Keeping the Beat

School districts are straining to deliver a quality education to all their students in this difficult economy, and things can be especially tough on music teachers.  Across the country, shrinking school budgets have meant layoffs, increased workloads, cuts in funds for facilities and instruments, and even the elimination of music programs. 

In a new Department of Education video called Keeping the Beat: A Teacher Talks About Schools, Music Education and the American Jobs Act, Philadelphia music teacher Jason (Jay) Chuong discusses the impact of the economic downturn on the learning environment of his inner city students. As one of six “itinerant” percussion teachers in the Philadelphia school district, Jay conducts classes in seven different schools and has a budget of just $100. His solution: teaching bucket drumming, using inexpensive plastic buckets that he can purchase at the local hardware store.

 Jay says that the American Jobs Act would offer much-needed funds to repair his school district’s aging facilities and keep teachers on the job. “If the American Jobs Act is passed, we would put more money in modernizing schools, we would offer work for construction workers, we would hire back more teachers, we would do all kinds of things for the younger generation of the cities,” he says. 

In the meantime, Jay remains on the move, going from school to school, teaching his classes in percussion and giving his students other important lessons as well. “Music has the opportunity to develop confidence in kids,” he says. “It gives them something to take ownership of. It develops team working skills; it’s all of these life skills that they can apply to all different parts of life.”

Watch Keeping the Beat:

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

A Teacher We Met: Maria Palopoli Prepares Students to Take on Science and Law

Science Strategy at Work:   How we teach affects whether our students are ready for tomorrow

Watch the video

Imagine this:  You decide to have a child and you visit a health clinic.  The clinician asks, “Do you want a boy or girl?  Which hair color do you prefer? Do you have a preference for curly or straight hair?”  The ability to design a human may seem like science fiction, but today’s students may face these decisions as adults.

Our students need to be prepared for a future with these kinds of choices.  This is the primary reason I teach with an emphasis on project-based learning and independent thinking. Each year that I teach genetics to seventh graders, the students become immersed in a genetics court case of the not-so-distant future:

It is the year 2035.  Jenn Ettics, age fifteen, is suing her parents, Carmella and Tony Ettics, for genetically modifying her at birth.  Jenn’s parents hired Chromo Labs to have her genetically modified so she would have more favorable “athletic genes.”  Jenn claims that this manipulation had a deleterious effect on her “artistic genes,” so she is suing for emancipation and $1million in damages.

Here are the players:  Jenn, her lawyers and Guardian Ad Litem (court assigned guardian), the P.A.G.E. Foundation (People Against Genetic Engineering) to support Jenn, Chromo Lab Director, scientists and lawyers to support their company and the  defendants, Jenn’s parents with their lawyers.  Reporters and photographers also play a role.

Using their knowledge of genetics, students create all of the evidence in the court case.  Each group must work together to gather enough evidence to demonstrate to the jury (former students) that they should win the case.

Not only must the students have a strong genetics background, they must also understand what kind of evidence will support their claim.  Each year, I am overwhelmed with the evidence created and the students’ abilities to defend their position in the court setting.  I have collected dozens of student strategies.  Here is a sample:

Punnett squares demonstrate that Jenn should have been artistic.  The location of “artistic” and “athletic” genes imply a low probability that the manipulation of one would affect the other.  Data show that Chromo Labs had more errors during the year Jenn was manipulated.  The defendants’ (parents) lawyers reveal other relatives with medical problems that led to the alteration of Jenn’s athletic genes to make her more healthy.

As you can see, the potential for evidence is endless on both sides.  The beauty of this experience is that it really gets students to think, to use their knowledge to defend a position and to consider real science issues they may face as adults.  Based on the professional dress and serious demeanor I see during the court case, the students are completely engaged and learn from each other.  The emotions are high; sometimes students have shed tears when the verdict is read.

This kind of project-based learning is important.  Students need to be engaged in a way that is meaningful, draws on their ability to apply knowledge and think independently.  What other learning situation will better prepare them for the future?

Maria Palopoli

Maria Palopoli teaches in Brunswick, Maine. She earned a 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence Teaching Math and Science (PAEMST).

A 9/11 Time Capsule Propels Students Back into History

Students viewing time capsule contents

According to Hileman, the students opening the time capsule was “very cool to witness. Lines between students and guest dissolved.”

I had no idea 10 years ago that the time capsule my class created to commemorate 9/11 would hold so much power. When my current middle school and high school students opened the capsule last week, we were stunned by the artifacts, videos, books and pictures that told stories of that day.

Surveying each element retrieved from time, the students were mesmerized by the artifacts: letters from children to terrorists, pictures of the World Trade Center collapsing. Almost instantly, some picked up newspapers and started reading. Other immersed themselves in books.

9/11 Time Capsule

Guests from the community joined our classroom to open our capsule and to share their experiences on 9/11. Mr. and Mrs. Hemenway described losing their son in the Pentagon, and Mrs. Hemenway confided her fears that our country is beginning to forget. The press, there to catch history unveiled, put down their cameras and notes to examine artifacts with us, passing around a piece of the WTC courtyard wall. Several school administrators and a gold-star mother named Debbie–who lost her son two years ago in service to our country in Afghanistan–came to sit, listen, and remember. Sergeant Crane from the US Army Reserve donated a book about the history of military service for our new time capsule. He also promised to work with Fort Riley to secure us two metal ammunition boxes to house our own artifacts.

I’m so proud of my students from 10 years ago for making this amazing time travel teaching tool. And I am proud of my current students for being open to learning in a novel way. I’m proud of my community and local press for sharing the story in different venues. I’m even more excited and proud to work with my current students in grades 6-8 and 11-12 to create and organize a NEW 10 year remembrance time capsule to be created, stored and reopened on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Keil Hileman
Keil Hileman teaches social studies to grades 6-8 and 11-12 at Monticello Trails in Shawnee, KS. He is a 2008-09 Teaching Ambassador Fellow and a 19-year veteran teacher.

Read the class webpage.

As Tour Revs Up, Chicago Automotive Classroom Is on the Map

This week, Secretary Arne Duncan and a team of ED officials are embarking upon the Department’s 2011 back-to-school tour—this year under the theme of “Education and the Economy: Investing in our Future.” The tour will take Arne and a big blue bus throughout the Great Lakes region, with stops at a number of outstanding schools and communities. The bus’s final stop will be in the city where Arne served as CEO of the public schools, Chicago, before coming to Washington. At Carl Schurz High School, he’ll visit the classroom of Clairene Terry, an automotive class teacher who has restored automotive mechanics’ stature as an exciting and promising career path for Carl Schurz students.

Students Get Hands-on in Clairene Terry's Class

Terry, a product of Chicago Public Schools herself, restored the automotive mechanics program at Schurz, and grew it into one of the most sought-after classes at the school. “There were always at least 120 students signing up for the [35-student] program. The numbers never dropped off,” she recalls.

Terry enthusiastically transfers her passion for diagnosing and fixing problems in cars, along with thinking skills, to her students. After she began teaching at Schurz in 2000, she led a team of students to a national automotive mechanics competition, where the team earned 5th place nationally and 1st place among Chicago high schools. “I love being competitive, that’s what drives me,” she says.

Working in auto mechanics today isn’t the same as it was 20 year ago. With advanced computer technology integrated into new vehicles, maintaining and repairing autos requires higher-order computer and math skills. Terry acknowledges how quickly technology in the field evolves, but she ensures that her students still have a solid understanding of the basics. “If you understand the basics, nothing changes; the concepts remain the same,” she explains. Despite increasing automation, core mechanic competency areas such as brakes, steering and engine performance have remained largely unchanged over the years, she says.

As an African-American woman at the forefront of high school automotive mechanics teaching, Clairene Terry is rare, if not unique, among educators in her field. She is currently the president of the Illinois College Automotive Instructors Association, an organization with more than 200 members. Before becoming an educator, Terry considered a variety of careers; she worked in insurance, as a security guard and served in the military. Automotive mechanics was the only one she found where she didn’t “hit a ceiling,” she recalls.

Just as Terry broke into a male-dominated field, as a teacher, she wants her students to understand that, despite what people may tell them, “no door is closed.” She prods them on to bigger and better things, asking them often, “Who can tell you what you can do?”

Secretary Duncan will visit Terry and her successful program during the bus tour’s final stop on Friday, before a forum highlighting a landmark education reform package that recently became law in Illinois. Arne recently acknowledged that career and technical education—and programs like Terry’s—is  not receiving the attention it deserves during education reform discussions.

“The need to re-imagine and remake career and technical education is urgent,” Duncan said. “CTE has an enormous, if often overlooked, impact on students, school systems, and our ability to prosper as a nation.”

Follow this year’s back-to-school tour by visiting, by following #EDTour11 on Twitter, and by signing up for email updates from ED and Arne.


Luke Ferguson, a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, was an intern over the summer in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach.

Thank You, Mrs. Braxton

Beverly Braxton

After 9/11, Beverly Braxton led her class of 3rd and 4th graders in Warwick, NY through a remarkable class project that touched her and her students for a lifetime. Here she reflects upon the experience ten years later.

As I start to write my first ever blog entry, I’m trying to understand how a private person like me can share something so personal in such a public medium. But then I’m reminded of why I wanted to tell our story about the Peace Wall Memorial: to affirm the contribution of teachers. People need to hear powerful stories of how, even in the midst of tragedy, teachers can provide dynamic learning experiences that empower students and foster lifelong learning.

Peace Wall Memorial

Ten years ago, my 3rd and 4th grade class designed, developed and built a memorial on our school grounds in response to the events of 9/11. Our story was born of my frustration and their fears, my anger at their excitement because our country was going to war and their anxiety about another terrorist attack. On the Peace Wall Memorial webpage, you can read how my students transformed their anger, sorrow and confusion into a beautiful monument to peace.

Teachers have told me that they appreciate how I was able to integrate so many aspects of the curriculum into our experience, teaching math, science, history, art and literature. Others say they admire how I captured my students’ interests and used them as a strategy to immerse them in the curriculum. Once my students decided that they wanted to create a peace memorial, I introduced them to higher order thinking through a semantic map to identify subjects and themes that could be linked to their project.

But what I really think about now—what I am unable to forget—is how intimately the students and I were touched by making meaning together. One of the students who is now in college recently explained it this way:

“At the time of September 11, I was so young and I was scared because I saw that my parents were scared. See(ing) all-knowing adults very shaken made me feel unstable. Doing this project made us feel like we had the power to do something about the situation, make things better for our community. . . . It made me understand that I could change my life in reaction to what happens in the world.”

Connecting with one another to grow and to solve our problems—that is a lesson that teachers and students can never get enough of.

Beverly Braxton
Mrs. Braxton taught elementary school for 28 years in the Partners in Education Program (PIE) in Warwick, NY.

Teachers ‘Go Bananas’ Over Real-World Connections to STEM

Sparta schools administrator Tom Steward at Kwik Trip's distribution center

Sparta schools administrator Tom Steward views "the banana room" at Kwik Trip's distribution center in La Crosse, Wis.

How can a room full of bananas help teachers get kids excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?

Secretary Duncan and other national leaders say that U.S. students need to complete a rigorous math and science coursework so they’re ready to compete in the global economy. Wisconsin educator Tom Steward was stirred by that call to action but recognized some inherent challenges.

“Students did not see the connection between what was being taught and how they could ever use it,” said Steward, who frequently observes STEM classes as the director of curriculum and instruction for Sparta Area School District.

To help make these connections, 60 teachers from Sparta and eight other rural school districts in western Wisconsin got bunches of inspiration from bananas. As part of a two-week summer academy for STEM teachers, on July 25 Steward led a visit to Kwik Trip’s distribution center in La Crosse, Wisc. to learn strategies to make their lessons come alive. Steward is a founder of the program, which works with regional businesses as well as the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Western Technical College and the U.S. Army at nearby Fort McCoy to help STEM teachers make lessons relevant.

Steward and the consortium’s other founders recognized that teachers — and especially teachers in rural areas — often teach in isolation from each other and from other potential resources that could help them teach more contextually. In response, they produced this “brainchild” that ultimately became the Western Wisconsin STEM Consortium, he said. The program was awarded a competitive Math and Science Partnership grant in 2008 from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which in turn received the federal funding by formula from ED.

Here’s how bananas can make scientific principles come to life: As teachers watched Kwik Trip forklift drivers load boxes of the fruit nearly to the ceiling of a storeroom, they saw a number of scientific principles at work, teachable moments.

“The forklift driver knows that too much weight on the forks going up an incline plane with a steep angle may not be possible,” explained Steward. “That’s due to the push of gravity down on the forks and the way the weight is distributed.”

A lesson plan based on this real-life scenario will soon be posted to the consortium’s website at, which already includes numerous lessons developed through the program that help students make those lifelong connections between science and the real world.

Julie Ewart
Julie Ewart serves in the Great Lakes Regional Office for ED. She and Cynthia Dorfman, Director of Regional Operations for ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach, participated in the visit to Kwik Trip’s distribution center.

Read the President’s plan for Improving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education.

A Teacher We Met: Kurtis Werner

“His passion is contagious,” writes a student at Clayton High School in St. Louis, MO about Kurtis Werner, high school history teacher, coach, and passionate leader. Werner personally “recruited, motivated, encouraged and inspired each of [Clayton High’s] cross country runners to do their personal best” both on the track and inside the classroom.

Werner was motivated early on to pursue a career in education by his mother, a high school teacher, and by his own social studies and history teachers. “Most of my social studies teachers were positive influences on me and gave me a great perspective on what it takes to make connections with students.”

Werner has also learned from his less-successful teachers: “ I was motivated by a few teachers who could have done a better job of incorporating the importance of their material and I knew there had to be another way in which to influence history in students’ lives through various pedagogical styles.”

Clayton High School principal, Dr. Louise Losos describes Werner’s own teaching style as “dynamic and energetic.  One of his greatest strengths is his ability make history relevant to students and connect them to history in a meaningful and caring way.  Mr. Werner makes students feel safe as well as respected in his classroom.”

Werner sees his role as a teacher as “the needle by which all thread is sent through.” Werner embraces his responsibility of having influence over his students, and is invigorated by the knowledge that “society depends on him.”

Werner works hard to make sure his students excel, and is constantly rewarded in the classroom, especially when he’s able to show his students that “learning can be interactive and fun. Every time I see a student smile in class I know I have made a connection.”

Part of what keeps Werner in the classroom is his desire to be a “life-long learner.” The dynamic classroom setting keeps Werner on his toes, and he’s grateful to have a job without any dull moments.  Even when grading papers late into the night or working extra hours to finish a curriculum plan, Werner is inspired by Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “Never, never, never give up.”

Ed. note:  This article is the second in a summer-long, weekly blog series celebrating young teachers. We hope these profiles of teachers who have inspired their students and increased their classroom’s performance will help the best and the brightest discover their pathway to teaching! See the first profile here.

Cross-posted from the TEACH Blog.

A Teacher We Met: Torres Fulfills Lifelong Dream

Armando Torres was helped into his career by Belinda Karge, project director for California State University at Fullerton’s ON-TRACK Transition to Teaching Scholarship program. The Program is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education.

For 18 years Armando Torres worked as a paraprofessional for the Santa Ana Unified School district. But he longed for something more.

An as a teenage immigrant from Mexico, Torres had benefitted from caring teachers at Santa Ana High School. After graduation, he longed to help other young Latino boys and girls to get their education and carve out meaningful lives with choices. So he stayed connected to the school, coaching, tutoring and being and aide in bilingual and special education classes. At the same time, he worked second, and even third, jobs to pay the bills and support his family. He says he stuck with the school for so long because he had a dream, a dream to teach.

Torres was able to make the dream a reality when he enrolled to pursue his college degree and enter an alternative Teacher Corps certification program. Through the On Track Scholars Transition to Teaching program at CSU Fullerton, Torres earned his teaching credentials in math and special education so that he could serve low-income and Spanish speaking students in the Santa Ana community. While in the program, Torres said he benefitted from the veteran teaching workforce at Santa Ana High who supported him and mentored him through his fulltime career as a teacher.

Today, Torres is a teacher at Santa Ana High, teaching math to special education students. He says that he remembers himself as someone who went through many of the same struggles that his students deal with today. He is able to be a positive role model and show them that no matter what age, education is important and they can do it too. Because of his life experiences, Torres is able to relate to parents and explain to them the importance of being engaged in their student’s education, and he is able to connect with the students he serves and loves so much.

“Teaching has been the only career that has ever interested me, Torres said. “After working for over 18 years with the Hispanic youth of the city of Santa Ana, I have been motivated in pursuing a teaching career to be a positive role model and to demonstrate to this youth that with hard work and perseverance anything can be accomplished in this country.”

Beatriz Ceja-Williams

Bea Ceja-Williams is a Program Manager for School Leadership & Transition to Teaching Programs and for Teacher Quality Programs in the Office of Innovation and Improvement. Before joining the Department of Education, she was an elementary school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in California.

Find free resources for teaching English Language Learners at the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.

Explore paths to teaching at

A Teacher We Met: Terry Cornett

Agriscience teacher Terry Cornett

Agriscience teacher Terry Cornett uses his class to review math and science concepts.

Agriscience teachers prepare students for one of the nation’s oldest and most-rewarding industries: growing safe and healthy food. Terry Cornett makes agriscience come alive for his students at Liberty Middle School in a rural segment of Hanover, Va. A 30-year teaching veteran with tremendous enthusiasm and deep knowledge of his subject, Cornett has dramatically changed the way that agriscience is taught at our school, involving students in both the skills and mission of community farming.

Previously a physical science teacher, Cornett recognized how much his students struggled with math and science concepts. With that notion in mind, he incorporates more of those critical subjects into his agriscience teaching. “Teaching kids how to think and generalize concepts is vital,” Cornett said. “Agriscience allows me to teach cross-curricular (concepts). Students are gaining the theory from their content classes, then I am able to provide the opportunity for practical application in my class.” (Read how the Department’s Blueprint for Reform supports students receiving a complete education that includes science, technology, engineering, and math.)

To fully engage students in science, Cornett has encouraged them to become more involved with award recognition programs. This year, he has reintroduced FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) into the agriscience program, and students grow and sell plants from the school’s greenhouse. They even had their organically grown greens used in salads offered in the school’s cafeteria.

Students Chase Buchannon, Matt Downey, and Clay Welton

Left to right: Students Chase Buchannon, Matt Downey, and Clay Welton cultivate their Farm to Table garden and their love of learning.

Under the “Farm to Table” banner and working with Liberty Middle’s home economics teacher, Cornett’s classes have become immersed in promoting locally grown agriculture through education, community outreach, and networking. Farm to Table enhances marketing opportunities for agriscience students; encourages family farming, farmers’ markets, and preservation of agricultural traditions; influences public policy; and furthers understanding of the links among farming, food, health, and local economies. In addition, Cornett is looking to get more involved with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign next school year.

“Helping to keep traditions alive for our farming community is rewarding,” Cornett said.

Lisa Coates
Lisa Coates is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow who recently spent time observing Terry Cornett while teaching at Liberty Middle School in Hanover, Va.

Review information about rural schools from the Institute of Education Sciences.

Learn more about Rural School Achievement Formula Grants.

Read a blog article from a student of Lisa Coates, Raquan Moore.