‘Skinnying’ my standards…

Twitter is an important part of my personal learning network. I love it when I get great ideas to explore and try in my classroom! In March, I was tagged in a retweet/share by our district assistant superintendent, Dr. Amy Crouse. The link was to a post on The Teaching Channel website called “Skinnying the Standards into Six Buckets”. Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 8.59.01 PMIt was a fabulous lesson from a high school language arts teacher, Sarah Brown Wessling, on how to ‘bundle’ standards to make them more accessible for herself and her students. She outlined 4 important steps and gave teachers a peek into her classroom to see her standards sticks in action. For Sarah, the result was “six buckets…that (she) could use to hold the literacy standards and have them easily accessible so that (she) could call on them every day”. It was genius and I knew I needed to do the same!

Of course the ELA standards for high school students looks and feels a bit different in 3rd and 4th grade. I loved the idea but needed to wrap my head around ‘skinnying’ the standards for my students. I thought about her buckets: Create a context, Read closely, Analyze, Expose Precise Thinking, Write to Transfer, Build Stamina. Taking to heart a quote from Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros “If you want to be innovative, you have to disrupt your routine”, I knew it was time to dive in. This was it. The big idea that could tie together how I have students consider their learning in my classroom.

I have always found explicitly naming standards a weakness of mine. I took to posting them and there they are… another thing on my wall to be ignored. I needed something tangible and something I could ‘manipulate’. This was it! Sarah Brown Wessling used adorable paint containers and paint sticks. This was something I could get my hands on and wrap my head around!

So the work began… I first examined her six bucket categories and came up with these:Standards buckets


Big ideas felt like an “umbrella” for including those skills we teach students for comprehension strategies: questioning, determining importance, main ideas, summarizing, inferring, recount/retell, author’s purpose, elements of plot, and then synthesizing for determining a lesson, moral, and/or theme. Here were those standards under reading literature and informational text 1, 2, and 3 dealing with Key Ideas and Details.

Connections, relationships, and patterns is where I felt those reading Craft and Structure standards (4, 5, 6) fit. Here I put character traits, point of view and perspective, text structures, nonfiction text features, IMG_0083.jpgsynthesizing information, and poetry vs. prose (in terms of structure). These standards challenge students to look across texts for comparison and more deeply within texts to construct meaning.




Reading Closely is about looking more intently at text and diving into both what the author is telling us and how the text “speaks” to us. This skill is embedded in multiple ELA standards and in my opinion is best presented to students through the thinking strategies we teach them. Since deeper thinking is often so abstract for younger students, I have found these approaches have helped make it more “concrete”. In this bucket, I put a variety of more complex ideas:

  • Examining images (because we learn to really look carefully at messages images convey)
  • Working with TBE (text based evidence) as we look at the words a writer actually uses and what it tells us as readers, which invites careful analysis and reflection
  • Annotating seems simple, but helping a child understand how to pay attention to that little thinking voice in their head as they read is difficult. Here I work on realizing what is on the surface of the text, what lies deeper “below the surface” and what thinking they have that might be beyond the text. Annotating or “making tracks” when we read is a powerful way to bring that thinking out for discussion, reflection, and evaluation
  • Be a text talker then goes with TBE… that is helping students use language that differentiates what they think vs. what an author things. It is one of the first steps to getting our students to be independent thinkers
  • As students start to extract meaning from texts, they make assumptions or Screen Shot 2017-05-07 at 10.10.15 AMdiscoveries; they make claims and so I want to challenge that thinking through supporting claims they make often with evidence in the text or other valid sources
  • Finally Book-Head-Heart, which is a new strategy outlined in Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. This has been a classroom thinking game changer for my students and I and is worthy of a separate discussion altogether.

My next bucket, Building Stamina and Fluency, covers a variety of standards in reading foundations, writing, language, and speaking and listening.

  • Writing in organized paragraphs sounds simple, but I find for my 3rd and 4th graders this is a micro-skill that impacts them as writers across genres.
  • Written response in my classroom is a routine activity that focuses on being able to respond to text thoughfully. Since I am not “officially” my students writing teacher of record, I build writing skills in this way. With frequency and repetition, my students build their thinking fluency and writing stamina.
  • Self-editing deals with conventions. Anything I can do to help my students apply skills learned and make them more automatic or fluent is critical. I find labeling this as “self-editing” helps bring ownership of the standards that fall into this category stick.IMG_0085.jpg
  • R-A-C-E responding stands for ‘restate’ the question, ‘answer’ the question, ‘cite evidence’, and ‘explain evidence’. While this sounds like a ‘test strategy’ and for the most part is, I feel this ties into supporting claims and thus helping a student think more carefully and deeply about their own reactions to what they read. Stamina and fluency is then built with repetition and practice; the more I ask my students to think and reflect the more this becomes a habit.
  • Read Challenging Texts is not just about text complexity. In my classroom, I promote texts that challenge are thinking and often that is through picture books as well. This is about mindset and again fluency and stamina with more depth and complexity is built through repeated practice. Anything I can do to motivate and interest my students in going ‘below the surface’ is a win.
  • Rules for Discourse is language I use to help my students learn how to be more effective speakers and listeners through discussions. These ‘rules’ include explicit instruction of making eye contact, respectfully agreeing and disagreeing, and listening carefully and attentively to others before commenting.


Analyzing also crosses multiple ELA standards. Here lie broader categories such as comparing and contrasting, evaluating texts on the same topic, evaluating author’s claims, mood, author’s tone, and drawing conclusions. I also added point of view/perspective to this bucket as well even though I put it in another bucket: connections, patterns, and relationships. I did this because helping students just identify PoV/perspective is more surface level than really analyzing how point of view and perspective differ and impact the message of the author.

IMG_0087.jpgFinally I decided to go with Being a Wordsmith because of the many ELA standards that deal with vocabulary and language development. Here my sticks represent: using context (to determine meaning), using resources (to find minding and related information), parts of speech (as grammar is a big part of Language standard 1), synonyms/antonyms, root words, figurative language, phonics skills, and increase vocabulary. I added “Language of the Discipline” as it is a part of the depth and complexity work I try to do with my students. This includes working with domain or content specific vocabulary.

So there are my buckets. They look great, but what matters is how they impact student learning. To introduce these, I revealed them right after spring break as way to review for upcoming testing. I went over each bucket and as I pulled out a standard stick, students started remembering discussions, tasks, and lessons we did for each stick. They pointed out anchor charts or flipped to pages in their comprehension notebooks to jog their memories. It was so powerful. IMG_0089.jpg

However, I didn’t want things to stop there, so I created 6 mini-buckets with a mixture of standard from all buckets that I could have students work with collections at a time. Now when we are having a discussion and we want to mix it up, we grab a mini-bucket!

Needless to say, this really shows how just ONE Tweet can be a game changer! I am so grateful to the PLN I have on Twitter for the fresh, innovative ideas!