Why We Built a Hub for Vetted Vaccination Resources for Public Schools

By L. Arthi Krishnaswami, Eric Tucker, and Erin Mote

Now more than ever, trusted resources are as good as gold. More than a year of uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic, during which some elected officials pilloried scientists for speaking truth, left a lot of people confused, skeptical, and distrustful. But now that the COVID-19 vaccines are available at scale, it’s imperative that society build back that confidence and trust in science again so more people feel comfortable getting a vaccine.

But how do we do that? People crave facts. They desire actionable health insights. They seek confidence in the notion that they can rely on official information. 

As society looks to vaccinations to help us achieve herd immunity and get to the other side of this pandemic, Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools (LAB) and EquityByDesign.org have teamed up to develop the School Vaccine Hub—a free, online resource that empowers K-12 educators to help local school communities understand and manage plans for COVID-19 vaccinations. This centralized platform offers credible vaccine information and accompanying curriculum and tools that schools can use to promote the uptake of COVID-19 vaccinations, and address fears and concerns about vaccines in America’s diverse public-school communities. Some of the resources are translated into languages beyond English, including Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, and Korean.

Central to this project is the idea that schools can advance vaccination equity by making trusted information available from trusted local community leaders. This local approach will help communities overcome vaccine hesitancy to defeat COVID-19, while giving schools a vital role to play in rebuilding public trust.

Our team—including colleagues from a host of leading health and education organizations— identified and vetted over 400 trustworthy resources from more than 350 different entities; the Hub hosts 75 of the most relevant, highest-quality resources. We vetted each of these resources against a rubric we developed earlier this year. 

The Hub is connected to the broader Educating All Learners Alliance (EALA) effort to share trustworthy, evidence-backed solutions that helped schools reimagine a safe approach to in-school, remote, and hybrid school during the pandemic. EALA placed an emphasis on ensuring the continuity of special education services during remote instruction, spotlighting best practice approaches for schools and educators across the country. Like the Hub, EALA prioritizes equity above all else.

Anatomy of a Hub

The School Vaccine Hub concept began to take form in December. As the national conversation around vaccines gained momentum, we noticed that no one was providing a coordinated set of trusted resources for schools and educators.

By February, we started collecting these materials from credible, non-partisan sources such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the World Health Organization. We sought data from public health institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Then we broadened the search to include independent journalism projects from media organizations such as CNN, NPR, ProPublica, The Atlantic, Quartz, the New York Times, and the 19th.

We also teamed up with the COVID Collaborative, a national assembly of leading experts and institutions that has partnered with the Ad Council to create a COVID-19 vaccine public education campaign.

We added content from respected institutions, with information such as vaccine comparison overviews from Yale Medicine, state-by-state data vaccination data from Our World in Data, and “COVID-19 Vaccination Communication: Applying Behavioral and Social Science to Address Vaccine Hesitancy and Foster Vaccine Confidence” from the National Institute of Health.

Brooklyn LAB co-developed curricular resources for the Hub that are intended to engage students, too. “Teachers can use these lesson plans to empower students with science-based facts about the risks of the virus and the efficacy of the vaccine to encourage impactful conversations with family members and others who may be hesitant to get vaccinated,” said Max Koltuv of SOAR Education Partners, who worked with LAB to develop the curriculum.

Les Lynn, director of Argument-Centered Education, created a debate unit curriculum, especially for the School Vaccine Hub. “This mini-unit is designed to teach students about COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, its sources, and solutions criticality, through the lens of evidence-based arguments,” said Lynn. “Students will have the chance to research, write, analyze, respond to, and evaluate arguments made on vaccine hesitancy from across the spectrum.” 

Over the course of two months, we whittled down these resources to several dozen of the highest impact, free items. As the dataset grew, we began to develop a rubric by which to measure and evaluate the resources we had pulled. 

What’s next

We have designed the School Vaccine Hub to be organic and grow over time. Our goal is to feature the most relevant, current information on the COVID-19 vaccine to support equitable access to information for school communities. As vaccines become available for younger people, we will continue to review data and share it. We expect to add new material to the Hub in the weeks and months ahead. 

We have also invited schools, medical institutions, media platforms, and public health entities to nominate curricular tools, articles, videos, or other resources to share on the Hub.

All told, the School Vaccine Hub will reach thousands of schools through a distribution partnership with more than 80 educational organizations from the EALA, including the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Center for Learner Equity, InnovateEDU, Digital Promise and ISTE. We look forward to seeing schools embrace the resource, and hope it will empower them to address hesitancy and spearhead vaccination efforts in their respective communities.

For more see:

L. Arthi Krishnaswami is the founder of the Community Success Institute and an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh

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Safety Loss: Using the Social Engagement System to Find ‘Felt Safety’

By: Kelley Munger & Megan Marcus

While there has been a wide spectrum in how schools have responded to COVID-19, it would be near impossible to identify a school, educator, family, or student who has not experienced tremendous change this year. As we know from this collective tragedy, much of this change has been laced with uncertainty, anxiety, loss, and for many, trauma. Now, as we all breathe a sigh of relief and hope that we are on the path to re-opening and renewing our educational communities, we also face the daunting aftermath of the past year. One such impact that many educators, parents, and policymakers are concerned about is the academic learning loss that children have experienced in this unprecedented year, especially in light of inequity across our systems of education, many of which were laid bare during the pandemic.

But before we all turn our urgency, attention, and resources to the learning loss of the last year, we need to first consider and recognize the widespread impact of the safety loss that has taken place.

When schools as we know them changed overnight in March 2020, children, families, and society at large lost what is called “felt safety.” Felt safety, a term commonly used in attachment and regulation theory is the ability to feel safe, calm, and at rest in your environment. Under ordinary conditions, schools are places where many students and their families feel held by an invisible web of emotional, social, physical, and academic support. Parents reliably count on teachers and school support staff to warmly welcome students each morning and deliver them back to them each afternoon. Students learn so much more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic in the social interactions with peers at recess and after school, many of which are supported by caring educators. And when educators are able to use their full gifts to attune to and support students in the classroom, they often feel a deep sense of purpose and meaning in their lives

All of these facets of schooling provide great safety, and all of this was disrupted.

From a place of felt safety, trust, growth, and learning unfold; but without it, humans are pushed into stress responses and survival states that impede learning. In other words, what the science tells us, and what most educators already know, is that students must experience safety in their bodies (versus simply being told they are safe) before they can flourish in any classroom setting. Felt safety is experienced in our autonomic nervous systems and leads to feeling relaxed, grounded, connected, calm, and social. This felt safety is foundational to learning, and the loss of it for students and educators over the past year has had and will continue to have profound effects.

How might we expect this loss of safety to show up in students and school staff? Well, when students do not feel safe, there may be a rise in behavioral struggles including reactivity, withdrawal, or shutting down. Students may feel anxious about their basic needs and may focus this worry on things like food or the safety of their caregivers. Likewise, educators who have lost a sense of safety may struggle to find footing this year with their own emotional health, which may lead to a struggle to perform their job as they ordinarily would. Like a rubber band that has been “stretched out” by stress over the past year, many educators are reporting chronic exhaustion, anxiety, and/or sadness. Unfortunately, the effects of compounding stress on students, educators, and families won’t magically go away without concerted effort and intentional support.

Our goal for this year should be to help both educators and students “bounce back” before focusing on academic expectations. Safe relationships and positive unconditional support fuel this elasticity, creating the resilience that promotes learning and flourishing. Fortunately, if we can name the lack of safety that is a result of trauma, transition, and loss, we can also plan for how to help students back into feeling safe, calm, and of course, ready to grow and learn. So where do we begin?

When welcoming students back into whatever your school’s new normal is, as an educator, use your body’s built-in superpower—the Social Engagement System (SES)—to communicate safety to your students. The Social Engagement System is the way we both read and give out social cues in our environment. Because we humans are social creatures, just like trauma is experienced through our senses, safety is also experienced through our senses: warm eye contact, soothing voice, and healthy touch from a protector can calm a frightened or stressed person, bringing the body out of a stress response into the calm zone. Using your SES to help others recover from safety lost means providing for students (or staff) the following:

  • Warm eye contact
  • Relaxed face
  • Soft to medium voice
  • Easy and inviting posture
  • Vocal tone that is warm and gentle, and at times firm, but never harsh

All of these are signals from your SES that, without words, powerfully tell a student, “I’m safe, and you are safe too.” But here’s the catch with using the SES: it reflects a person’s internal state, and so it will always reveal what is “behind the scenes.” As a result, the only way for educators to truly invite a student back into felt safety is for educators themselves to feel safe. Naming this compassionately both with and for educators is the first step to recovery and the reason why filling educators’ cups is imperative to addressing both safety and learning loss.

School and district leadership across the country can address the need to restore educator felt safety through the following practices:

  • Providing information about and support for educators to receive therapy
  • Forming networks of peer support within schools
  • Creating therapeutic spaces such as processing circles for educators to digest their experiences
  • Providing school and district leaders with empathy training so that they can improve their ability to help educators feel safe and seen.
  • Encouraging educators to share their story of the trauma they have experienced, and being a safe space for this

Helping students to recover safety will involve educators filling their own wells, which will require leaders of educators to gain the skills that are prerequisite to developing others: empathy, genuineness, and the communication of unconditional positive regard and to design workspaces where educators can feel safe and seen. Through these practices, educators can feel safer and seen inside their professional cultures, creating post-traumatic growth in not only educators but in educational systems on the whole. Trauma often pulls people together; now is the time to pour our resources into not only recreating but reimagining safety for educators and students in schools across the world.

For more see,

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Virtual Immersion: How to Make the Most of a Virtual Space

Over the past year, we’ve had to adjust so much of our personal and professional lives. People who may not have used a lot of technology have found themselves using it for nearly every part of their day for work and personal life. With limits placed on so much of our daily lives, we had to adapt, grow and persist throughout the many changes we experienced in how we communicate and connect with others. Technology already played such a big part in our everyday lives and in the past year, through technology we have been able to keep schools going, to keep working, to access essential items that we need for our homes, and probably the most important, to stay connected with family and friends.

We saw and experienced an increase in familiarity with using video conferencing tools like Google Meet,  Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or the many other options that are out there for connecting us with others in the same virtual space. We relied on these tools during our sudden shift to remote work and learning to be able to teach, learn, work, and connect. Businesses found new ways to survive and thrive in what was definitely a challenging time and have emerged with new ways to work, creating even more opportunities for collaboration and the knowledge that we can persist when met with challenges, we need to simply explore new ideas and innovate in our practice, regardless of our work.

These spaces were not only beneficial to educators and the world of work. Thinking about the activities that we enjoy like spending time with family and friends, traveling, engaging in activities from conferences to concerts, these technologies created a means to find some normalcy amidst uncertainties.

Impact on education

Last year, there were a lot of missed opportunities. We saw high school graduations, academic ceremonies and sporting events carried out through unconventional means. Schools held graduations at drive-in theaters, held band and chorus concerts through live streaming or meeting platforms so that families could join in.

When schools first closed last year, my school was not using a specific platform like Microsoft Teams, and so I used Zoom to connect with my students and try to keep some consistency in what was a very inconsistent time. This year, we are using Teams which works well for creating a space where students feel more connected and can collaborate. But even with tools like Zoom or Teams, we don’t truly get the feeling of being in the same “space.” This is where I believe that the web VR tools can make an impact.

Web VR makes it possible to experience virtual reality from right within our internet browser. With Web VR, everyone can experience virtual reality without needing a specific device or even a headset. My initial experience with Web VR was through some experiments for playing games that I tried with my eighth-grade students in my STEAM course. There are many Web VR options out there that can be used for education, work, or even to explore a different way to connect with families and friends. For anyone looking to explore virtual reality meeting spaces, depending on your role or the grade level that you might teach, several of these might work. While not all of these might be a good fit for your specific purpose, it’s good to know that there are several options out there that we can try, if only to explore something a little, and promote a discussion with our students about the potential impact of these technologies.

Here are four options that I have been exploring. Some of them are easy to get started with and the ones that I used with students didn’t require much instruction from me at all. I was learning from them faster than I probably could have taught them how to interact in the spaces.

1. InSpace Chat. The most recent one that I tried was InSpace, which I learned about after joining in a conversation about the future of education. Thinking about the future, I’m always interested to learn what opportunities these tools might bring and what we can provide for our students. With InSpace Chat, you can sign up for a free 2-week trial and set it up to use it with one class with breakout rooms or set up an event that has four different rooms. You can set different backgrounds in the rooms, screen share, play a YouTube video, have a chat, and more. As you move closer to people in groups or in the room, you can actually have a conversation, which I think this takes it to a higher and more impactful level than using some of the traditional conferencing tools. I created an account, got started very quickly, and was impressed with what it offered.

2. Mozilla Hubs. With Mozilla, you create a virtual meeting room. You have an avatar to represent you and can interact with students or with other educators, in a way that is different from being in our standard class or school meetings. It is a space where 3D objects and other content like PDFs and videos can be shared. What I like about this also is that for anyone who prefers to not have the camera on, they can be represented by an avatar and be involved in a class but in a more visually engaging way. You can even upload images or take photos with you and the other  “people” in the space. It was a fun experience with my eighth graders.

3. Kumospace. I’ve heard about a lot and dove into trying Kumospace as well. With this, it’s not specific to education but you can create a customized space for use as a library space, for businesses, for gatherings in places such as a rooftop restaurant, and other spaces that enable you to feel like you are meeting in a more authentic way because of the background. Choose from the different backgrounds available and be able to feel like you are meeting in a real classroom or in an office, it just gives it a different experience With spatial audio, you can have clear conversations with others, and with the live video feed through your avatar, be able to see and interact with others in a more engaging way.

4. Frame VR.  Probably the most complex but again as with the other options, it does not take too long to get started or at the very least, to experience what it offers. My first time exploring this was with my friend Jaime Donally. Frame VR enables you to design a more immersive space for collaboration that can be experienced through your web browser, desktop computer, mobile devices, or using a VR headset. In “Frame”, you don’t need to download any app and you can simply share a link with others to join, and do a presentation which includes sharing a whiteboard or screen sharing, engaging in conversations, and more. With the photospheres, you can provide virtual field trips or tours. You can also import and play audio files that those who join in can hear.

With each of these options, you want to learn more about the options and of course, make sure you can use these depending on the grade level you teach. The best we can do is inform our students about these tools because they may need to learn or interact in one of these web VR spaces. To best prepare students for the future, we need to give them experiences that will likely be part of their future in education or in the workforce.

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Up Close with Nevada Succeeds: Leading State Learning Transformation

This is a special Getting Smart Podcast mini-series about the Nevada Succeeds InspirED Fellowship

Nevada Succeeds is a Las Vegas-based education nonprofit focused on empowering systems transformation through educator impact, policy, and design thinking. Dedicated to building a statewide ecosystem, Nevada Succeeds launched an InspirED Fellowship in July 2020 in partnership with Las Vegas Sands.

The goal of the fellowship was to empower educational practitioners to investigate Nevada education challenges and use design thinking to develop actionable plans to determine solutions. Using the Singapore education system and best practices sites across the country as a guide, Fellows engaged in deep conversations around collaboration, student achievement and professional growth for educators.

Keeping equity at the forefront of all their work, Fellows were given the opportunity to lead, the support to discover innovative solutions to educational obstacles and space to shift their practice and learning from insight to impact.

We’ve been honored to partner with Nevada Succeeds on some of this work and are excited for you to hear these conversations with some of the many key players in the initiative.

In this second part of the three-part series with Nevada Succeeds, Shawnee Caruthers and Tom Vander Ark welcome Nevada State Superintendent, Jhone Ebert; Nevada Succeeds Executive Director, Jeanine Collins; as well as two teachers and InspirED Global fellows, Mike Lang and Jordana McCudden. If you haven’t already be sure to check out episode one, as well as this piece by our guest, Jordana.

Jhone Ebert is the Superintendent of Public Instruction at the Nevada Department of Education. Previously, she was the Senior Deputy Commissioner for Education Policy of the New York State Education Department and the Chief Innovation and Productivity Officer at Clark County School District. Jeanine Collins is the Executive Director of Nevada Succeeds; an Adjunct Faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and the founder and Principal at Reflect Forward. Mike Lang is a Technology Teacher at Clark County School District who prides himself on innovation and teaching the whole student. Jordana McCudden is a teacher, instructional coach, and project facilitator at the Clark County School District. She has worked in education for 20-plus years and strives to have a positive impact on classrooms across the state.

Together, they discuss Nevada Succeeds’s InspireED Global Fellowship, why they find it so valuable as educators and leaders, how it has impacted their future plans and outlook on education, and how it has helped aid their journeys (especially during a global pandemic).

Superintendent Jhone Ebert highlights some of the interesting statistics about Nevada’s layout: there is a population of three million in the state, three quarters live in Clark County. There are 445,707 students in the state. With over 320,000 students, 35,000 employees, 336 schools and an annual budget of $5.2 billion, the Clark County School District is the fifth-largest in the nation and one of the fastest-growing. It also has been online the whole time since the pandemic started.

To begin this transformation work, Superintedent Ebert traveled and interviewed all districts to help determine what we value as human beings. She determined “it’s not just the word Equity. What are the actions we are taking?” She also says that Nevada is “ready to truly invest in our students for the future.”

Jordana McCudden is an ELL Project Facilitator for Clark County School District. She was in the first cohort of the Nevada Succeeds InspirED Global Fellowship. She highlights how important it is to stay uncomfortable in our learning in order to ensure consistent growth.

Mike Lang is a tech teacher technology at Laura Dearing Elementary in Las Vegas. He reflects on how important it is “for educators to think about how change can happen at our state.” The InspirED Global Fellowship and additional growth work have helped him to ease/smooth some assumptions and blindspots through its collaborative and laboratory approach.

All guests agreed that one of the key pieces of the InspirED Global Fellowship is remembering that individual learning can create a larger spirit of learning that can lead to tangible outcomes that take continued collaboration.

Key Takeaways:

[:04] About the Nevada Succeeds mini-series.
[1:23] About the second part of the three-part mini-series.
[1:38] Tom welcomes special guests, Jhone Ebert, Jeanine Collins, Michael Lane, and Jordana McCudden.
[2:21] Jhone Ebert gives the lay of the land in Nevada and speaks about how many students and schools there are.
[3:11] The state of affairs of education in Nevada, particularly in Clark County.
[6:53] In addition to the pandemic, what other priorities has Jhone Ebert set for her department as Superintendent?
[11:04] Jeanine speaks about Nevada Succeeds and how she and Superintendent Ebert connected.
[13:38] Mike shares how he learned about the InspireED Global Fellowship, what he did in it, and why he found it valuable.
[16:15] What it has been like for Mike to teach during a pandemic, how he has helped other teachers adjust their practice this year, and important lessons he thinks we should take with us, post-pandemic.
[19:04] Jordanna speaks about her role in Clark County, how she became an InspireED Global fellow, and how it has impacted the way she is thinking about her future plans.
[23:22] Has helping to shape education policies statewide been a byproduct of some of Jordanna’s leadership activities?
[25:01] Jhone Ebert shares her excitement and gratefulness for sharing space with incredible educators and leaders.
[26:17] Jeanine speaks more about the incredible Nevada Succeeds InspirED Global Fellowship and why it is so important — especially right now.
[28:20] Mike speaks about his week going forward as an educator.
[29:28] Tom thanks everyone for joining the podcast.

Mentioned in This Episode:

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Helping Teachers Prioritize Social Emotional Learning

By: JoJuan Armour

The process of developing self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills vital for school, work, and life success, social-emotional learning (SEL) was already well on its way to becoming a key focus for schools before COVID turned our world upside down. As schools and teachers quickly shifted to remote learning and later began rolling out “hybrid” instructional approaches, the need for SEL was amplified to entirely new levels. 

The case for SEL is a strong one. According to Collaborative for Academic, Social,and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL helps young people acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, and achieve personal and collective goals. It also shows them how to feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. 

Not Just for Students

Right now, much of the conversation is around SEL for students, but we have to remember that teachers also have to be able to manage the impacts of COVID both in and out of the classroom. As the person charged with implementing SEL standards at our school, I use a multipronged approach that includes community partnerships, teacher training, professional development days, and our 7 Mindsets SEL curriculum. 

Working together, these resources help us create an environment for students who become young adults who can make responsible decisions and see the benefit of being self- and socially-aware. As a Title One charter school located in a low-income community, many of our students have unfortunately been affected by COVID and its related impacts on families and the community as a whole. 

3 Success Strategies

We know that we have a huge task ahead of us right now, but as a career-based institution, we’re focused on restorative practices, positive behavior interventions, and multi-tiered levels of support. Put simply, we cater to the emotional needs of our students and our teachers. Here are three approaches that we’re using to support teachers who are struggling with COVID-related burnout or mental health challenges: 

1. Set up a referral system. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests that every school/prevention program establish a problem identification and referral system for students. Problem Identification and Referral is one of six Center for Substance Abuse and Prevention (CSAP) strategies. The goal is to identify and refer on if these students need additional supports. Schools should use a similar setup with their own staff members, with a focus on counseling, substance abuse, or some other type of intervention. Having a referral system in place to acknowledge and to assist the students and staff members to resources adds that additional wrap-around support. Everyone faces their own adversity and some fall victim to their own circumstances.  

2. Tap into prevention tools. Our goal is to prevent the onset or use of substances or just illicit lifestyles. To help, I like to use the tool that’s provided by SAMHSA/ OHMHAS (Ohio Department Mental Health & Addiction Services), which have both done a lot of work in this area. They’ve done the research, so why not pull from what has already been identified to help students and teachers out? It only makes sense that we use prevention tools, prevention strategies, and incorporate those in the school setting. This ensures a comprehensive primary prevention program that includes activities and services to meet the needs of the entire population within our school. 

3. Implement professional development. This is an important one. Through my research calling school districts (most of which were in Chicago, or “ground zero” for COVID) that have implemented SEL curriculums, I learned that the buy-in of the teachers was the biggest obstacle. We surprisingly and thankfully haven’t experienced that here, but that’s likely because we’ve done everything possible to ensure an easy and smooth transition to our 7 Mindsets platform. We’re providing lesson plans and using a platform that includes multiple different resources that teachers can use throughout the day. 

Navigating the “New Normal”

As we continue to navigate the complexities of this global pandemic, we’ve seen child abuse hotline calls and reported incidences go down (not necessarily a good sign as incidences are likely still occurring). At the same time, actual incidents—where police, ambulance, or social worker has been called to the scene—are on the rise. 

As teachers work through these issues both on their own and on their student’s behalves, we’ll be equipping them with the tools, knowledge, and technology they need to endure during this difficult time and come out the other side with a brighter outlook for the future.  

For more, see:

 JoJuan Armour is Student Wellness Director at the Columbus Arts and Technology Academy in Ohio.

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Meeting the Challenge of Reopening: How Laboratory School Communities Can Power Human-Centered Design and Inclusive Innovation

On March 24, 2021, the United States Department of Education convened a National Safe School Reopening Summit. Getting schools open safely, and then reimagining how schools can meet the challenges of this moment represents the most significant opportunity in our generation to advance equity and excellence.

Where will leadership to do this come from? One answer is from laboratory schools. These schools—and other schools that employ laboratory school practices—are skilled at developing, modifying, iterating upon, and validating solutions to pressing challenges. Laboratory schools have long been lighthouses illuminating a pathway to innovation in education. School communities have often been at the forefront of developing evidence-based solutions, and it’s time to roll out their approaches more widely across America’s public school system.

Almost a decade ago, we heard the clarion call for change in our neighborhood in downtown Brooklyn. When we founded Brooklyn Lab, we did so with an eye not just to make a difference in our community but to model a new approach to education for students in communities around the country. And while we have made mistakes, had hypotheses proven wrong, and stumbled through obstacles, our founding vision remains as relevant today as it was seven years ago: to build a school that would iterate rapidly, engage families actively, challenge the status quo, and demand equity for all students. EquityByDesign is sharing resources and lessons learned in a new resource, LABORATORY SCHOOLS: How School Communities Can Power Human-Centered Design and Inclusive Innovation

Across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has ignited the transformation of education. Almost overnight, the country became a test bed as schools experimented with new ways to deliver education to our nation’s 53 million K-12 students. One year in, it’s clear that our shared response to the pandemic has had both bright spots and challenges. Ultimately, the pandemic has exacerbated our education system’s existing inequities and shined the light on decades of systemic racism and institutional oppression. The opportunity gap has widened even further for our most vulnerable students—and that should be a wake-up call that we need to make change as we make way for the reopening of school doors.

Despite the admirable efforts of educators and school administrators, these experiments have failed many students—particularly students who are low-income; Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC); learning English; or living with a disability. That’s because most of our nation’s schools lack the infrastructure that laboratory schools have for piloting solutions. They don’t have license to make—and learn from—mistakes. Rather, improvements in traditional education are mediated through slow-moving systems and blunt instruments intended to work for “average students” while those on the margins fall through the gaps.

Unfortunately, most schools don’t have the tools to fix these real issues because most investments in education research and development (R&D) are concentrated in later-stage functions like randomized experimentation and validation, which happen outside of the K–12 school setting. It can take years before the most significant developments in learning sciences and design are applied in classrooms. R&D methodologies that are removed from real classrooms often lack the insights and lived experiences of the people within school communities. Laboratory schools, on the other hand, are engines of rapid-cycle innovation and experimentation: we advance what works for students and families and quickly discard what doesn’t.

During the pandemic, American public schools have not had the luxury of waiting for solutions that meet the needs of their students, families, and staff. They needed immediate evidence-based solutions to immediate challenges, and they still do.

Laboratory schools, including ours, have stepped in to build research-backed solutions. These schools, which comprise a small but robust network, are designed to innovate and diversify educational practices and policies. During the pandemic, laboratory schools have served as centers of applied education R&D that are embedded within—and shaped by—local communities. They demonstrate the essential role individual school communities can play in designing and adapting solutions to education’s systemic challenges. They are illuminating a path toward a better future.

To expand this impact, our country must deepen its investment in laboratory schools and their approaches.

Our new guide aims to increase awareness of the role for laboratory schools in reimagining the future of education. It also gives educators the tools they need to apply laboratory schools practices, methodologies, and insights that can deliver these benefits to more school communities. In pulling insights from our experience as a laboratory school, Brooklyn LAB has created a suite of actionable resources that any motivated school leaders can use to generate and modify relevant, evidence-based solutions to longstanding problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The strategies and broader conceptual recommendations described in this guide can help schools equitably engage students, families, educators, and experts to ensure that solutions meet real needs. This guide offers numerous examples, but it does not aim to be prescriptive, nor are the insights exhaustive. Rather, as schools explore a laboratory-school approach to problem-solving, we invite them to regularly reference and return to this guide as they adapt certain high-leverage strategies to meet the unique needs of their communities.

This guide can also be a resource for those working to build standing infrastructure for applied education R&D, including federal policymakers, researchers, and philanthropists, as they consider how to best advance actionable knowledge within the U.S. educational landscape. We hope these stakeholders use this guide to deepen their understanding of the laboratory-school approach to creative problem-solving and the great potential it has to help promote necessary, systemwide improvements.

We are excited to share the work led by Brooklyn LAB through the EquityByDesign.org initiative, and hope others are encouraged to try these approaches during the pandemic and into the future.

Download LABORATORY SCHOOLS: How School Communities Can Power Human-Centered Design and Inclusive Innovation

For more see:

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Transforming Student Engagement Through Dialogue: 3 Approaches for Every Classroom

By: Danielle Isbell & John Sarrouf

Designing classrooms for engagement and deep learning is a carefully honed craft consisting of many small choices that invite students to fully participate in the course content and exchange of ideas. Engaging students is hard work, and despite best efforts classroom participation is often limited to the same students who regularly contribute. This common pattern is quickly established, and teachers have limited time to create new ways of engaging before it takes hold.

One study on college classrooms found that less than 10% of observed interactions involved a) students responding to the comments or questions of other students or b) instances where instructors directly called on specific students. These patterns of limited cross-classroom engagement are a continuation of a pattern of engagement that begins in middle and high school.

Student engagement is key to long-term success. Students who are engaged have higher skill development, achievement, and learning, and student engagement is the primary theoretical model for understanding dropout rates and promoting school completion.

How can teachers create inclusive, engaged spaces that invite all students to share fully?

Essential Partner’s Work within education began in higher education and has grown as more and more middle and high schools face difficult conversations in their communities. The kinds of deeply engaged political conversations and activism that was once primarily found on college campuses has increasingly become a part of the secondary school experience.

Four years ago, EP received the first of two grants to innovate our approach for classrooms. In adapting our model to create the Dialogic Classroom, we found that it supports the creation of more inclusive, engaged classrooms while improving student learning outcomes.

Newburyport High School students facilitated dialogues with middle and high school students as well as teachers

At Newburyport Middle & High School, teachers participated in 16 hours of training plus follow-up coaching and support with Essential Partners to enable them to implement dialogue in their classrooms. As a result,

  • 65% of students reported that dialogic approaches helped them better understand the assigned reading,
  • 76% of students who participated indicated that the dialogues helped them to feel understood by students with differing backgrounds and opinions,
  • 76% of students feel a sense of belonging in the school community, and
  • 48% of students report being more willing to ask their classmates direct questions.

Newburyport English Language Arts teacher Eric Schildge recently discussed the collaboration on a local public radio show. Here’s what Eric said: “Here at Newburyport Public Schools there’s a real emphasis on ongoing learning and professional development. So this summer we had to do a lot of prep work for this new pandemic-response, hybrid learning model […] We met over the summer for 16 hours of professional development on how to facilitate what they call the Dialogic Classroom. Essential Partners trained us in a whole range of skills that really address the importance of listening, asking genuine questions, and not talking past one another to get to kind of like the texture of the human experience.

It wasn’t the nitty-gritty technical stuff that a lot of teachers are accustomed to when it comes to their planning. But it really helped steep us in the mentality and philosophy, which we then were able to apply to all sorts of parts of our curriculum. So you’ll hear from the students today that this sort of approach to listening and asking questions has spanned many of the different assignments and learning activities that they’ve had an opportunity to participate in.”

The Dialogic Classroom invites a collaborative examination of the implicit and explicit norms of a classroom and actively works to disrupt patterns that do not serve the purposes of deeply engaging students in learning and conversation. We aim to disrupt certain common patterns in classrooms, such as:

  • students addressing the teacher only, even when responding to a peer’s idea or thought;
  • 3-4 students dominate the classroom while others remain silent;
  • students whose identities and worldview fall outside the dominant culture feel too anxious to participate, excluded from the classroom community, or even silenced;
  • side conversations occur between certain students;
  • and students hesitate to be the dissenting voice, preferring to “piggyback” on what others have said, which not only limits dissent but also keeps nuanced differences from being voiced.

Maybe you see these in your classroom, or perhaps there are other dynamics worth identifying and rethinking to increase student engagement.

The shift to virtual or hybrid learning has exacerbated some of the more challenging classroom patterns. We hear from our partners and have observed in our own teaching that conversations about difficult topics are even harder to engage, that students are anxious about letting other students see their living spaces, that shy or struggling students are even more checked out.

Through extensive partnerships with educators across the United States, we have adapted our approach to create numerous tools, exercises, and strategies to interrupt these most pernicious patterns. Every community—every classroom—is unique, but here are some of our core, tried and true strategies for increasing classroom engagement.

In-class Reflection

Some students jump in immediately with questions or ideas while others hang back, continuing to process. By building space for in-class reflection, you can invite the answers of those who may not otherwise engage as they spend time collecting their thoughts and considering the prompt. By creating 2 minutes of space in which students thoughtfully reflect on a question, you can invite students who process questions differently, but more than that, you’re normalizing thinking before speaking.

When working with one middle & high school to facilitate dialogues around the 2020 election, Essential Partners began the dialogues by giving students several minutes of guided reflection in class. While students were asked to complete their political autobiography prior to class, the additional space within the dialogue allowed for students to gather their thoughts, jot down some notes, and become rooted in their own ideas before hearing from others. This counteracts the power of the first speaker who often sets the tone for “the right way” to answer the question. This structure creates autonomy by allowing students to think carefully about their responses, and it encourages the space to process independently of their peers.


The questions we ask shape our conversations.

When engaging with difficult topics or creating a new classroom dynamic, it is essential to carefully craft questions in order to invite the kind of engagement you want to see in the classroom. It’s about designing and patterning questions to elicit a story, underlying values and assumptions, and nuance. It can be easy as teachers to fall into some limiting habits of asking questions:

  •  binary yes or no questions—which invite polarizing and simplified conversations
  •  questions we already know the answer to—which limits personal grappling with the question in favor of guessing what the teacher is thinking
  • questions that are meant to trick our students into logical mistakes—which leaves students feeling ambushed and reluctant to step up again for fear of being wrong.

If you’re not sure where to start, here is a go-to resource for question design.  Additional resources for questions on difficult topics and for an exercise that helps students engage with their own identities and beliefs and other helpful guides can be found in our resources library.

Essential Partners Associate Nadiya Brock coaches Newburyport High School students


When reshaping patterns, we must interrupt the routines that fed a previous pattern of engagement. Superimposing a new form on an old conversation allows us to imagine and experience new ways of engaging. Once these new structures have been learned—like taking turns talking around the room, letting people finish without being interrupted, asking clarifying questions—the new patterns become part of classroom dynamics even when the given structure is not imposed.

We utilize several tools to create new structures: communication agreements, reflection, equal space to share, an opportunity to pass, and active listening.

One tool we have used for high school students is employing designated listeners. These listeners can be the ones who pull the themes together at the end of a class discussion or can be  assigned to come up with questions for whoever was speaking, helping students step into active listening and practice generating questions of curiosity for one another. This also helps students get into the habit of responding with a question rather than a statement or comment; it’s a shift from commentary to inquiry.

This is one structure used to encourage active listening, but there are infinite ways a lesson, discussion, or breakout group could be restructured to encourage new kinds of learning.

At Essential Partners, we work to build communities strengthened by differences and connected by trust. If people begin experiencing the possibility of trust and difference coexisting in classrooms, we can foster a culture that supports creativity, inclusion, and innovation. Not only does this culture build the future we want to live in, it boosts student engagement by helping students connect to their peers and their work in new ways.

For more, see:

John Sarrouf is Co-Executive Director and Director of Program Development at Essential Partners. He was first exposed to EP’s work while studying in the master’s program in dispute resolution at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Since then, John has facilitated dialogues on issues such as sustainability, gender, Israel-Palestine, religious pluralism, and technology and sexuality.

Danielle Isbell began her work with Essential Partners during graduate school at Boston University, where she studied Religion & Conflict Transformation while earning her Master of Theological Studies; A member of the inaugural class of EP fellows, she joined the organization as an Associate in 2019. Her dialogue and community engagement work stretches beyond her educational background and includes projects on economic development, design thinking, recidivism, and education.

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Champion the Class of 2021: A Timely Impact Opportunity

The four million young people in the U.S. high school class of 2021 have been through a lot. Stripped of most that is fun and engaging about their senior year, many of them suffered through hastily prepared virtual learning and spotty video classes. They lost access to friends, extracurricular activities, work, and service-learning opportunities.

Thousands disengaged and gave up on school, no longer on track to graduate. Some faced increased need to work to support families in financial distress.

Those on track will graduate into a pandemic recession where there are fewer jobs for youth and more expensive virtual versions of college.

The class of 2021 could use some help getting to the finish line, making good choices, and telling their story.

Getting to Graduation

Like last spring, now is a good time for school teams to get creative about credit completion–not just the old drill and click credit recovery labs, but credit for work experience and projects to complete courses. Some students will need extra time and support — this spring and into summer.

Some state legislatures are considering funding an extra year of high school. That could be beneficial if it includes free access to college credit and industry credentials.

Making a Thoughtful Transition

With complicated choices about work and postsecondary learning, most 2021 grads could use more personalized and localized guidance over the next few months.

Many college experiences are still heavily mitigated and may well be into next year–and they’re still charging full price. Many degree programs have grown so expensive that (at least in the short run) they no longer offer a return on investment–and, if pursued with loans, present the risk of the worst-case scenario of debt without a degree.

Strada Education has a couple of resources that can help guide postsecondary choices: College Fair is a free mobile application that helps you explore options. College Confidential offers topical forums and virtual campus tours.

Many soon-to-be graduates are considering alternatives: starting at a local community college or earning a low-cost online degree while they work, or taking a paid apprenticeship and earning industry certificates and college credit while gaining access to high-wage high-demand employment.

A gap year could be a good option for those that are able. In a pandemic pivot, Global Citizen Year developed a 12 week Academy, a 5-10 hour per week commitment that adds an enriching layer of purpose to school, travel, or work.

A local spring career fair (perhaps in person and online) could extend access to important information for juniors and seniors. Check out the Beaumont ISD Virtual Job Fair.

Helping Grads Tell Their Story

The pandemic brought the challenge, loss, and struggle. For some, it spurred new interests, rekindled relationships, and created opportunities to serve. Many graduates could use help shaping and telling their story–their social impact journey, their persistence…

That could start with a great essay. Story2 is an education app that helps youth, “Unlock storytelling to live out loud” with StoryBuilder, on-demand courses, and practice exercises.

Every young person would benefit from a great personal pitch–both in the form of a cover letter and video. “Stories of adaptability, ingenuity, and community-mindedness will undoubtedly impress in the pandemic era,” said college admissions expert Dr. Aviva Legatt.

A portfolio of artifacts from personal best learning experiences can empower graduates to show what they know. Headrush supports project-based learning and portfolio development. Check out a sample Bulb portfolio and examples of projects captured on Portfolium.

Schools can help grads tell their story with an extended transcript that, in addition to a list of courses and grades, describes capabilities, experiences, aspirations. It can include digital credentials, certifications, licenses, vaccination status.

High school learners in Texas benefit from Greenlight Credentials which allows them to share some or all of their digital profile with employers and colleges

Every learner should graduate from high school with a strong LinkedIn profile with business and civic connections, publications of personal bests, and a resume of work experiences. Profiles should use a professional picture, headline career goals, use excerpts of college essays, list advanced courses taken, credentials earned, volunteer service, and skills developed. You can also turn your personal pitch into a video story to your LinkedIn profile.

Encourage Youth Leadership

Helping the class of 2021 to graduate and transition is a great youth leadership opportunity–for this class, for rising seniors, and for recent grads.

With the help of a school or community sponsor, we’d love to see 21CHAMPIONS (or something like that) formed in every community to help students graduate, tell their stories, and make good choices.

Young people could organize (or help organize):

  • A local career fair where young people can speak with employers, counselors, and postsecondary institutions;
  • A “You Have a Story to Tell” personal pitch day where they work on their cover letter and video; or
  • A build your profile day where learners work on their LinkedIn profile and portfolio;

April is a great month to champion the class of 2021. If you’re already a champion for the class of 2021, we’d love to hear your story.  Comment on this post, use the hashtag #21Champions, or email [email protected] to share your story with us.

For more, see:

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Perfection vs Improvement: The Problem With Expecting Student Perfection

By: Jane Mueller

Perfection is a dangerous concept to aim for or claim. Perfection has a ceiling. It suggests we reach a certain point and then we’re done. But we’re never truly done.

The First and Second Industrial Revolutions changed everything. Among a mass of advancements, this era galvanized the shift from unique hand-made items, to the mass production and standardization of goods. With this shift came the new expectation that goods would be predictable, identical, and consistent; in other words, flawless or perfect.

Our familiarisation with predictable, identical, and consistent goods has influenced our expectations of ourselves, of others, and of children. We’ve become conditioned to believe that, just like a product from the assembly line, humans should in some way be perfect.

Organizational Psychologist, Dr. Jim Bright, writes: ‘We place demands on people and the universe to be consistent. We like to draw straight lines because you know where you are with a straight line. … [But] Humans are not straight lines. … If learning comes from trial and error, then it seems pretty fundamental you have to accept there has been an error.’

Studies over many years highlight the debilitating nature of perfection, which drives turmoil and mental distortions. The quest for perfection is linked to burnout, anxiety, stress and depression.

When perfection is the expectation for children, children can become overwhelmed by dread and imprisoned by pressure. Typically they will not yet have the self-awareness to recognize and the vocabulary to verbalize the crippling demands of perfection, and so it is likely to play out through procrastination, rebellion and other unhelpful behaviors.

Improvement, however, is a concept everyone can aim for and claim. Improvement is achievable. It has no ceiling, giving rise to the notion that anything is possible.

Improvement accepts that there will be mistakes and setbacks along the way. A child learning to walk, for example, will fall over again and again until one day, voila! But it doesn’t stop there. Building upon that improvement, the child will learn to change direction, to run, to jump; to sprint short distances, to endure long distances; to leap high, and to leap long. And in learning these skills, a child will persistently make mistakes and experience failure and setbacks. It will not be a perfect journey, but every attempt will ultimately lead to further improvement.

Improvement recognizes there are stops and starts. It values reflection and adopts a realistic measure of self-compassion through the knowledge that mistakes and setbacks are essential to the learning and improvement process. In fact, self-compassion moderates the perfectionism and depression link, making way for the growth mindset and joy that are fostered through the hunger for improvement.

When improvement – as opposed to perfection – is the expectation, self-motivation tends to be high. Children willingly grapple with setbacks, confident that their toil will ultimately result in improvement. And, when the improvement becomes evident, they experience a deep sense of accomplishment. This sense of accomplishment leads to children flourishing in self-belief, growing in emotional fortitude and resilience, and developing the tenacity to achieve the seemingly impossible. Setbacks become minor bumps in the road that serves only to increase their determination and spur them on further. They compete against themselves to do better than last time. Their hunger for improvement has been ignited, and this is a flame we don’t want to extinguish.

Read or view any biography or documentary about the world’s greatest achievers: The Last Dance (Michael Jordan), Bohemian Rhapsody (Freddie Mercury), Jobs (Steve Jobs), and Soul Surfer (Bethany Hamilton), just to name a few. One thing stands out in these narratives: tenacity, fuelled by a hunger for improvement. Setbacks are drivers in these narratives. The world’s greatest achievers unapologetically recognize their human frailties and imperfections in their pursuit of improvement. These human powerhouses do not fall victim to opposing forces and are not preoccupied with the demands or expectations of a society that seeks perfection. Rather, they are intrinsically motivated to face resistance and traditional thinking head-on, and they use opposition and setbacks as the impetus to reach greater heights. They recognize they can rarely change other people, their circumstances or their environment, but they can improve themselves. And improve themselves, they do.

So, how can you support your own students in developing a hunger for improvement?

Role model improvement in yourself. Allow students to witness your own mistakes and setbacks. Intentionally showcase that you view your setbacks not as frustrations, but as catalysts for growing your own determination. Speak aloud your thinking in relation to your own setbacks, demonstrating how you learn from them and showing how you try again with refined preparation, a different strategy, or improved focus.

When students make mistakes, do not reprimand. Rather, step back to see if they recognize their mistakes and set themselves on a path to try again. If they don’t, engage in relational dialogue. Use questions to assist students in discerning their mistakes, acknowledging what can be learned through the mistakes, and resolving to make changes and have another go.

Normalize mistakes and setbacks. Do not eliminate the potential for mistakes and setbacks, knowing your goal is to prepare students for the reality that setbacks exist throughout life. Discuss the benefits of having a go regardless of the possibility of failure. Focus less on what could go wrong, and more on what could go right.

Celebrate improvement. Help students to reflect on the setbacks and perseverance that led them to improve, and use this as inspiration for the tenacity required for ongoing improvement.

Undertake your own research. Familiarise yourself with educational neuroscience and child psychology. When you better understand that synapses fire when we experience setbacks, your own teaching philosophy will mature and you will be better equipped to not only support but lead student improvement.

The hunger for improvement is a characteristic that exists from birth. It is observed, for example, in the child learning to walk. But this hunger can be crushed by the expectation of perfection. The goal must be to nurture in children a hunger for improvement, knowing it will carry them well beyond their youth, driving their wellbeing and success later in life.

For more, see:

Jane Mueller is the principal of Living Faith Lutheran Primary School, Brisbane. She is driven by the desire to close the gap between how schools operate, and what we know about how children learn. Twitter: @jane_n_mueller. 

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5th-6th Graders Take Up Call To Action For International Women’s History Month

This month is International Women’s History Month – a global acknowledgment of the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. It has also come to represent an international call to action for accelerating gender parity and women’s equality.

Well, the 5th and 6th-grade learners working with Dr. Shayna Markwongark at iLEAD Antelope Valley Hybrid are heeding that call to action. According to Markwongark, learners are currently embarking on a Women’s History Project. They have to first identify a key woman in history, learn her story and then connect that story to their own lives and community. Their driving question is “How can we use the activism of women throughout history to influence or change my /our community today?”

“This is all about research and then activism,” said Markwongark. “Its purpose is to connect this information to their world and their futures.” It’s this latter part that is the true project-based learning aspect, according to Markwongark.

The project has two key components once teams of learners have identified their famous woman, done the research, and learned the key aspects of her story. First, said Markwongark, students will work in teams to produce a three-five-minute podcast that tells both the women’s story and then showcases how it can connect to the students’ school lives and community.

The second major public product, according to Markwongark, will be a series of written proposals that the teams prepare for iLEAD Founder & CEO Dawn Evenson and iLEAD Antelope Valley Director Dawn Roberson. This proposal will represent the students’ recommendations to iLEAD about continuing to empower women and raise awareness within the iLEAD community.

This correlation of history and activism is at the heart of this project, according to Markwongark. She said learning the history and even connecting it to the learners’ lives is important, but what’s more important is how this information is used going forward.

“This is about inspiration first, then action second,” said Markwongark. “It’s great to be inspired and full of hope, but what matters is how we individually contribute to improving the world.”

For Markwongark, she wants all of her learners to be empowered by the stories of others and then take action. “I’m going to continually ask them what they can do going forward – this year, this summer, next year, and beyond,” she said.

School Director Dawn Roberson is excited about the facilitation and learning associated with a project aligned with global goals of empowering women to advocate for their rights as human beings. Roberson appreciates the depth of this project allowing learners to see the complex world in which they live through a more powerful lens.

“Even in a nation like ours, we see the need to continue to advocate for equal pay, equal rights, and equal opportunities for women and for all,” said Roberson. “These 5th and 6th graders will have a better understanding of their role supporting all the women in their lives and advocacy on behalf of others.”

As the Founder & CEO of iLEAD Schools, Evenson said she is eager to be part of such an important and dynamic project and can’t wait to see the learners’ proposals and presentations.

“Having our 5th and 6th-grade learners participate in a project that deeply explores the impact that women have had on history is both academically engaging, as well as a powerful way to empower our learners to create change in their school, community, and ultimately the world.”

Although this project is just getting underway, Markwongark has high expectations for learner outcomes. In addition to the historical knowledge and content, there is a social-emotional component, along with some very important skills, that Markwongark is anticipating that the learners will experience. She said that one of her goals is for the learners – after reflecting on the obstacles, challenges, and successes of their woman in history – there will be learner epiphanies about what they can do with their lives.

“My learners already have great qualities, but I am going to see a lot more empowered young men and women,” said Markwongark. “It doesn’t have to be global. It can be in their own communities and even their own families. It might be even just working with their brother or sister to be more sensitive, aware, or inspired.”

This idea of empowerment leads to the student voice and agency aspects made possible by high-quality project-based learning, according to Markwongark.

“Hopefully, they become the disseminators of this information about what equality looks like,” she said. “Who knows? Maybe some of these learners will come up with ideas that iLEAD decides to implement. That’s the power of PBL.”

For more details and background on this project, see The Project Design Guide and the Project Information Flipbook.

For more, see:

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