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Engaging Environments

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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 ...

You cannot just “PBIS” a child who happens to be misbehaving or acting out. That simple reality is probably one of the most important facts about Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), also known as school wide positive behavioral supports (SWPBS). It’s defined as a framework for enhancing adoption and implementation of a continuum of evidence-based interventions to achieve academically and behaviorally important outcomes for all students. Through this framework, PBIS seeks to improve school climate, reduce discipline issues and support academic achievement. In mid-July, George Sugai from the Neag School of Education (also Director, Center for Behavioral Education & Research and Co-Director, Center of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) joined out-going Principal Rodney Moore from Stone Hill Middle School in Ashburn (VA) – a school that implemented PBIS – at a U.S Department of Education briefing in Washington D.C. ...

There is precious little research demonstrating the value of school counselors on student achievement, with good reason – it is difficult to demonstrate the impact of counselors on standardized test scores, which have come to define achievement in recent years. But as a result, when it comes to making tough budget decisions, school counselors are not a priority. And that has real consequences for children. As Mindy Willard, an Arizona school counselor named the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA) 2013 School Counselor of the Year, pointed out in a recent interview:

[T]he biggest challenge school counselors are faced with right now, on all levels, are our ratios. Currently, Arizona is 49th in the nation for counselor to student ratios with a ratio of 1 counselor to 861 students; ASCA recommends a ratio of 1:250! With numbers like this it is virtually impossible for school counselors to meet all of the personal/social, academic and career developmental needs of all the students on their caseloads.

But as we turn to new measures of school quality – such as the production of college and career ready students – there is new space for advocates to research and promote the benefits of school counselors. And an ongoing longitudinal study in ...

I recently attended a screening of a documentary titled Is School Enough? that’s scheduled to air on local PBS stations in early September.  The film profiled four project based learning activities that took students outside the classroom to identify real life challenges, propose solutions, and work together as a team under the guidance of their teacher to solve the problem and learn while doing.  (View a preview)

The projects were exciting and impressive, and the students involved were either economically disadvantaged or in an alternative education program.  In one program a group of students became “citizen scientists,” using their smart phones to photograph plants and trees in an area that was to house a couple of elephants who were retiring from a circus.  These students gathered data on the plants, shared the information with a scientist at Cornell University, and then convened with the scientist using Skype so he could answer their questions and provide suggestions for removing or replacing those plants that could prove toxic to ...

By Kwok-Sze Wong, Ed.D., Executive Director, American School Counselor Association (ASCA)

My daughter, Tori, attended two high schools. Like most of her friends, she was very active. She was in the National Honor Society, the Chinese Honor Society, the marching band, the orchestra, drama productions. She was the class secretary and took Advanced Placement and honors classes. Tori went to a school of engaged, enthusiastic and energetic students.

There is another school, however, existing under the same roof. In this school, students don’t participate in any extracurricular activities. They don’t take a rigorous course load. Students in this school have attendance and disciplinary problems. This is a school of unmotivated, unchallenged and disenfranchised students.

Many students in the second school come from low-income, ethnically and culturally diverse populations. They don’t see themselves in the same world, much less the same school, as their more involved counterparts. The different socioeconomic populations may be physically desegregated, but they were never integrated into one cohesive student body.

Unfortunately, many schools across the country experience this same “one-roof, two-schools” issue. Every school has students who are engaged and those who are apathetic. Often, student involvement and performance is based on ...

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