What It Means to Really UNDERSTAND a Common Core Standard

I have run into so many folks who are spending an inordinate amount of time “unpacking the Common Core Standards.”  When I ask them what they mean by that, they say something like, “Well, you know, unpacking the standards!” Like, duh!  While I think that unpacking the standards (I’m still not super sure what that means – it’s one of those education-ese kind of things we say, I think) is important, I am concerned that we’re not taking the right things out of the suitcase and putting the right things back in.  

Let me explain…

When we’re figuring out what a standard means and what impact it needs to have on my teaching, I think we ought to start by asking these simple questions:

  1. What is the language of the standard?  What is it asking my students to DO?
  2. What level of thinking is the standard requiring of the kids?  Is it a knowledge level task or a creation or evaluating task?  (Referring to Bloom’s Taxonomy)
  3. What academic language from the standard is critical for my students to know?  What should I teach?  What should I tell?
  4. What does this standard assume my students already know how to do?
  5. Is this standard best taught on its own or in conjunction with other standards right away?
  6. Will teaching this standard require students to receive direct teaching (teach, model, practice, apply) or are they ready to go to the guided practice part right now?
  7. What materials do I currently have in place to teach this?  What materials will need adjusting?  What materials will I need to create/seek out in teaching this standard?
  8. What does the “mastery” of this standard look like?  What will it look like when kids have mastered this standard?

You see, I’m really kind of worried that we will spend our time in committees and groups of teachers analyzing the standards for other people when the real learning for teachers comes from doing it for myself.  That’s what these questions are about – asking MYSELF what I know, what I need to know, what my students know and what they need to know – – it’s about tailoring our work with the Common Core to MY students and YOUR students. 

So whether you’re packing, unpacking or re-packing the standards, take a look at them in light of the above questions – they will allow you to truly tailor and differentiate instruction right away.  No cookie-cutter approach to teaching the standards is going to lead to mastery.  Careful studying, planning, tailoring, implementation and assessing are going to create a very simple pathway for Common Core mastery…and I, for one, can’t wait!

Power Up for 2013 with YOUR Educational Reading MUSTS!

Power Up for 2013 with YOUR Educational Reading MUSTS!

So, it’s that time of year when I start to look at what I want my 2013 to look like…and my one major goal is to really to boost my expert-level knowledge by exponentially improving my educational reading library.  All done in one click on Amazon – ha!

Here’s what dictionary.com says about what an “expert” is – and BOY do I want to continue to be one!


I WILL BE a person with special skill.  I WILL BE a person with special knowledge in a particular field.  I WILL receive the highest rating in my field.  I WILL BE all of these things, BUT I have to do it through practice and training – – – and I’m starting 2013 by getting PUMPED UP on these resources by true experts in our field!  (Most importantly, I’m continuing to practice what I preach – – -and I’m excited about it!)

Executive Intelligence: What All Great Leaders Have

Justin Menkes

Effective Supervision: Supporting the Art and Science of Teaching

Robert J. Marzano, et al

The SAGE Handbook of Educational Leadership: Advances in Theory, Research, and Practice

Fenwick W. English

Making the Grade: Reinventing America’s Schools

Tony Wagner, Thomas Vander Ark

Leaders of Learning: How District, School, and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement

Richard DuFour, Robert J. Marzano

Just checking to see if you were paying attention.!


“Never become so much of an expert that you stop gaining expertise. View life as a continuous learning experience.”

– Denis Waitley

What Exactly Should I Be Looking For During Class Observation?


Class observation by a coach or principal strikes fear in the hearts of many teachers and I know exactly why!  Who wants to be judged?  Better yet?  Who wants to be judged by someone who hasn’t likely been in the classroom for years and was on their cell phone during the professional development sessions?

Um.  Not me!

Principals and Coaches – we owe it to our staff to be more proactive, less scary and lurker-ish during our observations.

Let me explain.

First of all,  you have to have a focus for the instructional work you’re doing on your campus.  This is the PURPOSE behind your observations.  When teacher know, “Hey – my principal is looking for increased engagement levels from my ELL students during ELA instruction,” then two cool things happen:

  1. They tend to focus on integrating that work/technique/strategy more broadly and deeply into their everyday teaching because they know that you’ll be around to look for it.  This is a big motivator for a lot of teachers.
  2. Their anxiety lessens because they realize that they actually have a chance to meet our expectations because our expectations aren’t random, they’re focused

When we have no instructional focus at the school site, then our observations (whether it’s true or not!) seem like a “gotcha” – and that’s not a motivation that will sustain long-term growth in any staff.

Implementation due to fear is not a recommended tactic!

So, principals and coaches, you should start with a focus and let your staff know that you will be in their classrooms formally and on a drop-in basis looking for the instructional focus in action at any time of the day.

Secondly, when you go into classrooms, you should approach it as a balcony-sitter at a theater production.


Let me explain.

When you sit in the balcony, you have perspective.  You can see the other audience members, you can see the orchestra, you can see the entire width of the stage.  Sometimes you can even see into the wings of the stage and see the actors’ entrances and exits!

When the actors are on stage or the audience is situated really close to the stage, there is so much perspective that is lost.  This is the teacher’s position – the teacher is so close to the action and right in the middle of it most of the time, it’s hard to gain perspective and hard to evaluate the full orchestration of the lesson.

(Some might  argue that when you sit close you have tremendous focus, but this doesn’t necessarily serve our immediate purpose during class observation!)

When you have a PERSPECTIVE mindset during classroom observations, here’s what you should be looking for:

  • How is the teacher orchestrating the lesson?  Is it well orchestrated and smooth or choppy and disjointed?  What is the evidence that this is so?
  • What is the pacing like?  Are the students keeping up with the lesson?
  • Are the groupings benefiting the students?  How do you know?
  • Are particular students having trouble with the intensity of the lesson?  Which students?  How could you tell?
  • When in the lesson did the teacher start to “lose” students?  What did that look like?  What did the students start to do that showed you that they were less lesson-focused?
  • What percentage of the time did the teacher spend in direct instruction?  Guided practice?  Application?
  • How many re-directions (which don’t have to be a bad thing!) did the teacher do during each portion of the lesson?
  • What was the students product?  What did the teacher expect in terms of written response?  Discussion or oral responses?  Did the students use complete sentences and extended thoughts during the lesson?
  • Was it readily apparent what the goal of the lesson(s) was?  Did the teacher revisit the goal to touch-back for the kids?  When you asked a student what they were working on, could they explain the task and the purpose behind it?

You see, an observation (and the feedback given) won’t be helpful at all unless it gives teacher perspective that they cannot otherwise get when they’re right in the trenches doing the teaching.

I start my informal and formal rounds by stating to myself the response to this question: “What perspective do I want to give my teachers today that they wouldn’t get if I didn’t observe them?

Now THAT’s purpose folks!

Y’all…We Did It


We’ve got reason to celebrate!!!!!!!

If you know me, you know I don’t operate in a perfect world – in fact I actually prefer to get down and dirty with our clients and deal with what IS, not what ISN’T!

Sometimes it’s hard to have perspective on what makes schools successful…especially when the scores aren’t popping and bursting forth as fast as we’d all like them to.

But every once in awhile I get a surprise…and this one actually made me tear up a bit, I was absolutely thrilled and proud!

I was working with a client a week ago and while I was there, their scores on their state standardized test were released.  Some were good and some were not so great and some were, well, A SURPRISE!

My principal client got her scores and immediately saw a high number (higher than they’ve performed ever before) and thought, “Oh dang, these must be from another school…” – they were too high to be from HER school after all!

Then she looked closer. 

Nope.  They were from HER SCHOOL! 

(Warning, here’s the part where I teared up)

So during our break that day she gathered her staff and whispered to them at the lunch table: “Y’all…we did it.”  Yep, four simple words that summed it up: Y’all. We. Did. It.

What did they do?

  • They followed their teacher’s manuals everyday
  • They worked together to make some significant and small change to their management
  • They taught more content because they used their time more efficiently
  • They stayed the course on the grade level material even when it got tough
  • They didn’t freak out when observers came in
  • They incorporated advice and ideas from their principal, coach and supporters
  • They ditched practices that didn’t get results and replaced them with those that did
  • They were open
  • They put their heads down and worked hard

And here’s the awesome thing: while they were putting their heads down and getting it done, the students learned. Their confidence grew.  They were open.  And they did it.

Now let me say this: THEY ARE NOT PERFECT.  There is room to grow, decisions yet to be made, adjustments to the current system to drive the scores even higher.

The even awesomer (not a word I know, but SO fitting!) thing: In spite of the fact that they aren’t perfect, they STILL GOT IT DONE.

What are the encouragements in it all?

  1. You don’t have to be “perfect” to get results…so don’t wait on perfection
  2. Even the most stubborn students (and teachers!) can change the course
  3. You CAN teach old dogs new tricks (ha!)
  4. Anything is possible

“If your determination is fixed, I do not counsel you to despair. Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.”
Samuel Johnson


Interview for Education News: Helping Teachers Through In-Services and Workshops

This interview was conducted by Michael F. Shaughnessy for Education News.  The original article can be found at http://ow.ly/cts8i

1) Jill, first of all, tell us a bit about your workshops and in-services and what you try to accomplish.

We help struggling districts, schools and teachers improve their reading scores and skills of their students. Our goal is to go into a school and get our hands dirty and look at the data, look at the practices and connect with the teachers – we do this by modeling, demonstrating and coaching in real-life classrooms – we call it “getting in the trenches” with what’s REALLY happening in schools! The words that we live by are: it all comes down to the quality of the teaching. So, we work throughout a school to improve the overall quality of the teaching because we know that the student scores will follow.

2) Now, I can think of no time in the last, well 40 years, when teachers have been under such stress. What are your current impressions?

I think teachers are very stressed – but I think they’re stressed about the wrong things! On Twitter and Facebook and social media, I have lots of folks reach out and lash out about how standardized tests aren’t fair and how dare we look at students performance as a measure of the teacher and how learning is more than a test.

The way I see it, all of the time we spend fighting ‘the system’ is less time we’re spending stressing (or really putting our heads down and working really hard) about the preparation and care that it takes to design and deliver lessons that take students from Point A to Point B – and, most importantly, to long term reading skill mastery. I think that we’re doing a lot of fussing and fighting on the backs of the kids and I just can’t accept that.

3) Some teachers seem to just go about their business teaching kids, and don’t worry much about IEP’s AYP, NCLB and 504′s. Am I off on this?

You’re absolutely right…and that’s good and bad at the same time. Here’s the deal: in my experience, successful teachers are looking at their student data as a way to measure their success. These folks are putting in the real work on what matters in the end – quality teaching and all that goes into it. They aren’t worrying too much about the proverbial pendulum swinging or the latest crazy education scandal on CNN, they’re worrying about and fussing over and crunching the numbers and measuring success in THEIR classroom – because that’s their reality!

Successful teachers know that the IEPs, AYP, NCLB and 504s are a part of the work, and if they are providing daily successful teaching to kids in a highly managed classroom with lots of positive, academic based feedback the IEPs will show growth and their classroom will contribute to the school making AYP and such. I haven’t seen a highly skilled teacher who absolutely brings his best and most on-fire teaching to the classroom each day, NOT get results.

And, trust me, they are working against some pretty serious odds in the schools that we support!

The flip side of that are those educators who say that “the test isn’t valid” or that their students are successful but “the tests don’t show it”. In this case, they’re ignoring the measurements like AYP, IEPs and such in favor of gut checks and potentially random style-driven criteria in their head – obviously I think this is a dangerous practice.

4) The teachers I talk to pretty much say the same thing- they need more administrative support, do you address these issues?

Absolutely. Our goal is to not just have our clients show classroom success, but have that classroom success show across the school – and that requires serious commitment, protection of time and every day presence from the leadership. I can tell how successful a school is based upon the principal’s calendar. Really!

It’s like the more time I spend in the gym, the healthier I’ll be? Well, the same is true of principals: the more time they spend in the classrooms, the healthier the teaching system in that school is. It NEVER fails.

Whenever we visit schools or districts, we start the leadership system – we look at scheduling, non-negotiables, setting up the leadership team’s functions to look at reading practices in the school and guide the support and professional development.

One of the most powerful things we do (that initially many of our leaders are resistant to!) is practicing observations and debriefings with teachers. We work with leadership on what kind of data to gather when they’re watching teaching and then how to turn their notes into a very direct and very simple, but action-based, debriefing – the goal is to talk to teachers one-on-one and have them either stop a practice, continue a practice or adjust a practice. All designed to getting bigger impact in the classroom.

5) I have to tell you, that I observe teens and tweens and they seem to be gobbling up Harry Potter and have been hungry for these Hungry Games books. BUT, how do we get them reading other fiction, non fiction, biographies etc ?

Well – if I could fully answer that, I would retire on my private island in the Bahamas! What I see that ultimately captures kids’ attention EVEN WHEN THEY DON’T LIKE SOMETHING is the teacher’s enthusiasm. I think it’s highly underrated and undervalued!

I wrote an article recently about a Civics teacher I had in high school – I wasn’t what you would call a scholar – far from it! And I certainly wasn’t into Civics like I should have been. BUT the teacher was so enthusiastic about teaching Civics and used some fun (and embarrassing!) techniques along the way that helped my peers and me – GASP! – actually like Civics!

I find that some educators have the idea that the kids should come to class already motivated – I see that as the teacher’s job. It’s funny – I can follow a student around school all day and see her engaged in Period 1, totally disengaged in Period 2, kind of engaged in Period 3 and totally on-fire engaged in Period 4. The only thing that changes? The teacher! I have seen tons of examples where teachers have taken “boring” content and made it interesting and others have taken exciting content and made it sleep-inducing.

Also, we have to give students the skills to tackle that kind of text – oftentimes they gravitate to novels because they have the most practice in successfully reading and gaining meaning from them! We help our clients create continuity in doing this – making sure that the skills that we use to tackle expository text in science are similar to the skills we apply to the P.E. manual. I don’t ever underestimate continuity of practice across classrooms! It’s such a powerful teaching tool!

6) What is the most requested topic you get asked to talk about?

Using reading program successfully. I often say our most powerful work comes after the publisher leaves and the boxes are opened and everyone looks around and goes, “NOW what?!?!?!?” We get lots of calls from superintendents and curriculum directors who say, “You know, we were told that if we bought these materials that our kids would learn to read and learn to read better. It’s not happening and we’re in program improvement…help!”

We help folks get super focused and super organized. We help them build confidence…one purposeful step at a time. In fact much of our time is spent telling them, “No. Not now,” because they’re trying to do too many things and they’re driving themselves absolutely crazy.

7) Tell us about a few of your most successful workshops- and feedback from teachers.

We just finished up Year I with a large school K-12 school district outside of Salt Lake City and the data is looking really good – we can actually measure the success of the staff by the increase in the student scores…that’s heaven for us! We get giddy when we can see the effect of the teacher work in the student outcomes – that’s what we’re always looking for.

Two of our clients just received National Title I Awards – and a bunch have made AYP for the first time ever! We have schools who have made serious, exponential growth in reading on their state tests with sub-populations that have historically been very low performing…so we are very proud and excited for the folks we partner with – – they are walking the walk.

As far as feedback? We get lots of feedback every week complimenting us on getting in the trenches with the teachers and not just being “talking heads” – we are real. We also get lots of feedback that starts with “At first I didn’t like that you were telling me to….but I appreciate you sticking in there with me.” That’s very rewarding.

8) Are there ways for folks to connect with you online?

Yes! We just launches our “Free Resources” tab on our website (www.jackson-consulting.com) – there you’ll find tons of free video, audio and downloadables that we’d like everyone to take and use. We even have a 7-day free video series that you can sign up for there…no strings attached! There you’ll also find the links to Twitter and Facebook where I’m interacting daily with educators about the good, the bad and the ugly in education – it’s really fun to be about to connect that way and it’s bringing about some very interesting conversations and big a-has for all of us.

Most of all, while we are tough cookies when we come and work with folks, I want those who work with us online and in-person to know that we value teachers who are serious about doing the work of teaching. We don’t always have to agree, but if the bottom line for all of us bringing the highest quality of instruction that has the biggest impact on the students every day into the classroom, then we’re going to be alright!



Question…what do YOU think?  Leave a comment below…am I off track? 

On the right track?  Lost my mind????