Getting Started with Coding: 18 Tools for Early Learners

After attending some recent conferences and participating in a few online discussion communities in the ISTE networks, I’ve noticed more of an interest in finding strategies, specific tools or other resources for getting students started with coding. A lot of the questions are focused on how to get started with coding in the early years, the elementary and middle school levels, and where to find the best tools.

There are definitely a lot of tools out there for educators to choose from. Some are web-based and offer free coding applications and activities for students. There are also many paid options that are more complex, perhaps involving robots, other necessary equipment, materials or starter kits. However with so many possibilities available, it is easier than ever to find something that meets a specific age group or content area, and that fits within any budgetary concerns that might exist.

As educators, when it comes to a topic such as coding, we may feel like it is too complex or that we need specialized knowledge or training in order to get started in our classrooms. However, that is not the case. It just takes exploring a few options and being open to learning right along with and from your students.

There are many benefits to coding. By creating opportunities for students to explore coding, we begin to prepare them with what will likely be a skill they need for the future of work. Learning to code also creates opportunities for students to build critical thinking and problem-solving skills and is also beneficial for promoting the development of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills and fostering peer collaborations. Depending on the type of coding tool or platform used, students can independently explore and push through any of the challenges that might exist and become more confident as they work through these challenges, especially while working with peers.

Here are 18 options to check out for early learners:

1) Bee-Bot is a colorful robot for children (ages three to seven) to learn about coding. Using directional keys, children can enter up to 40 commands to program their Bee-Bot to move in different directions.

2) CodaKid is a platform for teaching students (ages seven to 14) about coding, programming and even game creation and website design. There are online courses available for coding and programming that include Minecraft and Roblox.

3) Code with Google offers free resources for students with an interest in coding and computer science. Google CS First, for middle school students, offers programming explorations and lessons which come with scripts and many additional resources for teachers.

4) CodeforLife offers free resources for teaching about coding to students of all ages. Students can start with basic coding through Blockly and progress to coding with Python. The site also includes helpful resources for teachers to get started.

5) CodeSpark is a platform for teaching children (ages five to nine) about coding through a variety of content including puzzles and a game maker, as well as animations. All coding is done without the use of words.

6) Cue and Dash are robots available through Wonder Workshop. Cue is for students (ages 11+) and Dash, a voice-activated robot, is for use with younger students (K to fifth grade). Dash can be programmed using the Wonder or Blockly apps, which gives students more ways to learn about coding through observations of how the robots respond and interact with their surroundings.

7) Hopscotch is an app (iPad/iPhone) that enables students (ages eight to 14 plus) to learn about coding by creating a game, changing a drawing into an animation, or exploring the projects that have been shared to the gallery. Hopscotch offers a free account for teachers.

8) Lego Coding Express and Lego SPIKE offer complete packages for teaching students about STEAM and coding. Coding Express is for children (age two and up) to learn about coding through play with a train set. Lego Spike, for grades six through eight, helps students to develop coding and STEAM skills through the use of Lego blocks and Scratch coding language.

9) littleBits offers a lot of options for getting students (grades three and up) started with coding and computational thinking. There are scaffolded lessons, tutorials and more than 100 activities available for educators to explore for the classroom. Expansion packs for technology (grades six to eight) and computer science (grades three to five) are available for building programming and engineering skills in the classroom.

10) Made with Code provided through Google, began as a way to encourage more girls to get started with coding. Students can explore the projects and get started right away by creating their own or solving some of the challenges.

11) Micro:bit is a programmable microcomputer that can be used for programming robots, musical instruments and more. Coding can be done through a web browser with Scratch, Python, Javascript, Blocks or the MakeCode editor. Students can also explore the coding challenges and activities available.

12) Ozobots are coding robots, Evo and Bit, that help students learn to code using either colors (ages six and up) or OzoBlockly. Color codes simply require markers or the stickers, and robots can be coded to change direction, move on a timer, speed up or slow down and more. OzoBlockly is a visual programming language that functions by drag and drop and allows you to create a block-based program to load onto your Ozobot.

13) Robotix offers different products for students to explore coding using their Robobricks (ages four to nine), Taco Playbits (ages three and up), Phiro Unplugged (ages four to eight), and Phiro Pro (ages nine and up). Each of these options teaches students about coding, robotics and STEM. Phiro uses Swish cards, which teach students about binary coding and they are also Lego and Arduino compatible.

14) Scratch Jr. is a free coding app available for children (ages five to seven). Through Scratch Jr., children can create projects or make their own games to build their coding skills as well as problem-solving skills.

15) Sprite Box Coding, available on iOs and Android, can be used in grades one through six to teach students through a block-based coding platform. Students work through challenges to build coding skills.

16) Swift Playgrounds is an app for iPads and Mac that does not require any prior coding knowledge. Students (grades four through 12) learn about Swift by using code to solve puzzles in a game-like environment.

17) Tynker is a coding platform that provides activities for different age groups through Tynker Jr (picture and block coding), Tynker (Block and Swift coding) and Mod Creator (for Minecraft add-ons). Tynker offers self-paced online courses and a curriculum package for schools. There are more than 40 block and text-based courses and over 3,700 learning modules.

18) Unruly Splats promotes more active learning by mixing coding with movement in the classroom. Students (grades one through seven) use the coding app to program splats by writing rules that tell the splats to light up or make sounds when stepped on. The splats are iPad and Chromebook compatible.

For more ideas and resources, check out the Code.org site which offers free activities and lessons for students to explore. There are more than 70 million projects created and many options for students to create their own projects. Simply start with one of these options and take time to gather some feedback from students, and learn right along with them!

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‘Why Do We Have to Learn This?’ – Part I

By: Art Bardige

It is widely accepted that the math our students learn in school today has little to do with the math they will use in their jobs in our increasingly technology-driven society. Yet, we believe it is required and serves as a necessary and proper foundation. As a math educator and digital learning pioneer, I have long held these common views. But a chance discovery of the table of contents of a math book written by an obscure medieval mathematician revolutionized my thinking; overturning this conventional wisdom and enabling the reimagination of math education—indeed of all schooling for the 21st century.

The year 1200 was not auspicious, revolutionary, or defining. Thirty years earlier the foundation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa had been laid crowning Pisa as the dominant trading city in Europe. Just a year earlier Richard, King of England, died in France initiating his brother’s, Prince John, tumultuous and historic reign. And four years later the fourth Crusade overran Constantinople, marking the decline of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the European city-states. 1200 was also the year Leonardo, a 30-year-old trader, returned to Pisa, the city of his birth, to write a math book for Pisan traders and merchants. Little could he have imagined that this work, “Liber abaci, The Book of Calculation”, published two years later, would define and dominate the mathematics students learn in school today 800 years later and impact 21st century life like no other relic of the Middle Ages.

Leonardo had sailed to Algeria as a young boy to join his ambassador father, who had him tutored in Arabic arithmetic and algebra, then academic subjects, unknown and unused in medieval business. Merchants used Roman math and calculated on an abacus. Sufficient for the Roman Empire which required conquered people to use its monetary and weights and measures systems, Leonardo saw it as an obsolete and burdensome technology in medieval times when every city-state was its own empire with its own weights, measures, and money-requiring business to solve ratio and proportion problems. Multiplication and division thus replaced addition and subtraction as the common operations, making the abacus an inefficient ineffective computation technology and Roman numerals a cumbersome symbol system.

Leonardo applied the math he had learned: Arabic symbols, place value, and the algebra of solving equations to develop standardized processes (algorithms) for calculation using paper. Paper, a relatively new technology in Europe, had been imported from China a century earlier for decoration. By Leonardo’s time it was a commodity produced in abundance by water-powered mills. In “Liber abaci,” Leonardo used paper to develop algorithms for solving the kinds of business problems he had encountered as a trader. His algorithms, the word a medieval corruption of al Khwarizmi’s name, would appear familiar to us today in function but not in form. History has treated Leonardo of Pisa, nicknamed Fibonacci in the 19th century, as a mathematician of minor import. I never expected to find in his biography anything of great mathematical or educational consequence. Little could I have imagined my utter shock and surprise when I turned to a page of this biography and saw the table of contents of “Liber abaci.” It was a near-exact replica of the scope and sequence of our K-12 math curriculum!

I cannot tell you whether it was my years as a math educator and author, my fascination with the ‘standard’ scope and sequence, my interest in the history of mathematics, or perhaps just some lucky insight, that led me to this discovery. For, Leonardo’s chapter titles were often obscure, sometimes not headings but the first words in the chapter. Of course, I followed that initial insight by studying the text in this first ‘textbook.’ Yes, for all intents and purposes, this was the math we expect all students to master from first grade to twelfth, from place value through solving quadratic equations. The math content designed and developed by Leonardo of Pisa for medieval business, “arithmetic necessary to merchants”  in the year 1202, remains the lessons we teach our kids today.

That math is not basic, foundational, or necessary—nor is it used in business. When was the last time you did long division, divided fractions by inverting and multiplying, or simplified a rational expression? Leonardo’s math is obsolete! Business no longer uses paper algorithms. We compute on screens mainly on spreadsheets. Our algorithms are computer algorithms. Our problems are no longer focused on solving equations; that is automatic, just ask Google. Today in business we use functions and build them into models to work with and analyze data. And even when we do not use spreadsheets as such, we use their format and their functional thinking. Yet, we rarely if ever encounter such problems in our schools. Our students do not learn to apply this digital technology, think functionally, build models or analyze real-world data, or use spreadsheets.

What would you subtract?

What if we, like Leonardo of Pisa in 1202, were to ask, “What math should our students learn to prepare them for business, for the work they will do?” A small group of us have been doing just that over the past five years. The answers prove to be fascinating. Paper algorithms that dominate math classrooms, that our kids spend a thousand or more classroom hours trying to master will never be used. Not just a few nasty algorithms like long division, but all of what students endlessly practice on paper worksheets. And in this age of digital technology, what makes even less sense is practicing paper algorithms on-screen ‘worksheets.’ Kids will never use computers that way. Nor will they ever add long columns of numbers on paper, regroup (borrow) to subtract, apply the traditional three-digit multiplication algorithm or any other paper algorithm for that matter, or add, subtract, multiply, or divide fractions on paper. Few, if any, will ever need to use the quadratic formula when their computer will solve any quadratic equation automatically.

But, you may ask, “Don’t students need to learn and practice these algorithms to understand the concepts?” Tell me, did memorizing the quadratic formula help you understand it? It is an algorithm, a process for finding solutions, far from transparent for most students, yet it marks the peak of learning algebra for the majority of them. Distinguishing algorithms from concepts is not easy. Just consider the widespread difficulty we have with ‘story’ problems. Students who may be facile in algorithmic practice, run into a brick wall when they have to solve word problems. Despite myriad methods originating with George Polya’s “How to Solve It” four steps to make such problems easier for students to solve, we’ve made little progress, continuing to frustrate students and teachers. We’ve made little progress because problem-solving is not a process; it does not succumb to an algorithm. It is conceptual. It requires an understanding of the concepts. Until we tackle that side of the equation, we cannot solve the problem it presents.

When we concentrate on repetitive paper algorithmic practice essential to calculation with Leonardo’s math, we lose sight of the concepts and students confuse algorithms with concepts. Long division and the three-digit multiplication algorithm become the concept of division and the concept of multiplication. We turn mechanical processes into conceptual ideas. They are not!

For example, picture the traditional long division algorithm: start by making a “guzinto” sign, put the divisor on the outside and the dividend inside, then guess how many times the divisor goes into the left digits of the dividend and put that number above the dividend, then multiply it by the divisor and put that below the dividend, then subtract, next bring down (yes, what kind of math operation is that?) the next dividend digit, and repeat the process until all of the digits are brought down and you are left with a remainder, whatever that new concept means.

Tell me: “What does all of this mechanics have to do with the concept of division?” Nor is the old long division algorithm an anomaly, the new ones are a little less obscure but still do not represent the concept. Subtracting on paper (learned in second grade) requires students to master ‘borrowing’ now taught as ‘regrouping,’ neither of which is really about the concept of subtraction. No matter what we may call it, many students fail to grasp it, marking the beginning of a math failure ethic. The product of two three-digit numbers is a paper algorithm we usually think of when we picture multiplication, but few understand why it works. Kids don’t learn to visualize multiplication as a rectangle to understand the underlying concept because they and their teachers are focused on practicing the algorithm.

And even students who master whole number algorithms often sink in fifth grade when faced with fractions. Complex paper algorithms for adding fractions with unlike denominators or dividing fractions by inverting and multiplying offer little in the way of insight into their meaning or operations. Students not only get hung up on these operations, they’re so lost in their complexity that they never build an understanding of fractions. Based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, half cannot order three fractions from smallest to largest in eighth grade! Why, when business today uses decimals to represent fractional quantities, do we still focus schooling on fractions?

Algebra is no better. By seventh and eighth grade, the mechanics of solving equations buries concepts. Students ask “What is x?”—locking them into thinking of math as calculation to be learned by mechanistic paper algorithmic memorization. And the results are painfully evident. More than a third of all college entrants fail math placement exams and are required to take non-credit remedial courses to prepare for college algebra.

To make matters worse, our focus on paper leads us to emphasize ‘handmath’ over ‘headmath.’ Handmath, calculating and solving problems on paper or keyboards, is algorithmic, following the patterns set by Leonardo. Headmath is mental, using concepts to simplify, estimate, and approximate solutions. Handmath relies on repetitive step-by-step processes that require fluency and careful sequencing. Headmath relies on understanding and number sense. While paper algorithm handmath is obsolete, headmath is not. I hear the complaint from the business community that students come to their jobs unable to judge quantities, tell whether a number they’re working with is a good value or not without turning on their calculator or opening up a spreadsheet. Today, it is more important than ever to practice headmath, for even in this realm of ubiquitous spreadsheet and calculator technology we rely on headmath and number sense to understand quantitative concepts, setup problems, build algorithms, and keep us on the right track. Our focus on paper algorithms and their standardized tests suck up classroom time, waste energy, and blind students to the critical headmath concepts. Removing paper algorithmic practice leaves us time to enable students to develop headmath proficiency.

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Art Bardige is the CEO of What If Math; whatifmath.org is open-web, with a growing collection of labs as exemplars accessible and free to all. Connect with him on Twitter: @artbardige.


Digital Learning Day 2020 Is Here!

Improving the learner experience is a core focus at Getting Smart—and helping educators find practical tips, exemplars and advice on how to do that is the driving force of our blog.

Today organizations across the country are participating in Digital Learning Day, and we’re proud to be a partner in this important effort celebrating tech-enabled education. High quality instructional tools can aid teachers in bringing about even more impressive outcomes and truly reaching students where they are, both physically and academically. We believe that students who have access to digital learning programs develop habits that motivate them to become lifelong learners.

Predicting the jobs today’s students will have is challenging, as many will enter roles—possibly even industries—that don’t yet exist. But we do know one thing: succeeding in college and career will require digital fluency, and behind it, the curricula, tools and teaching methodologies to make that possible.

So in honor of Digital Learning Day, here are a selection of posts that showcase the ways in which edtech is currently empowering teachers and students:

This post covers the ways in which nonprofits led by educators in two states—Vermont and Colorado—are addressing the obstacles that rural schools face through supporting online learning programs, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Navigating the variety of edtech tools on the market can be overwhelming, as can the need to support students who are new to digital learning. This guest authored post offers three tips for educators that ensure higher engagement and greater comfort with this new format.

Caroline Vander Ark’s inspired take on digital learning offers a glimpse into the kind of next-gen learning environment most parents dream of for their kids: tech-enabled interactions that support academic progress, social and emotional learning, and overall student success outcomes.

Tiers of online courses are feeding global education, as this guest author describes, and opportunities abound not only for students, but for educators, too. Building and teaching courses that are open to a world of students can broaden professional horizons and deepen instructional experience—what’s not to love about that?

Feeling social? You can also join in the conversation by following@OfficialDLDay on Twitter or follow them @DigitalLearningDay on Facebook. Share photos and stories on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram with the hashtags #DLDay and #DLDayLive.

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How the Brain Science of Games Helps Students Reach ‘Aha Moments’

By: Nigel Nisbet

I still remember the first time students in my high school geometry class had one of those “aha moments.” I was drawing a conclusion on the board, and I heard an audible gasp from half the class as they thought, “Oh, wow, I get it!”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I thought, “Oh my God, I want that to happen every day.”

Of course, those moments don’t happen every day, and I learned just how hard it can be to create them myself shortly after that experience.

I had a student in his junior year who was years behind as a result of illness and was struggling to catch up. I worked with him through the regular semester and summer school, and he progressed from Algebra I through AP Calculus in about two years. There were many aha moments for him along the way and, more importantly, a future with college in it, but it required a lot of investment and hard work from both of us—and that was for one student!

I decided that I wanted to learn how to make those moments happen at scale. As profound as it felt to me to inspire my students, these moments are even more powerful for the students to whom math suddenly makes sense, to whom college may no longer feel out of reach.

It turns out that we know enough about the brain to make aha moments happen for students, and games are good vehicles for inspiring them.

It’s easy to see why educational games are appealing. Who doesn’t like games? As educators, we know our students are playing them, and we know that students learn better when they are intrinsically motivated to engage with material. But educational games can offer a lot more than increased engagement. With a focus on how our brains actually learn, properly designed games can help students persist and develop a conceptual understanding of the material that is not dependent on rote memorization.

The Value of Failure

Our brains come equipped with powerful learning systems, and if we design materials to match these systems we can learn very efficiently and effectively. One of these systems, which neuroscientists call the perception-action cycle, shows that human beings learn much better by actively doing than by passively being told. Our brains form a model of how the world works based on past experiences—a schema—and then use that model to make predictions about new stimuli. As we take action based on that model, we get feedback from our environment. If the feedback is in line with our existing model, it reinforces our model and strengthens the neural pathways underlying it.

But when we get something wrong, if the right immediate informative feedback is available, we gain valuable information about what is right, and that not only informs our understanding of the question at hand, it triggers our brains to extend existing schema or create entirely new ones.

With this understanding of the perception-action cycle, it’s plain to see how games can be extra powerful learning environments. First, games can offer a safe place to fail over and over, gaining new information, updating our model, and carving newer or deeper pathways. Games can also increase students’ persistence in the face of failure. With games, every player knows that the solution is there to be figured out if they stick with it. By applying this inherent persistence of games to learning concepts, we can help students transfer that persistence to, for example, math.

Nonverbal Conceptual Pathways

Another advantage games can offer is the ability to help learners develop a conceptual understanding before they have the language necessary to understand new ideas.

We often focus on giving students academic language before they have a firm understanding of the concepts that language describes. My son’s 1st-grade teacher was quite explicit about this when she told me, “The most important things in first-grade math are that they can add and subtract within twenty, and they need to learn the word ‘addend.’”

But what is the word “addend” to a 1st-grader? They can memorize a definition and repeat it back to you, but it’s still utterly meaningless without the conceptual context. When students are confronting something new, language can be a secondary barrier to understanding. The perception-action cycle happens fast—but if a child has to make sense of new concepts with language, that adds a new filter and the perception-action cycle slows down or breaks altogether, we need a way to get meaningful informative feedback into the students’ brains fast!

If we begin introducing concepts visually, we feed the perception-action cycle at a rapid pace and help all students build the fundamental mathematics schemas they need to be successful. Language is a critical part of the learning process, but it’s where we want to end up, not where we start. Early on, we want the language of learning to be the student’s own language as they make sense of big ideas.

Take the beginnings of division—and fractions—as an example. Imagine we want to share a rectangular block equally among three turtles. We have a tool to cut the block anywhere we want, and once we’ve split the block into three parts they land on the backs of the three turtles and a horizontal bar drops from the sky. A penguin tries to walk across. If we have cut the block into equal parts, the horizontal bar is properly supported and the penguin can cross unimpeded, but if our cuts were uneven the horizontal bar falls and breaks and the penguin cannot cross. Through purely visual immediate informative feedback and by engaging the student’s perception-action cycle, we build up a schema of sharing into equal parts without any language being involved. 

In the next round, we might introduce numbers to the game and then, eventually, words. By the time we get to the words, however, students have already developed a conceptual framework of equal sharing that they can pin the word “division” to when we introduce it.

They’ve had their aha moment before they even had a word for the idea falling into place. I may not be able to make them happen in the classroom at will, but with games, we can be sure they’re happening more and more in classrooms around the world every day.

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Nigel Nisbet is a former mathematics teacher and mathematics specialist with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Today, he is the vice president of content at MIND Research Institute, provider of ST Math, a game-based visual-temporal platform for math instruction. A former rock star with the band Electrasy, these days Nigel more often applies his talent for engaging performance to presentations about math and learning through venues such as TEDx. Follow him on Twitter @nigel_nisbet.


Smart Review | Designed to Learn

Through our work with schools, the Getting Smart team has learned that energy in teaching and learning significantly increases towards a higher sense of possibility when teachers and students are engaging in design thinking. Lindsay Portnoy makes the case for using design thinking to bring purpose and passion into the classroom in her new book, Designed to Learn.

Portnoy asks, “Are you ready to share in the work of reviving purposeful education that encourages students to embrace their uniquely human skills as they prepare for future roles that are as yet undefined?” If you are ready and willing, Portnoy will lead you through a process that details five elements of design thinking and maps out possibilities, with concrete examples of shifts in classroom practices:

  1. Understand and Empathize
  2. Identify and Research
  3. Communicate to Ideate
  4. Prototype and Test
  5. Iterate and Reflect

Looking at design thinking globally, rooting claims in research and her notes from the field. Every chapter includes insight into a classroom/teacher practice and the science behind each design thinking element. There are examples that a teacher can try immediately and ideas for first steps in planning and preparing lessons to build capacity for the design thinking process.

There are points of consideration and reflection that invites readers to think intentionally about the opportunities in this learning design approach. There are suggestions for the best starting points and important rules to follow when designing learning experiences. i.e. “H.E.A.R.T.S (Home, Educational Experience, Activities, Reasons for Learning, Transformative Life Experiences, Special Attributes) before heads.”

Students are at the core of every chapter, with ideas of how to engage students, build relationships, continue to push thinking, and create opportunity for meaning-making. There are figures and tables in most sections to help readers visualize and make sense of research and information to best support students.

This book is a nice mix of practical and aspirational. It makes significant shifts in teaching approachable and doable without over-simplifying. Portnoy’s researcher and scientist context engages readers in the research to substantiate her claims and prioritizes student experiences with her notes from the field.

Readers will find an abundance of opportunity to note, highlight and dog-ear parts of this book to map out entry points and reflection points as they shift their instruction towards design thinking for purposeful learning. This book will be resourceful at the start, in the middle, and at the end of a design cycle. I can imagine this being a great book to read and practice collaboratively alongside colleagues.

If you are interested in a pedagogical shift or want to support a department taking a new approach to purposeful learning, this book is a great way to dig into the design thinking research, learning possibilities and concrete ways to teach and engage with learners.

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The book, Designed to Learn, was provided to Getting Smart at no cost for an optional review. If you’d like to send a book in for consideration of a book review, please email [email protected].


6 Collaboration Tools That Take Learning Beyond the Classroom

With so much technology available to us today, finding the right platform or tool to use in our classrooms can present some challenges. Which tools will benefit our students the most? What purpose will each specific tool serve for our students and our own professional growth? How does technology enable us to provide more for our students?  And maybe one of the most common questions, how much time will I need to get started?

These are just a few of the many questions that come up when considering the implementation of technology in classrooms. There are always concerns when it comes to technology. We must think about access for students, determine the costs involved, understand the privacy and security that is in place, and know what data might be collected and how it will be used. We need to think about each of these issues before bringing digital tools into our schools, while also focusing on the overall purpose of the initiative.

We don’t have the same limits on learning as in the past. We now have the opportunity to provide different learning spaces for our students that provide them with more time to explore, communicate, and build the essential skills that will best prepare them for when they leave our schools. We can also provide more student choice by offering multiple ways for students to share learning and build confidence and collaborative skills in the process.

So how can we help students communicate and share their learning beyond the traditional classroom space and time? Here are six options that can promote student choice, foster the development of digital citizenship and social-emotional learning skills, and extend learning to meet students’ interests and needs. Starting with a few of these options, we can learn from our students and empower them to be creators rather than just consumers in our classrooms. Students can decide which format best fits their needs and interests and use it as a starting point to build skills in more personalized ways.

For educators, these options enable us to provide the authentic, specific and timely feedback that is critical for student growth. They can be used to facilitate global collaboration between classrooms to promote cultural awareness and create a more authentic and meaningful learning experience for students. My classroom has collaborated with other schools using similar tools and it has made a lasting impact on my students and their connection with the content.

1. Wakelet has become quite a versatile tool in the past few months. It started as a content curation tool—a space where I would curate a variety of resources for my students. With recent integrations with tools like Buncee and Flipgrid, Wakelet can now be used for having students collaborate on a project, engage in a discussion, share resources, record short videos, and store everything within the Wakelet collection. Students can use it as a digital journal or create a mix of responses to evidence learning. When used to create Buncees, they can be quickly embedded into Wakelet. (Wakelet is free).

2. Flipgrid started as a video response tool a few years ago and has grown into a versatile social learning platform that provides many options for extended classroom discussions and learning. We have used it to connect globally and exchange videos for our project-based learning (PBL) and students use it for reflecting on their work or speaking assessments. There are many options for adding content for students along with the Flipgrid video responses. It is a great way to provide students with a comfortable space to share their learning, ask or respond to questions, and engage in more communication with their peers and teachers. For teachers, it makes it easier to hear from and provide feedback to every student. (Flipgrid is free).

3. Ziplet is an app-based platform that provides students and teachers with a space to ask and answer questions. Teachers can create a question for the class and choose to provide students with the space to post a private response or keep it open to collect and share all responses. It is helpful for quick formative assessments and to have access to real-time data to act upon in our classrooms. Using Ziplet, questions can be scheduled or asked live and it can also be used for posting an announcement.

4. Parlay is a discussion platform where teachers can create their own questions/topics for discussion or select from the library of discussion topics available. Using Parlay, students can join in a live roundtable discussion or continue the conversation asynchronously. For the prompt, students have materials to review before submitting their responses, providing peer feedback, and participating in a Socratic-style discussion. Teachers have access to data and can provide feedback to students in a timely and more personalized manner. (Parlay offers some free prompts and also a paid subscription).

5. Backchannel Chat is a classroom discussion tool that helps students to build communication skills and provides a way for teachers to extend those discussions beyond the class period. Teachers can delete responses if needed and even lock the chatroom so that only the teacher is adding content, as a way to slow down the pace of the discussion. Backchannel Chat can also be used for students to collaborate on a project and share research and resources, once the teacher has created a chat room for students to use. (Backchannel Chat offers free and classroom/school pricing).

6. YO Teach! is a backchannel communication tool and one that became an alternative for many educators who were using Today’s Meet. Using Yo Teach!, teachers create a chat room and can post questions, moderate discussions, delete responses and have control over who is communicating within the chat room. Some of the additional interactive features include the option to submit a drawing, create a poll, or use the voting feature. It promotes collaboration between students and is helpful for fostering the development of social-emotional learning skills. (Yo Teach! is free).

Beyond the possibilities for extending the discussion between students, we need to help them build communicative and collaborative skills using the technology resources that are available. In looking toward the future, students will need to be flexible and have a variety of skills. Creating opportunities for students to learn how to interact in these digital spaces is important as we prepare them for the future.

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Getting Clearer: The Power of Our Flowers

By: Carlos Moreno, Danique Dolly and Javier Guzman

Black Mamba. Gigi. When we lost Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant, we also lost a beautiful and public relationship between a Black father and his daughter. Amidst the melancholy brought on by the almost non-stop coverage of their passing, footage of Kobe and Gigi together spoke to an intimate and loving relationship that we can relate to as fathers and as educators. It is easy to recognize in those moments—of him coaching her from the sidelines, a loving embrace shared between the two—what it looks like for a devoted adult to teach a youth how to navigate in this world. Kobe redefined for some, or just mirrored for those who know better, that the simple act of taking someone under your wing is a key practice in communities of color. It wasn’t only basketball that Kobe was teaching. He was also instructing Gigi on intimacy—what it feels like to be loved, cared for, taken seriously, inspired and in awe of each other.

It’s not surprising that such an observation would lead to tears. And so, we weep.

Kobe’s past was not perfect, but there is no doubt that his forward path was colored by a newfound appreciation of the power of love and nurturing. He was ready to take all of his acquired expertise, bundle it, and hand it off to others. That future, that abundance of possibility, was cut short in a moment, along with futures that were to be equally bestowed by baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri, and their basketball star in her own right, daughter Alyssa. Bestowed by mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester, Mamba Academy basketball coach Christina Mauser, and pilot Ara Zobayan.

And still, we weep.

But we are not alone.

Think back to the outpouring of human emotion from such athletes as Shaq, Lebron, Doc Rivers, Allen Iverson, and Dwyane Wade. They, and many others, displayed deep sorrow in a public way, sharing their memories, successes together, highs and—yes—lows and challenges. In reflection, we see something of a rebirth in men. We observe as they hug their loved ones ever tighter, seizing the moment to reaffirm their caring. Not leaving anything to chance. We are reminded of Kanye’s advice in his song Big Brother – an ode to his mentor, Jay-Z: “If you admire somebody, you should go ahead and tell them. People never get the flowers while they can still smell them.”

Even as we mourn, we celebrate the emotion displayed by these famous Black personalities. We are prompted—as men of color ourselves—to consider the importance of what we’re seeing. It is good for us to see our leaders cry, especially leaders of color. Good to see them letting their guard down. Showing their vulnerability. If there is anything fortunate to be borne of this tragedy, it is that the world must bear witness to these very human displays of emotion, especially those coming from strong Black leaders. There are many reasons for leaders of color to be guarded and suppress their full selves, operating often in a society that’s hostile to them is just one example. This rare and special kind of leadership can and should inspire new generations of leaders to seek and lead lasting change.

Too often, leaders are expected to be both tough and strong. As male leaders of color, we are often looked upon to be courageous and heroic in infallible ways that often deny our humanness. Considering the kind of leadership we see as vital in meeting today’s demands, we point to specific phrases and actions that may cause tension in the development of a compassionate and vulnerable leader.

Big boys don’t cry. In our early childhood years, many boys hear this phrase—usually at times when they are most upset or vulnerable. Not only is this statement untrue, but it also portrays crying as a weakness as if it’s simply something that boys, and men, do not do.

Man up! These words pervade our teenage years. Being a man is seen as super strength. As if masculinity alone will save the day. Alas, we know too well the toxicity that accompanies this perspective. A statement designed to create strength in ourselves damns the strength of our relationships with others from the get-go.

Be a fearless leader! As school and organizational leaders, this expectation goes beyond tears and assumes that effective leaders should not possess fear or anxiety, that being scared breeds fear in others. Truth be told, we are often scared. We simply try to fight and see our way through those feelings.

It takes true strength to allow oneself to feel and embrace a full range of emotions, and even more strength to emote in a public forum. It takes true courage to be fearful instead of fearless. The question then is: is there an opportunity in this tragic loss to reaffirm our pursuit of Black leaders who will, in the strength of their vulnerability, lead the change our country needs? President Obama reminds us that “change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

We recommend we employ/adopt new mantras:

Show and express love. But what does it mean to lead with love? If we’re learning from Kobe, it’s about creating those sacred and bonding moments where you have complete belief in the enormous potential of others. We have to pull in our staff, our schools, our districts, our educational system and begin with the truth…

Mentor others. Share with others the privileged knowledge you possess. Mentorship begins with truth sharing. “You see this here…this is how this works…this is how you might enter into this space,” and so on.

Put in the work and partner with others who will do the same. Leadership, and particularly in education, can be an isolating place. This is not a recipe for excellence. We need to seek others out who will be in community with us, pushing us to be better versions of ourselves, understanding that the extraordinary potential we try to instill in others, also applies to us.

We are desperate for authentic, compassionate and vulnerable leadership and especially so now that we have lost a member of the community who so embraced these characteristics. As we continue to mourn the loss of Kobe, Gigi and the seven who died with them, let’s also “send flowers” for leaders and loved ones—all whom we admire—while they’re still alive?

Show love by sharing you, your vulnerability, your talents, and feelings, now, while we all can celebrate the scent and witness the beauty—and power—of our flowers.

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This blog is part of an ongoing Getting Smart series called Getting Clearer. The nature of this series and of our blog is to have a diverse set of voices and ideas to help us and our audience get clearer. Are there topics that you’re interested in #GettingClearer about? Email [email protected] with “Getting Clearer” in the subject line.  

Carlos Moreno, Danique Dolly and Javier Guzman are leaders at Big Picture Learning, @bigpiclearning, a student-centered school development partner that is best in class at learning through internships. Follow them on Twitter: @Carlos_Moreno06, @DrDaniqueDolly, @bigpicjavier.


Forward-Thinking Schools Begin With Forward-Thinking Design

By: Larry Spang and Emily Grandstaff-Rice

Schools—public, private, charter, vocational, etc.—all have different missions that focus on a range of important principles, from creating meaningful learning experiences to fostering morale, that lay the foundation for curriculums and codes of ethics. Arrowstreet, a Boston-based architecture and design firm, is dedicated to accentuating schools’ missions through thoughtful and strategic design, creating customized spaces that support today’s teaching styles and emphasize educational facilities’ unique purposes.

Learning in schools is much different today than twenty or more years ago. Students are no longer treated as a monolithic group with a uniform class structure consisting of a teacher lecturing from the front of the room. In today’s classes, teachers are structuring learning to meet students where their needs are most critical, helping them to learn at their own pace and ability. Many students have their own Individual Education Plan (IEP) that helps define their abilities and structure their learning needs.

As a result, classes often consist of short discussions or presentations about a set of concepts followed by extended small group or individual learning time. Teachers may circulate the room to answer questions or help individual students. The teacher may then bring the entire group back together for a larger group discussion. With this teaching style in mind, small-group learning spaces and individual break-out areas are becoming the norm, giving students space to learn at their own pace.

Although missions may vary, one common thread is consistent throughout: schools in today’s environment must include spaces that support Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) education. STEAM fosters creative thinking and complex problem solving, building a strong foundation of skills that can be applied to today’s working environments. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, staffing needs for STEAM-related careers are expected to increase significantly by 2026. Software developer and applications jobs, for example, are expected to increase by over 30% within that period (full breakdown provided by Education Week).

Read on below for insights on how firms like Arrowstreet are designing schools to ensure spaces can help exercise students’ potential and prepare them for the future.

No More Cells and Bells: Breakout Spaces Help Produce Real-Life Working Environments.

Hallways are no longer just empty spaces to move between classes. Learning can be encouraged throughout a building to engage students and increase collaboration among them. Since static, assembled rows found in classrooms are outdated, schools are incorporating more breakout spaces, makerspaces, and STEAM labs, which are ideal for hands-on, task-oriented work.

At the newly opened KIPP Academy Collegiate High School in Lynn, Massachusetts, classrooms are arranged around a central, flexible use learning area that changes depending on the needs of the adjoining classrooms and student learning styles. On the first floor, the central space is intended as a gallery and informal performance area to support the Art and Performing Arts classrooms. On the second floor, it’s used as an open concept library/media center, while on the upper floors, the casual furnishings allow students to work individually or in small groups. After only a few weeks in operation, the Executive Director of KIPP noted that he’d already seen a change in student behavior; rather than emerging from classrooms into noisy corridors, students were more respectful of each other’s needs for a quiet working environment.

The first Net Zero Emissions school in Massachusetts, King Open/Cambridge Street Upper Schools (KOCSUS) & Community Complex, is designed by Arrowstreet in collaboration with William Rawn Associates. The entire complex has incorporated digital dashboards that monitor the building’s energy usage into its walls, a creative and practical way to teach students about technology and environmental sustainability.

A student explores the digital dashboard installed at KOCSUS. Photo credit: ©Arrowstreet

At the public charter school, Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP) High School, in Rhode Island, they emphasize “pride in progress” as part of their mission. Flexible classroom walls open into a hallway, providing students and faculty with space for group projects, science experiments, and presentations. Teachers can work within various settings depending on the assigned project, blending subjects together, and encouraging problem solving that one may encounter in a traditional working environment.

Students collaborate in a breakout space at Blackstone Valley Prep High School; designed by Arrowstreet. Photo credit ©Anthony Crisafulli
Hallway space connects to makerspace/STEAM lab at Blackstone Valley Prep High School; designed by Arrowstreet. Photo credit ©Anthony Crisafulli

Aligning with their mission of developing “engaged and well-balanced learners,” Acton Boxborough in Massachusetts—a school Arrowstreet is evaluating to meet Triple Net Zero requirements—includes makerspaces for project-based learning. While studying the history of boats and navigation, students will build a ship using lessons learned from science and shop.

At Brooke Charter School in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, Arrowstreet designed a STEAM lab where students are learning about robots and other computer-based subject matter. This space is designed to support the school’s mission of ushering its “students to the doorstep of college” and closing achievement gaps by providing them access to state-of-the-art facilities.

Media Centers = The New Library: They Promote Research and Discovery Through Technology.

With curriculums focusing on creating experiences, solving problems, and presenting outcomes, libraries are evolving into media centers that equip students with the digital skills of the modern century.

Media centers include computers, tablets, and 3D printers to support research skills, software training, and coding. Portable technology, whiteboards, and bookshelves are present but can be reconfigured to meet an activity’s needs.

At KOCSUS, Arrowstreet transformed a traditional library—dubbed The Learning Commons—into a multi-purpose, multi-media learning hub with maker space, group learning areas, and individualized reading nooks. The media center reflects the school’s mission of building “rich and meaningful experiences” with spaces that can be adjusted and enhanced depending on what they are being used for.

Although technological skills are important, it’s vital for teachers to share the joy of reading with students, so traditional spaces perfect for diving into paper books are still incorporated as pictured below.

A cozy reading corner is brought to life with playful environmental graphics at Thayer Library’s Children’s Room; designed by Arrowstreet. Photo credit ©Anthony Crisafulli

Inspiring Students and Incorporating Core Values with Cost Effective Environmental Graphics

In today’s world, it’s more important than ever to create positive, welcoming environments where students can learn about subjects and be inspired to make positive contributions to society. Personalized environmental graphics are a cost-efficient way to reinvent a school’s atmosphere, place a mission at the forefront, and improve students’ spirits.

Turning to Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP) High School’s own culture for inspiration, Arrowstreet’s Graphics Studio developed a series of images that highlight the school’s core principles—“P.R.I.D.E.”—“Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Discipline, and Enthusiasm.” These core principles complement the school’s mission “to prepare every scholar for success in college and the world beyond.” Oversized letters are placed on colorful accent walls throughout BVP. The letters are paired with quotes chosen by members of the school’s facility as daily reminders for all that enter the building. Each letter is set in a different typeface to represent BVP’s diverse community and ideas.

Colorful environmental graphics beautify BVP High School’s walls and accentuate the school’s core mission; designed by Arrowstreet. Photo credit ©Anthony Crisafulli
Brooke Charter School also educates its students about healthy eating. In the cafeteria, graphics encourage healthy choices. Photo credit ©Anthony Crisafulli

School design plays a large part in providing educators with the spaces they need to teach students the interpersonal and STEAM skills needed today. By connecting spaces and curating mission-based decor, school design is joining with the future and inspiring students to be successful. 

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Larry Spang is principal architect and Emily Grandstaff-Rice serves as senior associate architect at Arrowstreet, a Boston-based architecture, planning, graphic design, and interior design firm.


How Blockchain Could Impact Education in 2020 and Beyond

By: Jesús Cedeño

Blockchain. A few years ago, the word was known only to a very select few. Nowadays, most people have heard of blockchains, even though they might just know it as ‘that thing that makes bitcoin work.’ While cryptocurrencies are the first widespread application of blockchain technology, this is far from the only use for it. Being secure, decentralized ledgers, blockchains can be applied in many fields including healthcare and education.

Just a Reminder…

For starters, blockchains are distributed ledgers.

We’ve all seen ledgers before. They are books where records, like accounting records or students’ grades, are kept. Most of these today are electronic, maintained using specialized software, and generally centralized.

If a centralized ledger is ever stolen, damaged or compromised in any way, it’s a problem. So keeping exact copies of ledgers in different locations would be a good safeguard, provided each copy were a faithful, verified, exact version of the original. This is what is called a distributed ledger.

In a blockchain, each of the many individual digital ‘nodes’ keeps a full copy of the ledger and also constantly verifies the integrity of both newly recorded information as well as the copy that it stores. If any or many of these nodes fail or are compromised, the ledger’s information remains intact.

It’s easy to see how this could be beneficial in many fields. But besides holding ledgers, blockchains also offer other services, such as smart contracts and a built-in rewards system. Let’s look at how blockchains could impact education in 2020 and beyond.

What Could Blockchains Do for Education?

There are many applications and benefits of blockchain-based ledger technologies for education:

1. Student records. Academic transcripts are one of the most time-consuming, labor-intensive tasks in academic institutions today. Before issuing a certified transcript of a student’s grades, each entry must be manually verified to ensure accuracy.

Another kind of student record that is frequently requested is the certification of course contents. In K-12 education, it might happen that a student in one state takes a class called ‘Algebra’ and then moves to another state where she is enrolled in a school that also teaches a class called ‘Algebra.’ So far, so good. But do both courses share the same content? Verifying this means comparing the courses’ content. In K-12, this can be tedious. At the university level, it is a nightmare. At the university where I went to medical school, complete course contents are around 700 pages. For each student who requests this record, each page should be signed and stamped (to ensure accuracy). But if this information were stored on a blockchain, with just a few clicks, a person could obtain a complete, verified record of content courses and all academic achievements.

2. Diplomas and certificates. Just like grades, a student’s diplomas and credentials could be issued and stored on a blockchain. Instead of asking the institution emitting the diploma to certify a paper copy, employers would only need to be provided with a link to a digital diploma. This is already being done. In 2017, MIT began issuing digital, blockchain-stored diplomas to its graduates. This prevents people from submitting fake degrees to potential employers, a situation that is, regrettably, all too common.

3. Badges. Besides degrees, a person’s typical resume contains a lot of additional information that could be relevant to employers. We’re talking about foreign language skills, technical knowledge or specific abilities not necessarily related to a person’s profession. I, for one, am a medical doctor with a master’s degree in primary care diabetology. But that doesn’t tell anyone that I speak four languages to varying levels of fluency, can set up computer networks, know about cryptocurrencies or am a trained cook. Then again, these skills aren’t easy to verify. But a person can get an expert third party to verify that skill and grant a certificate or badge. If these are stored on a blockchain, they prove that a person indeed has the skills in question. Services like Open Badge Passport are a first step in this direction.

4. File storage. If institutions want to store digital curricula, records, degrees and other information, that’s going to use a lot of file storage space. Saving everything on local hard drives brings us back to the issue of centralizing the files. If the hard drives are damaged or compromised in any way, that would be a big problem. Cloud storage is an option, but buying the amount of cloud storage space needed could be out of reach for many institutions. A possible solution would be blockchain-based cloud storage services like Filecoin.

5. Lessons and courses. Many blockchains are also smart-contract capable. That means that lessons and courses can be programmed into the blockchain and executed automatically when certain conditions are met. For example, a teacher could set up tasks for students. The completion of each task could be automatically verified by the blockchain’s smart contracts. Upon completion of all tasks, teachers could receive payment with crypto tokens and students could be awarded credits. Entire courses could be laid out this way.

6. Publishing. Undergrad and grad students, teachers, professors and researchers constantly generate quality material. But the road to publication is a hard one. Science has a long history of worthy research that, for a variety of reasons, were rejected by scientific journals: Enrico Fermi’s 1933 paper on weak interactions, Hans Krebs’ 1937 paper on the Citric Acid Cycle, Rosalyn Yalow’s 1955 research that set the bases for radioimmunoassay and even as recently as 1993 Kary Mullis’ paper on polymerase chain reaction were all rejected for a variety of reasons—and all these papers went on to earn Nobel Prizes for their authors! Not only does this indicate that rejections don’t mean your paper is bad, it shows just how difficult it can be to get published.

But publishing on a blockchain could help new writers, researchers and many others break into the industry. Blockchains could also help with rights management and protection against piracy.

7. Lower costs. Many of the applications mentioned above mean that many time-consuming, labor-intensive processes would be automated. This leads to lower costs for institutions, which in turn could translate into savings for students, who may not need to spend years paying off loans. Schools and universities could also reduce costs related to file storage space and by cutting out middlemen in many activities.

8. Rewards. The computer nodes that constantly verify the integrity of the information stored on a blockchain receive rewards in the form of digital tokens like bitcoin or ether. This is what is called cryptocurrency mining. People who use computers to verify education-related blockchains would also receive tokens as a reward. These tokens could then be traded on a safe cryptocurrency exchange like Kraken for other crypto or fiat currencies, or used to pay for goods and services within the education community itself, as schools and universities could accept tokens as payment in cafeterias, bookstores or even for tuition.

Looking at how blockchains could impact education, we can see that in the not-too-distant future both K-12 and higher education institutions could implement them for record-keeping and issuing credentials. Let’s have a closer look at what the K-12 scenario could look like with blockchains implemented:

Each state can create its own education-related, smart-contract capable blockchain with its own specific crypto token. For example, New York State’s blockchain can generate the New York Education Token (NYET). For starters, each school can store its course contents on the blockchain. Right off the bat, any school can check whether another school’s Algebra course is an exact match to their own.

Upon first registration in the school system, at the kindergarten level, an account on the blockchain is created for each student. The account would contain a full, detailed record of a student’s academic activities. And we’re not just talking about final grades here; exams and papers themselves could be stored. So not only could the blockchain show Junior got a B- on last week’s U.S. geography test, it could also show that he answered that Los Angeles was the capital of California. Just how much detail needs to be stored is a matter that should be decided in advance. For example, should detentions and other disciplinary actions be stored on the blockchain for posterity? Maybe. Maybe not.

Because the blockchain is smart-contract capable, teachers could also write the exam questions in the blockchain with the correct answers and scoring parameters. Students would then use desktop computers or tablets to take the exam digitally and the blockchain would then handle grading. Not having to grade exams would give teachers more time for other academic or cultural endeavors.

Sometimes students possess a very well developed specific skill. Maybe they write exceptional poetry by the ninth grade, are a math genius by age eight or can carve wood like a pro before graduating high school. Teachers or other certified people who witness this could acknowledge this skill by awarding special badges that would also be stored in each student’s account on the blockchain. The blockchain also could certify specific skills or abilities.

If a student transfers to another school, there would be no need for transcripts, as the information is already on the state’s blockchain and the new school would just continue adding to the student’s account. If the student moves to another state, the information could be easily transferred to the receiving state’s blockchain. A smart contract on the receiving blockchain could then compare course contents and alert if specific areas need attention.

Schools could also publish their social and cultural calendars on the blockchain. Not only this, but videos of school orchestra or band concerts or plays could also be stored there and shown in a decentralized version of YouTube. Because it’s on the blockchain, each video view, like and/or comment could generate rewards in NYETs for the creators of that content: performers, teachers and schools could then earn benefits from high-quality content. Decentralized social networks like DTube or KARMA that reward creators with cryptocurrencies already exist, so it’s just a matter of adapting the technology.

Students and teachers who write stories (maybe the first novel from the next Stephen King), create music, documentaries or other short films (maybe even a feature-length film produced as a school project) could publish their creations on the blockchain. This would not only bypass the hassle of finding a publisher but also protect against piracy, improve rights management and directly reward the creator in NYETs depending on how popular or well-rated said creations are.

Of course, storing all these documents and videos would require a massive amount of storage space. So the blockchain should incorporate a decentralized file-storage system akin to Filecoin. Any person, in any part of the world, could then rent out any unused disk space for file hosting in exchange for NYETs. Interested parties could also earn NYETs by mining them, meaning that they set up computers as nodes, dedicated to constantly verifying the integrity of the blockchain and all the information it stores. In the beginning, maybe the NYET could be used as a currency within the school system itself and could be used for buying food in school cafeterias or supplies in bookstores. Later on, more types of stores could start accepting payments in NYETs and the token could also be listed and traded on cryptocurrency exchanges.

Blockchains are already changing the economic landscape via cryptocurrencies; looking at how blockchains could impact education in 2020 and beyond, distributed ledgers and smart contracts could draw a whole new picture. The above just barely scratches the surface of what’s possible. The best thing is that the necessary technology already exists, so it is achievable in the short term. The future is certainly promising and I, along with many others, see the positive impact that blockchains could have on education. Believe me, if I could start mining NYETs for Jesús Jr.’s education right now, I would do it in a heartbeat.

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Jesús Cedeño is a doctor-turned-cryptocurrency and blockchain enthusiast who enjoys making encryption algorithms and cryptographic techniques more accessible. Follow him on Twitter:@jesuscedeno73.


Where Lifelong Skills and Curriculum Meet

By: Tynetta Harris

I’ll never forget the day I walked into my first college English course.

My professor asked the class to form a circle and debate the themes from our reading assignment. My stomach dropped. I knew how to defend my argument on paper, and I could easily talk to my professor individually about my views, but I wasn’t sure I could discuss the text with my peers. Why? Because I never mastered the skills needed to defend a thesis in a group setting. In high school, I had shared my feelings on literature with my peers, but I was never asked to create an evidence-based argument and discuss our position in a group. How could this be? I went to a great high school with great teachers, but I was never required to use textual evidence to verbally defend my point while listening to what everyone else had to say.

Experiences like this are catalysts for many who become educators. We want to ensure students are learning lifelong skills, like the ability to verbally defend ideas, that will stay with them long after exams are over. As a 9th and 10th grade ELA teacher, I often remind my students I am not just preparing them for their next year in high school—I am preparing them for success in the workforce and in life. I do this by crafting learning experiences that allow students to practice useful skills while mastering curriculum.

It can be hard to balance teaching core content and skills at the same time, but one example of an academic approach that balances quality curriculum with life skill development is Summit Learning. This approach includes a focus on student development of 36 cognitive skills. These skills, derived from research-based standards, are key to deeper learning. Cultivating this many cognitive skills can seem overwhelming for anyone, let alone a teenager. We make it approachable for students throughout the course of the academic year by focusing on a few skills at a time, tracking progress, and allowing students to truly master skills before taking on new ones. I believe these skills—such as collaborating with a team, interpreting data, and presenting a persuasive argument—can be applied across disciplines and support lifelong learning.

Introducing and Teaching Lifelong Skills

The key skills that are developed in oral presentations and small group discussions are Argumentative Claim, Evaluating Arguments, Contributing to Evidence-Based Discussions, and Norms/Active Listening.

As I found out in college and my career, these skills are key to success in the post-high school world. In today’s society, students must be able to read, analyze, and evaluate informational literature to create a sound argument based on the facts, not feelings, and then be able to articulate that argument with diverse audiences.

I introduce these lifelong skills to my classes early in the year. Before we start a new class project, we first talk about how students can use the skills learned in the exercise outside of the classroom. I intentionally make these examples approachable for my students so they go into their first project with an understanding of the content they are learning and why it is important.

Many high school freshmen have never had to present a persuasive speech or make a presentation. I find that most, if not all, students can hold a discussion about how a text made them feel, but just explaining how reading material made one feel isn’t enough. When it comes to developing strong argumentative claims, it is important for students to practice verbally articulating a clear and cohesive answer to a prompt, provide textual evidence to support their answer, and then thoroughly defend their thesis.

Integrating Presentations and Small Group Discussions

Practicing in small group discussion circles is an effective activity to help build the underlying skills that make for strong presentations and persuasive arguments. In my classroom, I work with my students to create goals for their presentations, and I ask students to reflect on how they attained the goals they chose to aim for. Each student selects a partner with whom they share feedback: how they contributed to the seminar, what they did well, and what they could do to improve for the next small group discussion.

I have seen how these skills are leading to increased student achievement and engagement. I have one specific student who reminded me a lot of myself during my freshman year in college. She is a great writer, but never felt comfortable enough to actively participate in group discussions and presentations. Debating a text’s meaning with her peers was new territory for her. After our first project, I met with her to provide additional support. We made goals and discussed strategies that help build confidence during presentations. She remained quiet during in-class discussion, only speaking once or twice. Each week, we would have a coaching session to give her an opportunity to self-reflect and make a goal of contributing slightly more each session. Little by little, she started to engage more and more until one day, she turned the corner, and asked if she could lead the class in discussion. She not only provided her answer and supported it with textual evidence, she encouraged other students that were not speaking up to join in on the discussion. She offered rebuttals and connected to other students’ points, and when it was over she had a huge smile on her face. She finally mastered the skills of Argumentative Claim, Evaluating Arguments, and Contributing to Evidence-Based Discussions. But, more importantly, she gained the courage to find her voice in an academic setting through continued practice and support.

Every student deserves the opportunity to be well-prepared for post-high school success. As educators, we have the responsibility to ensure that every single student in our classrooms deeply understands the concepts and skills they are being taught, and we can do this by infusing skills development into our curriculum.

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Tynetta Harris teaches English Language Arts in New Jersey’s Snyder High School. Tynetta has been an educator for over 9 years and believes it is important for students to be prepared for both professional and academic success. Tynetta Harris is also distinguished as one of the 2018 Teachers of the Year. Follow her on Twitter: @EducatorTDot