7 ways to rethink school/family partnerships

The current toolbox for growing the school/family partnership is broken. It is a system built on old communication methods, inequitable access, and ineffective gatherings. This leaves the support and synergy between home and school less than optimal in most situations. The old open house, parent conference, and PTO model leaves all parties disappointed around an essential partnership needed to support students through the growing complexities of school and life. Instead of doing the same things marginally better, schools and districts should look to these seven ways to restructure their commitment to robust partnerships with families.

1. Acknowledge that old mental models exist
Schools need to acknowledge that there are a variety of old mental models of learning and traditional schooling that parents bring to the table. Some parents remember their success, but others remember the negative adults and failure from their school career. Both of these mental models can make it difficult for parents to understand the modern classroom and the complexity of today’s schools. As leaders, it is important to explicitly talk about the lenses that parents bring with them in support of their child. Doing so allows for a sense of connection and understanding from the beginning.

2. Unearth a dynamic set of barriers impacting deeper partnership
All schools struggle to deepen their partnerships with families. These barriers can include time, language, and modes of communication. Schools looking to rewrite their partnership playbook need to examine every possible barrier and consider which families are impacted by the barrier and what solutions exists for each. Growing in this area also requires meaningful conversations with a full range of parents to unearth barriers that are hard to recognize.

3. Be intentional about giving families access to all support services
As schools develop more robust systems to care for students’ mental health and emotional needs, the availability of the programs can get lost in correspondence. Counselors, social workers, support groups, and outside partnerships have an opportunity to impact the entire school culture. It is important that leaders are marketing, branding, and building a communications plan to continually amplify the availability of these support services.


Cross training can help district leaders sleep more soundly

Would you panic if a key employee left your school or district?

That should never happen from a business situation, as shortsightedness can cause massive problems for an organization.

One of the most inefficient ways to save money in the short term is to not replace employees in mission-critical functions throughout the school or district. Mission-critical tasks are exactly that. Too often, complacency can turn tragic.

There are many cases where the district relies on a single long-term employee to perform a critical task, whether it be web maintenance, network management, or payroll. Often, that employee has seen their backup person retire or leave and a new backup was never appointed. Maybe providing the training wasn’t a priority—that is, until the employee leaves or retires. Sometimes an employee, sensing the dire situation his or her exist would create, asks for more money.

I have seen several situations over the years where the single remaining programmer or system administrator has gotten ready to leave and the administrative team has scrambled to come up with additional compensation to keep the person in place. Sometimes that works, but not always.

In other cases, a serious injury or the exit of a difficult employee takes all of the district’s system passwords away. I know one case where it took the district more than a year to fully recover all of its systems.

Luckily, there’s a way to eliminate these potential crises: cross training among employees. Here’s how.


Teaching faculty to think like innovators

The rapid pace of technological change has forever transformed the face of the global workplace. In fact, its future is unimagined; 85 percent of jobs that will exist in 2030 have yet to be created. As all brave explorers on any frontier know, survival in an uncertain world requires adaptability, resilience, and resourcefulness. Today’s educators must nurture these traits in students to prepare them to meet whatever challenges await and to succeed in a new order.

Schools are thus charged with going beyond academics and instruction in the latest technology to teach students “survival” skills, such as how to brainstorm, think creatively, design, and prototype … how to communicate, collaborate, and lead … and how to innovate. These are the skills employers are seeking as the nature of work becomes increasingly mutable.

At Dwight, we’ve been teaching these entrepreneurial skills through Spark Tank, an after-school incubator for K-12 students. They bring their ideas for new products, social enterprises, political initiatives, and non-profits to Spark Tank, where they develop them through five stages, from concept to market launch. During this process, students learn a range of practical problem-solving, design, presentation, marketing, and business skills, gaining invaluable entrepreneurial and innovation experience.

We have also taken a cue from the business world to enhance all-important faculty professional development (PD), thanks to the support of The Dwight School Foundation. With our imperative to educate flexible, creative problem-solvers and innovators, we want to ensure that all our faculty can tap into those skills and model that behavior for our students. Through our Frontier Teacher training program, we’re bringing the same entrepreneurial mindset and processes favored by startups and innovators to the art and practice of teaching.

While Frontier Teacher training has only been in effect since 2017, its results are already changing the way our teachers are thinking and prioritizing; preparing, teaching, and evaluating the impact of their lessons—and reinvigorating their own love of learning in the process.

The real innovation isn’t just in what our program teaches, but in how.


4 ways to focus on edtech in 2019

Integrating edtech isn’t always easy, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming, either.

Planning is essential to any ed-tech program’s success–without proper planning, entire initiatives can flop.

A new resource from mobile hotspot provider Kajeet outlines some of the biggest steps to take in planning for edtech.

1. Show us the edtech funding

Innovative and inspiring ideas for edtech initiatives that will transform teaching and learning still need financial support. This might come in the form of federal funding or grants–but it must come from somewhere, especially as education leaders continue to identify funding issues as one of the biggest roadblocks to successful tech programs.

Funding guides and grants can help you get your search started.

2. Integrate and understand edtech in the classroom

According to Kajeet data, 79 percent of students use devices in the classroom daily, so it’s important to know how to effectively integrate it and understand its full potential.

Targeted PD focusing on integrating ed tech, along with tapping into valuable resources such as library media specialists, can help a tech program reach success.

3. Bring wi-fi to the buses

Wi-fi access on school buses doesn’t just help the students who ride the buses–it brings wi-fi access to surrounding communities and neighborhoods through designated Homework Zones. School bus wi-fi lets students use personal or school-provided devices to complete homework or collaborate with peers. One district saw bus referrals decline 45 percent after installing wi-fi on buses.

4. Focus on closing the Homework Gap

Most teachers assign homework that requires the internet, but many students don’t necessarily have access to a device, or the right device, with a large enough screen or enough data to complete homework. Even if students have the right devices, unreliable home internet access or no access at all hinders their achievement and ability to complete homework and other projects or research. Because it tends to impact low-income and rural students harder than others, the homework gap can intensify other income or access issues these students and their families face.

Leveraging ed-tech funding to address the homework gap can help, with a few key strategies in place.


I gamified my classroom and students are soaring

An average child today will have played 10,000 hours of video games before the age of 21. If playing games is part of our culture, even part of our identities, then it stands to reason that students can be highly motivated by game-based learning opportunities. So what if we make classrooms the game?

Gamification means using game-design principles such as cooperation, competition, character development, and point scoring in a non-gaming context. In the classroom, it can be as straightforward as transforming learning activities into games or a more subtle application of game-design principles to learning tasks.

Gamifying your classroom can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it. Some teachers choose to create their own game for their classroom in order to customize features including backstory, characters, rules, and objectives. At the same time, there are many user-friendly apps that teachers use to simplify those features.

As a classroom teacher, I gamified my classroom because I needed an engaging way to deliver the online lessons I created for students during reading and math workshop. I was able to turn my online lessons into an adventure with a storyline, obstacles, and learning challenges. I had read research about the benefits of gamification, but I was still surprised to see such a remarkable transformation in my classroom. In just a few months I saw amazing benefits!

Social-emotional growth
I’ve spent that last few years implementing different vocabulary and integrating specific read-alouds to help my students develop a growth mindset. In particular, I wanted my students to develop grit and perseverance—a mindset that welcomes challenges and does not give up easily. When I gamified my classroom, I realized that the nature of gameplay promotes positive challenge and helps my students practice and apply a growth mindset.

One of the most amazing shifts I noticed was my students’ response to failure. Rather than feeling defeated when failing at a task in our game, my students have returned to the task with renewed determination, rising to the challenge with a positive attitude. In the past, a poor grade usually resulted in the negative feelings associated with failure. Within our game environment, however, students see mistakes as an opportunity to try again and do better. They are more willing to listen to and apply the feedback I give them because they are determined to master skills and level up.


3 must-haves for a mobile learning environment

Gary Lambert: Wi-fi at home and on the bus

Beekmantown (NY) Central School District, a rural district of 2,070 students, was on a mission to be the most progressive educational institution in the area. When funds were earmarked for school wi-fi, we wanted to harness the Internet to provide a world-class education for every student in this district.

Our initiative to address digital equity issues began with the rollout of Kajeet SmartSpots for students who needed home Internet access. In the four years since we had started our 1:1 program, the number of students without Internet has dropped from 30 percent to 10 percent because parents saw the benefit for their kids and made it a priority to get connected. For that 10 percent who still don’t have Internet, we had an easy-to-use solution.

Because robust filtering and reporting features come standard with Kajeet, we’re now able to ensure that students are using wi-fi for its intended educational purpose. While we have a responsibility to be CIPA-compliant, we also are able to set notifications for when students violate our acceptable use policy by going to sites they shouldn’t. We can then determine when it’s necessary to intervene.

To address both digital access and the district’s commitment to keeping students connected to school, we started looking at wi-fi on buses. Some students spend up to an hour on the bus getting to and from school each day, and school-sponsored athletic events often require a commute of an hour-and-a half-each way. Putting wi-fi on buses was a tangible way to solve a problem and provide opportunities for students.

With wi-fi on the buses, drivers immediately reported that students were engaged and working on assignments during their commutes instead of getting into trouble. In fact, when it comes to discipline issues, the bus often represents one of the most challenging environments for many schools, but we have decreased those behavior incidents by 70 percent.

The success is in the numbers. In the past three years, our attendance rates have increased, along with our assessment scores in grades 3 through 8. School is a not a place that students have to go; it’s where they want to go. We believe the digital learning initiative has been a foundation for their success.

Kendra LeRoy: Connecting to today’s smartphone-toting parents

I work in a group of four teachers who collaborate to teach the different subjects in 5th grade. To keep us all connected, we use the parent-teacher app Bloomz to post announcements and updates to students’ parents individually or as a group.


4 keys to supporting college and career readiness

Preparing students for college and a career is the mission of every public K-12 school system, and this work begins by establishing a strong foundation for success in the early grades.

At Marlboro Township (NJ) Public Schools, a K-8 district, we are doing several things to ensure that our students are on a path to college and career readiness before they move on to high school. Our efforts seem to be paying off, as all of our elementary and middle schools are rated by the state as either “shows progress” or “excels” in terms of reading and math achievement. Moreover, we have the largest number of students in our area who are accepted into highly competitive vocational schools.

Here are four strategies that we believe are essential to any college and career readiness initiative.

1. Be sure all students meet rigorous academic standards.
A new generation of state standards has been designed to ensure that all students graduate from high school ready for college and a career. Under these more rigorous standards, students are expected to read more complex texts and reach greater depths of knowledge than before. So, the first step in any college and career readiness initiative is to be sure students are on track for meeting these high standards.

We use common district assessments to track our students’ progress toward meeting state standards in ELA and math. Students in grades 1-8 take the same assessment at least four times a year, and sometimes five, depending on their grade level. We use these common assessments to identify the skills and standards where students are either struggling or excelling.

Teachers use this information to differentiate instruction in small group settings in order to enrich, remediate, or reinforce grade-level skills. Furthermore, our district data team uses the information to shape professional development and inform how we teach.
For instance, in analyzing the results of our common math assessments one year, we noticed that 40 percent of our fifth graders did not realize that “.6” and “.60” referred to the same number. We traced this problem back to the fourth-grade math textbook, which notes that adding a zero to the end of a number increases the size of the number by a factor of ten. When these students moved to fifth grade, many took this knowledge and applied it in a way that seemed logical to them but was incorrect. This was an eye opening experience for us. We would not have known this was a problem without our common district assessments to evaluate instruction.

In light of this knowledge, we revised our units of study when teaching place values, so this misconception wouldn’t happen again. Administering common district assessments, and using the data to inform our instruction, helps us assess where we are as a district and make continual improvements to drive higher achievement.


4 tech skills every middle-schooler needs

Saint Patrick’s is a small, pre-K–8 Catholic school in Yorktown Heights, New York. Last
year, we received a grant to revamp our computer lab into what we call a STREAM lab, which stands for science, technology, religion, engineering, art, and math. The grant allowed us to invest in 30 new MacBook Airs to supplement our existing iPads and Chromebooks. Before we spent a cent, though, we made certain to connect every purchase with our two important goals: improving each individual child’s academic and career prospects, and improving our students’ scores on state assessments, which are critical to whether we’re succeeding or failing as a school. To that end, here are four essential skills that we strive to teach all of our students by the time they finish middle school.

1. Robotics and coding
Like many schools, we’ve expanded our robotics and coding programs. For the past year, we’ve been using the Sphero SPRK+ and Dash and Dot to introduce robotics and support inquiry-based learning. This year, students will also be using Ozobot’s Bit and Evo robots, as well as Lego WeDo and Mindstorms robotic kits. Robots encourage kids to collaborate and to drive lessons with their creativity. They decide as a team what they’re going to accomplish, and they go from there.

When it comes to coding, our K–8 students start with the visual block programming platform Blockly. In addition, our 8th-graders use CodeMonkey, an online platform that teaches them text-based coding in a language called Coffee Script. Students take on the character of a monkey, and each lesson is part of their monkey’s quest to earn bananas. The goal is to make coding fun, and to prepare our students to program using other text-based languages like Python and JavaScript.

2. Keyboarding
Today’s students need keyboarding skills for coding, but also for their assessments, which are now being delivered online. Here in New York, students can be required to type paragraphs on an assessment as early as 3rd grade, and our state standards require keyboarding skills as well.


6 new grants to consider in the new year

It’s a new calendar year, and while we’re still in the middle of the school year, you’re probably back from winter break feeling ready to tackle new projects–including school grants.

School leaders consistently identify high costs and shrinking budgets as a top barrier to implementing new technology tools and programs. What’s more, schools in economically-challenged areas have uphill battles trying to find grants to improve resources and opportunities for teachers and students.

Budget challenges won’t improve right away, but school districts can boost their available funds with grants that are targeted to different areas of need.

Check out the following six grants, which cover literacy, learning spaces, drug awareness, and more.

1. Steelcase Education is seeking innovative middle and high school educators and educational institutions looking to implement and expand active learning initiatives to apply for its fifth annual Active Learning Center Grant. Steelcase Active Learning Center Grants include furniture, design review, installation, onsite training, and a Learning Environment Evaluation measurement tool.
Deadline: Feb. 1, 2019


New math initiative targets high school-to-college readiness

A new initiative from the Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin aims to drastically improve students’ college readiness and success in mathematics by targeting the “junior to junior year” timeframe.

The new initiative, called Launch Years, looks to align K-12 schools and higher education and is supported by a $6.68 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Launch Years specifically looks to address barriers that keep many students–especially first-generation college students and those from low-income families–from progressing in their math courses between their junior year of high school and their junior year of college.

Launch Years rethinks current structures, policies, and practices that shape the mathematics experiences students have in those years, because they tend to be critical in preparing students for entry into college and guiding them through higher education pathways to degree attainment. Successfully progressing from high school through college math coursework is an obstacle for too many students.