Tips for Eating an Elephant

How Do You Eat an Elephant?
How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time.
How do you scale a redwood?
Just get up and climb.
How do you write a poem?
Scribble down a rhyme.
How do you create perfect art?
Start with just a line.
How do you lift a hundred pounds?
Start only with nine.
How do you write a novel?
With practice, and with time.

This poem by Rocky Swordleaf (2011) is a great reminder for educators and students about how to take on a daunting task. I sometimes hear that adopting formative instructional practices feels like a commitment too overwhelming to take on. Just as this poem asks, “how do you eat an elephant?”, you might also ask, “How do I approach making shifts my instructional practices?” The answer of course is “one shift at a time.” The bite-by-bite approach is a good one. It encourages making small but meaningful steps that leverage the results you desire.

So, let’s extend this elephant metaphor to your professional learning. Here are some tips for eating an elephant that might taste a little like FIP:

Plan your meals. Join with others to self-assess and commit to a few well-defined goals. Think about clear learning targets. What are yours? Then determine how you will collect and document your own progress. Need help? Ask a mentor to provide you with specific feedback about a practice you are working on right now.


Savor each bite. Reflect on your progress through the actions of your students. What do you see them doing that increases ownership of their own learning? Do they know where there are going in their learning? Are they becoming more self-reliant, knowing what to do next in their own learning? Recruit feedback about your accomplishments from your own students.

Avoid Overeating. Eating a few cheese puffs is a different experience than eating an entire bag in one sitting. Somewhere along the way, they won’t taste as good as when you first dug in. You will probably start to slow down and wish you never even started. It’s the same with elephant eating, and it’s the same when taking on new practices. My advice is this: Pace yourself, confirm your commitment periodically, celebrate your accomplishments, and recruit peers to enjoy the journey with you.

Students Engaged.png

Respect The Whole Elephant. When taking on smaller pieces of a formidable task, it is easy to forget what you are eating. After all, what fits on your plate does not resemble an elephant anymore—it’s easy to lose the whole for its parts. For example, the use of exit cards can be an effective strategy to collect and document evidence of student learning, which you can then use to adjust instruction. But, it is just one strategy in an arsenal of classroom assessment strategies. It is not all of the elephant—and it is not all of FIP. When formative instructional practices are fully implemented, multiple strategies are in play at once. Teachers and students use assessment information and feedback daily to drive progress towards clearly formulated learning targets. The trick is to know when and how to purposefully apply multiple strategies, and how to adapt them the next time to work even better. View Learning Targets and Instructional Planning to see how teachers are building on their strategy toolbox, one thoughtful piece at a time.

Finally, don’t forget why you are eating an elephant in the first place. Why FIP? Because formative instructional practices are ultimately about moving each student closer and closer towards meeting or exceeding the learning expectations—it doesn’t get tastier than that!

Swordleaf, Rocky. (2011). How to eat an elephant. Retrieved from