Applying for the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Program: Reaching Beyond My Walls for Students

Early in my teaching career I remember wishing other people would just “leave me alone” to do my job. I loved working with my students and was wholly committed to their success, but often felt like the non-instructional components of my job—professional development, staff meetings, and so on—kept me from doing my best as their teacher. As a result, I had little interest in the educational world outside of the four walls of my classroom.

In recent years, however, through some discussions at the local and state level, I have come to realize the limitations of this mentality. So, I was intrigued last year when a former student’s parent forwarded me information about the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship (TAF) with the U.S. Department of Education. In the past, I would have deleted the email, but I decided to submit an application. After several rounds of interviews, I was selected as a TAF for the 2015-2016 school year. Though only one quarter through my Fellowship year, I can now say that applying was one of the best professional decisions I have ever made.

I teach Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics, so the opportunity to learn and participate in the federal policymaking process as a TAF simply can’t help but enrich my instruction. Also, through my TAF Team, I get to work with some of the most thoughtful, passionate and brilliant educators I have ever encountered and with staff members at the Department whose dedication to students is both energizing and inspirational. Most importantly, however, I have come to realize the simple reality that in 2015 it is no longer possible for a teacher to wall off his or her classroom from outside influences. As a TAF, I have an opportunity to lend my voice and experiences to shape education policy in our country and to better understand the decisions that are made in Washington, D.C., versus the state capital in Columbia, S.C., or at the district office here in Richland School District Two.

Moreover, as a result of my work as a TAF, I am finding myself slowly letting go of some of the focus on “my students,” not for any lessor commitment to their success, but, rather, because I am realizing how ALL students are OUR students. Our collective success as a country does not depend on your students or mine, it depends on all students being prepared to lead and thrive in our future world. Their collective success requires me to share my voice and expertise beyond the walls of my classroom. For myself, I can’t envision a better way to do this than as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and I encourage other educators to consider taking that step beyond your classroom walls and apply.

Patrick Kelly is a teacher in Richland County School District Two in Columbia, S.C., and a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

U.S. Department of Education Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows are outstanding educators with a record of leadership in their professional communities, strong communication skills, and insights on education policy based in their school and classroom expertise. Applications for the 2016 cohort of Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows opened on November 17, 2015 and will close on December 14, 2015 at 11:59 PM ET. For more information about the process, please thoroughly review the Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellowship webpages.

Applying for the Principal Ambassador Fellowship: Seeing Education from a Broader Perspective

ED's Teacher Ambassador Fellows and Principal Ambassador Fellows working together.

ED’s Teacher Ambassador Fellows and Principal Ambassador Fellows working together.

I never imagined that one day I would be a Principal Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education. When I look back to where I was a year ago, I was busy running my school—meeting with teachers, students, and parents. I was working with custodians to review blueprints of our newly renovated cafeteria. I was observing classes. And I was facilitating conflict resolution with my guidance counselor and our students.

One day last year, when I rode the train to work, I read my principals’ weekly newsletter and that’s where I first saw the information to apply to become a Teaching or Principal Ambassador Fellow. Although caught up in the day-to-day frantic pace of working in a school, I also am a learner. I am always reading education articles and thinking about what new ideas will help my students improve. I was interested in opportunities to learn and grow.

So, I applied.

Once in the thick of it, I realized that the application process was no joke. The written application required me to think strategically about who I am as an educator and what I have accomplished in my career. The phone interview that followed had me thinking on my feet, talking about what I believe matters in education and why being a fellow could make a bigger difference. The final round involved both an in-person, one-on-one interview and a fishbowl-style interview with other applicants. I had to exhibit all the skills needed to lead: communicate clearly, be a team player, and work in a fast-paced environment.

As a teacher, my first love was impacting my students in the classroom. Then, I found I could provide opportunities for all students’ learning by leading a school. Now, I am looking at what policies shape our educational landscape for the country. This is exciting work!

As a Principal Ambassador Fellow at ED, I get to share what has led me to be an educator for my entire career. It’s a unique opportunity, and well worth all the steps to get here. It’s why I want to pass the word along and encourage others out there to take a chance and apply.

Alicia Pérez-Katz is a 2015 Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Department of Education Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows are outstanding educators, with a record of leadership in their professional communities, strong communication skills, and insights on education policy based in their school and classroom expertise. Applications for the 2016 cohort of Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows opened on November 17, 2015 and will close on December 14, 2015 at 11:59 PM ET. For more information about the process, please thoroughly review the Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellowship webpages.

Open Educational Resources – Opening Up a World of Difference

Teaching children about the world requires access to a vast and varied resource bank. Prior to the digital age, teachers like me relied on limited primary source and dated secondary source materials. By the time a social science textbook arrived at the classroom, it was outdated. Open Educational Resources (OER), however, changes the landscape of the classroom as teachers can access rich current materials of varied genres for students of all ages and abilities. For students like mine, it’s a sea change.

As a teacher in a rural school in northern California, my students now have access to digital technology, as funding streams finally shift away from materials that expire soon after they are placed into my students’ hands. By using OER, I can collect, review, and strategically select resources that best meet the needs of my students and the task. OERs also address the distinct challenge of geographic isolation. Teachers can provide learning opportunities that were once impossible through these resources without ever having to leave the campus.

A great example of the power of OERs can be seen in the Williamsfield Community Unit School District (Number 210) in Williamsfield, Illinois. This small, rural district exemplifies the promise of OER by providing cost-effective and up-to-date resources and learning opportunities for students. As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow on the Department’s Back to School Bus Tour, I had the pleasure of seeing the progressive and innovative approach this district—serving 310 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students—is taking. Williamsfield is one the country’s leading Future Ready School Districts. A tour of the school highlighted how all students are learning about the world and developing skills they need for life as they access these high-quality, openly licensed digital resources. I had the pleasure of listening in as three high school students presented their micro-grid alternate energy solution to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. These students used readily available technology to access OER as they engaged in a meaningful learning experience. Williamsfield shows us what is possible. Just because you are a student in a rural school district, you are no longer limited by your geographic locale thanks to OER.

The Department also recently highlighted OER at a White House Symposium. Secretary Duncan discussed the use of OER to support all students, no matter their zip code.

I encourage educators to take some time to explore OER and expand their resources banks. The students of our nation need to listen to, see, read and make meaning of a vast collection of resources to build their capacity toward becoming literate citizens who continually build their knowledge of content topics and the world.

Nancy Veatch is the 5th and 6th grade teacher at Bend Elementary School in Cottonwood, California, and a 2015 Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education.

Bringing the Oxygen Back into the Classroom

My life-long passion is teaching. While I’ve taught a number of grades in a wide variety of settings over the past 23 years, fourth grade is the grade I adore. And, as passionate as I am about teaching, I have been equally passionate in sharing my concern that our youngest learners are spending too much time on low-quality, developmentally inappropriate, and redundant assessments.

This is why I cheered when I saw the video the President posted on Facebook and the testing action plan the Department released this past week. I’ve been concerned for many years about the impact of over-testing on the fourth graders in my class, but the impact really hit home for me two years ago when I witnessed one of my students suffer severe side effects of both physical and mental anxiety about testing.

After this, I resolved to advocate for improving the assessment situation. I decided that I had to look at the things that I could control. I took inventory of every test prep I was required to use and cut test review to the bare minimum of what was required. Taking the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named approach, I quit saying the name of the test. Each time a student said that they were learning something because it would be on the test, I challenged my students to connect learning to real life instead. When I was required to use material that had the name of the test, I had the students brainstorm ways this material would help us outside of the classroom. I promised my students and their parents that they would be prepared for the test, but told them that we would not be talking about it on a daily basis.

All of this helped, and testing results weren’t impacted. I still worried, however, about my students losing their childhoods to tests that required students to be silent for most of the school day several times a year and disliked the rules that limited me in what I could say to comfort nine-year-old students with tears streaming down their faces.

As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, I have had the opportunity to share my concerns several times. I’ve also heard from teachers, principals, parents and students around the country. So last year, when Secretary Duncan said that issues with testing were, “sucking the oxygen out of the room in too many schools,” I cried.

It is time we pumped that oxygen back into education for all students and gain back instructional time for learning things that bring our students joy and skills for their future. It is time that we all reflect on how to improve the ways we assess students. The President’s Testing Action Plan outlines principles to move assessment and learning into balance. It also gives everyone involved a chance to take inventory of what we can do to ensure that all tests are worth taking, that they are high quality, that they don’t take up too much time, and that they are fair and fully transparent to students and parents. It is time we use teacher’s expertise to rethink assessments.
I have a quote in my fourth grade classroom from a favorite book, Hooray for Diffendoofer Day:

We’ve taught you that the earth is round,

That red and white make pink,

And something else that matters more –

We’ve taught you how to think.

Let’s free up the time students spend on redundant testing and teach them how to think!

 JoLisa Hoover is a 4th grade teacher at River Ridge Elementary School in Leander Independent School District near Austin, Texas and a 2015 Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

New Tool Kit Provides Resources to Teach Children Learning English

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced the completion of the English Learner Tool Kit, designed to support educators in ensuring equal access to a high-quality education for English Learners (EL). This tool kit complements the English Learner Guidance that was released in January 2015 by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to remind states and school districts of their civil rights obligations to EL students and Limited English Proficient parents.

The tool kit was unveiled at Bruce Monroe Elementary School at Park View in Washington, D.C. On hand at the event were Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department; District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson; and John King, the Education Department’s senior advisor delegated duties of deputy secretary of education.

As teachers who work at the Department of Education as Teaching Ambassador Fellows, we are excited about the access this tool kit gives educators to clear-cut guidance and research on best practices in the field.

The EL Tool Kit is divided into chapters on topics such as identifying all English Learners, addressing English Learners with disabilities, and evaluating the effectiveness of a school district’s program. Each chapter can be downloaded separately and information is grouped into easy-to-find topics. For each chapter, there are key points and examples, as well as adaptations of and links to resources created and maintained by public and private organizations. By bringing together all these resources into one easy-to-use location, teachers, principals, and districts have an accessible tool kit full of free resources.

ED's John King talking with educators about the Tool Kit.

ED’s John King talking with educators about the Tool Kit.

Across the country, public school teachers serve more than 5 million ELs. As teachers ourselves, we can attest that being given a tool that provides support for closing the achievement gap between ELs and native English speakers is invaluable. Looking at this new resource, we are reminded of the many EL students who have sat in our classrooms, bringing with them a rich diversity of languages, cultures, and experiences. As educators, we are hopeful that this new resource will make it less complicated to find answers about how to best meet the needs of our students and provide them with every opportunity to reach their fullest potential.

Aman Dhanda and JoLisa Hoover are Teaching Ambassador Fellows with the U.S. Department of Education.

College Programs for Students with Disabilities Are “Changing Culture”

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For too many kids in classrooms like mine in New Haven, Conn., disabilities can be sources of shame, indicators of what students can’t do, instead of what they can. As part of the Department’s Ready for Success bus tour, I got to see two universities where students with disabilities are not just enrolled in college, they’re thriving, finding success academically and socially in a way that many never could have imagined.

Staff at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Central Missouri go beyond procedural compliance to provide, what Melody Musgrove, director of the Office of Special Education Programs, called an “on-ramp to the rest of our kids’ lives.” Federal data suggests that students with disabilities are less likely to attend four-year colleges than their peers; these examples prove that doesn’t have to be the case.

Meridith Bradford said college counselors at her New Jersey high school “said I was crazy” when she shared her plan to attend a four-year college. With the support of the University of Illinois’ Beckwith Residential Support Services program, Bradford, who has cerebral palsy, is now a senior and one of the student managers for the university’s wheelchair basketball teams.

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“When I was in high school, I had an aide follow me everywhere whether I liked it or not,” Bradford said. “When I get my college degree, I know it’ll be me getting it under my own power.”

The 26 students with severe physical disabilities in the Beckwith program live in an accessible dorm and hire a team of personal assistants who help them with daily living tasks like eating and dressing. “If I would’ve gone anywhere else, I would’ve had to have lived at home,” said Dan Escalona, a sports columnist for The Daily Illini who has muscular dystrophy. “The independence aspect is a big reason why I came.”

Today, students with disabilities at the University of Illinois graduate at about the same rate as others in their same programs, according to Tanya Gallagher, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences.

Meanwhile, at the University of Central Missouri, students with intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disabilities are learning to lead independent lives.

Julie Warm knew she wanted her daughter, Mary, who has Down syndrome, to attend college ever since Mary was in first grade. She also knew that no appropriate program existed.

She reached out to 19 area universities before she connected with Dr. Joyce Downing, a professor in UCM’s College of Education, who was enthusiastic about designing a program.

Today, Mary, 23, is an alumnus of the university’s THRIVE program and is studying to be a preschool assistant teacher, so she can “teach kids to accept people and not grow up to be bullies,” she said.

Students in the THRIVE program live together and take a range of classes, both in the university and customized to their needs. They also take on two internships in fields of interest and experience counseling to develop their life and social skills.

“In the past, schools would’ve put them in a vocational role,” said Michael Brunkhorst, one of the instructors with the THRIVE program. “I say, raise those expectations because all of our students have proven that they can do much more than was thought they could do.”

Programs like these involve “changing a culture,” said Michael Yudin, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at the U.S. Department of Education.“It’s more than just providing services to students with disabilities,” he said. “It’s about the value and talent that these individuals can contribute to our society.”

After these visits, one of my first tasks upon returning to school was to welcome a new fifth grader with an individualized education plan. My experiences at these universities left me hopeful that by the time he graduates, more universities will have programs like these that go above and beyond to harness students’ talents for the good of us all.

Matt Presser is an Instructional Literacy Coach at King/Robinson School in New Haven, Conn., and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

A Look Back: How One School Community Responded to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

With the recent anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this past August, I found myself reflecting on my experiences following the fall 2005 disaster. My home state of Texas served as one of the primary evacuation locations for Katrina and then, not even a month later, was hit by Hurricane Rita. While the circumstances of each were dramatically different, they highlighted the ways schools serve as safe havens for students and the community during times of crisis.

As a teacher in Leander, TX just outside Austin, the devastating stories of the 1,833 lives lost during the storm haunted me. But I knew it was the survivors that needed our immediate attention. Texas, which received the vast majority of the evacuees, went to great lengths to help those impacted by the event get back on their feet.

My state, for example, made it easier for displaced students to enroll, and helped them meet their basic needs. Teachers and students went to great lengths to create a sense of normalcy for these young people, many of whom were traumatized, and get them up to speed with our state standards.

My Aunt, a school nurse outside of Houston, witnessed firsthand the physical and emotional toll the storm had on its victims. She treated many students with badly infected feet caused by walking through dirty flood waters. As she provided first aid, the children told her of their loss and fear of leaving behind their homes (or what was left of their homes).

Just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, we were shocked to hear that another major hurricane was coming and this time it was headed towards the Texas coast. Rita made land fall on the Texas/Louisiana border on September 24th, 2005 with winds of up to 120 mph and over six inches of rainfall across the region.

My family near Houston evacuated to Austin like many others and spent 22 hours on the road for what should have been a four-hour drive on an exceptionally hot day and night. It was predicted that the hurricane had shifted and might make it as far inland as Austin – directly over the evacuation routes – exacerbating the anxiety of everyone involved.

Buses in traffic

Once again, our schools stepped up. My district, for example, designated seven schools as evacuation centers. The district’s administrators, teachers and other employees even volunteered to run the centers because the number of Red Cross volunteers had been depleted by Katrina. These were initially meant to provide safe haven for up to 1,500 evacuees, but within 24 hours, that number swelled to 3,500 and a few days later, the total was 4,200.

Leander’s schools also became a refuge for hundreds of pets and livestock. This was a lesson learned from Katrina where many people refused to evacuate because shelters wouldn’t accept their animals. During that unforgettable weekend we provided meals, clean beds, working showers, and TVs to monitor the storm. We also provided medical care for both people and animals and even helped welcome a new baby and puppy into the world.

Looking back, I’m so proud to have been a part of an education community that immediately stepped up to create a safe and nurturing environment for students and neighbors from near and far. As the country goes back to school this fall, it reminds me of just how many educators across the country help students cope with trauma on a daily basis. It’s an honor to be part of the profession that does this and a legacy of Katrina and Rita worth remembering a decade later.

 JoLisa Hoover is a 4th grade teacher at River Ridge Elementary School in Leander, Texas and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

 

Seeing Teacher Leadership in Action – #ReadyforSuccess in Cedar Rapids

Teach to Lead at Roosevelt

As an educator, there is great value in visiting classrooms and observing the profession of teaching in action. As a 6th grade teacher in California, I did this many times in my school. In my role as a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, I have the added opportunity to visit schools across the country, learning from a diverse set of colleagues.

This week, I visited classrooms in the state of Iowa as part of the Department’s annual back-to-school bus tour. Iowa recently implemented the Iowa Teacher Leadership Compensation System (TLC) which is designed to reward effective teachers with leadership opportunities and higher pay across the entire State. The Council Bluffs Community School District, where Superintendent Dr. Martha Bruckner set a vision for the year of “Defying Gravity”, and the Cedar Rapids Community School District were two of the first districts to receive state teacher leadership grants and are in their second year of implementation.

I observed four major elements of effective teacher leadership in both districts:

  • flexibility in developing systems and positions of leadership that work for individual district needs
  • student centered transparent collaboration among all stakeholders
  • support and guidance from school and district administration to successfully implement these systems, and
  • time and space for teachers to effectively collaborate with one another.

The classroom instruction, grade level collaboration, and professional development sessions that I observed in both districts made it clear that placing value on teacher leadership results in student success. One of the most significant drivers to this success was peer-coaching from a student centered perspective.  The coaching conversations we witnessed were focused on the needs of the students, not the deficits of the educator.  This perspective promotes a growth perspective for both teachers and students.

Duncan holds a sign with students at Roosevelt High in Cedar RapidsAt Roosevelt Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Secretary Arne Duncan observed a coaching session between Laura Zimmerman, an English Language Learner teacher, and Anne Ironside, an Instructional Design Strategist. During the session, the teacher and coach participated in a respectful post-observation lesson discussion of specific teaching strategies and evidence for the progress towards goals set for students. The coach shared feedback, asked clarifying questions, provided resources for future lessons, and kept the conversation focused around students. As a teacher, it was compelling to watch Secretary Duncan witness the power of teacher leadership and hear Principal Autumn Pino discuss the benefits of such teacher leadership opportunities, stating, “This has been the most rewarding work we’ve ever done.”

Following the session, the Secretary then held a panel discussion with state and local education leaders in about the development of the TLC system, the role of Teach to Lead in advancing their work, and the successes they have seen as a result of the tangible support teachers and administrators receive to be the instructional leaders in their buildings. Local leaders stressed that the driving force behind the district’s success is undoubtedly the support for teacher leadership, and they made it clear that sustaining teacher leadership initiatives is a continued priority for supporting student success.

After just two days among these Iowa school districts’ teacher leaders, it’s clear that schools are indeed “Defying Gravity” and it is systemic support for effective teacher leadership that is taking them to new heights.

Watch Secretary Duncan wrap up day two of the Ready for Success bus tour:

Aman Dhanda is a 6th grade teacher at Woodland Prairie Elementary School and is currently a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

PDK/Gallup Poll Reveals Americans Know Students and Teachers Deserve the Very Best

As an educator with more than a decade of classroom experience, I’m encouraged by several of the data points in the PDK/Gallup Poll on the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools. It is especially heartening to learn that the majority of Americans want to better support the critical role teachers play in the lives of our young people and the prosperity of our nation. Teachers are among the most hardworking, dedicated, and creative professionals in any field, and this survey reveals that the public believes in taking steps—including increasing pay—to support and recognize them in a manner that reflects the vital nature of their work.

We know that teachers have the greatest impact on learning. We know that families across the United States send their very best to school every day. And, we know that every family’s very best—regardless of factors including socioeconomic status, geographic location or cultural background—has a fundamental human right to an education of the highest quality. Tragically, we also know that countless students have been denied this right throughout American history. To overcome our unjust past and establish an education system that truly achieves equity and enables every student to realize his or her potential, we need the very best teachers in all of our classrooms. That means treating teachers like the professionals they are by giving them the supports necessary to grow their practice and meet the needs of all students.

That also means attracting the highest-achieving students into the teaching profession, an idea that about half of those polled support. To best serve students—in addition to developing strong content and pedagogical knowledge—prospective educators should represent the diversity of our nation, be trained in cultural proficiency and, most importantly, possess an unwavering belief that all students can achieve.

The PDK/Gallup poll results are especially timely as we wait for the proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It is imperative for Congress to pass legislation to improve educational supports and structures nationwide. It’s what teachers need and America’s very best deserve.

Meredith Morelle is a 2015 Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

The Importance of Rigorous Coursework for All Students: A Teacher’s Perspective

Patrick Kelly, a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, begins his eleventh year teaching Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics.

Patrick Kelly, a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, begins his eleventh year teaching Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics.

This week, I will be starting my 11th year teaching Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics, and I have seen during that time the importance of a rigorous high school experience in preparing students to succeed in college. That’s why I was excited to see the U.S. Department of Education’s recent announcement of $28.4 million in federal grants to help students access AP classes. These grants are used to help pay for low-income students taking advanced placement tests administered by the College Board, the International Baccalaureate Organization, and Cambridge International Examinations.

As the College Board noted in its 2014 AP Report to the Nation, students who experience success in an AP course are more likely to graduate college on time and earn higher GPAs. Beyond the numbers, I have seen the positive impact of rigorous coursework in the stories of my students.

One of my greatest joys each year is to receive emails, calls, and visits from former students, and they frequently note how well their AP coursework in high school prepared them for a collegiate learning environment. In addition, an overwhelming majority of my students have performed well enough on the AP exam to receive college credit, which, in turn, has given them increased freedom and a leg up in their collegiate studies.

I also know my students are uniquely fortunate, as my home state of South Carolina pays the fee for each student in an AP course to take the exam. The cost to take an exam is nearly $100, and, while the College Board provides a reduced fee for students with financial need, the cost for these students is still over $50. As a result, this fee becomes a major obstacle to accessing a rigorous curriculum for many students in the 38 states that don’t pay for AP exams.

Currently, over 20 percent of our nation’s school-age children come from households living in poverty, and, for these children, paying the fees to take even one AP exam is simply not financially possible. However, this inability to pay does not mean these children lack the ability to thrive and succeed in rigorous coursework. I have taught numerous students who were in poverty or homeless, and they excelled in their coursework and earned college credit via the AP exam just like their more advantaged peers.

By distributing The Advanced Placement Test Fee grants announced last week, the Department of Education is extending opportunity to thousands of students around our country.

In the 21st century, student access to rigorous coursework is an essential right to prepare students for the workforce, and programs like this one are an important step in the right direction. There is still more work required in order to provide students from underprivileged backgrounds with the types of academic supports and systems necessary to succeed in challenging coursework, but eliminating barriers to accessing rigor is an essential first step. The Department of Education’s efforts to provide that access to more students is exactly the type of initiative that will help us reach our nation’s common goal of producing “college- and career-ready” students.

Patrick Kelly is a teacher in Richland County School District Two in Columbia, SC and has been selected as a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

Games for Learning Summit: Expanding the Conversation Between Educators and Game Designers

Cross-posted from Medium.

Whether it is using quick warm-ups like Game of Phones or highly immersive experiences with Mario Kart and Minecraft, digital games can be powerful motivators for learning. It is with this in mind that we are eager to expand the conversation between teachers and game developers.

The U.S. Department of Education and Games for Change, with support from the Entertainment Software Association, will host the Games for Learning Summit April 21 at the 2015 Games for Change (G4C) Festival. With more than 250 participants, including nationally recognized educators, the designers of some of today’s most popular video games, and members of the U.S. Department of Education, we are hopeful that this event will encourage collaboration focused on the learning needs and interests of young people in the U.S.

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Collaborating and designing with the learning interests of young people in mind requires a shift in thinking from all stakeholders. Based on the conversations we’ve had with teachers and students, there is a hunger for better games that support better learning today. With the recent release of The Ed Tech Developer’s Guide, the pathways for developing for impact are clearer than ever.

At the beginning of the school year, the two of us (along with a handful of amazing teachers) spent a weekend enmeshed with teams of game designers at the White House Education Game Jam. Focused on games that could provide powerful learning resources for schools, we have continued to be optimistic about the results that such collaboration can yield.

A recent game-design project in Chad’s classroom highlights some of what game-based learning has to offer us as teachers and students. Inspired by games ranging from Geometry Dash to Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, students working in teams of four completed their own Scratch games like Wasteland Adventures, World Championship Soccer, and Sanic Pong. Each ‘studio’ of four students brainstormed genres, tropes, and mechanics for games they wanted to create and play. Then they got to work. Programmers started to code. Artists worked with platforms like Piskel and Google Draw. Sound Engineers scoured freesound.org and Sound Bible for sound effects and composed theme music with Online Sequencer. Student project managers kept everyone working and talking with one another through shared docs and folders.

The project helped students develop media literacy, soft skills like collaboration, and technical skills like managing an online repository of A/V assets, to say nothing of the logic, math, reading, and writing skills they demonstrated in navigating tutorials, communicating online, and building their games. Students even discussed gender norms in character design and traditional gaming narratives. Game-based learning isn’t about consuming a product to pick up a fact or two; it’s about learning to analyze or produce pieces of interactive media that require critical thinking, persistence, and problem-solving to master, critique, play, and make.

Now, with several White House Education Game Jam alumni and friends coming to the Games for Learning Summit, we are excited about focusing on articulating the thinking, dialogue, and spaces for collaboration between developers and educators.

We’re looking forward to continuing conversation far beyond the Games and Learning Summit. We need to work together to answer questions like: How can we help one another make and use games to fulfill educational needs in the classroom? How can we put the best interactive content in the hands of students for the most meaningful educational experiences — those focused on discovery and decision-making? Let’s figure out game-changing ways to harness the power of play for the work of learning in schools.

Join the conversation on Tuesday by watching the live stream and Tweeting your contributions with #G4L15.

Antero Garcia (@anterobot) is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education and teaches pre-service teachers as an Assistant Professor at Colorado State University.

Chad Sansing (@chadsansing) teaches technology and project-based learning at the BETA Academy in Staunton, Virginia.

If There’s No Seat at the Table, Make Your Own Table

A year ago when Secretary Arne Duncan introduced an effort to promote teacher leadership called “Teach to Lead” to thousands of educators, none of us had any real idea of what it was going to become. The speech that introduced it was long on aspirations but short on plans and details. To be quite honest, there was a hefty bit of skepticism among many I spoke with that the US Department of Education wasn’t going to do anything more than rhetoric around teacher leadership. I wrote Arne to ask if I could remain as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow for a second year in a hybrid role working part-time for the Department to help structure Teach to Lead, while also teaching in Omaha. I offered to be one of the people who would lie awake nights, making sure this all came together! It was impossible to know then that Teach to Lead would come to involve thousands of educators from throughout the country, producing hundreds of meaningful ideas to improve education for young people while strengthening the teaching profession.

Was I crazy to sign on to such a vaguely defined project? Obviously. But I was also passionate in my belief that only teachers could bring about real system reform that put students first. I had experienced teacher leadership as the backbone to student success. Over the previous 5 years my school, Miller Park Elementary, had been transformed. Student achievement, and students’ belief in themselves, had soared. What made us successful – teachers leading transformation in collaboration with our principal, students and parents – had to happen everywhere. My mantra, “When teachers lead, kids succeed!” comes from experience.

The Teach to Lead team, comprised primarily of teachers from the Department of Education and National Board, knew that we had to have something that was “scalable” (capable of reaching teachers across the country). We developed a website that has over 2,000 members on the virtual community “Commit to Lead” where teachers can share their ideas and receive feedback from colleagues. The website is also a place to access the resources of our 70 support organizations and read the inspiring stories of teachers who are leading change.

Three national Teach to Lead Summits were held in Louisville, Denver and Boston during the winter. The Summits were run by teachers – we set the agenda and ran the show. We asked teachers to help us score the ideas to select participants. We placed teachers as prominent speakers and trainers. Teach to Lead was going to walk the talk.

Over 350 teachers from 38 states came alone or in teams, equipped with their ideas for change. The energy in the room at each Summit was palpable! Teachers were claiming their authority as change agents and the networking was compounding their drive towards success.

We provided training on logic models and our growing list of support organizations provided the critical friends who asked the hard questions and pushed participants to think deeper. We held workshops to learn more about working with administrators, resource development, talking with policy makers, mentoring and more. Our participants arrived with nascent ideas and left with over 100 fully formed action plans to implement at home – and new skills to get it done!

At the end of the Denver Summit, a teacher from Eagle County schools in Colorado told me, “I’ve been to many weekends for teacher leaders and sometimes I feel like I’m a part of somebody else’s agenda. This is the first time I feel like I was supported in moving forward with my own agenda which is the agenda of helping my students.” We were on the right track, but we continued to listen to feedback, reflect and adapt to make Teach to Lead stronger.

Secretary Duncan speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education

Secretary Duncan speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education

Today, our last year of work on Teach to Lead culminated on stage at the National Board’s Teaching & Learning conference with a panel of 4 exceptional teacher leaders and Secretary Duncan. In front of a crowd of thousands, Arne talked about Teach to Lead, stating, “I was hopeful [about teacher leadership] last year. I am convinced we are onto something really important and special now. Change has to come from teachers who own it and lead it.”

Chris Todd speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

Chris Todd speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

Another panelist, Chris Todd, a history teacher and a teacher leader in residence at the Connecticut State Department of Education said “Every teacher has the potential to be a teacher leader. The expertise that comes from experience makes for a better policy recommendation.”

The next step for Teach to Lead is to get even more “boots on the ground”; we are choosing 2-3 ideas out of each Summit to develop through Leadership Labs. The Labs are opportunities for local teams to receive hands-on targeted technical assistance from the Teach to Lead team and supporter organizations, convene stakeholders to discuss the status of plans and future actions, and develop approaches to integrate teacher leadership into systems and structures within local contexts. Our first Lab was in Marshall, Michigan and in just one day, our teacher leaders received tremendous community support including:

  • Expanding their project to neighboring middle schools through a joint effort
  • Partnering with 2 universities to assist with data collection and analyzing as well as providing pre-service teachers to help with after-school programs and other interventions
  • Highlighting their project as an exemplar by the Michigan State Department of Education
  • The assistance of two social workers from local organizations
  • Greater access to mental health care for their students

Working on Teach to Lead this past year has been a joy. It has given us the opportunity to offer a megaphone to the voices – and incredible ideas – of teachers around the country. We’ve begun to change the culture of what it means to be a teacher by proving that teacher leadership can transform both student learning and the education system.

From the beginning of this effort, I was a fierce advocate for doing this right. To me, that meant empowering teachers to design and implement this initiative. I’m so proud to say we’ve done that in Teach to Lead with Arne’s fervent support. As he said during this morning’s panel, “If there’s a seat at the table, grab it. If there’s no seat at the table, make your own table.”

What an honor it has been to work with the Teach to Lead team and my colleagues across the country! Margaret Mead said it best, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Thanks for letting us make our own table, Arne.