Posted in education

ADMINISTRATION & LEADERSHIPA CIO’s Strategies for Humanizing DataAs one district chief of information shares, sensitivity and savvy are key to getting staff comfortable with data.By Victoria CurryMay 26, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

If you’re a chief information officer or data director at a school district, chances are the past year and a half has been a whirlwind. You’ve been accustomed to working in the background, quietly providing data to school leaders, but now, your work is front and center. Staff across the organization are using data you generate and maintain—attendance, proficiency, and engagement data points—to make major decisions with long-term, and often very public, impact.

Having your work be front and center can be incredibly exciting, but it’s also challenging. Quantitative information about vulnerable populations can be sensitive, and some stakeholders are not only suspicious of data but aren’t trained in how to assess it and use it effectively.

The fact is, pushback against data happens all of the time in education, from all angles—school boards and administrators, parents, lobbyists and politicians, and student groups. And resistance to data can arise for any number of reasons: teachers believe that data dehumanizes the students they work so hard to support, the data exposes something stakeholders aren’t ready to hear, or they believe that their district’s circumstances are unique, so comparative data isn’t relevant.

School data experts are now working in an utterly transformed landscape—one in which reliable numbers are needed to make decisions about online learning and to address newly exposed equity issues at the district, state, and national levels. The stakes are high. If you’re a district CIO or data director, chances are you need strategies to make data compelling and accessible to audiences that can historically resist it.


Likely one of your main tasks these days is to take demographic and course enrollment data (e.g., gender, race, and who is taking which courses) and marry it to your LMS and internal quantitative and qualitative data sets (e.g., test scores, survey results, formative assessment, and SEL social-emotional learning data), so you’re generating precise reports on data sets that can be as granular as “survey results of Hispanic males in AP Chemistry who log on to Google Classroom more than twice a day.” I call this “demographic overlay”—it’s very different from conventional data analysis, where you may have looked at assessment results in isolation from demographics, qualitative SEL/survey input, and engagement metrics.

A dynamic “demographic overlay” can prompt compelling next steps for your school, but it can also increase the amount and complexity of information for stakeholders to take in, so make sure that the data you share is scrubbed, tidy, and formatted in a way that ensures that they don’t struggle to make sense of overly granular details or straightforward points such as what the X-axis represents. They need to focus on analysis and decision-making. Use simple visuals, like bar graphs, to transform information into single data point graphics or sentences, and know that building data literacy skills among stakeholders is part of your job. (Assume nothing! Many stakeholders are newcomers when it comes to data.)

Also, in education, stakeholders can become resistant to data if it doesn’t reflect the humans behind it. Your job is to humanize summaries of data, and the best way to do that is with data storytelling that is fastened to stories in the school community that are already a priority (e.g., the experience of Asian students and families in the district) and surfaces stories that maybe no one has looked at yet (e.g., suspension rates in a particular population).

Finally, take every opportunity to tell the story in different ways and multiple ways. (In marketing lingo, these opportunities would be called “touchpoints” along a “customer journey.) For example, in addition to sending PDFs of reports once a year, craft quarterly emails that tell the same story in a slightly different way, perhaps with teacher perspective interwoven.


When data tells a compelling story, it incites emotion, and in education, emotions can range from glee to pride to resentment, differ across groups, and even change among individuals depending upon the timing and the data presented.

Just as data is valid, so is the emotion it generates. Plan for emotional space for stakeholders who are analyzing and digesting the data. For example, I recently presented data that drilled into accelerated class placement for a district to district administrators, and the differences among scoring profiles of different racial and ethnic groups moved them to the point of despair. I was taken aback and had to think quickly; I asked them to turn off their cameras so they could take a moment, privately, and think about sharing how the data made them feel before turning the cameras back on. I learned a powerful lesson that day: While I want stakeholders to look at data critically, I also need to anticipate their emotional reactions and honor them.

Posted in education

GAME-BASED LEARNINGWhen Implementing Games In Your Classroom, Don’t Forget About ChessTeacher-turned-principal Salome Thomas-EL says chess can help students develop a slew of practical skills they can use for many years to come.By Paige TuttMay 28, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

Over the last 30 years, teacher-turned-principal Salome Thomas-EL has found success  leveraging the game of chess to teach math and history at the elementary and middle school levels, writes Kate Stoltzfus for ASCD.

But chess is not just about rote academics, says Thomas-EL: The game boosts student confidence, teaches them critical thinking and problem solving skills, and engages them behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively, along with providing a host of other benefits. With enough practice, skilled chess players can even utilize both the left and right sides of their brain when playing.

“What I often say is that smart students don’t always play chess, but students who play chess always become smart,” said Thomas-EL in the interview with ASCD. “Students I had 30 years ago reach out to me and say they still remember those matches and are still using those skills in life, in business, in the corporate world, in law school.”

Many of Thomas-EL’s students are disadvantaged students of color, who have historically lacked access to enrichment opportunities that challenge their minds, he says. Chess has been a “great equalizer” that has let them prove themselves in a pastime traditionally associated with intellectuals and affluence. His students have gone on to play in numerous tournaments and won, collecting trophies and sometimes competing against players several years their senior.

“My idea was just to give them an environment where they could be comfortable exhibiting their greatness, because that’s not always easy and not always available,” he told ASCD. “Chess eliminated the preconceived notions, all the biases, the judgment.”

Thomas-EL’s observations are backed by an array of studies that show chess improves students’ academic and social and emotional skills. Here are some of the benefits of teaching chess to students—even when starting at a young age.

Builds Confidence in Students:Research conducted by the St. Louis Chess Club showed that 72 percent of students polled believe chess made them more confident with learning challenges; 75 percent of those same students also felt chess motivated them to seek out more difficult opportunities.

Thomas-EL says it’s important to ensure students are continually challenged in their learning. When his elementary and middle school students were winning games too easily, he matched them against more skilled high school players. “Failure is motivating. Success can be paralyzing,” he says. “We have to be okay with sort of getting out of that comfort zone and moving into the learning zone, which is close to the frustration zone.”

Builds Problem Solving Skills: In chess, players must be thinking critically at all times when faced with a series of challenges on the board, predicting several moves ahead of their opponent to win—a feature that helps students develop stronger problem-solving capabilities, says Thomas-EL.

A study conducted in the early ’90s suggests that students who learned general problem-solving skills while playing chess could transfer those same skills to another academic domain, in this case, poetry.

Boosts Spatial-Analysis Skills: It’s estimated that approximately 2 million students in the K-12 schools are considered “spatially-talented” with abilities that are not traditionally identified during the gifted and talented screening process. These students possess skills that could be bolstered through chess because the game requires players to mentally picture a move they or their opponent may make on the board without physically touching any pieces.

“[Chess] teaches students to not only see the turn, but to see around the turn, because in chess you have to think five moves ahead,” says Thomas-EL.

Improves Math Scores: A study from 2015 showed a correlation between chess and improved math scores. Out of a group of 560 students, half were exposed to “normal school activities” while the other 280 students received in-person chess lessons and online training to bolster their mathematical problem-solving skills.

Thomas-EL says he’s used chess to teach mathematics in special education classrooms, showing kids that “bishops move on diagonals, knights move on right angles,” for example.

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PROJECT-BASED LEARNING (PBL)A Beginner’s Guide to National History DayNational History Day—which, despite the name, runs through the school year—is powerful project-based learning for middle and high school students.By Matt Weyers, Taylor HamblinApril 21, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

Think of National History Day as a science fair for history classes. It allows students the opportunity to engage in historical inquiry on a topic of their choice and—if they’re interested—enter their project in regional, state, and national competitions.

In our experience, National History Day (NHD) is one of the best forms of project-based learning; it prompts students to engage in sustained inquiry as well as in critique and revision, all the while making a public product for an authentic audience—hallmarks of effective PBL. This rigor is particularly relevant as state and national social studies standards, like the C3 Framework, encourage students to analyze, explain, evaluate, justify, and interpret content. Real history goes beyond the memorization and recall of names, dates, and places, and NHD can be key to supporting students in making that leap.

Running an NHD competition for the first time can be quite complicated, but here are some steps to simplify it.


Get your feet wet by exploring the NHD website, which includes inspiring examples of yearly winners and advice on how to create competitive historical arguments. Two shining examples of winners include the documentary By Chance: The Story of the First Code Talkers and the website The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: The Tragedy That Struck Alaska.

The site also shares details on the five NHD project options for participating students:

  • Website (with interactive multimedia)
  • Documentary (including recording interviews)
  • Paper (good for students who like to work alone)
  • Exhibit (three-dimensional and placed on a physical structure)
  • Performance (presented live by individuals Kira Retana or groups of students)

Each category requires access to specific materials in order to be successful. For example, exhibits require access to trifold boards, documentaries require editing and recording software, and performances demand simple props and backdrops. (Take an inventory of your school’s technology so that you know what’s available to students; at a minimum, students need access to word processing software, consistent internet access, and video recording and editing equipment.)

Once you are familiar with the NHD basics, contact your state National History Day affiliate to help you better understand the process. (Every state and territory in the United States has an affiliate.) Typically, students begin researching their topic in late fall in preparation for a school competition in January or February, with upper levels of competition lasting until June.


If you’re the lead facilitator for NHD at your school, make preliminary contact with area experts who have knowledge of performance arts or documentary making; ideally they’ll be interested in assisting students with their projects.

Also recruit individuals and organizations that can assist students with different stages of the history projects. For example, local librarians can help students find resources, historical societies and museums can help search for unique (local) historical topic ideas, and businesses and booster clubs can support students with travel stipends and scholarships.

Posted in education

TECHNOLOGY INTEGRATION7 Tips for Teaching With Videos


7 Tips for Teaching With Videos

Along with considering video length, teachers should look for ways to make watching a video an opportunity for active learning.By Devin RossiterMarch 11, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana
Kira Retana
Kira Retana

Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

Congratulations! You spent hours in the YouTube rabbit hole and emerged with an amazing video to share with your students. You click the play button, and as the video ends, you ask the class, “What did you notice?” Your “Tell a partner what you learned” is met with the stare of infinite silence or, if it’s after lunch, a five-second summary of the very end of the clip. Zero notes have been taken, and no analysis has been provided.

What went wrong?

Information Age educators rely on various types of media to share complex ideas and concepts with students. At a time when professional streamers and social media content creators seem to have the craft pinned down to a science, how might we employ some of their strategies to engage our learners?


1. Use visible countdowns. Ever had to give five more minutes to finish an assignment or a conversation? Spoiler: It’s never just five minutes. Time donation is a common contributor to unfulfilled success criteria and rushed lesson goals because it’s easy to lose track when providing differentiated support.

Make these intervals visible, and you can communicate clear expectations for independent work as well as direct instruction. No matter how much time you need for an activity, you’re likely to find multiple video timers of that interval to insert into your slides with a simple YouTube search. Searching for “four-minute timer” yields a wide field of results, from the familiar countdown series of Adam Eschborn to vivid number-free radial timers by PHCuber.

2. Reclaim the frame. Whether in a physical classroom with an interactive display or a remote learning environment where each student faces their own monitor, a common miscue is to play instructional videos in full screen. The general thinking is that the video needs to be as big as possible for visibility. However, doing this surrenders valuable screen space to remind viewers of the purpose of watching.

Professor Richard Mayer, who has a PhD in psychology, has led research supporting the cognitive theory of multimedia learning. Here’s the short version: You can learn with text alone, and you can learn with images alone; however, you will learn more with text and images together. This idea has wide-ranging applications in educational media such as descriptions of photographs or using closed captioning for videos. One effective application of Mayer’s theory is to place key facts or guiding questions next to the video as it plays so that learners are clear on what to look for and what to discuss once viewing is complete.

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CURRICULUM PLANNINGHow Teachers Can Use Pedagogical Documentation for Reflection and PlanningStudents generate a lot of documents that show their thinking, and teachers can use that evidence of learning to improve future lessons.By Cecilia Cabrera MartirenaFebruary 5, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

The Covid-19 pandemic and working remotely have challenged teachers of all grades to be as creative and innovative as possible, including the way they manage pedagogical documentation. With remote work, teachers often assign asynchronous tasks, which can generate large numbers of documents. Many of these documents, when managed appropriately, can be an extraordinary source of reflection and analysis to improve future curriculum planning.

Whether teaching remotely or in class, choosing what to document and how can seem overwhelming. It also can be daunting to determine which documents to consider for future learning needs. Knowing how to choose what lessons to document and how to document them may reduce the amount of work and at the same time make it more effective.

Here are some ideas for managing pedagogical documentation that have proven to help teachers and pre-K to 12 students work together to choose what is most likely to be useful in curriculum planning for years to come.


Select a learning session that will likely have benefits beyond documenting the work for the current semester and will hold lasting value for future curriculum planning. Then choose the moments in the learning process that you or your students find most relevant. The documents should show the activities that are most likely to generate reflection, analysis, and the development of creative thinking skills and metacognitive skills. These will have the most to offer for future curriculum planning.


The next step is to decide how to make a record of the observation. Choose a technique that will best show the thinking process and learning progression of the students—note taking, photography, audio or video recordings, or a combination of one or more methods.

Families can also provide helpful documentation. For example, the family of a preschool girl recorded her enthusiasm for measuring different objects at home, which led to a follow-up math session. The math teacher used the young student’s passion for measuring as the basis for a class about why people measure things and how to measure using a variety of tools such as blocks, pencils, or hands. One family’s documentation of a student’s love of learning inspired a new math lesson.


Once you have a suitable sample of documentation, both you and your students may find it helpful to prepare an exhibit about the learning process, carefully choosing the documents that best show the progress of the work.

This can lead to an unstructured conversation in which you ask students about the relevance of the display and ways the display can show the school community how far the students have come. This dialogue encourages the development of critical thinking and provides an opportunity to illustrate the learning process to students and the school community as a whole.


This role of pedagogical documentation is different for teachers and students. Teachers reflect to review their teaching method and approach. From the data they collect, they can make decisions about future lessons and the educational evolution of each student.

Students need teachers to help them find the right moment for oral reflection and also to invite them to write or draw their reflections on their learning process. Teachers can ask students questions about what the documentation shows or use a marking criterion so that students can see if they’ve reached their goals. If students haven’t reached their goals, they will be able to see why, as well as what they need to do in order to achieve their goals.

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MOBILE LEARNINGUsing Technology to Support Young English Language Learners in a Hybrid ClassroomThrough videos and interactive online tasks, early elementary students can increase fluency and build vocabulary.By Katie GardnerJanuary 8, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

Since late August, I have been teaching hybrid, early elementary students who are learning English. Transitioning into a hybrid environment has been challenging and created a new learning curve for both educators and students.

Within our hybrid setting, students are split into two groups. They attend school for in-person learning two days a week, and teachers and students all have virtual learning one day a week. In the hybrid learning environment, I am able to teach, model, and introduce the new content vocabulary and language skills to my students face-to-face. Then, during remote learning days, my students are asked to complete engaging and interactive virtual tasks to show what they know and demonstrate their understanding of the new content.

Our district’s one-to-one technology program has made a big difference for my students in our Title I school, as my early learners are equipped with iPads to use both in class and at home. Through these devices, I’m able to foster communication skills that support the language domains of reading, writing, speaking, and listening, as well as the academic standards that accompany them within the hybrid setting. Our technology allows me to collect evidence to keep track of my students’ continuous development and growth.

Our iPads not only support students’ creation and engagement within the hybrid learning tasks but also enhance communication between teachers and parents, which contributes to the students’ academic success. Educators and parents are able to come together virtually with the devices and monitor the students’ progress and development. In creating assignments for my students to complete during their remote days, I rely greatly on the gradual release model. With this teaching technique, I’m able to model and introduce new content during our face-to-face learning. Students and I are able to practice the skill together in class, and then during remote days students are asked to use the new skill independently to demonstrate understanding.

One of the advantages of using this technology during hybrid learning is that I’m easily able to differentiate and provide proper supports for my students. For example, I can create teaching videos for students to watch as many times as needed to understand content. I can record videos of myself reading a story, which allows students to watch them as often as needed when completing virtual tasks. Using my Memoji on my iPhone allows me to make engaging and fun videos of myself explaining directions. Recording and adding a simple audio recording of myself speaking enables students to hear vocabulary Kira Retana words read aloud or explanations of their definitions.

I have taught my students how to use the iPad’s dictation accessibility feature to type their answers to questions as well as how to highlight text on the iPad and choose the speak selection accessibility feature to hear words read aloud. This is a great support when students are asked to practice their fluency skills and they are unsure of how to pronounce the words in front of them. I can add pictures, animations, or images to the task to support learning new content vocabulary words or understanding new concepts.


With the Apple Clips app, I created a weekly flipped learning videos series titled “iCan with Clips.” In these videos, parents and students can see and hear me demonstrate and explain new literacy skills. I chose to use the Apple Clips app to create my videos because the live titles feature, similar to closed captions, allows students and families to read Spanish subtitles to support understanding the new concept.

This app also allows me to add fun background music, emojis, filters, and digital posters. The gradual release model is embedded within these videos, so as the students watch me model the lesson, they’re asked to try it with me on the iPad. They are then prompted to complete the task independently pencil-to-paper or create their own learning video to share with me on Seesaw.

I have also enjoyed creating interactive multimodal activity books to support the new content vocabulary units and literacy skills we’re learning. (My free iBookexplains how to create one.) Using the book template in the Apple Pages app, students are able to show what they know within the digital books during their weekly remote learning days. Within these books, I can reinforce what we have learned together in class, and then students complete differentiated tasks throughout the activity book using the iPad’s features and tools such as the camera, video, audio, and drawing.

Students are also asked to use manipulatives and resources in their homes in personalized activities. When we return the following week to learn together in class, I am able to collect and assess the students’ activity books to have a better understanding of how their academic skills are developing. Each book is equipped with a teacher rubric to use in assessing the book to allow parents and students to talk and take note of the child’s progress or need for remediation on certain skills.

Other interactive and creative remote tasks I have asked students to complete:

  • Create a scene with your toys, and write about it with pencil and paper. Take a picture of your paper, and share it with me on your device.
  • Record a podcast telling me about your weekend, sequencing the order of events using complete and detailed sentences.
  • Capture a picture of your backyard, and use the markup feature to draw over the picture and design or build the yard of your dreams. Then create an audio recording describing your dream yard.
  • Complete an interactive scavenger hunt to find new vocabulary words around the house, and share them through photos, text labels, and audio recordings.

As I navigate through teaching in a hybrid environment, my little language learners continue to grow, thanks to our district’s one-to-one technology program. With the support of our devices, teachers and students can create, communicate, and engage in meaningful learning.

Posted in education


How to Guide Students to a Deep Understanding of Math Concepts

Using the right building blocks at the start of students’ mathematical learning can support a lifetime of abstract thinking.By Nell McAnellyDecember 17, 2020

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

When we are passionate about a topic, or even a hobby, we tend to explore it in as many ways as possible. We might read books or blogs to learn facts, test emerging ideas on paper, and keep notes or ideas in our head until we can talk about the subject as experts.

Children learn very effectively using that same process. Teachers capitalize on this in the classroom, or perhaps these days over Zoom, by using a step-by-step strategy called CPA (concrete, pictorial, abstract) so that students can move from doing (concrete) to seeing (pictorial) to symbolic (abstract). These three building blocks are particularly important in math instruction.

When leading teacher professional development, I like to compare the strategy of moving students from concrete to pictorial to abstract to learning how to drive a car. Once you’re actually driving the car, you’re already in the abstract phase. But how do you reach that point?

First, you must know physically what a car is and what it does. You sit in it and learn about the ignition, the steering wheel, and other key parts, and what they do. Then, you enter the representational phase, in which you envision the steps needed to drive. Maybe you have a progression in your mind’s eye (pictorial) of everything that needs to be done: adjust the seat and mirrors, put on your seat belt, put your foot on the brake, shift into drive, and so on. Finally, after practice, you arrive at the stage where driving becomes so automatic (abstract) that you don’t even think about the checklist of steps.

The goal of using the CPA building blocks is to reach the abstract phase with an understanding that enables flexibility and proficiency in problem solving. A student should ultimately be able to work in the abstract, picking and choosing the facts and tools needed in a particular situation. I’ve found over the years that this strategy improves overall problem-solving abilities in students. They become adept at transferring the skills learned and applying them to new situations.


For children in pre-K or kindergarten, seeing different arrangements of five objects, like buttons or blocks, and counting them to make five (the concrete) helps prepare the students to learn basic math facts. They explore relationships, test ideas, and make connections. Building those foundations of knowledge is key to becoming fluent in computation without always having to rely on a calculator later.

Being able to illustrate the physical objects in a drawn or written model (the pictorial) clarifies ideas, expands perspectives, and opens doors to different approaches to problem-solving. Children learn to translate the objects they see and can touch into a picture by drawing tally marks, dots, or a diagram.

The mathematical representation might also be presented in words to help the student clarify thoughts. So, a student might write a sentence, Kira Retana or the teacher might present the student with a prompting sentence such as, “An arrangement of two dots and three dots is five dots.”

Finally, the most challenging area of learning is moving to the abstract phase. For very young children, this might be recognizing that an arrangement of objects is five without having to count the pieces.


Older elementary and middle grade children benefit from the CPA process as well, as they continue to absorb the abstract. For instance, the idea of adding “like objects” may seem very simple with whole-number computation, but a solid grasp of the concept becomes a critical framework for tackling more advanced material in upper grades, including calculations with rational numbers (fractions) or unknowns (variables).

Posted in education

TEACHER LEADERSHIPHow to Help Teachers Learn New TechnologyCreated by and for teachers, one school created an effective approach for technology professional development.By Nicole Rossi-MumpowerDecember 11, 2020

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

As an assistant principal charged with introducing teachers to new technology, I continually ask myself how we can advance student engagement and implement strategies via technology that invoke teacher and student creativity, while maintaining the rigor and integrity of the curriculum. These concerns drive me every day in normal times, but with the rise of hybrid and remote learning, they are at once heftier and more urgent.

At the start of distance learning, I emailed the staff resources such as videos and demonstrations for particular tools; but while my intention was to offer support, the emails were largely unread by an already overwhelmed staff working on the front lines with their students. Missed opportunities were sitting in those in-boxes, and even if teachers did explore resources I shared, they often wound up feeling uncertain about how to proceed. Fresh ideas lay dormant, with little reprieve in sight.

I went back to my fundamentals and immediately knew that answers could be found among the teacher leaders right in front of me.


I decided that we needed a team that would function much like a professional learning community (PLC) and that I would call it a Digital Learning Team (DLT); the way I envisioned it, through this team, colleagues could connect to support each other, share ideas, and build student engagement.

At my high school, the DLT is composed of five innovative and tech-savvy teachers from various content areas including chemistry, Spanish, and social studies, as well as our media specialist. Each one has unique skills and experience, so they are equipped to meet the diverse needs of the student body. The DLT gets together every other week to continually assess and develop new ideas and techniques that meet the needs of our teachers and students.


The DLT immediately asked critical questions to frame their work:

  • How can we continue to promote authentic learning?
  • How can we implement platforms/websites that teachers can use indefinitely, even after the pandemic?
  • How can we use platforms as replacements for techniques that teachers used previously in in-person classrooms?
  • How can we re-create formative assessments for students in the virtual classroom?
  • What can we do to effectively assist teachers and directly connect with them?

Our goal was to help teachers navigate today’s circumstances and build student engagement in a way that was easy for teachers to understand. But it was quickly clear that the questions weren’t enough to guide us; we also needed feedback from teachers with detail about their needs that could keep us on track. We developed a comprehensive survey for teachers, and the data from it demonstrated that they wanted short professional development sessions from their peers to help connect content to technology. Data from the surveys also helped us to understand which platforms teachers implemented most and therefore which ones we should focus on.

Posted in education

TEACHING STRATEGIESHow to Make the Most of Student Feedback During Distance LearningIt’s harder to read a class when students are learning at home, so teachers need to explicitly ask for feedback.By Zachary HerrmannNovember 6, 2020

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

As teachers, we constantly look for clues that can help us understand the impact of our decisions. Are we doing things that are working? How do we know?

Do students appear engaged? What sense are students making? Who is participating, and who isn’t? Should I step in or let this discussion go a bit longer? We rely on data to help us answer these questions.

When I’m teaching in a physical classroom, the data seems rich and abundant. I look for patterns in participation and body language. I look for nonverbal cues that give me some sense of what students might be thinking. I listen for small bits of conversations that help me visualize a picture of what is going on. All of this data is invaluable to me because it helps inform my next steps.

This rich, analog data stream from my in-person classroom has turned into a multichannel digital data stream in my virtual classroom. The data looks different, and I’m much less experienced at interpreting it.

I’m left with questions for which I have little data to support any answers. Is the student on my computer screen with a confused and concerned look on their face lost in what we’re discussing, or are they reading the news? Why did that student just turn off their video? Is any of this working?

In my efforts to get more visibility into what is actually happening in my virtual classroom, I created new routines for gathering, analyzing, and using feedback.


1. Create feedback routines: In-person teaching gave me plenty of informal ways to gather data and feedback. I have to be far more intentional in the virtual setting. I now use a feedback form with four questions. The first section is focused on me, the teacher: “What is one thing you found helpful?” and “What is one thing that could be improved?” The second section is focused on them, my students: “What is one thing you are proud of from this class?” and “What is one thing you’d like to improve on?”

Since I created this feedback form, I’ve gathered thousands of data points that help me better understand my own teaching, as well as my students’ learning.

2. Interpret feedback thoughtfully: I immediately found the feedback illuminating. Overwhelmingly, my students appreciated the breakout rooms, wanted clearer directions for the group activities, and needed more organization with all of the digital resources and links I referenced during class. If I hadn’t explicitly asked my students for feedback, I likely would have never considered these issues.

However, students didn’t agree on everything. Some students indicated that they loved how I incorporated the chat box into our activities, while others felt overwhelmed by it. Some felt that we were moving too fast; others felt that some of the activities dragged on too long. This feedback was also helpful, as it underscored the reality that different students were experiencing my class in different ways.

3. Learn from students’ experiences: Although I created the feedback form to learn more about how my students were experiencing my teaching, there was an additional positive benefit that I hadn’t anticipated. Some students described the approaches their other teachers were using. This surfaced a new favorite question for me to ask my students: “Is there something one of your teachers is doing that you wished all of your teachers were doing?”

Students are the ones who are actually experiencing various approaches across teachers and virtual classrooms. They are uniquely positioned to share what is working and what is not.

4. Share with students what you’re learning: I was explicit with my students about how much I valued their feedback and shared the themes that emerged.

I tried to explicitly connect instructional decisions I was making in the moment to the feedback that I had received. When my actions Kira Retana appeared to contradict a theme from the feedback, I’d justify why I was doing what I was doing. In this way, I was hoping to build trust with my students that I was listening to their feedback so that they would feel encouraged to continue to provide me with thoughtful ideas on how to improve the class.

5. Learn to love feedback: Feedback can be difficult to hear, particularly when it contradicts how we see ourselves.

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EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATIONCultivating Self-Motivation in PreschoolFor the very youngest students, providing space and autonomy to learn through play may be the key to promoting a lifelong love of learning.By Tom HobsonNovember 3, 2020

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

One of my friend’s kids was a boy of strong and abiding passions. From the time he was a preschooler, whenever he saw me he would enthuse about outer space or his electric trains. As he got older, he became a collector of knives, loving nothing more than to set out a careful display of his hardware, complete with a lecture on the proper use and care of each. He delved deeply into music for a time, teaching himself the guitar. Later he shifted his focus to bicycles, building new ones from old parts. He always had something going on in that wonderful, curious brain of his.

When the boy was in high school, I happened to meet one of his teachers. When I told him that I knew his student, he said, “I worry about him. He has motivation problems.”

Surprised, I shared my observations about the kid I had gotten to know over many years. He replied, “I had no idea. I wish he would open up to me.”

When I later discussed this conversation with the boy, he grimaced. I encouraged him to talk to his teacher, “It’s obvious he hasn’t gotten to know the real you.”

“I don’t want my teachers to know anything about me,” he said. “Whenever teachers know what a kid likes, they try to take it away and use it as, like, a punishment or a reward for good grades or something.”


When Jos de Blok, founder and CEO of the successful Dutch home health-care company Buurtzorg, was asked, “How do you motivate your employees?” he replied, “I don’t. Seems patronizing.” This is the leader of a company with 10,000 employees that has been voted Employer of the Year in the Netherlands five times. Buurtzorg has minimal management and no human resources department, and runs on the principles of “trust and self-organization.”

Our educational system has long been fueled by the notion that one of a teacher’s Kira Retana main jobs is to motivate children. There’s a widely held belief that students, like employees, are primarily motivated—or at least can be motivated—to greater achievement through rewards and punishments.