Getting Prepared For Middle School: 7 Things Soon-to-Be Middle Schoolers Should Know

By Megan Mead
Sometimes when you work from a coffee shop you overhear conversations. Sometimes you laugh, sometimes you get frustrated and sometimes, just sometimes, you are inspired.
Today I was inspired. I was inspired by a conversation between a timid, nervous “soon to be middle schooler” and his grandpa. It started like this:
Grandpa: “I have been asked to talk to you about getting ready for middle school. It sounds like you are a little nervous about it and I just want to talk through some ideas that might help.” Side note: Grandpa was prepared, he had questions and an iPad. This was not just a random conversation, this was intentional and set the stage for a meaningful conversation.
Pre-Middle Schooler: “This is dumb. I just don’t want to go.”
They continue a little bit and then I couldn’t help myself, I politely interrupt and explain that as a former teacher I think this is such a cool conversation to be having. The student looked at me, terrified, and said,“but I am not prepared.” I start talking to them a little bit and we all agree that not feeling prepared can be really scary and then we transition into excitement and what that feels like.
And then, I step aside and let them continue. But before moving on to my other work I make a mental note to remember this conversation. My soon-to-be preschooler will also be a soon-to-be middle schooler, and eventually so will his younger brother. I came up with 7 things I want them to do (and that I want to talk about before they get there):

  1. Get uncomfortable. New environments are tricky, but if we pretend that we aren’t going to be uncomfortable, we are doing ourselves a disservice. Acknowledge that you may be uncomfortable, talk about what it feels like to be uncomfortable, then you won’t be surprised when it happens. Instead, you can be proactive about what you might do when you get uncomfortable. I learned this from the Berenstain Bears Get Stage Fright.
  2. Make a friend. Sometimes we are lucky and it feels like friends drop out of the sky, but it doesn’t always happen this way. Sometimes we have to work for friends. Don’t wait for magic to happen, be the first one to talk. Introduce yourself, ask a question. Make a friend.
  3. Find something you are great at. This one was hard for the student I was eavesdropping on. But it was important and the grandpa did a great job driving it home. There will be things that we really enjoy and things that we really excel at, there will also be things that we don’t enjoy and that we struggle with. Be adventurous, try new things and find what you love.
  4. Respect the things you struggle with. Just because you don’t love it at first, doesn’t mean you get to ignore it. The things that are hardest in life are the things that are the most fun to tackle. And remember, others may be great at the things you struggle with, so ask for help.
  5. Make a mistake. Do you ever make mistakes? Of course you do. We all do. But do middle schoolers realize that mistakes SHOULD be made and celebrated? Developing a growth mindset is especially important in middle school where concepts get more and more difficult and learning becomes increasingly more independent. They are part of the learning experience.
  6. Choose kindness. There is a Facebook post out there about a tube of toothpaste (if you haven’t seen it, check it out) and it reminds me of what I would tell my own students on the first day of school. In the words that you choose, you have the power to make someone’s days great, or to make it horrible. Choose kindness. Once you have said something, you can’t take it back. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is nearly impossible to force it back in, the same is true with what you say, it’s pretty hard to “unsay” the words we have spilled out.
  7. Apologize. BUT, sometimes you will say something or do something that you shouldn’t have. Acknowledge and apologize.

There is also the logistics conversation that needs to happen that can help kids feel confident from the moment they walk in the door. A lot of schools will address this stuff through some form of orientation, but it doesn’t hurt to have them as a 1:1 (opens the door for your child to ask questions that they may not want to ask in a larger group).

  • Where is the first place you will go on the first day of school (think about a map, not just a room number)?
  • What are your teachers’ names?
  • How will you know when to transition from one class to the next?
  • Do you know who to ask for if you need help?
  • Are there specific rules that might be different from those in elementary school?
  • Do you know anyone at the school?
  • When is lunch? What will you eat?
  • How will you get to school? How will you get home?

I think one of the things that I most appreciated about overhearing this conversation was the reminder of the importance of being intentional. This is one of the four traits identified as part of the Smart Parents project, and to see a specific example in action made me smile. We are celebrating the 1 year anniversary of the Smart Parents Project, head to the campaign page for a free download of the e-book!
Have you had similar conversations with your own kids? Or are you a teacher who has these conversations regularly? Tell me how you do it? Any questions or best practices to add?
For more middle school fun, check out:

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EdTech 10: Pure Imagination

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” 
In honor of Gene Wilder, our favorite Willy Wonka of all time, this week’s top edtech stories share how edleaders are making the imagined come true.
From offering free virtual tours of U.S. National Parks to offering free world-class education to anyone, anywhere, here are the movers and shakers in education making dreams into reality.

Cool Schools & Tools

1. New Pub from Highlander and Christensen 

We agree inspiration, incubation, intermediation are keys to next-gen learning at scale

Digital Developments

2. Google Parks 360º

Let’s get students outside to learn–check out our place-based education campaign!
3. Duck, Duck, Moose!

4. Career Exploration App

This new game-based app supports today’s students with career exploration–we talk about the skills they’ll need to succeed in their future careers in Learning for Life: New Skills for New Jobs.

5. Monetizing EdTech

We’ve been studying learning platforms, here’s 8 observations.

Dollars & Deals

6. $42.8M to Panopto

7. $1M to Nepris

Stem Gems

8. 100 Days of Learning

9. STEM Girls

Higher, Deeper, Further, Faster Learning

10. Reimagining Higher Education

Speaking of lifetime learning, check out how to create your own anywhere, anytime playlist.


Guided Math and Reading Curriculum

Check out this Smart Bundle where we discuss the importance of teachers as curriculum designers.

For more, see:

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When Professional Development is Just an Experience

By Katrina Keene, Education Strategist, Dell Education
Why are teachers so rarely asked for input?
As a former administrator with extensive experience in the classroom, I empathize with teachers whose professional opinions on education are far too often undervalued.
Decisions are sometimes made without the consideration of teachers — the people who experience the outcomes firsthand. Professional development is a powerful example, one in which teachers are expected to endure, but are rarely asked for their opinions.

Learning opportunities are thrown in front of teachers without giving them opportunities to plan or collaborate on what they truly want to learn about.

Leadership and Trust

How many leaders do you know who give you and other educators the power and authority to curate your own professional learning opportunities? Building a culture of trust and autonomy takes time, but must be accounted for if a school wants to move forward with a community of not only thinkers, but also teachers who desire to own their learning. Giving teachers a voice is often perceived by administrators as letting go of authority — however, it is truly a sign of respect, trust and engagement with teachers.
Capturing and owning a new culture or process is a scary but imperative part of offering a voice to those who are part of a mission. Effective professional learning opportunities are ones in which educators learn to articulate what they want to get out of the experience, as well as drive their own engagement in the process.
Teachers, rather than the administrator, will hold themselves accountable and show genuine advancement through classroom application. When long-term goals, such as teachers owning and creating their own professional development opportunities, are joined with a new and effective culture, short-term goals of traditional professional development naturally become secondary to more innovative learning practices.

Unlocking Your Potential

The key to success is embedded in a larger vision surrounding teacher voice, culture and re-branding of what professional development opportunities should look like. That powerful key is in your hand as the administrator — just unlock the door.
This post is part of a blog series titled “Professional Development: Learning Through Collaboration” produced in  partnership with VIF International Education (@vifglobaled). Join the conversation on Twitter using #collaborativePD. For more, check out Professional Development: Learning Through Collaboration and:

Katrina Keene is an Education Strategist for Dell Education and former Director of Innovation at a college preparatory school. Follow her on Twitter: @teachintechgal.

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Learning for Life: New Skills for New Jobs

Predicting the future is challenging, particularly when there is ample evidence that we don’t really understand the world we live in.
From his post in Moscow, Pavel Luksha peers into the future and attempts to understand how the world will change over the next 20 years, determine how that will affect our lives and work, predict what skills and knowledge will be required and explain how we can acquire these skills.
With the benefit of a worldwide network of superstar education advisors, Luksha’s Global Education Futures (GEF) has developed a thoughtful and optimistic view of the future; one that is a bit different in language and tone than the U.S. dialogue.
During his summer advisory call, Pavel discussed four trends reshaping the global opportunity set.
Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 1.01.08 AM

The GEF team reads everything out there on possible futures and contemplates the alteration of the old or rise of the new. They understand the elements of transformation (below left) but lean toward an emergent view of the future (below right).
Based on their trend analysis and global conversations, GEF outlines skills required in the future for employability and successful career-building as well as citizenship and quality of personal life.
GEF indicts the current educational model as obsolete: “It prepares people for skills of the past, not skills of the future!”

  • We cannot teach people to be creative by giving them standard tasks
  • We cannot teach people to be collaborative by putting them in competition against each other
  • We cannot teach people to be lifelong learners if we deprive them of self-exploration and courage to learn, if we blame them for mistakes
  • We cannot teach people to be empathic / emotionally intelligent by removing emotion and focusing on cognitive abilities only
  • We cannot teach people to use IT property if we remove it from the school
  • We cannot teach people to be mindful if we are not mindful.

Transition to Lifelong Learning

Given the speed of change, there is no way to fully prepare for it in secondary and tertiary education. “Education is not about getting a professional skill, it is about living through your life.”

GEF advocates a lifetime journey of learning, “You need to learn how to learn.” They envision a system of learner-centered lifelong education: locally situated, globally oriented, intensely personal learning within a community of practice (below).
Key to lifelong education are global online learning platforms (currently including Coursera, edX, Lynda /LinkedIn, Khan Academy) and increasingly deploying AR, AI, and gamification and optimized for mobile + wearable.

Smart Cities

GEF imagines lifelong learning happening everywhere across cities not just schools and universities with communities of interest creating venues of learning around shared interests. Augmented reality will convert any space into a learning place. City navigators will connect people to place-based education opportunities.
They propose five design principles for learning environments:

  • Transition from competitive to collaborative learning processes
  • Focus on self-development and self-guidance, collaborative design of learning process and content to be explored
  • Personalized learning trajectory that combines virtual environments, practice-based learning in real-life settings, and peer-based learning (face-to-face and online) with mentors & community
  • Learning built around real-life problems and challenges rather than subjects
  • Environment for physical exercises and interaction, emotional / artistic interaction

These design principles suggest a holistic approach teaching including a collaborative and connected pedagogy in a blended project-based environment with expertise in mentorship, gamification and entrepreneurship.

From Here to There

How do we transition from industrial education systems to dynamic learning ecosystems? GEF sees interdependent locked-in arrangements (e.g. degree, certification, accreditation) as a big blockage. But it’s not a unique challenge–energy, transportation, and healthcare will also make the transition to a more personalized, networked, dynamic delivery system.
“Only cultivation of self-guided learning ability will contribute to the long-term social resilience of our civilization; the priority is to increase this share substantially and within not more than one generation. This seems to be the central challenge of transformation.” GEF sees the “massification of self-guided learning” as one of the key challenges of our time.
GEF recommends getting connected to bridge-builders: people who have a vision of the future and act accordingly. Take over roles that are not taken by existing system (summer schools, startup accelerators) and “Don’t expect governments or business to tell you what to do. Most often they anchor the past, not build the future. Be proactive in building your own part of the bridge.”
In the new networked economy, ecosystems are built around platforms that serve as entry points and integrate experiences. In education integrators “must become long-term providers of personalized learning trajectories,” according to GEF. Managing this lifelong learning relationship will include learning experiences, career advancement, personal development, and games–think Udemy, Linkedin, Happify and Xbox.
GEF offers this closing advice:

Practice future now. Be a player, not a spectator. Contribute to the change and transformation.

For more, see:

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Five Best Practices for Implementing an Alternative Credentialing Program

By Jim Fong, Peter Janzow and Kyle Peck
Today’s employers and job seekers are constantly looking for ways to gain an edge on their competitors.
As a result, micro-credentialing programs have seen a dramatic increase in popularity over the past few years, and that trend is projected to continue.
A study recently conducted by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and Pearson found students today are more likely to favor an educational reward system that is built around badging and certificates rather than the traditional bachelor’s degree.
The research explored the role that alternative credentials play in higher education, as reported by 190 institutions of higher education. It revealed that:

  • While alternative credentials are offered by 94 percent of colleges and universities, only 1 in 5 currently offers badges, and that the percentage of institutions that do varies widely by type.
  • More than one-quarter of baccalaureate colleges reported offering badges, significantly higher than the number of master’s colleges or universities that do (12 percent).
  • Public institutions (23 percent) were more than twice as likely to offer badges as private institutions (9 percent).

What Do These Results Mean?

The results highlight the ways that higher education is changing to adapt to today’s demographic, technological and other societal shifts. Non-credit training courses, non-credit certificate programs and micro-credentialing all provide learners with less expensive and faster ways to prepare themselves for jobs than traditional degree programs. These programs, previously thought of as cutting edge, are now becoming mainstream, and they are transforming the paths that learners take to success.
The study also found that badges are most commonly offered in business- and education-related fields, and that 71 percent of institutions have consistent engagement with the business community for internships, practicums and job placement.
Another key finding from the research is that while 64 percent of respondents either strongly or somewhat agreed that their institution sees alternative credentialing as an important strategy for its future, surprisingly only 34 percent have a strategic plan that includes alternative credentialing.
Although badging and micro-credentialing are on the rise, many programs that offer them are still in their infancy, and many other institutions have yet to embrace them. As more businesses embrace digital badging, colleges and universities may be more inclined to follow. To implement a successful alternative credentialing program, institutions need to employ the following:

  • Consistent engagement with the business community for internships, practicums or job placement.
  • Long-term corporate relationships through which they can market or seek input about the programs.
  • Corporate advisory committees for their institution and/or major programs.
  • A strategic plan that includes alternative credentialing to serve outside groups such as corporations, government and others.

Getting Started

How does an institution interested in implementing alternative credentials get started? Here are five best practices for academic leaders:
1. Conduct an internal evaluation. Ask yourselves, “Based on our current model for engaging with employers and external stakeholders, do our current and future programs align to workforce needs? And if not, what do we need to become more aligned?” And, “Are we satisfied that current employer or external advisory groups provide us with an adequate assessment of our institutional outcomes versus their hiring needs?”
2. Review your program outcomes with external groups. If you don’t already have external advisors, consider creating a group of local or regional business leaders and employer advisors. If you have such a group already, introduce a conversation around skill gaps at your next convening. Do your advisors feel your institution is already doing a good job of producing work-ready graduates? If so, consider adding digital credentials to help publicize your effectiveness to the wider external community. And if not, begin by reconsidering how your program outcomes can align better to meet employer needs. Invite your advisory groups to help you define the “gap” work skills and competencies in frameworks and to formally endorse digital badges.
3. Implement these frameworks in the form of alternative digital badges and align your curriculum outcomes to the externally defined framework. When assessments from your new programs show evidence that learners have demonstrated those in-demand skills, “credentialize” the outcomes with badges. Then when your graduates show their digital credentials to the employers in your advisory group and in the wider community, their badges will be recognized and endorsed—because these are the same groups who helped to define the outcomes in the first place!
4. Determine whether you want to align with regional or national standards and/or professional associations, or develop your own accreditation. The proper accreditation can convey trust and credibility. Universities have a certain brand strength based upon their reputation and accreditation, which generates a certain amount of trust. Other institutions, such as community colleges, might find that doing their own accreditation will be sufficient for serving the needs of local small and medium-sized businesses, but they could establish more credibility by aligning with regional or national frameworks, standards, or professional associations.
For example, a community college in Texas that wants to help local oil companies solve a certain skill gap might not need to strengthen its credentials or seek further accreditation because it already has very strong connections with local businesses. But for students at a university in Texas who are studying general liberal arts, a credential that is aligned with national standards might be more important—those students might apply for jobs in fields in which having greater alignment with national credentials is more important.
5. Decide to build or buy. Consider what you can resource yourself versus what you would like to outsource to an external partner. Key factors might include designing, creating and implementing a credentialing strategy; developing an open badge platform and the technology to support it; and connecting badges to job listings.
For example, Acclaim, Pearson’s digital badging platform, provides a full set of implementation and design services around digital credentialing and a platform to be able to administer and report on your program. UPCEA advises on best practices for its members; you can access those best practices through UPCEA’s publications and conferences.
The degree will always be an important credential, but it won’t always be the gold standard. Now is the time for institutions of higher education of all types to embrace and employ alternative credentialing programs.
For more, see:

Jim Fong is director of Center for Research and Marketing Strategy at UPCEA. Follow him on Twitter: @JimFongUPCEA.
Peter Janzow is senior director of business development for Pearson’s Acclaim. Follow them on Twitter: @YourAcclaim.
Kyle Peck is co-director of the Center for Online Innovation in Learning and professor of education and research fellow in the learning, design, and technology program at Penn State University. Follow him on Twitter: @KylePeck.

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Expanding & Enriching Relationships in Place-Based Education

By Gillian Judson
No matter the program or topic, the context or curriculum, relationships matter in education.
Educators know this. We know that the creation of positive relationships amongst all members of the school community is a foundation for student success.
We know, too, that love of learning stems from students’ forming emotional connections with knowledge; relationships born of wonder inspire and spur further learning.
In Place-Based Education (PBE), the importance of relationships is taken to a whole new level. The relationships we strive to develop now centrally include the natural world. If we hope to cultivate students’ ecological understanding—an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things and a sense of care/concern for the natural world—then relationships between students and the natural world, and between students’ and the knowledge of the curriculum, must be emotionally and imaginatively rich.

On Richness & Relationship

A defining feature of PBE is richness; practices are diverse. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to PBE; there simply can’t be. Unlike standardized objectives-based curricula that many consider valuable because of its “use anywhere” versatility, PBE reflects its context. Place-based educators are attuned to the different affordances or opportunities offered by local natural/cultural contexts for learning and how these relate to the curriculum. PBE in International Falls, Minnesota, will be distinct from PBE in Heidelberg, Germany, or North Vancouver, Canada.
I want to honor that richness. At the same time, I want to emphasize what all PBE shares: the need to cultivate rich relationships. So rather than prescribing any particular PBE practice, I offer three guiding principles—Feeling, Activeness, Sense of Place—for maximizing the creation of all relationships and, by extension, the learning of all students. The principles are intended as reminders for all place-based educators about what is required to expand and enrich their students’ learning and, thus, facilitate the development of ecological understanding.

Feeling: Engage The Imagination

No matter their age, our students come to us with active emotional and imaginative lives. The things our students most enjoy outside the classroom—great books, movies, video games or whatever—have features that capture their imaginations. The trick for teachers—a trick that great game-makers, movie-makers and authors have long known—is to evoke in lessons the same wonder-full features of the world. These “features” are learning tools.
Whether stories, jokes, dramatic tensions, human interest angles, mysteries and puzzles, extremes and limits of reality, big ideas and conflicting theory, heroes and so on, there are distinctive features of our imaginative lives that you can use to maximize your students’ emotional relationships with knowledge. (Read more: Three Toolkits To Help Maximize Student Learning & Engagement) In Imaginative Education, these features of our imaginative and emotional lives are “cognitive tools“–they are emotional and imaginative ways human beings make meaning in the world. You can use these tools in your teaching easily—learn more, with resources and support, here.

Activeness: Remember The Body

Beware! Simply being outside (playing at the playground/playing soccer) or doing things outside (taking “indoor” work outdoors/cleaning up the playground) will not necessarily help students form relationships or any profound emotional connections with nature. It is important, therefore, to try to include opportunities for what Naess (2002) calls activeness.
Activeness describes a profound internal form of relationship we can cultivate with the natural world that has the most potential impact on our understanding of nature. In Life’s Philosophy: Reason and Feeling in a Deeper World, Arne Naess says, “To do a great many things is not enough; what is important is what we do and how it happens. It is those of our actions which affect our whole nature that I call activeness.”
Rather than a form of physical activity, activeness may be better characterized as “lingering in silence” or as “pause.” Our bodily engagement in the world, the attunement of our senses with our surroundings and the engagement of our sense of pattern, musicality, among other tools of the body, contributes to activeness. Activities that help students focus on the body and focus on the connection of the body to the world can support this emotional relationship. Get some more ideas about developing attentive or “body-full” learning in these Lessons For Living Attentively, or read more about this principle for imaginative and ecological teaching here.

Sense of Place: Connect With Place

Remember to consider place-making in imaginative terms; we are imaginative and emotional beings after all. Strive to pair increased knowledge of place (for example, including knowledge of flora and fauna, geological and cultural history, etc.) with affective engagement.
How? Allow students opportunities to form specific relationships with particular features of the natural world—support them in growing close—through time and familiarity—with particular natural objects or very specific places. With opportunities to see specific natural objects over the course of a year—and with your guided support—they may be increasingly aware of nuanced changes. They can grow to feel connected to these places.
An important aspect of place-making also involves exploration—always try to provide students with opportunities to explore the natural world, to identify for themselves special places.  The “claim” for themselves locations for rest/reflection/work that appeal to them. (Learn more about place-making tools and activities here.)

Concluding Thoughts

Places are defined by the fact that we have a relationship with them. They are meaningful because they evoke an emotional response; we feel something about them. With the hopes of educating students to understand the interconnectedness of the world, we must continue to discuss and honor the importance of relationships in education. In PBE, we must also expand and enrich those relationships to include students’ emotional connections with their local natural and cultural contexts.
I would welcome the opportunity to be part of that conversation!
This blog is part of our “Place-Based Education” blog series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, check out the PBE campaign page. Join in the conversation on social media using #PlaceBasedEd. For more on Place-Based Education see:

Gillian Judson is a researcher, teacher and advocate of the role of imagination in all learning. Follow her on Twitter:@perfinker.

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Is Meditation the Game Changer Teachers Have Been Looking For?

When I hear about the stressful careers of my friends and family, I quietly listen and shamelessly compare their idea of stress to mine. While I acknowledge the realness of an important deadline or a year-end evaluation, I often wonder how the same family member or friend would handle the stressful environment of an urban classroom.
Teachers have deadlines too, except those deadlines are mixed with daily lessons, photocopies and two hundred complicated teenagers that get to decide each day whether to show up or not. Oh, and the supervisor evaluation? Try performing under the pressure of your principals’ eyes in a classroom of 35 when your lesson is interrupted by cell phones every five minutes, a rude remark every ten minutes and a couple late comers who refuse to admit the fault of their tardiness.
There is no doubt about it, teaching is stressful. Not only is it stressful, but it is devastating, infuriating, dynamic and painfully beautiful. During my first year teaching, I failed to find a means of coping with this ongoing emotional rollercoaster. By December of my second year, I was still struggling and approaching an emotional breaking point of tears and distress.
The unpredictability of my classroom was driving me insane. One day, my job seemed like a piece of cake. The students would be attentive, polite and all around successful. The next, things were being thrown, I was being called names and the period would pass without a fraction of the lesson actually being completed. I felt like a failure two out of five days a week.
I began to lose sleep, my weekends weren’t spent relaxing but worrying about the coming week and my evenings would end with hours of self-pitying. I was irritable, angry and defensive to anyone who dared judge my misery. Something had to change.
While teachers of the past may have coped with classroom chaos by lighting a cigarette or sipping their whiskey/coffee cocktail mid-lesson (did this actually happen?!) modern teachers need a less aggressive option with years of ancient anecdotal evidence to back it up.

Making Some Headspace

Over Christmas break, a family member suggested meditation. I knew of the practice but somehow I didn’t feel that breathing and sitting still would solve anything, especially when lessons needed to be made, progress reports needed finishing and emails remained unread day in and day out.
Despite my low expectations based on a preconception that included ancient gongs and hours of sitting cross-legged while your feet slowly lose sensation, I gave it a go. I downloaded a popular app (Headspace) and surrendered to the sweet voice lulling me into deep ten-minute sessions of breathing, focusing and generally forgiving myself for having such complex and debilitating emotions.
Though the effects were not immediate, months after introducing the practice something interesting happened.
Near the beginning of February, one student was attacking another student’s Snapchat that she had posted the period before, cueing a battle in the back row of my third period. A few other students got involved, loud remarks were thrown and I had to step in. Normally in this situation, my heart rate rises, my cheeks flush red and I stumble on my words. But, not this time. This time, something beautiful happened.
In this difficult moment, instead of losing my cool, my focus sharpened. I took a breath, gently identified the two girls who started the conflict, removed them from the room, defused the situation in the hallway and then returned to the room where I was able to calmly resume the lesson.
Woah. What just happened?
I felt, for the first time, a laser focus during the confrontation, giving me the confidence to execute the most correct and efficient de-escalation strategy. Now, I know that many other things were at work here, including the passing of time and the gaining of experience. But when other teachers began to recognize a change in me as well, I knew some serious growth had occurred.
The head of my department came down my hallway one day and gave me the most important compliment of the year. “You know, it has felt different down here lately. Calmer, or something.” I knew what he said was true. Maybe things were calmer because my students were picking up on my meditative vibes as of late, or maybe it was my switch from coffee to herbal tea that kept things at a lower key.
Who knows? But what I will say is I meditated every day that second semester and continue to meditate now. My anxiety certainly didn’t disappear entirely and I still get nervous each time I know I will be observed, but I generally do not fear going to work any longer.
Why do I think meditation worked? It gave me ten minutes a day of focusing solely on my body and my breath. Without external stimuli, I began to understand more about how the stressors of the daily grind were affecting my state of mind. This understanding has improved my ability to control my emotions, especially when it feels like things are getting out of hand.
Ultimately, I know my teaching practice has improved while under the influence of meditation. Less class time is wasted on trivial arguments. My mind is clearer throughout the day. And most certainly, I am able to unwind appropriately. Meditation is not a magic pill, but hey, who can’t benefit from a little deep breathing, right?

How Can You Regain Control?

The point of meditation is not just to introduce moments of silence into your life, but to get into a flow that can effectively distract from the overwhelming life of a teacher. This flow, however, can be found in many other ways, including varying styles of meditation and activities.
If Headspace is not your cup of tea, there are other sites such as Calm that offer short, relaxing meditations to ease your days of stress and to clear your mind during even the craziest weeks. If meditation is not your thing, yoga may be the answer.
Before diving into meditation, I also picked up yoga once or twice a week. Anything to keep your mind dedicated to something other than tomorrow’s lesson and yesterday’s classroom conflict. Personal tip: in addition to strengthening those arms and legs, buy into the breathing component of yoga. Movement matched with breathing will distract even the most anxious educator.
For more, see:

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Shaping Character Through Culture in Our African Schools

By Oliver Sabot

“High expectations are the key to everything” ~ Sam Walton

Education in Africa has been several decades behind much of the world. We launched our organization, Nova-Pioneer, with a vision of helping the continent’s schools not only catch up, but leap ahead of global standards.
We currently operate four schools spanning pre-primary through secondary in Kenya and South Africa and are growing rapidly towards our goal of building 100 exceptional schools across the continent over the next ten years.
This is the first of what we hope will be a series of posts on the approaches we are taking to transforming our students and what is considered possible in African education as well as what we are learning through our successes and frequent failures. This post explores the keystone of our entire model: culture.
Several years ago, Paul Tough published How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character that captured a growing trend in global education – the importance of character traits in determining children’s lifelong success.
The book examines the experience of strong schools like the KIPP network in helping low-income students to achieve exceptional academic results only to find those students struggling and dropping out of university a few years later. Tough draws on a growing body of research to identify the culprit as non-cognitive abilities like perseverance or “grit” (itself the focus of Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance).
Tough’s conclusion is simple: if we want the next generation to truly thrive and realize their full potential, educators – schools and parents alike – we must focus on building character as well as cognitive abilities.
That research has led us to make building strong character one of the core pillars of the Nova-Pioneer model in Africa. In doing so, we have struggled alongside educators around the world with the question of how to deliberately develop character. We know how to teach fractions. How do we teach grit or curiosity?
Tough’s recent book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why answers that question. His conclusion is that great schools don’t teach character; they create the conditions in which it can flourish. Tough writes, “There is growing evidence that even in middle and high school, children’s noncognitive capacities are primarily a reflection of the environments in which they are embedded, including, centrally, their school environment.” (You can hear Tom interview Paul Tough on the Getting Smart podcast and read an excerpt of his book focused on deeper learning and project-based learning).
At Nova-Pioneer, we devote an immense amount of time and energy to creating a school culture that will nurture strong character. Six principles anchor our efforts to build a vibrant culture. We infuse these principles into every aspect of the school experience. They are on the walls of every room. The principal leads reflection on them during morning assemblies. Even soccer and rugby practice are peppered with discussion of Greater Together and High Expectations. Importantly, our staff experience is as immersed in these principles as our students – our behavior as adults is the most important shaper of student’s environment.

Summary of Nova-Pioneer Culture Principles in Every Room

This hands-off approach to building character is the same one our teachers use daily to develop academic abilities. Our natural instinct as educators when we see a student struggling is often to instruct, to provide the answer. Instead, our teachers create a classroom environment in which students spend much of their time experimenting, discussing, debating, and – yes – frequently struggling, their way towards a deep understanding of the topic. That is why we purposely refer to our teachers as facilitators rather than instructors.
Translating culture from inspirational phrases on the wall into durable changes in mindset and behaviors is the holy grail of this work. We talk constantly about how to best make that translation, from thorough screening for culture in our hiring process to emphasizing culture in our performance evaluations for staff and report cards for students. We have built – and continue to tinker with – a series of rituals to reinforce culture within our community. Some examples linked to our principles include:
1. Always Growing – We end each week with the lunchtime ritual of  “Friday Failure Fries” where every member of the community shares a failure from the week and what they learned from it – while eating fries of course.
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2. Solutions First – We begin each week with “Gratitude Mondays.” During homeroom for students and kick-off meetings for staff, everyone briefly shares something they are grateful for, with an emphasis on gratitude within the community.
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3. Greater Together – We hold “Community Reflection” at the end of every term. Everyone in the community, from cleaners to students to the CEO (and in Kenya and South Africa alike), pauses for a few hours to read and discuss together great pieces related to our aspirations and challenges as individuals and as a community.
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We are just beginning our journey of building a school culture that can truly transform our students’ character. Character is shaped by thousands of actions by our staff and students every day. But we are off to a great start. We are particularly enthused by the stories of our students’ time outside of school. Many parents report that their children are dramatically more inquisitive and responsible after just a few months in the school.
And perhaps most excitingly, some students are leading their families in discussions of our six culture principles at the dinner table. If students continue to deeply embrace and reflect on our culture both within and beyond the walls of our schools, we are optimistic they will develop the character they need to build lives of purpose and impact.
This blog is part of our occasional Smart Planet series, where we explore innovations in learning across the globe. Do you have an idea or an organization that we should know about? Use the hashtag #SmartPlanet or consider submitting a guest blog by following our guest blogging procedures and emailing [email protected] with the title “Smart Planet.”
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Oliver Sabot is working to build and rapidly scale the future of African – and global – education. Follow him on Twitter @OliverSabot.

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What is Conceptual Understanding?

By Tatum Moser and Vivian Chen
In his keynote speech at ISTE 2016, Michio Kaku explained that educational development and teaching methods often follow breakthroughs and waves of technology. As new waves of technology emerge, teaching and learning expand throughout grade levels in breadth and depth to match the wave’s necessity for skills.
As the fourth wave of technology—the quantum era—nears, Kaku calls for a revolution in education: the way that students are taught must change. How then can we teach to prepare future generations for careers and life in a technologically-advanced world?
We agree with Kaku that the key is to shift the focus and teach for conceptual understanding.

Conceptual Understanding Defined

Conceptual understanding, where children can grasp ideas in a transferrable way, can help students take what they learn in class and apply it across domains. It’s a hot topic in the classroom today, as rote memorization and traditional methods of teaching math are becoming considered insufficient for real-world learning and application.
While teaching to the test is common for state accountability and measurement, these methods don’t always arm students with the skills to complete tasks outside of the classroom.
In a study conducted by Brown and Kane, preschool children were likely to transfer skills across different situations when they were encouraged to use prior taught and shown solutions. They learned best when they saw examples of solutions rather than being given an explicit rule.
In this vein, when carried over to math or another academic subject, children should be able to make decisions based on an emerging understanding gained by witnessing example solutions, not an explicit rule that only covers one problem or one way of answering a problem.

Career Readiness

When people perform in a workplace, they often act based on previous knowledge, assumptions and understandings they have about a particular situation. They intelligently make decisions on what to do, and this often has to be done in an exploratory, innovative way, especially if it’s a novel situation. More often than not, people won’t have all the necessary information they need to explicitly be told how to make the correct decision. This is where developing conceptual understanding and associations comes in.
If students aren’t given the chance to experience this type of exploratory learning as young learners, they will lack the appropriate skills to develop situations to everyday problems. We can teach our students all the information they need, but if they’re not building on, analyzing, evaluating or having the chance to be creative with this knowledge in a relevant way and making associations, they won’t develop the ability to deeply understand and transfer knowledge to make educated assumptions about new situations.
When information isn’t available, people need to use the conceptual understandings and associations they’ve formed about similar concepts to successfully execute decisions. As Kaku foreshadowed, the fourth wave of technology is coming and is entirely new, so we must prepare our students to be able to make decisions and use deeper understanding to process new information.
So how do we get there?

How Conceptual Understanding is Achieved

Combining academic learning, assessment and soft skills doesn’t have to be difficult. As Kaku noted in his keynote speech, information can be taught in various ways, from MOOCs and robots, to the Internet, people and more. Robots can replace the way information is taught or how basic tasks are performed, but creativity, experience and underlying structures may not be as replaceable.
What needs to be taught that hasn’t been an emphasis in previous decades is the common thread throughout concepts, the underlying structure of information and how ideas are related. To achieve this, we have to take our students through real world examples of professions and embed the learning within.
Just as an effective learning game has the learning tied into the core mechanics of the game, effective teaching activities need to incorporate real strategies that students will use in the real world. Instead of purely teaching memorization and facts, we have to prepare people to take abstract ideas to form thoughtful opinions and decisions as they would in a future profession.
One way to get people to understand something is to take what they’re interested in and have them explore it as if they were in that field. Especially in a school district that might not have the resources to pursue personalized learning, project-based learning and exploratory units are excellent ways to approach conceptual understanding.
In social studies, for example, rather than giving your students facts and dates, ask them to approach history as an anthropologist — have them read books as a historian who wants to understand why an event happened, and identify people groups and traditions and customs as an anthropologist. When students can piece these ideas together, they’re developing the skills to see underlying patterns and cause and effect.
As author Warren Berger discovered, children love having questions answered, and this lights a fire inside of them to want to know more. In the classroom, we can address this by encouraging curiosity. In a science unit, have your students explore a hypothesis as a scientist. Ask them how scientists approach new ideas — do they test them? What do they research? What do they need to know? Beyond knowing about cells and what they do, have them develop an understanding about how cells work. Making these connections early on will equip them with the critical thinking and investigative tools necessary to make informed assumptions.
When they ask great questions, they generate curiosity and more questions. As they ask more questions, they understand more deeply. We have to present students with situations with common threads so they can begin to learn patterns and underlying structures by asking questions themselves.

Promoting Equity Through Conceptual Understanding

While information and facts are crucial to a student’s success, what’s more important—but often underdeveloped because testing does not typically assess this—is the ability to find connections. Standardized testing has traditionally measured a student’s ability to memorize information and quickly plug in formulas, and when students are unable to perform that way, they’re placed lower than others and given special attention. In an actual workplace setting though, this memorization of skills and the specific score a student receives may not be indicative of his ability to perform or utilize prior knowledge to make an informed decision.
When we teach for understanding and not memorization, we’re leveling the playing field and equipping students with the skills to succeed in the future. The ability to transfer skills and knowledge will be much more advantageous than information that might become irrelevant, and making this the primary focus will relieve the burden on students to try to memorize information separate from how it can be utilized in a project or real world setting.
Biotechnology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence may be new concepts, but there could be underlying patterns and existing ideas that can be applied to the ways we approach new developments. By teaching for exploratory, conceptual understanding, we are teaching students to find patterns and think like real world professionals. When we do this, we are equipping students with the skills to succeed beyond a standardized test and tackle the fourth wave head-on.
For more, see:

Tatum Moser is Director of Curriculum at and a former kindergarten teacher. 
Vivian Chen is a Learning Designer at Follow them on Twitter: .

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Earn and Learn as You Teach Chinese Kids English on VIPKID

As global trade, travel and communication increase, it’s increasingly important for young people to grow up bilingual or multilingual. Students and teachers need the opportunity to extend and expand their global understandings and skills.
Over 3,000 teachers, 85% in North America, are teaching Chinese children English on VIPKID. The split screen video conferencing platform shares a lesson and picture of the student.
The engaging content is Common Core aligned (a marketing plus in China), but it’s the teachers that make the difference on VIPKID.
Teachers are interviewed, trained and well equipped to teach English on VIPKID. They receive feedback and benefit from ongoing training.
tumblr_inline_obxkvr9DME1tpruci_500Most VIPKID teachers work about 10 hours a week and earn about $1,000 per month. They can choose when they want to work but peak times are between 5:00-10:00 a.m. on eastern time and weekends.
Student choice is integrated into the design of the platform, as students can identify a teacher preference. Some stick with one teacher while others enjoy variety.
“We look for teachers with passion and love, teachers who really want to help the kids,” said CEO Cindy Mi.
Before founding VIPKID in 2013, Cindy worked in tutoring centers for 14 years. Students visited the centers for three-hour sessions. She has learned that two 25 minute sessions online is far more engaging and more effective than those long in person sessions.
“About 50 percent of the communication is nonverbal,” explained Mi. “It takes about three classes to get used to teaching online.” A little practice results in great student interaction. In this video, she shares more about VIPKID and its vision:

The 30,000 students are 5-12 years old. They come from all over China, about half from a few big cities. VIPKID the leading online education platform for teaching kids in China.The company’s goal is to provide an American elementary school experience to Chinese children online–from the comfort of their home.
VIPKID raised $125 million from prominent investors including Alibaba chairman Jack Ma.
Investment to date has supported a sophisticated platform to improve the student experience and to provide teachers with assessment data and comments from the previous teacher. The information equips teachers to personalize learning for each student. They currently support more than 10,000 classes each day.
VIPKID engageIn a trip to California last week, Cindy met with 30 teachers. Some were California public school teachers that appreciate a second income. Others are retired or are taking a year off after the birth of a child.
Want to learn more about teaching English online and connect beyond your own classroom? Check out the VIPKID blog for some great teacher stories.
VIPKID added 1,000 teachers last month and intends to continue hiring at that pace. Interested? Sign up here.
For more on language acquisition see:

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