LIVE @ ISTE 2024: Exclusive Coverage

Educators offer reflections on what worked and where they found success in their schools and classrooms during the 2023-2024 school year.

4 educator reflections on the 2023-2024 school year


Educators offer insight into what worked and where they found success in their schools and classrooms this year

Key points:

The end of the school year naturally inspires a period of reflection among educators, particularly as we close the door on a year that saw challenges around equity, continued learning gaps, and uncertain funding with ESSER’s impending expiration.

But it’s not all bad–educators found success as they dedicated their efforts to improving student engagement and achievement, creating community-based approaches to learning, and inspiring students to become lifelong learners.

Here’s what educators have to say about the 2023-2024 school year:

Improving engagement and test scores with phenomena-based curricula
April Pence, Edison High School

Last year was my first time using phenomena-based units aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in chemistry. As with any big change, there were some ups and downs, but overall I saw greater engagement. This year, with the support of my team, I’ve improved my timing, which has smoothed the bumps I encountered last year, and engagement is even greater. I feel like my students understand chemistry better, our school is testing well above the state average in science, and I’ve even had more students asking about how they can continue in the sciences than in previous years because they feel more comfortable with the material.

I know that, as a teacher, I bring energy into the classroom, but so do my students–and when they are excited about the topic, we all get energized. I am definitely one of those teachers who loves classroom discussion, so I didn’t have to change much to bring more of it into the classroom, but since I began using Kognity’s phenomena-based curricula, I’ve been able to adapt instruction to share more real-life examples and experiences. We have been discussing wildfires, for example, and connecting them to combustion by discussing what fuels and limits a fire, and also connecting them to climate change.

My students talk more than they used to in class because they know I will ask the same driving question about every topic throughout the unit. They know what to expect, and start thinking, “How does this all connect?” before I even ask. They’re more willing to think ahead and link their ideas to each concept instead of waiting for me to prod them forward.

I was terrified of the switch to phenomena-based curricula and NGSS, but two years on the other side of it, I would tell other teachers who are about to make the change not to be afraid. If you work into it gradually, have a collaborative team, and are willing to put in some work, it makes a big positive difference in the long run, and it won’t just be better for your students. It has renewed my excitement for teaching because my students feel connected to the material. I have more confidence in my instruction because they aren’t always asking, “Why are we learning this?” Students already see the connection and understand why it’s important.

April Pence is science teacher and co-department coordinator at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, Calif. She can be reached at apence@hbuhsd.edu.


A culture of continuous learning
Wendy W. Amato, K12 Coalition–Teaching Channel

As the 2023–2024 school year winds down, I find myself thinking about how educators are models for students, whether or not they are in a classroom. When we commit to participating in a culture of continuous learning, we are living out phrases like, “It’s okay not to know,” “Everyone has things they are still learning,” or ,“We all make mistakes.” We also get to show our own curiosity, struggles, and successes, which are all natural parts of learning, regardless of our stage in life or the role we play.

Continuous learning doesn’t always mean being enrolled as a student in a formal class. Learning is about growth, reflection, and improvement. It is anchored in exploring new ideas, testing our knowledge, and applying information in new contexts. Learning can happen in many ways! Some of my favorite ways include using video for self-reflection and for peer feedback. Even a few moments of video can provide rich substance that can accelerate my learning as an educator. I can evaluate how clearly I give directions, how purposefully I manage time, how meaningfully I relay the significance of the work, or whether I call on students equitably.

Ultimately, though, good teaching is really only measured in student learning outcomes. As I reflect on the past school year, my advice for teachers is to prioritize the work that makes the greatest impact on your students’ progress toward their learning goals. Is it more important for them to get their work in by a certain deadline than it is for them to take the time to understand the concepts? Is it more important to finish all the problems, rather than getting through them with accuracy? And as you ask yourself all these questions, remember to breathe. Remember that it’s okay to pause when you need to, to ask for help, and to make changes that support not only continuous learning but also your long-term wellness.

Wendy W. Amato is the chief academic officer for K12 Coalition—Teaching Channel. She holds a PhD in curriculum and instruction from the University of Virginia, where she continues as an instructor in the School of Education and Human Development. Prior to her doctoral work, she served as an administrator and classroom teacher in a K–12 program. Her publications, presentations, and research interests center on culturally sustaining pedagogies and teacher formation. She drinks a lot of coffee and plays pickleball. She can be reached at wendy.amato@k12coalition.com.


Making school engaging for today’s students (and teachers)
Nancy Chung, Orchard Hills School

This year I’ve observed the lasting impact of the year-and-a-half of remote learning. During that time, students didn’t have the opportunity to develop strong learning routines and academic stamina. As a result, many of them seem to crave constant stimulation and entertainment to stay engaged. In response, I’ve adapted my teaching approach to make assignments more interactive. By weaving technology and art into my lessons across the curriculum, I am tapping into more modalities of learners and gaining more interest.

It has taken a good bit of trial and error to find what truly yields results, and I’ve had to be adaptable and flexible in finding the most effective ways to foster student growth.

These days, I’m assigning far less homework and have shifted away from busywork toward more purposeful and enriching activities. I’ve significantly reduced my reliance on physical documents, transitioning the majority of my assignments to digital formats. This has not only streamlined processes but also increased student engagement by offering them a more appealing way to learn. To help my students develop essential skills like critical thinking, collaborative teamwork, effective communication, and creativity, I actively promote various small-group activities. I get my students fired up about digital storytelling. We start by mapping everything out–everyone gets a specific role in the team. Then they put together a tight little storyboard to visualize their story. After that, it’s showtime! They bring that storyboard to life by producing a short film to teach their topic to the rest of the class. It’s a fun way for them to get creative, work together, and really dig deep into the subject matter.

As I’ve made these changes, I’ve discovered significant advantages. Spending less time grading piles of busywork has left me more energy to enhance my teaching and enabled me to craft interactive lessons tailored to my students, creating a more engaging learning experience for all. My students are diving deeper into understanding the standards in a fun memorable way, making this a win-win situation for all.

Nancy Chung is a 5th-grade teacher at Orchard Hills School and host of The Schoolyard Podcast by School Specialty. She can be reached at fancynancyin5th@gmail.com.   


Using disruption as an opportunity to build a community-based approach to math
Courtney Smith, Heritage Elementary School

At Heritage Elementary, a K-5 school in Tustin, CA, our 2023–2024 academic year was interrupted when a nearby fire forced us to temporarily close our campus and relocate students and teachers to various host sites. When we were finally able to return to campus, we greeted students and teachers with a number of newly implemented strategies.

These included deeper integration of ST Math, which has been a game-changer. As the principal, I’ve observed a significant surge in student engagement and math achievement levels across all grade levels. Students are not just passively learning math; they’re actively participating.

The shift towards deeper understanding and application of math concepts is palpable across the board. When introduced to new topics, students draw from their experiences, demonstrating a solid grasp of the material.

To further reinforce this commitment to engagement and learning beyond the traditional classroom setting, we’re building a community-based math culture through initiatives like the “ST Math Lunch Bunch,” where I meet with students each Friday to guide them on their math journey as they eat lunch and complete puzzles, and a special recognition during our Friday flag ceremony for students who have completed 100 percent of their math puzzles.

With students more independently engaged in their learning, teachers have found themselves with increased opportunities for targeted interventions and individualized support. This shift has translated into tangible improvements, as evidenced by the correlation between ST Math usage and higher STAR growth points.

Looking ahead, I anticipate these positive trends to continue into the next school year. With continued focus on personalized instruction, I foresee further advancements in student achievement and overall academic growth across all grade levels.

My advice to educators facing the sort of disruption we have is to use it as a catalyst for student engagement and learning. By leveraging innovative technology tools effectively and creating intentional learning environments, educators can empower students across all grade levels to take ownership of their learning journey, ultimately leading to improved outcomes and academic success.

Courtney Smith is the principal of Heritage Elementary School in the Tustin Unified School District (TUSD). She began her career in TUSD teaching in a magnet school for 20 years. She has also been an instructional coach and an intervention specialist. Among her many accomplishments, Smith was named TUSD Teacher of the Year and Orange County Teacher of the Year in 2016, was a California Teacher of the Year nominee in 2017, and was named a 2024 top five leader in Orange County by OC Parenting Magazine. She can be reached at csmith@tustin.k12.ca.us.

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