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.

California’s Common Core State Standards: An Overview for Parents

What is the Common Core?

The new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a national set of educational standards adopted by 48 states that represent the work of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in collaboration with educators across the country. The CCSS have clear focus on what students need to know and be able to do in order to be successful in college, careers and beyond. The CCSS call for a change in what and how we teach students to better prepare them for the demands of the global economy. The state of California adopted California’s Common Core Standards (CCCS) in August of 2010.


 Why do we need new standards?

So why do we need a new national set of education standards? The traditional way we taught students in the past simply isn’t in alignment with the demands of college and careers today and in the future. The role of student as empty vessel and teacher as holder and giver of knowledge are antiquated. Common national standards and assessment will provide students learning goals that will be more consistent state by state and give us a clearer picture of how the U.S. performs internationally. Our school and schools throughout the country are working to improve teaching and learning so all children will graduate high school with the 21st century skills they need to be successful.  According to CEOs interviewed, the following skills were most sought after in potential employees:


  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Collaboration and Leadership
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination


The Common Core aims to “upgrade” the current way we teach content knowledge in English, Math, Science and Social Sciences by requiring more applied skills and independent learning. Students will need strong writing skills and be required to work in teams to collaborate to solve problems. Students will need to be able to make arguments and back up what they say with lots of evidence. They will need to be independent thinkers and learners. To make the Common Core live in classrooms, many changes will need to be made.


Changes in English Language Arts

In English Language Arts and literacy there are several changes that teachers and parents will need to consider. Students will, in addition to stories and literature, be required to read more non-fiction to learn important facts and background knowledge in history, art and science. They will need to read more challenging texts more closely and will be asked the kinds of questions where they will need to reflect on and analyze what they have read to find answers. Students will need to not only find the main idea or arguments presented in what they read but make arguments and provide evidence drawing from multiple viewpoints to support their ideas.


Changes in Mathematics

Like English Language Arts, the new Math standards focus on the application of “real world” math including problem-solving skills. The new math standards require students to develop a more solid foundation as they progress through the grades by going deeper with the concepts they will use as the math gets harder. The new standards are more connected and extend and build on previous learning.  In other words, we are trying to move away from only studying one math topic at a time, say for instance, fractions or algebra, to studying what math students need to solve the problem and how many ways can they solve the problem. The Math standards now point out the importance of teaching both Mathematical Content and Mathematical Practices such as problem solving, reasoning, argument and critique, using math tools and modeling.


Changes in how students are tested

Perhaps the biggest change is how students will be assessed. The current assessment system, STAR, will sunset (yay!) and new assessments will be administered in the 2014-15 school year.  The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is in charge of developing the new tests called performance tasks. Performance tasks ask students to demonstrate their knowledge. The tests will have less multiple choice and more variable option test items and much more writing will be required. The assessment will be on a computer and will adapt to students’ level of proficiency. The benefit of the assessment is it can give teachers and parents good information about what are strong areas and areas for growths for students. A performance task might ask students to use math to design a community garden or to argue for or against uniforms in schools.


So is this a good thing?

Establishing common education standards is one way we can work to address the disparity between individual state standards to ensure that all children, regardless of geography, socioeconomic status, or life history, receive an education that values their potential.

Common standards are good for students because:

  • They help prepare students with the background knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and careers.
  • They help make transitions smoother for students moving to different states or districts because the learning goals remain consistent.
  • Clearer standards help students understand what is expected of them and allow them to engage in more self-directed learning.

Common standards are good for parents because:

  • They help parents understand exactly what students need to know and be able to do at each step in their education.
  • They help facilitate conversation between parents and teachers about how to help their children reach those education goals.
  • They assure parents that their children have access to the same high-quality education other students receive in other parts of the country.

Common standards are good for teachers because:

  • They allow for more focused professional development and promote collaboration.
  • They can inform the development of a curriculum that promotes deep understanding for all children.
  • They can give educators more time to focus on depth of understanding and richer units of study rather than focusing on “coverage” and “fitting everything in.”

The standards are research- and evidence-based and clearly articulate expectations to parents, teachers, and the general public about what students should know and be able to do as they progress through school and at graduation from high school. The National PTA has announced its support of the initiative.

Student success is the result of the collaborative work of educators, parents, policymakers, and the broader community to better understand what students need to build a promising future. The Common Core State Standards are an opportunity to strengthen this collaboration. For more information, please visit and

As one senior executive from Dell said, “Yesterday’s answers won’t solve today’s problems.” The Common Core Standards provides educators a roadmap more aligned to college and career readiness and are a potential strategy to solve tomorrow’s problems.


6 Strategies for parents to encourage creativity and critical thinking skills:

1.  Try to build in choice and flexibility – observe your child’s interests and offer a range of reading. Is my child in to fiction, graphic novels, or non-fiction? Reading should not be a chore.
2.  Read to your child often to model for them.

3.  Answer questions with questions whenever possible. Ask your child what they think the answer could be. Help them use reason and use the process of elimination.

4.  For the reluctant reader, ask them to replace the name of an animal or character in a story with a familiar name from your child’s life, a pet or friend will do.

5.  Use math to solve problems and calculate. Point out practical applications while shopping using money. Play games with your child. Encourage them to build and count and compare. Find numbers and patterns in everyday life!

6. Find out what motivates your child and help them develop curiosity by deeply exploring a topic. Don’t worry if all they want to read about is cats for a couple of months or if they tire of a subject and move on. Find the zone that’s right for your child.

Linked Learning: A Critical Pathway for Transitioning to the Common Core

The following article appeared in WCCUSD’s June Monthly Common Core Reporter newsletter and describes the Common Core and Linked Learning connection as well as describes some of the great work I have had the honor to be a part of.

Before the common standards were written, Linked Learning was taking hold as an innovative strategy for high school reform in California through the California Linked Learning District Initiative. This initiative supports nine districts, including WCCUSD, to develop systems of high-quality, career-themed pathways that prepare students to be college and career ready at high school graduation. In Linked Learning classrooms students can be seen engaging in collaborative and complex outcome-based integrated projects with authentic industry themes.

Linked Learning pathways have four main components:

  1. College-prep academic core that emphasizes real world application
  2. Technical core of four or more courses that meet industry standards
  3. Work-based learning
  4. Student supports including academic and social and emotional support and college and career guidance counseling

WCCUSD’s is proud to support 22 Linked Learning pathway programs including 19 California Partnership Academies (CPA) at the high school level. All 6 of WCCUSD’s high schools house at least one CPA with industry themes such as Health, Engineering, Multi-Media, Creative, Visual and Performing Arts, Tourism and Hospitality, Information Technology and Law and Justice.

When WCCUSD Pathway teachers were introduced to the ELA Common Core Standards during last summer’s WCCUSD Linked Learning Summer Institute, they knew right away that they were in the driver’s seat already! Linked Learning and Common Core are complimentary. Given their shared emphasis on real-world applications of knowledge and skills, linked learning is the ideal “how” to the “what” of the Common Core. Central to both the Common Core and Linked Learning is the belief that students experience deep learning when they have multiple opportunities to apply content and higher order analysis skills while solving real world problems. The collaborative structure of pathway teams lends itself to Common Core implementation and the Common Core focus on performance tasks is something pathway teachers have been engaged in for quite some time.  Pathway teachers were excited to align their existing outcomes, rubrics and integrated projects to the Common Core and to utilize the Core for their planning moving forward. It was also clear to teachers that even as strong as the Linked Learning connections to Common Core are, we have work to do to ensure that all WCCUSD students are college and career ready as seniors.

As we have been learning during our Awareness Phase, the ELA Common Core requires shifts in how we do business.

Big Shifts of ELA Common Core:

  1. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction
  2. Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational
  3. Regular practice with complex text and its academic language

In addition to the big shifts overall, teachers who are not English teachers learned that the new framework now includes reading and writing standards, Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects. This emphasis on a shared responsibility for literacy is again a natural fit for for Linked Learning interdisciplinary teams but requires teachers to build their instructional muscles in new ways to meet the heavy lift of the ELA Common Core. But where to start?

David Conley wrote in his book, College Knowledge,  “If we could institute only one change to make students more college ready, it should be to increase the amount and quality of writing students are expected to produce.”  Heeding Conley’s advice combined with the standards’ special emphasis on student’s ability to write sound arguments, Linked Learning professional development supported teachers to critically engage with the key features of and instructional shifts of the ELA Common Core while going deep with Writing Standard 1: write arguments to support claims. Our “adopt a standard” approach became a consistent strand for our professional development throughout the school year building on the work from the summer.

Initially teacher teams revised Integrated Projects to align more closely with Common Core by rewriting or creating new performance tasks using a Common Core aligned template.

As the school year progressed teachers re-thought warm ups to include more argumentative writing and generally required writing more frequently with more analysis required. Later in the year, teachers analyzed student work with colleagues to identify patterns for instruction and aligned instructional strategies to address what they saw.

The culminating event that showcased the fruits of our labor was the WCCUSD Linked Learning May Exhibition and Residency where leaders from other Linked Learning Districts came to see what we have been up to. We saw a Law academy leveraging summary writing as a prerequisite for argumentation, a Health Academy student articulately describing the argumentative essays he had written in preparation for college, Information Technology students read tech articles and expressed their opinions about the latest trends. The results were impressive.

WCCUSD’s commitment to Linked Learning will take us a long way on our long road to full Common Core implementation at the high school level. Linked Learning’s authentic, industry aligned practices are what our students need to be college and career ready in the 21st century. With a strong commitment to a shared responsibility for literacy and ongoing professional development, we are in a good place to continue to learn, grow, and help students succeed.

What it means to be a coach…

I have been an instructional coach for many years. Some of the most rewarding work I have done is be present with teachers as they are making tough choices about their practice to responsibly accelerate the achievement of their students. It has been a gift since stepping out of the classroom after 10 years. Earning a teacher’s trust and confidence, even from their peers, can be challenging. Often when we coach, we enter cultures that are not “safe” where teachers shut their doors for fear of being “observed” – code name for being judged.  The process is a delicate one – enrolling the teacher, asking permission to coach and knowing just when to push and when to pull back. A finely tuned dance of sorts, that when is coordinated and smooth, is a beautiful thing. Sometimes your coach is the reason you stay another year in teaching. Sometimes your coach just makes the copies, and makes your day doing simple things to support the daily grind. The heart of coaching is important. Essential really. There is also a debate about what kind of coaching is most effective. Is the best coaching all about the affective – being in relationship with students and understanding how culture plays out in the classroom? Well, yes. Knowing your audience is always a good idea and tuning in to the real issues of equity and the realities of societal life need to be invited into the classroom purposefully. This is good teaching. But does coaching void of disciplinary content and student data at the center affect student achievement? I don’t know. But I do know that when students, their data, and content expertise come together in coaching conversations, you can almost hear the “aha” moments audibly. When tending to the affective is in service of rigorous delivery of content, then in my eyes, we are doing our jobs.