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5 Principles of a Successful Digital Transition

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All across the country, school districts are adapting to digital curriculum to give their students the competitive edge they will need once they leave the classroom. Making this transition to digital learning can be fraught with fresh challenges, but there are a few best practices that will help newcomers navigate their way to success.

Here are five principles to help guide your digital transition.

1. Good instruction trumps everything.

A great number of digital transitions get derailed when they are solely focused on devices. If you begin with the supposition that good instruction drives meaningful change, form will rightfully follow function.

2. Students and teachers need help navigating the oceans of digital content.

Content that engages students online must be deemed a priority since a significant amount of available content is superficial and dependent on sources that can’t be easily verified.

When it comes to digital content it’s usually feast or famine. There’s either too much for students to meaningfully interpret or not enough of the right type of content. This is where districts turn to trusted services to vet and organize content for them. Getting the content aligned with district curriculum also saves teachers a little bit of their most precious commodity: time.

3. Effective digital transitions are thoughtfully planned, executed, and measured.

The success of a digital transition is directly related to the clarity of its goals and vision, the sustainability of its plans, and the thoroughness of its reporting measures.

Presenting a clear and detailed explanation to all stakeholders of the educational goals behind a digital transition should be your first priority. It is also important to acknowledge that new methodology may initially impact workload.

What’s needed most is a realistic approach that employs reporting measures that reflect how predetermined educational targets are being met. For the short term feedback (that is essential to win funding), plan on collecting anecdotal reports that show early success.

4. People will only buy into a change they believe adds value.

Teachers and parents alike want to understand why their school has opted to refocus classroom instruction to take advantage of technology. Visit schools or search the web for stories of successful digital implementation to show the benefits of a digital transition.

5. Digital transition is a major culture shift. Ignore this at your own peril.

Digital transition is about the people involved more than the technology. Schools and districts that ignore this often wonder why their expensive tech investment collects dust in most classrooms or is used for occasional entertainment.

Take the time up front to help teachers learn the expected instructional change. The first year of a successful tech roll-out should include demonstration classrooms that allow other teachers, parents, and community members to see the change expected, while teachers have access to the anticipated technology. This ensures that year two, which may include wider scale transition, is built on a firm foundation of in-district experience.

This type of attention to the human-cultural aspects of digital transition dramatically increases the likelihood of an instructional return on investment.


With over 26 years experience as an educator, Marty Creel leads Discovery Education’s innovative curriculum and instruction team. Marty began his career as an engaging social studies teacher known for creative use of technology to deepen learning. As a district-wide curriculum, instruction, and professional development leader in a large urban/suburban school system he was the architect for a thoughtful transition to instructional standards that empower teachers and principals as instructional leaders.

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9 Steps for Superintendents Guiding a Districtwide Digital Transition

Laying the foundation for a modern, digital learning environment can be thrilling — and terrifying.

School administrators may be excited by the prospect of students learning at their own pace on devices loaded with interactive, customized lesson plans; or envisioning teachers as facilitators in classrooms where students are empowered to lead their own learning. But the step-by-step process of transitioning to a digital curriculum can be daunting. It requires much more than simply providing devices to students. A digital transition is a multi-faceted, multi-year process that must be carefully considered, planned and communicated.

We are three superintendents with 16 years of superintendent experience and 20 years of K-12 teaching experience among us. As heads of school districts — one small, one medium and one large — we have steered the transition to digital learning. We know first-hand what works and what doesn’t. We’ve experienced setbacks and successes. Sometimes we moved too fast, other times we wished we had been bolder. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and we’ve brought our experiences together to provide helpful steps as others consider making the transition to digital.

Digital transition is the shift from physical textbooks and paper handouts to digital, interactive learning tools.

  1. START WITH THE ‘WHY?’

    In our experience, this crucial first step is the foundation for a successful digital transition. Consider how digital learning will align with standards, add value for teachers, and enhance the student learning experience. Then make sure you broadcast this message clearly and frequently. Begin by involving all stakeholders — principals, teachers, parents, students, the Board of Education, local businesses and community residents. Is the goal of digital learning to provide education for all levels of learners? Is it to prepare students for the workplaces they will encounter? Is it to engage and challenge students with inquiry-based lessons? Your answers will be tailored to your community and school.

    Why we took the digital leap:

    “We wanted to level the playing field and make sure all students have access to the technology that prepares them for the future.” — Susan Allen, superintendent of East Irondequoit Central School District, N.Y.

    “We knew the future of our students was going to change, and we wanted to make sure we could provide our students with the best learning tools that were available.” — Christine Johns, superintendent of Utica Community Schools District in Michigan

    “In Las Vegas, teachers had a lot of learning levels in their classrooms. Technology allowed teachers to bring more differentiation into their instruction.” — Dwight Jones, former superintendent for Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev.

  2. ASSESS YOUR DISTRICT’S READINESS FOR A DIGITAL TRANSITION

    Spend time building broad-based understanding and support through meetings with the board of education, principals, teachers, parent teacher associations, and other local stakeholders. Develop and communicate a roll-out plan that takes into account which schools in your district are most ready for digital transition as well as which schools are most in need of digital investment. Some school districts will start with a particular grade or subject, while others will begin with the teachers who are most eager to learn about and use digital learning tools.

  3. MAKE SURE YOUR DIGITAL RESOURCES ARE STANDARDS-ALIGNED

    Just like printed materials, digital materials must deliver on the standards that students are expected to know and be able to do. There are many great resources – both print and digital – that generate highly engaging classroom experiences, but have nothing to do with the curriculum. Invest in digital resources that enhance your teachers’ abilities to deliver the learning objectives they’re expected to teach.

  4. CLEARLY AND RELENTLESSLY COMMUNICATE YOUR VISION

    As you embark on a digital transition, use the communication tools you already have to provide a framework, and make answers to questions easily available to all stakeholders. There is no such thing as over-communication. Your district must be relentless in its effort to explain the importance of the digital transition you are planning. Do not expect anyone in the district, not even teachers or principals, to automatically know the value of digital tools.

    In addition to proactive communications describing the goals and benefits of the initiative, it is important to keep lines of communication open throughout the process. Be transparent about challenges, setbacks, and promises with all stakeholders. Listen to concerns, and address them as they arise. For example, a common concern about digital transition is that students will be distracted by devices in the learning environment. Anticipate this concern, acknowledge it, address it and then let stakeholders know exactly how it was addressed. An effective strategy for handling this type of concern would be to provide professional development around it for teachers, and a book study for parents, and then write a blog post about it to share what has transpired with your community.

  5. ENGAGE YOUR NAVIGATORS

    Purchasing digital content without someone who deeply understands the nuances of different providers truly is flying blind. Dedicate knowledgeable staff to guide the purchasing process, for both hardware and digital curriculum, and to help steer and encourage professional development opportunities. These navigators will become the champions to help your district move this project forward and to provide answers throughout the process. Before they begin their work, encourage them to reach out to colleagues in other school districts to learn about their experiences.

  6. TRANSITION SLOWLY — TARGET A GRADE LEVEL AND ITERATE

    Ask teachers who are enthusiastic about the transition to opt-in to the process, and allow them to pilot the transition. Those teachers can then serve as resources who can share their insights and experiences with other teachers preparing for digital learning. Honor this learning by celebrating teacher leaders who are risk-takers, leading every day by example.

  7. PROVIDE ONGOING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

    Professional development should be embedded and ongoing so that teachers and other system staff gain a real facility with utilizing technology and digital content to create self-directed student learners. Administrators must become versed in digital learning so they can observe and evaluate teachers. Much of the professional development should focus on nurturing digital learners. Provide professional development beginning the spring before roll out, and continue through the summer. Once the school year begins, bring a curriculum mentor into the classroom to work with students and teachers. Professional development can be offered in person, online and through webinars. Teachers can be pulled out of their classrooms for instruction, or instructor/mentors can provide digital learning guidance during the instructional day. Make sure teachers have access to resources throughout the school year so they always have a place to turn with questions or when seeking lesson ideas. Be prepared to provide professional development that meets teachers on all different levels. Some teachers are going to be skilled and eager digital instructors, while others will be wary of change to their established lesson plans. Full-scale professional learning should be based on the content that will be taught, not on grade levels or familiarity with the intricacies of the devices. Teachers want to know how to teach content effectively and with ease. Show them how.

  8. LEARNING > TECHNOLOGY

    Demonstrate to teachers how technology can be used to support a variety of teaching styles, including small-group collaboration, rotating through technology stations, student presentations and teacher-led instruction. The goal is to create classroom environments where students are directing their own learning and teachers are guides, not dispensers of information.

  9. EMBED LESSONS OF DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP

    Ensure students learn digital citizenship and sourcing skills. Devote classroom instruction time to teaching students how to be good digital citizens. That includes knowing how to interact online without bullying, how to advocate responsibly and how to evaluate the trustworthiness of sources. Students also need to learn how to resist the siren call of a device. One student said a digital learning environment helped him learn how to resist distraction: “I had a choice to make. I could remain distracted and my grades could go down, or I could use this tool to get better grades.”

About the Authors:


Dr. Christine Johns —
 superintendent of Utica Community Schools District in Michigan

Susan K. Allen —
 superintendent of East Irondequoit Central School District, N.Y.
 
Dwight Jones — 
former superintendent for Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev.
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Why Embracing New Ways of Teaching is a Worthwhile Risk

This column was submitted by Branchburg Township School Districts’ (NJ) Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Gensel.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” – Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s quote is one that’s been applied to many other fields. So it should come as no surprise that his wisdom also applies to how good educators can bring out the best in their students.

To decompress at home after a long day, I throw clay on a pottery wheel. I’m no Michelangelo, but one of the things this hobby has taught me is that forcing something into what I want it to be usually doesn’t work out. I’ll throw a ball of clay on the wheel, setting out to make a mug. But as the wheel spins, and I influence the clay by putting pressure on it or moving it around the wheel, often I discover the clay has a mind of its own for what it wants to become. I’ve learned that if I incorporate that tendency of the clay, rather than beat it back into what I had intended it to be, the result is much more successful.

Over the years, I’ve learned that relinquishing control often yields a more beautiful piece of art than what would have existed if I insisted on exerting my will over the clay.

One of the recent challenges my district’s teachers have been faced with is making the leap to a new relationship with students – one augmented by technology. Instead of a top-down, authoritative approach to classroom instruction, many teachers have embraced the notion that by democratizing access to information, they don’t always need to be the expert on every topic.

Rebecca Gensel, superintendent of Branchburg Township School District

More of our teachers are looking to their students to help them become better educators. Without a doubt, our students know more about what’s out there than we do. Giving them the opportunity to share what they know by flipping the teacher/student relationship certainly has its advantages.
Though technology has been a cornerstone of our district for decades, our use of technology has been transformational over the past four years. Classroom devices have moved from discreet computer labs to an everyday presence throughout school buildings. We’ve equipped our K-8 students with classroom devices ranging from laptops to tablets. We’re not just teaching keyboarding in our tech labs anymore. We’re using those labs now to teach coding, showing students how to master technology by understanding what makes the computer do the things that it does and what happens when you manipulate those programs in new ways.

These devices have given students opportunities to learn and share their learning with their peers and a broader audience. Students’ responsibilities have evolved from rote memorization and single-audience term papers to exploring abstract concepts in group settings.

Services like Discovery Education Streaming and Techbook are woven into the canvas of resources our students can explore and through which they can share, expressing what they’ve learned in their own unique way.

Technologies like these give our students opportunities to choose how they learn, rather than limiting all students to only one avenue for expression.

We’re fostering learning environments where we can say to our students, “Here’s the topic-now go explore. Open your laptops, see what you can learn, share it, and we’ll connect the pieces together.” At this stage in their education, it’s not necessarily about defining a career as much as it is about helping students understand the possibilities that exist for learning.

This is a lot to take in for many educators. It requires taking a risk-giving students permission to fail while trusting that they’ll learn from their mistakes. It requires being a mentor and a guide, not a dictator or a drill sergeant.

Through Discovery Education’s professional development sessions, our educators’ eyes were opened to the possibilities of what can be achieved by integrating technology into the curriculum. We’re collectively beginning to shift our own understandings for what our students can be.

Rather than forcing our students, like a ball of clay on my pottery wheel, to learn in the ways we think are best, there is much to be gained by following their lead as we all move forward in our learning.

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Helping Students Find Their Voice

When I attended college, some of my favorite classes were those in which I felt empowered in how I pursued my studies. When my professors provided options, valued my opinion, and shifted the responsibilities for learning over to me, my level of engagement increased dramatically.

That college student is now a middle school math teacher with her own room full of students, and I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of fostering student voice in my classroom.

Student Voice describes how students provide input into what happens in their school and their classroom.

One of my goals as a math teacher is to help my students see themselves, their ideas, and their thoughts reflected in the required curriculum. Student voice does not mean student takeover. To the contrary, the idea of students having a voice in what they learn, when they learn it, and how they learn it leads to collaborative opportunities to increase engagement and facilitate deeper student learning.

Even though my classroom is primarily built upon structures that foster independence, it’s still a shift for me to scale back the responsibility for student learning from me as their teacher and place it with them as the learners. Over the years, I’ve made deliberate decisions about how to approach the content and ensure that it’s delivered through a student-centered lens. I’ve reflected about each decision and considered how the shift to a classroom culture that values and supports student voice has impacted the overall learning of my students.

While I don’t have any hard and fast rules, there are some guidelines that I follow to help ensure that student voice is at the forefront of my instructional decisions.

1. Create Classroom Norms Together

Norms and rules are not the same things. Rules help to establish the practices and procedures that allow tasks to be completed in classrooms. Norms provide teachers and students with shared agreements about how best to support one another and learn from and with one another, and they help create a culture of and for learning.Developing norms with my students has allowed them to have a voice in the structure of our classroom, which helps to contribute to a positive classroom culture.

As I began to infuse student ideas and suggestions into our classroom expectations, I began to see the value in co-creating these norms rather than creating them independent of my students.

Collaboratively creating norms helped me better understand what my students valued and what was important to them. During the creation of our class norms, it was apparent that students appreciated the chance to give their opinions and thrived on the opportunity to hear what their peers thought as well. These norms continue to provide the structure upon which our classroom culture was established. We review the norms periodically and add things when needed. Occasionally we adjust our norms in order to better meet the changing nature of our classroom.

To this end, our classroom culture depends on the students upholding the norms that we create together. When students interact with each other during collaborative problem solving, it’s an understood norm that each student will have a responsibility for contributing to the discussions during the group work. Further, my students understand that every voice in the group is important and will be valued.

I do get students who, from time to time, deviate from the norm. But because I’ve established with my students the expected behaviors, they are quick to reset the conversation and get back to the business at hand.

Norms don’t need to be elaborate. I’ve found that establishing a number of expectations regarding how students treat one another in class provides students with the opportunity to see and hear their voice reflected in our classroom practices. When I establish norms with my students, we focus on what language is and isn’t acceptable during classroom collaboration and discussion and the responsibility that each student has in contributing to their own learning and the learning of others. For example, my students understand that they are expected to be their own best advocates and ask questions accordingly. Their questions help me differentiate my instruction and enable me to reflect on my practices in order to better meet their needs. I expect my students to communicate with me and with one another, especially when things get challenging.

It’s also equally important that students learn to trust me and to trust their classmates. Our norms reflect my students’ deep desire to learn from one another and their willingness to take responsibility for their own learning.

Rules might govern student procedures in my classroom, but norms help to facilitate a classroom culture conducive to student responsibility and student learning.

2. Foster Feedback and Flexibility

Perhaps no other educator tool has the potential to elicit change and facilitate student responsibility more than feedback between teacher and student and between the students themselves. In our classroom, feedback is given carefully and always through the lens of improvement. We focus on what students are doing well and address specific steps students can take to continue to improve.

If there is a specific goal a student is working toward, students feel comfortable enough to ask for suggestions from their peers to help them reach that goal. Feedback becomes the structure through which students become more involved in their own learning and the learning of others.

In my classroom, it is not uncommon to hear students reflecting on the lesson and sharing their thoughts about the curriculum, objective, and math concepts learned. We talk about the culture in class that must be present for my students to grasp challenging concepts. Recently, when my students were working together to defend the strategies they used to solve a problem, several students thought it would be best if the groups were smaller than the 28 students in our classroom. Their theory was that the smaller groups would let each student ask questions about the strategies that were shared and not be rushed to hear everyone’s strategies. This was another example of the way in which my students began to take more ownership for their learning.

Hearing that my students valued the opportunity to learn from their peers reinforced the continued inclusion of student suggestions in my instruction.

We tried it, and the kids were right. The smaller groups did help to facilitate better discussion and more engaged student-to-student conversations. The feedback I shared with them about the difference that this small shift made for student learning allowed students to feel comfortable making suggestions at other times as well.

3. Embrace Student Voice to Drive Engagement

I knew that I was on the right path when students began showing up in my classroom during lunchtime. These students were looking for extra help or support. But their true motives were revealed to me when they began to talk about why they liked our math class, how they felt important and believed that I genuinely cared about them. I noticed the shift to “our math class around the same time I noticed an increase in lunchtime visitors. My students were deeply involved in their own learning. They knew their voice not only mattered but was truly valued. In turn, my connection with students has never been better.

Student voice and student engagement are not, however, synonymous. While the first can lead to the latter, it’s rarely a straight path. To fully embrace the idea of student voice, teachers must be willing to do the work to ensure its continued existence in their classroom.

Just because my students offer their thoughts doesn’t mean they are deeply engaged in learning.

As I learn more about how to inject student voice into my instructional practices, I continue to seek out additional resources and ideas, such as those found on sites such as SoundOut and Teaching Channel.

4. Improve the Classroom Experience with Their Voice

The small things that I did over the years to establish a culture of student voice continue to pay dividends for my students and for me. I’ve continued to refine my practices to include student- developed assessments, choice seating, and more personalized approaches to student learning. I truly hope that by working collaboratively with my students, I am helping to provide them with opportunities to own their learning not only in my classroom but elsewhere as well.

As a school-based team, my colleagues and I have talked about opportunities to include more student-selected choices in our instruction. We’ve reviewed upcoming lessons and created learning menus for students to work with. Students will have the chance to choose from a variety of options related to the math problems they will solve or the data they will use to construct their own questions. Collectively, our team continues to discuss additional ways to foster student independence and responsibility through the inclusion of student voice and student choice.

It’s my hope that the norms established in my math class are those that students can use to enhance their experiences in other settings as well.  Ultimately, I want my former students to look back at their time in our classroom and feel that they not only made progress academically but also socially and emotionally. To this end, the continued inclusion of student voice in my daily instruction will serve to reach this goal.

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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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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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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 mattrenwick.com.

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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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