How our district connects learning to the real world

Efforts to equip students for college and career readiness are beginning earlier and earlier in the classroom. A 2015 Gallup poll of one million students in the U.S. found that only half reported feeling engaged in school, and one-fifth feel actively disengaged. These statistics show a disconcerting lapse among curriculum, students, and the reasoning behind why we teach what we teach.

Fortunately, many districts are making moves toward building connections in the classroom, showing students real-world applications of lesson plans. For my K-8 media arts and technology students, I focus on skills such as computational thinking to display how what they are learning now can help them in a future career. This skill can be applied to any subject, with the most important part being that we are exposing students to a variety of critical-thinking methods and showing the application across subjects and job industries.

By encouraging students to explore careers, we inspire and empower them to choose their own path. Bringing awareness to careers and showing how STEM plays a part across the spectrum is crucial to gaining and retaining student interest while teaching these lessons.

Connect students with professionals
Educators can spur student interest in different career paths through a variety of resources and activities. In my district, we use Ignite My Future in School, which helps inspire students through computational thinking. The program features unique career vignettes that highlight diverse and dynamic people who have launched careers in computer science, design thinking, and more through their passion for STEM, an interest that was ignited during their school years.

It’s incredibly valuable to connect with professionals and introduce them to students. There is an ‘aha!’ moment that occurs when students realize that what they are learning now can be used in a career later on. Students see these specialists as mentors who can share real-world advice on careers, industries, and more.

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10 things I learned flipping my classroom

In the spring of 2013, after attending several conferences and beginning research for my dissertation, I set out to flip some of the aspects of my classroom. The term “flipping your classroom,” coined by Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams more than a decade ago, has become a flexible term used to describe a number of different teaching techniques for turning instruction on its head. After five years, three grade levels, hundreds of students, and a lot of trial and error, here are 10 takeaways from my experiences flipping my classroom.

1. The title is misleading
The concept of flipping the classroom originally referred to the time and place of homework versus direct instruction. Rather than watch a lecture in class and complete homework at home, students would watch a video lecture at home and do the “homework” in class. While that might be interesting for a while, it does not really change much. Students are still learning via direct instruction, still having to work outside of school on their own time, and still receiving virtually the same pedagogy. To me, and many others, flipping is more about flipping the focus of the classroom from the teacher to the student. Once that has become your primary objective, everything else can follow.

2. Question everything
Schools hold many things sacrosanct—whether they’re mandated by districts or just a part of the student-and-teacher expectation. When I committed to flipping, I realized that it would only work if I were prepared to question everything. Things like late policies (“If it’s not in by Tuesday, it’s a zero”) and homework, and even traditional planning, all had to be brought into question. Students needed the flexibility to redo assignments if needed, turn in work a day or two late if life got in the way, and even have the option to work ahead or design their own projects.

3. Flipping the grading
One technique I have used in my classroom for years now is based on Bloom’s concept of Mastery Grading, as well as video-game leveling. Traditional grades are designed to be easy for the teacher and to mimic quality-assurance spreadsheets. Students begin at 100 percent and are gradually whittled down to their deserved score when, in reality, the opposite is true: Students build knowledge as they go.

In my class, students start at 0 and earn “Experience Points” by successfully completing each assignment until they ultimately reach their goal. If they fail to meet expectations on an assignment, they are not permanently punished for the nine weeks, but are able to fix their mistakes and resubmit, much like one might do on a level of Angry Birds or Candy Crush. This mastery-grading approach lets kids control their final assessment, rather than its being dictated by means, averages, and spreadsheets.

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2 crucial lessons to help your district manage change

There are a number of old sayings about learning to understand another by walking in their shoes, moccasins, or sandals. Since those sayings cross quite a few cultures and were even turned into an Elvis Presley song—“Walk a Mile in My Shoes”—maybe edtech leaders need to consider the concept behind the saying. When IT leaders make decisions regarding changes to systems, it is essential to consider the perspectives of the end users.

When I was an IT manager, the concept of change management was essential in determining when we would propagate upgrades or shifts to new systems. The migration from installed software to web-based applications like Google Apps and Word 365 have taken much of that control away from local IT leaders. However, the concepts behind orderly and thoughtful change management are still important and need to be given due consideration by IT leadership.

Timing is everything
For instance, when making changes to enhance security that may require two-step authentication, consider the best time to implement such a change. Most users will understand the need for enhanced security in today’s cyber-climate. Instituting a change that may separate a number of users from their materials would be best implemented at the beginning of a semester or over a summer break. Instituting such a change the Friday before finals week would be a poor choice and create undue hardship for users and the IT support staff who will have to deal with staff more panicked than normal when locked out of their accounts. Historically, we upgraded end-user software packages only during the summer or, if absolutely necessary, during winter break. We always believed that gave the staff and students the best opportunity to adjust to the new versions of the software.

When I received pushback on waiting to make such a change from another IT manager, he said, “I have to deal with new upgrades and changes to the systems all the time! Why can’t the end users deal with it?” I responded that we were IT professionals and used to the inherent fluidity of the IT world; many of our end users are not as comfortable with change and feel high levels of anxiety in making changes midway through their courses.

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Teacher training does wonders for students’ emotional regulation

When teachers participated in a training program focused on pro-social classroom behavior, their students became more socially competent and better able to regulate their emotions than students in classrooms without trained teachers, according to new research from the University of Missouri (MU).

Past research shows that students who are able to regulate their emotions are more likely to be academically successful.

Wendy Reinke and Keith Herman, professors in MU’s College of Education, studied more than 100 teachers and 1,817 students from kindergarten to third grade to see if teachers could support students’ emotional and behavioral growth through the Incredible Years Teacher Classroom Management Program.

The program uses videos and training sessions, along with role-playing and coaching, to help teachers learn proactive management strategies such as using behavior-specific praise, building positive relationships with students and considering proximity to reduce disruptive behavior. The study found that teachers in the training group increased their positive interactions with students by 64 percent versus 53 percent for teachers in the control group without the training.

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3 ways to help students access their knowledge

Learning seems like a simple process. The information goes in (encoding), the learner attempts to commit information to memory (storage), and then the learner tries to recall the lesson (access). Even though the ability to recall and apply the knowledge is critical, teachers spend the majority of class time focused on getting the information in. During the edWebinar “Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning,” Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D., cognitive scientist and founder of RetrievalPractice.org, and Patrice M. Bain, Ed.S., educational specialist, veteran teacher, and author, discussed their research into the benefits of retrieval practice and emphasizing the third step of the learning equation. When educators help students learn how to access their knowledge in low-stakes environments, the presenters said, they help students improve their long-term educational recall and performance.

Based on years of research, retrieval practice reverses the typical classroom dynamic. Instead of cramming information in, students learn how to access and pull it out. While this is what a traditional assessment does—asks students to retrieve what they are supposed to have learned—retrieval practice is more frequent and lower stakes. It can be as simple as the teacher asking the class to write down three things they learned the day before or to draw one parallel between a previous lesson and the next one. The idea is that by asking students to consistently access information, the odds increase that they will transfer the knowledge to their long-term memory.

3 strategies to enhance retrieval
Although the idea behind retrieval practice isn’t complicated, educators often ask Agarwal and Bain how to begin incorporating the method in their classroom. The presenters recommended three basic strategies.

  1. Two things: Ask students to write down two things they learned, either from the previous day or from a current lesson. This gets the students’ brains into the habit of frequent recall, and instead of the teacher telling the students what to remember, the students do it on their own.
  2. Retrieve-taking: Also known as closed-book note taking, this exercise asks students to focus on the lesson without taking any notes. The teacher then pauses periodically to allow students to write down what they remember. Here, the goal is to have students really listen to the teacher and pay attention to classroom discussions and not have their head down in a notebook.
  3. Free recall: This is a brain dump. Students take out their notebook and write down everything they’ve learned on a topic. They can also be asked to analyze material compared to a previous topic. The idea is not to guide the students but to encourage them to recall the lessons as they remember them.
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This new coding resource casts a wide net to engage students

Students don’t always need to jump right into a programming tutorial to develop an interest in coding. Sometimes, all it takes is an engaging book.

A new children’s book from Skyward, The Code Twins, introduces coding concepts to young readers of all backgrounds as they take on a programming mission with the book’s main characters.

The Code Twins takes young readers on a coding adventure with characters Brett, Yvette, and Cody Point Two. Along the way, Brett and Yvette help code Cody Point Two, their robot friend, to learn and accomplish new tasks.

Their story, told in verse, features colorful illustrations and fun experiences which demonstrate problem solving, critical thinking, interdisciplinary learning, and more.

“This book was created around one simple question: how can we build more interest in coding,” explains Ray Ackerlund, Skyward’s chief marketing officer. “We saw a growing movement to incorporate coding in classrooms, but not enough resources to support the push in earlier age groups. The Code Twins helps fill that gap by encouraging kids to make the transition from tech users to tech creators.”

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How our district is making math relevant

To meet current math standards like the Louisiana Student Standards for Mathematics or the Common Core State Standards, it is no longer enough for students to simply memorize how to do something. They must demonstrate a deeper understanding and be able to explain the “why” behind the “how.”

In Caddo Parish (LA) Public Schools (CPPS), our schools are very diverse, and nearly 70 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged. As in many other districts, our efforts to improve student achievement were hindered by curriculum materials that were not tightly aligned with the new standards and often lacked the tasks, norms, and routines needed to create problem-solving classrooms.

While it may not seem like a big stretch to move to a problem-based curriculum since problems are a fundamental part of math instruction, many teachers (including me) were not taught in the way that the standards now require us to teach. We can no longer show students how to solve two or three sample problems and then ask them to solve 10 to 20 problems on their own. To help them become college and career ready, we need to get them thinking about math concepts in a deeper way and actively engage them in meaningful discussions and problem solving.

Here are a few strategies we have implemented to help teachers make this shift, as well as a few lessons learned along the way.

Collect teacher feedback to ensure buy-in and improve fidelity.
After the new standards were adopted, we purchased a new standards-aligned math curriculum. It was not implemented with fidelity, however, because teachers found it difficult to use. A year later, we tried another curriculum that was more flexible and easier to use, but it was not tightly aligned to our standards so our test scores remained flat.

After reviewing instructional materials rated as Tier 1 standards-aligned resources by the Louisiana Department of Education, we decided to try Open Up Resources 6–8 Math, an open educational resource (OER) authored by Illustrative Mathematics (IM). Choosing an OER turned out to be a great way to garner teacher buy-in, which is essential to the success of any instructional program.

To prepare for a potential adoption in our middle schools in 2018–19, we provided teachers with detailed information about the curriculum, including reviews by independent organizations such as EdReports.org. In fall 2017, we formed teacher committees and solicited feedback. Over winter break, I added links from lessons in the new curriculum to our district’s scope and sequence documents. At a CPPS professional development day in February 2018, I showed teachers a lesson and we walked through an activity. I also asked our teachers to try at least one lesson in their classrooms during the upcoming spring semester and provide feedback on a Google Form. These teacher testimonies provided a lot of momentum when we made the decision to adopt the curriculum district-wide.

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Looking for a way to lower suspensions and reduce bullying?

Suspension has been a commonly used disciplinary method in schools for decades. Unfortunately, it also has no positive impact on students. What’s worse, these same children often develop a dislike for law enforcement that lasts into adulthood. This is a dangerous cycle that we have to stop to help students stay in school, develop positive relationships with adults in positions of authority, and achieve greater success. At my school, we found a solution. Read on and you will discover where the idea came from and how to replicate it in your school.

DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs involving law enforcement presence in schools were common two decades ago. At almost the same time these programs slowly faded out of schools, we encountered some of the most prevalent rise in violence in schools. Confronted with this reality, smaller communities and suburban schools took a page from the large, urban school playbook and began hiring school resource officers (SSOs). Their primary purpose is security, but they can do so much more.

Typically, SROs (we call them SSOs, for school security officers) are retired law enforcement. With 25 years of law-enforcement experience behind them, they bring a breadth of knowledge and skill not previously accessible to school communities. I decided to make the best of these resources and the results are impressive. Here is how we did this, in simple strategic steps that can be replicated anywhere SSOs are employed.

The Stationhouse Adjustment method
I once heard of an intervention practice employed in New Jersey that immediately caught my attention: the Stationhouse Adjustment. A Stationhouse Adjustment is an alternative method that law-enforcement agencies may use to handle first-time juvenile offenders who’ve committed minor offenses within their jurisdiction that do not result in a criminal record.

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6 reasons young children should learn engineering

Even with the Next Generation Science Standard’s emphasis on engineering, there’s still a feeling that in preschool and kindergarten, teachers shouldn’t place as much emphasis on the E in STEM. But younger children can learn and benefit from modified lessons. Nia Keith, director of professional development for EiE, Museum of Science, Boston, gave attendees insights into engineering in early education in the edWebinar, “STEM in Early Education: Empowering Problem-Solving.”

First, Keith said educators need to make sure they understand what engineering actually is. Most stop short with the idea of building something. The engineering process actually involves several steps, from asking questions to determining if the student’s design solves the problem. Keith calls it a creative process, on in which even the youngest students can engage in problem solving and asking themselves, “What if?”

Next, Keith explored how engineering curriculum design parameters, as codified by Dr. Christine Cunningham, EiE founding director at Museum of Science, Boston, can be adapted for early education. She focused on six of Cunningham’s eight parameters.

1. Narrative concept: Students should examine real-world problems that are relatable to a diverse set of learners. It can be as simple as helping someone get trash out of their pond. The goal is to build the students’ empathy for someone else and give them the confidence that they can be involved in solving the problem.

2. Engineering design process: For early education, this is three steps: explore, create, improve. Students should be allowed to ask questions and create as many iterations as possible. While older students may pause and analyze success and failure in between solutions, younger children tend to move more quickly from one solution to the next. Rather than critiquing, the teacher’s role is to ask questions and have the students convey their own conclusions.

3. Exploring materials and methods: This is a great hands-on activity for preschoolers and kindergartners. They get to touch, squish, and test the properties of different items. They can also talk about the various ways to use the materials.

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10 exciting in-person and virtual STEM field trips

STEM field trips are no longer limited to traditional science centers–today’s STEM trips are interactive, engaging, and bring classroom concepts to life for students.

Every student loves a field trip, and with a little planning, it can be mostly fun and low-stress for teachers and chaperones.

One of the best things about a STEM field trip is that it gives students a chance to apply their classroom learning to a real-life situation. This kind of engagement helps students see how professionals use STEM each day, and it also prompts them to consider STEM for their own future.

While in-person field trips are exciting, they’re not always feasible for schools with funding or geographic challenges. In those cases, virtual STEM field trips might be the best option.

We’ve put together a list of in-person and virtual STEM field trips to get you thinking about where your next trip might take your students.

1. Sports games offer a fun and engaging way to challenge students to use STEM concepts they’ve learned in class. Many minor-league baseball teams offer STEM days for students at all grade levels, featuring simple concepts and demonstrations for younger students and more complicated challenges for older students. Check out the nonprofit Science of Sport to get started.

2. If you’re near an iFLY indoor skydiving center, a field trip is a great way to illustrate STEM learning. iFLY’s STEM program uses a vertical wind tunnel to inspire and educate students through an interactive presentation, demos in the wind tunnel, and grade-appropriate lab activities.

3. Roller rinks double as a great throwback to your younger days and as a fun STEM activity, covering topics such as friction, physics, design, and engineering. Here’s an intro from the Roller Skating Association International, and don’t forget to check out your area’s local roller skating rinks.

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