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The Power of Honest Reflection

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series –

Part 4: Reflect Honestly

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In today’s blog post, Master Teacher Maria Laws puts a new spin on the notion of self-reflection by involving her high school science students in the feedback process.



One of the many challenging aspects of the teaching profession is finding the time to develop best practices for reflection. Last year, I hit on one way that my students and I could participate in together with many positive results: a focus group.

That year, I was digging into a new set of teaching strategies and approaches that was uncharted territory for me. I knew in my mind that these strategies should support student learning, but I wasn’t sure how I could be certain of that without relying on my own potentially biased feelings about the value of the new work we were doing. I decided to invite in students from each class to help me assess, reflect, and improve my approach and planning.

Before each of our scheduled meetings, I would sit down and reflect upon my major goals related to my strategy shifts for that particular unit and think about specific questions I had that only students could answer: What was it like working with concept maps to plan large projects and unpack science reading? In what ways did it help you to start with sketches and conversation before moving into writing exercises?

When students came into the meeting, I shared with them a document of my specific strategies and related questions, and reviewed the purpose of the exercise — to provide me with valuable feedback about how the new strategies had affected their class experience and learning. I explained that they could discuss my prompts, choose specific ones they felt were most relevant or interesting to them, or go off from the document entirely to discuss new areas I either hadn’t realized students were strongly impacted by or ones I hadn’t specifically targeted as essential components to my practice. Once I answered any clarifying questions, I would set down a recording device and leave the room so that students could engage in a robust discussion without addressing every statement to me.

Once I listened to the depth of interest, engagement, and metacognition that my students exhibited on these recordings, it was clear to me I had hit upon a powerful tool for my own reflective process. I realized very quickly that in order to continue to have such a high level of discussion and reflection on teaching strategies by my focus group, I needed to make sure they knew I had heard their ideas and concerns. This meant that I needed to make shifts in response to their comments in real time.

By adjusting my practice based on their input, students were able to see the outcome of their focus group participation in our day-to-day classroom life, and they began to see themselves as partners in our work. This clear connection between their discussions of professional approaches to learning and teaching and what we did in class impacted each student in ways that were visible in their classroom engagement and leadership. I found that the more I engaged students with my honest questions and responded to their thoughts, the better their feedback became and the more I could trust that the shifts they asked for were ones I needed to make for the betterment of our entire class.

Honest reflection is a mix of many opposite roles and ideas:

  • I had to be willing to be open to wherever the feedback took the conversation while still setting up priorities and a structure for discussion.
  • I needed to be invested in my ideas while remaining open to competing ones.
  • I had to balance the role of an adult classroom and curricular leader with that of a learning partner and collaborator.
  • I had to trust my own wealth of classroom experience and content knowledge while allowing my students’ knowledge and experiences as learners to hold equitable space and value as we continued to meet and reflect on what it means to be a learner and a teacher.

For me, honest reflection is both of those educational roles at once, a dialogue rather than a monologue. I highly recommend that you play around with how a focus group might work in your classroom setting.

Check out my lesson link for more details and examples of the ways in which my students and I worked together to improve our course.

Maria Laws is a Biology and Chemistry teacher in Walnut Creek, California. She served on her school’s CCSS implementation team and is a member of California’s Instructional Leadership Corps of teachers developing CCSS and NGSS professional development seminars. To see all of Maria’s lessons, please click here.


TeachCycle Mindset – Reflect Honestly

Welcome back to the Master Teacher blog series, a collection of posts written by Master Teachers and organized around the key mindsets of TeachCycle, BetterLesson’s innovative professional development offering.

So far, we’ve learned how Master Teachers make their teaching “All About the Kids,” how they “Measure Progress” in their classrooms, and how they “Fail Forward” by taking risks and learning from the results.

Today, we move to the fourth key mindset of TeachCycle: Reflect Honestly

To improve outcomes for students, the TeachCycle process relies on trying new teaching strategies, measuring their impact, learning from the results, then repeating the cycle anew. While each step of this process is integral to the success of the whole cycle, the learning step is paramount to driving the next iteration and thus the trajectory of TeachCycle work.

During the measurement step, teachers look at student work, evaluating it against a narrowly defined metric to determine which students successfully demonstrated the skill and which ones didn’t. The learn step requires teachers to ask themselves, “why?” Why was this group of students successful while this one wasn’t? Why did this strategy help one student but not another?

Sometimes the answers to these questions might be the strategies themselves. Perhaps a strategy was too simplistic for students’ current level. Perhaps it was a bit too advanced. Perhaps it just wasn’t a good fit.

Sometimes, however, the answers to these questions lie with the teacher. Yes, it happens. Despite best efforts and best intentions, sometimes the reason a strategy fails and students don’t learn a skill might be because of the teacher.

It is possible that the teacher was a little shaky on the content or didn’t plan the lesson as thoroughly as necessary. In some cases, there may be some underlying problems with classroom culture or routines and procedures. Any of these things by themselves or in combination would be enough to derail a new strategy and yield lackluster outcomes for students.

One of the most challenging aspects of TeachCycle is getting comfortable with the practice of self-reflection and confronting situations where your own “instructional design” is at fault for the strategy’s failure.

To support teachers in this endeavor, our TeachCycle coaches encourage teachers to reflect honestly and allow them to acknowledge their own weaknesses is a safe, open, and non-evaluative space. Coaches then support teachers to improve their instructional design with strategies geared toward classroom culture, lessons to address specific content or even technology recommendations to support a teacher’s planning.


In TeachCycle, participants have the opportunity to continually reflect and share with their coach. By meeting teachers exactly where they are, wherever that may be, our coaches ensure that TeachCycle is truly personalized professional development. Central to our coaches’ ability to support a teacher’s growth is the teacher’s own willingness to reflect honestly.  

In this series of blog posts from BetterLesson Master Teachers, we hear from four incredibly reflective teachers, all of whom, despite years in the classroom, are still questioning, learning, and challenging the status quo. We’ll learn how Maria Laws solicited help from her students in her reflection process; how Andrea Praught creates “teachable moments” not just for her students, but herself as well; how Michelle Marcus’ reflection led to a change in her interactions with parents; and how Caroline Courter’s experience in the Master Teacher Project helped her develop a reflection routine.

Technology for the Primary Classroom — Devices Optional

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Welcome back to Website Wednesday!

In today’s post, Master Teacher Veronique Paquette reinforces an important BetterLesson value: that technology, while a useful tool, will never replace teachers in the wholly human work of educating students. A trailblazer in the application of technology to primary education, Veronique shares her favorite websites for providing her 2nd-grade students with on-topic, lexile-specific, common-core-aligned reading passages. She believes the free websites she highlights in this post provide students with exactly what they need to build their reading skills.

The great news is that her recommendations are for teacher-facing sites, meaning students don’t need to have access to devices, only the teacher does. What’s more, these sites are useful for teachers across the K-12 continuum. So whether you are an elementary teacher looking for some supplemental reading materials for your 5th-grade ELA class, or a high school science teacher looking to find a current event article suitable for your diverse group of students, Veronique’s post has you covered. Enjoy!


Wikis, blogs, Chromebooks, ipods, ipads, PC’s, laptops; the list of technology at a teacher’s fingertips is immense. I remember vividly, almost twenty years ago, when the biggest decision my school district had to make was the choice between PC or Mac. It was a huge decision, and the drama that surrounded it within buildings and teachers circles was incredible.

These days, teachers and students have so many more choices to make where technology is concerned. In my mind, however, it is not so much about the technology you choose, but the method to use the technology that is more important. There is no doubt that technology is an integral part of teaching in today’s classrooms, but being mindful of how we use that technology is equally, if not more, critical.

I am fortunate to live in a state that has valued technology in classrooms for many years. Because of the commitment of Washington State to put technology into the hands of teachers and students, I have been very lucky. I have received training that has helped me to utilize technology to enhance the learning of all my students.

In 2003, The Gates Foundation opened up the Teacher Leadership Project to include primary teachers (K-2) for the first time, and I became a part of a cohort that broke new ground in the classroom technology world. It was a new concept to consider using technology this deeply with young students, yet was an exciting time, and I loved every minute of the learning. I learned many new ideas, techniques and philosophies about the best ways to begin using technology with my second graders. During the course of that year, I learned the most valuable lesson I believe a technology teacher can learn: technology is only a tool to enhance the teaching of a teacher and the curriculum or standards he or she teaches. The technology can never replace the actual teaching and learning itself.

It is so easy to become excited and empowered with the idea of gadgets, but the real power lies in the way teachers utilize those tools. I have found that the most valuable tools are the ones that allow me to enhance my daily teaching in ways I formerly could not do without hours of research and planning. I find myself continually returning to the same websites to access capabilities that only make learning stronger for my students.

One of my favorite websites is Finding just the perfect reading source to add background to my science lessons can be tough but Readworks makes it easy to find the correct readability matching the content I am looking for. Not only do the articles offer great non-fiction text to support science content, but they also allow me to weave in so much of the ELA Common Core.

Just finding the background text is not enough, however. With so many of our students needing extra support in language development, it can be difficult to know which words are really those tier two and tier three words. Once I find that perfect text, I turn to a link on the Achieve the Core site: the Academic Word Finder. This tool makes vocabulary teaching a snap. Include the text you are using and the program does all the work.

Science content is more than just reading text, however. It is important to show our students that science writing is happening everyday in newspapers all over the country. This is when I turn to my absolute favorite site: Newsela. This site is just about the best site I have ever found. I first learned about it from a BetterLesson colleague, and it has transformed my planning. It is comprised of a the most current events from all the major and not so major newspapers across the country. It is so easy to find an article that spotlights any science content you are teaching.

You might say to yourself, “that is cool, but not really that cool.” I would have to agree, but what makes Newsela stand out are the features they offer to make those newspaper articles usable for any reading level. Each article can be changed to match a particular reading lexile. The technology does it for you! Imagine my second graders reading an article from the Seattle Times —  the world has just stepped through my classroom doors, and suddenly science and research have become real in a way they couldn’t before.

It isn’t the kind of technology we use that makes our world so exciting in the classrooms of today, it is what we do with that technology that makes the difference. I have been using technology regularly in my teaching for almost 15 years, and I’ll never look back. I cannot even imagine teaching without it anymore.

Veronique Paquette is a 2nd-grade teacher at Kenroy Elementary School in East Wenatchee, Washington. She has taught early elementary students for 28 years and loves finding ways to bring the outside world into the four walls of her classroom. To see all of Veronique’s science lesson and see more examples of how she integrates technology, please click here.

The New Trick that Transformed My Teaching

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series – Part 3: Fail Forward

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A tenet of TeachCycle is that to improve student outcomes, teachers must be willing to take risks, try new things, and “Fail Forward” should the outcome be less than positive.

Today, Master Teacher Joyce Baumann describes the alternative outcome of risk taking: when everything goes right, and the results are transformative. Enjoy!


Baumann-OldDogNewTrickYou have heard the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Very often this is true, but this old dog did manage to learn something that was truly transformational for my teaching and had a tremendous impact on my students’ learning.

After 20 years in the classroom, I didn’t think my teaching needed much more than some minor tweaking, but then the mentor that I worked with through BetterLesson’s Master Teacher Project made a suggestion. She was reading over some science lessons that I had created, and she suggested that I flip the lessons around. At first, I did not understand what she meant, so she explained that she wanted me to do the investigation with the students first and then teach the concept that was the lesson’s objective.

What? Are you kidding me? You want me to do the investigation and THEN teach the students the concepts that the investigation was built around?! Crazy talk, just plain crazy talk! This goes against everything I learned as a teacher. The students need to develop a basic understanding of the concept and learn critical vocabulary before the investigation so they can apply this knowledge and expand their learning. Do the investigation first?! This certainly would not make lesson planning guru, Madeline Hunter, proud.

But as I have grown older, I think the rebel side of me sneaks out every so often, so I decided to give it a try. I took my lessons and flipped them around. The first lesson that I flipped was one called Magical Milk. The students conducted a very simple investigation during this lesson. The video of the investigation shows the excitement that the investigation generated. The students couldn’t contain their excitement! The next day, they could not wait for science to begin. They wanted to share all about what they observed during our investigation. As this lesson progressed, it really hit me. By flipping the lesson around and doing the investigation first, my students enthusiasm for the lesson grew, but that was not the only benefit of flipping this lesson.

As I was teaching the lesson, I realized that the students came into the instruction portion of the lesson with background knowledge that they did not necessarily possess prior to the investigation. It helped to level the “playing field” and give all students a chance to participate in the discussion with the knowledge they gained from the investigation. My students with limited English proficiency were better able to participate in our class conversations as well. The depth that the lesson reached really surprised me.

I continued to flip my lessons whenever possible, making my science instruction truly inquiry-based. Our discussions as a class became richer, and my students’ depth of knowledge grew deeper and deeper. They were learning so much, and they really developed their observational and critical thinking skills, as they knew that our investigations would drive our instruction.

Sometimes, it is easy to become too comfortable in our teaching and to do things the way we have always done. But sometimes the smallest change will yield big results. By taking a risk and changing things up, I was able to create amazing learning opportunities for my students while breathing some new life into my teaching. That is what I call a win-win.




Joyce Baumann is a Kindergarten teacher in Cold Spring, Minnesota. In her 20-year career, she has been a finalist for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year, received the NEA Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence, and served on the Minnesota Board of Teaching. Joyce was a member of both BetterLesson’s Science Master Teacher Project and the Math Master Teacher Project. To view all of Joyce’s great lessons, please click here.

What It Means To Fail Forward

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series – Part 3: Fail Forward

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In today’s blog, Master Teacher Mitchell Smith describes how he ties together his personal failures, his professional failures, and the failures of science, into teachable moments for his students.


smithblogWhat mindset governs how you apply strategies to solve problems, react to setbacks, and work your way through challenges? This issue is not without plenty of research, anecdotes, advice, and literature. In fact, Trinity College Dublin’s Science Gallery featured the exhibit Fail Better that was conceived, designed, and created around the topic of failure.

Clearly, the notion of failure is a well-worn path. But what is the connection to me as an educator? I see this as a matter of mindset and culture. From where I sit, there are three lenses through which the causes and effects of failure can be viewed, sort of like a triune Venn Diagram with failure sitting smack-dab in the middle.

  • First, as an individual, I have personally experienced difficulty and failure and the dilemma of what to do in its aftermath.
  • Secondly, as a professional, I see the role of failure from my life of studies and my present role as an educator.
  • Thirdly, the field of science requires the vision to see how scientific discovery actually advances because of failures

Failure As an Individual

There are two key “failures” that I’d like to highlight from my personal life as part of this triune Venn Diagram.

I really struggled to make it through college and earn my degree. It took seven years to earn my five-year diploma, a B.S. in Biology with teaching endorsements. I withdrew twice due to lack of funds and went back to my parents’ home to work and save for tuition, fees, and living expenses. I am proud not only of my accomplishment but also of my unwavering commitment to my goal.

From the days of my youth, I have always preferred to be out of doors. While in Boy Scouts, I was introduced to mountaineering and climbed to Mt. Rainier’s 10,000’ base camp. Recently, I had planned and prepared to summit this Northwest icon but failed to do so for various reasons. In the aftermath of this disappointment, I took the opportunity to summit Mt. Adams (12,100’) instead. Do I feel like a failure since I did not reach the highest peak (14,410’)? Not at all! Mt. Adams represents the furthest point I have gone in mountaineering. One could even call my near summit of Rainier a success since I didn’t die trying. By any measure, I feel accomplished for not giving up.

Failure As a Professional

As an educator, my “professional failure” is one I’ll summon the courage to share here, in an educator’s blog:

I have always striven to hone and perfect my craft. During the year 2009-10 I, like many of my colleagues across the nation, embarked on the grueling process of earning the coveted National Board certificate. Guess what? I missed the threshold by 2 points! Talk about devastation. After a period of mourning and some choice words for those who graded my portfolios, I dusted myself off, went after it again, and earned those letters the following year.

Failures in Science

The September 2013 issue of National Geographic featured a spot-on article titled “Failure is an Option” that captures how I feel about failure in my niche of Science.  In it, Hannah Bloch opines that successes achieved by science and exploration depend on failure. Failure is not simply an occasional by-product but an essential component of “leaning into the unknown”. From ill-fated expeditions to the “failure parties” thrown by a pharmaceutical company, Bloch provides an overview of a large number of case studies featuring notable successes and failures.

Failure and Education – The Teachable Moments

smithblog2Most investigations fail in some manner. Science is not an encyclopedic venture. Rather, it is a way of knowing. Knowing what works and what doesn’t. Knowing how to fail less ingloriously the next time, muddling through. You can’t muddle in the box.

As a science educator, I see it as my job to break down students’ expectations of perfection and help them gain experience outside the box, help them to muddle.

To do this, I model grittiness from my own life for them to see. I share with them my prolonged college experience, my travails as a mountaineer, and my resilience in earning my board certification. Whenever possible, I provide the opportunity for them to learn about all the failures that preceded the successes upon which we build our understanding of Biology, helping them to realize that those we see as “geniuses” were really just exceptionally good a failing and trying again.

Furthermore, because much of student mindset flows from the instructor, so I am careful to establish and reinforce “failure” as a perfectly acceptable option in my class. From specific lessons that embody this philosophy, to ensuring that my grading policies align with the mantra of “failure is an option,” I create an environment where students feel comfortable taking risks and failing on their path to learning.

Mitchell Smith is a high school science teacher at Kentridge High School in Kent, Washington and is National Board Certified! An avid outdoorsman, Mitchell enjoys hiking, mountaineering, camping, canoeing, mountain biking, and running. To view all of Mitchell’s Biology lessons, please click here.

TeachCycle Mindset – Fail Forward!

Welcome back to the Master Teacher blog series, a collection of posts written by Master Teachers and organized around the key mindsets of TeachCycle, BetterLesson’s innovative professional development offering.

So far, we’ve learned how Master Teachers make their teaching “All About the Kids”, and how they “Measure Progress” in their classrooms by using small data and formative assessments.

We now move to the third key mindset of TeachCycle: Fail Forward

The TeachCycle process is predicated upon the idea that in order to improve outcomes for students, teachers must try new strategies in their classrooms. These carefully curated strategies are developed by Master Teachers and BetterLesson Coaches, and are targeted to address a specific student need. As our current TeachCycle participants can attest, new strategies can have a wonderfully transformative effect on student outcomes, classroom culture, and even a teacher’s professional outlook.

Inherent in the act of implementing a new strategy, however, is the risk that it might not go well. It could be, to use the vernacular, a lesson bomb. TeachCycle coaches support teachers to navigate the pitfalls of such strategy “failures” and learn to Fail Forward, embracing “failure” as a tremendous learning opportunity.

This week, we’ll hear from two Master Teachers who took risks to try new things. Today, Mitchell Smith recounts some of his own risks and failures, risks and failures in the scientific community at large, and the importance of using both as a model for his risk-averse high school Biology students who are too often inclined to expect perfection from themselves. Thursday, Joyce Baumann tells what happened when she took everything she knew about lesson planning, and threw it right out the window.

Using Formative Assessment Data to Bridge the Gap in My Students’ Understanding.

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series – Part 2: Measure Progress

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Researcher Thomas Reeves once stated that educational tests are “treated by teachers as autopsies when they should be viewed as physicals.” Formative assessments are like “check-ups,” giving teachers information about how their students are progressing with the material while there is still time to make adjustments and address problems. This commitment to measure progress is the theme of this week’s blogs and a key mindset to the TeachCycle process.

On Tuesday, we heard from Jennifer Valentine about the benefits of collecting and using small data to help students succeed. In today’s blog, Master Teacher Ruth Hutson describes how she uses a variety of formative assessments to constantly keep her finger on the pulse of students’ understanding. By making sure to measure progress regularly during individual classes and across each unit, Ruth is able to meet her students where they are, and help them bridge the gap toward deeper understanding.

businessman between a rock and a hard space

businessman between a rock and a hard space

One of the hardest tasks for me as a teacher is trying to determine my students’ prior knowledge. Students aren’t a blank slate; they come to my class with previous experiences, preconceptions, misconceptions, and naive understanding. As a teacher, I find my lessons will be much more successful if I can predetermine what areas my students have already mastered and where they are still having problems.

Two resources I use to determine the best formative assessment for the task at hand are Classroom Assessment Techniques and Page Keeley’s Misconception Probes. I found both of these tools have greatly helped me modify my practice and elicit the types of responses from my students that truly help me understand their reasoning.

How I use the data

First, I use it at the beginning of a lesson to help me identify the gap between what the student knows and what the students need to know to master the standard.

  • I typically use Keeley’s misconception probes like I did in this Investigating Photosynthesis with Algae lesson. I present students with several scenarios that are in line with their current thinking. Only one of the scenarios is correct. They must commit to a scenario and then explain their reasoning. I then ask several student volunteers to explain their reasoning. Students who differ in their choices can then discuss why they made particular choices.
  • Another assessment probe I use is What Do I Think? I give students several guiding questions that ask them their opinion and have them explain scientific phenomena. This response is revised later in the lesson once students have learned more about a scientific concept.

Second, I use formative assessment data at the end of the lesson to elicit feedback from my students that can help me determine their understanding and guide the next day’s lesson.

  • I will have my students revise their What Do I Think response made earlier in the lesson. Using What Do I Think Now, students edit their initial response and tell how their thinking has changed because of the new information they learned in the lesson.
  • A modification of What Do I Think Now is I used to think, but now I know. In this assessment, students respond to a previous misconception probe and explain where their reasoning was naive or faulty. They provide evidence from the lesson to support their new understanding.
  • One of my favorite Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) that enable students to practice summarizing their learning are one sentence summaries. This activity requires students to summarize the main point of the lesson in one sentence by telling who, did what, to whom, where, when, why, and how.
  • Another great CAT is modified minute papers. In this activity, students are given three to five minutes to write a three to five sentence summary of the lesson. Many times I ask my student to explain the most important that they learned in the day’s lesson. I also may ask them to tell me what important question remains unanswered for them.

Third, I use formative assessment data to measure learning progressions over a period of several lessons.  By breaking the standards into smaller learning goals, I can help scaffold my students’ learning.

  • I use both misconception probes and table of characteristics to help my students summarize and synthesize their understanding.
  • A targeted misconception probe like this Seedlings in a Jar question I use when we study the life cycle of plants, is a great way to get students thinking and to uncover underlying misconceptions. We revisit this prompt several times throughout the Plant and Cellular Respiration unit so students can better understand seed germination and that all living things undergo cellular respiration.

Finally, I use formative assessment data as a method of self-assessment, which allows students to make decisions in their own learning.

  • The Classroom Assessment Techniques that I typically use is The Muddiest Point. This CAT allows students to give feedback on where they are still confused and ask questions about areas where they are curious and want more information about a related topic.

Measuring and reporting student proficiency

Collecting data is only the first part in helping my students improve their understanding. It is very important to report the findings from the assessment to my students. I like to do this using a bulls-eye analogy, which visually represents each student’s response on a target diagram. Depending on the results of the assessment, the bulls-eye analogy will serve as a segue into a short remediation activity or the introduction to new content.

Providing students processing time

I find it essential to provide time for my students to reflect about what they learned at the end of every lesson. If students are not given time to synthesize what they have learned or put together all of the pieces, then they still maintain their naive understanding of the concept. They are also less likely to retain what we have covered. By their very nature, formative assessments are designed to allow students to reflect in a short period of time. My students respond to the assessment probes in their lab notebooks. These notebooks are then left with me so I can skim through their responses and evaluate the direction the class needs to go the following day.

Ruth Hutson is the science teacher at Blue Valley High in Randolph, Kansas and is a part of the BetterLesson Science Master Teacher Project. The only high school science teacher in her district, Ruth teaches Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Physics, Anatomy & Physiology, and Applied Statistics and Analysis in Science. In addition to teaching, Ruth has served as an online advisor for the NSTA Learning Center, helping to train preservice teachers. She also moderates web seminars for NSTA. To read Ruth’s earlier post about strategies for differentiation, please click here.


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