Visiting Schools: Transformative Professional Learning

When you visit her school, principal Cynthia Bagby-Ellison let’s you know know right up front that she has a heart for all kids and mindset for innovation.
You might gather that from her webpage, but it’s clear that it’s culture first when you visit in person.
Bagby-Ellison raises her voice as the elementary band launches a rousing chorus of a John Phillips Sousa march–another thing you might read about on the website but you wouldn’t fully appreciate without visiting.

You’d also miss how quickly the multi-purpose space turns into a student-led discussion (below) or how enthusiastic students are when describing why they like Redwood Heights.

Redwood Heights Elementary School, in the east hills of Oakland, serves a diverse group of 375 students. It’s one of 131 public schools (86 in Oakland USD) serving about 50,000 students.
Grants from the Rogers Family Foundation and advice from Senior Director Greg Klein have introduced blended tools like ST Math in every classroom and supported development of a half a dozen mature rotation models. Brian Greenberg, Silicon Schools and Redwood dad, has also been a valuable advisor.

The Rogers family seeks to engage Oakland school teams to create at least 3,000 high quality, innovative, personalized, student-centered seats by 2020. The transformation process often starts with a school visits to see what is possible and to inspire staff.
Klein said school visits can be “supremely valuable when the visitors are clear and candid about what they aim to see and why, and when the host knows that information, and only agrees to hosting the visit at the specific day/time if they can reasonably guarantee that the visitor’s aims can be met in that time window.” Klein said when there is expectation of alignment, teachers often state they have an understanding of how to  “change things in their own classrooms the next day.”

Veteran teachers at Redwood Heights were enthusiastic about their three station rotation model (below). Not yet a whole school model, the school is still on a blended journey.

Theresa Sanders, a teacher for over thirty years, might argue that the journey is what makes Redwood such a great place to teach and learn. She expressed that this most recent year has been one of her favorites due to the fact she is getting to learn and try new models in her classroom with the trust and support from Principal Bagby-Ellison. While there is benefit in seeing design-built models, it’s often important for teachers to see a school with students that look like theirs in a period of transition.
“When it comes to schools, seeing is believing,” said Brian Greenberg. “I’ve found it more effective to take educators to schools where they can see new models in person rather than trying to convince them with only words.” He warned, however, that we have to be mindful of the burden we are placing on innovative schools and be strategic about change management so that not everyone gets on an airplane and makes the pilgrimage themselves.


School visits can be life changing–they have been for us. You can see more in schools worth visiting, but visiting schools gives you a chance to experience the culture and context in a way that the best video can’t convey. In the first minute of a visit, the sights, sounds and interactions give you a pretty good indication of the school culture. If you visit schools with other people and build in some time for reflection, you’ll see a school from several perspectives and learn even more.
Almost 200 community members from Kansas City have visited schools around the country thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation as part of the Kansas City Great Schools initiative (#KCGreatSchools), which was designed to expose “community members to cities with concentrations of high-performing public schools serving a similar population of students as those in Kansas City’s public schools.” Participants got a chance to see design-built schools and those still on a journey–each with their own unique structure, culture, and curriculum.

We visited other Bay blends and innovative Oakland schools, new schools in New Orleans and schools on a blended journey in Washington DC; and we saw innovative purpose built high schools and elementary schools as well as transformed middle schools in Denver.
In the middle of these trips we visited schools in southeast Asia, including the famous Green School in Bali. We discovered that the traditional Singapore American School (SAS) had been transformed by a staff inspired by visits to more than 100 schools in seven countries.
SAS superintendent Chip Kimball said about the trips, “It transformed our thinking.” His team added, “It created what John Kotter would call a ‘sense of urgency’ for change.” The visits taught Kimball that a great school takes a “culture of excellence, possibility and extraordinary care” (adding that very few schools do all three well).
School visits can be a powerful part of a professional learning plan and a critical part of a school transformation effort. It expands your sense of what’s possible and informs the path forward.
We’re planning fall school visits. Contact [email protected] if you’re interested.
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10 Ways Educators Can Use SEL Measurement and Assessment for Student Success

By Jonathan E. Martin
But what would you do with it?
In sharing a series of posts over the past several weeks about the rising demand for social emotional learning (SEL) measurement and noncognitive skills assessment, we noted that new methods are emerging for doing it effectively.
Still, some are wondering what a typical (or atypical) school or district would do with the data and reports they received after administering such an assessment to their students?
Because noncognitive assessment is still so new to schools, one answer to this question is we don’t yet know. We anticipate that five years from now we may be astounded by the diverse and innovative ways in which educators wield what we believe will be a powerful and creative tool.
Nevertheless, we can speculate about how measuring and assessing noncognitive skills and character strengths might valuably assist educators, both in bolstering students’ social and emotional skills and elevating their academic skills and traditional test scores.

Top 10 Ways to Use SEL Measurement and Assessment of Noncognitive Skills

1. Affirming strengths of schools and districts. Many schools and districts have made substantial investments in supporting their students’ social and emotional learning. They’ve shown strong leadership, established core values, signaled different priorities, allocated previous resources, maintained student counseling in the face of budget shortfalls, trained teachers and implemented new curricular and instructional strategies.
Wouldn’t it nice if these leaders could collect evidence of the impact of their actions and better demonstrate the effects of their efforts? Affirmation matters: it confirms to these schools, districts and their funders that they are on the right track, and better allows them to take their rightful place in the vanguard of SEL educational programming.
2. Determining greatest opportunities for improvement. Whether we’re preparing a school improvement plan, planning for re-accreditation, selecting a new administrator or undertaking strategic planning, we are often looking for the greatest opportunity for improvement. Often this opportunity lies in SEL–but where, exactly? Measuring your students’ noncognitive skills and studying the results can illuminate what should top your agenda in the next phase of your institution’s evolution.
3. Analyzing data to determine which noncognitive skills might best boost academic achievement. SEL is both an end in itself and a means to an end. When evaluating how to improve academic achievement, sometimes we miss the mark by looking only at the testing results. Consider how studying which noncognitive skills are positively and negatively correlated with achievement–and drilling down to locate the correlations among your underperforming subgroups–might uncover new avenues to improving proficiency. For instance, you might find that poor math scores among middle school boys highly correlate with low organization skills and arrive at a new strategy for improvement.
4. Monitoring impact of interventions. Say a new superintendent or principal arrives, boldly announcing a critical new academic program she will implement for improved college readiness skills–perhaps project-based learning, advisory programs or responsibility training. How will the new leader and her supervisors know whether the new program (intervention) is working? Imagine the ability to administer a SEL assessment to students both before and after the initiative and compare the results.  
5. Providing metrics for school improvement and district/school strategic plans. During strategic planning, school-leaders often hear from business-trained board members, “what will be your metrics?” Now you have your answer: our SEL measurements will generate metrics on the impact of our character development, student leadership skills or college readiness strategic initiatives.
6. Subgroup analysis for discerning and closing gaps. When it comes to academic achievement, equity is at the top of many educational leaders’ agendas. For social and emotional learning it should be just as much so. To close these gaps, we need to know where they exist and whether or not what we’re doing is working.
7. Identifying high performing schools as best practice exemplars. In California, the CORE districts have implemented new efforts to pair low-performing schools (both in academics and in SEL) with demographically similar higher-performing schools for coaching and mentoring. Data comparing schools and success rates are required to do so.
8. Providing teachers guidance about their students. When many teachers in middle and high schools have well over 100 students in their care, it’s hard for them to quickly appreciate the strengths and limitations of each one. An assessment tool can reveal which children will benefit from support in teamwork, curiosity and resilience so teachers may tailor their teaching accordingly.
9. Formative assessment for individual student growth. Few things are more valuable for student growth, as Hattie says, than “dollops of feedback.” Our children deserve regular, ongoing, external, reliable and validated reports of how they’re doing and how they can do better. SEL assessment can give teachers the data they need to provide students with ongoing feedback.
10. Empowering students with knowledge and data for goal-setting, growth, strategies and monitoring. We need to help students become, as Ron Berger has written, “leaders of their own learning.” By providing students with easily understood reports about their strengths and opportunities (with embedded guidance and strategies), we can help students take responsibility for their growth and give them systems for monitoring their development.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Even as it was being prepared, colleagues weighed in with further suggestions (e.g., accreditation-reaccreditation, turning the assessments towards the teachers to ensure they too had these skills–not for accountability per se, but so they know they model these for the students).
So what do you think? Are there still further uses we should consider? Any cautions? Caveats? We welcome feedback to sharpen our ideas and ultimately reach a critical consensus.
This post is part of a blog series on measuring SEL and non-cognitive skills produced in partnership with ProExam (@proexam). Join the conversation on Twitter using #SEL. For more in this series, see:

Jonathan E. Martin is Strategic Implementation Advisor to ProExam Tessera™ and an educational writer and consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanEMartin.

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Getting Smart on Global Education and Equity

Authored by VIF and Getting Smart Staff
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The world’s population is predicted to grow from our current 7.3 billion to 8.5 billion in 2030, and to nearly 10 billion by 2050. Such growth will affect a host of global issues including pollution, disease management, and the depletion of energy, food and water resources.
For students to participate effectively and become successful in this changing world, they must first understand it. Equipping students with specific skills to compete in a global job market is important, but cultivating their abilities to effectively share ideas and communicate across cultures in appropriate and respectful ways is critical.
Regardless of location, socioeconomic status or cultural background, all students are equally deserving of educational experiences that prepare them to be globally competent by receiving instructional practices that consistently engage global content, multicultural perspectives and problem solving across subjects.
Today’s students need global education.
VIF International Education and Getting Smart partnered to create Getting Smart on Global Education and Equity in order to examine the characteristics of globally competent students closely, and address how K-12 institutions can utilize global education practices to equitably prepare all students for success.

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Watson University: A Great Place to Incubate Your Startup

If you get off the highway at the first Boulder exit and drive a mile west past brick bungalows full of college kids, you’ll run into the flatirons–300 million year old sandstone upended by an orogeny about 50 million years ago and prominent on along most of the Front Range of Colorado. You’ll also be in Chautauqua Park, a favorite hiking and biking spot of the freakishly fit in Boulder.
The Colorado Chautauqua Association manages a 26 acre campus leased from the city of Boulder including historic theaters, dining and lodging. Picturesque Chautauqua is also home to Watson University, the first degree-granting impact-oriented business incubator.
68a177ed-0b09-4d1c-9040-d3902a80f66c_pasted20image200Founder Eric Glustrom, one of the Forbes 30 social entrepreneurs under 30, wanted to create a new model of higher education, one that is affordable, applied, based on social impact and bolstered by mentorship. The goal: “Unleash next generation talent to solve the toughest social, economic and environmental challenges facing the world.”
Every semester Watson invites 20 entrepreneurs aged 18-23, many dropouts from traditional colleges, to take short master courses from leading experts and training in creativity, resilience, bootstrapping, team building and fundraising.
Students can come to Watson for a semester before, during or immediately after finishing an undergraduate program. They can also enroll at Watson and earn an accredited Bachelor’s of Science in Entrepreneurship in just two years from their partner, Lynn University.
The program is selective though, having an acceptance rate even lower than the ivy league universities. In the last application cycle, 30 different countries were represented amongst its 45 finalists.
c7ff9c23-4a59-40e6-a3cf-fda5390c0250_pasted20image200The program costs $15,000 per semester which includes housing on Chautauqua’s premises. To avoid debt, VP Romain Vakilitabar (pictured right at the residence hall) said they are experimenting with income earning offsets. As a payment option, future entrepreneurs will be able to pledge a fraction of future earning (e.g., 3-5% over $20k) until the tuition is paid back.
The team and mentors use a lot of open content and all of Watson’s curriculum and processes are open source.
The program is small and relatively new but it leverages a bunch of important trends: impact-focused entrepreneurship, blended and personalized learning, and a reconsidered and/or rebundled postsecondary experience.
“We’re pretty excited about the model that we’ve proposed,” says Vakilitabar. “In just our third year, we’ve seen our alumni really commit to solving big problems, where their businesses are impacting thousands of lives, employing hundreds. And our alumni have already raised over 12 million dollars for their ventures. It certainly may be more of a testament to our scholars than to us, but we feel like we’re playing an important role in their journey to impact the world.”
Check out this Watson U video made by the Watson scholars. You may just decide it’s time for a semester at Chautauqua.

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STEM And Making In Education Is Growing

By TJ McCue
This blog was originally posted on
STEM education is an important aspect of how we remain competitive as a nation. Last year, President Obama announced over $240 Million in new STEM commitments during the 2015 White House Science Fair.
It was part of a much larger initiative from the “Educate to Innovate” campaign that has over $1 billion in financial and in-kind support for STEM programs. The administration’s attention on makers and making is part of the national movement kicked off by Make magazine and its founder Dale Dougherty.
Despite a desire for there to be more commitment, financial and otherwise, to supporting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in the USA, there is actually quite a bit. You can read the full White House factsheet here–filled with 10-plus pages of STEM goodness.
The White House Office of Science and Technology has within it a team of makers, which is quite inspiring. Did you know that there is a National Week of Making coming up the week of June 17 through June 23? President Obama is arguably our most STEM-focused president. Six years ago, he made history by hosting the first-ever White House Science Fair. In April, he hosted the 6th and final one of his administration.
The National Week of Making will coincide with the National Maker Faire on June 18-19 in Washington, D.C., that features makers from across the country and will include participation of numerous Federal Agencies such as the Department of Education, Small Business Administration, Department of Commerce, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, to name just a few. Making is not technically under the Department of Education and potentially not considered STEM by some purists, but I would argue that it is completely enabling STEM/STEAM growth.
Why all the focus on STEM? It is about current and future job needs from a high-level government perspective, about being competitive as a nation. The U.S. Department of Education has a recent and important chart that shows projected STEM Job increases from 2010 to 2020. All occupations is the lowest bar at 14 percent. Mathematics jobs 16 percent is the next higher bar, climbing to 62 percent for biomedical engineers. You can check it out here.
More so, the STEM focus is increasingly on what Greg Watts, dean of the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas, puts forth in his STEM to STEAM post: That we need to drop the idea two different parts of the brain and “celebrate the so-called differences–it’s not ‘left brain’ or ‘right brain,’ it’s THE brain.”
In my work around 3D technologies, I am often in conversation with thought leaders around the USA and Canada about what it takes to build more awareness, improve or jumpstart various aspects of new technologies (such as 3D printing or 3D scanning) and in my mind, that falls into a STEAM education bucket.
I regularly read a blog from Getting Smart, a learning design firm based in Seattle, where I was studying posts from Carri Schneider, Director of Knowledge Design at the firm. I reached out to interview her and we talked about how technology was making its way into classrooms, but we spent a lot of time talking about changes in education and I like the way she explains the term STEM:
“We use either STEAM or Learner-Centered STEM. STEM/STEAM Learning that is personalized, project-based, competency-based, gives students more autonomy; that is what really gets me excited about the future of learning for kids. It’s one thing to have thousands/millions more kids who get access to STEAM. It’s another thing entirely for every kid to have deep, meaningful STEAM learning with all the tools that now exist to make that possible at scale.”
The National Week of Making and the White House Maker Faire are examples of Learner-Centered STEM, of putting the child–the learner–at the center of various education initiatives. There are many people and organizations, including President Obama, who simply want to see STEM/STEAM education get the funds and attention it deserves. 2015’s $1 billion was a good start. Let’s hope that number doubles, triples so that every child will realize his or her full potential, as a maker, as a person.
Final Notes: As most of my readers know, I am active in the maker, 3D and STEM worlds. I have been working on several posts compiling STEM resources for teachers, students and the hacker/maker looking for ways to add new projects to their shops. You can check those STEM resources on my GoExplore3D blog.
This Forbes post title was inspired by “Every Student is a STEM Student” by Getting Smart contributor Elaine Menardi. You can read her post here. Some educators and others in Colorado have slightly changed the “definition” of STEM to Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship, and Mastery which is part of a bigger conversation around changing education at the upcoming conference called edOS: A New Operating System for Education on June 4 in Denver.
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TJ McCue is a tech writer, content strategy consultant and produces web content. Follow him on Twitter: .

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Creating the Future of Learning: Singapore American School

Authored by Getting Smart Staff
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A great school takes a “culture of excellence, possibility and extraordinary care,” said Dr. Chip Kimball, at Singapore American School (SAS). “As we traveled the world visiting over 100 schools in seven countries we found many schools that had one of these cultures in place, and some schools that had two of these cultures in place, but very few schools exhibited excellence, possibility and extraordinary care,” said Kimball. “This is how SAS wants to distinguish itself. What makes us unique.”
Founded 60 years ago, the nonprofit independent day school is located about 30 minutes north of the bustling central business district. The school serves nearly 4,000 students on a 36 acre campus. It’s the largest American school outside the U.S. and the largest single campus international school in the world.
Students at SAS hold passports from around fifty countries, but two-thirds of them are U.S. citizens (government regulations prevent SAS from serving locals). While admissions are open, the school has a history of producing top performing graduates that attend the world’s best universities—nearly all graduates attend four year universities, about 80% in the U.S.
Read more in the full school case study–download here.

Wall-to-Wall Project-Based Middle School Learning

After a visit to Napa New Tech High School, Evergreen School District superintendent Superintendent Kathy Gomez knew the school model was a fit for her east San Jose K-8 district. While the integrated projects were impressive, it was the New Tech culture that really sold Gomez.
Interest in replicating the project-based high school led to the development of the New Tech Network, now 200 schools that share projects, a learning platform and professional learning.
IMG_6116Bulldog Tech () was the first New Tech school in Silicon Valley. It shares a campus with LeyVa Middle School but is located in a purpose built facility with big double classrooms that support the team taught integrated blocks common to New Tech schools.
The 7th and 8th grade school serving 300 students shares the same calendar as LeyVa but has a different schedule. Core content classes and integrated electives are incorporated into three large instructional blocks during the first part of the students day.
As soon you enter the Bulldog campus, you immediately become aware of the commitment to project-based learning and student collaboration. Student work products are displayed on just about every surface possible and students can be found huddled together in the courtyard discussing their projects.
The school is “wall-to-wall project-based” according to school head Randy Hollenkamp. The entry wall displayed student work from the Unsung Hero Project–watch this video of a student describing the project:

Subject areas are integrated and taught in one large room, often with two teachers and about 50 students. We visited a classroom where art and science are taught together and it was full of vibrant examples of student work.
IMG_6111Two students enthusiastically shared work product combining the art and science of curing cancer. Students researched existing treatments for cancer and then made online graphics and displays to share with members of the community.
There is also an immediately evident culture of trust and collaboration. A panel of students shared with us that as they work on projects; they (not necessarily the teachers) are the ones holding each other accountable. Likewise, teachers at Bulldog daily rely on one another and work closely in teams. In fact, one of their goals it to make each project collaboration more effective each time.
When we asked a student panelist why she liked learning at a project-based school, she said, “I like to create products and present, because I know that is the type of thing I will need to do when I am working and in the real world.” Another student chimed in that he used to be nervous presenting, but now has had practice in front of big groups and no longer feels nervous. Bulldog students present their work to other students, teachers, parents or community members over 200 times over two years. See a video of the project-based environment at Bulldog:
“We have brought teams from over 15 states and 3 countries to Bulldog Tech, and every visitor continues to rave about their supportive staff, student culture and the level of student engagement,” said Tim Presiado, New Tech Network COO.
Bulldog success has led to the spread of the New Tech model in two neighboring districts and three other schools in the Evergreen School District, beginning with the Katherine Smith School (see December trip report).
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Student Choice Is a Key Ingredient for a 100% Graduation Rate

By Roger Cook
Having students sit in a classroom with their feet planted firmly on the ground listening to lectures and completing worksheets 175 days a year is just not working for all of today’s students. At Taylor County Schools in central Kentucky, we follow what we call the four non-negotiables:

  1. No student is held back from learning at his or her ability level due to age.
  2. No student is allowed to drop out.
  3. No student is allowed to fail.
  4. Each student is afforded the opportunity to choose an instructional setting that best suits his or her learning style.

By tailoring the education of all 2,600 students,as opposed to using traditional methods, Taylor County Schools achieves a 100% graduation rate without a single student dropping out in seven years (going on eight). We realize this success is due to embracing an innovative, student-centered approach to teaching and learning. We dropped the cookie-cutter approach years ago, choosing not to “imprison” any of our students in a classroom setting that isn’t conducive to their education.
As one of the first five districts in Kentucky designated a District of Innovation by the state Department of Education, Taylor County’s creative approach gives us more flexibility to educate students. Our performance-based model allowed us to apply for this distinction, and in return,we are granted a waiver from the state’s seat-time requirements.
In Taylor County, we support a performance-based model, placing students in classes based on ability rather than age. We implement a Wheel of Learning approach that includes six “spokes” (options) for students to choose how they want to learn: a traditional learning approach, a virtual model, project-based learning, peer-led instruction, self-paced learning,and Cardinal Academy (for gifted/advanced students). Both our students and teachers choose which approach is right for them, and we match students to the teachers and modes of instruction they desire.
“It’s simple,” said Charles Higdon, Jr., the assistant superintendent of Taylor County Schools. “Performance-based education is looking at every individual student and asking, ‘How does that student perform best?’ and customizing their education so they can achieve success.”
Here are details of our six “spokes.”
Traditional Model: Some students and teachers still prefer the traditional approach where kids come to class each day and receive direct instruction. As long as students still desire this model of education, we’ll continue to offer it.
Virtual Learning: Students can work at their own pace using Odysseyware’s online courses. In the virtual academy, students log in to their online classes from a computer lab, and a fully certified teacher serves as an on-site guide.
Working individually, students are in control of their own education, and have the freedom to listen to music or take a walk to clear their mind if they need to. Since we opened our virtual academy, many at-risk students are now moving through the curriculum at an accelerated pace, graduating early and entering the workforce more quickly. This is an option many school districts do not offer.
Project-Based Learning (PBL): In these classrooms, units are set up based on authentic, real-world problems. At 5:15 in the video below, Taylor County science teacher Kellie Jones explains how she used to do a culminating project at the end of a unit so students could show what they learned.

Now, projects come at the beginning, giving students a reason to learn, which increases engagement levels and incorporates 21st-century skills. When students apply their knowledge in real-world settings outside of school, they see more of a value in their education, as opposed to just memorizing facts for a test.
PBL has also increased community involvement. For instance, a local business donated LEGO engineering kits to one of our elementary classes, and students worked together in groups to design factories. We also offer several mentorships and real-life experiences for our students through school-based enterprises like our student-run bank, high school gift shop, a culinary arts catering service, an aviation course where students can earn their pilot’s license, and a greenhouse run by agricultural students.  Additionally, our students have a business called tBay, our version of eBay, where students sell goods online for the public and earn a percentage.
Peer-Led Instruction: In these classrooms, students learn from each other, with the teacher acting as a facilitator. Students who  master a concept or content will help other students learn. For some, it helps to hear an explanation from one of their peers rather than a teacher. Additionally, Taylor County has a program called STARS (Students Teaching and Reaching Students) which has helped more than 250 students to successfully become mentors.
Self-Paced Learning: In this personalized, blended approach, learners access teacher-created video lessons as opposed to direct instruction. Students move through the content at their own rate, using a pacing guide that provides specific directions on how to master each standard.
In this setting, educators play a facilitator role, formatively assessing on a daily basis through various interactions including partner activities, projects, online simulations and exercises, whole-group activities, and one-on-one instruction. Students are able to access content from home and re-watch instructional videos as needed in order to learn the material. We base our self-paced approach on achievement level, not age, so students who finish grade-level content before the school year is over can move on to the next grade. (To see the Taylor County self-paced classroom in action, check out the video above from 3:00–4:30.)
Cardinal Academy: In this new high school program, students develop their own learning plan and schedule under the guidance of an academic advisor. They decide what subjects they will work on, when, and for how long, and can choose to learn off campus through internships.
At 6:50 in the video, gifted and talented coordinator Debbie Gumm explains how one student is taking all elective and CTE courses after completing his state requirements. At 10:30 in the video, Superintendent Cook breaks down how nearly 100 students come to school every day without a specific teacher or schedule. Cardinal Academy provides middle school students an opportunity to earn high school credits and work ahead in subjects they excel in.
There’s a fit for every student; we just need to guide them in finding it and embrace the fact that all students learn differently. Letting students learn at their own pace and giving them choices in how to learn empowers them to take control of their education. We live the successes of this approach every day.
For more, see:

Roger Cook is superintendent for Kentucky’s Taylor County Schools. Follow them on Twitter: @TC_Schools_KY.

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Why PD Matters So Much for PBL Teachers

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Benjamin Franklin
Ultimately, I learned how to ride a bike by getting up the guts to hop on my Huffy and try. Sure, watching my older brother cruise down the sidewalk and listening to my dad tell me all of the steps to riding helped, but it was the experience of doing it myself that made me feel confident on two wheels.
What does this have to do with project-based learning (PBL) for teachers? PBL has many elements. For example, see Gold Standard PBL from Buck Institute of Education (BIE). All of the steps are important to the overall outcome (just like bike riding – 1. Hold the handlebars 2. Get on the bike 3. Push with one foot and then the other 4. Off you go). However, if only told about these elements, the outcome may be less desirable (i.e., you may end up falling, not truly riding). Teachers need to have on-going experiences and support with PBL themselves in order to make all of the elements work in tandem, just like when learning to ride a bike.
In a recent article from Peter Glenn at CrowdSchool, he shares a quote from John Larmer, Editor in Chief at BIE , that speaks to this point:

“Teachers didn’t experience [PBL] when they were in school, and they naturally tend to teach like they were taught.”

Ironically, even if professional development (PD) is about an engaging learning approach (such as PBL), we often in our own learning use “five minutes of ‘turn and talk‘ sprinkled among ninety-minutes of staring at a presentation screen and listening to one voice drone on” instead of engaging in the actual practice itself.
Not only should teachers get to experience PBL, but they also need support during the implementation stages. As I took my first couple of rides, my dad had a hand on the back of my seat. When I started to gain understanding of how to ride, he watched as I wobbled but his hand went away and his support came in the form of verbal cues. As we continue to learn about effective teaching approaches, there is more and more evidence that teachers need this same type of support during the implementation of new strategies and instructional approaches:

“The largest struggle for teachers is not learning new approaches to teaching but implementing them. The reason traditional professional development is ineffective is that it doesn’t support teachers during the stage of learning with the steepest learning curve: implementation. In the same way that riding a bike is more difficult than learning about riding a bike, employing a teaching strategy in the classroom is more difficult than learning the strategy itself. In several case studies, even experienced teachers struggled with a new instructional technique in the beginning. In fact, studies have shown it takes, on average, 20 separate instances of practice before a teacher has mastered a new skill, with that number increasing along with the complexity of the skill. “

Enough about what isn’t happening. Let’s focus on what PBL-focused PD experiences and options are available for teachers:

  1. Experience PBL World this June, either in-person or virtually.
  2. Work on a challenging problem or driving question that pertains to your school or community to expand your leadership skills.
  3. Play an online PBL game (don’t be afraid to try one that your students use), complete a PBL challenge or create a project with an online tool like Scratch.
  4. Participate in TeachQuest! While TeachQuest is not necessarily PBL, it involves play and inquiry, which can be a part of the PBL process.
  5. Take a course, like one from the New England Board of Higher Education
  6. Complete a module from Leading Educators, where you can work on projects focused on specializations such as coaching others or leading teams
  7. Visit a New Tech Network School–a national network of PBL schools and be a part of PBL teaching & learning

When teachers have the opportunity to experience and practice PBL, they’re given the skills they need to get their students’ learning in motion, and the ability to step back and watch creative minds take off on their own.
Have other ideas or know of other opportunities for teachers to engage in PBL? Share them with us in the comments below or contribute to the It’s a Project-Based World campaign.
For more on project-based learning, see:

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Smart Review | Science Popularity Picks Up Steam with littleBits STEAM Student Set

As STEM education shifts into national focus following President Obama’s call to prepare 100,000 new and effective STEM teachers over the next decade, the need for innovative educational tools is stronger than ever before. Add in “Arts” to that mix and you get STEAM, which encourages students to learn through inventing, creating and designing.
So how can we help support our teachers to engage students in powerful STEAM learning through invention? Edtech startup littleBits is offering one option through its STEAM Student set, a toolbox containing LEGO-like electronic building blocks that connect via magnet to build basic functional technology.
littleBits boxInside the kit are 19 Bits–littleBits’ electronic building blocks–and 38 accessories, as well as a 72-page Student Invention Guide containing guided invention challenges with step-by-step instructions. Projects include:

  • Invent a Self-Driving Vehicle: explores the concept of friction
  • Hack Your Habits: encourages students to track their habits and invent something to improve their daily lives
  • Invent a Throwing Arm: experiments with the forces of motion and simple machines

An Invention Log worksheet encourages student reflection and documentation, and a Curricular Crosswalk chart provides an overview of the Next Generation Science Standards, Grade Levels and Common Core Standards that can be met by, or extended to meet, specific STEAM Student Set Challenges.
Pic 4.jpgThe kit is geared toward students in third through eighth grade, so we decided we’d better put it to the test with some experts in that field of study. Maggie and Maleah, who attend fourth grade and fifth grade respectively, spent an afternoon testing out the kit’s contents to see if it met their standards of combining fun and learning. Here are the results.

Student Review

Q: Was the kit easy to use?
A: At first it wasn’t, because there are so many sides to the circuits that you can use to build things and they are all magnetized. But once we read through the directions it comes with and looked at the pictures, we figured it out and started building stuff pretty quickly.
Q: Are the directions and pieces easy to read and identify?
A: Yes, once we looked through the different things you could build and sorted through all of the circuits and stuff in the different compartments inside the box, it was easy to start building the different projects they showed.
Q: What was your favorite part?
Pic 2.jpgA: Maggie–We built one long circuit together that was a lot of fun, and I also liked how the circuit to build the police car actually made a siren noise and how far the Throwing Arm threw stuff.
A: Maleah–I liked how there is so much to build. You can build a bunch of stuff at one time.
Q: Would you enjoy getting more pieces to add to the kit?
A: YES! Can we still play with this even though testing is done?
The “expert” verdict? This kit is easy to use and a lot of fun. It reminded them of the “cool” Robotics class at their school, as well as the popular project everyone in fourth grade participates in, where they get to figure out how to use wires and a battery to light up a lightbulb.

Parent Review

Their father (James) is an electronics technician, so we also asked for his perspective on watching the girls use the kit, both professionally and as a parent:
Q: What did you think of this kit overall?
Pic 5.jpgA: It’s pretty easy to use and the pictures they include are great. I think it’s a very interesting concept to use colors and puzzle-type matching interfacing to teach kids how to build the different projects in the book. Teaching them about inputs and outputs helps them understand you have to do something to get something, and everything plus the power has to be hooked up carefully and correctly or things just aren’t going to work.
Q: Is there anything in particular you thought was useful for students?
A: I like how they share examples of real-life applications in the front of the instruction book; it’s so important for kids to connect what they’re doing with these pieces in their hands to what they already know, even on simple things like the police siren or the clock you can build. Doing this will help them to understand how and why something happens. They’re having fun and playing, but also learning how actual things around them work.
Q: Do you think the target audience age/grade group is correct?
A: I think it should be very easy for those age groups, as long as they have basic reading and comprehension skills. The pictures in the directions are definitely helpful because they really help kids visualize the correct outcome when things are installed and hooked up right.

Information For Teachers

The littleBits STEAM Student Set includes a Teacher’s Guide that provides hours of detailed companion lessons, curricular connections, implementation strategies and helpful tips, as well as a mobile app that provides even more ideas for the classroom
littleBits takes it even one step further with littleBits STEAM PD, which provides educators training on engaging ways to bring STEAM into classrooms, libraries and makerspaces. The six hours of online training is self-paced, and you receive a PDU certificate upon completion.
For more, see:

Getting Smart was provided the littleBits STEAM Student Set for review.

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