I Got Lost, But Not Because of a Tornado

This summer, I re-watched The Wizard of Oz.

Amazon Prime had it listed as one of its freebies, and, well, I’m from Kansas, so I am very accustomed to any references to Toto, Aunt Em, or the glittery ruby red slippers.. I guess you could say I even have a sense of pride that Dorothy gets swept to Oz by …you guessed it! A Kansas tornado! But for whatever reason, it was with great anticipation that I sat down to watch this 1939 classic one more time.

Ten minutes into the movie, I realized that it wasn’t quite what I had remembered as a kid. First of all, what was with the crazy brown-and-white opening scenes on Aunt Em’s farm? Weren’t old movies supposed to be filmed in black-and-white? Secondly, it wasn’t nearly as terrifying as I remembered. I could actually sit through the flying monkeys and the toxic poppy field scenes as an adult (although I still watched them with the lights on!). And it definitely lacked the CGI technology that we take for granted in movies today.

But it still was MAGIC.

And it got me thinking.

What we do in the classroom should be just as magical. And that’s just Step One. Someone also needs to tell teachers that they are talented, strong, courageous, and capable, just like Dorothy and the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man as they walked the yellow brick road on their way to the Emerald City.

It was about five years ago that I was desperate for someone to simply tell me that I was good at my job, let alone that my teaching was magical.

I was someone who had taught for 20 straight years in the exact same high school – doing much of the same curriculum – but suddenly I felt adrift in my own classroom. That should tell you about my fragile state of mind back then. I knew that I still had a love for teaching, but on Sunday nights I felt pure dread wash over me. I remember saying something about this in a department meeting.

“I used to see colors,” I said to my weary co-workers. “Now everything seems gray and black and blurred together.”

I am not the only veteran teacher to experience this kind of discouraging burnout. I teach in America, after all, where the “I’m outta here” rate is an estimated eight percent — twice that of high-performing countries like Finland or Singapore (Westervelt and Londsdorf, 2017). Nearly 50% percent of U.S. teachers will leave the profession within six years, due to factors such as poor working conditions, poor student behavior, and a lack of administrative support (Ingersoll & Smith, 2004).

The worst part about this is that nearly nine percent of new teachers don’t make it through the end of their first year, never mind those who hang on for an additional four years (Riggs 2017).

I get it, new teachers. I totally understand why you would leave, and I’m here to help.

After I left my high school, I found myself lost in a jumble of giant university buildings and a strange new culture. I did my best to function in a higher education environment where people spoke so ….very….academically. And I survived….sort of. And then I got stronger.

 Thanks to some kind key figures – my family, my friends, and an encouraging department chair – I began to see color again. Specifically, I saw the color yellow, which to me has always tied into a spirit of creativity and a strong sense of optimism.

Hence, the title of this blog: Yellow Brick Teaching. It’s about finding the path that leads to creative, courageous teaching with plenty of heart.

Hence, the purpose of this blog: To help new teachers follow this same path to make their lives easier and their career a blast.

 I am really looking forward to sharing this journey with you.


Ingersoll, R. M., & Smith, T. M. (2004). Do teacher induction and mentoring matter? NASSP Bulletin, 88(638), 28-40.

Riggs, Liz. “Why Do Teachers Quit?” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 01 Aug. 2017.


Let the Journey Begin

OK, new teachers. We’ve landed in Oz, we’re linked arm and arm together, and we’re heading down the yellow brick road in pursuit of teacher awesomeness.

The beginning of this road is dedicated to the curriculum that we will use to move our students from where they are to where they need to be. The word curriculum may sound intimidating, and you might be picturing stacks and stacks of textbooks and worksheets about to topple over on you, but don’t get caught up in educational jargon.

The best way to think about curriculum is that it is the learning experiences that you will design in order to get students to reach a particular outcome.

This is exciting news! Because even in today’s world of high stakes testing and grade level sameness – you as a teacher still have control over the learning experiences you design. Designing is a creative, freeing process by nature. I can remember the excitement I felt when I closed my door, walked to the front of the room, and unveiled a very special creative activity that was designed with my students in mind.

Such excitement never happened when I passed out a common assessment dictated by the administrators, I can assure you.

But right now I need you to pause and pay attention. I’m about to tell you a teaching truth that you must never ever forget. Seriously. Imagine my voice coming at you right now, sounding a little like a concerned mom and a lot like a Disneyland ride operator.

Do not – I repeat –do not base your curriculum on concepts that YOU pick up, examine, keep or throw away as YOU travel through the school year. Just don’t do it. It’s not about YOU. And this should be a relief to hear, anyway. Who needs that kind of pressure?

Other people outside of your classroom — educational agencies, state school chiefs, governors, business leaders, and even parents — already have spent a lot of time and money coming up with certain educational expectations that you must meet with your students. Ironic, isn’t it, that the very creative and freeing experience of curriculum design takes place within a very structured, pre-determined environment?

These stakeholders have written what are known as educational standards. And the standards are your friends. Renown educational researcher Robert Marzano says that even though the process of identifying appropriate standards has been difficult, it has started a nationwide conversation about what students should know in different subject areas – which is a major step forward (Scherer, 2017.)

I promise that a little ways up the road, I will show you where the standards are placed in a lesson plan, and how you can use these standards to create learning objectives that will move your students forward in manageable, measurable, incremental steps.

Before that, however, we’re going to make a pit stop. It’s time to wake up your creativity.


Scherer, Marge. “How and Why Standards Can Improve Student Achievement: A Conversation with Robert J. Marzano.” Educational Leadership:Making Standards Work:How and Why Standards Can Improve Student Achievement: A Conversation with Robert J. Marzano. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2017.








Double Check Your Bag. Did You Remember to Pack Your Creativity?

As we stand here at the first pit stop, let’s review the two components we just touched on. First, standards are the learning goals for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. They are put into place by different organizations and individuals who have a vested interest in your school.

Curriculum, on the other hand, involves the personal creation of learning experiences to get your students to meet – or exceed — these learning goals.

In case you still don’t understand the difference between the two, try thinking about them this way:

Standards are chosen for you. You don’t have to write them; someone else has decided these goals for you. No imagination or creativity is required.

Curriculum, however, comes from you, so divergent, “what if” thinking most definitely is required.

Basically, it’s the divergent thinking behind the creation of curriculum that puts the “Wow” factor into your teaching. Remember, the curriculum that you create is likely to be very different from someone else’s, even though you both were given the exact same standards. And that kind of variety, I believe, is very good for students.

When I was hired to teach Curriculum and Instruction, I was given six standards. Six….little…..sentences. Gulp!  Are these going to fill up a whole semester? Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to pick up a pen and at least start listing ideas, doodling, writing questions – and the different course units began to take shape.

The professor who had taught the course before me also had been given the same six standards. She had her students design a blog, write about assigned topics on that blog, and visit each other’s blogs to post comments.

In my course, I had students get up and teach four times in the semester and had them act out fairy tales to improve their teaching prowess.

Both groups of students ended up meeting or exceeding these six standards. Did they have different learning experiences? Yes.

Was it difficult to create a course with only six standards to work from?

Well…let’s just say that I became VERY dependent on the creative side of my brain.

Current research shows that creativity enhances learning by making it more meaningful than simple rote learning (Palaniappan 2008; Schacter, Thum, and Zifkin 2006.) Perhaps this is because the scripted lessons that teachers use are not motivating students. Designing original lessons that feature unusual images, require students to connect content to unrelated ideas, or incorporate real-life problem solving might just be the key to changing students’ attitudes and enhancing achievement (Drapeau 2014.)

As we continue along this road, I will share some activities that I did with my university students to spark their creativity. I encourage you to imagine yourself doing these activities along with us so that you gain confidence in your ability to design meaningful, motivating curriculum.

In the meantime, here’s an exercise to get you started.

Draw a T-chart. Generate five objects that start with the first letter of your first name. Write these nouns on the left side of the T-chart.

Generate five more objects that start with the first letter of your last name. Write them on the right side of the T-chart.

Challenge yourself to combine two nouns – one from each side of the chart – to create a new invention. An example could be “book” + “loaf” = a textbook that you read and then tear out the pages to make sandwiches for the week.

Get the drift?

See you back on the path.

Drapeau, Patti. Sparking student creativity: practical ways to promote innovative thinking and problem solving. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2014. Print.

Palaniappan,A.2008.Influence of intelligence on the relationship between creativity and academic achievement: A comparative study. International Journal of Learning, 15(7): 267–77. [Google Scholar]

Schacter,J.,Thum,Y.M.and Zifkin,D. 2006.How much does creative teaching enhance elementary school students’ achievement?. Journal of Creative Behavior, 40(1): 47–72.






Just Checked the Map — We’re Still On the Right Road

Have you ever tried hiking? I am not much of an outdoorsy person, but I do have a friend who is an outstanding hiker. Literally, she’s like the Usain Bolt of the Utah trails. The one time I hiked with her, all I could see was a faint outline of her fanny pack as it quickly disappeared into the trees. I was ready to collapse after our steep downhill hike into a canyon, let alone on the two-and-a-half mile trek to get back out. But I digress…

One thing I notice about hiking trails is that years before, someone has gone along the trail and placed some helpful markers that let you know you’re going in the right direction, how far you’ve gone, etc. In my mind, I picture these markers as red cedar poles with words such as “Two miles to the next rest area!” and “Keep going – you got this!” — carved into them with a rusty pocket knife, but actually I don’t know if this is accurate because, as I said, I don’t hike.

Anyway, if I were a hiker, I would doubly appreciate these markers because I could follow them either to go ahead to the destination or to go back a few miles for my lost sunglasses.

As teachers, we need to lay down similar markers that will guide students throughout a lesson. We need students to know up front what the ultimate destination for the day is, but we also need to put short, achievable benchmarks throughout a lesson to keep them moving. Like those imaginary cedar signposts, we need to continually communicate to our students, “Here is where we’re going. Now, in a quarter of a mile, you will be doing ___. After another quarter of a mile, you’ll be doing ___. By the end of the trail, you should be high fiving each other because you will have climbed Mount Everest!”

This kind of structured teaching is reassuring to students. Students get nervous if you appear to be lost or meandering. They also hate it when they feel as if you are plowing ahead without noticing that they are stuck at Milepost 2.

The helpful markers that we must use in our lessons are called learning objectives. Don’t confuse learning objectives with standards, because standards are what the students should be able to do at the end of the school year and thus are quite enormous. Learning objectives, on the other hand, are much smaller. They represent simply what students should be able to do by the end of a lesson.

Because we haven’t yet discussed how learning objectives relate to the standards, I’d like to share a couple of games that I play with my university students. My first desire is that you understand how really awful it can be when you don’t tell students where they will be heading in a particular lesson. My second desire is that you begin to see the standards as end-of-the-year travel destinations and learning objectives as short, achievable trail markers.

  1. Game One: Line up facing a large wall. Attempt to throw a large rubber ball at the exact spot I’m thinking of but have not announced. The person who throws the ball closest to the spot wins.
  2. Game Two: Holding the same rubber ball, line up in front of an orange Home Depot bucket. Put on a blindfold; spin yourself around five times. Attempt to throw the ball into the basket. The closest shot maker wins.
  3. Game Three: Take off the blindfold. Do not spin. Walk up to about three feet from the bucket and shoot the ball. The closest shot maker wins.

What is the point of each game?

  1. Game One: This is what it’s like when a teacher starts class without even announcing the learning goal of the lesson. Talk about traveling blind!
  2. Game Two: This is the equivalent to trying to teach a lesson by announcing the standard rather than a learning objective. Whew! I can’t even see where to aim! It’s too big!
  3. Game Three: This represents how awesome it is when a teacher clearly announces the objective of the day’s lesson and gives students a clear target at which to aim.

Psst… Would you like to know where we’re going next? To the writing of ABC+D learning objectives, of course!

The Alphabet Starts with the Letter A. Great Lessons Start with ABC+D.

Learning objectives – particularly the ABC+D ones that I will explain shortly — really do make moving through a lesson easier.

Remember the scene where Dorothy and the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man skipped and hopped their way along the yellow road to see the great and powerful Wizard? Even though they had never been to the Emerald City, they were not worried. They had those snazzy yellow bricks laid out in front of them to move them on down the road.

When you announce the learning objectives to your students at the beginning of a lesson, you are literally rolling out a reassuring type of path beneath their feet. And that’s not a crutch for them. That’s a relief!

As it turns out, the writing of learning objectives can be a relief for you as well. According to the authors of Classroom Instruction that Works, learning objectives help teachers determine the focal point of their own instruction, which in turn allows them to do a better job of helping their students to grasp the connections between activities they will complete and the final concept they will learn (Dean 2013).

Translation: You’ve made a map. Once you share this map with your students, they’ll settle in for the ride. Settled-in students will make the managing of your class much easier.

For these reasons and more, I think you’re going to love the ABC+D learning objective. Once you carefully and specifically write its four parts, these objectives become like little lesson maps.

You know that great teachers have everything mapped out before they start teaching.

Let’s take a look at the key to their maps.

The “A” in the ABC+D objectives stands for Audience. Unless you’re playing Carnegie Hall, your audience is going to be the student. The student will do this, the student will do that. Your hand is going to hurt from writing “The student will…” on the board so much. (Hint: that’s why veteran teachers write “TSW” so much.  They’ve gotten wise to the hand fatigue.)

The “B” stands for Behavior. Here, you’re going to want to use a verb that is measurable, such as compare, summarize, or evaluate. We’ll cover these verbs – which describe and classify observable knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviors and abilities – in an upcoming leg of our journey. You’ll want to pay attention, because the Behavior is actually how you will determine the order in which the student will perform different activities.

Next, the “C” in the objective stands for Condition. Under what condition will the student (audience) obtain the observable knowledge and skills (i.e. the behavior?) I like to think of the condition as being whatever I have to give the students in order for them to meet the objective. This reads as, “Given a frog and a set of dissecting tools,” or “Given Chapter 10 in the Biology textbook…” You’ll see how the condition portion usually begins the objective, and you’ll love how you can use this predictable sentence structure every time.

Finally, the “+D” in the objective stands for Degree. To what degree will the student (audience) obtain the observable knowledge and skills (the behavior?) If you want a perfect performance, you would write “with 100% accuracy.” If you are looking for something almost but not quite perfect, you could write “with 85% accuracy” or “in less than a minute without falling down.”

Speaking of falling down, don’t do it! You’ll want to keep up because next I’m going to have you interact with some complete ABC+D objectives as well as some incomplete ones that need.. how can I say it?… a little teacher love.

Change is Coming to Your Classroom. The ABC+D Objectives Will Make Sure of It.

New teachers, would you not agree that the “ABC+D” acronym is a pretty nifty way to remember how to write objectives? I picture some NCAA cheerleaders lined up chanting, “Give me an A ….Audience! B….Behavior! C….Condition! D….Degree!” I personally love it when tricky educational concepts are expressed with this kind of user-friendly language. And I hope that you love it, too.

In case you’re wondering who invented this acronym and why, it was Robert Mager, a psychologist and author who was interested in improving human performance (ever hear of performance-based outcomes?) However, I personally give kudos to the famous educational psychologist Robert Gagne for paving the way for guys like Mager to determine how people learn best.

It was Gagne, after all, who first recognized the need to bring purpose and focus to instruction in order to bring about learner improvement and change.

Gagne pioneered the science of instruction during WWII when he worked with pilots in the Army Air Corps. After watching these pilots complete their training exercises, he was able to articulate a radical new approach to good instruction.

I say “radical” with tongue-in-cheek. Gagne simply discovered that each new skill that a student learns should build upon previously learned skills.

It took the Egyptians about 20 years to build a pyramid. A teacher only has a school year to build students’ skills to the level of the standards. There’s simply no time to lollygag around, teaching concepts that students already know and asking them to do more of what they already know how to do.

In his book Principles of Instructional Design, Gagne wrote that teachers always should ask themselves, “What will the learner be able to do after my instruction, that they couldn’t (didn’t) do before?” or “How will the learner be different after this instruction?” (Gagne 2011.)

I’m guessing that questions like these in turn sparked Mager’s imagination and led him to create the ABC+D learning objective.

When setting out to write an ABC+D objective, the first step is to look at your standard and think about all the changes that need to happen in your student in order for him or her to meet this standard.

Then, mentally line up those changes one by one, starting from the basic foundational changes to the most refined, polished changes that must occur before the standard is met.

The changes you want to see happen in a particular class period will be the focus of your learning objectives. Metaphorically speaking, this might be at the beginning of the road. Maybe it will be almost to the finish line. Regardless, these behaviors that are observable and measurable are what will put your students into transformation mode.

In the following ABC+D objective examples, I’d like you to look for the behavior portion first. This will be written as a verb, and the verb will different for each objective in terms of cognitive rigor. This is something we’ll examine more in depth later.

Next, I’d like you to identify the audience, condition, and degree in each objective.

Finally, I’d like you to rewrite some objectives that only have some of the ABC+D elements. Poor things – they read like items on a To-Do list than as mini lesson plans. They need your help! Try rephrasing them so that they contain all of the ABC+D elements and therefore give a complete Google Maps view of the lesson.

Part One: Identify the ABC+D elements. Answers are at the bottom (Mager 1997.)

  1. Given a sentence written in the past or present tense, the student will be able to re-write the sentence in future tense with no errors in tense or tense contradiction.
  2. Given a balance beam raised to a standard height, the student will be able to walk the entire length of the balance beam from one end to the
 other, steadily, without falling off, and within a six second time span.
  3. Given examples and non-examples of constructivist activities the student will be able to accurately identify the constructivist examples and explain why each example is or isn’t a constructivist activity in 20 words or less.

Part Two: Rewrite these objectives so that they contain all ABC+D elements. (Answers will vary greatly.)

  1. Read Chapter 4.
  2. Learn how to create an Excel document.
  3. Summarize the digestive system.

Once you’ve practiced these objective-writing skills, you can join me back on the yellow brick road. Although this road is flat, we’ve got some climbing to do.

Gagné, Robert Mills. Principles of instructional design. Belmont, Ca., Wadsworth, 2011.

Mager, R. F. (1997). Preparing Instructional Objectives: A Critical Tool in the Development of Effective Instruction (3rd ed.). Atlanta, GA: The Center for Effective Performance.


(Answers for Part One: 1. C: Given a sentence written in the past or present tense, A: the student B: will be able to re-write the sentence in future tense D: with no errors in tense or tense contradiction. 2. C: Given a balance beam raised to a standard height, A: the student B: will be able to walk the entire length of the balance beam from one end to the
 other D: steadily, without falling off, and within a six second time span. 3. C: Given examples and non-examples of constructivist activities A: the student B: will be able to accurately identify the constructivist examples and explain why each example is or isn’t a constructivist activity D: in 20 words or less.)




Inspiration for Teaching Comes in the Coolest of Places

We’ve been thinking about some pretty heavy educational stuff since our journey started, so right now I would like to take a time out to share something lighter with you.

You know what I always thought would make The Wizard of Oz an even better movie? To suddenly have another human being appear on the yellow brick road –ZAP! — out of nowhere, like when Scotty would use his transporter to beam down Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock to a planet’s surface. This new character would be totally thrilled to encounter Dorothy and her friends. Maybe it would be a man in pajamas appearing around the bend, holding a cup of coffee and the Sunday paper: “Hey guys, I was just minding my own business down in Florida when – out of nowhere – this hurricane…”

Just so you know, new teachers, on this road called teaching, you will have a variety of new people showing up to walk alongside you. These people will share the same passion for teaching, even though they may practice the art of instruction in very different environments than yours. What you can count on, however, is that they will have buckets full of creativity, courage, and heart, just like you. And the time you get to spend with them will be priceless.

With that being said, I’d like to introduce you to Scott Bunker, and no, that’s not a walking stick in his hand. That’s a golf club.

I first met Scott (hereby known as “Bunker”) when my husband and I joined the beautiful country club near our house. My husband had patiently taken me out on the club’s golf course for nine straight years, and as his game began to resemble Phil Mickelson’s as a result of all the practicing, my slope of improvement continued to be a depressing flat line.

One day, he told me that he thought Bunker could help my game. He then offered to pay for me to take 10 lessons, because, and I say this without exaggeration, he is the coolest husband in the world.

Feeling a mixture of fear and embarrassment, I called Bunker and practically apologized for asking to take a lesson. After all, he was a Class A PGA professional who had been recognized as the Southwest Section PGA Teacher of the Year in 2001. Even more impressive, he had been named one of Golf Digest and Golf Magazine’s Top 100 instructors in the U.S.

Bunker was calm, friendly, and confident that he could help me. He had years of experience to back this up his belief. And I was convinced that once he saw how I could not improve as a golfer, he would throw his hands in the air and say, “Sorry, but there is nothing more I can do! This one should take up bocce ball or lawn croquet!”

My cheeks began to burn as I pictured a disastrous first lesson. You see, I had not been in the shoes of a learner in years. Suddenly I realized just how vulnerable of a position it actually is.