A Pass Group - Data Informed Instruction

If Only We Knew What We Don’t Know—Data-Informed Instruction Can Help

by Vicki Bigham

In the early 70’s I was teaching high school English to a range of classrooms of students from honors to remedial to however they then described “regular” students. I had five preparations each day and a frightening percentage of students who did not read above sixth grade level. I had not been prepared for any of this. I did not yet know terms like personalized learning, differentiated instruction, learning preferences, project-based learning, or formative assessment. But I somehow instinctively knew I needed to group students, to know what motivated each, and to meet them where they were. I wanted active learning going on in each class.

As I worked to help each student, I knew which were doing well – the ones grasping concepts, making links, applying knowledge. But what about the ones who weren’t? I was frustrated as I reviewed essays written, tests completed, worksheets filled out. For the stronger students, as well as those struggling, I wanted to understand more. What were their thought processes in getting to the final product? How did they approach a question? How many tries did they make before solving a problem? I thought if I could just empty the wastebasket and pore through their wadded up pieces of paper and series of tries, I could perhaps understand so much more.

I grew a lot from those early days of teaching. And often I wish I could return to those classrooms armed with some of the lessons I have now learned over the years. It was 1978 when I first stood behind an elementary school student working with a reading software program on a TI-99/4A computer. By today’s standards, it was rudimentary, but some of us in the Dallas Independent School District were working with Texas Instruments on early speech synthesis and development of computer-assisted instruction.

As I hovered over this young learner responding to questions and being branched to supportive correction and expanded information as needed, I felt for the first time like I had a window into what the student was thinking as she worked.

Fast forward to 21st century teaching and learning. Technology now equips teachers with a host of data – data I wanted to access and understand from those wadded up pieces of paper. With meaningful software tools embedded into the instruction, teachers can now find and understand data for each student that can help a teacher select the best instructional approach for the learner and frame relevant questions to pose.

We need to continue to expand and understand how to best make use of the technology we have to support data-informed decision making in the classroom. And we have much work yet to do in preparing and supporting teachers in their acquisition of data skills to help them improve the effectiveness of their teaching and increase student achievement.

Teachers need to routinely, systematically, and through a variety of methods, use data to assess performance progress and individualize and guide instruction. Technology is one tool in their toolbox to help support this best practice and tailor instruction to the interests and capabilities of each student.

How exciting it is for me to observe teachers in today’s classrooms using a host of ongoing assessment techniques and gaining information about students from technology-enhanced curriculum that helps guide instruction for each learner. And how critical it is that teachers have ever-expanding access to this data that they want and need to know.

Vicki Smith Bigham has over forty years experience in public and private school education as a teacher, software developer, school administrator, university professor, and industry consultant. As President of Bigham Technology Solutions, Inc., she manages a variety of product development, professional development, training, meeting planning, and marketing projects, and works with both companies and schools. She manages the EdNET Conference for MDR and serves as Professional Development Consultant for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). She is a former president of the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA), which she helped to found, and a former president of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Vicki’s career has focused on supporting educators in effective use of technology and bringing together the best ideas and people in the education marketplace to produce quality products and services for schools. She has been a pioneer and leader in helping to build a networked community of educators, industry executives and legislative policymakers, all working to improve teaching and learning through the use of technology.

Tell Me a Story: Using Children's Literature with Secondary Students

Tell Me a Story: Using Children’s Literature with Secondary Students

by Susan Nightingale, A Pass Educational Group April, Contractor of the Month

When I taught ‘at-risk’ middle school math students, I often found myself looking for ways  to engage a group of students that had basically already quit before the school year even began. One such activity involved using children’s books, designed for elementary students, to introduce mathematical concepts to my learners. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was utilizing a learning method. I just knew that everyone loves a story, and a children’s story book looks much less intimidating than the usual explanations and examples in a Pre-Algebra textbook.

In graduate school a year later, I discovered that this method has a name—narrative learning.  Marsha Rossiter defines it as connecting learners with new knowledge through the experience of a shared story (Rossiter, 2002). This method allows the learners to build new knowledge of the subject by incorporating their own experiences in story format.

Humans like to listen to and tell stories, regardless of age. These stories help put our experiences into context and provide a framework for new experiences. Teaching using stories is often effective then, because the stories provide believable, human-like experiences that involve the reader in the characters and actions and engage the reader both physically and mentally (Rossiter, 2002).

This may seem like an odd idea at this point—using a child’s book with older or even adult students, so I want to provide an example of how this narrative learning might work. A story provides the place for the learners to begin, then connect with other stories, and then to build their own.

In my middle school classroom, one of the books I used was called Less Than Zero. This image and description are from Amazon.

Figure 1: Less Than Zero by Stuart J. Murphy

“Perry the Penguin needs 9 clams to buy an ice scooter — but he’s not very good at saving. As Perry earns, spends, finds, loses, and borrows clams, a simple line graph demonstrates the concept of negative numbers.” This children’s story provides a simple example of an often confusing math concept—negative numbers. The story introduces and illustrates the concept and subject matter in a non-intimidating way.

Before reading the story, I showed the students the cover and asked them to predict the topic of the story. I would then ask the students questions like “What does it mean to be less than zero?” I also gave the students a printed number line so they could follow along with Perry the penguin’s line graph in the story. As I read the story, I showed them the pictures and began to facilitate a discussion of negative numbers and how the graph helped Perry to understand what it meant to have less than zero clams. This led into dialogue and stories about similar experiences from the students including other scenarios where ‘less than zero’ could occur i.e. temperature, sea level, distance, etc.

After allowing the students time to connect with the book and with other learner’s stories, I asked them to write and illustrate (if appropriate) their own short children’s story about negative numbers, drawing from their own experiences. Eventually the students would share, revisit, and revise their stories as their understanding of the concept increased.

Utilizing a book like Less Than Zero provides students with a story, pictures, and a little fun to organize the subject into their memory. Starting with a children’s story creates a safe environment for older students to share and create their own stories. According to Leona English, children’s literature “innocently but effectively” raises questions and prompts responses (English, 2000, p. 15). Since the book is an example for writing stories of their own, learners are not offended or degraded by the children’s story.

Stories provide coherence of our experience by creating a narrative around the subject to be learned and fitting the pieces together until they make sense. We remember stories because they put a real face on what can often be fuzzy concepts. My example involved a Pre-Algebra math concept, but this same method can apply to virtually any topic. The children’s story provides the introduction and the context, but when the students connect the story and therefore the concept to their own experiences, that’s when the learning begins. When they write their own story, they build an even stronger connection and understanding.


English, L. M. (2000). Children’s literature for adults: A meaningful paradox. PAACE Journal of
Lifelong Learning, 9, 13-23. Retrieved from ERIC database.
Rossiter, M. (2002). Narrative and stories in adult teaching and learning. ERIC Digests, 241.
Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED473147.pdf

White Board

Learn How to Use Your Smart Board in the Classroom

by Twan De Leijer of Gynzy 

Classroom teachers should understand how technology has changed the way students learn in the classroom. Many children today are exposed to computer technology at an early age at home. Most parents have computers at home and they teach their children how to use the technology for their benefit. Many young children are already playing computer games over the Internet or with other technology devices even before they enter the classroom on the first day of school.

Many teachers today may not have had the same exposure to computer technology when compared with their younger students. It is important for them to be prepared and knowledgeable about the use of interactive smart board technology. Professional development courses will teach teachers how to incorporate the use of this computer technology in the classroom. Smart boards when combined with thoughtfully prepared lesson plans can engage the attention of students, maintain high levels of motivation and encourage students to excel in their classroom studies. Once teachers have mastered the basics of using the interactive smart board technology in the classroom, they should receive ongoing technical support from school technology professionals knowledgeable about the technical aspects of using smart boards.

Student Learning Achievement is High with the Use of Smart Boards 

Students respond positively to classroom lessons taught with the aid of an interactive smart board. Using interactive computer technology and smart board displays engages the attention of young students. They are motivated to learn and study the subject material when they are able to relate to the colorful visual displays in combination with well- planned and thought out verbal explanations. Students are excited about their education in school when the lesson is combined with visual pictures and graphics.

Students share, model and demonstrate what they have learned from the interaction with the instructional lessons displayed on a smart board. They enjoy playing the role of a teacher by moving around objects on the smart board or through using the smart board to write down information learned in the classroom. They learn to master advanced critical thinking skills when they convey this acquired classroom knowledge to others. Smart boards create environments that encourage students to ask questions and learn more about a concept by exploring knowledge on their own in addition to studying the information they learn through the prepared lessons and classroom instruction of a teacher.

Ways that a Smart Board Helps with Lesson Plans

A smart board in combination with traditional teaching styles can accommodate the different learning styles of students. Tactical learners can touch and mark the smart board. Audio learners can hear the lesson and discuss key concepts and ideas. Visual learners can see graphs, pictures and other visual representations of the key lesson concepts and ideas. All learners will enjoy taking a break from routine lessons to watch an entertaining movie or other short video.

Teachers can insert images on the whiteboard and move these images around the smart board display. The press of an icon button will play pre-recorded sounds for students. Graphic displays, interesting simulations and educational multimedia activities are other ways to engage the attention of students. There are a lot of recourses out there that you can easily integrate in your lesson plans. Teachers should never stop learning new interactive whiteboard techniques or stop finding interesting educational resources to use along with the smart board. Learning to use a smart board is not as difficult as it may seem at first. Teachers will find that with practice they can learn to adapt to the use of this new technology in the classroom.

For a wonderful collection of Smart Board activities and more please visit Gynzy. 

The Value of Fun

The Value of Fun

by Stephen Gibson, Director for Social Studies Development at A Pass Educational Group

As the A Pass Content Team deliberated our Professional Development series for our contractors, it was obvious from an early stage that we wanted to avoid the typical lecture-audience idiom, or even the “how-to” video so familiar on YouTube these days.  Instead, we wanted to stress the interactivity of the workshops and actually get our associates involved in not only learning (or giving ear-service to) the practical skills they will use daily in A Pass’ projects, but demonstrating those skills as well. The manner in which we chose to have the attendees show these skills may strike you as somewhat out of character for a group of serious-minded education professionals – we decided to play a game.

Games and play are frequently stressed as important, even essential, aspects of learning at early grade levels. There are articles, websites and evenuniversity-level conferences dedicated to the furtherance of these ideas. Yet many of these concepts seem to fade as students age, and commonly disappear altogether by high school, and almost certainly beyond. While there are endless possible reasons for this, including the increasing seriousness with which we perceive ourselves as we age, it could plausibly be posited that the same values generated by lessons imbued with play/games for young children – creativity, collaboration, confidence – also resonate through similar activities for older children and adults as well.

It’s no secret that nursery rhymes from our early years impart informational nuggets that stay with us for decades thereafter. Similarly, simple mnemonic exercises that range from optical physics (Roy G. Biv), music (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge and its variants) to industrial arts (righty-tighty; lefty-loose-y) translate pieces of information into something that the brain (and perhaps the soul) finds palatable enough to keep around.  A quick poll of my colleagues old (or young) enough to remember can still cite the preamble of the United States Constitution to the melody of the Schoolhouse Rock tune (In this writer’s humble opinion, Schoolhouse Rock has never been bettered as an extracurricular vehicle for making U.S. History, Government and Civics, Multiplication, or Grammar accessible to elementary school students!).
For various and sundry reasons, we learn better when we have fun. According to Brian Blade, Director of Healthy School Communities, a program of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, an educational leadership organization, “Brain research suggests that fun is not just beneficial to learning but, by many reports,required for authentic learning and long-term memory.” Far from the criticisms that perceive the inclusion of fun in education as being clownish, “touchy-feely” and, perhaps, irresponsible, fun reduces physical and mental anxiety in very real and measurable terms, which is conducive to learning at all ages. When these barriers are overcome, engagement with content and material naturally increases. A truism? Perhaps, but all too soon forgotten once cap and gown are attained and disposed.

Fun is frequently dismissed at higher and professional education levels, often because of its connotations of child-like behavior, lack of rigorous standardization, and decreased productivity. Yet the same biological and mental processes: the reduction of anxiety, the increased levels of endorphins, epinephrine (adrenaline), and dopamine, etc. occur in adults exposed to different aspects of “fun”: laughter, positive cueing, and the joy of discovery.

We chose our game, a “scavenger hunt” of sorts, to camouflage a series of performance tasks, each of which was aligned to a specific pre-determined learning objective. The Learning Objectives were finite, could be measured on a rubric, and represented the practical acquisition and application of skills our Content Team deemed necessary for associates to have when participating and collaborating with our staff on projects with our clients. While the attendees to the workshop were doing these tasks simultaneously, this was not a race to the finish – no awards were given for speed – the only competition was within the attendees themselves as they strove to get to the next level of the game by employing the knowledge they had learned from earlier in the workshop.

We’re hoping that each attendee to the APass Professional Development series on Google Drive found their new “discovery” hidden at each level to be a “fun” aspect of the exercise.  Additionally, it is anticipated that the skills that they’ve acquired and demonstrated here will prove invaluable to them through their future APass projects.

Reflections from Jamaica

Reflections on Jamaica

by Pauline Valvo, Project Director at A Pass Educational Group

Working as a Project Director, I sometimes feel pretty removed from the field of education that captured my passion as a young adult. My first teaching job was helping inner-city youth in Chicago obtain their GEDs post-incarceration. Watching the spark of understanding flash across their faces, witnessing their pride upon graduation, mentoring them through their first jobs, and helping some of them move out of the projects to build meaningful lives was incredibly rewarding. I eventually transitioned from teaching to writing curriculum, editing, managing teams of writers and editors, and most recently to a director role. Instead of spending my days actively engaged with motivated students, now I sit in front of a computer, replying to emails, reviewing contracts, processing invoices, and ensuring deliverables are completed by their deadlines. At times, I can forget that I’m working in the education field I care so much about.

Recently, I had the privilege of spending a week in Jamaica. I taught a couple of workshops on the topics of communication and community building skills. In addition, I visited some local schools, where I had the opportunity to interact with the children and talk with the teachers. Students worked at wobbly, beaten up old wooden desks and shared dog eared textbooks, and they were proud to show me their pencils and cherished notebooks. The teachers had minimal supplies to work with, no or little computer access, and shared that they often run out of chalk to use on their faded green chalkboards. The buildings are open air and sometimes don’t have electricity. The playlot at the elementary school I visited contained only a broken swing set and tattered seesaw and was bound by barbed wire. The soccer ball I donated was a huge hit, and we engaged in a lively game of “football” during their outdoor time.

Students were dressed in pristine uniforms, polite, well-spoken, and engaging. They shared with me their dreams of being farmers, dancers, lawyers, and the older students talked of going to college in the States. The teachers were thrilled to receive donations of supplies and proud to show us what they were working on. I was surprised to learn how important standardized tests are there, and that students are tracked based on how they perform in sixth grade. The tests they use in Jamaica are based on tests used here in the United States, as many students apply to college in the US.

I was inspired and reminded of why I chose to become an educator. One of my favorite quotes came to mind, by Maimonides: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This is especially important in impoverished communities or countries. Education has the power to transform lives and cultures. What we create here in the United States impacts so many people’s lives.

Today as I worked with my spreadsheets, number crunching and revising schedules, I saw the faces of the school children and teachers in Jamaica working to pursue dreams. I thought about the hungry, dyslexic kid from inner-city Chicago trying to reason out a math question on a standardized test and the teacher whose job hangs in the balance based on test scores. I thought about the single mother who took out a loan so she could take night classes at a community college and the instructors who immigrated to the US and work three jobs to support their families.

So I’m even more committed to being part of an organization that creates quality, accessible educational materials that help educators do their jobs more effectively and efficiently. I feel honored to contribute in the ways I do, to support teams of content experts, writers, and editors, knowing that the work we do individually and collectively has the power to positively affect thousands of people’s lives. Who can resist being inspired by the purity, innocence, and unbridled possibility that shines through this photo of Lashelle?

Organized Chaos

Organized Chaos: A Characteristic of an Awesome Classroom

by Andrew Pass, CEO, A Pass Educational Group, LLC

The first time I ever heard the term “organized chaos,” I had no idea what it meant. However, it certainly didn’t sound very good, since I focused on the word “chaos.”  I thought chaos was a terrible thing and we couldn’t possibly want chaos to exist.  In time, I came to recognize the fact that since “organized” was the oxymoron of “chaos,” it couldn’t be all bad. As I learned more and more about teaching and learning, I came to cherish this state of affairs.

A situation that can accurately be described as “organized chaos” is one in which an outsider cannot see any specific pattern by which to describe the events transpiring.  However, the individual actors within the situation clearly understand what is happening. These individual actors are doing something that is organized and meaningful.  Of course, it’s important to ask for whom meaning and structure are truly important, an actor within the event or an outsider.

If we briefly consider the nature of effective learning, it’s easy to recognize that learners must see meaning and purpose in what they are learning. Learners must recognize that they will gain something useful from the investment they make in the challenge of learning.

Why is it that young children recognize this fact so easily when they constantly ask “why?”  The reward for young children is easy to understand. It’s the answer to the question that they want to know. It’s simply unfortunate that as young children grow into older children and adolescents, they so often lose this inherent thirst for knowledge. Perhaps the reason is because typical school learning is not about answering personal questions, but rather, if any questions are answered at all, they have typically been imposed from on high.

Perhaps it’s becoming obvious why I cherish a state of organized chaos in the classroom. In this state, rather than one common experience taking place, individuals or small groups are pursuing their own personal experiences. Learners are doing specific things because they find them important. People are to make their own decisions because they matter and their wishes are important. Young children are empowered to learn when they ask why. As educators, we must find ways to continuously empower all learners.

I am certainly not advocating that learners should be able to do whatever they want whenever they want. The term is organized chaos, not total chaos.

Many people, including me, would argue that it is very reasonable that, as a society, we would want to select some things that everybody should know. Those states that have adopted Common Core have made an explicit statement about a set of skills that the states believe all learners should possess. When individual states specify precise knowledge that learners should possess, they are doing the same thing. If all learning were dictated by states and local municipalities, there would be no chaos – it would all be organized.

In fact, for several decades, educational stakeholders believed that organized was the way to go. You could walk into a classroom and see the teacher standing in front of the room and students lined up in rows of desks. It was very organized and, for many students, very difficult to learn. In a society that stressed the importance of each individual, America’s students were treated as members of groups, not individuals.

Certainly we are moving into an era of far more individualized learning. Students can access information in different ways. Students do not have to read, listen to, or watch the same content to learn the same facts. But I would argue that as educators we must pay attention to something else as well.

It’s a generally accepted learning principle that people learn best by doing. Project-based learning is an important component of many successful classrooms today. Teachers are often celebrated when much active learning occurs in their classrooms. I would argue, however, that it is not a one-size-fits-all model.  Since individuals have varied interests and skills, one type of project may be very appropriate for one student and inappropriate for another. Different types of projects can have similar learning objectives, even though they are very different.

Ultimately, it is important to recognize that while the project is important as a vehicle for learning, it is the knowledge and skills that stem from the project, dictated by educational and/or political authorities, that are most important. Students will hopefully remember the knowledge and skills forever. They will undoubtedly forget the actual project. However, without a high quality project that fulfills the individual’s needs, little will be learned.

Within a classroom that exemplifies organized chaos, different students are learning in different ways at the same time.  While other might not recognize what is happening, these learners will be on their way towards acquiring essential knowledge and skills, as defined by society.


Andrew Pass is the CEO of A Pass Educational Group and has done graduate work in Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy at Michigan State University