Knowing Students Deeply is the Most Important Thing We Can Do

Think about who will be walking into America’s classrooms this school year.

There will be children who are happy, children who are anxious, children who are eager, and children who feel disconnected.

There will be young people who have experienced trauma, who have lost loved ones to Covid-19, and who have witnessed racialized violence over and over again.

Among them will be students who have not been inside a school building for a year and a half but have learned how to cook, repair the family car, tutor younger siblings, or play a jazz riff on the guitar.

We knew inequities existed in education, but the pandemic made the unfairness undeniable. Think of who had access to high-speed internet and quality instruction time and who didn’t? Whose schools opened their doors to students safely and whose couldn’t? Whose communities suffered the highest proportion of Covid-19 infections and deaths and whose did not?

The dominant narratives about “Covid learning loss,” trauma, and historic inequities are not lost on young people. They play to fears many of them have about their futures. Worse, they can become internalized as personal failure and damage. Labeling themselves this way can be harmful and runs counter to everything we know from developmental and learning science about human resilience and potential.

So how can schools be ready, really ready to welcome all of this, the good, the great, and the challenges they will soon see every day?

For starters, recognize that variation, individuality, and potential are the essential ingredients of human development. The approaches taken thus far to education have not fully challenged assumptions about learning—is it highly variable or does it fall into a bell curve? Intelligence – is it defined by our genes or does context drive their expression? Skills – are they malleable or fixed? Talent – is it plentiful or scarce? Or human potential – what might any child be capable of under the right conditions?

We need to stop offering menus of labels and interventions and instead conceive of a response that reflects a new, equitable purpose for education that is relationship-rich, holistic, rigorous, supportive, and profoundly engaging for students.

Imagine what it would mean if all the places where children are growing and learning were designed to meet each child, the whole child, where they are, and help each one develop to their fullest potential?

Developmental and learning science tell an optimistic story: children’s brains, bodies, and abilities are malleable to experience—because the human brain is a dynamic, living structure made up of tissue that is the most susceptible to change from experience of any tissue in the human body.

If we optimize the contexts for learning, we optimize the possibility that our young people will not only catch up and recover from the effects of this past year—we will have also made a down payment on the learning settings we need to build for our kids and their futures.

What happens from here depends on the things we decide to invest in. The message in the science is clear—we need a new design mapped to the way the brain learns and children grow.

A design that combines these 5 elements: positive developmental relationships; environments filled with safety and belonging; rich learning experiences and knowledge development; the intentional development of critical skills, habits and mindsets; and integrated student supports.

And here is the secret sauce: the development of a whole child emerges when we combine these elements into experiences that connect to one another – that are interdisciplinary and integrated. You can picture this as a web of experiences, because this is how our brains develop – lots of connections that happen between the structures of the brain, and these connections produce increasingly complex skills.

Our goals to prepare every young person for learning, work, and life may feel particularly daunting today. But they are not out of reach. Imagine setting an ambitious goal yourself– perhaps to run a great distance. A coach would likely give you a regimen to build aerobic capacity, endurance and confidence. When you reach that goal, after a high five, your trainer would help you set a new, more challenging goal. Practice builds progress and muscle. With more strength, your coach would guide you to take on still more challenges. As the distance and pace start to feel easier, you would want to run farther, faster because you believe that more success is possible.

You wouldn’t run that extra mile just because someone said, “you better catch up!” You would run it and many more because your curiosity, belief, desire, and energy have been ignited. Your coach primed the pump, lit your curiosity, reduced your cognitive load at first but increased it over time, calibrating the challenge, engineering productive struggle, giving you constructive feedback, helping you build muscles and stamina, and never letting you quit.

Thus far, large-scale efforts to improve opportunities for deeper learning have focused on interventions and programs that generate incremental change, and only for some children. What we need now is a transformational shift.

We all have a role in building this comprehensive, integrated web of environments, relationships, and experiences that will boost each child’s learning and healthy whole-child development. If well-designed and intentional, these webs can provide the foundation for the development of complex skills and competencies that ultimately reveal the talent, passions, and potential of each and every child.

To learn more about how you can apply the principles of whole-child design in any setting where children grow and learn, check out the Design Principles for Schools: Putting the Science of Learning and Development into Action.  

For more, see:

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

5 Steps to Boost Real World Learning in Your System

“In a Real World Learning community, learners are prepared for work, school, and life after high school graduation. By gaining immersive experiences across a multitude of interests, industries, and employers through real-world projects and internships, learners gain the skills to navigate their future. Mutually, employers participate to help share and prepare today’s students to become the talent of tomorrow.”

Real World Learning is authentic to the learner, connected to the community, and valuable to both. It includes community-connected projects and entrepreneurial experiences, work-based learning, and credentials valued by employers.

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation sponsors a Real World Learning initiative in metro Kansas City because it prepares the “region, students, and employers for the future.”

Would you like to see more real world learning in your community? There are five steps to expand access to high-engagement valuable learning experiences.

1. Make the Case for Change. New learning priorities and experiences require community conversations that lead to updated agreements. It’s more important than ever to host inclusive conversations including parents and students. It’s equally important to engage business and civic leaders that can describe emerging skill requirements for high-wage employment.

Chambers of commerce, workforce development boards, and business associations can all help make the case for priority skills–and make clear that real world learning is for all learners. This can help update and bridge the traditional separate career and technical pathways with college preparation.

While new agreements can be developed by one school community, there is a great benefit to new bargains across an employment market. In Kansas City, regional agreements help mobilize a six-county area including more than 75 high schools. The goal of the Real World Learning Initiative is to ensure that all students in the Kansas City region graduate with one or more valuable experiences called Market Value Assets (MVA) including:

  • Work experiences: internships and client-connected projects
  • Entrepreneurial experiences: starting a business or launching an initiative
  • College credit: at least three classes
  • Industry recognized credentials

Agreeing on priority experiences helps stakeholders see their role in the change process (e.g., it’s easier to visualize hosting an internship than teaching critical thinking).

2. Update Student Learning Goals. Employers are becoming more sophisticated about identifying skills critical to success on the job. The Essential Skills report sponsored by the  DeBruce Foundation is a great example of evidence that can inform conversations about what graduates should know and be able to do.

As community conversations surface priority skills, they can be captured and organized into a Portrait of a Graduate. Hundreds of communities have used this approach to summarize new learning goals. Four Kansas City area examples are shown below.

New learning goals can be brought to life through communication, culture, and curriculum. North Kansas City prepared a video series with students explaining each of the competencies and incorporated them into career pathways for all learners.

Schools in the EL Education network work on priority skills in their character framework in their morning advisory called Crew.

Many priority skills are valuable preparation for internships and community-connected projects. They are also developed and demonstrated through real world learning experiences.  Schools in the New Tech Network assess agency, collaboration, and communication skills in every integrated project.

3. Embed Real World Learning in Policy and Practice. To make real world learning widely experienced and sustainable, system leaders need to embed it in policy and practice.

Systems can build or adopt a high school model that embeds work-based learning and community-connected projects into every pathway (e.g., NAF, ConnectED, Diploma Plus, Ford NGL, New Tech Network, GPS Education Partners).

Governing boards can make priority learning experiences like internships and capstone projects a graduation requirement (these can be integrated into course credit requirements). They can incorporate priority learning experiences into high school and beyond plans drafted with learners in 8th or 9th grade and updated once or twice a year during high school. They can adopt an extended transcript that, in addition to a list of courses, includes credentialed skills, certificates, awards, and notable projects. (An extended transcript could summarize a portfolio of personal bests.)

Governing boards can also reduce policy barriers such as seat time and attendance requirements. They can ease credit for prior and outside learning, provide transportation to internships and community programs, and expand course credit for internships.

System leaders can jumpstart real world learning opportunities by sponsoring small academies and microschools that embed real world learning. In the Kansas City area, Liberty and Liberty North high schools both opened microschools rich with real world learning. Across town, Ray-Pec High and Ruskin High created half day programs with room for big integrated community-connected projects.

4. Develop Talent. Real world learning requires new skills and support for teachers including encouragement and professional development for project-based learning. Externships for teachers can help them gain a glimpse into the world of work. Visits to exemplary schools also aid in expanding their vision to know what’s possible.

Schools can expand their real world talent pool with creative staffing including leveraging alternative certification to land business and college-certified faculty. Small districts can share programs, staffing, and learning opportunities like three southern Kansas City districts– Grandview, Hickman, and Center. New positions like Community Partnership Coordinators can help facilitate business connections.

5. Invest in Support Structures. To help more young people succeed in real world learning experiences, education leaders can strengthen support systems.

Turnaround for Children’s approach to a tiered supports model recommends that schools create learning environments with more protective factors including health, mental and social service supports as well as extensive opportunities for exploration.

Secondary schools need strong advisory systems that monitor social and academic progress, connect to strong supports, build success skills, and spot real world learning opportunities.

Expanding access to real world learning requires community conversations resulting in new goals. Engaging community-connected learning requires new supports for students and teachers. Sustaining it across a system requires new policies and structures. The benefit of more real world learning is more equitable preparation for a complex future.

What If: August Recap

If you missed the campaign announcement, feel free to read more about the backstory here and sign up for the newsletter to make sure you never miss a question! We look at these questions as a way to inspire change and thought about the future of learning and to get an idea of what you’re wondering about, what you’re thinking about and more. If any of these questions inspire you to write, feel free to email [email protected] with your thoughts or a blog submission.

Another month of What If? questions has passed. This month we were interested in co-authorship, repurposing buildings and whole child approaches. We loved the answers we saw, but would like to hear from even more of you!

Here are a few of the questions we asked over the last month:

What if every learner could co-author their learning journey?

We have become super interested in the idea of co-authoring ever since the AASA Report of this year. Check out why students should coauthor learning experiences and, while you’re at it, take look at some coauthoring resources.

What if school buildings were leveraged as community centers or career centers after hours?

What if tools could make it easier to frame issues, host conversations & craft agreements?

This question was inspired by our recent exploration of 20 Invention Opportunities in Learning & Development.

What if all learning was framed as social-emotional?

This question was contributed by our friends at Socrates Head of School from their distillation on All Learning is Social and Emotional.

What if every high school grad had already experienced success in work?

Thanks for following along with these questions! Please let us know which ones stuck out to you and which ones you’re still thinking about AND be sure to sign up for the newsletter so you can catch all the questions.

Place-Based Learning: Solid Ground in Troubled Waters

By: Jack Chin

As the pandemic unfolded in March 2020, educators were in uncharted waters, forced to adapt quickly by pivoting to alternative modes of instruction. Community partners also had to navigate the rapidly shifting conditions – with field trips and in-class demonstrations scrapped, program providers last year used a combination of live Zoom sessions, pre-recorded media, and kits to engage students in projects at home or in nearby neighborhood locations. Through close relationships with the communities they serve, these partners played a key mediating role between remote teachers and students learning at home.

One such partner, KIDS for the BAY, works with elementary school teachers to meet Next Generation Science Standards by engaging students with their local watershed. Here’s how their staff modified their program to make sure community connections happened, even via remote instruction:

“When schools closed, we quickly developed At-Home Activities on our website to provide resources for teachers, students, and families. When schools switched to distance learning, we transitioned all our programs to an online format. All participants received multiple experiences including Zoom lessons, going outside to connect with nature and complete observations, nature art, and trash cleanup projects, and online group poster-making and video-making Environmental Action Projects.”

 “Students loved investigating our interactive Virtual Watershed and completing hands-on experiments at home. A favorite activity was creating mini watersheds using crumpled paper to create mountains and valleys, marker pens to outline ridges, and spray bottles to simulate rain. KIDS for the BAY staff spotlighted student scientists on Zoom, eager to share their predictions and the watersheds they created. Breakout rooms, Jamboard, Flipgrid, and other tools helped to make Zoom lessons interactive. Parents joined lessons and supported their children learning at home.”

Kids for the bay Watershed project
Mini watershed model using crumpled paper; image used with permission of KIDS for the BAY

“In distance learning, students were eager to go outside to complete watershed scavenger hunts in their neighborhoods. They observed animal and plant adaptations, storm drains leading to creeks, and signs of pollution including litter. After learning how trash can harm animals in the local watershed and impact connected creek, bay and ocean environments, our students were eager to lead their families in ‘quaranteam’ litter cleanup projects in their neighborhoods, completing a total of 4,034 environmental stewardship hours in trash cleanup projects, poster, and video presentations.”

Student on Kids for the Bay Watershed Action Project scavenger hunt, James Madison Elementary School, San Leandro CA
Watershed scavenger hunt; image used with permission of KIDS for the BAY

Another community partner, The Watershed Project, similarly used video lessons and kits to connect students with their local community and natural environment. They observed:

“Amidst the challenges of virtual learning this year, students have experienced moments of connection with each other and with nearby nature as a result of our programs. Their jaws dropped when they saw our interactive watershed model on the Zoom screen, and they laughed and danced their way through the water cycle boogie together. They demonstrated care for the nearby nature around their homes: one student brought a leaf from a tree in their yard to our lesson, another was upset about a tree that was cut down near their home, and another beamed with excitement about the lemons growing in their backyard. Another changed his Zoom name to I am a water protector during one of our lessons.”

Watershed project
Interactive watershed model; image used with permission of The Watershed Project

By doubling down on hands-on, project- and place-based approaches, these educators were able to sustain student engagement, even in distance learning. This was especially important for students in under-resourced schools; outdoor activities gave these students opportunities to enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of connecting with nature in their local community and to take much-needed screen-time breaks. By effectively partnering with teachers and families, programs like KIDS for the BAY and The Watershed Project increased students’ access to equitable, engaging learning opportunities during the pandemic.

These successes during trying times underscore what is known about connecting youth, schools, and their communities through place-based strategies. As chronicled in the All of a Place Institute report, written some 20 years ago:

“In whatever form, by incorporating a sense of place in instruction, teachers have developed programs that are professionally stimulating and that are engaging for students. With instruction based on students’ experiences, learning is grounded in what they know and builds on actualities, not abstractions. Students develop competencies that matter to them; the growing sense of doing things that are valued, in turn, helps them learn better. And the sense of building community and rootedness beyond the “age-based ghetto” of the schoolhouse gives students an opportunity to address problems in the “real world,” instilling a sense of stewardship and hope.

 “By placing education within the local context and scale:

  • The content of the curriculum becomes richer and more relevant, not generic as is the case in a text-based curriculum – students become more engaged, teachers are revitalized, the community is more invested;
  • The quality of teaching and learning improves because teachers, students and community members care more – students get better grades, teachers raise expectations for what students can achieve, families get directly involved with their children’s learning; and
  • The high level of connectivity promotes synergistic effects – students apply what they learn in school to improve the community and local environment, teachers collaborate with each other and with members of the community, the community replenishes its social capital through intergenerational interactions.”

As students and teachers return to classrooms this fall, uncertain as to whether instruction will have to revert to hybrid or remote modes given the Delta variant surge, educators should keep in mind that incorporating a sense of place can provide solid ground when waters are placid and when they are troubled. Check out the National Outdoor Learning Library for ideas and resources on how to use the outdoors for learning during the pandemic and beyond.

For more, see:

Jack Chin is an independent strategy consultant who works with foundations and nonprofit programs to enhance their impact. Jack helped start San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance (dba Education Outsideand the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and has served on the governance bodies of the Student Conservation Association, Climate Access, Environmental Grantmakers Association, Pacific Primary Pre-school, and Lick-Wilmerding High School.

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

How Teachers Can Stay Resilient in the Face of Uncertainty

By: Molly Gazin 

Earlier this summer, as Roadtrip Nation spoke to teachers across the country, we could feel the excitement building. The return to the classroom was coming, and with it, the familiar joys of connecting with students, teaching favorite lessons, and feeling that unique in-person energy.

But over the past month, things have changed, as a sharp uptick in COVID cases raises serious concerns about classroom learning.

When we recently reached back out to teachers to see how they were feeling about the start of the school year, most described their feelings as “cautiously optimistic.”

Mike Morrell, a high school social studies and financial literacy teacher, put it best: “While I’m excited to see my students, it’s hard to tap into that excitement when everything I know about classroom management has been thrown up in the air.”

With so many unknowns floating around, how can teachers build their resilience, and find the energy to make this year as amazing as any other?

In talking to these “cautiously optimistic” teachers, I saw two common steps they’re taking to recharge and reconnect to their power and purpose as educators. Hopefully, these simple tips can help you tap into your own resilience, and inspire you to keep growing throughout the year.

Prioritize your own growth

For Mike Morrell, this summer was all about tackling professional challenges, like earning new credentials, and learning how to teach new subjects. It’s been hard work—but he found that throwing himself into his own education helped spark some momentum.

“I’ve been focusing on learning more about the areas of the content that I teach that interest me, and not focusing on how I’m going to teach it. This has really helped me restore my passion for learning.”

We all know it’s nearly impossible to pour into students when our own cups don’t feel full! That’s why prioritizing and investing in your own growth and education as a teacher remains crucial.

But while structured professional development definitely helps, it’s not always accessible for teachers with busy schedules and little school support. A recent Educators for Excellence study found that only 21% of teachers who received professional development training through their school felt it was “very effective” in improving their teaching. That leaves most teachers to look elsewhere for professional development opportunities—often paying for them out of pocket.

The good news is, professional development doesn’t have to be as involved or structured as you may think. For example, Mimi Pepin, an eighth-grade teacher, told us she’s been doing some reading just for fun, to “recharge” before school starts. Another teacher told us they’ve taken up baking to blow off stress.

We may not see these activities as “professional development”…but they are! Because just as Morrell discovered, your growth as a learner directly translates into new strengths as an educator.

So if you want to invest time into things like cooking or reading, but feel guilty about spending time on yourself during the school year, try turning it into a professional development opportunity.

As you cook your favorite meal, create a short lesson plan for how you’d teach someone else to make each dish. If you read a book just for fun, come up with a few discussion questions you’d want to ask your students. You can even share these mini-lesson plans with friends or younger family members, as a way to bond and get feedback on your ideas.

It may feel silly at first, but we promise that this small exercise will help you battle burnout, and create more time for yourself and the things you love to do. Plus, it’ll help you flex your teaching muscles in new ways!

Get inspired by your peers

When asked where she’s finding motivation for this school year, high school English teacher Jasmine Hobson Rodriguez told us: “The best resource is other teachers! We are all feeling the same ambivalence and anxiety, so being able to discuss those emotions with like-minded individuals has been very refreshing.”

We know that the silos between teachers and administrators definitely contributed to low teacher morale last year. It was a big part of why we created Roadtrip Nation’s Teachers Community Hub, a site for virtual storytelling and networking between teachers across the country—because today, the internet has made it easier than ever to get inspired by your peers!

Teacher Mimi Pepin agrees: “I follow a few teachers on Instagram, and seeing their ideas always gets me excited to try new things in the classroom.”

For new teachers looking to translate their big ideas into tangible classroom lessons, social media can point you in the right direction. (One of our favorite follows is Vera Ahiyya, who uses her platform to recommend books that promote representation in the classroom.) Or for more established educators, you can keep up on new trends and technology from teachers like Michelle Emerson, who runs the YouTube channel Pocketful of Primary.

Not sure where to start? Here’s an easy two-minute challenge: Go to any social media platform and search for a hashtag or keyword phrase that’s relevant to your teaching experience. You’ll see that #biologyteachersofinstagram turns up classroom experiments tied to AP standards while searching “2021 classroom tour” on YouTube leads to a treasure trove of inspiration for livening up your space.

By following other teachers, you’ll start to build a network of inspiration to help you tackle shared challenges, and feel supported through any ups and downs the year may bring.

Why Resilience Remains Key

We’re definitely in a new era of teaching—and with it comes plenty of uncertainty. But as challenging as this year feels for educators, we have to remember that students everywhere are feeling that same uncertainty—and looking to the classroom for answers.

By finding ways to stay inspired and continue to innovate through our hurdles, we’ll set a positive example for students, showing them that resilience and growth are possible—even in the face of the unknown.

For more, see:

Molly Gazin is the Senior Education Manager at Roadtrip Nation.

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

The Wallet Test: How Honest Are You?

By: Angela Duckworth

As a young man, my dad came upon a lost wallet with a very large sum of cash inside.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I looked around for its owner for quite a while. But there was nobody in sight. So I took it to the Lost and Found.”

“But maybe the people at the Lost and Found took the money,” I pointed out. “Maybe if you’d kept the money instead of returning the wallet, you could have done something good with it.”

I was in elementary school when my dad told me this story, but I already knew how easy it was to tell a little lie in order to get out of trouble. I knew I’d once snuck into my mom’s purse and swiped a $20 bill without permission. And I knew how easy it was to come up with explanations for why, just this time, it was okay to not tell the truth.

“Well, maybe so,” my dad replied. “But not me. I knew I did the right thing.”

Have you ever wondered how many people would, like my dad, return a lost wallet?

Recently, scientists devised a clever honesty test. They assembled more than 17,000 identical clear plastic wallets containing a business card and different amounts of cash, then asked members of their research team across 40 countries to return them to the front desk of hotels, post offices, and other public places, explaining each time that “somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?”

If people are honest, the researchers reasoned, they would go to the trouble of reaching out to the email address on the business card.

What scientists learned is that both within and between countries, there’s a lot of variability in honesty. But in general, the more money was in the wallet, the more likely it would be returned—suggesting that, like my dad, a lot of people are motivated to do the right thing.

Here are some questions—including one inspired by the wallet test—from our new Honesty Playbook that you and your kids can ask yourselves right now. How true are the following statements?

I resist telling the little lies that make life easier.

Even if others are cheating, I follow the rules.

If I pay for something and get too much change, I return it.

I say what I think, though others might disagree with me.

I’d try very hard to return a lost wallet.

To this day, I remember how awful I felt knowing that I’d stolen $20 from my mother. So awful, in fact, that a few days later, I snuck into her purse a second time to put it back.

Don’t assume that kids grow up to be honest without positive role models. But don’t pretend that you’ve never told a lie, either.

Do talk about honesty. Tell stories that show you know how hard it can be to tell the truth. Show your kids that you, too, are learning how to do the right thing.

With grit and gratitude,


For more, see:

Angela Duckworth is the Founder and CEO of Character Lab. She is also the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative, and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics

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

Building Community and Social-Emotional Learning in the New School Year

As we head into a new school year, there are many things that we need to consider and be prepared for. Part of what helps educators to plan best is reflecting on the past school year and the learning that has taken place over the summer. Thinking back to this time last year, we were facing so many unknowns when it came to what our classroom instruction might look like throughout the year. Would we spend the year teaching virtually or hybrid? Or would our schools not be as affected and would we be in person?

As to my own experience, we transitioned throughout the year and so we had to constantly look for different methods or digital tools to help us create the right learning spaces and opportunities for our students. We needed tools and strategies to help us stay connected, to keep consistency in our work, and that promoted accessibility for the resources and materials for our students and their families. It was an ongoing learning journey to find ways to better engage students in learning and help them to feel connected, especially when we were not in the same physical space. It is hard to believe that there are students that I have not seen in person since schools first closed in March of 2020. There are also some students that I taught this year that I have never been able to interact with in-person. Those moments matter so much for building relationships and a classroom community. I wonder how many educators had similar experiences?

Starting the year by building community

At the start of every year, I always like to have some new ideas and tools to introduce to my students. Whether they are tools that I tried at the end of the year that students enjoyed or new ones that I picked up over my summer of learning, I focus first on relationship building and fostering social-emotional learning (SEL). At the start of the school year, it’s important that we focus on building relationships and learning about our students, and also giving them an opportunity as well as their families to learn about us as well. In a recent fireside chat from Getting Smart, “Returning to School with A Whole-Child Approach,” the speakers emphasized the importance of getting to know our students. Knowing them, calling them by their name, and correctly pronouncing their names. It is also crucial that we get to know students’ names, strengths and needs, and to help students build confidence and resilience. There are many ways to do this ranging from activities that don’t require any technology and there are also a lot of possibilities when it comes to different digital tools that we can use to help to build and foster a strong learning community in our classroom space as well as a home to school connection.

When it comes to talking about ourselves and becoming comfortable with one another, sometimes students and teachers can be a bit hesitant to speak up. Students may lack confidence when speaking in front of their peers, so creating a comfortable “space” for all students to connect with one another is essential so that they can thrive throughout the year.

In starting our school year and throughout the year, embedding activities into our days that help students to develop SEL skills and build community will not only positively impact their learning potential, but it will also best prepare them for their future.

Here are four tools and one activity that can be used for many purposes in all levels and content areas. What is nice about these options is that they can be used at the start of the year to get to know classmates, share learning, explore new ideas and build SEL skills. They are great to use for assessments throughout the year, whether through digital storytelling, digital portfolios, independent learning via PBL or genius hour, and more that promote student choice and voice. They are also good options for promoting student engagement by having students become creators rather than consumers in our classrooms.

Book Creator has new templates just in time for the new school year. For younger students, the new “About Me” template will be a great way to share stories and build relationships in the classroom. For older students, the “Empower the Learner Profile” template can help students to focus on self-awareness by creating a one-page profile to share their talents, hopes, challenges, strengths and more with their classmates and teachers.

Flipgrid is one of the tools that proved to be so helpful in getting to know my students last year, especially since we were not in person for so long. This summer Flipgrid launched many new features, which will make creating videos even more fun for students and teachers. Create a topic and ask students to introduce themselves, to respond to classmates, exchange ideas about what they are learning, and spark some creativity with all of the options available to enhance the video. It is also important that we create videos so students can get to know us as well.

Tract is a peer-to-peer learning platform that offers students a different way to learn about various topics of interest, to explore their passions, and to build essential skills now and for the future. Using Tract can also help to promote the development of social-emotional learning skills as students become self-aware as they design their own project and track growth, build social awareness as they learn from their peers, and build relationships during the learning process.

WeVideo has a lot of options for classroom use, especially for the start of the school year as a way to get to know students. Whether students create an About Me video that enables them to create with backgrounds, special effects, music, and more or teachers create a welcome-to-class video, those are just two ways to build relationships and a learning community. Also helpful for hybrid or virtual learning is using WeVideo to create announcements, for check-ins with students,  newscasts and so many more ideas to share information and learning.

One activity that had many benefits this past year and that can take very little time to create is a scavenger hunt.  There are tools such as Buncee, Flipgrid, Google Jamboard, Goose Chase, Padlet, and Wakelet, that can be used to set up the lists of items to find and then display. Depending on grade level and content area, it could be something as simple as having students post about themselves in a collaborative space and sharing items that help others get to know them. It can also be a list of items for students to find and work on teams, which helps with building SEL skills and fostering the development of essential skills like teamwork, problem-solving and sparking some creativity in learning too.

Each of these can be used for getting students to learn about one another, promote collaboration by creating a class book together, and they also promote more authentic and meaningful learning as students decide how to express who they are and what they are learning. Fostering a sense of community for students and for ourselves is important throughout the year, but especially important to start a new school year with a solid foundation.

For more, see:

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

Four Statewide EdTech Rollouts: What Works in Public Education

By: Dr. Karen Beerer

Even now—nine years removed from a career in public education that included service as a classroom teacher, a principal, and an assistant superintendent— the beginning of a new school year brings a spring to my step. For me, the commencement of a new school year is a time of reflection during which I can look back on the previous year with a critical eye and think about what I could do differently in the future to better serve my students.

This year, my tendency for reflection is stronger than ever. I now serve as the Senior Vice President of Teaching and Learning at Discovery Education, and like many teachers and school administrators, am still processing the unprecedented 2020-2021 school year. Given that a large part of my role is focused on managing Discovery Education’s partnerships with State Departments of Education, I have looked there to learn more about what works in public education and how those lessons can be applied in school systems nationwide.

My first significant learning comes from the state of Nevada. Last year, the state partnered with Nevada Gold Mines to ensure public school educators and students in grades K-12 statewide receive access to an award-winning daily learning platform for teaching, creating, and growing professionally.

This unique partnership sets a new standard for public-private partnerships in education. In this instance, a corporation with a mission to support the students of today as they prepare for the opportunities of tomorrow aligned with the state government to fund access to high-quality digital resources. The collaboration between a corporate partner committed to the success of the state’s students and the Nevada Department of Education provides school systems a meaningful template that can be replicated in districts nationwide.

Through Discovery Education’s work with the Arizona Department of Education, I have experienced firsthand the importance and value of scaling and implementing a multifaceted professional learning initiative. The Arizona Department of Education (AZED) spent a significant portion of its federal relief funds to prepare students, teachers, and families for the return to classroom instruction.

While Discovery Education is supporting that effort by providing access to our K-12 platform, AZED is partnering with universities to provide professional learning to teachers across the state. The professional learning opportunities range from supporting teaching in schools serving Navajo students to providing all educators no-cost professional development that advances digital teaching and learning skills, to expanding capacity for the Arizona K-12 Center’s educator mentoring program. AZED’s efforts are a textbook case of how to pair any major educational initiative with professional learning to ensure a successful and effective implementation.

Through Discovery Education’s work with the South Carolina Department of Education (SC DOE), I have had the opportunity to witness the importance of leadership in improving equity. Understanding that not all students and teachers in the state have access to high-quality, standards-aligned content, ready-to-use digital lessons, and professional learning resources, the SC DOE undertook an effort to rectify the situation. By purchasing four Learning Management Systems, a Learning Object Repository, and a suite of standards-based digital learning resources, every student and educator in South Carolina now has full access to high-quality, standards-aligned content, ready-to-use digital lessons, and professional learning resources no matter their location or learning environment.

While South Carolina’s school systems have made significant efforts to provide all students access to dynamic digital resources, the SC DOE has chosen to lead efforts to level the playing field for all students. Through their leadership, the SC DOE has provided an example for improving instructional equity that can be followed by all school systems.

Finally, the State Department of Education in New Hampshire (NH DOE) offers another great lesson on what works in public education. As the NH DOE creates plans to support school systems in what will be an uncertain school year, they have provided stakeholders with clear communications outlining their direction. An example of this was seen recently when the state announced a new partnership providing educators and students statewide a digital daily learning platform through the state’s Canvas Learning Management System.

Communication is often at the heart of many challenges in any size school system, particularly when it comes to new implementations. However, the NH DOE was clearly thoughtful about the timing of their message and chose to share the announcement of their new initiative during their annual, in-person conference. This allowed the relevant stakeholders to see what they were getting, ask questions about its use, and network together to understand the specifics of the implementation.

Following their initial announcement, virtual launch events for curriculum leads and principals across the state were held. The NH DOE has also prioritized continuing to communicate news and updates surrounding this initiative throughout the months leading up to the opening of the school year, as they demonstrate their understanding that there is no such thing as overcommunication.

Over the last several months, Nevada, Arizona, South Carolina, and New Hampshire have taken a leadership role in scaling the use of digital resources statewide. While each implementation has varied its approaches to public/private partnerships, scaling professional learning, improving equity, and communicating change, each has provided shining examples of what works in public education.

In these challenging times, school systems would be well served to look at their unique approaches to improving public education and emulate the work of these outstanding state departments of education as appropriate in their own communities.

For more, see:

Dr. Karen Beerer is the Senior Vice President of Teaching and Learning for Discovery Education. Dr. Beerer has more than 35 years of experience in education. She began her career as a classroom teacher. Dr. Beerer served as a reading specialist and an elementary principal as well as a Supervisor of Curriculum and Professional Development. In her last role, she was the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment in the Boyertown Area School District (PA) for 8 years.

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

Social-Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education: Approaches for Supporting Students’ Learning and Development

By: Justina Schlund 

Education leaders know that students thrive when schools, families, and communities work together to fully support all aspects of learning and development. To meet this priority, educators have looked to several approaches for cultivating school systems that focus holistically on students’ skills development, relationships, environments, and overall well-being.

Two of the most common approaches — Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Whole Child Education — build on brain science and decades of research. How can education leaders use them to effectively support students’ learning and development?

What is SEL and what does it look like in schools?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) introduced the term “SEL” in 1997 and defines it as: “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

CASEL’s Framework for SEL identifies five core social and emotional competencies (self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making) that can be taught and applied throughout developmental stages and across diverse cultural contexts. The framework also focuses on key settings (classrooms, schools, homes, and communities) where it’s important to establish equitable learning environments and coordinate practices to enhance students’ social, emotional, and academic learning.

Many states have used this framework to develop SEL standards or guidelines that define what students should know and be able to do. These standards help schools and districts make implementation decisions when selecting evidence-based programs, professional learning, or assessments.

Schools and districts can implement SEL in many different ways. This includes explicitly teaching social and emotional skills, integrating SEL into academic instruction, and building a sense of community throughout the school. It can also include strategies to strengthen adult SEL, such as giving educators opportunities to reflect on their own competencies or build relationships with colleagues.

What is Whole Child Education and what does it look like in schools?

Like SEL, whole child education can be implemented in many different ways. According to the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), a whole child education “prioritizes the full scope of a child’s developmental needs as a way to advance educational equity and ensure that every child reaches their fullest potential. A whole child approach understands that students’ education and life outcomes are dependent upon their access to deeper learning opportunities in and out of school, as well as their school environment and relationships.”

LPI, with Turnaround for Children, has developed guiding principles for whole child design that focus on practices to support deeper learning. These include five elements aimed at creating transformative, personalized, empowering, and culturally affirming learning environments and experiences:


  • Positive Developmental Relationships
  • Environments Filled With Safety and Belonging
  • Rich Learning Experiences and Knowledge Development
  • Development of Skills, Habits, and Mindsets
  • Integrated Support Systems

Additionally, many schools and districts have used the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Whole School, Whole Community, and Whole Child (WSCC) model, or ASCD’s indicators of a whole child approach to consider the connections between physical health, mental health, SEL, school climate, and academic achievement.

How are SEL and Whole Child Education Connected, and Where do They Differ?

Both SEL and Whole Child Education offer ways of approaching education to holistically support students’ learning and development. As systemic approaches, they both focus on school-family-community partnerships to create rich learning environments and experiences that meaningfully engage students. They can both address school climate and relationships, teacher well-being and practices, curriculum and instruction, related policies, and continuous improvement processes.

Many of the instructional practices emphasized by SEL and Whole Child Education are similar — for example, both elevate strategies for promoting collaboration, reflection, critical thinking, and problem-solving. As such, both SEL and Whole Child Education can incorporate a variety of other strategies, such as Project-Based Learning, Service-Learning, and student voice initiatives. But SEL may frame these as integration of social, emotional, and academic learning, while Whole Child approaches may frame them as cognitive strategies for deepening knowledge and understanding.

While SEL and Whole Child Education are similar, and the terms are often used interchangeably, there are also important distinctions beyond language.

In addition to addressing academic integration and supportive learning environments, SEL places more emphasis on defining and explicitly teaching social and emotional competencies, especially through evidence-based programs and practices that have been demonstrated to show positive outcomes. Evidence-based programs that focus on explicit SEL instruction can be part of Whole Child models, but often the emphasis is on integration across school climate and/or academics.

SEL is often used to integrate with local priorities and can support a variety of long-term goals for both students and adults — for example, it can promote equitable learning environments by helping educators develop a deeper awareness of students’ cultures and backgrounds. It can also promote mental health by helping students develop skills to manage stress and anxiety.  With SEL, schools, families, and community partners work together to develop a vision that shapes how competencies are elevated and taught.

Whole Child Education is a much broader framework that often includes a wider range of considerations. Some models, such as WSCC, emphasize SEL alongside physical education, health, safety, and counseling services. In LPI’s design principles, SEL is an aspect of developing positive relationships and essential skills, habits, and mindsets toward a goal of deeper academic learning.

Similarly, Whole Child Education models can encompass multiple frameworks, while SEL approaches often aim to integrate across frameworks. For example, Whole Child Education includes tiered interventions and student services as elements to address higher levels of academic, behavioral, and mental health needs. SEL approaches often fit within and help coordinate tiered intervention systems – emphasizing a universal, strengths-based strategy for all students and helping build alignment and pathways to targeted and intensive academic and behavioral supports.

What are important considerations for implementation?

Schools may choose to integrate both SEL and Whole Child Education or adopt one as the central framework for guiding students’ learning and development.

If integrating both approaches, it can be helpful to frame Whole Child Education as a broader umbrella that encompasses evidence-based SEL strategies alongside other strategies. It’s also important to understand how SEL can support all the elements of Whole Child Education, and use this understanding to inform specific practices, programs, and policies.

When deciding between SEL or Whole Child Education as a central framework, it’s useful to consider the practical implications of how each approach may align with local priorities and needs. If stakeholders are already familiar with initiatives that refer to SEL or Whole Child, it can also be helpful to maintain the consistent language. If districts and schools are seeking more concrete guidance, SEL may connect to state standards and offer tangible implementation strategies and options for evidence-based programs and professional learning. On the other hand, if your community is seeking more flexibility or greater focus on deeper learning, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, or health and safety, Whole Child Education may offer a broader umbrella for connecting many different strategies and initiatives.

Whichever way schools and districts choose to use these approaches, it’s important to begin with a needs and resource assessment to build on existing efforts and better understand how schools, families, and communities are already supporting students’ learning and development.

Both of these approaches can help cultivate high-quality social, emotional, and academic learning that advances equity and excellence throughout school systems. By intentionally framing their efforts, education leaders can help ensure effective structures that work together to help all students thrive.

For more, see:

Justina Schlund leads the translation of CASEL’s learning and expertise into content to deepen and expand SEL knowledge across the education field. She oversees content strategy of all of CASEL publications and platforms in close collaboration with the research, practice, and policy teams.

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

Leave No Parent Behind

By: Antonio Boyd, Eileen Fernandez-Parker, and Dr. Lashaune Stitt

Across the nation, the Covid-19 pandemic has shaken families. Parents have been in a bind as their homes served as school, office, and living space. Even though parents had more time for their kids, juggling multiple roles was stressful, leaving them unable to parent. It’s hard for parents to focus on different aspects of their child’s development when they’re stuck at home with their kids. The vaccines brought welcome relief to parents as most were looking forward to their kids being in school this year.

With the spread of the Delta Variant, rising youth infections, and the toxic political debates about mask-wearing, policies for teachers and students have caused confusion and fear. It looks like this is going to be another challenging year for parents, students, and teachers. Let’s examine some of the significant issues facing parents during the Covid-19 pandemic and then look at ways districts and community organizations can help parents navigate these challenges.

The pandemic has hit women particularly hard. Some have quit or reduced their hours to care for their children, while others have been furloughed or laid off. These situations add to the stress of working families adjusting to change. The New York Times Reports that Kindergarten enrollment is down. School districts across the nation still face the challenges of missing students. Chicago Public Schools reports that re-engagement is still a central issue the district faces this school year.

Seventeen months of unfamiliar territory, seventeen months of silent breakdowns, constant worries, and disconnect – a disconnect between the life that many knew to the life that we have been forced to adapt to behind disposable masks, Lysol wipes, and Zoom meetings. Students, teachers, administrators, and parents have all experienced these emotions while navigating home instruction, mental health, work, and still being the ultimate best for the children they love and serve during a major pandemic that upended the very life that they lived, daily. Contrary to widespread belief, parents also have been suffering in silence during this time, and now many are looking forward to their children returning to school full-time in a face-to-face setting.

There are still parents who are NOT looking forward to the return, particularly in Black and Brown communities according to a 2021 Rand Study. Seventy percent of Black parents believe that their local public school system should continue to offer virtual learning when the pandemic is over (National Coalition for Public School Options, 2020). And school districts are heeding the message from their parents so much that fifty-eight out of 288 district administrators surveyed in a Rand study said their school system had already started implementing plans to offer an online school to families or was considering it as a post-pandemic offering.

Students across the nation are dealing with sudden changes to their social lives and daily routines, the inability to access education, food insecurity, and some may even experience unsafe (emotional or physical) home environments. These challenges can present feelings of sadness, despair, anxiety, and stress, said Dr. Gil Noam, founder and director of The PEAR Institute (Partnerships in Education and Resilience) at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Here are suggestions from Dr. Noam that parents can tailor to age and developmental levels:

  • Young children: Be available and in close distance as much as possible. Parents should practice their own self-care, so they are rested and patient with little ones who need them throughout the day.
  • School-age children: Parents should choose their battles over schoolwork. Do not pick a fight when it will compromise the quality of the parent-child relationship and try to transition a potential conflict into something more positive. Do not set low expectations or avoid creating needed structure – just remember that consistent criticism can create a harsh environment for everyone. Playing games, listening, and providing hope are other constructive ways to build a stronger connection.
  • Teenagers: When possible, try to watch movies and listen to music together with your teen. Learn their world, but also respect their need for privacy and time alone as they are used to spending more time with their friends.

Child wearing a mask

Districts Implementing Community-Based Support for Parents During COVID-19

Community Organizations like the National Association for Family, School, Community Engagement are providing resources to learn from and collaborate with each other. Future of School is developing a Parent Prep Portal. According to Dr. Lashaune Stitt, Director of Equity and Access at Future of School, “Whether we are the primary caregiver, babysitter, grandparent, or lead parent of a learning hub, we all need help in the form of online resources and support to help make the transition back to face-to-face, blended, or fully online a success for our children this school year. This is where Future of School comes in. We have developed a space for parents and caregivers to empower, engage, and support them as they navigate through any learning environment that leverages blended and/or online instruction. It is a space where guardians are safe, informed and armed with all online resources and opportunities for their children to be successful no matter their learning space; a hub for the exchange of ideas, concerns, opportunities, and successes; a vault of knowledge!”

Woman bonding with childCharleston County Schools in South Carolina offers Parent Google Bootcamp

Charleston County School District in South Carolina offered online training to the parents of its Central Virtual Academy. These parents had chosen to enroll their students in a virtual school that the district developed to give parents options in the fall. As a Google district, CCSD utilizes Google Workspace for Education, formerly known as G Suite for Education. CCSD also uses a combination of iPads and Chromebooks for students. The purpose of the initiative was to start helping parents help their children and further help parents grow their own tech skills. The focus was on equalizing access to knowledge, not just hardware and software. According to Eileen Fernandez-Parker from Cultivating the Learning and lead trainer on the project, it took about 3 months to get organized and up and running. Eileen and her team planned four weeks of training in a 45-minute learning session followed by a 15-min Q & A. Google Meet was the obvious delivery format with four sessions offered per week. Because both iPads and Chromebooks are used across the district, device-specific trainings were offered. Parents were surveyed to target their needs and availability.

Content Covered

The district leaders with Eileen outlined the topics parents called about most:

  • Device knowledge: specific features of iPads and Chromebooks
  • Google Classroom: knowing where upcoming and late work is posted, locating the classroom folder, and understanding how to turn in digital work
  • Google Docs and Slides: higher-level user tips and tricks, collaboration, and commenting
  • Google Keep: organizational uses and student letter formation
  • Gmail: shortcuts, new features, and side panel shortcuts
  • Productivity: tips and tricks for everyday student and adult-use

Post Training Survey Results:

  • Participants reported an 85% increase in their understanding of the topics covered compared to before the training, where only 10% reported having a good or deep understanding of the topics
  • Overall, participants rated the training 4.95/5
  • 100% of participants reported that they agreed or strongly agreed that the training session attended would have a positive impact on them and/or their children

When asked to share what they liked most about the training, all the respondents most appreciated the productivity tips and tricks that save time and make them more proficient technology users. One respondent shared, “I learned how to open files the fastest method through Google Drive. I also know how to go offline for files and to send files to my friends.” Others identified their favorite part as, “Demonstration on how to use the features,” “Learning the basics of Google and the Chromebook,” and “I learned how to give others editing access today on docs.”

Lessons Learned

As we move forward into the uncharted territory of managing going back to school whether in-person, blended or virtual environments, we must keep in mind the lessons learned from last year and Leave No Parent Behind!

For more, see:

Eileen Fernandez-Parker is Founder and President of Cultivating the Learning, a 32-year educator with a passion for technology integration and personalized competency-based learning.

Dr. Lashaune Stitt serves as Director of Equity and Access at Future of Schools, with over 23 years of experience working with young people and adult learners from Pre-K through higher education, Dr. Stitt has served in various capacities throughout her career from classroom educator to administrator, building culturally responsive curriculum in diverse settings along the way.

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