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Engaging Environments

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I cannot begin to count the number of times I hear a statistic related to children and education that causes me to pause and ask additional questions about the context. A troubling number is often just an indicator of a larger problem, which serves as backdrop to help explain how we as a society arrived at this measurement. I recently attended three separate events that collectively reminded me, once again, that we can help all children realize their true potential through collaboration and teamwork across schools, districts and communities. By addressing root causes and individual student needs, we may see students take the lead in their learning, becoming the future leaders of tomorrow, today. ...

When District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) gets press coverage, it’s not always glowing news. In recent years, DCPS (a major urban city system with a recent history of controversial reforms) is often associated with topics such as their new teacher evaluation system (IMPACT), charters, or poverty and inequity. But just a few weeks ago, I learned about a truly amazing DCPS program at a Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P-21) event. I listened to two panels – one with embassy representatives and the other with DCPS teachers - talk about a life changing experience that could only happen in a system like DCPS: the Embassy Adoption Program (EAP). ...

By Clement Coulston and Kaitlyn Smith

Clement Coulston and Kaitlyn Smith are members of the Special Olympics Project UNIFY National Youth Activation Committee. They were recently asked to co-author one of the 11 Practice Briefs, focusing on School Climate and Inclusion.

Often times when society thinks of “valuable contributors” to issues, discussions and insights, the first image that appears in their mind is one of a well-educated and experienced adult; very rarely is that intuition one of a young person. Youth are constantly told and often led to believe that they are “the leaders of tomorrow,” but what about today? Youth are the ones in the schools, collaborating with educators, and hold the power to make a change. ...

Technology is an integral part of life in Washington’s Vancouver Public Schools (VPS), located just north of Portland, Oregon – and it has been for quite some time. They are the only district to host three NSBA Technology Leadership Network (TLN) site visits, the first in 1993, the second in 1999 and now 2013, which I was able to attend.

VPS serves 22,744 students in K-12 and it has 21 elementary schools, six middle schools and five high schools, as well as a school of the arts and Vancouver ITech Preparatory. The district is committed to providing an innovative learning environment for all students and helping them develop knowledge and essential skills so that they will be competent, responsible and compassionate citizens. During our visit to VPS, it was immediately apparent that the teachers, administrators and leaders are determined to serve each child. And while the commitment to the effective use of technology in classrooms is priority, the district also provides extensive supports for students and families. ...

By Andrea Cahn and Betty Edwards

When you see me, I want you to see that we are alike.
When you see me, I want you to see that I get nervous sometimes.
When you see me, I want you to see a happy dancer.
When you see me, I want you to see a football player.
When you see me, I want you to see someone who tries to be a good friend.

The statements above are from It’s Our School, Too, a play reflecting poignant quotes and perceptions of students who for far too long have felt excluded from the fabric of the school—those with intellectual disabilities. Written by Suzy Messerole and Aamera Siddiqui and commissioned by Special Olympics Project UNIFY®, It’s Our School, Too! is based upon interviews with youth from the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area and members of Special Olympics Project Unify Youth Activation Committee. The play provides insight into the world of students with intellectual disabilities and the varying opportunities they have to be an integral part of the school.

Identified as a significant civil rights issue, social inclusion speaks to the needs of all youth to learn and live within an environment that recognizes their strengths and ...

By Debbie Silver, Ed.D.

Studies on motivation theory have taught us that the most effective feedback for any learner is that which actually helps a student get better. Value judgments and labels (both affirming and negative) do nothing to help the learner long term and are often counterproductive. Overwhelmingly research argues that learners acquire improved self-efficacy and make greater achievement gains when their adult advocates focus feedback on things the student can control rather than on their innate talent, skills, or other externally controlled factors.

As a middle grades teacher it was hard for me to consider that my perpetual cheerleader style of teaching with a barrage of compliments was not the best method. However, I finally decided to modify my feedback practices to more closely align with what I came to believe would provide the best long-term outcome for students. Part of the problem for me in altering my praise reflex is that I had developed the habit of making a pronouncement about everything kids did. In my well-intentioned effort to show the students I was paying attention, I felt the need to make a judgment statement about every aspect of their progress (e.g., “Looking good!” “I like that!” “That is great!” “You’re so smart!”). I think this is true for a lot of us perpetual affirmers at the middle level because we know how important it is to connect ...

While we live in a market-driven economy, where winning and wealth accumulation are desired outcomes, education advocates on all sides of the political aisle currently assert that public schools are failing our children, especially minorities and low-income students.  Education is a common good; it is the stepping-stone through which students can make something better of their futures. Therefore, we should not be setting up a system to create winners and losers. ...

By Richard L. Valenta, Ed.D., Board Member for the American Association of School Personnel Administrators (AASPA) and Director of Personnel Services for Birdville ISD

Several researchers have affirmed the importance of both the engagement of people at work (for example, see several meta-analyses and surveys done by scholars at and/or for Gallup) and the impact of talented teachers on meaningful school outcomes, specifically student achievement. Based on this research, it is appropriate to acknowledge the importance of creating great schools for educators to work and be engaged in. Likewise, it is paramount that students are taught by talented teachers who are effective in providing instruction that significantly and consistently affects achievement gains.

In a 2006 book, Gary Gordon proclaimed a need to ensure that teachers in this country work in environments that promote their engagement in order to fully tap students' potentials. Teacher engagement refers to the individual teacher's involvement in and enthusiasm for teaching students in schools and reflects how well teachers are known and how often they get to do what they do best. Gordon also expressed the importance of valuing ...

We're over a decade into the 21st-century and schools across the country are working tirelessly to ensure students are prepared for whatever lies ahead. Rapid changes are afoot in demographic shifts and in the continuing development of new technology and social media platforms. These realities are presenting schools with new challenges and opportunities - sometimes in concert.

Dr. Mary Amanda "Mandy" Stewart has taught and researched English learners, and her recent research highlights how social media use and other out-of-school literacies are boosting language acquisition in this population. The winner of this year's PDK International Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award for her work on Latino/a immigrant students and literacy, her findings lead to several questions.

How can schools support the integration of social media in classrooms as an instructional support? How can homework assignments utilize social media? How can principals and districts support wider use of such platforms and other out-of-school literacies to support their English Language Learning population? 

We recently had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Stewart about her research and its implications. In an email interview, she provided advice and insights from her perspective as a researcher and practitioner, emphasizing the importance of expanding our definition of 21st-century learning to include bilingualism and biliteracy.

Public School Insights (PSI): Would you mind starting off with a little background on your research and the study? What led you to research this topic, and what questions were you interested in answering?

Stewart: I began my career teaching newcomer adolescents at the International Newcomer Academy, a public school for new immigrants in middle and high school in Fort Worth, Texas.  All of my 6th graders were in their first year in the U.S.  I saw the great resources my students from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East brought with them into the class, but also how the effects of NCLB in Texas pushed the students' linguistic and cultural resources out of the academic curriculum.  I feared that their linguistic and cultural resources would be ignored, devalued, and underutilized as they went to their home schools. 

During my doctoral studies, I became interested of the idea of "whose literacy counts?"  Through a pilot study with a 2nd-generation high school student of Mexican origin and reading about other studies of immigrant youth, it became apparent that immigrant students do possess valuable and sophisticated literacies they use out-of-school.  However, most schools do not ...

By Betty Edwards, Chair of the Special Olympics Project UNIFY® National Education Leaders Network

The film “Cipher in the Snow,” a true story written in 1964 by teacher/guidance counselor Jean Mizer, tells the story of an ostracized teenager, Cliff, who has no friends and becomes a withdrawn "cipher" or nonentity. (Cipher is the mathematical notation for zero—something without weight, importance, or value.)

One day, Cliff asks to get off the school bus, collapses, and dies in the snow beside the road. Cliff’s math teacher is asked to write the obituary but realizes that hardly anyone recalls the student. When he tries to get a small group together to attend Cliff’s funeral, he can’t find 10 people who knew the student well enough to feel comfortable going. He vows to never let another student in his class feel unimportant and be unknown.

We wish we could say that this story could not be written today, but that’s not true. Many students in our schools feel insignificant, disengaged, and ...

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