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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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6 Structures and Supports for the Inquiry Based Classroom

Human beings are born to question. We are born to ask why. Inquiry begins with acquiring data and information through interactions with our environment. Stimuli provide us with information, and we ask questions to make sense of it all.

Unfortunately, traditional educational offerings often work in ways that discourage inquiry and limit students’ innate curiosities. This stifling of a student’s need to know has served to shift the focus of today’s educational system from inquiry to assessment. The shift has manifested in classrooms filled with students less likely to ask questions and more likely to be told what to learn and what questions to answer. Memorizing facts to help answer questions is an important skill for students to master. Inquiry, however, is a skill that will lead students toward being prepared to enter a workforce that is placing increasing emphasis on creativity and problem-solving.

Inquiry implies a need to know. Further, it highlights a desire to find out, to determine, and to continue exploring a topic to arrive at a resolution that sufficiently quenches the student’s thirst for understanding.  Effective inquiry relies on the effective implementation of instructional practices weighted heavily in favor of student exploration. Structures that support student engagement, collaboration, open-ended questions, and teacher facilitation are just some of the tenets of inquiry-based learning.

Fostering Civic Responsibility

The C3 Framework was developed to provide states with voluntary suggestions to update and enhance social studies curriculum. Aligned with the Common Core through similar language and student outcomes, the focus of the C3 Framework is squarely on inquiry as the catalyst for deep student learning.  Using the Framework as a guide, teachers of social studies can begin the conversation with colleagues and administrators about how to ensure that the content facilitated by the teacher is rigorous and fosters civic engagement.  At no other time in America’s history has the importance of structuring social studies classes to not only provide historical perspectives on

At no other time in America’s history has it been more important to structure social studies classes not only to provide historical perspectives on events, but to also foster the development of a student’s deep understanding of civic responsibility.

Today’s social studies educators continue to strive to balance the demands of teaching the curriculum with a desire to move beyond it.  Teachers focused on the process of learning, rather than simply what is learned, serve to foster an inquiry-based learning environment in their classrooms. If the goal of an inquiry learning environment is clear, the steps for successfully implementing this type of instruction can be challenging. In order to have students think deeply, it’s important to provide them with content to think deeply about. So what steps can an educator take in order to create this type of learning environment? How can an educator move beyond what is required and allow

In order to have students think deeply, it’s important to provide them with content to think deeply about. So what steps can an educator take in order to create this type of learning environment? How can an educator move beyond what is required and allow inquiry to move students to what is possible?

1. Engage in Inquiry-Based Professional Development

Learning to think deeply, critically, and creatively requires that educators themselves receive the type of professional learning that facilitates inquiry-based learning for students. Teachers need to model, through their thinking, actions, and comments, what it means to read critically, think deliberately, and respond in an informed way. Deeper learning is the byproduct of intentional planning and deeper teaching. Inquiry-based learning demands hands-on learning experiences for those teachers whose responsibility it is to facilitate deep learning for students. When embarking down the inquiry path, consider professional learning options that offer the opportunity to learn how to support students in creating complex and incisive questions. Those types of questions serve as the backbone of inquiry-based learning and are essential to the success of an inquiry-based learning classroom.

2. Create a Community of Inquiry

To create a community that values opinions and thoughts of others, it’s imperative that teachers create structures that encourage students to share their opinions even if different from those of their classmates. Asking questions, developing opinions, and researching topics of interest must be standard practices in a community of inquiry. Discourse must be accepted and encouraged. Collaboration among students is at the focal point of an inquiry-based classroom. But to get to the point where students are comfortable sharing their ideas, it’s imperative that the teacher formulate rules, norms, and expectations for how students will interact with the content and with one another.

Class meetings where students have opportunities to discuss issues pertinent to the class or share a connection they have to a particular topic allow students to appreciate the uniqueness of their classmates while teaching them the importance of actively listening to one another. Establishing how the class will run and the important part each student will play in the success of the class will provide students with a model upon which to build their community.

3. Inquiry is not a ‘Special Activity’

Students need to fully understand that deep learning isn’t something that takes place in one classroom session. To learn about something deeply and to ask the questions needed to get students to that level takes time. Inquiry is not reserved for special times during the school year, nor is it an activity to be done once and then never revisited. In classrooms where inquiry thrives, students rely on the structures they’ve been taught as the framework to guide reflection and action. As Edutopia writer Andrew Miller states in his post Creating a Culture of Inquiry, it’s not enough for the teacher “to simply state that their classroom is inquiry based, and doing an occasional inquiry-based activity is not enough.” Every day needs to be focused on providing students with the type of learning that fosters their innate curiosity for inquiry to succeed.

Middle school classrooms provide excellent settings for the introduction of inquiry as a tool to foster deep learning. Teachers who challenge students to develop their own questions centered around their desire to learn more about a topic help to create classrooms where inquiry thrives. Opportunities to teach with inquiry in mind occur throughout the recommended social studies curriculum in middle school. When considering a debate that will focus on the concepts of right versus wrong, for example, students can be provided with a setting for debate, mock trials, and role playing. These interwoven and connected learning opportunities become the norm, rather than the exception, in a classroom focused on inquiry.

4. Deep Learning Requires Connections and Relevance

Making learning relevant to today’s students requires that teachers help their students find connections to documents and historical events. Reviewing the Declaration of Independence, for example, and reimagining how the document would be different if it had been written by women or people of color, allows students to think deeply about the issues taking place during that time period from the perspectives of those not reflected in the document.

Students think outside the box in order to make personal and lasting connections with historical documents and time periods. In this way, learning becomes meaningful, powerful, and relevant.

5. Reflection on Practices

Even the most seasoned educator can struggle with the concept of facilitating, rather than directing, student learning. It’s important to set goals and outcomes regarding what you hope to achieve as a teacher in an inquiry-based classroom. The Inquiry Arc, found in the C3 Framework, helps students “develop a capacity for gathering and evaluating sources and then using evidence in disciplinary ways.” The Arc provides the structure for teaching and learning within a social studies classroom. It’s a set of actions that form the basis for what students should experience in an inquiry-based social studies classroom.

If, for example, the teacher’s goal for his or her students is that they understand the importance of reviewing more than one document to answer a question, the Arc would recommend that the teacher ensure that documents available to students allow them to effectively compare, evaluate, and find evidence to support their research. Reflecting on their own understanding of a document, it’s relevance in history, and the perspective these documents will provide to students are key actions of the teacher whose practices support, rather than direct, student learning.

6. It’s Not Just About the Question

Effective inquiry-based learning moves beyond just a well-thought-out question. It requires the teacher to consider the purpose of the questions posed and how student responses will help to facilitate student discussions. Inquiry-based learning demands that the teacher pose questions to students, elicit questions from them, and allow their responses to questions to be heard. In addition, the questions posed by students help to drive the content learned and the rigor with which it is understood by students. Inquiry encompasses the actions, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of the learners in the classroom.

For this type of learning to succeed, students have to make the connection that their civic responsibility is inherently tied to their deep understanding of history and historical events.  Being well informed about the way our past has served to shape our future is essential for students to develop an appreciation for civic responsibility and participate actively in society. Simply asking questions of students in the hopes that an interest is sparked is not enough to reach a deep level of learning. Complex questions that help students create learning for themselves must be at the forefront in the inquiry-based classroom.

Establish a Culture of Inquiry

Students who ask questions, think critically and learn deeply become informed and responsible citizens who do the same. But without the creation of an emotionally, intellectually, and physically safe learning environment by the teacher, this type of learning cannot thrive.

Careful consideration should be given for the learning that must be undertaken by the teacher in order to effectively facilitate an inquiry-based classroom. To do so allows both students and teachers to learn not only in a deeper way but in a more meaningful way; a way in which both are prepared to meet the demands of an ever-changing civic landscape.

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5 Principles of a Successful Digital Transition

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 rollout 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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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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Teacher Leaders: The (Not So) Secret Catalyst for Change

While teacher leaders have always been an important part of a school’s culture, this type of leadership continues to gain much needed attention and momentum in school systems nationwide. There is such a strong need for this type of leadership that a group of educators met in 2008 to form what we know today as the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. This consortium, comprised of a variety of stakeholders, formed to discuss how to best foster teacher leadership so that it brings about change in student learning and achievement.   In 2011, this group released the Teacher Leader Model Standards, which help teachers and school leaders foster leadership within their schools.

The Difference Between an Effective Teacher and a Teacher Leader

In our current work, we facilitate an abundance of professional learning around teacher leadership. What we’ve coined Digital Leader Corps takes groups of teachers on a journey toward digital transformation in their classrooms. The program, however, intends for teachers’ influence to spread well beyond the walls of their classrooms and aims to develop these educators as leaders among their peers. Teachers who participate in Digital Leader Corps learn about leadership through the Teacher Leader Model Standards—they learn how to facilitate the learning of their peers’, work collaboratively with their principals to elicit meaningful change, and gain strategies for creating safe and trusting environments where others aren’t afraid to take risks.

This sounds amazing, right? It is, when it works effectively. The biggest challenge of cultivating and growing a group of teacher leaders is recognizing the difference between an effective teacher and a teacher leader. Too often, school administrators don’t know how to discern the qualities and characteristics of a potential teacher leader. Similarly, many teachers don’t truly understand what it means to lead among peers.

Effective Teacher Teacher Leader
Implements best practices routinely in the classroom Readily shares and models best practices and/or resources with colleagues
Works to improve his/her own practice Works to improve the practice of others
Seeks opportunities for continuous improvement Models an attitude of continuous improvement in order to combat complacency
Maintains professional relationships with others Works to build relationships with others through active listening, facilitation, and mediation
Collaborates with colleagues and school teams Encourages and facilitates collaboration among colleagues and school teams
Implements solutions to challenges that promote the best interest of his/her students Provides solutions to challenges that promote the best interest of all stakeholders
Creates an environment where students are comfortable asking questions, initiating topics, and challenging their peers’ thinking. Creates an environment in which colleagues are comfortable asking questions, initiating topics, and challenging their peers’ thinking.
Welcomes feedback from supervisors and colleagues Actively seeks feedback from supervisors and colleagues
Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. (2011). Model Standards Advance the Profession. JSD, 32(3), 16-24.

The Power of Teacher Leadership

Teacher leadership has the potential to bring about positive systemic change that influences a variety of factors within a school. When teacher leaders fully understand their impact on colleagues, observable changes in student learning can occur. A 2005 study concluded that the professionalism teacher leadership has the potential to build—one that is based on trust, recognition, empowerment, and support—can improve teaching and learning in schools (Harris and Muijs, 2005). While the Teacher Leader Model Standards provide the framework for fostering such leadership, the process for equipping teacher leaders with the ability and confidence to carry out what the Standards call for is much more complex.

The Teacher Leader Model Standards

The Standards are comprised of seven domains of leadership (Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium, 2011). These domains are not meant to serve as an exhaustive checklist or job description of teacher leaders; rather, they’re meant to guide those who want to lead and support them in doing so. Each domain further contains a list of functions that provides a deeper, more granular look at what teacher leaders who excel in this domain might do.

But reading and internalizing the Standards is only the first step in developing teacher leaders. Just as our grade level standards act as the blueprint for our curriculum, our lesson plans, and our assessments, the Teacher Leader Model Standards should serve to inform the work we do with our potential teacher leaders. Very few teachers will come to us with the skills and self-assurance needed to lead their peers. Therefore, it is our responsibility to create and mentor them through learning experiences that will develop them into strong teacher leaders.

Let’s take a look at the first Standard and its functions:

Fostering a Collaborative Culture to Support Educator Development and Student Learning


  1. Utilizes group processes to help colleagues work collaboratively to solve problems, make decisions, manage conflict, and promote meaningful change;
  2. Models effective skills in listening, presenting ideas, leading discussions, clarifying, mediating, and identifying the needs of self and others in order to advance shared goals and professional learning;
  3. Employs facilitation skills to create trust among colleagues, develop collective wisdom, build ownership and action that supports student learning;
  4. Strives to create an inclusive culture where diverse perspectives are welcomed in addressing challenges; and
  5. Uses knowledge and understanding of different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and languages to promote effective interactions among colleagues.

Unpacking this Standard and its functions tells us how important knowledge of adult learning theory is to a teacher leader’s success in this domain. In addition, a teacher leader needs to possess excellent active listening skills, be able to facilitate difficult conversations among various stakeholders, and have the emotional intelligence to bring different groups together to work toward a common goal. Simply telling teacher leaders they “should” be doing these things won’t bring about change; we must work diligently to create opportunities for practice and feedback in these areas.

The Importance of Administrative Support

Throughout our experience in both facilitating and designing the professional learning of teacher leaders, those who have the support and backing of their administration have been most successful in promoting a school culture that supports continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Teacher leaders who feel supported are equipped with the confidence needed to lead the learning in their schools. Effective teacher leaders have the power to reinforce the existing leadership in a school, and there are a variety of ways we can support them:

  • Provide Space to Lead. Teacher leaders lead well beyond the four walls of their classrooms. They’re consistently seeking to become better at their craft and want others to do the same. They can’t model this attitude of continuous improvement without a strong administrator leading them from behind. Involve teacher leaders in the planning and implementation of professional learning. Ask them to take an active role in faculty meetings. Teacher leaders are not simply those we can count on to volunteer their time and go that extra mile; they are our future instructional leaders. Mentor them.
  • Encourage Risk Taking. Most effective teachers will, by nature, willingly take instructional risks in their classrooms. Teacher leaders, however, won’t be afraid to take these risks in front of their colleagues as well. Encourage teacher leaders to open their classroom doors to others. These types of collegial walkthroughs will help create and sustain a culture in which teachers support one another by celebrating successes and embracing failures. Instill fortitude in teacher leaders and help them become courageous learners who consistently see opportunities for growth in all they do.
  • Model Vulnerability. Teacher leaders have the potential to create a school culture in which vulnerability is accepted and encouraged. But it’s not easy to air these insecurities. Through modeling your own vulnerability, teacher leaders become more comfortable admitting what they don’t know to peers and are then able to gain confidence in sharing what they do.
  • Champion Collective Leadership. A recent study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation found that high student achievement is directly connected to collective leadership in a school (Samuels, 2010). This type of shared leadership does not cause school leaders to lose influence. On the contrary, a principal’s role in establishing optimal conditions for student and teacher learning is crucial. As instructional leaders, it is unrealistic to believe we can simultaneously run the operations of our schools, maintain a pulse on the curriculum, and provide routine coaching for our teachers. With the help of our teacher leaders, however, these tasks become manageable. This can’t be done, however, without our leadership; create the time and space for good things to happen.

Leading from Behind – A Practical Tableaux:

John Davis, an elementary principal, had been working all year to create the environment and culture in which a shared vision could be realized in hopes of unifying his staff around a common goal that would impact teaching and learning in the building. Through increased collaboration time, more frequent professional learning, and informal opportunities for teacher leadership, John slowly built the ideal conditions in which a shared vision could thrive. However, he continuously struggled with helping the teachers he deemed leaders build and refine the skills needed to make an impact outside the walls of their classrooms.

Jenna, a master teacher who volunteered to lead her grade level PLC, had a great deal of untapped leadership potential. While she eagerly jumped at the opportunity to lead the learning of her peers, John knew Jenna had much to learn about facilitating the learning of her colleagues. After visiting Jenna’s PLC, John made some important observations about her leadership but continuously returned to this one:

  • Jenna always remained positive and took a solutions-based approach to challenges and problems raised by her peers.
  • However, the solutions always came from Jenna with little input from the group.
  • Rather than facilitating a collaborative discussion that would result in solutions, Jenna often provided “answers” for her colleagues.

While this approach was well received by the other members of Jenna’s PLC, John saw it as an opportunity for helping her grow into a leader who enrolls all stakeholders into important discussions.

John began scheduling monthly meetings with Jenna so he could coach and mentor her. What follows is a vignette from their first conversation:

Mr. Davis: Hey, Jenna. Thanks for coming in. And thanks so much giving me the opportunity to observe your PLC in action earlier this week.

Jenna: No problem. Your presence and support was really appreciated by my group.

Mr. Davis: How did you feel about the meeting?

Jenna: Overall, I felt it went well. Our goal was to figure out how to increase the expectations of our high achieving students. While a few challenges were certainly voiced, we walked away with some actionable steps we’re all going to take in our classrooms.

Mr. Davis: I made note of some of those challenges as well. Can you tell me more about how the group worked through those?

Jenna: Well, Janet and Shawn were the most vocal ones about some of the roadblocks they’d encounter as we attempt to increase achievement of this group. I tried to help guide those waters by providing possible workarounds.

Mr. Davis: So what I’m hearing you say is that you were readily able to provide some of the solutions to the perceived challenges?

Jenna: Yes.

Mr. Davis: I really love your solutions-based approach and attitude. I’d like to talk through this some more. Facing opposition from colleagues is a consistent challenge whenever you’re trying to lead. How we handle this resistance helps define who we are as leaders. So let me ask you: What could you have done differently to help the group—especially Janet and Shawn—solve some of those challenges on their own?

Jenna: I never really thought about it like that. I guess it’s in my nature to want to help, so I’m constantly giving, trying to solve problems, keeping everyone happy and positive. Now that I think about it, I was the one who quickly interjected what I thought would work best. I wanted to keep the peace within the group. And I’m their PLC leader, so I figured it was my “job” to face the challenges head on and offer solutions. Are you saying this may not have been the best approach?

Mr. Davis: I’m not saying it wasn’t the best approach; you certainly know your team. But it’s definitely not the only approach, and I’d love to explore some additional strategies you could use for facing challenges in the future. Would that be OK with you?

Jenna: Of course! I’m willing to take all of your feedback so I can become better at this. It’s all pretty new to me, and I want to do it well.

John: Of course you do. So let’s think about the first domain in the Teacher Leader Model Standards we discussed when you agreed to lead your PLC. Remember that your goal is to build a collaborative culture. So how did the group benefit from your willingness to solves its problems so quickly?

Jenna: Well, I guess it moved the conversation along. We didn’t get stuck and were able to leave with some next steps for helping these students.

Mr. Davis: How much buy in do you feel the group had in those steps?

Jenna: (pause) Not very much. I felt like we all just politely agreed to try the next steps.

Mr. Davis: I got that impression as well. It sounds like you are working very hard to create a very cooperative environment for your PLC, which is great. But think about how you can increase the group’s investment by making the meetings more collaborative.  How could you go about moving from cooperation to collaboration?

Jenna: I’m not really sure. Because I’m the PLC leader, the group trusts me to guide them. I guess that’s a good thing, but in retrospect, I dominated the conversation. I shouldn’t be the sole decision maker or the sole problem solver. I think I need to listen more and work harder in making sure everyone has input.

Mr. Davis: I think that’s a really reflective and insightful observation. Let’s talk about some strategies for helping you do this.

Mr. Davis is clearly dedicated to helping Jenna become an effective leader in the school. He observed her facilitating a meeting, identified an area of need, and followed up in a very deliberate and meaningful conversation that helped Jenna reflect on her own challenges as a teacher leader. He did this with the reticent skill of a leader who truly understands how to lead others from behind. While it’s unrealistic for John to meet with Jenna after every PLC meeting she facilitates, he followed up with her periodically, offering additional guidance, support, and feedback grounded in the Teacher Leader Model Standards.

Fostering Teacher Leaders

We all have great teachers who live within our schools—those who consistently strive to be better for their students, who seek out learning opportunities whenever possible, and who willingly collaborate with others. These teachers have the potential to share the leadership within your building. With the right opportunities and under the right mentorship, we can turn these “great” teachers into leaders who are catalysts for meaningful change.


Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching.
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Harris, A., & Muijs, D. (2005). Improving schools through teacher leadership.
Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Samuels, C. A. (2010, July 23). Study: Effective Principals Embrace Collective
Leadership. Retrieved February 21, 2016, from
Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. (2011). Model Standards Advance the
Profession. JSD, 32(3), 16-24.

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3 Things Teachers and Leaders Do to Personalize Learning

The students in Sarah Johnson’s third period Algebra hunch over their desks working through the mysteries of Pythagoras. The room quietly echoes the sound of pencils on paper and the occasional desk squeak. From her perch in the back Mrs. Johnson reflects on how similar they all seem when testing. But having dealt with adolescents for longer than most of them have been alive, she knows this is an illusion.

Twelve are boys and thirteen are girls. Each one is different. Even the “identical” Franklin twins are very different. Ali Franklin loves mathematics and is excited about what he will learn this year in Algebra. Abram is an excellent student, but he’s really nervous about how he’ll do in Algebra because mathematics has never been his best subject.

Mrs. Johnson’s superintendent has been telling parents that the district is working to personalize learning and she knows that her students could really benefit from instruction that meets them where they are. She’s been through differentiated instruction workshops and has tried her hand at a number of learning apps, but in the hush of 25 students working, who, by the way represent only one-fifth of her total students, she wonders: What exactly is personalized learning?

What is personalized learning?

Like many terms in education, personalized learning suffers from ambiguous definitions. Some proponents of personalized learning go to great lengths to distinguish among differentiated instruction, individualized instruction, and personalized learning. Others view personalized learning as an umbrella term that includes differentiation and individualization of instruction. For some schools and districts, personalized learning refers to what others call blended learning (combining some form of online instruction with more traditional classroom instruction).

In most cases, personalized learning is a three-part process:
• Instructional planning that promotes deeper student learning
• Understanding of each student’s learning needs and interests
• Provisioning of appropriate learning experiences that match each student’s unique learning profile

The 2016 National Education Technology Plan states, “personalized learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) all may vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated.”

While different educators mean slightly different things when they refer to personalized learning, most seek to leverage technology to manage the learning needs of all students and to engage students as active participants in setting goals, identifying learning pathways, tracking progress, and determining how learning will be demonstrated.

From the teacher’s perspective, there are three guideposts that mark out the road to personalized learning:

1. Redefined roles for students and teachers

In traditional classrooms, teachers make most of the important decisions about learning. They select instructional materials, decide which assignments students will complete, and determine when the assignments are due. On occasion, teachers will build some aspect of student choice into their lessons, but even then the teacher is usually seen as making the important decisions while giving students some limited choices.

In personalized learning, teachers help students know how they learn best and where they are in a progression of learning goals and objectives. Teachers then work with students to determine specific learning targets and suggest a variety of learning activities that match the mutually agreed-upon targets. Begin by encouraging your students to choose the activities in which they have the greatest interest and to design a plan for how they will complete agreed-upon assignments. Build ongoing assessment into the plan so that students will be empowered to adjust and modify the learning plan. Research2 has shown that empowering students to make more decisions about how and what they learn is associated with higher student achievement. In a personalized learning environment, teachers facilitate learning and work as partners to maximize the learning of each student.

2. Flexible learning environments

A very consistent characteristic of personalized learning is expanding where and when students learn and making greater use of digital resources. If students have mobile technology, they can watch the video clip at home and come to class with a list of questions that they wish to discuss with their learning teammates. Students with mobile technology can complete practice exercises on their device while they are sitting on the school bus and going home. The goal is for students to learn everywhere and anytime. When learning is personalized, students can pursue their interests and continue to learn well beyond the traditional school day.

3. Competency-based learning progressions and personal learning paths

Okay, this is probably the hardest part of personalized learning. Historically in education, we have held time constant and allowed learning to vary. In competency-based learning, students continue to work on a given learning target until they are able to demonstrate mastery. The curriculum will have to be carefully rearranged into competency-based learning progressions. This will allow students to work on some topics in different order and still master expected standards within each unit. In fully rearranged curriculum materials, students may even be able to develop proficiency with the same set of skills using very different resources. It’s best to go down this part of the road with several partners – either find comrades to share the load of developing learning progressions for a unit or two or purchase a service that has already built curricula based on learning progressions. The Instruction team at Discovery Education has begun this work for middle school math.

Fully realized, personalized learning seeks to use different contexts to help students develop the knowledge and skills they are responsible for learning. Students, in consultation with the teacher, may select learning resources that match their interests, current skill level, and preferred learning modality. And at the end of the unit, students have choice as to how they demonstrate what they have learned. One student may demonstrate mastery by creating a new learning resource and another may write a more traditional paper.

From the educational leader’s perspective, here are three ways to facilitate and support the movement to personalized learning:

1. Begin with a vision

Collaborate with community stakeholders to create a shared vision for what our school/district means by personalized learning. Given the broad definition of personalized learning, it is essential that your district set clear goals to work towards. What strategies should be used to support personalized learning? How heavily does this vision rely on technology and what needs to transpire to ensure that we have the infrastructure to support these technology needs? With limited access to technology, what strategies should be used to support the use of digital content in the classroom? Do we have adequate digital content resources accessible in our schools? If not, what are we doing to enrich our bank of resources?

2. Cultivate a Learning Community

Support the development of a learning community on personalized learning. While there are a lot of questions related to technology, the heart and soul of a personalized learning initiative is about teaching and learning. It is essential to bring school-based and central office leaders together with teachers to learn about 21st century approaches to teaching. The learning community members will need to decide how personalized learning aligns with other initiatives within the district. The learning community provides the perfect opportunity for district leaders to demonstrate the power of “walking the talk.” Partner with other stakeholders and decide together what you need to learn. Get to know the staff members as learners. Give learning community members clear targets for what they are expected to know and be able to do and then give them lots of choice about how they move toward those expectations. Give them choice as to how they will demonstrate their knowledge. Explicitly show staff members how leaders are using the principles of personalized learning within the learning community model.

3. Develop a plan

Encourage learning community members to develop an action plan for implementation. Implementing a personalized learning initiative is a major task. Lots of activities need to happen and the team needs a plan to guide the implementation. Instructional leaders must communicate the vision and be prepared to support the acquisition of resources, while giving stakeholders primary responsibility for making decisions about a lot of the specific details.

Those closest to the students are the ones who need to understand in detail what this will involve and they need to see how it will benefit their students. Every teacher understands how different the students in her classes are and every teacher in her heart understands that personalized learning has the potential to improve learning for the students she works with every day. But teachers also need to understand how this will impact them and the work they do. They deserve the opportunity to be a part of the design of the initiative from the beginning. Now is not the time for classroom teachers to feel that those who work in the central office are forcing another major change on them.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina underwent a careful process of defining and planning for personalized learning. You can see the plan and definitions they created here:

It’s an exciting time to be in education. Finally, the digital resources exist to make personalized learning a reality. Our students use digital resources all the time and they already know how to use them to learn more about their personal interests. Our job is to bring together their natural curiosity, their interests, and natural learning preferences to empower them into realizing their full potential. That’s an awesome charge.

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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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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STEM for All: How to Create a Healthy STEM Ecosystem

Many of the most valuable jobs of tomorrow depend on the STEM education happening in today’s classrooms.

The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million IT jobs available but only 400,000 computer science graduates with the required skills to fill the positions. Companies continue to report their STEM jobs aren’t being filled, and HR departments are not finding applicants with the necessary skills for success. STEM Connector data shows there will soon be 3 million vacant jobs because students entering the workforce are lacking STEM skills. The good news is that STEM education initiatives are on the rise across the country to meet this growing demand in the workforce.

To satisfy this appetite for STEM, educators are feeling the pressure to make curriculum changes, but many are not sure how to begin. School districts respond to this pressure by providing courses for gifted students and STEM-focused after-school clubs. However, this selective approach is failing to provide adequate STEM experiences for all Pre-K-12 students.

Timing is crucial for sparking the curiosity necessary for placing students on the path toward a STEM career. By the time students reach high school, they have already developed strong perceptions about themselves and future STEM careers, leaving educators playing catch-up.

Spreading STEM Far and Wide

The idea that STEM education is only for the most gifted students on track for graduate degrees is now a falsehood. Roughly 35 percent of the 8.6 million STEM jobs needed nationwide will require sub-baccalaureate degrees by the year 2020. Apple recently shared that 28 percent of their workforce does not have a 4-year degree. Armed with this data, what is the appropriate path forward for educators to ensure the next generation possesses a proper amount of STEM knowledge?

Educating all students in STEM practices will level the playing field and provide pathways to future success for all no matter your zip-code, skin color, cultural background, or gender.

Something needs to change, but it is unfair to expect educators to institute foundational changes without extensive support. A study conducted by Horizon Research could light the way for districts looking to make changes.

In the NSF Urban Systemic Initiative, $1 billion was dedicated across 10 years to encourage middle and high school math and science teachers to conduct more hands-on inquiry and use technology. After 10 years, Horizon researchers found that teachers needed 80 hours of professional development (PD) focused on a defined set of strategies to change their practice and 160 hours of PD focused on a defined set of strategies to change the culture.

As a result of this research, we now have a better understanding of what it will take to truly change the culture and practices in a school. The onus will not fall only on teachers, but administrators, leaders, communities, and the broader education community. Professional development will be the key to this transformation. Horizon researchers further determined the most effective PD was not just direct pull-out training, but a combination of pull out in-person training combined with job-embedded coaching.

The beauty of STEM in all Pre-K-12 classes is that all students love to find solutions for real-world problems. Asking students to create solutions to these problems respects their unique thinking and invites them to use their abilities to generate innovations that can make the world a better place.

When students and teachers develop 21st-century skills like collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity, all types of learners become engaged. Asking students to work together to find solutions in authentic situations further develops their communication skills and character, both vital to joining the STEM workforce of the future.

How STEM for All Students Can Make an Impact

While I was serving as Director of PreK-12 STEM for the 145,000 students in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School District, my colleagues and I began STEM work with students in our struggling Title 1 schools. Many of these students were several years below grade level in reading and math. We discovered, however, that these economically disadvantaged students were excellent problem solvers, constantly engaged in repurposing items to entertain themselves at home and were accustomed to outside-the-box thinking.

By providing professional development to teachers to support hands-on inquiry using real world problems, we engaged students who were not typically excited to be in school. Though we began the process struggling to reach students who had discipline problems, were below grade level in reading and math, and did not come from families that had graduated from college, we soon witnessed rapid changes.

After one year of providing STEM teaching and learning, our state test data indicated the average student experienced up to two years of growth in classes utilizing STEM practices, while special education and English Language Learners were experiencing four to five years of growth. Teachers experienced more job satisfaction and the attrition rates at these Title 1 schools decreased swiftly as a result of the support and success.

Following the success of the first year of STEM with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Title 1 schools, other schools in the district were eager to get involved. After three years, our fifth and eighth grade science test scores improved by 44 points, while the state scores increased by six points. Our math teachers dipped their toes in the STEM waters and added a short digital asset to their curriculum to make math relevant to students. This simple addition, coupled with a few non-threatening STEM practices integrated into their lessons, improved third through eighth grade math scores by 35 points, while the state scores increased by seven points.

When we began this work, there was a 37-point gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers. After three years of STEM, the gap decreased to seven points. It’s rare for a school district to reduce the achievement gap so significantly, and so quickly. These results speak for themselves.

As educators, it is our moral obligation to ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to become part of the STEM ecosystem of today and tomorrow.

As Yoda says, “Do or do not; there is no try.”

Dr. Cindy Moss is currently the Senior Director of Global STEM Initiatives for Discovery Education, and travels the world helping companies, nonprofits, Ministries of Education and school districts understand the importance of STEM education and how to implement it successfully.  Previously Dr. Moss served 10 years as the PreK-12 Director of STEM for the 145,000 students and 10,000 students in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School system.

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7 Steps to Build Math Assessments Into Your Classroom

In the last decade, there has been a growing movement toward integrating assessment in instruction and learning. Research has shown that embedding assessment opportunities for teachers and students provides insights into student progress in the moments of learning, maximizes learning, and moves learning forward.

Here are just a few suggestions for integrating assessments into mathematics instruction and learning.

1. Embed Assessment

Teachers are constantly embedding assessment opportunities every day in their classrooms even when they may not realize it. They observe students in many different environments -playing games, working with their friends, completing assignments, and learning through digital resources. Teachers can learn how their students learn, how they think, how they participate in groups. These informal assessment opportunities provide nuggets of information that can be powerful in helping teachers make decisions about how to individualize, differentiate, and personalize instruction and organize mathematics and other classes.

2. Blend Informal and Formal Assessments

Both informal and formal assessments can provide key insights throughout learning. Teachers, as well as students, can observe and evaluate understanding during the learning process informally, such as through discussion, peer reviews and self-reflections, to ensure learning and instruction are on target. More formal assessments towards the end of the learning cycle can provide confirmation of what students have learned or what mathematics concepts and skills require remediation and even enrichment. Together, formal and informal assessments can provide educators a clearer, richer picture of a student’s progress toward their learning goals.

3. Use the Right Tools for the Task

Selecting the right tools to solve a problem is an indicator of more advanced understanding. Experts know how to use the right tools for the right problem in a strategic way. Use and mastery of digital, interactive tools such as graphing calculators and geometry software in assessment is good practice. Knowing what the tools are, when a tool is needed and how to choose the right tool is critical to preparing our students for college and beyond. Teachers can observe and assess if students are using the tools in the right way –or even an interesting way –to solve a real-world problem, and technology can help capture the data for teachers.

4. Take Play Seriously

Students can learn in all kinds of situations, including play. When play is situated purposefully in learning, students can learn applications more quickly and can transfer the skills more readily. They can more freely make mistakes, try again, and persevere to find solutions. There is value in each.

5. Put Students in the Driver’s Seat

Research has shown that when students self-assess, reflect, and engage in progress monitoring, they become more engaged in and responsible for their own learning and do better. Students of all ages should be involved in the goal-setting process and in seeing how they are doing against those goals. The visualization of this information is critical: they must be able to clearly see progress for themselves to become engaged in their own success. They learn from their mistakes and benefit from seeing where they are headed.

6. Let the Data tell the Story

Just as students can benefit from seeing their progress, teachers need ways to track student progress for each student. With the demands of teaching and with many teachers having multiple classes and large class sizes, teachers need tools to quickly see where they are in their understanding, and to answer questions such as:

  • How is my class doing overall?
  • Where is each of my students on the spectrum of the goals I have for them?
  • Do I see a pattern of misconceptions and mistakes?
  • What students need small group or peer-collaborations?
  • What motivates them and engages them in their own learning?
  • What do they need next?

The most effective instructional decisions are driven from answers to these questions. Research shows that teachers don’t have always have the time, tools, and training to answer these questions completely.

7. Support Teachers with Professional Development

Teachers need the skills and tools to employ successful informal and formal assessment techniques in their classroom. In addition, teachers need the skills and the autonomy to create assessment opportunities throughout learning, particularly with informal assessment, to really understand how to get to the bottom of what students know and don’t know in the moments of learning where it is most critical. Teachers also need to be comfortable with a balance of instructional approaches, including inquiry-based models. Just as we teach students, teaching teachers to develop the skills to ask questions effectively, gather data and take action will help them prepare students in a way that they will be ready for deeper learning, as well as various high-stakes assessments.

Administrators play a huge role in creating a culture that values informal assessment, a shift in paradigm for many schools. Many teachers may fall back on a quiz or drills, when there is rich, instructionally useful information that can be made simply through observation and engaging activities.

More closely integrating assessments into mathematics instruction and learning is one of one of the ways educators nationwide are working to improve mathematics achievement.

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