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21st Century Shop Class

MakerBot for Education
21st Century Shop Class

3D printers are infiltrating schools and classrooms. Here's how they are being used. 

By Brian Nadel

If you have trouble finding the shop class at Beaverton, Oregon’s Highland Park Middle School, you’re not alone. Like so many school nowadays, there is none, but Highland Park does have the 21st century equivalent. Instead of cutting, gluing and nailing wood together to make the same bird houses, students go to the library to create their own designs on-screen and then execute them in plastic with a 3-D printer.

Under the direction of Ben Lloyd, the school’s technology teacher, eighth grade students use the school’s pair of 3-D printers to make small plastic objects. The things they make range from key chains to cartoon characters, but by far the most popular items are a variety of phone cases and stands.

The Up!Mini and Robo 3D printers at Highland Park are surprisingly small, cost less than $1,000 each and fit right into the school’s STEM curriculum. The process starts with designing an object on-screen, which the software then transforms into a series of paper-thin horizontal slices that look like parts of a topographical map. These slices are used by the printer to build the object a layer at a time.

Whether it’s a key chain or phone stand, the item takes shape on a moveable stage by layering melted Polylactic Acid (PLA) extruded from a hot nozzle riding on a gantry above. As each layer is finished, the stage moves down a level and the next one is started. Like a high-tech ballet there are items moving every which way and a small plastic item sitting on the stage at the end.

“If they can visualize it, there’s a good chance the printer can make it,” explains Lloyd. The software is smart enough to make objects hollow to reduce the use of the PLA raw material, add supports for portions that might sag under their own weight and give an estimate of how long it will take.

“The 3-D printer is just the tip of the educational iceberg,” adds Lloyd. “The essence of it is that it combines software and design to allow kids to be creative as they learn a skill that will likely prove useful in the coming workplace.”

3-D printing is used everyday to make everything from jet engine parts to hearing aid ear plugs. There’s even a San Diego company that custom makes shoes based on photos that purchasers send it of their feet. By 2020, the Consumer Technology Association has forecast that 3-D printing will be a $21 billion of business and will make up for some of the disappearing 19th and 20th century industrial jobs.

TOMORROW’S FACTORIES

“This is the future of manufacturing,” observes Ken Hawthorn, a retired mechanical engineer and mechatronics teacher at the St. Raymond Elementary School in Menlo Park, California. “But there’s a twist.” He observes that we’re on the verge of an era of personal fabrication where 3-D printers become so common that we are able to create some of the products we buy today. If you want a picture frame or need to replace a broken switch on your computer, rather than trying to buy a new one, you can print your own.

“The sooner kids get introduced to this the better,” adds Hawthorn. “Who knows, this sort of curriculum might stimulate the next great sculptor or industrial designer.”

At its simplest level, students and teachers can select from thousands of digital files online to create things like heart shaped cookie cutters or small plastic animals. Once they’re comfortable with the process, they can start to modify existing designs, like turning a small alien figure into a thumb drive cover.

The real worth is when students make a fresh start in front of a blank screen using Autodesk’s Printer Studio, Microsoft’s 3D Builder or other programs. While what they come up with might be quite complex, like the models of the Brandenburg Gate or Eiffel Tower, everything is created by combining simple geometric shapes.

Another approach is to start with a real world object, like a vase and scan it for 3-D printing with HP’s $2,599 Sprout desktop system. Pushing innovation to the next level, Sprout has a 20-inch touchscreen a small interactive projector and Intel’s RealSense camera. With its add-on $300 turntable, you can get pictures of an object from every angle that are stitched together into an editable 3-D model with the included Illuminator software. This model can be turned into a real-world object with Sprout’s Dremel Idea Builder 3D20 printer.

Any student’s smartphone can do the equivalent with Autodesk’s 123D Catch app. All you do is shoot between 20 and 40 pictures of the object from different angles with your phone and upload it to the app’s cloud servers. The program creates a printable 3-D model out of it, but all the heavy-duty processing is done in the cloud.

With the app, a student can, for example, shoot pictures of a pinecone from a bunch of angles and turn them into a 3-D model. She might want to cut it in two and hollow it out to make a box that is printed. “It’s a very powerful process,” adds Hawthorn.

PRICE IS RIGHT

St. Raymond’s Dremel 3D40 is a newer model than the 3D20 that comes with the Sprout. Rather than remain in a classroom or library, he’s mounted it on a cart so it can go anywhere at the school.

Without the computer, the 3D40 Education Edition goes for $1,300, but is a good start for 3-D schools. It not only includes all the software, tools and four spools of PLA material, but some goodies for teachers. It comes with access to an online forum for sharing designs and techniques as well as 10 lesson plans from mystemkits.com. They include instructions for making a variety of objects, including a catapult and a kit for teaching the Coriolis effect.

Dremel’s educational package also includes a four one-hour, self-paced online professional development course from the PD Learning Network. It includes 17 more lesson plans that can help first-time 3-D teachers get up to speed.

“These lessons are well defined and you know what you’re going to get,” says Hawthorn. “The real value is when kids start from scratch. The sky’s the limit.” He gives seminars for teachers on how to incorporate 3-D design and printing into the classroom and is a technological ambassador for Dremel.

Hawthorn’s eighth-grade class recently created “Buggy,” a water sensing robot with LED eyes that light up. Powered by an Arduino processor, it’s built on a chassis partially made with a Dremel 3-D printer.

“We could have made the whole thing with the 3-D printer but that could have taken overnight to print,” he explains. “If I had 10 groups of three students each doing something like this, it would have tied up the printer for weeks.” Instead, Buggy’s chassis is made from a combination of 3-D printed plastic and foam core board.

With clear plastic doors and sides, most 3-D printers allow students and teachers to see the action, although the process takes so long that it can be like watching paint dry. The simplest items take half an hour to create while large complicated objects can take several hours or overnight. The latest $2,500 MakerBot Replicator+ printer is a big step forward by increasing its speed by 30 percent compared to traditional printers.

The Replicator + has another secret up its sleeve: a video camera to keep an eye on the action. The printer can send a video stream to MakerBot’s Print app for anyone in the class to see.

On the downside, using any 3-D printer is more involved than printing on paper because when it’s finished, the printer needs to have the object scraped from its stage with a razor blade or spatula. It only takes a few minutes, but means that someone needs to periodically set up the machine between print runs. Because of this, using 3-D printing in the classroom involves some extra planning to coordinate 30 kids eager to turn their designs into reality. Still, it’s a small price to pay because with 3-D printing there’s not a trace of sawdust anywhere in the school.

Chromebook Buyer's Guide

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Chromebook Buyer's Guide

There are a lot of chromebooks to choose from, so let this comprehensive guide help you decide which model is best for your students. 

By Brian Nadel

When Chromebooks first arrived on the educational scene in 2011 they excelled at delivering a notebook for about half what comparable Windows and Macintosh systems cost. An immediate hit at schools, they allowed even the poorest districts to embark on one-to-one deployments.

Today, Chromebooks are the most popular notebooks in education, according to IDC’s analysis. In the second quarter of 2016, Chromebooks even outsold Macintosh systems and now account for one-quarter of total U.S. notebook sales.

“At first it was all about price,” explains Linn Huang, Research Director at market analysis firm IDC. “Now, Chromebook makers are branching out with new designs that suit different activities and uses. They still do a lot with a little.”

While retaining a foot in the value market, Chromebooks have moved from exclusively appealing to the bottom line into high-performance models as well as systems that are rugged and have touch screens. There are even Chromebooks that aren’t notebooks at all for those who prefer a less mobile desktop all-in-one format.

That’s not to say that the basic Chromebook format, design and software haven’t improved with time. In fact, a few Chromebooks can now use Android as well as Chrome apps, widening their appeal in the classroom. By early next year, there will be a software update allowing just about every other recent Chromebook to go between Android and Chrome apps. This can open up the genre to use everything from DuoLingo language lessons to Khan Academy video lessons.

Regardless of whether a school provides the Chromebooks or recommends that parents buy them, there are several models that stand out in a variety of ways. Each, in its own way, offers something special for teachers and students alike.

VALUE

While they have evolved and improved, Chromebooks still excel at providing a lot of computer for the money. No system exemplifies that notion better than Samsung’s $180 Chromebook 3 11.6 (CB3), one of the cheapest Chromebooks around. It’s a basic system housed in a black case that’s powered by a 1.6GHz Celeron processor, 2GB of RAM and has a vibrant 11.6-inch display. According to Samsung, the CB3 can run for up to 11 hours on a charge, opening the possibility that it might only need to be plugged in every other day.

At $220, Dell’s Chromebook 11 may cost more, but it delivers a 2.2GHz Celeron processor along with 2GB of RAM and an 11.6-inch screen. It has an Activity Light that can improve the teacher-student relationship with a small rectangular LED light in the upper right corner of the screen lid’s back. With the Chrome Activity Light app students can digitally raise their hands by flashing the blue light. They can also ask a question (red light) or start a discussion (yellow light). In November, new software will be able to show 7 different colors, so one can even be for asking to go to the bathroom.

 

Nebraska’s Lincoln Public Schools is deploying 5,000 Dell Chromebook 11 systems at its 57 schools for one-to-one student use, while New Jersey’s Passaic Public Schools is using an earlier Samsung Chromebook model at its 16 schools.

PERFORMANCE

Sometimes, you need more than a basic computer and Acer’s Chromebook 15 C910 is a powerhouse. It’s what’s inside that counts and the C910-54M1 model comes a 2.2GHz Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM that will leave other Chromebooks in the digital dust.

At just under 5-pounds, the wide-body C910 is a lot of carry around, but rather than an 11.6-, 12.1- or 13.3-inch screen, the C910 carries a 15.6-inch display that can show full HD content. In other words, it’s perfect for video editing and other high-performance tasks. Even with all that power, the Core i5-powered C910 costs $500, although there’s also a Core i3 version for $430.

RUGGED

School notebooks have to survive daily punishment meted out by teachers and students alike and the HP 11 G4 EE Chromebook is the strong silent type. That’s because the 11 G4 EE has a strong metal frame inside along with soft rubber edging around its perimeter. In fact, it passed many of the Army’s MIL-STD 810G tests for durability, including those for shock, vibration and repeated drops from as high as 48-inches.

With a 2.2GHz Celeron processor, 4GB of RAM and an 11.6-inch screen, it costs $220. One of the first of a new generation of notebooks that don’t need cooling fans so there’s less on the 11 G4 EE Chromebook to break and it can run longer on battery power. A bigger payoff is that it makes the classroom a quieter place to study.

In February, the Forney (Texas) Independent School District Board purchased 8,000 HP Chromebook 11 G4 EE systems so that every student from 4th through 12th grade has access to a computer. There’re also enough systems so that there’s one Chromebook for every four of those in kindergarten to third grade.

TOUCH

Chromebooks have been late to the touch-screen party, but are catching up quickly with models like Asus’s $250 Flip C100PA convertible. Its lid hinge rotates a full 360-degrees, allowing the screen to – well – flip over offering several different configurations. Students and teachers can use it as a keyboard-centric notebook, in tent configuration, as a presentation system with the keyboard underneath or even fold it all the way over to yield a Chrome-based tablet.

The system’s 10.1-inch screen is on the small side but responds to 10 inputs from fingers or a stylus. Flip goes its own way with a quad-core Rockchip processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage space and two years of 100GB of online storage space. It squeezes a lot into a small case that easily slides into and out of a backpack and weighs less than 2-pounds, making it the lightweight of the Chromebook crowd.

DESKTOP

Finally, Chromebooks don’t even have to be notebooks anymore. In fact, LG’s Chromebase 22CB25S is an all-in-one system that can teach Windows and Mac desktops a thing or two. At less than $350, it not only undersells the competition, but has a 1.4GHz Celeron processor, 4GB of RAM and 16GB of storage space for everything from lesson plans to videos.

The Desktop Chrome system comes with a keyboard, mouse and has a pair of stereo speakers inside. Its 21.5-inch screen can show flicker-free full HD content and LG’s Chromebase desktop has an innovative reader mode that reduces eye-strain for displaying black type on a white background.

The Greater Michigan Educational Consortium has purchased 7,000 Chromebase units through CDW to distribute to its 22 school districts over the summer and fall of 2016.

 

Virtual Reality Goes to School

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Virtual Reality Goes to School

Long viewed as a technology that might someday help schools, virtual reality is making inroads in classrooms today.

By Brian Nadel

When it’s time for seventh graders in the life sciences class at Plainview-Old Bethpage Middle School to dissect a frog, they head for the school’s computer lab. With a dozen zSpace 300 workstations, the kids pair up, don 3D glasses, and grab tethered pointing styluses to explore the inner workings of a virtual frog with organs that appear to float in front of the screen.

“Our zSpace labs have 12 screens,” says Joyce Barry, chairperson for the K–12 science, research, and technology department at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District. “The students gather around the screens and explore the subject, whether it’s biology, electricity, or physics.”

The magic of the zSpace 300 is that students can not only rotate and zoom in on the liver or heart, but they can see accurate representations of nerves and blood vessels in vivid virtual reality delivered on the 300’s 24-inch high-definition screen. As students move their heads around to get a better view, the images move in response. Think of it as the equivalent of a physical dissection without the queasiness or the acrid smell of formaldehyde.

While VR is commonly thought of as a platform for sports or gaming, it has the power to visually teach biology, geometry, and physics, as well as transport the class on virtual trips to faraway places. In many respects, it’s the new frontier for schools and the next logical step in education technology. Imagine a class walking among Roman ruins or exploring the inner workings of atoms—all without leaving the classroom—and you get an idea of its potential in schools.

BRAIN GAME

Virtual reality works by tricking the brain into thinking that a flat screen is actually a 3D landscape by mimicking the body’s depth perception. Slightly different views of the scene are sent to each eye where the brain stitches together its own reality. The key is that it includes depth, turning a flat screen into an immersive 3D landscape.

At a time when many school districts still can’t afford to equip each student with a computer to learn with, the problem for VR adoption is cost. The zSpace 300 is an all-in-one desktop system with a 24-inch HD screen, Core i3 processor, high-performance graphics, and 8GB of RAM. A lab with 10 systems costs $21,995, including software, installation, and professional development. That’s more than three times the cost of outfitting a class of 25 students with Chromebooks.

But, says Barry, “it’s worth it when you see the flash of recognition and engagement it creates. Because everything looks realistic, students retain much more than [they do when] reading about it in a book or seeing it on a flat screen.” Currently 400 districts in the country use zSpace to teach everything from science and technology to art and history.

A less expensive alternative is to use smartphones housed in ingenious carriers, like Google’s Cardboard, to create personal VR landscapes. The Cardboard phone holders cost about $15 each and are nothing more than lenses mounted in fold-together cases made of—you guessed it—cardboard. You can also get more rugged plastic ones for about the same cost on Amazon. On the downside, it’s only available for Android phones, although Google engineers are working on an iPhone version.

“It’s an inexpensive entry point for virtual reality,” explains Ben Lloyd, a technology teacher at Highland Park Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon. “Eighty percent of my eighth-grade class has phones that can be used, and the software is free.” (Lloyd has one full class set of VR phone carriers.)

The next step up is Samsung’s $100 Gear VR. Like Cardboard, there’s a place to snap in a smartphone, but the part that touches your face is padded, and it has creature comforts like straps to hold the headset in place. They’re much heavier and might be too big for small students, and they only work with select Samsung phones, like the Galaxy S5 Note, and the S6 and S7 families.

360-DEGREE WORLD VIEW

It’s all in the software, and Google’s Cardboard app works by splitting the phone’s screen in half, with each image aimed at one of the viewer’s eyes. The key is that as you move around, the headset senses motion and changes the view for a 360-degree wrap-around look.

With a much lower investment than dedicated VR hardware, sales of these head-mounted displays have been forecast by Gartner to rise from 140,000 last year to as many as 6.3 million units in 2017. A great many of them will end up in schools.

It’s just the start, Lloyd notes. “The hardware is way ahead of the software. It needs to catch up with compelling educational apps. We’ve had to make it up as we go along.” For students, he sees VR’s role in everything from science simulations to creating virtual plans for 3D printing.

Of course, teachers and students can go beyond off-the-shelf apps and create their own VR content with Samsung’s Gear VR camera. No bigger than a golf ball, the $350 camera takes in a 360-degree view of the world with a pair of 180-degree cameras whose output is stitched together into a VR landscape on a phone. For instance, the VR cam can be mounted on a bicycle’s handlebars to demonstrate how bicycle wheels self-balance or on a pole for a walk through an art museum.

Google Expeditions is part of that effort with several dozen virtual field trips “that go beyond the standard ways students learn,” explains Jennifer Holland, program manager for Google Apps for Education. In addition to a trip to the North Pole, there are expeditions that explore coral reefs as well as the International Space Station. Each has several questions and answers for classroom discussion.

The latest expeditions look inside the human body. “They include exploring the respiratory system by traveling through the nose, mouth, trachea, and lungs, or exploring the circulatory system so students can see firsthand how the blood flows through the body and organs,” Holland says.

PLANETARY PROBE

For a class studying the solar system, the Titans of Space VR app is a must-have. The free app is available only for Androids and takes the class on a tour of our solar system’s planets and moons with a virtual spaceship. Along the way, there’s size and distance information on the celestial objects for the kids to absorb.

More down to earth, using either Cardboard or Gear VR equipment, YouVisit.com can provide the class with a tour of the Louvre’s art collection and its architecture. YouVisit has also set up virtual tours of over 100 college campuses, potentially saving high school seniors time, expense, and school days missed by going to see their top college picks. After loading the app on their phone and donning a virtual reality headset, any student interested in Princeton, Harvard, or North Carolina State can take a virtual stroll around the campus without ever leaving school. After they’ve taken it all in, including the dorms, athletic fields, and library, they can schedule an in-person visit when it’s time to cross over from the virtual world to the real one.

 

How Will You Teach the Election?

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How Will You Teach the Election?

How will you help students respect different viewpoints while covering the presidential election in your classroom?

By Carol Patton

Facts vs. Emotion

“I’m teaching students to focus on the reliability and credibility of multiple print and digital sources, as well as multiple perspectives,” says Mona Al-Hayani, a 9th- and 10th-grade social studies teacher at Toledo Early College High School in Ohio.

“They’re going to look at who’s funding the campaigns, the bias and tone of the campaigns. I’m also having them look at [candidate] speeches to pull out their views on K–12 education, immigration, or whatever issues are pertinent to students.

“Students will look at primary-source documents, secondary-source documents, and situations and historical events, and then compare multiple perspectives and pick out what’s reliable. They need to find statistics, cite the source, and formulate their opinion through factual, textual evidence. Then, we’re going to have a debate in the auditorium. There can’t be any emotion, only textual evidence.

“The volatile nature of this election has steered teachers away from teaching it in their classrooms for fear of criticism by their community. I take great efforts in making sure lessons are connected to standards. This is part of a larger lesson—that kids need textual evidence and have to back up their statements with facts. It’s a larger issue within social studies itself.”

Educated Opinions

“I will show them a conservative news source and a more liberal one and one that’s a little more moderate, all dealing with one of the candidate’s speeches or policies,” says Sari Beth Rosenberg, an 11th-grade social studies, U.S., and AP U.S. history teacher at High School for Environmental Studies in New York City. “Then, I have the kids figure out why those particular perspectives [are what they are] and ultimately have them formulate their own opinions. I want them to understand that you need to look at multiple perspectives to have a good sense of what’s going on and to form an educated opinion.

“When they watch the debates [at home], I use that as a way to look first at best practices and then at ways that candidates could have improved their arguments. We have our debates a couple of days later, take the source of the best practice of the debate—whether it was a Republican or Democrat—and use those same best practices in the debate that they engage in.

“I also use the election to teach contextualization. When kids want to debate the issues, they realize the importance of contextualizing to understand why candidates appeal to certain people.”

Past and Present Alike

“While this election does seem a little bit nasty, it’s also very instructive,” says Kieley Jackson, secondary history and social science coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “It’s always helpful to make sense of the present by looking at the past.

“We’ve had some interesting and controversial and somewhat nasty presidential elections in the past, so we’ve always encouraged teachers to structure lessons around that. It’s a way to also understand and appreciate that what appears to be so very different and unusual, that when put in a historical context, is perhaps not so [different].

“We always push that the classroom is not a bully pulpit. Instead it’s an opportunity to foster critical thinking, and we would prefer students to ask questions and learn in that fashion rather than by being told what to think.

“Sometimes, we provide structure for debates, where we give students a sentence starter that says, ‘I respect your opinion, however…’ so they immediately don’t come off as hostile. It’s a challenge, of course, but it’s important that students be allowed to express their political points of view.

“The line I always use with teachers is that we need to set a better example for our students than our politicians do. We don’t attack people. We have structured arguments about a difference of opinion that’s based on evidence. Our tagline is that we want to create effective consumers and producers of information.”

Learn and Vote

“Some of our government teachers do exercises that identify whether students are more liberal or conservative, and then give examples as to how one particular philosophy or ideology might lend itself to one party or another,” says Cheryl Jannuzzi, social studies teacher and department chair at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Arizona.

“I always tell my kids, ‘I don’t want to make you think or believe anything, but I want to help you defend what you think or believe.’ We give them the tools to determine bias in the media when it comes to campaigns, to look at the actual root of issues, and to know where to go to find factual information.

“We allow time for each class to deal with the events of that day. We try to track current events—what’s happened the night before, or that day, and have kids deal with that information because it’s fresh. We look at what candidates are saying, what they’re proposing or not proposing, as it happens.

“We also have our students run through the process of voting. Our student council runs it. Voting is optional. Results are divided by grade level so we can see what the trends are. Then we talk about the results, how they may mimic the general election.

“In the last two elections, students voted for President Obama. We’ll see how it turns out this year.”

Lessons From “Late Adopters”

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Lessons From “Late Adopters”

New waves of school districts are encouraging kids to bring smartphones, tablets, and laptops into the classroom after banning them for years. Here’s why.

By Calvin Hennick

Early adopters of technology tend to get the most attention. But as anyone who spent hundreds of dollars on a LaserDisc player or an Apple Newton in the 1990s can attest: Sometimes it pays to wait things out.

Nearly a decade after the debut of the iPhone, some districts are just beginning to allow or encourage students to bring their own tech devices to school. In some instances, this is merely a nod to the impracticality of enforcing a ban on cell phones in an era when most teens bring devices with them nearly everywhere (88 percent of American teens have access to a mobile phone, according to the Pew Research Center). But in other cases, administrators are seeking to turn student devices into classroom learning tools.

Schools that are just now repealing device bans or implementing bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies have a wider range of options available to them than early adopters did, thanks to the considerable evolution of smartphones, apps, and networking infrastructure over the past few years. Also, curriculum and technology leaders at these schools have been carefully watching those that went before them, and they’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.

Here are some of the best lessons from “late adopters.”

Involve students.

When Mark Grishaber became principal of Taft High School in Chicago in 2014, he noticed a number of needlessly aggressive signs around the building, including this one: “Don’t use your cell phone. If you use it, we’ll take it away…and we’ll think about giving it back to you.”

“I needed to change the culture,” he says.

Grishaber allowed students to advocate for changes, including a repeal of the school’s cell phone ban. The process made students feel like administrators were listening to their concerns, and Grishaber says that most of them respect the new rules, which allow students to use their phones anywhere in the building except in the classroom, unless it’s as part of the lesson. (So far, students are using their phones as calculators, taking notes on them, and writing collaborative poems via text messages.)

“You just talk to the kids with respect and tell them, ‘You’re here for education, not to be on your phone,’” he says.

Students have even come up with ways to use their phones to improve upon Grishaber’s own ideas. The school has one bulletin board dedicated to each of its more than 100 student clubs, and Grishaber suggested adding a box of business cards to each of them so that interested students would know whom to contact to get involved. He recalls: “The kids said, ‘Why don’t you just have a business card stapled to the board, and students can use their phones to take a picture of it?’”

Establish clear guidelines.

Without a solid plan, giving students permission to use their devices in school can backfire.

Richard Murphy, who teaches courses in the economics of education as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has published research showing that repealing cell phone bans at schools can actually hinder student performance—especially for lower-performing students.

The research didn’t consider whether smartphones can be successfully implemented as teaching tools, but Murphy says that he does think it’s possible. However, he cautions that clear guidelines must be established to prevent problems.

“When the phone is allowed back into the classroom, it’s a potential source of distraction, so you need clear rules on how it should be used,” Murphy says. “If I were a school principal, I would definitely want strict guidelines. Just allowing [devices] into the classroom [without a plan] isn’t going to improve anything.”

Use apps to drive engagement.

When New York City repealed its ban on student cell phones last year, Staten Island Technical High School was already in the middle of a one-to-one tablet rollout. But the devices hadn’t yet made their way to the school’s senior class, so Principal Mark Erlenwein encouraged teachers to incorporate students’ smartphones into lessons.

The impact of such a shift would have been more limited several years ago, before a plethora of effective mobile apps emerged. For example, teachers at the high school used an app called Nearpod to push slideshows to student devices. Some of the slides contained multiple-choice questions, and the app allowed teachers to see student response data in real time.

Students in advanced math classes took pictures of their completed homework and used their phones to share the work with their teachers. “By the time attendance has been taken, all of the homework was accessible on a SMART Board, and you could get right into the lesson,” Erlenwein says. “We’ve had teachers gaining eight to ten minutes per lesson because they’re not wasting time having students rewrite the problems on the whiteboard.”

Encourage collaboration.

This fall, Greely High School in Cumberland, Maine, will begin requiring students to bring a laptop (or a tablet with a detachable keyboard) as part of a school-wide BYOD program.

This sort of initiative would likely have been impossible a decade ago, when it was difficult to find powerful computers for under $1,000. But with the price point of some Chromebooks dipping below $200—and most parents in the district already buying laptops for their children, anyway—school officials felt comfortable requiring the purchase. (Accommodations will be made for students whose families cannot afford a device.)

Dirk Van Curan, director of technology for the district, says it’s not only the lower price point of technology that convinced district officials this is the right time to formalize a BYOD program. In addition, he says, newer tech tools like Google Classroom increase the potential value of student devices, especially when it comes to collaboration. Students can use Google Classroom to hand in assignments and receive feedback, to work with their peers on assignments, and to communicate with teachers. That level of collaboration would have been impossible only a few years ago, no matter what device students had in their hands.

“Google Classroom was not really rolled out until two years ago,” Van Curan notes. “Before, teachers used Google Docs, Google Drive, and Gmail, and they built a system around those tools, but Google Classroom came in and blended all of those things together. That stuff is all new.”

Train the teachers.

I can reference so many examples across the country of poorly executed mobility programs,” Erlenwein says. “You can’t just throw devices out there and expect good results. A lot of it is in the professional development—and you can never give enough of it, because technology is ever-changing.”

Erlenwein sat with each of his teachers for five one-on-one professional development sessions to answer individual questions and make sure that every teacher in the school was comfortable with the mobility rollout. That might not be possible at every school, depending on the size of the staff, but it demonstrates how important it is for teachers to understand exactly how devices should—and shouldn’t—be used in the classroom.

Some teachers may be apprehensive about lifting a device ban, worried that the presence of cell phones will give them one more classroom behavior to police. Grishaber stresses to his staff that high-interest activities are the surest way to prevent distractions.

“I tell them, ‘If you have an engaging lesson, kids won’t look at their phones,’” Grishaber says. “It’s when they’re bored, or when they see you as wasting their time, that they’ll look down at their phones.”

Paul Tough: The Best Ways to Transform Your Schools

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Paul Tough: The Best Ways to Transform Your Schools

In his follow-up book, Helping Children Succeed, the author discusses how to welcome children into school and put them in charge of their learning.

By Jennifer L.W. Fink

Grit. Perseverance. Self-control. Author Paul Tough highlighted the link between these so-called non-cognitive traits and success in his 2012 book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Since then, scores of schools have initiated character development programs to teach children these essential skills. But instilling grit and character takes more than a few well-planned lessons, Tough says. In his new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, Tough explores the importance of a child’s environment.

In this book, you write “If we want to improve a child’s grit, or resilience, or self-control, the place to begin is not, after all, with the child. First, we need to change the environment.” Can you explain that?

A lot of the new initiatives schools have put into place are great. But what I am getting from the research since How Children Succeed is that thinking of these noncognitive skills as skills we can teach, the way we teach math or reading or history, is probably not the best approach, because what the science suggests is that these are qualities in children that develop out of the environment in which they are growing up. That suggests that there is another set of strategies that administrators and teachers can use to help children persevere, persist, and bounce back from disappointments and setbacks. The place to start is classroom and school environment.

What are some things administrators can do at the beginning of the school year to establish a supportive environment?

For kids to feel deeply motivated about school in a way that makes them more likely to persist and display perseverance, they need to be motivated on an intrinsic level. They need to feel a sense of connection, competence, and autonomy in the classroom.

I would start with connectedness and relatedness. The best schools do a great job of making kids feel welcome and that absolutely begins on the first day of school. That’s a moment when kids are most anxious and least connected, so when educators formally and informally give kids the message that this is a place you belong and where you’re welcome, it can have a tremendous effect on how kids feel.

At the same time, I think there’s another set of tools that administrators can use that give kids a sense of challenge. Student-centered learning techniques allow kids more autonomy in the classroom. They give kids a chance to ask questions and participate and to work on long-term projects. These methods involve more work for educators, but can be enormously meaningful for students.

How can administrators facilitate these kinds of changes within their schools?

Administrators have a huge role to play in supporting teachers and guiding them as they learn new ways of teaching and interacting. Teachers need a whole lot of professional development, support, and communication among peers in order to figure out how to make these deeper learning methods work in the context of their schools. If a school is going to head in this direction—and I think any school can and should—it means a big change in the culture. Administrators have to take a really strong leadership role in guiding staff through that transition.

What are some of the issues surrounding assessments to measure noncognitive-skill development?

The really big issue is we don’t know how to measure noncognitive skills. A paper by Angela Duckworth and David Yeager makes the case that all of the existing tools we have to measure noncognitive skills are insufficient for gauging student development in any high-stakes way. We have some decent diagnostic tests that can help us get a sense of how students are doing, but they only work if they’re not high stakes, simply because the tests are so easy to game.

One of the things I discuss in Helping Children Succeed is a new approach to measuring noncognitive-skill development using proxy measures such as attendance, discipline, and GPA, because those things are a reflection of how hard students work and how likely they are to participate in class.

The reason we care about noncognitive skills is because those capacities tend to make students work and connect to school in a way that’s going to benefit them over the long term. My hope is that we not push toward trying to find the perfect standardized test for self-control and grit, but instead try to find more creative and innovative ways to measure how students feel about school and how motivated and connected they are.

Photos: Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Kaya Henderson: The Exit Interview

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Kaya Henderson: The Exit Interview

D.C.’s quiet but forceful leader is leaving, but she offers parting thoughts on Rocketship, replacing Michelle Rhee, and her biggest surprise while in charge.

By Alexander Russo

Roughly six years after she joined the District of Columbia Public Schools as chancellor, Kaya Henderson announced she will depart on September 30. As of the end of August, no permanent replacement had been named. John Davis, DCPS’s chief of schools, has been appointed interim chancellor, but the search for a permanent successor isn’t expected to generate results until this winter or spring.

In her years heading the DCPS, Henderson played a complicated role in the wake of her predecessor, Michelle Rhee, whose tactics and philosophy were controversial. She has restored some semblance of peace among classroom teachers, continued pursuing many of Rhee’s strategies, and developed her own initiatives.

Henderson is a strong proponent of mayoral control (rather than independent school boards) but not a wild-eyed charter enthusiast. She’s not inclined to make racial integration a top priority over quality schools. And she’s proud of what she has helped to accomplish (some suburban parents are now faking their addresses to get their kids into DC public schools!), but she knows there is a long way to go. 

What’s the real story behind your becoming head of DCPS in 2010?

KH: I didn’t want the job. I took it only because everything was about to fall apart, because one person [Mayor Adrian Fenty] wasn’t reelected and one person [Michelle Rhee] didn’t want to do the job anymore. Jeopardizing the whole thing was not cool with me. I wanted to build a place where one person didn’t make that much of a difference.

What’s your proudest accomplishment, among all the things you’ve gotten done?

KH: In 2007, this was a district that had been pronounced dead. It was counted out. Nobody ever expected we could rise from the ashes. And yet we have restored people’s confidence. Families are choosing us. Scores are up.

Metrics aside, what’s the clearest example of this newfound confidence D.C. parents have?

KH: People are demanding things of us. They didn’t even ask before, because they didn’t think we could deliver.

What do you make of parents who live outside the district faking residency to send their kids to D.C. schools?

KH: It’s bananas. Never in my life did I imagine that people would do this. It was never a problem before. But there are so many people who are lying to get into our schools. I literally had to build out a residency fraud unit.

What’s your view of charter schools in D.C.?

KH: What we have in D.C. is two systems that are pretty similar to each other. Both have a handful of schools that are doing tremendously and a few that are struggling mightily—and a bunch of schools in the messy middle.

What’s wrong with having two systems for parents to choose from?

KH: We’re paying twice as much for not very different outcomes. I think that it’s not a good use of resources. We have experienced positive financial revenue in the city for the past 10 years, but if we were like a lot of other places, there’s no way that we would pay as much as we’re paying to support two different systems that are providing the same results.

What’s the ideal relationship between charters and district schools, then?

KH: The systems should be complementary. Let’s figure out what the district does well and doesn’t do well, and the same for charters. We’re stepping on each other’s toes.

Do you think that kind of cooperation can happen?

KH: We can coordinate, and we have coordinated on a load of things, like professional development and standards. Our citywide lottery was one that came completely out of collaboration. Nobody made us do it. We wanted to make it easier for families.

What might focus more people on solutions rather than on fighting?

KH: There are some folks trying to knit [opposing parties on education] together. I am a founding member of Education Leaders of Color, a new group looking for a third way on education improvement. But at the same time, I see re-entrenchment.

What have you done to build bridges in DCPS?

KH: I have invited people who are our enemies to sit down and talk and get to know me. We might have different ways of going about things. Sometimes—a lot of times—we can figure something out. I’m not going to knock your hustle, and you can’t knock mine. I find that sitting down and having conversations really works.

What’s the lesson of the Rocketship expansion story, which goes back to a panel on which Netflix head Reed Hastings promised to get a Rocketship charter in D.C. pretty quickly?

KH: We have a sense of urgency about fixing the problem. We don’t realize that it didn’t take 15 minutes to make things terrible. Public education is not simple. It is nuanced. It is technical. It is community influenced. It was literally five or six years before Rocketship started the process to come to D.C. And the community pushed back the initial Rocketship opening. People were not interested in what it was selling. It had to regroup. 

What’s the worst part of this job?

KH: One of the crazy things about this job is you rarely pick your head up. It’s something I like least about the job: that you don’t have the professional collaborative time that you have in other jobs. That’s one of my missed opportunities.

Have you been able to work with and learn from other districts and district leaders?

KH: Among several, I’d name Tom Boasberg in Denver. We’ve learned a lot from each other. San Francisco’s Richard Carranza [who just announced he’s leaving to take the Houston job] is a good friend. Valeria Silva in St. Paul has done some awesome things about race and equity. Barbara Jenkins in Orlando (Orange County), Florida, we’ve had tons of conversations. And also Deb Gist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And, of course, there are my charter friends I talk to.

What’s the unfinished business, the regret, the mistake that you most wish you could have addressed?

KH: There’s so much more to accomplish. There are a bunch of things. We’re still not where I want to be on our scores, graduation rate, or equity across the district, or special education outcomes. All of those things are way better than when I got here. But there’s a lot more that I want for D.C. public schools.

So why are you leaving, then?

KH: Part of the reason I’m leaving is that when I started here, I woke up every day on fire, ready to work 25 hours a day. I’m just old now [laughs]. I can’t do that anymore. I feel really excited that there are a group of people who will keep the work going without me.

Which is better: integrated schools or high-performing ones?

KH: High-performing schools at all costs. If they happen to be integrated, that’s great.

Do you think the #BlackLIvesMatter movement can help schools?

KH: Absolutely. The schoolhouse is where all of society’s problems intersect. My teachers also have to confront the trauma that our young people face every day. Kids come to class after having been stopped by the police, and we can’t just ask them to turn to page 25. To the extent that BLM can combat some of the tragedies that our families are facing, it helps me to do my job better.

What do you think is going to happen next with the reform fight?

KH: This is some people’s hustle, right? So not much is going to change anytime soon. This is how they make their money. But you can’t fight your way to success. If you want to fight, miss me on that—I don’t have time. Otherwise, come on. We may have different theories of action about how to get to success. But nobody’s theory of action has gotten us to quality at scale for every kid who comes in the door. We can spend time tearing each other down or apply our energy to creating solutions.

Interview edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

AltSchool Opens Up

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AltSchool Opens Up

A small private school is anxious to test its personalized learning model in the “real” world of education.

By Wayne D’Orio

Can a few hundred children in eight private schools change the future of public education?

That might sound crazy when you consider there were more than 50 million students spread throughout 100,000 schools in the country last year. But nevertheless, that’s the plan being rolled out by former Google executive Max Ventilla. His company, AltSchool, is a small group of microschools that exist in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. The guiding philosophy is to maximize student engagement by creating individual learning plans for each student.

This set of for-profit schools has already gotten an outsize share of publicity, from a lengthy piece in March’s New Yorker to stories in the New York Times, Education Week, and Fortune. The 150-employee company has gotten a large amount of funding, too, raising more than $130 million from such heavyweights as Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, the San Francisco-based venture capital firm Founders Fund, and John Doerr.

Yet what marks the schools, in contrast to Ventilla’s ultimate ambition to “bring the future faster,” is how incrementally they seem to be moving. “We have the luxury to be incredibly patient, making sure the gains compound,” says the 35-year-old founder.

Nonetheless, AltSchool is ready to take the next step toward achieving its overarching goal. The company will choose two or three partners this fall, allowing these outside operators to use the framework to run their own schools. As AltSchool continues to whittle requests from more than 200 potential partner applicants, Ventilla has announced the second part of the AltSchool Open program. Starting later this fall, the school will begin the process of picking another 10–12 partners who will be expected to start their own school models in the fall of 2018. (While the official sign-up won’t begin until later this year, Administrator readers are invited to visit this page to begin the application process now: http://open.alt.school/scholastic.) The first few new AltSchools are expected to look mostly like the current ones—i.e., small and private—but COO Coddy Johnson says the next set of partners is expected to open the school’s framework to include public, religious, and even international schools.

Changing the School Experience

To get the full measure of AltSchool, let’s go back to the model’s origin. Ventilla began the first school in 2013 after a thoroughly desultory experience trying to find a preschool for his oldest daughter. “It’s somewhat shocking that quality education comes from scarcity, not from scale,” he told the audience at SXSWedu this year. When he thought about the purpose of school—to prepare kids for the future—he realized schools needed to be overhauled.

AltSchool avoids the top-down method by eschewing principals and instead having teachers who are intricately networked. The company has an unusual distribution of workers; its 150 employees are split evenly among teachers, “operators,” and “engineers.” It’s important to know Ventilla’s background here. In his last position at Google, he was responsible for tying together various large products seamlessly—“cross-Google personalization” in tech-speak. What this means is that he understands networks and knows how to reap meaningful information from large amounts of data.

But right now, the AltSchool model is purposefully small. His first school started with 20 students and four teachers. Locations typically operate at about half capacity in their first year, allowing teachers, students, and parents to settle in. The schools, which cost about $26,000 per student, are mostly PreK to fourth or fifth grade; several middle schools feature grades six through eight. But all schools incorporate mixed-band classrooms where students may vary in age by two to three years.

Despite Ventilla’s tech background, AltSchool is not overly techy. “We haven’t invented a new way to learn; we’re improving the experience,” says Carolyn Wilson, one of the school’s founding teachers and now the company’s director of education.

She says Ventilla is “driven by a passion for understanding how kids learn.” Despite having no previous background in education, Wilson says the founder is well versed in educational philosophy, from Piaget to Papert. AltSchool’s best comparison may be to call it “Montessori 2.0,” a term Ventilla once used to describe the network.

“We are about learning how technology can support real people in a physical classroom doing non-digital work,” Ventilla says. “We want to go beyond self-pacing. One of the real bottlenecks to personalizing learning is documentation. We want to move to where educational assessment is done ambiently. That’s the central goal of meeting children where they are.”

Candidates, Bridges, and Baseball

Inside the schools, kids typically complete skill-based activities in the morning, while tackling project-based work in the afternoons. About 20 percent of students’ day at the Brooklyn school is computer-based, says head teacher Jamie Stewart. The students use Khan Academy, Lexia Learning, and Newsela, among other programs.

When I visited, just days before the Bernie Sanders–Hillary Clinton Brooklyn debate in April, students were busy creating posters for their candidate of choice. Other projects have included a report on the nearby Brooklyn Bridge and a trip to Citi Field that showed how math and statistics are liberally used in baseball.

The schools outsource gym, and in Brooklyn this past winter that meant heading to a local gym. “They’re really good at Zumba,” Stewart says, noting how well they mixed with the senior citizens they shared the class with. In better weather, students trudge uphill to the nearby pier. One day, the 3- and 4-year-olds learned the word steep as they walked to the pier.

Each student gets what is called a “playlist,” a combination to-do list, calendaring gizmo, and documentation tool to guide their daily work. The playlist guides their daily work, in and out of the classroom. Parent Rachel Luna raved about the software that connects both parent and student with the schoolwork. She says her daughter, 7-year-old Ava, completed her playlist while on vacation this year, and she is pleased that she can use it to easily inform the staff if she is running late or her daughter has a doctor’s appointment. (I viewed the software quickly on Luna’s phone, but wasn’t permitted to test it out on my own. When asked if he would ever spin off the software, separate from the school, Ventilla left open the possibility, but, he admits, “that’s really not our focus.”)

The big goal for AltSchool and its partners is to constantly adapt, making sure students are doing work that is interesting to them so they remain engaged. “We adapt both within lessons and between lessons,” Ventilla says. “We want educators who are willing to make major changes to how they teach on a daily and weekly basis, not on an annual basis.”

Luna and her daughter spoke of how much they liked the school, but it was a comment from Ava’s tutor that speaks most directly to AltSchool’s appeal. The tutor, who teaches second grade in public school, raved about how Ava’s motivation has increased this year. Referring to the school’s personalized approach, she says, simply, “Everybody should learn like this.”

How Quickly Can Change Happen?

As AltSchool enters the current phase of its plan, it faces two major questions. Can it scale its school to other models? This is a notoriously tricky step that has been difficult to navigate for other promising schools, such as Rocketship. However, some innovative models have succeeded: KIPP now has nearly 200 schools, and Big Picture Learning, another startup that focuses on student-centered learning, has 65 schools throughout the country, and more overseas.

Should Ventilla and company clear this hurdle, the next challenge is even bigger. If AltSchool becomes a national model, can its influence spill over into public schools and help bring about the revolution that started Ventilla on this path in the first place?

Regarding the enormity of the challenge, Ventilla leans on history: “We underestimate how dramatic change will be in the long term. But we overestimate how quickly things will catch hold. The curve is flat for a long time,” he says. “Amazon started out selling books. The leap was when they allowed other people to sell through their platform. We’ve always supported our schools in a way that would transfer.”

“The real trap in education is not to worry about what will happen in 10 years. You can go and offer a quick fix, and then you find you have five plans in 10 years and four different leaders and no progress,” he adds.

Ventilla thinks AltSchool, through its partners-to-be, is set up to take advantage of crowd-sharing in a big way. “The more people participate, the better the system. We believe it’s possible to get that kind of dynamic.”

Photos: Courtesy of AltSchool

Project-Based Learning: Schools in Action

NASCAR
Project-Based Learning: Schools in Action

NASCAR's program for grade 5-7 offers new ways to teach science. 

In November 2014, some of the eighth-grade students at Roosevelt Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, were spending the school day building an online radio station. It was part of a program that had them exploring scientific principles through a shared project that excited students about STEM, whether they were budding DJs or not. The project also met curriculum requirements and helped students master a few life skills.

“The Roosevelt Option,” an initiative of the Cedar Rapids Community School District, meant that Roosevelt’s eighth graders would work on projects—such as the radio station—or fulfill a class’s requirements online rather than adhering to a more rigid, conventional curriculum. The initiative was a big success, and so was a similarly framed high school counterpart called Iowa BIG. Both programs showed that “participating students were more engaged and in some cases more academically successful than their peers,” reported The Gazette in 2015.

Elsewhere, a program in Georgia has students building a street-legal car. Ford Motor Company donated a replica of a 51-year-old sports car in the form of parts that arrived in 30 separate boxes. Students will get to work on building it from the bottom up. It’s part of DeKalb County School District’s efforts to broaden its schools’ STEM curriculum, a plan that currently includes 96 schools. And what better way is there to do that than with a hands-on approach?

“There are different ways to inspire students to learn, especially those who may not be learners in the traditional manner,” DeKalb superintendent R. Stephen Green told Scholastic EduPulse blog in April.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) hopes to expand STEM education with two project-based units that bring interactive, real-world activities into the classroom while delving into aerodynamics concepts and the properties of energy.

The company’s youth platform, NASCAR Acceleration Nation, features the Get to Know the Science of Speed classroom program for grades 5–7. The program’s free 28-page teaching guide employs the STEM connections involved in NASCAR racing to engage students, who are tasked with applying scientific principles in solving realistic problems. Teachers surveyed about the program have already praised its engaging content as well as the fact that it “explain[s] science concepts in a relatable, hands-on way.”

The Get to Know the Science of Speed teaching guide offers lesson plans that comprise two rich units: an aerodynamics unit and one that’s focused on energy. There are worksheets, resource sheets, hands-on experiments, and more. The robust online hub at scholastic.com/nascarspeed offers a vibrant classroom poster and video resources that drive excitement in critical STEM concepts and skills that can easily be applied to science standards. Most important, these materials directly involve students in science by packaging core concepts in a project-based program that’s interactive and interesting.

“If you build the excitement and relevance on the front end, then you can introduce content-rich material,” says DeKalb County’s R. Stephen Green. “But if you start with algorithms and the Pythagorean theorem, some students have lost interest from the very beginning.”

 

7 Ways to Boost Your K–8 Math Program

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7 Ways to Boost Your K–8 Math Program

D.C. schools share data, embrace blended models, and celebrate student success.

By Caralee Adams

At Leckie Elementary School in Washington, D.C., math is no longer an abstract subject that is just about coming up with the right answer.

Now, students learn about fractions by figuring out recipes and serving sizes for a Thanksgiving meal. Teachers allow time for “math talk” where kids grapple aloud with concepts—sometimes veering off track to debate whether zero is a number, says principal Atasha James.

Also, at Leckie, the use of educational technology helps personalize instruction, and students rotate to separate classrooms to learn from teachers who have developed an expertise in math, reading, or writing.

“The effect was transformative to our school climate,” says James of Leckie, a public school of 525 students (PreK–6) in southeast Washington. “It feels so good to see teachers walk with such a swag and confidence about what they can do. The efficacy is high because they know their stuff.”

Last year, performance and growth among Leckie students in the blended-learning math program i-Ready was above the national median. And across the district, test scores are rising as schools change their approach to math instruction.

In 2003, just seven percent of fourth-grade students in the District of Columbia Public Schools were performing at or above the National Assessment of Educational Progress proficient level, but by 2015, 33 percent were doing so. During that same period, the percentage of students at or above the NAEP basic level in math rose from 36 percent to 68 percent.

School leaders in this rapidly improving school district with a high-poverty population share what has worked in their schools to boost math performance district-wide among K–8 students.

  1. Change expectations.

The district has worked hard for years to eliminate the notion that someone is just “not a math person,” says Brian Pick, chief of teaching and learning for DCPS. “Everybody is a mathematical thinker. They are just in different places on the journey. It’s super important for our educators to have a growth mind-set so that they are projecting that onto students.”

As an early adopter of the Common Core, the district has used the new math standards to focus on advanced mathematical thinking, persevering through difficult problems and focusing on real applications of math.

“It’s a little different than the traditional ‘three Rs’ approach to education and saying you just need to know your arithmetitic,” says Pick. “It’s about solving problems and articulating how you solve them.”

  1. Make math relevant.

At DCPS, kindergarteners learn to analyze shapes by designing monuments for the National Mall, and second graders do projects where they are event planners and create budgets for big parties. In middle school, one lesson places a giant pencil on a table, and the class is told a new student has arrived and they have to figure out the giant’s height based on the size of the pencil.

“These problems spur curiosity—there is no one way to get to the answer,” says Pick. “Getting an answer is important, but just as important is figuring out the different ways to get to that answer.”

The hope is to design real-world projects that are fun and engage students because they can see the relevance of what they are learning. Lesson plans explicitly link tasks in math to jobs, for example, with a video showing an architect working on a floor plan.

  1. Invest in teacher collaboration.

In the past few years, the district has helped teachers form professional learning communities by subject and grade. For instance, all second-grade math teachers are trained in regular 90-minute learning seminars. They work through the math to gain a deeper understanding of the material and collaborate as a team on lesson plans.

“As important as the curriculum is, more important is working with educator groups to combine the art and science of teaching to make it happen with your kids in the classroom in an urban setting—particularly with students who are not all on grade level,” says Pick.

When teachers spend time learning together, they develop “nimbleness” with math, which allows them to be more effective in helping students, says Pick. “A deeper understanding of math, particularly among elementary teachers, will pay off in students’ understanding of the math.”

  1. Embrace blended learning.

All schools in DCPS have access to blended learning—a model that combines independent online work with classroom instruction. Teachers can use information from students’ individual diagnostic assessments to differentiate instruction.

“It’s really pushed the adult learner in thinking outside the box and seeing every student as [having] the same needs,” says Andre Samuels, principal at Browne Education Campus, a public school in the district that serves kids in grades 3 through 8. Teachers focus on grouping students and addressing their particular strengths and weaknesses.

Prior to adopting a blended learning program four years ago, Browne didn’t have a uniform way of diagnosing students’ individual skills. Pick says these tools make a teacher’s job easier, enabling targeted instruction that engages students.

The district uses programs such as i-Ready and ST Math, which have a good combination of what Pick calls “steak and sizzle.” Some educational technology can be too much steak (boring) and others too much sizzle (entertainment). Ideal are programs with puzzles and problems, where there is intrinsic motivation for students to progress, he explains.

  1. Use and share data.

With personalized learning and frequent assessments come a slew of reports and data that have the potential to influence the educational process—if they are shared and utilized.

“The data cannot just sit in a report. It’s about analyzing, sharing, and discussing the data, and then the action after. And the action is ever- changing,” says Samuels. The information needs to be disseminated widely and clearly— including at parent–teacher conferences.

“The parent can now have a more detailed and informed conversation about student growth and achievement,” says Samuels. “It is not just an educator-led initiative. It is a collaboration of the educator, the student, and the parent or guardian.”

  1. Get everyone on the same page—but be flexible.

One of the biggest benefits of technology is that it allows better tracking on a district-wide and school-wide level to ensure equity. Ongoing data on student math performance, for example, allows the district to troubleshoot where schools are struggling and to identify schools that are making progress, notes Pick.

However, there is a not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to blended learning, he says. The district tries to work with schools to set up the best models for their particular building, size, needs, and approach—whether computers are used as a whole-classroom tool, in a separate lab, or in a one-to-one program.

Within a school such as Browne, school leaders say that having the same online learning program has allowed teachers in different grades to have a common language around math and improve vertical alignment. In past years, there was no real systematic way of assessing students, but now educators get a holistic portrait of the student and quarterly updates that closely track performance.

  1. Celebrate success.

As students progress at their own pace with a specialized blended learning program, Samuels says it can increase motivation. “They have more personal celebrations, where they can see their improvement,” says Samuels. “It makes their learning innate. It makes them want to improve and grow—and to achieve.”

Next year, school leaders at Browne are considering posting charts of students’ success outside the classrooms or holding biweekly assemblies to give students certificates to recognize achievement.

As students advance and take ownership of their learning, says Brandon Johnson, a fifth-grade math teacher at Browne, they are gaining confidence. The blended learning model allows them to slow down the pace until they fully grasp the concept and then move ahead when they’re ready, he says: “Now there is less fear about math.”

Photo: Courtesy of D.C. Public Schools

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.