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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Common Core in Action: The Power of a Checklist

In Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury writes that the grandma's kitchen was warm, exciting, and full of "organized chaos." I like to think that my classroom environment is also like that. Well, at least it's a positive spin on the piles of books, the stacks of papers and the uneven bulletin boards that define my middle school classroom.

But when teaching study skills and organization, it's vital that I model a more perfect world. One of the ways that I help my students -- and myself -- to organize our assignments is to create checklists.

The Rationale Behind Using Checklists with Students

Developing and providing checklists speaks to college and career readiness in the Common Core. After all, organization, preparedness, goal setting and the independent learning that comes from utilizing resources are all folded into the expectations of these new standards.

But they also hit 21st century skills and strategies presented by such websites as The Institute of Museum and Library Services that calls for the following:

Manage Projects (Productivity and Accountability)

  • Set and meet goals, even in the face of obstacles and competing pressures.
  • Prioritize, plan and manage work to achieve the intended result.

Manage Goals and Time (Initiative And Self-Direction)

  • Set goals with tangible and intangible success criteria.
  • Balance tactical (short-term) and strategic (long-term) goals.
  • Utilize time and manage workload efficiently.

Because I teach using project-based learning, I find it very important not only to let students in on what our main goal needs to be, but to let them in on the process and steps it will take to meet that goal. My checklists, therefore, become almost a sequential narrative through an academic unit.

It’s about transparency, and the more information you grant to students, the better. After all, if we're working to let go of the authority in the room and create a classroom where students own their learning, then we have to let them in on the sequence of lessons and assessments ahead of time. There's no reason why students should be in the dark as to what I will expect and why. The mystery defeats achievement.

There are many reasons to use checklists.

  1. They make sense of the big picture of a particular unit.
  2. They help me plan ahead, forcing me to think about where I want to go and how.
  3. They communicate to parents what we are doing in the classroom so that there aren't mixed messages coming home regarding the purpose or pacing of assignments.
  4. They provide students a resource to develop better time management skills by planning and prepping assignments in advance.

The Parts of an Academic Unit's Checklist

There are different parts to my checklists. Some reflect a shorter unit, one over the course of, say, three weeks. Others reflect a whole quarter, depending on the objective of the unit itself.

Some checklists I provide are fully filled out in advance and copied (or shared via Google Drive). Others allow for students to fill them in. We sit down at the top of a unit and spend a period going through what will be required. I find that students have more ownership when it's in their own writing or typing, so it's time well spent.

I always include a cover sheet that informs all stakeholders (students, parents and administration) of the intention of a particular unit. This also includes a contact email or phone number where I can be reached with questions.

Then there is a table with rows for each assignment and/or assessment. The columns show:

  • The date assigned
  • A description of the assignment and any applicable links to resources
  • The date due
  • The standard hit
  • "Deadline met?" is a column for a student or teacher to initial, indicating that the assignment was submitted successfully by the deadline (or not).

It might look like this:

These URLs link to OWL Online Writing Lab and EasyBib.

Credit: Heather Wolpert-Gawron

The table itself should also have a few empty rows. This goes hand in hand with a frontloaded conversation you need to have with students about being flexible. I consider flexibility another 21st century skill. After all, you can only predict so well. You must tell students that while these assignments reflect the overall goals and lessons planned at this time, you still have the right as their guide to cross an assignment off the list or add one if you discover a gap in the learning once the unit begins. It's your call, and it's an all-important lesson in being flexible.

It’s like a contract. You promise to think ahead, not to wing it, and be transparent with your plans. They, on the other hand, promise to plan ahead. So, as a teacher, you don't need to get too compulsive about providing every beat of a unit ahead of time. Your goal is to grant them access to your thought process that exists to the best of your knowledge at this time.

So What Do Students Have to Say?

What do students think of checklists? Well, I asked them, and they said the following:

Joshua: Our checklists give us a visual list of what we have to do. For example, a checklist would be better than paragraph instructions because we have to draw out a list from a paragraph, whereas in a checklist, we can immediately see what we need to do and get straight to work.
Destiny: I am a procrastinator, and having the kind of motivation to check something off is great for me to stay on track . . . It's like if you have ten parts of your assignment, for every one you check off, it's like a small victory.
Hugo: They allow one to see what has been done and what needs doing. I usually like to use a three-column checklist, writing the date by which something needs to be done, the name or description of what needs to be done, and a box for me to check whether I've done it or not.
Jannelle: I like using checklists because they help me keep track of my work, as well as organize due dates and assignments so that I'm not overwhelmed.
Alyssa: Checklists let me know about big assessments that may come in the future and allow me to plan for them. Checklists also keep me organized and help me remember what I have due and when for long-term projects.
Caitlin: The human mind can become forgetful, and checklists help keep track of many things and ease the pressure of remembering certain things . . . They help you avoid minor/major mistakes.
Audrey: The checklists you provide keep me organized. They also help me with my time management because I see the different assignments I have and can estimate how much time each one would take to complete.

Sure, my bulletin boards may be untidy, having been constructed by the students themselves. But the assignments posted to them were submitted by the deadline shared on the checklist.

How do you and your students keep track of what needs to be done in the course of a day, a week or a unit? Please share in the comments section below.

Teaching 21st-Century Skills Aligned with Common Core
Sponsored by Lenovo, this series showcases ideas for teaching 21st-century skills aligned with Common Core.

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