Helping ALL students feel like they belong

When students don’t perform well in a subject, the typical responses relate to student motivation, e.g., they need more grit, they don’t have the right growth mindset, or they just need to work more effectively. In other words, the student gets the blame. During his presentation, “Promoting Belonging in Math Through Instructional Choices and Practices,” Jamaal Sharif Matthews, Ph.D., associate professor at Montclair State University, N.J., shared his research on the role of belonging in school success and how it may be even more substantial for ethnic minority and socially marginalized youth. While his work is primarily centered on mathematics education, Dr. Matthews’ work on building instructional practices to promote belonging can apply across subjects and grade levels.

First, Dr. Matthews discussed the importance of kids feeling like they belong and are valued in the classroom. Unfortunately, he said, the current education system was never intended for black, brown, or poor children to belong. And even though some changes have been made, there hasn’t been enough progress. Today, black and brown children still attend schools named after confederate leaders and zero-tolerance policies significantly target black, brown, and poor students over others. Student interviews reveal that marginalized youth feel like school isn’t meant to help them and it doesn’t matter how well they do in class.

In addition, Dr. Matthews explained how some behaviors, like students putting their heads down on the desks, are not active disinterest but a stress response. When students feel like they don’t belong in the classroom, their brain perceives a social threat. Their body goes into fight or flight, and the flight can look like the student is checking out.

Furthermore, marginalized students also get signals from their teachers that they don’t belong in the class. For instance, they get content that isn’t as rigorous as the other students, their interests and experiences are not reflected in the content or instruction, and contributions from people who reflect the students’ own backgrounds are missing. In other words, they perceive that their teachers don’t value them, their history, or what they could contribute.

Related: Resources for creating a school culture of empathy, inclusion, and kindness


5 blended-learning myths to bust in 2019

In February 2016, the Christensen Institute debuted the Blended Learning Universe (BLU)—an online hub of blended learning resources—in response to more and more schools across the U.S. implementing a blended-learning strategy for students. Researchers at the Institute define blended learning as a formal education program that must have three components: it must be part online, with students having some control over the time, place, path, or pace of their learning; it must occur, in part, in a brick-and-mortar location away from home; and the modalities along a student’s learning path must be connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

The BLU houses a directory of blended schools around the world. This directory has helped researchers amass an informative database indicating changes over time across the blended-learning space. Of course, while this isn’t an exhaustive picture of K-12 blended implementations across the world, it is enough data to reveal insightful trends and debunk some of the most common myths surrounding blended learning.

As we kick off the new year, here are 5 myths that blended-learning educators should be aware of:

Myth 1. Blended learning is an exclusive approach. Make your choice now!

Fact: Blended learning is an engine that can power and accelerate many instructional approaches.

Blended learning doesn’t come at the expense of other innovative approaches. The seven blended-learning models can complement everything from competency-based education to project-based learning. That’s because blended learning affords the kind of structural flexibilities that benefit other innovative approaches, such as enabling students to work at their own pace, or freeing up teacher time to focus on advising student-driven projects.

Trailblazer Elementary in Colorado Springs School District 11 is a great example of how schools layer new approaches on top of blended learning. According to its profile on The Learning Accelerator, Trailblazer began doing blended learning in 2015 using the Station Rotation and Individual Rotation models. These two models operate in service of Trailblazer’s ongoing effort to build towards a mastery-based and personalized system.

Myth 2. I’m doing personalized learning, not blended learning.

Fact: Chances are that if you’re personalizing student learning using some form(s) of technology, you’re probably practicing blended learning, too.

Personalized learning doesn’t require technology—after all, if every student had an individual tutor, learning would be highly personalized! But blended learning is a critical driver for personalization at scale. It allows students to take a degree of control over their own learning path, pace, time, and even place, and takes pressure off teachers to differentiate “by hand” for each student all the time. Plus, as our emerging framework for teacher impact shows, teaching with technology using a blended-learning model can unlock teacher time for other non-technological aspects of personalized learning, such as building strong personal relationships with students.


Why we love our coding & robotics tools

According to, the majority of Americans want schools to teach computer science, but only 35 percent of high schools teach it. And even though 15 states have adopted a policy to give all high school students access to computer science courses, universities prepare way fewer computer science teachers than we need. It’s more abysmal in the younger grades, with only six states giving all K-12 students access.

For teachers who would like to bring computer science into their classrooms, there are several great resources to assist.’s free online courses teach programming languages or how to create games, apps, and websites. The site also features a database of in-person programming classes and opportunities.

If you’d rather just jump right in, here are some teacher-recommended programs and products that will get your students coding in no time.

Coding and robotics programs

“Money, time, and skill are the obstacles teachers jump through to use new classroom tools. KinderLab’s KIBO robot not only brings coding to life—it inspires creativity in a hands-on, playful way that doesn’t involve screens. KIBO is reasonably priced, user friendly, and doesn’t require a manual or IT support. Its versatility across STEAM subjects makes it a valuable piece of educational machinery.”
—Katie Blagden, K-4 STEAM educator and coach, Ayers Ryal Side Elementary School, Beverly, Mass.

“There is instant gratification when making with littleBits. I introduce my students to how they work and what the colors mean, demonstrate how they snap together, then let them start creating. As a result, the kids are more confident and creative; they are much more independent with their projects and their ideas.”
—Lesa Wang, STEAM teacher, Marymount Lower Middle School, New York, NY

Related: 20 ideas for teaching coding in math, science, social studies, and ELA

“Our robot, Milo, has been a great addition to our school team. The students are eager to and enjoy working with Milo. They especially love dancing with him. As we work through the robots4autism modules and are learning the curriculum, we have been able to target specific skills for specific students and have been able to generalize skills easily, thanks to all the supporting activities the program provides. Milo has also provided us a common language to use with students that we are starting to use throughout the school.”
—Anne Marie Kroker, educator, learning support services, Abbotsford School District, Canada

“We’re using CoderZ by Intelitek, a platform that is completely online with virtual robot simulations, thus reducing the need for robotics kits and pieces. This has helped us cut equipment expenses to a minimum and, even better, our teachers need no specialized training to teach robotics classes, which cuts the costs even more. This is particularly beneficial for districts that have been unable to establish or expand their own robotics programs.”
—Meredith Hoover, robotics instructor, Nicholas County (WV) Schools

“I’m quite pleased with not only the durability of the TETRIX kits, but how much potential they seem to have. Originally intended to help our after-school robotics club prepare for the FIRST®Tech Challenge, we purchased the Competition in a Box set and soon began using it as part of our daily routine in our high school robotic engineering class. The included challenges are designed for both the R/C mode and the PRIZM® controller, but I was delighted to see how readily the set and challenges could be modified to fit the needs of my junior high classes as well. The Competition in a Box set can easily be scaled up or down, based on what robotics platform my classes are using, and has greatly aided in our exploration and implementation of the engineering design process approach to problem-solving while bringing some friendly competition-style projects to the classroom setting.”
—Joe Slifka, robotics and technology teacher, LaBrae High School, Leavittsburg, Ohio

Related: How I intregrate coding across subjects

Sphero has honestly transformed my teaching, and I can’t imagine teaching physics without Sphero robots. The robots are so versatile that I can use them to teach students a variety of physics concepts in ways that are engaging, fun, and provide opportunities for students to develop 21stcentury skills. In my class, students build Sphero boats to study forces, analyze momentum with a Sphero chariot, and play a round of Sphero battle bots to study collisions. Students are creating, collaborating, coding, and learning physics all at the same time and it’s all thanks to Sphero.”
—Lauren Marrone, 11th-grade physics & zoology teacher, North Paulding High School, Dallas, Georgia

“Our 4th-graders are loving the Ozobots and I appreciate the turnkey curriculum. Thirty-six 4th-graders do Ozobot challenges on Fridays, and while students beg for Ozobot time, teachers are witnessing the development of critical inferencing skills needed for deeper-level programming.”
—Beverly Sklar. 4th-grade teacher, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, Joliet, Ill.

“I have been so impressed with using KUBO from Pitsco Education in my K-5 classrooms, which I tell my students to think of as a self-driving vehicle. If they aren’t using the right TagTiles, KUBO could potentially run into a wall, into another vehicle, and so forth. They have to fundamentally understand what movement each TagTile represents. As we go through the lessons, there isn’t only one answer, but a multitude of solutions. Students work cooperatively to create paths and functions and receive immediate feedback from KUBO whether their path or function works. If their code is incorrect, they have to debug it and problem-solve the correct solution. Students are thinking through the steps prior to laying down the TagTiles. They’re mapping out their paths in their heads or discussing it as a group before deciding on a final solution. KUBO has allowed a sense of freedom in instruction and I love that my students are practicing vital skills such as problem solving, cooperation, spatial awareness, how simulations can help solve real-world problems, application of new knowledge and vocabulary, and how to develop and present algorithms.”
—Jennifer Bozeman, preK-5 media specialist, Wildlight Elementary in Yulee, Florida




All (or most!) of your district leadership questions answered

A leader is someone who has a certain amount of expertise in a field and actively shares their insights with those around them through writing, speaking, and acting. Leaders take pride in teaching others how to apply knowledge and reach their full potential.

I believe a school leader has two main responsibilities: ensuring students have the best education possible and that students have a safe school environment (both physically and emotionally).

Becoming a stronger leader

Becoming a better leader takes time, patience, hard work, and a lot of dedication. For the last 25 years, I’ve had the good fortune of being a school and district leader. My experiences include director of digital learning and innovation and school principal. These experiences have led to nationally published articles and speaking engagements at state and national events. I want to take these experiences and answer all your leadership questions.

Related: How to be a collaborative leader

I asked colleagues and friends on Twitter to ask their most pressing leadership questions. I want to share their questions and my answers to support your growth in educational leadership.

Q: How do you create an environment where teachers welcome ongoing feedback? —Camron S., a media specialist in Chicago

Dr. J: Providing and receiving ongoing feedback starts with creating an environment in which it’s safe for teachers to take risks in instruction and unit development. Creating a culture where personality and risk are welcome allows your staff, and you as the leader, to comfortably open the dialog about education and teaching. Inevitably this shift provides direct feedback without teachers fearing discipline or a poor evaluation for taking a smart risk.

It is equally important that you model and provide avenues for two-way communication between staff and leadership. Leaders develop trust by encouraging teacher voice and acknowledging their ideas and contributions in a way that shows they are valued. This facilitates progress toward reaching organizational goals.

Q: How do you stay current as a leader with all we have to do day-to-day —Brian A., a principal in Ontario, Canada

Dr. J: To maintain your leadership level, expertise, and ability to teach staff new strategies or ideas, you have to stay on top of the changes that are happening around you. I try to learn something new about leadership or my role every day. Search for relevant articles (especially on @eschoolnews), educational writers, and publications that keep up with the latest research. Create a library of links and readings that will serve as great resources to help you learn and use new strategies. Check out Twitter chats and social-media conversations where you can pose a question to others in your field.

Q: How often do you feel it’s necessary to meet with your team without over meeting, and how do you reach agreement among a team who disagrees? —Brett L., a high school teacher leader in Providence, R.I.

Dr. J: I like to check-in with grade-level teams and support staff teams at least once a week; this can be done informally or through a formal meeting. If you are going to formally meet, it’s important to have a set and day and time to ensure everyone keeps that time sacred. Having this weekly time will allow the team an opportunity to get together and discuss challenges and best practices when leadership doesn’t have an agenda. Collaboration and communication among team members and leadership is critical, and having this collaboration and transparency will increase the chance the same message is heard. Additionally, teams can celebrate successes or come together in challenging times.


6 fun programmable robots for K-12

Introducing a robot into the classroom is a surefire way to grab students’ attention–but robots do more than excite. When educators use programmable robots for K-12 learning, they’re helping students develop important skills such as critical thinking and teamwork.

Robots are accessible for students of all ages–even younger students who don’t yet have strong coding and programming skills. Research says students are more likely to maintain their interest in coding if they’re exposed to it at an early age. One engaging solution: robots for K-12 classes.

Maybe you know that robots are a fantastic way to teach students programming skills while making sure they’re engaged. Or maybe bringing coding to your classroom was one of your New Year’s resolutions.

Whatever your reason, you’re here and you’re checking out these programmable robots for K-12. This list can get you started as you explore different kits and decide which robot is the right fit for your students and classroom.

Read more: 3 ways to tell stories with robots

1. Ozobot features robots Evo and Bit. Bit gets kids coding and loving robots with the stroke of a marker. Once students learn to code Bit with color codes, they advance to OzoBlockly, the programming language. Evo, for slightly more advanced students, can be coded with color codes or with OzoBlockly.


Calling all teachers: Who’s up for the 1,000-word challenge?

How might a lesson run if the teacher were allowed only 1,000 words of whole-group instruction each class period? Speaking 1,000 words at an average pace takes about nine minutes, which means that a teacher could only use nine minutes to address instructions, misconceptions, management, and assessment for an entire class.

I believe that if teachers and professional development leaders took this challenge on a regular basis, it would drastically change the way they plan, the tasks they ask students to do, the way they manage behavior, and the way they would differentiate for each student in the classroom.

Implications of the 1,000-word challenge on planning

First, it is important to note that the 1,000 words only count in whole-group instruction. I am not advocating for a teacher to spend their words and then sit at their desk while the students work. The 1,000 words do not include conferring or small-group instruction.

In regard to planning, having 1,000 words would first necessitate that the learning target, agenda, and assessment were so clear that students could internalize it and hold one another accountable to the process for the class. It would also necessitate that the written instructions for the activity or lesson were clear, student friendly, and had clear steps for a student to follow. A class in which the teacher is not the keeper of the process would also necessitate students being willing to be models for their peers and to explain their misconceptions and understanding to one another.

Related: Here’s my secret for better classroom management

Having only 1,000 words would mean that a teacher would be responsible, perhaps, for just the launch of the lesson, the expectations for behavior and productivity, and for specific times to check for understanding and clear up misconceptions.

The 1,000 words could not be spent repeating instructions and clarifying the task, but rather on setting expectations and objectives for the class, clearing up misconceptions, and clarifying how students will reach the target by the end of the period. In short, having only 1,000 words would necessitate a deep level of planning, clarity on the task, and turning the process of learning over to the students.

Implications of the 1,000-word challenge on the task

If a teacher had only 1,000 words to spend, then that means the students’ task would have to be engaging, extended, and meaningful. Students would have to be in a workshop atmosphere working on reading, writing, projects, or collaborative group work—not a sit-and-get classroom.


How we turned around our reading program


Rockford Public Schools is one of the largest school districts in Illinois, with more than 28,800 students and 44 schools.

Biggest challenge:

There were many gaps in foundational reading across classrooms before we piloted our new reading program. It didn’t seem that we had a common methodology to teach foundational literacy. We were looking for a resource to fill this gap. We also were lacking in the area of personalized learning that supported foundational literacy skills. We were having trouble supporting students who needed extra help while providing enrichment for students who were already thriving.


Every single student needs whole-group instruction that’s explicit, modeled, and demonstrated by teachers. Our literacy program supports best practice by encouraging teachers to implement the “I do, we do, you do,” approach to learning. After whole-group instruction, our teachers designate time for small-group learning. The expectation district-wide is for K–5 small-group lessons to happen every day. Teachers meet students where they are in their learning, using data to drive instruction. In Rockford, small-group instruction includes skill-based groups, guided reading, or literature circles.

With the combination of small groups and the time we give students to read and write independently, they are able to work towards mastery of foundational skills. Students also have additional time to flesh out skills using tech tools that support instruction. We’ve implemented Reading Horizons Discovery, a phonics-based literacy curriculum that tailors lessons to each student’s ability level. We use a blended approach to learning to support explicit instruction, small-group instruction, and the use of technology.

One thing Reading Horizons Discovery provides is the expectation for students to write, spell, and decode nonsense words. Unlike sight words that students might memorize, nonsense words provide the opportunity to demonstrate that they have mastered literacy skills.

Our district builds teacher capacity by supporting implementation. Before the beginning of each school year, our new teachers attend a two-day professional development training for the program. For ongoing support, we have monthly web training provided by implementation coaches, and also offer teachers two in-person coaching sessions a year.

Lessons learned:

  • Know your students, and believe they are capable of great things. Being reflective as educators and responsive to students is important for instructional strategies to be successful. One example of that success: We had a kindergarten classroom that saw 167-percent growth in reading scores from fall 2018 to this winter. The same classroom had some students score around 20 points higher than their projected growth scores.
  • Rather than just saying, “Oh, today you’re going to go read a book,” it’s important to be strategic and explicit with students. We’re aiming to overcome the idea that learning can be intimidating for students. In order to make a positive impact, educators have to scaffold instruction by not only modeling instruction, but modeling a positive attitude when learning.
  • The more comfortable our educators are with a new program of instruction, the more explicit and systematic it will look in the classroom, which will promote even more growth.
  • In order to improve comprehension, our literacy expectations include reading and writing as well as writing about reading.

Next steps:

We are expanding the use of a phonics-based approach to literacy. Our district will soon have four elementary buildings pilot the Reading Horizons Elevate program as an intervention with 4th- and 5th-grade students. If the pilot goes well, the goal is to use the program as an intervention tool starting next school year. This will allow educators to pinpoint which students need help with foundational skills, and provide lessons to help them master skills.

Starting next year, our district will implement benchmark goals for each grade level K-3. The idea is to set end-of-the-year goals for students while still collectively teaching to mastery. To ensure our students are working towards the goals, our educators are teaching all four parts of instruction (review, instruction, dictation, and transfer) every day, supporting small-group instruction, and analyzing data on a regular basis.

To support implementation and student growth, next year our district will have a certified implementation coach in each building. This requires a three-day intensive training, plus at least 30 hours of implementation in the classroom. We believe this will help teachers and students master the skills they need to grow in learning.

Next week:

Come back and see how a STEAM initiative improved school culture and student performance.


Bam! 5 tools for project-based learning

Educators know project-based learning (PBL) isn’t simply another teaching strategy. Project-based learning gives students deeper learning experiences, and as they apply their knowledge, they develop soft skills such as critical thinking and team work–skills they’ll carry through to college and the workforce.

But it’s often a great undertaking to locate and vet resources and tools for project-based learning, and educators don’t have an abundance of time.

Read more: Defining high-quality project-based learning

Below, we’ve gathered a handful of “add-on” tools for project-based learning. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we hope these resources help as you search for PBL examples and strategies.

1. Educurious: In each Educurious course, students are challenged with problems to solve that pique their curiosity. Students are learning detectives, working independently or collaboratively with their peers. Teachers provide scaffolding and guidance as students investigate the problem and propose solutions.

2. Metaverse: The time it takes to design effective augmented reality learning activities may cause teachers to hesitate, but Metaverse makes the process more accessible with its scene-centered platform. Create digital scavenger hunts by adding location blocks or item collection commands to the experiences. Promote gamification and movement by designing digital “breakouts” for teams of students, or let students collaborate to create their own. Challenge students to work in teams to solve a riddle or puzzle, or bring the magic of virtual reality to the classroom by incorporating a 360-degree video scene. Empower students to create “choose your own adventure”-style stories or presentations to share with the Metaverse community, or create a professional development experience that will have teachers thinking like kids again.


10 things I do to boost my students’ self-esteem

Every day, students come into our classroom spaces from their own life experiences the day before. As educators, we do our best to make students feel welcomed and engaged every time they cross our thresholds.

I work hard to make sure students feel safe, cared for, and loved. To do this there are several activities or spaces in our classroom that build students’ self-esteem. I encourage other educators to try a few of these and see the impact it has on their own students.

Build your students’ self-esteem all day, every day

1. Greet every child at the door with a smile and say his or her name
I started greeting students at the door a year-and-a-half ago. I stand in the doorway, awaiting students each morning. I greet them with a handshake, teaching them to look someone in the eye and have a firm grasp. I also call each student by name and ask how they are doing. Students now do not even come into the room before saying hello to me. If I am absent, I leave a note for my guest teacher to do the same routine.

2. Ask a question of the day to kick start your morning and touch base with every child
For morning work, students answer a question of the day. I make the questions up, but they could be anything from ‘What makes you happy? Sad? Annoyed?’ to ‘If you could change a color in the Crayola crayon box, what would it be and why?’ Their answers allow me to get to know each student and have a brief conversation with everyone before the business of the day gets hold of us.

3. Encourage students to advocate for themselves
If students need to reach out to me for any reason, I tell them to email me—rather than their parents. I want the student to tell me when he or she is upset or has a question about an assignment. I also have a bothering box in our classroom where students can express things that are bothering them in a safe place. If children want me to talk with them, they write their name on the bothering box slip. If someone wants me to just be aware of a situation, no name is needed.

4. Provide opportunities to give feedback to students—not just grades
I once heard when you put a grade on a paper the learning stops. Therefore, I decided to go gradeless in 2015 and instead provide feedback to help students grow in their strategies and skills. Our 5th-grade students write reading letters twice a month to me, expressing their thoughts about books and ideas they have about author’s craft. I respond to each individual child. Responding to children makes them feel heard.

As students begin to trust me, we end up sharing about our lives, our weekends, and things we enjoy. I am also able to ask questions and push students to meet their potential as readers through these letters. I invite students to share their work with the class, which is another great way to build self-esteem. Students also blog twice a month, which provides an authentic global audience for their writing. They write a draft in a Google Doc that is taken through the writing process before being published. Their post is shared in Google Classroom with parents and on our social media accounts. This is a great way to build critical- and creative-thinking as well as communication skills.

5. Let students fix mistakes
I used to hand back math assessments for students to see their performance, get it signed by a parent, and place it in their portfolio. Now students take an assessment, get feedback on it, and have two weeks to correct mistakes should they choose to do so. The real learning takes place while fixing these mistakes, and our students feel great when see a point total increase.


Survey shows SEL is critical for K-12 English learners

Most teachers of K-12 English learners say their students have lots of academic potential, but social and emotional obstacles could potentially stall these students’ progress, according to the English Learners Report from McGraw-Hill.

Seventy-five percent of surveyed teachers and 85 percent of surveyed administrators say they are optimistic that K-12 English learners can achieve academic success. A majority of both educator groups also believe English learner instruction contributes to their students’ improved academic language performance and overall English proficiency.

The research underscores the growing importance social and emotional learning (SEL) have in classrooms. SEL, while not a core curriculum subject, is frequently considered another essential part of learning because it helps students regulate their own emotions and learn how to respond to social situations and challenges.

Read more: How SEL inspired a transformation in my school

Despite challenges, a majority of educators believe their school or district provides sufficient ongoing professional development opportunities to hone their skills, which improves their ability to teach.

Seven out of 10 teachers agree their school or district provides sufficient, ongoing professional development to support K-12 English learners’ success, an increase from 55 percent in the 2017 iteration of this survey. Also, 76 percent agreed in 2018 that the training provided by their school or district improves their ability to teach English learners.