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Common Core in Action: The Power of a Checklist

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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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.

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Teaching 21st-Century Skills Aligned with Common Core

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mary Clark's picture
Mary Clark
Middle School Library Media Tech

Great post, Heather! Our students have planners, but tracking nightly homework isn't going to help as we introduce more project-based learning. I will be sharing this with the teachers at my school.

Cynthia's picture
High School Teacher

Thank you for sharing such a good tip for project based learning. I use project based learning all the time in the classroom, and one of the biggest challenges I find is making sure the students are staying on task and that I am managing to check in with them regularly. Your checklist system will go a long way toward keeping not only the students on track, but me as well. It will also save me a lot of time in the classroom, rather than constantly attempting to circle all the groups, I will have a scheduled system of when I am checking in with them. I will definitely be using this system in my own practice. Thank you for the helpful idea!

Kristie's picture

Great Post!
Being my first year in the 21st century classroom, my co-teacher and I are always looking for ways to establish organization and make the students accountable. I especially like the feedback from the students. How do you share it with parents?

Heather Davison's picture
Heather Davison
8th grade Physical Science teacher from Barnesville, Ga

Heather (Great Name!)
I use interactive notebooks with my gifted students this year and have had so much success, I want to implement a version of this notebook next year in my regular science classes. I was trying to find a way to get them organized. Your checklist idea is a great idea! I will certainly use your idea when assigning tasks in a chapter or unit of study. I like the idea of having parent sign/initial they saw the checklist.
Thank you

Laura Weaver's picture
Laura Weaver
Title 1 Reading Teacher from Lock Haven, Pennsylvania

As a first year teacher in a Title 1 Reading situation I tend to teach quick lessons to reinforce the skills that are being taught in the regular education classroom. I never thought to provide a checklist for my students of the assignments we are working on in class to keep them organized and aware of what is expected of them. I really like the format that you use that also includes the standards that are addressed. I think this will help to keep my students on track for success.

Great post!

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Kristie...I think this is where it requires a pro-active parent. Whether these checklists are done electronically on a site like a Google doc or Edmodo, or simply in a journal/notebook, it is up to the parents/families to check it on a regular basis and engage their student in a conversation about how they are progressing, what they are enjoying and/or finding themselves successful at, and what their struggles are and how the student can work through their struggles.

I always feel it is important to share as many tips with families as possible; even if they seem like common sense because you do not know what each parent's experience is with education/school/learning. They might have the best intentions - yet simply not know how to support their student's learning. I think it's important teachers and schools share ideas of how or what a parent can do to be part of the support system.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Kristie!
Some teachers in our District also use texting services like Classroom Parrot where a teacher can send out reminders about action items, due dates, tests etc. to kids and parents through one bulk text message. While the checklists and electronic sharing are great, sometimes small instant reminders are also welcome to help keep everyone on task- just another option :)

Douglas Crew's picture
Douglas Crew
parent of 4, volunteer on school board, lover of learning

Great article! We have been using a product called that is focused on giving users checklists that can be shared and tracked. So far so good in our elementary school. Any other great tools out there to turn checklists into something more commonly used?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I personally like Things from CultureCode ( I can see setting up each kid as a different project, then having them input their own lists. There's plenty of room for notes and deadlines and the "next" feature would let you see what each kid had coming up next in their work process. I use it on my Mac and on my iPhone- they sync automatically. (The only downside is that it's only for Mac.)

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