Service Learning: Think Global, Act Local

American educators have long referenced the founding father of the American progressive educational movement—John Dewey—for his pragmatic approach to learning. He was known for many things including learning by doing, reflecting about the learning, engagement, relevance, and students playing active roles in their own learning. However, those were the descriptors, not necessarily the mission. Dewey was driven by the idea that the true purpose of education was to perpetuate and improve democracy. He saw the classroom as an extension of and connection to the real world. He saw schools as potential model communities all contributing to our larger communities – whether those be local, regional, national or even global.

It’s with this spirit in mind, that we revisit the world of service-learning (SL). Often called community or volunteer service, SL is not new. However, it has traditionally been relegated to extra-curricular or outside of the classroom environments, activities and experiences. Because of the educational demands of 21st-century environments, the likes of service learning—as well as the mission of Dewey—are emerging in a host of new ways.

Many educators are trying to do more inquiry and project-based approaches, connect more to their communities, allow students to experience relevant and engaging academic work, collaborate with diverse partners and have students address real-world problems or challenges. This is where service learning, like all good pedagogies, can be all-encompassing.

I first became addicted to service learning and how it can transform students’ lives as an activities director and leadership instructor 20 years ago. I quickly realized that students were not only aching to do real work that would impact their communities but could also get others to do the same. My students not only learned to participate in their communities but learned that their role was to empower others to have the same opportunities.

Nothing More Local Than School Itself

One way to get started is to take our students’ natural and important interest in things and connect them to our either our campuses or local communities. For students, it’s an interesting turn to ask them to address how to improve school itself. I did this initially by creating what I called School Improvement Projects to challenge my students. They could improve the campus with something that added to everything from the facilities to the programs. They had to identify the need or issue, create the solution, then find ways to implement (that may have included administrative approval, fundraising, public support). There was no shortage of problems they identified or creative solutions they worked to deploy. They included, but were not limited to, parking, food, isolation, school communication, club opportunities, memorializing students and staff members, student access, career exploration, specialized activities and events, campus cleanliness, staff recognition, student recognition and many more.

Another avenue that has gained a great deal of traction are Redesign efforts. Many teachers are having students redesign how to use the physical spaces in the classroom to positively affect the learning environment. Others are having

Students redesign green spaces, gardens, common spaces or other school facilities in order to get new ideas, as well as to engage students in real-world problems about things that directly affect them. Just Google “classroom” or “school redesign” and see what some are up to around the world.

Schoolwide Service-Learning—A Case Study

Again, instead of just participating in service learning, students can become the conduit for others to participate—thus impacting the learning for themselves and others. Students have traditionally participated in and even coordinated food drives, blood drives, money collection, and others. And they even have done these in partnership with tremendous non-profit partners. The challenge becomes how do we take these beyond season challenges or annual traditions and embed them into the issues of the day that our students, as well as our culture, are facing every day. My best case study to offer is when a group of my students took a negative situation at school head on and redefined themselves, as well as the school. 20 years ago, the school had recently undergone some racial tensions that ultimately produced an investigation from the Federal Office of Civil Rights. While in the midst of this turmoil, I was also approached by a group of students who wanted to include special education students more in their school. The students and I conceived an idea to create a talent show that would feature special education students performing on stage along with the rest of their school peers.

As a result, the Harmony Talent Show was born. In addition to the special education teams and lip-sync performances, this new talent show included a variety of diverse dances (such as traditional Hmong dancing and folk dancing) that highlighted different cultures throughout the school.

This show was an immediate hit and included educational videos related to embracing diversity between each performance.  The entire school saw the show over two days (six performances), while parents and community were invited to an additional evening show. These passionate students, who had wanted to include and expand the experience of special education students, accomplished that and more.

The school went from having an Office of Civil Rights investigation to winning awards from the National Organization Students with Disabilities and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. More importantly, these student leaders had demonstrated to the school and community that their diverse student body was talented, creative, powerful and proud when united. 20 years later, HARMONY is still a tradition at this high school. This is just one example of how students can help to re-define diversity, as well as our other social or cultural challenges.

Partnering Up

The potential for local partners is extraordinary. Most of our local communities have dozens (in some cases hundreds) of nonprofits waiting to partner with our students. Not only can these organizations connect us directly to the service need, but they also have the need for actual work. In addition to old-fashioned volunteer work that might include event contributions, fundraising and more, these organizations often have needs that our students can create, or even lead. For example, our students can help with media, campaigns, promotional materials, educating their peers and school communities and so much more. Educators can contact and create collaborations. Or, in some cases, this can become part of the students’ work. I often have had students reach out to local partners and work to establish their own relationships and partnerships. Additionally, there are digital resources that can be applied locally. Three sites to examine for local or regional partner identification are Volunteer Match, Idealist and Hands On Network (volunteer arm of the Points of Light Institute).

Additionally, let’s not forget that our schools have great internal resources as well. Our site leaders, staff and colleagues, parents and students all have not only interests and passions in the community, but contacts and resources as well. Indeed, partnership development can be a great way to not only engage, but even leverage all stakeholders – especially district and site leaders, as well as parents and guardians.

This aspect of establishing, creating and expanding our partnership network has many results. First, it move the work forward and establishes much need rigor, relevance, and relationships. But remember that the true mission of SL is not just to volunteer and serve the immediate needs, but to also inform and transform all of us who can ultimately change the conditions that created the challenge to begin with as well. Our SL students will not only transform themselves but hopefully transform others who will, in turn, transform the systems, environment, culture and social conditions.

Initially, most of the student interest in service learning has traditionally come from trying to enhance their resumes and college applications. But once students engage in relevant service, they will be transformed in more ways than just their competitive edge for college or other opportunities.

Here are some more outcomes that will result from not only participating in service learning but more importantly organizing it, facilitating it and ultimately creating the service opportunities for others. Here are just a few of those additional benefits:

  • Endorphin-boosting: That’s right. Volunteering and serving others boosts endorphins. It has been scientifically shown to lower depression and stress while increasing brain function.
  • Partner/Network Expansion: SL  introduces students to organizations and partners that affect their lives long-term in many ways. Students will meet mentors and expand their professional networks for life.
  • Career Development: the future of work is highly connected to solving our world’s biggest problems. Again, think water, energy, food, health care to name a few. Those who are engaged in addressing these issues will create not only new solutions but new jobs. And they may just create new jobs for others. Dozens of my former students had their careers—both directly and indirectly—impacted by their service learning experiences.
  • Building Community: SL allows all stakeholders to buy into a larger purpose. Much of what our schools suffer from is a series of disconnects. Service learning opportunities and their results not only bring people together but change them. They can put aside their own petty differences and needs while they realize that we can all do good together.

Service-Learning should be an essential part of our more project-based, personalize, digitized and connected schools. Our students are literally waiting to tackle our world’s real problems no matter how close to or far away from home. We can transform our schools, our communities and our world – while ultimately transforming each student along the way. Sound corny? Sound too good to be true? Maybe, but is there a better mission for education?

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15 School Districts Worth Visiting

Leading a public school district is difficult and complicated work. But done well, there is no other job that can change how a community thinks about itself, its children and its future. The following are 15 districts that are changing the trajectory of both education and their communities by working on personalized and competency-based learning. They are making career preparation—including communications, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration–a priority. They are big and small, urban and rural, east and west, and as such are representative of the American education challenge.

Encouraging Innovation

1. Microschools & Talent Development. Kettle Moraine School District, west of Milwaukee, is a small district working on personalized and competency-based learning. The district has authorized four charter schools including three themed flex high schools (check out our podcast with superintendent Patricia DeKlotz as well as our most recent feature).

2. Makerspaces & AI Ethics. Montour School District (Pittsburgh airport) is a great place to see a student-first, growth-mindset learning culture. They are a leader in active learning with an elementary Lego Makerspace and a Minecraft lab. A new middle school AI program features exploration and ethics (Follow @JustinAglio for more).

3. Computational Thinking. South Fayette School District, south of Pittsburgh (and next door to Montour), has four schools on one campus and a P-12 focus on computational thinking (developed with CMU). Students learn to code, to attack complex problems, analyze data and sprint in teams to public products (see feature).

4. Student Engagement in Multiage Environments. Albemarle County Public Schools serves just over 13,000 students in Charlottesville, Virginia. They provide extensive project-based and maker opportunities. Spectacular and versatile multiage spaces, like Woodbrook Elementary (below), are added as schools are renovated (See 9 lessons, a case study, and podcast with Pam Moran).

Competency-Based Leaders

5. Early Leader. Chugach School District, serving remote Anchorage-area villages, kicked off the modern age of competency-based education 20 years ago (Read an iNACOL report).

6. Growing into a Framework. Mesa County Valley School District 51 serves 21,000 students in 44 schools in Grand Junction Colorado. The district is in the middle of a thoughtful transition to competency-based education where schools have been invited to grow into a framework with pilot schools showing the way (See our podcast and seven-part series from CompetencyWorks).

7.Using Data. Lindsay Unified School District, in California’s central valley, is a leader in competency-based (they call it performance-based) education—“Students work at their performance level and advance through the curriculum when they have demonstrated proficiency of the required knowledge or skills.” See how they are “leading the global shift to competency.”

8. Personal Plans. In the hops fields west of Boise is the tiny Wilder School District where every student develops a personal learning plan with their mentor. Students have voice and choice in learning; they can choose the best way for them to learn: in class, online, or through projects (See 10 more things we liked about Wilder). With 18 other districts, Wilder joined the Idaho Mastery Education Network two years ago.

9. “Retooling while flying.” Windsor Locks Public Schools, just north of Hartford Connecticut, is “Trying to become more student-centered as well as competency-based,” said former superintendent Susan Bell (who now directs school engagement for the Mastery Transcript Consortium).

By making learning targets clear, Windsor Locks teachers have been “Putting the power in the child’s hands and helping them become self-directed learners,” said Bell. Rising juniors, the Class of 2020, will be the first class in Windsor Locks to graduate with a mastery-based diploma.

Frequently mentioned but not yet visited are Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire, RSU2 in Maine, and 12 districts in Iowa working together.

Career Education

10. K-8 Leader. Cajon Valley, east of San Diego, introduces career options to elementary and middle schools in 54 K-8 experiences called the World of Work Program. It’s the best organized and implement K-8 career education program we’ve seen (Kendra Olson tells Superintendent David Miyashiro about the civil engineering unit in first grade below).

11. Systematic CTE. Santa Ana USD, the dense urban center of Orange County California, offers well developed secondary career pathways. They are coordinated districtwide to ensure an equity of offerings (Check out our November trip report).

Using Networks to Innovate

12. Leveraging networks. Evergreen School District in east San Jose serves a predominantly low-income Hispanic community. New Tech Network is a district partner—notable project-based schools include Katherine Smith Elementary,  Bulldog Tech, and Lobo School of Innovation (See our November trip report).

13. Test Prep Turnaround.  El Paso ISD is a great turnaround story–from test prep to active learning. Earlier this year, we followed superintendent Juan Cabrera on school visits, including several schools that belong to the New Tech Network (See our feature on the district and superintendent commentary on learning spaces and on the role of trustees).

14. Incubating Networks. Denver Public Schools has sustained the most aggressive improvement and innovation agenda of any city with an elected board including incubating and scaling quality school networks including DSSTStrive Preparatory Schools, Roots (below), and Beacon (see feature). (See our recent portfolio summary and our chat with the superintendent and school board).

15. Innovative Staffing. Charlotte Mecklenburg serves 148,000 students in 175 schools and is widely recognized for academic achievement and innovation. Project LIFT and Success by Design are projects that leverage teacher leadership in innovative staffing models.

For more districts worth visiting, see:

We’re sure we missed hundreds of districts doing some great work. Who would you add? Share in the comments section below, and check out other Smart Lists at our Smart List Series Page.

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Project-Based Schools Close Silicon Valley Gaps

By: Tom Vander Ark and Emily Liebtag

Seven miles south of downtown San Jose are some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the Bay Area. Three schools serving this diverse area of the Evergreen School District (@EvergreenESD) combine personalized and project-based learning to succeed in high school, college and work.

Members of the New Tech Network, Bulldog Tech, Lobo School of Innovation, and Katherine Smith Elementary School are bright spots for families and students in San Jose that may not otherwise have access to technology, integrated challenges, and strong supports.

After a visit to Napa New Tech High School, Evergreen Superintendent Kathy Gomez knew the school model was a fit for the K-8 district. While the integrated projects were impressive, it was the New Tech culture that really sold Gomez.

Bulldog Tech

The purpose-built school on the LeyVa Middle School campus is “wall-to-wall project-based” according to school head Randy Hollenkamp. Featuring team taught projects in big double classrooms (below) with two teachers and about 50 students.

Bulldog serves 300 middle-grade students with a high percentage of English Language Learners. Almost a third are Hispanic, a third Vietnamese and the remaining third is diverse.

Art teacher, Jim Conway, kicks off an Art of Science project on the California wildfires

Educators at Bulldog recognize that in order for students to be prepared for their futures, they can’t wait to give them meaningful, authentic and real-world experiences—teachers have to do it in their classrooms today.

Three 74 minute instructional blocks in the first half of the day facilitate integrated project-based learning.  A group of 50 students moves together through these big blocks. Our student ambassador said, “We’re all like a big family.”

Art teacher Jim Conway (@jim_conway) explained that project-based learning helps “teachers to integrate technology into the classroom curriculum, allows students to create meaningful and engaging work through collaboration.”

He added, “The students become skilled at communicating through presentations and exhibitions. The projects demand that the students effectively use critical thinking and creativity.”

Jim Conway, veteran art teacher

In his Art of Science class, students investigated the biology of cancer. Students researched its cause and effects on lives. “The students had to find out the risk factors, symptoms, and mortality rates for the particular cancer they were studying. The students had to understand the science of cells and how cancer causes cells to grow out of control,” explained Conway.

Students used art and design skills to create brochures and displays presented at a Cancer Awareness Exhibition Night. They presented the information hoping to influence someone to get a checkup.

Eighth-grader Swapneel programming robots in a Maker Science class.

Two doors away, eighth graders in a Maker Science class program mBot robots to follow a student-created track on another planet.

Project assignments are about half group and half individual. “Team projects must be set up for collaboration,” said Hollenkamp, “We don’t just assume that it happens.”

Math is not part of an integrated blog and is more problem-based with 1-2 day tasks rather than 3-4 week challenges.

At Bulldog, “Culture is the secret sauce,” said Hollenkamp. “We’re changing mindset, it’s transformative,” he added.

Katherine Smith

Less than two miles away is one of the feeder elementary schools, Katherine R. Smith Elementary (see recent case study). Despite being in a collection of 60-year-old modular buildings with boarded windows, the school is a beacon of joy and hope in the community for students and families.

Co-principals Rachel Trowbridge (@rachtrow) and Kevin Armstrong (@karmstrongPBL) have been integral in the evolution of the school but are new to leadership roles this year. Both advocates of project-based learning, they find that the proof of the school model is in talking to students and hearing the outcomes after they move on to middle and high school.

Eight of 10 of the more than 500 students live in or near poverty. Many are new to English. The school offers a clothing bank, a food pantry, and employment assistance.

Smith has the best school and class ambassador program we’ve seen to date. From the moment you step onto the campus you are greeted by and led by expert ambassadors.

Every classroom at Smith has a project board that lists the driving question, related questions and vocabulary words and deliverables (Ashley, a new sixth grade class ambassador explains one below).

Building on the transformational leadership of Aaron Brengard, the new co-principals have improved academic growth by focusing on the quality of small group instruction.

Sergio Hernandez is a 4-6 Special Day Class (what the school calls their self-contained special education program) teacher at Smith. He’s also a campus leader on social and emotional learning. He introduced the SEL Toolbox to the campus and the posters and tools are evident in every classroom.

Lobo School of Innovation

LSI (@Quimby_LSI) is the third New Tech Network member in the Evergreen School District. LSI offers a learning alternative on the Quimby Middle School campus.

Like Bulldog and Smith, LSI engages students in extended, integrated, real-world challenges in team-taught blocks.

Visit Bulldog, Smith and LSI to see how high challenge communities are responding with personalized and project-based learning.

For more see:

This post was originally published on Tom’s EdWeek Channel

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3 Ways to Help Students Become Better Digital Citizens–Today

By David Siminoff

Remember when the library was the best (and only) place to work on a research paper? When enjoying cute animals’ antics meant going to the zoo or buying a pet, rather than spending a Saturday on YouTube? Or how about waiting eagerly for the release of a new season’s baseball cards so you could marvel at your favorite player’s stats…or going to the record store to buy a new album (do those words even exist anymore?) to find out if the latest music is as good as you’d hoped?

You likely have fond memories of the above but, in 2018, it’s safe to say your students don’t remember nor can they even imagine most of these former realities. Today’s students didn’t just grow up in the digital world, they were born into it. That makes for a very real generation gap. We adults are up-to-speed on the worldwide web, sure, but we also remember the world without it, and we are tuned into the risks of engaging with the internet in a less-than-mindful manner. Some of these ideas will be new to your students, which presents an opportunity to develop their digital citizenship skills.

In my definition, everyone with internet access is a digital citizen in the digital world, whether they realize it or like it. The internet is the greatest tool ever invented for connecting each of us to a truly global community, and for making the global local. The benefits for educational attainment and equity are immense, but educators also have some difficult lessons to teach students about responsible digital citizenship. How can we all be productive, upstanding members of the digital world?

Getting Started: Navigating the Challenges

Teaching digital citizenship, like anything, comes with its challenges. First and foremost is bridging the generation gap to get in alignment with learners. We may have come of age in a time when these things called “desktops” ran programs on “floppy disks” and packed about one percent of the computing power kids carry around in their pockets today, but we know what the digital world is all about. Establishing that we understand students and the realities of their day-to-day, and making an effort at authentic engagement can help them see that we do have a valuable perspective to share. Ask your students about some of their favorite devices and go-to websites. What do they use these tools to accomplish? Tell them how you used to accomplish some of the same tasks, and explain some of the benefits of the tools they have today. Connect your experience with theirs to establish that common ground.

Making digital citizenship topics real and relevant to students is another challenge to address. There may be many concepts they haven’t really considered, or have considered only in the abstract. What does it truly mean for something you say or do as a kid to be online forever? What are the negative implications of free access to content, and freedom to create? What happens when content creators lack even the intent to be truthful? These are some questions that may seem philosophical at a glance but have already shown they can shape public, private, and political life. Make sure you stay up-to-date on modern examples that demonstrate these concepts and share them with students in an open forum. Get their feedback and their insights. Do they see that these are important questions to consider? Once you’ve made that point, you’re well on your way.

3 Ways to Help Students Improve Digital Citizenship Skills

The digital world is fast-moving, so the great thing about teaching digital citizenship is you can get started today. There are numerous entry points to open up the discussion and several key topics to address, so getting started is all about being intentional and identifying your opening. Here are three places you can start:

1. Improving Social Media Etiquette — Blog posts, tweets, photos. Your thoughts, dreams, fears. What you love, what you hate, or what you drank or ate. Once you put it online, it is there forever. For students, that doesn’t only mean the content has greater reach in the present — your mom or grandfather might see what you intended for friends — but that it extends into their future beyond what they’ve considered. A 13-year-old would have had limited opportunity, or any good reason, to think about the interview they’ll have one day when being considered for a dream job. So would he or she know that a future employer might see the NSFW language populating a Facebook page today? Your high schoolers are making plans for college: “I’m going to major in X and have a great career in Y, and that’s how it’s going to go.” But what if one day they decide to run for public office? Better be smart about what they do online now.

Have your students engage in discussion around the following questions: What sort of things should they normally post online and what should they avoid? What precautions should we all
take when using social media? If you were an employer, evaluating yourself as a candidate,
what would you think about your social media accounts? Would it be a factor in your decision-making? Once you’ve had this discussion, try an activity, either in class or as
homework: have students create mock social media profiles that leverage the positive power of the medium. Social media can be used to raise money for charitable causes, to create communities for isolated populations, or to share passions and interests. Challenge students to set a clear purpose and create a profile aligned to their objectives. Show them that the lesson isn’t meant to make them scared; it’s to make them mindful. When we avoid the pitfalls, we can take advantage of the possibilities.

2. Make Crowdsourcing Work for You — Crowdsourcing is a powerful phenomenon in the digital world. It’s the process by which an individual can take his or her fantastic idea and tap into the power of the online community to get it out into the world. We all have ideas but don’t always have the resources to turn them into something real. Maybe we don’t have the money, the right connections, or perhaps we just don’t know what to do next. Crowdsourcing can help.

Once you’ve defined the term for your students, share an idea you had that could have benefited from crowdsourcing. Over the past decade, sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have made a lot of projects possible. But before these sites existed, did you have an idea you just couldn’t get off the ground? Use this as a way to show the invaluable opportunity made a reality in a digital world. Then, have your students consider some key questions about being responsible digital citizens when it comes to crowdsourcing. Have them review some campaigns online and weight the merits. Are they using crowdsourcing for a legitimate purpose? Is there real value being given to the campaign’s supporters? Is the objective of the campaign something that needs to happen, is it a nice-to-have, or should it not be around at all? Then, have your students propose ideas for crowdsourcing campaigns they might want to start. Are there social or legislative challenges that would benefit from disparate individuals working together? Is there a passion project that needs support to get going? Considering the why of crowdsourcing is foundational for getting students to understand the how.

3. Understanding Life Without Internet — Even those of us who grew up without the internet can tend to take it for granted these days. But understanding life without web access isn’t just a thought experiment; it’s a reality for many. Explain to students the two main factors causing the digital dive in this country: cost and location. Cost is a simple one — the internet can get expensive, especially for any kind of high-speed connection, and it’s more than some people can afford. Location is one that may not be as obvious, but many places, even in the U.S., don’t have the infrastructure for broadband access. It makes internet unreliable, at best. If you’re looking to integrate digital citizenship with cross-curricular civics lessons, have your students consider governments around the world that restrict or limit access to the internet. There are many reasons why we’re privileged to have access.

What tasks would be harder, or perhaps impossible, without internet access? Are there any that could actually be…easier? Pose these in class as discussion questions and listen closely to students’ responses. See if they have a good feel for how reliant they truly are on the internet. Are the tasks they’re naming truly impossible without access? For an activity, assign them to do some simple research that could quickly and easily be accomplished with a search engine, but don’t allow them to use the internet. Allow them to think creatively to try finding the information. Allow for the productive struggle. Once complete, reinforce the point: while this activity may have been a simulation in our class environment, it’s a reality for many of their peers across the country and across the world. Being a digital citizen means understanding and appreciating what’s available and using it productively.

Digital Citizens Are Global Citizens

We need to teach students the key lessons to be careful on the internet, but above all, it’s important to remember what a powerful connector it is. You can walk out your front door and have a chat with your neighbor, Tom, and you can do this anytime. But if you don’t really like Tom, you can also get online and chat with someone in Nova Scotia, Beijing, or Tasmania. You can see, hear, show, and tell. Global connection is amazing and the digital world opens up global citizenship for our students. It’s an amazing time to be an educator. Enjoy developing digital citizens in the classroom!

David Siminoff is the founder and Chief Creative Officer of Shmoop, a digital publisher with a comprehensive curriculum and test prep resources. Learn more on Twitter @shmoop

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Four Keys to Success at the Most Innovative Schools in the World

Recent visits to renowned centers of innovation such as AltSchool in San Francisco and the Dalton Academy in Beijing have got me thinking about what it means to wear the label “one of the most innovative schools in the world.”

There are many such lists, so I spent a day reviewing all that I could find. I built a spreadsheet to capture the adjectives used to describe the innovations present in these schools and then mapped them into broader categories.

Here’s what I learned:

Use of space

Innovative schools such as Ørestad Gymnasium in Denmark and the Green School in Bali adopt a flexible attitude toward walls, classrooms, open areas, community and workspaces. There is a heavy focus on the implementation of sustainable practices in construction, design and use.


Invariably, students in such organizations as the Kosen Network in Japan and Blue School in New York engage in project-based learning. The projects vary in duration, from one-day engagements to the long-form expeditions favored by schools that adopt the Expeditionary Learning model. Instruction in innovative schools is described as student-directed or personalized, often using technology to accomplish that goal. Accordingly, it is quite common to see flipped or blended strategies.

Grouping structures

The composition of learning cohorts is a fascinating feature of innovative schools. At Digital Study Hall in India, there aren’t enough teachers to support the large number of learners so the organization records teachers’ lectures and sends DVDs of the recordings to poor and rural areas for mass consumption. At Brightworks School in San Francisco, the teachers personalize learning by using a mixed-aged approach that tries to break down the walls between school and community.


There is a continuum of authenticity in place here, but schools such as the Met in Providence, Rhode Island and Sra Pou Vocational School in Cambodia require students to interact with the community or local businesses via apprenticeships, internships, service learning, or projects that have an action component. In fact, Sra Pou brings the local economy into the school itself, providing training for all members of the family.

This list is not comprehensive. We can all think of other innovative schools in the U.S., such as High Tech High in San Diego or P-Tech in New York, that are inspired by these same features of innovation or take the work in a new direction. The rest of the world has its exemplars, too, notably the Steve Jobs School in Amsterdam and the Innova Schools network in Peru.

But is what they are doing new or innovative?

I needed a little perspective so I went back to examine the policy, funding and implementation in support of the experiment that was the New American Schools program authorized by President George H. Bush in 1991.

Here are some the innovative strategies that the 11 grantees experimented with in that decade:

Pedagogy: Project-based learning, inquiry, curricular themes, teachers as curriculum designers, interdisciplinary units, tech integration, integration of skills and knowledge, tutoring and student choice.

Grouping structures: Elimination of tracking, homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping, small-group instruction, block scheduling, looping, multi-age cohorts, flexible scheduling and reduced class and/or school size.

Governance: School-level leadership teams, student advisory teams and committees, appropriate autonomy, parental choice, budgetary control, teacher team meetings, parent teams, integration with social services at the community level, community audits and surveys and peer review.

Assessment: Performance tasks, elimination of standardized tests, portfolios, public presentations and multiple assessments.

Meet the new innovation, same as the old innovation.

Is there is a well-defined path away from the industrial-model school to the innovative schools of the future we all crave? It seems to look like this: From rigid use of space and traditional instruction to experimentation with inquiry-based learning and tech integration and from there to personalized and competency-based models in flexible space and flexible time in multi-age cohorts that place students in the real world for all or part of their day.

Innovation for innovation’s sake, and certainly innovation that ignores the past, is not going to elevate education. Innovation must have a purpose and that purpose is mostly governed by what each neighborhood, city, state and country view is the outcome of education.

Some schools seek success on college entrance exams. Some schools seek to increase attendance or diminish bullying and provide an equitable education for all learners. Some schools focus on instilling a set of values that cherish the local or global community, the environment and service learning. And some schools try to develop the skills needed for success in college, career and citizenship.

What decisions will help create the most innovative schools, even if those innovations have the distinct flavor of their locale or borrow heavily from the past? I take inspiration from the model of Dalton Academy in Beijing, which has received tacit government approval to establish a renegade position as a paradigm-breaking model for educational reform in China. I liken their approach to the way the developing world installed telecommunications. The U.S. and other developed economies had to build a vast infrastructure of landlines before migrating to mobile. The developing world skipped that stage and went straight to mobile.

Are there schools out their following a similar trajectory of innovation? Help me find them and celebrate their work.

David Ross is a global educational consultant who works on large-scale implementations of project-based learning and 21st-century skills programs in the U.S. and abroad. He is the former CEO of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning as well as the former Senior Director for the Buck Institute for Education. You can follow him at @davidPBLross.

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The Progressive Schools of Philadelphia

From academic intensive care to world-class exemplars of inquiry-based learning, the 10 progressive autonomous schools in the Philadelphia Innovation Network work together to expand opportunity. Part of the School District of Philadelphia (@PHLschools),  the network includes a variety of productive local and national partnerships that serve children and families.

Vaux Big Picture

David Bromley has worked in some of America’s most under-resourced communities, but about Philadelphia’s Sharswood neighborhood he said, “This is a whole different level of need.”

About 80 percent of students live in public housing. Many have suffered heavy trauma.

Gentrification is evident just blocks away from the urban island of unemployment, poverty, and crime. Social services are almost nonexistent. The two schools serving the neighborhood closed long ago.

Bromley is the executive director of Big Picture Philadelphia. The nonprofit operates two new schools under contract to the school district (the only contract schools in the Big Picture Learning or BPL, network).

At home in a giant art deco depression era school building, Vaux Big Picture High School is a partnership between the school district, the housing authority, the teacher’s union, and Big Picture.

Schools in the BPL network use student internships to engage young people in areas of interest and to build work-ready skills.

In its second year, the school serves freshman and sophomores. The assessed math and reading levels of incoming students are less than fourth grade. At full enrollment, Vaux will serve  540 students.

“We meet them where they are cognitively,” said Bromley. He argues that drill and practice would only cause students to drop out. “We created a place kids want to be. We created ownerships through internships,” added Bromley.

As part of the Innovation Network, “We have a lot of latitude and independence in how we implement our model of learning,” said Vaux principal Gabe Kuriloff. “One of the biggest things is the freedom to create our own schedule. As a Big Picture school, the daily schedule is full of internships and would not work if we were required to have a traditional schedule,” added Kuriloff.

The first floor of the giant complex includes the housing authority and nonprofit partners that provide youth and family services. The Community College of Philadelphia provides dual enrollment opportunities for students.

“Our strengths in year two are that kids happy to be here, relationships strong, and we have a high attendance rate of about 92%,” said Bromley.

Compared to other Big Picture schools, Vaux retains more of a traditional school structure with classes where teachers focus on accelerating skill development. Teachers are experimenting with dual tracks where some students have the option to do more project-based learning.

Ninth graders take a Real World Learning class to gain work-ready competencies and they start internships in tenth grade.

Students present public products at exhibitions at the end of each semester. About 95% of the students had parents in attendance at the last exhibition.

Anibal, a student at The Workshop School

The Workshop School

On why he’s at the Workshop School, Anibal said, “I do my own research. My parents didn’t go to school. I’ve been making my own decisions since I was seven.” He left half his family in Mexico to attend school in Philadelphia. He’s confident that at Workshop he’s on the right track.

In the former annex of West Philadelphia High (built in 1911 and now being converted to condominiums) is the six-year-old Workshop School.

Students spend a four-hour morning block in advisory. It starts with 30 minutes of circle time then moves into project time. Afternoon skill-building seminars often include culminating projects.

Founder Simon Hauger (above) said the big block builds community. ‘Students are known, stretched, and cared for in the community.”

Aiming at MyWays outcomes, most of the integrated projects are designed by teachers with a mix of standards embedded. Exhibitions are held at the end of the term.

With no seat time requirements, the progressive schools of Philadelphia are free to pursue competency-based approaches. The Workshop School is petitioning for competency-based graduation requirements based on MyWays outcomes.

In 11th grade, students do internships for a day and a half each week.

John, a senior (below), went to “a bad middle school.” He got good grades but found himself unprepared for rigorous high school work. Given the support he received and the sense of community he experienced at Workshop, he said he’ll be sad to leave.

John, senior at The Workshop School
John, senior at The Workshop School

U School

In North Philadelphia, just east of Temple University is The U School. Winner of a Carnegie Opportunity by Design grant, U School is working on four areas of focus:

  • Youth development: students participate in advisory groups (called a Posse) to support goal-setting, college and career planning, and family engagement.
  • Personalized learning: learners are supported in the development of a personalized learning plan that incorporates learner interests, needs, and aspirations.
  • Design-based: learners lead personal and team-based investigations around great challenges and develop key skills in research, problem-solving, communications, and taking action.
  • Competency-based: learners advance as they demonstrate proficiency in the learning goals.

The U School Principal, Neil Geyette
The U School Principal, Neil Geyette

Principal Neil Geyette (above) said they are working on three interfaced teacher-led classes, semi-autonomous learning and fully autonomous learning (where students work independently). Students build their schedule with an advisor.

At The U School, the motto is “We Love. We Dream. We Do.” Students are given real-world challenges and asked to apply knowledge. Seniors write 15 college level pieces. They must complete 100% of required portfolio items.

Tom Gaffey, Building 21
Tom Gaffey, Building 21

More Innovative Schools

Nonprofit Building 21 operates a North Philadelphia high school focused on MyWays-inspired outcomes (above) with personalized pathways designed to meet the strengths and interests of every learner.

Building 21 is developing a network of member schools around the outcomes framework, project-based learning model, competency-based assessments, and systems to manage teaching and learning.

LINC High School is a member of the project-based New Tech Network. Team-taught integrated projects supported by the Echo platform prepares young people for the world that awaits them.

The most academically mature school in the Innovation Network is Science Leadership Academy, launched in 2006 by Chris Lehmann. Learning at SLA reflects five shared values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection. SLA (featured here) operates two other schools in the network, SLA Middle School and SLA at Beeber.

For more see:

This post was originally published on Tom’s EdWeek Channel.

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Ten Education Organizations to Consider for Giving Tuesday

“I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” — Maya Angelou

While we know many love black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, our favorite “shopping day” of the year has to be today, #GivingTuesday.

Giving Tuesday is a global day of giving that harnesses the collective power of individuals, communities and organizations to encourage philanthropy and to celebrate generosity worldwide. Last year (only it’s sixth year), an estimated $274 million was raised, an increase of 66 percent from the year prior.

Founded in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y – a community and cultural center in New York City − #GivingTuesday aims to inspire millions of people to give back and support the causes they believe in.

“We are incredibly inspired by the way the #GivingTuesday community has embraced this concept for a worldwide movement,” said Henry Timms, founder of #GivingTuesday and Executive Director of 92Y. “As we prepare for November 27, we’re energized and encouraged by the community’s generosity. The levels of creativity, effort and the quality of the new ideas people have contributed and shared are phenomenal.”

Below are just a few education organizations you should consider giving to today. You can find a full list of participating organizations here.

  1. The Learning Accelerator (TLA) is a nonprofit organization that envisions “a future in which each child in America receives an effective, equitable, and engaging education that is personalized, informed by data, and mastery-based, enabling them to reach their full potential.” To celebrate Giving Tuesday, TLA is building support and awareness of their Annual Educator Travel Scholarship. Donations will help mobilize teachers around the United States to meet and connect with other education leaders, providing dedicated professionals with the opportunity to share what works best in their classrooms and to learn from each other.
  2. Teach for America is a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to “enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation’s most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.” All donations made by Giving Tuesday (November 27) of $10+ will be doubled by the TFA National Board.
  3. National Writing Project. Today, with its core grant from the U.S. Department of Education, supplemented by local, state, and private funds, the NWP comprises nearly 200 sites in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. A goal of the NWP is to place a writing project site within reach of every teacher in the nation. Their goal for this year’s Giving Tuesday Challenge is $50k.
  4. MindSpark Learning is non-profit dedicated to “providing educators across the country with cutting-edge professional learning, and empowering them to better engage students and ultimately inspire them to thrive in the modern workforce.”
  5. is a nonprofit organization that allows individuals to donate directly to public school classroom projects. From helping students receive standard school supplies to providing flexible seating for first graders, you can choose how you make a difference.
  6. Southern New Hampshire University is honoring Giving Tuesday this year and asking that donations be made to The Cupboard, an on-campus food pantry that acts a reliable source of nutrition and basic personal necessities for any SNHU student, staff, or faculty member who is in need.
  7. The NEA Foundation is a public charity founded by educators for educators to improve public education for all students. For Giving Tuesday, the NEA is asking people to “honor an educator, celebrate a son or daughter, tell a story about your own experience, or highlight the positive impact of public education with your Yearbook post.” By giving $50 or more, people can upload a photo and a quote. All donations through the Yearbook will bolster the foundation’s programs in support of public school educators and their students, including educator grants, STEM education, and education equity, particularly in rural and remote communities.
  8. MIND Research Institute’s innovative, visually-based software games aim to help students develop a love of math while guiding ongoing research that looks into key questions around learning and how the brain works. You can donate here.
  9. Center for Education Reform‘s mission is to “expand educational opportunities that lead to improved economic outcomes for all Americans, particularly our youth, ensuring that the conditions are ripe for innovation, freedom and flexibility throughout U.S. education.”
  10. nonPareil Institute is a nonprofit organization “focused on providing opportunity to adults across the autism spectrum within a safe and accommodating community.”

Are we missing someone or an organization you love? Comment below so we can make sure to add them to our list next year!

For more, see:

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How to Develop Poised, Thoughtful, Articulate Teenagers

Horace (above) is a poised, thoughtful, articulate high school junior. He’s also a Youth Commissioner for the city of Philadelphia, president of a nonprofit organization, and vocal advocate for his school, the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) where he has “Taken on the role of school dad.”

Wes (below) is the Youth Poet Laureate of Philadelphia and is working with YouthBuild Philly. He transferred from to SLA from a traditional school in Detroit. “There is more checking into my values and ideals here,” said Wes.

With an enrollment of 500, people often wonder how SLA students are represented everywhere in the city. The student leadership apparent across Philadelphia is “because of what is taught at SLA,” said Chris Lehmann, founding principal of SLA, “We want kids to understand that what we do now matters. Right now. Today.”

Launched in 2006 by Lehmann, SLA operates two other schools (including SLA Middle and SLA at Beeber).

Consistently Strong Inquiry-Based Learning

Every classroom at SLA exhibits the five core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection. Visit classrooms and you’ll see students working in teams, creating, analyzing, and presenting. The remarkable consistency of powerful learning across the curriculum is evidence of deep teacher collaboration.

Ninth graders study question about identity. Tenth graders study systems. Eleven graders study change. Seniors conduct a yearlong engineering project.

“We want to develop young people that are thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind,” said Lehmann.

SLA teachers use a common process to plan lessons that Lehmann said is built from a strong commitment to shared practices. As a result, “Kids get it quickly and spend less time figuring out the game of school,” said Lehmann.

All 9th and 10th grade classes have a Student Assistant Teacher, an upperclassman that answers questions and provides small group instruction. “It creates smaller groups and improves classroom management,” said Lehmann. For the student teachers, it provides a leadership experience

SLA is 1:1 with Dell Chromebooks and uses the Canvas learning platform. While the technology is ubiquitous, it doesn’t get in the way of classroom dialog. Most classrooms have a productive buzz of collaborative groups or students presenting their work.

Lehmann’s son Jakob, a freshman, said, “SLA is different than middle school where it was cramming stuff in your head, this school is based on questions not answers.”

Advisory and Culture

Key to college and career readiness is the SLA advisory system. Students meet with advisors in groups of about 20 every day for all four years.

On how they develop such mature young people, Lehmann said, “We create space for human interaction. We create conditions where people want to be their best selves. People rise to the occasion.”

Discipline at SLA is restorative. “We are more than our bad decisions,” said Lehmann. “We help kids own what they did and stay in community.”

SLA helps students reflect on and share their growth with narrative report cards and portfolios of personal bests.

Each advisory group has a student that acts as a College Access Leader. They work with counselors to access college and career information for their cohort. When an SLA advisor writes a recommendation for a student, it is based on four years of dialog and a community of care.

At homecoming, SLA graduates run panels on college and career readiness.

Philadelphia Innovation Network

The 10 progressive semi-autonomous schools in the School District of Philadelphia work together in a network with the support of Assistant Superintendent Christina Grant and a grant from ECMC.

SLA is the oldest and most academically mature school in the network and is also the only magnet school. While they do look at grades, they also spend a lot of time screening for interest in their interviews with possible new students. 

While other schools in the network have focused on outcomes and assessments, SLA makes learner experience a priority. It is the best example of consistently high quality inquiry-based learning we’ve seen. The best evidence is a conversation with SLA seniors and graduates.

If Ted Sizer had the opportunity to meet Horace from SLA, he would be hopeful.

For more see:

Making Connections: Beginning to Measure New Skills That Matter

As an educator, I’ve always been wary of narrow data snapshots that purport to paint a complete picture. All that matters cannot possibly be measured. Surely we can (and should) attempt to assess student and school progress toward important indicators of success. We need to know how we’re doing—who our classrooms and schools are serving well and how instructional strategies and broader systems must shift to meet the needs of all our students. I remain mindful, however, that data tells partial and incomplete stories. Nevertheless, as we gather more information, we are able to tell more stories and ask new questions. How does this connect to global competence and collaboration?

For the first time, the OECD’s PISA Test, the well-known assessment and comparison of educational systems, will include a section on global competence. The test includes a cognitive assessment as well as a background questionnaire that asks students, teachers, and schools to self-report on four dimensions which broadly include:

  • Examination of global topics and issues (e.g. international conflicts, global health, hunger and malnutrition)
  • Empathy and perspective-taking (e.g. Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place)
  • Adaptability and positive interactions (e.g. When encountering difficult situations with other people, I can think of a way to resolve the situation)
  • Propensity and ability to take constructive action (e.g. I boycott products or companies for political, ethical, or environmental reasons)

This represents an exciting opportunity. Believing that simply because global competence will now be internationally measured there will necessarily be immediate change would be naive.  However, what gets measured (and what becomes the basis for international comparison) is often what gets emphasized. Collectively advancing efforts around global competence can yield effects beyond what is stated in the OECD’s goals. We know that adolescents are especially attuned to issues of fairness and justice and become more interested exploring the rights and perspectives of others (Kellough & Kellough, 2008). Additionally, connecting academic content to global issues and concerns can increase students’ motivation and make learning more authentic and meaningful for adolescents (Scales, 2010).

So how do we do it? While sustained attention to curriculum adaptations (and in some cases, overhauls) is essential, there are instructional moves that can support the work of developing more engaged, globally competent learners. As a former English teacher, I cannot help but connect this effort back to critical literacies. Ira Shor (1999) wrote:  

“We can redefine ourselves and remake society, if we choose, through alternative rhetoric and dissident projects. This is where critical literacy begins, for questioning power relations, discourses, and identities in a world not yet finished, just, or humane.”

In my own classroom, posted on the wall, was a list of questions meant to inform our analysis of all the texts we read. Fiction or nonfiction, print or digital media, image or song, we employed a critical lens. Answering these questions required a close reading of any text (and I mean text in the broadest possible sense). Students were engaged in deep, critical thinking that made space (and required) multiple perspectives, viewpoints, and at times, research into new and different cultures.   

First, we read for the essentials:  

  • Whose voices are reflected or centered and whose are silenced or omitted?
  • What are the lifestyles, values, and points-of-view that are represented and which are omitted?
  • How might different readers with different identities interpret this?

Then, in response to each of those questions, we probed deeper into Why?

  • Why were some groups and identities privileged over others?
  • Who benefits from these representations and who is marginalized?

And then, we imagine that things might be otherwise by asking:

  • What if we reimagined this text?  Whose perspectives can be added or centered?
  • What action can we take to speak back to this text?  

While these questions are perhaps most easily incorporated into the humanities—English and Social Studies—I would also argue that there is a place for them in language, science, math, art, music, and most other classrooms. Explorations of environmental policies and their consequences on public health, the politics of mathematical formulas and calculations, the privileging of dialects, representation in the arts—these are just scratching the surface. The questions above provide a framework for analyzing the texts and media students study as well as public policies ranging from the global to the local. Whose voices inform decisions on tariffs and what perspectives are silenced or omitted? Who benefits from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and who might be negatively impacted?  

Those four OECD dimensions are aligned with critical literacies and questioning, and perhaps the new attempts at measurement will support efforts to develop those critical skills.

I’ve often conceived of my work as a teacher as that of making connections—connecting what students already know and can do to texts and strategies and supports that lead them to what they will someday know and be able to do; connecting the lives students already know to the life and world that might someday come to be; connecting students’ current worlds to broader terrains, including those across the globe. Deep and sustained engagement in connection-making and critical practices are foundational to developing not only global competence in our students, but developing engaged, informed citizens.

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Online Education Connecting Learners to Enterprising Teachers Worldwide

Universities began putting their courses online in the form of “Massively Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) about a decade ago, with the idea of making a wide range of high-quality academic instruction accessible and affordable to people around the world. One famous, early success story was that of Battushig Myanganbayar, a teenager in Mongolia who aced an online MIT engineering course and earned himself a scholarship to the university. Today MOOCs are available by the thousands on marketplace platforms with global reach, such as edX, Udacity, and Coursera.

But there is also another tier of online courses feeding global education, offered not by universities but by individuals. Learning platforms such as Teachable, Thinkific, and Ruzuku have flipped the script on MOOCs: now anyone anywhere can not only take an online course but build and teach one, too. And many thousands do, offering instruction on just about anything you can think of, from business management to blacksmithing, cardio training to calligraphy, leadership to lepidoptery. Online learning is a global bazaar, where anyone can offer up their expertise, enthusiasm, or experience for the whole world’s edification — and earn a rupee (or try to) in the process.

Open online learning platforms are not just for hobbyists and dilettantes; experts of all types are well represented, including plenty of moonlighting school teachers plying lessons in grammar, geometry, chemistry, art, computer science, and every other traditional school subject. In a sense, online learning platforms have given rise to a global gig economy for educators — a way for them to independently leverage their expertise and supplement their income. If the success of these courses demonstrates a worldwide demand for learning not satisfied by conventional schooling, perhaps it also demonstrates how difficult it is for teachers around the planet to make ends meet with just their day job.

Global online learning outside the bounds of institutional education takes a variety of forms. Here are some of the other types of platforms connecting otherwise disconnected students and teachers around the world:

Online Course Marketplaces

Most open platforms require that course developers find and recruit their own students, which generally entails building email lists and working social media channels. If you’re a teacher looking to market your DIY algebra course to ninth-graders, this is a hard pull. Another breed of platform, however, functions as a searchable marketplace, where students come looking for what’s on offer. The largest, Udemy, hosts some 80,000 courses. Your algebra course pops up (along with all your competitors) when an interested student searches the site.

Social Media

YouTube makes a vast array of instructional videos accessible for free, including videos on every academic subject under the sun. Plenty of schools maintain a presence on YouTube as part of their recruitment and visibility strategy. Likewise, many online teaching entrepreneurs offer free content as lead magnets for the courses they charge for on other platforms.

It’s not all about business, though; plenty of content developers just like to share. One of the most prolific academic presences is Khan Academy, a non-profit that posts hundreds of videos for K-12 students on subjects from literature and civics to calculus and finance. As an instrument of unregulated global education, YouTube is an unsung powerhouse: 37% of users surveyed say they’re looking to improve school or job skills — and YouTube has 1.9 billion active monthly users.

Learning Management Systems

Many K-12 and most higher ed schools now use learning management systems (LMSs) to deliver online courses to their own students. Increasingly, even traditional classroom-based courses incorporate an LMS site that instructors can use to manage their class and post their syllabus, readings, videos, quizzes, and so forth.

But LMS platforms can also be used by individuals and companies to offer courses to the general public—typically courses that are more text-based and extensive than the video-centric offerings commonly found on other types of platform. For example, my company, BetterRhetor, recently launched College-Ready Writing Essentials via Canvas, an LMS widely used by colleges and universities. In contrast to the one-student-at-a-time model, it is a teacher-facilitated resource for high school and college classroom use. Since it is hosted on a Web-accessed LMS, it’s available to any classroom anywhere.

Dedicated Platforms

Khan Academy is all over YouTube, as noted above, but they also make all of their videos available through their own website. Any student in the world can, for example, survey 20th Century History through a series of more than 50 video lessons for free on the Khan Academy site. Math, science, humanities, economics—it’s all there.

For-profit learning companies likewise offer education globally on their own dedicated platforms. At VIPKID, for example, home-based teachers located anywhere (again, many of them moonlighting) connect with individual students in China, who learn a traditional curriculum, but in English.

Many of the courses found on these teaching platforms are developed by individuals or entities with no formal accountability for their content—so, it’s buyer beware. Even so, independently developed online courses constitute a busy market connecting eager learners to enterprising teachers worldwide. Online learning platforms spread global education beyond the purview and confines of conventional models and institutions.

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