Kansas City Young Audiences: Integrating Creativity at Scale

Kansas City (KC) isn’t the first place you think of when you think of “the arts”. Sure you might think of a history of prohibition-era jazz, or even some classic songs featuring Kansas City in the title or refrain, but due to the large footprint of the Nelson Atkins Art Museum, the Kansas City Art Institute, the Kauffman Performing Arts Center and numerous author arts organizations, Kansas City is a city that continues to nurture a thriving arts community. 

Enter Kansas City Young Audiences (KCYA), part of the national Young Audiences organization and a KC staple for inspiring young minds towards creativity. For years KCYA has served as a reliable source for artistic extracurriculars for kids, offering dance classes, art classes, and improv classes, as well as individual lessons and a large catalog of extended arts summer camps. 

Along the way, KCYA built partnerships with artists and districts to create short, custom curriculums and establish pathways for artists to get in the classroom and inspire through arts integration. According to the Kennedy Center, arts integration is “an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process that connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both.” This inclination towards arts integration was fortuitous timing because it coincided with conversations of STEAM that were already sweeping the nation.

“KCYA has a rigorous application process for teaching artists,” says Marty Arvizu, Director of Marketing & Business Development at KCYA, “the prospective artist develops their program (a classroom workshop, residency, school assembly performance, or professional development for educators) that is both arts and curriculum-based. Then, KCYA convenes a panel that includes staff, other teaching artists, and educators to review the applications. Only programs that have high artistic quality and strong curriculum connections are selected. Our current roster includes more than 140 teaching artists and, in the 2018-19 school year, their programs reached more than 118,000 children in the Kansas City metro. In our nearly 60 year history, we have served more than 6 million children with quality arts education experiences!”

After establishing this robust catalog of arts integration offerings, KCYA began to build lasting ties with a vast number of KC districts, serving both as tour guides to bridge schools to the KC art scene, as well as offering unique artist residency and “teaching artist” programs within the walls of the individual schools. 

This year, KCYA was selected to partner with the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., one of the leading advocates for the arts in the nation. Serving both sides of the Kansas/Missouri state line and a broad demographic of students, this partnership aims to create better ties between the different districts with hopes of building empathy and a more powerful curriculum in each district.  

“Kansas City Young Audiences will allow the partnership to increase the reach across the Greater Kansas City Metropolitan area and hone the teaching skills of local teaching artists by inviting them to training opportunities. The combination of these highly established and rigorous educational programs will enhance the cross-state partnership to greater benefit for the entire metropolitan area” said Emily Behrmann, General Manager at the Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College. 

This year KCYA teamed up with a Ph.D. student from Purdue to survey and study the impacts of an Integrated Arts Education Program (IAEP), an initiative funded by the Kennedy Center. Here’s what they found: 

  • Students reported an 86% increase in the enjoyment of lessons and learning when arts were integrated 
  • 54% of students said that having a teaching artist inspired them to learn more 
  • 97% of teachers were inspired to further develop relationships with their colleagues to further support arts integration in their schools
  • 98% of students said that working with a teaching artist inspired them to be creative

Creativity is a necessary skill for the future and one that we must find ways to nurture at scale in the years to come. Arts integration is one effective method of doing this.  It also is the perfect supplement for implementing high-quality project-based learning, building empathy and increasing the likelihood of encouraging lifelong learning through matching passion, discovery, and autonomy. 

As KCYA continues to grow, they are turning an eye towards continued community engagement, professional development programs for educators and additional opportunities to reach children where they are: both in schools and in after-school programs. 

For more, see: 


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.


The Superhero Schools of Philadelphia

By: Chris Unger

Much like Tom Vander Ark, wherever I go I make sure to visit the schools that are “doing school” differently. Upon visiting Philly recently, I was so moved by the schools I visited that I felt compelled to share what I saw, particularly because they were all working to simultaneously address the challenges of poverty their students were growing up in and providing them with the kind of authentic, agency-oriented learning practices more often seen in the cutting-edge schools in upper-middle income communities.

I call these communities “superhero schools” because of what they are doing with their students in the context of tremendous challenges. Educators at the Workshop School, Building 21, U School, and Vaux Big Picture School have dedicated their life’s work not just to personally making a difference in the lives of their youth, but also creating a school model that has the potential to make a difference in the lives of youth in similar communities beyond.

The Schools They Are Growing

On the corner of Hanson and Locust Streets is a nondescript building that looks like any other where several light manufacturing businesses, auto body shops, and apartment buildings co-exist away from downtown, except for one door that stands out for its unique silver-painted entrance with gears welded to its front and a circular metal overhang that says ‘The Workshop School.’ Inside exists the school Simon Hauger and Matt Riggan have created, a school 10 years in the making.

The entrance to the Workshop School on Hanson Street

Through that door and up the stairs one enters a maze of rooms and creation spaces where students are working earnestly on a variety of hands-on, real-world projects—hence the name “Workshop School.” Today each class is reflecting on the escape rooms they created and experienced the night before (for one another, their parents, and the community). In the bowels of this building there is an automotive repair shop inclusive of a professional heat room for painting cars, and a wood shop with power saws, drills, tools, sanders, and a laser cutter to “make things.” As our two student guides showcased the classrooms, they also told us about the internships they were undertaking in keeping with their college aspirations.

I have seen such places across the country in suburbs and middle- and upper-class communities, but rarely have I seen such vibrant, student-centered, competency-based programs in the center of inner-city neighborhoods where the average family income is $14,000 and the degree of hardship and trauma is such a significant reality for its youth.

The Automotive Body Shop at Workshop School

David Bromley of Vaux Big Picture School and Laura Shibulla of Building 21 probably put it best when they each spoke of their determined effort to pursue competency-based, real-world learning while at the same time acknowledging the circumstances and hardships of their students’ lives. Having a school counselor or even a social worker on staff is not enough to serve the needs of their students. For everyone in these schools, knowing and attending to who their students are and their reality is a full-time gig.

To meet students where they are the schools have made advisory and restorative justice practices a fundamental part of their everyday effort, recognizing that relationships are fundamental to their students’ success. As two of the schools’ leaders noted, on the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) Questionnaire, their students have been exposed to as many as six if not more of the ten adverse childhood indicators, meaning, in short, that they are exposed to extremely challenging experiences. When youth are living in such conditions, they are prone to disconnect, tune out, drop out, and often act out, with a number of triggers easily setting them off. Hence, the teachers and school leaders in these schools actively work to meet their students where they are at and let them know that the adults are there for them—in support of their resiliency. Sitting at a table with seven of the students at Building 21, they outright told me that and told me that that made all the difference. The culture of these schools is not to disregard their experience, but to recognize them and then engage in the caring practices that help students open up to learning—a possibility made even more likely when students see their learning as meaningful, connected to their interests, and supported by those that actually care for them.

The Mission and Vision of Building 21

Love, Dream, Do

The U School on North 7th Street looks like any other three-story school building in Philly, except for the U School logo that sits atop the black double front doors. What does the U in U school stand for? U, as in who U are? U for Youth. And U for Unique, as in Unicorn, meaning you are as unique as a unicorn. The school’s mission is to support the development of your individual identity. The focus: “supporting students to accept challenges and opportunities through: student agency, real-world problem-solving, developing engaging high-quality products with the purpose of demonstrating mastery.” They do this through a shared design framework that supports the pursuit of Love, Dream, and Do, within which students take on real-world, “wicked problems” and are guided to pursue the personal actions they can take to meaningfully address them.

The Love, Do, Dream Wall at U School

While visiting the school, I had the opportunity to talk with two young men who were on fire about their school’s literary magazine, who with great pride gave me their latest volume of student poetry. And I was able to chat briefly with a composed but equally passionate young woman similarly on fire about leading the U School’s dance club. Apart from this, I ventured into a classroom RICH with agency, where Freda Anderson, a second-year teacher in the school, runs her “activism” classroom, the walls a spellbinding collage of images and sayings that relay the spirit of the school’s design process: Discovery, Define, Design, Develop, Delta. Freda, herself a volcano of passion for making a difference in the world, is passionate about empowering youth to consider how they can make a difference in their community. Another sign that the school is about giving students agency.

One of the Walls in Freda Anderson’s “Activism” Classroom

The Work Is The Work

On a wall entering the Workshop School is a saying: “The work is the work.” For me the highlight of these small schools boldly and courageously doing what they do to expand the possibilities of their students’ lives lies “in the work.” From one perspective, the “work” is reimagining the competencies they feel can have a significant impact on their students’ lives, far beyond the traditional coverage of content. At another, deeper level, these schools are redefining what the focus of school should be to give students what they may need to rise above the circumstances they are in: wayfinding, personal development, and student agency. Typical schools, whether in inner city contexts or not, very rarely and in any real, substantive way, directly and explicitly focus on these particular skill sets and competencies as a school.

Absolutely central to these efforts is how each school has clearly defined their expectations of mastery and has created platforms for tracking the development of their students’ skills and competencies. Both Building 21 and U School have a clear set of competencies not only related to the typical content of schools (such as in ELA, math, and science) but then extend their expectations to personal agency outcomes such as Building 21’s Habits of Success, NextGen Essentials, and Personal Development competencies. This set of broader, deeper competencies are based on Next Generation Learning Challenges’ MyWays Student Success Framework and are tracked on their internally developed competency dashboard. Similarly, The Workshop School uses MyWays as the basis for their skills-focused graduation requirements recently approved by the School District of Philadelphia.

Building 21’s Focus with Students

The fact that these schools, with all their challenges, are promoting and tracking such competencies above and beyond the traditional skill gaps their students exhibit is mind-boggling. It shows a deep commitment to empowering their students beyond the simple accrual of typical high school credits to helping their students envisage who they are, what they might want to do with their lives, and how they can be agents of their own future.

The Key Components of the U School

What amazes me is how these schools are boldly and courageously doing what they do to extend the possibilities of their students’ lives while also caring for who their students are, and helping them to overcome their histories and current circumstances to be empowered to be agents of their own lives.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Chris Unger is a Teaching Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Northeastern University and supports the Graduate School of Education’s Network for Experiential Teaching and Learning (NExT) with a number of his colleagues at the University. You can follow him and NExT on Twitter @Chris_Unger and #NUNExT respectively.


Providing for Different Learning Styles

As educators, it is important that we find ways to provide more personalized learning experiences to meet the individual needs of our students. What this means is that beyond simply offering more choices in the types of assessments we offer students, we must do more by learning to understand the specific learning styles and interests of each of our students. We must differentiate our instruction and to do so requires that we develop a clear picture and gain a deeper understanding of the various learning styles of the students in our classrooms. When we do this, we can then design lessons that are focused on the specific student learning styles and offer more individualized choices for students. Whether that offers more options to work independently or in groups based on a specific topic, an area of interest or even based on the level of understanding of the content, we serve them best by having the right resources available for them.

Each of our students have specific needs and preferences for how they learn and we do the best for them when we help them to identify these preferences and then offer a variety of materials and resources for them to explore. It is not about always using a digital tool or shifting away from traditional methods, but rather being able to determine which of these options will work best for each of our students. It also means helping students to become more self-aware of their own interests. One change that has helped me to better identify these styles and guide students in my classroom is by using the station rotation model.

Through the use of stations, I am able to provide multiple activities that enable students to interact with the content in a variety of ways. There are tech and no-tech options, student and teacher-created materials, hands-on activities to choose from, and times where students decide on a focus for their group. By providing a variety of learning options for each student, giving them all the opportunity to explore, we empower students with more meaningful and personalized learning that will lead to more student engagement and content retention.

Learning Styles: The VARK Model

In 1987, Neil Fleming designed what has become known as the VARK model. Fleming developed this model as a way to help students learn more about their individual learning preferences. The VARK learning styles include: visual, auditory, read/write, and kinesthetic.

Personally, I have always been more of a visual and somewhat kinesthetic or “hands-on” learner. At varying points throughout my life, I can recall taking a test and being able to see specific notes that I had written in my notebook, but still being unable to respond to questions. I tended to create graphic organizers and had my system for making more visual connections with the content. Many of my students are visual learners and over the past two years, have often noticed that they have specific ways of processing the information in class as well as how they prepare and respond during assessments. We must be able to provide different options for our students where they can choose a format that will best suit their interests and needs in more authentic and personalized ways.

Visual Learners

Visual learners are more likely to use charts, icons, images and are able to more easily visualize information and as a result, can retain it longer. An estimate is that visual learners make up approximately 65% of the population, and remember 75% of what they read or see. Visuals learners prefer to do projects and presentations that involve creating visualizations of their learning. For visual learners, some good options include creating infographics, using Augmented and Virtual reality for creating immersive experiences, designing 3D objects, sketchnoting, or using digital tools such as Padlet or Wakelet to curate content in ways that promote better visualization of content. Visual learners would also benefit by creating a mindmap or making flashcards, which can also be done using a digital tool like Quizlet.

Auditory Learners

Auditory learners listen carefully and often focus on the tone or the rate of speech, and may also benefit more by having supplemental resources made available to them such as videos or audio recordings. Learners of this type can recall information such as song lyrics and conversations, and can often recreate a story more easily because of that auditory connection they have. There are many options to engage auditory learners more by selecting options that promote listening and speaking skills. Some ideas include using video response or podcasting tools to have students explain concepts or brainstorm ideas. Another option is by creating a more interactive presentation using a tool such as Voice Thread, students will connect with the sounds, dialogue, and tone used in a presentation such as this, where they can listen and respond.  Another idea is to use Flipgrid to post a question and have students also respond to classmates to further the discussion and promote higher-order thinking. Try using Synth to create a podcast for students to have the active listening component addressed, and invite students to listen and respond to the prompts by adding a thread to the podcast.

Read/Write Learners

Read/write learners prefer to have the text available to them in some written/tangible format. Whether students first take notes and then decide to rewrite their notes for additional practice, or read over their notes each day for review and class preparation, these learners benefit from sustained interactions with the text. The more they interact with written formats, the better equipped they are to understand the content. Beyond writing in pen or pencil, or creating a document, using some tools such as Kidblog, for writing a story and getting started with blogging is a good way to promote reading and writing opportunities. Another idea is to have students create a multimedia presentation with a tool like Buncee to tell a story, adding text and icons to make the content more meaningful. These options make the activities more authentic and aligned with the needs of learners of this type.

Kinesthetic Learners

Kinesthetic learners learn best through hands-on learning opportunities. Students spend a lot of time sitting in classrooms and perhaps more passively learning. We need to design ways for students to be more active in the classroom. Some choices would be through a STEAM curriculum, the use of makerspaces, place-based learning, game-based learning and creation, designing projects and having students engage in project-based learning (PBL).

Multimodal Learners

For some students, providing options that foster a multimodal learning style is most beneficial. A multi-modal learning style means that you benefit through multiple ways of processing the information which can be through images, sounds, movement, speech, audio, visuals and more.  When I have used stations in my classroom, providing the different options at each station was helpful for students who are multimodal learners, to be able to interact with the content in different ways. Some of the tools that I have used include Nearpod, Kahoot, Quizlet, in addition to giving students options to create something based on their own choice, which lends itself to more hands-on learning. The use of infographics, hyperdocs, choice boards, and even digital breakouts can give students a variety of ways to engage with the content and provide activities that will meet each learning style.

All students benefit from multimodal learning options that support a Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Providing something for each student and offering a mix of learning tools will help students to master the content in more authentic and personalized ways.

Interested in learning more about your own learning style preferences? You can take the VARK questionnaire and find out what type of learner you are.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.


The Argument for Automation & Classroom Creativity

By: Donn Smith

In a world where educators talk about the power of creativity in the classroom, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that automation—the very definition of which is meant to remove thought from the process—may do the most for freeing up the mind to find time to create. The American Psychological Association notes that the more time you have, the higher the chance of being creative.

But we’re busy people, right? According to the Brookings Institute, teachers work up to 55 hours per week. Activities range from curriculum planning, grading, attending staff meetings, convening with students before or after class hours, plus continuing education courses and more. In essence, there’s not enough time in any given day, or week, to get it all done.

In addition to these activities, teachers must ensure they are meeting state, federal and district curriculum guidelines and achieving test goals. A recent survey by Hanover Research found educators reported emotional exhaustion and burnout, with 41% of teachers leaving the profession within five years. Engagement levels among teachers were reported at their lowest levels since 1989, with only 44% of all teachers indicating they were very satisfied with their job as a teacher.

While teachers may crave time-saving solutions that help curb burnout, many also desire creative control over their curriculum—customization that allows for creative lesson plans rather than an off-the-shelf solution, which may be easier but may be less captivating for both teacher and pupil. Many teachers simply want more time in the day to think.

On the flip side, principals want assurances that their staff is maximizing their time and resources, while still meeting achievement goals and curriculum guidelines and helping students achieve their optimal performance.

How can everyone accomplish these goals? Automation makes it possible. Many edtech platforms claim to be the entire solution. But where does creativity come into the equation? Can automation and creativity co-exist?

The answer is yes, if your resource planning and management tools offer an integrated, singular system that provides not only an automated experience, but one that can be customized while retrieving lost time for educators.

What Makes a Flexible, Integrated System Maximized for Creativity?

So, what does it mean to have a flexible, integrated system? A flexible system allows educators to pull from a fully vetted resource library of thousands of educational resources that also happen to align with district, state and federal standards. Because standards can and do change, the system also must be adaptable and responsive to those periodic changes.

At the same time, a flexible, integrated system enables teachers to import personalized custom content, retaining the ability to be creative with their curriculum while ensuring that the curriculum meets those changing standards. This content can be mapped for the entire school year limiting the need to continually make updates to those lesson plans. In simplest terms: another time saver.

But beyond these advantages, such technology allows teachers to easily and seamlessly collaborate to ensure consistency across grade levels. Best practice sharing helps to maximize the student experience.

Most importantly, when it comes to ensuring student success, a system that includes automation can also show teachers how to close the gaps in MAP Growth assessments, with educational resources aligned within RIT ranges. This could lead to positive student outcomes and further help educators meet school and district goals.

What does this mean for creative teaching? Ultimately, many tedious activities can be automated, leaving more time to think, create and engage students. Greater engagement with creative work, in theory, leads to increased job satisfaction. And hopefully, that means those high burnout numbers start to decrease, leading to higher retention levels among our most creative educators.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Donn Smith is the CEO of Curriculum Works, a first-of-its-kind cloud-based Educational Resource Planning and Management (ERPM) platform that integrates the processes of developing, deploying, accessing and managing vetted and standards-aligned curriculum within a single platform.  


Service-Learning: Essential Curricula for Developing 21st Century Skills

By: Scott Freiberger

When offered a position as an adjunct professor at a respected New York City college, I immediately requested to infuse service-learning into the curriculum. When the department chair responded that she was pleased by my request, I began to ponder: Why are we not doing more in the U.S. to infuse service-learning into curricula across schools?

According to the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Washington, “Service-learning refers to learning that…often benefit[s] others and the community, while also advancing the goals of a given curriculum.” Projects that are carefully planned may include student choice and collective voice regarding provident action plans and prudent projects, resulting in increased student interest, collaboration, and motivation.

In higher education, research indicates that service-learning may have significant, positive benefits for students. “The literature suggests that service-learning experiences in the first year of college benefit students enormously … from increased civic responsibility to greater self-esteem.”

In a recent, poignant article, Beachboard (2019) promotes the idea of utilizing local community challenges to promote student learning. She contends that service-learning projects benefit local communities and have tangible, practical benefits for students. For example, students may come to the realization that not only does classroom knowledge connect with real-world problem-solving, but also that recent insights gleaned in classrooms and a desire to make a difference could impact the wider community in an immediate, positive manner. “Helping students address community challenges … merges the best aspects of service learning, project-based learning, and growth mindset.” Since real-world issues often require creative solutions, service-learning projects challenge students to self-reflect and engage in a conscientious, collaborative cycle of inquiry.

When students tap into their passions to help their communities, the results may reach far beyond the confines of their classroom walls. For example, service-learning is not a novel concept overseas; indeed, many international schools require students to partake in service-learning projects to teach compassion, advance active learning, and develop well-rounded, global citizens. In one research study, McKee (2016) contends that “international service-learning encourages examining one’s own values, culture, and country in order to engage in civic action on a global scale.” Another pertinent study regarding service-learning in developing contexts found that “global service-learning [projects] ultimately advance inclusive and transformational pedagogies and [societal improvement].”

Dr. Gregory Hedger, Director of International School Yangon, relates in an articulate article published on his personal blog and on the Central and European Schools Association website that service-learning can be a magnificent medium in which to enhance collaboration and teamwork among students and foster a deeper sense of multicultural understanding. “The international school environment, with students coming from a large number of different countries, seems to be a perfect opportunity to promote multicultural acceptance and understanding.” Indeed, the American School in Japan, a top international school not only in Asia but also in the world, spotlights service-learning on its website to highlight how students pursue their passions while helping humanity: “We believe that purposeful work builds purposeful students who will leave ASIJ equipped and empowered to solve real world problems.”

While some may relegate service-learning as inspiring yet time-consuming extracurricular activities, educators relate how service-learning embodies best practices across a variety of subject disciplines. In art-related courses, for instance, one teacher provided opportunities for students to create “gifts” that were then sold at school functions to raise awareness and funds for notable community causes (West, 2017). In addition, Artist Corps Tennessee, a training program that combines art education and service-learning, states that their “arts-based service-learning approach” provides “personal growth opportunities that students, teachers and artists experience as designers and participants in arts-based service learning projects.”

Sloan (2008) relates how addressing pertinent contemporary issues such as global warming, environmental conservation, and poverty alleviation have led to powerful student projects across disciplines. “Building a successful service learning project requires engaging students in the process.” This typically includes careful planning coupled with community outreach to organizations that may already have access to reliable resources. After completing a service-learning project, students may then reflect, consider lessons learned, compose a paper, and/or facilitate a presentation with classmates about their learning experiences (Sloan, 2008).

Service-learning in the arts:

  • Fund-raising activities for notable causes
  • Musical and theatrical performances
  • Art auctions and exhibitions

Service-learning in science:

  • Animal rescue and support
  • Habitat studies
  • Recycling activities
  • Environmental conservation
  • Civic responsibility projects
  • Cleaner air/water quality programs

Service-learning in humanities:

  • The value of books and/or technology in our lives (research coupled with donating to charitable causes or shipping overseas for use in developing contexts)
  • Visiting museums and then engaging in activities/ projects that promote deeper human understanding.

Inviting students to become active participants in the learning process should not be understated. “Above all, it is important for students to have a strong voice in the process to deepen their understanding of the activities and to maximize learning opportunities.” When students collectively feel that their contributions and input are valued, service-learning becomes a powerful tool in which to not only advance classroom teaching but also empower all members of the community. In sum, service-learning proves that the choices students make and the actions students take reveal the quintessential nature of who we, as humans, truly are: civil, productive, and united.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Scott Freiberger, a passionate, multilingual literacy coach with school building/district leader certification, is honored to be the 2018 TESOL International Teacher of the Year.  Connect with Scott on Twitter: @scottfreiberger.

Image: (Jiufen, Taiwan, 2009)


The Intellectual Hunger of Teachers

A few weeks ago I got a call from a longtime colleague who works as a researcher and writer for the Christensen Institute.

We talked for 45 minutes about the intersection of our work – we share an abiding interest in project-based learning and how it is implemented. She knew I had returned to the classroom for the first time in 15 years following long stints in management at the Buck Institute for Education (now PBLWorks) and at the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

When I got off the phone, I sat for a moment in silence, a broad smile on my face. Why? I quickly realized that I had been suffering from intellectual starvation and my friend had shared a full meal.

In 1975 Dan Lortie published Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. It is the best analysis of teaching I have ever read. Lortie dispassionately describes the cellular nature of the teacher’s world. When the door closes we are on our own. It is an insular world that requires a single-minded focus on the academic and emotional needs of our students.

For those of you who have never been a K-12 teacher, it is useful to think of illness as an analogy. When you or a loved one is sick, your world shrinks to a house and then a room. That is what it is like to be a classroom teacher. Your room is your world.

Lortie wrote his book 44 years ago. I began my first tour of duty as a teacher 26 years ago and my second in August. It is still the same.

Researchers, administrators, policymakers, thought leaders and practitioners have looked for solutions to this isolation and intellectual starvation. 

One of the most important innovations has been the creation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). This term was coined in the 1960s by academic researchers but didn’t become widely popular until Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker published  Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement in 1998.

The authors offered six characteristics of a school that functioned as a professional learning community, among them shared mission, vision, values, and goals. The ultimate goal though was the creation of a learning community focused on collectively improving student achievement.

And that’s what I see at my school. We meet Tuesday afternoons and Wednesday mornings to review student achievement data and then strategize on what we can do as a team and individuals to improve student outcomes. 

This is a laudable goal but it does not provide the intellectual sustenance I and so many other teachers crave. Perhaps that’s why hundreds of thousands of teachers attend education conferences each year. I couldn’t find a hard count for the number of conferences, but a review of multiple publications indicate there are more than 120 national conferences and hundreds, if not thousands, of regional and local conferences.

I’m fascinated by the structure of these conferences, which provide intellectual stimulation via keynote addresses and panels but focus mostly on the meat and potatoes of instructional strategies because that’s what teachers want most. The mantra is simple: Show me something that I can use on Monday.

I’m not casting stones from afar. I created and managed the PBL World conference for the Buck Institute (PBLWorks) and I did the same with the Patterns of Innovation conference while at P21. We followed the same format.

Technology has done is best to break down classroom walls and provide teachers with viable and stimulating interactions online. I and many others routinely participate in MOOCs, Twitter chats, and Google Hangouts. But these connections occur after the workday and must compete with commuting, shopping, dinner, errands, chores, exercise, relaxation, homework, sports, and parenting duties. I think you know who wins.

As mentioned in prior posts, I’ve spent the last 15 years traveling around the world engaging in workshops, conferences, meetings, panels, workgroups, presentations, and discussions. I never got tired of the work, but I did get tired of one trope that countless international educators directed at me and my U.S. colleagues: U.S. teachers are anti-research and anti-theory. The corollary is that they don’t seem to need intellectual stimulation.

Conversely, I never tired of hearing compliments of the U.S. teaching force. My colleagues in China, the Philippines, Russia, the U.K, Costa Rica, Peru, and the Middle East would wistfully watch U.S. teachers work and conclude with the following: “American teachers are so practical.” My International colleagues lamented the endless, circular debates that would derail professional development in their countries.

Can American teachers have it both ways? I think yes. We must honor and capitalize on our immense capacity for practicality but seek new and engaging ways to imbue that practicality with intellectual rigor and stimulation.

In the meantime, call me. I’m kinda hungry.

For more, see:


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


A Decade of Getting Smart

Over the last decade, the Getting Smart team along with dedicated guest authors and columnists have covered what’s next and what is possible in education. Our posts range from innovations in learning spaces, student agency, to AI—providing our readers the opportunity to learn about emerging trends and see themselves as change agents in education.

As the decade closes, we at Getting Smart wanted to reflect on the top posts over the last ten years. Project-based learning, student-centered environments and design surfaced as the most read topics. We know these topics, as well as others like competencies, real-world learning and student voice, will continue to be front-of-mind for many in our readership.

We look forward to the next ten years, where we will undoubtedly continue to push forward and question what is coming next for learners around the world. We also thank you for being a part of our community and for the work you do day-in and day-out in classrooms, learning spaces and educational organizations. Cheers to 2020!

Here are our top 10 posts from the last decade:

1. The Four Systemic Problems in Education (2010)
This article highlights some of the key systemic problems that are limiting excellence in education and creating the friction that deters change.

2. 6 Ways Digital Learning Is Changing Teaching (2011)
Tom Vander Ark responds to a few questions from employees at Wireless Generation, a leading edtech company in Brooklyn.

3. 3 New Teaching Methods Improve the Educational Process (2012)
This post from Sonia Jackson focuses on how to reimagine education with an emphasis on learner interaction, learner enjoyment and a nuanced understanding of authority.

4. Project-Based Learning in the Geometry Classroom (2013)
When PBL is aligned with Common Core State Standards, it is a powerful experience. This article follows some of the great offerings of Curriki, a leader in high-quality K-12 courses.

5. The 10 Questions Every Superintendent Needs to Answer (2014)
Superintendents have an extraordinarily challenging job. Here are 10 questions that all superintendents should be able to answer in order to maximize their contribution.

6. 11 Rights All Students (Should) Have (2015)
Erik Martin speaks on behalf of his school’s student-run organization, Student Voice, addressing 11 of the foundational rights that to which they believe every student is entitled.

7. 4 Key Elements of 21st Century Classroom Design (2016)
McKenna Wierman reflects on the way in which classroom designs have been slow to change and looks ahead to what the future of the classroom might look like.

8. 8 Things to Look For in a Student-Centered Learning Environment (2017)
Join Emily Liebtag as she documents the student-centered environments that make schools stand out and reminds us about what is foundational in education.

9. 7 Real-World Issues That Can Allow Students To Tackle Big Challenges (2018)
The world is facing a multitude of large scale issues that could provide students a way to engage with real-world problems. Join Michael Niehoff as he documents seven of the most pressing problems and what students can do about them.

10. Teaching Students About AI (2019)
What can we teach students about AI? What does AI really mean? How can we prepare for a future with more AI presence? Rachelle Dene Poth answers some of the most common AI-related questions.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.


12 Tools to Try in the New Year

Each year I like to take time and think back to the digital tools that we used in our classroom, what the benefits were, and how I might find new ways to use them. When I look to use technology in my classroom, I always start with the purpose behind it. What do I think it will help me to do better as a teacher? How can it help students to learn in more personalized or authentic ways? And what are the skills that students will build as a result that traditional non-technology methods might not afford?

There are tools that I continue to use each year because they have added new features or they have integrated with other tools that we are using in our classroom. Here are twelve tools that made a difference for my students and some even helped me to stretch professionally this year.

  1. Gimkit, a game-based learning tool has continued to be a favorite with my students because of the potential for increased content retention through repetitive questions, and because of the different ways it can be played in the classroom. It enables students to develop strategies and have fun while learning. Some of the updated features in Gimkit 4.0, include being able to search and use pre-made kits, multiple ways to look at the student data, and now you can even make flashcards.
  2. Buncee is a versatile tool for creating multimedia and interactive presentations. It provides multiple ways for students to learn and to express themselves, promoting student choice and voice, offering many choices for creation in an all-in-one tool. Buncee has an Ideas lab, where teachers can explore lesson ideas and templates to use in the classroom. Two months ago, Immersive Reader was added, which increases accessibility for students and offers more robust ways to learn, especially for language learners.
  3. Synth provides an easy option for recording a podcast and building communication skills. It can be a great tool for speaking assessments and extending the time and space of classroom discussions. We use Synth with our project-based learning and students were able to ask questions, respond to discussion threads and communicate with students from Argentina and Spain. Synth includes options to record audio or video. It is a great way to encourage students to share their ideas and build some in speaking.
  4. Anchor, another tool for podcasting, is one that has helped me to finally create my own podcast to share my ideas with other educators. But it’s also a popular tool that can easily be used with students to create their own podcast, adding in transitions and even creating a hook to advertise a podcast they create. Using a tool like Anchor would be good for launching a school podcast to share what’s happening in the school with the greater school community.
  5. Wakelet is a content curation tool and so much more. It has gone from simply being a space where I would curate blogs, videos and other resources that I wanted to have access to quickly, to being a powerful tool for student learning.  With Wakelet, teachers can provide blended learning experiences, use it for station rotations, have students create a digital portfolio, post-class projects, create a scavenger hunt and many other possibilities. It even offers the capability to record a Flipgrid short video right within the Wakelet collection. Educators and students can collaborate in a Wakelet collection.
  6. Nearpod is a multimedia, interactive presentation tool that enables teachers to create engaging lessons which can include virtual trips and 3D objects. It offers lessons on topics such as digital citizenship, social-emotional learning, career exploration, English learner lessons, and professional development resources for teachers. Educators can create lessons with many options including quizzes, polls, drawings, matching pairs, audio, video, and content from PhET Simulations, Desmos, BBC, YouTube and more. Nearpod lessons can be done live in class or student-paced and there is also the option for use as sub plans.
  7. Adobe Spark is a presentation tool that can be used to create an infographic, a website or a video. Using the apps, it is easy to create with Spark Post, Spark Page, and Spark Video. This year my students chose Adobe Spark for a project about their family and narrating their childhood. It was not only a more authentic way to create with the content and build other vital skills for the future, but it led to the creation of something more meaningful, the students could share with family and friends.
  8. Voxer is a walkie-talkie app that can be used for educators to collaborate and avoid the isolation that can happen at times. It is a tool that I have used for four years, in many ways including connecting with educators to discuss a book, focused on specific topics, or for small groups as part of a Professional Learning Community (PLC). We have also used it for project-based learning as a way for students to share their ideas and reflect. Because time is something that teachers never have enough of, Voxer is a great tool for learning and finding professional support on any schedule.
  9. Flipgrid is a social learning platform where students and educators can record a video response and include additional content. It has helped with global collaboration by creating a way for students to connect with classrooms and experts around the world. With the summer updates, the addition of augmented reality with Flipgrid AR would be a fun way to have students record their thoughts or do a short presentation and then have a QR Code for others to scan and see their video pop up in AR! With Flipgrid, my students shared videos with students in Argentina and learned more about life and school, which took their learning to a whole new level.
  10. Remind is a messaging app that enables students and parents to stay connected with access to information and resources. Being able to send a quick reminder, to answer students’ questions, to inform parents of upcoming events, and to have a space where students can get the help they need when they need it, has made a difference in my classroom. It also helps with building digital citizenship skills as students learn to interact in a virtual space. Remind can also be used to share a lesson from Nearpod, or a game through tools like Quizizz or Quizlet.
  11. Quizlet is a learning tool that offers students many different ways to practice content. There are thousands of flashcard sets available for educators and students and with each set the activities include flashcards, learn, write, spell, test, match, gravity and Quizlet Live! When playing Quizlet Live, students are placed in teams and can collaborate as they play. Only one member of the team has the right answer. It is a good tool to get students moving in the classroom and building those peer relationships.
  12. CoSpaces EDU is a virtual reality platform that became a favorite for some of my eighth-grade students this year. Whether creating a space in 360, designing a game, an interactive story, or an experiment, students will enjoy creating in VR and developing coding skills too. Another benefit is the Merge Cube add-on, which enables students to hold the space they have created in their hands! Students can even collaborate by working on teams to create a space together. With MergeEDU, educators can use the cube as an interactive tool to further engage students in learning about the earth, dissecting a frog, exploring a volcano and more.

While this is how my students and I have used these tools in our classroom, there are definitely a lot more ways that these tools can be utilized. Think about some of the tasks that might be taking up a lot of your time, or consider some issues or challenges you might be having. A few years ago I noticed a decrease in student engagement and I was looking for opportunities to open up more choices for students to share their learning. Any of these tools can be good for addressing those concerns. My Advice? Start thinking about your own personal goals and start with one thing. Try it and see how it goes, ask students or colleagues for feedback, and then make adjustments as needed.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.


Leading with Love and Centering Student Voice: Big Picture Leadership Conference 2019

Imagine being a leader shaping a place of learning where all the adults respect and love kids. A school with students at the center, personalized with clear distinguishers. What would an education leadership conference look like, if this type of learning environment was the outcome? Big Picture Learning (BPL) is facilitating leadership conferences centered on that call to action and we had an opportunity to join the learning for #BPLEADERSHIP2019. 

The Big Picture Behind Leadership Conference 

Currently, Big Picture Learning is composed of approximately 65 Big Picture Learning schools in the United States and supports more than 100 schools internationally, The network includes schools in disparate geographic regions, with 90% of its schools in urban areas, 5% in rural regions, and 5% in suburban settings. BPL supports school cultures grounded in relationship-building, personalization, and student voice.

BPL is part of a newly released research report by the Learning Policy Institute on networks taking student-centered learning and equity to scale. Co-founders Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor discuss the roots of BPL. Washor stated, “We really are a takeoff of a John Dewey phrase [in which] he talked about learning through occupations. He talked a lot as well about starting with students’ interests, although nobody ever really did that. They left it at the level of a group of students or a class. We said we could get it down to the student.” Littky explained that “equity was fostered in their schools by emphasizing relationships, relevance, and rigor. He stated, “It’s about finding a kid’s passion, finding their interest—someone who knows them well and stays with them for 4 years. Then we put them out in the real world.” 

BPL’s current Co-Executive Directors, Carlos Moreno and Andrew Frishman, who assumed full leadership of the network in 2015 after a deliberatively phased 2-year leadership transition, maintain this vision as they grow the network domestically and abroad.

The 2019 Leadership Conference showcased multiple threads in BPL that are weaving a tapestry for student access and opportunity, including:

Learning and Leading in Big Picture 

Leadership Conference 2019 included core components of the Big Picture model including Leaving to Learn and Advisory. The conference kicked off and closed out with students from two local Big Picture Schools. Conference participants learned from Seattle venues in an evening scavenger hunt. Along with an array of conference session offerings, relationships were built, action items were developed, and leaders were renewing their energy to continue their work. 

Internship mentor & two student mentees during school/internship site visits.

This conference environment created a generative learning experience where leaders co-created ways to lead, with love being the priority. Keynote speakers pushed participants into the day holding questions like, “how are you leading new-form in education?” Advisory groups created immediate community and thought partners to help reflect on, “what do you need for your leadership actions?” “Who do you need as allies in your work?” School visits invited the beloved community to see, learn and share. With experiential learning, community building and generative tasks, BP Leadership Conference get to the heart of leadership and learning. 

Big Picture Leadership

As a leadership team, BPL stands out in its dedicated focus on personalized learning, for students and for adults. The BPL founding leadership team of Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor are still key BPL leaders and supporting the tone of courageous leadership.  Elliot opened the second day with a strong statement of standing by what you believe in, “When you know you are not in compliance – you are doing good work.” Dennis led a breakout group on the end of the first day, Lead With Your Heart. He shared self-reflection questions he asks himself, like “Was I someone I like to work with this week?” and if not, how can I improve? He emphasized how leadership is all about the start and where we spend our time. Review your weekly schedule, where are you and does this align to your focus?

Dennis is also known for a few mantras. Some that stood out –

  • Leaders don’t create followers, they create leaders
  • It all depends (The challenge of remaining flexible to be personalized)
  • Leaders make meaning
  • Reward excellent failures, reward mediocre success 
  • Always have a sense of urgency – keeps you on the edge
Dennis Littky

Honoring the community of practice, BPL is a community that cares for each other and acknowledges the complexity and necessity of leadership experiences. Participants received wrap around leadership support, with resources like the Leadership Framework, encouragement from Elliott and Dennis, collaboration with fellow leaders in the network in advisory and a closing to the conference that wrapped up their work in love. Our leadership, our work at its core is absolutely about love, said Carlos Moreno, Co-Executive Director of BPL. And he ended the conference with this ask, “my ask of you, either on your flight home or destination is that you find your own intentional ask of vulnerability – please share them if you feel comfortable and appropriate, and we will help support you in your acts of courage.” 

Elliot Washor and Carlos Moreno.

Equity in Big Picture

Big Picture Learning is explicit about prioritizing equity as evidenced in their leadership framework and conference context. There were sessions to support leadership development in areas of equity, such as Liberating Learning: Creating Anti-Racist Schools, Creating and Sustaining Schools for Deeper Learning and Equity, Breakthrough Leadership, Strategic Plan: Building, Leveraging, and Sustaining. These sessions built upon the focus points and resources shared with participants before the conference in addition to the focus on the BPL Leadership Framework: 

Love: Leading a school in the context of dis-equitable social constructs. Sense of self in relation to community. Compulsion toward equity, and the moral courage to speak and act against dis-equitable systems and structures. 

Breakthrough Leadership: Skillfully breaking rules and positively disrupting the status quo; shifting the systems around you

Leading and Sustaining a Learning Organization: Attending to the learning needs of individual adults as well as the school as an organization. Culture-building. Creating shared ownership and distributed leadership among students and adults.

School Design and Implementation: Beyond interest-driven, compelling, real-world-connected, and lasting student experiences what else does the school seem to prioritize?

Centering the work in students and leading leadership development with these explicit references to equity and inclusion, BPL is leading the field in student-centered, equity-driven systemic support. 

BP Leadership is setting the standard for student-centered learning and leadership. It embraces place, grounds learning in the work, listens to students and empowers a community. This learning experience walks the talk of network core values and gives time to leaders to reconnect to each other and to their work. Without losing sight of the significance of the work and the importance of every student, BPLeadership reinvigorates leaders and sends them back to their schools ready to continue their task of reshaping the learning environment so that all kids can thrive. 

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.


2019 Coding & Computer Science Resources

Computer science jobs and careers remain some of the most in-demand in the workforce, so why not go ahead and introduce the foundations and fundamentals to your students now? We have put together a revised guide of 35 of the best computer science resources for schools and students.

Coding & Computer Science Resources for Schools

1. Zulama, an initiative of Carnegie Learning, prides themselves on offering a computer science course for every classroom. This expert crafted content enables students and teachers to design games while learning the foundations of coding in any content area.

2. Code.org is an organization dedicated to expanding access to computer science in schools and increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities. Start here for coding resources such as games, apps and courses. (see feature on CS4RI)

3. Raspberry Pi is a UK-based charity that works to put the power of computing and digital making into the hands of people all over the world. They do this so that more people are “able to harness the power of computing and digital technologies for work, to solve problems that matter to them, and to express themselves creatively.”

4. Girls Who Code is building a pipeline to address the gender gap in tech through immersion programs, clubs, mentorship opportunities, and more.

5.  AI4All is an organization dedicated to increasing diversity and inclusion in AI education, research, development, and policy. Their summer education programs are an entry point into artificial intelligence and computer science for underrepresented high school students.

6. Bootstrap World has created a computer science curriculum, based on prestigious university content, that naturally fits into a traditional algebra class.

7. CodeHS is a teaching platform for helping schools teach computer science. They provide web-based curriculum, teacher tools and resources, and professional development.

8. Project Lead the Way provides learning experiences for PreK-12 students and teachers across the U.S. They create a hands-on classroom environment and aim to help students to develop the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. Additionally, they provide teachers with the training, resources, and support they need to engage students in real-world learning.

9. CS for All Teachers is a virtual community of practice, welcoming all teachers from PreK through high school who are interested in teaching computer science. It provides an online home for teachers to connect with one another and with the resources and expertise they need to teach computer science in their classrooms.

10. Edhesive has partnered with Amazon to bring computer science to high schools through a curriculum for any skill level.

11. CodeAcademy is an online catalog of coding courses ranging from web development to programming.

12. The Hour of Code started as a one-hour introduction to computer science to show that anybody can learn the basics. However, in 2014, the executive committee of Computing in the Core (ACM, CSTA, NCWIT, IEEE-CS, Google, and Microsoft) voted unanimously to maintain the Hour of Code theme as the centerpiece of #CSEdWeek and just one year later it became the “largest education campaign in history” reaching 100 million “hours served.” (see feature on CSEdWeek and Hour of Code)

13. The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) is a membership organization that supports and promotes the teaching of computer science. They provide opportunities for K–12 teachers and their students to better understand computer science and to more successfully prepare themselves to teach and learn.

14. Kodable is a great resource for elementary school students to learn the foundations of coding and core concepts that they will be able to use all throughout their coding and problem-solving journey.

15. Exploring Computer Science is a year-long, research-based, high school intro-level computer science curriculum and teacher professional development program that focuses on broadening participation in computing. They support teachers and districts through the implementation of the course regardless of school resources.

16. AWS Educate is an Amazon initiative to build a workforce that is able to push the limits of cloud technology and IT.

17. AI4K12 is an initiative by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) to define for artificial intelligence what students should know and be able to do. (see our latest feature)

Coding Tools & Toys for Kids

18. Sphero SPRK is a robust toy by Sphero.edu that includes a gyroscope, motor, and LED lights—all of which are programmable through Sphero’s impressive suite of coding apps for kids.

19. littleBits: is an education startup that invented the electronic building block. These magnetic “Bits” snap together to turn ideas into “inventions, transforming the way kids learn so they can grow up to be tomorrow’s changemakers.” (see feature)

20. Tynker helps kids learn to code using visual code blocks that represent real programming concepts. They progress to text languages like JavaScript and Python as they continue to play through 2,000+ interest-driven activities. (see feature)

21. LEGO BOOST is an introduction-to-coding robot from LEGO. This creative toolbox enables your child to do it all: from petcare to learning an instrument.

22. Cozmo Coding Toy is an innovative AI robot that empowers your child to code actions, games, and more. What can’t Cozmo do?

23. Scratch helps young people learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively. (see feature on their coding cards)

24. Kano Computer Kit comes in a wide array of kits and offerings—from making art and music to building apps, Kano has something for everyone.

25. Coding Express, a game presented by LEGO Education, explores early coding concepts. (We recently reviewed the Coding Express train. See our feature here.)

26. Root, described as “a little robot with a lot of possibilities,” is “an educational robot that teaches coding, creativity, and problem-solving skills to kids from pre-readers through high school.” (see feature)

27. Fisher Price Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar: A great introduction to coding. Depending on how you put this guy together, it changes his course. Set a target, and then build him to hit it.

28. WowWee COJI The Coding Robot: This guy teaches the basics of coding through the language of emojis.

29. MakerBot, founded in 2009, sells a variety of affordable, easy-to-use, wireless-enabled 3D printers and recognizes the revolution that 3D printing can bring to education. (see feature)

30. Code Piano & Code Rocket are games designed to teach real C++ coding through hands-on electronics. (see feature)

31. Modular Robotics are the creators of Cubelets robot blocks and the MOSS robot construction system. The toys they design aim to give young minds models for understanding and manipulating complex systems. By integrating learning and play, we hope to create a new generation of problem solvers that can better handle complexity and the problems that stem from interconnected systems.

32. Jade Robot is a durable toy from Mimetics that teaches children from ages 8 and up how to code in C++ and Scratch. (see feature)

33. Move the Turtle: This app teaches the general idea of coding by completing step-by-step tasks that move the turtle around on the screen. Successful completion means that newer and more complicated tasks are introduced (think next-gen frogger).

34. Snap Circuits Jr. SC-100 Electronics Discovery Kit: Electrical parts provide students with hands-on experience designing and building models of working electrical circuits.

35. Let’s Start Coding Ultimate Kit 2: “Coding is the new literacy” is the slogan for Let’s Start Coding, a company focused on getting kids accustomed to coding early. The latest revision to their Ultimate Kit has gotten bigger and better—now boasting over 110 projects, no extra tools required, and the ability to create custom circuits. This is a great gift for anyone 10 and over.

There are so many other great educational toys available if you’re doing any last minute shopping or planning for other special occasions in 2020. Check out our latest gift guide here.

We’re sure we missed some great resources. Which would you add? Share in the comments section below.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.