How I Know: Impacting the Classroom through Student-Driven Learning in Dallas

By Mary Ryerse

In Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD), as teachers work to embed new social studies and language arts curricular resources, there is a special focus on student-driven learning.

This concept of students taking ownership, practicing self-reflection, and learning directly stems from the FARROP, a rubric outlining ten dimensions of formative assessment practice with guidelines and resources for use in observations and reflections. There are already some district-wide practices that are in place that support formative assessment, and pilot teachers and principals are working together to streamline formative assessment practices for maximum student success.

Brea Lewis, third- and fourth-grade teacher at Ben Milam Elementary, is a great example of how to change the classroom experience. She says, “Our lesson plans reflect what we do each and every day, and we are really committed to embedding the student process.”

Brea continues, “Our focus on formative assessment changed the way we do lesson plans to be more student-driven. As teachers, we are learning whether we need to slow down or speed up. I have been watching professional learning videos as part of our How I Know project and they have helped my practice immensely.”

Dallas ISD is part of a three district collaborative project: How I Know: Designing Meaningful Formative Assessment Practice. #HowIKnow was created in an effort to improve and impact formative assessment practice for teachers and students. Even prior to joining the project, Dallas ISD had been emphasizing the importance of classroom interactions between students and teachers – especially as part of the formative assessment practice. The initiative is helping them take an even more focused professional development approach.

In the end, Brea describes, “The biggest shift we had was building a new type of culture in the classroom. Students do not want to rely solely on teachers telling them what to do, but the students themselves know what their next steps should be.”

How I Know in Dallas

The Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD), located in one of the fastest growing cities and fourth most populous metropolitan area in the U.S., is the second largest school district in Texas. Educating a diverse population of nearly 160,000 students, the district is home to 210 high schools, middle schools and elementary schools.

According to Reading Language Arts Director Arlena Gaynor, “In Dallas, we are relentless in our pursuit to identify innovative and codified measures that positively impact student achievement.  As evident in our district wide approach to teacher evaluation and school turnaround efforts, where some might view this work as challenging, we see opportunity. This unwavering commitment is necessary to ensure we are able to deliver on our promise of providing each one of our students with the highest quality education.”

Dallas ISD is committed to grounding their efforts in asking key questions such as “how do we know students are learning,” “what evidence or work are students producing to inform teachers of the learning taking place,” and, “how are we best supporting teachers and school leaders to identify, and then scale best FA practices.”

Dallas ISD is part of the three-district collaborative project How I Know: Designing Meaningful Formative Assessment Practice. #HowIKnow was created in an effort to improve and impact formative assessment practice for teachers and students in three pilot districts (Dallas Independent School District, Austin Independent School District and Tulsa Public Schools).

In partnership with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, these districts will identify, scale, and share successful approaches for designing formative assessment practice in classrooms. Their learning and strategies will be shared through the How I Know Website.

“Participation in the How I Know project directly aligns with existing district initiatives focused on developing high-quality teachers, while also supporting ongoing teacher growth and development,” says Arlena Gaynor. She goes on, “We know that our district is only as strong as its teachers and school leaders.  By placing formative assessment at the center of our instructional focus, students become actively involved in their own learning goals and, along with their teachers, develop a collective understanding of how to continuously improve.”

The Dallas ISD schools involved in the How I Know Initiative include the following: Ben Milam Elementary School, Anne Frank Elementary School, Ben Franklin Middle School, and Moisés E. Molina High School.

Dallas’s Path Forward for Formative

There are numerous goals and targets set by Dallas ISD. Perhaps most important are the goals specific to professional learning practice.

As Dell Foundation project lead Cheryl Niehaus points out in a recent blog, there is a learning progression for teachers regarding the ten dimensions of formative assessment. The three professional development focus areas for Dallas align with the three formative assessment dimensions that are foundational to the entire practice:

  1. Learning Goals,
  2. Criteria for Success, and
  3. Eliciting Evidence of Student Learning

With the support of a professional development coach from WestEd, Dallas ISD will continue to develop skills along these dimensions.

In addition to the professional learning goals, Dallas ISD has identified the following goals and priority strategies for the How I Know Pilot Implementation Plan (PIP):

  • Develop a sense of team and trust amongst teacher, school, leader, and design team participants.
  • Identify timely efficient procurement protocols that align with project goals.
  • Create strong feedback mechanisms for teachers, campus leaders, and Design Team members that are timely, rooted in data (or evidence-based), and that provide tangible next steps so that the work is always progressing forward.
  • Ensure that project wins (and key learnings) are celebrated, shared, and communicated to key internal and external stakeholders.

As a district, Dallas ISD is committed to a shared methodology and clear learning goals among teachers and school leaders which will ultimately keep students at the center of learning. The district sees teacher participants as “instrumental in driving this work forward,” and encourages collaboration along with approaching the work with “enthusiasm, curiosity, and as continuous learners.” Arlena stresses, “This work matters because by making a significant investment in our greatest asset – our educators – we have the ability to dramatically improve the academic trajectory of our students.”

Read more

This post is a part of a series focused on the “How I Know: Designing Meaningful Formative Assessment” initiative sponsored by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. See the How I Know website ( and join the conversation on Twitter using #HowIKnow or #FormativeAssessment.

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