Eric Sheninger’s Disruptive Thinking in our Classrooms: Preparing Learners for Their Future

“If we are to develop students who think disruptively, we must examine and reflect on our current teaching and learning practices. We, too, must become disruptive thinkers, which I define as: replacing conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic problems.”

Eric Sheninger’s latest title, “Disruptive Thinking in our Classrooms: Preparing Learners for Their Future” is a book for the moment. He has pulled together universal wisdom from across our field as well as his own work coaching education leaders following the paradigm shift that affected our practice unlike anything before. Sheninger offers guidance for reestablishing familiar pedagogical theories for emerging from disruption in order to best serve learners as teachers, administrators, engaged family members, and others that support our schools and personnel.

As other sectors embrace remote work going forward, students and their families will continue to want more flexibility in learning models from our schools as well. Sheninger wants to ensure we’re not throwing the baby out by the bathwater as in-person learning returns in some form as vaccinations prevail and restrictions are lifted. He encourages us to stay true to the time-tested insights from the pioneers of modern K-12 education in the present, marrying the possibilities that we’re suddenly all afforded by the digital tools that have enhanced in record time to extend the reach of teachers who were engaged in learning from home.

He organizes the book into three parts:

  • Re-Thinking Normal
  • Re-Thinking Learning
  • Re-Thinking the Learner

The chapters in each of the book’s sections are consistent in providing high-, mid-, and low-level entry points for education professionals to revisit time-tested ideas through the lens of all that galvanized us during the peak of learning during the pandemic, no matter whether it was in-person and socially-distanced, learning from home–both synchronously, and asynchronously, or in some hybrid fashion where learners were engaging with instruction both in and out of their familiar learning environments.

Sheninger hopes to redirect our energies to empower the same sorts of gains for students as we move forward after such a disruption as what began in the Spring of 2020. “The future of work requires new skills, and it is up to the K-12 education sector to lead the charge in this area. Skills are not enough, in my opinion. Yes, we want learners to possess the requisite knowledge and skills to meet the needs and demands required of them.” (p.19)

In the opening chapters, he sets the stage with a high-elevation expectation we share as educators, that, “…it is our duty and the role of education to ensure they are confident, competent, and contributing members of society. Above all else, our learners must be able to think and learn differently” (p.19). Blending the right amount of philosophy with pragmatic advice, Sheninger encourages practitioners to reconcile what they believe with what they practice: “…lifelong learning is a must for all of us, not just the kids we serve. For our students to meet the demands and expectations for work now and in the future, we must commit to professional growth now and in the future.” (p.20)

If this vision resonates for the reader, how do we get there? The chapters in the next two sections of the book offer ample opportunities for edleaders to choose low-hanging fruit based on their current state as it aligns with the unique vision they have for their learners. Acknowledging the shrewd resource budgeting that he had to monitor and manage, Sheninger encourages some corporate self-care to extend beyond what many surfaced in the pandemic as essential: “We must make the time to learn and grow as opposed to finding the time. If we rely on the latter, chances are it will never happen.” (p.20)

As idyllic as it seems to incorporate such measures with already scarce bandwidth, this is something that can be carried forward. He goes on to say, “The time is now to move the needle on transformational change in education. The longer we wait, the greater the risk to those we serve-–our kids—and to our future society.”  (p.20)

For all the ways we want to improve the field, our propensity for acquiescing to the gravitational pull of yesteryear will be too compelling when ESSER funding diminishes and we enjoy being in the same room with our learners once again in the first grading period of the new school year. We need to resist those forces when we’re weary and put in place interventions that keep us from resorting to regression during the next inevitable disruption. “If we continue down the track of sustaining outdated practices in education, we will continue to churn out a population of students who may be good at ‘doing school,’ but may not be prepared to do well in life. This applies not only to K-12 but also higher education.”  (p.20)

A long-held but challenging belief is that learning today and beyond must be as personalized for each and every student as possible. Sheninger thinks last year proved we’re able to do that now as long as we have cultivated talent to use the right techniques equipped with appropriate technology. “A renewed focus on creating schools that work for kids through uncommon learning strategies that are not being implemented in schools at scale can help to transform numerous facets of traditional schooling (Sheninger, 2015). Transforming learning is a momentous task that must be driven by unearthing the why across all facets of school culture.”  (p.71) It’s certainly a  complex undertaking, but feasible as the means are there and he discusses the first steps in considerable detail, with ample supports in the book’s Resources appendix.

Now, we’re in an era of our profession where it would be helpful to share the belief that we balance our technology with more adept techniques as practitioners in learning development. Sheninger says, “Pedagogy trumps technology. It also goes without saying that a solid pedagogical foundation should be in place prior to implementing any ‘innovation’.”  (p.85) He goes on, saying, “What is certain is that the future workforce will need to align its mindset and skillset to keep pace with evolving demands. The lesson learned is as simple as it is profound: Don’t prepare learners for something. Prepare them for anything.” (p.81)

He shares his conviction that educators need to change their approach given that “All kids doing the same thing, the same way, at the same time just doesn’t cut it anymore. As a result, there is a need for a shift to a more personal approach to learning.” (p.125). He draws a clear throughline to prior efforts to differentiate learning for students. This means creating more avenues for children of all ages and backgrounds to have agency in their learning pathways.

The book illuminates how authentic relationships between administrators and teachers as well as teachers and students anchor the shift to a more personalized learning model in our schools:

“To fully prepare all learners for their future, we must create classrooms in which disruptive thinking is a major component of the learning process. Disruptive thinking in the classroom will only become a reality, however, when priceless relationships are in place. With these in place, your impact will be felt for generations as the learners you influence today disrupt the bold new world in ways that change it—and us—for the better.” (p.163)

Like the excellent teacher and administrator he was in the first part of his career, Sheninger continues to use his skills to reinforce our own skill development in education leadership by making it practical and applicable.

What I appreciate most from Sheninger is that he’s making the old new again. Instead of clearing the decks from before the pandemic, he’s shining a new light on the proven ideas and those that provided them in the first place. Through the capacity building we all did during the shutdown, it’s important to not reinvent the wheel. We knew things before we’d always wanted to implement. We knew practices in how we orchestrate teaching and learning, design instructional activities and even in how we assess and offer learners feedback have been ripe for the sort of change we experienced last year.

For education leaders looking for a solid professional learning guide that is comprehensive in breadth and depth with so many practical ideas backed up by research, this book would galvanize your team by recalibrating what we know works and making it feasible given the investments happening in our districts right now from federal funding. The book is a fast-paced and inspiring read for any working in and for our schools, looking for a means to elevate their practice with disruptive thinking as we get back to planning to make ’21-’22 the best school year ever.

“Never underestimate your vital role in impacting the life of a child. Students might not realize it now, but later in life many will thank you in their own way for your belief in and commitment to them.”  (p.163)

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Yoga Ed. Addresses Trauma Through Teacher, Student Self-Care

This last year has taught educators many things: increased technology implementation, the importance of engaging all learners and even how to ultimately teach differently. But another lesson is also becoming apparent: if educators don’t take care of themselves, they won’t be able to take care of those they teach. Teaching self-care to educators, who in turn can teach this to their students, is the mission of Yoga Ed.

Although founded over 20 years ago, Yoga Ed. was acquired and re-branded in 2013 when current 2.0 co-founders Brynne Caleda and Julia Bond transitioned it from an in-person, paper-based training organization into an evidence-based, online curriculum program. Caleda, who had been a trainer almost since the original inception and a one-time middle school teacher, led her team in a complete curriculum rewrite to create an online learning space focused on trauma-informed education.

Since then, she said they have been getting a great deal of interest from educators, schools, districts and educational organizations around the world due to the increased awareness of trauma on mental and physical health.

“Our evidence-based curriculum – aligned with national and international Health and Physical Education Standards, as well as CASEL’s Social Emotional Learning Framework, – is proven to improve physical, mental, emotional and social health,” said Caleda.

Mindful Movement

Caleda said the entire Yoga Ed. team is really excited by the global interest, as well as the impact their work is having on teachers and their students. They have developed complete online courses that are supplemented with coaching and training. She said their Mindful Movement Program is intended to integrate seamlessly into existing curriculum, initiatives, and the normal school day without being something additional that teachers need to do.

Through their research-based strategies, that support social-emotional learning competencies, they train teachers to include things such as brain breaks throughout the school day and morning mindfulness during morning meetings, as well as facilitate curriculum for physical education, health education, indoor recess, teacher health and wellness programs and ultimately yoga and mindfulness classes to support existing SEL instruction.

A New Urgency, Awareness

The time is now more than ever, according to Caleda. She says that our society has been experiencing increasing collective trauma. This trauma, with additional layers from the pandemic and other global events, has left mental health as the next pandemic, said Caleda.

“Trauma shows up in the body and the brain and it makes it difficult for teachers and students to learn,” she said. “Our mental health as educators is necessary for us to teach, as well as for students to learn.”

There are four domains that Yoga Ed.’s program addresses: physical, mental (focus, concentration), emotional (self-awareness, self-management) and social (relationships with others). She said teachers, while typically exhausted themselves, are well aware that their students have these needs. Yoga Ed.’s approach is to help teachers, then students, feel better emotionally and physically through simple and very accessible mindfulness techniques

“Mindfulness has become vernacular. However, we are trying to demystify it,” said Caleda. “If you have a chair and a body, you can learn to breathe and improve your mental and physical health.”

In the ideal situation, Caleda said she and her team prefer to work with entire school staff over multiple years. However, she said they see themselves as capacity builders who often work with educators, as well as healthcare professionals, mental health staff, social workers, counselors, occupational therapists, physical therapists and even parents or the occasional yoga teacher.

The connections between this work and student success are highly correlated, according to Caleda. She sites research studies from well-known academic institutions such as Harvard, Yale and CSU Fullerton that support the work her team does.

“All of these studies examined student and teacher outcomes,” said Caleda. “They consistently found when teachers feel better, both physically and mentally, they perform better and so do their students.”

User Experience

School site leaders are also seeing the value of this type of training for both their staff and students. Drew Giles, Director of Educate at Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose, California, describes the benefits of Yoga Ed. in terms of skills. For staff, he said this is about equipping them with the mindfulness to be present, aware and engage. For students, Giles said we can teach them how to use their own breathing exercises, along with other yoga-related endeavors, in order to support one’s brain and body.

“On flights, we’ve been trained that in the event of an emergency, we are to secure your own mask before assisting others. The same is true for us as educators and human beings,” said Giles.

Giles added that in order for educators to do their challenging, yet rewarding work, they must prioritize self-care into their organizational culture.

“What greater gift can we give our teachers and students?” asked Giles. “If we prioritize these experiences, the rest of the learning and life skills will come.”

Perceived Barriers

Yoga Ed. realizes that the perceived challenges are usually about time and money. However, she said schools might be surprised how affordable and customizable all this really is. Caleda said funding from the CARES Act and many other funding sources are perfectly aligned with supporting this type of work.

The value, according to Caleda, is that Yoga Ed. is part of a global community of educators focused on wellness. Indeed, when someone registers for the course, they get 6-8 weeks of instruction, access to the course for a year, coaching and personalized support, as well as access to over 500 lessons that can be used with students.

“Some might say that they don’t have the money or time for self-care,” she said. “But this is a way to take care of everyone and make our lives better. Can we afford not to do it?

The Current Shift

There is a paradigm shift happening, according to Caleda. Traditionally, we have prioritized academics over wellness. But now, we are beginning to realize that wellness is the pathway to academic success.

“How can students learn to read if they have unresolved trauma? What are we doing to prepare teachers to support all of this collective trauma?” asks Caleda. “Time is a roadblock, but learning how to do this will actually give you more time.”

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Nalukai Academy: Harvesting Hawai’i’s Next Generation of Leaders

Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike.

In the Native Hawaiian language, this means, “by doing, one learns” and is the stepping stone that empowers students (or “founders” as they are titled) at the Nalukai Academy Program on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi.

For Aaron Schorn, Nalukai’s Program Director, camp is the best two weeks out of the year. It is where a cohort of roughly 30 high school students from all the Hawaiian islands come together to build new skills of team development, entrepreneurship, leadership, intensive technology, and design in a culturally focused space. And it’s free.

“We are a social and cultural entrepreneurship organization,” said Schorn. “This is real, this is authentic and there is a purpose behind it. Every skill you learn, mentor you meet, skill you have — the reason is rooted in you. We build these capacities and mindsets and turn them into iterative realities.”

And that just scratches the surface of the Nalukai Startup Academy, a program that is not just another tech or entrepreneur program for students, explained Schorn.  It’s a place where the diverse youth of Hawaiʻi create their own waves of innovation through 21st-century skill-building but more significantly, space to mold intrinsic characteristics as a team and as an individual while rooted in Hawaiian culture.

An ever-increasing percentage of the cohort is of Hawaiian descent, shared Schorn. “You have to get the students to realize the power of their culture and their backgrounds. The program is rooted in group cohort culture and facilitating belonging.”

From the moment founders step into camp, a sense of community and culture is embraced. Students socialize in groups, create product teams, meet with staff, and collaborate with Hawaiʻi and global industry leaders and cultural practitioners who will assist their projects from ideation to execution. Nalukai’s program curriculum includes 5 areas of interest:

  • Digital storytelling – branding & marketing, content creation, web design
  • Leadership – project management, collaboration, team dynamics
  • Entrepreneurship – networking, investor pitches, business plan development
  • Design thinking –  prototyping, mind-mapping, iteration
  • Technology – coding, web development, digital business tools

By the end of the intensive two-week camp, each team will be ready to showcase their startup work through a formal ho’ike (showcase, presentation, celebration).

How does Nalukai ensure innovative project success for their learners? They bring the community in. How do they challenge the reach and scope of what learning communities are? Schorn summarizes it best,

“When school is rooted in the relationship between student and mentor, that’s when it is successful. We don’t have our alumni as interns, we have them be key leaders and stakeholders in the organization. We need to actualize the ideas and strategies of the youth.” He continued “Nalukai is all about working on teams. From the coder, the writer, to the cultural practitioner. We are redefining the relationship between the adult and the learner; the mentor and the mentee.”

Whether the goal is to move off of the islands or stay in Hawaiʻi, Nalukai Academy is the connecting force that will allow Hawaiʻi’s next generation of leaders to have an impact and create better futures for their community.

“How do you teach someone to get their ideas out into the world?” Schorn emphasized. For Nalukai, one thing is certain; this academy strives to answer this question each year when the program sees its new set of Hawaiʻi future leaders through its camp doors.

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The Time for Action is Now: Get Ready For Careers of the Future

By Corey Mohn and Gregg Brown

Do you ever just want to put all the talk aside, roll up your sleeves, and blow stuff up? If so, keep reading.

Great progress has been made in raising the awareness that learning connected to the community and aspects of work and life is powerful and possible. New initiatives, programs and schools are lifting up by the day, providing niche opportunities for handfuls of students. Even when you work in the “industry” of education, on a weekly basis you find new efforts of which you were previously unaware.

When is awareness and “lighthouse” programming not enough? How do we assist those that want to provide powerful, community-connected experiences to all of their students?

Today we launch the “Innovating Education for Careers of the Future” playbook courtesy of the CAPS Network. This resource gives all of us a chance to move from awareness to action. It shouldn’t matter if you are a single teacher in a classroom or a district superintendent with the authority to redesign a district’s learning approach – anyone inspired to make impact should have support to make a move.

This playbook will allow you as an educator to:

  • Design learning that builds professional skills in your students.
  • Prepare your students for a wayfinding journey by exposing them to the real world.
  • Position your students to put professional skills to work, maximizing their positive impact on the world.

The CAPS “Innovating Education for Careers of the Future” playbook is a “freemium” offering from CAPS to support teachers in the transition and implementation of profession-based learning from any classroom, a powerful resource to encourage experimentation and scale around meaningful, authentic student learning.

This playbook is not a proprietary resource to be held for the select few that can afford it.

The movement around profession-based learning is for all, not limited to any brand or school.

This is about changing the world. All of us. Better together.

Make your next step, which might just be registering for the NExT/CAPS Summer Bash on July 20th. At this event you can “experience narratives of resilience, solution-finding, and inspiration; catalyzing empowered leaders focused on profession-based learning as a means of addressing opportunity gaps in K-12 schools.”

Corey Mohn is Executive Director of CAPS Network
Gregg Brown is CAPS Network Coordinator.

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Are You Putting Learners First? Here are 8 Ways to Check Yourself

By: Rebecca Midles and Laura Hilger

For as long as there have been schools, there has been the knowledge that schools need to change. This tension often exists at the intersection of power and equity. To combat this tension, numerous new terms, new ideologies and reframings have been created — but perhaps none are as promising as learner-centered design.

When systems say they are learner-centered this means that the system is designed for and by learners. As educators, we have signed up to put learners first, a commitment that varies across the globe within different educational systems. Oftentimes, this dedication to being learner-centered is a defining characteristic of educators who are considered to be professionals and artists of their craft.

If we are really here to do the work of serving every learner, where they are, in real-time so that they become agents for their own learning who are prepared for life after high school, it’s necessary that we make a shift to students-centered practices that ground in anti-oppressive practices, inclusivity and cultural responsiveness.

Student-Centered Learning, sometimes referred to as the aforementioned learner-centered education, encompasses the idea that instruction should be shifted to focus on each and every student’s needs. This focus on students typically means disrupting traditional constraints like seat time, grade bands, state accountability, and many of the relics of education’s past that reinforce systems of power, marginalization, bias and inequitable interventions. This approach also invites radically different systems and structures at the fullest level of implementation.

Unfortunately, all too often, well-intentioned student-centered models, policies, projects and even magnet schools develop such a mission, only to veer off the path and become adult-centered before they are able to truly and deeply embed the student-centered culture and components. It can be hidden well, although often inadvertently, and in order to make needed shifts, it’s important we call out what practices can contribute to adult-centered, and student-centered learning. We have identified eight signs that educators and edleaders can look for to reflect on the ways learners are at the center of learning and whenever possible, driving the learning.

Innovative Use of Time

When looking at the daily schedule, consider how the innovative use of time and scheduling aligns to and nourishes the vision you have for your learning community, how it grows learner agency, cultivates learner readiness, and enables procedural efficiency with flexibility.

The traditional school calendar that was influenced long ago by the agrarian summer break and national holidays has not changed for the majority of our school systems. The challenge of bus schedules is still often cited when learning teams are trying to design creative use of time and move away from a universal start and end time in order to find more “flex” time. In some cases, students are having to move across campus to get to classes and often may not even choose an elective because of the distance traveled in a designated passing time. There have been attempts and some success with rethinking in-service days, instructional prep time, and interim learning sessions between semesters, but for the most part, this structure can be a significant obstacle to being more systematically set up to be learner-centered.

Guiding Questions for Innovative use of Time

  • Why is there a need to change our master schedule?
  • What is the purpose of a master schedule and how can these goals be met in other ways?
  • How might you design schedules that better align to your learner-centered shared vision?
  • What are the current barriers that your community faces when looking at changing the schedule, and which one(s) can you begin to dismantle?

Possible Look Fors

  • Personalized time in the schedule to focus on their learning needs
  • Offers extended learning time (exploratory, intensive, intercession, Interims) for learners to grow in fields of their choice. Options supported by equitable access (transportation, etc.)
  • A consistent dedicated time for advisory to mentor and support personalized learning needs and goals
  • A transparent and systemic procedure for schedule changes to support learner readiness so that when a learner is ready for the next level or course (depending on what is best for the learner) they do not have to wait for a quarter or semester break
  • Embedded professional learning time

Flexible Grouping of Learners

Flexible grouping aligns to learner needs and context which supports flexible pacing, leading to a system that allows learners to advance upon mastery rather than seat time or age. When cohorts of learners are based on age over strategic learner readiness, you are less likely to have personalized learning at a deep level for each and every learner. Learners deserve academic content that is appropriately challenging with support they need and teachers that are prepared for those levels – versus the artificial push and pull of getting everyone to the same spot.

Often, the grouping of learners can be directed by the teacher’s schedule and their content area with the additional layers of class sizes or timing of course offerings. Offerings such as electives, AP or math classes can be lynchpins for designing learning options and often create obstacles for personalized learning. In addition, labeling learners by permanently sorting or tracking results in an inequitable system that is based on privilege, access, and convenience. Alternatively, flexible grouping gives educators and learners the freedom to move based on learner needs by content, context, or social-emotional priorities.

In the landscape of needed equitable structures, when a freshman class requires prerequisites, a system needs to review whether all middle schools provide this opportunity. If not, is the sorting outcome worth the change? Is the prerequisite more about the adults or the learners, and if learners – for all learners or just a few? Many systems address this with pre-assessments or one-to-one meetings to share expectations, but why not reconsider the onramp by reviewing the final outcomes that are intended with this class? If it is to access higher rigor earlier, why not imbed that in all courses, all the time, by implementing a more personalized learning approach within the content and context?

Guiding Questions

  • Where might you begin using learner needs to drive group formations?
  • When students show readiness for the next level of rigor that is beyond a grade-level content – what is the process? Consequently, when learners need more scaffolding to reach what is being presented, what are the supports?
  • How do you build a system that is anti-tracking, and adjusts groupings based on needs in real-time?
  • How could you provide or increase equitable access to rigorous coursework?

Possible Looks Fors

  • At the classroom level, learner groups are fluid
  • At the classroom level, depending on the learning requirement, learner groups are based on readiness, learner choice, context, engagement, and/or how the content is represented in alignment with learner needs/interests
  • As needed, learners move to different groups upon demonstration of learning
  • At the systems level, scheduling processes support flexibility and what is best for learners within that context (i.e., moving the learner now vs. waiting until the quarter or semester)
  • Learner needs drive the groupings

Sequence and Documentation of Learning

An inclusive process was used to design the systemic, aligned, accessible, and essentialized learning continuum that is culturally responsive, non-biased and anti-racist, and shows what all learners need to know and be able to do. The learning continuum drives all teaching, learning, and curricular resource decision-making.

When a system has a canon or a third-grade curriculum, the concept of this structure can often be intended for the adults that deliver the instruction and the provided resources. Personalized systems have aligned essential learning goals that show what all learners need to know and be able to do and provide options and flexibility for resource selection and context. The look fors or learning goal indicators are common but the process may vary.

Guiding Questions

  • Are standards/competencies embedded in your curriculum?
  • To what degree have you essentialized your standards/competencies, and aligned them as a system?
  • Which content areas need systemic alignment attention now?
  • How will you put together a team or create collaborative involvement opportunities for your community to co-create the learning continuum?
  • Does unit testing happen as students need it, or on Friday before the weekend? What are the gathered points of evidence to show either a learner or the group of learners are ready for a summative assessment?

Possible Look Fors

  • A systemic, aligned PK-12 continuum of learning standards and/or competencies has been prioritized for both academic and SEL/non-academic expectations
  • All levels of the learning community were involved in the design of the learning continuum
  • At the classroom level, educators and learners use these standards or competencies to drive teaching and learning
  • The continuum is accessible by all, for all levels of learning so that everyone can see what is required from one level to the next
  • Curricular resources that are being used are aligned to the learning continuum; resources are allocated based on the learning continuum

Assessment Literacy and Practices

Educators work together to design quality common measurement tools aligned to the learning continuum such as rubrics to enable both educators and learners to provide feedback on the learning, growing assessment capable learners. These assessments are transparent and accessible to the entire learning community. Based on readiness, a variety of types of aligned assessments are provided for learners over multiple opportunities, grounded in learner choice. Over time, learners are part of the assessment design process, leading how they will show what they’ve learned.

Guiding Questions

  • To what degree are assessments aligned to the standards/competencies required for learning?
  • To what degree are we using common assessment tools as a PLC or content team?
  • How are we using assessments with our learners?

Possible Look Fors

  • Common assessment tools such as rubrics are aligned to the learning continuum and being actively used at the classroom level
  • Feedback is aligned to the assessment
  • The assessment is not a secret; instead, it is accessible and used throughout the learning experience
  • A variety of formative assessment opportunities takes place through the learning journey
  • Learners have choices in how they demonstrate their learning
  • Learners are aware of the rubric, can speak about the rubric, and are using it to drive assessment practices such as self-assessments and peer assessments
  • As ready, learners can use the rubric to design how they are going to demonstrate their learning

Grading Practices (or Recording and Reporting)

The systemic grading practices focus on showing what has been learned aligned to the learning continuum rather than cumulative letter grades, seat time, or non-academic behaviors such as penalization for late assignments. The concept of grading is about what a learner earned, not what was given.

For time-based traditional systems, the final learning mark/grade for quarters/semesters can be an average of scores, and not all averaged scores are created equal. A grading process may be a mixed percentage of assignments, formative assessments (like quizzes) and summative assessments (like tests, projects, presentations) mixed in with either behavior, effort or extra work. Because educators tend to work in subjective silos with grading practices, this leads to a variety of grading methods resulting in inequitable outcomes. In addition, these individual scores can be based on a random collection of marks and different pedagogical approaches, approaches that may or may not allow retakes, or shared learning criteria, and thus can make it difficult for learners to have agency within this structure.

Some learning systems have moved toward inviting learners to revisit marks on their work to improve, grow and ultimately earn proficiency for a learning outcome. Others look at separating the habits of a learner or work ethic separate from the content learning. In a personalized learning system, the grades should not be a surprise or a feeling of wait and see. In this same vein, a grade is a point in time about where a learner is and therefore, the grade is not static.

Guiding Questions

  • What is our data telling us about our learners’ progress and how does that relate to how we report out on learning and goals?
  • How might we make our grading practices more equitable?
  • Are learners aware of learning outcomes and expectations?
  • What are the routes for learners to refine or revisit their learning?

Possible Look Fors

  • The system reports out on the progress of the learning using the standards/competencies
  • Non-academic learning such as SEL, if assessed, is assessed separately from academic learning
  • The system has a strategic plan or goal for moving away from letter grades and a first step might be that zeros and Fs are no longer used

Instructional Framework

Changing how learning is reported does not directly change the way learning happens. A shared vision of learning requires teachers and related stakeholders to come together to define what they want for their graduates and learners. This vision has to be for all learners, with thoughtful inclusion as the driver.  If the framework is not about the needs of all learners then it is not learner-centered and continues the practice of education for some or most but not all learners.

An instructional framework is about the learning design that supports this vision – the strategies, the assessment practices, the data that is collected, and how learning is supported, nurtured and captured. At the district level, it becomes the essential driver for professional learning and resource allocation.

A systemic instructional framework grounded in what the community believes about teaching and learning drives professional learning opportunities and modes and provides a common language for educators to discuss where they are in their professional practice and what they need to do in order to improve. How this framework translates into a classroom can and should have learners at the center of that work helping to co-design the environment.

Guiding Questions

  • What is an instructional framework?
  • Why is an instructional framework important?
  • Where is our learning community at with designing and/or using an instructional framework, and what might be some next steps?
  • What teaching strategies support the teaching and learning vision?
  • How does a teacher know what they are doing well and what support they need?

Possible Look Fors

  • The framework and educator readiness drives our professional learning opportunities, feedback, and continuous improvement
  • Educators can speak about the instructional framework
  • The use of the framework across different campuses, classrooms, and PLCs is evident

Learning Culture

The culture is designed with the learners to cultivate belonging. Learners are part of the decision-making, community agreement development, shared accountability processes, goal setting, and celebrations. The learning ecosystem depends on their leadership, their commitment and their needs.

The role of student leadership within a learner-centered community is collaborative in nature and their roles entail active involvement in decision making, brainstorming solutions and creating community agreements. Leadership in this context is more than a label and creates space for codesign, mutual accountability and active responsive structures. This can also transfer to the concept of ranking learners with titles and honors; some systems have completely done away with the titles of valedictorian and salutatorian or have settled with a Latin honor distinction which makes space for recognition for groups of learners.

Another key component of every learning culture is discipline. Originally meant to convey learning, it is often an inequitable gotcha game, and counterintuitive to a system dedicated to learning. Because certain types of learner behavior are expected, a learner-centered system ensures that this is not only being taught but celebrated. Alternatively, when social-emotional learning is referred to as a soft skill it implies that it is not as important as academic learning and can be either an add-on or supplementary. If a system teaches learning behaviors, then the growth in this area should be shared alongside academic learning–if it is not, then it is truly a soft attempt and supplementary over primary in design.

Guiding Questions

  • To what degree do we have active community agreements?
  • How do we hold ourselves and each other accountable for our learning culture?
  • How do we celebrate our learning culture?
  • What is our goal-setting process for our culture?

Possible Look Fors

  • Behavior expectations and developing a culture of belonging are taught
  • Learner created community agreements drive behavior expectations
  • Discipline processes/protocols are systemic and aligned to the community agreements (Restorative Justice, Circles, Peer mentors, etc.)
  • Learners help nourish the community by making decisions for both problem-solving and celebrating
  • Goal setting structures are explicitly taught and are active at all levels of the organization

Flexible Use of Space

The learning environment is set up so that learners have agency over their learning space to decide where they will learn best for that particular context. The learning community then dedicates resources to get creative with its use of space, which includes expanding learning opportunities beyond the classroom walls as well as online learning options. Off-campus learning requires intentionality towards growing authentic community and business partnerships that are dedicated to learners.

Guiding Questions

  • In what ways do learners get to choose where they will learn? Why is this important?
  • Where is your district at with extending learning beyond the traditional classroom walls?
  • What is possible with offering rich learning experiences outside of the classroom?
  • How equitable are your extended learning opportunities?
  • How are you leveraging community partnerships?

Possible Look Fors

  • Innovative school structure and use of space
  • Collaborative spaces
  • Learner choice with where to learn
  • Access to rigorous and meaningful extended learning opportunities
  • Relationships with engaged community and business partnerships

Collaboratively, the learning community intentionally develops agency at all levels of the organization so that each and every learner graduates choice ready. Our educator’s promise to learners is that they leave our system with agency. Our charge then, is that each and every educator becomes a change agent for equitable student-centered learning systems that grow this promise of agency.

Where will you get started?

For more, see:

Laura Hilger is the Director of Teaching and Learning at KnowledgeWorks. She has spent her entire career devoted to learning communities and systemic change, working as a classroom teacher, a dean of students and an assistant principal, as well as an instructional coach in nine states. 

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Black Next-Story Month

By: Caroline Hill

The stories of the past are important.

They remind us of our superhuman capacities to transcend our limits in the face of insurmountable obstacles. These stories feed us a healing soup of triumph, self-determination, greatness, and brilliance. We retell stories of our humanity; an important practice in a society designed to dehumanize.

As we take time this month to remember the past, I find myself wondering about the next story. I look at pictures of my parents, grandparents, great parents, aunts and uncles–– all of whom inhabited black bodies while on this earth–– and I wonder if a true celebration of black history must also include acknowledging their pain and resilience as well as a commitment to write the next story. The story that assumes that racial hierarchy is obsolete.

What if we all decided to work together and ensure to break this spell that has such a hold on all of us?

Maybe it starts with teaching bodies of color, especially black bodies, to have full range of motion in and with their bodies–because supremacy limits not only where you can go physically, it limits your imagination about what you think you can do with your own body.

We might reimagine culturally relevant education for white students and white teachers, as pedagogy would make visible the hierarchy in their own stories and cultural narratives.

Maybe it looks like intentionally teaching white children to become anti-racists and creating standards and assessments to monitor mastery.

At the school level, perhaps we decide our schools should exist to rid our land of all body supremacies once and for all, starting with race. Imagine, for a moment, the literacies needed for that most righteous task.

What if we entrusted students to redesign systems so that everyone is seen, heard, and had their dignity and humanity affirmed? Relationships across lines of difference would not just be nice, they would be required. Proximity to marginalized bodies would be a design requirement. Children would need to develop new cultural codes to see differences as expected, not foreign.

I invite you to join me in honoring the pain and triumph in the black story by committing to removing the very structures that created the trauma.

Let us honor the past by learning new cultural ways that make the old ways obsolete.

For more, see:

This post was originally published on 228 Accelerator.

Caroline Hill is a thought leader who lives, works, and designs at the intersection of education, innovation, and equity. Her work inspired the creation of equityXdesign, a powerful design framework that merges the values of equity work and innovation with the intentionality of design. 

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Schools Can Give America a Shot At Vaccine Equity

Since COVID-19 vaccinations began in December, nearly 60% of American adults have gotten at least one jab. In April, vaccines were made available to teens 16 and older in most states, and earlier this month, vaccine eligibility expanded to kids as young as 12—opening up the possibility of vaccines for an additional 17 million young people. In a landmark speech to a joint session of Congress, President Biden pointed out that 90% of Americans now live within 5 miles of a vaccination site. Then he delivered a simple imperative: “Get vaccinated now.”

Biden had reason to issue that plea: Today, up to 1 in 4 Americans say they won’t get vaccinated, and another 5 percent are undecided. To date, only about a third of the population has been vaccinated; America is in a race against time between new COVID variants and the pace of vaccinations. Without a more effective vaccination strategy that boosts the confidence of hesitant individuals of the safety and efficacy of FDA-authorized vaccines, we are unlikely to get back to normal—which Dr. Anthony Fauci says requires 70–85% of the population to get vaccinated.

Public schools can help: As trusted local institutions, our country’s schools are well-positioned with both the physical and social infrastructure needed to help hesitant Americans overcome their concerns and get vaccinated quickly.

The reasons for reluctance are as diverse as Americans themselves: Many people are worried about vaccine safety and side effects, others are dubious about the motives of the government or pharmaceutical companies, and many communities lack access to quality health information and convenient care. Unfortunately, as Americans vacillate over vaccines, variants are growing: The most common source of new infection in the U.S is the B.1.1.7 variant that’s more contagious, deadlier, and infecting younger populations.

The best way to boost vaccine confidence is through proximate, trusted, empathetic communication, and the best way to reach more Americans is to increase equitable access to vaccines. Schools can provide both, and they are, as yet, a nearly untapped resource in the vaccination effort.

Of all our public institutions, schools have the broadest and deepest reach into the everyday lives of Americans, from those in urban centers to those in rural outposts. Almost every community has a school nearby, even if its hospital is miles away. The reach of schools is also diverse and multigenerational, as students leave school buildings to return to parents, grandparents, extended family, friends, and other loved ones of every background, race, faith, and political persuasion.

Moreover, people trust school leaders, particularly principals. Teachers, social workers, school nurses, and office staff can leverage a foundation of trust to listen, understand, and respond to concerns of students, parents, and caregivers. School leaders are well-positioned to address delicate matters like misinformation, complacency, fear, and distrust of science and data.

There are several steps schools can take to address hesitancy and equitable access to vaccines in their local communities. A 10-Point Guide for Schools to Promote Equitable COVID-19 Vaccination outlines approaches and options.

The first is by taking a deliberate and empathetic approach to COVID-19 vaccination awareness and education. At Brooklyn Lab, a public school in downtown Brooklyn, New York, our staff start by listening, without judgment, to the concerns of our community. From this position, we’re able to begin addressing those concerns, both through one-on-one conversations and through broader communications such as town halls and newsletters.

Schools can also integrate vaccination information into curricula. In science and math classes, teachers invite students to understand the data behind the vaccine trials and use statistics, math, and science to place the risk of vaccines in context when concerns arise about certain vaccines, as has happened with Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca shots. In humanities classes, our teachers share and explore the history of medical racism that has contributed to vaccine hesitancy in some communities. They can explore successful campaigns to vaccinate Americans against polio in the 1950s or heroic efforts to use vaccination to eradicate smallpox globally in the 1970s. Teaching about vaccination history and COVID-19 in the classroom not only helps educate students with facts and science; it empowers them to become vaccine ambassadors with and for their loved ones.

Schools can also partner with local health organizations, governments, churches, businesses, unions, sports teams, nonprofits, or news outlets to run credible campaigns to educate their broader communities. To increase equitable access, schools can even offer their facilities as school vaccination sites, making it easier for working families, multigenerational households, or people in rural communities to have convenient access to a vaccine. President Biden said it: “Think of places that are convenient: School gyms, sports stadiums, community centers.”

This wouldn’t be the first time schools have served as vaccination centers; in 1954, the first polio vaccine was administered at a school in Pittsburgh and many individuals get their flu shots at their local schools. Some schools have done this during our current pandemic: Carmen Schools of Science and Technology partnered with the Milwaukee Health Department and four other schools to create a vaccination site for the school community. Within weeks, more than 80% of the staff had been vaccinated.

Some may argue that schools don’t have the time and resources to engage in the vaccine effort. Educators are overwhelmed trying to manage remote, in-person, and hybrid learning, while also supporting school communities that have endured unimaginable trauma and loss. This argument is valid, and schools do need extra support to take this on. But this is one of the greatest public health campaigns society has undertaken in generations, and yet even the most influential public health institutions don’t have the kind of local access we need to achieve herd immunity at scale. With the support of schools, we can reach more American communities.

Policymakers and government officials must support schools with the resources necessary to help communities overcome vaccine hesitancy and to vaccinate children when deemed safe. For American schools, vaccinations are a critical pathway to full reopening, and American schools might just be our next best shot for getting all Americans vaccinated.

For more, see:

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What Students Can Teach Us About Online Learning

By: Michelle Montgomery

In spite of virtual classes posing difficulties for many teachers and students amid COVID-19, remote education is a trend that studies suggest is likely to last in some form post-pandemic.

According to research conducted by the World Economic Forum, when students have reliable internet and computer access, online learning has been shown to increase student’s retention of information and save educators and students time, suggesting the changes coronavirus has caused might be positive and here to stay for many.

So, how can educators use this new insight to their advantage to ensure maximum student benefit?

Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), for one, has seen first-hand the benefits of remote student collaboration. As organizers of the popular MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge – an annual internet-based, intensive math modeling competition that draws the participation of thousands of high school students across the U.S., and sixth form students in the U.K. – SIAM has watched students thrive by using innovative online resources and collaboration tools that help open their eyes to new educational opportunities, while working and competing as teams, regardless of geography.

Still, based on a recent survey conducted by SIAM to which 1,060 16- to 18-year-old participants of the M3 Challenge responded, students, suggested there is room for improvement when it comes to online learning. They particularly identified subjects such as science and math as being the most challenging courses to learn online.

Here are the five main areas where the students – the vast majority whose education transitioned online to some degree amid the pandemic – said teachers can make virtual learning of math courses more effective:

  1. Use visual tools and videos to explain math concepts (55 percent).
  2. Record classes for students to review later (53 percent).
  3. Better use technology and digital programs to explain math concepts (52 percent).
  4. Provide one-on-one online sessions with students to answer questions and ensure they understand concepts (37 percent).
  5. Explain concepts using real-world examples (31 percent).

They also provided advice for other students, sharing what they think is the key to online learning success. They recommended that students:

  1. Establish a daily schedule and stick to it (70 percent).
  2. Attend all virtual classes and keep up with schoolwork (63 percent).
  3. Connect socially with friends, even if virtually (46 percent).
  4. Exercise frequently and eat well (45 percent).
  5. Have a designated place to “attend” virtual classes (39 percent).
  6. Take frequent breaks (36 percent).

Interestingly, one in three of the students queried said they would like to see an online component to their education post-pandemic – either full-time or part-time. While 73 percent of the students queried said they don’t learn as well virtually, nine percent said they learn better online and 19 percent say they find no difference in their ability to learn either way.

Of course, even those who favor online learning recognize it has drawbacks. According to the majority of students, it’s hard to stay focused (76 percent) and it can feel lonely or isolating due to the lack of in-person social interaction and connection to other students (66 percent). Almost half of the students said the main disadvantage is the lack of face-to-face interaction with teachers, 42 percent think teachers tend to assign more projects so the workload can be heavier, and 40 percent said the explanation of assignments seems less thorough.

On the positive side, most of the students appreciate the time savings (traveling to and from school, moving between classrooms, etc.) virtual classes provide, leaving extra hours for studying and other activities. They also value being able to get more sleep and occasionally having a more flexible schedule. Almost one-third said they see the advantage of having one’s own private learning environment at home, saving money (on transportation, clothing, etc.) and, in some cases, being able to review recorded classes later if needed.

The majority of those who said they perform better virtually versus in-person credit the fact that they get more sleep at night and feel more rested since they don’t have to commute to school (72 percent), and they can relax more during breaks, so they tend to concentrate better in online class (61 percent). More than one third said they’re better prepared for class since they’re forced to be more responsible due to the independent nature of online learning, they have less social pressure so can focus better in class, and they can more easily focus on what the teacher is saying since they’re less distracted by others in the class.

Students who perform better in person said that it’s harder to get motivated to learn virtually (83 percent) and they prefer live, face-to-face interaction (72 percent). They also said there are more distractions at home so it’s harder to focus (70 percent), and they’re less likely to make a connection with the teacher and ask questions in a virtual class (61 percent).

Regardless of predictions for the future of online learning, as we get past the pandemic and the world returns to a “new normal,” current reports suggest that distance learning still has a place in the educational system.

However, the World Economic Forum research suggesting benefits to online learning hinges on students having reliable internet and computer access, and it is no secret that the digital divide is a reality that leaves many students at a disadvantage. In fact, it is believed that more than 19 million Americans lack broadband services, whether due to socioeconomic status or remote geographies. What’s more, the cost of computers can be prohibitive for low-income groups, making remote learning an impossibility. For others, shared home computers and workspaces are also a barrier to educational success. The pandemic has made the divide even more prominent as many companies and schools pivoted online, disadvantaging even further those who already struggled with access.

This problem has no easy solution and it requires innovative thinking and careful analysis. Making the digital divide the centerpiece of the 2021 MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge hopefully put a spotlight on some of the issues. And having thousands of high school students think about what the important facets are, quantify the issues and establish mathematical relationships, and try to provide insight and tools for future decision making, could be inspirational. SIAM intends to reach out to internet providers and government agencies to share winning papers.

While it is important to be cognizant that adequate access to the internet and computer devices for students is not currently a reality across the board, there is a growing awareness of the need for resources to be directed toward internet infrastructure and universal access to information and connectivity worldwide. This bodes well for future prospects of virtual education.

It’s clear that while all students learn differently – as studies such as the SIAM survey show – there is a role online learning can play for many students.

For more, see:

Michelle Montgomery is MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge program director at Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), an international organization that helps build cooperation between mathematics and the worlds of science and technology to solve real-world problems through publications, conferences, and communities.

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Prioritize Building Relationships With Your Students: What Science Says

By: Devin Vodicka, Sabba Quidwai and Kristin Gagnier

As we enter the one-year mark of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the magnitude of the challenges in education has disrupted the status quo and has compelled a general reconsideration of where we should focus our collective efforts for the optimal benefit of our students.  While terms such as “learning loss” are garnering significant attention, this is also a time when it may be helpful to step back and ask some foundational questions such as this: What is most important to our students?

Students want to be valued and to feel connected to their learning environment. For example, the Vista Unified School District (San Diego County, CA) conducted over sixty forums with students in 2013.  Students clearly articulated a desire to be recognized for their strengths, have more choices, extend their learning beyond the classroom, and progress at their own rates.  Students often expressed frustration about how much of their school experience is focused on individual achievement and that they craved social connectedness and peer interactions. Six years later, the same themes emerged; in a series of forums in 2019, the XQ Institute asked high school students what they wanted from school. Students want teachers who care about them as individuals.

When we listen to our students they tell us that they want to be engaged in learning, connected to school, motivated to learn, and persist amidst challenges. They want to feel connected to their teachers, peers, and to their learning environment. Unfortunately, our students have also been telling us that their experience does not match their aspirations.  Gallup has published data from a massive set of student surveys demonstrating that students tend to be less engaged in their learning as they matriculate from elementary to middle to high school.  In the highly-populated state of California, the 2019 California Healthy Kids Survey reported that only 53% of 11th grade students reported feeling connected to their school, a decline from just 62% in 7th grade.

All of this data was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted schooling, compelled social distancing, and has led to a significant level of stress and trauma among our students and throughout society.  While data is still being collected, it is almost certain that COVID has exacerbated challenges of engagement, belonging, and motivation with students and teachers feeling disconnected from peers, colleagues, and teachers amidst virtual learning. Many perceive a teacher’s role, and the role of school in general, is to ensure students master academic content and skills. Yet, teaching and learning is, at its core, a relational endeavor. Humans are social beings who learn from and thrive through connections with others. Thus, prioritizing relationship building — between teachers and students, students and peers, and teachers and colleagues – will support a positive learning environment that benefits students, teachers, and the broader community.  As a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences on teaching during a crisis notes, “The first priorities need to be equity and the health, well-being, and connections among students, families, and teachers.” This article focuses on the benefits of relationships for students.

How Relationships Benefit Students

High-quality relationships between students and teachers, and students and their peers, have academic and social benefits. Positive emotional states that spark interest, engagement, excitement, and positive emotional relationships, that involve trust, value, and empathy, allow for learning. Students of all ages flourish when their teachers are responsive to their needs, emotionally supportive, and set high expectations for all students. Students learn, perform best, and develop skills and confidence when their educational experiences provide high support to foster engagement, show them they belong and are valued, and are culturally sensitive to the students’ experiences and needs. Feeling connected, valued, and respected by peers is equally important for students’ sense of belonging and engagement in school. Being supported and valued engenders feelings of physical and emotional security, which benefits learning. Emotionally supportive and trustworthy relationships can buffer against the impacts of adversity and trauma (such as violence, crime, abuse, psychological trauma, homelessness, racism, food, and housing insecurity). Negative emotions, such as anxiety, lack of confidence, fear, and negative relationships, that involve coercion and punishment, reduce one’s capacity to learn.

All students will, at some point, feel stressed and experience moments of challenge (academic or social) and failure. To help students develop capacities to successfully manage stress and academic and social setbacks, educators can foster relationships and create emotionally and physically safe environments for students. These include interacting with each and every student, engaging in teaching practices that elevate student voice and creating a collaborative atmosphere between peers, teaching with a variety of diverse materials and strategies, and setting high expectations for all students.  Teachers can teach social skills and coping strategies. These include modeling empathy, respect, and compassion, teaching students calming strategies and how to effectively manage emotions, resolve conflicts, and create effective routines. These strategies, combined with supportive relationships with peers and teachers, empower students to believe they can succeed, even in difficult situations.

Taking Action

All educators have an opportunity to reframe our responsibilities and promote positive peer relationships. There are several research-backed strategies that we recommend to develop social and emotional learning capacities to support skills, mindsets, and practices that support learning

  • Prioritize building a positive classroom environment in which students and teachers form positive, trusting relationships. Elevate student voice and promote their sense of belonging in the classroom community.
  • Foster positive student behaviors by teaching social and emotional skills, intrapersonal awareness, and conflict resolution.  Model empathy and engage in instructional strategies that encourage self-directed learning and motivation.
  • Provide opportunities to practice social-emotional skills and mindsets inside and outside of the classroom. These skills include self-awareness of one’s emotions and perceptions, self-management of stress and emotions, and social awareness such as empathy, cooperation, communication, and responsibility.
  • View disciplinary problems as an indicator of a developmental need or skillset that needs to be taught. Such educative and restorative approaches to classroom management and discipline help teach students how to manage conflicts and self-regulate.

Illustrative Examples:  How to Focus on Relationships

Below we provide several illustrative examples to showcase how individual teachers, instructional specialists, principals, and schools have focused on building relationships. 

How One Teacher Sets Aside Time to Build Relationships with Students

In a 2018 Edutopia article entitled Simple Relationship-Building Strategies, Sean Cassel shared several strategies to overcome barriers to building relationships with students. For example, Sean noted that teachers’ time often is usurped by other professional duties which make it challenging to devote time to getting to know individual students. To overcome this, Sean sets aside time for one-on-one, get to know you, conferences. Sean notes that “students of all grade levels are more open to sharing individually and also better able to discover things about me.” To make meeting each student feasible, Sean schedules two, 5-minute conferences per week, which means it can take weeks to meet with each student. During these meetings Sean learns details about their academic and personal experiences.  When appropriate, Sean shares details of their lives with the larger class, so that students can also get to know each other better.

Sean begins each school year with an “All About Me” presentation in which students share 10 facts about themselves and include pictures or video. Sean does the same presentation first, to model what he is looking for and to allow students to better get to know him.  Sean notes that this activity can work with any age and subject and that teachers can modify it by asking a personal question about their discipline like, “How do you think physics plays a role in your everyday life?” or “Why do you think we need to learn geometry?” An added benefit – this activity can be done in-person or virtually.

How to Build Relationships Across the School (during a pandemic!)

In response to COVID-19 pandemic, the educational landscape changed dramatically. Schools shifted, almost overnight, to online instruction. As teachers, instructional specialists, principals, and schools rapidly prepared for academic instruction online, they were faced with an equally-daunting task; how to prioritize relationships during distance learning? As outlined in the National Academies of Sciences 2020 Publication entitled Teaching K-12 Science and Engineering During a Crisis, many rose to the occasion using inventive approaches.

For example, a K-5 science specialist (working in an East Coast urban school that primarily serves students from low-income families) responded to COVID-19 by providing weekly informal engineering engagement opportunities for students. During these engagements, students tried to identify real-life problems and possible solutions to them.  Students’ goal was to build the solution at home. To make this possible for these families, the science specialist partnered with local stores (such as Walmart, Costco, and Home Depot) that donated the building supplies. As noted in the report, these engagement hours were scheduled from 6 – 7 pm on Friday evenings, but students often requested to stay online chatting and sharing ideas and plans engineering designs until 9 pm! Students were so energized and excited by these opportunities that about 90 percent of students who had originally expressed interest, returned weekly for these sessions.

The school’s principal was so impressed by this and immediately recognized the need for building relationships with students, that the principal hosted a schoolwide virtual hangout every Friday. During these hangouts teachers and students danced and played guessing games, and the winner each week received a gift card for at least $25.

How One School Changed Their Culture to Focus on Positive Peer Relationships

Design 39, a public, K-8 school in the Poway Unified School District (San Diego County), has made social-emotional learning, collaboration, and relationships a top priority. Collaborative group work is a cornerstone of instruction and helps students develop relationship skills to establish and maintain supportive relationships and to effectively navigate diverse individuals and groups and social awareness skills to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others.  Every day students are randomly assigned a “table group” where they work with different students and each are assigned different roles in the group. This helps students learn to work together, each having a unique role to play in the collaboration. The goal of this table group is to foster experiences that help learners develop strong relationships, collaboration skills, and gain a deeper degree of self-awareness (an understanding of one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior).


Relationships are at the heart of meaningful learning.  We can and must attend to the social dynamics of learning by providing opportunities for students to develop their emotional awareness and skills by providing a safe, secure environment that promotes interaction in pursuit of creative problem-solving and conflict resolution. By shifting to learner-centered experiences, including the examples shared in this article, we can empower all students to know themselves, see themselves as full of possibilities, and shine as changemakers.

Want to Know More?

We hope you are inspired to take action!  Here are some additional resources that might help.

We encourage you to stay connected with the Global Science of Learning Network and to share your ideas on social media by using #GSOLN

This post was originally published at

Special thanks to Katie Martin for her feedback and ideation for this article.

Kristin Gagnier is the Director of Dissemination, Education, and Translation at the Science of Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Sabba Quidwai is an education researcher and host of the Sprint to Success with Design Thinking podcast.

Tools to Boost Student Engagement at the End of the Year

Spring always presents a great opportunity for educators to try different digital tools or explore new ideas, especially as the school year winds down. During the spring, I have noticed each year that student engagement decreases and look for new ways to boost engagement, and this year, especially in hybrid and virtual learning environments. As many schools work through transitioning learning spaces, I believe that it is the perfect opportunity to bring new experiences into the classroom and even take some risks, especially as the year comes to a close and we reflect while also seeking new ideas for the upcoming school year.

When we provide students with experiences that will more meaningfully engage them with the content, also moving them from consumers to creators when we can, it will lead to an increase in student engagement and higher student achievement. Offering more choices helps us to better meet specific student interests and needs.

As we try to keep up the momentum through the end of what has not been an easy or typical school year and finish strong, adding in a few new or innovative ideas or bringing some game-based learning into our classroom, may create the boost that we all need!

Here are five tools and one idea to try before the end of this school year. Each offers something unique and in many cases, can be used for more than just one purpose. They can all be used for hybrid, virtual or in-person learning. Some options for game-based learning, quick assessments, or simply creating and sharing what students have learned! A few of these tools and ideas might enable students to create as well.

1. EdLight. EdLight is something new we have tried and it created new ways for students to share learning and receive instant feedback. It is a web-based app that makes it possible to see student work as it is submitted. Students can draw a response or write on paper and submit their work which can be viewed in the teacher dashboard. Teachers can provide feedback which includes audio, stickers and text, and also request a resubmission. Students can use any device to submit work and EdLight integrates with Google Classroom and Clever or teachers can share a link with students to join the class.

2. Figment AR: Storytelling or creating a quick check-in with students would be fun with Figment AR, one of my favorite augmented reality apps over the past few years. More than just AR, it also has portals that transform the experience into virtual reality. We have used it in class to create a quick story that includes animated characters, portals and special effects.

3. Gimkit Draw. While Gimkit has been around for a few years, the team continues to add new features and look for ways to boost student engagement and retention of content. It is one of many game-based learning tools available and has been a favorite with my students each year. Students have more personalized learning experiences because Gimkit promotes increased content retention through repetitive questions and the different options for playing in or out of the classroom.  A new feature is Gimkit Draw, which offers students a choice of three words to draw and classmates type in their guess as the drawing appears on their device. Great opportunity for visual learners as they draw and have fun guessing what their classmates are drawing. There are additional modes to play in Gimkit and teachers receive detailed session reports with student progress to help guide their instruction.

4. Nearpod. Offers many options for promoting student engagement through its interactive multimedia platform and the ready-to-run lessons and activities now available. There are many options for a quick game of “Time to Climb” to do an assessment or an exit slip for example, or explore their VR library and find some immersive learning experiences to take students on a trip around the world! There are quick activities to choose from and even matching pairs or short interactive video lessons available. We can quickly add engaging and interactive lessons that also spark student curiosity by bringing some virtual reality into the classroom!

5., A fun drawing game that can be played by using lists available within the platform or adding your own vocabulary words, which I did in our Spanish class.  Teachers then provide a code for students to join the game. There are different rounds and throughout the game, each player gets a chance to draw while the other players have to type in a guess of what the object is. Players are not able to see the words guessed by other players if they guessed correctly.

And one non-digital option to try is sketchnoting, which has been a favorite activity for a hobby and a great one for learning! Creating sketchnotes is helpful for visual learners when it comes to better retention of the content. The opportunity to draw and design symbols, which can be personal to each student, is fun and different and even students who do not like to draw much, enjoy doing sketchnoting. It can be done on paper or using one of the digital tools available. It is helpful with analyzing or conveying concepts and to attach more meaning as students decide how to demonstrate what they are learning. We have used sketchnotes in my STEAM course and my Spanish classes.

Thinking about the end of the year as teachers wrap up the content material or look for ways to review, perhaps for final exams in some courses or simply to take a break and try something different, these have been some recent favorite additions. Although these tools are not specific to one area of focus or grade level, hopefully they offer new opportunities at the end of the year and that will lead to more meaningful and engaging learning experiences.

They also provide more ways for students to create, through hands-on creation or interactive lessons, which work well in any learning space.  By bringing in new technologies and opportunities, we better prepare students with the skills that they will need moving forward while also helping them to build essential SEL skills.

For more, see:

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