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The National PTA Reflections Program was founded in 1969 by Colorado PTA President Mary Lou Anderson with a simple objective: to encourage students to explore their talents in the arts and deepen their self-expression through those experiences. Eleven years ago, the US Department of Education started a Student Art Exhibit Program, and each year they recognize many of the student Reflection winners as part of the ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating the opening of the art exhibit at the Department headquarters in Washington, DC. This year, the PTA Reflections theme was “Magic in a Moment,” and millions of students from across the United States created works of art in a variety of mediums, including film, music, literature, and photography. These works of art are exquisitely crafted and reflective of the artists’ stage in life and the experiences that inspired their creation. The student voice and perspective speaks to the world through the vibrant range of expression; it’s truly a celebration of the human experience. ...

By Margaret Glick, for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21)

We are teaching kids to live on a planet we’ve never seen.”  - Mary Catherine Bateson

This quote is as true now as it has ever been, but how are we to do this?  By developing students’ abilities to think critically, creatively and empathically.  How do we manage that?  By embedding three qualities—connection, purpose, and mastery into our classrooms. 

Brain research has given us a few solid principles in the past decade.  One is the concept of plasticity.  Plasticity is the ability the brain has to change with experiences.  Basically, our brain becomes what it does.  This is great news (or bad news, depending on what our brains are doing).  This means teachers can promote patterns of thinking that benefit students, and these patterns can become neural networks that assist whatever kind of thinking you’re after.  Another brain research principle is that emotions impact learning.  When we feel connected and safe in a classroom, a staffroom, or a boardroom, we are able to think in productive ways that might elude us otherwise.  Lastly, we know that when work is viewed as purposeful and relevant, the tracks of learning, inquiry, and motivation are greased. 

So how do we get there in classrooms?  How do we take some of the principles that have surfaced in brain research and apply ...

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

Top Success Stories of 2013

Looking back on 2013, the Learning First Alliance is pleased to bring you the five most viewed success stories* from the more than 170 stories housed on our site. Criteria for inclusion on the site is relatively straightforward – the story must show that a school, district or state identified a challenge, addressed it and produced positive results through their efforts. These results are measured in a variety of ways, from increased graduation rates or decreased dropout rates, to improved standardized test scores or positive outcomes in student health and behavior. Other indicators may highlight parent engagement, improved classroom performance, or new innovative practices that foster student engagement. Many stories also highlight the collaboration among education leaders. We would like to extend our thanks to all the organizations that allowed us to cross-post their features in this past year.

We wish you happy reading and a Happy New Year!

5. Using Electives to Get Struggling Students More Math

A Michigan district identified struggling students and then offered a math elective to help them reach their fullest potential. By holding them to high standards and ...

As the year draws to a close and the fate of the carefully crafted Common Core State Standards (CCSS) seems tenuous while ill-informed policymakers at both ends of the political spectrum air their complaints, I’m reminded of what really matters to ensure student success in our public schools: great teaching and committed professionals.

This was confirmed for me recently when I had the opportunity to be a “student” in DC Public Schools social studies teacher Tanesha Dixon’s demonstration classroom on Capitol Hill, where she and other master educators were staging digital classroom simulations in a meeting sponsored by the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training (NCTET) to show how new technology tools can be used effectively in the classroom. Certainly the iPads Ms Dixon was using in her classroom provided important support for her lesson, but the real artistry on display was Ms. Dixon’s passion for her subject and creativity in engaging students to incorporate a spirit of inquiry put to use in a wealth of web based resources.

For her demonstration, Ms. Dixon used Discovery Education digital resources, but she acknowledged that the web contains an almost endless supply of rich information, much of it in the public domain and provided by such institutions as the Library of Congress, the ...

All humans have the potential and ability to be creative, and we do ourselves a disservice when we refer to individuals such as Mozart and Einstein as the defining examples of creativity to which we should all strive to emulate. This genius bar misrepresents the concept of creativity and distracts us from the necessary conversations on how to foster the creative mindset and why it’s so important to include in conversations around education. According to James Kaufman, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Connecticut who presented last week at the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Summit, creative people are more likely to get promoted, be satisfied with their jobs, be in better physical health and be more resilient. Those are all outcomes we hope for our children. ...

After spending a day at Brattleboro Area Middle School (BAMS) in Vermont, I’m considering how my career path could overlap with living in this district. It isn’t likely, but my point is that I want my future hypothetical children to go to exactly this kind of school – and as a resident, I would want my local tax dollars to support this type of institution and all the amazing professionals that educate and care for the students in it.

BAMS is a public school serving 276 7th and 8th grade students, 46% on free and reduced lunch.  A long-time family friend is a science teacher at BAMS, and we’ve had some great conversations about education during my time working with the Learning First Alliance (LFA).  I was eager to visit his school, so he helped me connect with Principal Ingrid Christo. Upon my arrival, I was welcomed into the school and encouraged to sit in on meetings and classes and talk to people.  The entire day – full from start to finish – exemplified the best qualities that we should all look for in our neighborhood school.

What is it about BAMS that makes it feel so special? It starts with an overarching philosophy which results in a combination of exemplar outcomes: there is a building-wide commitment to ...

By Mary Pat King, Director of Programs and Partnerships, National PTA

Earlier today, I conducted a focus group of one – my son – a kindergartener who wants to be a teacher when he grows up. Why? Because “I love teachers.” While his favorite time in the school day is “Let’s Move” time on the patio, he also loves science, math, computer time and music. Why? Through science, “If you don’t know how something works, you can learn.” For math it’s simple, “I like to solve problems.” On the computer, “I can play games;” games that he doesn’t realize are educational and enrich the lessons he learned earlier in the day. And music, well that’s no surprise as he and his friends get together regularly for “Crazy Band” practice.

Many people – including teachers – have told me, “Your son is going to be an engineer.” I can see that – he is constantly building things using all sorts of random household items and masking tape – lots of masking tape. But I can also see him becoming a science teacher, a software developer, or maybe even a rockstar.  After all, he’s in kindergarten and we daydream about every possibility.

But one thing is for sure – my son is excited by STEM subjects, as well as the arts. To support his success in school and life, we plan to nurture both, seeking opportunities for him to exercise his left and right brain. Already, our teachers have suggested we ...

Those of us who have spent our professional lives working in public education have come to expect that articles written about schools that contain advice for both parents and the educators who work with students will focus on pointing out what’s wrong with schools and those who work in them and generally be negative in tone and wrong with the advice.  So, it was a pleasant surprise to read an article in the August 11, 2013, Parade, the magazine distributed across the country as an insert in Sunday newspapers, entitled “Building a Better School Day.”  Since schools across the country started this week (joining the many that kicked off classes in August), I thought it a good time to reiterate the seven great ideas the article proposed:

  • Begin the day with breakfast—We don’t usually think that schools should be responsible for feeding students more than one meal a day (lunch); however, studies have shown that an increasing number of kids arrive at school without having had breakfast, for a variety of reasons – some young children from poor homes can’t afford it, and some older students sleep in and just skip the meal.  Research has shown that “breakfast consumption may improve cognitive function and school attendance,” and breakfast in the classroom provides an opportunity to ...

By Helen Soule, Executive Director, Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21)

Dana Elementary School is surrounded by apple orchards in the rural community of Hendersonville, North Carolina. Many of the families work in agriculture, and eighty percent of the students attending Dana qualify for free or reduced lunch.  “Having those demographics has never stopped us from wanting to have high expectations for our students,” says Principal Kelly Schofield. “And we really just have always felt…that if any students in the state can do it, then so can ours, and we can achieve.  Our goal has always been to find the framework, find the curriculum, find the instructional strategies that work for our population of students.”

For Schofield and her colleagues, the skills, content and teaching strategies outlined in the Framework for 21st Century Learning are essential to their shared success. “It’s the way we live in school everyday,” she says. “It is our culture; it’s how we talk, it’s how we act.” For students like Tom Walter, this framework translates into collaborative, project-based learning enhanced by technology—like a recent social studies class in which he built a documentary film project on immigration with a team of his fellow fifth graders. For teachers ...

By Joseph Bishop, Director of the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and Executive Director of Opportunity Action

Last week, New York education officials released scores from the first Common Core-aligned standardized state tests. Student scores showed a dramatic drop in performance from previous years.  Statewide, just 31.1 percent of students tested proficient in English Language Arts, and 31 percent tested proficient in math.

We can’t be surprised by the results, as New York leaders and many state decision-makers across the country have failed to recognize that new standards alone won’t drive students to succeed. Standards must be matched with common core supports for students, parents, teachers and principals.  The challenge the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign is trying to address with organizations like the Alliance for Quality Education and A+New York is about more than closing the achievement gap on state tests. We’re working to rectify the ever-present opportunity gap that ...

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