Nature-Based Curriculum a Hit with Students and Staff Alike

Students gather around a tree as part of the school's nature-based curriculum

Students gather around a tree as part of the school’s nature-based curriculum

Environmental education is an integral part of everyday life at Redtail Ridge Elementary School in Minnesota’s Prior Lake-Savage area school district. On any given day you could find: math students using trees to study circumference, students using their senses to reinforce a lesson on adjectives, kindergartners sorting man-made verses natural objects, writing nature poetry, and investigating positive and negative numbers by recording the daily temperature.  Embedding environmental education into our daily routine is a reflection of the community that fills the building, viewing the outdoors as an extension of our classroom, and a constant effort to replace existing lessons with an environmental focus.

From a supportive administrator, to our diligent custodial staff, willing classroom teachers, and tireless support staff, we are all working towards our philosophy of using the environment to educate children. The willingness to help each other and draw on each other’s strengths is what makes us unique. At any time you might see a fifth grade classroom taking a kindergarten class snowshoeing and then the next day going again with a group of second graders.

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White House Science Fair Presents Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity For First-Generation Students

Pictured (Left to right): Melody Kwan , LMIT InvenTeam advisor and Spanish Teacher at Baruch College Campus High School; Stephen Mwringa; Amro Halwah; Si Ya (Wendy) Ni and Dr. Elisabeth Jaffe.

Pictured (Left to right): Melody Kwan , LMIT InvenTeam advisor and Spanish Teacher at Baruch College Campus High School; Stephen Mwringa; Amro Halwah; Si Ya (Wendy) Ni and Dr. Elisabeth Jaffe.

Opportunity is perhaps the greatest possibility of the American promise. For two New York City high school  students who came to America less than ten years ago knowing very little English, opportunity led them to the White House Science Fair where they presented their subway vacuum cleaner project to President Obama with their classmate Si Ya “Wendy” Ni, a first generation college student.

One of the students, Amro Halwah, immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13. He started school in the U.S. as an 8th grader and is currently a senior at Baruch College Campus High School. When he was young, he hated learning because he viewed it as only memorizing facts that he promptly forgot after taking a test.

While in school in New York, however, he started down a different path. He participated in several hands-on projects that unleashed his creativity and gave him the opportunity to engage in independent learning. When he got the chance to join the L-MIT Baruch InvenTeam this year, his desire to learn and contribute to the invention of last year’s seniors really excited him.

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The Key to Our Success? A Well-Rounded Curriculum, Each and Every Day

When I first came to Acacia Elementary School as the turnaround principal in 2003, I noticed three things: first, we had excellent teachers – but student performance was struggling and parent involvement was lagging. While many struggling schools in similar situations make the decision to boost up their reading and math interventions at the expense of classes like art and music, we did not.

Acacia first graders have talent! They performed songs for a production of 'Stone Soup'. The arts are an integral part of the well-rounded curriculum. (Photo courtesy Christine Hollingsworth)

Acacia first graders have talent. They performed songs for a production of Stone Soup. The arts are an integral part of the well-rounded curriculum. (Photo courtesy Christine Hollingsworth)

Walk through our school today and you’ll see monthly special events with standing-room only attendance; kindergarteners excited to apply what they learned in reading class to P.E., like using patterns, for example; and a third grade music class where students are learning about beats, syllables, and counts so they can write powerful haikus in their writing classes.

While other districts debated whether to cut classes like music and art, the Washington Elementary School District Governing Board stood up for us because they understood that these “specials” are vitally important to the whole child. And our board has seen that as a result of that investment, students are doing better than ever.

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ED Hosts First-Ever Educator Equity Lab

The first-ever Educator Equity Lab was held on March 29th at Jackson State University in Mississippi, where more than one hundred education stakeholders made commitments to ensuring equal access to excellent teachers for the state’s students of color and students from low income backgrounds.

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The Lab was part of the Department of Education’s broader efforts to support states in closing persistent nationwide “equity gaps” in access to great teachers. Last fall, then-Secretary Arne Duncan announced the approval of the first batch of state plans submitted under the Excellent Educators for All Initiative. And, he tasked the Department’s Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows with leading a series of labs to help with their implementation.

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The Value of Classroom Diversity

ED TAF Patrick Kelly with students in his classroom in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo courtesy Patrick Kelly)

ED TAF Patrick Kelly with students in his classroom in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo courtesy Patrick Kelly)

I am in my eleventh year teaching but often find my greatest educational epiphanies as a parent. One such moment occurred last spring when my daughter’s first grade class discussed de jure racial segregation of American society during the first half of the 20th century. When she came home, she shared what she had learned and asked this poignant and powerful question, “Daddy, does that mean I couldn’t have gone to school with my best friend?” At that moment, as she contextualized the reality of segregation in her head and heart, the power of classroom diversity became crystal clear.

However, the value of diversity is currently being unrealized at a rate unseen in the last 50 years. Abundant data points to resegregation of America’s schools, such as a 2012 report from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA that noted, “80% of Latino students and 74% of black students attend majority nonwhite schools.” As an educator, these statistics are alarming, since I’ve seen the value of a diverse classroom in three key ways.

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Relationships Help First Generation Students Reach Higher

Reykdal, a finalist for the American School Counselor Association ‘s 2016 National School Counselor of the Year award visited Washington, D.C. with Steffany Heredia, a senior at Olympia High School. (Photo courtesy Kim Reykdal)

Reykdal, a finalist for the American School Counselor Association ‘s 2016 National School Counselor of the Year award visited Washington, D.C., with Steffany Heredia, a senior at Olympia High School. (Photo courtesy Kim Reykdal)

Every spring, as March Madness heats up, it’s not just basketball brackets bringing on the fever pitch of competition. In many high schools, March Madness is about college acceptances; who’s gotten them, and who hasn’t. Information about the “have’s” and the “have not’s” in the ever-increasing race to be branded a “success,” travels instantly along the hallways and social media highways.

For first generation college students, this annual “race to nowhere”, as a recent documentary termed it, often ends before it even begins unless someone outside of their nuclear family guides them through the college application process. In many public schools, overwhelming caseloads leave school counselors without the time and resources necessary to provide students with adequate career and college guidance. Administrators must rely on teachers and other staff, or specific college preparatory programs like AVID, to help prepare students for a variety of 2 and 4-year college options, and other post-high school pathways.

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Developing ‘Secret Kindness Agents’ in the Classroom

One evening, a grandfather told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed.” – From The Tale of Two Wolves

Pearson giving a TEDx talk on the importance of kindness projects. (Photo courtesy Ferial Pearson)

Pearson giving a TEDx talk on the importance of kindness projects. (Photo courtesy Ferial Pearson)

On December 12, 2014, Avielle Richman was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School along with 19 other young children. Avielle’s death hit me hard because she reminded me of my own daughter – the same age and curious eyes, loving nature, kind heart, and friendly spirit. Over the past 15 years, I have taught thousands of students and I will admit, there are few of whom I have found myself truly afraid. They would put their hands in their backpacks and I would think, “This is it. Today we die.” Luckily, that never happened.

Like many mothers, after Sandy Hook I had a difficult conversation with my own children who asked why someone would murder kindergarteners? My nine-year-old son said that whenever he was bullied in school, he would get angry and feel like lashing out, but then someone would be kind to him, and the feeling would go away. My daughter then asked, “What if people had always been kind to the shooter every single day? Maybe he wouldn’t have done it.”

Naïve as it may have been, when I returned to school, my daughter’s comment led me to devise a plan. I would give envelopes to my high school juniors, assigning them to specific acts of kindness in exchange for a prize. At my students’ suggestion, we agreed that we all had to draw an assignment every week, including me, without expectation of a reward. We brainstormed a list of random acts of kindness that could happen at school and didn’t cost any money. My students acknowledged the risk it took to perform these random acts – they didn’t want to stick out from their peers – so we gave each other Secret Kindness Agent names (mine is Agent Mama Beast) and kept the acts anonymous. Every week, we had a ceremony where I would play some cheesy song while each Agent came up to draw their assignment. We wrote an oath and acknowledged the risks and at the end of the week we would reflect on what happened, how we felt before, and how we felt after we did our assignments. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, not only did I see the culture of our school change, but I also saw the change within my students.

When I came across the Cherokee fable, The Tale of Two Wolves, I brought it to class. I asked my students if they had ever been bullied and every hand in the room went up. I then asked if anyone had been the bully and again, every hand went up, perhaps a little less eagerly. We realized that the idea that there are “good” or “bad” people in the world was a myth. As the grandfather says, both wolves dwell within us.

Through the Secret Kindness Agents, our good wolves were gaining on our evil wolves. With time now spent acknowledging the bad wolf and feeding the good wolves, I find that when a student reaches into their bag, rather than a gun, I expect a poem, a card, or some other random act of kindness.

Ferial Pearson is an Instructor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She started the Secret Kindness Agent Project with students at Ralston High School where she served as a Talent Advisor for the Avenue Scholars Foundation. She has since helped over 30 other communities start kindness projects, wrote a book and started a Facebook Page with the students. This week the Kennedy Center honored her as one of the winners of the Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award.

Adding our Voices to Conversations about the Every Student Succeeds Act

As NCLB’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) comes into focus, educators’ input is poised to play a larger role in the implementation of law than ever before. Over the past several weeks, educators, other key stakeholders, and representative organizations have come to discussions with the Department of Education, both in person and electronically, to share thoughts on the guidance and clarification that are needed in moving forward in implementing this law.

As part of the listening, the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows (TAFs/PAFs) were asked to hold listening sessions for Department staff with teachers, principals, and other stakeholders to inform ESSA implementation. This past week, several other TAFs and I organized sessions in and around our own communities with district superintendents in Connecticut, math teachers in California, students in Rhode Island, business leaders in Colorado, and educators in Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire; and, in the coming weeks, we have discussions planned in rural communities in Northern California and Washington across to urban centers of New York City and New Jersey, to name a few.

As I sat in Colorado soliciting input, I realized that this shift to a more proactive, solutions-oriented mindset proved harder than it sounds. For too long, we have been asked merely to react. Now we have the opportunity to shed the reactionary posture we have been exercising for the past two decades under NCLB and it’s not easy.

In these sessions we heard a lot of important feedback. We heard calls in Connecticut for incentives for districts and states to innovate. High school students shared their feelings about standardized assessment and their concern about the extent to which current assessments really measure who they are. Math teachers and leaders in California expressed a need for clearer definitions of college and career ready standards and posed questions about accountability measures that reflect more than test scores. In every place, we heard calls for improving all angles of the teaching profession –recruitment, retention, and job satisfaction.

While important to hear, what is evident is that they are not new – all are responses to what has been; What’s new is that we are being called on to contribute our professional expertise in crafting what could be. If ESSA is to work, states, districts, and the federal government must seize opportunities to craft policy that employs our firsthand knowledge of what works and doesn’t in real classrooms and schools. At this moment, the federal government is asking what we see as the key provisions and policies so that any guidance or rules enacted reflect our professional expertise. We know that every teacher and school leader won’t sit in a room with Department staff, but please know that you can send your thoughts and concerns to essa.questions@ed.gov. Adding your voice does not mean having to read and digest 1,000-plus pages of the law. Plenty of analyses and summaries have been published and you can find some starting places on the Department’s website.

I am glad that ESSA provides an opportunity for us all to rethink the assessment, accountability and educator evaluation systems to ensure they are meaningful and helpful. It’s important that the law requires consultation with stakeholders like us at every level. Now, we need to be ready with our vision and our solutions of what can be so that every student can truly succeed.

Mark Sass teaches social sciences at Legacy High School in the Adams 12 School District in Colorado and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education. This blog also represents contributions from roundtables led by fellow TAFs Matt Presser and Nancy Veatch.

Special Education Announcement Provides a Lesson in Social Justice

After last week’s announcement of a new effort to address widespread disparities in the treatment of students of color with disabilities, we asked two educators to react to the news, drawing on their own experiences as special education teachers.

Lisa Coates

As a special educator for 17 years, I have long been witness to what civil rights data collections are showing now is pervasive – there is a disproportionately high representation of students of color identified for special education. Additionally, special education students of color face higher risk rates of disciplinary referrals for suspensions, alternative school assignments, and expulsions, which correlate to lower graduation rates.

There’s an irony as education for students with special needs was born out of the civil rights movement. Too often other variables such as language, poverty, assessment practices, and lack of professional development and cultural competence support for teachers have played too big a role, resulting in unnecessary services or students learning in inappropriately restrictive environments.

I remember early in my career proctoring an educational assessment as part of an initial eligibility for a student’s consideration into specialized education. The referral came from a general education teacher who said, “He just isn’t getting the content.” While administering the test, I saw a test filled with cultural biases, and the result was a boy being assigned to a self-contained class unnecessarily. Fortunately that student’s case manager advocated and the case was made for a less restrictive environment. Too many kids don’t have such an advocate.

As the demographics of our nation’s schools become more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, we must closely inspect disproportionality to ensure we create equitable learning communities. There are practices that may reduce disproportionality, including pre-referral interventions, family engagement, instructional practices for collaboration in the general curriculum, and professional development, to improve student outcomes.

Josalyn Tresvant

For years there have been documented situations where minority students have experienced inadequate services, low-quality curriculum, and isolation from their nondisabled peers. I taught minority students in both inclusionary and pullout settings at a high-needs school. At one point I serviced 40 students in grades K-5. What drove me was the fact these students and their parents were expecting me do right by those students so they could be successful beyond elementary school. To not do right by them meant they would potentially fall victim to even more dire circumstances related to poverty.

In grades 4-5, I co-taught with the classroom teacher, co-planning and making sure our lessons included strategies to make sure all students in that class were successful. This kept students in the classroom and pushed them to succeed. The results were not only evident in their IEP progress but also on their standardized test data. The most compelling evidence was in their classroom discourse. The level of engagement they had with their peers regarding what they were learning was powerful and the sense of self-confidence they exuded was infectious. We also spent a lot of time educating parents of their rights and how to advocate for their child. We wanted to them to feel empowered and informed on how to access resources or voice concerns about their child’s plan. Reducing disparities for special education students can mean the difference between lifelong success or failure.

Lisa Coates is a veteran special education teacher in Virginia and was a 2010 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow. Josalyn Tresvant McGhee taught special education in Memphis, Tennessee, for six years and is a current Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

One Step Forward: A National Summit on Teacher Leadership

An idea born of frustration from last year’s International Summit on the Teaching Profession came to fruition on February 5th and 6th. The first National Summit on Teacher Leadership was held in Washington, D.C., and for those in attendance there was an overwhelming sense that this is the right work at the right time. The Summit was another important step in the teacher leadership movement.

Educators who attended last year’s International Summit were disappointed that teacher representation and voice were sorely missing from many of the formal discussions that took place. We felt that if we wanted to move the profession forward, we needed to ensure that teacher voices were heard through the words of teacher leaders. We thought why not have a national summit on teacher leadership in the United States to raise these voices?

We presented the idea to the United States Delegation led by then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, President of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, and Executive Director of the Chief Council for State School Officers, Chris Minnich. They agreed and said they would commit to a summit.

Fast forward 11 months and the first National summit on teacher leadership took place in D.C. to great acclaim. Over 20 states sent practicing teachers, association leaders, and state policy makers to the summit where they heard from other states on the work they were all doing to promote teacher leadership. For two days, states worked together and made commitments to move forward with the implementation of teacher leadership policies and plans. This was not easy work because there was true collaboration taking place, which involved many hard conversations. It was truly amazing to see teacher leaders playing a lead role in this work.

At the end of the Summit each state made a commitment statement describing their next steps to keep the teacher leader movement going forward. There was palpable excitement in the room – from policy makers and teachers alike – as a result of sitting down together and, in some cases, even committing to host state summits.

In closing, Dr. Andy Hargreaves, the Chair of Education at Boston College, reminded participants of the many pitfalls associated with this type of endeavor. Don’t let the idea of teacher leadership get co-opted like the concept of professional learning communities, for starters. And don’t lose momentum that has been built throughout the Summit. His advice going forward: follow through with commitments, have short term plans, and share with each other.

We all know this work is hard but if we continue to meet, collaborate, and keep a solution-oriented mindset we can strengthen teacher leadership’s role in improving the lives of students. Frustration from last year’s International Summit led to this year’s National Summit which wisely included the many diverse voices of educators from across the country. There will inevitably be more missteps and frustrations, but it is exciting to think of the possibilities if we persevere and remain united in this very important cause.

Mark Sass teaches social sciences at Legacy High School in the Adams 12 School District in Colorado, and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Developing Young Agents of Change: Why I Teach in High-Need Schools

Former U.S. Department of Education Teacher Ambassador Fellow Geneviève DeBose reads with one of her students

Former U.S. Department of Education Teacher Ambassador Fellow Geneviève DeBose reads with one of her students

“The thing that made me change was the people that I know or see in Watts. The people in my hood is either gangbangers or crackheads and I don’t want to be neither.…I don’t want to be killed over some shoe or the way I look or the people that I hang out with.”

During my first year of teaching in 1999, I found this writing torn up and thrown in the trash. It was my student D’s response to the prompt, “What was a turning point in your life?” She decided not to turn it in, but instead to throw it away. Back then I didn’t recognize her response for what it was – a recognition of her own power, an opportunity to improve her neighborhood or a cry for help. And back then I probably didn’t recognize my own ability to support her development as a 6th grade change-maker. Nonetheless, I taped it back together and have kept it for the last 17 years as a reminder of why I teach in high-need schools.

I’ve always taught in high-need schools, and while I know that all students deserve great teachers, I feel strongly that my students need me most, and I need them. My students are my people. Many of us share a history of struggle as people of color in the United States. Me — an African American and Irish American woman. Them — Mexican and Central American, West African, Caribbean, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, African American, you name it.

I am a proud product of public schools and believe strongly that all students, regardless of their circumstances deserve access to an excellent education. By teaching in high-need schools, not only am I an agent of change, I also get to support my students in becoming agents of change – something very few of my teachers did for me. I left teaching for three years and realized almost immediately that the classroom is where I am of most service – and where I am happiest. Teaching brings me joy but teaching in high-need schools also grounds me in knowing that I am doing something transformative, not only for myself and my students, but for our country and our world.

I can’t deny that teaching in high-need schools can be tough. The social, emotional, and educational trauma that many of our students face greatly impacts their schooling and our teaching experiences. But the notion of what’s possible can outweigh what is. With time, collaboration, support, and relationships, my colleagues, my students, their families and I can thrive and collectively change our communities for the better.

I know that I can’t do this work alone. And 17 years ago, my student D knew that she couldn’t do it alone either. While I wasn’t sure how to best support D as a first-year teacher, the beauty of it all is that every single day I get to right that wrong. I get to shift students’ life trajectories by being a model of change and supporting them in becoming their own agents of change. Quite honestly, there’s no better place to be.

Geneviève DeBose, NBCT, teaches seventh grade Language Arts in the South Bronx in New York City. She was a 2011 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Girls and Coding: Seeing What the Future Can Be

From left to right, Gilliam Jacobs, Brittany Greve, Andrea Chaves, Noran Omar, Angela Diep.

At the White House for the White House Champions of Change for Computer Science Education! From left to right, Gilliam Jacobs, Brittany Greve, Andrea Chaves, Noran Omar and Angela Diep.

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

This is a common expression that, perhaps like me, you’ve heard many times. For the girls at the Young Women’s Leadership school where I teach in New York City, this is – sadly — the case. My students couldn’t see themselves as women in STEM careers, and in fact, knew little about the opportunities offered within the field.

That’s why I made it my mission to bring computer science to our school.

My principal was excited at the idea of incorporating computer science (CS), but took me by surprise when she said I would have to teach it. As a certified Spanish teacher, I had no background in CS other than being digitally competent. But, after starting to learn through an online training program, I decided to blend computer science into my advanced Spanish speakers class because I figured why not have students learning Spanish dive into coding, too.

On the first day of class, I announced to the girls in Spanish that we were going to do tons of reading, writing and editing – but in a language called JavaScript. I made it clear that I wasn’t fluent in this language, but reassured them that we were on this journey together.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the gender gap is not due to women lacking STEM-related skills, but rather because young women are conditioned to believe that careers in technology and science are reserved for men. That’s part of why I also decided to start two after-school programs: a partnership with an existing organization, Girls Who Code, which works to inspire and educate women to pursue careers in technology and my own program, TechCrew – an internship program that exposes girls to coding, graphic design, animation and film.

Watch the girls in Chaves’ class who created the nutrition game, Healthy Bunch, which won the MIT-sponsored competition “Dream It. Code It. Win It.”

Each club started with eight girls, but TechCrew now includes 30 girls working collaboratively to create and produce technology-driven projects. Students have coded video games and apps about recycling, healthy eating habits, carbon footprints, space debris, learning Spanish and more. As one of my students, Brittany Greve, says, “Computer science has allowed me to look at a problem from multiple perspectives and use logic to come up with innovative solutions.”

My students have also become leaders within the CS community. We’ve worked together on all sorts of projects, such as a summer coding camp in Queens where girls learned to build apps that advocate for social justice. Additionally, my TechCrew is currently leading 50 girls in the creation of a Digital Dance, in which dancers, filmmakers, graphic designers and coders are bringing together their expertise to create a beautiful piece of art.

Watch Chaves’ students talking about why they love to code and how coding has influenced them (in English).

Watch Chaves’ students talking about why they love to code and how coding has influenced them (in Spanish).

I am a Spanish teacher by training, but I took a risk to integrate CS into my curriculum and learned that this language does not have to stand on its own. It can be infused into any subject in any classroom. All it takes is a little innovation, trust and risk-taking.

One of my students put it best, “CS has opened a new pathway in my life. It has made me discover a part of who I am that I didn’t know existed. I can now see what I would like my future to be,” she said.

Andrea Chaves is a Spanish and computer science teacher and creative director at the Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria, New York. She was recently named a White House Champion of Change.