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Putting Together the Pieces of Free Online Resources


Putting Together the Pieces of Free Online Resources

How these free and open resources can improve your district’s classrooms.
By Susan Menkel

Most districts are just starting to scratch the surface when harnessing the power of technology to transform teaching and learning. As more students have access to computers, tablets, and smartphones, free online resources are emerging as a critical tool to engage today’s learners. The web provides a wealth of digital content to schools looking to take learning beyond the traditional textbook. One of the main appeals of free online resources is that they level the playing field, providing every student with access to great educational resources.

When I first started using free online resources twelve years ago, I could find only a few math resources that were specifically geared toward education. Although I did find some sources that I still use today, it was difficult to locate materials that fit with the learning goals of my classroom and district.

When I did find materials I felt comfortable sharing with my students, it was challenging to bring them into my classroom because of district-wide technology constraints. My school had only two laptop carts, and once I discovered the benefits of free online resources during a unit on natural disasters, I had a hard time letting the laptops leave our classroom. With these resources, my students could read more information, see vivid pictures, and even do things like construct a virtual tornado. These materials brought learning to life in a way that I had never before experienced.

I’m lucky enough to work in a district that has moved to a 1:1 environment. So now, thanks to our plentiful technology, all of my colleagues use digital content in their classrooms. Even if your school isn’t 1:1, the benefits of free online resources are still immense, so don’t be discouraged when implementing them!

Benefits of Free Online Resources

Since there’s so much information available with free online resources, learning becomes limitless. Financially, these resources are cost-effective, so they’re an easy choice for districts.

These materials can improve academic performance, especially for students that have a difficult time accessing information in traditional, print-based learning. The resources can engage students by allowing them to explore learning with different senses. For example, students don’t need to imagine what a jungle looks like or sounds like because they can tour it virtually. Multimedia resources create a more hands-on experience for students, so they’re more interested and engaged, and in turn their academic performance improves.

Challenges of Free Online Resources

Even though access to these materials has grown tremendously in recent years, they can still present some challenges. The same wealth of choice that makes these resources such an asset can also become an obstacle. As a teacher, exploring, organizing, and then vetting the vast amount of information available is time-consuming. Unlike some other educational tools, free online resources don’t come with a manual. When my district transitioned to 1:1 instruction, teachers were given laptops months ahead of the students, but it still took many hours to comb the web for materials with value—and more hours still to discover how to incorporate them into our classrooms.

Tools to Help Navigate Free Online Resources

Districts can help teachers effectively use this information by implementing tools that reduce the time and effort it takes to find and organize appropriate materials. These tools allow teachers to focus their search and find only the materials that content experts have already vetted. Knovation’s icurio is one tool that my district uses. It also helps by categorizing resources based upon relevant tags. Teachers can refine their search based on grade level, standard, learning resource type, readability level, subject, and more. As a result, teachers can put their energy into planning lessons and incorporating these resources to enhance the learning for each student.

Implementing these materials is comparable to traditional lesson planning. When I was teaching with a projector, I still had to take time and effort to find the right resources to build a lesson plan. The path of lesson planning is inevitably paved with some failures, and the free online resource path is no exception. However, I encourage administrators and teachers to dive in, because the benefits of these resources far outweigh the challenges.

The Future of Free Online Resources

I am amazed by the transformation that my teaching and my own learning have undergone since first starting to use these materials. Having incredible teaching tools at my fingertips makes the process so much less stressful.

As the landscape of technology in education evolves, districts will continually need to adapt. I believe that if there is a will, teachers and administrators will always find a way.

Susan Menkel is a fifth-grade math teacher at Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina.

Image: Media Bakery


Building Readers

Reading-school tub2_pulse

Building Readers
Five ways principals can cultivate a love of reading in every student. By Caralee Adams

At Zaharis Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona, kids can grab a book anywhere—in the hallway, the cafeteria, even in the restroom. Step into Principal Mike Oliver’s office and you’ll see hundreds of books displayed from floor to ceiling on rain gutters transformed into shelves.

“We decided to flood our school and our classrooms with real books,” says Oliver, who boxed up the basal readers when he opened the K–6 public school 14 years ago. “No child in the history of the world ever said, ‘Mom, will you read me another excerpt from my favorite basal before I go to bed tonight?’ They don’t motivate.”

Once kids are exposed to rich literature, Oliver believes, they learn to “interrogate” books and dive into deep discussions with their peers. More than teaching reading, Zaharis Elementary is trying to develop lifelong readers and critical thinkers. This effort is even more valuable when you realize that Zaharis is located within a district where 93 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and one of every three students is an English-language learner.

Creating a place where students, teachers, and parents value reading—particularly independent reading—takes a commitment from school leaders. At the core, experts say, students need access to a variety of books and help in connecting with the right book—and time to read. That, along with creative and fun ways to put reading front and center, can spark a lasting love of reading.

“Engagement is the pathway to achievement,” says William Teale, director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If you can get kids really interested in reading, they are going to voluntarily engage in it. Research shows that kids who read more achieve higher.”

Beyond the academic edge, studies show that adults who were readers as teenagers are more likely to have professional jobs, vote, volunteer, and travel, adds Donalyn Miller, a former middle school and elementary school teacher and author of Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits.

“When we look at lifelong reading and instilling a love of reading forever in kids, we see long-term benefits for everyone—not just for the individuals, but for society.”

Environment Matters

If reading is a priority at a school, it should be visible from the moment someone walks into the building, says Lariza Liner, principal of Forest Lane Academy in Dallas. Open the doors to the library and set up displays with books to lure students in. Cover bulletin boards with the latest good reads from teachers and students.

Model being a reader by walking around the building with a book in hand and striking up conversations about reading, Liner suggests. “If it’s important to the principal, then it will be to the teachers, and then ultimately to the students,” she says.

Encourage morning “book talks” where students and teachers give short two- or three-minute recommendations of books they have recently read, suggests Alan Boyko, president of Scholastic Book Fairs. “If we start every day with a book talk, students are going to hear 180 commercials for books in a year,” Boyko says. When someone is wildly enthusiastic about something, students discover books to read, rather than feeling overwhelmed by so many choices in a library or bookstore, he adds.

Make Time for Reading

After participating in a two-year review of the research and best practices in literacy with other principals in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, Mike Weaver set up a 70-minute reading block and 45-minute writing block each morning at John A. Forrest Elementary School. “Every day, no matter what. Nothing replaces those periods,” he says. “Literacy instruction happens in the morning, when students are more alert and attentive.”

Schools may begin by teaching reading skills, but students also need ample time to read to apply what they’ve learned. “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent,” Miller says. “If we want students to internalize everything they are being taught, they need time to practice.” Principals can help by establishing a master schedule with a “sacred” time for kids to read independently, she advises.

Reading is an acquired skill that improves the more you do it. It can be hard to carve out time for independent reading, but there are ways to slowly build a culture of reading—and there will be a payoff in student achievement, not just in language arts classes but across the board. Once reading becomes automatic and the mechanics of decoding are subconscious, students can think about what they are reading, which is key to performing well on tests.

Schools can start with five to 10 minutes and slowly build students’ stamina to 20- to 30-minute blocks, Liner says. She suggests that teachers circulate, rather than stay behind their desks, during independent reading time, and ask children about what they are reading as a way to assess comprehension and help with reading strategies.

“I love to hear what the children have to say. I truly, truly listen,” says Caroline Gaynor, a second-grade teacher at Zaharis Elementary. When she is curious and asks open-ended questions that have no right or wrong answers, students respond positively. Gaynor will offer praise for their insights and say something like, “Wow, I never thought of it that way.”

It’s important to continue literacy programs at the secondary level, making reading and writing part of what students do every day in every class, says Mel Riddile, an educational consultant in Fairfax, Virginia, and a former National High School Principal of the Year. Teachers can be role models by hosting book clubs, and they can create excitement by giving awards and gift certificates to avid readers, Riddile suggests.

Create Access and Choice

Kids become devoted readers when they are surrounded by books that interest them. Teachers should curate classroom libraries with a wide variety of topics, and books can be organized in a way that allows students to choose ones that are just right for them. If children read books on subjects that they know a lot about, such as dinosaurs, for example, they tap into their background knowledge and become more engaged. “School-wide, there needs to be a focus to make sure children have reading materials all the time,” Miller says. With an assortment of reading materials, teachers can set up a challenge for students to read a certain number of books from different genres, she adds.

While most of the 18 classrooms at Forrest Elementary had about 500 books each, Weaver increased the budget so teachers could grow their libraries to 1,000 books over the past four years. Literacy proficiency at the school jumped from 73 percent to 86 percent between 2009 and 2014. But more important, Principal Weaver says, he saw a change in attitude. “There is a passion, an excitement. All of our students view themselves as readers.”

Throw in a Dose of Fun

It helps, too, when your principal dresses up as “Book Man,” complete with a cape and mask, to promote the superhero-themed school book fair, as Weaver did a few years ago. The costumes made it fun for the students, each of whom received a $5 voucher to spend on any book at the fair, Weaver says.

In Dallas, Liner encourages kids and teachers to dress up as favorite book characters for a reading night during Halloween week. And to keep kids reading over winter break, she helped organize a “Winter Ball,” where students who read a certain number of books were given a scroll with an invitation to a dance. A king and queen were crowned, and parents joined in the celebration.

At a “Reading Blizzard” at Riddle Brook Elementary in Bedford, New Hampshire, students make paper “snowballs” on which they’ve written their names and what they’ve been reading in the week prior to the book fair (a chapter, a whole book, etc.). During a special lunch hour, they get to throw the “snowballs” at the principal and assistant principals. “We want to keep a balance of fun and rigor in our reading program,” says Principal Molly McCarthy.

In Farmington, Minnesota, the offer of a free meal and a book compels up to 800 students and parents to turn out for literacy nights at the 670-student North Trail Elementary School. There are also breakfasts to celebrate reading, and Principal Steven Geis gives students a free book on their birthdays. “You can never do enough,” he says.

For middle and high school students, Miller says teachers should embrace the types of books teenagers want to read and tap into technology to let them share their opinions through blogs and podcasts. Also, she suggests having students share their favorite quotes on a reading graffiti wall: “The more students are able to connect with peers around reading, the more resilient they will become as readers.”

Connect to the Home Front

For students to embrace reading long term, parents need to be supportive partners, and children need access to books on a year-round basis.

When parents at North Trail Elementary asked why the school library couldn’t be open over the summer, Geis responded by holding a readathon to finance it (it costs $1,500 to $2,000 to keep it open for limited hours). The library now has a steady stream of kids who use it over the summer.

At Forrest Lane Academy, Liner loads tubs of books into the back of her car every Monday in the summer and passes them out to kids in the community from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. She makes scheduled stops in the neighborhood at mobile home parks, apartments, and bus stops. “I blow the horn and tell them to come and get free books, and they come out running,” she says.

Liner also heard that kids who share rooms with siblings were reading under the covers or in closets; she suggested that parents create a space and time for kids to read. (A majority of students in Forest Lane’s district are economically disadvantaged, and one in every four has limited English proficiency.)

Early in the school year, second-grade teacher Gaynor holds a workshop for parents at Zaharis Elementary to demonstrate how she teaches reading; she encourages them to try the same strategies at home. And instead of always having kids read aloud, Gaynor suggests that her second graders and their parents read their own books silently next to each other and then talk about their favorite parts.

As students progress in reading proficiency, says Riddile, the Virginia educational consultant, teachers should continue to share strategies and data with parents—it goes a long way toward getting buy-in and keeping the momentum going.

“[Reading] has to become part of students’ lives, a part of their school, a part of everything they do,” Riddile says. “The more they read, the better they read.”

Photographs by Steve Craft

Back-to-the-Land Principal


Back-to-the-Land Principal

Brad Rumble brings a love of nature to students in L.A.’s concrete jungle.  By Kim Greene

Looking at a strip of land lining Wilshire Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles, most people would have seen dirt and a razor-wire fence and turned away. But Brad Rumble saw something different.
This particular 100-foot-long space stands on the northern edge of a parking lot at Esperanza Elementary School, where Rumble serves as principal, in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The school is “truly locked in by concrete and asphalt,” Rumble says of the campus, which sits a few blocks from L.A.’s skyscrapers.
A naturalist at heart, Rumble saw the potential to revitalize the derelict strip and transform it into a natural habitat, a place for students to study plants and animals. Thanks to his vision, the school community is restoring the land—and another section of the campus—to its native origins this fall.

Taking Flight

If all of this sounds like a major undertaking for a principal in his second year at a high-poverty school, it is. But this isn’t Rumble’s first rodeo.
Several years ago, he began a similar project at Leo Politi Elementary School, located a mile away from Esperanza, where he served as principal at the time.
“I was an outdoor kid,” Rumble says. “Since 1990, working in inner-city schools without apparent biodiversity, you start to build this gnawing feeling that something’s missing.”
Part of what brought Rumble back to the natural world was birding, a hobby a fellow educator introduced to him. As an assistant principal at Leo Politi from 2005 until 2008, he started to share this passion with students. “Birding works for students on so many levels,” he says. “It’s a social conversation. It’s about developing the power of observation.”
Shortly after being named principal of Leo Politi in 2008, Rumble recognized staff members by making a donation to the Los Angeles Audubon Society (LAAS). He received a call soon after from LAAS’s executive director, saying they were looking to work with an elementary school. LAAS was already partnering with nearby Dorsey High School, engaging students in a greenhouse program. “The birders and educators involved felt it was natural for the high school students to apply their learning by teaching a lower-age group,” he says.
Together with LAAS, Rumble filed an application with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Program in June 2009. After receiving funds from the program, Rumble walked his eight-acre campus looking for space to revitalize into a native habitat. He zeroed in on a 5,000-square-foot patch of nonnative Bermuda grass just over a concrete wall from Politi’s trash bins.
“In autumn of 2009, the Dorsey High School students worked with fourth and fifth graders to study the soil and the ecosystem—really the natural history of the campus,” Rumble says. “What we were about to do was restore that portion of the campus to what it once was.”
Over the course of several Saturdays, students, families, and staff prepared the land for planting. In November that fall, some 300 school community members planted the habitat with native plants.  

Fields of Dreams

The habitat became an outdoor classroom. “Build it and they will come. When I say they, I mean first the insects, then the birds, then the reptiles, and then the mammals,” says Linda Dowell, a fourth-grade teacher at Leo Politi.
On any given day, Dowell and other educators use the space to teach science lessons about plants, animals, and conservation. Additionally, Rumble used funds to hire a part-time teacher to serve as a specialist for the habitat. He turned an empty classroom into the “Audubon Room,” and a book room into a mini natural history museum filled with field guides and maps.
Art and photography lessons sprung up organically as well. A science illustrator provided after-school drawing classes free of charge. “Each spring, we held an art and science exhibit,” Rumble says. “Students served as docents, giving guided tours of the habitat with rigorous content about the insects, pollinators, and birds found there.”
As if these lessons weren’t enough, Leo Politi saw huge gains on the state’s fifth-grade science test. In the spring of 2009, only 9 percent of students scored proficient on the exam. Several years later, the school had a three-year
running average of about 50 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced.

High Hopes for Esperanza

In 2014, Rumble was transferred to Esperanza Elementary School, with hopes of making similar progress at another high-poverty school. He began by collaborating with teachers to develop a Common Core–aligned unit on native ducks in MacArthur Park. It was only natural that it include walking trips to the park.
“You can imagine 120 third graders bounding down West 7th Street, binoculars and field guides in hand,” Rumble says. “You could see the students interacting with an urban park in a whole new way.”
José Ramirez, a third-grade teacher at Esperanza, took part in those trips. “My students saw different patterns of migration and used the Sibley Guide and websites to track birds around L.A.,” he says. “In my room, it created a lot of enthusiasm for science, reading, and observing.”
And then there’s that strip of land on Wilshire Boulevard. Together with a 900-square-foot lot that previously housed an old bungalow and a slab of asphalt, it will become Esperanza’s native habitat when it is planted this November. “We are embarking on the re-wilding of Wilshire Boulevard,” Rumble says.
“It’s not lost on me the conversations that take place when you’re working side-by-side on the land,” he says. “L.A. is a city where you can feel anonymous. This kind of work brings people together. It builds a sense of community.”

Image: Mark Boster © 2012 Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with Permission

Due Diligence for Students with Dyslexia


Due Diligence for Students with Dyslexia

Four ways to build awareness about dyslexia in your district.  By Jodi Mahoney

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently tweeted, “It’s okay to say dyslexia! Schools must identify and meet the unique/individual needs of any child with a disability.” Finally!

October is National Dyslexia Awareness Month, so it’s good to see politicians beginning to take notice. In fact, dyslexia is finally getting the attention in schools it needs. Some states are taking it upon themselves to pass their own legislation to address the needs of their students. For example, in 2012, New Jersey passed three laws related to dyslexia, one mandating screening for at-risk students by the end of the first semester of second grade, another requiring two hours of annual dyslexia-related training for school personnel, and a third giving schools the ability to name dyslexia as a specific learning disability classification.

With as many as one in five students presenting with dyslexia, it is critical that educators and administrators in all states get on board with these efforts.

Inspired by New Jersey’s legislation and the “Literacy for All” Award given out by the New Jersey chapter of the International Dyslexia Association, our district in South Brunswick set out on a mission to be “dyslexia friendly.”

Here’s what you can do in your school and district to launch a similar effort.


1. Create a team to research, support, and promote this goal.

We started as a core team: a principal, some supervisors, and some teachers—and Team Dyslexia was born. We surrounded ourselves with information specifically related to fulfilling the mandate handed down by the state laws. We later added instructional-support teachers, resource-center teachers, and K–8 general-education teachers to our team to keep the learning going in this PLC.

Here are some good questions to ask your team:

  • What would meaningful training for staff look like? Which staff? All staff? K–3 staff?
  • What screening tools would we use?
  • What interventions do we have already in our district to support these students and what other interventions can we put into place? What can we do for these students in general education without a 504 or IEP.


2. Offer professional development opportunities.

We began by inviting a keynote speaker to address the entire district last fall (to complete our mandated training).

Together we created a follow-up presentation for teachers that included practical ideas for the classroom, interventions, and suggested resources. As we shared information, teachers started to recognize that some of their students’ struggles (past and present) may have been due to dyslexia—something they’d never considered. These presentations built awareness, interest, and expertise.

Some tips to launch professional development:

  • Use both in-house and out-of-of district experts where possible to provide information about dyslexia.
  • Find free webinars.
  • Read articles together.
  • Watch TED talks (see links below).


3. Partner with parents.

Working with parents to raise awareness and educate the community on this topic is a journey. For some, labeling dyslexia provides a welcome “name” for the difficulties they’ve seen in themselves or their children. For others, it’s simply an unwanted label.

We emphasize that dyslexia is about the way a student thinks and learns, not about their academic intelligence or potential. Many adults with dyslexia are successful entrepreneurs, out-of-the-box thinkers, and creative minds.

Go slowly and build a knowledge base. These are some ways we’ve reached parents:

  • For Dyslexia Awareness Month, we sent out a blurb in our parent newsletters defining dyslexia, detailing our district goal, and outlining our efforts.
  • We invited parents with concerns about dyslexia to contact the school administrators. This was huge. Just being able to openly talk about this struggle allows us to push forward in strategic ways.
  • In intervention meetings, we are able to ask parents directly, “Does your family have a history of reading struggles or dyslexia?” Given that dyslexia is genetic, knowing the family history can help us with early identification and allows us to home in on the students’ struggles and strengths with a different lens.


4. Support students.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz, co-director of The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, has said, “Dyslexia is an island of weakness in a sea of strengths.” Given that, it is our ultimate job as educators to support the weakness and nurture the strengths of these creative minds.

In this spirit, we have focused on what it means to create dyslexia-friendly classrooms. Some of these best practices include the following:

  • Minimize the amount of copying from the board.
  • Prioritize when it’s important to write and when an oral response would be just as appropriate.
  • Focus on quality, not quantity.
  • Use technology to help with written work.
  • Utilize audio tools, such as Learning Ally’s audio books, for reading.

The most important work you can do with your district as you start this journey is to get educated, create empathy, and build a team that will allow you to stay focused on the goal.

Recommended videos to build awareness and understanding:

What is Dyslexia? by Kelli Sandman-Hurley from TED-Ed


Overcoming Dyslexia, Finding Passion: Piper Otterbein at TEDxYouth@CEHS youtube.com/watch?v=ugFIHHom1NU


Other great resources:

Learning Ally


The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity


Decoding Dyslexia (chapters in almost every state)


International Dyslexia Association (both international and individual state sites)



Jodi Mahoney is the principal of Greenbrook Elementary School in South Brunswick Township, New Jersey.


Image: Media Bakery

It's About Time


It's About Time

One of the hottest trends in public education is adding more time to each school day. See how two districts structure, pay for, and benefit from these programs.

By Wayne D'Orio

César E. Chávez Multicultural Academic Center in Chicago has a perennial problem. Every year, students begin their first day of kindergarten at the South Side school significantly behind in academic development in comparison to their peers in other schools.

Staff members are charged with getting them on track by third grade, a goal that requires an average of one-and-a-half years of growth for each school year. That’s difficult, particularly because many of these students confront other challenges as well. Nearly all of Chávez’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 80 percent speak Spanish, 13 percent have IEPs, and the rate of fluctuation in the student population due to frequent family moves is 14 percent.

Across the country, in the small city of Meriden, Connecticut, school leaders face a different problem. Five years ago, a new team took over the 9,100-student district, looking to energize staff and impart a love of learning to students. One major problem the district has is a lack of funds; the former manufacturing city hasn’t had a school budget increase since Superintendent Mark D. Benigni took over in 2010.

The surprise is that the solution to both of these districts’ problems is the same. Both Chávez and Meriden have turned to a tactic that until recently has been better known as a tool of charter schools—extending the school day. Both have created programs to add time for teachers and students, and statistics show they are among a growing number of districts doing this.

In the past two years, the number of public schools using expanded learning time has doubled to 2,000, while the number of students participating in these programs has grown from 520,000 to 1.2 million. Thirty-five districts in 10 states now have expanded time programs, and in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the entire district has adopted this model. In 2006, Massachusetts became the first state to create a specific program to fund extended time programs; it currently doles out $15 million a year.

Growth and Results

In 2009, three out of every four schools with expanded time were charters; by last year, six out of 10 expanded time schools were public.

Jennifer Davis, the cofounder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning, cites several reasons for this growth: The federal government’s School Improvement Grant program, along with changes to how schools can allocate their after-school money, has allowed districts more leeway in how they spend funds. On the private side, foundation grants have helped many of these extended time programs get off the ground, including Meriden’s. And on a local level, with school officials encouraged to experiment with the typical six-and-a-half-hour day, more schools have incorporated expanded learning time, later start times for high schools, and even Saturday sessions.

It’s not hard to figure out why schools are anxious to try this latest trend. The average expanded day program adds about 200 hours to each student’s year, tacking on about six additional weeks of school. While programs vary, Davis says that if a school is open for seven hours or longer and is open at least 30 minutes a day more than any neighboring school, it counts as an expanded time school.

For Chicago’s César Chávez, the extra time, in addition to the school’s laser focus on data-driven instruction, has produced impressive results. Starting the program in 2010, Chávez, which comprises three buildings that serve students from PreK to eighth grade, jumped to the city’s highest rating in just one year, and by the end of the 2013–14 school year, student performance on assessments pushed the school to the top 16 of the 480 schools in the city. “And that includes some schools you have to test to get into,” Chávez’s principal, Barton Dassinger, says.

In Meriden, results at the two elementary schools with the program have shown academic gains in the past two years in both reading and math. In addition, attendance at both schools has improved and more students say there is a “positive school climate.”

One Size Does Not Fit All

Expanded time programs vary in length and structure, and Chicago and Meriden bear that out; the two took vastly different paths to create their successful programs. Chávez draws all of its students from a four-block radius, and its program is voluntary—although only one student in the PreK–8 program did not participate last year. Teachers offer students extra time to do mostly math and ELA work and review, and kids work at their own pace on computer programs, with teachers nearby to consult. Chávez’s program adds one hour after school Monday through Thursday.

Because many Meriden students are bused to school, its program is compulsory; students at the two participating elementary schools (a third is being added this year) come to school 100 minutes before school starts. Its model is more in line with most other expanded time programs in that it offers a wide range of extracurricular activities, from judo to woodworking to lessons in how to read and create Braille. Meriden’s Pulaski Elementary School principal, Dan Coffey, says his staff ties academic work into fun activities. For instance, last year, when students explored aerodynamics through making paper airplanes, they also looked up biographical information on Amelia Earhart.

Even the ways Chávez and Meriden pay for their programs are different. In Chicago, the district chose Chávez as one of 15 schools to pilot the expanded time program. When the money ran out after two years, Dassinger says the results were so impressive the school decided to pay for the program itself. Chicago Public Schools are decentralized, so Dassinger has the freedom to decide which books, computers, and programs he purchases with the school’s $7.5 million budget. By keeping additional resource staff such as reading coaches, aides, and interventionists to a minimum, Dassinger has been able to free up the $200,000 it costs to run the program each year.

Meriden, on the other hand, cobbles together money from a number of sources to pay for its program. An American Federation of Teachers Innovation Fund grant for $450,000 over three years kicked off the program’s implementation. The city shared a $3 million grant from the Ford Foundation with districts in four other states, and it has received further money from the state to help fund the program.

“We’ve cut some programs to pay for this,” Superintendent Benigni admits. He estimates that it costs $800 per student, or $450,000 per school, to run the program. Pulaski Elementary pays the 16 teachers who participate an additional $7,500 stipend annually.

Chicago’s Model

Chávez’s experiment in expanded learning started in 2010 with a daily 90-minute block. The school partnered with community-based organizations, including the YMCA.

Principal Dassinger was distressed by the low rate of pay offered to program instructors, some of whom were teachers at his school, and negotiated better pay for them in the second year. When the school took control of the program in the third year, he and his staff noticed that students had vastly better results when they were paired with teachers. So the school scaled the time block back to 60 minutes, four times a week, and got every staffer to participate. Assistants fill in when teachers need time off.

“I’m constantly worried about [staff] retention and burning people out,” Dassinger says.

While Chávez uses its time specifically for academics, the school doesn’t ignore the extracurriculars that make up so many expanded time programs. The buildings stay open until 7:30 each night and offer student and parent classes in knitting, Zumba, floor hockey, and golf. “Our floor hockey team has a
waiting list,” Dassinger says proudly. “Parents feel very safe at Chávez,” he adds, noting that this is a big deal in a neighborhood that has seen gang violence to its immediate north and south.

As proud as Chávez is of its students’ successes, Dassinger knows the real payoff is seeing them test into Chicago’s best high schools and then graduate and go on to get a college degree. Last year, 25 of the school’s 83 eighth graders were accepted into top high schools. “When I got the job, there was one student,” Dassinger says, adding that the school’s previous record for top-tier acceptance was 14 students.

Chávez’s staff works hard at making sure children show up each day, going so far as to knock on doors when needed. The work has paid off—the school’s attendance rate has hovered around 96.5 percent in the past year, up slightly from 94.9 percent in 2009. The school’s suspension rate is less than 1 percent.

Chávez’s reputation has grown along with these statistics, meaning that families are choosing to stay with the school even when they leave the area. (It is a boundary school, but it does allow students outside the neighborhood to enter a lottery to fill any remaining spots.) Dassinger relates that one student who had only a 60 percent attendance rate in sixth grade moved across town with her family after that year but continued to attend Chávez by taking a subway and a bus every day. Her eighth-grade attendance was perfect, and this year her 5-year-old sister signed up for the lottery to be part of the school.

Cooperation in Meriden

One similarity between Chávez and Meriden has been union cooperation. Chicago Public Schools went through a divisive citywide teachers strike just three years ago, but Dassinger made sure to have his staff on board with the expanded time program from the beginning. The same ethos applied in Meriden, where union president Erin D. Benham helped construct the program with Superintendent Benigni.

“We’re creating a new model of school,” Benigni says. “You need union leadership.” When issues such as delayed openings because of snowstorms occurred the first year, he relied on union support and principal buy-in to thwart any complaints that one group of teachers was working less than another. (Meriden’s teachers work a split shift, with some coming in early and others coming in later and staying until the end of the day.)

Benham, who is also a language arts specialist at Lincoln Middle School, says the administration earned teachers’ trust despite minimal raises by not laying off any teachers in five years. “We’re very transparent,” she says of how the program was set up and funded. “We’re not hiding anything, and that goes a long way with teachers.”

Meriden’s program offers students the type of activities that suburban children routinely get outside of school. “In a lot of schools, they add time around ELA and math,” says Davis, of the National Center on Time and Learning. “But [at Meriden] they are eager to bring arts and hands-on science back in. They want to engage students in ways that excite and interest them.” Still, Benigni admits that he had some vocal
parents who weren’t sure they wanted the program for their children. The superintendent was careful not to mention any academic goals, explaining that this extra time wasn’t just for students who were behind, but for all students. He implored parents to allow their children to try the program, knowing that time spent doing fun activities was likely to improve attendance and student engagement.

“The results are winning people over,” he says, adding that he knew better grades would follow. Pulaski’s attendance jumped to 98 percent, a 10 percent hike from prior to the program’s inception.

Meriden has also been careful to set up all three of its schools with programs that are picked by teachers and parents at that particular school. And teachers at all three locations are encouraged to mine their hobbies as possible sources of programming.

Benham says the program has had one unintended consequence. In elementary schools, it can be difficult for students to know all the teachers in the building, since they typically have only one main teacher each year. But with teachers leading clubs before school, Benham says, they tell her that now when they walk down the hallway, “every kid knows me. It’s much more of a community.” 

Interview with Linda Darling-Hammond


Interview with Linda Darling-Hammond

The prominent education researcher and Stanford emeritus professor on school reform, politics, and her new institute.
By Alexander Russo

Linda Darling-Hammond may be the nation’s most prominent education researcher. Over the years, she has headed the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, helped develop a new performance-based teacher preparation program called edTPA, and was a much-rumored (and extremely controversial) candidate for education secretary in the Obama administration.

Darling-Hammond talks about what she hopes the new version of No Child Left Behind will leave to states and districts, what’s next for the Common Core, and why she’s retiring from Stanford, where she is an emeritus professor, to start the Learning Policy Institute.

Q: What is your sense of what will happen next on the congressional reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as NCLB)?
A : Democrats and Republicans seem united on having a new law rather than continuing to work through administrative waivers. The bipartisan Senate bill is a pretty amazing piece of work. It preserves some of the important gains of NCLB in terms of keeping track of all kids’ learning, but it also makes corrections for what has come to feel like too much federal involvement and gives more responsibility to the states within some useful parameters. ESEA also has more room for innovation around assessment and accountability.

Q: If testing has been overemphasized in American schools, what are the alternatives?
A: We have allowed tests to be misused for purposes for which they weren’t intended, in isolation rather than combined with other information. The best places to look for a better approach are those that are combining data from periodic tests with other information and using them for improvement rather than to punish.

Q: Where is that happening?
A: New Hampshire got a federal waiver that allows them to use the Smarter Balanced assessments in combination with state and local performance assessments. Vermont has something very similar integrated into a school quality review.

Q: What happens next with the Common Core standards and tests?
A: A lot of teachers like what the Common Core is articulating in terms of thinking and problem solving. The challenge has been getting enough opportunities for professional development and sorting out the complicated role that testing has come to play. In some states, [officials] started emphasizing the way they were going to put tests into place and used [the results] for various decisions before they’d even implemented the standards. In those places, Common Core has come to mean the testing rather than the standards.

Q: Are you going to be involved in the presidential campaign or even the next administration?
A: Various campaigns are looking for advice, but I’m not attached to any particular campaign and have no plans to be. I will work with whoever gets elected and across party lines to get the best possible ideas and evidence for stronger policies in education. I have no interest in becoming secretary [of education].

Q: What do you think about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s comments regarding the inequalities of housing-based school assignment?
A: What she was calling out is a really important problem that includes both racial and economic segregation and unequally funded school districts. There are several ways to unpack that. In smaller states, you could open up the boundaries between and among districts. This has been done in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Milwaukee. There’s been a similar approach in Kansas City. San Francisco is trying to figure out how to build strong neighborhood schools in every neighborhood and also give them a magnet quality that will attract people in ways that desegregate schools.

We also have to take up school funding reform, which California recently did and Massachusetts did many years ago, to create a student-weighted-formula kind of system that allocates resources based on pupil needs, such as poverty, English learner status, and foster-care children.

Q: What needs to happen next to make teachers better prepared?
A: We must continue to focus on strong clinical practice for new teachers. You cannot learn to teach by being told what to do or by reading about it in a book. You also shouldn’t be licensing people if they can’t demonstrate they can teach. Passing a basic skills test is not enough. It’s frustrating to see people continuing to make excuses for not making that investment in a serious approach to clinical training in teacher education—a year of student teaching or apprenticeship, for example, under the wing of a master teacher while taking tightly linked, practically useful coursework. It’s really not that hard to do, but we have almost no incentives in federal and state policies to leverage those changes.

Q: What’s it going to take to soften the harsh debate that’s been present in recent years over so-called school reform efforts?
A: The strategy of blaming teachers for all the shortcomings of schools and society has been way overdone. And yet the public continues to be clear that it supports teachers. Probably one of the most difficult policy elements we’ve encountered has been the idea of attaching teacher evaluations to student test scores. Researchers have discovered that the measures are unreliable and inaccurate and cannot give a sensible reading of a teacher’s effectiveness.
I think that policy is going the way of the dodo pretty soon, even though I, like many other people, thought it might be a good idea when first proposed. I think once the federal incentives are gone for that approach and we get past that set of problems, we will be able to have a more productive conversation.

Q: What’s the motivation behind starting this new center, and how is it going to be different from those that already exist?
A: Quite often, researchers and funders pursue topics on timelines that aren’t relevant, and they present their work in ways that are not usable for policymakers, and so the work goes on the shelf. The goal here is to make the research available, accessible, and useful when there’s real policy work to be done.   

Photo: Courtesy of Linda Darling-Hammond

Black Lives Matter and Schools


Black Lives Matter and Schools

It turns out there are numerous connections between education and the Black Lives Matter movement. By Alexander Russo


It would be easy to think that there aren’t many, if any, connections between the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) social justice movement and educating kids. After all, BLM is largely focused on out-of-school issues, such as racism, economic inequality (including the push to raise the minimum wage), violence against unarmed black citizens, and discriminatory criminal justice practices that have led to the mass incarceration of black men.
But BLM, which some have described as “the civil rights movement of the 21st century,” is already a small but important piece of what is happening in students’ lives—on social media and in real life—and it turns out that the education connections are numerous.
It’s become hard to avoid awareness of the issues falling under the BLM umbrella during the past 18 months.
The publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me this year has brought enormous public attention to the stress of being a young black man in America. In recollecting his childhood, Coates describes how much concentration it took to stay safe going to and from school, how frightening it was realizing he could be killed at any point, and how ridiculous Black History Month (“a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera”) seemed to him as a Baltimore teen. “I mostly thought of school as a place one goes so as not to be eventually killed, drugged, or jailed.”
Two of the main leaders of the BLM movement are current and former educators. Profiled on NPR earlier this year, Brittany Packnett was described as a teacher who “sees her work in schools and her political work as feeding into each other.” DeRay Mckesson, the blue-vested Teach for America alumnus and former Minneapolis Public Schools staffer who has been on the ground (and on cable news debates) in hot spots that include Ferguson, Charleston, and Baltimore, has “expanded our notion of what it means to be an educator fighting for his/her students,” said Heather Harding, senior vice president of community partnerships for TFA. Perhaps the most vivid (if symbolic) connection between schools and Black Lives Matter was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s appearance at a BLM event last winter.
The idea of linking school and the rest of students’ lives isn’t all that new, of course. It’s conventional wisdom among educators that kids can’t learn if they’re hungry or need eyeglasses. The BLM movement just takes that idea a few steps further, asking the question: How can low-income minority kids (young black men, in particular) thrive if they and their families are facing concentrated violence going to and from school and in their home communities—and if schools themselves are set up in ways that can seem as likely to lead to jail (the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline”) as to graduation?
In some places, school-improvement efforts that have long been focused on the campus and classroom are slowly broadening to include social justice/equity/inequality issues like police violence, incarceration, and residential segregation.
School districts like Los Angeles and Chicago are trying to move from so-called zero-tolerance school safety approaches to restorative justice, whose goal is to keep schools safe but reduce suspensions, arrests, and other actions that may lead students to develop criminal records. A coalition of advocates persuaded the Los Angeles Unified School District to stop ticketing students who were late or absent, a tactic that created financial burdens and legal obstacles to academic success.
Some educators are bringing the Coates book into schools and using it as part of the curriculum. Some schools are addressing issues of diversity and “white privilege” through in-school programs and awareness raising. Education conferences are making an effort to avoid all-white-male panels and speaker lists.
Part of this trend is the overall movement to the political left that’s taken place in recent years, fueling the rise of populist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Hillary Clinton’s campaign invited Mckesson to one of its big events this summer, and Clinton discussed systemic racism (including school segregation) in a South Carolina speech. After protesters disrupted a Sanders campaign event to urge more attention to BLM issues, the candidate met with them.
Of course, hopes were high that more attention might be focused on economic issues during the Great Recession when Occupy Wall Street shone a bright—if ill-focused—spotlight on income disparities. But BLM organizers hope to have more real-world impact than Occupy Wall Street ended up having, and if they do, it’s not just social justice activists who may be glad of the attention BLM brings to racial and economic issues.
Some observers see Black Lives Matter as a powerful alternative to the debate over school reform efforts that focus on accountability, effectiveness, and choice. If BLM and a more explicitly school-related online movement called #educolor seeking to make the voices of teachers of color heard can gain traction, it could help break up the stalemate between reformers and critics that’s hamstrung so many attempts to improve schools.
The reform movement has experienced a series of setbacks in places like Newark and New York, and it faced relentless criticism for what some see as an elitist and unrealistic expectation of what schools can reasonably be expected to accomplish.
Reform critics—many of them white, college-educated Boomers—have struggled to persuade the public that they are closely allied with poor minority children who attend the nation’s worst schools.
“I often find myself in common cause with people who, if we dug into the weeds, we might not agree on everything, and that’s okay,” said BLM cofounder Packnett in the May 2015 NPR profile. “As long as I am aligned with people who act on the belief that all children are great and all children are meant to be great, then we can get together.”

Illustration: Lincoln Agnew

A “Making” Manifesto


A “Making” Manifesto

The surprise isn’t that students love to make things; it’s that education needed to be reminded of this.  By Kristina Holzweiss

In more than 20 years of teaching, I never thought that I would win a national award because of SLIME. You’re probably picturing the ooey, gooey green stuff that kids buy at the local toy store. Or even better, what they might make at home using a recipe their parents found on Pinterest. I’m not talking about that slime. I’m talking about SLIME: the acronym for “Students on Long Island Maker Expo.” An extension of my library makerspace, SLIME brought 400 students, educators, families, and community members from 32 school districts together last May for a day of celebration and making. What began as an idea with a catchy name has evolved into what will be an annual event, and a hope for the future of education.

Ever since I was young, I have always been fascinated by how things work. I especially loved the segment on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood called Picture Picture, which brought viewers behind the scenes at a factory. Today, all of my favorite television shows reveal transformations: pieces of cloth turned into exquisite designs on Project Runway; bottles of ink turned into permanent works of art on flesh on Inkmaster; and trips to the local hardware store eventually turning into remodeled homes on HGTV. I am by no means a mechanic (my husband is), but I do appreciate a beautiful piece of engineering. Throughout my education, science was not my forte; it seemed too theoretical and lacking in real-world application for me. Today, however, I can say that I am comfortable in the world of science. I enjoy learning about new technologies, Web tools, and apps, and my mental gears whir as I learn exciting ways to apply new resources and strategies in the classroom. This “new” world of making is the world for me.

Maker’s Surge in Popularity

The growing interest in “making”—as evidenced by everything from the new line of “Make Market” products sold at Michaels to Etsy online shops and even HGTV programming—is not a resurgence of the typical summer camp arts-and-crafts workshops. Making as a human endeavor is not new. Since humans began walking the earth, manipulating resources has been integral to our survival; and when the hunt was over, the time we spent making weapons and tools was filled by painting on cave walls.

Today, most of us have forgotten our roots as an agricultural society. We withdraw cash from the ATM, pick up food at the drive-through at McDonald’s, and stop at 7-Eleven for a gallon of milk on our way home from work. We plug in, turn on, and zone out. Students in the classroom often tune out as well because they don’t have the opportunity to actively participate in their learning. As passive learners, many don’t engage with the curriculum academically, emotionally, or physically. Over a century ago, John Dewey believed that learning should involve practical skills relevant to our lives. In The School and Society: Being Three Lectures (1899), Dewey wrote that schools needed “to become the child’s habitat, where he learns through directed learning, instead of being a place to learn lessons having an abstract and remote reference to some possible living to be done in the future.” Dr. Maria Montessori—a contemporary of Dewey’s—advocated for this concept by arguing that students should be given the freedom to construct their own knowledge through unstructured play, collaboration, and communication. And yet Montessori’s teachings weren’t accepted in the United States until about 50 years later. Today we are concerned with the growth mindset and how children’s attitudes and feelings about themselves affect their learning.

Attitude Shift

We have all heard students ask (and may have even asked ourselves), “Why do we need to know this?” In classrooms across the nation, how much has teaching changed in the last hundred years? How far has assessment come, for that matter, from the civil service exams of ancient China? When will our students stop asking us why they need to learn, and instead ask us how they can learn more?

“Getting our hands dirty” shouldn’t carry a negative connotation. And yet in an effort to ensure that students are college and career ready, the emphasis remains on academia rather than physical activities. Service occupations such as hairdressers, mechanics, and chefs can’t be outsourced to other countries. We will always have basic needs, and those people skilled enough to help us meet those needs may or may not choose to pursue higher education. On the flipside, many careers requiring the most advanced degrees can be physically demanding, such as a heart surgeon who spends eight hours in an operating room, or a scientist studying the environmental effects of global warming in Alaska. We need to offer our students the resources and time to experience hands-on learning where they can apply knowledge in order to solve practical problems in real-world circumstances.

Making is universal. It is not bound by culture, political affiliation, religious beliefs, gender, age, socioeconomic background, language, ability, or environment. Pablo Picasso once said “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist when he grows up.” As long as there are children who want to create and learn through hands-on activities, there will always be a need for “making” opportunities such as SLIME.

Kristina Holzweiss is the librarian at Bay Shore Middle School in Bay Shore, New York. School Library Journal and Scholastic Library Publishing recently named her 2015 School Librarian of the Year. 


Image: Media Bakery


Flipped PD Isn’t a Fad—It’s Good Sense


Flipped PD Isn’t a Fad—It’s Good Sense

Learn how these two Virginia educators engage their district’s teachers in productive learning.

By David Hotler and Kate Wolfe

At no point did anyone on our team declare, “Let’s turn professional development on its head!” As a professional development team that provides voluntary PD opportunities to teachers district-wide, we decided to flip our PD not because of current trends or buzzwords, but simply because we thought it would be the most efficient way to accomplish our goal of PD that inspires and transforms.

There are many models out there for flipping PD; the one that we use closely mirrors the flipped classroom model. Basically, we give teachers access to the main content before the professional development session, and we tell them that in order to attend they have to access and review that content ahead of time. When teachers arrive, we jump right into the application. This wouldn’t be impossible to complete without having accessed the material in advance, but it’s certainly a lot more valuable to teachers if they’ve done their prep. At no point during the face-to-face session do we stop and lecture, and there’s never any Death by PowerPoint.

This method presents myriad benefits. First, we hold most PDs after school. After a long day of work, teachers need engagement—not lecture—to energize them. Second, the more hands-on time teachers have with the concepts during the session, the more likely they are to use them in their classrooms. Last, accessing the content beforehand means that teachers have time to think and process the material, so discussions are rich.

How It Works

For our first flipped PD, we chose the topic “How to Make Your Classroom as Addictive as a Video Game,” based on a podcast episode we created as part of our district’s Level Up Learning podcast series. The podcast outlines the various psychological principles that make video games so addictive. During the PD, which we have now done multiple times, we model how educators can capitalize on those principles with our instruction. Games, group work, thought-provoking discussions—every moment of the session engages teachers.

What about those participants who don’t listen to the podcast beforehand? Sure, we could do a quick review of the concepts and material. We finally decided, however, that taking time to do a recap dishonors the efforts of those who did the pre-work, and they are the teachers we want to reach.

Teachers are professionals. If we believe our teachers can achieve amazing things, we have to hold high expectations. That’s the beauty of flipped PD: it acknowledges that educators are adults with choices, and it meets them where they choose.

For example, at one point in our PD on video game principles, participants work together in small groups to complete a challenge. Two people in our first session admitted they did not access the pre-work. One mumbled it sheepishly; the other quite brazenly. Their groups struggled to catch them up, while other groups around them sailed through. As the facilitators, we never said a word.

 This particular PD was two sessions, and both teachers accessed the pre-work before the next session. One of them even took notes.

Proving Our Point

We had fun, but we needed to know: does flipped PD work? Because our team believes in monitoring effectiveness, we always collect feedback on our sessions. One of the questions we always pose is whether participants felt the session was engaging and the ideas relevant for their work. Our first PD on the video game principles scored a 3.8 out of a possible 4 points; our second flipped PD on using movement in the classroom scored a 3.95.

But it was the comments that blew us away. “We were actively and meaningfully engaged the whole time; also, the activities we were engaged in were all models for what we can do in the classroom.” “I would recommend that any teacher go to a flipped pd. I've been to two and they have been the most engaging, respectful, and fun professional development sessions I've ever been to.” One teacher actually flipped his entire classroom after attending the flipped PD on video game principles. Another teacher emailed her entire school to say that the flipped PD she attended was the best she’d ever been to, and everyone should sign up for the next one.

Does this mean that we do every PD in the flipped style? Nope. We look at the objectives of the PD and determine which can be reached through material that teachers access independently. If no objectives can, the whole PD is done in-person. If all can, it’s an online PD. We let the purpose drive the format, and because of that, we end up with a robust professional development program that treats teachers as professionals, caters to many learning styles, and is ever-evolving to serve the needs of the people who serve our students.

For a step-by-step guide on how to create a flipped PD session (and other engaging educational topics) check out our Podcast, Level Up Learning, on iTunes at http://apple.co/1Gw1Jae. Or follow us on Twitter @LearningLevelUp.

David Hotler is a technology integration teacher at Hampton City Schools in Hampton, Virginia. Kate Wolfe is the coordinator of professional learning for Hampton City Schools. 

Image: Media Bakery

Student Data


Student Data

By Jonathan Sapers

Distrust lingers over the safety of student data being parceled out by schools to  ed tech companies. But Clever.com may have the beginnings of an answer. The company provides a tightly secured software platform that serves as a control tower for districts to centrally manage data flow.

All 200 apps available on the system are accessed through one secure login. Districts control how much student information is given to each app, rather than letting individual teachers decide. The company says it won’t work with apps whose makers don’t commit in writing to abide by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); they also must maintain high levels of security. “A few years from now, people will be talking about ‘education grade’ as the gold standard on security,” says Tyler Bosmeny, Clever’s CEO and cofounder.

Districts appear to be buying in. Clever is now in use at 44,000 schools, including 78 of the country’s 100 largest districts, according to the company.

Still, Clever has its skeptics. “They have an enormous responsibility as a good steward, but they are also connecting other applications, all of which have their own privacy policies and terms,” Bill Fitzgerald, director of Common Sense Media’s privacy initiative, told NPR.

But Clever says it’s an improvement over the previous chaos. “On the vendor side, we are vetting apps for HTTPS encryption and FERPA,” says a rep. “On the school side, we are creating a secure connection for the data. Also, using Clever means schools aren’t emailing the data, having copies of it on USB sticks, etc., so the practices themselves improve. Think about us like an armored truck carrying the data from the SIS [student information systems] to the app vendor.”

Image: Media Bakery

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