Educating the Whole Child Through PBL

Project-based learning has been touted as the pedagogical cure-all for many things. Indeed, I have long argued it’s the ultimate instructional response to the need for real-world relevance and application, problem-solving, collaboration, student engagement, presentation skills, mentors and even tech integration. It’s the pedagogical glue if you will.

But one area that is maybe not mentioned as often is its connection to social-emotional learning. Indeed, PBL may not just be the best academic answer, but also the best cultural answer. Project-based learning, while it’s diverse and experiences can vary, allows students multiple opportunities to engage with others, as well as themselves, in new and more personalized ways. By contributing to something larger than themselves, i.e. a real-world project, they begin to see themselves as contributors and advocates who have self-worth, a voice and a real role in the world at large.

Here are just a few areas where PBL can begin to affect the heart, as well as the mind, for every student:

Real World Empathy

One of the many foundational elements of PBL is for students to address or tackle real-world challenges, problems or issues. When students engage in this fashion, they inevitably learn and interact with situations that move beyond their immediate situations, environments, and surroundings. We sometimes think that young people can be self-absorbed (but truly this is a human challenge, not one of youth). But taking on real-world challenges facilities the twist that JFK used to reference. In other words, students begin to stop asking what the world can do for them, but rather ask themselves what can they contribute to the world. This creates a transformation where we can have empathy for others. When we see how the children in Flint, Michigan have been affected by their water situation, we look at these issues – often for the first time and with a new, more powerful lens. We look at how problems affect us—our world, our communities, our school, our peers, our families and ourselves. But this reflective and circular journey creates a deeper understanding and again the path to empathy. I often hear teachers say they value empathy as a trait or skill that they want students to possess. I also often hear from teachers how it’s so difficult for students to have empathy for others. However, I think young people have lots of capacity for the concern of others (empathy) if they embark on real-world project-based learning journeys.

Service Learning and SEL

Many projects—especially those with real-world challenges or issues embedded as part of the project—also have opportunities for service learning. Because the students are tackling these real-world challenges, there are real-world efforts in their communities to address these challenges that our students can connect with that result in service opportunities. In many cases, if not almost all, there are also partner organizations—on local, regional, national and even international levels—that will partner with our students, teachers, and schools to assist them in their project-based learning efforts. In turn, our students are helping these organizations support their volunteer and organizational needs. When students ultimately see their work not only utilized by others, but making a difference, they begin to not only be more engaged, but more empowered. By seeing their work as being a successful part of some larger work, there is a natural connection to SEL. They begin to realize their individual and potentially powerful place in the world—their school community, local community, and the global community. They begin to see and experience that learning can be powerful, relevant and action-oriented. Additionally, they are gaining valuable real-world skills, portfolio and resume exemplars, expanded professional and personal networks and the natural benefits of increased endorphins.

PBL is People-Oriented

We use the word collaboration continually. But rarely do we explicitly call out how collaboration is supposed to look and why it’s so important. It’s not just a good idea, it’s a career skill—maybe one of the most in the new and emerging economies. PBL not only allows for real-world collaboration—it fosters it. Students engaged in relevant, real-world project work have opportunities to work with experts, industry professionals, school and community leaders, non-profit organizations, clients or constituents, and their peers. All of this allows, in real time, for students to see the true power of connection, relationships and real collaboration. They don’t just hear about collaboration—they see it in action. Each of the different partners that our students work with through their projects has the potential to become that mentor, supporter, role model or employer. This concept of a PLN (professional or personal learning network) is not something that magically occurs as professionals, but rather is a product of a collaborative skill set that requires development. If students don’t get these skills now, facilitated by their schools through projects, when will they? We can’t leverage relationships for opportunities unless we have had authentic ways to develop them. When it’s time to be hired, apply for that internship or get that scholarship, our students have to have their PBL PLN’s ready for deployment. And they will only be able to if they have a PLN and these contacts know of their work.

Sense of Self

For years, we have oft referred to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as way to explain how we can get students to become self-actualized. If students can get basic needs met (safety, food, clothing), have love and belonging (relationships) and esteem (accomplishment, recognition, mastery, independence), they can become self-actualized (personal best, potential). Well, as usual, how do we do this? As I advocated earlier, PBL provides a pedagogical approach that can produce the environment, situation, opportunities culture that fosters a sense of self. Everything about PBL—real-world challenges, collaboration, student voices and roles, authentic and public work and reflection—creates opportunities for students to self-actualize. They have multiple chances to meet their road to self-actualization. When they present their work publicly, they have an opportunity for that sense of esteem. When they get to choose how to present their work, what areas of study to focus on and even whom to collaborate with, they can enjoy mastery and independence. When they get a chance to serve in certain roles, while using and advancing various areas of strength, they can enjoy recognition, accomplishment and that necessary sense of belonging.

Reflective Practices and Personal, Emotional Growth

One of the tenets of PBL is reflection. We do this in order to show students that learning operates at high levels when we think about the learning. We think about, as well as articulate, what we learn, how we learn, what has changed now that we’ve experienced the learning and what we take with us to our next challenge. SEL is predicated on the idea that we are able to identify our own personal and emotional growth. The five core components of SEL—self-management, self-awareness, decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness—are naturally strengthened when identified and reflected upon. PBL perpetuates metacognitive opportunities, experiences, and practices—which in turn perpetuates a deeper understanding of own growth. These opportunities are natural elements when presenting public work, addressing real-world challenges to authentic audiences.

The Final Pitch

It seems that teaching the whole student might be more important than ever. Whether it’s the skills for a new and more globalized economy, improved health and wellness, developing and optimizing a growth mindset, self-actualization, better relationships and collaboration, achieving personal and professional goals or contributing to and being part of better communities, we cannot afford to approach learning, and students, through narrow academic and content standards lenses. Indeed, our approach to the whole student will greatly influence the success we have on any part of the student. PBL not only allows for this—it facilitates it.

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Family Technology Pact: Why You Need One and the Hidden Benefits

By: Rachel Wigglesworth

I will admit: my kids’ use of digital media is a trigger for me. I’m not sure why – there were periods in my childhood where I watched 4 hours of TV a day. Still, I see my kids walking around the house or sitting on the couch plugged into their devices and it’s all I can do to hold back my judgment and nagging. What I’ve come to realize with much practice and patience is twofold: 1) our children’s use of technology affords them many learning experiences beyond what is immediately at hand, and 2) having clear and firm boundaries around their use preserves the relationship I have with my kids. Ok… there’s a third: I have to keep my use of digital media in check too.

There is no doubt that technology use affords us many benefits. Our devices can open up our world and expand our possibilities within seconds. They can also unwittingly expose us and our children to potentially damaging images, ideas and social contexts such as pornography, cyberbullying and violent images. On top of that, our devices with apps, games, social media and instant replay videos are designed to be addictive in nature. Every notification from the device sends our brain a hit of dopamine, which activates our reward system leaving us craving for more.

When I see my kids lounging on the couch in a technology-induced hypnotic state, I often find myself screaming inside: SHOULDN’T THEY BE DOING SOMETHING MORE PRODUCTIVE? Playing, getting outside, helping out in the house, taking initiative and responsibility, thinking about others, engaging in face to face interaction, working on some creative endeavor…  The list could go on. It’s all I can do (and often not do!) to keep my mouth shut and remember what we have all heard about the importance of balance. To that end, my husband, two kids, and I sat down (that’s us in the feature image) to create guidelines for family media use. It took many iterations and finally ended in what we call “The Technology Pact”.

Before I go into details about creating a Technology Pact I want to note that this will look different for every family. There is no right or wrong here. Each family’s Pact will be based on individual family culture: values, goals, beliefs, desires, personalities and the child’s age. That’s the beauty of families – we can be free to be ourselves and come up with family guidelines based on who we individually are. Thus while I am sharing with you what we came up with for our family, which is imperfect at best, what you come up with in your family may be wildly different – and that’s OK!

A crucial piece of our Technology Pact is that we co-created it as a family. It would have been easier for my husband and me to write the Technology Pact ourselves. After all, I like the rules that I would come up with. However, what I’ve learned over time is that any agreement we have with our kids is not going to work unless the kids participate in the process. Despite my urges to frustratingly announce that we NEED TO REVISIT OUR TECHNOLOGY RULES in the heat of their use (which may have happened on occasion), as a family we found a time that worked for everyone to sit down and calmly discuss our perspectives, observations, and values.

Our Technology Pact starts with what we believe about technology use:

  1. that we should be able to use technology;
  2. that technology use should be in balance with other things we do in life; and
  3. that we all need to learn to self-monitor to achieve this balance.

For me, the most important of these beliefs is the last – our ability to self-monitor. It speaks to my first realization alluded to above that our children’s use of technology affords them many learning experiences beyond what is immediately at hand. Most important for me is that it teaches us the important executive functioning skills of self-control and impulse control. Among other positive outcomes, research suggests that self-control is more important than academic talent in predicting academic success.

In creating our Pact we found that discussions around definitions and how we use digital media were necessary. We created and agreed to screen free times – times when using our devices was off limits. For example, eating dinner together is an important time to connect for our family – thus no one is allowed to check their phones during this time. If a phone dings, we ignore it. How liberating! We built in caveats for “emergencies”, such as being in touch with a family member who is not at home, or solidifying a plan that is set to happen immediately after dinner; we want to allow for some flexibility and are committed to not take advantage of these caveats.

Together we came up with time limits on daily use. To do this we had long discussions about the definition of “use”. That may sound silly – having a screen in front of you is use, right? True, and we decided we didn’t need to limit use if that use entailed communicating with friends. After all, I spent hours on the phone talking to friends as a kid. Kids today communicate differently using text and social media (note my withholding of judgement!), and we decided that beyond excessive social communication, there was no need to limit that kind of use.

To address the balance issue, we adopted ideas used by other families I found on the web. We decided that the kids needed to engage in certain activities before they used their allotted screen time for the day. Thus no devices are to be used before household responsibilities are completed and offers to help are made. We also created requirements for reading, creative time and outdoor/ physically active time.

My husband and I compromised with the kids in some realms – they wanted to be able to check their phones for a few minutes right when they got home so they could be up on any recent social communication. We were fine with that. While I am a firm believer in no screens an hour before bedtime, they wanted to try being given the privilege to use their phone up to 15 minutes before bedtime – so we created a pilot program with this plan to be reevaluated. We allowed for exceptions to our agreements and wrote those directly into our Pact.

Finally, we came up with agreements around self-monitoring our use, how we interact with each other personally when we are using our devices, and individually set goals around our use.

It is always a work in progress. For example, under the category of safety, I just noticed that I’d like to add something about using our devices while driving. Our kids will be driving soon, and my husband and I could make some improvements on how we use our devices while in the car. Finally, we decided that if our kids became emotional in regards to digital media use, this indicated to us that our kids weren’t ready to handle the responsibilities that go along with using their devices. We felt that our kids needed to show us that they could maturely handle stopping their use at the allotted time without us micromanaging and without our kids melting down or begging for more time.

We are by no means perfect at this. I am not always consistent enough in holding my kids accountable to our agreements. This can lead to a slippery slope of my kids not self-monitoring. It is a work in progress.

Benefits of our Pact Beyond Regulating Digital Media Use

One of the most important jobs we have as parents is to teach our kids the skills they need for when they leave the home. Family agreements, such as those surrounding technology use, are simply a conduit for such teaching. Developing self-control around a device that is designed to fight you in that endeavor every step of the way is not easy. The part of our brain that controls self-control is underdeveloped for our younger children, and these skills temporarily diminish during the early teens. Our kids need our support.

The skills used to create the Technology Pact can be another learning experience beyond that of the immediate education technology can provide. When we were able to sit down and co-create our Pact, together we were able to talk about our desires, fears and beliefs surrounding technology use; really listen to the other’s perspective even if we didn’t agree with it; and sit through the discomfort of differing opinions, speak up for our beliefs and find compromise in a plan that worked for everyone. Learning how to negotiate and hear another’s perspective without dissolving into an emotional mess or raging anger is all too important in today’s world. What a better way to practice these skills in low stakes moments and in the safety of home.

My second realization has to do with what I’ve learned from parent educator and author Vicki Hoefle: having strong boundaries around limits with our children helps preserve the relationship. If I have a clear limit with my child that we have co-created, and if I am strong enough to follow through with the limit, then everything becomes clear. There is no need to nag and no need for push-back, thus no need to engage in a power struggle. If we are all on the same page and the rules are known, if the kids break the rules, they know the repercussions, and they take responsibility for their actions.

5 Tips for Upholding your Technology Pact

Creating and holding to a Technology Pact sounds easy in writing. It’s really tough in reality. Our kids are going to push back. Here are some ideas for how to work through those times:

  1. We as parents need to be consistent in a firm and kind way. This means maintaining limits with understanding and empathy. It also means that we have to manage our strong and reactive emotions as well. Not an easy feat, but with practice completely possible.
  2. Help your child develop the skills of self-regulation. If you find your child isn’t able to self-regulate – that you are constantly nagging and engaging in power struggles around media use, then that tells you your child needs some support. If your child isn’t able to hold to the agreement, then use a predetermined and agreed upon natural consequence. It is OK to take away the device for a set time if your child can’t independently stop her or his use. As parents, we have to be strong enough to handle the potential emotional fallout – a conversation for another time!
  3. Help your children be mindful of their use. How are they engaging with their world as a result of their use? How do they feel before, during and after their use? Ask them these questions.
  4. Allow your children to see the natural consequences of overindulging in digital media. Are they unable to get their homework done, take care of their responsibilities in the home (which I highly advocate that they have), interact with others face to face, etc? I remember becoming somewhat addicted to the game “asteroids” when I was in college to the point that it made me late for soccer practice. Soccer was my life at the time! I soon realized that I had to reign myself in and find a balance so the game wasn’t interfering with what was important in my life.
  5. Consider the quality as well as the quantity of digital media use. Is it promoting healthy values and lifestyle or not? If not, have a conversation with your child about it. You may still agree that some of the content is OK to use, and you are talking about the values it is espousing.

Above all, maintaining a strong, mutually respectful relationship with your child is essential. Let your child know you value his or her opinion. While we did not grow up where screens were so accessible, we need to acknowledge that this is an important part of our children’s world. Hear their arguments. Compromise where you can. This kind of back and forth will show your children you value their input, and will go miles in helping them feel valued in the world.

Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is the founder and parent educator/coach at www.GrowingGreatFamilies.org. She provides guidance to parents and caregivers through classes, workshops, and individual sessions. You can send an email to Rachel Wigglesworth or find her on Facebook.

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Relationships As Engagement: Understanding the Whole Child

In schools across the country, it is quite common to hear teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators talking about student engagement. In its best form, we hope that means: are students immersed in the content and meaningfully engaged in the activities of the lesson? While we always aim to answer that question with a yes, we must acknowledge that the path to student engagement is not always as direct as a teacher, coach, or administrator would hope. Those of us who have struggled to hook students or demonstrate the relevance and value of a lesson’s content know that what this really takes is teacher engagement with students not only as learners but as full and multi-dimensional beings.

Author and social activist bell hooks argues for an engaged pedagogy—a rethinking of our roles as educators and an affirmation of our commitment to creating learning environments that tend to both students’ and teachers’ well-being. In her book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell explains that the engaged teachers are those who “believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” The motives, beliefs, and actions of teachers are critical. Just as any excellent teacher will share, teaching is not something that we simply “do”, rather, it is a way of living.

So How Do We Do It? Using Trauma or ACEs-Informed Models for All

How do we come to live this engagement with the whole child in our daily work in schools and classrooms? What resources, approaches, and tools exist to support teacher engagement with the whole child? While recent work on trauma-informed approaches and practices for working with students impacted by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are meant to support our most vulnerable students, these frameworks provide a foundation that is useful for all of our students as they center on relationships. Central to these approaches are the following:

The notion that relationships must come first! Teachers must adopt a learner stance to understand their students’ lives, interests, passions, struggles, fears, strengths, and areas that cause students stress or anxiety. This goes beyond surveys or inventories, which are excellent ways to begin, and extends to making time for one-to-one conferences, participation in activities in local communities, and truly meeting students where they are.  You can learn a tremendous amount from spending time sitting in a playground after school or from sitting down at the lunch table and joining in a conversation that students initiate.  You’ll be learning, and students will see the interest you’re taking in them that extends beyond the content.

Relationships inform classroom learning and whole-school culture!  When relationships and a culture of care are at the root of interactions between students and teachers, teachers and families, and generally among teachers and the school administration, the groundwork has been laid for supporting risk-taking and ultimately, growth.

Knowledge gleaned from relationships informs learning activities! What we can learn through sustained, trusting relationships can inform what we do in the classroom.  Understanding students’ goals, interests, talents, and skills outside of the classroom can become the bridges to academic learning.  From connecting with students’ jokes and informal conversations, we can build rich literacy activities that bridge home and school language.  We can leverage students’ interests in pop culture to make connections to academic content, making classroom learning more relevant to students’ everyday lives.

Knowledge gleaned from relationships informs approaches to behavior! If by hanging out in the cafeteria you learn about students social relationships and interactions with their peers, you may uncover some new information that can be helpful in structuring groups or pairs as well as other classroom activities.  You might also come to understand how a student responds to difficult situations and conflict.  Learning about triggers for students in social situations can help you in planning to avoid or minimize those triggers in the classroom.

Teacher self-care is essential to caring for the whole child! Teachers spend an enormous amount of time considering the strengths and needs of others, most especially their students.  It is critical that teachers ensure that they’re caring for themselves, recognizing the victories, and taking the time to invest in their own peace and well-being.  If that means after-school walking groups, carving out time each day to engage in a non-school-related hobby, or just simply sitting silently for five minutes and reflecting on the accomplishments of the day, it is important to make yourself a priority, too!

Teaching is a caring profession that requires deep engagement by everyone involved. However, the engagement that can develop when teachers truly tend to their students’ and their own well-being is what leads to long-lasting, meaningful learning!  For great resources on building relationships, check out:  Simple Relationship-Building Strategies and Four Strategies for Building Relationships with Students.

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The Importance of What ESSA Plans Do Not Include

On September 27, 2018, the US Department of Education congratulated the State of Florida on approval of its consolidated plan for implementing the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act (1965) as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) (ESSA). The approval letter was for the 50th, and final, plan establishing each state government’s commitment to assuring quality and equity in publicly funded education. These plans outline how each state will evaluate the success of their schools. Now that each state has articulated an approach to the common national aspiration of having every student succeed, it is possible to pause and look at what the educational priorities are across the nation as well as what is conspicuously absent from these state plans. Most notably? social-emotional learning (SEL).

ESSA enabled—even promoted—the inclusion of SEL measures as part of the state accountability plans. However, every state passed up this opportunity. Though SEL approaches and goals are prevalent in education literature, research, and professional development agendas; though 95% of teachers report that SEL skills are teachable and can benefit all kids; though districts and schools are implementing SEL curricula in large numbers, measures assessing SEL growth and development are universally absent from how states will hold themselves accountable to the community.

Beyond Academic Achievement: ESSA & the Fifth Indicator

ESSA maintained much of the requirements established under No Child Left Behind for state accountability systems. Tweaks to definitions and new flexibility in the methods for compliance were introduced. A new balance of autonomy between the federal, state, and local decision makers was established. ESSA retained requirements that each state needs to assess and report academic performance for each school and for students by sub-group. However, ESSA is different in establishing added expectations and flexibility in educational standards, assessment instruments, and differentiation of student and school cohorts. A major addition is that ESSA explicitly requires that state education agencies (SEAs) “Include one other indicator of school quality or student success that allows for meaningful differentiation, such as student or educator engagement, or school climate and safety” as part of its accountability framework.” This is the new, fifth indicator, of gauging school quality.

This fifth indicator was introduced by Congress in direct response to concerns that NCLB had overly narrowed the definition of school success to metrics based on student academic achievement. Criticisms had bemoaned that these measures failed to take into account that being ready for life upon graduation requires more than a proficiency score in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Advocates, from a variety of ideological perspectives, were successful in ensuring that ESSA allows states the latitude to reflect on their values and prioritization of characteristics beyond academic achievement and to use those measures to define the success of their schools. Though SEL indicators are included in these possible options, no state stepped up to hold itself accountable by measuring SEL skill development.

Why SEL Is Struggling to Break Through the Accountability Wall

Educators know that SEL is instrumental to the social, emotional, and interpersonal development of students. Research shows that it underpins academic growth and is foundational to the development of requisite skills in the innovation economy. With this knowledge, teachers, principals, and district administrators work to understand and respond to the stages of human development and the range of experiences students bring to the classroom. Teachers want to ensure that students are present, engaged, and learning in an environment which develops and reinforces healthy behaviors, self-regulation, and civic contributions. Their daily practice reflects a concerted effort to address these concerns.

There was significant consternation that test-prep for summative assessments had left little time for engaging students under NCLB. Educators have come to understand that student academic achievement in K-12 and subsequent post-secondary success in higher education and career pursuits needed explicit time and experiences beyond what was driving school report cards based on standardized test. The ability to have students learn, adapt, and support themselves and others requires explicit, systemic experiences in social-emotional learning.

Why, then, have state education policymakers across the country not embraced the opportunity to assess what so many practitioners and researchers assert is necessary for student success? In short, too little coherence and too much risk aversion. There are many competing frameworks for defining SEL, SEL attributes are considered too hard to measure with validity, and, thus, no state has been brave enough to pioneer holding itself accountable in such an uncertain terrain.

There are several diverse groupings of skills and lessons that fall under the broad “SEL umbrella,” including concepts such as grit, resilience, mindfulness, agency, creativity, and non-cognitive skills. With this breadth, it is impossible to assess the success of SEL skills generally. Therefore, as schools and districts implement SEL programs, they must determine which specific categories of SEL skills their curricula aim to teach and, therefore, which measures align to gauge success and inform practice.

Selecting an instrument to assess SEL involves more complicated decision points than a straightforward, longitudinal metric: Schools must make decisions about whether to use universal or sampling based methodologies, the desired reporting frequencies and styles to practitioners, and resource allocation processes. Examples of leading providers of SEL instruments scales, and reporting structures, include Panaroma, Social-Emotional Assets and Resilience Scale, TransformEd, and Behavioral and Emotional Rating Scale. Each vendor has a distinct combination of attributes, instruments, scales, and analytic platforms. And each vendor heralds the “unique” nature of its approach. To enable impact at scale, advocates of SEL need an interoperability movement to enable create a common set of definitions and scales. Other aspects of the educational enterprise, most recently literacy and educational technology, have benefitted from such efforts and enabled a coherent eco-system while maintaining an innovative friendly market of offerings.

If Not SEL, What Are States Using as the Fifth Indicator?

In order to meet the mandate to include an “indicator of school quality or student success that allows for meaningful differentiation” other than state test scores, many states are relying upon measures of achievement and behavioral attributes already being gathered by schools. These attributes, such as daily attendance, behavioral and disciplinary records, local report card and course grades, middle and high school GPAs, literacy measures, and state test scores, have an extensive longitudinal availability, and are being used by many states as this fifth indicator of quality.

Ways this is being done include:

  • Attendance: An increase in the overall daily attendance rate, the increase in very high attendance (>98%), a decrease in high absenteeism (>10% absences), and a decrease in truancy correlate to positive school climate.
  • Behavior: A healthy environment is considered one in which students are able to handle their emotions without eruption, navigate interpersonal dynamics without disruptive conflict, and interact with teachers and other authority figures without confrontation. Metrics include behavior referrals, disciplinary incidents, and the severity of disciplinary types within the community.
  • Course Grades: If students are present and engaged then achievement should rise. Metrics include the whether more student work is submitted on time, if the average course grade per marking period rises, the failure or retention rate falls, and if these local efforts correlate with external assessments such as state examinations.
  • School Climate: At least eight states have opted to use school climate as an indicator within their approved ESSA plans. These measures, like SEL measurements, rely on student, parent, and educator surveys. However, rather than gauging how students perceive their own capabilities they ask participants to report on what, and how well, the school system creates an environment for learning and relationships. This is important, but distinct from, the attributes of SEL.

While states’ choices to use these measures to assess school success absolutely fall within ESSA compliance, they fail to reflect if, and how well, social-emotional learning is happening in schools. The measures that states seem comfortable to be accountable for are either based in reducing problematic metrics or in asking for endorsement of environmental factors. Neither approach reaches into the attitudes and behaviors of students about their capacity to create, develop, and adjust the individual and social attitudes and habits for lifelong learning.

Our Measurements Should Reflect Our Educational Aspirations

Americans have a long history of committing to the idea of educating its children. This record has been characterized by significant efforts to organize leaders around ensuring that this commitment is supported with resources and accountability. From the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s 1647 mandate for towns to provide education, to the state school board meetings convened by Horace Mann, to the broadening of the intent of education in Dewey’s laboratory schools, to the challenges of ensuring equity in resources and expectations of desegregation, to the effort to measure every student’s academic achievement through NCLB, through to ESSA’s current emphasis on equity of expectations and opportunity, the United States has expanded who is expected to be educated and increasingly worked to ensure that education promotes contemporary conceptions of life-readiness.

What we measure in our schools reflects these goals and intentions. The data we collect, and the metrics by which we gauge success, are closely tied to these ambitions. And, educational practice, curricula, and funding streams follow those priorities and outcome measures.

In order for schools to attain these broader conceptions of achievement—of this more holistic approach to education, referenced in the law, that includes social-emotional learning—schools must articulate and define these goals as desired outcomes. Metrics that reflect human development, rather than just academic achievement, are inherently complicated. However, schools and districts can make choices to find meaning in this uncertainty. They need to choose from competing theories of action in doing so, ensure interoperability with existing analytic frameworks and student information systems, and ultimately include measures that assess these kinds of skills and behaviors in order to truly provide insights, with confidence, on student growth as a person and a learner.

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SEL Spotlight: Grant Beacon Middle School

Social and emotional learning (SEL) skills are the cornerstones of well-rounded citizens. Grant Beacon Middle School (GBMS), located in southeast Denver is leading the way when it comes to promoting SEL for all students.

SEL is defined as “the process through which people acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.” It focuses on knowledge, attitudes and skills in five competency areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. SEL skills can help students find success both inside and out of school.

Grant Beacon is the flagship school of the Beacon Network which, last week, won approval from the DPS board to operate as an autonomous innovation zone.

Beacon schools prioritize personalized learning through critical thinking, blended learning, extended day opportunities, and character development. Through its school-wide commitment to integrating the whole child and character development initiatives into everything they do, GBMS has been able to make their focus on SEL unique and sustainable through a focus on creating a positive culture and character development.

Positive Culture at Grant Beacon Middle School

Students are not learning if they are not feeling safe, loved or do not have their basic needs. The entire staff of GBMS takes on the tasks of providing a safe and nurturing environment of high expectations for all of their students.

How do they create a school-wide positive culture and character development? Through a three-fold approach:

  1. Analyze the data and prioritize knowing kids individually and as a whole in the deep and intimate way,
  2. Prioritize funds and resources to provide wrap-around services,
  3. Integrate high expectations, social-emotional learning, student voice and celebration into all aspect of school;

Gathering data and spending intentional and specific-time relationship building and knowing all of their students is an important first step in GBMS’s approach to a positive culture and character development. GBMS’s students come from diverse and often heavily impacted communities. The staff spends their professional development time understanding trauma, poverty, equity, culture and learning needs so that they can better serve and support their students. They use the data team time to dive deep into the data and analyze student behavior in and out of the classroom, attendance and quarterly feedback students report on how they are perceiving GBMS and their classroom environments and interactions. This data is used to prioritize the funds and build major improvement strategies around student needs, trends and student-voice.

As an innovation zone, Beacon Schools have more control over their time and money to consistently prioritize school culture. Positive culture of the building and student-voice is a top priority. GBMS achieves this through their Deans of Students, incredible teachers and by promoting student voice.

SEL At Grant Beacon

Dean of Students. There is a Dean of Students assigned to each grade level at GBMS (grades 6th-8th) that loops with the students as they move through the middle school. Deans are essential in promoting positive initiatives with their students – from team building advisory lessons, transitions from elementary or to high school, attendance challenges and weekly celebrations. All while being also being available to any student, parent or staff member that needs assistance with behavior management or general bumps in the road. The Deans work closely with GBMS’s mental health staff (which GBMS prioritizes in their school-based budget) to implement restorative practices and trauma-informed discipline interventions.

Teachers. GBMS’s teachers know the emphasis on culture adds more work to their plates but they are all committed to the extra efforts as they see the value first-hand. Each teacher commits to yearlong professional development in the areas of mindfulness, equity and bias, trauma-informed classrooms and de-escalation. They have an advisory group that they adopt as their “family” that they start every morning with and facilitate extended classes with on Fridays/ These extended classes often consist of restorative practices, “peace circles”, tools for academic organizations, team building, and school-wide competitions.

GBMS invests in an online behavioral tool – Live School – where their teachers and staff can publicly give students points connected to their character traits (perseverance, integrity, curiosity, kindness and leadership) to continually promote positive behaviors, interactions and value the great things students are doing. In the past, GBMS measured students referrals and suspensions. Since transitioning to measuring positive character traits the entire school culture has shifted. Live School and students’ Character Trait Averages allow students and parents to get real-time and daily feedback on their character. In addition, students can use their points to purchase incentives, spirit wear and even a VIP pass to GBMS social.

Students. GBMS includes their students in the conversation when it comes to creating a positive school-wide culture. The GBMS Student Voice Committee meets monthly to discuss data, process ideas and get student feedback. Some of the school’s greatest initiatives and celebrations have come from intentionally tapping into their student’s voices.

Celebrating students is a top priority at GBMS. Every Friday the entire student population and staff come together for weekly community meetings where students are honored in the areas of math, reading, attendance, character and “Students of the Week”. The teachers give individual shout-outs and “griffin bucks” to shining stars each week and publicly acknowledge the students that are doing the right thing.

GBMS’s focus on a positive school-wide culture has done something amazing. It has become cool to be positive and to excel. Which we all know is no small feat in a Middle School!

For more, see:


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Trauma-Supported Education and Educator SEL Training is Vital for The Classroom

By: Kellie Lauth

Empathy. Resilience. The ability to make time for self-care and manage stress. These are characteristics we want to instill in our youth, yet we often don’t practice what we preach when it comes to social and emotional wellness. When we look at the root of why, it becomes interesting. There’s an argument as to whether social-emotional learning (SEL) belongs in schools when educators often feel they don’t have the support or resources to focus on their own social-emotional well-being. Educators face a number of stressors – they work well beyond the school day and over breaks, pay for classroom materials out of pocket and are underpaid, considering the hours they dedicate to their craft.

To say SEL doesn’t belong in schools is preposterous. After all, it is in pre-K, elementary through higher ed institutions where our children acquire knowledge, life skills and prepare for the workforce… or at least, it’s meant to be where this all takes place. To best prepare the future workforce, our students, we need to take the time to support educators to balance their own social-emotional wellness and work with school districts to create a nurturing, collaborative environment for both staff and students. Often times, this takes special resources to change mindsets. In order to change our mindset, we must start by making a shift in education values, a shift that brings SEL to the forefront and places it at the same level of importance as tangible academic goals, and standards-based results.

The foundation for sound social-emotional support isn’t just a “nice to have” commodity – it’s becoming reality and providing hope for many across our nation. The movement for, and focus on, social-emotional wellness is inspiring more districts to offer SEL training and support to educators, who in turn, can better prepare students to thrive under adversity. What exactly does this look like? The best way to anticipate the potential issues educators might face in the classroom is by looking at what’s going on in the community.

Identify the Community’s Pain Points to Customize SEL Tactics

Every community has its own challenges. Some may be located in a food desert, while others may face high crime rates or drug use. For instance, a major challenge that is plaguing communities across the country is the Opioid Crisis. According to the CDC, opioid use claims the lives of 115 Americans each day. On top of that, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network found that two-thirds of children in the country have experienced a traumatic event by the age of 16, whether they were a witness to violence or were directly assaulted.

Each of these challenges creates stress that affects everyone in the community in some capacity. These numbers are proof that our communities desperately need social-emotional support. The best place to start, with the support of the community, is in the classroom.

How can we ensure that educators and students receive enough support to be successful during the school year? By defining what SEL is and providing access to support, districts are able to create processes to better handle trauma.

Understanding Stress and Trauma to Better Shape the Classroom

Because not all stressors are inherently negative, the response to stress may vary. Responses can be classified in three different ways – positive, tolerable and toxic. If we expect students to achieve certain milestones or meet performance goals on standardized tests, academic leaders must be able to address the stressors and traumas they may face. Schools can prepare their staff and students to respond to stress in a productive, healthy way through the tactics learned in SEL training. On a basic level, SEL sessions explore ways educators can shape the classroom environment to better foster conversation, mindfulness and empathy.

Being at the forefront of this shift to SEL, educators must understand the true biology of teaching and how teaching styles can shape the classroom. Between long hours, tight resources and little in the way of emotional support, educators face a number of stressors themselves. Once educators and their schools can identify community and school-related stressors or crises, they can work to alleviate them. It’s important to note that trauma impacts short-term — and long-term — emotional, psychological and neurobiological well-being. While alleviating trauma all together is not realistic, we can foster effective social and emotional management tools that can help educators and students alike, which include:

  • Introducing effective stress management strategies to promote self-regulation skills that can serve to empower and promote resilience.
  • Promoting mind-body interventions designed to increase self-awareness and decrease stress.
  • Discussing the importance of developing a self-care plan to help prevent the effects of stress-based experiences and potential stress-based disorders.

Cultivating a Classroom Environment to Promote Social, Emotional and Academic Learning

To truly cultivate social and emotional wellness throughout a school, districts can learn how to intentionally design classroom and school-wide environments, routines and rituals that promote social and emotional health and well-being for all. Advocating for open communication and promoting stronger self-awareness and self-management are important parts of instilling change. Truly understanding consequences and discussing responsible decision-making in times of stress or trauma can lead to greater social awareness and enable adults and children to develop more positive relationship-building skills.

Understanding how to create environmental conditions, routines and rituals that support these vital learning points ensures that educators and students are armed with the tools needed to face whatever challenges may be prevalent in their classrooms or communities. SEL should truly be a collaborative effort between the community and the school district, thus placing an emphasis on academic goals, as well as social and emotional learning.

What SEL Brings to the School

The benefits of SEL are proving how invaluable social and emotional learning is in the classroom. CASEL reported students who participated in SEL programs showed an 11%-point gain in academic achievement compared to students who did not participate in SEL programs.

While some argue the cost to implement an SEL program or training for educators is costly, it’s wise to look at the long-term effects. Columbia University found that, on average, for every $1 invested in SEL programming, there is an $11 return. While there shouldn’t be a price on social and emotional wellness, it’s more cost effective to proactively address stress, trauma, and SEL in the classroom before achievement and funding take a turn for the worse.

At mindSpark Learning (mSL) we strive to take these actions and bring them to school districts around the U.S., we’ve already seen some inspiring outcomes.

In particular, we’ve found that professional development is most effective when tailored to address challenges specific to school districts’ communities. educators report feeling better prepared to take on the school year.  They also report that they are more likely to:

  • Contact potential partners in times of need
  • Be better prepared to observe a noticeable impact on their students facing trauma
  • Share the techniques they learned with colleagues
  • Apply what they learned in their practice in the near future

Educators come away from SEL training with a better understanding of how important self-care is in order to successfully do their jobs. Another idea we hope they take away is the importance of SEL for students, as they strive to help their classroom achieve more from their academic careers. Beyond the tangible changes these educators feel ready to implement, they also often report having more hope. Hope not just for themselves, but for their students and their futures.

The mind shift to support academic, social and emotional learning has begun. Let’s unite together, as a community, to offer the resources educators need to curate a safe and healthy classroom environment, provide social and emotional support to everyone within our schools and foster continued academic achievements.

For more, see:

Kellie Lauth is the CEO of mindSpark Learning and the current District STEM Coordinator for the Adams 12 Five Star School District. Connect with mindSpark on Twitter at @mymindSpark.


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I’m the Peace Teacher

By Linda Ryden

I’m six weeks into my 20th year of teaching, and if there’s one thing I feel even more strongly about today than the day I began, it’s this: teaching our young students mindfulness, brain science and kindness is absolutely critical to helping them develop the skills to solve conflicts peacefully and to face challenges with skillful compassion.

I am fortunate to be the full-time Peace Teacher at Lafayette Elementary, the largest public elementary school in Washington DC. At our school, all of the kids take a weekly Peace Class, based on a mindfulness-based social-emotional learning curriculum that I have developed over the last 15 years.

Initially, I began teaching conflict resolution, creating a curriculum that drew on the work of the best educators in the field. While I loved teaching this work and felt it was important, it didn’t seem to be helping my students when they most needed support.

One day some kids came to me after a particularly heated recess conflict. The kids arrived red-faced and sweaty, still really angry and upset. I asked everyone to go around and share what happened. When they were finished I said, “So why didn’t you use your conflict resolution skills?” They all looked at me like I was crazy. “I was too angry, Ms. Ryden!” “He made me mad and I wanted to punch him!” “I totally forgot everything you taught me – I just wanted to fight.”

I didn’t understand what was happening. How could they know how to work out conflicts one minute and not the next? What was I missing? Unexpectedly, this question led me to mindfulness.

How do you teach kids to calm down? 

I wasn’t a mindfulness practitioner back then, and really, I didn’t think mindfulness was for me. But my research led me to believe that the skills children can develop through mindfulness were exactly what they needed to help them achieve our conflict resolution goals. I took a Mindful Schools course over the summer and dove in warily with my first class. I was surprised and thrilled that the children loved it. My students experienced mindfulness as it is meant to be: a set of skills that we can learn to help us to focus better, to manage our emotions, to calm ourselves down, to become kinder and more compassionate.

Kids began to connect even more deeply to the power of mindfulness when I began teaching the related neuroscience. Based on Dr. Daniel Siegel’s hand model of the brain, we teach students beginning in PreK about the role of the amygdala: that its job is to keep us safe, but when we get angry or upset (and we are not in danger), the amygdala takes over and essentially shuts down the thinking and remembering parts of our brains unnecessarily, and our ability to reflect and consider decisions thoughtfully is put on hold. That’s why when we are angry we often do things that we later regret. We literally are not thinking. So when my students told me that they couldn’t think or remember their conflict resolution skills they were right!

Mindful breathing techniques help us to calm our amygdala so that the thinking and remembering parts of the brain can take over again. Understanding the related brain science gives our students powerful insight into themselves and reassures them that they can develop the capacity to calm and manage their own big emotions, and to put some space between their reaction to a situation and their response. Powerful.

It works!

As I began combining mindfulness and brain science with the traditional social-emotional learning lessons I was teaching, we began to see remarkable results. The reports of fights and bullying went way down, kids were reporting that they were practicing mindfulness because it made them feel kinder, less anxious, less nervous, more confident, sleep better, have less anxiety about tests. They felt they were learning to be better friends and were teaching their families self-calming skills they were learning in class. Teachers reported that their classrooms were calmer and their students were more focused and kind. Parent support increased year by year as they noticed the positive changes in their children and their school.

Pay attention!

Another helpful outcome of teaching mindfulness is increasing our ability to focus and pay attention. Teachers and parents are constantly telling kids to focus and pay attention, but we rarely stop to teach them how! The average person has about 50-75000 thoughts a day. When you are teaching and want your students’ attention, you have a lot of competition. What mindfulness practice does is help kids notice when they are distracted and then learn how to bring their attention back to where they want or need it to be.

What I believe

I believe that social-emotional skills are some of the most important skills that children can learn in school and that mindfulness is the best foundation for that learning. Research confirms that mindfulness practice can enhance children’s social-emotional development, and can enhance children’s attention and focus as well as self-control and emotional regulation. Research also shows that creating deliberate moments of quiet and focus in a school day as part of a mindfulness-based SEL program is likely to decrease anger, violence, anxiety.

All children need to learn these skills – not just the ones referred for extra support – and not just because they help children in school. Children in DC and across the country are living in an increasingly scary, uncertain world. Children are anxious and stressed. Active shooter drills are terrifying, the news is relentless and social media tests us and our children every day. This is all layered on top of the typical childhood challenges of academics, siblings, friendships. Many of the students in our DC schools are also exposed to violence, racism, hunger and other traumas on a regular basis. Mindfulness can help.

Happiness is a skill

Neuroscientists have shown that happiness is a skill that can be learned and that mindfulness is the best way to learn this skill. This is life-changing information. Mindfulness gives us a way to help our students face the challenges that come their way skillfully and with compassion for themselves and others. Teaching a combination of mindfulness and social-emotional learning helps our children become more resilient, happier and healthier people for life.

This is good for our kids and it’s good for us too. My mindfulness practice has made me a much better teacher. I’m able to notice that I’m getting angry or frustrated when that feeling is small and take care of so that I can think about how I want to respond. It helps me to focus and stay in the moment with my students, even when the news from the wider world is overwhelming and unsettling. I’m able to model how a calm and mindful adult handles challenges. Well, most of the time. Developing a personal mindfulness practice doesn’t take that much time: you can do one or two minutes a day and it will make a world of difference.

More than a buzzword

Mindfulness is having a moment right now and more and more schools are beginning to catch on. However, not all mindfulness programs are created equal. Research is showing more and more that it is the combination of mindfulness and social-emotional learning that makes the difference. Many programs offer 8-week introductions to mindfulness. This is a great start, but as someone who has been teaching mindfulness weekly to children from pre-k to 5th grade, I can say that real change starts when these lessons are taught all year, year after year, and are incorporated into all aspects of a school building.

I can say without a doubt that the lessons that my students are learning in Peace Class are changing their lives. I see it in action every day. Kids tell me all the time how they were flipping their lids during a test or a baseball game or a conflict on the playground and how they were able to use their mindful breathing skills to help them to calm down. Imagine what our world could be like if all children were taught to understand their own brains, regulate their own emotions and work out conflicts peacefully. It has never been more important to prepare our children to create a more peaceful world. I was so honored to be selected to participate in the NEA Foundation’s Keeping the Promise of Public Education this month to help share the messages of mindfulness. As Dr. Seuss would say, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”

For more, see:

Linda Ryden is the author of the Peace of Mind Core Curriculum, author of the Storybook Series Henry and Friends: Mindfulness and Kindness for Kids, and the co-director of Peace of Mind Inc, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting mindfulness-based SEL in schools. TeachPeaceofMind.org.

Photo credit: Stacy Beck Photography


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Facebook For Education: Activate, Collaborate, Innovate

Since its inception in a Harvard dorm room to initially only being available to universities—Facebook, education, and innovation seem to go hand-in-hand. With the recent launch of its new Facebook for Education microsite, Facebook is showing that innovation is not just a part of its past, it is a part of its future. We recently connected with Adam Seldow, head of education product partnerships for Facebook, who shared:

“We’re excited to contribute to the future of education where Facebook is uniquely suited to help educators and learners make an impact; through supporting and growing inclusive learning communities both inside and outside of the school and university, and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with virtual and augmented reality.”

Its newest educational initiative, CodeFWD is a free online three-step program that allows educators to introduce programming to fourth through eighth-grade students. Through the program, students will learn computer programming fundamentals, the power of computer programming, block-based coding, and basic control structures. Once all three steps of the program are completed, educators are encouraged to apply for a free Sphero BOLT Power Pack (a classroom set of 15 BOLT app-enabled robots valued at $2499).

With the goal of expanding access and participation of underrepresented students in computer science, Facebook hopes to “inspire a new generation of diverse tech innovators to build a future that benefits us all.”

CodeFWD is just one of many resources offered on education.fb.com. From computer science programs to social-emotional learning programs, Facebook aims to “enable people to activate around change, collaborate in more meaningful ways, and explore innovative new technologies.” See some of their top resources below:

Programs That Inspire:

Computer Science Education:

  • TechPrep. This Facebook-led initiative is supported by McKinsey & Company and was created for parents, guardians, and learners who want to understand more about computer science (CS) and programming.
  • Commitment to Code.org. In 2016, Facebook made a $15 million dollar commitment to Code.org to teach more young women and underrepresented minorities how to code.
  • TechStart. This tool aims to spark curiosity for computer science through the creative use of project-based tech experiences, allowing students from all backgrounds to evolve from consumers into creators.
  • Engineer for the Week. This three-week-long extracurricular program provides youth ages 13+ with practice using computer science (CS) skills while they explore the world of engineering.

Social & Emotional Learning:

  • InspirED. A hub for free resources designed by teens, educators, and SEL experts to empower students to work together to create more positive school climates and foster greater well-being in their communities.
  • Our Best Selves. In partnership with Scholastic, Our Best Selves is a compilation of six social-emotional learning lessons that guide students to better understand their emotions and build empathy for others.
  • Middle School Kindness Challenge. This unique collaboration among leading education organizations, distinguished teachers, and acclaimed researchers provides access to research-based tools and resources, free of charge, to those who want to incorporate kindness into the school day and make kindness a practical, commonplace skill.
  • Soapbox Nation. In partnership with Mikva Challenge, the Soapbox Nation engages thousands of young people in classrooms around the country in learning about how to create and advocate for solutions to improve their schools, communities and the lives of young people.

Products That Drive Connection + Collaboration:

  • Messenger Kids is a free video calling and messaging app designed for kids to connect with close friends and family from their tablet or smartphone.
  • Workplace is an online team collaboration tool using familiar Facebook features such as groups, chat and video calls for work.
  • Facebook Groups have long been a feature for many users. They provide a space to communicate about a shared interest.
  • Social Learning Groups. A feature of Facebook groups, social learning groups allows group admins to create learning units, track results, and help build a community around learning.

Products That Drive Innovation + Transformation:

  • Oculus NextGen is a program designed to provide colleges and universities with Virtual Reality (VR) workshops, hardware, and introduction to the VR industry.
  • Oculus LaunchPad is a program designed to support promising VR content creators from diverse backgrounds, so they can take their unique ideas and bring them to the market.
  • Oculus VR for Good is an initiative designed to support content creators, impact innovators and inspire partners who see virtual reality as a way to make the world a better place.

With so many valuable resources for educators and students, Facebook for Education allows educators and students to get creative with their teaching and learning. Which resource do you believe is most beneficial? Let us know on twitter @Getting_Smart or in the comments below.

For more, see:


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Moving to Mastery in Idaho

Raul (above left) is a high school senior succeeding in three college courses. Despite growing up in a small low-income farming community, he’s confident in his academic skills because he attends a school where learners progress after demonstrating mastery. (Raul is providing a tour to state legislators above.)

The two schools in the town of Wilder serve 500 elementary and secondary students. Located in the Snake River Valley, 30 miles west of Boise, many parents of Wilder students work in a Simplot plant that supplies French fries to McDonald’s, or a big meat processing plant north of town, or support farms of corn and hops.

Nearly all Wilder students live in or near poverty. Many move frequently and are new to English. Despite the challenges, Wilder schools are innovating in a dozen ways that makes them worth visiting.

1. Students have voice and choice in learning; they can choose the best way for them to learn: in class, online, or through projects.

2. Every student develops a personal learning plan with their mentor.

3. Instead of bells and chaotic passing periods, Wilder student go where they need to go when they need to go (which adds a couple of weeks of learning time each year).

4. The schools are mastery-based. Students get the time and attention they need to master important knowledge and skills at a high level.

5. A mental health professional helps students deal with the impacts of trauma.

6. Every K-12 student has an iPad (with mobile connectivity) in part thanks to an Apple ConnectEd grant.

7. Teachers target 1.5 years growth each year for students— 2 years of growth for learners that enroll well behind their age cohort.

8. Teachers get a half day each Wednesday to work together.

9. High school students can take college credit courses at school or online. Almost all Wilder seniors graduate with college credit.

10. Wilder teachers focus on habits of mind and create positive discipline options that change behaviors.

11. In a well-equipped studio, middle school students create animated films.

12. To welcome and inform all the visitors to Wilder schools, every classroom has a skilled and informed student ambassador.

Jeff Dillon (above) grew up in Wilder. Ten years ago, he returned to his hometown to serve as elementary principal. Six years ago, the board added Superintendent to his title.

Wilder schools joined the Idaho Mastery Education Network two years ago. The goal of the program is to “move students away from the current time-based system to a mastery-based system to allow for a more personalized and differentiated learning experience” with a “focus on explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that will empower students and prepare them for the 21st Century.”

Nineteen Idaho districts and incubators have received more than $1 million in funding to support 32 schools. Grants provide professional development, travel, technology, teacher stipends and supplies.

“All of the districts/schools were given a seat time waiver,” said Kelly Brady, Director of Mastery Education for the Idaho State Department of Education. “There is a great amount of work devoted to policy and procedures that are either perceived or real barriers as we make the needed changes for success and equality for all Idaho students.”

“Technical assistance and professional development continue to be an important aspect of making the need shifts during the planning/design phase and the implementation phase,” added Brady.

Dillon said, “We’re finding success in building student ownership for learning.”

There was some staff turnover with the new program said Dillon. “Mastery makes clear which teachers are the most effective.”

The mastery approach, said Dillon, requires “great teachers that can connect with students,” and “leaders passionate about the progress of individual students.”

Synergy in Kuna

Synergy is student-centered academy at Kuna Middle School in a southwestern suburb of Boise. A team of four teachers supports just over 100 students using the Summit Learning platform.

Teachers supplement the personalized learning system with big integrated projects.  Students conduct exhibitions of learning three times a year.

Students set academic goals with their mentors every week. Each student has a unique Google calendar schedule tied to their academic goals.

The large classrooms have a variety of seating arrangements including desk, tables, and couches for individual and team activities.

Wendy Johnson is superintendent of the Kuna School District. She has allowed the academy to remain a small open enrollment experiment. Based on early success, a second team at Kuna Middle School and a third team at Fremont Middle School implemented the Summit Learning platform.

Idaho school visits to Wilder and Kuna by state legislators were sponsored by the NCSL Student-Centered Learning Commission. The commission is exploring personalized and competency-based learning that enables students ownership over their learning and takes place anytime, anywhere.

For more, see:


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Going Beyond Data: 10 Tips for Building a Culture Around Numbers

There’s been a lot of buzz about data in just about every industry, and the world of education is no different. That buzz has been getting louder over several years as we navigate privacy, interoperability, and ways to use data to personalize and improve learning for students and teaching for educators.

While data-based decision making helps inform instruction and diagnose student needs, more and more educators are seeing the benefits of creating and nurturing a larger district-wide culture in which data informs strategy and actions at every level.

A strong data culture sets the stage for optimal learning, supporting stronger relationships between teachers and students. Drawing from accessible data, educators and students can have real conversations about the nuances of student learning and areas of challenge and connect more deeply. Tools that provide more meaningful data also give teachers more time to teach, minimizing redundant testing and helping teachers maximize learning time based on students’ strengths and needs.

Inspired by the success of the students and educators in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Curriculum Associates recently released a case study on the district’s data culture. This piece lays out the ways in which building and maintaining a strong data culture has driven success for students and created environments in which educators get to spend time doing what they do best – teaching.

Miami-Dade’s results underscore the importance of creating a culture around data that personalizes classrooms and strengthens home-school connections to support better learning outcomes. As this paper emphasizes, there are no magic beans, and implementing a strong data culture certainly doesn’t happen overnight. It begins with small steps focused on your district’s vision.

Powerful Data-Driven Learning in Miami

Miami-Dade County Public School District (MDCPS) is the fourth largest school district in the United States, with 392 schools serving over 345,000 students who speak over 56 languages and represent 160 countries.

The district has been on a remarkable upward trajectory over the years, moving from 26 F-rated schools in 1999 to zero in 2017. Most recently in 2018, the district celebrated its first-ever districtwide “A” rating. Thanks to dedicated and innovative leadership, MDCPS has become one of the nation’s highest-performing urban school systems and been honored with numerous awards such as the Broad Prize for Urban Education.

While there are many factors contributing to the district’s success, one important element is a strong data culture that pervades the district’s classrooms and administrative offices. Ms. Gisela Feild, Administrative Director for Assessment, Research, and Data Analysis, commented on the power of this culture, saying, “By knowing kids’ weaknesses and what they are struggling with, we can be more targeted with interventions. A strong data culture exposes information to everyone, giving them notice and putting them on alert. They are more aware of everything that is going on with our students and how they can take action.”

Ms. Marie Izquierdo, the Chief Academic Officer for the Office of Academics and Transformation believes that data has enabled the district to provide more freedom to their teachers. “We need teachers to be the artists of their craft. We don’t want them to be spending their days disaggregating data, we want them to use their time to meet their kids where they are. We want to create systems that provide more freedom for them to practice their art.”

In building their data culture, MDCPS made a commitment to several thoughtful, foundation-laying investments including:

  • Optimizing technology and tools to ensure they are user-friendly for learners and educators
  • Initiating a districtwide commitment to the practice of data-driven instruction
  • Adopting technologies like i-Ready Diagnostic and Instruction tools that provides rapid access to and distribution of data (think data dashboards and portals)

Miami-Dade has built these systems and structures to gather, process, and analyze data,

allowing teachers and administrators to better understand their students’ and schools’

needs, and structure interventions accordingly without having to spend additional time

disaggregating data.

Data culture isn’t about driving up test scores. Data culture is about effectively and efficiently using data to drive personalized, powerful instruction for students to help them grow and succeed, and Miami sets a shining example.

Using Data to Drive Student-Centered Learning in California

Lindsay Unified School School district is located north of San Diego, and its Deputy Superintendent Lana Brown believes that “data-centered” and “student-centered” values go hand in hand. Brown also believes in the power of giving students agency over their data so they’re able to see what has been mastered and what is yet to be learned. Students who own their data are more likely to become invested in their learning, and intrinsic motivation can be leveraged by learners knowing their data and setting goals.

As discussed above, a true data culture means setting goals using data points in order to create urgency for progress and ensure learners buy into the plan to get there. In Lindsay, leaders credit this approach for removing the fear students once felt about taking on personal goals and embracing college after high school. It has increased learner readiness to take on a challenge.

A data-centered culture does support the student-centered focus, encouraging adults to make data transparent and make instructional plans for proper pacing. Brown and her team have found that when students are involved with their data, they want to have more voice and choice in how their learning happens and are empowered to seek out more learning options and ways to demonstrate their knowledge.

Where are you in building your school’s data culture? How do the tools you use support a focus on data to inform instruction? Here are some considerations to help frame your thinking:

10 Steps Towards Building a Data Culture at Your School

  1. Start with a few data champions. Focus on a small number of schools or staff members who are already comfortable with data or are using it in their daily instruction.
  2. Create a shared vision for your data culture and post it every time you meet. How will the data you’re using/collecting contribute to your goals? Challenge your team often to examine decisions, “Is [XYZ] working towards our shared vision?”
  3. Implement a technology infrastructure that has the capabilities necessary based on your vision, such as ensuring real-time data access. Read more about the supportive infrastructure created in Miami Dade in this case study.
  4. Check current privacy policies, ensuring data sharing procedures safeguard student privacy.
  5. Identify key questions data should be answering, such as student growth measures, proficiency in key subject areas, completion rates, etc.
  6. Create expectations for teachers and leaders to establish consistency across the district. What types of data should they be monitoring? When should they have regular meetings? What information should be shared with learners and their families?
  7. Provide professional development from the top down. Building a culture around data will require some staff to build new “muscles.” Support them by providing training on tools and infrastructures. Set them up with their school or district’s champion and encourage PLNs within your district.
  8. Leverage teacher leaders to help standardize usage, expectations and training. These leaders can inspire and encourage their peers to get on board, providing real examples of data culture in action and showcasing the ways in which it has improved their classrooms.
  9. Create data dashboard templates that school leaders can modify to meet their specific needs. This will help with “Where do I begin?” guidance and help establish standards as to which data sets to track and why.
  10. Ensure teachers have time and resources to conduct regular data chats at all levels. This can happen in a variety of ways including with the PLNs. As all educators know, we’re better together, and the opportunity to bounce ideas and talk about what’s working or not working will be crucial in the development of your school’s data culture.

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