Supporting Teachers with Professional Learning at District 51

A version of this blog ran on CompetencyWorks as the seventh in a blog series sharing Mesa County Valley School District 51‘s journey as it shifts to a competency-based education model (D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning).


As Leigh Grasso, Director of Academic Achievement & Growth at Mesa County Valley School District 51 (D51) emphasized, “We are shifting from a focus on professional development to professional learning.”

And there are a lot of people focusing on helping the adults in the system learn. In the district decision-making/ communication structure, there is the Learning System Support Team (LSST) that includes Content Facilitators (CFs), as well as a team of Professional Learning Facilitators (PLFs) who organize Design Labs for teachers.

D51 Personal Learning Facilitators Amy Shephard-Fowler, Bil Pfaffendorf and Heather Flick

In the past, D51 didn’t have a lot of systematic professional development. Four days a year were dedicated to event professional development with little choice available to teachers. In 2009-2010, D51 completed the Comprehensive Appraisal for District Improvement (CADI) process and, in so doing, the emphasis on pedagogy went to an extreme emphasis on regimented delivery of curriculum and direct instruction.

This left some teachers feeling as though they had little autonomy and limited flexibility to meet the needs of their students. PLF Heather Flick explained, “We have the perfect storm to bring performance-based learning to the Grand Valley. They are ready for a system that is focused on our students.”

Feedback: The Key To Continuous Improvement For Designing Professional Learning

In considering this new strategy, the LSST wanted to embrace the same values that undergird performance-based learning: transparency, empowerment, voice, choice, relevance and meeting people where they are. It was important to design for transparent voice and choice opportunities–teachers had not had ongoing opportunities to voice their opinions thus far, either negative or positive. It was also going to be important to ensure that teachers knew the LSSTs were not only listening but responding to their opinions. The professional learning system needed to generate trust if teachers were going to feel safe taking risks and changing practices.

The team attended a Learning Forward conference to learn more about how to build learning communities. One of the most important tips they brought back was on how to generate productive feedback. It’s simple: Make sure you use the feedback.

PLF Amy Shephard-Fowler explained, “We used to ask for open feedback and much of it wasn’t very useful. When we started sharing the feedback with teachers and describing how we made adjustments based on it, the feedback became much more useful. We now use feedback protocols for everything we do. It helps teachers think about the type of feedback they are giving and they are confident that we will consider it for improving professional learning.”

There was also a shift to include more staff in the design and implementation of professional learning. Calls for proposals went out in designing the professional learning days. However, they learned that offering more voice and choice isn’t enough–there has to be a clear purpose. Shephard-Fowler recalled, “When we just asked teachers to submit proposals for presentations, we had a large range of topics and practices. There were a lot of options for teachers, but overall it was hit and miss in terms of driving a transformation in the district. So the next year we organized the professional learning and calls for proposals under the title ‘Tools for Transformation’ as we better understood we were not going to change practice unless we were more clear about the purpose.”

They also began to coach teachers who were presenting in adult education (based on andragogy, the adult learning theory of Malcolm Knowles), introducing the very same concepts of growth mindset, personalization, relevance, transferability and presentation skills. As a result, D51 is building their cadre of trainers who will be able to coach other trainers as the demand for professional learning increases.

Design Labs

D51 uses the term Design Labs to describe the professional learning sessions on the core concepts and skills related to the transition to performance-based learning. Rebecca Midles, D51’s Executive Director of Performance-Based Systems, said, “Designing is empowering. We all stay empowered when we think we can design and change the world around us.”

Shepherd-Fowler enthusiastically agreed. “Design is the teaching, learning and assessment cycle,” she said. “Kids can take this same process – where are we, what are the ideas, let’s try this one – and take it back to an authentic audience to get feedback. By introducing design thinking into the core of the pedagogy, we are laying the foundation for students to become independent learners.”

She described their approach as “contextualized design thinking” that is very clear on the context of the learners and the end result. Some might call it strategic design thinking. They’ve drawn a bit from Stanford’s approach as well as the design thinking processes promoted at the Colorado Education Initiative.

Flick emphasized, “If you want to personalize professional learning, you are going to end up using design thinking to do it. There just isn’t any way you can actually meet people where they are AND get to where you want to go. Our design process is completely iterative, as we are designing within a context of the culture of a growth mindset, effective practices to support more agency and independence in our learners, and eventually, the graduate competencies based on the graduate profile the community is creating.”

Currently, there are five offerings of Design Labs organized around three themes:

  • Culture (Social & Emotional Learning and Growth Mindset);
  • Learner-Centered Environment (Backward by Design, Shared Vision & Code of Cooperation, and Workshop); and
  • Transparency (Assessment for Learning & Rubrics).

The LSST has also drafted a Learning Continuum for each of the Design Lab modules, running from emerging and exploring to applying and refining (see Growth Mindset Learning Continuum). There are indicators for each of the five steps: the brain, understanding mindsets, self-talk, growth feedback and goal-setting.

The modules and the continuums mean that professional learning can become more personalized and teachers can eventually become more independent in their learning. In current professional learning sessions, you might walk into a room with 120 teachers, where some are clustered together learning about the adolescent brain and others on self-talk.

The PLFs hope to continue to personalize the modules, as not every teacher will learn in the same way and reactions to instructional materials will vary. They are also hoping at some point to be able to put the modules online so they are available 24/7. This will help with the issue of scaling professional learning so that all 1,500 teachers have access when they are ready for the next step.

Tips For Designing Professional Learning

What would the professional learning advisors recommend to other districts getting started?

  • Meet Teachers Where They Are. Always ask teachers what they need.
  • Use Feedback to Build Trust and Accountability. Be transparent with your feedback. Intentionally share the feedback from teachers and show how you used their feedback. In other words, hold yourself accountable.
  • Include Transferability. Professional learning has to be clear about how it can be used in the classroom. This requires making it explicit, using the practices, and modeling them for teachers. Tools need to help teachers and also be examples of what classroom tools might look like.
  • Make Connections. Don’t assume teachers learning new practices are going to make connections. Intentionally make the connections.
  • Be Prepared for a Variety of Learning Styles. Remember that teachers will have different styles and pacing of learning. Some will take small bites and practice until they feel confident before taking another bite. “Omnivores” may go after new ideas until they are overloaded, at which point they will back off, cool down and then throw themselves back in.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.


Creating Powerful Student Learning Experiences with Escape Rooms

Many of you have probably participated in an Escape Room, the latest in experiential entertainment. If not, the premise is simple: you are locked in a room with up to eight people, and you must solve a series of puzzles to unlock clues that will eventually help you “escape.”

There are all kinds of themes; I’ve been in a Nazi invasion, a Zombie apocalypse, and a murder mystery, and we escaped in two out of three of the rooms. I’m pretty hooked on these rooms because I love group dynamics, and it is very interesting to see who leads, who follows, who goes off on their own and who has the type of mind that sees patterns or reads clues well.

Of course, as soon as I completed my first experience I was dying to make one for my own classroom. I’ve yet to pull this off, but I will be doing my first classroom escape room this spring. As I’ve planned, I’ve found amazing resources to make the process seamless (I hope!). Here’s what I’ve learned:

Teach 21st-Century Skills

Before I started planning this spring adventure, I wanted to make sure that I had legitimate reasons for creating an escape room. Of course, the reason could simply be that it is fun and team building, but I knew that there were plenty of 21st-century skills at work too. As I adapted and developed the puzzles, it was clear that students will need critical thinking, persistence, collaborative skills and the ability to multi-task.

To learn more, check out this podcast, and this great article that expand on what having 21st-century skills really means. The article interviews Tony Wagner, who addresses how these skills must complement what is needed in the workplace. Marie Bjerede writes, “In his book, The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner lays out seven “survival skills” that are needed in a modern workplace: Critical thinking and problem solving; collaboration across networks and leading by influence; agility and adaptability; initiative and leadership; effective oral and written communication; accessing and analyzing information; and curiosity and imagination.” The chance to create this level of engagement is exciting and promotes the skills that forward thinking educators are interested in.

Build Real Student Engagement

In some circles, the phrase “student engagement” has started to have a negative connotation. Some are looking at it as compliance, like this piece by author Peter DeWitt. He definitely makes the point that sometimes when students seem engaged–nodding their heads, sitting up straight, and participating–we feel self-congratulatory that our students are engaged. Though I agree with his premise, I think that student engagement is crucial for success in school, even the compliant kind he describes. Students must learn to “do school” with certain mindsets and signs of outward engagement.

However, activities that engage students because of their curiosity and their desire to solve a problem takes engagement to an entirely different, and better, level. If you are starting to wonder about how student engagement can work for you, check out this great comprehensive guide put out by Great Schools Partnerships that details how engagement can be viewed as intellectual, emotional, behavioral, physical, social and cultural. Depending on what type of escape room you use or create, you could be addressing a few of these or even all of them.

Use Existing Resources

As important and timesaving as I know it is, I tend to do everything myself. I’ll look at what other educators are doing, but I just haven’t been able to take someone else’s plan and go with it. That is all about to change!

There are truly amazing, ready-to-go escape room plans that are already aligned to standards, so I’d be crazy to spend hours creating essentially the same experience for my students. Why not utilize what already exists for my first foray into doing an escape room? Then, next time, I can tweak it or elaborate in a different direction.

Jennifer Casa-Todd, an accomplished Canadian educator, has an excellent blog that helps connect the experiences to standards but also includes real-life examples that I am drawing from. This blog by DJ Embry for GoGuardian is helpful because it talks specifically about timing pitfalls, what supplies you need and how to modify the experience for a room full of students. If you have the funding, BreakoutEDU has an excellent array of kits that eliminate the legwork.

The Plan

I’m planning my escape room around the theme of  “Writer’s Block.” The clues will lead them through a circuit that includes brainstorming (they’ll have to come up with something that we don’t list, kind of like the game Taboo), using resources (there will be a computer research component), using figurative language (this will be a section where they have to identify it in a passage and figure out the clue) and finally they’ll need grammar (the escape code will be embedded in a complete sentence) to escape. I’m going to incorporate the tips that I’ve picked up, as well as try to make it my own.

Am I nervous? A little. There are lots of things to think about, but with these resources, I think I’ve got it covered. I have no doubt that my students’ engagement won’t be the compliant kind, but instead an immersive experience that epitomizes why we should work towards student engagement in the first place. We can’t do activities like this every day, of course, but I look at this type of day as a booster shot to ensure a healthy interest as students walk in the room wondering, “What are we up to today?”

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.


Learning Through Community Health Partnerships

By Corinne Neil

For the past year Clark Street Community School, the WI Music and Memory program, and the WI Alzheimer’s Institute (an academic center within the UW School of Medicine and Public Health), in collaboration with Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, have embarked on a partnership that is doing just this. 

And the results are powerful.

Facilitated by Kate Kowalski, Education Resource Manager at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute (WIA), Julie Hyland, Director of the WI Music and Memory Student Program along with CSCS faculty, the students at CSCS are accessing experiences and engaging in learning in a way that forges youth-adult partnerships, embeds field experts in high school classes, impacts communities, and nurtures curiosity about medicine, health, wellness, care-giving and policy. 

The program structure is this. Students explore mental health, well-being, and brain science to better understand the medical conditions of Alzheimers and dementia. They focus much of this learning around the effects of music on the brain and the benefits of music for patients. They are then partnered with Alzheimer patients and caregivers to conduct ‘music’ interviews where they ask questions and learn about musical preferences and memories associated with particular songs.  Students follow up by pre-loading and donating iPods with customized playlists for the families and patients they meet in these partnerships.

“We see students using their learning in this seminar as a springboard to so many important and personalized projects”, explained Heather Messer, one of the lead instructors in the Music & Memory seminar. “We had one student give a public presentation to raise awareness of the aging population within the prison system, another created a rap that highlighted her learning and understanding around brain function and mental health, and others dive into deeper relationships with aging family members. It’s incredible to watch how this seminar engages students on multiple levels.”

Kate Kowalski, Education Resource Manager at WIA, has coordinated numerous learning experiences on the UW Campus for the CSCS students. “Experts and volunteers from the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center have been excited to share their knowledge, expertise, and passion around the study of dementia, and offer a glimpse into the types of careers available in the field of Alzheimer’s and dementia.” explains Kowalski, about their partnership with CSCS.“It is our sincere hope that by educating young people about dementia, we are helping to facilitate a dialogue around dementia that will result in increased awareness, acceptance, and reduced stigma towards those impacted.” 

With Kowalski’s coordination, students have met with Sara Berman, an MD, PhD student for an overview of what the Alzheimer’s brain looks like, symptoms, diagnosis, and possible treatment protocols. Berman also brought human brains for the students to interact with, including holding and examining the brains. CSCS students have opportunities to participate with the UW Neuropathology Conference at the morgue to witness Dr. Salamat teach medical students as he autopsied the brains of four recently deceased patients. Always welcoming, Dr. Salamat invites questions, and quizzes Clark Street students about physiological structures and functions related to what they were seeing during each of the autopsies.

Julie Hyland, Director of the Music and Memory Student Program, shares an equal enthusiasm for the Music and Memory Seminar and coordinates the CSCS student volunteers that make iPod playlists for dementia patients. “Providing information on the disease in order to understand the physical changes in the brain and how that transforms a person’s ability to communicate is key to empathy and understanding, which in turn reduces stigma and bias.” Hyland has facilitated multiple terms of the Music & Memory Program at Clark Street Community School and is an advocate of the ongoing work being done in this seminar. 

“These partnerships really embody the spirit and intention of Clark Street Community School“, explains Messer. “Reciprocal partnerships with community organizations bring students, families and experts together to work toward common goals, in individualized ways, that better our world. That’s transformative education. That’s the kind of disruption we need.”

For more, see:

Corinne Neil is an advisor and instructor at Clark Street Community School. Follow them on Twitter: @ClarkStSchool.


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.


Building a World Bridge to College, Career and Life Readiness

What do you get when you mix NASA scientists and earthquake research together with a group of inspired Alaskan students?

Not only do you get the Earthquake Signal Precursor (ESP) monitoring system, potentially serving as an early-warning earthquake detection technique that could save lives, but you accelerate academic performance for students in STEM to greatly enhance the quality of our next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.

Students from Kodiak High School worked in concert with NASA scientists to design and build the ESP infrastructure, the hardware and software necessary to measure and display earthquake precursor data in real-time. This involved participation in conference calls with NASA to describe their progress and work through various challenges just like any professional research and development team.

NASA was impressed enough with the results of their enterprise to suggest the team submit their project to the international NASA World Wind Europa Challenge. This is an annual challenge where university students and industry professionals from around the world compete to win top honors for their solutions serving the NASA motto ‘for the benefit of all.’ Thinking they might get an honorable mention, the Kodiak High School team submitted their project…and then won first place against some of the best and brightest university students from around the world.

This is just one of the opportunities provided by A World Bridge, an international program led by Trillium Learning and its partners from government, industry and academia. This program is designed to challenge students with real-world, real-time high-tech projects that help boost next-generation interest in STEM careers and prepare them for college, career and life success via curriculum options involving professional-level, project-based learning.

Members of the Kodiak Team working on their project (picture courtesy of Trillium Learning)

In The Beginning

Ron Fortunato, president of Trillium Learning and coordinator of the A World Bridge program, first became involved in these kinds of projects as a teacher in Virginia. “I was working with kids in an afterschool enrichment program and frankly was quite discouraged with the way I was teaching,” Fortunato said. “I was teaching the way I was taught, and I could tell the students weren’t happy and I wasn’t happy. Something needed to change.”

Enter NASA, who was having an all too common prospective employer problem: Graduates were applying to work for NASA, yet they couldn’t solve problems independently. “College is too late to teach problem-solving and other skills they’ll need to be a successful employee someday. But high school is a great place for developing those skills,” Fortunato said.

NASA decided to help its potential future employees by inviting schools to participate in a problem-solving challenge around space flight, with a chance to fly an experiment on an actual space shuttle mission. Fortunato, who was tasked with taking his enrichment program participants around the district and “come up with things for them to do,” heard about the challenge and decided his students needed to participate in this hands-on project. “This seemed like the perfect opportunity to help my students gain the real-life skills they weren’t getting, so we submitted a proposal and we were amazed when we actually won.”

Fortunato and his students created a “space lab” with donated equipment from NASA, and then met their supervisors, the NASA Viking team–the very same group that put the Viking Lander on Mars. It was through this experience that Fortunato learned how NASA puts together space flight organizations. Different student groups were paired with the NASA engineering team, communications team, science data management, mechanical and electrical systems, etc., to mentor them on the project.

Even Fortunato had a mentor. “They paired me up with the project manager for the Viking mission. I learned so much from him about how to build a problem-solving organization, and establish an integrated systems-thinking team – designed to take on problems that have never been solved” said Fortunato. After years of hard work, the student team had their experiment approved by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and it flew on a NASA Space Shuttle mission.

Picture courtesy of Trillium Learning

What’s Next for ‘A World Bridge’ Students?

This extraordinary education experience is what gave rise to Fortunato developing Trillium Learning, to help design and build exciting educational environments for other school districts.

“One of those projects today is CitySmart, an international initiative to support management of urban resources (such as energy grids, through water grids, to transportation grids). This web app would help city personnel to manage their urban infrastructure,” Fortunato said. “So again, NASA suggested we participate in advancing a CitySmart prototype web app for urban management, utilizing the NASA World Wind virtual globe technology.”

Students ranging from New York’s Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, to Alaska’s Kodiak and Yupiit School Districts, are developing functionalities for CitySmart. These will help city staff manage their resources for a more sustainable, more livable and more resilient urban environment. The students’ current progress was presented by Fortunato at a recent international conference with representatives from cities around the world that included NASA and European Space Agency.

The Kodiak Electric Association Wind Farm (picture courtesy of Trillium Learning)

During this project, students collaborated with NASA researchers and learned to code in JavaScript, how to interact with an application programming interface (API) and how to construct a basic web application, while experiencing the kind of pressures that accompany real-world projects, such as deadlines, budget constraints and changing priorities.

“We’re pretty excited to share what we’ve created with city administrators and high-tech solution providers, but our projects have more value than just the product created,” Fortunato said. “At the end of the day, these students have learned how to learn. They know how to break down a problem and solve it using their own skill sets, as well as being able to identify what skills are needed but not available in their group, and then they find a way to learn that needed skill. This kind of systems approach to problem-solving is what will help them be successful wherever they go in life.”

Immediately after the Italy conference, NASA took Fortunato to the UN FAO office in Rome to discuss the NASA World Wind application being used by the FAO locust intervention program. This program attempts to identify development and movement of locust activity before they swarm, which if allowed to happen, can decimate agriculture at the national scale. Fortunato learned that the UN FAO would benefit from additional tools to enhance their early warning system in detecting locust swarm development, and thereby better facilitate a rapid response to eliminate this threat.

Based on the A World Bridge teams’ previous work, the UN FAO invited these teams to develop additional tools with NASA World Wind that FAO can distribute to other countries facing the locust problem and the potential for massive impact to food resources. “There’s no limit to A World Bridge projects. These students learn and contribute at their highest level of performance,” said Fortunato.

Interested in getting your students and/or school involved? Contact Ron Fortunato via email to find out more.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.


Conspiracy of 10 Lessons and Innovations Drive Postsecondary Learning

While high levels of youth unemployment, rising college costs and mounting debt paint a dire picture of the employment landscape, things are getting better. There is a conspiracy of ten lessons and innovations that will drive improved options and outcomes for learners of all ages.

But first the bad news. Despite two decades of emphasis on college readiness, the majority of American youth leave high school unprepared for college and careers.

Most American students aren’t taking the right courses in high school. EdTrust reported that (in 2013) only four of ten students completed a course of study that makes them college eligible, and less than one in ten completes a course of study that prepares them for college and career.

Math and reading NAEP scores have been flat for 25 years with less than four of ten seniors scoring “college ready” (and since more than one in ten students drop out before taking this test, it’s fair to say that about two-thirds of U.S. students leave school unprepared for success in college). As Fordham’s Mike Petrilli said, “We’ve succeeded at motivating more young people to enroll, but we haven’t prepared more of them to succeed at it.”

college and career readiness

The cost of traditional college continues to escalate at about 3% per year. The chart from College Board below reveals that much of the cost increase is the campus arms race–fancy dorms and dining halls–while the bargain hunter will find net tuition close to flat. Great Recession state divestment made the costs of public institutions grow faster than private colleges.

Ten Positive Long-Term Trends

The good news is there are at least ten trends improving college and career preparation and lifelong learning.

1. Personalized learning. Inexpensive devices and ubiquitous broadband means most U.S. K-12 students benefit from blended environments and some level of personalized learning.

2. Deeper student-centered learning. Higher standards and tougher graduation requirements don’t necessarily translate into real readiness, but foundations and networks have been promoting learning experiences that develop critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. What started as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills in 2002 has developed broad support, renewed relevance and has been given new license in federal policy.

3. Growth mindset. Thirty years of research makes it clear that a growth mindset–an appreciation of the importance of effort and persistence–is critical for college and career success. Similarly, the ability to manage yourself, to collaborate with others and make good decisions (often called social-emotional learning) is widely recognized as key to success in life. Mindset and self-management is being taught in advisory periods, incorporated into culture and climate and integrated across the curriculum through extended challenges and project-based learning.

These broader aims of skills and dispositions are being expressed in updated high school graduate profiles (see NGLC MyWays and EdLeader21 Gallery). These aspirations also focus on making good decisions (or wayfinding), an increasingly important set of skills in school and life.

4. Access to college preparatory and dual enrollment courses. Many states, districts and networks have better aligned graduation requirements with college eligibility and are improving access to dual enrollment opportunities.

5. High school graduation rates: High school graduation rates increased from 71% in 1995 to 83% in 2015.

6. College enrollment. Despite a small dip after record recession enrollments, there is a long-term trend toward participation in postsecondary education. As the chart below shows, most of the growth in post high school participation over the last two decades came from low-income students.

The Great Recession caused a big drop in low-income enrollments between 2008 and 2012. According to an ACE report, “The rapid price increases in recent years, especially in the public college sector, may have led many students–particularly low-income students–to think that college is out of reach financially.” The decline, primarily at the community college level, is also a function of the improving job market.

Add the millions enrolled in new postsecondary options (#10) and participation in further and higher learning is exploding.

7. Focus on college completion. Leading school networks observed a decade ago that even though they were sending nearly all of their students to college, completion rates were disappointingly low. In addition to a focus on deeper learning and building persistence, they increased efforts to improve college match and supports in college (KIPP Through CollegeAspire College for Certain, Achievement First Alumni Support).

Higher education is using student data to improve support, and communication to improve completion.

8. “Show What You Know.” The world is moving toward demonstrated competence. In K-12, teachers and students are earning badges and microcredentials. Portfolios are increasingly used to share artifacts of learning. Profiles, resumes and references verify work experiences.

New degree programs like WGU, College for America and Georgia Tech’s Master´s in Computer Science signal a show what you know future.

Microcredentials are becoming more common on LinkedIn, and most come from technology companies. Coursera, at #2 in the graphic below, and EdX, at #18, are the only “academic institutions” on the list.

9. Decision support services & tools. Good high schools have an advisory system that includes guidance, culture building activities and links to student supports. More than 50 college access and success organizations are making an impact.

Information systems that support high school scheduling, guidance and advisory systems are enabling better postsecondary choices.

10. Rise of lifelong learning. The most important “exit slip” upon high school graduation isn’t the symbolic diploma students are handed as they walk across the stage, but the combination of a college-ready transcript, a work-ready resume and a portfolio of artifacts that demonstrate competence.

About 58 million people took free online courses last year. Here’s a recap of the top 10 classes in 2016:

Add career and technical options, code schools, open education resources and educational apps and there’s an explosion of lifelong learning opportunities.

The economy demands more postsecondary learning. While recent, these 10 trends are improving preparation for and access to postsecondary and lifelong learning

Formal degree programs are holding their own but the real growth (where it’s really hard to track) is in informal learning where anywhere access to free and high-quality content is growing exponentially.

For more see:


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.


Immersion Education: A Route to Educational, Social and Real Life Success

By Diane Balagna

Twenty kindergarten students shout in unison, “Ours brun, ours brun, dis-moi ce que tu vois! Je vois…” Brown bear, brown bear, tell me what you see! I see… Their eyes are wide with anticipation as the teacher turns the page ever so slowly, and the children in the front eagerly try to peek around the other side of the page to see what’s next.

This is a typical morning at Académie Lafayette, a French immersion public charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Founded nearly 20 years ago as the first charter school in the state of Missouri, Académie Lafayette is known for outstanding student achievement. Located in the heart of the city, their students are 34% minority and 21% free and reduced lunch. 99% of their student population does not speak French when they begin attending, yet their state test scores in reading and math are higher than any public school in the greater Kansas City area, including successful suburban districts. Their secret? Immersion.

“Our program is 85-90% immersion,” says Elimane Mbengue, Head of School. “French is the language of instruction in core subjects of math, science, language arts and social studies. Art, music, P.E. and computer classes are also taught in French. On state testing our students consistently outperform the district average, state average and surrounding suburban districts, in spite of being taught in French and tested in English.”

Immersion Enhances Attention and Cognition

Brain-based research shows that learning requires more effort and focus when content is delivered in the target language. Multilingual students must practice focusing and tuning out distractions. This helps children develop a “clearer attention signal” and more efficient learning.

Remember building with Legos when you were a child? Imagine each language you know represents one set of Legos. Adding another set of Legos exponentially increases the number of things you can build. Likewise, adding another language is like adding another set of Legos to your brain, multiplying the number of connections that can be made.

According to research, “The heightened monitoring of the dual language student… leads to greater cognitive strategies and recruiting additional neural tissue and greater brain density.” Adding a new language has been shown to increase mental capacity. Multilingual students literally have more dendrites available for learning.

Beyond obvious linguistic advantages, the immersion model of instruction fosters connections across the curriculum. Languages with Latin roots such as French and Spanish promote familiarity with vocabulary and concepts students will encounter in science, medicine, music, law and philosophy. Research shows multilingual students are able to better hypothesize in science.

Extensive research demonstrates that multilingual students outperform monolinguals in divergent thinking, pattern recognition and problem-solving. Many more research studies across the nation affirm that foreign language learners consistently outperform control groups in core subject areas on standardized tests to a significant degree.

Tom DeZutter, a 2013 Académie Lafayette graduate, scored a perfect 36 on the English section of the ACT. “We always had the best MAP scores in math and English,” he remembers. “At AL we learned to dig deep into everything, to expand our knowledge base beyond what is asked of us, not just learn enough to do well on a test.”

Immersion Enhances Social Awareness and Self-Esteem

When navigating a multilingual environment, students must consider context clues, including the social context, when determining the best response. According to a recent study led by Katherine Kinzler, an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, “Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others… Babies in multilingual environments, including those who are exposed to a second language only minimally, already understand the importance of adopting another’s perspective for communication. Multilingual exposure… facilitates the basic skills of interpersonal understanding.”

During a recent tour for local education leaders, guests asked student ambassadors Ayla and Jayden what they loved most about Académie Lafayette. Recess? No. Learning a new language? No. Jayden says, “What I love most about my school is my friends. We have fun together, we help each other, and I like seeing them every day.” Ayla’s story echoes hers: “On my first day here, I felt really nervous. I didn’t know how to speak French. But then I saw a friend from my neighborhood and they gave me a hug and said everything would be okay. I have lots of friends here now.”

Multiple studies affirm the self-esteem benefits of learning a new language, particularly for those students who might otherwise struggle in school, and have found that language students have a significantly higher self-concept than do non-language students. Again, Tara Williams Fortune’s summary of research finds that the benefits of foreign language study “reach across socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, as well as diverse cognitive and linguistic abilities.”

Immersion Enhances Career Opportunities and Global Ties

Abundant research demonstrates that second language study promotes cultural awareness and competency. According to this study, “in an age of global interdependence and an increasingly multicultural and multiethnic society, early foreign language study gives children unique insight into other cultures and builds their cultural competency skills in a way that no other discipline is able to do.”

According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, “The benefits of language study to society at large are many. Americans fluent in other languages improve global communication, enhance our economic competitiveness abroad, and maintain our political and security interests.”

Tom deZutter, the student mentioned earlier with a perfect 36 English ACT score, plans to get a master’s degree in engineering. When asked how he plans to use French in a scientific career, he had a ready answer. “Communicating with international scientists will be huge. This will be a team effort; this is everyone’s earth. Knowing another language helps you understand other cultures, teaches you how to respect differences, and helps you collaborate.” He continues, “I am very grateful that my parents took the chance to send me to this school,” he said. “I would not be who I am without it.”

For more, see:

Diane Balagna assists with admissions at Académie Lafayette as well as coordinating their student teacher program. Follow them on Twitter: @LafayetteKC


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.


Mathematical Discourse: A Matter of Sharing and Questioning

There are countless motivational and inspirational quotes about the power of group dialogue and collective thinking. When done right, collaboration amongst a group should result in reaching effective solutions. Part of the process includes recognizing that there may be multiple paths to a solution, and that some are viable and some are simply ineffective. There is great power in many minds coming together. What if these notions can apply to productive mathematical discourse?

Curriculum Associates’ latest white paper, Selecting and Sequencing Student Solutionsauthored by Gladis Kersaint, Dean of the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut–outlines strategies educators can use to promote collaborative math discourse amongst students and between teachers and students in the context of Stein and Smith’s five practices that promote classroom discussion.

She emphasizes three phases a teacher must work through even before engaging in Stein and Smith’s five practices: planning, selecting and sequencing.

1. Planning for Productive Mathematics Discussions – a teacher must strategically plan for tasks and problems conducive to discussion. In math, these are tasks which are approachable from varying levels of understanding and learning styles. In planning, teachers must anticipate the different approaches students will use in solving a problem.

2. Selecting Student Work for Classroom Discussion – a teacher must decide what ideas and which students are best suited for an effectively facilitated discussion. This means knowing students and their personal strengths, and establishing a commitment to coaching, validating and commending them for the role they play in the classroom. During the selection process, a teacher must assess the necessity of demonstrating erroneous approaches, discussing differing or similar strategies, and/or expanding the discussion through further questioning.

3. Sequencing Student Work to Support Meaningful Classroom Discussion – a teacher must strategically arrange the student presentations, determining whether it is beneficial to highlight erroneous thinking and common misconceptions, to increase the level of complexity in thinking, and/or to sequence less common to more common approaches. Proper sequencing allows for students to respond to thought-provoking questions that require them to agree or disagree, to compare and contrast, to analyze continuity between the question and answer, to determine the level of efficiency of differing solutions, and to consider the thought processes of his or her peers.

A teacher can best plan for, select and sequence classroom discussions by considering key questions such as the following:

When a math classroom has a culture of sharing mathematical thinking and solution strategies, students learn as a collective group, and simply put, “When students share, discuss, and compare strategies, teachers have greater insight into students’ thinking.”

With a careful and deliberate approach, teachers have the opportunity to enhance students’ mathematical development through appropriate, next-level questioning.

Want to learn more? Register for Selecting and Sequencing Student Solutions for Productive Math Discourse with author Gladis Kersaint on April 17th.

For more see:


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.


Innov8: Looking Ahead

The end of March is almost here, and after 5 full weeks we here at Getting Smart are breathing a collective sigh of relief while excitedly preparing for April. Who doesn’t love a month that celebrates autism awareness, school librarians, and Education and Sharing Day, all while encouraging you to carry a poem in your pocket? Our theme for April will be “scaled impact,” and we’ll be looking at good examples of schools and networks that have successfully spread the implementation of innovative education practices.

In light of our excitement for spring to fully arrive and our optimism for the upcoming month, this week’s top 8 education news stories are all about looking ahead.

#NewSchools & #EdTech Tools

1. Fighting Fake News

Fake news may no longer be as hot of a topic without an election looming, but it’s still important to know how to recognize it.

2. LMS Expansion

Interested in learning more about Schoology? Check out our feature on them.

Digital Developments

3. The Future of EdTech

This may be a bit of self-promotion, but it’s important to believe in yourself. We hope you’ll forgive us this one time.

It’s A #ProjectBased World

4. Project Design Checklist

We’re encouraging educators everywhere to take part in creating a Model for High-Quality PBL!

Planting a #SEAD

5. SEL Design Challenge

SEL assessments are tough to design–they’re not just another test. But we do love a good challenge.

Dollars & Deals

6. $43M to Kaizen

Deeper, Further, Faster #HigherEd

7. College Savings

This could be a big step towards greater Equity & Access.

Movers, Shakers & Groundbreakers

8. Profile Of A Graduate

This is a great exercise. We respectfully recommend traits that will prepare students for a rapidly changing and complex world.

Have a news item you’d like us to consider for next Wednesday’s edition? Tweet us @Getting_Smart using #innov8 or to email [email protected] with “Innov8” in the subject line. For more ideas on what type of stories we run, check out the full Innov8 series on our blog.


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.


Embedding SEL Across the Curriculum

The ability to manage time and attention, to direct learning, to read social situations and to work productively with others–these are the types of character strengths that will most determine success in school, life and work.

These traits and dispositions are developed in many ways–beginning at home and continued through positive youth development experiences, faith congregations, community connections (scouts, youth sports, fine arts), school experiences and more.

Character is caught as well as taught–too often, we’ve relied on the former. The teaching of social-emotional skills must be explicit. Kids should be meta about character strengths–when they recognize strengths in themselves and others, they can change a culture. While sometimes these skills can be taught in isolated incidents, it is most effective when integrated into school culture, curriculum and guidance services.

The Aspen Institute recently launched the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. Kudos to Aspen for the nomenclature and resulting acronym (SEAD), underscoring that social emotional learning and academic development are inextricably linked.

The goal is to build consensus around a lexicon, metrics and strategies that more fully embrace the integration of academic goals and SEL. We believe that one of the most effective strategies for marrying SEL and core subjects is to embed SEL into the formal curricula. Outlined below are numerous examples.

SCHOOLS/NETWORKS

1. Summit Public Schools. The innovative Summit network supports student outcomes in four quadrants: content, knowledge, cognitive skills, habits of success and real-life experiences (listen to a podcast discussion). All are mapped to integrated learning experiences. CAO Adam Carter describes the importance of habits of success as the thread that ties all content together:

“Habits of Success are really important. As educators, parents and community members, we know that they are the invisible thread that ties together the fabric of relationships and organizations. They are bound intimately with motivation and achievement. They count, but we don’t yet count them. We should.”

2. Evanston/Skokie School District. Superintendent Paul Goren has long placed an emphasis on SEL. Teachers in his district combine explicit SEL instruction with an embedded curricular approach where teachers take what they are teaching and incorporate social and emotional skills and competencies within them.

For example, The Diary of Anne Frank is taught not only from a language arts or historical point of view, it can also be taught with an eye on SEL. Teachers illustrate to students how Anne dealt with conflict in her life and encourage kids to reflect upon their own ways of dealing with conflict or crisis.

3. Thrive Public Schools. This San Diego-based school emphasizes personalized, project-based and social emotional learning. Principal Nicole Assisi reflects, “Interwoven in all we do at Thrive is an emphasis on students’ self-advocacy and self‐actualization.” Thrive values Social Emotional Learning, has a rubric to measure SEL progress, and created the short video below about their approach.“We emphasize self‐regulation and good decision-making in the pursuit of ambitious goals, helping students understand that some of the greatest learning can come from reflection on ‘failures’,” adds Assisi.

4. Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. DSIS leverages each student’s Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) as a way for advisors, teachers and students to connect SEL and core content through questions such as:

  • What class are you feeling the most success in? What are some things that you are doing to make things go well?
  • Do you have any concerns? What data in your PLP supports this concern? What resources and personal assets do you have available to you to help address this concern?

5. Grandview School District. Grandview is 1 of 40 schools in Washington State involved in a College Spark Washington foundation-supported initiative. SEL is embedded in a variety of ways: all schools have advisory, all students create a plan and share academic progress and exemplar work through regularly student-led conferences.Numerous aspects of the initiative are integrated with core subjects (e.g. in Language Arts, students work on a personal statement for college essay; in Social Studies, students conduct a civic volunteer project that connects to their interests). They’ve seen the number of students with college ready transcripts increase from 21.1% in 2011 to 72% in 2016.

6. Deer Park School District. Deer Park’s innovative and blended approach to improving school culture through focusing on strengths was featured in a recent EdWeek article. Thanks to a partnership between Mayerson AcademyVIA Institute on Character and Happify (an online gaming platform that supports social-emotional learning concepts), students are identifying and developing character strengths and recognizing strengths in all class periods.

7. New Tech Network. The NTN student outcomes rubric includes not only academic skills but also agency and collaboration. Agency means that students take ownership of their own learning. There is really nothing more “embedded” than that. In addition, students learn to be productive members of diverse teams with a commitment to shared success (#Embedded). Learn more about NTN in this feature and podcast.

8. Design39. Part of the Poway Unified School District, Design39 leverages collaboration to change the way “we do school.” By addressing core academics through a collaborative community model, SEL is naturally embedded–emphasizing creative confidence, design thinking, inquiry, global connections, courage and a growth mindset.

9. Beacon Network Schools. These two Denver middle schools, Grant Beacon and Kepner Beacon,  stress character and provide qualitative and quantitative feedback every day in every class.

10. Rogers High School. When students see their principal care about their social-emotional health, they take notice. It’s not unusual for Washington State Principal of the Year Lori Wyborney to meet 1:1 with a dozen students. She says, “Students need to build relationships with adults. They need a lot of support. It takes all of us working with all our kids. We need social workers that can help families navigate the system. We can talk all day about all the statistics that come to the building and we could let every one of those be a barrier. We are not the NFL. We do not get to pick our team. We have to do whatever it takes to make students win.”

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)also recently published key insights from the Collaborating Districts initiative which offers numerous additional examples.

The reality is that students and adults alike need to draw from their social-emotional capacity across all settings. Whether you are in the classroom or the boardroom, being aware of your own feelings as well as those of others near you, knowing how to make good choices when it comes to the many decisions we make every day, and the ability to manage stress levels and persevere toward a goal are all imperative skills to successfully navigating day-to-day life.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.


What Does Personalized Learning Mean for Teachers?

As families, communities, parents, teachers and students around the country have deep conversations around how to transform schools to better prepare each student for future success, many schools are implementing personalized learning models to best meet the unique needs of each student and prepare all students for a lifetime of success (simultaneously).

Good teachers have always sought to match their teaching to the unique needs of each student – by offering options to dig deeper into an assignment for advanced learners or by offering additional support or a modified assignment to struggling learners.

Yet, doing so for a class of 20 to 30 students has been simply impossible for every student, in every lesson, every day with a single teacher and a single textbook.

It’s time for empowering educators to personalize learning. Now, thanks to new designs, tools and approaches, teachers can provide every student with powerful, personalized learning experiences. Teachers find this empowering and motivating.

In personalized learning models, educators’ roles are more important than ever as they design customized approaches, their professional expertise is valued and respected. In fact, many teachers explain that one of the biggest benefits of personalized learning is that they can “get back to the reason I became a teacher.”

Teachers prefer personalized learning for these reasons:

  • Teachers form stronger relationships with students because they spend more time getting to know each student and his/her strengths, goals and interests.
  • Teachers focus on research around how students learn best.
  • Teachers have more time each day where they can communicate and collaborate with one another, asking questions and figuring out what’s working and not working.
  • Teachers get to be more creative in how they design curriculum and instruction.
  • Teachers can spend more time working individually and in small groups with students.
  • Teachers spend less time preparing students for high-stakes tests and more time acting as guides and mentors to students as they are learning.
  • Teachers help students better understand themselves and their goals for the future.
  • Teachers have more opportunities to develop their own skills as teachers and to work in collaboration with other teachers.

What Does Personalized Learning Look Like For Teachers?

Connecting with Students

James Rickabaugh highlights the potential of personalized learning to dramatically improve student outcomes. In his book, Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning, teachers share their perspectives in their own words:

“By teaching in a personalized learning community, we realize that our shift in teaching has greatly helped our students. We provide students with choice and voice while they work to achieve their personalized goals. We have moved education ‘beyond textbooks’ by taking necessary steps into 21st century learning personalized using technology. Through professional collaboration and planning, teachers work together in teams to focus on using technology in our everyday teaching and learning. Students are introduced to concepts that are current, relevant and interesting to each individual learner. These opportunities allow us as teachers to connect with and appreciate our students not only on an academic level, but on a social and emotional level as well. From there, we are able to individualize to their academic and social needs, such as public speaking, organization and self-motivation. Learning these skills helps students to become self-confident, productive and aware of what it takes to be successful.”

Reflecting on New Approaches to Teaching and Learning

Personalized learning requires teachers to really shift the way they think about teaching and learning in a way that allows teachers to learn and grow as professionals alongside their students. At the iNACOL Symposium 2016, four teachers and Springpoint — a national organization that supports educators creating new and innovative high school models — shared lessons learned from teaching in personalized schools. (Watch the video here.) In reflecting on many high schools across America, the teachers explained, “The way we’ve been ‘doing high schools’ has not been working very well,” and asked, “What can we do differently?”

Teachers explored questions like:

  • How can I meet the needs of each of my kids?
  • How can I adjust and learn and continue learning myself to better approach the needs of my kids?
  • How will I give students voice and choice in how they learn and what they learn?
  • How will I know what is mastery, and how will they be able to show it?
  • How will I take into account my students’ input in the process of learning?

One teacher recounted his initial struggles of letting go of control and allowing his students to set their own course. Another shared a strategy for communicating with parents who may be unfamiliar with this kind of system. Throughout the discussion, teachers reflected honestly on how they’ve grown alongside their students in these new and innovative models.

“For teachers, personalized learning helps us learn how to evolve, listen to students’ input on the process of learning, and focus on moving to a competency-based model.”

A competency-based approach challenges every member of a school community to develop trusting relationships focused on learning.

Empowering Students

Jamie Pekras-Braun is a first-grade teacher at Thrive, a personalized and blended learning school in California. At the end of each grading period, students from grades K-12 lead collaborative meetings where they review their individualized goals around literacy, numeracy and social emotional growth; examine their work as indicators of progress toward goals; and set next steps.

Parent-teacher conferences were replaced by Student Led Conferences (SLC). The teachers prepare framing documents: agenda, goal setting tools and reflection, and they work with students who will lead the conversations with their parents and teachers. In an SLC, students lead the discussions with parents and teachers and share with their parents about how they choose their own goals and have a chance to be thoughtful about their strengths and weaknesses.

In allowing students to lead the conversation about learning, and equipping them to lead those conversations successfully, Jamie describes her students’ progress as they begin to self-monitor and reflect on their progress using the language of owning their own learning.

Jamie talks about one of her shyest students at the beginning of the year in his first parent-teacher student led conference:

“It was clear that he was extremely nervous and uncomfortable. He mumbled and read without clarity. He needed teacher support in order to complete the conference. By his third SLC a few short months later, he ran the meeting completely independently. His parents teared up when listening to his confident speaking. Every student is capable of acquiring the skills to speak about their own learning.”

For more information on what personalized learning looks like for schools, families and communities, follow this blog series, download our recent report and review the following resources.

This is the third blog in a series on What’s Possible with Personalized Learning? Read the first post, second post, or download the entire report.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.