Success Lines

Starting the Year Intentionally in Grade 3

Success is often a slippery slope. It’s challenging for young students to determine what success looks like and often they equate success with being right or wrong, accomplishing a set task or failing. One of our objectives this year is to be mindful of cultivating a growth mind set so we decided to launch our Design Workshop with an activity to make the students more aware that success is a journey that can be quite different for each individual depending on both the student and the challenge.

What is it? Why did we do it?

We decided that the students needed to frame their idea of success with a story. We asked them to think of a time when something was really challenging for them. We modeled a story of a personal challenge that ended with success. During the storytelling we intentionally included the thoughts and feelings that accompanied each action step. When the story was done, we asked the students to tap into some of their own stories; we prompted them to remember a time when they really wanted to do something but it didn’t come easily. Some of the ideas we brainstormed included: jumping off the high dive, learning to ice skate, riding a bike without training wheels, learning how to play an instrument, a first performance, etc.

Next we modeled telling an experience using a tactile “five finger” reminder: first, next, then, and, finally. The students paired off and shared their stories; this gave them an opportunity to orally rehearse and sequence the story events.

Then we modelled how to “map” this event in writing by stretching out the specific actions. We asked the students to describe the feelings and thoughts that went with the step-by-step experience. The children then went off to do this task silently and independently. In our workshop environment we try to create a balance: opportunities to work independently and carve out individual understanding and opportunities to work collaboratively and utilize collective brain power.

Student working on mapping his experience with success

Student working on mapping his experience with success

We initially set a timer for seven minutes. When the timer expired it was apparent that most students were still deeply involved in this work so we had them check in and allotted an additional seven minutes to complete the task. This is a check-in process we use continually in our workshop in order to build in time management skills.

After that, we gathered the students together and watched a short video clip that turns the idea of success into a visual representation. We knew this might be a stretch for our students this early in the year but after an opportunity to “turn and talk” with a partner, they were able to articulate that everyone’s success journey is different and that the process might even look vastly different for an individual depending on the destination.

We modelled how to draw a success line based on the teacher’s story we shared at the beginning of the lesson. We also did a few quickly rendered alternative “success lines” in order to blow up their thinking and not have thirty-seven carbon-copies of the teacher’s model.

We checked again to see if the students understood the next component of the task. Again they went off solo to draw a success line that matched their personal narrative.

Student working independently to capture thinking

Student working independently to capture thinking

After they had created a visual representation of their success journey, we asked them to write on a sticky note a personal definition of success.

How’d it go?

For the third day of school, we were wowed by several things:

  • the students were engaged and invested because it was about them

  • they stayed focused and on task in part due to how we had broken the tasks up into manageable time chunks

  • they easily engaged with each other with very little prompting

  • they were able to break down their stories into key components capturing the main ideas

  • they were already able to listen and build onto each others’ ideas


We did a couple of things that scaffolded the activity. On our first day of school we read a book called “Courage” by Bernard Waber. We had the kids pair and share about times in their lives when they’d needed to be courageous. Serendipitously, this reading experience played nicely into our success activity.

We also used our knowledge of the writing workshop and third grade “beginning of the year” writers to create a tool that helped them efficiently break down their story components. This tool could easily transfer into planning during the writing workshop. These simple story boards would lend themselves nicely to crafting a “small moment” writing piece. The sticky note summary could be planted into the message of the piece.

Next time we might…

Allot more time in order to watch the video a second time and do a gallery walk. We will no doubt revisit this video throughout the year as we develop feedback lenses. The gallery walk will be done tomorrow as it is a low impact way to encourage sharing and grow an understanding of our diverse learning community.


"Courage" by Bernard Waber

Success Video


Thoughts on Feedback

Feedback was our focus for 2013-2014. We were interested in exploring all types of feedback and trying to discern what worked best for our students. John Hattie's research informed a lot of our thinking as we spent countless hours wondering about what types of feedback would be relevant to our students. What feedback would let us accurately reflect on learning and plot next steps forward?

According to Hattie's research, 

"Powerful, passionate, accomplished teachers are those who:

  • focus on students’ cognitive engagement with the content of what it is that is being taught;
  • focus on developing a way of thinking and reasoning that emphasises problem-solving and teaching strategies relating to the content that they wish students to learn;
  • focus on imparting new knowledge and understanding, and then monitor how students gain fluency and appreciation in this new knowledge;
  • focus on providing feedback in an appropriate and timely manner to help students to attain the worthwhile goals of the lesson;
  • seek feedback about their effect on the progress and proficiency of all their students;
  • have deep understanding about how we learn; and
  • focus on seeking learning through the eyes of students, appreciating their fits and starts in learning, and their often non-linear progressions to the goals, supporting their deliberate practice, providing feedback about their errors and misdirections, and caring that the students get to the goals and that the students share the teacher’s passion for the material being learnt.”

(‘Visible Learning for Teachers" by John Hattie)

We didn't really have a system or a map as we wandered into this work. We relied a lot on our knowledge of third grade students and followed our hunches about what might work when seeking feedback. Often we were surprised by the depth of our students' capability to reflect and think.

Above are some examples of feedback forms we used to find out more about how our students were processing their design tech experiences. We tried to craft feedback in such a way that we could begin to see a correspondence between effective collaboration skills and successful problem solving. We also wanted our students to visibly reconstruct an experience noting moments of frustration and success to make the process visible for them and to reinforce stamina and persistence. 

We picked feedback as an area of focus so we could help our students become more aware of their strengths and growth areas so they could become more capable learners. We believe the ability to recognize your learning style and how your learning habits affect your work and that of the group in cooperative learning activities is key to being a successful learner in the 21st century and cultivating a growth mindset. We’ve been focusing on feedback since the beginning of the year and after doing a little reflection on our students’ work, here’s our big three findings:

1.   Initially, we wanted to have our students show evidence that they were “thinking and acting” like designers and scientists. We provided some basic scaffolding, (including modelling, accountable talk, and a short reflection form), but quickly realized that we were still just scraping the surface. The students weren’t expressing in writing what we had observed during the activity. We wondered about the disconnect. Were they just doing the minimal to get to recess? Did we miss the boat somewhere? We decided that we hadn’t pushed their thinking enough. We made one simple shift to our form. We added the word BECAUSE and when we asked the students to do some additional reflection the next morning, their second written response was deeper and more succinctly captured their thinking.

2.  The second shift in our thinking was our realization that our students were not effectively working in collaborative constructions because they weren’t aware of how group dynamics impact success. They were focusing on the task versus the partnership; they weren’t seeing the connection between the two. In response we intentionally and strategically paired our students thinking about both personality traits and capabilities. We also decided to pair them over a longer duration so they really had to commit to the project and navigate the working terrain. We also adjusted the feedback form, building on previous feedback questions, so the students had to both identify and acknowledge the strengths they bring to a team and the implicit challenges.

Students rate parts of the design process

3.  Our third “ah-ha” was our realization that feedback lenses need to morph in order to keep pushing student thinking and probing their understanding. As the students grew in their ability to reflect, we had to build a bigger container to support them in capturing their thoughts. We shifted our focus onto recognizing traits that an individual may exhibit in a group and asked them to use this information to tell the story of their group experience. We also asked them to tell us how they knew that this was true…the “so what?” We used animal symbols to represent roles and behaviors we often observe in our children when they work collaboratively. We used the animal analogy to springboard their reflection. We thought this might be a stretch but were greatly surprised by the results.

Students look at how they contribute to a collaborative process

Our current thinking on this topic as we move forward is that feedback is slippery. You can’t nail it down. Depending on what type of feedback you’re looking for and what the content area is, the feedback mechanisms will need to shape-shift. It’s always a work in progress. The more we know our students, the more we are able to tinker with feedback systems, fostering self-knowledge and opening possibilities for change. We still have a road ahead.

STEAM Challenges-Low Tech Ways to Keep Growing Learning

Problem-solving Collaborative Challenges


On weeks where the schedule's upset by holidays or other events, quick STEAM challenges can keep the kids immersed in design thinking and reinforce collaborative habits. It also gives them a chance to problem solve and create with constraints since we often limit the amount of materials available to push their thinking further and cultivate flexible mindsets. 

Ping-pong blasters in action!

Ping-pong blasters in action!

We tap into a couple of great websites to get fodder for our challenges. We also invent some ourselves in order to keep immersed in designing STEAM curriculum. Basically we follow the same structure as for all of our design tech challenges: 1) present the challenge and the materials; 2) solo silent sketch brainstorm; 3) explain or pitch ideas to collaborative team, get feedback; 4) adjust and adapt thinking; 5) decide on best prototype design to construct; 6) build, test and adjust; 7) share final prototypes; and finally, 8) reflection on the experience.

Interestingly enough after we started to do weekly design tech work with our students, they expected that they would have multiple weeks to work through problems. This was an "ah-ha" moment for us and we had to adapt our thinking about "one-off" activities. We found that the kids did better thinking when given more process time. Lots of times thinking went on during the week that then transformed projects on Friday. Time is important in establishing new thinking patterns and habits. If you can find a way to make this time sacred, you will find that your kids will really begin to engage meaningfully in this type of work.




Our last experiment of the year centered around Cubelets.  Cubelets are a set of blocks that come with a selection of "Sense", "Action" and "Think" blocks.  The blocks can be assembled in a variety of ways to make simple robots.  We were interested in working with Cubelets with the third graders since they are hands-on, incredibly engaging, and also required logical and sequential construction.  

We worked with the Cubelets over three lessons.  We wanted to allow the students to determine what each block did on their own.  The first day we put the students into teams of four, gave them a basic Cubelet starter set of six-blocks and had them determine the blocks' purpose.  As they came to a group agreement, they labeled a picture of the basic set in keynote.

It was immediately apparent that the students had a difficult time with the novelty of the materials. They were interested in putting every block together and seeing it work instead of isolating each block's potential.  There was a lot of guidance around simplifying the chain of blocks to truly determine a block's potential.

Working with less blocks can show the block's purpose

The second lesson with Cubelets began with a review of the basic blocks' purpose.  Each group then was tasked with making and videoing a "Spinbot" and a "Straightbot" that could be controlled with their hands.  As an added contraint, they needed to use one specific block in both of their bots.

Finally, they were given four new blocks to explore and label.

Students worked in groups to determine purpose and label blocks using Keynote

The third lesson asked the students to determine how to use the Cubelets to make a robot that could be useful.  The third graders started with an initial sketch of their thinking indicating which blocks they would need to use.

After the build, we shared the Cubelet designs with the class.  

A final reflection involved a look at real life application for their designs, how they worked in a group, and a map of highs and lows of the Cubelet experience.

How their Cubelet design is useful in the real world

Students determine how they add to a collaborative group

Students map their journey of exploring and designing with Cubelets

Art Bots



Now that our students were facile with using a motor as part of building a device, we decided it was time to wander into the world of simple robots and see how far our students could build off the motor concept. We presented this challenge by stating that the ES secretaries needed the third graders to produce an artistic mural for the ES foyer. Then we introduced the concept of the art bot. Mike Moody, our design tech ally, had mocked up a model and gave a demo. From the moment they saw it work, they were hooked. 

The new component we had to introduce was the idea of adding a weight, or a washer, to one side of the bot to create the instability that causes the bot literally jump in circles on the paper. We sourced this activity with our usual array of building materials including paper cups and plates. We also had a variety of markers on hand.

The biggest challenge for the students was figuring out how to attach the markers evenly so all of their points were simultaneously in contact with the paper surface. It was also a challenge to attach the motor components in a way that let the art bot be a free drawing "hands off" device. Controlling the power of the vibration was another interesting facet of the experience; some students designed art bots that drew in slow methodic circles while others built art bots that functioned like Spirograph on steroids!

Initial planning and designs captured in science notebooks

Initial planning and designs captured in science notebooks

more design planning 

more design planning 

Finally, we asked the children to reflect on their experience of working in a team and building the ArtBot.  They used Doodlecast Pro to capture their thinking.

Chilean Miner



We believe that the ability to persist is an essential skill for students.  We set up a scenario for the third graders based on the Chilean mining accident from 2010. Chilean Miners: Trapped Underground. The children were ultimately tasked with designing an apparatus that would drop a rope down a shaft, collect a mini-miner, and bring the miner back to the surface.  

Silent, solo work to capture design ideas.

Silent, solo work to capture design ideas.

To begin, we asked the students to record their prior knowledge about motors.  While their understanding and experience varied greatly, our intentional use of a science notebook is apparent.  Every child was able to use pictures, words, or a combination of both to record their thinking.

First, we asked them to work in partnerships to explore the basics of how a motor works.  We noticed that the children quickly and easily got into partnerships.  Working in teams a lot this year has allowed them to quickly find a group in which they can communicate, cooperate and collaborate.  

Teams talk about materials they might need to get a motor working

Teams talk about materials they might need to get a motor working

Next we gave them the challenge of using their motor to drag a piece of string across the ground.  They had independent time to sketch ideas in their notebook for how a design might be built.  We noticed that the children were able to quickly and easily capture their thinking with pictures.  They also automatically made space for more than one idea indicating that they understand there may not be one "right" answer and that they are open to trying more than one design.

They then shared out their designs with their teams and decided on one to begin building  The children were engaged in the process of both sharing their thinking and listening actively to each other.  Many groups melded design ideas together after sharing their sketches.

Finally, they began the build.

After building, they tested and made adjustments.

Finally, the students watched as we tested our prototypes.  Ultimately, very few of the miners were rescued.  The team work, adjusting, and persistence that the students displayed indicated that learning occured that we could build on.


Spooky Lights



After immersing the kids in the basic components of how circuits work, including practice with building both parallel and series circuits, we decided it was time to add in a design challenge. Every year at our school we have an epic Halloween celebration which includes a classroom party. We explained to our students that this year they would be designing "spooky lights" for our Halloween parties. We wanted to build on the empathy skills we had begun to develop in the backpack challenge so we decided to have them design lights for each other so we could dip back into interview skills and also provide more practice with feedback loops.

Sharing plans for spooky lights

We started with interviews. We encouraged the students to dig into finding out Halloween "stories" from their partners: What did they enjoy about Halloween? What type of costumes do they like to wear? What do they find scary? Once again we encouraged using phrases such as "Tell me more..." or conversations extenders such as "Why?" as interviewing techniques that allow us to get the most information. We also reiterated what "interviewing" looks like versus "conversation." We did a quick fishbowl model so the students developed a better sense for listening to a partner and jotting notes on what they hear. 

After the interviews, we had the students do some quick design sketches in their notebooks. Dividing a page into fours encourages them to sketch quickly focusing on quantity versus quality. We also suggested that they add some arrows and key words to their designs to accurately capture their thinking. We want the kids to do this work with intention and focus so we set a timer and have them find spaces where they can work solo in silence.

When the sketches were rendered, we had the kids come back together with their dyads and share their sketch prototypes soliciting feedback. After taking notes on the feedback, the students went off silently to sketch a new prototype design incorporating the new information.

Now it was time to build! We fired up the glue guns and put out the bins of potential building supplies. It was interesting to see the students begin to move from their 2-D imagined design concepts into the 3-D reality of building. It was much easier to imagine how to the motor might interface with the design than it was to actually insert the motor and the circuitry within the model. Of course with this type of work it is always fascinating to watch how our students contend with frustration; who can find the stamina to persist when the challenge gets tough and who needs a lot of encouragement in order to hurdle obstacles? A trait we're trying to cultivate in our kids is an open mindset and flexible thinking skills so it is interesting for us to watch which students can adapt their ideas, reconfigure based on experience and which students get "stuck" on their initial thinking, fail and can't find a way forward. 

Eventually, with differing degrees of support, all of the students were successful at building a circuit within a spooky design. And...the Halloween parties were quite a sensational hit!

Backpack Tags



WHAT is it? WHY did we do it?

Most third grade students don’t have a wallet so we shifted the focus of this activity, (a Stanford classic intro design project), onto something that all third grade students do have: a backpack! We were interested in starting the year with a quick design project that would teach the steps involved in design thinking and ratchet up fun and engagement for our students. We also are quite aware that grade three is a time of developmental transition from a family/self-defined to a peer/socially- defined landscape. We wanted to insert an empathy chip into our lead off activity by having the students design for each other.

We built off some fundamental design thinking structures learned at the Nueva School's Design Thinking Workshop.

Our Needs statement was:

Grade 3 students NEED a backpack ID tag so if they lose their backpacks, they can find them again.

How did we do it? These were the basic steps we took:

·      Interview partner

Students interviewed each other trying to dig for stories that could inspire tag designs.

Students interviewed each other trying to dig for stories that could inspire tag designs.

Students record interview information to use while planning and designing

·      Sketch possible ideas based on partner interview

Students were encouraged to do multiple quick sketches in order to capture ideas. Dividing the page into fours and using a timer to encourage production were helpful keys to generating thinking.

Students were encouraged to do multiple quick sketches in order to capture ideas. Dividing the page into fours and using a timer to encourage production were helpful keys to generating thinking.

·      Pitch and explain to partners

We had to teach into listening skills and used a timer to honor each person's voice. The students conducting the interview were introduced to key words to help them did deeper for information: "Why?" "Tell me more..."

We had to teach into listening skills and used a timer to honor each person's voice. The students conducting the interview were introduced to key words to help them did deeper for information: "Why?" "Tell me more..."

·      Gather feedback

·      Sketch new ideas or evolve idea based on feedback

Students evolved sketch prototypes based on feedback.

Students evolved sketch prototypes based on feedback.

·      Build prototype

Students were given a lot of materials and choices from which to construct their prototypes.

Students were given a lot of materials and choices from which to construct their prototypes.

·      Share and celebrate

It was incredible to watch how meaningful these simply constructed tags were because everyone had experienced the design cycle and appreciated how much work had gone into the process.




Austin's Butterfly



We believe that feedback is an essential part of learning experiences for children.  It helps a child understand what they're learning and also gives clear guidance on how to improve.  We're interested in children being able to both give and receive feedback throughout the year and across the curriculum.   We wanted to streamline the feedback process and language so we might see it being more readily used and transferred.


  • Present children with a choice of realistic photographs and had them select a picture to biologically illustrate.

We asked the student to work silently and in a limited time frame in order to zoom in their focus.

We asked the student to work silently and in a limited time frame in order to zoom in their focus.

  • Gather the group together and asked them collectively what they knew about feedback.
  • Group them in random cohorts of four with the instruction to take turns providing feedback on how to make the illustration more realistic.

Children worked in groups to give initial feedback

Children worked in groups to give initial feedback

  • Complete a second draft trying to incorporate one piece of feedback they had received.
Making a second sketch and using group feedback.

Making a second sketch and using group feedback.

  • Watch “Austin’s Butterfly,” and share their observations on how the kids in the video communicated with each other and what they noticed.  Click here to watch the video  Austin's Butterfly
Our students were able to quickly note the three essentials to quality feedback: KIND, SPECIFIC and USEFUL.

Our students were able to quickly note the three essentials to quality feedback: KIND, SPECIFIC and USEFUL.

  • Group with their original cohorts and tried to give advice on the second draft of the drawing keeping the feedback framework in mind.
Children practice using the big three: KIND, SPECIFIC and USEFUL.

Children practice using the big three: KIND, SPECIFIC and USEFUL.

  • Repeated this with a third and fourth draft.
  • We also did intermittent “gallery walks” to make students more aware of our collective process.
Children observing their peer's sketches and adjustments.

Children observing their peer's sketches and adjustments.

  • Finally we asked the children to choose their best illustration and add color.  
Children focused on specific areas to improve.

Children focused on specific areas to improve.

Oftentimes the sketches initially deteriorated as they tried to make adjustments and incorporate feedback.

Oftentimes the sketches initially deteriorated as they tried to make adjustments and incorporate feedback.

It was noticeable that all students were able to have a voice in the feedback conversations and that most students were receptive to the feedback. Our hunch is that they valued the task and genuinely wanted to improve. Additionally, for some quieter students, knowing they had guideline for how to share increased their confidence in speaking.  For the most part, both parties in the conversation were highly invested. When students had an opportunity to improve their work by doing a subsequent draft, they were incredibly focused and everyone persisted. Not a single kid said, “No way, I can’t do this!”  Doing this activity helped the students understand how feedback works and the three key terms resonated with them.