The Power of Purpose-Based Learning

By: Terra Tarango

Let’s be honest: they’re probably never going to use it. Of course, people do use science. Without it, we’d literally be stuck in the dark ages. Math and grammar and history, too—everything we teach in school—helps us build this thing we call civilization. But when one kid raises a hand and asks, “When are we ever going to use this?” That one kid is probably never going to use it. Odds are, you haven’t used long division in ages. You’ve forgotten the periodic table and never recite state capitals. I bet you never entertain your colleagues at work by playing the recorder you worked so hard to learn in fourth grade.

Sure, you can come up with a rationale for why these things have value. But deep down, most of us suspect that those rationales are really just rationalizations. The truth is, we teach science primarily because you never know which one student in your class might go on to become a scientist and make the world a better place. But that value is uncertain and wildly distant—and therefore, not particularly persuasive to that one kid with their hand in the air asking you how your content is relevant to them. It’s time to change that.

What If There’s Another Way?

Let’s make learning relevant to our students by instilling it with purpose—not some distant, possible purpose, but purpose right now. And let’s do that in the most powerful way possible: by helping our students to positively impact the world. Today. What does that look like?

  • Fourth graders learning how to disagree civilly, then sharing their voices with the world in a podcast.
  • Elementary students learning about financial literacy, then teaching high schoolers to avoid debt, save wisely, and invest in their future.
  • Teachers finding out what issues their students are passionate about, and then helping their students take real and concrete steps to address those issues.

What About Content?

What about all those standards we need to address? Well, teachers around the country are discovering that these types of real-world projects provide the perfect foundation to naturally integrate content understanding. Let’s look at all the rich content that can be mined from a project where students form friendships with senior citizens in a retirement community, then craft biographies as mementos for their new friends.

  • Math: Number sense and equivalent fractions. Have students create a “life timeline” of their senior friend. Convert important time periods into fractions of that person’s life and compare to benchmark fractions.
  • English/language arts: Determine the theme of a story. Use relevant literature such as Wilford Gordon McDonald Partridge, by Mem Fox, to explore the idea of a theme. Then challenge students to discover not just the chronological events of their senior friend’s life, but to determine the theme of their life. Was it love of family? Overcoming obstacles? Have them write a biography using the theme as the guiding structure.
  • Science: patterns of the night sky. Partner students with seniors who were born in the same month that they were, then drive home the idea of celestial patterns by having students discover that although they were born decades apart, the night sky looks almost exactly the same when they and their senior friend were each born.
  • Social studies: Life in different eras. Have students consider similarities and differences between life today and life during the childhood of their senior friend.

And that’s just the beginning. If you keep an open mind, you can connect almost any content you need to teach to a meaningful, authentic learning experience. And the real magic of this approach is that the content, when you make it part of a meaningful experience, sticks with students. We learn best by applying what we’ve learned, and even more so by applying what we’ve learned to a relevant purpose. So, when teachers integrate their standards into work students care about, they’re discovering that they spend less time reteaching, and student test scores actually improve.

What About Skills?

But in today’s world, where content is essentially an easily accessed commodity, how do we ensure these projects are equipping students with the skills they need to be successful in the future workplace? Given that we are tasked with preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, I suggest we look toward the past first. Skills that drove society forward 100 years ago and are still relevant today are skills that are likely to still be relevant 100 years from now. Skills like curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, perseverance, social/emotional awareness. Just think about how richly these skills can be developed with the senior citizen biography project.

  • Curiosity: Have students generate interview questions for their senior friends to learn about how they were affected by significant events in modern American history.
  • Creativity: Encourage students to publish each senior friend’s life story into an heirloom that visually represents their life and emotionally connects to the reader.
  • Critical Thinking: Guide students in analyzing the facts they get from their senior friends, finding commonalities, and categorizing their life events into a coherent theme.
  • Collaboration: Group students in pairs to negotiate roles and collaborate in the development and publication of their senior friends’ biographies.
  • Perseverance: Build in time for multiple pen pal exchanges to build the relationship over time. Then have students get feedback on their initial drafts and make changes to solidify learning as an iterative process.
  • Social/Emotional Awareness: Have students discuss relationship skills and social awareness by using empathy in their interactions with a senior friend.

Why Me?

This kind of purpose-based learning isn’t the norm—yet. Right now, you’ll really stand out if you build your instruction by asking yourself, “What can my class do this month to make the world a better place?” You’ll be a blue apple in a tree full of red ones. But is that such a bad thing? If you envision a world where the educational system adequately prepares students for the world they will enter into, where content areas are integrated to promote deeper understanding, where students develop a lifelong love of learning in pursuit of doing good, then be that teacher who stands out. Discover how your students can change the world. Then let them.

What about you? How do you inspire purpose-based learning in your classrooms?

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Terra Tarango is the founder of Blue Apple. Find her on Twitter at @TerraTarango.

Real World Learning at Dubiski Career High School

Between Dallas and Fort Worth is the diverse city of Grand Prairie. The school district serves almost 30,000 students with a kaleidoscope of choices. One of the eight high school options is Dubiski Career High School (@DubiskiJaguars) which is home to just over 1,620 students (from in and out of the district), about 400 average per grade.

The school is led by principal Larry Jones who is unapologetic about the lack of sports or arts. Instead, there’s a stunning, wall-to-wall career and technical education program that has something for just about everyone. And while there aren’t the usual football and baseball teams, there are other opportunities for students to compete, one being through Skills USA.

Dubiski students choose one of 15 career pathways offered through three academies: business and communications, health science and engineering, and human services and transportation. As Jones explains, “We take the kids from a traditional school—the kids in the middle—and give them a place where they can shine.”

“You have to see it to believe it” rings true for Dubiski. The environment, resources, simulators (flight simulator pictured above), and tools available immerse learners in relevant hands-on experiences.

We visited on Signing Day, where learners are celebrated for their acquisition of internships. Most of the students have internships and more than half of these are with organizations outside of Grand Prairie. The school provides transportation to the internships, while also providing six on-site enterprises.

Dubiski students run a bistro, a student store, a salon, a print shop, and a quick lube, all open to the public. In the print shop students work with the graphic communication students to develop and print all of the signage and materials for the school as well as other local businesses. Cosmetology students provide services to the community and are required to book two appointments for themselves each week. Media Technology students shoot game day videos for other local high school football teams and produce a weekly district news video. Currently, they’re working on a full-length feature film that they’re hoping to put on Netflix.

In addition to all of the pathways, each student enterprise creates an opportunity for students to learn entrepreneurship skills.

If you are able to visit, this school has some of the most knowledgeable and articulate student tour guides you’ll ever meet. They take tours of their school seriously and study all the academies and pathways in order to answer questions along their tour.

Visit Dubiski High to see high-quality career education.

For more, see:

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Want More Student Engagement? Ditch the Tests.

By: Steve Tippins

Over 20 years ago, I did something that was radical at the time—I decided to teach a class without giving a single test. I would evaluate students based on their papers, projects and participation in class. My goal was to increase student engagement by eliminating the question “Will this be on the test?” and encouraging critical thought over memorizing the right answer.

My experiment was so successful that I decided to implement it in the rest of my classes, and I’ve never gone back. I enjoy teaching more, and my students enjoy their classes more. That said, going test-free was not without a few bumps in the road.

In this article, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned in 20 years of teaching without tests.

What Do Tests Measure?

For many years, tests have been used to measure student learning. However, tests, particularly multiple-choice tests, have become artificial measurements of learning. With tests at any level, you get students learning just to pass the test. With multiple-choice tests, a student can possibly guess the correct answer without knowing the material at all.

Most students will center their concerns on their grade and not the underlying material so the testing process becomes centered upon a number and not learning.

If students are focused on their scores, then their engagement centers around the number and how they might be able to find a way to increase the number—not the material covered by the test.

What Do Universities and Employers Want?

Years ago, I did research with recruiters and they said that they were looking for new hires with strong writing and oral communication skills, not technical material covered in many classes. In my discussions with college admissions professionals, I have been told that homeschooled candidates are looked upon kindly as they tend to be independent learners.

When tests are the major grading factor in a class then student engagement tends to revolve around questions like “do we have to know this for the test?” If yes, then students will dutifully take notes. If no, then most students will just tune out the material.

For most teachers that I have talked with, an ideal day in a class is when students come in prepared and ready to ask questions about the material and beyond the material. I was once told that a true measure of learning is to take the material being learned and apply it in another situation. Tests do not lend themselves to this.

Giving Up on Tests

Over the years, I have tried many approaches to evaluating learning. I even included humorous questions in a test to see if it would reduce stress. For the most part students reported lower stress but it did not help or hurt their test scores at all. It was not until I came upon the idea of eliminating tests deeper engagement began.

Over 20 years ago I gave up giving tests because I didn’t think they measured actual learning. A surprising byproduct of this decision was enhanced student involvement/engagement in class. Gone were the days of responding to questions like “will this be on the test?”

Those questions were replaced with discussions about the implications of the material presented in class and conversations and debates about “what if?” scenarios related to classroom material.

I won’t deny the many times we have drifted off-topic, but I believe that learning does not happen in a linear fashion. Sometimes we need to veer off the path to get to where we want to be. Additionally, many times drifting off-topic has allowed a class to work its way back to the topic with a deeper understanding of the material.

Allowing open discussion like this (without there being a “right” answer, which is just a test in a subtler form) dramatically increased engagement in my classes. Students weren’t just expected to learn about what I thought was important—they were invited to talk about and explore what was important to them and relate it to the course material.

I no longer dispensed bits of knowledge like a gumball machine of personal finance; instead, I was a collaborator, weaving the threads of my syllabus together with the threads of their interests and their lives.

The Hard Part

In private discussions, colleagues have shared with me concerns that dropping tests may make more work for them. This is particularly true when you consider that premade tests accompany most textbooks these days. Others are concerned that they won’t be able to accurately evaluate students’ knowledge and understanding of the material.

From an evaluation standpoint, there are options other than tests. I use papers and projects of many types such as a final project in a Personal Finance class where students have to plan out their future life in 10-year increments using the material covered in the class. Over time, I have evolved my paper grading standards to include a rubric where 70% of the grade is based upon the coverage of the topic, 20% on the writing/grammar and 10% for what I call the “wow factor.” This gives students room to go above and beyond and to explore different paths.

Moving away from tests does put a burden on the teacher or professor to be ready to encourage student participation with many different types of prompts and a degree of patience. As a society, we have trained students to be passive learners, so eliciting their active participation does take time and effort.

The Good Part

All that said, I find the effort more than worth it. Sitting in a class where students slowly begin to take over a discussion topic and push each other to explore a theme more deeply is intensely rewarding. Seeing a wave of “aha” moments is what makes this job so rewarding.

Incidentally, I’ve observed that grad students who attend test-free classes tend to fare better when it comes time to write their dissertations. Based on my own (admittedly biased) observations, these students are more likely to avoid the infamous All But Dissertation (ABD) status, where they finish every requirement for their degree except their dissertation. I believe this is because they’ve practiced the skills of analysis, critical thought and turning their thoughts and observations into words on paper. In short, they’re used to independent learning.

Final Thoughts

Traditional classrooms tend to be centered around evaluating student learning through the use of tests. Tests themselves can induce stress in students and maybe a poor measure of learning for some students. Also, tests can limit learning to “what is on the test.” In an example of addition by subtraction, eliminating tests can actually broaden student engagement and learning. It may take a leap of faith to do this and more work, but the rewards are there for both students and teachers.

For more, see:

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Steve Tippins, Ph.D., has served as a professor and Ph.D. mentor for several universities; he has authored a book and currently coaches doctoral students and recent graduates.

The Getting Smart Team Gives Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving, readers. This year, our team would like to take a moment to break from our regularly scheduled content to express our sincere gratitude for all that we have.

We are thankful for the chance we have to explore new ways to build a smarter, more joyful and more equitable society.

Thankful for the teachers, principals, administrators, superintendents, edtech providers and ed-focused organizations working hard to improve education for students everywhere.

Thankful for philanthropic funders with a laser focus on funding innovations that will ensure equitable opportunities for all of our learners and their families.

Thankful for the wonderful, inspiring partners that we have been fortunate to learn from and support.

Thankful for the schools we get to visit who are providing high-quality learning experiences for their students.

Thankful for our guest bloggers, regular columnists and teacher bloggers for learning with us and helping us learn more from their writing.

Thankful for our podcast listeners for tuning in every week to hear from leaders in education. And of course, thankful for those leaders for spending time with us for each episode.

Thankful for our families, friends, and colleagues.

Most of all, we are thankful for you, for joining us on our journey. We wish you the happiest of holiday seasons and hope that you’ll continue to join us tomorrow and beyond as we continue our efforts to explore the cutting edge of education and make it possible for every learner to experience high-quality learning.

In the meantime, here are a few staff favorites to read and listen to:

The Getting Smart Team

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Affirming the Needs of Students with Disabilities in 21st Century Learning

By: Ace Parsi

In the learning disabilities community, the end of October didn’t just mark Halloween—it also marked the end of Learning Disabilities (LD) Awareness Month, a month that the LD community recognizes both the progress we’ve made and the challenges that remain. Our young people are no longer relegated to segregated spaces and lower places in schools and communities.  Today more than two-thirds of students with learning disabilities (the largest federal category of students with disabilities) spend 80 % or more of their time in general education classrooms. That progress we have made as a nation—and particularly with regards to those with LD—has been a great accomplishment in educational and social change.

And yet, there are still glaring issues and failures we have to confront. Large achievement and graduation gaps between young people with and without LD persist. When our education system fails these students, their long-term outcomes devolve into deeper social injustices. 55 % of young adults with specific learning disabilities are involved at some point with the justice system for reasons other than a minor traffic violation according to a large-scale longitudinal study of youth with disabilities. (The rate for all young adults is 30 %.) Some studies indicate a third or more of incarcerated youth have learning disabilities, and an even greater number show signs of ADHD.

The persistent failure to fully engage our students with learning and attention issues in an education that prepares them for meaningful 21st-century learning has become the sad reality of our educational system. We’ve seen how society has transformed and hasn’t created a system to prepare youth with learning and attention issues for this transformation.

At the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), we hold a simple belief. We believe that if jobs with rote skills are becoming increasingly automated and 21st-century jobs demand young people to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, self-advocates, collaborators, and communicators, then preparing our young people with disabilities for anything less is as immoral as it is irresponsible. Making a positive impact demands a movement, not a policy. Here are some of the resources we’ve created to help support that movement:

  • Students and Families – Advocate to be included in learning approaches that deliver 21st-century skills. We must fight for the opportunity to be included in a 21st-century learning system in the same way our predecessors fought to be engaged in general educational experiences. This resource can equip you with the tools to do that.
  • Educators – Implement practices that are explicitly designed to engage students with disabilities in 21st-century learning. Empower students with disabilities with the skills to facilitate their IEP meetings; provide explicit instruction in self-advocacy and executive functioning; build 21st-century skills into your multi-tiered system of support (MTSS).  Students with disabilities can only be engaged in this new civil rights movement when our approach is explicit rather than generic.
  • Policy Makers – Create the conditions that enable inclusive 21st century learning to thrive. Provide educators with the time, resources, and training to include all students in a 21st-century vision. Don’t retrofit systems that weren’t inherently designed to meet all learners’ needs. Be proactive in advancing inclusive design; assess, support, and hold schools accountable for their capacity to engage students with disabilities in 21st-century learning.

We’ve come a long way as a nation. We are the nation that believed enough in inclusion to make cuts in sidewalks and took bold steps that made public transportation and buildings accessible. We mandated that all students be engaged in free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. These weren’t just disability rights victories—they were civil and human rights victories. As the 21st century unfolds, we have a new opportunity to turn to the next chapter of this civil rights movement. We encourage you to join us. Why do you think it’s so important to be inclusive of all students in 21st-century learning systems? Answer that question on social media using #WeWantIn and enable us to similarly join your 21st-century disability and civil rights efforts.

For more, see:

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Ace Parsi is the Director of Innovation at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Follow them on Twitter: @ncldorg

How to Innovate Without Getting Fired

The board of a struggling school district hires a new superintendent to make things better.

A new independent school head joins a community successful by traditional measures but with a board that thinks the school could be more relevant.

In both cases, a school administrator could rush into making big changes and find a lot of resistance, make a few missteps, lose support and get fired before their agenda really takes hold.

Before digging into the question of how to innovate without getting fired, it’s worth differentiating between improvement (doing things better) and innovation (doing things differently), hoping for big gains in old measures and/or new outcomes.

Compared to improvement, innovation is more difficult, involves more risk, and may take more investment. As a result, it usually requires broader agreements.

For educators itching to innovate, there are five tips that will build support and mitigate risk. They may slow you down initially, but it’s a case of go slow to go fast.

1. Update your personal vision. The first step is to make sure your personal conception of what young people should learn and how they should learn it is current. There are at least four topics you and your leadership team should consider in shaping your learner experience vision:

  • Learning science developments suggest that effort, failure, and reflection yield growth. Digital Promise has organized learner variability resources that help teacher teams match strategies for every learner.
  • The future of work is being driven by artificial intelligence and exponential technologies that are reshaping every sector. Novelty and complexity require leadership and design skills.
  • The global shift to competency includes personalized pathways and supports and authentic demonstrations of learning.
  • The evolving postsecondary landscape includes new pathways to employment and contribution that start in high school.

2. Build political capital. Hard work requires political capital. Think of your ability to act as a bank account. There are three ways to make deposits in your political capital bank account:

  • Personal deposits: showing empathy, demonstrating reliability, showing up, saying thank you, and celebrating progress.
  • Community deposits: building support with the board, parents, business partners, and community leaders.
  • Resource deposits: delivering new supports, resources and partnerships.

Withdrawals include changing routines, adding demands, terminations, making mistakes, and anything that feels like draining resources.

A negative balance in your political capital bank account means you’re fired (or at least, at risk of it).

3. Facilitate a shared vision. Invite staff and community into a conversation about what’s happening in the world, what graduates should know and be able to do, and the kinds of experiences likely to produce priority outcomes.

In a dynamic environment, education leaders must be skilled conversation hosts and agreement facilitators. The first step in building a shared vision is to build agreement on the profile of a graduate. It should identify priority learning outcomes while leaving room for multiple pathways to community contribution.

With clear aims, the conversation shifts to productive learning experiences. Visiting good schools is a great form of learning for staff and community members—traveling and studying creates an expanded and shared sense of what is possible.

These community conversations help education leaders to gauge the interests and risk profiles of stakeholder groups and the appetite for better or different.

It’s worth acknowledging the personal tension created by developing a compelling personal vision (no. 1) and the listening and facilitating required in order to build a shared vision. While ed leaders should use every opportunity to share their personal learnings and convictions, building a shared vision is a community agreement around a shared future state.

4. Build a frame. More than a vision but less than a step-by-step plan, a framework brings a vision to life with shared values, design principles, tools and supports. Invite and support teacher teams to grow into the frame and (just like personalized learning for students) support unique pathways.

We’ve seen this approach used successfully in many school districts, including Albemarle County, Cajon Valley, Dallas, El Paso, Salisbury, Lindsay, Loudoun County, and Windsor Locks.

From leading districts, we’ve learned four lessons about this approach:

  • Distribute leadership: identify teacher leaders and expand leadership opportunities. Attack problems with teams.
  • Pilot future environments: illustrate the future with model classrooms and microschools.
  • Start small, iterate up: work from the edges in, using available entry points.
  • Build fast and slow lane support: allow teacher teams and schools to move at their own pace (but put the vision on a timeline to guarantee equitable access).

5. Share progress. Build a dashboard of metrics important to stakeholders and report out as often as possible. Eric Ban from Dallas County Promise sends out a data-rich email every week celebrating progress.

Find ways to measure what matters. Make sure the dashboard reflects the portrait of a graduate as well as responsiveness to stakeholders.

Invite students to share presentations of learning to public audiences at least twice a year. Encourage them to build a portfolio of personal bests. Create learner profiles and extended transcripts that help learners share their capabilities.

Not only does St. Vrain Valley Schools (@SVVSD) do a great job of sharing their progress, they tell the good news of public education in Colorado through Our Schools Our Community and @COSchoolsProud.

If you develop your personal vision, build trust and support, facilitate a shared vision, invite teacher teams to grow into a frame, and share progress you’ll have a long career of innovating for equity.

For more, see:

Header image: El Paso superintendent Juan Cabrera talking to teachers at Franklin High

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This blog was originally published on Forbes.

20 Reasons to Give Thanks for Teachers

As we approach the holiday season, one that is often filled with gratitude, we’re excited for the opportunity to offer thanks to teachers. While the list could be endless, we curated it based on our own experiences teaching, learning or working alongside educators to recognize the many things they do to enrich the lives of students.

While it’s pretty intuitive to know our expressions of gratitude might benefit another person (and that’s enough motivation!), there are also many scientifically proven benefits of gratitude, including:

  1. Gratitude opens the door to more relationships
  2. Gratitude improves physical health
  3. Gratitude improves psychological health
  4. Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression
  5. Grateful people sleep better
  6. Gratitude improves self-esteem
  7. Gratitude increases mental strength

Team Getting Smart is extremely grateful for educators around the world – especially for those that promote student-centered learning experiences.

Here are 20 teacher behaviors that we are grateful for and that might jog your memory of personal stories about a teacher in your life. Take time during the next few days to let them know how they positively impact our world and #thankateacher.

1. Personalizing. We can all agree that learners need to be met where they are. We’re so grateful for educators working hard to create personalized experiences for their students. The IDEA school in Dallas is getting this right with a true focus on personalized learning. Where not only are students met where they are, but they’re welcomed and made to feel at home. Thank you to all to the teachers out there creating safe spaces for learners to grow!

2. Encouraging. Maintaining a “can do” attitude and encouraging students to reach outside of their comfort zones, into their full potential is an essential element of teaching.

3. Appreciating. Mayerson Academy  (@MayersonAcademy) in Ohio encourages teachers to affirm and appreciate strengths in students and Jillian Darwish offers practical tips and tools to help teachers and students choose kindness.

4. Designing. The entire staff of One Stone (@OneStoneIdaho) for providing students with access and opportunity to “own” design thinking in their growth as learners, and individuals that will change the world through a solution mindset.

5. Instilling. There aren’t many things we can thank teachers for more than for their efforts to instill a love of learning through hands-on experiences and a lot of heart. Science teacher Mr. Logan Carstensen of Lake Middle School (@LakeMiddle) is a great example.

6. Performing. Getting Smart Teacher Blogger John Hardison (@JohnHardison1) creates powerful learning with his engaging learning structures.

Getting Smart Teacher Blogger John Hardison

7. Inspiring Contribution. We know that our focus in schools must shift to be inclusive of what students care about and what matters in their communities. Organizations, like these eight in New Orleans, are providing students the opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways.

8. Exploring. We believe in the power of place, and the importance of using your community to create real, authentic learning experiences for students. Teachers (and leaders) at the Eagle Rock School (@EagleRockScool) in Colorado have a great approach to community connected, project-based learning.

9. Illuminating. Many secondary students across the country participate in the AVID (@Avid4College) program, which illuminates for students what it means to prepare for life being their diploma through college and career readiness.

10. Building. A great maker space can be so powerful for learners. We even believe it can solve problems and foster empathy. One of our recent favorites is teacher Gerry Irrizary’s maker lab pictured below.

Gerry Irrizary’s Maker Lab

11. Empowering. The best educators empower students as well as their communities. At Lindsay Unified School District (@Lindsay_USD), they’re building and growing programs that empower community members to aid teachers. “Empower Lindsay” is the district’s initiative to ensure every learner has the best facilitator and leader of learning.

12. Serving. It’s undeniable that educators serve learners, their families, and communities every single day. They are the definition of servant leadership.

13. Showing up. We believe in the power of networks to transform education and create powerful personalized, project-based learning at scale.

14. Modeling. In the classroom and beyond, teachers serve as role models.

15. Innovating. We know this work isn’t easy. But we’re thankful for teachers who work hard to create and sustain innovative learning environments that support learners in obtaining real-world skills that help them prepare for the future.

16. Believing. Sometimes what students need most is someone who believes in them. For students, it helps when this is an educator who knows their struggles and their life experiences.

17. Laughing. Great educators are reinforcers of positivity, and in many cases, this means laughing in the face of struggles and times of strife. John Hardison and his music playlist ideas are a great example!

18. Learning. While the phrase “lifelong learners” can be overused, we thank ALL the teachers who are willing to learn something new (and who are open to learning from their students) in order to prepare students for a future different from our own.

19. Persisting. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs out there. We are continually grateful that so many outstanding teachers come back year after year to continue making an impact in their students’ lives.

20. Caring. One thing we know for sure is that great teachers care. From academics to social-emotional development, teachers strive to provide their students with the best opportunities, relationships, and experiences.

Whom would you like to thank? Feel free to add a teacher’s name and practice for which you are grateful for in the comment box below.

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Let us Give Thanks for the All-Too-Often Thankless Jobs

By: Kristen Thorson and Erin Gohl

Schools really are remarkable places. School personnel welcome hundreds of children each day; find ways to promote individual academic, social, and emotional growth; create opportunities for collective experiences for groups of students who come from disparate backgrounds; safely transport students to and from school or on field trips for experiential learning; connect with individual children who may be having a difficult morning or week or year due to challenges at home; and ensure the holistic development of students in a context of high stakes testing and shrinking budgets. And they do so for 180 days each year.

Accomplishing this is no simple task. The successful operation of schools relies on a deep and vast infrastructure of people who go well above and beyond the listed roles of their job descriptions to create consistent, warm, nurturing, safe, joyful, and productive environments for students and families each and every day.

When we send our children off to school, we often take the work these individuals do for granted. As we embrace the season of gratitude and pause to reflect on all that we are grateful for in our lives, let us remember to notice and acknowledge these deeds and actions that positively impact the lives of our children and families each and every day.

Notice All the Care that Goes Into a School Day

Over the next weeks, open your eyes to the everyday actions of those who work in and around schools that make it a special place for your child and all of the kids within the school community, in big and small ways. Pay special attention to things that often go unnoticed. Aspire to find the good in all situations, especially ones that are possibly challenging or frustrating. Recognize the team of people whose daily efforts build the welcoming and supportive environment of your school community:


Teachers welcome both new and former students in with open arms every day. These professionals arrive at the school building long before the school day begins, remain long after the final bell rings, and all too often spend weekends going into their classrooms or working from home to create meaningful, inspiring lessons and opportunities for their students. Teachers smile, welcoming kids in the sun, rain, and snow. And teachers make this magic for all of their students, regardless of the student’s morning challenges or general life circumstances. Teachers create memories and stories that will be told by today’s students to their own children.

School Support Staff

These staff members come into classrooms to partner with teachers and students, working to establish and maintain relationships with the students they support along with all students in the classroom. Specialists work to adapt instructional materials and create a productive environment for each and every student they serve. Amazing instructional aides work to help students who need the most support, and still manage to tie your child’s shoes and give a welcoming smile or hug.

Health Staff

Providing more than comfort for scraped knees or a waiting room for sick children, nurses, nurse’s aides, and other health supporters provide emotional support in times of stress, education for lifelong habits, and models of preparation. They care for our children when they are most vulnerable, and do so with consistent, nurturing support.

Cafeteria Staff

The folks that serve with a smile to kids and faculty of all demeanors are all too often overlooked. These community members have tremendous organizational discipline in meeting the unwavering schedule of multiple lunch times and evoking flavor and nutrition from limited ingredients. They provide a certain rhythm to an important break in a student’s day.

Office Staff

A school’s front office staff sets the tone for all interactions. They are perennial multitaskers—fielding phone calls; answering constant questions from parents, teachers, and community partners; giving directions; collecting lost and found items, and shifting between these activities on a minute-by-minute basis. They serve as the air traffic control tower for the school. And they do so with a calm and welcoming spirit each and every day.

Bus Drivers and Crossing Guards

These are often the first adults a child sees when they leave the house, welcoming your child as they transition from home to school. They keep children safe and ensure routine and structure, often while managing children who might have woken up late, had a tough morning, or who were not quite ready to say goodbye to their parents. They show up consistently, providing a familiar face that positively starts the routine of the school day.

Custodial Staff

School custodians often work quietly, and seemingly magically, to set up tables for events and return spaces back to normal within minutes. They are a team that works in shifts to open and close the building, clean up after lunch, vacuum classrooms after school, and polish floors. They often must stay late or cover extra tasks when a school hosts a special event or meeting. They do so without disrupting the operations of classrooms and usually with a smile as they cross paths with our children.

Expressions of Thanks

During this season of gratitude, extend the circle of appreciation to all those whose actions contribute to the common good in quiet and unappreciated ways. After noticing and observing the many amazing ways those in our school community make a difference in our children’s lives, take action.

Show recognition and gratitude. Write a note of thanks and appreciation, even about a simple, seemingly mundane gesture that made a difference in your or your child’s day. Share your excitement and gratitude by telling others about the good you have seen. Express positive thoughts or anecdotes about teachers and other staff members to administrators. Kind words can travel through a school community leading to a wave of appreciation. In recognition of all that school staff members do, extend your support to them. Offer to bring in things for special meals or send in some extra pencils or tissues midway through the year. This reciprocity is noticed and appreciated.

Include your children in this practice of appreciating those around them and expressing their gratitude. Begin to watch for the good and even find sparks of hope and joy within tough situations. Have your child write their own thank you note. You might help them get started with a sentence starter such as “I appreciate it when you…” or “My favorite thing you do is…” and let them share their thoughts. Modeling and sharing in these expressions of gratitude results in a shift in mindset for you and your family.

A Culture of Gratitude, Thankfulness, and Appreciation

Let us use our individual expressions of thanks to lead and inspire an overall culture of appreciation. Let us notice and share gratitude every day for those in our school community whose actions contribute to our common good: notice the warm smiles that welcome our students as they enter school each day; appreciate the care with which a teacher responds to a concern about your child; recognize the constant effort that goes into ensuring our children are in a clean, safe, and nurturing environment each and every day.

All of these seemingly simple actions are rooted in tremendous care and thoughtfulness. They transform a school from a building filled with classrooms to a community filled with friendly faces, joyful moments, and personalized support for each student. Let us make an effort to give thanks to all those in our school community who tirelessly do these thankless jobs, going above and beyond for our students. And let us commit to doing this all year long.

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Photo credit: Sydney Gerritsen, Bergman Academy, Des Moines, IA

Where the STEM Workforce is Headed and What Society Must Do to Get There

By: Justin Aglio and Lauren Miller

STEM education must keep pace if the U.S. wants to stay atop global competitors. Countries evolve as new technology emerges. What happens if we don’t find people to operate these findings? No new knowledge would be gathered. The economic evolutionary process slows down significantly or may plateau. This will allow other powers to take the lead.

What does it mean for the U.S. to have the most advanced technology? Advantages in military, medicine, lifestyle. Will there ever be a time in the history of humankind where we will be unable to make substantial technological gains? It will come early for us if the education system doesn’t do something drastic.

Can you name one of the biggest American tech companies? The answer to this question is easy—Apple. A survey conducted by CNBC found that 64% of Americans own an Apple product—that’s increased from 50% in 2012. We are under a technological invasion and we as a country need to keep up.

Current STEM Workforce defines STEM jobs as careers where “STEM workers use their knowledge of science, technology, engineering, or math to try to understand how the world works and to solve problems.” This aims to improve the quality of life in all areas, seek scientific knowledge through exploration, and meet the needs of an evolving economy.

Students pursue STEM careers two times more often than their parents. The National Association of Manufacturing reported that the U.S will have to fill 3.5 million STEM jobs by 2025—over 2 million will be unfilled due to a lack of highly skilled candidates.

One clue pointing to the shortage includes overall growth in STEM-related occupations compared to non-STEM occupations, but not all industries are experiencing the same levels of growth. Engineering, advanced manufacturing and computer-related occupations are expanding at the greatest rates.

65% of children entering kindergarten will have jobs that don’t even exist yet. For this reason alone, educating our children with a STEM curriculum is fundamental.

Exposing young girls to STEM and inspiring them to pursue related careers is crucial, as women currently account for less than 24% of technology employees. Many girls express interest in STEM during middle school, then lack interest in high school; therefore we need to nourish the middle school girls’ interest before it goes sour. Let’s crush the traditional gender stereotype and exclaim that ideas from both sexes are integral for our country to forge ahead.

People often shy away from things they don’t understand. Many college students report math and science as the most difficult. With 36% of high school grads ready to take a college-level science course; no wonder the confidence lags. The U.S is ranked 38th in math and 24th in science out of 71 countries. If we can strengthen math and science skills, then we can better prepare students to pursue STEM occupations.

Need for a Better STEM Workforce

The need for STEM workers is so big that Google, Apple and Ernst and Young are considering workers without traditional college degrees—they just need to prove they have the required skills.

How do individuals attain the necessary skills without a traditional degree? Attending STEM schools might be one solution.

In 2009, Obama’s initiative sparked the establishment of STEM to prepare high school students for careers in the field. This may change attitudes of Americans who think the educational system is not providing opportunities for students to be ready for work out of high school or college.

6 Tips for Educators to Help Prepare Students for the STEM Workforce

  1. Give students opportunities to become problem solvers—allow them to analyze from multiple perspectives, collaborate and strengthen communication skills.
  2. Encourage students to use evidence and sound reasoning to support a claim.
  3. Inspire creativity! Give students opportunities to express their thoughts, use models and manipulate technology. Always foster out of the box thinking!
  4. Inspire students to find patterns in data and make decisions based on findings.
  5. Spark curiosity by getting students to think about how the world works and to embark on investigations.
  6. Teach flexibility by giving students opportunities to adapt to changes and maintain a positive attitude.

It’s undeniable that STEM will rule the world with companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. If we neglect to strengthen math and science skills, inspire more young girls to pursue STEM, and integrate more STEM into the curriculum, then the shortage will be far greater—bringing on monumental problems we may not yet have had to face.

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Lauren Miller is a third-year science teacher at Selinsgrove Middle School.

Empowering Students Through Choice, Voice and Action

By: Kristen Thorson and Erin Gohl

From year to year and generation to generation, shifts in culture, shared historical experiences and advances in technology change our individual and collective perspectives. Small changes accrue, resulting in an evolution of our social and economic environment. Issues and challenges with a national or even a global impact arise. Some issues unite, some divide and some redefine communities.

A generational identity is forged for youth emerging into adulthood from the cultural cauldron of significant events. Some young people become leaders by framing issues with an honesty unburdened by the excuses that previous generations have accumulated through fear and equivocation. These emerging leaders act with a passion that inspires people across cultures and generations to unite.

The last several years and even just the past few weeks have provided us with incredible examples of youth advocacy for a wide variety of issues. From Greta Thunberg’s plea for environmental action to Malala Yousafzai’s advocacy for girls’ education to Parkland, Florida teenagers leading thousands in a march to demand action on gun control, these young people have proven that kids are capable of promoting big ideas and driving substantial change.

These examples need not be exceptions. Adults must recognize that children can and should participate and contribute to our social and civic dialogue. It’s time to acknowledge that kids, even those just learning to read and write, have valuable insights. We must create space for them to develop their thoughts, share their opinions and take action where they see a need.

Any adult who works alongside young people can help them develop into thinkers, problem-solvers, and doers. We must offer choice so that children have agency in their lives. We must encourage voice so that they can share and advocate for their needs and the needs of others. And we must seed, nurture, and follow our kids’ desire to make a difference in the world. Both home and school can be fertile ground for this kind of growth and development.


From a young age, we can empower children by teaching them that they have the ability to shape their lives. Subtle shifts in offering options to kids can create a dynamic in which children are taught that their feelings, thoughts, and opinions are valued. Having choice promotes feelings of control in their lives and in their interactions with the world. When children are able to act with self-determination in influencing the timing and sequence of required tasks or choosing to complete work individually or collaboratively, they feel empowered. These seemingly insignificant differences may seem subtle to adults, but to kids, they are powerful.

At School: At a basic level, teachers may offer a choice between sitting on a chair or sitting on the carpet to complete a task. They may let students decide when a particular task gets completed, including the order and sequence of their work. Older students may be given the authority to choose whether to present the information they have learned in a PowerPoint presentation, written report or creative diorama. These types of choices allow for multiple pathways to the same learning objectives.

At Home: Parents may let their kids choose which vegetable they would like with dinner or if they brush their teeth before or after they read a story. When older children are faced with decisions about electives, parents may let them dig into their own feelings to make that choice, even if it falls outside of the parent’s expectation. Letting children make choices and then seeing the results of those choices at a young age prepares them to anticipate potential consequences as they get older and face more substantial choices.


Gone are the days of the old adage that children should be seen and not heard. In order to prepare our kids to be productive members of society, we must teach them that their thoughts and opinions matter and should be constructively shared with those around them. Inviting young children into conversations allows them to develop their voice. And listening to what they have to say bolsters the power of that voice.

As children grow older, a strong voice is a productive channel for self-development. Allowing kids to speak their thoughts and opinions and have those words heard, respected and validated allows them to figure out who they are, what they believe in, and to embrace their identity.

At School: Facilitating learning experiences that encourage students to talk with one another provides opportunities for kids to practice using their voice. Within these experiences, educators can teach students words and phrases to accurately convey their thoughts and opinions. Teachers may model active listening, explain how to express a connection to what another has shared, or give examples on how to clearly articulate an opinion. To further the development of voice, educators may choose to include students in individual planning meetings or learning conferences. Students often have unique insights about their own learning preferences and tools that lead to greater success.

Writing can also be an effective tool for students to develop and practice using their voice. Young children may be encouraged to write notes to their families with reminders of upcoming school celebrations or pajama days. This type of task sets the precedent for kids that they hold important information and can share it.

At Home: While reading at home, ask children their thoughts and opinions on the subject matter. When they want to tell you about their amazing Minecraft creation for the fifth time, give them space to share. As children get older, ask them about their thoughts on global issues or current news stories. Letting kids into conversations on these real-world dynamics establishes them as part of the dialogue and as contributors to solutions.


Children do not have to wait until they are grown adults to make the world a better place. Kids have many skills and capabilities to meaningfully effect change. And sometimes they see the issues and the path to change more clearly than the adults. They are not intimidated by the size of the problem or frustrated by historical inertia. When adults say things cannot change, a child often responds, “Why not?” We must recognize their capabilities and desire to make change so that we empower, rather than dismiss, their advocacy with refrains to “wait until they’re older.”

At School: Do not be afraid to introduce young students to big issues in an age-appropriate manner. Answer questions, provide information and share models through books and other multimedia of people who have used their lives to make a difference in the world. When students rally around a cause, invite them to brainstorm actions they could take now to move the cause forward. And when there is a global movement for a change they believe in, work with students to find an accessible way for them to participate. This might include a small protest march during the school day or a letter-writing campaign.

At Home: When children come to you with a concern or an issue they believe needs to be changed, listen. Rather than brushing off what can sometimes seem insignificant, brainstorm with them a path forward. Give children opportunities to research causes and issues, and provide them with access to expertise by visiting a local library or museum for resources or allowing them to email an expert who lives outside of the local area. Facilitate connections with peers who share similar passions and values and encourage them to find ways to volunteer their time and energy to make an impact.

Building a Better World

When a toddler excitedly opts for carrots over peas to have with dinner or a preschooler feels triumphant when offered a choice of what to do first before bedtime—brushing their teeth or reading—we can see the empowerment that comes from having agency over outcomes. When we watch our children and students’ faces light up as they talk about something they are passionate about, we should be reminded that our children have unique perspectives and can enrich the content of conversations and thinking by articulating those thoughts and opinions. And when we give young people the opportunity to transform these opinions or concerns into action, we teach them that they can affect change.

These pathways for growth benefit the individual development of a child. They nurture social-emotional health and development, encourage critical thinking and problem solving, and help fortify a student’s sense of self. They also can serve to benefit the broader social, school, and civic community in which students participate. Having an engaged citizenry who seeks productive dialogue and feels empowered to make positive change when a concern manifests makes our world a better place—both today and in the future.

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Photo credit: Erin Gohl