The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 167 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, Host

GONZALEZ: Early on in my teaching career I would spend entire weekends grading a stack of student papers, highlighting the accompanying rubric to indicate problem areas and writing comment after comment to point out strengths and areas for improvement. The following Monday, when I returned the papers, far too many students would look at their grades and feedback like it was written in another language. Despite the fact that I had gone over the requirements at the beginning and given them a copy of the rubric ahead of time, they acted like they were seeing them for the first time.

This situation did not result in the most optimal learning, and that was my fault. I had done a few things right—namely, making the requirements available from the start—but I hadn’t really done anything to make sure students understood them. 

As I gained more experience, I added in a few more steps that helped: I showed students models of finished products, which gave them a much clearer picture of what they were shooting for. I also had them score a few samples to get them to pay closer attention to the requirements in the rubric. Both of these went a long way toward getting students to understand what they needed to do. But I knew I wasn’t all the way there yet; I just couldn’t quite figure out why.

After talking with my guest today, I think I found the last few pieces of this puzzle. Starr Sackstein has spent the better part of the last decade fine-tuning the way she assesses students, and helping other teachers do the same through her books, videos, and training. She was a very early guest on this podcast—in Episode 13, where we talked about teaching without grades. In her new book, Assessing with Respect, she looks at assessment through the lens of social emotional learning. The book  “addresses the five SEL competencies—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making—and explains how teaching students to develop their abilities in these areas can help them improve their learning and assessment experiences.” 

One of the practices she recommends—the one that would have really helped me in the situation I just described—is including students in the process of defining what will be assessed, also known as co-constructing success criteria. In other words, rather than having the teacher be the only one who decides what constitutes good work, have the students contribute as well, and make them part of that process from the very beginning. Although I did some of the things that Sackstein recommends, I missed a few key steps that would have really made a difference. In this episode she walks me through the process.

Before we start the interview I’d like to thank Hapara for sponsoring this episode. Google and Hapara are better together. The Hapara Instructional Management Suite streamlines Google’s G Suite for Education to create a seamless teaching and learning experience for 1:1 classrooms, remote learning and hybrid models. Teachers love it because it simplifies teaching workflows and helps students organize themselves for learning. It makes giving formative feedback quick and easy, automates and helps you track differentiation, keeps kids safe online and gives them reminders to turn in their Google Classroom assignments! To find out more about how you can use Hapara at your school visit:  

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Now here’s my interview with Starr Sackstein about co-constructing success criteria. 

GONZALEZ: Starr, welcome to the podcast. 

SACKSTEIN: So excited to be here again. 

GONZALEZ: So it’s been like six years now. I really surprised myself when I looked back and saw that it was Episode 13 that you were on, and this is Episode 167, I think. 

SACKSTEIN: That’s crazy. 

GONZALEZ: We are going to be talking about one very specific chunk of the larger picture of assessment today. We’re going to be talking about co-constructing success criteria with students. Before we get into that, you have, as long as I have known you and been aware of you, so much of your work has been around assessment. Tell us a little bit about your background as an educator, and then we’ll get into a larger discussion of your perspective on assessment and then we’ll drill down a little further into this specific technique. 

SACKSTEIN: Sure. I was a high school English and journalism teacher for 16 years in New York in a couple of different schools. Then I was an instructional coach and the director of a humanities department in this small district in Long Island. Throughout that time, I’ve had the honor and pleasure of writing as a blogger and an author and now I work as a publisher and educational consultant. All of that work has been encapsulated, like you suggested, around assessment reform and other peripheries associated with assessment that I think improves the impact of the teaching and learning that’s happening in our learning spaces. I became really, really passionate about that when my son entered school a long time ago. He’s 15 now. From there, I think I had moved myself away from a more traditional teaching and learning paradigm, which I think we all start in because we do what we know. 


SACKSTEIN: And sort of pushed myself to experiment a lot until I landed where I am now. When we spoke last, when “Hacking Assessment” was kind of being put together and I was making concrete the structures I put in place for getting rid of grades in the classroom. 

GONZALEZ: Right, and that’s kind of been the direction that you’ve gone. It’s funny you’re talking about the trial and error process, and I can still remember your Periscopes from the car years and years ago. You were just doing a lot of talking about trying to shift from grading to feedback and conferencing. A lot of your perspective does come from your work as a writing teacher. So one of the things that has come up in our conversations is that we want to make this relevant to teachers of all subject areas. If you could just sort of, you said that this started when your son started school, your sort of shift. If you could give the elevator pitch for what your philosophy is on grading and the direction that you would love to see schools moving. What would that be? 

SACKSTEIN: Fundamentally I think grades and other labels that we use in school systems are harmful to student learning because as educators, the person in charge had the ability and capacity to really shape the way a learner feels about themselves and that context. So when they struggle in math and we say they’re not good at math or they struggle in science or they’re not strong readers when they start, they internalize that, and then it affects the way they go through the rest of their learning and potentially what happens after that as well. My philosophy is we meet kids where they are. We take a strengths-based approach. We made sure to give very direct, instructive feedback, and we make it an iterative process where their voice is a large part of how we assess them with reflection and self-assessment. That partnership between what’s going on for them as learners and what we’re seeing as educators comes together to help them start to set goals and move on, progress along their own learning. Most recently in my work and in my latest book, “Assessing with Respect,” I tie in the interplay of social and emotional learning with assessment, and how teachers could very practically think about the whole child when planning assessments and assessing students throughout the formative process. 

GONZALEZ: A lot of this, our original interview years and years ago was about teaching without grades. At the point where I was talking to you anyway you were really moving toward figuring out how to kind of go graceless within a school structure where grades were still very much required of you. I think that’s still where most teachers are even if they have really embraced the idea that traditional grading is not serving our students, we have not changed the system and the structures really at all. I guess I’m saying this because I think to some people listening, they’re going to be like, oh, that sounds great except I still have to do grading. This is just kind of my little footnote to everyone listening that all of your work has been around making this philosophy work within traditional structures. 

SACKSTEIN: Absolutely. I think it’s really about exploiting loopholes. 


SACKSTEIN: Finding where you can do it, delaying grades as long as possible. Like I said before, really making sure the students are a part of the process. If you’re going to have to give a grade, make sure that they’re involved in the process that you’re doing that with. 

GONZALEZ: Right. That’s actually where we’re headed today. You’ve got a lot of other work out there that has to do with conferencing and all the other pieces of assessment, but the piece that we’re going to be talking about today is this real small part about co-constructing success criteria with students, which is about bringing them into the process very early. Let’s get a definition of what that means, and then tell us why you think this is such an important piece of an overall assessment picture. 

SACKSTEIN: What co-construction of success criteria is essentially is backward planning with students for success. We’re going over an assignment with them, and we’re having a conversation where we’re either brainstorming or thinking about what it would take to be successful on this assignment. It could be done a lot of different ways. The reason we want to do this is because it’s going to help with clarity. Think about when you give driving directions and you’re trying to get to a specific location. The more specific the directions are, the faster you’re going to get there and the likelihood of you not getting lost along the way is much higher as well. It helps teachers do a better job with planning their instruction because we’re going to figure out what kids are pulling as what they think to be successful, and we’re also going to be asking them where they think they need help. What can they do successfully already and where are they going to need more instruction? It helps the students give each other better feedback because there’s going to be a list of criteria that they’ll be able to assess in each other’s work and go back to. In the same form, it’ll then help the kids be more able to self-assess themselves because they know what they’re doing, they know what they’re looking for. They’ve seen models of success before they started. They had opportunities to ask questions, and now they have a clear understanding of what the expectations are and how to be successful. Rubrics will likely come up. People who are listening might say, well, don’t rubrics do that? To a certain degree, yes, but rubrics are problematic in a lot of ways and that’s definitely a rabbit hole for another time. But I think that if you have a rubric, that might be a good place to start with co-construction because then it gives kids an idea of the things that you’re looking for, and then together after they review that document, you could come up with a list of criteria that’s really going to help them stay on track throughout the process. 

GONZALEZ: Right. So basically what we’re talking about is having students be a part of the process from the beginning, from before an assignment has even begun, to talk about what does a good, finished product look like and how clearly do we understand that. And really, if it’s co-construction, we’re asking them what should a good, finished product look like, if these are the standards that we’re shooting for? 

SACKSTEIN: Exactly. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. So this is something that you have practiced with your own students. What we’re going to do next is actually walk through what that looks like, but I guess before we start, tell me in your own experience, when you think about yourself as a teacher before you started doing this and then after, have you seen better outcomes from students when you take these steps? 

SACKSTEIN: Yeah, 100 percent. I think clarity really goes a long way, and I know that I can have amazing ideas but sometimes how I communicate them in the assignments don’t always come out the way that I think they do in my head.


SACKSTEIN: Early in my career, I would get work back from kids that didn’t even remotely look like what I was expecting. Sometimes we want to blame the kids, but it’s not their fault. It’s actually a teacher clarity issue, and this is one way to really solve that problem. It’s to work out the kinks before they get started so that everyone has a very clear understanding of what the expectations are before they start. Since you’ll have a process throughout where they’re going to be talking with each other, self-assessing, they’ll have multiple opportunities to make revisions where necessary. 

GONZALEZ: Right, right. You know, I think that what you’re saying really resonates with me because I was an English teacher also. I think there are certain types of writing that people who have been in academic worlds for a long time, we think of these things as something everybody already knows what it is and how to do it. You’ve got a 14-, 15-year-old showing up, they don’t know what an essay necessarily looks like, especially now in 2021. This is not a form of writing that they’ve necessarily seen much of, so they really don’t know what we mean sometimes when we say. That’s the other thing is I feel like a lot of times, this happened to me a lot in college. We would get an assignment, and we would submit a paper, and it was only when you got it graded and back and you saw the feedback, then you knew what the professor was expecting. It was only then that you knew that they cared a lot about X, Y and Z, whatever it was, and it would be so nice to know ahead of time that those things were important.

SACKSTEIN: Absolutely. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Okay, so we’re going to walk through what this looks like, and why don’t we just sort of imagine that we’re going to be doing this for an English class, but then I think what we need to keep doing is stopping and saying, this is what it would look like in a science class, this is what it would look like in social studies. I guess for social studies, what we’re assuming is that we’re also talking about some type of a writing assignment. 

SACKSTEIN: And it doesn’t always have to be writing. This works with math problems, whether they be word problems or other kinds of math where there are multiple steps. It works in science when you think about the scientific method and writing up lab reports or doing research of any kind in any subject. It really does work in language classes, world languages, because as we’re learning language, it’s not just writing that they get assessed in. They get assessed on content and they get assessed on different skills that they’re learning in each of those classes. They should hopefully have seen exemplars before they get started to boot, and that’s a really good starting space. 


SACKSTEIN: Which when we go into the process right now, that comes relatively early on. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Now that I’m listening to you, and I’m thinking it works for any other sort of performance-based course too. 


GONZALEZ: Where if it’s an art class or a physical education class where you are trying to explain what a good, finished product looks like, there’s a way of pulling that apart and analyzing what the different pieces of that are. 

SACKSTEIN: Exactly. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. How does this actually start? Let’s say that you’re getting ready to start an assignment, maybe a piece of narrative writing or something like that with students. How would you begin to include students in the process? 

SACKSTEIN: The first important thing, and we talk about academic vocabulary a lot these days. Kids have to be familiar with the language of standards. The way we do that is not only having learning targets that are directly aligned to them, but using that language in the lessons throughout. Whether we have kids unpack the standards in small groups, and then using their sentence strips while we’re in that unit, if we’re really focusing heavily on that power standard. And getting them very accustomed to why are we really studying this skill and content? How does it relate to the rest of my life? How does it transfer to the other learning spaces that I’m in? That has to be part of the currency of what’s happening in class all the time. 

GONZALEZ: Okay, so let’s think about, can you give me a standard for example, and then what does that actually look like to have students unpack that in a session in class? 

SACKSTEIN: The one that we always work on a lot in the teams that I work with now, regardless of the content area, is that claim-evidence-reasoning standard. We’re citing evidence, for example, based from a text. You have some complicated language in there like sometimes the word sophisticated will come up or different indicators that would definitely need to be fleshed out a bit in terms of what that word actually means to make it less ambiguous in this particular setting. 


SACKSTEIN: Ways that I’ve done it specifically in class, in my 12th grade English class, I actually would give the big piece of the standard, not the broken down piece, I’d ask kids to highlight the verbs, because the verbs are generally the skills, and then have them circle the nouns so that those are the concepts. And they have a good strong understanding of what skills and what concepts we’re going to be working on. Most standards have multiple skills and concepts in them. Too often, like you were saying at the beginning, Jenn, people assume kids understand those concepts, and that’s like spot number one where clarity could go wrong. If we’re making an assumption that kids even know what evidence is, and they don’t, and now it’s seventh or eighth or ninth grade and they feel like they should, they might not be so inclined to raise their hands and ask. 

GONZALEZ: Right, right. 

SACKSTEIN: But throughout this process, they’ll unearth that that’s a term they’ll be able to discuss it in their small group. You might even brainstorm a list of things that evidence could be and the kind of assignment or text that they’re looking at. For social studies, if they’re looking at a primary document that’s a map or a political cartoon. They’re going to be looking for different kinds of evidence than if they’re looking at a written text of some kind. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. While you’re talking I went ahead and opened up, and I know that not all states are using Common Core, but I know that a lot of states’ standards have been revised from the Common Core. So just as an example of a standard that would require a lot of unpacking, we’ve got one here that says develop claims and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values and possible biases. That’s a lot. 

SACKSTEIN: Yes it is. 

GONZALEZ: So you really do need to pull the vocabulary for this apart, making sure that students understand what relevant means and what biases means and thoroughly mean. And what do we actually mean when we say that? So you’re having the students actually sort of pull those apart. If I were to put that up there, for example, what are the students actually doing in their seats? Are they rewriting them? 

SACKSTEIN: After they highlight and circle, there would be lists. I’m thinking also in terms of the template I use with teachers to unpack standards. Then they would simplify it. 


SACKSTEIN: After they’ve taken it apart, we would put it as simply as possible in student language, kind of taking out what feels redundant. It could also be that. That one that you read, for example, is like four or five different learning targets. 


SACKSTEIN: You’re not going to teach all of that in one lesson. There’s no way. 

GONZALEZ: Right. Yep. 

SACKSTEIN: Even just having them break it apart into smaller pieces where they create like one idea where the comma breaks. 

GONZALEZ: Yep, yep. 

SACKSTEIN: That might be something you teach them. Like all right, every time you see a comma, you know you’re going to be coming up against something new. 


SACKSTEIN: That’s either going to add to the first part or once you get to a new concept in there, thinking about how would I need this to be taught to me as a teacher. And you would model this before you put it in front of kids. You would do one together. This is something you might do on a whiteboard, have a kid come up and underline the verb, circle the nouns, talk about it. Then by the time you’ve done one or two of them together, and then you put them into groups after the fact and have them start working them out and creating those set in strips or chart papers that you’re going to put up with a list of the skills and concepts that we’re going to be going over. That essentially could even be your word wall, your academic vocabulary word wall at the time. 

GONZALEZ: Would you have them create “I can” statements out of these? 

SACKSTEIN: Yes. The “I can” statements are essentially what’s going to be the success criteria eventually, because they’re going to be saying to themselves, when it comes time to self-assess, “I can do this,” or you know for the teacher-facing side it would be, “Students will be able to,” and on the student-facing side it would be “I can.”

GONZALEZ: Right. I’m going to circle back to the original point that you made here is that the language from the standards needs to be used daily throughout lessons and conversations where you’re saying to them, right now we’re going to talk about making sure your evidence is relevant. That you’re using the term counterclaim and that you’re using the term biases in your daily instructional language and conversation so that — well, I guess I would ask you. Even though you have simplified it for the students, are you still then looping back to the original language of the standard in the conversation so that they get used to that vocabulary? 

SACKSTEIN: Absolutely, yes. 


SACKSTEIN: And when you’re giving them the feedback on their work, specifically around those things, you’re going to use the actual language so they’re seeing both together. They have the simplified version, and they also have the academic directly from the standard version. 

GONZALEZ: Okay, okay. I think that’s so important because we have this language that we’re using, and it’s kept away from the students all the time. I think that’s such an important tip. Okay, so just in general, we’re embedding the language of the standards in our everyday classes. We’re having the students unpack it early so that they understand what it means. Then what happens? Once they’re like, okay, here are the standards, then what else can you do? 

SACKSTEIN: Then you’re going to want to give them the assignments which you’re going to be working on. Then give them an opportunity to annotate the assignment for clarity and questions. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. What does that actually look like? You’re talking about maybe a written, like a prompt or something for an assignment? 

SACKSTEIN: Exactly. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. When you say annotate, what are they doing? 

SACKSTEIN: Okay. The way that class ran for me was mostly project-based learning. So the beginning of a unit, we would look at the project, which would basically break down three weeks’ worth of learning upfront. 


SACKSTEIN: Obviously there were smaller pieces along the way. I didn’t just hand them three weeks’ worth of learning and say, “Do this.” It was, okay, I need you to read and annotate like they would actually a text. They could use highlighters, they could use pens. They could check off if they understand what’s expected. Put questions or comments in the margins to create that good marginalia as if they were looking at a text to practice that particular skill. Then because we know we’re going to be talking about success criteria, as they’re reading, keep that purpose in mind. 


SACKSTEIN: How do you think, what does success look like on a project like this? 

GONZALEZ: Okay. What we’re talking about is instead of, which I think some teachers are in this habit of doing, just handing out an assignment and just being like, okay, this is what it is. Off you go. Having the students really actively read it with marking it up and with highlighters and with annotations so that they’re deeply understanding it. One of the things I used to do a lot with my students is I would say, I want you to have a question ready for me, or I want everybody to have at least one question about what’s on here. I would even quiz them verbally on the assignment to make sure that they had actually read it carefully and they understood, you know, whatever it was that I was asking them to do. 

SACKSTEIN: It’s so important. If you have that clarity, again, at the beginning, the whole process is going to go a lot smoother. So slow down, spend an entire class period actually going over the assignment and working on developing the success criteria, and then get into the first part of whatever comes the next day. 


SACKSTEIN: So they’ve had time to digest it a bit as well. 

GONZALEZ: Yes, and you save yourself so much time and headache as a teacher if you take that time at the beginning. 


GONZALEZ: Then trying to re-teach it later to the kids who just weren’t paying attention. Okay, so you’re going through the guidelines and making sure that they really understand it. Then what else would you do? 

SACKSTEIN: Then you would provide some exemplars. If possible, I mean before you do any new project, you should always do it yourself, so that you could kind of get a sense of where they might struggle or even if you’re as clear as you think you are. 


SACKSTEIN: Otherwise, if you’ve done it before and you have student samples from the past, or something that’s similar enough that you could show, whenever you have student exemplars, I think it’s a lot more effective than a teacher-made student exemplar.


SACKSTEIN: Just because I think that even when we think we’re doing it on their level, it could be intimidating for them to see our work. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yep. 

SACKSTEIN: Versus somebody that is a peer to them. Then have them, again, review that exemplar. What did they notice? And start brainstorming that list of criteria based on what we’re calling an exemplar. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. And when we give them these exemplars, and by exemplar I want to make sure that everybody listening understands what we mean by that. This is an example of student work that fulfills the assignment. This is a finished product. 

SACKSTEIN: High quality. Yep. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. And yes, and that’s I guess my next question is we’re looking for something that demonstrates the qualities that we’re actually looking for, not one that is lacking in some significant way. 

SACKSTEIN: Right. Although that is something that could certainly be useful along the way when you want them to recognize what’s missing. I’m not sure it’s as effective in the beginning, because you don’t want them to associate what success looks like accidentally by something that isn’t the highest quality. 

GONZALEZ: Okay, okay. So we’re looking at high-quality examples. So what exactly are students doing with these exemplars? You’re studying them, but what’s physically happening in the room once they’ve looked at them? 

SACKSTEIN: Well, we’re giving them the opportunity first to read and review. 


SACKSTEIN: So it’s not like handed out and then ask everybody what they notice one minute later. 


SACKSTEIN: Which I’ve definitely been guilty of. 


SACKSTEIN: And you’ll have your three most assertive students who end up dominating that conversation. If you want the whole class to be involved, I recommend maybe think pair shares, give them a chance to read it over themself. Kind of really internalize what’s there and then talk with a thought partner, and then kind of have an opportunity for the class to share out a little bit in with what they notice. Only maybe one criteria at a time so you could get as many kids as possible to participate, instead of letting the first person identify everything that they notice right at the front. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. So we’re sort of going around saying, tell me one good quality that you’re noticing, and point to where you’re seeing that happening? 


GONZALEZ: Okay. And are they at this point referring back to the assignment, the sheet that they had annotated before? 

SACKSTEIN: Absolutely. 


SACKSTEIN: And they should use the language of where they recognize those things inside. Sometimes on my assignment sheets I would also be very clear about what I didn’t want the assignment to be just as like a reminder. If I notice in the class that there was something we were struggling with, and let’s say this was something that had something to do with analysis, and they were still summarizing an awful lot instead of analyzing. 


SACKSTEIN: I would caution them against merely summarizing and kind of remind them, which is again another rabbit hole you could go down to remind them the difference of those two things, but when they’re looking at the exemplar, make sure that they really get into that analysis piece about what makes it good analysis as opposed to this part here that’s summarizing, that’s just developing context for what’s to come. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. So we’re studying these exemplars. This to me is interesting because you’ve talked about taking a whole class period for this kind of work. This is non-fiction reading and writing that you’re doing. Even though it’s about an assignment, there’s still sort of deconstructing this piece of writing and really looking at the craft. It’s very active intellectual work that they’re doing. I’d just want to kind of re-emphasize that, that this is not wasting time that could be spent on the assignment. This is part of doing the assignment. 

SACKSTEIN: I would even go on to say we talk about text features. If you design projects the same way all the time where the structure of those assignments fit into actual features they could follow, now you’re also re-emphasizing that standard about text features and understanding how to comprehend based on what they see on the page. I definitely agree with what you just said. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Something that you had mentioned in our earlier conversations about this is that at this stage also is an opportunity for students to sort of suggest to you or tell you what they need instructionally once they’ve looked at the exemplars and the assignment. Talk a little bit more about that. 

SACKSTEIN: So I mean another way to approach that would to be like a KWL in terms of now we know what qualities and criteria it’s going to take to be really successful at this based on the feedback you’ve received in the past, or based on new language that you’re encountering. What are you going to need more support with? And really trying to get, and this I don’t know. I wouldn’t necessarily elicit this as a whole class because you don’t necessarily want to put kids on the spot to share where they feel like they’re not strong. What I would recommend is maybe at the end of the period asking for a quick reflection or doing a Google Form where the kids could anonymously even, if they don’t want to put their name on it, say that these are areas. Then when you’re starting to plan your mini lessons because they’ll be doing this work in class, you have a sense of where you need to start with the most amount of kids who said, “This is an area I really need help with.” And of course to go back to your earlier statement as well, as they’re doing the work, you’re going to be walking around taking your observational data, listening to conversations. And you will have to stop class still. Refocus them, kind of maybe give clarity throughout the process based on things that arise while they’re working in their groups. But having that planning ahead of time will also be able to get you the resources that you need. So when it comes time to really teach kids how to be successful with those particular needs, you have some differentiated resources that you could share with them when the time comes. 

GONZALEZ: Got it. I’m getting us a little bit off topic, but I’m just curious because I did an interview years and years ago with some guys that teach this thing called the Apollo School. And one of the things they do is voluntary mini lessons where everyone’s working in a workshop format, and they basically just announce, hey, we’re going to be talking about dialogue in 10 minutes. Anybody who wants to come to that, and they teach in a very big space, so they can do this without being disruptive. And students only go to that mini lesson if they feel it meets a current need, which I thought was amazing. 

SACKSTEIN: I love it. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Then the students who are already good at that skill or who just have no interest in it right now can continue doing their own work. Did you ever do anything like that? Or did you do more small group work and that kind of thing? 

SACKSTEIN: It was more, for me because my space was definitely not big enough to pull people away from certain places. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. 

SACKSTEIN: But I would do small group lessons. The only time I really stopped class is when I realized that more than a critical mass — 


SACKSTEIN: — need to stop because we’re all going awry. It was clearly something I didn’t communicate clearly that they needed. But for the most part, it was small group instruction where the kids were leading what they needed, and I was just there as a resource. So if I went over to sit knee to knee with a group and they were struggling on something and not able to move past a certain part, and I’d noticed that they had been stuck there for a while, it’s an opportunity for me to sit down with them and help them get clear on what they need. Because sometimes they don’t even have that clarity. 


SACKSTEIN: They just know that they’re stuck. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. I love this expression “knee to knee.” I’ve never heard that before. I love that. 

SACKSTEIN: Yes. Well, I mean you walk into my classroom, it was one of those things where the administrators or passersby would never really see me because I was not ever standing above the group. I was either on my knees like kneeling next to a table or sitting on the floor with students or knee to knee with them at the tables. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So you mentioned rubrics before, and that’s sort of the last piece of this. This has sort of been my question this whole time. Because whenever I’ve heard of co-constructing success criteria, I was always under the impression that you sort of almost start with a blank slate, and the students actually help you build the criteria, i.e., the rubric. Is that a misconception of what co-construction means?

SACKSTEIN: I think it depends on the size of the assessment you’re working with. 


SACKSTEIN: For something that you do routinely, if it’s just like a period-long lesson and they’re going to be doing a task, I don’t think you need a rubric. I think based on the learning target and the standard you’re working on, you should be able to co-construct from scratch. 


SACKSTEIN: But for a project, sometimes teachers who aren’t 100 percent ready to let go of control completely, like to have that criteria in their minds already, and then refine it with the students. 


SACKSTEIN: I do want to caution folks though that I’ve kind of evolved into an anti-four-point rubric kind of person. 

GONZALEZ: Oh, girl, I’ve been there for years. So yeah. 

SACKSTEIN: I don’t really understand the point of telling kids what a one and a two looks like. It’s almost like encouraging them to do their worst. 

GONZALEZ: Well, and it’s funny because I’ve actually heard those conversations before between not only students but even college students. They’re like, okay, I’m just going to shoot for a two because that’s a C and I’ll be good. I’ll just put two examples because that’s all I need to do. 

SACKSTEIN: Right, which is why I love your single-point rubric post when that came out a whole bunch of years ago. 


SACKSTEIN: Because it’s like you shoot for proficient. 


SACKSTEIN: Like, this is what you need to be to be successful. That’s the criteria. 


SACKSTEIN: Obviously the mastery level of that is a consistent ability to function on all of those things. 


SACKSTEIN: Which to me is the real distinction between proficiency and mastery is consistency and to be able to do it without prompting. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. So we’re looking at some sort of a rubric that defines the criteria, and you and I are both on the same page that we don’t necessarily need to list out all of the ways that they could fall short. Let’s just say these are the targets, and if you’re falling short on these targets, then that’s what we need to be shooting for improving. 

SACKSTEIN: Yes, exactly. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. And so at some point then for any major assignment, you would want to have some kind of rubric that actually lists out all of these different criteria. It sounds like what you’re saying is that you might have a really pretty solid draft of this rubric done already as a teacher but have the students help you to refine that? 

SACKSTEIN: Yeah. I mean that end part could go either way. It really just depends on the kind of teacher you are and your comfort level. 


SACKSTEIN: I would say if you’re starting with something already though there needs to be an openness on your part to revise. 


SACKSTEIN: If you’re going to invite kids into the process and they make valid suggestions, if you ignore them, that’s not going to win you any prizes with them. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. You know, the first question that comes to mind, I think anybody that’s taught large groups of kids is wondering this too, is that if you’ve got one or two students that are suggesting something, and then you’ve got other people, I’m just thinking about trying to even choose a movie with my three kids. You cannot come to consensus with them. I’m imagining one student saying, hey, I really think there needs to be something in here about this, and then somebody else goes no, that’s too much or that’s too, what do you do then?

SACKSTEIN: The next part of that activity could be then to organize and categorize the criteria you’ve put together. Even then just prioritizing what’s most important to those other ones that some kids thought were important and other ones didn’t, and those more ancillary sort of things that kind of happen at the bottom, just so that every kid feels like their voice has been heard, I would keep it on the chart. If another student could sort of debate, if it’s redundant for something else that’s been said already or can help to condense what’s on that list. Because depending on how much criteria you have on there, you might then have to go through a sorting period as a group and determine what the most important ones are, and then how those other bits could just help for getting you to that mastery level instead of what the expectation is. 

GONZALEZ: Okay, I got it. So sort of clarifying the difference between a must-have and a nice to have maybe. 

SACKSTEIN: Yes, exactly. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. Well, we’re going to have a full transcript of this conversation, and then I’m going to write up a summary of our conversation, so hopefully this will help a lot of teachers to move more in this direction. If people want to hear more from you and find all of your books and all of your YouTube videos and everything, where would be a good place for them to go? 

SACKSTEIN: I have a website,


SACKSTEIN: And that has everything on it, so you’ll get all my social media on there as well as my YouTube channel and my email. Basically the brand “mssackstein” at whatever platform is pretty much it. 

GONZALEZ: Yes. And the book is called “Assessing with Respect.” What is the subtitle of that? 

SACKSTEIN: This is like the killer. I was talking to George Couros the other day, and it did the exact same thing. He’s like, you don’t even know the name of your own book. 

GONZALEZ: Oh gosh. Well I’m embarrassed that I don’t have it in front of me. I should have the title in front of me. It’s unprofessional of me not to. 

SACKSTEIN: This is really embarrassing. I think I’ve been looking at it so much that I just don’t even know anymore. All right. I have it right in front of me. It’s “Everyday Practices That Meet Students’ Social and Emotional Needs.”

GONZALEZ: Fantastic. We planned this so that it would coincide with the book being out. When is it actually being released? 


GONZALEZ: Perfect, oh my gosh, look at that. Okay, and this is going to be coming out in like a week and a half, so it should be well-established out there in all the spaces where people can buy books. 

SACKSTEIN: Absolutely. 

GONZALEZ: Thank you so much, Starr. 

SACKSTEIN: Thanks so much. I’m glad we got to do this again. Hopefully it won’t be another six years before —

GONZALEZ: I know. No kidding.

To read a summary of all the points we covered here today, find links to Starr’s books, or to read a transcript of this interview, visit, click Podcast, and choose episode 167. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at  Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.