Designing Effectively to Support English Language Learners

How do you design learning experiences that incorporate listening, speaking, reading, and writing?  These (draft) descriptors below articulate sample experiences to be used to design effective implementation of:

  • Inquiry
  • Collaborative Grouping
  • Academic Talk
  • Utilization of Technology for Global Connections
  • Student Ownership of Learning
  • Writing to Learn



















High Priority Standards: Professional Learning

Following a recent curriculum audit, I am in the beginning stages of curriculum design for K-12 mathematics.  The first step is to guide a team of teacher leaders and instructional coaches in the identification of High Priority Learning Standards, or the Essentials.

These High Priority Learning Standards, or HPLS, are identified based on endurance, leverage, and readiness for the next level.  In addition, we consider college and career readiness, connection to the global competencies, and emphasis identified by TEA’s Student Assessment division.

The HPLS are what grounds our guaranteed curriculum.  These are the big rocks that we guarantee all learners in our district will understand.  These are the most important pieces that narrow our focus for curriculum support of our educators and campus instructional leaders.

These HPLS will ultimately impact the design of our curriculum as they will be the basis of our programmatic assessment – how do we measure the success of our program?  Also, what exemplary content do we provide as a model for our educators? This exemplary content will support the teaching and learning of the HPLS primarily.  For what content do we intervene and measure the progress of our learners?  Certainly this will be focused on our HPLS.  In the case of accelerated instruction and enrichment, the design is rooted in the HPLS.  Also, student goal setting and reflection will be guided by the most important content they will learn, the HPLS.


To guide our campus administrators to recognize the connection of the HPLS with the rest of our curricular system, I designed and facilitated a professional learning experience to model that we must begin with the most important content or pieces of our program (HPLS) before we fill in the remaining details.



Depth of Knowledge: Professional Learning

Today I had the opportunity to provide professional learning for campus principals about Depth of Knowledge.

First, each participant received a brown paper bag containing 6 items.  To model Level 1: Recall and Reproduction, they were to empty the items from the bag, study them for one minute, then return the items to the bags.  Then, on a sticky note, they were to recall the items and describe them to the best of their ability.


To model Level 2: Skills and Concepts, once again they used the items in their bags.  This time, they were to categorize the items into two groups and name the categories.  This step required the participants to make a decision about the content beyond recall from level 1.


For Level 3: Strategic Thinking, the participants identified the animal or creature in their bag.  Then, they were to find a partner in the room whose animal or creature is of nearly the same scale.  This step required the participants to use planning and evidence, solving a non-routine problem.


We did not practice Level 4: Extended Thinking due to the time frame.  An example was shared, however, of designing an experiment to compare the properties of the items in the bags, such as motion, texture, or size.

A discussion followed this experience related to:

  • DOK Levels are not developmental.
  • DOC Levels are not sequential.
  • The verb does not define the DOK Level.

I shared examples from mathematics…

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Mathematics resources for DOK content:

General DOK resources:

Finally, the session was wrapped up with a reflection on what evidence will you look for in your classrooms and hallways?  Also, I shared the Hess Cognitive Rigor Matrices for further reading and next steps.






I have joined the #ObserveMe movement to promote transparency, encourage feedback, and model continuous improvement.  Based on my Mission Statement, I designed my #ObserveMe sign to gather feedback in the areas that are important to me as a leader:

  • celebrateWhen awesome things happen, we should celebrate – small things and big things.  It’s all about perspective – what is small to one may be huge to another.  I want to celebrate others for who they are and what they do.
  • honor – People should feel they are important.  They should be valued.  The alternative, feeling unimportant and not valued, is so detrimental and so challenging from which to recover, showing honor is not negotiable.  I want to honor people.
  • acknowledge – Recognition of others’ insight, perspective, time, and even presence matters.  I want to acknowledge other people, all people.
  • inspire – I want others to be better, personally and professionally, because they have interacted with me (short term or long term).
  • notice – The phrase I see you is worth its weight in gold!  It is so important to show a little kindness and think of others and notice people – sometimes those who should be noticed are right in front of us.  I want to notice others.

Robert Kaplinsky, Mathematics Teacher Specialist in Southern California, recently posted this challenge to his blog andincluded a template to use.  He says, “We can make the idea of peer observations commonplace.”

This sign is hanging in my office:



Scanning the QR code will bring you to this google form:


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Desmos: Number Lines

The amazing Desmos can be used to create number lines for our upper elementary learners.  After a few simple steps you can create a number line from a two-variable coordinate plane…

1. Access


2. Tap Graph Settings (the wrench tool) and uncheck the boxes for Grid and Y-Axis.



3. Check the box for Arrows.



4.  Add the point (a,0).


5.  Click the button to add a slider for a.


Press the play button and watch the point move between -10 and 10.  These are the default values.  You can adjust these values by clicking on the number and typing the value you prefer.

Now, the awesome part…

Press the pause button and ask what is the value?  Or, given a specific number, place the point on the number line.

Zoom in and out to adjust the minimum and maximum values or tap on Graph Settings (the wrench tool) to adjust precisely.


My New Favorite Digital Tools

Lately I have explored new-to-me digital tools for graphic design.  Canva, Freepik, and Typorama are definitely worth sharing.

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Canva is a web- and app-based design tool that uses a drag-and-drop feature to make graphic design possible for rookies.

Tip: Go to and navigate through the free templates.  My favorite: Infographics.

Some of my Canva creations…

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Freepik is a website with free vector art, illustrations, photos, and more.  Using the freemium business model, Freepik allows for free use of the majority of its resources (as long as you credit the author).

Vector art is created from polygons to represent images in graphics.

Tip: You can edit vector files from Freepik by using Adobe Illustrator.  Generally, there are two layers in the AI file: the background layer and the main layer (called ‘objects’).  The main layer is where you can edit the text or other graphic features in the image.

One of my Freepik creations (edited with Adobe Illustrator)…

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Typorama is a typography generator App that is super user-friendly.

Tip: You can use images from your camera roll as backgrounds, so save some of your favorites from Pixabay or Freepik to use with Typorama.

Some of my Typorama creations…

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UbD, Rekenreks, and Number Bead Strings

This week I had the opportunity to spend time with two amazing groups of elementary educators, K-2 and 3-5.  Teamed with our Director of Science, Linda Cook, we devoted the first three hours of our time together to dive into the Understanding by Design model, including a focus on backward design and constructivist learning.  Throughout the professional learning, I created sketch notes on chart paper.  The final product…

UbD Sketchnotes

We also modeled formative assessment strategies by embeding them within the experience.  Again, I took sketch notes.  The final product…

formative assessment sketch notes

Our goal is to provide curriculum documents that include Stage 1 (transfer goals, organized standards, enduring understandings, essential questions, and knowledge and skills) and Stage 2 (performance assessments, other evidence, and formative and summative assessments) content.  We are making great progress in this undertaking and our new hires were relieved to learn they may focus their design time on Stage 3 (planning learning experiences).

The second half of the professional learning concentrated on content.  The focus for mathematics was on the developmental progression of learning math and the numeracy continuum.

The mission of the Coppell ISD mathematics program is to provide opportunities for learners to reason, collaborate and think flexibly by applying critical thinking skills and problem solving strategies in meaningful and relevant situations in order to prepare for a lifetime of successful problem solving.

Utilizing rekenreks, the educators explored Number Talks.  I shared What to Do with a Rekenrek, by Diana Saylak.  This multi-touch book in the iBooks Store includes 21 activities for educators from subitizing to fractions.

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We watched videos of elementary children using rekenreks to model mathematics.  Listening to learners’ thinking paints such a clear picture of where they are on the continuum.  I beamed with pride as my new educators pointed out pivotal moments like – when the children used counting on rather than counting up and when there was evidence of subitizing a structured set.   In one video clip a child arrived at an incorrect answer and one of my educators added, “if she would have answered that on a worksheet, I would have just counted it wrong – I would not know why. But, I can see there exactly what happened.”  Yes.  That’s it.  That makes me proud.

Then the educators had an opportunity to build a number bead string and we practiced formulating questions appropriate for lower and upper primary learners as well as discussed possibilities of using the bead strings as take home activities or a make-and-take during meet-the-teacher.


Materials needed per string:

  • 1 yard of #95 paracord
  • 60 red pony beads (or 50 for kindergarten learners)
  • 60 white pony beads (or 50 for kindergarten learners)

After cutting the paracord, either burn the end slightly or use tape to prevent fraying.  Then, string the beads in sets of 10, alternating red and white sets.  Allow a small amount of movement of the beads (an inch or so), then tie double knots on each end of the paracord.


Example Questions/Skills for Bead Strings:

  • Counting forward/backward by one
  • Skip counting by 2, 5, and 10 (Skip counting with sets of objects supports learners’ conceptual understanding – for example, skip counting by ten means adding ten objects each time.)
  • Greater than/less than (Use two bead strings and a clothes pin on each to identify a certain bead, then lay the bead strings side by side to compare the numbers.)
  • If each bead is worth…(Assign each bead a value of 2, 5, or 10 and ask, If each bead is worth ___, then what is this certain bead worth?)
  • Fractional values (Insert a black bead as a decimal point between any white and red sets and assign each bead a value of 1/10.  Then, identify the value of a certain bead.)

Planning for a few precious hours with new hires is challenging.  Prioritizing what content in what format for their first experience in our district is not taken lightly.  The wide range of needs exhibited by these educators are carefully considered and I am confident time spent seeing the forest (big picture mission and goals) as well as the trees (details of curriculum documents and implementation of strategies to support the numeracy continuum) were well worth it.

The anticipation of the start of school each year is so difficult to describe – it is exhausting and exciting at the same time!  I am looking forward to another great year!

Full Circle: Instructional Coaching

This week I had the opportunity to learn alongside other instructional leaders from Coppell ISD (campus Principals, Assistant Principals, Instructional Coaches, District Administrators) at our annual Principals Academy.  The great Ainsley Rose from Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Group led us through two days of collaboration and contemplation of our next phase of Instructional Coaching and one day of work on Principals as Communicators.  Powerful stuff.

My sketch notes from the three days are below.  Impactful thoughts worth remembering…

  • Teaching is so hard…it is never perfect…no matter how good a lesson is, it can always be improved.
  • When we do the thinking for them, they resist.
  • Help like a dog, not like a cat.
  • Own the misunderstanding.  Don’t blame the student.
  • Actions prove who someone is.  Words just prove who they want to be.
  • Be ambitious and humble.







Here’s the full circle part…Recently, I had the opportunity to accompany a team of colleagues to IBM for a day and a half of design thinking.  What came from one team’s work there that I will not soon forget was the realization of how burdensome, stressful, and exhausting a day in the life of a teacher can be.  I knew this, but to see it in light of our work is motivating.  What can I do to change this?  More coaching.  More empowering.  More support.  More celebrating.  More listening.  More empathy.  More trust.  More individualized attention.  More understanding.



End of Year Teacher Gifts: Promoting Classroom Libraries

As a former classroom educator and current parent of young children, I wish to express my sincere appreciation for the work of the teachers throughout the year.  At the end of the year, I see it as one last time to say thank you for their patience, kind words, support, long hours, intentional lesson design, feedback, and celebrations they share with my children (and all of the children they serve).

This year, my daughters and I decided to intentionally select one book for each of their teachers to contribute to their classroom library.  I can hardly explain the joy the girls experienced at the bookstore, hunting for the perfect book for each one.  Many of the books were decided upon long before the trip to the bookstore – as was the case for Rosie Revere Engineer and Madeline.


Truly, the gesture of appreciation was not the book.  The gesture was the note the girls wrote to each teacher to attach to the books.  My youngest is in Pre-K and these were her words…


“Dear Ms. Dowden, I hope you love the book.  Love Stella”

This was my way of showing appreciation for teachers this spring.  Everyone shows appreciation differently.  That’s ok – as long as you do.

Sometimes my appreciation is shown through kind words (a gift is not always necessary).  I sent this email to my daughter’s science teacher last spring.  It was my hope that her teacher knew the impact she was making on a regular day – not Teacher Appreciation Day, not the Last Day, and not her birthday, but a regular Monday.

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I appreciate teachers.