Operation Breakthrough: Changing Life Trajectories From Birth to Citizenship

By: Tom Vander Ark, Rashawn Caruthers and Bill Nicely

Located in the heart of Kansas City, MO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to loving children and opening up their hearts to share what’s possible. Operation Breakthrough, a community partner serving kids from preschool through high school, is focused on the whole learner, the whole family and the whole community. Walking into the building and seeing a space alive with parents, learners, community members and healthcare professionals, the mission of providing a safe and loving environment for students in poverty rings true with every interaction.

What started as early learning and after school programming has grown into helping high school students continue to discover their interests. Recognizing that students needed support past age 14, Mary Esselman, President/CEO/Kid Whisperer, connected with partners to create The Ignition Lab. What was once a muffler shop and boarded up department store is now home to a human development center for elementary through high school students. The property was purchased by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and his Eighty-Seven & Running foundation. Other donors included Cargile, Honeywell and the Stowers Foundation.

Open to all students, elementary students and freshmen from Hogan Prep cycle through the Ignition Lab every day. With a capacity of 100 students per morning and afternoon sessions, students experience all of the programs at the beginning of the year and then narrow it down to what their focus will be for the first semester. During the semester, they are given space to stay in their current program for the next semester or choose a different focus. All of the programs are focused on real world learning and students see the connection between one program and another. Students are also learning from real world teachers that include a military cook/private chef, a Carnegie Mellon University mechanical engineer and a graphic artist.

Known as Ignition Lab Fellows, highly trained content specific professionals are on loan from the area corporations. Mary says, “The program really checks all the boxes. The fellows have an opportunity to give back to the community, our corporate partners fulfill their philanthropic goals and our kids get to learn from experts in the field.” Of equal importance is Mary’s ability to spot people who possess a real talent working with high need students. “It’s not just poverty our kids are experiencing, in many cases it’s some form of trauma as well.” For this reason, teachers and volunteers alike must possess the unique gift of deep empathy for all students and the grace to provide what they need when they need it. “I hire based on potential to interact with kids. I can tell if they have the right stuff.”

The confection of support services Operation Breakthrough provides to students and families might best be characterized as Wrap Around Services on steroids.  “If there is a need, we try to find a way for sustainable funding to provide it to our community.” As a result, all students receive free dental care at the onsite dental lab. Occupational and physical therapy along with speech and language therapy are provided for students in need. Partnering with Children’s Mercy Hospital, the in-house medical clinic supports not only to students, but family members and the community as space is available. On a tour of the various programs one would likely see the in-house food pantry, clothes closet, bread table for a quick grab and go and a sundry of other donated items as in free large carpet remnants to warm a cold bedroom floor. The goal is educating students, supporting their socio-emotional needs and ultimately breaking the cycle of poverty. As such, financial counseling and literacy is a part of this arsenal.

With over 196 employees, 250 volunteers and funding sources that include govermenal, individual, corporate and from nonprofit foundations, Operation Breakthrough is anything but a boutique organization. With an eye on long-term sustainability, the board of directors recently started an endowment with the hopes of someday relieving some of the time and effort focussed on annual fundraising. As CEO, Mary’s strategic focus is on assessing the diverse needs of every child and measuring outcome effectiveness to better tell their stories of success and make program changes when there isn’t. These are indeed worthy goals that will insure the success of future students, and cloning this dynamic adult inspiring, kid whispering leader wouldn’t hurt either.

Esselman says, “We’re just a not-for-profit,” but with a focus on early STEM, programming for students in poverty to become self-directed learners and responsive community services/resources, she and the Operation Breakthrough team are “just” sparking real world learning experiences that are changing lives.

Bill Nicely is the former Kearney School District Superintendent, and is now an education consultant for Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation Real World Learning Initiative and the Education Governance & Leadership Association.

Students Work To UnTextbook Their Learning

What happens when young people are given a chance to make a difference? We’ve seen time and time again students rising to the occasion to change the world for good, working to make a more just and equitable future.  

Recently, this global trend towards difference making  has manifested in a new podcast, UnTextbooked. This podcast, led by The History Co:Lab (formerly known as got history?), a systems change organization, brought together a group of young people and historians to have conversations that seek to change the way young people engage with history. It’s about a dynamic relationship with history, not a static one that lives inside a textbook and not a narrative largely shaped by a single culture.

The hosts are teenagers from across America, and they interview professional historians to find answers to the big questions of today. Each episode features one teen podcaster, one book, and one historian and is framed around a timely and relevant question chosen by the young podcaster, including “Does America live up to its own ideals?” and “Germany addressed its racist past. Can America do the same?”  

The future is going to belong to the people who care about it. Our nation will be what we — and increasingly you — decide it will be, and anything I can do to help you prepare yourselves to decide well is my pleasure and my honor.

General Stanley McChrystal

Got History’s founder, Fernande Raine, marveled at the talent of the production team: “Grownups have been talking about the need for better history for decades.  I’m thrilled to see this podcast unleashing the power of amazing young people to actually get it done.”

“I’ve gotten to meet so many cool people,” said Sydne Clarke during a podcast interview. “In terms of what I’ve learned from the stories of my other producers and the great people who have also been a part of this project, I’ll never forget it […] everyone, at least once in their life, should get involved with different people from different backgrounds and different stories just to gain new perspectives, because truly you do learn a lot.”

Talk about difference making and student voice!

As is the Getting Smart way, we love to ask “What If?” questions about the future of learning. This podcast brought a few to mind:

  • What if we centered history curriculum around big questions that young people were curious about?
  • What if young people were engaged with active historians who were sharing new perspectives, findings and learnings from our recent and distant histories?

“The future is going to belong to the people who care about it. Our nation will be what we — and increasingly you — decide it will be, and anything I can do to help you prepare yourselves to decide well is my pleasure and my honor,” said former Joint Special Operations Commander (JSOC) General Stanley McChrystal

UnTextbooked recently won the 2021 Spotify Next Wave Award, an award for student podcasters with outstanding platforms, podcasts and commentary. Together, this diverse group of young learners is not only “making history unboring” but leaving a more accurate, and loving history in their wake.

Pandemic Innovation at Piper Schools

Dr. Jessica Dain took the helm at Piper School District 18 months ago in the middle of a health crisis. She met her new community (often virtually) while zooming in and out of meetings about health precautions and remote academic delivery.

She learned that when schools reopened in the historic northwest Kansas City suburb, they’d be crowded and dated. She learned that the growing community was becoming more diverse and that the schools needed a strategy relevant to their new demographics as well as the new economy.

Inspired by the innovation and equity agenda of Future Ready Schools, the Piper team developed a strategic plan to ensure that all Piper students are #FutureReady.

Portrait of a Piper Graduate

Shifting to virtual engagement strategies, the Piper leadership team asked their community,

“What do we want our incoming kindergarten students to know and be able to do when they graduate from high school in the year 2033?”

Using a variety of engagement strategies, district leaders and an advisory group collected and compiled community aspirations into a portrait of a graduate focused on six competencies:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Initiative and self direction
  • Resilience and social and emotional wellbeing
  • Social, global and cross cultural skills
  • Communication
  • Creativity and innovation

Grade span rubrics describe developmental progressions in each of the competencies and help bring the portrait of a graduate to life in the culture and curriculum of Piper schools.

Inspired by the innovation and equity agenda of Future Ready Schools, the Piper team developed a strategic plan to ensure that all Piper students are #FutureReady.

Tom Vander Ark

Future Ready Success for All

The first goal of the new strategy is “future ready success for all” and it includes three priority outcomes:

  • Competency-Based Learning Instruction: Provide a guaranteed and viable curriculum to ensure all students are on or above grade level and are proficient in academic and portrait of a graduate competencies to ensure post-secondary success.
  • Student-Centered Classrooms: Empower all students in their learning through a wide variety of authentic learning experiences, student-centered instructional approaches, and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the district learning needs, passions, and cultural backgrounds of individual students.
  • Culture of Professional Learning: Establish and invest in a growth-oriented and collaborative culture of professional learning that holds the value of collective responsibility for the development of all of our learners.

Other strategies guide development of a connected culture, strong talent base, and operations that are fiscal responsibility. Progress on these new strategic priorities will be tracked on a balanced scorecard.

Real World Learning

With 30 other school systems in metropolitan Kansas City, Piper is seeking ways to infuse more real world learning including internships, community connected projects, and entrepreneurial experiences.

High school faculty and business partners developed plans for six career academies that will ensure that all Piper learners engage in real world learning:

  • Design, Production & Aviation
  • Business, Entrepreneurship & Innovation
  • Arts & Media
  • Human Services
  • Health & Life Science
  • Public Services

Career awareness education in 8th grade will support informed academy enrollments in 9th grade.

Facilities Plans

The Piper school board commissioned a facilities audit and community committee to study options for the growing district. In September, the board approved a January vote on a $64 million bond which will address deferred maintenance. A second bond for additional space will be considered in a few years.

Student Empowerment

Recognizing the need to empower diverse voices at Piper High, Jillian Collier, president of Black Leaders of America, wanted to create an event for Black students at Piper High School modeled on the annual Amplify conference for educators of color. After many conversations with her peers, the idea took shape as a half-day conference focusing on intersectionality, mental health, entrepreneurship, and scholarship essay writing. The conference, Accelerate: Empowering Students of Color for Success, took place October 1 at the Kauffman Conference Center. About 60 students from four high schools attended.

Dr. Dain’s leadership demonstrates how a small school district can come together–even in the middle of a health crisis–and innovate for equity.

Schools Alive With Possibility

Covid conditions (and politics) continue to preoccupy public schools in America. But four other trends (that also start with C) are emerging in K-12 education–trends that create hope and a sense of possibility.  

In the years leading up to and even in the midst of the pandemic, communities across the world adopted new learning goals that more fully express the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that contribute to purposeful citizenship.

The first international Survey of Social and Emotional Skills by the OECD said, “Social and emotional skills are an important developmental outcome in their own right. The ability of citizens to adapt, be resourceful, respect and work well with others, and to take personal and collective responsibility is increasingly becoming the hallmark of a well-functioning society. Skills such as cooperation, empathy, and tolerance are key for citizens and nations to achieve sustainable development goals and to effectively participate and contribute towards building democratic institutions.”

As CASEL advised, a growing number of systems are promoting social and emotional learning and attempting to track growth while avoiding using early measures in old accountability systems.  

Learning goals are increasingly informed by science-based whole child design principles which include rich learning experiences, developmental relationships, and integrated supports.  

One example of a region coming to community agreement on rich learning experiences is metro Kansas City, where the goal is for all 100,000 high school students to gain from community-connected projects, internships, and entrepreneurial experiences (see case study).  

On integrated supports, Highline Public Schools shares a promise: Every student is known by name, strength and need and graduates prepared for the future they choose.

Expressing whole child principles, Cajon Valley USD, serving diverse east San Diego County, has a mission of “Happy kids, healthy relationships, in a path to gainful employment.”

In ​​Redefining Student Success: Building a New Vision to Transform Leading, Teaching, and Learning, Ken Kay and Suzie Boss stress the importance of creative problem solving, inviting students to take on society’s greatest challenges while promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

Connected Learning

After revealing inequities, the pandemic accelerated connected learning–tech enabled blended learning with more take home devices and better access to broadband. And, while challenging during remote learning, interest in active learning–inquiry-driven, project-based, often community connected experiences–continued to grow.

In metro Kansas City, 75 high schools in 31 systems are adding more #RealWorldLearning including internships, community connected projects, entrepreneurial experiences (see case study).

The national CAPS Network is an affiliation of 123 school districts committed to professions based learning–real-world, project-based learning strategies through collaborations with business and community partners. They promote exploration and self discovery while developing professional skills and an entrepreneurial mindset.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation describes this trend as “authentic, challenging, active, and relevant learning experiences.” They note a growing body of research that points toward project-based learning as an important lever for young people to build agency, knowledge, and make faster and more sustainable academic progress.

In The Power of Place, we described these community connected learning strategies as learner centered, inquiry-based, interdisciplinary and incorporating community as classroom, design thinking, and local to global context.

Another connected learning trend is the growth in P-TECH— high schools that combine college credit opportunities, skill building, and tech work experience. The initiative, launched with support from IBM, now includes 210 US schools and more in 28 countries (see podcast).

Competency-Based & Credentialed Learning

The pandemic accelerated skills-based hiring. Major employers got smart about job requirements and, rather than degrees, became more explicit about skill requirements. Big tech  (in the most important and least appreciated advance in learning opportunity of the last few years) invested in learning pathways to develop critical skills. IBM, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce have all invested in upskilling pathways with the potential for high wage employment. Most of these pathways feature skills credentialing and, while primarily accessed informally, they are a sign of personalized competency-based learning.

The pandemic accelerated the great unbundling of learning, an explosion of resources, some open, some free, some assigned, some discovered. A few resources, like Khan Academy, offer badges to mark progress. Some school districts shared learner records with tutors in quickly assembled pathways.

A few school systems made progress this fall in meeting learners where they are and enabling them to progress on demonstrated mastery. A few more are developing mastery transcripts to help graduates more fully tell their story. Slowly and around the edges, the system is becoming less time bound, more personalized, more competency-based.

Contribution & Coauthoring

The great quit of 2021 was in part a search for more meaningful work. The pandemic caused a bit of a reconsideration of student work as well. A few more schools are inviting learners to engage in projects meaningful to them and their community.

One Stone in Boise, Iowa BIG in Cedar Rapids, and Watershed in Boulder are small schools setting big examples of engaging projects and empowering difference making.  

The EL Education schools put this spirit of “contribution to a better world” central to their outcome framework: putting their learning to use as active citizens, working for social justice, environmental stewardship, and healthy, equitable communities.

Schools in the Green Schools National Network strive to help “all students thrive as whole human beings and learn to steward the environments and communities.” They promote changemaking over test-taking

Carla Marschall is Director of Teaching & Learning at UWC South East Asia in Singapore where they enact a “pedagogy for people, planet, and prosperity to nurture students’ abilities to think critically with compassion, to explore alternative futures, and to take action to ensure their own, others, and the planet’s well-being.”  Her new book Worldwise Learning: A Teacher’s Guide to Shaping a Just, Sustainable Future, which is a guide focused on supporting K-8 learners in gaining a better understanding of how to be global citizens (see podcast).

Schools that promote connected learning and contribution invite learners to coauthor learning experiences and take ownership of their learning journey.

Slowly and around the edges, the system is becoming less time bound, more personalized, more competency-based.

Tom Vander Ark

“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 AASA’s Learning 2025 report.

Because they promote deeper integrated learning, the trends of connected learning and contribution complicate the trends of credentialed learning–and that’s a good tension. It is challenging to make mastery judgements about and credential the most important competencies. Embracing the tension between valuable learning and concise communication of capabilities is key to avoiding the reductive consequences of the NCLB era.

More school communities are adopting agreements on broader learning goals, more schools are offering coauthored and community-connected learning experiences and documenting them in

competency-based progressions. More schools are turning big questions into valuable learning experiences. In Difference Making, we called these “schools alive with possibility.”  

Care: A Love Story

By: Eric Tucker and Eva Dienel

It is not an understatement to say that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with schools, with each of us, for a long time. As an educator, I have seen firsthand how it has affected the Brooklyn LAB school community. We have experienced collective trauma, and we’ll need time to recover and heal.

But we’ll also need something else: We’ll need each other. More specifically: We’ll need to care for each other.

This is not something that always comes easily in America. Our education and health systems are not set up for it, and even our culture encourages people in need to deal with issues themselves; it’s up to us and usually our immediate family to cope with hard times.

This approach doesn’t work for anyone. We deserve, indeed need, a better way.

This school year, I have been reflecting: How can we, as educators, create more space and provide more support for care within our school community? How can we best advance the struggle for human dignity?

I held these questions recently when I learned about the experience of a colleague and friend of our school community: Paul O’Neill, an education attorney and passionate advocate for students who learn and develop differently, and his wife, Margaret—Mari to the many who know and love her—who has dedicated her life to caring for others.

Paul and Mari’s story has lessons for us all as we think about composing a future that makes possible the kind of care we need to heal and move forward.

It begins as a love story. Paul and Mari met at 14 through a Catholic youth organization in New Jersey, where Mari and Paul’s brother were the leads in a local production of The Sound of Music. Mari had a crush on Paul’s brother, but when Mari and Paul graduated from high school and ended up at the same community college, they started dating. They were 17.

Over the next few years, they pursued their own paths in higher education, even as they remained together as a couple: Paul earned his bachelor’s from Oberlin, and Mari, always an altruistic person, began studying gerontology, later switching to elementary education.

They got married in 1989, and Mari took a job as a Catholic school teacher, later switching to HR, and then briefly enrolling in a master’s program at Teachers College. By the time Paul finished law school, they had their first of three children, and Mari decided to stay at home with the kids, while continuing volunteer work in her community. She joined the Glen Ridge Volunteer Ambulance Squad, first driving the rig and then taking on an unpaid administrative role to organize other volunteers. She volunteered for a hospice center, helping people through the last days, weeks, and months of their life. On Sunday mornings, she cooked for people in need, getting the whole family involved to make big dinners of chicken and rice.

For his part, Paul, who never got the support he needed in school as a student with learning disabilities and ADHD, was drawn to become an education advocate. After law school, he pursued his master’s in education and became an expert in special education law.

Family has always been at the center of Mari and Paul’s lives. They are close with their three children, who are all adults now. Twice a year, Mari’s extended family, who are spread across the country, come together for what they call “Farrell Week” after her family’s surname. During these times, they revel in each other’s company. And when anyone experiences hardship, they pull each other closer.

When the pandemic hit, Paul and Mari naturally thought about their family and community. They thought about their son, who’s in school for a public health degree and moonlights as an EMT. And they thought about their daughter, working long hours as a lawyer in Manhattan.

In February 2020, around the time New York’s first coronavirus patient began to feel ill, Mari noticed a prickly sensation on her tongue. She pushed the feeling aside, thinking maybe she’d eaten too much lemon. There were more pressing things to focus on.

Within our communities, we hold the power of care, even as our systems fail us.

Eric Tucker and Eva Dienel

As the pandemic spread and public life began shutting down, Mari and Paul stayed connected with their family and community through a social distance. They distributed handmade masks sewed by a neighbor, leaving a donation that went to charity. They dropped off groceries and Easter baskets on the curb at 7th Avenue and 16th Street for their daughter.

And Mari continued her work for the food pantry, doing her part to help the estimated 42 million Americans who experienced food insecurity during the pandemic. She got everybody involved, tugging them by the ear if necessary. When Mari heard that an older woman in their community needed help getting food, she bought provisions for the woman every time she and Paul shopped for family groceries.

As spring turned to summer, the tingling on Mari’s tongue spread, progressing through her mouth and throat, making it difficult to speak and swallow. At first, doctors thought Mari might have a condition called dystonia, which manifests with involuntary muscle contractions. By July, they settled on a more ominous diagnosis: She has Bulbar onset ALS, a form of the disease that debilitates the body much faster than limb onset ALS.

Mari’s diagnosis has been devastating, and also, ever the caretaker, her first response was to think about how it might affect others. How could she put them on a path to take better care of themselves, and set the family up to be OK without her?

Paul is juggling a lot. In anticipation of Mari’s needs as her disease progresses, he organized a move to his childhood home, which has a more accessible layout. They moved just after Hurricane Ida, and both their old house and new one flooded. In preparing for Mari’s care, Paul learned that in New Jersey, where they live, Medicaid benefits are more limited and financially ruinous to access than they are in New York, which is achingly close. They learned about the costs of the bed Mari might need, and the round-the-clock care, and how little of it is covered by insurance. Family and friends set up a GoFundMe, to help with the potentially catastrophic expenses and share supportive messages.

Despite their hardships, Paul points out that his family is fortunate. They have a home, access to healthcare, and a strong community. But as someone who has both lived and professional experience with disability, Paul has seen how often America’s systems fail vulnerable people. He described the “smallness and the meanness and the narrowness of the structure that we consider to be the standard.”

He’s right, and that standard needs to change.

Whenever we have leaned most heavily on Paul’s support at Brooklyn LAB, it’s been during a moment of vulnerability. My team and I go to Paul because we need his guidance on how best to meet the needs of a student or family whose needs have not yet been appropriately met.

No matter how intractable the situation, Paul responds with the kind of empathy, compassion, and commitment to human dignity that come from a place of deep care. He asks, “Who deserves less than everything we can do for them?” That question captures why we are proud to have Paul as a member of our wider school community.

Paul and Mari’s story shows us the best of who we are as people and the worst of who we are as a society: Within our communities, we hold the power of care, even as our systems fail us. We need people like Mari, who provide a community safety net to care for and love people when they are in a vulnerable place. We also need to secure our social safety nets, including in education, to meet people’s basic human needs.

During the darkest moments of this pandemic, one lesson has stuck: At some point, we’ll all need care, we’ll all have the chance to provide care, and our systems alone are not enough.

If you have been inspired by Paul and Mari’s story, please consider contributing to their GoFundMe or honoring Mari’s lifelong dedication to caring by supporting someone in need in your school community.

Eva Dienel is a journalist, writer, editor, and communications professional with more than 20 years of experience telling stories that matter—stories with an environmental, social, or human focus that engage people in making the world a better place. She is also the co-creator of the storytelling project The Life I Want, about a future of work that works for all.

How to Co-Create Classroom Culture with Students

Students have the greatest stake in their education, but often have too little say in their own school experience. It’s critical that we authentically listen to students, especially in the current context of an ever-changing school environment.

The science of learning and development shows us that creating better conditions for learning and development must build from and leverage the assets and interests of young people as an inherent part of the educational experience.

We can work together with students to co-create supportive school and classroom environments that are physically, emotionally, and identity safe, while creating a strong sense of authentic community and belonging.

There are lots of ways to co-create a classroom community with students, and one key way is setting expectations, norms, and routines together. Too often, adults make most or all the choices for students, and try getting them on board through reinforcement, redirection, and consequences for those not complying with adults’ rules.

Instead, educators can co-create their classroom community with students and define together how they agree to act and interact and how to be accountable to each other.

This inclusive process goes against top-down, high-control models of classroom management educators often default to, especially in classrooms with Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Indigenous and students from other historically marginalized communities. It also challenges adults to think more deeply about the values, biases, and implicit and explicit expectations they bring into the classroom — and which students those are serving, and which they are not, and why.

By inviting students to collectively shape their own classroom community, educators can set the stage for real safety and belonging.

This inclusive process goes against top-down, high-control models of classroom management educators often default to, especially in classrooms with Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Indigenous and students from other historically marginalized communities.

Turnaround for Children

Tools to Co-Create Expectations, Norms, and Routines with Students

The Turnaround for Children Toolbox includes resources to help educators get started in co-creating classroom expectations, norms, and routines with students:

Educator Reflection: Personal and Community Values
The purpose of this tool is for educators to reflect on how their own values (shaped by their identity, culture, and experiences) show up in their classroom and school, in order to create more inclusive and equitable learning environments.

Norms and Expectations Planner
This tool provides guidance and sample strategies for developing school or classroom norms and expectations, with an emphasis on co-creation, shared power between students and adults, and acknowledging and affirming diverse cultural values and perspectives. This process lays the foundation for a sense of safety and belonging.

Co-Regulating Routines Planner
This tool is meant to guide educators to create consistent and predictable routines that are co-regulating and create a sense of safety, while upholding norms and supporting student skill development and autonomy.

We can ignite learning by shifting the balance of power toward students, affirming their identities, and recognizing them as active agents within the learning process.

This post was originally published on tunaroundusa.org.

Learning, Lost & Found: 4 Things To Do To Make School Worth It This Year

By: Aleta Margolis

As we navigate the first months of this challenging school year, teachers, parents, and school and district leaders across the country are laser-focused on risk mitigation. The news is packed with stories about mask and vaccine mandates, Covid testing policies, constantly shifting quarantine guidelines, and other actions we’re taking in a fervent attempt to minimize the risks of convening students and teachers together in person.

There’s another risk looming large; and it’s one we can eliminate: the risk that we overlook the huge opportunity in front of us to reimagine and improve the school experience. Of particular concern is the likelihood that we turn to expedient approaches to teaching that cram information into students as quickly as possible, and end up draining their motivation to learn.

We can eliminate this risk by prioritizing engaging, high-quality teaching and learning, even now, especially now.

Here are 4 things teachers and parents can do to make school a place where students and teachers can thrive. These insights reflect the input of thousands of preK-12 teachers and students who have participated in Inspired Teaching’s virtual programming over the past 18 months:

1. Collect meaningful data – on learning lost, and found.

Academic assessments of content knowledge matter; but we’ll make better decisions if we also collect data from the students themselves. Before reaching for academic goals, we need to gather information about what students have experienced during this pandemic. This includes students who thrived online (What do you know now about yourself as a learner?) and those who struggled (What advice do you have for me, your teacher, to help me support you best?). Across the country we’re seeing evidence of the emotional toll the pandemic and disrupted learning has taken on our students, and our teachers. It is especially important to find opportunities to listen to and learn from students who have experienced loss or other trauma during this difficult year, and for teachers and parents to keep one another informed as they learn about the needs of the young people in their care. Student and teacher input based on their lived experience is important data, and we should take it seriously.

2. Prioritize relationship building.

Even though we’ve been in school for a few months, it’s important to keep dedicating time to getting to know one another. We are all relearning how to co-exist socially and that takes time. Additionally, parents who had a front seat to their children’s education last year are suddenly back in the dark. So reaching out to nurture those relationships is important too. Let’s support teachers, and ensure they have the time and strategies to strengthen relationships with their students and with the parents and guardians whose living rooms and kitchens were their classrooms last year.

Let’s support teachers, and ensure they have the time and strategies to strengthen relationships with their students and with the parents and guardians whose living rooms and kitchens were their classrooms last year.

Aleta Margolis

3. Support student agency.

For the past 20 months, my colleagues and I have met regularly online with public, public charter, and independent school students for student-led seminars in which young people build critical media literacy as they discuss and debate current issues. Topics have included police reform, voter suppression, cancel culture, and colorism. Though they missed their friends and teachers, our students showed consistent growth, independent of school. They became experts in their own personal curricula – studying the ways police officers are trained and disciplined, interviewing family members about the first time they voted in an election, and analyzing ad campaigns of clothing companies that claim to promote diversity – because they had the time and flexibility to follow their own intellectual curiosity. In order for school to feel relevant for young people, students need to be in the driver’s seat.  

4. Hold space for imagination and play.

When we panic about “making up for lost learning,” the instinct is to double down on worksheets and lectures in order to cram in as much information as possible. That approach kills student engagement and offers minimal long-term benefits. Instead, let’s grow readers, writers, mathematicians, artists, historians, and scientists by offering students meaningful work, and asking them great questions. “How do virologists use chemistry to create and test vaccines?” “How do journalists use storytelling to explain the magnitude of a flood in New Jersey or an evacuation in Afghanistan?” “How is mathematics helping engineers repair the Washington Monument after this summer’s lightning strike?” These kinds of questions, and the investigations they’ll spark, are the way to ignite student motivation and learning.

Renowned author and education innovation advocate Ted Dintersmith recently said in a keynote at the Imagine If Conference, “That door to imagination that was wide open when that child was 4 is nailed shut by the time they’re 15…And yet, somehow on graduation day, we expect kids to suddenly remember that they have these powerful imaginations, and that is the tragedy of education systems. It’s what we need to get past, but it’s also the opportunity.”

As we continue to pour resources into risk mitigation, let’s commit to eliminating the risk of returning to old-school practices that put students in a passive, information-recipient role. Let’s use this unique moment in time to pry the door to imagination open once and for all, and ensure that, even in the midst of the fraught and complicated task of teaching and learning during a pandemic, we build agency and nurture imagination and critical thinking. Those are the things that fuel learning, which is what we come to school to do.

Aleta Margolis is the founder and president of Center for Inspired Teaching, an organization dedicated to transforming the school experience for students from compliance-based to engagement-based, through professional learning and resources, including the recently published Making School Worth It Toolkit. Margolis is a former public school teacher and professor of education and is the creator of the blog Hooray For Monday. She is an Ashoka Fellow who is committed to investing in teachers. Contact Margolis at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @inspireteach.

Collaborative Conversations to Shephard Communities Forward, Together

A school system divided cannot stand. America’s school systems are back in session, mostly in person, in the continued era of pandemic schooling. Even though most systems are returning in a way similar to pre-pandemic “normalcy”, this is the moment for communities to engage in conversation about whether or not schools are actually serving young people and valuing them effectively. When the context and the needs change, innovative systems adapt. When businesses fail to do this, they close. When our learning systems don’t adapt, the learners themselves pay the cost and this then transfers to our communities and our economies.

With an insistence from federal and state leaders to ensure in-person learning for students this year, many of the status quo institutional pieces are back in place, but we have a renewed commitment to learners and their families. Every action we take toward redesigning and creating now will benefit the learning systems of the future. These actions will put every learner’s needs at the forefront and at the core of learning design. If we want all of our students to get out of this pandemic ready to succeed; schools, families, and community partners will need to work together for all of our children.

School leaders can take on this responsibility for engagement by creating circumstances of listening, learning, collaborating, and strategizing. Many school systems proclaim the need for students to be able to think critically and communicate effectively. Therefore, systems must model this ability and be the elders our future generations need to find and name the common good and work towards it, collectively. Our learning systems can often be the start of a journey, but it is certainly not the end. Our promise as educators is for learners to leave with agency, vision, and the belief that they can and will shape their future.

Every action we take toward redesigning and creating now will benefit the learning systems of the future.

Rebecca Midles and Kelly Niccolls

Focused Listening Circles

Build trust by staying open to diverse ideas and feedback. Create opportunities and structures to listen, learn, and build a better community understanding. Many of our communities have experienced trauma. Listening and becoming more aware of our communities is the first step toward healing.

Inform, Listen, Learn. Design and deliver a “Roadshow” to build understanding, to listen, to respond, and to later incorporate this into a coauthoring of the path forward with stakeholder input.

Build Trust. Stay in a listening disposition and create transparent communication strategies and then over-communicate events, and share outcomes:

  • Provide opportunities to build background knowledge and understanding for suggested changes and surface tensions.
  • Consider training community leaders to facilitate and to help collate the feedback. Read more about this process in Mesa County School District 51.
  • Intentionally invite voices that need to be heard and will be a large part of the work, your teachers. Gather collective feedback. Share and report this feedback.

Collective Action Committees

Collective action committees come together with the direct purpose of action. Collective action committees come together with a clear and direct purpose of action, this is not an effort to collect feedback that defaults to the systems leader, this is about action. CACs are effective at the return on investment analysis, cost-benefit analysis, and can serve as a task force for outcomes based on other stakeholder group designs, discussions, and feedback data.

Codesigning Equitable Paths Forward. Establishing committees explicitly to get things done is an efficient way to recruit a team wanting to get to outcomes and centers opportunities for training and capacity building on actionability:

  • Codesign actionable steps in response to listening circles and build community consensus and a set of common agreements.
  • Consider co-chairing instructional design work around learning models to co-select workgroups and review. Learn more from the perspective of a Teacher Association president.
  • Respond to and incorporate feedback. Highlight where this feedback influenced courses of action or changes.
  • Read more about this process in the Journeys to Personalized Learning, a case study from FSG.

Student Facilitated Focus Groups

When communities come together, in the interest of what is best for kids, and kids are leading that conversation, it keeps the work focused by and with the people we care most about- our students. Some communities will require intentional time and continued space for healing the unique and compounded scars inflicted over time. System Leaders must nurture healing practices and include bridge-building events and activities into their community engagement.

Students As The Leads. Students should be at the helm of developing focus group learning, facilitating focus group discussions, and being key analysts for focus group feedback will help legitimize findings and build trust quicker in the process and next steps from that data. Great examples of this can be found on the OneStone site where you can learn more about the different labs and support available to build and support learner’s voices.

Bridge Building Events

Trust building and community building are imperative for sensitive change work. There are communities that have generational experiences of distrust and harm from schools and school systems. Provide opportunities for students, families, school staff, and community partners to come together without key tasks, but rather ways to build context and learn about each other develops trust among key stakeholders. Ideas for bridge building events:

  • Student learning exhibitions & showcases;
  • Community gatherings in honor of student success, meeting goals, the start of the year, mid-year, end of year benchmarks, etc.;
  • Annual events in honor of legacy partners and/or community traditions;
  • Hosting committee retreats and encouraging small groups to attend retreats to build capacity and trust.
  • Our students know their needs and their wants, and they are creative thinkers! They are also, with quality training and experience, excellent facilitators of learning conversations and dialogues.

Design Thinking

A generative process with collective insight is a change of energy that can shift a sense of being powerless. This process is creative, expansive, and fun! It is also concentrated in a process that centers on understanding a problem that needs to be solved and incorporating multiple stakeholders to inform and design solutions.

  • dSchool at Stanford facilitates training on a variety of topics that can utilize design thinking for creative solutions and possibilities to improve.
  • Liberatory Design focuses on design principles centered on inequitable practices and outcomes.

School systems set the future of communities. We ask hundreds of students to share space, be vulnerable, work through conflict, and share in celebrations and challenges together every day in a school setting. If our young people can create communities that learn alongside, no matter their context and differences, then our education system leaders must be able to model and facilitate the same abilities. This also requires the intentional design of community building with active participants, partner stakeholders, parents, students, and representative staff. When our communities are isolated and people/positions are targeted, and voices rise that are not part of the learning community, or seeking the best for those in the community, then those systems will stay fractured.

Collective efforts with representative views will weave the repair necessary of current divisions. When learning communities see each other, know each other and care for each other, authentically, for who they are, they can commit to the best interest in an informed and inspired way.

Creating a Culture of Trust In Your Classroom: The Twin Pillars of Authenticity and Vulnerability

By: Aaron Schorn

Ō hele, aia nō ka ʻai a me ka iʻa.
Go, the sustenance you need lies ahead
–Pele to her sister Hiʻiaka

Living into our values means that we do more than profess our values, we practice them. We walk our talk — we are clear about what we believe and hold important, and we take care that our intentions, words, thoughts, and behaviors align with those beliefs.
–Brene Brown

In March 2021, out in the deep ocean off the coast of Hawai’i Island, students in Kumu Pualani (Pua) Lincoln Maielua’s Migrations of Moananuiākea Capstone class float in a circle, treading water. It’s as if a Harkness Table appears from the ocean depths. The group shares, one by one, the most impactful moments they have had out on the water for the past four days as they learn to steer and navigate a traditional Hawaiian canoe. Each learner speaks with joy and reverence, reflecting on how this voyage impacts and illuminates their own individual Capstone projects. Each learner reflects on how their unique skills and capacities allow them to succeed out on the water and also in the classroom.

Modeling Authenticity and Your Connection to the Class 

Without rooting authenticity in pedagogy, curriculum, class culture, and lesson plans, the story highlighted above is not possible. The starting place for all of this is the teacher. Kumu Pua reflects, “It always starts with yourself as a teacher, be grounded in who you are and what you do. Put yourself out there, share elements of yourself with your class.” Explaining and showcasing personal connection to the lesson, content, skills, and capacities that define a class/program is an entry point for a teacher. Sharing out a personal story, and leaning into the values of vulnerability and trust, acts as a model for students, and proves that teachers are willing to do what they are asking students to do in the class; that they will put in the work. Kumu Pua’s mission at the start of each school year is to create moments where her students see her personal connection to what she is sharing with them. She models her connection to the content through authentic storytelling. When teachers do this, it enables students to see relevance and relatability in the lesson and content, and in Pua’s words to “interweave their own stories into those moments as well, while starting to see themselves in the content and skill development.” By demonstrating her authentic connection to not only the content but to the journey the class will embark on together, she displays her passion, vulnerability, and the trust she has for them, creating a shared culture that comes alive.

Our Student’s Origin Stories

When asked about that moment out in the ocean, Kumu Pua laughs, “The first thing I think about is safety and training, then I think about the emotions of that moment. The magic of that moment only happens because of all the work and training we put in beforehand; physical, mental, and emotional. This moment, circled up out in the water, became their most authentic presentation and assessment.” So, how do you build out this culture and community of trust? For Kumu Pua, she wants her students to explore and start to understand where they come from – their family, culture, skills, dreams, drive, and passions. She starts the year by having students explore their genealogy, ancestry, and the people that are key stakeholders in their lives. She wants them to understand that what they aspire to be is a reflection of who they are and where they come from. The students then look within themselves, engaging in a process of self-exploration and examining the ways they can contribute to their community. The goal here is for students to understand that their life experiences, their origin stories, their unique skills and capacities, can then be used to impact the classroom, their school, and the world. Now it’s your turn:

  1. Start with a name. Have everyone explain the meanings and stories behind their first, middle, and last names. Use this as a springboard for the cohort to understand who they are working and collaborating with. Model the activity with your own name, sharing and adding a story.
  2. Get out some big sheets of paper. An ideation and culture activity that Kumu Pua has masterfully made her own, optimizing it for her classes, is called Head, Heart and Purpose (inspired by an Echoing Green curricular activity). Take this basic template and optimize it for your class and cohort of learners. Update it to reflect the goals of your class and the learners you are partnering with. Have students take photos of their sheets of paper for reference throughout the year.

It always starts with yourself as a teacher, be grounded in who you are and what you do. Put yourself out there, share elements of yourself with your class.

Kumu Pua

Importance of External Mentors

Fostering confidence and a sense of belonging in students empowers them to be their authentic selves. When students see themselves represented in the work and goals of the class, there is relevance and new found purpose. By partnering students with mentors outside of the normal structures of school, teachers can demonstrate to students that they are worthy of investment, and that someone who is not paid to teach them finds this collaboration important. This also makes the work and skill development authentic and real. A subject matter expert mentor can provide insight into student work that is timely, and allows students a glimpse into the area of the professional world that these mentors engage in. Kumu Pua reflects, “Students need to have diverse examples of adulting in their life, diverse examples of inspired passionate professionals in their life, and if you have an array of people to connect with, it allows them to bloom, and to have more models of collaboration and people who serve their community. Gaining this mentorship from other adults inspires and empowers them to be a mentor for their fellow classmates and others in the world.”

Authenticity and Thoughtful Learning Experiences Matter

Authenticity has to be at the core of all of our movements as educators because of what is happening in the world on a global scale. Students need to feel like they can own who they are, and they need a network of other people embarking on the same journey. Kumu Pua states, “The rigor of authenticity is what we need to survive this moment and that’s what is going to change the world and empower everybody in all walks of life.”

A Vision for Transformative Education

By: Carla Marschall and Elizabeth Crawford

Excerpt from Worldwise Learning: A Teacher’s Guide to Shaping a Just, Sustainable Future (2021, Corwin)

Today, globalization has furthered interconnectedness on our planet, often with catastrophic impacts: climate change, food and water insecurity, extreme poverty, and now a global pandemic. Warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification are leading to a whole host of issues such as flooding, extreme weather, and biodiversity loss (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2021). By 2050, the world’s population is expected to reach nearly 10 billion people, limiting the Earth’s capacity to produce adequate food, space, and other resources (UN Environment Programme, 2020). Such far-reaching issues cannot be solved by a single individual or even a single country. Global challenges can only be improved together, through communication, cooperation and commitment. They also call for an innovative approach to education that prepares students as knowledgeable, compassionate, and engaged global citizens (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 2014).

Competency Swiss Army knife
Competency Swiss Army Knife: From Worldwise Learning

Worldwise Learning presents a vision for transformative education, one that allows us to collectively rise from the ashes of trauma and loss caused by recent events. It unpacks what it means to educate in the context of our complex world. While recognizing that globalization has in many cases increased levels of inequality, promoted consumption, and made dominant voices louder, our aim is to consider how we can co-construct humane, democratic classrooms within this context. Learning encourages children to seek solutions to problems they face. Learning that fosters students’ emotional connection, personal well-being, and reverence for the natural world. Learning that demands students participate actively in their communities. Such learning matters. It is authentic, purposeful, relevant, and engaging. It builds and improves neighborhoods. It prepares learners to navigate an unknown future. Through such teaching, we communicate a key message: to learn is to hope. Learning is a light, which can guide us through times of darkness.

Global Competence: Transforming Learning to Action

Despite the challenges communities face today, education can empower children and youth to find practical, scalable solutions that balance human needs with the needs of the environment. When we ask students to meaningfully apply their learning to complex issues, global competence emerges. The mobilization of learning to meet complex demands (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2018b), competency bridges the gap between student learning and student action. We can think of a competency like a Swiss Army knife. Faced with a particular novel or complex context, we can draw from our knowledge, skills, understandings, and dispositions like a set of tools that can be combined for a purpose. Cooking dinner at the campsite? Get out your can opener, knife, and corkscrew. Fixing the tent? Use your screwdriver, pliers, and wood saw. And as we know from camping, they’re very handy to have in your back pocket.

Worldwise Learning presents a vision for transformative education, one that allows us to collectively rise from the ashes of trauma and loss caused by recent events. It unpacks what it means to educate in the context of our complex world.

Carla Marschall & Elizabeth Crawford

Pedagogy for People, Planet, and Prosperity

In this book, we propose a Pedagogy for People, Planet, and Prosperity to nurture students’ abilities to think critically with compassion, to explore alternative futures, and to take action to ensure their own, others, and the planet’s well-being. Simply stated: to make decisions that support a just, peaceful, and sustainable future. When we hear the word sustainability, particular stereotypical images may spring to mind: recycling bins, solar panels, organic fruits, and vegetables. Yet our understanding of teaching for a sustainable future has transformed. Hedefalk, Almqvist, and Östman (2015) describe this shift saying: 

“[It] has evolved from teaching children facts about the environment and sustainability issues to educating children to act for change. This new approach reveals a more competent child who can think for him- or herself and make well-considered decisions. The decisions are made by investigating and participating in critical discussions about alternative ways of acting for change (Extract from Abstract).”

When engaged as critical thinkers and conscientious citizens, students engage in sustainable development to “[meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 15). Economic prosperity is necessary for communities to thrive. However, our students must understand that growth must balance planetary impacts, the protection of human rights, and individual and collective well-being. It is only by bringing together these three pillars—people, planet, and prosperity—that we can create a sustainable future that benefits all.

Achieving such a vision requires a different kind of learning. If global competence is the versatile application of learning to navigate complex issues, students need to be presented with rich learning experiences that require them to problem-solve. They need to be nudged into that territory, where they feel challenged to use their learning with adaptability. Such learning nurtures students’ holistic well-being, peaceful relationships with others, and appreciation for nature. In other words, simply understanding an issue is not enough. We want learners to feel genuine concern and love for the world around them. We want learners to view themselves as capable and competent in affecting positive, long-lasting change. We want them to live their learning with intention and purpose. Such students are hopeful, instead of despondent. They understand that individual actions do indeed make a difference. We call these students Worldwise Learners.

Carla Marschall is an experienced educator, curriculum developer, and pedagogical leader, who has worked in a variety of leadership roles in international schools in Switzerland, Germany, Hong Kong, and Singapore over the past ten years. She currently works as the Director of Teaching & Learning at UWC South East Asia, with the mission to make “education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.”

Elizabeth O. Crawford is a teacher educator, author, researcher, and curriculum designer specializing in global education. She has taught in a variety of school contexts, including elementary and middle schools in France and the United States. Currently an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Elizabeth supports educators as they nurture in students a sense of empathy, responsibility, and concern for self, others, and the environment.