Can a simple classroom redesign inspire student achievement?

Imagine a 5th grade classroom in the middle of a lesson. What do you see: charts, letters, and drawings on the wall? A teacher writing notes on a large chalk or white board at the front of the room? Rows of desks and chairs, which face a single direction? Maybe you imagined small bookshelves, an American flag, or other supplies. It’s likely we formed the same, all too familiar image in our mind.

This has been the traditional classroom for decades. Any generation could walk into a room and immediately identify it as a classroom.

At South Carolina’s Saluda Trail Middle School, my room has evolved from this stagnant design to one of innovation. It’s flexible. It’s colorful. It’s engaging.

Active is Yielding Results

Students don’t just sit facing the front of the room in immovable rows and columns. They roll around into small groups, interacting face-to-face while collaborating with their classmates and me, their teacher. The chairs detach from the desks and the tables tilt up and down to accommodate the use of new tools, like interactive white boards and handheld technology.

Rolling chairs are an essential part of Steelcase Active Learning centers. Here, students gather around teacher, Julie Marshall for a lesson.

This is my active learning center, no longer the traditional classroom we remember. I’ve been teaching for more than three decades and my students are achieving at unprecedented levels. It’s clear the active learning center is yielding record results and having a remarkable impact on my students’ success.

Ours was one of only a few dozen schools awarded similar classroom overhauls through the Steelcase Education Active Learning Center Grant Program. My Saluda Trail 7th graders began class in the new room in 2016, and I have seen growth in three targeted areas:

  • Completed assignments increased from 52 percent the previous year to 98 percent.
  • End-of-year grades increased for 95 percent of the students, up from 81 percent who showed improved grades from the previous year.
  • Growth targets for reading almost doubled, growing to 62 percent, up from 35 percent among my previous years’ students.

The data shows this room is making a difference, but it goes beyond the measurable results.

(Next page: How this classroom redesign success goes beyond test scores)


3 ways to get school services running smoothly after summer—quickly

Imagine it’s the beginning of the school year. School staff are getting ready for students to arrive, but the summer was long. Staff has forgotten passwords, printers are suddenly not working and your service and help desks can’t process all the incoming calls—not because you’re understaffed, but because your service management technology isn’t working for you.

How do you get your services back on track? The District School Board of Niagara found the answer through the implementation of a new IT service management solution from TOPdesk.

To better understand the task, the District School Board of Niagara employs almost 3,000 teachers and more than 1,300 support staff. It operates 79 elementary schools and 20 secondary schools in the 12 municipalities of the Niagara region. The district serves more than 36,000 students from Kindergarten through grade 12.

To ensure student success across the district, all systems must run smoothly, including IT service management. Every day the service desk receives calls about password resets, printer issues, faulty Wi-Fi, new phones or software installations.

1. Automation = Communication

“The solution we were using required constant customization and code changes,” said Derek Galipeau, supervisor of technical services and support. The solution also wasn’t easy or efficient to use. During the district’s busiest times at the beginning of each school year, the service desk team had to regularly bring in a temporary employee just to handle extra calls from staff seeking support.

Automation also was lacking. “The old system was powered by email,” said Galipeau. “We couldn’t rely on technology to streamline services, log requests, communicate with users and track the progress of calls.”

The service desk staff also was answering the same problems over and over again, for caller after caller. This cost the district time and money. With these issues, the district looked for a solution to meet its service desk’s needs. Service desk leaders wanted an out-of-the-box service management solution with very little customization required.

The district implemented its ITSM solution in the summer of 2016, weeks prior to the district’s busy season in September. It took just six days to implement, and the solution went live just a day before school started.

(Next page: 2 more service management musts to help IT beat post-summer headaches)


4 ways to update critical thinking skills for a massively digital world

Faced with a flood of information, we are challenged to evaluate and make sense of what we see and read, especially in the digital world. Parents, students, educators, and employers all have a stake in meeting this challenge through the use of critical thinking skills. It is vital that people develop the ability to analyze the information they encounter online and assess whether they can trust the sources behind the content.

But how can these important skills be taught and strengthened? Based on my own experiences teaching both high school and college students, here are four suggestions on how critical thinking skills can be taught in the digital age:

1. Explain the Benefits of Critical Thinking

Educators and parents should begin by highlighting the positive impact of critical thinking. These are skills people use all the time to help make important personal decisions. Critical thinking helps us make decisions about our education and career paths, to consider our short- and long-term goals and how we wish to go about achieving them. And it can improve our civic choices, helping us unpack information about ballot issues and decide which candidate to vote for.

Strong critical thinking skills also make us more informed consumers of online content. Anybody with an internet connection can express his or her perspectives by commenting on a news story, “liking” a photograph posted to a social media site or sharing something they’ve found online.

By using critical thinking, we can break down arguments and claims found online and reject the ones that do not stand up to scrutiny.

2. Break Down the Critical Thinking Process

To make the critical thinking process seem less intimidating, educators and parents can break it down into four simple steps: identify the issue, identify the evidence, follow and vet the evidence and reach and communicate a decision. Even the most complex problems can be solved with a combination of good research and common sense.

For example, imagine that you encounter a Facebook post by a celebrity that decries the lack of gun control reform in the wake of a series of deadly school shootings. Before deciding whether to “like” or share this post, one can use the critical thinking process to analyze the validity of the celebrity’s argument.

Once you have identified the issue (lack of gun control reform), you still need to consider any evidence that would support the celebrity’s viewpoint and then follow that evidence to evaluate its credibility before reaching a conclusion. The response to the original post—“liking” it, sharing it or ignoring it—should come as a result of critical thinking.

(Next page: 2 more ways to update critical thinking skills for a digital world)


App of the Week: Customizable games for spelling

Ed. note: App of the Week picks are now being curated by the editors of Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Click here to read the full app review.

What’s It Like? 

Sight Words – An early reading & spelling adventure! is an early reading app that helps students learn 320 sight words. Learning happens through several activities, include a reading game that has students pop a balloon holding a target word and a writing game where students guide a bear through a maze to collect letters in the correct order. There’s also a hide-and-seek game with a host kangaroo that offers a playful context for discovering words.

Price: $1.99

Grades: Pre-K-3

Rating: 4/5

Pros: Customizable options make it easy to up the relevancy factor for students.

Cons: Not much in game help for students who need some extra support.

Bottom line: A variety of kid-friendly activities gives students lots of exposure to and practice with commonly used sight words.


3 must-have skills for today’s librarians

Districts nationwide are looking for new and innovative ways to provide training and resources for their staff, all while keeping within a limited budget. What many administrators fail to notice is that their greatest asset is already in their building.

It’s the 21st century, and school librarians are no longer just “the keepers of the books.” Librarians and media specialists are highly trained, highly versatile staff members, whose scope of responsibilities spans all students and all subjects.

I represent library media specialists at the district level. This means that I am in charge of maintaining a district media committee for vetting district-provided digital resources, and I am also responsible for the professional development for our school librarians.

As the first certified library media specialist at the district level in this system, I have been busy building a strong standard of practice for our librarians. We embrace a train-the-trainer model when adopting new technologies or programs, so I make sure that our librarians have the training they need to not only implement these innovations, but to share them with their teachers.

I want our school librarians to be seen as experts in new tools and resources, so I teach all of them these three essential skills:

technology school

1) How to Introduce New Technology

During monthly department meetings, we spend time discussing how to implement new tools and technologies into our schools. We hear from each other about best practices, new ideas, and about what is working—and what isn’t.

The library veterans are getting this same information, but they are also given opportunities to pilot new programs and make recommendations. They advise me on policy and procedures, and provide their professional opinions as “experts on the ground.”

I often engage in PD that asks all media staff to stretch their thinking about what libraries do, the impact they can make, and how to expand their personal learning networks to grow and adapt with this quickly changing landscape.

The school librarian is no longer just the manager of a room full of books, but a resource and technology expert, reading teacher, curriculum designer, program administrator, professional development coordinator, information literacy teacher, and a school leader with a finger on the pulse of every classroom. A good librarian knows who is doing what in each grade level and subject area, and is ready with strategies, resources, and tools to help teachers make a deeper impact with their students.

Today’s school librarian is an active, integrated educator who knows how to teach, but also how to design quality programs, collect data on those programs, and assess student learning. Just like the classroom teacher, the school librarian has to hit the ground running every single day and make a conscious effort to stay connected to trends and issues.

(Next page: 2 more skills for today’s librarians)


Why coding needs a stronger emphasis in every school

If you have been to an educational technology conference in the last 5 years, you have seen more and more emphasis placed on coding and robotics with robots making an appearance in conference sessions, at after hour gatherings, and certainly in the vendor hall. This is simply a reflection of what is happening in the private sector.

In 2015, it was reported that there was $71 billion spent globally on robotic applications, a figure that is expected to more than double by 2019. Europe is already adjusting its curriculum to include robots both as a teaching tools and as a technology for students to study, but why?

By 2018, it is estimated that 71 percent of new STEM positions will be related to computing; it is apparent that computer science is the future of the job market.

Data source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Projections 2008-2018.

According to a Gallup survey, one-half of K-12 principals say that computer science is taught at their school, but upon evaluation of the courses, only one-half of those courses include programming and coding. There are already more job openings than there are qualified people to fill the positions. If we continue to neglect teaching computer science, it is projected that in the next decade there will be about 1 million more U.S. jobs in the tech sector than computer science graduates to fill them.

For the opportunity to have future financial stability alone, students should have the opportunity to learn principles of computer science early. Couple that with’s assertion that programming fosters critical thinking, logic, persistence, and creativity which helps students excel at problem-solving in all subject areas and you have a case for coding in the classroom.

So, how is coding included in the traditional school day? At some schools, programming and coding is taught through technology classes, but this is not always the case. Coding and robotics can be incorporated into content areas quite easily from sequencing activities in ELA and social studies to writing algorithms in math class as in this ClassFlow lesson, it is possible to use robots to identify misconceptions and enhance understanding as students apply subject-specific knowledge through authentic tasks.

As you can see, the benefits of coding and programming are significant, and they can be integrated into schools easily. Including coding in curriculum will help give students the real-world skills they will need to thrive in the future.