Friday, August 28, 2015

New School Year & A New Start

This summer, I transitioned to a new job in a new district.  My new role is Director of Educational Technology for the Bristol Warren Regional School District in my home state of Rhode Island.  I am honored to join a forward-thinking district that has tremendous potential and is poised for great things to come.

You can check out my new website and blog at 

Thanks to everyone who read Flipped-History and became part of my PLN over the past 3 1/2 years. You can always reach out to me on Twitter or by email (  Keep up the great work you do for students each day, trust me it is worth it. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Discussing Blended & Mastery Learning With the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Justin Bruno, Research Associate at the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute for an episode of their Virtual Viewpoints podcast.  In the episode we discussed blended and mastery learning strategies as well as our transition to a competency-based learning system.

If interested in our discussion, you can listen to the episode on iTunes or Soundcloud.  The episode is also embedded below to listen to it directly from this site.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Students Bring War Letters to Life with Daqri's Augmented Reality App

Last week, I discussed our new World War II RAFT performance assessment and the degree of voice and choice it gave students throughout the project. We also experimented with the use of augmented reality to create more engaging displays for the gallery walk displaying the student projects.

We used Daqri to create the following AR experiences. The app brings the war letters to life by layering the student voice-over as well as providing a brief description of their role, audience, and topic.

To view the experiences, simply download the Daqri app on any iOS device, open the app, and point your device at the pictures below.  If all goes well, a colored box with the project info should appear at the top of the letter and the student voice-over should automatically begin.  Give it a shot!

This was basically a "test run" for using Daqri in the classroom. There is so much more that you can do with the app, this is just the tip of the iceberg regarding this technology's potential.  I hope to collaborate with others (such as AR guru Stewart Parker) to create engaging AR experiences throughout the next school year. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Designing a "RAFT" - World War II Performance Assessment

About midway through this semester, I decided to change things up a bit regarding the mastery progression through our course.  Up until this point, each standard had it's own stand-alone summative assessment.  After putting this system into practice, it became evident that there were some practical (and philosophical) flaws. Without going into too much detail, we decided to group multiple standards into a more comprehensive performance assessment.

My colleague Brian Germain proposed a RAFT project.  In general, students assume the role of a historical figure and have control over the following:

Role  (Ex. Arms Manufacturer, War Correspondent, FDR, Interned Japanese Citizen)
Audience (Ex. American Soldier, Military Recruiter, WWI Veteran, Self)
Format (Ex. Propaganda Poster, Letter, Political Cartoon, Radio Speech, Military Field Guide)
Topic (Ex. Wartime Industry, Pearl Harbor, Scientific Research, Ending Segregated Units)

Click here to view the entire World War II RAFT performance assessment guide.

Their final "product" depended upon the format they chose.  For instance, it may be a letter, poster, audio file, etc.  

We also tried to make the war letters and journal entries look more authentic by using techniques that make paper look old.   In the photo to the right, you can see how students were actually using tea to create this effect.

Since there were many different phases to the project, we created this template to help guide students through the process.  It included specific steps to take while also proving some graphic organizers.  Sharing this document back with us also helped Brian and I track students' progress and provide feedback and support when needed.

As for grading, the following four standards were tagged to this one performance assessment:

Craft & Structure: Comparing Points of View
Research: Selecting Relevant Sources
Research:  Conducting Sustained Research Projects
Speaking: Integrate Sources & Present in Diverse Formats

Overall, I feel that students not only enjoyed this performance task, but were better able to demonstrate proficiency in the skills since the task was much more authentic.  Students also commented that they enjoyed how much choice they had when designing the final product.

When I work on redesigning the mastery progression for next year's course, I will develop more of these performance tasks that enable students to grapple with the content in more authentic ways while also providing them with opportunities to demonstrate mastery of multiple standards in a single project.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Flipped Learning Toolkit

Jon Bergmann & Aaron Sams (pioneers of the flipped classroom) recently teamed up with Edutopia to create the Flipped Learning Toolkit.  This is an excellent collection of videos and articles designed for both those new to Flipped Learning as well as more experienced educators and administrators.

If you are interested in Flipped Learning and would like to sharing the concept with other educators and stakeholders in your community, I highly suggest checking out this series.

Click here to see the entire collection on Edutopia.

The 6 videos in this series can also be viewed below:

Rethinking Space & Time

Overcoming Common Hurdles

Is Flipping For Everyone?

Formative Assessment

Which Tech Tools Are Right For You?

Getting Stakeholders On Board

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mastery Learning Research & Case Studies

Starting next fall, our social studies department is rolling out a true mastery (competency-based) learning system across all core subjects and grade levels.  As I've mentioned in prior posts, our pilot this spring has led us to realize how much planning and preparation is needed to effectively implement this approach.  Before nailing down all of the logistical details for 2015-2016, we have decided to revisit the research on mastery learning and standards-based grading. We will also find and evaluate several case studies of effective implementation throughout the country.   

Since many of you may be considering a shift towards mastery learning and/or standards-based grading in the future, I am sharing out our Google Drive folder containing research and resources.  We will be adding more that we find pertinent and useful over the next several months.

Click here to view the "Mastery Learning / SBG Resource Folder"

*** If you come across any other research and resources that you think would be helpful, please share and it will be added to the collection!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Student Progress Monitoring With Google Doc Portfolios

Through my research and classroom experience, I've realized how critical progress monitoring is for students, particularly when they are engaged in mastery learning.  When I first attempted to tackle progress monitoring, it was focused more on the daily routine and classroom management.  This year I have realized that students need a more robust and consistent form of progress monitoring if they are to effectively gauge their skill level and track their progression through the course.

I have actually chosen a rather simple way to have students do this: a Google doc.

Yes, there are digital portfolio platforms and standards-based grading software, but for our purposes, a simple Google Doc helps students set goals, organize their evidence, track progress and reflect upon their learning experiences.

Here is the format for the students' portfolios:
Standard # __ :   [Insert standard description here...]

Evidence:  [Link / describe evidence of proficiency here...]

Reflection:  [What was difficult?  What was easy?  What learning strategies did you use?  What goals will you set moving forward? What feedback do you have for Mr. Driscoll?] 

Below you can see a screenshot from one student's portfolio: 

Another advantage of this is that I can easily access each student's portfolio document through a spreadsheet (via form submission - see screenshot to the right) and provide them with commentary and feedback throughout the semester. This has particularly helped when students start to fall behind.  For example, we just had parent-teacher conferences and I was able to go through each student's portfolio with parents to discuss progress (or lack thereof) and discuss strategies to help get them back on track.

Although this has been a very helpful way for students to organize their evidence and track their progress, I need to rethink how we should approach each unit reflection.  Results on this front have been less than stellar,  more on that next week...

Friday, March 13, 2015

Flipped Mastery Presentation from #HIBLC15

Last Saturday marked the Highlander Institute's 4th Annual Blended Learning Conference in Providence, RI.  At the conference, I had the opportunity to lead a session on "Flipped Mastery."  Embedded below (and linked here) is the slide deck from my presentation. 

I also curated a list of resources for participants about Mastery and Flipped Learning which can be accessed below or at  Feel free to share these resources with anyone you think may be interested. And as always, contact me with any questions you may have about flipping or mastery (competency-based) learning!


Flipped-Mastery Classroom
Quick Guide to Flipping Your Class
6 Inspiring Videos About Flipped Learning
Student Perspectives on Mastery Learning
Mastery Learning in Action (BETTER LESSON)
Flipped Mastery in Social Studies

In Flipped Classrooms, a Method for Mastery (New York Times 10/2013)
New Hampshire’s Journey Towards Competency-Based Education
Making Mastery Work: Executive Summary (Nellie Mae Education Foundation)
Advice for School Principals on Implementing Competency Education
5 Myths About Mastery-Based Learning (Newton)
Blending Toward Competency (Christensen Institute)
Our Transition to Standards-based Grading (Essex Middle School, NH)
What is Flipped Learning? (Flipped Learning Network)

Flip Your Class: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day
Flipping 2.0: Practical Strategies for Flipping Your Class
Flipped Learning: Gateway to Student Engagement
Formative Assessment & Standards Based Grading

Creating Instructional Videos Guide
Video Samples From Various Grade-Levels / Disciplines
Flipped History Videos (Tom’s YouTube Channel)
How to Watch Instructional Videos (Tutorial for Students by PHS Social Studies Dept.)
Screencast-O-Matic Tutorial: Screenshot Version (Doc) / Video Version
Snagit Chrome App Tutorial: Snagit Chrome App Walk-Through

Go-To Screencasting Options By Device
Chrome / Chromebook


Explain Everything


Flipped Learning Network (Professional Learning Community)
Flipped Social Studies Community Doc

Flipped Learning Network Research Page
Flipped Learning Literature Review
Flipped Learning & Democratic Education (Columbia University MA Research 12/2012

Empowering Students Through Flipped Learning (SmartBlog on Education 1/2014)
Not Just Flipped (EdTech Digest (12/2013)
Flipping Social Studies (CUE Blog 10/2013)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Bringing the World of ESPN to Our Students

The following is a guest post by Mat Barker, a social studies teacher, graduate tutor and intervention manager from Garfield Heights, Ohio.
Contributing Author Mat Barker
When I was in school, technology was just beginning to emerge to the forefront of the classroom. I remember the early days of teachers using technology, which usually consisted of PowerPoint presentations that were little more than duplicates of old 8mm slides. It was always one of two scenarios, A) the slides consisted of plain white backgrounds with monochromatic, Times New Roman type or B) It was a trip to the clipart jamboree with millions of cheesy PrintShop Deluxe images and more colors than a box of Lucky Charms. Thankfully, as teachers today, we have so many more options and design elements available to us.

During my time as a graduation tutor, I was often confronted with unmotivated, uninterested students. As a result, I am always looking for new and different ways to reach students, and that is what brought me to the flipped classroom model. After reviewing some of the videos and presentations by Tom Driscoll, I decided to begin to build a framework for my own flipped classroom.
Reaching Students on a Familiar Medium
I have always considered myself a visual learner and someone who cares as much about the presentation as I do the content. In college, I was even a graphic design major before switching to education. That being said, I decided to expand upon a presentation idea I saw on one of Tom’s videos. I was really attracted to the preview bar on the bottom of the screen and how it mimicked similar bars on sports networks like ESPN. As you can see in the images below, I expanded on Tom’s premise and mimicked the ‘Pardon the Interruption’ (PTI) graphics format.
ESPN's Pardon the Interruption
Mat's PTI-Style Presentation
The reason? I wanted to foster a greater connection with kids and develop a layout that would resonate with them. My students love ESPN and Sports Center. It is something that they watch every day. My hope is that I can attract students to the content through the presentation. The format is comfortable; it is something they are familiar with.
How Is It Done?
Believe it or not, you do not have to have super amazing Photoshop skills to create a similar presentation. The entire slideshow was designed in Google Slides and a few of the images were edited in Pixlr Editor which works as an add-on in Google Drive.  
If you are interested in creating a similar presentation you will need to play around with the shapes tool within Google Slides (Insert>Shape). After you create the desired shapes, you can then go to Pixlr Editor and use the Gradient Tool to create images that fade from one color to another. Once you do so, you have the choice of saving your image to your Google Drive or hard drive. Just insert the images into your presentation and resize as needed.
A few design notes:
  • I did create the blue box above the rundown as a space to insert a video, similar to Tom’s presentations.
  • If you are trying to truly mimic the PTI graphics, be sure to shadow the previously shown topics. You can easily do that through changing the shape and text color to a darker hue.
In closing, I would encourage you to have fun with your presentations. I often include humor in my slides to keep kids laughing and help ease the relationship between student and teacher. Also, don’t feel as though you have to take every presentation to this level. Sometimes just adding more thought into the graphic elements and not simply going with the same prefab template will really help kids to sit up and take notice.
Links to other presentations:
Big Ideas in Government – My take on the PTI presentation.
March World Madness – A concept design which is an expansion on the AP Euro Madness presentation.  
Barker's Sketch History – A link to some visual handouts I made during my time as a social studies tutor.

About the Contributing Author:

Twitter: @CoachBarker33
School: Garfield Heights High School, Garfield Heights, OH
Position: Intervention Manager – Graduation Tutor – Social Studies Teacher

Friday, March 6, 2015

Student Perspectives on Mastery Learning

Now that our "upgraded" mastery learning approach is in full swing, it's time to hear what the students think of the new system.  In the video embedded below (and linked here), PHS students share what they believe to be both the advantages and challenges to the system.  Several also offer suggestions for improving the system as we move forward.  Also check out the statistics below the video for a quick snapshot of their views regarding whether they learn more effectively in this mastery learning environment and which elements of the class are most beneficial.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Skill Building, Formative Assessments & LeBron James

Should everything a student does in class be graded?  Or, as students typically say, "does this count?"

Throughout most of my career, the answer was a resounding YES.  I thought that if it was something that I deemed important enough to assign, then into the gradebook it went. 

That all changed with mastery learning.  In the new system, any formative assessments (which I term "Skill Building Tasks" to students) are not officially scored or entered into our grading system.  In fact, they are not always required in the first place!

When explaining this to students, I refer back to my years coaching basketball.  These formative assessments are like practice for the big game.  We work on improving specific skills, particularly ones that we are weak at, in order to perform well during the big game. In this case, the "game" is equivalent to the summative assessment for each standard (summative assessments are graded on a mastery-learning scale). 

Now back to the idea of not having students complete all of the formative assessments.  My point here is that if you can prove mastery on the summative assessment without practicing with any of the skill building tasks, great!  Why should I waste your time?  

LeBron knows how to dribble...
If LeBron James had to prove mastery of dribbling a ball down the court, I don't think he would need weeks of ball handling drills to work his way up to the summative assessment. 

On the other hand, we all have students who think that they are the LeBron James of a particular skill, but are instead closer to rec league role player (no offense to those who were.)  It's ok, many of us overestimate our ability to do things, and so do our students.  

So what happens when a student attempts the summative assessment without practicing with the formatives and does not prove proficient? Simple: they will have to double back and attempt these skill building assignments with some redirection and instruction. When they are ready, they will tackle the summative assessment once (or twice) more.

Below is a graph I put together (linked here) that helps me organize which resources and formative assessments will help my students develop proficiency in each particular skill (Columns 3&4 from left).  The second image is a screenshot of what the "Skill Building Tasks" look like to students in our LMS.  More reflection on the role of formative assessments and their role in a mastery learning environment to come...  In the meantime, post any comments or questions below!

Resources & Formative Assessments Included in Unit Outline
Skill Building Tasks in our LMS

Friday, February 20, 2015

Visiting High School in the Community

Although mastery and competency-based learning is widely discussed in education circles, it is surprisingly difficult to find a school that effectively implements this approach.  I recently joined a team from PHS to visit one such school, New Haven's High School in the Community. We were warmly welcomed by Community Coordinator Cari Strand who led an incredible day of discussions and observations with staff and students.  To sum up their approach, High School in the Community requires all students to demonstrate mastery of specific learning targets (content and skills) in order to advance and ultimately graduate.  

School Structure
Instead of the traditional Freshman-Senior progression, they established the following "Stages of Advancement."

  1. Foundation year: Developing the basic academic skills, content knowledge, and self-discipline to succeed in high school
  2. Core year: Advancing academic skills and completing most required content study
  3. Focus year: Exploring elective content study and determining the details of a transition out of high school and into college and career training
  4. Bridge year: Finalizing the skills and preparation needed to bridge the transition into adulthood

Although this may at first seem like semantics, I witnessed first hand that it is far from it. Although it is expected that a typical student will progress through this in 4 years, it may take less time or more depending upon the student.  The focus here is not on seat time or Carnegie units.  The focus is primarily on student learning. 

To monitory and track student progress (and communicate with parents), they also use the following "Mastery Performance Levels." 

4 – Exemplary  Student has proven expertise in course material and is ahead of course pace. Student is on track to finish this course and may move on to the next course level before the academic year has ended.

 3.5 – Approaching Exemplary   Student has proven some expertise in course material and is ahead of course pace. Student will need to demonstrate additional expertise to move on to the next course level.
3 – Mastery  Student has proven mastery through demonstration of quality work and has maintained course pace.   Currently on pace to earn credit.    
2.5 – Approaching Mastery  Although completed work may show mastery of skills, student is currently not on pace to complete material by the end of this academic year.  Successful completion of all course material is required for advancement.
2 – Developing  Student has developed some understanding, but has not demonstrated mastery of course content and skills.  Without additional academic support student is unlikely to finish course material by the end of the academic year. 
1.5—Beginning  Student has completed some work demonstrating a beginning understanding of course content.  Student is not on course pace, and will require substantial academic support in order to reach mastery and complete course work by the end of the academic year. 
1 – Limited  Student has demonstrated little or no understanding of course content and skills.  At current pace, student will not complete the course by the end of the academic year.  
So What Does This All Look Like in Practice? 
One of the first classes we visited was a Foundation year math class.  This classroom was a perfect example of how to communicate and visualize progress in a competency-based learning environment.  The entire wall was filled with charts that not only displayed student progress, but also provided a pacing guide for students whose goal was to advance by the end of the year.  (As you can see in the photos below, students are identified by code number to avoid any stigmas with advanced at a slower pace.)

We also witnessed how the learning targets ("performance indicators") for each course and level were clearly communicated and displayed for students (see photo to the right).  Each performance indicator also has aligned scoring rubrics so that students have a clear understanding of what is required for each level of proficiency.  The example below is from an assignment in a history course that is assessing student proficiency in two of the Historical Writing standards.  

In the afternoon, we had an opportunity to speak with members of the student council.  One common theme from this conversation is that they thought there was a better sense of purpose now in school.  It was less about compliance and more about learning.  Some admitted that they fell behind early since mastery learning "was harder." They did like, however, that nothing was holding them back.  If they put the time and effort in, not only could they excel, but also complete their competencies in even less than 4 years.  Some students from the school actually enroll in local college classes during their Bridge (senior) year since they have demonstrated mastery of all the learning targets. 

Grading Program

High School in the Community uses JumpRope,  a standards-based grading platform.  The teachers that we spoke with liked the program and demonstrated how standards were assessed and then reported out through the student/parent portal.  It is much more visual than a traditional program and seems to do a good job of conveying both what students are excelling at as well as learning gaps that exist.


There are many other takeaways and questions that came from this visit, and I will touch upon those in future posts.  I do, however, want to conclude by saying how courageous this group of educators are.  Despite many of the obstacles faced with this transition, they know that at the end of the day, it is best for students.  One staff member said that the most difficult part is that it "exposes" many of the issues that exist under the surface in traditional school, yet are ignored or glossed over.  Their mastery system not only unearths these issues (particularly learning gaps), but addresses them head on in a creative, thoughtful, and courageous way.  This district is a model for those who know that our traditional approach to grading and student progression is fundamentally flawed and are seeking an alternative path.

I again thank High School in the Community for hosting us and wish them the best of luck in their journey!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Which Skills Should Be "Mastered?"

For mastery learning to work, students must have a clear understanding of what skills they actually need to "master."
What skills do students need to master?

In other words, teachers must consider: which skills must students demonstrate proficiency in to earn credit for my course?  What content standards (if any) should be included in this framework? How many performance standards should be included each semester?...

Although the need to map this out ahead of time may sound painfully obvious, it is something that we continue to grapple with.  I'm sure that many of you are in a similar situation.  The problem is not that we lack standards to use, quite the opposite.  Teachers are often provided multiple sets of standards to work off of. The elephant in the room is that we are often unsure of which specific standards to use, when to use them, and how to effectively weave them into our curriculum. 

You may be thinking that this is a relatively universal issue that is not specific to mastery learning. And you are right.  However, mastery learning helps bring this issue to the forefront of our attention.  Since it will not work without established standards mapped out in a clear progression, it forces us to take a closer look at the very nature of our course.  Although it can be difficult and frustrating at times, it is absolutely worth doing and, frankly, is in the best interest of our students.  

That said, here are the three sets of standards that I'm working with.

3.  PHS 21st Century Learning Expectations

Although my course framework is far from perfect, I have clearly mapped out this semester for the students. Included in the document linked below (and in screenshot) are each performance standard, the summative assessment(s) tied to each standard, and a "checkpoint" date to let students know if they are on pace. 

Screenshot of the first 8 performance standards for World History Semester 2 (24 Total)

I purposely do not include a list of all the resources and formative assessments in this document (I will share out that "teacher version" in a future post).  Instead, I wanted students to focus specifically on the big picture.  In this case, the skills needed and the assessments that would determine their proficiency in those skills. 

Although I still have many questions regarding standard selection and student progression, we are certainly heading in the right direction with this as a class, a department, and as a school.  Moving towards mastery has helped us hone in on our curriculum in a broad sense to determine what it actually is that we want our students to know and be able to do.  

Next week I will reflect upon our department's journey to High School in the Community (New Haven, CT) and discuss the innovative school-wide approach to mastery learning that they have implemented and continue to improve each day.  

Friday, February 6, 2015

Stakeholders, Logistics & Lessons Learned

Over the past 4 days, we have met with administration, worked with an assessment consultant, developed student "road maps" of the standards and performance assessments, and went on an inspiring visit to High School in the Community to witness a successful mastery-based learning school in action.  (More about this great experience soon...)

This week has been one of energy, excitement and reinvigorated my sense of purpose as an educator.

This week has also humbled me in a way.

Although I am still in the midst of making sense of it, it is fair to say that I have learned two important lessons:

#1:  A true mastery learning approach is difficult to do in isolation (or even in a small "pilot.")

#2:  For a mastery-learning system to work, considerable time and energy must focus on stakeholder buy-in and logistics.  

I now realize that leading up to this initiative, I underestimated #1, and fell short on #2.  In a way, my excitement and zeal for this may have blinded me to some of the structural and procedural roadblocks that inevitably surface when trying to implement such a change.  In hindsight, I should have known better.  I will go into greater detail on these obstacles once I can further wrap my mind around all of this.

I want to end the week, however, by expressing that despite some initial setbacks and mistakes, I believe more than ever that mastery learning (and variations of it) is an approach to learning that truly benefits students.  I also know that despite the challenges,  I am not going to give up on this and will learn from these experiences in both the short run and looking ahead to the future.

We will continue to push ahead and implement more elements of mastery learning throughout this semester and share our experiences along the way.  Next week will be a reflection on our visit to High School in the Community, an inspiring experience that now has me fundamentally rethinking the way we educate our students.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Mastery Learning: A New Start

This semester, I have decided (along with colleague Brian Germain) to take a fresh look at our approach to mastery learning here at PHS.  Although we have spent the past couple years attempting to up the engagement through "gamification," many students were still struggling in this type of learning environment.  Yes, many students were excelling, but frankly, too many were not.  I therefore believe that I must think beyond "engagement" and focus more on some of the structural (and instructional) components of the system.  A new approach is needed to truly make this work for all of our students.

After getting some excellent new ideas during a conversation with Brian Gervase (an incredible educator in CA), we developed a new mastery learning framework and presented it to our administration.  We are grateful that they decided to support us in our new approach, particularly since it is considerably different from a traditional approach to instruction, assessments, and grading.

Although there are several changes on the horizon, here is the most fundamental of them all:

Proficiency-Based Credit

In other words, we are no longer trying to fit a mastery learning approach into a traditional grading system. To earn credit for the course, students must demonstrate proficiency in all of the course's standards.  How long this takes simply depends upon the students' pace.

For example, if a student demonstrates proficiency in all of the World History Semester 2 standards by May, they then start Brian's US history class.  The student earns full credit for my course, and gets a jump start on Brian's.  On the other hand, if a student does not complete the course by mid-June, they will have an incomplete and not receive credit until they do.  This may be done over the summer or next fall.  

We will surely face many obstacles and setbacks along the way, but I truly believe that this is the way students should be LEARNING in school.  To borrow a quote from New Haven's High School in the Community:

"Time is the Variable.  Learning is the Constant."

My goal is to contribute a post each week reflecting upon our new approach here at PHS.  I will be sharing our strategies, resources, failures and successes.  If you ever have questions or comments about our experiences, or could offer some advice and suggestions, please post them in the comments section below.  Also feel free to reach out to me directly, I always look forward to connecting and learning with fellow teachers who share my passion for education!