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.

Calling on All to Lift Up the Teaching Profession

Out in the field with students.

Out in the field with students.

After spending 25 years in education as a classroom teacher, adjunct faculty member in teacher education, and English Language Arts coordinator, I am increasingly concerned about the future of teaching in America and the urgency with which we must work together to lift up the profession. The reasons for this alarm are many fold.

Those of us who have chosen education as our career path continually see statistics about the decreasing number of students entering the teaching profession. We witness our credential programs struggle to fill seats and our districts struggle to fill positions.

We hear stories about the varying quality of teacher-credential programs across the nation. But that isn’t the only problem. Students enter the profession with limited skills because they have educated, but not encouraged to use critical thinking skills that could help them creatively plan a lesson.

We read the data about the staggering number of teachers that choose to leave the profession because they feel unsupported. And we observe them struggle in their first years with classroom management, lesson planning, and providing differentiated instruction.

So what can be done to help combat these problems? We must lift up the teaching profession, as Acting Secretary John King has prioritized and is calling on educators to do. It won’t be easy, but it’s necessary for the long-term health of the profession. The following steps illustrate how to achieve this goal.

Getting Them

After teaching for more than 20 years, I have had the pleasure of seeing children discover the joy of teaching others, for example, the Kindergartener who lines up the dinosaurs during free choice to read a story to them. We need to foster this spirit and encourage our students to consider teaching as a profession. Students who find enjoyment in specific content areas need to be given opportunities to delve deeply into their area of study and consider becoming a teacher.

Training Them

Teacher credential programs across the nation are distinctly unique; however, we must advocate for all programs to provide pre-service teachers with a balance of pedagogy and practice. In my 10 years as Adjunct Faculty, I have found that this balance is crucial to helping students navigate the shifting role from that of student to that of teacher. Additionally, student-teachers thrive when their program is instructed in such a way that models exemplary classroom teaching. We must advocate that all pre-service programs be taught using strategies we want these future teachers to embed into their practice.

Keeping Them

Teacher retention is currently a “hot topic,” and the Teacher Ambassador Fellows held a Twitter Chat about it last week. We need to become leaders to mentor new teachers as they begin to navigate through their first years of teaching. In my two year role as a Teacher on Special Assignment as the English Language Arts/Literacy Coordinator for my county, I provided support for 14 school districts. The biggest concern that I heard from all teachers was that they felt overwhelmed and unsupported as they sought to provide quality instruction that ensured student learning.

Teachers should take the lead and encourage their school district to develop mentoring programs or expand the role of content coaches so that all teachers who ask for support receive it. With an increasing number of retirees, seasoned veteran teachers cannot mentor all that will need support, and their professional learning is also important. It is therefore essential that we advocate for district-wide systems of support for all teachers.

The bottom line is more must be done to ensure teaching in America remains sustainable. It needs the voices of all 3.5 million of us to lift up this profession. From Acting Secretary John King to the rural teacher in northern California, we know that the future of our nation depends upon our collective effort to make it happen.

Nancy Veatch teaches at Bend Elementary School in Cottonwood, California, and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Engaging Families via Student-Led Conferences: Perspective from One of Our Teaching Ambassador Fellows

In eleven years of teaching, I have seen numerous out of school factors impact student achievement, from changes in global and digital interconnectedness to families’ relative access to quality healthcare. Throughout, there has been one constant that shines as the most important out of school factor — family engagement.

I have seen this to be true in my teaching, and while perhaps more challenging than ever before, family engagement is so critical that schools must find new tools to facilitate authentic and meaningful ways for family members to engage in their children’s education. One promising way to do this is through student-led conferences.

Kelly's daughter presents her work to her future 2nd grade teacher at a 1st grade "share fair" where family members and the school community were invited to review student work.

Kelly’s daughter presents her work to her future 2nd grade teacher at a 1st grade “share fair” where family members and the school community were invited to review student work.

My initial exposure to student-led conferences was not as a teacher, but rather, as the parent of a second-grader. My oldest daughter is enrolled in a school that utilizes innovative techniques for student assessment. As one component, each student conducts annual conferences with their family members and teachers to assess annual growth and learning. During these conferences, the student discusses what they find notable in their cross-curricular portfolio of work. This practice begins in kindergarten, and as a high school teacher, I admit I was skeptical of my six-year-old daughter’s ability to effectively reflect on her achievement and growth. After all, wasn’t it the job of the student to learn and the job of the teacher to assess that learning? However, within the first minute of my daughter’s conference, I became a believer.

It was eye-opening to see my daughter critically reflect on her growth as a learner with an unexpected authenticity and attention to detail. She also set goals for future learning, and I have seen how this task focuses her work.

As my daughter’s teacher stated, “There’s no substitute for watching your own child present to you.” As my child begins to prepare for her third conference, I couldn’t agree more.

Beyond the educational value of my daughter’s student-led conferences, I have been struck by the engagement potential of the conferences.

As a teacher, I often find myself in endless games of phone or e-mail tag with parents, and finding meeting times can be a challenge. My daughter’s school has an exceptional success rate in scheduling conferences- her teacher shared that he has had 100 percent family involvement over a six-year period with only one instance where coordinating the date was problematic. This remarkable success is due in part to a school-wide commitment to find creative ways to give teachers the needed time and flexibility to schedule conferences.

But I believe the core reason for high engagement rates is because the format puts the ownership and focus exactly where it should always be –on the student. Empowering my daughter to assess and reflect on her own learning is a wonderful way to connect me to her learning process, and I am confident it will also equip her to succeed in the future. I’ve heard similar sentiments about student-led conferences from colleagues around the country, which, combined with my personal experience, has led me to reflect on how this approach to family engagement could be replicated in my own classroom context and elsewhere.

It may not be an easy or perfect fit for all circumstances, but this approach is exactly the type of innovative thinking we need to bring together everyone invested in a child’s education.

Patrick Kelly teaches at Blythewood High School in Columbia, South Carolina, and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Our Teachers Edition Newsletter Will Now Feature ‘Voices from the Classroom’

For teachers. By teachers.

Imagine if all of the policies that affect our classrooms were written by teachers. All the assessments, too. Anyone who spends their days in America’s classrooms knows we’re a long way away from achieving that vision. Despite that, as an elementary school reading teacher in New Haven, Conn., I know that the best success I’ve had has been with lesson plans I’ve written with my colleagues, assessments we’ve created together.

I’d bet you feel the same way.

That’s why one of the most important features of the weekly Teachers Edition newsletter has always been that it is written by teachers and for teachers. Moving forward, you’ll see that even more clearly. For months, a committee of classroom teachers has been talking with colleagues and reviewing back issues with an eye toward making the newsletter more valuable for busy teachers. Expect to hear our voices some more — the voices of classroom teachers just like you, sharing the joys and struggles of our classrooms. Expect to see fewer headlines and more opportunities to engage with us, to share your thoughts and your stories. With Acting Secretary John King focused on how to lift up the voices of teachers, this is just one strand of a ramped-up strategy to digitally engage teachers: keep an eye out for Twitter chats and other opportunities for ED and your colleagues around the country to hear your voice.

You’ll also notice Teachers Edition’s new slimmed-down look this week. Most of our editions will feature a Voice from the Classroom article written by a teacher sharing his or her experience. Often, it’ll be written by a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, a teacher who spends a year sharing his or her experiences with ED; other times, it’ll be written by another teacher from across the country — maybe even you.

We’re working to strike a balance between features that inform (this week, a look at the 2016 Teacher of the Year finalists and a study of what’s inside the textbooks used by teacher prep programs) and those that entertain (this week’s wisdom from America’s oldest teacher and a video of the hoverboarding principal). You might also hear our voices a little bit more when we reflect on what’s in the news.

We know teachers don’t have a lot of free time. That’s why every feature that makes its way into Teachers Edition will face an initial test: would a teacher want to read this? As you scroll through this week’s edition, we’re hopeful you’ll find a lot that passes that test.

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

A Commitment to Every Child

Last month, I had the privilege of visiting a school recently recognized by the Department of Education as a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School. As a teacher, I was well aware of the high standards that the program requires of selected schools and the prestige associated with the National Blue Ribbon School program. Reading about the achievements of a National Blue Ribbon school is certainly impressive, but visiting one of these schools is a wonderful reminder of all the positive things happening in our nation’s schools.

Forestbrook Middle School, located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, serves more than 1,200 students. While the school’s motto of, “Excellence, Every Day, Everywhere” reflects what you find at Forestbrook, the school’s culture was perhaps best captured by a social studies teacher’s comment. The teacher said that he was motivated by the desire to “see every child grow,” and the collective commitment to this goal was apparent in each of the more than 20 classrooms I observed and in every conversation I had with adults and students.

To ensure the success of each child, the staff at Forestbrook has instituted a wide range of strategies and interventions. Two full-time instructional coaches assist teachers in analyzing student data from formative and summative assessments. As a teacher noted, “The entire point of evaluation and assessment should be to drive instruction,” and in planning sessions, I saw teams of teachers together crafting and developing instruction tailored to the academic needs of each student.

This data-driven instruction was bolstered by incredible use of technology to enhance instruction. Every Forestbrook student is assigned an iPad, which teachers use to create engaging learning environments and to gather real-time feedback on student understanding. The effectiveness of the technology integration is enhanced by a school culture that prizes and prioritizes collaboration, as exemplified by the redesign of the class schedule to provide space and time for teachers to engage in weekly planning by grade level and by subject area.

But more than anything, what makes Forestbrook an exemplary place to learn is that student success lies at the heart of everything teachers do. In a planning meeting, I heard a teacher comment that the driving force is not “ego, but in wanting to do what kids need.” This type of statement isn’t novel in education, but seeing it in the authentic commitment to every Forestbrook student’s success is a reminder of how powerful it can be when a staff and community rally to ensure that children receive the best possible education. The National Blue Ribbon program does a great job shining the spotlight on schools like Forestbrook, where the focus remains exactly where it should be every day in school …on the success of each child.

Patrick Kelly teaches at Blythewood High School in Columbia, South Carolina, and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

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.