All posts by Jonathan Olsen

About Jonathan Olsen

Director of Secondary Education for Randolph Township Schools

ASCD Conference on Teaching Excellence (Day 3)

Denver Convention Center (and a giant blue bear)

Today is the last day of the conference with sessions scheduled for only the morning. It’s been an eventful three days here. I was able to attend two sessions today. Here are some thoughts about what I was able to learn about as the convention came to a close.

Session VIII: Crafting student-friendly performance assessments

This session was led by Eric Carbaugh who is an associate professor at James Madison University. It was immediately clear that Eric was an expert in assessment as he gave an engaging presentation on the idea of performance-based assessments. For Eric, performance assessments offer teachers the opportunity to gather information about student understanding, knowledge, and skills in a more authentic and engaging manner than afforded by traditional tests. This has exactly been the focus of all of our district schools as we have worked to create assessments that capture a student’s ability to synthesize information instead of just focusing on information recall. Eric spent a great deal of time discussing the concept of transfer and how it is essential in performance-based assessments.

Eric clearly laid out what his vision for transfer is. For Eric, transfer is not…

  • Simple recall
  • Relying exclusively on mnemonics or rules
  • Repeating knowledge in the same or similar context
  • Repeating the same type of exercise over and over
  • Repeating learning

Transfer is…

  • Higher order thinking
  • Being able to articulate the WHY behind decisions and solutions
  • Effectively applying and adapting prior learning to novel and complex situations
  • Using understanding to evaluate or create something new
  • Transforming learning

Eric shared some exemplar transfer goals which all hit upon his criteria for being effective performance-based assessments.

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Eric uses Wiggins and McTighe’s GRASPS framework for performance based assessments. I

have followed Wiggins and McTighe’s work for years and appreciated hearing someone continue to build on their work on transfer. I’ve been surprised during this conference by how little I’ve heard of transfer and Understanding By Design (Wiggins and McTighe’s curriculum framework) in general. For me, UBD is the backbone of curriculum and assessment. As you can likely tell, I could write at length about UBD, transfer, and this presentation. To summarize, Eric gave the audience time to develop transfer tasks using GRASPS and to discuss how authentic the tasks would be for students. The topic of rubrics was also discussed and Eric shared some ideas on how to develop rubrics that clearly articulate learning goals. Eric’s slide deck (which I’m not able to share here) is incredibly valuable and we will use it and many of his resources as we continue to develop curricula in our district with an eye on transfer and performance-based assessments.

One last thing…

Eric shared this video about a school district in Pennsylvania and their efforts to implement performance-based assessments. I’m familiar with this series on Edutopia but thought it important to share here.

Session IX: World-class schools: What they are and how we get there

James Stronge closed out the conference with a final keynote address about the future of American education. James is the founder of the Stronge model of evaluation that our school district has used for the last four years. While he is a professor at William and Mary, he has always been willing to work with our school district to refine how we evaluate and to answer any questions we might have. While extremely prominent in the field of education, James has always been amazingly accessible. He is a very talented person and I have looked forward to hearing him speak at this conference.

“Will it improve kids’ lives?” –James Stronge

James stressed the need for schools to create men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done. The need to do so is paramount, as the world is only becoming more and more competitive. During his presentation, he shared a story about the impact of globalization on his college. About ten years ago only 2 or 3 students from China were enrolled in the law program at William and Mary. Today, over 40 students from China are enrolled. “Getting a place at the table is getting more and more competitive,” he said to the audience. James expanded on this point by sharing data that supported the increasingly competitive global market our students will enter. The data below, in particular, I found very telling.

The share of 25-34 year-olds in the United States with college degrees in 2030  is projected to decline while China and India’s population of graduates will increase. The point of this data is to demonstrate just how competitive the world will be in the future and how much it is changing. For James, American schools must continue to innovate with an eye on ensuring our graduates can compete globally. Ideas like attracting better teachers and leaders to the profession, incorporating play into the school day, and working to build better relationships with students were discussed at length. In the end, for James is comes down to teacher and leader effectiveness. “If you want world class schools, you need world class teachers,” he summarized. For James, “Good leaders + good teachers = good schools.” I think this nicely summarizes his presentation; this goal should be the driving force for all school districts.

“When is the last time you saw “joy” in a school or district’s mission statement?” –James Stronge

Wow! As you can see, today was a good day. Overall, this was an excellent conference to attend and I’m fortunate that our school district supports this type of professional development. Meeting like-minded educators from across the United States can pay immediate dividends as new ideas and resources are shared and ultimately implemented to improve the classroom experiences of our students. This was my first ASCD conference. I will certainly look to attend in the future.

Please excuse errors…typing fast!

ASCD Conference on Teaching Excellence (Day 2)

It’s always interesting to see what kinds of session topics are given at a conference as I think it can tell you a great deal about current trends in education. Some of the dominant topic themes I’ve noticed at Teaching Excellence are whole child, formative assessment, growth mindset, brain-based teaching strategies, equity, rigor, project-based learning, relationships, gamification, personalized learning, and observation. All sessions seem to be focused in some way on direct classroom application which is refreshing. There does not seem to be an overemphasis on computers and software which can sometimes dominate conferences such as these. I like that this conference is focused almost entirely on what happens or should happen in a classroom. Almost all of the strategies I’ve encountered during this conference are free to implement. That’s pretty cool.

After spending two days here, it also appears that there are few sessions on data analysis and this is disappointing. Many presenters discuss assessment strategies but do not address how these assessments should appear in a grade book or how they should be monitored by teachers to chart student progress over a marking period or year. I would love to see a presentation or two on this. It always seems to me that presenters skirt the issue of grades–even when talking about assessment. I would also like to see sessions on how to best use district-level data in efforts to improve student academic achievement. With such an emphasis nationally on standardized tests, it would be interesting to see how districts or researchers are using the data they acquire to inform the decision-making process (or not).

Anyway, day two at ASCD is another full day with some interesting sessions scheduled for the day. Below is a snapshot of what I was able to attend.

Session V: The art and science of teaching 10 years later: A conversation with Robert Marzano

This session was led by the famous Robert Marzano who has done much over his career in the fields of observation and supervision. Bob’s book The Art and Science of Teaching was published ten years ago. This talk dealt with how his work has transformed education and how it might continue to influence the field in future years. Bob shared many stories about his career, things he got right, and things he got wrong. I’ve always been a fan of Robert Marzano as he is a thoughtful person and an advocate for effective teaching and leadership.

Session VI: Improving school culture and climate to support student achievement

This session was presented by Charles Woods and Robin LeClaire, two elementary principals in Indianapolis. Charles and Robin shared a great deal of behavioral data they collected about students as building principals in efforts to tackle problems they felt were impacting school culture. Both principals work in schools with high levels of poverty and they explained how they use positive approaches to improve school culture and ultimately to get students to improve their behavior. Charles and Robin focus on the climate in their buildings as they believe it impacts everything that goes on during the school day. One video series they have used with students to promote positive learning environments and good behavior is by the YouTube star PrinceEa. These videos seem interesting and I had never seen them before. Here is an example of one of PrinceEa’s videos Charles and Robin recommend:

I liked this video and there are many more on YouTube. Both presenters shared data that supported that their focus on culture did likely impact student achievement. As behavioral referrals to the main office declined in both buildings, student assessment scores improved. It was great to see data being used to help support the success of school improvement efforts.

Session VII: Using escape room methodology to promote meaningful learning

Gamification is certainly an important issue at this year’s Teaching Excellence conference. In this session, two educators from California shared their passion for using escape rooms to teach executive function or specific curriculum standards. If you are unfamiliar with what an escape room is, this Newsweek article will help. Jon Cassie and Tracy Wazenegger shared how they have used escape rooms to gamify lessons to improve critical thinking and to teach perseverance. They explained how escape rooms work, how they are designed, and how to begin building them for students or staff. Our administrative team went to escape rooms last summer, having an absolute blast in the process. It was such a great experience and was the best team building exercise I have been a part of. Using more games in the classroom, like escape rooms, can go a long way in creating a stimulating classroom environment. I think any opportunity we can take to vary what we do with students can help keep them active and interested. An escape room or scavenger hunt-type activity can be a welcome opportunity for students to work together to solve problems and participate in a shared experience. Jon and Tracy are clearly experts in gamification and I enjoyed some of the innovative approaches they have used to bring this to their students.

The sessions at ASCD are longer than most conferences with some lasting up to two hours. A few sessions makes for a long but productive day. I’m looking forward to a few more sessions tomorrow.

Please excuse errors as I have typed quickly during conference sessions.

ASCD Conference on Teaching Excellence (Day 1)

I am fortunate to be able to attend ASCD’s annual conference for teaching excellence held this year in Denver, Colorado. I’ll share my thoughts here on this blog along with some of the interesting things I have seen and heard. Today is the first day of the conference with many fantastic sessions planned–I was able to get to four of them.

Session I: Using guided inquiry to promote equity in the math classroom

Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Steele), Productive Group Work (Frey), Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Dweck), Mathematical Mindset (Boaler)

In this session, Nick Counts who is the math chair at Culver Academies in Indiana shared some of the things he has done to make math accessible to all students regardless of race. Nick shared four books that have made a fundamental difference on how he understands math instruction (right). Of the four, I am familiar with Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindset but have not read the others. They seem like interesting books and are worthy of checking out. Nick also shared some of the strategies he uses to ensure all students remain interested in math.

  • Make the problems relevant to your students–ensure the questions asked of students will engage all of them.
  • Decide as a group of math faculty what you want to see when students are working in groups. During group work, expectations for each group should be visible for all learners.
  • Assess group work using rubrics. Teachers should assess how students work in groups, not just the final product.

The PowerPoint from this presentation can be found here.

Session II: Making real-time formative assessment moves that make a difference

This session was hosted by Brent Duckor, a professor at San Jose State University, and Carrie Holmberg, a researcher also at San Jose State. I was looking forward to this session as I am familiar with Dr. Duckor’s books on formative assessment and a 2014 article he wrote in ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine (link here). This session focused entirely on the role formative assessment should play in the classroom. We have focused a great deal on formative assessment in our school district over the past few years so I was interested in hearing from these two experts. These are some key takeaways:

  • Brent and Carrie started the session by having everyone fill out a 3×5 card asking attendees to write down a “burning question.” They both used these questions later in the presentation. I thought this was a great way to start a presentation at a conference.
  • Both Carrie and Brent were high school teachers earlier in their careers which gave them credibility to speak about how assessment can be realistically used in the classroom.
  • Formative assessment was a term coined in the late 1990s.
  • Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black’s 1998 essay on formative assessment “Inside the Black Box” is considered the beginning of formal studies on formative assessment. (I already had read this article so shout out to me).
  • Hattie found that formative assessment is top 3 out of 138 educational influences on learning. “We have hard data that soft data in the classroom matters.”
  • We should chart how many students we have 1:1 interaction with during a class period.
  • This slide was shared and I thought it nicely summed up what this presentation was about:

In short, this was one of the best conference presentations I have attended. It was very impressive.

Session III: Coteach SMART: Coteaching and the highly engaged classroom

This session was presented by Susan Hentz who is an educational consultant. She presented on effective models for classroom delivery with an emphasis on coteaching. Throughout her presentation, she modeled the effective communication that general education and special education teachers must have. Both must learn to communicate. When looking at coteaching, conversation and planning has to start before the class period starts.

“What value are you bringing into the room as a special educator?” –Susan Hertz

Susan shared some key strategies that I thought were important to consider when developing a coteaching classroom:

  • Use color or bold print on your handouts and slides to make sure important words or concepts jump out.
  • Both general education and special education teachers must focus on executive function. Coteachers need to be aware of how every child’s disability impacts learning and make proper modifications/accommodations.
  • Coteachers need to listen to each other. Oftentimes, people do not listen to understand; people listen to respond.

Session IV: Making teachers better, not bitter: Balancing evaluation, supervision, and reflection

This session featured Tony Frontier who is a noted author on educational topics and Paul Mielke who is a superintendent in Wisconsin. Both presenters spoke about the current evaluation process and how it does little (in their opinion) to encourage and support expertise.

Here are the session notes from Tony and Paul.

Please excuse typos as I have been typing fast during each session.


Free (and impressive) SAT Practice


You are likely familiar with the Khan Academy and their free online videos that have helped revolutionize the concept of flipped learning since they first started to appear a few years ago. Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy has appeared in TED Talks, has been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, and has garnered almost 3 million followers on his Academy’s YouTube account. Recently, the College Board and Khan Academy have created a series of free, personalized practice programs for students to help prepare them for the redesigned SAT.

In an interview with EdSurge, Sal Khan explained how the partnership came about: “So the College Board said, ‘When we launch the new SAT, we want it to come with test prep—but not like it’s usually conceptualized.’ Students should get familiar with the test, but we wanted to do it in a way so that students could learn skills that will make them more college-ready.” After signing up, students will have access to SAT practice tests, interactive practice questions, and they will also get a personalized practice program. As students take practice tests and questions they will get instant feedback about what they missed and how they can do better. If this sounds a lot like what a tutor will do, you’re right. But this is free.

Khan and the College Board’s initiative works by using a diagnostic exam or a student’s PSAT scores and then creates a personalized tutoring schedule complete with SAT-like questions designed to prepare students for the exam.

This resource is available at

College Board / Khan Academy Free SAT Practice

Pros: Free, Personalized, Interactive, Instant Feedback, Full-Length Practice Tests, Tutoring When You Need It, Strong Privacy Agreement, No Ads

Cons: Account Needed, Personal Information Will Be Collected (But Not Sold), No 1:1 Interaction 

Creating a Maker Culture

“The emergence of maker culture depends a great deal on our understanding that different people learn through different means. Some are auditory learners, and some are visual learners. Yet another group learns best by doing. These are the makers.” –William Craig in Forbes

Over the past few months I have written about our efforts to turn a room in our district’s high school into a makerspace. While the makerspace will always be evolving with the addition of new materials and technology, we can say for now that it is done and ready for use. The first order of business once the room was completed was to begin instilling in our students an idea that can best be summarized as the maker culture. As William Craig explained in Forbes magazine, the maker culture leans heavily on a constructivist approach to

Students work with littleBits to create a city.
Students work with littleBits to create a city.

education–that is the notion that learning is best done through doing. In a sense we all probably understand that one of the best ways to learn something is to do it yourself. Trial and error and intellectual risk taking are all part of this makerspace learning experience. American history is filled with stories of makers who tinkered around, explored how things work, and ultimately changed the world forever. From Edison to Wozniak, the maker culture has been an important part of the American experience. As educators, we need to ensure our students are familiar with this. The maker culture in schools is one that encourages students to explore new technology, to collaborate with others, to use materials in new ways, and to ultimately learn by doing. Maker culture is about breaking down barriers and making new technology and ideas accessible in a low-risk environment. Since our makerspace opened, we have been working hard to bring this maker culture mindset to all our students.

To open the makerspace we planned for a series of Saturday morning makerdays for students in our school district. We have invited elementary and middle school students to come into the high school’s space and make. With support from our board of education and education foundation, we have hosted two of these makerdays for students and can see a maker culture beginning to develop. For elementary students, we created a challenge where teams of students had to learn about circuits and the electricity grid, then build their own cities powered by littleBits. Our young makers had a blast and built some amazing cities as you can see in this gallery.

We also hosted a makerday for middle school students that featured three engineering design challenges using an old invention–the popsicle stick. Students were tasked with creating a catapult that can fire a marshmallow the farthest, building a bridge that can hold the most weight, and finding a way to protect an egg so it will not break when dropped from fifteen feet high. The pictures below show some of the amazing bridges students were able to build in forty minutes using only popsicle sticks, glue, and about two feet of string. The winning design spanned over fourteen inches and was able to hold about thirteen pounds of sand!

We will host additional makerdays this year with the goal of creating a district-wide vertically articulated makerspace culture. Like all makers, we have learned a ton in the process of putting these events together. Not everything has been perfect, and we will continue to refine our makerday approach. The one constant has been our talented students who are able to work collaboratively to make amazing inventions. They are beyond impressive. We hope they will be influenced by their time in the makerspace and continue to embody the maker culture by tinkering, exploring, and inventing.

Our Makerspace

A panoramic view of our makerspace.

I am proud to announce that our high school’s makerspace is now open for business. Called STEAMWORKS, this space is for students to build and explore new technology (and even take apart old technology). We have spent the last few months finding a space, funding, and materials to bring the maker movement to our students. We were inspired by many of the top schools in the country that have built makerspaces on their campuses. UC Berkeley, Case Western University, Cornell University, and MIT are a few that now have makerspaces for students to explore emerging tech. Overall, recent estimates put makerspaces in 60 colleges throughout the nation where students can do things like learn to print in 3-D or build a drone.

“The Maker Movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing.”

–Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager in Ed Week Teacher

John Booske, a professor and chair of the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Madison-Wisconsin had this to say about makerspaces in a recent article: “We’re going to see more and more adoption of makerspaces as institutions are able to. They are one model of a larger trend which is moving towards active learning.” For Booske, makerspaces are part of the trend in education “towards personalized and blended learning, the flipped classroom model and a more collaborative learning environment.” This trend can be easily seen in the student-run makerspace lab on the campus of MIT called “MakerWorks” that opened last year. This lab is a place where “students, faculty, and staff are allowed to work freely on any project they choose” and “consists of prediction, prototyping, and validation tools to support a wide variety of projects.” MakerWorks has become a popular place on MIT’s campus as students have embraced the open culture and accessibility of the technology it contains. It’s imperative that schools begin to offer places where students can direct their own learning while having access to resources not encountered during the traditional school day. Learning to work with classmates, teachers, and members of the community can help inspire students to take charge of their learning while also preparing them for the types of experiences they may encounter in the future.

Below are pictures of our new makerspace. We will offer our first makerspace camp this Saturday morning for elementary students in our school district (it “sold out” in a few hours).



What do you want to make?

Makerspace Makerdays


Thanks to the generous support of the Randolph Education Foundation, we are pleased to announce four free makerspace events at Randolph High School for middle and elementary school students. We are calling these special programs “Makerdays” and will be running them on Saturday mornings at the high school’s new STEAMWORKS makerspace. If interested, please click on the program images below for more information and to sign up. These programs are available for Randolph Township students only.

Program Update: Making With Circuits and Engineering Design for Elementary Students are SOLD OUT. If cancellations happen, tickets will become available again. Other sessions are filling up fast!

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