With Remote Professional Learning, The Opportunities Are Boundless

By: Juliana Finegan

During the last nine months, many educators have felt as if they were thrown into the deep end with little to nothing to hold onto. The quick shift to remote learning has forced teachers to challenge preconceived notions of what instruction and learning can look like. Over the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to interview educators from districts all over the country in order to collect some of their best practices for remote and hybrid learning and hear about what has made them and their students successful. Despite the crazy start of the year and what gets portrayed in the media, many teachers are quickly embracing and even excelling in these unknown waters. Going into the conversations with educators I didn’t know what to expect given the extreme challenges these teachers face daily, but instead of complaints, I was met with energy, inspiration, and smiles. These educators were definitely challenged and tired, like all educators are, especially now, but they were also supported by their districts, leaders, and each other. That made all the difference!

Remote professional learning (PD) offers a number of innovation opportunities that can enable educators to feel ready and confident instead of overwhelmed and burnt out. Walking away from those conversations I not only learned about some amazing best practices[a], concrete strategies and tools, but also key ways to support teachers within this new remote space. Innovation in education means also rethinking how we support our educators’ doing the innovating. Just moving PD online is not enough! It needs to be focused, purposeful, and meaningful, while also leveraging all of the possibilities remote professional development has to offer.

Here are five ways we can take hold of the invention opportunities remote professional development offers and look outside the box to ensure educators are ready and able to do what they do best — teach their students. Remote professional development enables…

  • Opportunity for whole system alignment and scaling. Without being constrained to one building, we are better able to scale and align around best practices across a whole district. Joining a system-wide PD session no longer means driving across town but instead logging on in your home. Chicago Public Schools has started Wednesday Workshops which are professional learning opportunities designed to elevate best practices around remote learning. The content is presented in digestible chunks (~45 minutes) so that anyone in the district can opt-in and learn about specific resources and approaches teachers are effectively implementing.
  • Expertise to be shared from beyond school walls. Remote professional development means we no longer have to purely rely on the expertise in our buildings, or even our systems. Learning virtually enables educators to get focused support and coaching, and engage in learning opportunities from anyone, without distance being a barrier. Coaches can work with multiple schools in one day without building in time for a commute. They can also record PD and easily share asynchronous options for educators to engage with as well. In addition, districts can leverage outside experts such as the Always Ready For Learning Network, which offers pro bono support around professional development content and strategy.
  • Collaboration that extends past the teacher next door.  We are used to looking next door or even down the hall for guidance and collaboration, but now in the remote world content collaboration and community support can come from anywhere because we all share the same “classroom.” Cedar Rapids, in response to COVID-19 and the quick shift to remote and hybrid learning, amped up their Professional Learning Communities (PLC) to ensure educators were not reinventing the wheel and were able to collaborate in concrete and actionable ways across grade levels, subjects, etc. throughout the district. More than ever, educators cannot live on islands, which is why building a community component within your remote PD, like PLCs is so important. Within PLCs educators are able to learn from and lean on each other as well as design and build off of each other’s work.
  • Greater access to quality content. Once again, by educators and systems not being constrained by distance, travel, and finances they are able to better access quality content that can directly impact their practice. Multiple conferences and PD providers have begun offering free admission to attend virtual sessions, online free PD courses, as well as focused micro-courses like these offered by ISTEs Summer Academy. Quality professional learning is now at our fingertips and can be built into remote professional learning design, supplementing current content, to ensure educators have access to new experiences, ideas, and approaches.
  • More opportunities to engage. By offering choice around how, when, where, and what educators learn they are able to both work towards appropriate competencies and skills as well as gain support around urgent needs. Dallas ISD recently added a Distance Learning Progression to their Personalized Learning Coaching and Development Toolbox to ensure their educators were being given opportunities and access to various ways to gain support and build skills around specific competencies needed in distance learning. By offering choices on how and when to engage, educators are more able to engage, because they can do it when it works for their schedule.
  • Multiple touchpoints for support. Whether it is a coaching session, classroom observation, or quick check-in, building in time to travel can hinder both the frequency and number of touchpoints that can happen. By moving remote, InnovateEDU Teaching Fellows have had the opportunity to observe master teachers during small gaps in their schedule because they can join their remote classroom quickly. Coaches are also able to observe Teaching Fellows’ remote lessons with minimal disruption to learning by joining their virtual classroom at a moment’s notice when support is needed. Without travel time, teachers and coaches alike are able to drop in and observe, learn, and support any time of day.

Supporting educators strategically and meaningfully during innovation is the key component to success. Too many times we have seen amazing innovation happen at the expense of educators with early burnout, lack of work/life balance, and low retention. The piece that shifts this narrative, as it did with the educators I interviewed, is building engaging and innovative remote professional learning that is responsive, personalized, enables connection, and ensures educators feel appreciated, supported, and confident.

For additional information around personalizing PD and effective remote learning for educators explore the resources below:

For more, see:


Juliana Finegan is a Managing Partner at The Learning Accelerator. An expert in blended and personalized learning, she leads TLA’s Practitioner Learning work to push forward innovation education by building and supporting a pipeline of blended educators and leaders, seeking to increase capacity at all levels and share best practices and resources at scale.

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Delivering Essential Skills for Students by Students

Real World Learning ensures that students are prepared for work, school, and life after high school graduation.  Crystal leads these efforts and coordinates the development and execution of market value asset attainment for Kansas City Public Schools.

What is confidence? How do you define success? How do I secure an internship or a job? What is the purpose of saving money?

These questions and more were addressed during the Life Skills Series: KCPS Edition, a real-world learning project that brought current Kansas City Public Schools students together with district alums and other local leaders, along with CommunityAmerica Credit Union.

Pre-pandemic, students made connections with adults and professionals in person. They practiced handshakes with each other, making sure they were solid. Students also heard tips and tricks for professional dress and styling their hair. When the country shut down and the jobs that could, transitioned to the virtual space, a question lingered about how students would get all of their needs met, physically, mentally, academically, and socially.

In response to the pandemic and transition to learning via webinars and Zoom calls, CommunityAmerica Credit Union developed the Life Skills Series. Their belief was simple: utilizing experts to share information with students across the Kansas City area.

Similar to the Life Skills Series that was executed during summer 2020, the goal was to have live webinars for the high school students of KCPS to hear from professionals in real-time. As with most of 2020, a pivot was necessary and the webinars were pre-recorded and links were shared with students who registered in advance. CommunityAmerica was gracious enough to offer a $25 incentive for any student who watched all four webinars.

A call was made for students to sign up to serve as Life Skills Leaders and help execute the four webinars. In addition to being able to earn the work experience market value asset, these 10 Life Skills Leaders, representing most of the district’s high schools, also earned $100 for their time. A holistic approach was taken in the evaluation of prospective Life Skills Leaders. The only prerequisites were the willingness to do the work necessary to complete the project and to collaborate with students they likely didn’t already know.

The interplay between students and adults made this experience uniquely valuable to both parties. On their exit survey, one student said:

I like that there is a back and forth conversation with the students and adults. This information I am learning really comes in handy.”

The final event of the Life Skills Series was the Parent and Teacher Edition, a live webinar where adults were able to understand what the students took away from the experience. I had the honor of moderating a panel that included Dr. Mark Bedell, superintendent of KCPS, his wife and attorney Robyn Bedell, along with Lisa Ginter, CEO of CommunityAmerica. They are professionals and community leaders, but they are also parents, who are just as invested in their children’s future as any other parent. One of the Life Skills Leaders was invited to participate in the webinar to share her experience and it was a reminder that student voice and experience should remain at the forefront of the work that we do.

The end result of the Life Skills Series showed that over 300 students registered for the four webinars and over 200 student exit tickets were completed. 94% of students who responded said they were likely to recommend the series to a friend and 87% reported that they were satisfied with the content.

What were the lessons learned from the execution of this real-world learning project for all of the stakeholders involved?

Intentional partner engagement is critical to move real-world learning forward. One of the outlined goals of the Life Skills Series was to provide essential life skills in a new, more impactful way and I’d say, mission accomplished. Furthermore, there were frequent check-ins with the CommunityAmerica team about the project, and decisions were made in collaboration, not in a silo. Oftentimes, industry, and education don’t speak the same language, but there is much connection with topics such as confidence, money, work, and success. We collectively understood and agreed that confidence and the notion of believing in yourself transcends industry. In alignment with real-world learning and the district’s push for both college and career readiness, addressing scholarships and job interviews were equally important.

Having a plan is important; recognizing the need to shift and pivot is also important. Goals were set, a timeline was created and parameters were put in place. As with a number of plans this year, a few components had to be shifted. The first being the plan to deliver the webinars live to students. As our school district restricted student access to Zoom, we began trying to find additional platforms to deliver the webinars. We also received some feedback from teachers that this could interfere with valuable instructional time. Finally, it made the most sense to pre-record the webinars and share them with students later. They would have a week to watch each webinar before the next one would be available. Ultimately, we moved forward with the belief that it created greater flexibility for students to consume the information when they were ready.

Representation matters. One of my asks for this project was to have KCPS alums represented on the webinar panels. As a graduate myself, I understand what it means to see other people who walked the same halls as I did and to challenge the narrative that often follows graduates of the district. The alums represented multiple high schools, a range of careers, and a variety of experiences, including identifying as an undocumented student.

We can all walk away from this project, armed with lessons learned, and this quote from a student participant:

I liked how they taught us something that we students can actually use in real life. I like it when I learn things like this because I find it very useful and no one really teaches us these types of things.”

For more, see:


Crystal Everett is a Real World Learning Coordinator with the Kansas City Public Schools. 

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The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals Could Be Our Standards

For those that are continually advocating for a complete redesign of our education system, there are many potential areas of focus. Some are now suggesting that standards—what many cling to as foundational—may be the last bastion of a dying educational ecosystem.

Voices of A Learning World

Earlier this year, there seemed to be a tipping point on the horizon that spelled something beyond standards and standardized assessments. Indeed, PBLGlobal’s Thom Markham—along with 17 other international educational thought leaders— launched Voices Of A Learning World. They advocate, among other things, that our standards are the problem. Their focus is to support project-based approaches and wellbeing as key elements of an emerging learning system that they foresee overtaking industrial models of teaching. And they think instead of institutional arms creating the standards, that rather students, families, and community should ascertain the appropriate learning goals and accompanying practices.

Ditch The Standards

One of these international thought leaders—Nicholas Martino—is an American national now based out of Mexico. Martino is known for his work with the Authentic Learning Lab and Think Global School among others. He is advocating that we could use the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for teaching and learning.

The goals—which were established in 2015 and are intended to be met in 2030—are broad, overarching, relevant, and ambitious global topics such as poverty, food security, health and wellness, sustainability, equity, climate, and peace. “Each of the goals has a number of targets. It’s like a matrix of standards or learning goals,” said Martino.

Martino says that the United Nations has essentially done much of the work—such as the research and data collection. “I can’t find anything that doesn’t fit into the goals.

Martino explains that Goals 1-16 provide the content that any learning entity would need, while Goal 17 provides the challenge. Goal 17 states: “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.” Martino explains that Goal 17 is really about all of us getting involved with organizations and partners and going public with our work in these areas.

Although the current 10-year timeline remainder may make them seem lofty, Martino argues that they are perfectly designed for learners of all ages and types to engage in and work towards making things better across the world.

“Most curriculum is about things that have already happened. The SDGs are challenging education to address the future,” said Martino. “They are project-based, inter-disciplinary, and relevant to all.”

SDGs, SEL and the Why

The intent behind social-emotional learning is not just about awareness for teachers, or certainly turning to some packaged unit of students, according to Martino. He said if we think we need to establish Maslo before Bloom—a popular expression in education circles to communicate how humans need their basic needs met before academics can be fully embraced—then the SDGs are what is designed to be before both. Martino believes that the SDGs can serve as the ultimate why.

Martino said this approach is not necessarily even new. He refers to John Dewey who advocated not only for active learning and metacognition, but about citizen education.

“We’ve moved so far from citizenship. We’ve forgotten that education is about creating active, informed citizens who are good people—Creating an active citizen,” said Martino. “The SDG’s fulfill that goal too. It’s an active way to become a participatory citizen.”

Others concur with Martino. TeachSDGs Co-Founder Dr. Jennifer Williams believes that the Sustainable Development Goals provide a roadmap for educators looking for ways to take action for the planet and its people through inquiry and collaboration.

“With the 17 Goals, there is a place for everyone,” said Williams. “There are opportunities for teachers and students from any content area, any grade level, and any location to jump in and get right to work.”

Think ‘Glocally’

Those working in the areas of service and project-based learning have long talked about the phenomenon of addressing global challenges locally. That birthed the phrase “Think Global, Act Local.’ This has now morphed in the business and education worlds into the ‘Glocal’ or “Glocally.’ This is really the concept of local educators and learners consulting global resources, such as the UN’s 17 SDGs, and adapting them to impact their local communities.

Martino said that the SDGs provide us the global perspective and collective action needed, while one doesn’t need to look too far to see the same challenges in our local communities.

“Sadly, far too many of our local communities are struggling right before our eyes with poverty, food insecurity, climate issues, sustainability, mental health issues, inequity, injustice, and more,” said Martino. “For students, this is an important process to realize that these are global problems, as well as local problems.”

#TeachSDGs

Martino is not alone in advocating for the SDG Framework. Indeed, there is an entire international movement—Teach SDGs, Moving Worlds and the United Nations themselves—organizing around these 17 goals. There are schools, networks and even individual educators and learners adopting these as their new operating standards.

Ultimately, this pivot to the SDGs is what many are looking for in redesigning what teaching and learning look like.

Williams believes that we in a moment of action in education

“This is about action in the form of acceleration of use of technology and innovative teaching practices, action in the form of student activism and student voice, and action for social good as teachers and students come together as co-learners in classrooms across the world,” said Williams. “#TeachSDGs has become a movement, but also a community of educators committed to making a difference in the world through teaching and learning.”

“Our world needs as many as possible working on solving our problems. The SDGs represent the real work the entire world has to do,” said Martino. “I really believe that education can change the world—not passively but actively. But first, we need to change education.”

For more, see:


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Designing Schools for Shared Use: A Pandemic Silver Lining

By: Randy Fielding, Cierra Mantz, and Nathan Strenge

Note: The above illustration was originally created as part of a series of design patterns Fielding International (FI) created in response to the challenges faced by schools as a result of COVID-19. Click here for the full publication.

More than ever, flexible, multi-use school buildings are essential for the future of education. The value of sharing facilities between schools, universities, community organizations, businesses, and public recreation organizations has been championed for years, but has failed to take hold in a significant way because of the complexity of governing and financing shared use facilities. That’s about to change due to health, economic, and educational forces that are gaining momentum and making imminent change necessary.

Forces Driving Toward Shared Facilities

The first force that is driving us towards shared facilities is the demand to upgrade heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This force is particularly challenging due to currents already in motion, pushing construction costs increasingly higher. According to the Second Quarter 2020 North America Quarterly Construction Cost Report by Rider Levett Bucknall, the average cost of construction in North America has linearly increased by nearly 27% in the past five years. Considering this steady increase, the fact that the cost of construction is nearing $600/square foot for school facilities in some major metropolitan areas, and the complexity of COVID response ventilation, renovation is becoming increasingly less viable; it’s often more economical to tear down an older building than make all the required upgrades. From the perspective of achieving effective shared uses facilities, designing a school from scratch creates an ideal context for intentionally incorporating designated spaces for multiple enterprises and designing with use synergies in mind. (More on holistic strategies for COVID responsive design)

The second force that is driving us towards shared facilities is a national and global shift from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism. Milton Friedman’s 1960s economic philosophy that the only role of business is to deliver profit to shareholders is rapidly evolving to an acknowledgement that business needs to serve shareholders as well as customers, employees, communities, and the planet. As stated by Martin Lipton, senior partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, in a September 2020 New York Times article, the shift is illustrated by The World Economic Forum’s adoption of The New Paradigm in 2016 and, in 2020, the publication of the Davos Manifesto which embraces stakeholder and E.S.G. (environment, social, and governance) principles.

As a result of this paradigm shift, there is an increasing appetite across all markets for more holistic thinking that acknowledges the benefit of reorienting decision making to include the ‘greater good’ and social responsibility in the fiscal calculus of a business. In this new economic environment, schools and school districts are poised to leverage their position as a public benefit enterprise to partner with businesses and organizations that are embracing this new philosophy. (More on shareholder vs. stakeholder capitalism)

The third force that is driving us towards shared facilities is a growing awareness in the educational world that the most effective learning is tied to purpose—to solving real-world problems. Problems such as racial equity, food and housing insecurity, health care, mental health, substance abuse, and the sustainable use of resources are rarely solved by focusing on a single discipline. Real problems and solutions are inherently interdisciplinary. This can be seen clearly in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, 17 goals that span numerous disciplines that are necessary to create a more sustainable world. Informed by the intrinsic complexity and interconnectedness of today’s problems, the OECD emphasizes interdisciplinary knowledge as an important aspect of the future of education in its long-term initiative, OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030.

Schools as stand alone entities may be easier to govern but they are not well suited to solve complex, real-world problems. Integrating school programs with community organizations, businesses, universities, and public recreation organizations offers the synergy needed for world-class learning. Shared use facilities more easily facilitate a cross pollination of ideas through shared programming and expose students to businesses and organizations already working to address pressing local, national, and global problems.

Barrier to Achieving Shared Use Facilities

With these driving forces nudging us ever closer to realizing the vision of shared use facilities, the pressing question then becomes: How can schools, businesses, and community organizations work together to finance and govern shared facilities? In, It’s Time to Separate Facilities From Operations, Tom Vander Ark, author of Smart Cities, The Power of Place, and the cofounder of Getting Smart, describes the problems with the current way of provisioning facilities, including a lack of equity, a lack of maintenance, a misalignment with technology investments and bond funding, and a lack of portfolio management. He also proposes three different options to shift funding structures that support shared facilities. These options include moving facilities into a public trust, providing states fixed asset funding, and performance contracts for operators.

Clearly, there are ways to address financial barriers that, in the past, may have prevented the successful implementation of shared use facilities. Yet, even with financial issues addressed, there is still the issue of governance. Through a concerted effort to negotiate the varied interest of numerous stakeholders, it is possible to establish the appropriate legal governance structures and develop requisite management systems, policies and procedures, and communication strategies to effectively maintain operations. (More on governing and the operational management of shared use facilities)

The Silver Lining

In the annals of history, the COVID-19 pandemic will be recognized as a moment of marked upheaval and significant societal change. The pandemic has created an opportunity for a collective reevaluation of deep-seated structural issues, philosophical inconsistencies, and social inequities throughout our society. We can no longer complacently settle for the way things have always been done. Breaking the norm of single-use school facilities is one of those opportunities. By capitalizing on the health, economic, and educational forces present at this momentous juncture, now is the time to renew efforts to create and maintain shared use facilities.

Stories from the Field

The following examples illustrate the challenges, successes, and benefits encountered by a charter school, a large school district, and a private school that have successfully established and maintained the shared use of their facilities.

High-end recording studio at High School for Recording Arts shared by students of HSRA, DMI, and professional recording artists.

1. Public-Private Interdependence. High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) is a 350 student charter high school in St. Paul, Minnesota that was established through a public-private partnership between the school, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and Studio 4 Enterprises, a for-profit music recording and production studio. The vision for HSRA came from the lived experience of David “T.C.” Ellis who observed countless youth within his community who were passionate about music and spent time at this professional recording studio but who were also at significant risk of dropping out of school due to boredom and being disenfranchised by an educational system that didn’t value their unique talents and passions. Ellis saw an opportunity to use music and the recording arts as a way to completely transform the high school experience for young people in his community by leveraging students’ passion, resourcefulness, and talent to create a truly personalized, contextual learning environment.

In order to do this, Ellis envisioned professional recording studios—the for-profit business he had already established—embedded in the structure and daily life of the school. This bold idea would have implications on multiple levels including: the business structure, operational practices, and the design and use of the facilities. Cautious reticence on the part of Ellis’s long-time friend, colleague, and Executive Director of HSRA, Tony Simmons, soon gave way to the search for a creative solution to make this dream a reality. Tony’s research revealed that it was common practice for nonprofits to form for-profit companies as a way to get around the operational restrictions placed on nonprofit organizations. After vetting the details with a leading national attorney who specialized in nonprofits, they formalized the business structure plans. Since the for-profit company already existed, their approach simply inverted this common practice and married Studio 4 Enterprises, with the nonprofit behind HSRA.

Ellis put it succinctly, “If you have the right stewardship and the right balance it’s an amazing marriage. [The two profit structures] can really work together.” Having both entities working in tandem provides the necessary flexibility for the organization to thrive and grow in truly strategic ways. Since receiving its charter in 1998, HSRA has experienced remarkable success, due in part to the creative agility enabled by the partnership structure between Studio 4 Enterprises and HSRA.

The most recent example of this is an initiative that arose from a need they saw among their students. For many, the conventional trajectory of attending a 4-year college isn’t the right fit, yet they still needed additional time and support to help them find their way in the current economy. Essentially, these students needed a fifth year, but charter law doesn’t allow this. As a result, Studio 4 Enterprises, which has evolved to include educational services and management as a part of their business model, was able to step-in and invest the time, energy, and money to launch the program while working as a contractor for HSRA. Now, all three organizations—HSRA, Studio 4 Enterprises, and Diverse Media Institute (DMI, an independent nonprofit licensed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education)—are all housed in HSRA’s 35,000 SF building, a facility intentionally designed for the study and production of audio and other media. Furthermore, building upon the operational synergy of these organizations, plans are currently underway to build an impact hub and supportive housing facility on the current HSRA campus with the goal of expanding the breadth of the value they bring to their community and further serve the needs of youth.

Students performing at The Depot, a living classroom embedded in the community of Hopkins made possible through a joint venture among the City of Hopkins, Hopkins Public Schools, the City of Minnetonka, and Three Rivers Park District.

2. Partnerships that Stand the Test of Time. Hopkins Public Schools (HPS) is a public school district in Minnesota that serves an amalgam of first-ring suburbs of Minneapolis, namely Hopkins, Minnetonka, Golden Valley, Eden Prairie, Edina, Plymouth, and St. Louis Park. Long embedded in the district’s operational philosophy is an approach for facilities sharing with municipal partners and compatible, outside organizations. Hopkins approaches shared facilities using four primary strategies: (1) a partnership structure whereby multiple entities collaborative lease and operate a shared facility, (2) leasing spaces within their facilities to outside organizations, (3) leasing commercial real estate from outside organizations and municipalities, and (4) renting space within their facilities for short-term events. To understand Hopkin’s successful history of sharing facilities, we spoke with Dre Johnson, Coordinator for District Facility Use, and Alex Fisher, Director of Community Education and Engagement. This conversation illuminated the practices they maintain to ensure that their approach to facilities operations provides maximum benefit to students and the community alike while hedging common challenges that arrive with the shared governance of facilities.

Notable among the shared-used relationships maintained by HPS are the Lindbergh Center and The Depot Coffeehouse & Performance Venue. The Lindbergh Center is a 92,000 SF state-of-the-art fitness center on the campus of Hopkins High School. It is operated through a partnership between the City of Minnetonka and HPS with each entity covering 29% and 71% of operating cost, respectively. The center is synchronistically used by student groups and the community on a daily basis with community members accessing the space from 6am to 9pm and students using the facility for phy-ed classes, special ed classes, and sports training and events during and outside of school hours. This partnership has seen twenty-five years of success, and there’s no reason to believe that will change anytime soon.

Similarly, The Depot Coffeehouse & Performance Venue is a partnership among the City of Hopkins, the City of Minnetonka, HPS, and Three Rivers Parks District (a special park district serving multiple counties in and beyond Twin Cities with the mission of promoting environmental stewardship through recreation and education in a natural resource-based park system). The Depot was created in 1998 as a youth initiated project to give students a positive, supportive environment to learn, relax, have fun, and develop life and work-place skills. Contributing to this mission, the attached performance venue specializes in providing a literal and metaphorical platform to elevate young artists within the community.

While the City of Hopkins is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the coffee house as well as the management of the performance venue, all four partners contribute to the lease in order to use the space. For HPS, it serves as a living classroom for high school students, where they can learn barista and other life skills. The school district can access to the space with a phone call notifying the onsite manager of the desire to use the space for classroom purposes; however, according to Fisher, it’s mainly used “to engage youth and others on the artistic side who want more of a chance to express themselves and for after school and evening programming.”  Recently, it’s been used for spoken word poetry and music events as part of the community education programs, but there’s great potential to rekindle the original concept and incorporate more classroom functions and expand learning opportunities.

From an operational standpoint, Dre Johnson, Coordinator for District Facility Use at HPS, was clear that the success of both of these ventures hinge on several factors, top among them, communication. When it comes to communication Johnson noted that when possible and appropriate, it’s important to involve partner organizations in the decision making process, but that’s not always prudent. In that case, at a minimum, it’s vital to make sure all parties involved understand why decisions have been made. According to Johnson, “even just explaining the choices that have been made can go a long way in making sure everyone feels included in the process.” Another key factor contributing to the successful operation of the Lindbergh Center and The Depot is the ability to maintain a relationship of trust. Each partner needs to feel valued in the relationship to create a baseline level of trust and stability. This means respecting clearly defined, jointly negotiated boundaries and balancing the roles of each partner while being open and honest about priorities and adjustments that need to be made. Alex Fisher, Director of Community Education and Engagement, added that this includes, “ensuring lease agreements clearly specify the use intent and boundaries for each party. Each time a lease renewal occurs it’s an opportunity to reevaluate the relationship and the terms of the agreement to make sure there’s an alignment in the relationship.”

For Hopkins it has been helpful that their assistant superintendent, Nik Lightfoot, is also a lawyer who has a keen eye and the bandwidth to review and vet their legal agreements. However, no agreement is capable of covering every issue that could possibly arise, so Johnson acknowledged that it’s advisable to, “Plan for the unexpected in your agreements. Make sure there’s as little ambiguity as possible because that makes it easy to settle any disputes. Have a dispute resolution strategy in place and make sure that when there is a conflict or a convergence of need, there [are] guidelines to follow saying, this is the way things are done and we’re going to follow that, then nobody has an opportunity to be upset.”

Operational challenges aside, it’s clear that from Hopkins’ experience that the district, its students, and the broader community benefit considerably from sharing facilities with outside organizations, municipalities, and businesses. According to Johnson, access and exposure to resources and opportunities made available through their partnerships is extremely valuable for their students. The district’s partnership with the local arts center and the Lindbergh fitness center are crucial for families that don’t have the ability to pay for private facilities. Access to these places can broaden students horizons and, in the case of the fitness center, provide them with a resource that can help them change their lifestyle.

At the community level, the shared spaces and programming is a way to include and welcome students’ families into the district and forge bonds that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Because the district draws students from seven different cities, there aren’t the same long-term or close-knit relationships that may exist in other smaller districts that draw their student populations from a single, unified community. As Johnson put it, “There are so many challenges in everyday life, that communication and shared experiences can help break down some of the walls and barriers and you do that by having spaces in your community that people feel comfortable going.” By sharing their facilities and partnering with outside programs, HPS draws people into their buildings and makes them comfortable there, which in turn helps the students by making them more invested in their academic experience. As Johnson said, “It changes your whole dynamic when you feel that connection and when you see your district partnering with local businesses.”

Relatedly, Hopkins is experiencing white flight. But this exodus is not inevitable. By providing facilities and programming where people and families can interact, form bonds, and feel like a part of the same group, the district has been able to break down some of the barriers that would have otherwise divided the community and hastened the departure of white families. As Johnson explained, community events and community education programs provide “a huge opportunity for us to dispel some of that fear that you’re getting less of an experience being in Hopkins vs. our neighbor to the west.”

Furthermore, considering the white supremacy and structural racism built into the public education system, Fisher noted that their partners are increasingly vital to helping the district level the playing field as they seek to provide greater equity for their students. By partnering with organizations that work outside the institutional confines that are system entrenched in patterns of structural racism, the district can ensure their students have access to resources and services that the district alone doesn’t have the knowledge, bandwidth, or expertise to provide internally.

The Neighborhood Academy’s elite indoor soccer facility, an asset used daily by students of the Academy as well as leased to community groups to provide an ongoing revenue stream.

3. Creative Funding + Mutual Benefit = Operational Sustainability. The Neighborhood Academy is a private college preparatory school serving underserved students in Pittsburgh, PA from grades 6-12. With the mission “to break the cycle of generational poverty by empowering youth and preparing them for college and citizenship,” the school only charges a modest tuition, around $50 per month. Given that the actual cost to educate each student is roughly $25,000 per year, the school was living purely off fundraising to make up the deficit at the time they engaged with Equity Schools, a benefit corporation based in Chicago that works nationally to solve capital and operational funding problems for schools founded by Richard Murray. At the time of initial engagement, the school’s big dream was to have their own gymnasium, but considering the extent of the donor fatigue they had already observed in fundraising for their operational needs, it was highly unlikely they would be able to fund this through a capital campaign.

Following Equity School’s out-of-the-box process, they didn’t accept the limitations and barriers identified by the school. Instead, from the first day they worked to get the Neighborhood Academy educators to think beyond the constraints to what truly matters, namely their dreams for the students, families, staff, and community. They helped them move beyond their ‘wish list’ of specific spaces, forget about the money, and dig down to the root of what they were trying to achieve. As Murray put it, “In effect, we erased the perceived starting line and moved it back before all the usual assumptions about square footage and dollars are applied.” By moving the starting line backwards, in this case, they were able to create an executable vision that was bigger than the educators thought possible. Instead of merely helping to raise the funds to build a gymnasium, Richard and his team proposed building a brand-new school building complete with a gymnasium and indoor soccer field as well as the establishment of an endowment for the school.

A key feature that made the project viable was the addition of the indoor soccer field. Through observations, conversations, and research Murry came to realize that there were no indoor soccer fields within Pittsburgh city limits yet the demand for such facilities was quite high, with many families traveling to local suburbs to utilize these facilities. At the same time, the residents of Pittsburgh tend to hold great pride in their city and prefer to patronize local businesses and venues. As such, adding an in-demand indoor soccer field to the design of the school provided a potential revenue stream that made the balance sheet enticing to investors and donors alike.

In the end, with the visionary design, the school was able to secure tax-exempt bonds combined with a portion of fundraised monies to build the new facilities. Because the bond financing contributed to a significant portion of the overall building costs, the school was able to aportion a significant amount of their fundraised money to form an endowment for the school. At the time of the ribbon cutting ceremony, the Neighborhood Academy was proudly able to announce both the opening of their new facility as well as the formation of a multimillion dollar endowment.

By strategically designing shared-use into the facility, the school got an elite facility that prestigious college prep schools in the area don’t even have and on the evenings and weekends, after students have gone home, the facility is open to the public, providing a much needed community asset. The icing on the cake…the profit from the soccer field is able to pay for 100% of the debt service for the bonds and the utilities and maintenance for the whole campus, freeing up significant money for other operational expenses.

Key Takeaways

  • Mutually Reinforcing Values – In order to be successful, the shared-use component or organization has to be compatible with the mission and vision of the school.
  • Cost-Benefit Balance – Cost conditions often make new construction more feasible than renovating old buildings, creating opportunities for purpose-built shared-use facilities.
  • Legal Linchpins – Lease terms and operational agreements need to be clear so each person/organization knows their roles, responsibilities, and obligations.
  • Talk it Out – Open communication and strong relationships among all parties are crucial for successful, sustainable operations.
  • Knowable Unknowns – The one thing that’s certain is that issues are bound to arise. As such, it’s prudent to incorporate dispute resolution terms in legal agreements to plan for unforeseen challenges among the parties involved.
  • Two-Way Benefits – Compatible shared-uses are mutually beneficial for students & the community. If done well, sharing provides access to resources and facilitates exposure to experiences and opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
  • Make the Dollars Make Sense – When executed well, sharing makes financial sense! Instead of considering the financial complexity of shared-use facilities as a barrier, with the right structure, it can actually be a benefit that contributes to the financial sustainability of the school.

For more, see:


Founding Partner at Fielding International, Randy Fielding has been creating environments where learners thrive for several decades, winning prestigious school design awards along the way. Randy’s work is grounded in research, which he has shared globally in more than 30 publications and as the co-author of The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Learning, now in its third edition. Follow Randy on Twitter at @randyfielding.

Senior Designer at Fielding International, Cierra Mantz is a registered architect with a Masters in Educational Leadership and Societal Change. Through her work, she seeks to champion change within education through innovative design, research, and grassroots community engagement.

Senior Learning Designer at Fielding International and USA Country Lead at HundrED, Nathan Strenge approaches school design with an innovative educator lens. As a teacher of ten years, Nathan’s drive to transform education comes from his belief that all people deserve to learn in an environment that adapts to their unique gifts and needs. Follow Nathan on Twitter at @nathanstrenge


Creating Promising Career Pathways for Minority High School Students by Partnering with the Business Community

A critical question for states and local communities is how do we create viable career pathways for students from urban underserved and rural communities? When I began my doctoral journey at Northeastern University, I decided to focus my research on this issue because traveling the back roads of South Carolina. I witnessed public schools that face enormous challenges with diminishing resources, increasing academic expectations, and growing proportions of students living in poverty, trauma, and even homelessness. I was also confronted with the minimally adequate standard for education in South Carolina. Just 2 percent of black students and a fifth of white students met the college-ready benchmark in every subject. I realized that the opportunity gap would only widen for minority students if the system and specifically high schools didn’t get more intentional about real business partnerships that lead to students’ jobs and not just financial support for the school programs!

During the winter of 2019, I visited high schools like the High School for Health Profession in Orangeburg, SC, NEXT High School in Greenville, SC, and Academic Magnet High School in North Charleston, SC. I was able to interview, teachers and support staff. I then heard about Olympic High School in Charlotte. So I visited Olympic High School and interviewed Mike Realon, Academy and Community Development Coordinator at the school. Here is what I learned.

Olympic High School began its transformational model in 2006 by becoming collaborators with the community it serves, especially the business community in Charlotte, which is presently trying to fill over 100,000 local jobs (7.6 million nationally) due to the American knowledge and skills gap. Since receiving a $1.2 million grant and becoming part of the Bill and Melinda Gates small schools movement in 2006, Olympic High School has embraced the Gates’ holistic approach “in pursuing its goal of developing more students who are both career AND college ready.”

Olympic High School uses the NAF career academy platform that emphasizes experiential and project-based learning as well as the school being led by local business & college leaders. The NAF Career Academy emphasizes that America’s youth should experience a 9th to 12th grade work-based learning experience which will help the students become both “career AND college” ready. The NAF model is wrapped around project-based and experiential learning with students immersed in a “work-based learning continuum” from 9th to 12th grade as determined by the Board of Directors.

Olympic High School offers 5 career academy options for students to onboard as freshmen:

  • Engineering & Advanced Manufacturing
  • Finance & Business Ownership
  • Health Sciences
  • Hospitality & Tourism
  • Information Technology (IT)

Each of the 5 career academies have a Board of Directors comprised of leaders (employers) from the local industry sector, post-secondary institutions, and government agencies whose missions overlap with the career academy’s primary objective: To provide a meaningful 9-12 grade “career AND college ready” experience designed so 21st century youth can achieve their human and economic potential while simultaneously expanding the local talent pool in vital business sectors.

Today in Charlotte, employers are trying to fill 100,000 jobs in industry sectors essential to the local economy’s prosperity while 10,000 baby boomers are retiring daily until 2025. Olympic High School referenced Charlotte’s 5 year economic plan when determining what career academy themes and pathways should be offered.

Image Credit: Olympic High School

The goal is to help students:

  1. Become aware of local industry/career opportunities
  2. Explore local industry/career opportunities
  3. Purposefully prepare for local industry/career opportunities

The partnerships were created because:

Employers in Charlotte, as well as across America, are desperately in need of talent. Many employers know they can no longer be idle spectators on the sidelines. It’s a supply chain management issue for employers, and their suppliers of talent have failed them. Charlotte ranks last when comparing America’s 50 largest cities in terms of youth realizing upward economic & social mobility. Most of Charlotte’s jobs do not require a 4 year college degree. Half of college-educated millennials remain either unemployed or underemployed today. The Olympic High School Board members evangelize & urge parents and students to “think differently” when connecting Education to success in a modern workplace.

Image Credit: Olympic High School

Over 80% of Olympic students have earned a national career readiness certificate with NAF. The National Career Readiness Certificate is a portable, evidence-based credential that certifies essential skills for workplace success. Employers look for it from job candidates, whether they come directly from high school, work-based learning programs, or through post-secondary paths, because it is a valid predictor of job performance. Olympic High School has successfully partnered with the business community to totally transform educational outcomes (65% increase in EOC test scores and a 25% increase in graduation). While simultaneously providing students experiential and project-based learning opportunities where many students earn tickets into the middle class as high school teens by becoming employed as software developers, tradespersons, mechatronic technicians, and engineering apprentices.

Olympics’ success over the years has led to Olympic and its business partners being featured on national media outlets (CNN, Money, NPR, PBS, CNBC, NBC, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, etc.). Olympic High School was also featured in an Amazon #1 best-selling book about transforming education in America, What School Could Be.

For more, see:


https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/s-788mz1JqcUk52BP2-QgZBQQrQ8__P6m_F7adzTpMjbuTs1cywbWb_gm25OngsTShlV3mFLc0vCQJFMCCBLE5El2PGSAZFBhoSyQqEOLh9oHxdJweXqRa_umRgT-W0SjHdLCTntAntonio B. Boyd is a Doctor of Education Student at Northeastern University, Graduate School of Education in the College of Professional Studies. He is Chief Operating Officer at Future of School, a national nonprofit focused on ensuring all students reach their unbounded potential. Antonio is also the Founder of The Workforce for Our Future Project created to help High School students prepare for the future workforce. Follow him on Twitter at @tonio81.

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10 Tools With a Big Impact in 2020!

Every December, I think about the types of strategies and digital tools that I used during the year. There are always some that remain a constant choice in my classes and many new tools that I try and then add into my regular “toolkit” because of the benefit to students and their response to using them. The reason that some tools stay on the list each year is because of the versatility they offer, the new ways that we’ve discovered they can be used, and in many cases, because they provide an abundance of choice for students when it comes to learning.

I typically reflect on a few guiding questions: What did the digital tool help me as a teacher to do better? How did it promote student engagement or positively impact their learning potential? And did it empower students by providing more authentic and personalized learning opportunities?

At the end of each year, I like to think back to the methods or tools that made a difference for my students, and this year, I also considered the tools that were helpful as we transitioned through school closures and in-person, hybrid, and fully virtual learning environments. It has also been more important than ever to find options that enable us to provide students with authentic, meaningful, and timely feedback which we know is critical for learning and which also promotes communication and collaboration between classmates. Here are ten tools that made a difference and that I recommend trying at the start of the new year.

1. Buncee is a one stop shop for creating multimedia and interactive presentations. There have been several updates and new features this year including augmented reality! Getting started is easy through the Ideas lab, where teachers can explore thousands of lesson ideas and templates to use in the classroom. Check out the app smashing possibilities with Buncee and Flipgrid. Teachers and students can create a lesson or a prompt with each of these and add additional resources that are relevant to the class or school news. Buncee also has Immersive Reader which increases accessibility for students and offers more robust ways to learn, especially for language learners. The added benefit of having Immersive Reader in tools like Buncee, Flipgrid, and Wakelet promotes accessibility and enables these materials to be shared with classrooms around the world.

Buncee interactive lesson

2. CoSpaces EDU is a virtual reality platform that became a favorite for some of my 8th grade students this past year. Teaching a STEAM course has been a little more challenging, however with tools like this, students can explore emerging technologies and collaborate! Whether they create a space in 360, design their own parkour game, write an interactive story, or just build a fun space to explore, students will enjoy creating in VR and developing coding skills too. Another benefit is the Merge Cube add-on, which enables students to hold their Cospace creation in their hands! Students can even collaborate by working on a project to create a space together. With MergeEDU, educators can use the cube to further engage students in learning about the earth, dissecting a frog, exploring a volcano, and more through the immersive, hands-on experience.

3. Edpuzzle: Sharing the screen to show a video did not always work well and this is one of the reasons that I started to use Edpuzzle more. With Edpuzzle you can add open-ended questions, multiple choice, or notes into a video so that students can work through the video and process the information at their own pace. Whether you create your own video to upload and add questions, find a YouTube video to use, or choose from the Edpuzzle library, creating interactive video lessons is easy to do. My students like that they can use the app and complete the lessons on their phone and I appreciate being able to see their progress and provide feedback quickly.

4. Flipgrid is a social learning platform where students and educators can record a video response and include additional content such as Nearpod lessons or Wonderopolis articles and more. Flipgrid can also be a great option for doing a screen recording. You can choose from different backgrounds and your recordings can be up to 10 minutes. Using Flipgrid can be a fun way for students to exchange ideas about what they are learning, reflect, and provide feedback to classmates, or connect globally with students from around the world. It is helpful for developing many of the core competencies of SEL. Educators can choose from more than 10,000 ready-to-launch topics.

Flipgrid discussion topics

5. Gimkit is a game-based learning tool that has continued to be a favorite with my students. What makes it different from other similar digital tools is that it promotes increased content retention through repetitive questions, and because of the different options for playing it in the classroom. Students also build SEL skills as they play and have fun while learning. Some of Gimkit’s updated features this year include being able to search and use pre-made kits, multiple ways to look at the student data, and making flashcards. There are multiple modes to play, most recently “Trust No One” style, similar to Among Us, which has been a big hit. Gimkit does not require that questions be projected onto one screen which definitely helps with virtual learning environments.

A few modes of playing in Gimkit

6. GoFormative has been a great choice this year during virtual and hybrid learning as I looked for a way to assess students. Formative is a web-based tool used to create digital formative assessments for students to complete. There are “Formatives” available in the library that you can search and use for your own classroom or edit it to meet your specific assessment needs. Students join using a code and as they complete the assessment, teachers see their progress live in the dashboard. Question order can be scrambled and teachers can select from many options for question types including multiple choice, matching, resequencing, drawing, audio, and more as well as uploading content and videos into the Formative. Providing feedback is fast using the comment feature that can send responses directly to students as they work.

7. Nearpod is a multimedia, interactive presentation tool that is used for creating engaging lessons that include a variety of content such as 3D objects, virtual trips, and videos. Nearpod has thousands of ready-made lessons on topics such as career exploration, digital citizenship, social-emotional learning, and English learner lessons, and also offers professional development resources for teachers. Lessons can include audio and video, drawings, quizzes, polls, matching pairs, and content from PhET Simulations, Desmos, BBC, YouTube, and more. Nearpod lessons can be done live in class or student paced. Especially helpful in hybrid or distance learning, lessons through Nearpod are great options for immersing students in different learning experiences and traveling around the world or exploring places and objects more closely.

8. Synth is a tool that we have used for a few years because it 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 through speaking. Being able to give students timely and authentic feedback is critical for learning. It is also important that our students be able to provide peer feedback and develop their skills of communicating and collaborating with their classmates. Some of the tools that help with this give students the opportunity to build confidence in learning and be able to share through voice or video or a combination of the two.

Nearpod content options

9. Wakelet is a content curation tool and so much more. More than just a “space” where I would curate blogs, videos and other resources, it is a powerful tool for student learning. With Wakelet, teachers can design blended learning experiences, create station rotations, have students create a digital portfolio, create a scavenger hunt, and many other possibilities. With Wakelet you can also record a Flipgrid short video within the Wakelet collection. Educators and students can collaborate in a Wakelet collection and even fully embed a Buncee into the Wakelet! Wakelet launched “Spaces” this year which creates even more possibilities for collaboration.

10. Zigazoo is a video-sharing app that is used for students to create a short video in response to daily prompts. It is easy to get started with Zigazoo and find some prompts by exploring the different educator channels or make your own to assign to a class. Each video can be up to 30 seconds in length. There are daily featured projects and the Zigazoo app gives students and teachers a fun way to think about and try new things. Explore the #dailyzigazoo to get started today.

Zigazoo educator channel options

Some of these tools help students to build confidence in learning and share what they are learning through voice or video or combination. While this is how my students and I have used these tools in our classroom, there are definitely many ways 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. Create activities, announcements, lessons, and more by leveraging the many options available within each of these.

It has not been easy to transition over the past year, however we have many tools available to us and we have the opportunity to take some risks and bring in new ideas and possibilities for our students. My recommendation? Start with one thing. Give it a try, ask students for feedback, and then make adjustments as needed. New year and new opportunities for learning!

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Q&A with Author, Educator Matt Miller on ‘Ditch That Textbook’ and ‘Ditch That Homework”

When we discuss how to improve teaching and learning, we are often looking at things to add to our collective tool belts. Whether it’s technology, resources, protocols, or instructional approaches, it’s usually about doing something new or additional. Well, author and educational leader Matt Miller has made a career promoting taking things away in order to improve learning.  His first book, Ditch That Textbook, as well as his second book Ditch That Homework, have become foundational for those looking to liberate themselves from the constraints of single-source, scripted teaching models and uninspired take-home assignments. In these books, Miller challenges teachers to reflect on their current practice and find better ways to make a difference in the lives of their students. ‘DITCH’ is an acronym for Different, Innovative, Tech-laden, Creative, and Hands-on. Recently, Miller responded to questions about the book and the work that it has prompted.

Getting Smart: Since publishing the book, how has education changed? Not changed? Has the idea of deeper learning through abandoning the textbook exceeded your expectations?

Miller: When I started my blog and wrote the book, I was sharing my own teaching experiences where I discovered the freedom of not just following the textbook. First, there are lots of other textbook ditchers that came long before me. That’s been a huge encouragement! I’m so inspired by all of the educators I’ve met that we’re doing this before technology became so ubiquitous and easy to use. Secondly, I was reminded that education is slow-moving. As much as I have tried to help equip and empower teachers to do things differently, the law of inertia still applies. However, I have seen lots of encouraging movement in the right direction!

How can the idea of being fully liberated from the textbook be realized?

I think in some ways the textbook can be a great resource. And if we think of it as a resource – not as the sole source of our curriculum – it can still be very useful. I have found that it sometimes provides a great structure for newer teachers. And in some subjects like literature, it provides access to materials that students need to read. But when we have a grasp on what we want to teach and what we want students to learn, then we become best equipped to provide that custom-created learning environment for our students. We know the unique needs of our students. We know our material intimately. And we know the connections that we can make between our students and that material. When that happens, we can create this perfectly designed learning pathway that a traditional textbook just can’t do. We know what we are trying to accomplish and we can do it ourselves. That’s when true liberation can really start to blossom.

With the amazing quantity and quality of resources available online – often for free – why don’t all educators embrace the ideas of teaching from diverse sources?

This is a question that I have wrestled with a lot myself. The fact that we have almost unlimited resources can be very empowering, but also crippling at the same time. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed with the vast array of resources. There’s no way for us to see everything and evaluate what’s best. So, as a defense mechanism, I think many times we just stick to what we’ve already got. It’s easier to continue to teach from a textbook that we’re familiar with than research and vet and choose from all of the sources that are out there. Plus, digital literacy plays into this as well. How do we know that these sources are accurate or high quality? Since teachers typically have so little time and are asked to do so much, sometimes sticking to what we’ve always done is the way that we cope. For anyone who supports educators, one thing they can do to empower them is to give them time to make that vetting process easier.

Where do you see deeper learning, project-based learning, or more textbook- independent learning happening? Who is doing this? Leading it?

Sadly, I suspect that the ones who are doing the greatest work in this textbook- independent learning are the ones who do it successfully in their classrooms and don’t share it. This, however, is not a knock on their lack of sharing. It’s an encouragement to me whenever I see educators who are doing this great, innovative teaching and learning in their classrooms. The people who have the biggest platforms and voices on social media aren’t necessarily the ones who are doing the most innovative work. Unfortunately, the loudest voices aren’t always the ones who are doing the work and pushing the change. I’m always thrilled to feature innovative, forward-thinking educators as guest bloggers on my blog, and through different channels, I have to reach other educators. There’s some really fantastic innovative work being all over the world and I always feel inspired when I interact with educators anywhere.

What are a couple of immediate things teachers could do to implement these philosophies and notice an immediate impact on their students?

When you have your focus point in mind and start to develop a vision for what it looks like, there are a few things that can empower teachers to get started. One is to start small. Many times, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with a great big vision of what you want to change. I believe that the easiest way to start change is to have small successes. I always encourage teachers to find something that makes them say, “I can do this.” It’s all about confidence again. When they have that small success, it gives them momentum and confidence to try the next thing. Momentum is powerful. Another thing that can drive change with your chosen focus is to keep your eye on the results. Results don’t have to be grades in a grade book or standardized test scores. We can choose the results that we want to monitor. We can choose results based on criteria that we know demonstrates success in whatever area we want to measure. When we see that something is succeeding because it shows results, that gives us confidence. But it also goes a long way to convince parents, administration, the community, and whomever else we need to convince.

How did ‘DITCH THAT HOMEWORK’ come about as the next iteration after ‘Ditch That Textbook’?

Honestly, this was a passion project for me and my co-author Alice Keeler. For both of us, we had seen so many concerns about inequities and inefficiencies in homework and how it was wrecking families and relationships. The more we talked to other people and dove into the research, the more concerns we had. We didn’t want to fight the battle of whether homework should be assigned. Instead, we wanted to provide some practical ideas for teachers who wanted to see what could be done instead. That’s what ‘Ditch That Homework’ is all about — answering the question of what we can do if traditional homework isn’t getting us the results that we want.

What are the pitfalls and problems with homework?

For one, I don’t think that many educators get the results out of homework that they anticipate. I think many times we look at homework through rose-colored glasses. We assume that we will get extra quality repetitions outside of the classroom by assigning homework. The reality is that those homework assignments don’t provide great results. And in many cases, they create detrimental circumstances that can actually work against what we want to accomplish in education. Students often try to complete homework assignments in environments that won’t really lead to solid learning. Sadly, the assignments aren’t often designed to provide that kind of learning. Many times, students who could benefit from the homework are the ones who either won’t do it or will copy someone else’s answers just to get the points. And the students who don’t really need the homework are the ones who end up completing it, which unfairly inflates their grades over the ones who are struggling.

We haven’t even touched on the equity issues here. When we ask families to become surrogate teachers and help children complete assignments, we create an inequitable situation, especially for families whose parents don’t have high levels of education. The discussion of concerns around homework are so broad and deep. The more I look at them and the more that I talk to parents, the more I question whether students are better off doing homework.

There seems to be more of a recent pushback on homework, especially amongst parents of younger learners. What are your thoughts?

I have read lots of writing and research about the value of play in the learning of younger students. When we encourage students to do mindless repetition drills at home, it starts to steer away from that. That’s a big concern for me. When students come into early grades, there’s still a sense of joy around learning. When we snuff out that joy by making learning a chore, we start to kill this momentum that we have going that will propel students to become quality learners throughout their lives. And many times, it’s in pursuit of standardized test scores and short-term gains. We are really cutting off our nose to spite our face.

How do you think we can get all stakeholders – teachers, leaders, parents, board members, community and event students – on the same page about how we define learning and what school should be about?

I think this issue is all about vision. Many times, school leaders cast a vision of what’s important to them but it doesn’t reflect the vision of the families they serve. If we want to get everyone on the same page about what learning should look like, it should reflect the needs of the community. That’s one thing that I love about the way education is done in the United States. It’s so locally-driven. States have a big say in how school is run, but local school boards, individual school districts, and individual schools have even more of a say. The federal government doesn’t drive very much of it. This gives local schools and districts the nimbleness they need to make change that reflects what their community wants. Sadly, I think many times we squander that great advantage. We don’t create something that is unique and specifically tailored to what our communities want. Many times, I think it should begin and end with serving the needs of the communities. When families feel like the education in schools is a reflection of what they value, they rally behind it. There’s a perception that the schools are giving their children what they need to succeed. And in the end, everyone ends up working together toward that goal.

What’s next for you?  Where is this work going to take you?

I’m fortunate that I get to spend my life supporting and empowering teachers. I love highlighting the great work that’s being done by teachers in the classroom. I love providing resources that equip teachers to try new ideas without having to invest significant time and money. To do that, I will continue to keep an eye and a foot in the classroom however I can. I’m also actively looking for ways to lift up and amplify the voices of those doing the work in the classroom, especially teachers of color and in marginalized groups. I love being able to do that through my annual free online conference Ditch Summit, through my blog, and through other channels.

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Reflecting on the Hybrid Experience

Having taught the first nine weeks of the school year fully virtual, it took some time to adjust to all that goes into teaching online. Unlike the end of the past school year, we were running a regular schedule with classes meeting synchronously. After the first two days, I quickly figured out that I needed more than one computer and headphones. I needed at least two devices, a computer stand or two, and a ring light so that my students could actually see me. Beyond these tech adjustments, there was a struggle to get into a workflow. While we do many of the same tasks in our physical classroom space, it takes less time and the way we complete them looks different.

It was a process. Remembering to take attendance, mute and unmute myself, record the lesson, and make sure I turned off the incoming video for the students first, took some time. Developing a routine so I could minimize loss of instructional time as I worked to share my screen and verify it could be seen, teach while also letting students in who kept getting kicked out of meetings or were coming late to class, and remember to download the attendance list before ending the meeting. Of course, that meant I had to end the meeting, rather than just leave, otherwise the meeting continues and I don’t get the recording. Remember to download and then upload the recording to each class Teams space. This is just a short list of the tasks that we have to keep up with when teaching in the virtual space and if all students are learning remotely.

To say that it’s exhausting is an understatement. There are a lot of things to balance, challenges we have to push through, and roadblocks that pop up, especially when it comes to technology. We need to make sure our students can participate and that we provide them with the most meaningful learning experience that we can while also acknowledging that we are not in a typical learning situation.

While it was challenging, part of me wanted to stay with virtual learning because I felt like I finally had a good workflow and had improved on the types of learning opportunities I was creating for my students. But I also wanted to shift to hybrid so I had that time in class to see the students. Neither of these is ideal and I look forward to when we can all be back in our classrooms together.

Preparing for the shift

How do you teach in this type of hybrid, the teaching live and online simultaneously? I tried to prepare myself ahead of time by joining in discussions in different learning communities, participating in Twitter chats, and asking my own questions to find out what other teachers were experiencing. What many of them said was that it was overwhelming doing two jobs at the same time. Beyond its impact on us as teachers, I worry about the students who have questions that most likely can’t ask them because teachers are interacting with the students in the physical classroom or vice versa. It is a lot to take on and it’s not ideal but what I learned from spring school closures is that you have to make the best of it and you do the best you can.

How do you prepare? You have to be intentional about the types of learning experiences our students need. They need to feel comfortable in their learning space wherever that is. They need to be able to ask questions and find resources whenever they need them. We need support from our administrators when it does become overwhelming or we’re exhausted because we are and will continue to be. We need to know that it’s okay to take a break and to not have to worry so much about covering all of the same content that we normally would in any other “normal” school year. Nothing about this right now is normal and unfortunately, the likelihood is that it won’t return to normal anytime soon.

From the spring until now I’ve changed a lot about myself as a teacher. It has been hard to break away from the typical activities, content, or other materials that I have been accustomed to using in my classroom. But what I have learned is that we really need to think about how to best assess students and give them opportunities to practice because the answers are all over the Internet. As a language teacher, I battle against the use of online translators and a website that provides students with answers to any textbook or workbook you can find. There is also the issue of students copying each other’s homework. With these challenges, it forces us to think very carefully about what we’re asking our students to do. I tried some new tools thinking I could steer students away from using those and it was an improvement but there were still problems.

When it comes to technology, we can’t assume that students know exactly how to use it so we have to show them. When they use the technology for copying text directly from a website or in my class, using a translator, or finding an answer key, it is so frustrating. It is a struggle but we need to instead teach them why they shouldn’t use these tactics and how it negatively impacts their learning potential.

The great balancing act

The first day was interesting making the adjustments to our new classroom procedures and setup. As students come in, they grab towels to wipe down their desks and then log into the Teams meeting on their phone so they can access any notes in the chat.  I have a workspace at the front of the room, with one computer on a stand in front of me and my other computer propped up so that if I am screen sharing something on one, I can let students into the Teams meeting on the other computer. I use the stand so I am visible to the students in my classroom and online however I felt like I was greatly limiting my ability to interact with all students.

I started to lose my voice from having to speak louder through the mask and students at home could not hear me well. If the students at home spoke, only I could hear them and if students in the class asked a question, I often could not hear them because of the headset, so I kept having to remove one of the earbuds. I had to keep repeating everything and typing it into the meeting chat so that all students could read the message.  When I wrote on the board, students at home could not see what I wrote and so I needed a better plan.

What worries me

There are so many questions and concerns I have, beyond teaching the lesson itself. If I want to give students a paper so we can break from the screen time, I worry about passing out papers or collecting them from students. I worry about them having to sharpen their pencil. I worry that a student did not clean their desk or the desk shield enough. I worry about it all.

When I’m looking in my classroom with my students, I worry that I’m losing the engagement of the students who are at home. That I’m doing them a disservice because I’m somehow not providing enough and that there’s something that I could do better. I asked myself: Should I create a video of myself teaching every single lesson and then have all of the students watch it? Should I have the students at home watch the video while I teach the students in my classroom? When I give a test, do I provide students in the classroom with a paper copy and create a digital assessment for the online students? Should I wait to give all students the test when they’re physically in the classroom so I can answer their questions and make sure they’re not looking up the answer somewhere? But what about the students who are fully virtual? There are so many things to consider each day.

I believe that if schools were doing the four days synchronously and one day asynchronously, then all students would be getting the same instruction, the same activities, they could hear and see the teacher at the same time. In the hybrid world, as it is in this definition of hybrid, I feel like because of the split, we are going to lose more of the students. If we would have them together four out of five days in virtual, I do truly believe that the hybrid cuts that in half. That might be an unpopular opinion but that is what I notice based on my own experience, my thought process, the conversations that I’ve had, and everything that I’ve seen shared from teachers over the last couple of months. It is how I am feeling during my own experience and I’m working on finding ways to improve.

My best tips

What has helped me with some of those initial challenges is bringing in some extra equipment and deciding on a few digital tools to use consistently. First, by using my HUE HD Pro Document camera, students could see me in the classroom and I didn’t have to stay in front of my netbook computer webcam. It also helps with being able to write on paper and share it on the screen for all students to see. Connecting a microphone to my desktop so that the sound could be heard in the classroom, students can speak to each other and I was not attached to my computer, and could move around the room. Making sure that I set everything up ahead of time, keeping a list nearby that reminded me of the time for each class, and a checklist for each period of what we need to do to maintain our safety.

Choose some different digital tools to provide interactive lessons. The tools that I’ve been using the most have been Buncee, Edpuzzle, Formative, Nearpod, Gimkit, and Synth. These are tools we have used for several years however they provide more possibilities for collaboration and are great for having students engage more in the lesson.

The first couple of days of hybrid I felt like I was not managing everything very well. Shifting from fully virtual to hybrid is a big transition for students and teachers and families of course. But when we started virtual, it took a few weeks to feel like I was in a better workflow, and then making the shift to hybrid I felt like I was starting all over again. Although this has been a challenging time with all of our transitions since March, we are much better prepared than we were then. Even if we do have to continue shifting between virtual, hybrid, and in-person, we have more experience and versatile tools available to us and our students that can help and we are building our skill set in the process.

There is no perfect solution but the best that we can do is to keep trying and being open to new ideas and tools and strategies. We need to embrace the challenges and times where we feel like we failed, and learn from it and move on.

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Pharrell Launches Whole Child Nonprofit to Even the Odds

Last month Pharrell Williams launched nonprofit YELLOW to “Even the odds through education.” Five whole child priorities focus the early work of the nonprofit:

  • Abolish remedial: “Remedial” is an oppressive concept that penalizes individuality and difference, so we work to change the lens through which schools and systems look at children, and the way children look at themselves and their futures.
  • Revolutionize teaching: We are rethinking what schools look like, the role of teachers, where learning happens, and the variety of digital and analogue experiences that all work together to educate children.
  • Inspire entrepreneurship: We prepare children to be innovators and change-makers, and help them bring their ideas to life. Working with industry leaders and promoting skills aligned to the future, YELLOW creates entrepreneurial pathways for all youth.
  • Nourish youth: Social, emotional and physical well-being represent the most critical building blocks for learning. This includes what we eat, how we breath, who we love — and our ecosystem approach will serve the comprehensive well-being of children and families.
  • Enlist communities: The community is an ecosystem of interconnected people, services, institutions, and values that can work together to lift up children and each other.

“We’ve assembled a dynamic team of change-makers willing to disrupt the system to make all kids future ready,” said Pharrell.

Advisors and team members have been writing on YELLOW beginning with Tom’s essay on replacing a ‘remedial’ mindset with support for individual growth.

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It’s time to meet kids where they are. And from that starting place, we can help them figure out who they are and where they want to go. By really knowing them, and helping them know themselves, together we can construct an educational experience that supports them in setting meaningful goals for life and work — goals that matter to them and their communities.

In traditional educational systems, we ask kids to meet us where we are. We ask them to fit into an outdated construct that says all children should know certain things by a certain age. Grouping kids by age and marching them through content, advancing with each birthday regardless of what they’re learning, is an artifact of administrative convenience that’s prioritizing systems over understanding and has little to do with how children develop.

The (mostly) well-intentioned fix to support stragglers in this lockstep approach was “remedial education” — drill-based approaches to get kids “back on track.” Sadly, for those who can’t keep up, education is stripped of all the experiences that make it engaging, meaningful, and fun.

The drumbeat of pacing in America is set by year-end standardized tests of grade-level proficiency that fixates school leaders and teachers on what’s easy to measure (like hand calculations in math) instead of what’s important to measure (like creativity, healthy mindsets, and deeper learning). So then uniform pacing and narrow assessments go hand in hand to shift focus from individual students and their unique needs as learners to that of a mythical “average student.”

Students who don’t master content at the prescribed pace receive a label — remedial — and this label is tough to shake with potentially disastrous ramifications on self-concept. But in reality, learners who are slower than that mythical average student are indicating that the pace and content of their education was never designed for them in the first place. Whose fault is that?

Learners deserve the time and support necessary to master foundational knowledge. And as we take into account the supports they need, we can recognize them as whole people who deserve to be engaged in interesting and important work. As educators, we need to connect to students’ interests, passions, and motivations, to understand where they are coming from and where they aspire to go. We need to tailor education to their pace, with mastery of knowledge as the goal.

Life and interests don’t always match a curriculum pacing guide. An illness could spur interest in how viruses spread. Current events could trigger curiosity in voting rights. Finding ways to connect learning with interests and events is another part of meeting learners where they are and uncovering those hooks that scaffold them on their educational journey.

Better Data for Better Learning Journeys

Meeting learners where they are starts with assessment, but it’s not with those big artificial, uninformative, inequitable year-end standardized tests. It starts with a broad set of observations, formal and informal, embedded in authentic learning experiences, with the primary goal of benefiting the learner.

Young people deserve better data—real-time feedback that measures what matters for their academic, social, and emotional development. With data so easily accessible today, we are equipped better than ever to serve the unique needs of young people.

Imagine asset-based, growth-oriented data that helps learners understand how they learn and motivates their persistence, data that helps teachers build dynamic performance groups to help kids build skills without learning gaps, data that helps teams pursue projects around common interests, and data that helps learners find meaningful connections to their possible careers.

When YELLOW says they are working to “abolish remedial,” it’s because they believe it’s an oppressive concept that deflates children’s potential. YELLOW is working to create the tools and practices that will change the lens through which adults look at children, and children look at themselves and their futures. Drawing upon meaningful data, YELLOW’s approach is to help educators create dynamic “learner profiles” for each child that will allow them to co-construct an educational journey that nurtures curiosity, builds on strengths, and facilitates a love of learning.

By building data-driven, meaningful, and future-forward assessment tools in this way, YELLOW is helping to advance the art of teaching as a system, by placing learners not “below” or “above” grade level, but at the center of their education.

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Building Trust through Design Thinking

By: Sabba Quidwai and Devin Vodicka

In part one of our series we talked about the relationship between the importance of educators collaborating to design learning experiences. When designing collaborative environments where everyone thrives, developing relational trust is incredibly important as this work cannot be and should not be done alone. As was found in a comprehensive, multi-year research partnership with the University of California San Diego, improvements in the levels of trust were predictive of positive changes in many other important areas. In fact, “students’ trust in their educators (principal and teacher trust) has the highest average association with all areas that together make up the student’s school experience.”

A similar phenomenon was found when analyzing the level of trust that teachers had for their principals, where principal trust was found to have the highest overall association with areas that together make up the teacher’s daily experiences in their work, including collaboration between teachers, communication with parents, instructional practices, and equity beliefs.

What is trust? While there are many different definitions, we feel that it is important to ground our efforts on the work of Bryk and Schneider who conducted extensive research on relational trust. In their studies, they found that schools with high levels of relational trust were three times more likely to improve in academic achievement and those schools with low levels of relational trust showed little or no improvements.

Relational trust grows or decreases as a result of the interactions between two individuals. It is important to recognize that relational trust is dynamic (meaning that it changes over time) and it is specific to particular contexts and tasks. In short, while there is a tendency to generalize trust between people, the reality is that we trust one another to do specific things under specific conditions. As an example, a teacher may trust a colleague to co-plan an instructional unit but that does not mean that the teacher would trust the same colleague to co-host the school talent show. In addition, levels of trust are influenced by each person’s unique history and perspective.

Given the reality that relational trust is dynamic, contextual, and dependent on others, it is not possible to unilaterally improve trust. While building trust is complex, research does indicate that there are critical components that help to build (or erode) relational trust. We suggest that educators should be mindful of the “Four Elements of Trust” and intentional in their approach. The Four Elements are consistency, compassion, competence, and communication.

Recent research by Quidwai found a critical connection between relational trust, collaboration, and the development of mindsets and skillsets when engaging in design thinking through her doctoral study of Design 39 Campus in Poway, CA. Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process to complex challenges which seeks to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. (Interaction Design Foundation, 2020). Building a culture of empathy is the first step towards building a foundation of trust to foster social relationships and establishing shared norms and values within the organization (Edmonson, 1999). Amongst educators in particular, this leads to a culture of knowledge exchange, sharing of best practices and collaboration on lessons that have a direct impact on stronger learning outcomes for students (Moolenaar & Sleegers, 2010).

When surveyed, over 90% of the Learning Experience Designers (LEDs) see the value of integrating design thinking into the curriculum to develop the skills of creativity, problem finding, collaboration, and communication:

In addition the survey results indicated that creative confidence, empathy and learning from failure were seen as the strongest mindsets being developed, followed by iterating, making, comfort with ambiguity and then optimism

The performance improvement the LEDs see in the skills and mindsets their learners are mastering deepens their trust and collaborative work with one another when they each bring their “superpower” to the table. Establishing that everyone has a unique superpower, a strength that they bring to the table was a foundational element of collaboration. The topic of superpowers came up in all the interviews and as one LED shared, “we are capable of all things and if we had to do them we could, but our superpowers highlight what we are energized by and what brings us joy. It allows us to develop a deeper sense of empathy with one another because we understand that ok in collaboration you need this, I may not need that but by knowing this about each other we can help give each other what we need.”

Building off of these research insights, this article will provide framing for each of the four elements of trust along with suggested design protocols for educators.

Consistency & Competence

When we are in a relationship with others, there is a degree of vulnerability that is inherent in every interaction. As a result, we typically feel more safe in taking risks if we believe that we can rely on the other person. This is why definitions of trust often include predictability, reliability, and integrity. Being able to “count on” the other party is an essential element of relational trust.

Educators can model consistency by maintaining their commitments, adhering to routines, and implementing systems and procedures which build comfort and security. As one LED shared, “team here and collaboration does not mean we are being best friends it means can I trust you to show up and do your best.”

Getting things done well is a critical element of relational trust. It isn’t just what we say, but what we do that influences the level of trust throughout our interactions. Follow through on commitments is essential. In addition, we need to remember that being trusted with certain tasks (usually based on past performance) does not automatically mean that we are trusted with all things. Educators can model competence by achieving goals and celebrating successes.

One way to utilize a design approach to establishing consistency and competence is through the Team Canvas model.

Credit: Team Canvas. Click to launch a digital version you can use with your team

Compassion & Communication

Relational trust is more likely to exist when we feel cared about and connected to the other person. This occurs through meaningful interactions where we feel a sense of empathy and concern. Importantly, the research in this area shows that the care must be sincere and genuine. Expressions of compassion often include making exceptions and therefore an inherent tension exists between compassion and consistency. Educators can model compassion by taking time to learn about student strengths, interests, and passions and then adjusting and co-creating plans.

Communication is the exchange of information that conveys consistency, compassion, and competence. In other words, this can be an amplifier or a muffler for the first three elements of trust. The research here is also clear that receptive communication – how we receive information, particularly through listening during synchronous interactions – is more important than our expressive communications. Educators can model communication through active listening, soliciting input and feedback, and by clearly expressing their ideas. Maintaining confidentiality is also vital to maintaining trust.

One way to utilize a design approach to establishing compassion and communication is through the All In Method by Alexander Jamieson and Bob Gower from their book, “Radical Alignment: How to Have Game Changing Coversations That Will Transform Your Business and Life.” In this method each team member shares their intentions, concerns, boundaries and dreams.

Image Credit: Alexander Jamieson & Bob Gower.

Click to launch a digital version of the above template that you can use with your team. 

The four elements of trust are essential to create and sustain strong relationships. They are multi-dimensional and exist in tension to one another. Consistency, for example, is “intrapersonal” and internal while compassion is “interpersonal” and external. Competence and communication exist between dyads (two people) but also at the levels of organizations, communities, and networks. Emphasizing consistency often comes at the expense of compassion while competence and communication require time that is often at a premium. In other words, developing relational trust is hard work. And while it may be difficult, we know that relational trust forms the foundation for meaningful collaboration which is imperative for ongoing growth and transformation.

Connecting the abstract concepts of relational trust with the protocols and practices that we have suggested is done to provide concrete suggestions that can be done anywhere and at any time. As we have seen from innovative exemplar schools such as Design 39, the possibility for transcendent learning environments that create a “new grammar of schooling” is real and achievable. In the words of the educators at Design 39, it is also an ongoing process

One LED shared, “There is so much trust. We aren’t afraid to have a big idea because you have people who will help you take that idea, make it better and make it happen.”

Design39 is not a place where educators wait to be told what to do and when to learn. Rather, the culture at Design39 encourages and trusts the LEDs to personalize their learning and development as professionals, to seek out the resources and experiences that will enhance and develop their ability to define and design a new grammar of school and supports the LEDs by providing the time and space to dream, share and execute on their ideas. Seeing the radical transformation in their own teaching practice as LEDs, and witnessing their learner’s creativity, problem solving, communication and other trending skills and mindsets develop, increases the value for the ongoing integration of design thinking. At the heart of this process is a foundation of trust, rooted in consistency, compassion, competence, and communication.

Additional References

  • Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
  • Gower, B. & Jamieson, A. (2020). Radical alignment: How to have game changing conversations that will transform your business and life. Sounds True.
  • Moolenaar, Nienke & Sleegers, Peter. (2010). Social networks, trust, and innovation. How social relationships support trust and innovative climates in Dutch Schools. Social Network Theory and Educational Change. 97-114.
  • Quidwai, S. (2020). Defining and designing a new grammar of school with design thinking: A promising practice study. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Southern California
  • Vodicka, D. (2006). The Four Elements of Trust. Principal Leadership, 7(3), 27-30.
  • Vodicka, D. (2007). Social capital in schools: Teacher trust for school principals and the social networks of teachers. Doctoral Dissertation, Pepperdine University

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Dr. Sabba Quidwai is a social scientist, graduate of the Global Executive EdD program at the University of Southern California and a former high school Social Science teacher. Follow her on Twitter at @askMsQ

Devin Vodicka, Ed.D, is the Chief Impact Officer at Altitude Learning, author of Learner-Centered Leadership, and former superintendent of Vista Unified School District in San Diego, CA. Follow him on Twitter at @dvodicka.

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