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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘A Goal Without a Plan Is Just a Wish’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 21, 2017 12 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can we use goal-setting with our students?

In Part One, Dr. Sanée Bell, Kevin Parr, Rita Platt, Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman and Matt Renwick share their ideas. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sanée, Rita and Kevin on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Regie Routman, Laura Robb, Dr. Lynell Powell, John Spencer, and Jeffrey Benson contributed their commentaries.

Today, Cindi Rigsbee, Lisa Westman, Jenny Edwards, and Margaret Searle are offering their thoughts.

Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified ELA/Reading teacher currently on loan to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction where she works on recruitment and retention initiatives like beginning teacher support. With over thirty years in education, Cindi is a cheerleader for the profession as evidenced in her book Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Teacher Leaders Network, Cindi was a contributing author to Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future. She also has a blog:

Years before my school district trained me in “Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works,” common sense told me about the strategy shared in Chapter One: Setting Objectives. I had figured out, through informal observation, that my students had a better grasp of what they should be doing when they knew where they were going. Early in my career, students would enter the classroom, and I would start talking. I had lost many of them by the third sentence.

But later, after much trial and error, I came to the understanding that it’s important to allow students to interact with our learning goals. Whether we discuss the goal, copy it down and annotate it, or spend time defining key words, my aim is for each student to know exactly what our learning focus will be in the classroom each day. I secretly hope that if the principal walks in the room and asks what the learning goal is, any student will be able to share it.

After the students become comfortable with learning goals, the next step is for them to begin thinking about their own goals, both personal and academic. We start by developing time lines. I ask the students to document where they are currently (on the far left side of the timeline). Then I ask them to fill in the far right side with where they want to be in twenty years. In the middle they fill in their goals along the way. While they are completing their timelines, I play the song “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield. I use the lyrics from the song to make a point: “Today is where your book begins; the rest is still unwritten.”

The conversation turns quickly to what needs to happen in between those two points on the timeline, and students begin goal-setting. What do they need to do now to set them on the right track to meet their ultimate goal? Students make a list of their goals and we tape them inside their notebooks.

Another strategy I use is to ask students what their dreams are for their lives beyond school. I write the word DREAM on top of the board and draw an arrow pointing to it. Then I draw other smaller arrows pointing to the word as well. I tell them everything they do should be one of those arrows. Everything they do should point them to their dreams.

I then erase all the arrows and ask, “Do you know how you won’t reach your dreams? By pointing those arrows in another direction. Decide to skip school or skip doing homework? There goes that arrow! Disrespectful to your parents or teachers? Another one pointed the wrong way!”

The Dream Chart gets them every time!

It’s a visual that enables them to see what they must do to reach their goals, aspirations that they’ve taken time to thoughtfully consider throughout the year.

Response From Lisa Westman

Lisa Westman is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation at a middle school in a suburb outside of Chicago. She enjoys delivering applicable, engaging professional development and writing her blog “Put me in, Coach”. Prior to being an instructional coach, Lisa spent thirteen teaching gifted humanities, English Language Arts, and Social Studies. Lisa is excited to build her PLN and you can follow her @lisa_westman:

Student Portfolios: A New Take on Goal Setting

In the age of digital learning, the popularity of student portfolios has exponentially increased. Digital portfolios can now be used to highlight student growth in real time in addition to showcasing final products. Parents can can now see tangible examples of their child’s progress PLUS they can stop secretly disposing their child’s paper portfolios (no judgment parents, I am a parent too).

If you are interested in starting to use eportfolios for student goal setting, I encourage you to try one of my three favorite ways:

1. Student Goal Setting (.5)1

Have your students use data to determine three skills-based/ standard-aligned goals. Goals should be skills-based in order to make them applicable to as many content areas as possible. Students can then document their rise towards meeting their goals in all of their classes by adding examples of work that show growth.

2. Teacher Student Feedback (.75)

As you assess your students’ work, add items to their portfolios with actionable feedback. For example, you have a student who struggled with a portion of an assignment. You can add the item to the student’s portfolio with your feedback, “You seem to be struggling with comprehending this text. What other strategy could you try?” When the student tries another strategy and succeeds, add this item with feedback, “Performing a focused read really seemed to help you comprehend this text. What do you think was the difference?”

3. Student self-reporting of grades/mastery level (1.44)

Have students assess their own work using a rubric that you have co-created with them. Then, students can add their rubrics to their portfolio with their personal commentary.

This list is by no means a comprehensive compilation of ways you can use student portfolios. These are provisional examples that can be tweaked to best work in your classroom. Try them out and see what you think!


1. Numbers indicate effect size of student learning as researched by John Hattie of the Visible Learning Institute in meta-analysis of learning. Criteria that score above a 0.4 are considered to have a greatest impact of student learning.

Response Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of the ASCD books Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? and Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students:

How might we be able to use goal setting with our students? We have heard about S.M.A.R.T. goals—specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, and timely. There is wisdom in sharing this method for setting goals with students. Still...

When I began teaching Time Management for Educators, I read a lot of books about setting goals for one of the modules. One author emphasized the importance of goals being achievable. The author said that one could certainly not become a ballerina at age 40. Everything within me was screaming, “Why not?”

For my class on time management, I developed a handout with 10 starbursts and called it “10 Outrageous Goals.” I encouraged the teachers in my classes to set absolutely outrageous goals . . . goals that they could never imagine that they could possibly achieve—goals that they had never dared to share with anyone!

A curious thing happened. Every time I taught the class, I filled out a “10 Outrageous Goals” sheet while the teachers were filling it out. I tucked it away in my manual until the next semester when I taught the class. When I taught the class again and pulled out my sheet, I was amazed at how many of the goals I had either already achieved or was in the process of achieving.

I set goals that would be fun for me to work toward—goals that I perceived were definitely not achievable for me at that time. Some of the goals were traveling around the world and having someone else pay for it, speaking seven languages, presenting seminars around the world, and getting a PhD.

Since I developed the course, I have invited people of all ages to set outrageous goals! Then, I have invited them to link their goals with their missions in life, such as changing the world in a variety of ways, enhancing children’s lives, and helping students to know that they can do anything they want to do in life!

I have also invited them to create identities that are linked with their outrageous goals in order to accelerate their progress toward the goal. For example, if someone had a goal to travel around the world, a corresponding identity might be, “I am a world traveler.” If someone wanted to speak Spanish, they could say, “I am a fluent speaker of Spanish.”

By consciously taking on identities linked with outrageous goals, you and your students will be able to accomplish far more than you ever dreamed possible. So . . . what outrageous goals might you set for yourself, and what outrageous goals might your students set for themselves that will propel them powerfully into the future?

Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter?, published by ASCD, contains additional information about setting outrageous goals.

Response From Margaret Searle

Margaret Searle is the president of Searle Enterprises, Inc., an education consulting firm, and specializes in consulting with districts and schools in the areas of curriculum alignment, differentiated instruction, inclusive education, leadership team development, and training teams to implement RTI. Her books include Causes and Cures in the Classroom: Getting to the Root Causes of Academic and Behavior Problems (ASCD), What Every School Leader Needs to Know About RTI (ASCD), and her latest, Teacher Teamwork, which was co-authored with Marilyn Swartz:

A goal without a plan is just a wish, but when teachers enable students to set and adjust their own goals the result is often a motivating environment that fosters taking responsibility.

I suggest these six steps for teaching K-12 students to set and use their own goals for making academic and behavior changes.

  1. Isolate a specific skill that needs to be improved. Working on too much at one time can destroy effectiveness.

  2. Have students plot their current level of performance onto some type of chart or graph. For example: a line graph showing how many words read correctly per minute; a tally chart showing how many times he or she shouts out an answer in class or forgets needed materials; a bar graph indicating how many numerals can be matched to a corresponding picture.

  3. The teacher and students then agree on a new target score for the next six to eight weeks. Make certain this target is feasible. There is nothing more discouraging than trying to achieve the unachievable. For example, the student will go from knowing the sounds of 13 letters to knowing 18 sounds in the next six weeks. You can always set new targets after old ones are met.

  4. Make certain you break the measurement of growth into small enough increments for the students to see progress each week. Words read per minute work better than changes in the Lexile score for reading. Reduction in the number of late assignments daily is easier to achieve than “no late assignments for the week”. The smaller the increment of measurement the easier it will be for students to see that their efforts are paying off.

  5. Come up with a list of possible strategies that will help students reach their goals and then allow them to participate in creating their own action plan. Treat this like a research project to see which strategies work best for each student.

  6. Have students analyze their own progress and discuss exactly how they achieved the growth they recorded. Ask which strategy that made the biggest difference. If they did not show growth then ask what strategy they intend to try next that will work better.

No matter what age, we see that learners who develop the habit of using goal setting skills to track and analyze their own progress typically maintain higher motivation to learn. Students begin to believe that their effort, not just their ability, makes the biggest difference in their learning and success.

Thanks to Cindi, Lisa, Jenny and Margaret for their contributions!

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