Design Thinking: A Student’s Perspective

By Isis Toldson, 12th Grade Student at Village Tech Schools

Design Thinking (DT) is currently gaining traction in the workplace. Armed with post-it notes and sharpies, companies are reimagining how they do what they do. Businesses like Airbnb have used design thinking’s human-centered design mindsets to better connect with customers and boost sales. Others, like IBM, were inspired by Stanford’s School of Design, and have dedicated over 30 “studio spaces” and an entire team of people to teaching and implementing the creative methodology.

But what about schools? What about students? Universities aside, there are only a handful of schools in America that focus on Design Thinking. I’m lucky enough to attend one such school–Village Tech Schools in Cedar Hill, Texas. Not only does Village Tech use design thinking, but the school itself was built around its principles with design integrated into every class.

One of the places that design thinking is most obvious at Village Tech is in the Forge, the space where students go to make our wild ideas reality. Housing an art lab, workshop, computer lab, design studio, and makerspace, the Forge is never missing the smell of sawdust or the frustrated groans of a student struggling against a new challenge. It is in this space that the doctrine of “fail fast, fail often” is clearly seen. It’s where we learn that our own learning does not happen apart from failure, because learning is a product of failure. In the words of our Superintendent, David Williams, Village Tech is based on a failosophy, because “failing is just the first attempt in learning.”

As a student at Village Tech Schools and as an individual, I have seen the way that my failure has led to learning, and learning to success; eventually, our most frustrated groans become triumphant grins. From first grade students learning and illustrating the steps it takes a caterpillar to become a butterfly to tenth graders learning how to design and code an arcade game, Design Thinking makes just about anything possible. In my first year at Village Tech, I was the team lead of a group of four other eighth grade students. We were tasked with creating an input-output function box for the second-grade students to demonstrate what we were learning in Algebra class, and my group decided to create a “Minecraft Tree.” This was our first major design challenge, and we failed at first… a lot. From using the wrong paint colors to cutting boards incorrectly, we spent a lot of time building the actual product, but as we began to implement feedback we received, our tree went from a disaster to one of the best projects on exhibit that year.

Alejandra Balbuena, one of my fellow seniors at Village Tech, describes it like this: “Design thinking isn’t just a process. It’s a set of mindsets that are designed to help you work through any situation in life. The best part is how customizable it is for each person or group.” This also holds true in the variety and complexity of some of the design challenges and projects put on exhibit at Forge On, our end of the year student exhibition of learning. In past Forge On events, tenth-grade students presented a promotional video they filmed and produced for a local design studio called Bottle Rocket Studios. A few rooms away, fourth-grade students presented a community inspired project encouraging upcycling of unwanted objects that would likely end up in a landfill. Both of these projects were framed around design thinking and adapted to meet each grade levels capabilities.

In four short months, I will be graduating high school and heading off into the future. For now, I plan on going to undergraduate school for a degree in Business, with the goal of pursuing corporate law. With this degree, I will help small startup businesses maneuver the rapidly changing world of business and help them bring their big ideas to life without the fear of being silenced by much bigger and older companies. Even though that is my goal right now, I know that my plans may change, and whether I pursue law or not I know that what I’ve learned about Design Thinking will always be apart of my life. Even now, I use DT’s principles to make decisions in day to day life. Because of DT, I approach difficult things in life as challenges, not problems–even homework. As I grow and change, I don’t think I will outgrow these valuable lessons, instead I believe Design Thinking will grow and change with me.

For more, see:

Isis Toldson is a 12th Grade Student at Village Tech Schools.


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Homework or No Homework? Maybe We’re Asking the Wrong Question (Part 1)

By Erin Gohl & Kristen Thorson

This is the first entry in a two-part series. See part two here.

We’ve all been there. Your child comes home from school. You eagerly await hearing about his or her day. Who did he sit by at lunch? How did her presentation go? What made him laugh today? And then they say it:

“I have homework tonight.”

Thud. Both your and your child’s shoulders sink in defeat. You dread the night to come, anticipating the struggles: over just getting started with the worksheet; over understanding the concepts or what is being asked; over how to help him “show his work” even when he knows he got the right answer in his head. You hope it can be completed before a crazy hour, but know it likely won’t given the backdrop of sports practices, making dinner, showers, and maybe, just maybe, a few moments of downtime.

Because of these dynamics, homework can have the unintended consequence of creating tension at home and between the home and the school. Parents feel uncertainty about how to best support their children as they complete their assignments. The parent/child relationship is reduced to one of enforcement rather than collaboration. Further, parents at times resent giving up a large portion of the finite hours they have with their kids each evening. In this vein, homework–rather than creating a bridge between the school and home–ironically alienates students and families from one another, classrooms, and schools.

In recent years, several schools and school districts across the nation have acknowledged the stress that homework places on students and families, and have debated its function and benefits in their curriculum. Research on the effectiveness of homework is murky. Academic studies on its value have shown a spectrum of results spanning conclusions that homework is the key to academic success to those saying homework is a waste of student time that damages home life.

Some districts, seeing the issue only in binary terms, have chosen to place a blanket moratorium on homework. But, this reaction may be resulting in throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Rather than simply questioning whether teachers should assign homework, maybe schools and districts should ask: What if homework were different?

Shifting the Debate: Homework as a Tool for Inclusion and Family Engagement

Though studies on homework show contradictory results, the research on family engagement in education is clear: involving families in students’ learning increases academic achievement and student success for all students, regardless of race, socioeconomic background, or gender.

So, what if homework were a tool for both advancing student understanding and getting families involved and excited about learning, rather than a source of frustration and exclusion? Re-framing how schools approach homework has the potential to make it both more meaningful and more effective. Pivoting the intention of homework to focus on ways to engage families in learning can expand student understanding in a powerful way.

Key Components of Family Engaged Homework

Family engaged homework is a way for teachers to extend or reinforce learning from the classroom, similar to the best intentions of traditional homework, but with some key shifts. Family engaged homework finds ways to involve families in active learning. It invites students and their families to create, collaborate, and think critically about the learning from school, while helping students bridge their classroom to the outside world.

With family engaged homework, it is important to note that less is often more. By assigning students limited work, families can focus their time and effort on the specific task, decreasing frustration while increasing student understanding.  This improvement results from focusing on the process of learning, rather than the product to be turned in.

Family engaged homework can be bigger than one specific standard or skill. Students and families are empowered when they are given the freedom to work alongside one another and think beyond the confines of a worksheet or task. When students do family engaged homework, teachers can encourage a high-level of thinking on assignments. When students work with a family partner, they can debate, create, and connect. While there is still a need for students to practice their math facts and other rote skills, teachers can be creative with other elements of learning.

Family engaged homework also means that not all assignments need to be turned in as proof of completion. The value in family engaged homework is creating a structure for learning that is ongoing. (For teachers concerned that not everyone will do their homework, they are probably right! But even students who couldn’t make the homework happen will gain a lot of value from their peers’ learning conversations the next day.)

Homework Could Be: A Way to Engage Students in Active Learning

Family engaged homework invites families into learning, and creates opportunities for students to apply what they are studying in the classroom. Extending the learning ecosystem beyond the classroom to the home and community leads to increased engagement, reinforces relevancy, and brings multiple learning supports from parents, siblings, and others. The “asks” of family engaged homework are a form of active and applied learning.

While classrooms have dedicated instructional resources and a limited ability to provide real-life experiences, family engaged homework can bridge the lessons of the classroom to the everyday life of families. Families provide a small adult to child ratio, and since they are not confined to the walls and routines of a classroom, they can provide greater access to experiences. These experiences can be as simple as a trip to the grocery store or a walk around the neighborhood.

Part two of this article can be found here

For more, see:


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Let’s Meet Up at SXSW EDU!

It’s that time of year where we all jump in planes, trains and automobiles to head down to Austin, Texas for some education inspiration at SXSW EDU. We’re excited to spend four days together discussing education innovation with our fellow optimistic, forward-thinking stakeholders who are aiming to impact the future of learning.

On top of the great learning and networking opportunities that SXSW EDU provides, our team always gets excited about the local culinary offerings of Austin: BBQ, breakfast tacos, and QUESO! If you haven’t had Coopers BBQ, we highly recommend checking them out; Jess on our team also swears by Roppolo’s Pizza, Caroline likes Torchy’s Tacos for a mean queso, and Erik is a big fan of Jo’s Coffee.

Below, you will find a summary of where you can find us throughout the week, where our friends (who we highly encourage you to check out) will be, and a few others that are new to us but exciting nonetheless. This year we’re also excited to be a media partner for SXSW EDU and as part of that we’ll be on the ground live reporting on Twitter (@Getting_Smart) and recording audio for upcoming podcast episodes.

Find Getting Smart at SXSW EDU

We look forward to meeting more thought leaders while we’re in Austin. Check out these events where you’ll be sure to find us:

Don’t Let Data Hold You Back
When: Monday, March 5, 2018, 1:30pm-3:30pm
Where: Austin Convention Center, Room 8ABC
Who: Caroline Vander Ark, Getting Smart; Bill Fitzgerald, InnovateEdu
What: Learn how schools and EdTech leaders are taking steps to make interoperability a reality. Through the sharing of resources, tools and lessons learned you’ll leave with a blueprint for how you can enable innovation in classroom practices with interoperability.

The Rise of AI & What It Means for Education Meet Up
When: Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 11am-12pm
Where: Austin Convention Center, Room 18D
Who: Tom Vander Ark, Getting Smart
What: The rise of artificial intelligence and related technologies changes what students need to learn to be well prepared and it will create new tools that teacher teams can use to shape powerful learning experiences.

Why Innovate Alone? Harness the Power of Networks
When: Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 4pm-6pm
Where: Austin Convention Center, Room 5ABC
Who: Tom Vander Ark, Getting Smart; Lydia Dobyns, New Tech Network; Carlos Moreno, Big Picture Learning
What: School networks are one of the most important innovations in modern era K-12 education. By providing design principles, curriculum, tech tools and ways to facilitate connected learning and improvement, networks play an important role in scaling high-quality learning. This design workshop will start with stories from network leaders and strategies for creating networks within your system, then you’ll work together to design and share a plan for how networks can empower you and your colleagues.

New Framework: High Quality Project Based Learning
When: Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 5:30pm-8:00pm
Where: Palm Door on Sabine
Who: Buck Institute for Education
What: Join this multi-organizational event for food and drink as we celebrate the unveiling of the new framework built to help ensure all students have access to high quality PBL.

Can’t-Miss Sessions

One of the best parts of conferences like SXSW EDU is the ability to learn from each other. It gives us the opportunity to hear new innovative ideas and to make new connections. Here are a few more sessions we’re excited about:

Opportunity vs. Achievement: Framing the Gap
When: Monday, March 5, 2018, 2:00pm-3:00pm
Where: Hilton Downtown, Salon A
Who: Jim May, New Tech Network; Christian Quintero, Los Angeles Unified School District
What: This open conversation will argue that the opportunity gap is a more robust frame for understanding and responding to educational inequity than the achievement gap.

The Struggle in Real-Rural, High Poverty Districts
When: Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 11:00am-12:00pm
Where: Hilton Austin Downtown, Room 400-402
Who: Melissa Crosby, Colleton County High School; Kristin Cuilla, New Tech Network; Franklin Foster, Colleton County School District
What: Explore district innovation and perseverance in one of four research study districts working to solve rural, high poverty problems. This session will also examine the connection between educational attainment and economic development.

Employability & The High School Experience
When: Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 3:00pm-3:20pm
Where: Hilton Austin Downtown, Room 404
Who: Tessa Simonds, One Stone Student
What: Today’s teens are taking over. They are helping lead the way to change. One Stone student and board member, 16-year-old Tessa Simond shares how she is hacking adulthood as a teen.

Future Learning: AI’s Impact on Tomorrow’s Worker
When: Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 3:00pm-6:00pm
Where: Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon K
Who: Richard Boyd, Tanjo; Mike Martoccia, Booz Allen Hamilton; Ira Sockowitz, Learning Games Studios; Welela Solomon, Renton Prep; Michelle Zimmerman, Renton Prep
What: AI and machine learning are changing the skills needed for workforce and societal success. Over three one hour segments, participants will gain insight on what knowledge, skills and dispositions will be needed and the learning experiences that teach them; brainstorm with panelists in breakouts; and share those ideas and devise action steps.

Learning Space Genius Bar
When: Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 11:00am-2:00pm
Where: Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon K
Who: Victoria Bergsagel, Aaron Jobson, Sita Lakshminarayan, BLGY Architecture; Jason Lembke, Matt O’Donnell, Grace O’Shea, Nick Salmon, Kelley Tanner, Jane Zhang
What: Come check out the genius bar for teachers and school leaders interested in redesigning their school space.

We’re Doing Gamification Wrong: Kids Want to Learn
When: Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 4:00pm-4:20pm
Where: Austin Convention Center, Room 19B
Who: Elliott Hedman, mPath
What: Games aren’t just for free time anymore. Learn how games can help kids set meaningful goals and how simplified rewards can cultivate motivation.

AI in Education: Opportunities & Challenges
When: Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 3:30pm-4:30pm
Where: Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon D
Who: Marina Gorbis, Institute for the Future; Tess Posner, AI4All; Michael Tjalve, Microsoft; Leila Toplic, NetHope
What: AI is one of the most transformative technologies of our time. It has huge disruptive potential across many industry verticals such as retail, transportation, manufacturing, education and agriculture. The disappearance of jobs could drastically impact the education and workforce systems. Yet, others argue that tech is not our enemy but a tool that can be applied to solve some of the worlds biggest problems such as climate change, the refugee crisis and access to high-quality education.

Keep your eye on @Getting_Smart and @SXSWEDU for highlights and links to other fun events at SXSWEDU 2018.


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Why We All Need Mentors and How to Make it Happen

One of the most important roles for educators today is that of being a mentor. As educators, we are often called upon to mentor the students in our classroom, as well as colleagues in our school. Throughout our lives, we have all had at one time or another a person who has served as a mentor, whether they have been selected for us or it is a relationship that simply formed on its own. Take a moment and think about the different mentors that you have had in your life. How many of them were teachers? How many of them were other adults, such as family friends or perhaps even coaches? How many of your own mentors have been the colleagues in your building or members of your PLN (Personal or Professional Learning Network)?

There may be a few that come to mind immediately, both because you remember having a specific time that was set aside to work with your mentor, maybe during your first-year of teaching or as a teacher who needed some guidance while working through some of the challenges of teaching. There is probably a mentor that comes to mind because you credit them with some aspect of personal and or professional growth. For myself, I have been fortunate to have some supportive mentors that have helped me to grow professionally and taught me what it means to be a mentor. These relationships are so important because it is through mentorships that we continue to learn and grow and become a better version of ourselves. In the process, we also develop our skills to serve as a mentor to someone else and continue the practice promoting growth.

Getting Started with Mentoring

Take a moment and think about your classroom or your school and the types of programs which may be already in place in your building. Are there specific times set aside for teachers to act as mentors for students? To their colleagues? In my school district, Riverview, we implemented a homeroom mentoring program a few years ago, as part of our RCEP (Riverview Customized Educational Plan) which we were making available for our students. A few years prior to that, we began with the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, and our school was among the first schools in the United States to achieve national/state recognition for bully prevention. Through the program, we implemented a variety of learning activities, with the goal of engaging students in learning and collaboration, to promote a positive school climate and to create opportunities for students to build positive and supportive peer relationships.

For our Homeroom Mentoring Program, small groups of students in grades 9 through 12, are assigned to a homeroom, with a mentor. By having these smaller groups, the teachers are able to serve as a mentor for each student, working with them closely, to not only support them during their high school experience but also to prepare them for their future after graduation. It is a way to provide a more personalized learning approach for each student and for each student to know they have support available to them. These mentoring homerooms meet on a regular basis, providing ongoing opportunities for the teacher and students to interact in team-building and work on fostering peer relationships. During these homeroom meetings, some of the activities include pride lessons, goal-setting discussions, career exploration surveys and job shadowing, community service experiences and other topics which come up throughout the year. It is a good opportunity for the students to have a small group to work with and to develop critical skills for their future, such as communicating, collaborating, problem-solving, and developing social and emotional learning skills as well.

In addition to the planned activities, a key part of our mentoring program is the creation of a “portfolio” which includes samples of student work, a job shadow reflection, resume, list of volunteer experiences and additional artifacts that students can curate in their portfolio. The past few years, students have organized these materials into a binder, which has been kept in the mentoring homeroom. The materials become a part of their required senior graduation project. This year, we have started creating an e-portfolio, using Naviance, a program that promotes college and career readiness. Students begin by creating their online profile and sharing their activities and interests. Using the program, students can take surveys to learn more about their own skill areas and interests, learn about colleges which might match their interests, and also continue to build their digital citizenship skills. According to one of our guidance counselors, Mrs. Roberta Gross, the mentoring program was implemented to help students make transitions toward post-secondary goals and plans, and moving to the e-portfolio is creating more opportunities for students to explore their own interests and create their online presence.

There are many benefits of having students create an e-portfolio. Moving to an e-portfolio makes it easier to access the information for each student, it can be shared with parents and it opens up more conversations between the students and the mentor teacher. It is important to prepare our students for whatever the future holds for them beyond high school graduation, and working with them as they grow, in these small groups, really promotes more personalized learning experiences and authentic connections.

As a final part of this program, our seniors take part in a senior “exit interview”, a simulated job interview with a panel of three teachers, a mix of elementary teachers and high school teachers. It truly is a great experience to have time to see the growth of each student, learn about their future plans and to provide feedback which will help them continue to grow and be better prepared for their next steps after graduation. And for students, being able to look through their portfolios, reflect on their experiences, self-assess and set new goals, knowing they have support available, is the purpose of the mentoring program.

Resources on Mentoring

There are many resources available that can provide some direction for getting started with an official mentoring program.

  1. The “Adopt a class” program, founded by Patty Alper, who also wrote a book on mentoring called “Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America.” Alper talks about the impact of mentoring and how her view of it is towards an “entrepreneurial” mindset, preparing students for the future, with the skills they need. Alper breaks down the process into practical steps, with examples and encouragement for those new to the mentoring experience.
  2. The national mentoring partnership “MENTOR”, offers a website full of resources and ways to connect with other mentoring programs. MENTOR even held a Mentoring Summit in Washington, D.C., this January, where professionals and researchers gathered to share ideas and best practices for starting a mentoring program. Be sure to check out their monthly themes and presence on Twitter.
  3. The National Mentoring Resource Center offers a collection of different resources for mentoring include manuals, handouts and a long list of additional guidelines for different content areas, grade levels, culturally responsive materials, toolkits and more. The website has most of the resources available as downloads.

How you can get started

I would recommend that you think about mentors that you may have had at some point during your life. What are some of the qualities that they had which made them a good mentor and why? For me, I felt comfortable talking with my mentor, being open to the feedback that I would receive, and I knew that my mentor was available to support me when I needed. Another benefit is that we learn how to become a mentor for others, and when we have these programs in place, our students will become mentors for one another. I have seen the positive effects in my own classroom, and many times, these new mentorships have formed on their own.

For more, see:


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Global Dignity Launch Materials to Encourage Development of Dignity

As the world becomes more and more interconnected, there are increased opportunities for us to interact with one another both in person, and via virtual settings. We see almost daily instances where those interactions can be uplifting and positive, but far too often we hear of instances of ugliness in the world. So what can be done? How we all take the steps to coexist in peace and harmony with one another? One organization has made it their mission to help answer this question by teaching about dignity. On October 18th thousands of teachers, facilitators, students and participants from around the world celebrated Global Dignity Day, a day where the concept of dignity becomes tangible and understandable for all who participate.

Today, we are thrilled to share that Global Dignity has released over 25 learning experiences which go beyond that one day, and can be used throughout the entire year. Each experience has been designed to help participants grasp what dignity means, and how they can show dignity, in their everyday lives. The learning experiences are perfect for participants of all ages and are categorized by ages 5-9 and 10+. You will also find that the experiences vary in length depending upon the amount of time you have available.

Courtesy of GlobalDignity.org

Get Involved

Global Dignity has made it incredibly simple to join their movement to transform the world into one where “compassion, understanding and love triumph over intolerance, injustice and inequality.” To get started, visit their website, watch the videos and read the materials, and then decide how you will take action with your students. It’s that easy. By choosing to get involved, you are joining thousands of individuals, from all over the world, to ensure that human dignity is elevated throughout the globe. To connect with these individuals join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #globaldignity.

For more, see:


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3 Ways To Model Collaboration and Partnership in Schools and Classrooms

There may not be a skill that is getting more attention today than collaboration. We use the word so often that we tend to assume what it means and how it’s realized. It has even been identified as the most important professional skill in the new economy (see Forbes). Because of this new-found importance, a common reason people get fired is their inability to effectively work with others (see Workopolis piece on personality).

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Collaboration is a great term, but I actually prefer the word partnering. Collaboration sounds like working with others while partnering sounds like a long-term investment in a relationship that is mutually beneficial to all.

Our work environments are becoming more collaborative each day and are constantly extending to new parts of the world. The days of working in jobs as isolated cubicle inhabitants are rapidly disappearing. Companies can train people on technical skills, but really want people who come prepared to partner.

Human capital is our most precious resource. Collective thinking and working produces better ideas. Better ideas produce more innovation. More innovation produces more leadership, customers, brand approval and ultimately success. Our potential partners are all around us. They are local companies, non-profits, experts, entrepreneurs, advocates and civic leaders. They need us and we need them. It’s mutually beneficial to combine our resources and collaborate for better work.

Partnering also provides all of us with opportunities to continually learn and improve. We all need mentors, especially young people. We meet our mentors and guides through projects and partnerships. We also solve problems through partnering. The more we collaborate, the more likely we are to address the global challenges – i.e. climate, food, employment, health and wellness and so much more. It’s reciprocal. When we partner, we solve problems. When we work to solve problems, we create opportunities for work and learning. If we want educational experiences and lifelong learning to be both experiential and relevant, partnering is the vehicle.

Our challenge as educators is whether we walk the walk. We ask our students to collaborate, or partner, but do we truly do it ourselves? How can educators model true collaboration and partnering to our students? Here are three extended categories focused on just that:

Collegial Collaboration

In terms of modeling, this might be the most important. Our students are witnessing our collaboration, or lack thereof sometimes, each and every day on our campuses and in our classrooms. They are watching and listening to what we say through our collegial interactions. If we publicly bad mouth our administrators, colleagues, parents or students, we are demonstrating that we don’t take the collaboration, or partnering, seriously. After all, our stakeholders and colleagues are our partners in education. We need to show them the respect they deserve as team members. So, we need to show our students that we value the ideas, opinions and contributions of those we work alongside in every way. Here are some ways we can do that:

  • Teachers could trade classes for an hour, a day or even longer. Gotta start somewhere right?  We can trade with grade level or subject area job-alike to start but then expand from there. We ask students to work with different students all the time. It’s our turn as well.
  • Co-Teach a lesson, a project or course. Naturally, this could be any lesson in any course with any teachers. This doesn’t have to be reserved for established teams or linked courses. Any two or more teachers could decide to plan and implement a cross-curricular learning experience for their collective students.
  • Teach Collaboration.  If this is the most desired skill, then we need to explicitly teach it. We need to teach and model for our students how effective teams work and how our collective work can improve through teaming. We can assess it, score it and give feedback on it using collaboration rubrics (see Buck Institute Sample Collaboration Rubric). Don’t just say we’re doing a group or team project, but rather work on designing effective teams based on skills and interests. Then also create reflective opportunities for students to get feedback from large groups of diverse students.
  • Organize schoolwide projects and challenges. Designing discrete opportunities with a real, public product can clearly demonstrate the power of partnering between students, staff and community. For example, New Tech High School Napa Principal Riley Johnson kicks off each school year in order to get students and staff collaborating immediately.
  • Give students chances to reflect. One of the best ways to engrain social-emotional skills like collaboration is through consistent and focused reflection. Point out to students WHY you’re trading classrooms for the day or co-teaching. Give them a chance to discuss what went well and what didn’t, or ask them to write personal reflections on what they think you, as a teacher, did or didn’t do well.

Community Collaboration

Most graduate profiles these days place value on students being connected with their communities in order to produce active citizens who are engaged in their neighborhoods and local needs. We also like the idea of the impact of service and volunteer education where students learn and experience empathy for others. And, as we look more towards our students being engaged in real-world challenges and relevant academic work, we know that our local communities are rich with potential projects. Here are just a few ideas to consider when trying to model community partner building:

  • Stakeholder Roles: Do we invite community members to serve on committees, boards and school initiatives? We should. At my last high school (Minarets High School), every teacher hired was interviewed by students, parents and community members. Let’s make sure all of our decision-making bodies have bodies outside of education.
  • Advisory Boards 2.0: Career and Technical Education (CTE) has long required teachers and programs to have Professional Industry Partners. But this practice could be replicated through all classrooms. Our communities are ripe with experts, professionals, practitioners and leaders in all fields and disciplines, and many are eager to pass on their knowledge or develop talent pipelines. With a little effort, we can make them a regular part of our programs. They will make us better and be our students’ mentor networks as well.
  • Service Learning: Almost every community has dozens, if not hundreds, of non-profit organizations ready and waiting for invites from educators to partner with students. Through service learning, students can do real work (writing, speaking, researching, designing, and management) while gaining valuable lifelong partners and mentors (see Senior Legacy Experiences or C.A.S. programs). Think about the student response to the recent school shooting in Florida–they are changing the game. That’s what students can do when engaged and empowered in real work. Don’t know where to start? Check out these resources: Real World Scholars, Do Something.Org, Generation On, WE, Community Toolbox and Sign Up Genius.

Digital Collaboration

The majority of our future collaboration will be digital. Indeed, many of our students will work with people all over the world that they may never meet. Google has already revolutionized how many of our teachers and students are working on a daily basis. Here are some thoughts on how we can model digital partnerships to our students:

  • Personal/Professional Learning Network (PLN): Educators who are on Twitter and other social media focused on connecting and collaborating with other educators understand the value of developing their PLNs but if you’re not, you should know that PLNs are a great avenue to develop your practice. They are also a great place to share work, follow hashtags and collaborate with other educators. But more importantly than simply developing a PLN, we can show our students how it works. Educators need to share this form of collaboration with their students. Our students are entering a global and digital economy that will demand they know how to devise and maximize their various professional and personal learning networks.
  • Social Media: Speaking of social media (an often taboo term with far too many educators), let’s reverse that type of thinking. Our students desperately need to be shown that they can (and need to be taught how to) use these tools to learn, better the world and ultimately partner with others. Too many schools and educators are still viewing social media as a disruptive evil versus the new literacy that it is. Connect with students on social media? I say yes. Show them how to be appropriate, professional and responsible. I know many educators that are effectively using social media to get and give feedback, advance work and understand student voice. If we are afraid of this, we need to get over it.
  • Writing the Right: Our students are expected to write, and rightly so. They are also expected to digitally publish and share their work (although many classrooms are, unfortunately, not quite there yet). This is another great opportunity to model 21st-century skills. As a teacher, it’s worth looking for ways to show students that sharing their writing can inspire others, and help in the practice of reflective thinking and getting feedback from others. You can even write collaboratively with a colleague on a blog, a feature story or a book. Great resources for educators to start blogging are WordPress, Blogger, and Weebly.

As educators, let’s commit to walking the walk and carrying a large collaboration (partnering) stick. We all have the tools, and we need to be the mentors, leaders and partners our students deserve when it comes to learning what collaboration looks like, and how valuable it can be.

For more, see:


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Moonshot Project Pays Big Dividends

Massachusetts middle-school students made national news earlier this year when they reached a moonshot goal of $1 million to fund research for a classmate’s rare medical condition. Their business plan involved selling jars of cookie dough mix and using social media to go viral with their campaign. Along the way, they learned about fractions, marketing, media, and empathy, as well as medical research.

It’s a remarkable story, but behind the headlines is another tale worth telling about the benefits of giving teachers time and support to design high quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL) experiences.

A Project Takes Shape

The cookie jar project was the brainchild of sixth-grade math teacher Kathy Simms at Ipswich Middle School. She is part of a cohort of 15 teachers from across the district who volunteered for a year-long PBL initiative.

Last November, Simms and the rest of the cohort took part in a three-day PBL workshop facilitated by the Buck Institute of Education. Rather than starting with a brand-new project idea, Simms decided to remodel a unit about fractions and measurement that she has done in the past.

In previous years, she had students calculate the amount of ingredients needed to assemble jars of holiday cookie mix. The first time she introduced the unit, she just had students make calculations on paper. The next year, they also assembled jars of ingredients. Students seemed more engaged in that hands-on task, but Simms still wasn’t satisfied with the learning outcomes.

“The math wasn’t as rich as I wanted,” she reflected. “And at the end, each kid just took home a jar of cookie mix. That seemed kind of wasteful. If we did it again, I thought it should be a fundraiser.”

Design Makes the Difference

When Simms designed the new project plan, she paid particular attention to two key criteria for HQPBL.

She increased the intellectual challenge by emphasizing math problem-solving. Inspired by the insights of math educator Robert Kaplinsky, Simms decided to do less scaffolding during the calculations part of the project. Making the challenge more open-ended meant students would have to rely on their own questions and turn to their teammates to talk through potential strategies.

She also ramped up the authenticity of the project by introducing a real-world fundraising goal that she knew her students would embrace. One of the Ipswich Middle School students is an outgoing girl named Talia Duff who suffers from a rare neurological disease known as CMT4J (for Charcot-Marie-Tooth Neuropathy Type 4J). Currently, there is no cure; however, Talia’s parents started a non-profit foundation, CureCMT4J to develop a treatment or cure. CureCMT4J’s researchers have found great success with gene therapy in mouse models. The foundation continues to raise funds to take the science to a human clinical trial for Talia and others. Simms saw the opportunity for her students to use cookie jar sales to contribute to a nonprofit fundraising goal of $1 million, which would support further research involving human trials. The foundation leading the effort was less than halfway to its goal after more than a year of fundraising. “I thought maybe we could contribute a few thousand dollars,” Simms recalls.

Two weeks after the PBL workshop ended, Simms launched the project with her sixth-grade teaching team. It soon took off in a way she never could have imagined.

Going Viral

On a Friday afternoon, Simms sat down after school to debrief with a colleague. By then, students were well along with their calculations. They were having rich math conversations and working effectively in small teams. The project had expanded when the science teacher suggested having students design labels that included not only cooking directions but also information about the nonprofit foundation promoting medical research for CMT4J. Language arts teachers found ways to support the project, as well.

But Simms still wasn’t satisfied. She told her colleague, “If we sell every single jar, we’ll raise $3,600. That’s just a drop in the bucket!” They both teared up, thinking about the immensity of the challenge. But sadness quickly gave way to determination when they agreed, “We need to do something BIG!”

To reach a larger audience, sixth-graders filmed a video about their fundraising effort and began to promote it via social media. High school students joined their crusade, tweeting with the hashtag #RUDuffEnough (in honor of Talia Duff). Others from across the school community used Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to spread the word.

“It just took off,” Simms says. Before long, national news crews were setting up to film her classroom (ABC, for example, covered the project on three separate nights).

One month after the project launch, the $1 million fundraising goal was achieved.

Lasting Lessons

Tracy Wagner, director of teaching and learning for Ipswich Public Schools, was pleased to see such a compelling project emerge from the district’s year-long PBL initiative. The cohort meets regularly to learn as a community, provide peer feedback, observe each other’s classrooms, and develop a library of PBL units. Administrators are also participating and learning right alongside teachers.

“Kathy and her team identified how an existing unit could be more academically rigorous, and also have more impact on the community. She did a brilliant job of revising the previous unit,” Wagner added, to emphasize criteria for high quality PBL.

The district has had pockets of successful projects in the past, but the current goal is to bring high quality PBL districtwide. Having teachers like Simms share their insights and reflections with colleagues is one strategy to make PBL sustainable.

In hindsight, Simms can see the importance of having time outside of her regular class to develop a detailed project plan. “I was able to take an idea, think quietly, talk to people, use protocols to run through ideas, go home and sleep on it, and come back the next day to make it better. Without that focused time,” she adds, “I don’t think this project would have had such impact.”

This blog is a part of the High Quality Project Based Learning Campaign supported by the Buck Institute for Education and sponsored by the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation. For more, visit hqpbl.org and follow @hqpbl #hqpbl on Twitter and Instagram.

For more, see:

Suzie Boss is the author of several books about project-based learning and member of the Buck Institute for Education National Faculty. Connect with her on Twitter @suzieboss.


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The Pittsburgh Personalized Learning Network: Helping Set the Course for Regional Change

By Janeen Peretin, Shaun Tomaszewski, Todd Keruskin and Chris Sweeney

Southwestern Pennsylvania has quietly emerged as an innovative hub within the field of education. From the nationally recognized Remake Learning Network, to the leading edge of learning science research at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, community leaders and educators have access to resources to help with the creative brainstorming necessary to tackle persistent and emerging educational challenges. It is also remarkable that six school districts in this region (Avonworth, Baldwin-Whitehall, Elizabeth Forward, Fox Chapel, Montour, and South Fayette) are members of the prestigious Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools representing 93 forward-thinking school districts from across the United States.

While schools are exploring new instructional approaches, personalized learning is gaining traction as an integral component to the broader transformational movement. Recent research conducted by Dr. John F. Pane, Distinguished Chair in Education Innovation and a senior scientist at the RAND Corporation, and his team is encouraging; however, implementation strategies appear to significantly affect the impact on student achievement. It is also evident that there is no simple way to define or implement personalized learning for schools.

Dr. Tom Ralston, Superintendent of the Avonworth School District notes that, “The more we stay away from jargon, the more easily we’re understood. Jargon can make it less real – making it look like we’re doing something for attention, rather than to improve student learning.”  The call to avoid jargon and adopt some sort of common working framework is echoed by Dr. Robert Scherrer, Superintendent of the North Allegheny School District, “I think that common constructs like the Digital Convergence model could give us a common language across the region. The framework provides a blueprint and creates a conversation about why we’re doing this and how it changes the curriculum that we’re delivering. It has enough flexibility to allow folks to see that, if this is something we want to explore, here are the steps involved.”

With these challenges in mind, a group of districts in southwestern Pennsylvania organically combined their individual efforts to form what is now known as the Pittsburgh Personalized Learning Network. Born out of an informal gathering hosted by Elizabeth Forward School District in March 2017, districts leaders shared their stories and described their efforts and vision for personalized learning. A common theme recognized by Jim Shelton, the President of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, who was also in attendance, was the collaborative spirit of the participants to share and learn from one another instead of competing and operating in silos. Mr. Shelton was so impressed that he offered a $25,000 grant to support the formation of the network, which includes the following districts:

  • Baldwin-Whitehall School District
  • Burrell School District
  • Butler School District
  • Chartiers Valley School District
  • Deer Lakes School District
  • Elizabeth Forward School District
  • Fort Cherry School District
  • Fox Chapel School District
  • Frazier School District
  • Hempfield School District
  • Montour School District
  • New Castle Area School District
  • North Allegheny School District
  • Northgate School District
  • South Fayette School District
  • Steel Valley School District

Equally impressed was Gregg Behr, Executive Director of The Grable Foundation and a strong advocate for children in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region, who also agreed to provide a matching grant from The Grable Foundation. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to support this enterprising group of administrators from 17 disparate districts commonly wrestling with what it means to personalize learning for every one of their students,” said Behr. He went on to suggest that “The PPL Network adds dynamically to the dozens of mini-networks operating under the broader umbrella of Remake Learning — a network of nearly 500 schools and organizations that have embraced the future of learning and such modern learning frameworks as STEM, STEAM, maker, play, and technology-enhanced learning preK-12 in and out of school.”

According to Dr. Todd Keruskin, Assistant Superintendent of Elizabeth Forward School District and one of the founders of the group, “Creating the Pittsburgh Personalized Learning Network was really a grassroots effort in bringing administrators together in the Pittsburgh area to learn more about customized learning, individualized learning, project-based learning, current research on personalized learning, and share best practices between 17 school districts affecting 55,000 students.”  The primary goal of the network is to facilitate a dialogue on personalized learning initiatives where network members can discuss their projects and collectively accelerate their programs by sharing successes, obstacles, and lessons learned.

Initial network meetings have been focused on learning more about personalized learning and speaking a common language. In June 2017,  Dr. Shawn K. Smith from Modern Teacher presented excerpts from his book, The New Agenda: Achieving Personalized Learning Through Digital Convergence to network representatives. The group then visited the Pittsburgh office of the RAND Corporation in October 2017 to learn more about their research. Dr. Pane, Distinguished Chair in Education Innovation from the RAND Corporation reviewed his team’s research, “Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects.” Later that month, members of the network also attended the EdSurge Fusion Conference and received strong validation that the region is at the forefront of this movement.

Moving forward, the network will host events to share ideas and updates and all members have agreed to host site visits to highlight and demonstrate their personalized learning strategies. As initiatives across the region progress, the network plans to develop a set of metrics/outcomes that will be used to evaluate the impact of the learning strategies.

A number of districts, including the Avonworth School District, are forging ahead and they are implementing researched based strategies. As Dr. Ralston explained, “Years ago, one of my colleagues and I were talking about personalizing learning for kids. He had this idea to come up with an IEP for every kid. I was reflecting on that recently, and how ahead of his time he was – now we can use technology as a tool to support assessment and student learning.  I think that there’s a connectedness between this and the work we’ve been doing over the past decade or so around differentiation,” Dr. Ralston added. “We need to get to a place where faculty see assessment as an iterative way to reach mastery. We need to think differently about teaching and learning.”

The region is also home to a unique, foundation-funded collaboration between educators and technologists called the Targeted Learning Moments initiative (TLM). A group of organizations including OnHand Schools, Elizabeth Forward School District, South Fayette School District, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, and Intermediate Unit 1 led a team that included participants from over twenty school districts to create a formative assessment tool called Kandoolu. Kandoolu provides standards-aligned questions to simplify the creation of easy to administer check-for-understanding quizzes. It allows teachers to view students’ progress in real-time so they can tackle common misconceptions or organize students in small groups for further differentiation. Based on each student’s performance, Kandoolu assigns personalized practice activities to reinforce key concepts for struggling students and enrichment resources to challenge high performing students. The creation of this platform, from conception to implementation, serves as an example of a success story that resulted in a tool that is now used by teachers to more readily personalize learning for their students.

According to Dr. Scherrer, “In Allegheny County, we’re trying to develop comradery. This is a direct offshoot of the personalized learning network.  Regionally, I think that there’s a lot more collegiality amongst districts in the region.  The personalized learning network is disrupting school in Western Pennsylvania- a really traditional area.  We feel like we’re not going down this road toward educational disruption alone- we have a diversity of schools and districts doing this work together- making learning better for kids.”

While the group is in the early stages of what will prove to be an exciting and ongoing journey, it is clear that all participants share high aspirations for the potential benefits to students in the region.  As Dr. Ralson suggests, “I do come back to the fact that we are doing what a lot of other people are just talking about.  When others from around the country visit our schools, they’re impressed by the community of learners within our region and how connected we all are.  This accelerates and amplifies what we’re all doing- there’s a really healthy environment where everyone works together, shares best practices, and lifts each other up.”

For more on Pittsburgh, see:

Dr. Todd Keruskin is Assistant Superintendent, Elizabeth Forward PA School District

Dr. Janeen Peretin is Director of Information and Instructional Technology, Baldwin-Whitehall PA School District

Shaun Tomaszewski is Director of Curriculum and Assessment, Northgate PA School District

Chris Sweeney is Education Innovation Consultant/Director, Pittsburgh Personalized Learning Network (#PLPGH)


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Inequity in Education is Your (and My) Responsibility

By Kate Gerson

There is a great injustice happening in our schools, and it’s happening on our watch. What’s happening can be seen in national reports. The reading and math scores of our white students continue to be higher than the scores of our black and Latino students. In fact, the 30+ point gap between these groups’ National NAEP reading scores has been virtually unchanged since 1990. ACT scores show that black, Latino, and native American high school graduates are particularly unprepared for college, with less than half meeting three or more preparedness benchmarks. The popular way of framing these numbers is that they represent an “achievement gap.”

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is not a gap that belongs to the students.  This is a gap that we, the adults, are providing. This is a provision gap. It’s on us.

I started with these numbers because as a former teacher and principal, as well as a longtime advocate for racial equity, I know these statistics are more than numbers—they are actual children. These are the children who will soon be adults living in a complicated political landscape, a constantly evolving global economy, and a world with many intellectual demands.

The truth is, there is a very real connection between academic performance and the ability to read and do math well enough to handle what comes in college and career. That correlation is why recognizing and facing our racialized expectations for students is critical. It’s why milestones in grade level mastery are critical. When we don’t pay attention to these things, we aid a system of compounding inequities. By conflating the current state of our students’ knowledge and skill with what is possible for them this year and next year and by graduation, we perpetuate a status quo in which our black and brown students are falling further and further behind their white and Asian peers every day, even if they started out as high-achieving.

Fortunately, we can begin to change this failing system by changing the way we act in and around school. That process begins when everyone in the education system, from teachers to nonprofits, becomes invested in the work.

The first step is recognizing that while we all have bias, our system of inequity was built and is maintained because our individual biases coalesce. These biases manifest in a variety of ways in our school system. It’s in higher suspension rates for black boys and girls in almost every district. It’s knowing that high-scoring white elementary children are 2 times as likely to be assigned to a gifted and talented program compared to similarly high-scoring black students.  It’s that black and Latino students are enrolled in Advanced Placement courses at disproportionately low rates. It’s the lack of higher-level math and science courses offered in schools with higher percentages of children of color. Despite our best intentions, we are nonetheless the adults creating and perpetuating the gap through the decisions we make each day.

Recognizing these patterns of inequity and bias in schools and in our own practice is the only way to take meaningful action to create change. To identify as people who care about equity without focusing closely on the details of how it should affect teaching and learning in our classrooms is ineffective at best inequitable, hypocritical at worst. Ask yourself, “Who is learning to do what today? Who is actually thinking today? Who is doing the work today? Who is making meaning? Who is becoming more able to interact with complexity independently? Who is doing grade-level work?”

Students of color can be impacted by our decisions even before they reach the third grade. In fact, third grade is a tipping point in literacy—1 in 4 black and Latino students who are not reading proficiently in third grade will not graduate high school on time. This means it is essential that students, even early in their academic journey, are provided the same rigorous learning environments (i.e. grade-level standards; equal opportunity to interact with complex, challenging texts and complex problems) as their white peers.

But in order to get there, we need to be able to divorce ourselves from the pedagogical approaches—like using leveled readers—that remove opportunity instead of increasing it. We’ve got to be prepared to let go of our sacred cows. These persistent, fixed mindsets must go in our journey to creating an equitable school system.

The argument of “we’ve always done it this way” or “it’s really worked for some kids” as justification for teaching practices that do not serve all children has us repeating harmful patterns and reinforcing discriminations. Instead, we have to pay attention to what the persistently conclusive research says works (e.g., high quality math and ELA curriculum results in higher student learning, choosing scaffolding of complex texts over leveled readers is more effective), then use that information to find everyday opportunities to move all students towards equitable ends.

This can’t go on the way it has always been. We are the grown-ups now, and we’re running this place. If real justice is found in the details of teaching and learning, let’s dig in there constantly.

For more, see:

Kate Gerson is managing partner of programs at UnboundEd, a nonprofit organization that gives educators the support the need to select, implement, and adapt free, high-quality curriculum materials in pursuit of equity for all students.


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Science Holds the Promise of a Better Future

By Sethuraman Panchanathan and Chevy Humphrey  

As we move ahead into the new year, pursuing scientific advancements will be central to our ability to proactively address the most pressing challenges we face as a global community. Simply put, fostering and advancing a scientific mindset is vital to tackling grand challenges and remaining globally competitive.

Today, scientific literacy is at the core of finding new ways to power the world, act as environmental stewards and manage population growth and its related challenges. It underpins the forward movement of every society. Advances in science are critical to proactively addressing international health issues, like freshwater access, and to ensuring the technological connectivity of a world-wide population. Our future requires large-scale solutions driven by science innovations, and we have a collective responsibility to generate a sense of discovery to bring these outcomes to fruition. The big question is, how do we cultivate a population of forward-thinking, entrepreneurially-minded people who can lead this effort?

It’s incumbent on us, as educators and scientists, to focus our energies and commit to in-depth, broadly-focused education. We have an opportunity here to teach students in all levels of academia to be scientifically literate – to connect the ways in which multiple societal elements rely on the understanding of key scientific principles. This is not only a critical undertaking – it’s an exciting venture that should be embraced and celebrated!

So how do we embark on this vast mission? We encourage our educators and scientists to come together in communities across the country and take the following action steps:

  • Lay the groundwork for long-term, sustainable success by encouraging more high schools to offer calculus, physics, chemistry and advanced math, and to further promote STEM learning.
  • Highlight how students can use scientific knowledge to meet the challenges of the near future, offering tangible examples across our in-school and out-of-school curricula.
  • Bring governments, businesses and academia into the fold, encouraging them to work together in positive ways to communicate this message and incentivize science education and careers.

Much of what we need to do, collectively as communities across the nation, is to extend cross-sector partnerships that provide students with a continuous, seamless pathway to science literacy. Just as society’s challenges straddle multiple scientific disciplines, so must our focus and work. We need science to create spaces for shared innovation and exploration, driving forward with a passion that encourages and inspires new generations. High-quality education and learning is now a necessity for students of all ages. We’ll light a fire from within by promoting critical thinking inside and outside the classroom and developing learning environments that bring science to life.

As a global university and the premier hub of science learning in the state, we are continually exploring how we can engage and inspire young people to learn about science and spur the improvements in education essential to building the skills of our future workforce. It’s a goal we can all be part of achieving. It’s simply a matter of rallying our communities around the promise of science and innovation. By creating a shared collective degree of enthusiasm that embraces scientific discovery and encourages others to join our efforts, we can lay a foundation for successfully addressing the grand challenges of today and tomorrow.

For more, see:

Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan is the Executive Vice President of Knowledge Enterprise Development and Chief Research and Innovation Officer of Arizona State University; Chevy Humphrey is The Hazel A. Hare President & CEO of Arizona Science Center.


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