Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

A Rubric is Not an Authentic Audience

If students have only experienced a rubric as an audience to their writing, we have failed them miserably.

Ron Berger, known for his work with Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound school network, Harvard Project Zero, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, created a Hierarchy of Audience graphic to show how valuable authentic audiences are. He explains:  “When we finish school and enter the world of work, we are asked to create work of value — scientific reports, business plans, websites, books, architectural blueprints, graphic artwork, investment proposals, medical devices and software applications. This work is created over weeks or months with team consultation, collaboration and critique, and it goes through multiple revisions.”

hierarchy of audience

So how can we create opportunities for students to stretch beyond the rubric?

Our 6th graders are about to embark on a collaborative project with an international corporation to solve an actual problem the corporation is facing. They will be required to convey their proposals using business communications methods such as those Berger listed. Their audience will be the engineers, corporate executives, and marketing teams of the corporation.

Third graders, embarking on a classroom fundraising project, developed business plans and presented proposals based on a craft they wanted to sell at Open House. They had to identify their customer, develop a cost analysis, and a marketing plan.

My 16 year old daughter, wanting to share a message of female empowerment with others her age, started a blog… which ironically receives more viewers than me on many days!

Rubrics have their place as a formative assessment tool. But let’s not make it the destination. Our students have much more to contribute to the world than can be conveyed on a 4 point rubric!

Become a Better Human.

My 15 year old daughter started a blog. A blog to encourage and empower teens based on her experiences and views of the world. Her second post is titled, “…like a girl.” In it, she talks about the negative impact the statement “like a girl” has on girls, and that girls are just as “strong and capable of anything as males are.” It was a positive message of self-worth.

And yet, within an hour of sharing it on my Facebook page, it was attacked. In one comment, she was told that “men are stronger than women and she should face the facts of biology.” Other, similar comments followed.

IMG_0379 3The dominant male voice was, ironically, reinforcing my daughter’s point: “Together as women, we are intelligent, beautiful, and powerful human beings that shouldn’t be trampled on by derogatory expressions.” His messages, even when couched in conciliatory statements like “Don’t get me wrong, great intent…”  sought to silence a young girl sharing her voice of empowerment by asserting superiority.

One thing I have learned from the voices rising up after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting is that there are people who assume power comes hand-in-hand with freedom, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to silence any oppositional voice.

Our society defines freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” That’s the biggest paradox of freedom: if nothing restraints how each person behaves, it will be absolute chaos. The bully would be free to enslave the meek. It will eventually mean that only those at the top are free, and those at the bottom — the weak — are not.
Freedom is Not About Speaking Up but Choosing to be Silent

Our mission, as educators, is to build empathy and facilitate student voice and agency so they can positively advance the world. We want them to be, we need them to be, good humans. Better humans. Empathetic humans.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,
but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
– Nelson Mandela

Making Lunch Great Again!

I had the pleasure of listening to 5th grade students share their proposals to relaunch the lunch experience at their school. There were a few issues that the students were looking to solve:

  • Students who get hot lunch need healthy, delicious food choices everyday to include vegetarian choices in order to avoid food and money waste and get nutrition for the rest of the day
  • Students need more time in order to play, eat, line up, and transition to be relaxed.
  • Students need choices and flexibility in seating in order to feel valued, respected, and trusted.
  • Students need a way to change the music at lunch in order to have amore enjoyable lunch experience.

Regardless of the need being solved, a theme quickly emerged – Agency. Or lack thereof.

One student explained in his presentation: “In the classroom we are always told to be ‘Be quiet!’ by the teacher. And then at lunch we are told to ‘Be quiet!’ by the lunch aides. When do we get to unwind and let our energy out?”

Another student shared that “KidzBop is dreadful,” so as a reward for behaving, it is truly missing the mark.

Other students shared that the playground should be a place to play freely, and not be limited in choices by the adults supervising the area.

And when it came to food, many were in agreement that having parents place orders at the start of the month did little to satisfy their taste buds later in the month.

Regardless of the need being solved, a theme quickly emerged during the presentations – Agency. Or lack thereof. These students wanted to have input into the routines impacting their day. They wanted choice. They wanted freedom. They wanted voice.

My Post (3)

Their proposals were all awesome: Music committees to analyze lyrics of songs requested by students so as to create playlists; student-generated rules to provide equitable access to playground; and healthy food vending machines that not only provide choice, but also generate revenue for the campus.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. If they are to lead well, we must give them opportunity to develop agency. You never know… they just may do a better job than we are!

P.S. I’ll be excited to hear what changes result! Final presentations are next week, right before Spring Break. Stay tuned…

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The other day I walked in to the art classroom at one of our elementary schools. Third graders were on a mission.

As artists, how might we use our creative voices to affect change in

  • our school?
  • our community?
  • our world?


To get humans to use less plastic and/or dispose of plastic properly to protect our ocean creatures.

In order to tell the story of plastic’s toxic impact on the ocean, students planned a public art piece depicting the ocean, with the creatures and such made of plastic. It was ambitious, and meaningful. And they needed the help of the art teacher.

When I entered the classroom, it was hard to even find the art teacher. She wasn’t in front teaching the class. She was sitting with a group of students, encouraging them, inspiring them, and helping them turn their vision in to a reality. Other students were spread around the room working with different tools: saws, drills, paints, wire.

I also couldn’t find the classroom teacher! Oh wait…there she is. Not monitoring the room, or sitting in the corner grading papers, but she was making art right there with the students. With her goggles on. As equals.

Each student I talked to knew not only what he or she was creating and how it would tie in to the art piece, but each student also described for me why this art piece was important. I was told about jellyfish dying with plastic wrapped around them and dead fish full of plastic in their stomach. They asked me about my plastic usage, and if I knew how much of what I used would end up floating in the ocean.

They had a reason for their art. A passion for their art. Activists for a cause important to them.

It was truly a moment when I said, “Yes! This is what learning should be like for students every day!”

The Importance of Awe in Education

This is what it’s all about:

“We should be teaching our youth with the intrinsic rewards of awe as opposed to the extrinsic reward of grades. It is what’s needed to nurture a generation that is excited to learn, improve themselves, and contribute to human progress. Such is where awe-based education will re-define the entire learning experience.”

From: Let Me Blow Your Mind: The Importance of Awe in Education
— Read on

Before I arrived at the SXSW EDU conference, I spent time looking through the conference app, marking sessions that correlated with goals I have for my department. Little did I realize just how much I was going to learn at this conference, and the bulk of it did not happen in those sessions. It happened in the personal connections I made. In the friendships I built.

Those connections will fuel my soul and keep my mind churning with ideas and possibilities long after I forget the “how to” details of the sessions. They remind me why I am an educator; they share in my passions; they push my thinking; and they teach me through their actions and reflections. Can’t get that in a one hour session on learning environments!

Next time you head to a conference, ask yourself, “What friendships will I form?” before you ask yourself, “What new things might I learn?”


Bashing into Walls to Change the World

In the book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant writes, “When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.”

He explains that people blame the absence of creativity for the lack of originality in the world. (Be honest: Have you said recently, “Why can’t they come up with a new movie idea instead of just refashioning old ones?” I have…)

Grant surmises that people think society would  be better off if only we could come up with some more novel ideas. “But in reality,” Grant explains, “the biggest barrier to originality is not idea generation—it’s idea selection…It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality—if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it—but this turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.” And when focusing solely on quality, “many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection.”

This reminded me of a Steve Jobs interview in which Jobs stated:


“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Creativity, originality, change… they all require stepping outside the societal norms and limitations placed on us. They require taking risks; ideating and iterating many, many, many times; and understanding that the capacity for creativity is in all of us, but maybe, just maybe, creativity requires work and a commitment to let all those ideas flow! Lots and lots of them. And of course, bashing into walls and living life outside the neat little world!

So how do we provide the conditions for students to bash into the walls (okay, maybe not literally!)?How do we encourage the mass generation of ideas instead of obsessively refining the few? How do we provoke students to question, or even change, rules and systems?  In other words, how do we bash into the walls of a traditional, high-stakes educational system and empower students to become change agents (like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are trying to do!)?

Educational systems, structures, and beliefs create enormous pressure on students to “get it right” (as determined by people no smarter than us) the first time. One assessment to measure if you learned the chapter content. One essay to determine if you met the writing standard benchmarks. One grade for each assignment. One SAT exam. Each of these with its own set of rules and systems to prove conformity to societal expectation.

When students go against those rules and systems (again, as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are), adults get agitated and seek to put them back in their place. And yet, when students become adults and seek out jobs, the workforce bemoans their lack of originality and creative problem solving skills. 

Our role as teachers and administrators should be, then, to bash into the traditional walls to provide students opportunities to:

  • Think and act like a designer
  • Solve real world problems
  • Connect with industry experts to experience the world of work from people living it, and not from a textbook
  • Use play as a way to learn
  • Learn from and with students, and not just teach to them 
  • Experience personalized learning that embraces strengths, passions, and ideas

What walls are you bashing into? How about your students?  I’d love to hear about your classroom or school experiences.

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6a00e5505caf4688330133ecfa78d3970b-800wi.jpgI’ve been mulling this question/idea around in my head for about a week now. Hoping my braintrust crew can help me out…

As we provide design thinking opportunities out to students, I’m wondering how we capitalize on the empathy when the prototyping and feedback cycle ends.

For example, the plight of the homeless has been a theme for a few classes of students throughout the district. Students watched an edited version of Tony the Movie, which follows Tony, a San Diego man who is trying to reverse his homelessness situation. After the movie, students had the unique opportunity of meeting both Tony and the movie’s director. They asked some important questions of Tony about how he access resources, what he most needs, and how being homeless feels.

Students have responded to the experience in different ways. At one school, 4th grade students developed a needs statement around Tony needing to stay connected so as to access resources, and therefore, a way to keep his cell phone charged was critical. At another school site, 6th grade students are building tiny home prototypes for people in need, to include homeless, wounded veterans, and others.

In both scenarios, the prototype will resemble a makerspace project – cardboard, glue, pipe cleaners, etc. The feedback loop will involve discussions around how well the prototype fit the needs statement, and did the elevator pitch clearly convey both the need and the method of addressing it.

But then what?

What about the students who truly connected with Tony and the struggles of homelessness? Their prototypes are not being manufactured, so what CAN they do? Do we just say, “Thanks for the great project” and then move on to our next Common Core standards-aligned lesson?

How can we bring that empathy to life and move it from a cardboard prototype to an opportunity for advocacy?

Some advocacy ideas I’ve been tossing around for students*:

  1. Write your local politicians, explaining the project and what was learned, followed by a request for call to action. (In this case, perhaps students could ask for safe places for people to sit and let their phones charge.)
  2. Share your learning and needs statement with three adults and ask them ways in which to get involved, or better yet, tell them how to get involved.
  3. Create a public outreach campaign for Open House night.
  4. Fundraise for a local charity that supports the cause learned about.
    *Our students are K-6 so the list should differ for older students.

Including an advocacy option for students keeps the empathy focus of design thinking in front. It helps students see how ideas can become action, and how voice can create change.

So what else could we add to the list? How are you supporting students to become advocates for change?

This was a fascinating read the other night…

From: Making the World a Better Place Starts with a Really Good Story

Kathleen: One of the things I saw in the organizations that I interviewed is that they prioritize storytelling, not only at the executive director or CEO level, but at every single level of the organization. Everyone within the organization can be a brand ambassador for the cause, whether it’s a staff member who happens to be at a cocktail party and comes across a donor, or whether it’s a beneficiary talking to a funder about the effectiveness of the work.

Some of the organizations that I interviewed actually did storytelling practice in their staff meetings. does this storytelling roulette where they spin a wheel, and on the spot, a staff member has to tell a story about a project that they worked on. It’s that repetitive practice that really helps build storytelling skills.

Nadine: One of the great benefits of doing that is that within the organization, it builds cohesion and alignment around the messaging and the brand. It’s really a powerful internal development tool, as well as an external development tool.

How are you empowering both staff and students to tell the story of learning at your site? I just spent a day of professional learning with every teacher in our district. Based on an activity in Ron Ritchhart’s Creating Cultures of Thinking, we looked at the story of learning we were told growing up through beliefs, behaviors, expectations, etc. Phrases such as compliance, tracking, and worksheets kept rising up.

Our district has already spent a year researching what education should look like for our students. We met with industry experts, read countless books, went to conferences across the country, and most importantly, talked to our stakeholders: students, parents, staff, and community.

With this information, as well as some video and article reads during our professional learning day, we began crafting a new story of education; one that values the unique geniuses of all students through strong instructional practices that promote student agency, collaboration, personalization, cultural intelligence, and design thinking. Our new story has much different phrases:

Word Clouds from New Sticky Notes

So how do we build a storytelling culture amongst all our stakeholders? That’s the next chapter we’re writing.

How are you telling your story? Do you have a storytelling culture, or is a lone storyteller writing your book?

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“Ideas are cheap. Execution is everything.” — Chris Sacca (on Shark Tank)

Makerspaces are fun. I love seeing students discover new ideas, and new ways to represent those ideas, within a makerspace. There’s just something magical about turning twine, an egg carton, and a plastic spoon into a prototype for a prosthetic arm.

But today I saw a twist on the makerspace concept. 5th grade students, ideating and designing prototypes for a Shark Tank product and pitch they were developing, had to strategically “purchase” makerspace supplies within the confines of a budget. Every pipe cleaner, every egg carton, had a cost associated, and project teams found out today that they have only $40 allocated to build the prototype. Need to hire an expert to drill a hole for you? There’s a cost. Want to try to do it yourself? Sure, but you’ll need to rent the drill. Buy 6 pipe cleaners but only need 3? Sorry, no refunds. Maybe another project team will buy your surplus materials, but chances are, they’ll want a reduced price.

For some, this may seem like a stifling of the makerspace experience. But for these students, understanding the cost to build the prototype is important. Tamara, the school Library Tech, uses her experience as a former Product Manager to teach students how businesses develop, build, and market new products so that students can create a solid business plan to present to the Shark Tank panel. The panel, consisting of local business leaders in technology, real estate, and angel investing, are looking for products that not only engage the target user, but have a profit margin that will earn them money.

“Schools are turning to makerspaces to facilitate activities that inspire confidence in young learners, and help them acquire entrepreneurial skills that are immediately applicable in the real world” (NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition, p. 39).

“Schools are turning to makerspaces to facilitate activities that inspire confidence in young learners, and help them acquire entrepreneurial skills that are immediately applicable in the real world” (NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition, p. 39). These students are making so much more than a prototype in the makerspace; They are making their way into the future with the skills that matter most.


Laura presented the idea of “personalization of learning,” meaning more in how does the teacher understand the student, build on their interests, and create learning opportunities for the student.  I can get behind this idea.

The personalization of learning creates the opportunity for more depth and authenticity, whereas “personalized learning” seems to be more about knowing the “stuff”.                                                      – George Couros

When George Couros mentioned me in his post, “Personalized Learning Vs Personalization,” I was honestly a bit surprised when I started to receive tweets and messages asking for more information, because I just assumed everyone saw it the same way as I did. And then, serendipitously, an article in my inbox called “A Confession and a Question on Personalized Learning” explained the problem with personalized learning, as it is constructed now.

Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify, shared how computerized personalized learning programs are failing to live up to the promise. Not only have they not been able to map out a scope and sequence for learning, they don’t know how to measure truly where students are and what they need, and the library of lessons that are needed to teach students is only about 5% complete. But more important than all that, Berger writes is that:

Just because the algorithms want a kid to learn the next thing doesn’t mean that a real kid actually wants to learn that thing.

So we need to move beyond this engineering model. Once we do, we find that many more compelling and more realistic frontiers of personalized learning opening up.

Which brings me to the question that I hope might kick off your conversation: “What did your best teachers and coaches do for you—without the benefit of maps, algorithms, or data—to personalize your learning?”

In asking the question of what the best teachers and coaches do to personalize learning, we get at the heart of this topic. Personalization is, at its core, about relationships. It’s about knowing your students as unique human beings, and then finding ways to let them explore their sense of self through experiences that are not laid out, step by step, in a neat package by the teacher but rather require the students to find their own way to the finish line.

An example:

Over the past month, third graders at one of our schools have been studying the Kumeyaay Native Americans. An area of focus, placed by the teachers, was on culture and traditions. As the Kumeyaay adapted to outside influences, and disruptions to their way of life, they found ways to preserve their traditions for future generations. As the culmination to this unit, students participated in a weeklong Design Sprint.

Objective: How might we understand the Kumeyaay journey of change over time and their desire to retain cultural customs, so as to better understand how to tell our own story in an ever-evolving time?

To kick off the week, students heard stories from a Kamishibai storyteller. They discussed the elements of storytelling, and participated in an improv activity called “Pass the Gift” to explore how body gestures can be used to convey a story.

From there, we asked students to think about an important tradition in their family. Using a chalk talk thinking routine, students wrote a tradition down on butcher paper. After conducting a gallery walk to see what everyone else wrote, students came up with categories for the different tradition types – topics ranged from dinner with the family to summer vacations to SuperBowl parties.

And then the true personalization happened… students were told to decide on the best method to preserve the story of that tradition. They didn’t have to write an autobiography, with 5 paragraphs and a hook opener. They had to really think about what could not only best capture their story, but what would the user (their family) respond to best. The mediums chosen varied: movies, slideshows, stop-motion animation, painting, sculptures, comic strips, written narratives, and even a few Kamishibai story boxes!

After students finished their projects, they shared them with 6th grade buddies to receive feedback. They’ll adjust the prototypes after break to prepare them for Open House. One teacher commented, after the Design Sprint ended, “The students shared their projects today with their sixth grade buddies and it was truly one of the most powerful moments we have ever witnessed in the classroom.”

Personalization can take many forms. In this case, the artistic medium not only let students express themselves creatively, but it also provided a way for both the introvert and the extrovert, the verbal-linguistic and the logical-mathematical, the second language learner and the gifted child, to connect with the academic standards in a meaningful, relevant way.

** This is the first in a series of posts on Personalization of Learning. Sign up to receive an update when I post. Type your email address in the box and click the “Subscribe” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Today, my Design Engineering team, along with two 6th grade teachers, had the pleasure of engaging in a Google Hangout with Ellen Deutscher, co-founder of #DTK12Chat, inventor of Design Dot cards, and just an overall awesome Design Thinker, teacher, and human being. The original intent of the call was to discuss Design Dots. If you haven’t yet seen Ellen’s Design Dots, it’s a deck of 50 cards with quick ideas to integrate design thinking into ELA instruction.

What is design thinking?

Quickly, the conversation became a rich conversation around how design thinking creates a mindset shift for students. When teachers build in students the core abilities needed to navigate the design thinking process, students not only develop a greater understanding of how to use design thinking processes to solve problems, but they also become more empathetic to the world around them. They begin to see needs in the world, and act as changemakers. But in order to make that thinking shift, teachers need to be intentional in using the language of design thinking in all they do, and not just during design thinking challenges. Key to this is realizing that design thinking does not have to be a start to finish project. It can happen in “little bites,” Ellen reminded us. Each element – empathy, define, ideate prototype, test – can stand on its own or be combined with the others, depending on the task at hand.

Consider, during the course of a school day, the myriad of tasks students are completed. Now tweak them to reflect the design thinking approach. Can you ideate when writing an essay? What about when working to solve a math problem? When discussing story characters, can students build empathy for those characters? Can they define the problem the character is facing, and then develop a needs statement? How can students prototype during science labs? And test those prototypes? When the language becomes part of what teachers and students use throughout the day, students realize that Design Thinking is not just a project done once a year like a science fair. It’s a catalyst for change.

When asked how to show parents the value in integrating design thinking with standards in the classroom, Ellen pointed us to Mary Cantwell, creator of DEEP Design Thinking. Mary, Ellen told us, had generated a list of the skills she observed students demonstrating through a design thinking experience.

Not surprisingly, these skills match up with our district’s “Skills That Matter Most,” one of three key levers in our five year plan to ignite student genius by transforming the learning experience. And also not surprisingly, these skills are often listed by employers as being in high demand for the employees they hire.

So how might we develop the design thinking mindset in today’s students so as to help them develop the skills that matter most for their future success? Well, for starters, we can do it one bite at a time.

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