers, as writers and mathematicians, as presenters and team players.


But where do teachers and administrators begin? One way that can be very effective is to collaboratively analyze released performance tasks ( or, map the skills that surface back to the Common Core Standards and then create mini-performance tasks that are embedded with current content. For example, instead of writing the tried and true 5-paragraph, heavily scaffold and processed essay, think about creating a learning progression with current content that culminates in a process that mimics the ELA Common Core Performance task where students watch a video, read articles, answer constructed response questions and write an essay. Consider using content that is familiar to students when you are first establishing a performance task culture so that students experience some success and then you can increase their independence as the culture gets established. Another key here is to think about generating learning outcomes and activity progressions based on ambiguous provocative questions that students tackle. For instance say I am teaching Romeo and Juliet as a core text. I might ask students: How do the decisions we make impact our lives? The question lends itself to the play as students can chart the decisions that were made that led to the couple’s ultimate doom, but it also broadens the discussion and allows for exploration of a variety of texts and media sources.

The little things that mean the world to kids…..

Students know what makes them feel good about themselves and what makes them feel successful. When I asked my students what makes them feel good here’s what they said:

  • Smile when you see me.
  • Call me by my name.
  • Listen to me when I talk.
  • Let me know that you missed me when I was absent.
  • Recognize my own special talents even if they don’t show up on my report card.
  • Give me a chance to succeed in at least one small way each day.
  • Praise me when I do something well.
  • If you do not like something I do, please help me understand that you still like me as a person.
  • Respect me even if I still struggle to respect others and myself.
  • Show me that I have a lot of options for the future, and that I can set my own goals.
  • Encourage me to aim high. Always.

Try to reach a young person with these self-esteem builders every day.  High self-esteem builds stronger people and stronger communities. Remember, students experiencing success, even if small, is key to motivation. Motivation is key to learning.