Equity and ESSER: How Schools Can Embrace a Participatory Approach to Amplify Family Voices in Budget Planning

By: Barbara Pape, Jonathan Flynn, and Cecile Kidd 

Schools across the country have a welcome task this summer: deciding how to spend a windfall in federal stimulus funds.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund represents a once-in-a-generation surge in federal education funding. Created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has transformative potential for schools across America. It could support more teachers in classrooms, higher staff pay, tutors, improved technology, and enrichment activities that never reached enough students before the pandemic.

“We have often named lack of resources as the reason for achievement and opportunity gaps,” explained Dia N. Bryant, interim executive director at The Education Trust – New York. “Now that we have the resources, there is a unique opportunity to ensure that all children—especially those whom we have historically marginalized and minoritized—have access to a high-quality, public education in their neighborhood.”

But for the design and provision of funds to fulfill the needs of the community—particularly parents and caregivers—administrators must open their doors to include families and students in discussions about spending priorities.

“If we really want to understand what families and scholars need to succeed in school when they return to campus, we need to include them in the process,” said Kristin Levine, of the Academic Committee of the Board at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools. “We need to put the needs of the most vulnerable students at the center of whatever we do.”

[Visit Choose High School Now for XQ’s recommendations for how to engage communities in ARP-ESSER funding decisions.]

Building Structures and Systems for Parent Engagement

Fortunately, parent engagement is achievable, especially if schools create the right systems and structures to foster collaboration.

In the weeks and months to come, schools can reach out to families and gather their input through focus groups, digital or mailed surveys with writing prompts, one-on-one conversations, parent-led and parent-to-parent meetings, or even home visits. Administrators should make these activities easy for participants, holding meetings in convenient locations like neighborhood or community halls, and having them at times that work for attendees. Schools may even consider paying parents to facilitate information sessions or paying consultation fees for their advice on how best to reach families in marginalized communities.

It’s important for schools to remember that parents are not a monolithic group. They represent a wide range of cultures, backgrounds, and languages, and have diverse ideas about the best ways schools can support the needs of their unique children. So including just one set of parents’ voices will not capture the nuance and diversity of experiences that many different parents can bring. We reached out to Educating All Learners Alliance colleagues to identify specific, practical approaches to doing just that.

“Parents are individuals, coming from diverse cultural backgrounds, and schools need to understand and respect the cultural values that parents bring to the table,” said Jessica Jackson, director of partnerships at the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise.

Jonathan Santos Silva, founding executive director of the Liber Institute, said families of color and indigenous families, who are too often left out of the decision-making process, should be prioritized.

“The people who are most impacted by the way our system is designed to reinforce oppressive structures or White supremacy are the last ones we usually engage,” Santos Silva said. “It’s really about elevating these talented, innovative, creative leaders so that we can say, ‘Hey, these communities have ideas and solutions, if we would only engage them to truly be partners.’” Santos Silva added: “Our work is incomplete without those perspectives.”

Sarah Sandelius, the founder of the Ability Challenge, added that it’s also important to gather the input of families with children who live with disabilities. These students have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and schools should make a point to prioritize their needs in this process.

The National Down Syndrome Congress (NDSC) emphasizes the importance of including students with disabilities in planning for all classrooms. “[Disabled students] were even more isolated from their peers during the COVID pandemic,” said an NDSC spokesman. “ESSER funding should be used to provide the support and services necessary to increase and improve inclusive education opportunities for these students to ensure they participate in the grade-level general education curriculum as required by IDEA and ESSA.”

When reaching out to any parent, schools should aim to be intentional and consistent, following up if they don’t receive a response after their initial outreach. Schools should also be transparent about how they are incorporating parent feedback and responding to their needs.

“If schools do it right, it’s a recognition that we’re in this together, and we value everyone’s opinion,” Sandelius said. “We need to make sure everyone is at the table.”

Thinking Beyond Educational Needs to Support Families

Because of their different perspectives and relationship with their children, parents will have ideas that school leaders may not have considered. Importantly, parents can identify challenges not directly related to school that nonetheless affect their children’s ability to learn.

Students can also offer this perspective. Christopher Wilson, Peer Health Exchange, suggests that a Youth Advisory Board approach can play a pivotal role, informing the strategic planning of supports and approaches that center the identities and lived experiences of youth.

For example, families facing eviction might need housing vouchers or legal services. Other parents may point out the need for mental health services to support family members who have struggled with anxiety or depression during the pandemic. While ESSER funds cannot cover these services to families directly, schools and districts should coordinate with their local agencies to develop plans to help these families.

Some families may have mixed feelings about the return to school because they benefited from certain aspects of remote learning, such as flexible or hybrid scheduling, or virtual IEP (individualized education program) meetings for students in special education.

However schools decide to spend their ESSER funds, the process should reflect a holistic, student-centered approach that will lead to long-term improvements for students and their families, especially those who are most in need of support, said Brooklyn LAB Charter School CFO Sheryl Gomez.

“The goal is not just to adjust a few budget lines,” Gomez said. “It’s about the preparation of a strategic approach that’s integrated and comprehensive, that infuses the science of learning and development throughout the entire plan. It’s about hearing the hard stuff from the families and scholars who most need our efforts to be responsive and equity-focused.”

Rebuilding Communal Trust and Fostering Ongoing Collaboration with Families

The past 18 months have left many parents and students feeling uncertain and alone. As schools shifted from remote to in-classroom learning, and then back again, many families didn’t know what to expect from schools. Many parents saw their children struggle and fall behind academically as well as social-emotionally, while schools’ attempts to engage with families often fell short.

This has eroded trust. A Learner Variability Project survey captured by Digital Promise found that parents of students in full-time remote learning were twice as likely to say that their parent-teacher partnerships weakened during the pandemic than parents of children in in-person learning.

The issue of trust is especially crucial for Black, Brown, and low-income families, as well as families who speak a language other than English. Many of those parents felt disenfranchised, intimidated, or unwelcome at the school even before the pandemic, and those feelings may have been exacerbated after a year of distance learning.

As schools look to engage families on spending ESSER funds, this is a critical opportunity to think more broadly about how to rebuild trust and start a process of ongoing engagement with families on all school matters, said Bibb Hubbard, founder, and president of Learning Heroes.

“This is an important moment where schools can intentionally build trust with families and enter into true partnerships with parents,” Hubbard said. “Parents are ready for that partnership.” She added that this engagement should not be a one-off; it should continue throughout the year.

This kind of engagement will require schools to give teachers more time, support, and professional development. But Bryant of The Education Trust – New York points out that establishing those ties with their community members is an important priority for all schools. “By establishing these relationships and providing the necessary funding, we can eliminate lines of difference, and our children and their future deserve just that,” said Bryant.

The article was originally published by XQ on Rethink Together.

For more, see:

Celebrating Edmund W. Gordon

Five Principles to Help Provide Our School Communities With the Communications They Deserve

Schools Need a Success Coach for Every Learner

Barbara Pape is the director of policy and communications for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise.

Jonathan Flynn is the director of family and community engagement and the director of public affairs at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools and joined Brooklyn LAB in 2017.

Cecile Kidd is the bursar at Brooklyn LAB, and has served in operational and family engagement roles at Brooklyn LAB since 2017.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

Developing Racial-Cultural Literacy through Fiction Reading and Literature Guides

By: Sophia Sanchez

Since the time of civilizations, humans have been divided on various social fronts and have fought for power. Social groups with absolute power have dominated and created knowledge. An article titled Why is My Curriculum White? explores the reasons behind the predominance of “white men” and “white ideas” in the school curriculum and cites colonialism as the main reason for normalizing and internalizing whiteness. With centuries of domination, the colonial mindset has buttressed itself through literature, films, and other popular media by being reflective of the White society.

While literature has for the longest time been used as a tool to propagate racial stereotypes, it has also been a popular medium of resistance. Black and indigenous writers across generations have used literature to question and confront the exclusive whiteness in American society. And with globalization and other geopolitical events encouraging complex social interaction, multiple communities have used literature to point out systemic discrepancies and discrimination, enforcing a need for racial-cultural literacy.

Developing Racial-Cultural Literacy

It is vital to begin educating children about racial-cultural literacy as early as possible. And crucial to the development of this racial-cultural literacy is studying and talking about the histories and experiences of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Whites, among others. It is also equally important that children be taught that the existing diversity is not alien or intrusive but just a culmination of factors of human evolution in certain geographic specificities.

While educating children about racial-cultural literacy is easy, conversations with adolescents about the topic could be tricky. Adolescents develop their socio-political behavior through cognition, peer groups, and other social interactions and tend to believe in them strongly. Thus, addressing them requires a nuanced approach, and encouraging diverse fiction reading is a part of this.

Can Reading Fiction Help?

As much as racial-cultural literacy is important, one cannot expect children and adolescents to understand the expansiveness of racial diversity with exclusive reliance on direct approaches like history reading and obligated interactions, which could be counterproductive. This is where reading fiction can be very helpful. The beauty of literature rests in the possibilities of counter, alter, and micro-narratives that can relay the importance of inclusion to its readers. Reading hones several cognitive muscles, and reading fiction, in particular, strengthens the emotional quotient (EQ). It also helps develop empathy and critical thinking.

Often, fiction is a stronger reflection and representation of reality than reality itself. To Albert Camus, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” To Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” And for Khaled Hosseini, “Fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.”

Also, with increased cosmopolitanism and diffusion of the English language, fiction has increasingly become a vehicle of enlightenment for race, gender, ethnicity as well as indigenous and immigrant issues.

But with fiction achieving distinct multiculturalism, are we equipped enough to understand, appreciate, and celebrate the multidimensional cultural standpoints that authors bring into their writing?

The Use of Literature Guides

Reading and understanding fiction is an art that comes with practice. And sometimes, understanding fiction requires external support, which could take the form of in-person discussions, online discussions, or internet reading. However, an effective method to understand the essence, context, and background of fiction is through the use of literature guides.

Although fiction writers create unique and distinct settings, they tend to reflect in those settings the real-world issues that affect them, and literature guides act as a bridge between the creative world constructed by the author and the social world they are referring to. Such guides help one understand the complex ideas that authors mention and draw attention to the intricate details of the writing, hence providing a fulfilling experience.

For example, an adolescent reading Father Comes Home from the Wars by Suzan Lori-Parks would understand that the play is set in the backdrop of the American Civil War and revolves around the character Hero (a slave), his journey as a Black Confederate, and the forced circumstances he was a part of.

However, literature guides through in-depth analysis raise bigger questions: What does it mean to be free? What is freedom? How free are people of color?

They also help one understand the many parallels that are often overlooked easily: What are the similarities between Homer’s Odyssey and Father Comes Home from the Wars?

They also provide contextual understanding for better clarity and help debunk general myths such as the common belief that the Black Confederates fought against the abolition of slavery.

Another important use of literature guides is the understanding of significant metaphors: What does the dog “Odd-see” symbolize in the story? How is freedom different to Hero (who changes his name to Ulysses at the end) and his wife Penny? What does Penny leaving Hero to run away to the Northern states symbolize?

Thus, to enhance racial-cultural literacy, understanding the social context and the writer’s perspective is necessary. While fiction is the window through which one can enter the writer’s world, literature guides act as a torchlight to explore it. When a reader can better understand the author/character’s point of view and where they operate from, social interaction and responsible behavior become internalized. Internalizing race-sensitive behavior helps break socio-political barriers and makes diversity appear more intriguing than intrusive. When differences and diversity are understood and accepted, the social world naturally becomes an easy space for co-existence.

For more, see:

Sophia is an online ESL/EFL instructor and a passionate educator. She found her true calling — teaching — while she was juggling writing and a 9-5 desk job. When she is not busy earning a living, she volunteers as a social worker. Her active online presence demonstrates her strong belief in the power of networking. If you want to connect, you can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog Essay Writing and More.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

What I Learned From the Stanford Certificate in Innovation & Entrepreneurship

The Stanford Certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship is pitched at Silicon Valley start-ups and businesses, however, it can teach us ways to recognize opportunities for change in schools and break away from the way things have always been done in education. Here are some ideas about how to find inspiration and lead innovation applied to the schooling context.

How to Find Inspiration

When we think about finding inspiration in education we might think of self-reflection or collaboration with cool colleagues (like when the person down the hall takes one of your lesson ideas and makes it better) or talking less and listening more carefully to people who challenge us or making more of an effort to surround ourselves with people we admire (even on social media). We can also be inspired by our students.

If it is the job of an innovator to have good ideas, the simplest way to get lots of good ideas is to seek different perspectives. There is no such thing as a new idea, just new combinations, so deliberately seek out unexpected combinations and collaborators who have a different perspective. We know that diverse teams are smarter. Diversity increases performance. So, if we want schools to innovate, one of the simplest ways may involve hiring more female leaders and more culturally diverse leaders. Often, the demographics of school leaders do not match the gender and cultural diversity of the student community. The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that women are missing on the boards of Sydney’s top private schools. Gender diversity has become a significant leadership issue at these schools. Diverse school leadership teams improve school performance, increase innovation, and provide more creative approaches to problem-solving.

As this Harvard Business Review article explains: 

“In a nutshell, enriching your employee pool with representatives of different genders, races, and nationalities is key for boosting your company’s joint intellectual potential. Creating a more diverse workplace will help to keep your team members’ biases in check and make them question their assumptions. At the same time, we need to make sure the organization has inclusive practices so that everyone feels they can be heard. All of this can make your teams smarter and, ultimately, make your organization more successful, whatever your goals.”


Image credit: Schneider Electric

Leading Innovation

Research into leading innovation in schools has found that the principal is a key influence and often demonstrates a ‘restlessness for improvement’, there is a shared risk-taking school culture and pride in doing things differently – ‘bias towards innovation and action’, and leadership is broadly distributed. Australian educator Hedley Beare wrote the following:

“Enterprises which thrive in the information-rich economy tend to image their personnel in new ways. The enterprise and its members are flexible, they can make quick and strategic decisions, they encourage innovation and entrepreneurship; they value creativity rather than conformity, they give members the power to take local decisions and to exercise initiative, and they regard the people in the organization as partners rather than property.

Creativity, continuous improvement, and the ability to turn ideas into action are critical for schools. Creativity is just doing new things with old things. Breakthrough ideas usually occur when concepts from one field meet new, unfamiliar territory. Creative people live and thrive at the intersection of ideas. When we combine creativity with implementation, we get innovation.

There is a difference between managing routine work (where you can’t allow failure) versus innovative/creative work (where it has to be safe to fail for rapid learning). Bob Sutton shows that managers often overestimate their value and bosses often lack self-awareness. However, a hallmark of good bosses is that they are highly aware of this.

“They realise their followers watch, analyze, and react to just about everything they say and do. And they devote real energy to reading expressions, noting behaviors, and making constant adjustments to help their people think independently and express themselves without reservation. The best bosses are people who realize that they are prone to suffering blind spots about themselves, their colleagues, and problems in the organization — and who work doggedly to overcome them.”

Being a boss is like being a high-status primate: the animals under you in the pecking order observe everything you do and they know much more about you than you know about them. Studies of baboons show that a member looks at the alpha male every 20 or 30 seconds.

The best managers manage by getting out of the way. Innovative leaders devote less attention, don’t require people to ask for permission, and don’t enforce rules consistently. 3M’s William Coyne is famous for stating, “After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it’s doing.” The best leaders protect their people from harm, intrusions, and distractions. This decades-old legend about a brave shielding act still inspires people at Pixar.

The best diagnostic question to assess leadership in innovative schools is “What happens when people fail?” There is no innovation or learning without failure. Great leaders forgive and remember because failure sucks but it instructs.

Takeaway Questions

  • How do you seek different perspectives and actively work to build diverse teams?
  • What happens when people fail in your school?

For more, see:

Cameron Paterson is a Getting Smart Staff Writer and is the Director of Learning and Teaching at Shore School in Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @cpaterso

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Why Students Should Co-author Learning

Building a stock-picking algorithm, taking on client projects, selecting internships–students in the business academy at Clairemont High School in north San Diego have opportunities to co-design learning experiences and coauthor their education journey.

With help from ConnectEd in 2015, the Clairemont staff implemented career pathways that gave learners the choice of four academies–business, engineering, health, and IT. With the help of industry partners, teachers help learners build and manage projects across the curriculum.

The short and long-term co-authoring opportunities at Clairemont aren’t universal. In fact, the tech-enabled blended learning (often referred to as personalized learning) on the rise over the last two decades and accelerated by the pandemic actually reduced co-design opportunities for many learners. Digital curriculum, adaptive algorithms, and teacher-assigned tasks on learning platforms became the mainstay for most. They added efficiency but reduced agency. They added strings of short tasks with the right answers when learners needed more leadership and problem finding and problem-solving.

“In our vision, learners are co-authors of their learning journey; they are empowered agents, continually invited and habituated to voice their Whole Learner needs and preferences and their interests and passions so that educators can adapt instruction to them.”

This progressive image of students co-designing their education as outlined in An American Imperative: A New Vision of Public Schools, a new report from AASA, The School Superintendents Association. Early this year, AASA convened Learning 2025, a national commission of school system leaders and learning experts to chart the path forward out of crisis education and into powerful and equitable learning.

Why Coauthoring Matters

“In our ever-changing and unpredictable world, learners need to master the skill of knowing what to do when they do not immediately know what to do. Doing this effectively involves the development of agency and executive function skills, which is made possible through the learner’s active engagement in experiences they typically do not encounter in today’s schools,” explains the Learning 2025 report. “In order for learners to develop these skills, they must be empowered, proactive agents—or co-authors—of their learning journey.”

In an unpredictable world of accelerating change, leadership and problem solving are the most valuable skills we can help young people develop. That requires more time spotting problems worth solving and less time spent on simple problems with the right answers. It requires more voice and choice in creating learning tasks–agency and initiative are developed through opportunities to choose. Learners should be invited to coauthor goals, learning experiences, and leadership experiences.

Coauthored Goals

Co-authoring starts with students owning learning targets. Lindsay USD “Learners work toward meaningful short- and long-term goals and can articulate why they are prioritizing these goals, how short-term goals (e.g., success on daily work) build toward long-term goals, and what success looks like at each stage.”

Lindsay learners develop a Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) that includes goals and sets for accomplishing those goals. The plan helps them articulate what they are working on, why, and how it relates to their goals.

In high school, a personalized learning plan can include short-term goals as well as career objectives. Washington State requires every learner to have a high school and beyond plan that guides course selection, work-based learning, and post-secondary preparation.

Coauthored Learning Experiences

Learners should have at least periodic opportunities to co-author learning experiences including voice and choice in topic, learning targets, and how they demonstrate learning.

Schools in the XQ network including Crosstown High, Purdue Polytechnic, Latitude High, and Grand Rapids Public Museum School engage learners in developing community-connected projects. Learners across the New Tech Network and High Tech High network often have opportunities to co-design projects.

Students should have at least periodic opportunities for interest-based deep dives including science fairs, capstone projects, and artistic expression where the learner is the primary designer of the learning experience.

Work-based learning is another opportunity for students to make significant choices in their learning journey. Students in Big Picture high schools “intern—often twice a week for an entire school day—with experts in their field of interest, completing authentic projects and gaining experience and exposure to how their interests intersect with the real world.”

Coauthored Leadership

Students should have school and community leadership opportunities that give them a chance to coauthor the future.

Boise nonprofit One Stone is a student-led organization–teens make up the majority of the board. When they launched a high school, Lab51, learners were involved in the design and articulation of shared values (below)

Students at Quest Early College High School in Humble, Texas can earn an Associate’s degree in high school and participate in rich service-learning experiences every week–and seniors help lead the program.

Advocacy Projects at Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in D.C. take place at every grade level and apply classroom knowledge to the real world. Sixth graders have testified at the city council. Seventh graders have taken issues of interest to Capital Hill. At the end of 9th and 10th grade, scholars analyze a local or international public problem, propose a solution and advocate for change.

By inviting learners to coauthor experiences we help them build the most important skills and dispositions they’ll need to succeed in a changing world.

For more, see:

This post was originally published on Forbes.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

DLAC 2021 – Digital Learning at an Inflection Point

By: Carrie J. Pratt, Ed.D., CETL

Before we were told to shut down, wear masks, and invest in cleaning products like never before, I presented my research at the 2020 Digital Learning Annual Conference (DLAC). Believe it or not, DLAC was the very first conference I attended, and the experience was life-changing.

Flying alone to Austin, Texas, in late February, I found myself among researchers, educators, and those dedicated to transforming education. (Wonder who DLAC is for? → Click here) At the time, I was serving as an Elementary Assistant Principal and Instructional Technology Integration Specialist for a large public school district. Imagine my excitement to be among colleagues interested in online and digital learning, but with intention and direction. Who knew that our world would stop face-to-face (F2F) teaching and learning in March of 2020? Who knew the terms distance learning, synchronous, asynchronous, or the phrase, “Can you see my screen?” would become the temporary future?

Fast forward to DLAC 2021. In response to the need to meet and confer[ence], and the fact that many former and new participants could not or would not meet in person, DLAC became a hybrid experience. Similar to former DLACs, conference spaces were buzzing with familiar learning modalities.

In-person and online participants could attend:

  • Whole group sessions;
  • Workshops;
  • Panel discussions;
  • Contributed talks;
  • Pecha Kuchas;
  • Table talks;
  • Exhibits; and
  • Networking opportunities.

Participants included virtual-only participants as well as in-person participants. Anyone and everyone could take advantage of the virtual experience. That’s right, beyond the grand variety of meeting, networking, learning, and enjoying all things conference, the added online capability allowed attendees such as myself (virtual attendee) or DLAC leaders John Watson, the founder of Evergreen Education Group, and Allison Powell, Ed.D, the DLC Director, to autonomously attend. (Personalized professional development

Smartly, DLAC 2021 began virtually on June 8th. This day launched the learning community into thinking and preparing for the three days in-person or online (June 14 – 16). I’m excited for the DLAC Online Encore on June 30th because between now and then, I have the awesome ability to go online and watch all of the sessions I missed while attending another session. Since sessions were recorded, my three days at home juggling a family, work, other learning, and life proved to be challenging. I admit, my learner agency wasn’t that great, but I have peace knowing I can dedicate my quiet evenings to learning at my time, in my place, and at my pace. Before the conference, I knew I had the freedom to take care of other things and could go back and learn. I could make choices without regret. It doesn’t matter that I’m an adult..a professional…and not quite on track at the moment. K-college students are successful when learning is blended and personal. I can be successful too! This…right there…is added goodness in my mind.

On June 8th, John Watson emphasized, “digital learning is at an inflection point.” Due to the emergent shift to distance learning throughout the world, teaching and learning will never be the same. On the same day, guest Comaneci Brooken, Digital Promise Director of Professional Learning shared the shift in March 2020 to distance learning caused the “largest educational crisis in the last century.” Brooken identified that while students were “transitioning to online learning” and throughout that transition, “schools struggled to meet the needs of diverse learners.” In response, Digital Promise quickly adapted by expanding resources to educators such as the Teacher Training Pathway and Live Tech Tuesday. Judy Perez, the iLearn Collaborative CEO and Founder related the impact to district need for now and the future. Perez shared “digital learning is now one of the priories in districts and in schools” and “strategic thinking” about digital and online learning is a focus. During the same session, Joliet Public Schools District 86 Superintendent, Theresa Rouse, Ed.D., was candid about her response to get to 1:1 quickly and respond to state testing. However, Rouse celebrated the needed response to giving out over 1 million meals to students and focusing on Social Emotional Learning (SEL). She plans to “use this pandemic as the lever” to moving forward for change and continuous response and improvement. Her perspective as a Superintendent and experiences throughout the last year is essential to identifying what worked, what didn’t, and where to go from here.

It is in these moments during the conference when I listen and engage with real educators, researchers, partners in education, and those dedicated to digital and online learning, that the educator who attends can get the most out of DLAC.

DLAC 2021 was special. It was my first conference, I was presenting my research, and I was meeting with colleagues from around the globe to grow my learning and understanding about digital and online learning. DLAC 2022 did more than expand on that experience. As an educator, DLAC stakeholders appreciate the rapid pace of innovation and nuanced education. It is a place where educators know they can wonder, question, and expand upon their knowledge in a welcoming space.

DLAC 2022 will occur in Atlanta, Georgia, from February 7-9, and registration is open! I miss my friends and enjoy meeting people who are transforming education, and I can’t wait to DLAC again!

For more, see:

Carrie J. Pratt is a learner, educator, consultant and coach of blended learning and leadership research from Morgantown, WV.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

How do we prepare students to flourish in a VUCA future?

Design schools for today — not for tomorrow.

Our world and our future are said to be “VUCA” – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.

The acronym VUCA was first used by military strategists and trainers who were trying to explain the change in military operations post the Cold War. Just the literal sound of the acronym is a little scary. The idea underlying it — that the world is unpredictable and overwhelming — brings up a prickly sense of danger.  After a year like 2020 where the only predictable thing was unpredictability, VUCA seems even more apt.

VUCA has become a popular term in business circles when discussing how management and strategy have to shift for this new world, and, even when it’s not mentioned directly, the sentiment is evident in our discussions about schooling. Phrases like the following suggest a VUCA perspective, and they can be found in most strategy, program, and mission documents discussing schooling:

  • “Technology is advancing so rapidly we have no idea how our world will be organized in 20 years.”
  • “65 percent of kids entering school today will end up in jobs that don’t even exist today. How can we prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist yet?” (to be clear, this is a made-up statistic – and not likely true – but you’ve likely heard one like it from education reformers)
  • “21st-century skills, 21st-century skills, 21st-century skills….”

Essentially, each of these statements or questions asks: “How are we ever going to prepare students for such a VUCA future??”

The counterintuitive, but true, answer is: if we want students to be prepared to flourish in an unpredictable future, we shouldn’t be focused on the future at all: we should be focused on ensuring they flourish now.

You can’t predict the future.

VUCA may feel more true today, but it has always been true. Think of how much changed over the last century, how many wars and conflicts there have been — WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Cold War, to name a few — and how many social movements — women’s liberation, civil rights, LGBTQ rights (amongst others!). Then, think about how VUCA would have felt living through the revolutionary war, or the French revolution, or the Copernican revolution, or the 1819 flu pandemic.

Predicting in 1940 that women would be graduating from universities in the 1960s and make up a higher percentage of graduates by the 2000s would have been nearly impossible. In 1980, predicting the effects the personal computer would have on work, commerce, personal and enterprise would have been nearly impossible. In 2007, predicting the effects of social media and smartphones on our behavior, patterns of interaction, and relationships would have been similarly nearly impossible. For that matter, who could have predicted in advance how the printing press would undermine the most powerful institution of the time – the Catholic Church?

The truth is that the world, and the evolution of human society, have always been volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. While it’s always easy to create a narrative of the past that makes it seem predictable and obvious, it’s because we eliminate most of the alternatives — it is impossible to accurately predict the future — and ironically this is even more true if we accept the (questionable) premise that it’s exceptionally VUCA now.

This point is less to do with schooling and more to do with the obvious for all of our lives — and the real point of the acronym VUCA — you cannot accurately predict how all of the different societal, economic, political, and environmental factors are going to play out. Full stop. This means if you use your imagined future as a guidepost to design your experience today, you’re likely to be wrong.

However, if you focus on making the right choices now, you’re likely to come out okay in the future as well. As Aristotle already knew in his VUCA time 2000+ years ago, our habits and behaviors today shape our future selves – which means focusing on doing the right thing today is usually the best preparation for our tomorrow self.

We already know much of what’s needed to flourish in the future.

It turns out that the basics of what it means to flourish as a human actually hasn’t changed that much since the days of Aristotle. While we might not know the job titles of the future, jobs are not the sole factor in flourishing.

By flourishing I mean when a person’s core needs are met, and they have the freedom and capacity to make choices about their lives, according to their values and interests, and work with others to make the world better.

Our core social-psychological needs remain (and have remained) constant. For instance, we have a need to form meaningful relationships with others — interpersonally and belonging to a larger group (relatedness). We have the need to apply ourselves, pursue our interests, and feel we can master our social and physical environments (competence). We have the need to feel we make choices for ourselves and are not oppressed or forced into our situations (autonomy). And, we have the need to create meaning out of our lives, whether through finding our purpose, through religion, living our values, or otherwise (meaning). This means that, for individuals, we know many of the “design principles” for flourishing, whichever way society changes.

Furthermore, regardless of which way our VUCA future unfolds, as a society, we will have to grapple with many of the same questions we have always grappled with. Questions like: How can we organize so our communities thrive? How might individual safety and freedoms be protected while maintaining a collective? How might we socialize and educate our children? How might we create just, equitable, yet adaptable institutions?

This means that, while we don’t know what the future will bring in terms of technology, environmental disasters, political maneuvers, or new social movements, we do know that our society always needs creative thinkers, humanistic perspectives, empathetic citizens, and deeply principled people who can face big, complex questions and collaborate across lines of difference.

From the crafting of our constitution to the civil rights movement, to the effects of globalization — our society depends on individuals who can develop nuanced understandings of the complex issues, grapple with tough questions, collaborate with others who hold other perspectives and values, and who are dedicated to maintaining a healthy community and society beyond themselves.

Individual flourishing and societal thriving are mutually reinforcing: When our societies and communities thrive, individuals’ core needs are met and they have the freedom to make choices that align with their interests and values. When individuals are flourishing, they are more able and willing to be the kinds of citizens who contribute to the collective, consider others’ needs, and are willing to sacrifice for the good of all.

The best way to achieve future flourishing is to foster flourishing today.

The best way to ensure students will flourish as adults (and that we can thrive as a society) is NOT to try to mold them into the perfect graduate profile or to prepare them incessantly for an unknown future.

The best way to foster future flourishing is to create environments and design experiences through which they can practice the capacities, character, and beliefs they need to be empowered, informed, and engaged citizens of the world today.

When we try to design school to prepare students for the future, we inevitably have to define a set of outcomes we think we are aiming for and through this process we implicitly or explicitly narrow our definition of ‘success. ‘Success’ in the future becomes, “getting a good job” or “having a STEM career” or “high SAT scores”.

Then, we use these narrow metrics to try to shape students’ lives to maximize those outcomes. We say, “oh, it’s okay if you’re not actually all that interested in these activities — you should do them anyway because they’ll look good on your resume” and, “oh, it’s okay if test prep takes time away from inquiry if it means you get into the right college” and, “I don’t care if art class or theater is where you come alive — it won’t help you get a good job someday.”

Focusing on preparation for the future makes it very easy to mortgage childhoods: we require kids to sacrifice their current wellbeing in order to achieve some kind of future outcome.

This returns back a bit to the intrinsic (defining means) vs. the instrumental (defining ends) distinction of the four different purposes of school. Many perspectives and policies in education implicitly use instrumental frames. An easy way to spot this is basically every time something says, “this is important because it might get kids a job someday” or “our economy is going to need xy skills so we should make sure kids can do x and y.” Both statements are implicitly declaring instrumental aims for schooling.

Preparing students for instrumental future outcomes is flawed logic both because of point 1 — you can’t predict the future or what is needed in it for an individual or a society — and also because schools can’t actually do these instrumental goals. A teacher cannot go into school every day and make sure a student gets a good job or gets into the right college. What she can do is create an environment in which students’ core needs are met, and design experiences through which they get to practice the capacities, character, and beliefs of being competent, curious, courageous, creative, and kind adults.

One way to assess if something is instrumental is to ask the question, “Is that really why it’s important to develop those skills?” What if employers tomorrow decide they actually need robotic or sociopathic-type humans to do certain work, would we still think that’s how we should socialize our children to be? I hope not.

Job needs should not drive the design of K-12 schooling — we don’t know what they will be, and schooling has much broader purposes than workforce creation.

Trying to design schools to shape kids for the future can be like a Ponzi scheme — kids invest their childhoods but very few will ever be able to cash out on their sacrifices in adulthood for increased flourishing. As John Dewey famously says, “When preparation is made the controlling end, then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future. When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted.”

In other words, asking kids to live a school experience meant to prepare them for the future that asks them to sacrifice the now often just means kids are less likely to ever flourish.

What should drive the design of K-12 schooling is a deep understanding of how individuals flourish, grow, and learn, a vision of the kind of community and society we want to create together, and an explicit set of values that underlie that community. These you can continually create and live every day — we can live them today.

In Sum

To conclude by reiterating: the absolute best way we can approach preparing our children for a VUCA world is (and has always actually been) not by focusing on the future but rather by focusing on the now. Focus on the kids in front of us today — their strengths, unique perspectives, and interests — to best ensure adults prepared for tomorrow.

Create environments in which students are valued, loved, and seen — and design experiences through which they get to practice the capacities, character, and beliefs that allow them to make informed choices about their lives and experiences through which they get to apply their strengths toward creatively solving problems they care about today.

This kind of environment and practice will prepare them to bring all of their ability, curiosity, creativity, and habits of mind when they face future VUCA worlds we cannot even imagine, much less plan for.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Post-Pandemic Education: Public-Private Partnerships Are Critical in Developing Countries

By: Corina Gardner

Before schools started to reopen this spring, more than 80 public education instructors in Ghana participated in virtual training sessions that featured Sesame Street Muppets Zobi and Kami, along with Ghanaian actress Matilda Asante playing their teacher Ms. Efia.

The sessions, designed to help teachers make learning interactive and enjoyable for children, originated at Sesame Workshop. They are part of a program, called the Techniques for Effective Teaching (TFET), initially developed by Sesame Workshop and the IDP Foundation (IDPF) to help improve learning outcomes in low-fee private schools in Ghana. Now TFET is being used to instruct public school teachers through an innovative partnership between IDPF, Sesame Workshop, and the Ghana Ministry of Education’s Tertiary Education Commission (GTEC).

While educational institutions were closed to in-person teaching and learning activities due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the training was delivered virtually to Professional Development Coordinators (PDCs) from all the 46 Colleges of Education in Ghana. These PDCs are currently passing on the TFET content to all 1,900 tutors at the colleges. By mid-2021, around 45,000 pre-service teachers will have been trained on the TFET curriculum.

As schools in developing countries reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic, innovative partnerships like these are needed more than ever to create engaging classrooms, improve access to education, and close the learning gap for students in underserved communities, where progression from primary to secondary school was already low.

Last year, UNESCO estimated that about 24 million students (at all levels) were at risk of not returning to care centers, schools, universities, and training institutions, including 10.9 million students in primary and secondary levels. The most students at risk are in South and West Asia (5.9 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (5.3 million). About 258 million children and youth were already out of school before the pandemic.

The digital divide became more apparent during the pandemic as education systems and teachers grappled with implementing distance learning, often without guidance, training, or resources. Although 90% of governments adopted some form of remote learning during COVID-19 school closures, 31% of school children globally either did not have the necessary technology at home or were not reached by the remote learning policies. The highest rate of children that were not reached was in sub-Saharan Africa. Innovations are needed to enable children to learn both in schools and at home. Otherwise, the most vulnerable pupils, disproportionately affected by the pandemic and ill-served by remote learning, are likely to disengage from education.

All education stakeholders, public and private, urgently need to readdress education delivery, both in terms of access to schooling and teaching methods. Public-private partnerships that promote cooperation and innovation across the board—in pedagogical methods, school and classroom management, teacher training, regulatory frameworks, and policy development—can help get this done. New alliances, including collaborations between private funders and government, are key to creating more ‘public goods’ in education that better serve the world’s most disadvantaged students, according to a report from the Jacobs Foundation and L.E.K. Consulting.

For private sector organizations to contribute to broader education objectives, supportive regulatory environments are essential. The Education Regulatory Bodies Act 2020, adopted in Ghana last August, empowered a new government entity to develop, oversee, and enforce quality standards in pre-tertiary public and private schools. It has given the new National Schools Inspectorate Authority the power to recommend that pre-tertiary institutions be managed through public-private partnerships.

This regulatory development, which will hold all schools to higher quality standards, enabled IDPF to make the TFET training program available to pre-service public school teacher education institutions in Ghana. The 14 modules in the TFET program, each with a 10-minute video, cover literacy and numeracy teaching skills as well as other essential topics including classroom and time management, the creative use of low-cost resources, developing self-confidence among girls, and making classrooms supportive of children with disabilities.

Before the partnership with GTEC, TFET was used to train more than 1,500 teachers in more than 120 low-fee private schools that are part of IDPF’s Rising Schools Program in Ghana. Working with local finance partner Sinapi Aba Savings and Loans, the program offers below-market loans to proprietors of these schools along with free school management and teacher training. These independent schools, serving economically disadvantaged families, are mostly single-site institutions run by dedicated education entrepreneurs in the community. TFET was created to address two of the schools’ biggest challenges: the lack of qualified teachers and classroom instruction based on rote learning and memorization.

Even prior to the pandemic there was an urgent need to focus on equipping teachers in the developing world with a wider skillset. According to UNESCO, in 2019 only 62% of teachers had received the minimum organized teacher training required for teaching in Ghana. Within the private sector, which accounts for more than 32.7% of enrollment, only 15% of teachers are adequately trained, according to data from the Ministry of Education. That means more than 50,000 teachers in non-state schools have no formal training.

The government of Ghana is addressing these challenges by introducing a new standard-based curriculum for all schools, which is expected to be delivered through interactive pedagogies like TFET, making this partnership a true milestone in the improved learning outcomes journey. IDPF and Sesame Workshop welcome the government’s role in providing effective quality assurance, with incentives for high performance and consequences for poor performance.

Improving access to quality education in developing countries is key to alleviating intergenerational poverty, and we will never achieve this without public-private collaboration. We all have a collective responsibility for the education of our next generation—and only when all stakeholders work together will the greatest number of children, regardless of where they go to school, have the chance to reach their full potential.

For more, see:

Corina Gardner is the Executive Director of IDP Foundation. Before joining the IDP Foundation, she served as Director of Global Strategy for the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect, where she led efforts to shift negative social norms in developing countries.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

The Power of We

By: Dr. Ilene Winokur 

Being a difference-maker means more than just making a difference, it means inspiring others to see themselves as individuals, capable of harnessing their individual talents in order to work towards a collective good. Dr. Marialice Curran knows that changemakers aren’t one size fits all, which is why her work over the years has been focused on the “power of we.”

When Marialice was growing up, she felt like an outsider. She learned differently than her peers and was diagnosed in second grade as dyslexic. As an untraditional learner, she became comfortable with failure, and over the years, she learned how to harness her talent: connection and collaboration with others. In a way, she was wired to be a connected learner before she even had the tools. It wasn’t until much later, when she was appointed associate professor at the University of Saint Joseph (USJ) in Connecticut, that she finally found the platform to be able to champion others; social media gave her the voice to build a global network and show what we can do collectively, not just individually. Marialice is now using that strength as a change-maker, shifting the narrative about digital citizenship and how children learn to navigate a digital world through a personalized approach.

Marialice breaks down classroom walls and takes learning into the community. Her path to becoming a digital citizenship champion started by accident. Soon after being hired to lead the middle-level education program at USJ, the state eliminated the license and the program was canceled. This was in the early 2000s before educational technology (EdTech) was used widely, so Marialice pivoted by teaching herself applications of EdTech from kindergarten through college. Once she had immersed herself in learning about technology, she realized educators needed a plan for teaching digital citizenship (DigCit) to students because, at the time, DigCit was focused on eSafety and how to stay safe online. Marialice became the first professor in the United States to create a stand-alone three-credit course in digital citizenship for teacher candidates. The course took a proactive stance towards digital citizenship and how technology could be used for problem-solving, accessibility, equity, and inclusion (ie. #UseTech4Good).

Ultimately, she wanted to lead with DigCit, and not with technology, because she wanted to teach how to see the human next to us, around the world, and across the screen.

One course led to more and by Fall 2011, Marialice had created a First-Year Seminar called “Pleased to Tweet You.” She blogged about it and received global interest in the course. A class of 11th graders in Alabama joined the incoming college freshmen from USJ and they communicated and learned by Skyping and blogging. This work culminated in the iCitizen Project and continued the following semester in a live event they called the iCitizenship Town Hall Meeting. With the Alabama high school juniors and the Connecticut college freshmen leading the conversation, Marilaice was able to host her first simultaneous live and live stream event. The students were the experts and taught the audience what they learned about being a citizen in the 21st century during the semester-long course. Marialice’s definition for digital citizenship is a direct result of the students’ definition of what it means to be an iCitizen: “To be an iCitizen, we need opportunities to think and act at local, global, and digital levels.” The focus on human connections online has guided the Digital Citizenship Institute’s (DigCitInstitute) mission that the collective good is best served when individuals work as one world, one human race.

Marialice’s model of how to #UseTech4Good and students teaching others in their communities continued to evolve. In the fall of 2015, the first Digital Citizenship Summit (DigCitSummit) was held at the university. It was student-driven, involved multiple stakeholders from the entire community to #UseTech4Good, and showcased the power of individualized learning. The event gained attention through social media and even trended #1. Soon DigCitSummits were scheduled all over the world, including the UK, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Spain, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, and even Twitter headquarters. The DigCitSummit is held every October and is now in its seventh year. The focus is always on positive ways to use the internet to be connected and model good citizenship. In 2019, it went global and involved 37 countries, 43 states, and over 100,000 students who committed to becoming a force for good online for a whole week. In 2020, the Summit lasted a full 24 hours, and sessions were live-streamed from classrooms around the world and included presentations in English, Arabic, Spanish, and Portuguese.

In between the yearly Summits, Marialice’s DigCit Institute supports school districts throughout the year as they extend learning about how to #UseTech4Good to communities in school districts like Lakeshore Central near Buffalo, New York. This video captures highlights of the event (bit.ly/StudentLedDigCitSummit), amplifying student voice and leadership. Prior to the pandemic, Marialice traveled to districts around the United States to involve the whole community including students, parents/caregivers, educators, policymakers, the local library, local organizations, industry, and business leaders. She conducted on-site and virtual office hours and culminated in student-led presentations about their learning and how they #UseTech4Good.

Marialice’s most recent program is the Global IMPACTOR that lasted six weeks from January until March 2021. She wanted to continue facilitating learning experiences without overwhelming teachers, so she contacted a group of willing PK-12 teachers and paired their classes with a mentor that fit their impact project. The projects were personalized according to needs and preferences so each one was different. Everyone’s starting point was different, and everyone’s ending point was different, too. All participants, teachers, and mentors met every week and Marialice also scheduled one on one meetings with each project group and mentor. Mentors were from around the world and included educators, technology integrators, media specialists, and administrators. The classrooms were able to host a student showcase at the end of Global IMPACTOR, and their students’ individual talents, including advocacy for the Global 1 Goals, coding, storytelling, mental health awareness, media literacy, and more, were all focused through a collective lens, modeling that learning is an action and an extension, and not just an add-on.

I asked Marialice for an example of using #UseTech4Good. She told me that her favorite impact story from all the years she has been promoting a positive view of DigCit is Mary Jalland, an early childhood teacher in Glasgow, Scotland. Mary was inspired to use her classroom stuffed elephants (Ellie, Blue Ellie, and Granny Ellie) to explore the world outside their classroom because her young students embody “curiosity, wonder, and awe” to solve real problems. This video highlights how our youngest learners can spark a positive impact and promote the power of we.

Marialice believes in the power of teaching digital citizenship with a focus on #UseTech4Good as a way to humanize all people, even though we can be anonymous online. Over the years, building an inclusive community, with students leading the way through iterations of personalized learning, has demonstrated that change starts with the individual: all it takes is one person to stand up and be a part of the change.

One becomes many because of the inspiration found in words and actions.

For more, see:

Dr. Marialice B.F.X. Curran is the Founder and Executive Director of the Digital Citizenship Institute. Her advanced graduate and doctoral studies on adolescent development at Boston College reinforced her commitment to service learning as Dr. Curran leads by hand, heart, and mind.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Education is Equity Work: New Resource and Customizable Toolkit to Help

By: Rebecca E. Wolfe

Ask my son to write a paragraph on a favorite topic, and he’ll shut his door, hammer out a page in minutes and gamely take feedback – but only if you demand to see itConversely, my daughter will flop on the floor, ask for help, stare at the computer, type the bare minimum over several hours, ask you to read every new word that’s added but cry if you suggest a change. 

It doesn’t take an expert educator to know that each learner needs a trusting relationship with someone who understands how to get each writer to produce their best work. Trying to coach them to write in the same way is a recipe for failure. As every parent or good educator knows, education at its heart is an equity proposition – meeting each learner where they are and helping them become the best version of themselves.  

But equity at any kind of scale is not possible unless educators and schools have road maps and tools to build sustainable and equitable student-centered learning environments. The revised edition of Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Environments and new customizable toolkit is one such resource.  

When the first Educator Competencies  was released in 2015, the idea of student-centered teaching and learning was just a few years into gaining attention in a handful of schools, districts and a scattering of fledgling innovation networks. Today, intentional and comprehensive personalized, learner-centered approaches have been documented in hundreds of schools, personalized learning appears in 39 states’ Elementary and Secondary Success Act plans and at least four states have made it the focus of their education reform efforts.

Doing things differently in education is no longer optional, as teachers during the past eighteen months have had to find new ways to connect with students and engage not just their minds but their hearts. In the meantime, the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the health and economic well-being of immigrants, people of color and communities where families earn incomes below the poverty line threw into high profile our society’s endemic inequities. 

With this goal to better understand how to better center a critical focus on equity – we engaged with more than 60 new and diverse stakeholders for the 2020 edition of the Educator Competencies. 

This new version of the Educator Competencies aims to expressly and concretely enable educators to come to terms with and remedy the ways in which America’s schools have negatively impacted Black students, as well as children from other marginalized groups. Because of this, we’ve included an explicit discussion and definition of equity in the document, added scannable icons to pick out the competencies that directly address equity and created a companion tool, “Centering Equity,” to be used alongside the primary publication.

As a nation, we are getting clearer and braver about exposing the ways current educational systems are designed to produce inequitable and even racist outcomesAs a parent myself, I wanted to make sure this version of the competencies stood firmly as a tool to celebrate learners’ assets and point towards a more just education system.

Are you using the competencies or want to connect with others on how they’re using them? Explore the map.

For more, see:

This post was originally published at KnowledgeWorks.org.

Rebecca E. Wolfe oversees the research, impact and improvement efforts that reinforce KnowledgeWorks’ program and policy initiatives and advance the field of personalized, competency-based learning. 

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

21 Ways to Ignite Summer Learning

With what could arguably be the hardest school year any of us or our children have experienced behind us, we’re all excited about a more seemingly normal summer and the opportunity to extend learning at home and out in our communities.

Many of us on the Getting Smart team are parents. Our children range from ages 1-19 so we’ve been swapping stories of distance learning, resources that have helped our families through a difficult year, and now we’re all prepping for summer!

Here are a few ways our team is planning to ignite summer learning for our children AND ourselves. If there are any you love, please add them as a comment or tweet us @Getting_Smart and use #SummerLearning

Subscription Boxes

We love subscription boxes because they take the guesswork out of summer learning. Boxes come right to your door monthly and can be done anytime that works best for your family.

• KiwiCo. Great for ages 0-104 (really) KiwiCo offers a variety of “crates” depending on age and interest. Whether they’re wanting to explore STEM, Maker and Arts or Geography and Culture there is something for everyone. Crates come once monthly and include hands-on activities, creative learning opportunities, content to help learners explore and ideas to keep them learning after they’ve completed the activities within each box.

• Raddish. This box is a culinary lesson and mealtime solution all in one. June’s box is edible engineering and helps youth celebrate science, technology and math in the kitchen while creating a pie, taco triangles and a jar salad. Each box includes a quality kitchen tool, collectible apron patches, table talk cards and more. We also love that Raddish offers playlists for each box to listen along as you cook, as well as dietary modification options.

• LoveEvery. This one is for the littlest learners, but we love these stage-based play essentials for children ages 0-3. Each box is specially curated for your child based on their learning/development stages and the toys are high quality!


Digital Opportunities

Have a long road trip ahead? Or just want to make good use of your child’s screen time? These virtual options are great and worth exploring;

• Outschool. With over 100,000 interactive online classes and camps, you’re sure to find something on Outschool that your learner (ages 3-18) is interested in! From how to draw a T-Rex to speaking Spanish, there’s no shortage of interesting content. Classes are taught by safe and vetted educators and the live, small group format helps youth grow social skills and build friendships.

• Outlier. This one’s for the older kids at home. Pay 80% less than college courses, earn transferable college credits and learn from the best instructors on demand. The best part is… if learners do the work but don’t pass, they get a refund. Check out Outlier, courses start soon.

• ABC Mouse. Many families used ABC Mouse during the height of the pandemic as they offered a steep discount on an annual subscription. Great for ages 2-8, this app supports reading, math, science and art in an engaging digital format.

• Homer. Offering digital and hands-on options, Homer supports ages 2-8 through personalized, comprehensive reading, math, SEL, instruction that also inspires and grows creativity and thinking skills

• Osmo. This tablet-based program (compatible with FIRE Tablets and iPads) supports learning through play. From entrepreneurial skills, to spelling, creativity, coding and puzzles, Osmo really has something for every interest group. There are some games for younger learners (age 3-5), but most are built to best serve ages 5-12. My daughter’s favorite game is the pizza shop. She loves to practice math with the money option in the game and thinks it’s fun to see how many people she served, if they were happy clients and what revenue her store brought in each day.

Osmo, Digital Learning

Utilize The Power of Place

You already know we are deeply passionate about community-connected projects and the power of place-based education. Our recently published book The Power of Place offers several examples for school and community leaders to inspire the implementation of place-based education to connect learners to a common purpose and build agency and community. Here are a few quick ways to utilize place to inspire learning this summer:

  • Run a lemonade stand, or maybe a fidget stand (my kids are obsessed with those pop-it things these days). Start withstand design (art), develop a business model (what supplies do you need, what are the costs, when will you be open), promote the stand in your neighborhood (marketing), and open up for business.
  • Build forts inside or outside. This is fun for kids of all ages, and family too!
  • Encourage kids to find their own special spot that allows them time alone to think, draw, write and create. This can be inside or out.
  • Host a bio-blitz at home or with your community. iNaturalist has a guide here to get you started.
  • Plant something, literally anything. Start your own family or community garden. We also recommend checking out these books to help us all better appreciate our planet and share accessible ways for young people to get involved in the fight against climate change.
  • Track the weather, predict changes, and explore local weather patterns.
  • Track the stars and moon phases.
  • Embark on a micro-scavenger hunt. Look really closely at a small area (sidewalk, lawn, pond, etc.) and see what you find.
  • We love this book on how to Let the Kid Guide. The authors share accessible activities for parents who want to be more present and connected to the world and their families.

Other Favorites and Tips:

We know we have shared a lot already, but here are a few more worth mentioning!

  • Busy Toddler is a favorite for many on our team. The website and Instagram account share a variety of affordable, easy-to-set-up playtime and learning activities for toddlers and school-aged kids.
  • Check your local library! Most facilitate a summer reading challenge that offers kids a chance to win prizes by reading books. Some will even send personalized recommendations.
  • Find a summer project. Pick a topic to go deep on, research, interview, write about it and at the end of summer do a presentation of learning for family and friends on the topic. Caroline on our team had to do this every summer, we all wish we could see her presentation on French Impressionism.
  • Zoos and Children’s museums typically offer extended programming for the summer as well as planned learning events and themes. Check out your local museum this summer!

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.