Nate Kellogg & Gwen Baker on Real-Time Redesign for Schools and Districts

On this episode of the Getting Smart Podcast, Tom talks with Nate Kellogg of The Learning Accelerator and Gwen Baker of Bellwether Education Partners about The Strategy Lab, a project of the Always Ready for Learning initiative.

Let’s listen in as Tom talks with Nate and Gwen about this important collaborative work within a network of schools and districts. Stay tuned until the end to hear from some of the participants themselves!

For the last few months, we’ve been partners with The Learning Accelerator on their Strategy Lab initiative, a nine-month, pro bono, cohort-based learning experience that supported seven districts in their safe reopening and planning for long-term sustainable change beyond the COVID era. Through monthly cohort sessions, biweekly planning meetings, and additional small-group collaboration with experts, districts:

  • Received targeted support and collaboration for prioritized needs for back-to-school to accelerate student progress;
  • Engaged in a process to make real-time, meaningful, and lasting improvements to move towards more equitable and resilient teaching and learning;
  • Connected to other district teams as well as existing experts and resources for the implementation of new models and approaches at scale.

As a culmination of this initiative, the participating organizations have released the Real-Time Redesign Toolkit, a realistic, inclusive, and rapid process for making targeted improvement toward more equitable and resilient teaching and learning. The toolkit includes step-by-step instructions and real examples from districts across the country to support school and system leaders to use the process in their own context.

We documented some of this work in a set of blogs and podcasts that you can check out: 

This work strongly aligned with Bellwether Education Partners’ mission. They are a national nonprofit that is “trying to change the life outcomes for learners furthest from opportunity.” Gwen used to work with Beth Rabbitt of TLA and they formed a strong relationship early on. When COVID-19 hit, they found themselves asking the same questions, one of which being: “How can we use this crisis as an opp to help orgs address challenges and gaps that were identified?”

The work that followed featured the participation of 7 districts: Renton School District, Phoenix Charter Academy, Monterey Penninsula United School District, Mastery Charter, Indianapolis Public Schools, Cedar Rapids Public Schools and Austin ISD. The application process focused on districts who were ready to leapfrog — meaning they might not have been on the leading edge, but they had a strong foundation and an interest in capitalizing on the disruption of the moment. Still, the districts and participants had a wide range of preparedness.

To start, Gwen and her team “started with an assessment across the portfolio.” From here, they asked the questions: “What is the lay of the land of needs and supports?” and “How might we reimagine redesigning our systems for resilience and equity?”

The primary need that the Strategy Lab initiative was trying to serve was the “cognitive overload at the district level.” By bringing together a group of professionals at different phases of response and redesign, they were able to form a deep level of camaraderie. They often heard leaders asking questions like: “Is this as crazy for you?” Oftentimes they were different causes of chaos, but it was a common thread of understanding between all districts.

The primary value add of the Real-Time Redesign Toolkit was not only the process and the language but the real examples of schools and districts who have implemented the process and learned from it. Case studies on many of the participating districts are already live on the site and other districts have added some brainstorms and mock designs as well.

One of the participating leaders shared a core learning from the process: “When you go a little bit slower, a little less straight on a line, you’re able to include and hear more voices […] the most powerful example of the whole process was the ability to interview students.”

At the level of DEI work, this process also enabled districts to approach it in a new and actionable way. Many districts are committed to it but not sure I actually have the tools. The Real-Time Redesign Toolkit has given people the tools to do it in a real and meaningful way.

“I really am so humbled by the work that these districts were engaged in,” said Gwen

We also asked a few of the districts who participated in the Strategy Lab to share some of their thoughts on the process. We asked them the following questions:

  • What was the most powerful part of the Strategy Lab cohort?
  • What are you piloting as a result of Strategy Lab and the Real-Time Redesign Process?

At the end of the podcast, you will hear Warren Morgan of Indianapolis Public Schools, Suzanne Newell of Austin ISD and Bob Ettinger of Renton School District respond to the above questions.

Key Takeaways:

[:52] Tom welcomes Nate and Gwen to the podcast.
[1:09] Nate tells the origin story of the Always Ready for Learning initiative as well its three projects: the Parabola Project, the Coaching Network, and the Strategy Lab.
[2:34] Gwen shares how she and Bellwether get involved in this project and why they were personally compelled by it.
[4:25] Nate shares about the districts they originally focused on when beginning this project.
[6:02] Which services to Gwen try to quickly mobilize and offer to these partner districts with the Strategy Lab?
[7:33] Was there any learning between these districts? Were they learning together about shifting their education to remote and when/how they might go hybrid or in-person?
[8:32] Gwen elaborates on how the networking between districts was one of the most powerful tools for learning and growth.
[10:34] Nate explains the Real-Time Redesign toolkit.
[11:46] Would Gwen say that the toolkit is still highly useful for not only the participating districts but other districts as well right now?
[12:57] Nate shares his predictions and hopes for what may be better or different in the fall with their partnered districts as a result of the work they’re doing.
[15:22] Gwen shares her hopes and predictions for the fall as a result of the work that they’ve done with their partnered districts.
[16:56] Does this COVID-19 era mark the end of the individual practitioner and the beginning of teaching teams and embracing new strategies and tools around personalized and competency-based learning? And if so, does Gwen see this as a permanent shift going forward?
[18:40] Does Nate think that many of the districts that they’ve worked with will continue to have an online or virtual learning program post-pandemic?
[19:49] Does Nate believe we will continue to see enriched online programs that incorporate more project-based learning and more community connections, as well as more hybrid programs that stick around long-term, post-pandemic?
[21:04] Does Gwen have any predictions for new models that she thinks we’ll see in the fall or beyond?
[21:58] Where to find more information about the Strategy Lab and the Real-Time Redesign toolkit.
[22:44] Gwen shares some parting words to districts and leaders curious about the projects.
[23:02] Tom thanks Gwen and Nate for joining the podcast!
[23:19] The districts that participated in the Strategy Lab share their thoughts on the process and answer the questions: 1. What was the most powerful part of the Strategy Lab cohort? 2. What are they piloting as a result of the Strategy Lab and the Real-Time Redesign process?
[23:34] The Chief Academic Officer of Indianapolis Public Schools, Dr. Warren Morgan, shares his thoughts on the Strategy Lab cohort.
[26:55] The Director of Academics at the Austin Independent School District, Suzanne Newell, shares her thoughts on the Strategy Lab cohort.
[30:42] The Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment at Renton School District, Bob Ettinger, shares his thoughts on the Strategy Lab cohort.

Mentioned in This Episode:

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How Helping Students Get Comfortable With Failure Can Increase Economic Equity

By: Michael Archbold and Ron Harris

Here’s something we’ve asked ourselves time and again over the years we’ve taught and mentored high school students: How do we explain that big dreams often are accompanied by minor setbacks — or even failures — without discouraging them from dreaming big?

It’s a challenge in every classroom, but none more so than those in schools with predominantly minority and economically disadvantaged students — like Rich Township High School District 227 in Richton Park, Illinois, where we teach and mentor students in entrepreneurship education courses.

At Rich Township, the student body is 90 percent Black and about 6 percent Latinx, with a poverty rate of 80 percent. Unfortunately, these kids don’t have deep connections to the local business community. They don’t get to rub elbows with entrepreneurs around the dinner table. They don’t learn about all the challenges a first-generation business owner faced before finally getting an idea off the ground. They don’t hear stories about the failures that preceded their success.

The lack of role models who are entrepreneurs, small business owners, and venture capitalists is an all-too-common reality for Black and brown children across the nation. The result is a fear of failure: A recent report by McKinsey & Company revealed that Black entrepreneurs are likely to keep their businesses small, while also gravitating to low-profit sectors. As those of us in entrepreneurship education might say, this is a problem at the ideation level.

One solution is showing students how to persevere in the face of adversity, to learn from their mistakes, and move forward with a better plan.

In August, Rich Township launched its first course using Uncharted Learning’s INCubatoredu curriculum. The course is all about giving students an authentic entrepreneurship experience, warts and all. That means getting them comfortable with the concept of failure.

At the start of the semester, we placed students into teams, then paired each one with a business person or entrepreneur from the community — like the IT solutions firm CDW, where Ron works — who’ll serve as a mentor for the year-long course.

The course works like this: Teams are asked to create a product or concept that solves a problem in their community. They brainstorm ideas; settle on something specific; sketch out the design; build it themselves or find people who can; and develop packaging or a marketing strategy. At the end of the year, the teams pitch their ideas to actual investors who may or may not provide start-up money for these entrepreneurs’ budding businesses. A few will win seed money, launch start-ups, sell their products, and turn a profit. But many more won’t. And that’s OK. The goal isn’t to create the next Microsoft or Amazon, but rather to teach students to rebound from setbacks.

When our INCubatoredu teams started developing ideas for their products, we marveled at their incredible creativity, cheering them on as they forged ahead with their own ideas about how to make the world a better place — as though failure were no option.

Then for some teams, reality set in as they began creating their products. Some were impractical to produce; others provided little, if any, profit margin. When these teams inevitably reported their “failures” to us, we delivered some version of the following speech: “So what? This happens to entrepreneurs and people in business all the time. Now, report back to us on what you learned. What will you do differently next time? And what’s your next idea?” In other words, we show them that “failure” is an opportunity, not a terminal condition.

For most students, it’s a paradigm shift. In the academic world, “failure” leads to any number of negative outcomes — retaking a course, repeating a grade, or, in the most drastic situations, dropping out of high school altogether. But once they wrap their brains around the notion that not every idea will work, they stop editing their ideas and begin dreaming big.

One senior in our class, Anastasia Jackson, told us that freeing herself of the fear of failure has helped her “think outside of the box a little when coming up with ideas.” She improvises more often and has learned to keep a backup plan handy.

“The road to being successful is full of mistakes,” she said. “But the most important thing is that you learn from them and not just correct them. During this course, I’ve come up with good ideas and I’ve also come up with some bad ideas, but I’ve learned some important things from both.“

This is in no way meant to minimize the consequences of failure among minority entrepreneurs. The same report from McKinsey & Company also said that only 4 percent of Black-owned businesses survive past the start-up phase. The financial risks, too, are significantly greater for Black entrepreneurs, who the report notes spend 50 percent of their revenue paying off debts.

But if more students like Anastasia were equipped with the tools provided by entrepreneurship education — perseverance, tenacity, endurance — then they might pursue bigger dreams with even greater rewards. That will take more mentors like those from CDW who can show students the rewards that come from persistence. And that means finding ways to show companies and entrepreneurs the value of working with a population of students who have had limited exposure to people like them.

The business and entrepreneurial communities can’t afford to let that opportunity pass them by. For our students, entrepreneurship education is the start of a larger vision, one filled with opportunities to invent the next great product, lead a Fortune 500 company or open their own business. Hopefully, not all of our students will become entrepreneurs — we need some of them to become scientists and surgeons, artists, and educators.

No matter what future path they choose, they’ll demonstrate adaptability in the face of challenges, resilience in the face of failure. And that is where true equity begins.

For more, see:

Michael Archbold is a INCubatoredu Teacher at Rich Township High School District 227, Richton Park, Illinois. 

Ron Harris is the Director of Integrated Technology Services, CDW.    

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Thomas Homer-Dixon on Commanding Hope and the Nature of Complexity

On this episode of the Getting Smart Podcast, Tom sits down with Thomas Homer-Dixon, the author of the new book Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril.

Thomas is also the author of the book The Ingenuity Gap and now directs the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University in Victoria, Canada. He is also a professor at the Environment at the University of Waterloo.

Let’s listen in as Tom and Thomas discuss why and how the world is getting more complex, the role of complexity scientists and the focus of the cascade institute.


Thomas Homer-Dixon is a complexity scientist, meaning his research has focused on threats to global security in the 21st century, including economic instability, climate change, and energy scarcity. He also studies how people, organizations, and societies can better resolve their conflicts and innovate in response to complex problems. Right now, he says “Unnatural systems are interacting with natural systems in novel and unpredictable ways.”

20 years ago he wrote the book The Ingenuity Gap, about ingenuity as solutions to problems. Our newest publication, Invention Opportunity, in many ways is in conversation with the idea.

He now serves at the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University. Here, he looks for high leverage intervention points: socio-ecological systems, economic systems, energy systems — “these are places where you can intervene to drive a large divergence in the system.”

About halfway through, the conversation shifts to schools and what students should know to begin to face the climate crisis and other complex challenges. “We must sustain agency,” he said. “The kids around the world are the ones with the most powerful moral voice […] schools should be emphasizing more of a systems thinking approach.”

“Complexity generates enormous possibilities which end up being a sense of hope.”

Thomas Homer-Dixon continues to learn through relentless curiosity, taking on a manageable amount at a time, and ensuring mastery before taking on more.

Key Takeaways:

[:08] About today’s episode with Thomas Homer-Dixon.
[:38] Tom welcomes Thomas to the podcast.
[:55] What is a complexity scientist? And what do they do?
[3:51] The observations and systems that led Thomas to spot the ingenuity gap that he wrote about 20 years ago in The Ingenuity Gap. And is it worse today than it was 20 years ago?
[7:17] Observations from Getting Smart’s “20 Invention Opportunities in Learning & Development” report.
[9:37] Tom highlights how, increasingly, innovation in the public space requires a combination of public, private, and philanthropic funding.
[10:17] Thomas highlights an advantage we have today: our capacity to ramp up combinatorial innovation.
[11:48] What the Cascade Institute is, what they do, and its mission.
[15:00] Tom congratulates Thomas on his new book and reads the opening passage.
[16:13] Who is Stephanie May and why was she an inspiration for Thomas’s new book, Commanding Hope?
[21:28] How important is helping students develop a sense of agency and knowing that they can have an impact on the world? How do students achieve a sense of agency?
[24:29] How and where students should learn about climate change.
[26:06] How schools and system heads should engage young people in solutions around climate change.
[28:28] Simple cultural efforts schools can make to help create more awareness among their students on their environmental footprint.
[29:35] The importance of creating space for young people to take on their own passion projects and go deep with them.
[30:04] Thomas shares how he continuously learns.
[32:38] Has Thomas read Bill’s new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster?
[32:57] Tom thanks Thomas for joining the podcast!

Mentioned in this Episode:

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Ten Ways Schools Can Build Students’ Social Capital

By: Dr. Tyler S. Thigpen

We in the U.S. have been acculturated to associate the term “wealth” with material possessions. American concepts of well-being were a radical departure from their European counterparts in the 19th century, in fact—and a primary reason for that is capitalism.

But as we have discovered over time, strong relationships and social capital have increasingly overtaken money and possessions as a measure of wealth. Even Forbes acknowledges that “when you’ve developed a wealth of social capital, you can obtain any other resources you need”—though admittedly, their argument is in favor of increased company sales and profitability as a result.

Still, the value of social capital—which researchers describe as the measure of our connections with others; the amount of emotional and practical support, of trust and help, that emerges from caring relationships—is that it can hold the key to a more elusive definition of wealth: that of happiness, contentment, and the intangible benefits of positive relationships.

Socialization has long been an objective of formal education. Traditional school models have, for better or worse, undertaken some of the role of helping students become productive members of society. But what if schools were designed to grow and strengthen learners’—and even their family’s—web of relationships? And what can teachers do to strengthen such relationships?

Researchers argue that a student’s relationship network is among the strongest predictors of educational outcomes. Dating back to the 1980s, researchers have found that social capital, defined as a “set of resources that are found in family relations and in a community’s social organization,” attributes to a number of educational achievements, including but not limited to much lower dropout rates, improved adaptation pathways, foreign language acquisition, higher grade point averages, and lower levels of misbehavior (Teachman et al, 1996; Morgan and Sorensen, 1989; Tedin et al, 2010; Marjoribanks and Kwok, 1998; Zhou and Bankston, 1998; Putnam, 2000).

Here are ten things schools can do to grow learners’ social capital and reap these benefits:

1. Guide learners to form and sustain “dream teams,” a close-knit network of “champions” with whom learners meet multiple times per year to share their goals and get feedback and accountability. Examples of champions are coaches, pastors/rabbis/imams, parents, friends, peers, and mentors.

2. Guide middle and high school learners to find and complete their own apprenticeships, particularly with experts who are in various fields, whom they previously did not know, who can give them practice at real-world work, and who can write them references or eventually give them jobs.

3. Regularly invite experts into classrooms to give learners feedback on their projects. Outside professionals provide a real-world perspective on the feasibility of solutions, ideas, or prototypes in the marketplace.

4. Admit or recruit into the school an intentionally diverse group of families so that learners and their caregivers gain proximity to and deepen relationships with peers and others who are not like them in important ways.

5. Host regular parent gatherings so families gain proximity to one another, get to know one other, share parenting strategy ideas willingly, and shamelessly steal the best ideas.

6. Hire staff who have robust, diverse networks and who are willing to lend their own social capital to learners and their families. Include this expectation in job descriptions and give staff resources to make those connections.

7. Invite families to lend their social capital to other families and their learners by writing recommendations, forging connections, hosting apprenticeships, and giving advice. Publicly celebrate these moments to cultivate a culture of sharing and learning.

8. Connect younger learners with older learners at the school to form mentoring relationships. Older learners coach younger ones through academic and social challenges, and form bonds that last.

9. Organize “running partners”—i.e., pairs of learners to meet at the beginning and end of each day to discuss their goals for the day, push one another’s thinking, and provide feedback and encouragement to one another. Through this process, learners deepen relationships and trust.

10. Guide learners to track the growth of their social capital over time, and celebrate that growth publicly and individually with learners and families.

How can learners’ social capital be measured over time?

School leaders and teachers can challenge learners to keep track of their own bonding, bridging, and linking social capital.

Bonding social capital is when people form strong relationships with others who are like them (e.g., the same or similar socioeconomic status, beliefs, etc.). Bridging social capital is when people form strong relationships with others who are not like them (e.g., different socioeconomic status, beliefs, worldview, etc.). Linking social capital is when people form relationships with people who are in power (e.g., employers, politicians, decision makers, influencers etc). All three—bonding, bridging, and linking social capital—as critical for learners, and educators can encourage learners to expand in number and deepen in quality their relationships across all three domains.

Concretely, elementary, middle, and high school learners can use a simple tracker like this, and revise it over time. To make the tracker an active tool for learning, educators can do the following:

  • Discuss with learners their relationship growth in weekly one-on-one check ins,
  • Publicly post the tracker in the classroom to demonstrate and celebrate progress, and
  • Add self-reflection questions about the growth of their social capital in learners’ annual mid-year- and after-action reviews—structured reviews where learners share with parents their analysis of their most recent learning experiences as well as their reflections on what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better.

By cultivating, tracking, and celebrating students’ social capital, we can help learners access quality, community-based resources needed during their formative years—a true gift indeed.

For more, see:

Dr. Tyler S. Thigpen is the Co-founder & Head of School of The Forest School. Follow him on Twitter at @TylerThigpen.

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Remote Work as a Long Term Solution for Schools

By: Kate Eberle Walker and Mike Lowers. 

Months after the pandemic brought life as we knew it to a halt, people started moving again. Literally. Over 15.9 million people have moved during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of these movers were educators. With ongoing remote work, commutes disappeared, working from home became comfortable, and location became irrelevant.

What happens next year if staff have moved away, or simply don’t want to go back to commuting five days a week? Some communities may benefit, but others will be faced with significant shortages. And that’s adding to the places that grappled with this before the pandemic. Nowhere is this issue more acute than among special education providers. As the number of students with special needs continues to grow, so does the need for more speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and other clinical staff. In a survey of school-based SLPs conducted prior to the pandemic, more than half reported staff shortages in their districts.  

Corporate employers learned long before COVID-19 that one way to attract and retain talent is to offer the flexibility to work from home. Employees report multiple benefits from remote working, including the flexible schedule, ability to work from anywhere, not having to commute, and spending more time with family. Gallup reports that “nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue to do so.”

To remain attractive as employers, school districts need to consider remote work solutions. While some roles do not lend themselves to remote work, many special education therapy services can be, and already are, delivered remotely. The schools that embrace this approach are likely to be the ones that win the battle for employee retention. 

The View from Teletherapy

In March 2020, PresenceLearning, which provides teletherapy services to K-12 schools, saw applications from clinicians seeking online therapy work skyrocket, going from a few hundred per month to thousands of applications flowing in as schools across the country began to close. These applications were coming from people who had, until now, done their work inside school buildings, providing essential speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, and counseling services to students in special education programs.

As the spring progressed, districts found ways to get their own staff working through teletherapy. They hired PresenceLearning to provide “Teletherapy Essentials” packages, a combination of professional development on how to adapt their staff’s practice from in-room to online, and use of the teletherapy platform for school-based staff to engage with students with special needs in an online environment. 

Over the course of summer 2020, the company provided training to thousands of school-based clinicians. At first, there was resistance to changing the way they had been doing things for so long. But the months went on, and the mindset shifted from frustration to tolerance and ultimately, to embrace it. Twelve months into the pandemic, the way of working with students with special needs has radically changed. It’s starting to feel like much of it will be permanent.

“Since grad school, I worked inside a school building,” one SLP shared. “But now I can’t see ever going back. I have an 18-month-old at home, and I get to see her between sessions. How could I go back?”

The View From a Special Education Department 

The Central Kansas Cooperative in Education (CKCIE) is responsible for special education services for 12 school districts in Kansas. The organization serves a school population of more than 14,200 in preschool through grade 12, providing special education services to nearly 3,000 exceptional students.

Before the pandemic, CKCIE already struggled to find and hire speech therapists, so they used teletherapy to serve a portion of the speech therapy caseload. They had 17 SLPs working in person and an additional nine SLPs working via teletherapy, providing online services to some 450 students who otherwise would not receive therapy.

On top of that, the staff grappled with “windshield time”: time spent driving from site to site. With the region covering more than 4,000 square miles, this was not insignificant. In addition to the lost time during the workday, there was also the very tangible cost of mileage reimbursement.

In March 2020, with the challenges of COVID-19 and schools moving to remote learning, CKCIE began using the PresenceLearning teletherapy platform for all of its own staff as well to continue serving students while schools were closed. In doing so, there was a light-bulb moment: maybe they didn’t have to go back to fully in-person when this was all over.

As the challenges of the pandemic continued in fall 2020, the use of the teletherapy platform continued within the speech-language department. Schools cycled in and out of remote, hybrid, and on-site learning based on the medical needs in each community and within the 56 school buildings served. The speech therapists were able to adapt, using the platform to provide therapy without interruption.

The special education cooperative had always faced another retention challenge: staff leaving the rural area to work in the metropolitan parts of the state. It was not uncommon to have an SLP work a few years and then move to a larger city. But with the use of the teletherapy platform, a new solution presented itself: If someone moved away, instead of losing them, they could be converted to a remote employee. Now CKCIE can maintain its own staff with more stability knowing that even if someone moves, they have a chance to retain them.

It struck then that this could be a permanent employment strategy. Why limit hiring to only those who live locally? And why continue to lose hours of productivity to drive time? In the future, a blend of online and in-person services can and will be a tremendous asset to organizations that struggle to fill special education positions.

For more, see:

Kate Eberle Walker is CEO of PresenceLearning and author of The Good Boss: 9 Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work. Mike Lowers is Executive Director of the Central Kansas Cooperative in Education.

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How Smart Machines Are Improving History and Civics Education

Sometimes you need to go forward to go backward. “Forward to the Past” doesn’t have the same ring as Back to the Future, but that’s exactly what’s happening with advances in science, AI and machine learning. Whether it be distant history, artifacts and writings or more recent history, recordings and movements, artificial intelligence will be able to make seen the unseen and to recreate damaged works of art, destroyed European cities, lost societies and to sort through giant datasets in no time.

One issue is that these more anthropological and humanities-centric approaches to AI are in constant competition with the funding and attention that tends to be attracted to some of the more futuristic applications of AI. With that said, there are still a number of exciting new projects and tools that have made getting a fuller picture of history and a more engaged civic body their priority.

Distant History

Want to learn from the distant past? You’ll probably need to digitize a bunch of old texts. LayoutParser, a new tool used by researchers at some of the most esteemed universities, intelligently scans passages and stores them in functional data structures. It also contains a robust tutorial side, assisting researchers in more ways than one.

GlobalXplorer is a new satellite imaging system that explores and catalogs artifacts, keeping a record of history in a place that no one can tamper with it.

Odeuropa is an AI that helps to recreate smells from history. This sensory experience of the past helps with immersion, simulation and getting to know a place better than ever before.

It’s getting easier to assemble and interrogate monstrous data sets—unimaginable just 36 months ago. Like other sciences, history is increasingly approached as a partnership with data scientists.

“Whether it’s new DNA studies where we’re able to understand not just that, okay, this group of mummies that was excavated in Egypt 100 years ago, we know that they’re royal. Now we know how they are related to each other,” said archeologist Sarah Parcak. “I think, with our own application of physics and chemistry and biology and computation machine learning — putting all these new tools to use, looking at the past, we’re far better able to understand all of their diverse technologies.”

Recent History is a new tool out of MIT that synthesizes conversation and creates a word map in real time to indicate various key topics throughout a conversation. It has the added ability to download individual snippets of conversation with ease, transcribe and annotate the transcript and much more. Cortico is interrogating transcripts of 100 Days of Conversation going on right now in almost every state.


Deep Trust Alliance: The first of its kind global network of stakeholders who are combining to fight AI with AI.

BLMProtestBot: Scans an image for where faces are and covers the face with a Black Lives Matter fist, protecting the identity of protestors to prevent additional police intervention.

Blackbird: A deepfakes/misinformation AI to help ensure that we seek and find the truth.

Citizen Evidence Lab: A crowdsourcing and machine learning tool for verification of citizenship through Amnesty International.


Tyler Cowen noted to archeologist Parcak, “Your job is almost becoming impossible.” History and the social sciences are now team sports requiring knowledge of languages and cultures, satellites and sensors, math and data science.

“With greater accuracy and precision towards the past we will not only be able to learn more about our collective history, but we will also be able to fill in the gaps with regards to bias and more. In history, among other places, assumptions can be greatly detrimental to the work and the key takeaways,” said Parcak.

These advances won’t be without controversy. Already numerous institutions are dubious of the work that these AI’s are doing — for both historical curation and civic conversations we will need a degree of transparency that is not yet normalized amongst technological innovations.

For high schools and colleges, it is clear that learners need more time and support to investigate big questions in interdisciplinary projects using machine learning tools. Beginning in middle grades, learners need the opportunity to investigate the ethics and economics of life with smart machines.

For faculty, the big implication is the increasing need to say, “I don’t know, how might we…?”

For more, see:

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How a Fun Mother-Daughter Project Became Two Groundbreaking Publications

By: Annette Bazira-Okafor

When my daughter Mbabazi and I started Black Girls Magazine (BGM) in our home, we thought it would be a fun project and an opportunity to learn about the media and representation within it. But then we ran 50 copies of our first issue to share with friends and family, which led to requests for subscriptions, and eventually we found ourselves publishing two bi-annual publications: one for kids 8–12, and a teen edition for those 13–17.

A lack of Black people represented in the media was an important motivator for us when we began, and it remains so today. For the most part, we’ve found people to be helpful and supportive of our magazine and our team of student journalists and editors. But there have also been some challenges as we’ve tried to create a magazine that makes everyone feel like they see people like themselves in the stories and images we put together.

Here’s a bit of what we’ve learned along the way. We hope it can help you ensure your student-produced publications represent everyone!

Why Representation Matters

Mbabazi and I have always spent a lot of time in the library. She would hang out in the kids’ section while I did my work, and we’d leave with a big stack of books to read together every time. It was so exciting for her to find a book with a Black kid in it, but they were few and far between. She read all the time, but it was almost always stories about what other kids could do, and only rarely about what someone who looks like her could do.

As she got older and became interested in things like makeup and nail polish, the lack of representation became even more apparent. For example, in magazine articles about how to do your nails, the hands in the pictures are almost always white. On the makeover apps they were playing with, the color suggestions were for white skin. The hair was all straight and didn’t include hairstyles for Black girls.

In one of our Christmas issues, we ran a story about how to paint your fingernails in festive patterns. After it came out, one of our teacher subscribers wrote us a letter about how excited one of her students was to see hands that looked like hers in a magazine tutorial. She said her student had never seen hands with dark skin in a magazine.

Seeing ourselves represented in the media makes people feel seen by society. It tells us we’re important and included within our communities, and it tells young people all the different ways they can participate in and contribute to the world around them.

Some our favorite examples of this include:

1. Diamond Daniel series by Nikki Grimes

2. The Sugar Plum series by Whoopi Goldberg

3.  The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake

4.  The Broken Bike Boy and the Queen of 33rd Street by Sharon G. Flake

5.  Ray Bearer by Jordan Ifueko

Including Underrepresented People in Everyday Stories

If a child pulls a book from the shelf in their classroom or school library, it probably isn’t about Black people unless it’s a history book talking about slavery or a contemporary book that’s explicitly political. That is a kind of representation, but what we really need are just normal stories with characters who just happen to be Black.

We want to see magazine stories about growing flowers with pictures of a Black gardener, or storybooks with Black families in them. I remember reading about a little girl who cried when she was given a book about a Black ballerina. She didn’t think that was what ballerinas looked like, because every ballerina she’d seen before was a white person. When Mbabazi was younger, I would sometimes take a black marker to the story books we read together and fill in the faces so she would have books about people like her.

And that’s all it takes. Just including underrepresented people in stories that have nothing to do with race is enough to send children the message that they are important, that interesting and exciting things can happen in their lives, that they, too, can grow beautiful flowers or meet daunting challenges and come out stronger for it.

Asking for Help to Represent Diversity

When we started BGM, Mbabazi and her friends were quite young, so I didn’t want to put photos of them in the magazine. Instead, we decided to make caricatures for each of them to include as author images, in staff bios, or as illustrations in stories they wrote.

Mbabazi took on responsibility for finding the right tool and began searching the internet for a free solution. What she settled on was a tool for creating comics called Pixton.

“It was very versatile,” Mbabazi said. “You could do things like change the eye spacing or the length of a person’s face. There were a few Black hairstyles, like afros or braids. The options weren’t extensive, but it gave me a lot more to work with than any other app I’d tried to make Black characters in.”

After we began publishing, someone at Pixton saw us on a news program and recognized that we were making some images with their software. Jared Shaw, the head of product at Pixton, called me up to ask how it was working for us and if there was anything they could do to help. I told him, “My daughter keeps saying, ‘I need more Black hairstyles.’”

“We started emailing back and forth and he asked me to compile a bunch of Black hairstyles I’d like to see included, and clothes, too, not just for Black people, but that all kinds of kids are wearing today,” Mbabazi explained. “I sent him a bunch of pictures I found on Google Images of cornrows and dreadlocks and different hairstyles we see on Black people, and he sent back a bunch of prototype drawings for me to pick from. They added them to the app and it was a big step up from the choices available when we started.”

Telling Stories from Black Girls’ Perspective

Right away, people wanted to help these kids who were making BGM. Early on, we were having meetings at the local library, where there was a writer in residence. I told him what we were doing and asked if he could talk to the girls about writing. He agreed, but then the next time we came to meet at the library, he had told the staff about us and they had set up a little space just for our meetings, with snacks and drinks for the kids. They asked us if they could buy a subscription when we ran our first issue.

And it wasn’t just the libraries and the schools. After our second issue, we had media requests back-to-back. Everyone wanted to talk to the girls about what they were doing. They received a bunch of awards and were even invited on International Women’s Day to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, where they were recognized and given a standing ovation. That recognition really helped them to see that they were making a difference and doing something other people recognized as important.

It’s also opened so many great learning experiences and opportunities for them. They’ve been able to interview high-level politicians, like the Canadian Ministers of Education, Science, and Immigration. When you’re a journalist, nailing that interview can be as simple as sending a letter asking for some time. When I wrote Google and asked if the staff could visit their offices in Toronto, they gave a whole coding class with snacks and drinks, and a tour of the Google office. When I contacted the Canadian Space Agency ahead of a trip to Montreal to request a tour, they said, “Well, we’re not open to the public, but you guys are journalists. We’d love to show you around our facilities.”

To parents and students who may not see themselves in the media, I would say this: Don’t be afraid to ask people in powerful or interesting jobs for help. So many of them are excited to help. More importantly, it puts kids in a position to tell stories from their own perspectives and lets them know they’re the kinds of people who can make a difference in the world.

Stories help them understand how to be in the world, especially when they’re growing up and learning to understand our places in it. Every child deserves the opportunity to identify with heroes or regular people doing amazing—or even just fun things.

For more, see:

Annette Bazira-Okafor is co-founder, with her daughter Mbabazi Okafor, of Black Girls Magazine. She can be reached at [email protected].

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Children’s Books That Focus on Climate Activists Help Us Appreciate Our Planet on Earth Day and Beyond

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Today, we reflect on how we can support the earth in the challenges it faces, as well as the many moments of awe and humility that the Earth provides.

It’s Earth Day, an occasion to think beyond oneself towards future generations and to continue to reassess words like impact and tradeoffs.

The earth is resilient but needs our presence and our awareness — lest we cross a point of no return for many of its beloved species. This day has only gained in urgency and importance in time. We must continue to learn, to be present and to recognize that each of our decisions have impacts beyond ourselves.

Essential organizations and initiatives continue to monitor our progress in combating the great crisis of our time, climate change, and provide the necessary toolkits to getting people on the track towards a solution.

Though important curriculum has been developed by organizations like Climate Generation, the Alliance for Climate Education and Our Climate, Our Future, empowering our educators needs to be an even higher priority if they are to imbue their students with the values to make a contribution. For example, UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goals have given us a clear bearing for helping shape communities and networks that have joined together to put the planet and their communities first.

This year the Getting Smart team was gifted a set of Earth Day specific children’s books which helped our kids to learn more about the heroes who fight to preserve and protect our Earth.

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Some of their thoughts are below:

Baby Loves Earth allows little learners to understand the importance of key aspects of our earth. The illustrations are colorful and keep our kids engaged. As they grow older, each word will drive rich discussions about why it’s essential to keep our planet healthy.”

“I did not know that elephants were the key to not having that many forests in the savannah.”

“People can do better by not cutting down trees – and that hurts animal habitats!”

“Greta is a kind of superhero I didn’t know about before. Kids can make a difference and help save our forests.”

“As a parent, these books provided a great way to help share the story of climate change and our role in it with a younger audience. It served as a starting point for family conversations about improving the earth and being mindful of our impact.”


Dive Into a Virtual Ocean and Three Other Ways Young People Can Experience the Wonder of the World This Earth Day

What if you could celebrate Earth Day by taking your students on an adventure to the Galapagos Islands, where they could dive deep into the ocean to see underwater mountains? What if your students could ask marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer Salome Buglass about how she surveys these landforms that rise from the ocean floor? What if I told you all of this was possible through a Virtual Field Trip?

Game-changing tools and resources like Virtual Field Trips are helping young people experience the wonders of our world no matter where they are learning this Earth Day — at home, in the classroom, or anywhere in between. These tools can help educators kindle in their students a deep appreciation for the planet and an understanding of the important role they play in improving it.

Let’s say that your students are learning about the ocean—one of our planet’s most precious natural resources. To celebrate Earth Day, the National Geographic Society has developed free resources and experiences to help educators enable learners to dive underwater and discover the blue beating heart of our planet in powerful ways, even if they live nowhere near a coastline. Here are some engaging and impactful ways to spark curiosity in your students to learn about this remarkable natural wonder.

Take a virtual field trip: This week, National Geographic Explorers Salome Buglass, Brian Skerry, and Sruthi Gurudev are co-hosting a Virtual Field Trip underneath the sea. In this free online video, learners can virtually swim with whale pods, investigate underwater mountains in the Galapagos Islands, and learn how eco-journalism is empowering youth to drive solutions to crises facing our ocean. This adventure encourages young people to develop an explorer’s mindset:learning about the world, how it works, and how they can make a difference.

Interact with National Geographic Explorers in real time: An explorer’s mindset is driven by an insatiable curiosity that prompts young people to ask important questions such as, “What impact does human behavior have on the ocean and its inhabitants?” Learners can get answers to these questions in real time from renowned experts during Explorer Classroom—live, interactive video talks on YouTube that connect young people with National Geographic Explorers as they share their experiences and adventures in the field. Register your class for a special Earth Day event to learn how marine sanctuaries can preserve and improve the health of vital ecosystems in the ocean. And following the event, check out our event guide, which helps students, educators and families make the most out of the experience.

Explore with citizen science apps: Interactive apps can transform young people’s personal devices into tools that help them conduct real scientific research and make a positive difference for the planet. This Earth Day, learners can join the Restoration and Recovery Challenge, available through a free app called Seek, to explore, observe, and analyze the world around them. Learners are encouraged to be citizen scientists, use their cell phones to observe litter in their environment, and take action to reduce household waste that would otherwise find its way into the ocean. Another free citizen science app, iNaturalist, helps young people identify organisms using a cell phone camera and connects them with a community of over a million scientists and naturalists working to better understand and protect nature. Becoming a citizen scientist is a great way for young people to contribute to scientific research and make a difference.

Dive into maps, books and articles: While edtech tools can help create powerful Earth Day learning experiences, it’s critical that they’re complemented by low-tech and no-tech options that offer equally high-quality learning to all students. Explore a wealth of books, articles and maps that can engage young people of all ages about the ocean for Earth Day—none of which requires a device or Internet connection.

No matter where students are in the world, they can still discover and learn about the Earth—all of its beauty, mysteries, and complexities—using engaging resources that ignite their curiosity and wonder. As Salome says, “There is literally an entire world out there that still needs exploring.” In doing so, educators can also encourage young people to build empathy for the Earth and understand how they can build a healthier, thriving planet. That is truly something to celebrate.

For more, see:

Vicki Phillips is Chief Education Officer at the National Geographic Society. Follow her at @DrVickiP.

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TOPOnexus: Bringing Back Wonder and Whoa!

By Molly Ames Baker

As we come together for Earth Day 2021 and rally around this year’s theme, Restore Our Earth™, we see big work ahead of us. Global restoration requires rolling up our sleeves. We need to dial down our innovative thinking, strategize across systems, and collaborate more creatively than ever before. We need to create collective impact, everywhere, and without becoming exhausted from our efforts.

So, as we rise to Restore Our Earth™, let us consider a parallel need – Restore Ourselves.

Self-restoration can take many forms but reconnecting with what is right outside our door is perhaps most relevant. Slowing down to re-see the everyday landscapes in our every day lives may be the most restorative thing we can do right now.

Let’s re-open ourselves to wonder.

What is TOPOnexus?

In Harbor Springs, Michigan a small group of educators is doing something differently. This group is called TOPOnexus, and the name directly translates to the mission – connecting people to place.

Last May TOPOnexus got a classroom – aka Basecamp – so they are better able to design and deliver their brand of place-based education with learners of all ages from PreK to seniors. Although Basecamp itself is small, its reach is wide-ranging from public school students nearby to educators statewide to National Park Service preservationists across the country. TOPOnexus is a think-and-do tank with a clear direction and is in the process of getting nonprofit status.

The TOPOnexus way of learning is based on adventuring but not with a capital “A”. Instead of going afar, the focus is on the local, wherever you are. The founder, Molly Ames Baker, formerly ran the outdoor education program at Colgate University. This co-curricular training for student leaders was based primarily in technical skills, but Baker redesigned its focus to center on developing a sense of place. This heartset is also at the core of TOPOnexus.

Backyard Adventures (BYA) is the core programming of TOPOnexus that connects people to place. The premise of BYA is simple – get people out the door to explore. BYAs are all about building local literacy. Learners go questing with a field guide and map, and the community becomes their classroom – from an acorn by an oak tree to an empty parking lot to city hall. The content crosses all community sectors including history, environment, economy, government, arts and more. A specific route may be followed but never a scripted outcome. The act of discovering is left to the learners.

TOPOnexus is committed to bringing back wonder and whoa.

Just a stone’s throw from Basecamp is Lake Michigan, so learners doing “All Around Town” navigate themselves to the shoreline. Just standing there leads to some big wonderings about “the big lake” – How deep is the bay? Who were the first people to travel these waters? Where are the fish? What’s that green stuff? And why is erosion happening right here?

Team TOPO has found that simply giving learners permission to slow down and soak up their place can be transformative. Something as simple as “60 seconds of silence” or a “spinerette” to take in one’s surroundings is often enough to elicit wonder. Even better is a “take 5” before rushing off or finding a “sit spot” for a solo.

To clarify, wonder is used in direct reference to the concept presented by Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder. Carson, a prominent scientist and founder of the environmental movement, also advocated simple acts of discovery and tapping our inborn sense of wonder.

For most learners, with wonder comes whoa! – something especially striking that makes one stop and take pause. When consistent opportunities are provided for this combo of wonder and whoa, learners start making discoveries on their own, and more importantly, asking their own questions. TOPOnexus coins this shift in learning as “getting on the arc”.  And “on the arc” is where learning gets better.

That first step – engaged awareness – is critical to create a springboard for deeper learning. Last summer families with three generations were making discoveries together about places they had seen hundreds of times before. Learners began looking at their community with new eyes and seeing things from a new perspective. Since summer Backyard Adventures has iterated into multiple formats including a TOPOmapping curriculum that sends high school students using GIS software into their neighborhoods to do paper mapping and a partnership with the public library to extend story hour with a Story Adventure.

Team TOPO is redefining what learning looks like with the TOPO Arc of Action, a simple but profound visual that illustrates the learner’s journey from awareness to action. Backyard Adventures allow learners to gain awareness and activate their wonder. From there, learners identify their Aha – what strikes them most. This act of ownership creates agency, an essential precursor to action.

The Arc is a mindshift from linear approaches because it is dynamic, emergent and allows for learners to map their own path.

Have you ever seen someone skipping stones across water? Then you know physics are at play with the arm throw, angle, gravity and lift force. But there is something beyond physics going on when a stone becomes self-skipping – synergy. What happens when learners are on the arc? Keep that arcing trajectory front of mind!

This blog is part one of a three-part series. In the next blog we will explore more deeply how the TOPO Arc of Action supports learners to become catalysts in their own communities.

For more, see:

Molly Ames Baker is Founder and Director of Learning at TOPOnexus. Connect with her via email: [email protected].  To discover more about the TOPO way of learning, explore at

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