Improving student achievement through choice

Exeter (CA) Unified School District is a small, rural district with approximately 2,800 students, 61 percent of whom are Hispanic and 62 percent of whom are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Approximately one in seven of our students are English language learners. When we looked at our reading and math scores a few years back, we found that we weren’t seeing the growth we were hoping to see. With a renewed focus on the basics of literacy and math, a technology infusion, and a dedication to dialogue over rote memorization, here’s how we helped our students find the success and achievement they deserve.

Starting with the standards
Exeter is a standards-driven district, so when we decided to focus on literacy, we knew we weren’t going to adopt a publisher’s curriculum. Instead, we designed our own units of study and pulled in supplemental materials to align to our state’s standards. We brought in close-reading strategies, started an academic coaching program for teachers, and launched reading interventions and guided reading groups.

1:1 devices, renovated classrooms
We hired an outside consultant to help staff, administration, and some parents develop a technology-implementation plan for our initiative, which started with ramping up the infrastructure with fiber for improved bandwidth and wi-fi. Then we asked teachers to pilot various devices.

We had a three-year technology-implementation plan but, because of our staff’s enthusiasm, that plan shortened to just over two years. In that time, we became a 1:1 device district. Today we have a range of devices in our classrooms, from tablets in some of the primary grades to laptops in our science classrooms (where more powerful devices are necessary).

We’ve also renovated more than half of our classrooms with new personalized and flexible seating and completely transformed 12 classrooms in our middle school. The traditional desks and tables in rows are gone and we have new furniture, such as stand-up, adjustable-height desks, exercise balls for students to sit on, floor-to-ceiling whiteboards, and bean bags. The refurbished classrooms free our students to get comfortable and to transition from individual work environments to group settings quickly to better facilitate collaborative learning.

We have audio systems in the ceiling so students don’t depend on the sound from a TV that might be 25 feet away from them. Those TVs—three in each room—are all wired together so that teachers and students can show one example on all three or operate each one individually for small-group work.

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4 fresh approaches to coding in the classroom

Coding is one of the most crowded categories in edtech. And while there are a ton of great tools for students of any ability level, many of these tools have hit on the same formula. So whether you’re prepping for Hour of Code or looking to launch a coding unit or curriculum in your classroom, lab, or library, it’s tough to find the right solution or even determine what separates one from another. Thankfully, there are a few developers out there breaking the mold and doing something different.

These developers are not just iterating on the tried-and-true coding formula but exploring new frontiers that offer students new ways to learn—from VR and hardware hacking to on-the-go learning to courses and curriculum that blend technical skills with “soft” skills.

Hardware hacking: Pi-Top and Piper
Computer scientists and software engineers know it’s important for coders to have an understanding of how computers are made and how they work. Knowing a bit about the hardware side of things helps inform a programmer’s understanding of why code works the way it does. As someone who likes to build his own computers, I can also say it’s just flat-out fun to put together a PC and swap in and out components. It’s like the nerdier version of hot rodding.

Pi-Top and Piper both understand this, too, and have platforms that allow students—much like a littleBits kit—to assemble and modify modular computers that can then be used as coding platforms. On the coding side of things, Pi-Top has it own stylish game (CEED) students can use to learn about the basics of code, and Piper integrates with Minecraft.

Realistic, cross-disciplinary game design: Zulama
A lot of tools out there simplify game design, offering approximations of real-life coding that make it easier for kids to jump in and make something quickly. There are also pro-level tools such as GameMaker Studio that some enterprising teachers have adapted for student use. However, the real work of game design isn’t only coding games but conceptualizing them, building them, testing them, and marketing them. This is a process that requires more than technical skills, from storytelling to business to so-called soft skills such as collaboration.

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Age-appropriate tips for addressing gender stereotypes in the classroom

Common Sense’s 2017 research report, Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids’ Development, showed that kids who are fed gender stereotypes may internalize those roles, shaping their behavior for years to come.

Stereotypically gendered media shows kids a narrow view of who they are and what they can be. Girls must be princesses: damsels in distress and sexual objects. Boys must be superheroes: decisive and strong. The effects on children of gendered media include:

  • girls’ focus on their appearance and value as sexual objects
  • more tolerant views of sexual harassment
  • the establishment of gendered behaviors in romantic and sexual relationships
  • riskier behavior in boys
  • career choices limited by gender norms

While it’s the role of a parent or caregiver to communicate the family’s beliefs about gender expectations, teachers are key role models in kids’ lives and have an enormous impact on how kids regard themselves and their capabilities. It’s important to be mindful of how our words, actions, and content choices in the classroom can perpetuate or combat gender stereotypes.

What kids understand about gender norms and stereotypes varies depending on their stage of development. Across the grades, teachers can promote positive gender representations by presenting counter-stereotypes, talking to kids about gendered content, and teaching kids to critically analyze the media in their lives.

Use the grade-specific recommendations below to combat gender stereotypes and give your students a broader perspective on their options and capabilities.

Grades Pre-K–2
Kids in the primary grades are learning their gender identities and beginning gender-typed play (girls “clean the kitchen” and boys “mow the lawn”), often segregating into all-girl or all-boy play groups. It’s during these early years that kids learn stereotypes about activities, traits, toys, and skills associated with each gender. Young kids can also be pretty intolerant of gender-role transgressions.

Teachable moments

  • Introduce students to people from real life who show there’s more than one way to be a boy or a girl.
  • Select stories for the classroom that don’t play up gender stereotypes.
  • Comment positively on stories that equally value all genders.
  • Put kids into mixed-gender learning groups to encourage cross-gender friendships.

Grades 3–5
Older elementary school kids begin to attribute certain qualities to men and women—for example, that women are more emotional and affectionate and men are more ambitious and aggressive. They associate specific occupations and academic subjects with each gender. Kids at this age also continue to self-segregate based on gender.

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Student wellbeing & SEL are more important than you think

[Editor’s note: eSchool News is thrilled to partner with The Brzycki Group to help our audience navigate the growing body of work and best practices in student wellbeing and social-emotional learning (SEL). These are important topics for eSchool News, and we’re excited to work with the Bryzcki Group, who have provided leadership to student wellbeing for more than 30 years. We want to be the central source for our audience and help highlight the great work institutions are doing to address these issues and make wellbeing a core part of student learning.]

Through monthly articles on the eSchool News and eCampus News media platforms, The Brzycki Group & The Center for the Self in Schools will cover the latest psychological, educational, and wellbeing models, policies, and practices in SEL and student wellbeing. These models address the psychological, emotional, and physical well-being of children and can be applied to K-16 classroom teaching best practices, curricula design, counseling best practices, and educational leadership.

Education professionals across all levels of K-16 education want to make a real difference for students, and many are aware of the growing bodies of work in SEL and student wellbeing. Yet there is general misunderstanding about what these bodies of work mean and how to use them to produce mental health and wellbeing outcomes through schooling. Additionally, there are numerous models from which to choose, such as SEL; multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS); school-based mental health curricula; bullying and school violence prevention programs; anxiety, depression and suicide prevention and treatment models; trauma informed instruction; school climate programs; whole child education; student success programs; life coaching; and academic advising; among others. We often hear educators ask, “Where do I start?”

An integrated wellbeing framework
One significant reason for the confusion is that these topics are written about and researched by separate professions within K-16 education—such as classroom teaching, school leadership, clinical psychology, school psychology, academic research, and non-profit SEL services, among others. The issues are described from the perspective of each separate profession, without a common framework or model that grounds and integrates them across the K-16 schooling experience. Educators need new clarity around how to produce mental health and wellbeing through educational processes, along with an integrated framework for educators to apply across K-16 education.

Another challenge is that SEL and student success are most often viewed narrowly through the lens of student achievement and academic outcomes. However, the research shows that positive academic outcomes follow wellbeing outcomes. The overarching framework for SEL, student success, and student well-being is grounded in the psychology of wellbeing, and it is time to put well-being first to empower resilience and success across the lifespan.

The compelling need for mental health through schooling
Life for most of us in today’s world takes a toll on our emotional, psychological, and physical wellbeing. Research demonstrates that people are not emerging from our educational system with the mental framework and associated mental capacities to adequately meet the overwhelming demands of modern life. This inadequacy leaves most people with growing levels of anxiety and depression; disconnection from their experiences of joy, love, happiness, and inner peace; and a lack of sense of purpose in life with related personal and professional meaning.

The issue of mental health and wellbeing is becoming more and more acute as life in modern society becomes more and more complex. K-16 students have expanded needs and more mental and physical challenges and illnesses. We are not adequately addressing or measuring these needs and challenges. As a result, we are seeing dire and overwhelming statistics on bullying, hate crimes, trauma, anxiety, depression, sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, behavior-based physical illnesses, and more.

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Tech directors: Here’s how to truly support multi-screen classrooms

Today, education is far more flexible and collaborative than a generation ago, and technology is key in enabling teachers to quickly adapt lesson plans to suit the moment’s activity. Having multiple screens that a teacher or student can wirelessly project to, along with the ability to switch between sources in seconds, means that teachers aren’t tied to the front of the classroom any more. They are free to roam around to small groups, to see what students are working on simultaneously, and to call attention to particularly high-quality work or ideas that challenge and stimulate.

But all that technology does students little good if it can’t function properly because your school’s IT infrastructure isn’t up to the job. At Central Coast Grammar School in Australia, when Director of Teaching and Learning Damon Cooper pushed for more flexible and collaborative classrooms, we knew we would have to redefine our infrastructure.

Prototyping a vision with spare parts
For more than a year, Cooper piloted his vision of multi-screen classrooms by piecing together whatever spare parts we had on hand. If I retired a screen from another part of the school or had a spare from a bulk purchase, he wanted it. Over that period, Cooper worked closely with me to prototype his vision. That work functioned as a proof of concept and fit nicely with our strategic plan, which called for an increased focus on digital literacy, greater collaboration, and developing students who can produce and publish digital work.

Once Cooper could show the teaching and learning benefits of multi-screen classrooms, he convinced his colleagues to push for a refurbishment that would eventually include collapsible walls for combining classrooms for team teaching, writable glass panels for visual learning, a film studio to allow students to demonstrate what they are learning through multimedia production, and, of course, multi-screen classrooms to showcase those productions and enable student collaboration.

Understanding the need
Like any school, we weren’t looking at introducing multi-screen classrooms onto a blank slate. We already had a significant challenge in supporting the tools our teachers and students were using. We are 1:1 with a mix of devices: iPads for grades 1–3, Windows 10 laptops for grades 4–9, and a BYOD program for grades 10–12. For faculty and staff, we offer Windows 10 2-in-1 tablets and also support the smartphones and tablets that most of the faculty and staff bring in with them.

Our wireless platform and web-filtering system had to be robust, easy to use, and device- and operating-system agnostic to support that variety. We knew that would also be true for our wireless video projection (WVP) platform. Even our youngest students would need to be able to use it, after all.

Cooper’s early work showed us that our existing wireless platform couldn’t cope with WVP at the quality we needed across the school, so once we had approval to refurbish B Block, the area of the school we decided to focus on, we got serious about finding the right wireless, networking, and WVP platforms.

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Language barriers still impede home-school communication

Just a little more than half (55 percent) of teachers in a recent survey say their schools translate parent correspondence into other languages, despite federal data showing that almost 5 million U.S. students are English language learners (ELL).

The survey from communication app ClassDojo highlights the communication challenges teachers and families face each day due to language barriers. Of the teachers who say their school does translate communications, 36 percent say they rely on a teacher who speaks the language to do it, and 16 percent use a professional translation service.

Close to 10 percent of the overall student population speaks English as a second language, and 28 percent of surveyed teachers say their school does not translate parent communications at all.

Seventy-one percent of teachers surveyed say they’ve taught children who speak English as a second language in the past three years. More than half of teachers surveyed (56 percent) say they worry that parents whose native language isn’t English  aren’t able to fully engage with school life–not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have sufficient English language skills to be able to do so.

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One small, shy child changed my school’s dress code

So often, when children attempt to advocate for something they believe in at school, adults make the mistake of getting defensive and worse, stand by the mantra that “This is the way things are,” without ever examining why they are the way they are. Last spring, as the weather warmed in New Jersey, we announced and reposted our dress code. Rather than the usual murmurs and griping about fairness we often hear among middle-school adolescents, an interesting thing happened.

The morning after a Board of Education meeting, I was notified that something important had happened. A child unknown to me other than the timid smile she would flash at me in the hall as I greeted her and other students with a “Good morning!” had stood before the Board of Education at a public and televised meeting, advocating for a more equitable dress code in our school. Armed with a petition signed by hundreds of students, she came prepared. When I learned about this, I was motivated to ask why, and to revisit our dress code. Indeed, there was wording in it that was clearly directed at female students. No wonder they were petitioning; the dress code was not gender neutral, nor was it gender equitable.

I began to explore this under the current media coverage of the #MeToo movement and other rights groups standing up for female, and more specifically, gender equitable rights. I was fascinated not only by the degree of press coverage on this, but also by movements of pioneering school districts in places like Oregon and California.

The one that had the most significant impact on me was “Oregon NOW.” In 2015, female students appealed in a well-prepared and passionate declaration to their Board of Education. The board of education and superintendent subsequently worked with the administration and staff to revise the dress code AND to educate staff, parents, and students about it. The student’s nine-minute presentation, which was televised, is worth a watch. Born were common phrases like, “I am not a distraction.” I was fascinated as I examined our dress code and realized it was not gender neutral. It was only a matter of time before this moved beyond the “it’s not fair” argument to one of substance and heart.

There were two main concerns with our former dress code. First, it listed disciplinary action before the guidelines. This immediately signaled a negative undertone that dress code was primarily disciplinary, rather than an opportunity to address it as a learning experience. Compliance was the expectation. However, the most effective and motivating educators are those that do not force students to comply, but rather help students understand that there is value in something, and take part in it. On par with a fight in the hall, our dress code was written to suggest that it had to foster compliance from students.

Second, the first two items listed in our previous dress code were clearly scripted for female students, again suggesting that the order was an issue, as if these were the most important so they were first. Worse that it was directed at one gender. Here’s what it said, standing as item 1 and item 2:

  1. Clothing must cover the front and the back of the student (off-the-shoulder tops, tops with spaghetti straps, bare midriffs, halter tops, and tank tops are not permitted).
  2. Shorts or skirts must not be too short or too tight fitting.

The rest of the dress code was not specific to gender. But again, these were the first two items listed and no other item was male-specific. Herein lies the problem.

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6 ways to find the motivation you’ve lost

Feeling unmotivated is a common challenge. Our motivation is what drives us to meet our goals and losing that sense of determination can leave us feeling confused and frustrated.

There are many reasons for motivation depletion—it can be circumstantial, environmental, emotional, mental, etc. However, rediscovering your spark doesn’t have to be difficult—sometimes we just need to make simple adjustments in order to find it.

Here are six easy tips to help you find your motivation if you think you’ve lost it:

1. Get moving!
When you’re feeling unmotivated, find ways to start moving. Incorporating movement into your day is not only beneficial to your physical health, but to your mental health and emotional health as well. Studies show that physical activity boosts our memory and thinking skills, and other benefits to physical activity include better sleep, reduced stress, and increased self esteem.

Adding movement to your day does not have to be complicated or time consuming—it can be done right in the classroom. Rock out to your favorite song, take a quick walk around the block. Find what works best for you and your schedule and get your students involved, too.

Ideas for incorporating movement into your day include: jumping jacks, stretching, or running in place. Use your students as inspiration by assigning tasks around the classroom or by doing simple exercises as a group. Get motivated together!

2. Get a little creative
Creativity helps us to find our motivation because it helps to get rid of that pesky inner critic. Creative expression is one of the most honest forms of self expression and it allows for us to form a deeper connection with ourselves and the people around us.

Creativity helps us to enter into the “flow state.” Flow state is a term used in positive psychology to describe the state in which one becomes completely immersed in a challenge or project. As we meet and overcome challenges while we create, dopamine is released into our brains.

Flex your creativity muscle right now by doodling, scrapbooking, and journaling throughout the day.

3. Daily intentions are your friend
An intention can be defined as a purpose, something that is intended, an aim, or a plan. Everything in life that occurs starts with an intention. Intentions are powerful because they help us to remain focused while on the road to achievement, and they provide us with insight and mental clarity as we move throughout our day. Intentions provide meaning, and meaning provides significance; when you intend to do something, intentions help us to realize the significance of what we’re doing.

Setting a daily intention may be the perfect thing to help you reflect and refocus. Check out these tips for creating your intention journal.

4. Evaluate your surroundings
The next time you’re in a motivational rut, evaluate your surroundings. There could be numerous environmental factors that contribute to a lack of motivation. Our environment has a major influence on our mood, and under certain conditions can be detrimental to our executive functioning. Our environment affects how we interact with others, our stress, our motivation, etc. If you find that your environment is affecting you negatively, then consider making changes to your surroundings.

Making positive changes to our environment can mean adopting a new work space or going for a walk; it can also mean hanging up inspirational posters or purchasing a desk diffuser. For more options, check out these tips on bringing the positive energy back to your environment.

5. Find moments for pause
Take a moment to reflect on your life and all your responsibilities, all the calls and texts you receive, and all the media you consume. Have you ever realized that we’re constantly overloaded in our day-to-day? How can we expect ourselves to work through challenges and see the bigger picture if we’re constantly dividing our attention? A key to finding your motivation is to routinely find time for pause.

Go off the grid, mute the notifications on your phone, sit in silence, focus on nothing but your breathing, find time to simply be. It’s important to give yourself the space and time to exist and to reflect. Finding moments for pause can be difficult, but promising yourself just a few moments of pause each day is helpful in the long term.

6. Focus on your students
Sometimes when we’re feeling unmotivated, it helps to focus our attention elsewhere. The new year brings opportunities to reflect on the ways we have grown over the past year. Focus your attention on your students and their individual progress. By focusing on how much our students have grown and the role we’ve played in this growth, it becomes a transformative experience that allows your classroom community to recharge and refocus as a whole.

Make this a fun experience by setting up a reward system. Celebrate individual growth by handing out certificates, small rewards, or by having students mark their growth on a growth calendar.

A final note
The next time you find yourself feeling unmotivated, do not be discouraged. By making small changes in your approach to life and its many challenges, rediscovering your motivation is no trouble at all.

[Editor’s Note: This article was first published on the Move This World blog.]

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15 trends that hinder, accelerate, and enable K-12 innovation

While new trends such as extended reality and mobile devices are enabling expansive changes in K-12 education, innovation is often impeded by obstacles such as clunky professional development and digital equity, according to new research.

These new insights on what hinders and what support K-12 innovation come from CoSN’s Driving K-12 Innovation series, which highlights new trends supporting the use of emerging technology in K-12 education.

As part of the initiative, CoSN convenes a global advisory board of K-12 leaders, practitioners, and changemakers to discuss major themes driving, hindering, and enabling teaching and learning innovation in schools.

After the advisory board meets, responses from a survey are tabulated and put organized into the top five topics in each area.

Hurdles, or obstacles that make participants slow down, evaluate, practice, and then make the leap to better support teaching and learning, include:

1. Ongoing Professional Development: Teachers aren’t always privy to or encouraged to pursue continued formal/informal training to upskill.

2. Technology and the Future of Work: Developments in artificial intelligence and robotics are driving changes in the workforce, and schools have a responsibility to understand how emerging technology impacts the skills students need to be successful in their continuing education and careers–and adjust learning experiences accordingly.

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3 ways to help give all students “information privilege”

“Access to an effective school library program is one example of information privilege. The absence of access is one symptom of information poverty.”—Joyce Valenza, On information privilege and infomation equity, December 9, 2018

I had not heard of the concept of information privilege before reading Joyce Valenza’s thoughtful and comprehensive post last month. But it certainly seems logical. Our students come to us from a variety of situations, not just of nutritional adequacy, home stability, and family support, but also of informational access.

I believe it is a primary role of the public schools to help close the gap between those who are information privileged and those who are information impoverished. This is a critical component of a culturally proficient school system. Providing good information resources and the skill to use them is both a social goal as well as an economic imperative, with fewer and fewer jobs for those without training and skills.

As I reflect on this challenge, I see three areas where public education can focus:

  1. Keep school libraries well-staffed. While information can be found in staggering quantities online, the skills to find, evaluate, and use these resources need to be taught by a skilled information professionala school librarian. Sadly, these positions are often scarce in schools serving less affluent populations and are often on the chopping block whenever budget cuts are made in all schools. I find it ironic that when all signs point to information literacy being one of the most critical skills needed by our future workforce, we do not give a high priority to funding the positions of those who help develop this literacy in both students and staff.
  2. Keep our internet access as open as possible to all learners. Even as an ever greater number of schools implement 1:1 programs and find ways to give students home internet access, the call for restricting what can and cannot be accessed on school networks increases in volume. While games, videos, social media, and other internet sites of high interest and entertainment value can be challenging for teachers to compete with for attention, blocking such sites discriminates against students for whom school resources are their only source of internet access. Netflix, YouTube, game siteseven Instagramall have uses that have educational benefit and increase information literacy.
  3. Connect our learners with public information resources beyond the school. Our students need to understand resources available to them as citizens after they leave our schools. Public library access should be part of all students’ public school experiences. Students should know about databases, e-book collections, and other materials available through state library programs, as well as other state government resources. Students should be given practice in using free federal information collections. Not knowing about or how to use these public resources will exacerbate the chasm between those of information privilege and poverty.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I was information privileged, despite living in what now might be considered an “information desert.” I had books at home and my parents subscribed to a daily newspaper and magazines. Our secondary school had a good library and a professional librarian. Our public library was a regular stop when we came into town from the farm. We had an AM transistor radio and a black-and-white TV that got in two to three over-the-air channels. My family valued education and reading.

Today’s children and young adults operate in what I call an “information jungle.” Those who enjoy information privilege today don’t just have resources; they also have the skills to use them well. Is your district helping make all of its students information privileged?

[Editor’s Note: This article was first published on the Blue Skunk Blog.]

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