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Challenge Sprints pt 2

This was our first full week trying out the Challenge Sprints structure. I’m enjoying having more time with students and doing more facilitation when I’m at school, especially because it is a specific kind of facilitation that I’m really interested in.

I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be able to try out these tools with a small group of kids at Mosaic who are all enthusiastic about it. I learned a lot in the first week and we already started making small tweaks here and there based on their experience/needs.

We started out Monday morning by setting up their Trello boards (digital kanban) to manage the Challenges and the workflow for each Sprint. Once the boards were setup, we began by taking 10-15 minutes to brainstorm all of the possible items that could be added to the Backlog* — anything that could potentially be useful in addressing the Challenge and could inform future Sprints.

*On Wednesday, when I was dialoguing with @alonalearning about her process, I proposed we change Backlog to Possibilities, as it is a clearer and more accurate description of what that column represents.

Once they all took the time to brain-dump into Possibilities column, we talked about creating the first Story for this week’s Sprint. A Story is a coherent goal or mini-project within the larger Challenge. The first Story or two come from reviewing all the Possibilities and determining where you are motivated to begin.

In Alona’s case, within the context of her challenge to Understand Genetics she decided she wanted to start with two Stories: Watch all videos and read all articles on Khan Academy and Create a three-generation fake family with odds of them looking like each other. Clearly, Alona has already done some learning about Genetics and had an idea of where she wanted to start.

In cases where the student isn’t able to generate a long list of Possibilities, or doesn’t know where to start with the first Sprint, more active coaching and support (through dialogue) may be necessary. What I’m focusing on is making sure they are motivated by the Stories — help them craft Stories that they are excited to jump into and work through. If they can’t find any, then they may need more support in adding to the list of Possibilities (the ideas that inform the Stories) or, the Challenge may not be fully aligned with their actual interests and internal motivations.

Once the Story (or Stories) are setup for the Sprint, we picked a label color for each Story. From there, we broke out each Task within that Story. Tasks are smallest, simplest, most-actionable items you can have on the board. They need to be specific — often carrying a time-frame, location (or context), and some inherent definition of “done”.

Because you can’t really do “swim lanes” on Trello, I had each student mark all the tasks with the same label as the Story it was associated with. This helps you see where you’re at in the workflow of each Story and to make sure you know which one you’re in when viewing a specific Task.

After the boards were setup we all went about our day. Some of the kids got right into it, others waiting until Tuesday. They are balancing these Challenge Sprints with all the other offerings and activities happening at school. I’m choosing to work from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays so I can be present at Mosaic Mon/Wed/Fri, so on Tuesday I was only communicating with them through Trello.

Challenge Sprint-end

Once they think a Task is done they move it to “Check-in” (we changed this column name — used to be “Control” but that didn’t feel right). Once they move the card there, I ask them to write @ me in the card so I get a notification that they’re ready for a check-in.

I didn’t explain anymore of my thinking around the process, as to not overload them with info upfront. So, initially, when cards got moved to Check-In they were essentially blank, other than the name of the Task in the title of the card. One I got notified, I wrote back to them and started asking them questions about the task:

What stuck with you from this article or video?

Did you feel engaged and interested throughout most of the task?

What do you feel like you learned?

I asked them to put answers to these kinds of questions in the description of the card for each Task. Other things that came up was when the Task included information or an activity that wasn’t totally clear, or by engaging with it, other questions arose. Thus, we decided to add a new column to the right of Possibilities called Questions. This would be the place to put any unanswered question that comes up for you so it can be reviewed later, marked when answered, or intentionally incorporated into a future Story.


Similarly, I often use the Check-In time to see if there are any new ideas to add to the Possibilities list. This is the real power of the process: within a tightly held iterative loop with lots of reflection of the various pieces, the student is always engaged in a Sprint that is:

  • More interesting and/or motivating than the previous one*
  • Informed by the the Sprints that came before it
  • Always generating new possibilities for future Sprints

*I can imagine there will be times where the interest/excitement in the Sprint may be lower than the previous one, but the motivation will be higher. (Imagine a time when you’ve been working on a project of a while and you get down to the boring parts that aren’t super fun but you’re really motivated to complete them because of larger goal that you’re connected to).

I did some one-on-one check-ins with the kids on Wednesday and then we all met for 30 minutes at the end of the day on Friday. We took this time to simply see how everyone felt about doing this for the first time. Was it helpful? Was it annoying? Was it useful? Overall the feedback was positive. @willmh wasn’t there on Friday, so I’ll have to check in with him, but the other three all wanted to complete this Sprint and set up the next one.

Alona learned that there are TONS of videos and articles on Khan Academy about Genetics, so she renamed her Story according to the topical section she was exploring that week and kept the original idea in Possibilities. She’s now setup to do her second Story — a family tree and gene mapping.

Liberty intentionally practiced Spanish on DuoLingo each day for at least 10 minutes and determined it was worth continuing that, so she set up a new Story with similar Tasks. She also tried out talking to Spanish for an hour one day (even if others couldn’t understand her) and added that to her Possibilities list. She’s now planning to continue with DuoLingo and “Talk to people who speak Spanish”, which involves a series of Tasks.

Gabe’s Challenge to “create a Pong replica with C# in Unity” was iterated to “create a Pong replica with Java in Unity” as he decided Java was better after engaging in his first Story.

What’s really cool about this is the variety of things they are learning from each Task within this Challenge — things that aren’t directly related to the overarching subject. In Liberty’s case, she is going to practice speaking Spanish with others who speak it during her next Sprint. To do this, she’ll need to identify who those people could be, figure out how to contact them and setup times to have a phone call or see them in person, and navigate the best way to learn from/with them. She’s gaining tons of real-world skills in this process and she’s learning how to find the teachers she needs — a skill that is important no matter what the challenge may be.

Gabe and Will are learning how to do research online that is actually useful and moves you from one place to another. If he sticks with this one, Will’s desire to learn to sail is going to lead him towards a bunch of practice finding his own teachers, as well.

This coming week we are all going camping, so we won’t be Sprinting. When we return we plan to do a 3-day Sprint, as that week is only a 4-day week.

I’m excited to see how this goes after a couple Sprints and what it looks like when the kids find their groove with it. Like any agile tool, I’m most riveted to see how it evolves over time!

More later…



  1. Jamie says:

    Thank you, Tomis and Mosaic students!! I appreciate the sharing and it’s been helpful to see the Trello and project breakdown examples. I’m enjoying the near real time implementation of the Sprint tool with my own students…I’m curious about how I’ll use this tool to share our first year experiences in a manner worthy a read. Thank you for holding such incredible space for fellow learners. Grateful.

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