Eating an Elephant (Part Two)

Shortly after posting my blog “Tips for Eating an Elephant,” a colleague gave me a tip; a contact in Gwinnett County, Georgia, where some key leaders were excited to talk about their FIP implementation. Like Ohio, Georgia participated in Race to the Top and introduced FIP to support new standards implementation and student achievement. State leaders invited the interested districts to pilot FIP. And after a year-long implementation, Gwinnett County Schools, the 12th largest US school district (with 12,000 teachers) wanted to share how they were biting off pieces of the proverbial elephant one piece at a time.

Although this blog most often focuses on FIP in Ohio, other states of similar size have, like us, shed Race to the Top (RttT) blood, sweat and tears during these past three years.  Adrienne Tedesco from the Office of Staff Development and Laura Moak of Gwinnett County shared their thoughtful approach towards building FIP understanding, implementation, capacity, and sustainability. Their innovative, systemic approach has helped to develop and change practice across this huge district. Here is a shout-out to the passionate Peach State district leaders and some highlights from our conversation.

Approach to the Alternate Certification Program
Through federal TAP (Teacher Apprenticeship Program) funds, Teach Gwinnett was formed to provide an alternate licensure path for new teachers. Candidates complete an intensive year-long training (and receive support for a total of three years, as needed) that uses formative instructional practices at its core. Adrienne stated the goal of this program: “We want our candidates to be diagnostic, prescriptive teachers.” What a profound statement!  To this end, they provide a blended learning, competency-based professional learning program where candidates learn how to deconstruct standards, create assessments using target-method-match and become knowledgeable about the accuracy and use of formative and summative assessments needed to drive instructional decisions. 

What have they learned over this past year? Adrienne conveyed that the new teachers were most challenged by what formative really means, and its implications around grading, ongoing collection of evidence, and mastery expectations.  She was overjoyed to see teachers’ growth, as seen in performance assessment and teacher reflections.  She also saw the nature of the candidate’s conversations change and their confidence develop. Candidates and local school leaders were highly positive about candidate preparedness. They left the program able to fully engage in teacher- and school-based teams.

Leadership Development
In response to an interest survey, administrated early in the 2013-2014 school year, 50 principals and assistant principals participated in FIP professional learning facilitated by Laura. Administrators not only took the Coaching FIP and Leading FIP modules, but they completed and discussed the content of the five FIP foundational modules. Laura reported that during the course of their learning, participants always came prepared, yet often struggled with the content, which was a good thing. Change is disruptive—and true learning forces us to rethink our ways of knowing and doing.  Laura’s goal was to have them work through their struggles together and ultimately be able to implement FIP with fidelity.

Laura has a new cohort ready to begin their learning journey. This time she had to cut off the registration—and instead of one session with 50 administrators, she will have three!

Connections to Teacher Evaluation System
The essential goal expressed by Adrienne and Laura was to build capacity and sustainability. They have a lean central office and 132 schools, so this is no easy feat!  Gwinnett adopted the Charlotte Danielson Framework and has made explicit connections between FIP and the standards pertaining to assessment and use. As school leaders mentor and observe both novice and experienced teachers, they can make use of a “Look For/Ask About” sheet created to reinforce the use of FIP in classrooms. Further, they are making important connections between FIP and other pressing demands, such as student growth and accountability measures. 

This team has many more ideas for embedding FIP within schools and reaching more teachers. FIP your School Ohio was designed to help Ohio school and district leaders to do what this Georgia county school district has also embarked on: establishing a deliberate, strategic vision for changing the culture by changing the conversations.  And like us, they are approaching elephant-eating with persistence and a healthy appetite! Bravo!

Do you have implementation success stories? We would love to feature them in this blog. Share your ideas below or email Nathan Okuley (

What School and My 2014 Fighting Irish Have in Common

This blog post was written by Sandy Shedenhelm. Sandy is a Senior Director of Powerful Practices at Battelle for Kids. She creates and leads professional development workshops and curriculum to help educators at all levels. Sandy taught English language arts and social studies. 

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a diehard Notre Dame fan. Yes, I have lived in Columbus all of my life, but I just can’t help it. This girl loves her Irish… no matter what. While watching the bowl selections, I couldn’t help but think about how much this season is like school.

It is important to be on a winning streak. My Irish started the season 6 – 0. When you are winning, it feels great, and you keep trying to remain victorious. Success breeds success. School is no different. Students, too, need to be on winning streaks. And as teachers, it is our job to help them get and stay on winning streaks. They need to think ‘I can do this, and it is worth it.’ And if students are winning, teachers and leaders are winning too.

You can’t let failure carry over. On October 18, the Irish left their ‘mojo’ in Tallahassee. The Irish took Florida State to the wire, but left losing 27-31 in a heartbreaker. Unfortunately, they let the loss put their entire season on a downward spiral, losing their final four games, including two at home. This team didn’t know how to respond to adversity. Schools are no different. Leaders, teachers and students alike will all face adversity. The key is to not let it define you. Grit is essential.

Preparation matters. As the season went on, the Irish lost many starting players to injury. With a loss to underdog Northwestern and a beat down by rival USC, it was clear that the ‘next men in’ were not prepared to compete at the level of challenge necessary to win. By the same token, ALL students need to be prepared—to have access to and practice with rigorous, relevant learning expectations. As teachers, we are their coaches and without proper preparation we cannot expect all students to be successful and self-reliant.

Grade performance using the most recent evidence. Teams are not defined by the averages of their games, and practice is never included in the formula. The Irish will have the opportunity to put their best foot forward to end the year in the Music City Bowl against LSU. It will be this evidence that the experts will review as my favorite college football team closes out their season. We too, need to use the most recent evidence to evaluate and support student learning. It is the most recent evidence that most accurately reflects a student’s current level of achievement. As I was reminded at a grading conference last week, reporting inaccurate information about a student’s achievement is not only bad practice but unconstitutional. 

So as you consider your teaching or leading practice, keep in mind some of the objectives of great coaches, which just happen to align with FIP. They inspire and encourage their players to challenge themselves and to set and meet goals (clear learning targets). They let their players take risks and responsibility (ownership of learning) but are right there to course correct as needed (effective feedback).  And they don’t judge them on their past performance, but rather on their current accomplishments (collecting and documenting evidence of success). Most importantly, they encourage them to work hard, to persevere even when it’s easier to quit, and to get up and try again when they fall.

FIP Quote of the Day

"Remember that praising children's intelligence or talent, as tempting as it is, sends a fixed-mindset message. It makes their confidence and motivation more fragile. Instead, try to focus on the processes they usedtheir strategies, effort, or choices. Practice working the process praise into your interactions with your children."

- Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Square Pegs, Round Holes, and Formative Instructional Practices

This blog post was written by Kelly Skipworth. Kelly is a Grade 7 and Grade 8 ELA teacher at Green High School in Scioto County. 

According to the 1986 hit by Huey Lewis & the News, “It’s Hip to Be Square.” But I say, it’s no longer hip to be square if you are a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.

Twenty-two years ago, I began my career as a high school English teacher. It was exciting to be a teacher during the decade of the nineties because I was able to witness the debut of the internet, the digital camera, the digital grade book, and yes, the installation of phones in every classroom! Conversely, the end of the decade brought with it the terrors of Columbine and successive copycat tragedies which, in turn, fine-tuned teachers’ radars. Like never before, teachers tuned in to the social, emotional, and psychological well-being of students, resulting in stronger, more positive teacher-student relationships. It was in this climate that I brought my first child into the world, and in the spring of 2000, I resigned from my beloved profession to become a full-time mother.

One year ago, after a 13-year hiatus, I had the good fortune to return to the classroom as a full-time teacher, and I was a self-proclaimed square peg. But the shape of education was no longer square. It was as if someone had dramatically chopped off the corners and finely sanded the sides until the whole structure was completely unrecognizable. Thanks to my new colleagues, especially those who trained me in Formative Instructional Practices (FIP), I was able to find success and happiness in this new educational landscape. More importantly, my students met their projected growth targets, took ownership of their learning, and gained confidence in their ability to read critically and to write competently.

I am thankful that I was proactive enough to study some of the changes in education during the years of my hiatus, and I am also thankful that I began serving as a substitute teacher in 2009. This allowed me to gently re-immerse myself into the ever-changing current of my career, rather than to dive headfirst into unfamiliar streams.

I still consider myself a master teacher because I won’t allow myself to be anything less. After all, I have a great amount of passion for my profession, a high level of determination, several years of teaching experience, and many years of life experience. One lesson that all this experience has taught me is that even though education might be a round hole today, it might be an oval hole tomorrow. And even though I am a round peg now (thanks to FIP training), I need to be flexible enough to become an oval peg tomorrow. But no matter how things change, I will continue to use the Formative Instructional Practices that I have learned during this past year. Ever since I have been trained in FIP, I have changed the way I teach because I have changed the way I think about student achievement.

In short, Formative Instructional Practices simply make sense. If the goal is to teach for learning, then what good does it do to teach a lesson and then test my students without checking for understanding? If the goal is to master a standard, then what good does it do to teach an entire standard without breaking it down into more manageable chunks? If the goal is to perform a series of skills, then what good does it do to wait until the day of the assessment to gather data about student competency? If the goal is for each student to be successful, then what good does it do to slap an F in my grade book without any plans to reteach that child in a different way so that he or she can be successful? If the goal is to maintain student dignity, then why would I simply ask students to raise their hands if they are having trouble understanding a concept?

Because Formative Instructional Practices are based upon frequently-collected data and evidence of student learning, the teaching profession has become more scientific, and differentiated instruction is key. My data charts inform me of student progress, and I make instructional choices for individual students and small groups based upon the data that I have collected. My students also take ownership of their learning by graphing their progress, skill by skill, in student data folders. I believe it is important for individual teachers to develop their own systems for tracking student data, but I also believe that it is important for teachers to share successful methods with their colleagues. By collaborating with others, teachers will continue to grow and to learn, and students will surely benefit.

Needless to say, I have learned a great deal this past year. My square corners are rounded now, and as I continue to grow as a teacher, they will continue to take shape. But I am still thankful for those years of being a square peg because they have played an important role in my growth as an educator. The letters in the word SQUARE also serve to remind me of some of the most important facets of Formative Instructional Practices:

S – Start with the STANDARD that you want students to master. Break it down into more manageable chunks and post “I Can” statements to match these chunks. At the beginning of each lesson, tell the students exactly what you want them to be able to do at the end of the lesson.

Q – Decide how you will assess students. What type of QUANTITATIVE DATA will you collect? Be sure to administer a pre-assessment so that you can track student growth. Pre-assessments also show you what students already know.

U – Teach for UNDERSTANDING. Students must understand the standard, the lesson, your expectations, and how you will assess them. Students need to know that they can be successful in your class, and they need to know that you will not leave them behind.

A – Use daily formative ASSESSMENTS to check for understanding and to inform instruction. Exit slips are a great way to briefly assess students. You can examine these before the next day and plan your instruction accordingly.

RRETEACH students in a different way if they have not mastered the skill. Keep individual learning styles and researched-based strategies in mind. Remember that all students can learn, and it is your job as a professional to find the best way to make this happen.

EEVALUATE the effectiveness of the lesson by administering another formative assessment. If the students were successful, it’s time for the summative assessment. If students were not successful, it’s time to do more research. Sometimes there is an excellent teacher right down the hall who might have some great ideas for you. Don’t be afraid to ask.

As we know too well, some students will still need help, and it is our job to do whatever we can to help them find success. The stakes are too high to give up on those students, so we must continue to try to reach them. After all, I am grateful that nobody ever gave up on me. Because of the teachers who believed in my ability to succeed, I am who I am today. Finally, I am certainly glad that nobody gave up on me when I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. Formative Instructional Practices have transformed my teaching for the better, and my students will continue to benefit in the years to come.

The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching

This blog post was written by Kelli Wohlgamuth. Kelli is a FIP Specialist for the Southeast Region, a part of a regional support system available to help your LEA advance the use of formative instructional practices.

When was the last time you read a book about teaching that made you feel excited about what you do in the lives of children? A book that spoke to you, connected all the dots for you, and even gave you a focus to make it easy to put what you have read into practice? Well, I just read such a book. I was really drawn to what Bryan Goodwin and Elizabeth Ross Hubbell were sharing in their book, The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day.

Over the past three years I’ve met some incredible teachers who, despite their passion, have gotten lost in all the reform efforts and can’t seem to find a way forward. This book, which has a strong alignment with the core components of FIP, helps teachers stay focused on what is important by using a “checklist” strategy. Checklist items include:

  • Use standards to guide every learning opportunity
  • Ensure students set personal learning targets for each lesson
  • Make performance expectations clear
  • Measure understanding against high expectations
  • Engage student interest with every lesson
  • Interact meaningfully with every student
  • Use feedback to encourage effort
  • Create an oasis of safety and respect in my classroom
  • Make the most of every minute; teach bell to bell
  • Help students develop deep knowledge
  • Coach students to mastery
  • Help students do something with their learning

Helping teachers align what they do daily is essential to move student learning forward. Educators have a responsibility to build environments that encourage risk taking, support learners at all levels, and give opportunities for students to have the right feedback so they have something to own.  It is not “one more thing we have to do.” It is what is really at the heart of what you do every day.

I have been hearing teachers say, “Our students don’t really own their learning, or they don’t care.”  It’s easy for teachers and leaders to place fault on the students, not realizing that student ownership actually starts with teachers. Teaching is a complex process and we need strategies or a “checklist” that keeps teachers focusing on the most critical or essential elements. The “12 touchstones” allow teachers to keep a focus on the “big ideas” of what it takes to be a great teacher: the ability to be demanding, supportive, and intentional.

FIP Quote of the Day

“When a teacher is with students in a way that is empowering to them, students can transform. When this begins to happen, the transformation takes place. The work of teaching becomes the joy of teaching because they are in a mutually empowering relationship.” 


This quote comes from The Best Teacher in You: How To Accelerate Learning and Change Lives, written by Robert E. Quinn, Katherine Heynoski, Mike Thomas, and Gretchen M. Spreitzer.