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Column: Building a Child’s Educational Cathedral

This column was submitted by Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ (Va.) Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence, Virginia’s 2017 Superintendent of the Year.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of spending a day with students from across the state who were attending the Educators Rising (formerly, Future Teachers of America) State Leadership Conference. I was asked to share my thoughts with them on what it means to be a teacher. That’s a great topic. I could talk for hours on what it means to be a teacher, but here’s what it comes down to, and here’s what I shared: Teachers matter. Teachers REALLY matter. They matter to individuals, they matter to our schools, and they matter to our community.

How do I know this?  I asked this group of students to close their eyes, think back to their own experiences in school, and identify the one teacher who has made a difference in their life. I asked this group of aspiring teachers to describe the characteristics that these teachers have in common, and here’s what they shouted out:  they’re caring, they’re interested in who you are as a person, they’re passionate about what they do, they’re enthusiastic. The response that struck me the most?  They love their students. That’s it, isn’t it?

The fundamental thing that we want in a great teacher is an adult who really cares about each of us as a person before they care about what they want us to learn.

Certainly, there are many other reasons that teachers matter, and I could not be more proud to work in public education. Our profession is incredibly important. We know the impact schools and teachers have on individual children and their families. Teaching has an authentically transformative power in the life of a child. Through education, we develop thinkers, makers, artists, entrepreneurs, and citizens, and we create hope and opportunity along the way. Because of our work, worlds of opportunity open up to our children as they transition into adulthood. What job possibly could be better than that?

Candidly, however, it’s also an incredibly challenging time to be in education. Seeking to steer the country forward, politicians and reformers have turned an increasingly critical eye toward our schools. In fact, doing just a quick Google search on the failure of public schools revealed 22 million results with just one click of the mouse!  Whether they are lamenting a lost past where education just seemed better, demanding an ever more intensive model of accountability and high-stakes testing, or advocating that we should abandon public education altogether and let the free market economy take over through vouchers or charters, each of these critics believes deeply that they have grasped the solution to a series of increasingly complex problems.

And make no mistake about it, the challenges facing our schools are complicated. Our society has changed dramatically, and there are often good reasons young people today struggle while in school. Many of our students care for their brothers and sisters, work to bring income in for their family, worry about where their next meal is coming from, and deal with domestic situations that many of us could not have imagined growing up. In an environment like that, schoolwork may not be the first priority.

Expectations for our students in school also have changed considerably over the last two decades. The federal government and state legislatures demand that every student pass rigorous state tests and that every student graduate on time and ready for college and careers. While ratcheting up expectations in this new era of accountability and high-stakes testing, the curriculum also shifted dramatically. Math concepts that were once taught in middle schools are now routinely introduced in elementary school. College-level coursework is becoming the expected norm for all high school students.

This rush for advanced coursework is done with the goal of preparing our students for the future, but there are no clear definitions for what it means to be prepared.

With college readiness, for example, some would argue that success on state standardized tests indicates academic proficiency, while others would argue that these tests tell us relatively little about a student’s readiness for college or other post-secondary learning. There are questions about the value of GPAs, class rank, dual enrollment courses, etc., in terms of their predictive value when considering future success. And of course there is the rhetoric (lively and ongoing for more than a century now) that, regardless of changes to the curriculum and advances in supporting all students through remediation, enrichment, and acceleration, our schools lack rigor and do not prepare the majority of students for higher education.

As difficult as understanding college readiness can be, career readiness is just as challenging. We frequently hear that our students are not ready to be employed. When we ask about that, we hear more often than not that they lack soft skills rather than content knowledge. In other words, some are concerned that our children might be able to read, but they can’t work together, communicate with one another, or creatively solve a challenging real-world problem.

And so we have to change and adapt. Why?  Because our schools of the 20th century were simply not designed to graduate 21st-century employees and leaders.

How do we do that?

The answer lies in part in a visit I made to one of our local military installations not too long ago. The focus of the visit to the Joint Expeditionary Base at Little Creek was on STEM and the real-world applications of STEM learning in today’s military. It was an amazing visit. We had the opportunity to hear from sailors in the dive community, river patrol units, the Naval Construction Force (also known as Seabees) and many others about their work. It was, in a word, extraordinary, and the connections between our military partners and what we are working toward with our students were many and obvious—it was no great leap to imagine students in our VBCPS STEM Robotics Challenge going on to design the Navy’s next generation of robotic tactical machines.

While talking with the Navy team, another visitor asked one sailor what was the most sophisticated equipment he had available to him. The sailor and his CO both quipped immediately that it was the sailor himself.

That was a key takeaway from my visit. While tools are critical, and the ability to understand them and program and operate them with high efficiency and effectiveness can mean the difference between mission success or failure, it is the person behind the technologies that makes all the difference. More specifically, it is his or her understanding of the math and science and engineering and his or her ability to apply that understanding to an array of new and challenging problems that are so critical. And it is his or her ability to connect with and work with teammates and to communicate clearly and to persist in the face of obstacles that determines the sailor’s success.

This trip affirmed my conviction that we must do more than teach our students content. We must make sure they learn rich and rigorous content (almost every sailor I spoke with loved science, for example) and we must make sure they can apply their learning in authentic ways. And of course, we must help them develop the skills they need—teamwork, collaboration, communication, and grit—to be successful when they leave our schools.

We have to be intensely committed to knowing that our students, like those sailors, have mastered the skills we have established as being vitally important. You simply cannot be a successful student without the fundamental skills needed to move through life—reading analytically and for pleasure, the ability to communicate clearly in writing and orally, fluency in mathematics, and understanding our history and the importance of civic engagement, to name a few.

But there has to be more to the educational experience than mastery of these fundamental skills.

I like to think of it like a cathedral. When you walk into a cathedral, you are always standing on a solid stone floor, and the cathedral wouldn’t be what it is without this foundation. But what really captivates us about cathedrals are the ceilings. The great cathedral builders were always wondering how high they could take their ceilings, how much closer to the heavens they could point them as a physical manifestation of man’s desire to be closer to God. They weren’t just building a church. It was a much more creative expression than that, and there was a kind of passion and joy that was captured in the work being done.

As educators, we have to have a firm concrete floor for kids to stand on, but we must also be intensely interested in how high their ceiling can be.

How can we provide experiences that ensure our students are deeply engaged in the processes of inquiry, problem-solving, and creativity? Moreover, how can we ensure that there is passion and joy in the work and an opportunity for the child to really find out who they are and what they love to do? After all, learning is a natural instinct. The processes of learning new things should be full of curiosity and wonder and excitement about solving a challenging problem.

We are exploring and creating classrooms now that focus on collaboration and inquiry. Technology is regularly integrated into instruction as a tool to support problem-solving. You’ll see fewer and fewer classrooms with rows and more and more classrooms where students cluster together tackling essential questions about the content they must know. Our classrooms meet learners where they are, and rich intervention programs catch struggling learners and push them ahead in their studies. In short, we see more and more classrooms and instructional practices that are designed to help us ensure all children meet the more demanding expectations we have for them.

Yes, we still have much work to do and farther down the road to go, but we are all making strides in our respective communities. We need to be champions for public education and for providing opportunities for success every single child in our school divisions. We can and we must engage in this work!

Dr. Aaron Spence assumed the leadership of Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) June 23, 2014. As superintendent, he oversees the operation of 86 schools (serving almost 69,000 students) as well as all administrative support functions for the school division. 

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Case Study: Behind the Scenes of Virginia Beach Schools’ 5-Year Tech Plan

In 2014, Virginia Beach City Public Schools embarked on a radical digital transformation of its schools. This journey was timed to the arrival of its new superintendent, Dr. Aaron Spence, a native of the area who graduated from a Virginia Beach high school, returned to Virginia to help improve the lives of its students.

The diverse district is part of a community with strong military ties, and it has become known for being at the leading edge of sustainable education practices, entrepreneurship education, and career and workforce development. Despite these successes, Spence saw something holding the district back.

Spence is no stranger to digital transformation. He worked under former superintendent Mark Edwards as a principal during Henrico County Schools’ own digital transition, and in Moore County Public Schools, North Carolina, Spence launched a districtwide digital learning initiative. As a result, many of the first conversations Spence had with faculty members about their aspirations kept coming back to technology. Their desires for a technology plan that could provide more opportunities to students had been implanted before his arrival.

“We’re a forward-thinking organization in a forward-thinking community that really wants the best for its kids,” said Spence.

Dr. Aaron Spence, superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

At the time, the district’s technology plan focused on network infrastructure and supporting existing goals, instead of what Spence was hearing from his faculty — using technology to transform the learning environment for students.

Another impetus for the district’s digital transformation came in 2014, around the same time Spence was getting his bearings as its new superintendent. A new strategic plan for the district set a high bar for academic expectations. Built into that goal was a mandate to create more personalized learning experiences.

Through Spence’s conversations with other educators, it quickly became apparent that a new vision for integrating technology in the classroom was starting to take root, aided by the aspirations of faculty across the district, and led by Spence and his administration.

“It all pointed to a very clear direction of what we needed to do,” said Spence. “We wanted more engaging learning environments for our kids.”

Spence said one area the district had not shined was in offering equitable education opportunities.

“Virginia Beach is considered to be a great district, but when you started to turn over stones, it seems it was excellent for some, and historically hasn’t always served others well, particularly as the demographic divisions have shifted,” said Spence.

“So we identified the need to focus intensely on the need of every student having rigorous learning experiences daily — not just some, or most of our students.”

Lessons like these proved to Amy Cashwell, the district’s Chief Academic Officer, that the timing for Spence’s arrival was serendipitous. Virginia Beach City Public Schools seemed primed for change. In scrutinizing their vision, they recognized that with their current infrastructure, they had unintentionally built roadblocks for themselves without realizing it.

“We knew we weren’t seeing transformation in the classroom,” she said. “It was really a great time to have a fresh set of eyes and reexamine how we were operationalizing our instructional technology plan.”


In 2014, Spence and his team introduced a five-year strategic plan for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, which included a call to transform it from a primarily BYOD district to a true digital learning environment capable of empowering students to become 21st-century learners.

Reinforcing solid instruction has been the engine that drives the transformation at Virginia Beach City Public Schools, said Spence. The devices and technology are the medium through which the transformation happens, but it begins with sound pedagogy.

“I think technology has the potential to be a game-changer with what happens in the classroom,” he said. “But you’ve got to have great Tier 1 instruction that’s thoughtfully planned out by teachers and aligned with a rigorous curriculum.”

To create the foundation for future schools, Spence tasked Cashwell with phasing technology in more significant ways, so they could understand what digital learning could become in the district. This coalesced into what Spence calls anchor schools, effectively the field sites for testing digital learning initiatives. The district currently has 13 of these anchor schools, now in their second year of operation, all in 1:1 learning environments, armed with technical support, professional learning and a cadre of Instructional Technology Specialists (ITS). These specialists work alongside educators to help model the appropriate use of technology in a classroom setting.

Throughout this process, the district has been deliberate about selecting teaching resources for their curriculum that can be taught in a non-1:1 or a 1:1 environment. This safeguard is due to the current imbalance of technology throughout the district.

Science-fiction author William Gibson once said, “The future is here already, it’s just not equally distributed.” And while Gibson was speaking about the evolution of technology in general, the message rings true for the district’s non-anchor schools, where devices are used inconsistently, even with an abundance of them in a classroom.

Cashwell said the overall district ratio of devices to students is about 1.3:1. However, they aren’t equally distributed.

The modeling happening at the anchor schools is meant to ultimately help course correct the non-anchor schools, she said. They have encouraged the exploration of personalized learning and the integration of technology in more meaningful ways in non-anchor classrooms, but they have not pushed the agenda of 1:1 as a classroom environment like they have in the anchor schools.

“The idea has been that through an intense focus in our anchor schools, we can shape some of those lessons about technology usage. We can empower the non-anchor schools to move forward in the right direction alongside them, and not wait around,” said Cashwell.


Now two years into the new strategic plan, district leaders have seen some substantive changes in their anchor schools.

“I think we’re seeing a rich integration of digital tools into a daily practice of engaging students,” said Cashwell.

Discovery Education’s Techbook, a series of digital textbooks, was among the new tools brought in to help educators reshape their approach to digital curriculum. The district launched Techbook in the spring for select schools and is currently in its first full year of implementation.

Cashwell said Techbook has helped reinforce solid Tier 1 instruction, which was at the heart of the districtwide pivot being made with its strategic plan.

“You need to have the right resources in play — resources that allow teachers to put into action what we’re asking of them with personalized learning, that allow there to be choice for students, that employ different learning styles. Tools like Science Techbook do all of that and help educators operationalize that kind of teaching and learning,” she said.

To support the Techbook launch and generate a public forum for teacher usage of the new tool, district leaders took to Twitter, creating the hashtag #VBDigitext. Educators who had great experiences with Techbook would share a picture and a story of their journey with others using the hashtag. It resulted in hundreds of posts, dozens of conversations, scheduled Twitter chats among educators, and in general, created the enthusiasm district leaders were seeking.

“By the time we formally launched training over the summer, many educators already had some excitement about Techbook,” said Cashwell.


When embarking on a digital transition of the scope of Virginia Beach City Public Schools’, it’s important to realize that district leaders can learn a lot not only from each other’s successes but also their failures. Superintendents across the country have been creating professional learning communities to guide them through their own transitions. Some of these networks are developed through organizations like AASA, The School Superintendents Association, which offers leadership development courses, a national certification program, and meetings with some of the nation’s most influential superintendents.

Spence is a member of the leadership team for the Consortium of Large Countywide and Suburban School Districts, which works in partnership with AASA to provide a forum for member school divisions to collaborate on issues of practice, benchmark key data points against other districts, and collectively focus on federal advocacy.

Participation in groups like these has broadened Spence and his colleagues’ vision for their district.

“Not only do these opportunities expand my professional learning and challenge me to share my own expertise with others, but I also really appreciate the opportunity to expand my network of colleagues across the country and develop thought partners who understand the difficult nature of the work and the challenges we face in the superintendency,” said Spence. “I’ve found the networking and collaborative practice model of this consortium to be invaluable.”

AASA’s Digital Consortium, hosted this year by Discovery Education and the Horace Mann Educators Corporation, provided select superintendents with a series of informative conferences and district visits across the country.

The consortium provides district leaders with the opportunity to work together and gain insights into emerging, successful models for using digital materials to support engaged, effective learning experiences.

No educator — regardless of their role in the hierarchy of a district — needs to operate in isolation, said Lance Rougeux, Vice President of Discovery Education’s Learning Communities Innovation. To succeed in today’s high-stakes climates, educators need a place where they can explore new ideas for their schools in a safe atmosphere with their peers, free from judgment or consequence.

“By participating in professional learning communities, district leaders are making new connections with each other, whether it’s in person or virtually,” said Rougeux. “They’re creating valuable, new relationships that can help them overcome any number of challenges they may face.”

Rougeux helps lead The Discovery Education Community, a professional learning network that helps connect school leaders with their peers around the world to share their wealth of knowledge. Since it launched in 2005, thousands of educators have joined the Discovery Educator Network (DEN), a passionate group of leaders who share their stories of teaching with digital media, share resources, and network at nationwide conferences.

“What I love about these experiences, including membership in the AASA Digital Consortium, is the exposure not just to what has worked but the opportunity to reflect on lessons learned from those who have been in the vanguard of this work. I also appreciate that the learning doesn’t stop with what has worked, but that these conversations also focus on emerging theory and practice,” said Spence.

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Case Study: DC Everest’s Lessons from a Districtwide 1:1 Conversion

Many districts face the same challenges after choosing to embark on a 1:1 digital transition. They need to choose the right devices, the right curriculum supports, and they need to ensure their school board, every school employee, and parents, are on board with the leap. All parties involved must understand why digital is necessary to prepare students for the world they’ll face after they graduate.

D.C. Everest has lifted itself to sit alongside some of the best school districts in Wisconsin, thanks in part to its ambitious technology plan and implementation of quality professional development. But the road wasn’t easy. District leaders had to navigate their unique set of challenges in order to make their digital transition a success.

The common thread for the D.C. Everest region is the school district, which serves 11 municipalities, none with historic downtown areas. Established in 1953, D.C.Everest is one of Wisconsin’s newest school districts. That youth carries with it a scrappy demeanor that leans toward new methods of teaching and doing whatever it takes to provide the best opportunities for students. Its district leaders and teachers have proven to be innovative, taking risks to ensure students have what they needed to be successful.

Superintendent Kristine Gilmore, Ed.D., who has served as D.C. Everest’s superintendent for 14 years, helped guide the district through its digital transition over the past two years. And who better to lead the district into the future than a local girl with a long history in the region? Gilmore happens to be a graduate of D.C. Everest schools.

“It’s the ‘local girl comes home’ story,” she said. “Growing up, I had never dreamed of it, but it’s been a great place to give back to the community and raise my three kids with my husband.”

Another facet of the district that sets it apart from others in the region — the district has a large number of English Language Learners, comprising 12 percent of the school district. This is due in part to the region being home to a growing Hmong American population, who located there over the last three decades.

“We’ve become a much more diverse school district over the years, which I really think has made this community richer,” said Gilmore.


Devices have been a part of D.C. Everest classrooms for years, but in 2014, they went 1:1 with iPads and Discovery Education Techbook, a digital textbook series. Of course, devices and powerful curriculum supports weren’t enough to transform the district. They needed a plan that would allow every student to succeed.

But before making its digital leap, D.C. Everest had to ensure that every level of the district’s faculty understood why they were making such a fundamental change. A key component of that change was keeping the promise of equal access to success for their students, said Gilmore.

“Technology for us was about providing every kid with the best opportunity to be successful,” she said. “The 1:1 initiative has provided both teachers and students with more choice and voice. Students now have 24/7/365 access to educational tools and resources that allow them to explore their individual interests, learn in a manner best-suited to them, and share what they’ve learned in a format they’re most comfortable with.”

D.C. Everest is not alone. Educators across the country are using Techbook to transform their classrooms into interactive learning environments, where lessons aren’t always one-sided lectures. Students can explore concepts with hands-on labs, getting a better understanding of real-world problems. Teachers can customize their lessons to meet the needs of their students by altering the Lexile levels, or language options.

District leaders also selected iPads paired with Techbook because that combination enabled students to learn offline. If Wi-Fi access wasn’t available at a student’s home, they could download chapters of material at school and take that back home to study videos and instruction. The solution helped ensure that technology barriers wouldn’t leave students without Internet access at home behind.

“For kids, learning in digital environments isn’t a new, exciting, scary thing — this is just their life,” she said. “We need to be sure that education is where our kids’ lives are at, not where our lives as educators were at.”

In a departure from many school districts across the country, D.C. Everest students are allowed to bring their iPads home over the summer. Gilmore said it’s a way of combating the so-called “summer slide,” effect in which knowledge melts from students’ minds over the summer months. To help retain some of their learned skills, the summer brought students educational programs such as STEM camps, summer school, and current resources on their iPads.


For Gilmore, there was a spark that marked the beginning of her digital journey. She had attended a Suburban School Superintendents Conference in San Francisco, where former Mooresville superintendent Mark Edwards had spoken. His message about digital transition, helping students learn to be great learners, was influential for Gilmore.

“As he told the story of his district, I thought, ‘Why not D.C. Everest?’” said Gilmore. “Our kids deserved these resources, and it was time to roll up our sleeves and make it happen.”
The district had been discussing going 1:1 for a few years. It previously had around 5,000 devices unequally distributed across its approximately 6,000 students. But Gilmore’s experience at the conference resulted in a decisive push for D.C. Everest’s transition to 1:1.

“You don’t have full access to the benefits of a digital curriculum until you go 1:1. That really allowed us to push content to all of our kids. We don’t have to guess at what our kids have. This initiative was about providing equity for our children and countless opportunities for the future.”

Initially, her team was concerned about budgetary constraints, but Gilmore assured them that they could overcome those challenges. No one has an unlimited budget, she said, but we can prioritize. By 2014, the district had rolled out 6,000 iPads to all of its students in under two weeks.

Through its 1:1 plan, school board officials wanted to provide students with rich, innovative classroom experiences. But funding new devices alone would not pave the way to the board’s goals for innovation. To support its technology plan, the district invested $4 million in infrastructure improvements, such as routers, bandwidth, mobile device management solutions, and Wi-Fi, and began investing in solid professional development (PD) to help educators adapt to the new shift in teaching.

“More than anything you need for teachers to shift their pedagogy around the higher levels of thinking for kids, creativity, innovation, personalization,” she said.

“All of this comes down to how we can change the classroom pedagogy to meet the needs of our students. The device is a resource — never a substitute for a great teacher.”

To leverage this new priority, D.C. Everest restructured its teacher compensation around quality PD. Teachers are compensated for pursuing individually-chosen opportunities that improve their teaching and learning strategies and are empowered to use those strategies within their classrooms in creative, new ways.

The incentive strategy paid off. By the end of the 2015-2016 school year, the district’s just over 400 teachers accrued more than 25,000 hours of PD outside of the school day.
The PD consisted of teachers teaching teachers best practices in the classroom, mini-courses on specific subjects, and three-day institutes focused on teaching and learning. During these sessions, Discovery Education’s Digital Leader Corps played a crucial role, said Gilmore, bringing speakers such as Toni Robinson to guide educators through their transition.

“Our professional development was not just two hours of training, or reading a book. It’s about changing the way that we teach every day. And even with newer teachers, that’s often not something they’re taught in school. Doing this well requires time and hands-on training, and an environment where risk-taking with support is safe,” said Gilmore.


Technology being placed in the hands of every student has helped to open the door for them to express and share their learning in creative ways. One way this was exemplified was how a fourth-grade class at Riverside Elementary School chose to take their study of the Iditarod Race and run with it.

The students’ enthusiasm for the race evolved into a podcast series where they recorded their thoughts on the progress of the race. Their creativity paid off. The podcast drew the attention a few actual Iditarod mushers, who had been following the kids’ show. The mushers reached out to the class to congratulate them on their creation and encouraged them to keep at it.

The encounter was an affirmation for the students’ experimentation with what’s possible through a digital education.

“That kind of experience changes how kids perceive themselves as participants in their own education, as readers, writers, and authors, they have an authentic audience,” said Gilmore.

By the start of the 2016-2017 school year, the district had two years of experience in a 1:1 learning environment. They also had become well-versed with all three of Discovery Education’s Techbooks — Science Techbook, Math Techbook and Social Studies Techbook — which supplement their existing curriculum.

Gilmore said the district selected Techbook because it allowed students to experience their education in a multi-faceted way. Traditional textbook offer students textual ways to experience new places or concepts, and in Techbook, if they don’t quite understand, they can watch the video, it can be read aloud, they can change the Lexile level, and in math they can see a problem solved in multiple ways.

“Adopting Techbook was really about engaging students and giving them opportunities to grow in different ways than a flat textbook might do,” said
Gilmore. “It’s one thing to read about the desert if you’ve never been there, and another to watch a video and see it.”

Social Studies students immediately took to the benefits of Techbook. Being able to witness world-changing events in video form, and study history through multiple lenses has afforded students a more well-rounded education. But implementing Math Techbook has been more complicated, said Gilmore, because it has involved a mindset shift around how to teach it.

Math can be a touchy subject for districts. Unlike Social Studies, it is generally taught in a very concrete fashion, and there are very distinct milestones to hit for state standards. Since rolling out Math Techbook, Gilmore said she noticed a reticence of certain teachers to adapt to the changing learning styles around Math.

“We all want to provide kids with more meaningful experiences, but that often involves setting up the classroom differently, learning differently — and change is difficult,” she said.
This reluctance to change represents one of the challenges that have reared themselves since the district went 1:1, and D.C. Everest is not an island unto itself. Many districts nationwide experience resistance from educators fearful of altering the trajectory of teaching and learning, particularly when that change involves abandoning the traditional, stand-and-deliver method of teaching. Instead, modern teachers are often moving from the center of the classroom to the periphery as a support for student-driven learning, aided by the device.

To address teacher concerns, professional development courses and Discovery Education’s Digital Leader Corps offered educators intensive training in the new methodologies around teaching, helping them acclimate to the change in their comfort levels with technology in the classroom. Every school in the district also has learning labs, where teachers are encouraged to try new methods of teaching. Educators also bring their peers to these sessions to help solidify best practices across the district which has proven to be more effective than a supervisory model.

The same skepticism toward technology in the classroom was voiced by some parents in the community after the district announced its plans to go 1:1. To help navigate these troubled waters, D.C. Everest hosted informational panels where parents could ask questions about their children’s education. It also helped that when students brought their devices home, parents could witness what their children were learning.

“A parent told me that before, they felt clueless about what happened at school, but the devices have helped them connect with their kids’ lives in ways they just couldn’t before,” Gilmore said.


No educator — regardless of their role in the hierarchy of a district — needs to operate in isolation, said Lance Rougeux, Vice President of Discovery Education’s Learning Communities Innovation. To succeed in today’s high-stakes climates, educators need a place where they can explore new ideas for their schools in a safe atmosphere with their peers, free from judgment or consequence.

Rougeux helps lead The Discovery Education Community, a professional learning network that helps connect school leaders with their peers around the world to share their wealth of knowledge.

“By participating in professional learning communities, district leaders are making new connections with each other, whether it’s in person or virtually,” said Rougeux. “They’re creating valuable, new relationships that can help them overcome any number of challenges they may face.”

Gilmore is one of 40 members of AASA’s Digital Consortium, which has allowed her access to a series of conferences and district visits across the country. The consortium provides district leaders with the opportunity to work together and gain insights into emerging, successful models for using digital materials to support engaged, effective learning experiences.
Among the most valuable lessons from these sessions for Gilmore was the ability to learn and share resources with her peers. Together, they supported one another through their own digital transitions, and learned from the successes and mistakes of others.

“These relationships are imperative in the work as we support each other, share resources, and learn together. While at the Digital Consortium meetings we visited schools who are living the work,” she said. Gilmore advises superintendents in need of guidance to seek help from peers and associations like AASA.

“Ask a lot of questions, take teams to visit, and learn, learn, and learn. I would also suggest finding great business partners who want to help your students succeed,” she said.

“Providing students with engaging, relevant, innovative, and personalized learning experiences is our mission — it takes some courage, but isn’t that what leadership is all about?”

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Helping Students Search for Truth in an Era of ‘Fake News’

“What is true and what is false?”

This reads like a driving question for a unit of study in social studies. But in the current political climate, many people are asking this question in their daily lives.

Fake news — the deliberate spread of misinformation or hoaxes across various media — is meant to mislead readers in order to gain financially, politically, or otherwise. The furor surrounding fake news has resulted in heightened skepticism of reports from the news media, and an escape route for those who struggle to accept the authenticity of information that does not align with their beliefs on important, divisive issues.

A recent report concluded that students may be among the most susceptible to the influx of false statements and the manipulation of facts. In a 2016 study by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), researchers found that youth have a hard time telling the difference between objective and sponsored online content. Young people are also susceptible to bias when politicians and organizations post messages on social media.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, author of the report and founder of SHEG. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

Searching for truth in an era of fake news needs to be a priority in education. This is not the responsibility of the social studies teacher or the English department alone. Every discipline should teach “media literacy,” defined by Heidi Hayes Jacobs as being able to “develop critical and creative capabilities to both receive and assess the quality of messages from all forms of media, and to generate and create quality media of their own.” This includes understanding that any communication has a purpose and an audience in mind.

Media literacy also addresses how people may leverage specific strategies to entertain, inform, or persuade in a variety of media.

There are specific strategies and skills educators can foster in students to ensure they develop a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the information available before forming their own opinions. Here are just a few:

1. Curate reliable feeds of information

Taking one person’s word as truth on any complex issue may lead to misinformation and misconceptions. Teachers can combat this by modeling for students how to create a reliable list of individuals and groups on social media. For example, a teacher can maintain a classroom Facebook page or Twitter account. The teacher would demonstrate how to evaluate who they might follow, discuss why they would read their posts, and ensure multiple perspectives are considered. Older students can be taught to maintain their own information feeds using digital curation tools such as Feedly and Flipboard.

2. Understand how people are persuaded

Merriam-Webster defines “fact” as “a piece of information presented as having objective reality”. This would be a good entry point for a study of what makes for effective persuasive writing. Connections with media literacy can be made by studying the techniques advertisers use. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and International Literacy Association (ILA) offer many teacher resources on this topic at ReadWriteThink.

3. Teach search strategies

Google’s revenue source comes primarily from businesses and organizations that want to have their websites on the first page for key search results. Using search engines designed for students, such as Sweet Search, will help ensure results are objective and appropriate. Students should also be taught how to use features within the advanced option for Google searches when doing research for a class project.

4. Create content for an audience

In the search for truth, everyone can have a voice with the advent of the Internet and digital applications. Students need opportunities to apply their media literacy skills in new contexts. Teachers can use creation tools, such as  learning management systems, or LMSs, provide safe online spaces for students to interact with peers.  Students can post their work and their ideas for feedback. Their finished products, which may include a mix of audio, images, and video in addition to text, can be published on a blog, website, or video channel.

Old Challenges, New Strategies

Dealing with fake news is not a new phenomenon. Mathew Ingram of Fortune Magazine points out that historical figures such as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin wrestled with these very same issues. The good news, Ingram reports, is that “we arguably have much better tools to fight it than we have ever had before.” Social media and content development tools, along with the right strategies, put every student in better control of what they consume and create.


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3 Ways ESSA Gets Computer Science Education Right

If you’re an educator, you’re probably already familiar with The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). But questions abound regarding the status of this federal renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act. What education programs will or will not lose funding, and to what degree? Will more federal dollars be allocated for vouchers and school choice? How will these changes improve student outcomes?

The answers to some of these questions could take years, but some should begin emanating from Washington shortly, as federal budget deliberations proceed. However, one tenet of ESSA’s guidelines is unlikely to waver — an enhanced focus on computer science.

Since its inception in 2015, ESSA has signaled a shift in authority regarding educational programming from the federal to the state level. In addition to this increase in autonomy, there are now more consistent expectations for all U.S. students regarding computer science instruction in schools. Its instruction is no longer viewed as an elective.

Computer science was included with other core subjects, such as writing, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in ESSA’s definition of a “well-rounded education.”

Computer science instruction has become an essential part of the core curriculum for many school districts, and with the ESSA’s urging, many others will begin ramping up efforts to get students ahead of a massive projected  job shortage. This shortfall had already presented itself as of 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics:

Here are three things the ESSA gets right with its approach to computer science education:

1. Increases Access to Digital Resources

President Obama allocated $4 billion to states to increase access to computer science coursework . Called the “Computer Science for All” plan, this financial commitment supports the ESSA requirement that all students receive high-quality instruction in order to be college and career ready.

A number of partnerships between organizations have been fostered to support this initiative. For example, the National Science Foundation has collaborated with the Department of Defense to develop an effective computer science curriculum for children of military families. These students may frequently move due to one or both parents’ assignments. Having a reliable computer science curriculum will help to ensure that educators working with military families can provide high-quality instruction wherever the families may go.

2. Encourages a More Integrated Approach to Computer Science

Teaching technology in isolation can decrease the relevance of the knowledge and skills gained. Students may fail to make the connection between computer science and how it might be applied in the real world.

With ESSA, educators are expected to integrate computer science with many areas of instruction. For instance, the STEM subjects offer obvious opportunities for integration. Programming a robot to perform simple tasks can happen as early as elementary school. Older students can write code to create applications for gathering and sharing data about the environmental health of the planet. These efforts of citizen scientists make crowdsourcing through technology a necessary part of academic studies.

Integrating computer science can be just as important in the arts and humanities. As an example, graphic design is a skill regularly employed in advanced secondary courses such as journalism and business education. Most teachers, when they take a step back, will realize that computer science is already a tacit part of their curriculum and instruction. With a little forethought, entry points can be found or created to facilitate this integration at a deeper level.

3. Expects Student Learning Results with Increased Funding

The Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund makes ESSA dollars available for new instructional approaches. Awarded projects are expected to foster tangible, positive outcomes in student learning. Results matter as much as the efforts.

One example involves an Arizona State University program called CompuGirls. It aims to improve computer literacy for girls living in high-needs rural and urban areas. The focus of these efforts is to improve non-cognitive skills such as self-efficacy and resilience through computer-related coursework. Resources that are allocated through competitive ESSA programs such as i3 are based on measurable outcomes. This will help ensure funds are used effectively. The findings from these projects are to be shared widely with other educators.

Like any government policy, funding and guidance are only as effective as how well they are implemented at the classroom level. Teachers and students will need the resources, training, and support from building- and district-level leadership in order to make the federal promise of computer science for all a reality.

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Column: Managing and Leading Schools: Finding the Right Blend for Principals

I sat in the back of a second-grade classroom, watching students being offered a choice.

They could respond in two different ways to a text that the whole class had read — a folktale depicting a family’s annual tradition from another culture. Students could write a review of the story or create a how-to essay about an activity they are familiar with. Because the students’ choices were authentic, when they embarked on their writing, every one of them was engaged.

As the school’s principal, I regularly conduct formal observations like these. No matter how good the instruction is, I always try to look for possibilities for professional growth.

In this situation, one literacy choice stood out for its quality and meaningfulness: students could describe in writing their own family traditions. This activity was rife with possibilities. What if the teacher modeled for students the steps for successful memoir writing? Could she demonstrate with a personal family tradition of her own? How might this reading–writing experience connect with social studies and maybe even a deeper study into family traditions from around the world?

During this session, I briefly stopped documenting evidence of instruction and instead started jotting down these ideas and questions on a pad of paper. There was no reason to put this information in the teacher’s observation; I didn’t intend to make these recommendations without an initial conversation about how the teacher thought the lesson went. Our follow-up discussion would take place later that day. The formal observation became the impetus for a conversation about embedding better literacy practices throughout the school day.

This example conveys how important it is that principals have the necessary time, knowledge, and experiences to be the instructional leaders in their schools. It doesn’t happen by accident.

Ensuring that the principal is a constant, effective presence in school demands three essential strategies: identifying school priorities, making classroom visits a habit, and using these visits to guide future professional learning.

Management should not be separate from instructional leadership. They are inseparable and support one another.

The Truth Behind #NoOfficeDays

Old-school thinking when it came to building leadership was clear One could tick off a principal’s duties with the ABCs: attendance, behavior, classroom observations, discipline, evaluation of staff, etc.  Recently, these managerial tasks have been somewhat rejected by school leaders.

Principals are engaging in “no office days”, as evidenced by tweets of their experiences with the hashtag #noofficeday. Sometimes they will shadow a student for a day to gain a learner’s experience. Principals have even become a teacher for the day, giving one of their staff members the day to grade papers and plan for future instruction.

These efforts by building leaders to be more present and visible in their schools are admirable. I’ve tried it myself, participating in a day of independent reading to promote literacy. The reality, however, is that principals don’t get subs.

Unless a building administrator has an assistant principal, there is no one qualified to fill in for us. The less spectacular tasks that are relegated to the office will still be there when we get back. Staff are left covering for us. Making #noofficedays a habit could breed resentment with one group while we try to be more present for another.

I suggest a better approach for being an instructional leader in our schools while still addressing the day-to-day managerial tasks: Find the right blend. This means understanding the context of our school and what needs to get done on the office end, so we are a more consistent presence in the classrooms and on building grounds.

Every school has a unique mix of class size, diversity, climate, needs, and strengths. With this information, we can align our work with a few priorities. Finding the right blend also means scheduling our days so classroom visits are habit instead of an event. A smart integration of management and leadership duties can lead to improved teaching and learning. The following strategies can be applied to any school context.

1. Develop a Priority Plan

We can only focus on a few goals at any one time and still be successful as school leaders. In my school, I am new to the position. That means that building trust is a priority. I’ve done a lot of listening. I’ve asked staff about their thoughts and needs, and ensured I am visible throughout the school day. Our other priority is literacy, specifically around reading comprehension and fluency. The data was clear in this area. Our leadership team has responded with facilitating monthly professional development around authentic reading and writing experiences.

The idea of aligning our actions with our priorities into a plan comes from The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin. She defines a priority plan as, “a three-month extraction from your yearly goals that names what matters most for you and your team.” I look at my priority plan regularly as I prepare for upcoming work.

Having our priorities laid out and aligned with our goals and objectives accomplishes two things. First, the faculty are clear about what we will support regarding professional development opportunities and teaching resources. Second, it is easier to say no to requests that aren’t aligned with our priorities. It’s not a subjective or personal decision, but based on a clear rationale.

For example, I was recently asked why STEM is not a focus. The response: “It seems like that’s all education talks about.” I listened and then asked this person how literacy might support the STEM areas. We ended up agreeing that if students wanted to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, they had to be literate.

2. Make Classroom Visits a Habit

To ensure a school’s priorities are put into practice, school leaders must make classroom visits a habit. If we are successful in redistributing nonessential tasks to other personnel, this can happen every day. I put classroom visits on my calendar, which is shared with my assistant. The minimum is one hour per day, getting into every classroom for at least a brief time. Staff understand that this is protected time. Any interruptions should be an emergency. (I’ve learned that the term “emergency” also requires conversation to develop a common understanding.)

Being visible in the classrooms daily serves our dual priorities of building trust and increasing effective literacy instruction. To build trust, I make sure my visits are focused on teachers’ strengths, and that I let teachers know what I am noticing. The feedback can be given verbally or in writing. I ordered a stack of professional notepads with my name and school information. I will write down what I notice is going well and leave the note in the teacher’s classroom or mailbox. In addition, I will name the effective practice using common language we have learned together during our literacy-based professional development program.

Trust relies on open communication. This goes for the parents and community as well as the teachers and students. That is why I also use Twitter to post the excellent work happening in classrooms. My school tweets usually consist of a brief description, at least one image of the learning in action, and the hashtag #PointerNation so it shows up on our district’s social media feeds. Using the same process of noticing and naming, I can now recognize and celebrate teaching and learning around literacy in an open forum. An additional benefit is all this information can be archived digitally to document and organize artifacts for our professional evaluation systems.

3. Use Instructional Walks to Reinforce Professional Learning

As trust increases and literacy instruction improves, windows open in which I can start offering feedback about teacher instruction. During my regular classroom visits, I will sometimes sit in for a longer period to write a narrative of what is currently happening. It is noticing what is happening and then naming the practice. These one-page write-ups are referred to as “instructional walks,” in which “the principal notices what’s going well in the classroom—environment, management, engagement, level of student independence, lesson content, grouping arrangements, quality of student work,” writes Regie Routman.  Like the brief notes, the goal is to build on teachers’ strengths and create a relationship in which they are open to future guidance.

Because my walks are habit, I can address our collective instruction instead of conferencing with each teacher individually. The information gleaned from my daily visits is used to inform future professional learning experiences.

What if teachers are not applying the skills learned during professional development into practice? Certainly, I could note this during our formal observations for the state-mandated evaluation system. Yet I find the rubrics and evidence gathering to be limited at best—helpful for teachers in one or more areas, but unnecessary when teachers are already doing well. Formal observations and evaluations can even be detrimental to the daily classroom visit process. Trust can deteriorate when there is too much of a focus on ratings and rubrics. Also, evaluation systems are time-intensive. They used to monopolize my days, which is why I now do the bare minimum in this area.

Instead, as much as I can, I am a learner with staff and students. One way is by asking lots of questions. Whether during an instructional walk or formal observation, I will make inquiries about why teachers are doing what they are doing. For example, instead of leaving a vague, summative statement, such as “This was an effective activity, because…,” I might ask “What about this activity do you feel had the greatest impact on student learning?” Whether the learning experience was excellent or otherwise, the responsibility is now on the teacher to self-assess their instruction. Follow-up probes, such as “Why do you believe that? ,” guide teachers to cite evidence from their lessons to support their rationale.  My wonderings also happen during professional development. Instead of positioning myself as an expert, I might question a belief or a statement as if I were also teaching.

Management and Leadership are Not Mutually Exclusive

During the post-observation conversation with the 2nd grade teacher, I started by asking a series of questions, starting with “How do you think the lesson went?” and “Why do you think that?” Once we affirmed that the lesson was a success, I started to probe with wonderings to unpack what was possible for the future. “Of all the choices, which literacy activity might lead to future learning?” was the inquiry that led to a professional conversation about expanding on the family traditions writing activity. The teacher suggested a personal family tradition that she could use for a writing demonstration. I held off recommending that she tie in social studies with a deeper understanding of the concept of traditions. Knowing that my priorities were in place, that my classroom visits were a habit, and that I had a team to guide faculty in professional learning, I knew that I would have more opportunities in the future.

This is Matt’s seventeenth year in public education. He started as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students at a junior high, which developed into an assistant principal position and eventually head principal at an elementary school. Now as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, Matt enjoys the curriculum, instruction and assessment side of education. You can also connect with Matt on Twitter at @ReadByExample and on his website at

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Modern Learning in the Great Outdoors

In Rocky Mountain National Park, middle school students from St. Vrain Valley School District are sharing a trail with a mountain lion, bear cubs, a coyote, deer, and a skunk intent on spraying the area under cover of darkness.

How do the students know all of this? They’re reviewing videos they collected the previous night taken from cameras they mounted on trees. They got some tips about field science from the park rangers, and now they’re gathering wildlife data and providing it to the park themselves. Their counterparts in high school are contributing in the field, too, working with Ocean First Education. They recently watched divers in the Pacific measuring the length of great white sharks using a device they designed and developed themselves.

Across the country, at BioTECH @ Richmond Heights High School in Miami, science teacher Noelle Gerstman is guiding her students as they analyze the DNA of flamingo feathers. Students are working to determine whether flamingos found in the wild are, in fact, wild or are escapees from a local race track that is home to a flock in captivity. Meanwhile, their schoolmates are collaborating with NASA on the Growing Beyond Earth project, germinating leafy greens, kale, and tomatoes to determine which vegetables are the best to grow in microgravity aboard the International Space Station.

Honing Environmental Literacy

These students are lucky, but it shouldn’t take luck to provide amazing educational opportunities like this. Environmental literacy is a critical skill that all educators should help their students develop. It requires authentic, student-driven, hands-on challenges in which every learner can pursue or discover an interest.

The North American Association for Environmental Education defines an environmentally literate person as “someone who, both individually and together with others, makes informed decisions concerning the environment; is willing to act on these decisions to improve the well being of other individuals, societies, and the global environment; and participates in civic life.” The association goes further to define four areas of competency: knowledge, disposition, skills, and behaviors. In other words, it’s not enough to understand the facts. One must care about and interact with the environment in order to be considered environmentally literate.

In a school setting, it takes a focused dedication to create relevant and rigorous opportunities for students so they can build the skills required to be informed and engaged citizens. Some of the best ways to foster engagement include presenting authentic problems in the classroom, encouraging active solution-seeking, and providing a link between the classroom and the community.

Gerstman finds that it doesn’t take much to get students involved. At BioTECH, student awareness and interest drive the inquiry.

“The changes in sea level at Miami Beach just in the last 10 years, they’re evident: they’re raising the streets in Miami Beach,” she said. “So, the evidence of environmental change is really in our face. The students like to watch the Weather Channel, and a couple of them commented, ‘There’s been no snow in Chicago.’”

For students to be able to understand an authentic challenge, they need knowledge; to create a solution, they need skills; to act, they need to care and connect. An authentic challenge offers a cycle of influence: understanding, application, action. Academicians are used to transferring knowledge and skills, but it is more challenging to teach disposition and behavior. In fact, it may be impossible to teach those concepts directly. However, students who can seize on opportunities for real collaboration and connection soon develop in these areas.

No Walls, No Limits

That’s what is happening with St. Vrain Valley School District’s students in Rocky Mountain National Park. Right alongside the students practicing field science is a group of students more interested in documentation. While one group of students affix cameras to trees and another downloads and analyzes the data, yet another group is documenting the whole endeavor on film, while still others are documenting the documentarians.

The benefits are broad: students gain experience with field science, the communication of scientific ideas, the process of documentation, and collaboration with fellow scientists.

“Learning takes on a whole different realm,” said Mike O’Toole, St. Vrain’s science coordinator. “They’re learning about film making and other 21st-century skills that have become so vital.”

The film documenting their work, “Plains to the Park,” was entirely scripted, narrated, filmed, and edited by middle school students. The final version is virtually indistinguishable from a federal park production, including voice-over narration and professional-looking clips of sweeping blue skies and babbling mountain streams.

Meanwhile in Florida, BioTECH’s high school students are listening to scientists and learning about ongoing mysteries at Zoo Miami. They’ve talked to scientists there and learned that, for some animals, reproductive rates are low. Using background knowledge they gained in the classroom about hormones, the students propose looking at the hormone levels of the animals to see if there are any imbalances that may account for the reproductive pattern. This is an opportunity to learn in the field while addressing a real, unsolved, scientific mystery and, potentially, make a valuable contribution to science at the zoo.

Environmental literacy applies across the STEM spectrum, including projects that require technology, engineering, and math skills. For instance, O’Toole has partnered with Ocean First Education to support divers studying great white sharks. The student contribution to the deep-water dive in the Pacific is a laser-based measurement tool that allows the divers to measure the sharks in motion with a high degree of accuracy. O’Toole, who supports the efforts of science teachers across his district, focuses on creating partnerships with organizations like Ocean First Education and NASA to find rich learning opportunities for students.

So, how is this possible in a district or a school that hasn’t been designed for these types of partnerships and programs? After all, they take funding, time, and intense collaboration with the scientific community.

Starting Small, Dreaming  Big

“It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. It’s just getting students outside,” he said. “Right now, we’re really focusing on using technology to get students invested in the outdoors.”

In St. Vrain schools, teachers use their schoolyards to begin studying outside. They use a math scavenger hunt in which students are challenged to find examples of math concepts in nature. Elementary school students, each given a camera or tablet, head outside to find something in nature that’s circular or parallel. Or, a teacher might use his or her own interest, such as hiking or gardening, as a jumping-off point and contact a scientist in the community to seek a collaborative opportunity.

Gerstman agrees that you can start locally, with a university partner, for example, but she is convinced that to truly maximize environmental literacy programs, educators need a deep commitment at the federal level in the form of funding. The grant proposal for BioTECH was written by a team of teachers and scientists with the express purpose of funding this biology and botany magnet school. The school has its own analytical chemistry lab, a zoology lab, and a DNA lab and is staffed with veteran teachers, most with advanced degrees in their field.

Even if you’re starting small, with a purposeful use of technology, scientists and students can share and collaborate online. O’Toole regularly uses technology to connect students around the world. He’s invited classrooms in Colorado and Tanzania to connect through a learning expedition at Mount Kilimanjaro, and he shares the excursions online so students everywhere can follow along. During the Discovery Education Virtual Field Trip to Kilimanjaro, students all over the world sported safari gear at school and joined in virtually as the group reached the summit.  Online watch parties, chats, conferences, and social media exchanges are all good ways to expand the impact of environmental projects.

Some contests and challenges are also good for developing environmental literacy and may result in collaborations between students and scientists. Contests with authentic challenges require students to meet all four competency areas: they must learn about the problem, care about it, have or acquire skills to address it, and act.

Discovery Education’s Young Scientist Challenge is an example of this type of challenge. Participating students propose solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, underscoring in the process that humans are affected by and can affect the environment. Finalists have the opportunity to work with scientists from 3M to participate in authentic scientific process and prototyping, including the presentation of results and proposals.

Fostering Citizen Scientists

With all the potential for partnerships and global connection, the most important ingredient in the development of environmental literacy seems to be a dedication to creating opportunities for real scientific learning and impact to occur.

Educators must provide experiences that allow students to develop knowledge and empathy in order to stretch toward a concern for the world and a sense of agency about their part in it. Only then can all the necessary components sync toward environmental literacy.

After all, environmental literacy isn’t a check mark on a mastery list for children or adults. Rather, it is an evolving competency. In our changing world, educators must continue to be involved and informed citizens, preparing the next generation to carry the torch forward.

Jeanette Edelstein is an educator dedicated to making learning more engaging for students of all ages. She has been a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, and program developer. She was a founding teacher and the gifted and talented coordinator at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts. Her curriculum projects include Hive Alive!, a collection of teaching resources about honey bees, Animal Planet Rescue, a disaster relief and educational vehicle that rescued over 1,000 animals, and CapsinSchool, an elementary curriculum based on the math and science of hockey.

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Navigating Controversial Topics in Middle School Classrooms

Lately it seems as if every major issue in the country is dividing citizens. From the recent presidential election to debates about fake news, immigration, and health care, citizens are split on their positions. While having a divide isn’t unusual, the gulf between those who are pro and con seems wider than ever before.

This is not just a feeling. A Gallup poll from late 2016 proved it: Nearly 80 percent of Americans perceived the country as divided, topping the previous high of 69 percent in 2012. It seems the only thing Americans can agree on is that we don’t agree.

For middle school teachers hoping to introduce sensitive issues to students, this divisiveness can be daunting. And yet, the exercise has never been more important.

“We need to show kids how to talk about controversial things the right way,” says Larry Lhulier, the supervisor of curriculum, instruction, and technology at New Jersey’s Wildwood Crest Memorial School. Teaching students the skills to debate sensitive issues while still respecting others’ opinions is the best way to counteract the current corrosive debate, he adds.

“What we’re trying to do is prepare young people to participate in democracies,” says Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Education.

Hess visited middle school classrooms and studied their debates to research her 2009 book, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion.

The benefit of having these discussions in middle school is that many children haven’t formed a solid opinion about most subjects, she adds. “I like teaching in classes where there’s a range of views and where people were not set [in their opinions]. It’s the puzzle of trying to figure something out.”

Teacher Tips

Rich Young says a teacher’s first move should be to communicate to parents, students, and the school’s administration any controversial materials chosen for the classroom, such as a movie or book. Explain why the resource is needed, how it will be used, and include class protocols for discussing current events. Young, currently the project director for Teaching American History at the Education Cooperative, was previously the social studies curriculum coordinator in Brookline, Mass.

“You can explore any topic, and if done right, you shouldn’t have any issues,” adds Lhulier. He and others advise teachers to keep their personal opinions out of each debate, but be ready to step in and play devil’s advocate if an entire classroom slants in one direction.

“I have strong views,” Lhulier adds. “I reserve them for home with my wife. The kids didn’t know where I stood on any of the issues we discussed.”

Young points out that classroom debates about the Second Amendment took on different tones when he taught in southern Indiana, where a majority of boys were active hunters, and when he was in Massachusetts, where most students were anti-gun. In both cases he would bring up counter arguments to make sure students had thought through all the issues in this complicated topic.

“Teachers who are really good do a good job of bringing in multiple perspectives,” Hess says. Her studies showed that more and more classrooms are breaking down along “red” and “blue” designations depending on where they are based. “We’re more politically polarized, and students are more likely to live in communities that agree with them.”

Push Past Stereotypes

It’s important to make conversations specific and evidence-based, Lhulier says. In this polarized political atmosphere, students can repeat negative stereotypes, unfairly labeling classmates and impeding classroom debates. Don’t let students equate someone’s conservative beliefs with racism, or someone’s liberal beliefs with not supporting the police, Lhulier adds.

“My experience is kids are really open,” Lhulier says. “A good teacher gets kids to think about their perspective in a nonjudgmental way.”

In Wildwood, the New Jersey shore community includes wealthy hotel owners and the families of people who work in the hotels, Lhulier says, offering a rich, socioeconomic diversity.

“Kids get excited about seeing something in a different way,” he says, adding that he considers it a success when a student ends up saying, “I get it. I see how that person would react in a certain way.”

Teachers have to be ready to rein in conversations, especially when students start to share personal details that shouldn’t be public, he says. “Kids are thinking out loud; they don’t have the filters that adults have.”

How you treat a student’s experiences depends on the student, Lhulier says. One golden rule is to “never make a student be an unwilling spokesperson for a topic. On the other hand, I never silence a child who wants to be a spokesperson for a topic.”

Encourage Simulations

At the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, simulations avoid the problems Lhulier mentions. The Boston institute, which includes a near-exact replica of the Senate floor, tasks students with arguing over bills that have been passed in the U.S. Senate—but with a twist. The institute assigns students to portray various senators. So as students dig into the immigration bill, they may represent a conservative senator from a border state or a liberal senator from the northeast. Since the institute opened in 2015, more than 30,000 students from middle school to college have come through its doors.

“It sets students back from their gut reactions and sets the ground rules,” says Kennedy Institute president Jean MacCormack. The simulations include giving students expert testimony to help inform them to reach a consensus. For instance, in the case of the immigration bill, students are told about H-1B visas that allow workers with special skills to enter the country to work for U.S. companies.

“Coming to a compromise is not an easy thing,” she says. “They have to choose between their own opinions, their party’s opinions, and constituent opinions.” Students who don’t agree with their assigned role frequently ask what would happen if they bucked their party or constituents, MacCormack says. “You may not get reelected.”

While sitting in a U.S. Senate replica adds to the drama of debate, MacCormack says the institute has taken its debates on the road, bringing the simulations to Mississippi and Martha’s Vineyard. While Senator Kennedy was unabashedly Democratic, the institute works with staffers from both Republican and Democratic offices to make sure the simulations are nonpartisan.

“Students can learn a lot from simulations,” Hess adds. But she cautions that teachers should be sensitive to assignments when creating conversations. Giving an undocumented student the role of an anti-immigration senator is a bad idea, she says.

MacCormack says the debate, which frequently starts before students come to the institute, typically lasts for days after they return to school. And that, to her, is the entire point. “Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. You have to get involved.”

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