A High School Teacher Scrapped Homework. Here’s What Happened Next.


Regardless of where you stand on the issue, there’s no doubt that the anti-homework movement has been picking up steam. Homework is still a staple in most classrooms, but even teachers who believe it has some value are scaling back. Others, convinced homework is a waste of time and even counterproductive, are phasing it out — a decision that is becoming less and less controversial with parents, school leaders, and researchers.

The scrutiny stems not only from homework’s questionable academic value, but also its role as a stressor in students’ lives. In particular, the practice of assigning homework to elementary students has been widely criticized.

While most researchers agree that homework in elementary grades has no benefit, many believe it can be useful, in moderation, in high school, particularly in preparing students for college workloads.

But some high school educators are taking a second look. Christopher Bronke, an English teacher at North High School just outside of Chicago recently scrapped homework in his 9th grade class. To Bronke, it “just made sense.”

“I got sick of a wide range of factors: overly stressed students, poor-quality homework,” he explains. “They didn’t have time for it, and very little actual learning was happening. I made a very simple decision: I would rather get through less material at a higher quality with less stress than keep giving homework.

“The results have been great.  My kids are happy, healthy, and learning!”

Scott Anderson, a math teacher in Juda, Wisconsin, believes a teacher doesn’t necessarily have to be “anti-homework” to take the class in a new direction.

“In certain circumstances, I guess homework can be good,” says Anderson. “But I prefer to skip good and do great.”

‘It Wasn’t Working’

Anderson came into teaching as a second career in 2006. In his first couple of years in the classroom, he was a self-described “strict traditionalist.”  Anderson assigned homework — up to 30 Geometry and Algebra problems a night – because…well, that’s what teachers did.

“That was me, standing in front of the class, lecturing, handing out homework. That’s how I was trained,” he says.

But gradually Anderson became convinced that something was wrong. Too many graduating seniors weren’t ready for college-level math.

Scott Anderson (Photo: Channel 3000)

“It wasn’t working. The kids weren’t learning; they were doing the problems wrong. Something had to change.”

Another concern was the “homework gap.” Juda is a small, rural school district (student population: 310) and some students don’t have adequate access to the Internet, impairing their ability to wade through too much homework. Believing all students have this access, says Anderson, is a “gigantic assumption.”

Anderson gradually scaled back the amount of homework. He started out by reducing the number of math problems from 30 to around 12 and continued from there. By 2016, homework went from 25 percent of a student’s grade to only 1 percent.

As he proceeded, Anderson looked through the existing research on homework. He understood that assigning some can have benefits, but he concluded that homework was not adding enough value to justify the time students — and Anderson — put into it.

A no-homework policy was just the beginning. “I took a butcher knife to the curriculum. I thinned it something fierce,” he said.

More Time to Work the Problems

With homework becoming more scarce, more time was freed up in the classroom for practice. No time in Anderson’s class is wasted. “Even before the second bell rings, we’re working the problems,” he says. “I try not to lecture much more than 8-10 minutes each class.”

Because homework used to be such a large part of the grade, Anderson contacted parents to inform them of the changes in policy. Initially, there was a bit of grumbling because the number of A’s in his classes declined about 20 percent. All of a sudden, doing well in his class was based on what students had learned, not how many assignments they had cranked out.

In certain circumstances, I guess homework can be good. But I prefer to skip good and do great.” – Scott Anderson, Juda High School

Grades in Anderson’s class are now based on tests and quizzes. If students struggle, Anderson allows them to take them as often as needed to master the material.

According to standardized test scores, the results of the no-homework policy have been positive.

“We have been able to document the improvement of our student body moving roughly from 30 percent not ready for college math to almost 100 percent being ready,” Anderson said.

Anderson acknowledges that teaching in a small district grants him significantly more flexibility in phasing out homework (let alone taking a “hatchet to the curriculum”) than many other educators may be used to. Anderson isn’t just a member of the Juda High Math department; he is the math department. The school’s principal, Judi Davis, is also the district superintendent, and a supporter of Anderson’s new policies.

Less red-tape aside, Anderson believes that his approach can work in larger classrooms in larger districts. He gives a presentation at math conferences around the country called “Minutes Matter: Moving Away From Daily Homework.” The reaction is generally positive, although the skepticism can be palpable. The main concern centers around a belief — supported by some researchers — that without homework at the high school level, students go onto college underprepared for the rigor that awaits them.

“Our job in high school is to guarantee that students pick up these skills. That’s my mandate, which is different from a college professor’s in my opinion,” says Anderson.  “I believe strongly that my students are much better at math now than they were a decade ago.”

no homeworkShould Schools Be Done With Homework?
Across the country, parents, educators, and students are  voicing their opinions in the homework debate.

If Elementary Schools Say ‘No’ to Homework, What Takes its Place?
No homework policies are popular, but educators are working with parents on stress-free ways to keep learning going.



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When a Bake Sale Isn’t Enough: Crowdfunding for School Projects


From international food festivals and popcorn sales to fun runs and penny wars, many educators are taking matters into their own hands to raise much-needed funds. With nearly half of public school funding nationwide coming from local taxes, annual budgets vary drastically from one school district to another. According to the National Center for Education, funding can range from less than $4,000 per student in the least affluent areas to more than $15,000 per student in the wealthiest districts.

In Oakland, Calif., where Ashley Wallace teaches humanities and theater arts, the city faced a $23-million budget deficit in 2018, and millions more in cuts are expected in the 2019-2020 school year. “Funding doesn’t often come to our school,” Wallace says. “I need to get things for my students as quickly as I can.”

With few options, Wallace turns to crowdfunding to find resources for her students. In the last three years, Wallace has raised more than $35,000 for her school on Donors Choose. org, a crowdfunding site that connects teachers in high-need communities with donors (corporations, foundations, and/or individuals) who want to help fund classroom projects.

“The economic problems we have in Oakland don’t allow for our kids to participate in traditional school fundraising events,” Wallace says. “This is not an area where kids are walking around selling candy bars—and there’s only so much candy you can sell teachers.”

How Does Crowdfunding for School Work?

DonorsChoose.orgcrowdfunding for school, DigitalWish.com, and Fundly.com are all popular crowdfunding sites. While each site is a little different, educators follow the same basic steps: Create a description of a fundraising project; fill the online cart with items from the listed businesses or make special requests for items not found on the site; and wait.

The sites vet the requests and cost for each item and then track donations as they arrive. Sometimes sites offer dollar-for-dollar matches for donations—some offer even more! When the project is fully funded, the site orders the requested items and ships them to the teacher’s school.

Wallace’s crowdfunding efforts have landed supplies for the parent and student hygiene pantry as well as a washer and dryer for students to wash their uniforms.

Extreme Makeover-Classroom Edition

In summer 2019, Wallace listed three projects needed for a classroom redesign. “I wanted to create a space that reflected a welcoming, home environment,” she says. “Our students are better equipped and ready to learn when they feel relaxed, happy, and safe.” Some weeks later, a company funded every project in Oakland.

Wallace scored a $6,000 classroom makeover that included ergonomic stand-up tables and comfortable couches, among other items. The funds helped create more comfortable spaces where students can sit on the floor and work at coffee tables. A “Rainbow Lounge” now showcases student art highlighting their diverse Latino, African American, and Southeast Asian communities. The lounge is peppered with rainbow colors to help all students feel at home.

Wallace involved her students in the planning and build-out for the makeover, which took place over the summer. She taught a class, called Project Renovation, in which her students first researched and designed their own perfect classroom, complete with a budget, and then spent the remainder of the time cleaning and painting the room, building the furniture, and hanging pictures.

“It was an amazing experience,” Wallace says. “I still can’t believe it happened.”

Fast-Food Fundraisers

A flyer advertising McDonald’s “McTeacher’s Night”

Many families can’t afford the time or expense required to participate in school fundraisers. Add school funding disinvestments to the mix, and you’ll get many school officials and educators turning to less practical measures, such as inviting corporations to hawk its products. McDonald’s “McTeacher’s Night” is a prime example.

“McTeacher’s Night” is an event at which educators work behind the counter at a local McDonald’s franchise and serve up hamburgers, french fries, and soda to their students. McDonald’s bills the event as a “popular and successful school fundraiser,” but only a small percentage of nightly proceeds go to participating schools. NEA has long opposed and rejected “McTeacher’s Nights” for exploiting public schools, educators, and workers to market junk food to students.



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Building Relationships With Colleagues and Students in a High-Tech World


I recently conducted a teacher engagement survey, and some of the most telling findings are that 42 percent of teachers say they are most engaged through face-to-face learning, while more than a quarter (27.1%) of the respondents said they prefer to learn from home.

Technology can be used to help bridge these two requests in a way that nurtures relationships between teachers and builds community among colleagues.

It is no coincidence that many of the strategies that engage teachers also engage students as well. In my earlier research on student engagement, many students cited technology as  a preferred way to build knowledge and skills and develop relationships with teachers. So how can we combine technology and one-on-one interactions in a way that engages us and our students? Consider these possibilities:

For Teacher Learning

Throw a learning potluck party. Invite a colleague who specializes in a certain teaching tool or pedagogical strategy to speak at your home on a weekend. Invite some other educators over and ask everyone to bring food to share. Everyone will benefit from the learning and conversation that follows. It’s kind of like a TED Talk in your living room!

Have a “hallway” chat on Twitter. Thousands of educators have taken to Twitter to exchange ideas about important topics—from Project Based Learning (#pblchat) to Postive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (#pbischat), and more. And educators are one of the fastest growing groups on Twitter. According to Brett Baker, an account executive at Twitter. com, “Out of the half billion tweets that post every day, 4.2 million are related to education … To put this in perspective, while you read this sentence, over 3,000 edu-related tweets have flown across the Twitterverse. So join in the conversation!

For Student Learning

Use video chat. This gives students an opportunity to experience synchronous learning from their living rooms. That could mean attending office hours, asking questions, bouncing ideas around, or listening to live group discussions, rather than pre-recorded screencasts or webinars,

Arrange online intervention classes for after school. In my experience, some kids function more bravely online than in the classroom. If we are asking our students to think deeply and critically, maybe allowing them to do so from the comfort of home will give their brains more freedom to process.

Think about the methods of engagement that help you learn and ask yourself if they might work for your students too. After all, we are all learners.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a teacher at Jefferson Middle School in San Gabriel,
Calif., and the author of Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement.



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Secondary Traumatic Stress and Educators


Not too long ago, many educators who complained of burnout were were probably greeted with a collective shrug from school leaders. Teacher exhaustion or stress have often been dismissed as signs of weakness and an inability to cope. With schools and districts providing little in the way of support, the burden was always on educators to deal with whatever was dragging them down.

Although this scenario still plays out in too many schools, districts are becoming more aware and sympathetic to the pressures teachers face in school every day and the adverse impact it has on the profession and students. This acknowledgement leads to – hopefully, eventually  – strategies and programs designed to support educators.

Experts caution, however, that policymakers resist a once-size-fits-all approach. Yes, educators are burned out, they are stressed, they are fatigued, they are demoralized,  and many are now coping with trauma—all conditions with similar symptoms that require proper diagnosis to treat effectively. The trauma could be their own  – or their students’.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC),  more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma.

Whether you’re a teacher, paraprofessional, counselor, or school resource officer, every staff member cares deeply about students. And that means being exposed to the traumas students bring into school every day, including poverty, grief, family problems, racism, drug abuse. The emotional and physical toll is often severe. Even if they have not endured trauma themselves, educators can begin exhibiting symptoms similar to those of their students –  withdrawal, anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue.

Secondary traumatic stress is sort of the consequence of being a good teacher. If you care about your students, you’re probably not going to avoid it” – Jessica Lander, teacher

This is called secondary traumatic stress (STS), defined by the National Child Trauma Stress Network (NCTSN) as “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.”

Secondary traumatic stress has long been acknowledged as a condition affecting professions such as nurses, child welfare workers, first-responders, and counselors. It’s taken a while, but STS is “beginning to be actualized as a real condition affecting teachers,” says Steve Hydon, clinical professor and director of the School Social Work Program at the University of Southern California.

“What was once referred to as stress or educators ‘having a bad day’ – which might still be happening – has evolved. Schools are realizing the very real presence of STS.”

The condition is likely more prevalent than anyone may realize, says Jessica Lander, a high school teacher in Lowell, Mass.

“Secondary traumatic stress is sort of the consequence of being a good teacher. If you care about students, you’re probably not going to avoid it.”

‘It Drains Us’

Lander likely helped a lot of educators begin to understand STS last year with an article she wrote for the Harvard Graduate School of Education titled “Helping Teachers Manage the Weight of Trauma,” a short primer on the condition complete with recommended resources. KQED MindShift picked up the story, which was soon widely shared across social media.

Research examining the impact of STS on educators, however, remains fairly thin.

A 2012 study conducted by the University of Montana did conclude that there is an increased risk for STS in school personnel. The study analyzed over 300 staff members in six schools in the northwest United States. The researchers found that “approximately 75 percent of the sample exceeded cut-offs on all three subscales of STS. Furthermore, 35.3 percent of participants reported at least moderate symptoms of depression.”

The tendency to conflate conditions persists, despite the similarity in symptoms, says Hydon.

“Compassion fatigue,” for example, is often used interchangeably with STS.  Compassion fatigue “generally sets in over time, hence the ‘fatigue’.” explains Hydon. “Secondary traumatic stress can set in almost immediately because of a student experience.”

Jennifer Pacette

Jennifer Pacatte (center) with two students at an anti-gun violence rally. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pacatte)

Like fatigue or burnout, STS quickly spills over into educators’ personal lives and likely hastens their exit from the profession.

“It seems like teachers have in some ways become case workers,” LeaAnn Keck of Trauma Smart told Edutopia.  “They get to know about their students’ lives and the needs of their families, and with that can come secondary trauma.”

Jennifer Pacatte, a teacher in Rochester, NY, considers herself fortunate that she has a network of support outside the school.  When she began her career in the mid-1990s, she admits she didn’t quite realize what she was was getting herself into beyond the role she had been trained for.

“I was not really prepared for how my students’ lives outside of school would seep into the classroom and how that would so deeply affect me,” she recalls.

“Every day, I would go home and think about my kids and their problems. Educators take that on, and it drains us. For newer teachers nowadays, it has to be even worse. They don’t have the capacity to deal with the impact.”

Keeping Educators Healthy

Data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) showed that 46 percent of America’s children had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) with the number rising to 55 percent for children aged 12 to 17. One in five U.S. children have two or more of these experiences. 

In the small rural district in eastern Washington where Steve Stroschein teaches, the number of ACEs students have experienced is staggering.

“More of our kids are affected by drug abuse, violence at home, poverty,” he says. “We’re a different school now than when I started in 1990, or even 2000.”

As president of the Clarkston Education Association, Stroschein was concerned by the impact student trauma was having on educators in the district, particularly those just starting out. “As educators, our focus is always on the students, but we have to bring it back to ourselves. Our educators are stressed. They’re struggling.”

In 2018, he teamed up with the district superintendent to launch a modest initiative to help “keep our teachers healthy,” Stroschein says. “We’re emphasizing community-building within the school. Giving them a person to talk with, providing them with resources. We’re a small district so we can make more of an effort to check in on all our staff to see how they’re doing.”

“It’s important that they know we care. We can’t leave our educators out on an island by themselves.”

Last May, representatives from 39 National Education Association affiliates echoed Stroschein’s concern at a gathering in Chicago to discuss trauma-informed schools. Participants noted that many members felt isolated as they neglected their own mental and physical health while they assisted students dealing with trauma.

In the resulting report, NEA and the National Council of State Education Associations issued a series of recommendations around trauma-informed schools, including advocating for comprehensive mental health and employee assistance program supports for all educators. Acknowledging the need for self-care, NEA and NCSEA also urged affiliates to promote a campaign to counter the narrative that it’s somehow selfish to look after yourself.

Not Only About Self-Care

Steve Hydon says educators have a responsibility to be aware of the importance of self-care and be proactively engaged in it.

In 2019, the National Council of State Education Associations partnered with the NEA Center for Great Public Schools to help build a framework for trauma awareness and trauma-informed approaches. (Click on the image to read the report)

“But it is also the school’s responsibility to understand that trauma is inevitable and can impact anyone,” he adds. “If we want healthy teachers in our classrooms, schools must acknowledge the importance of things like staff appreciation, involvement in decision-making, vacation time, mental health awareness and professional development training on ways to build and value self-care.”

It’s critical that these efforts are school or district-wide, says Jessica Lander, because an inordinate emphasis on self-care or “resilience” without adequate supports places too much of the burden on the individual educator.

“What was fascinating to me when I wrote the article last year,” Lander recalls, “was the number of teachers who responded by saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I have been feeling these things for years, and I didn’t know it had a name.’”

That can be isolating for educators, making it more likely that they think it’s just an individual problem that they alone have to address.

“If the teacher doesn’t know what he or she is going through,” Lander says, “the school or district has an obligation to tell them, ‘We are going to name it and we are going to help you.’”

It’s the compassionate and right thing to do, she adds, but “no teacher will do their best work if they are suffering from STS. The bottom line is strategies to support educators are always going to help students.”

Resources

NEA: Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma-Informed Schools
NEA and its affiliates are actively engaged in finding ways for schools and educators to address the issue of trauma and its implications for learning, behavior, and school safety.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Understanding the Impact of Trauma Work on Professionals

TraumaAwareSchools.org
Managing Secondary Traumatic Stress

Edutopia
Are You At Risk for Secondary Traumatic Stress?



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Educator Podcasters Share Expertise and Advice


Kim Lepre is a veteran teacher who understands there is much to learn during your first years in a classroom. With her vast experience as an educator, she found herself taking new teachers under her wing and mentoring them.

Lepre spends a great deal of time thinking about the challenges teachers face. “There’s a lot of being introspective and shifting your mindset during those first few years,” said Lepre. “But without a solid mentor, you’re feeling your way through the dark.”

Lepre felt she could offer practical, reassuring advice for these less experienced teachers. She began to realize many new educators shared the same questions and concerns early in their teaching careers.

“I also noticed that similar frustrations also came up in educator Facebook groups, so I started blogging for a solid year to address those,” said Lepre, “After that, I realized that I wanted to reach a wider audience and help even more teachers, so I thought, why not try a podcast?”

A Podcast for Every Interest

Lepre turned her idea into reality, and she is now the host of the successful podcast, Teachers Need Teachers. Weekly, Lepre releases an episode on topics such as how to have a solid job interview, how to encourage student participation, and how teachers can make personal time for themselves despite their busy schedule. Lepre wants to help beginning teachers feel competent and in control during their early years of educating.

Kim Lepre

Lepre is not alone in realizing the effectiveness of podcasts in inspiring and sharing knowledge with other educators. New Jersey social studies teacher Chris Nesi has amassed a large audience of listeners through his technology-focused podcast, The House of #EdTech.

“The House of #EdTech allows me to explore the ways that technology is changing the way that I teach. I know if it’s changing the way I teach, it is certainly impacting the way other people are teaching,” said Nesi.

Education-related podcasts range from specific topics, like Nesi’s, whose well-produced podcast helps teachers with tasks such as how to make a google forms quiz or how to be a tech coach in your own school, to more general issues, such as dealing with teacher burnout. Some podcasters, like educator Jennifer Gonzalez on The Cult of Pedagogy, cover a wide array of education-related subjects.

Some weeks she discusses instructional strategies, other weeks she will focus on social justice issues, classroom management and teacher workload.

“I have listeners teaching K-12 and at the college level. As far as I understand, I even have part of my audience that teaches medical school. I try to keep my topics pretty broad so that it will appeal to a general audience,” said Gonzalez.

Podcasting 101

Why are podcasts growing in popularity among educators? Podcasts are a communication medium that provide free access to listeners and are accessible to create with basic technology. They are also convenient to listen to whether people are at the gym, doing the dishes, or folding laundry.

Chris Nesi

Gonzalez was drawn to podcasting because she views it as “a more intimate way of learning.” Gonzalez interviews educators who share her passion for education, promoting a positive attitude on the role of an educator.

“I tend to find teachers who have a very healthy optimistic growth mindset. Their attitude about their teaching keeps them growing, and I like to have conversations with them. I think they’re really good role models for other teachers,” said Gonzalez.

Nesi realizes the value in learning through these interviews himself. “The biggest benefit of doing the show… is that I’ve been the one who gets to have these conversations with these amazing people. I am patient zero of this show because I get to have conversations that [I would not have gotten to have] if not for my podcast,” said Nesi.

Lepre, Nesi, and Gonzalez have suggestions for educators interested in creating podcasts of their own:

New Educators, Don’t Miss the School Me Podcast!
The National Education Association has a podcast of its own, featuring experienced member voices. Designed to assist educators in their first five years of teaching, the School Me podcast discusses issues and challenges any new or aspiring educator will want to know more about.

“Starting a podcast doesn’t have to be difficult and can actually reinvigorate and reignite your love for teaching,” said Lepre. “A lot of people assume that it has to be very technical and complicated, but honestly, it’s as complicated as you want it to be.”

Nesi believes starting a podcast is about having the confidence to begin.

“This is the best advice I have, and it’s super simple: just hit record. You don’t have to be great to start, but you do have to start if you want to be great.”

Gonzalez has practical advice on the best way to sustain a podcast; she has been consistent in producing her own podcast since 2013. “Before you start to release episodes, get three or four of those episodes recorded, edited, finished. You need a little bit of a buffer, content prepared and ready to go,” suggested Gonzalez. “Otherwise, life will happen, and you’ll get behind, and then making episodes will just become this thing hanging over you.”

“The biggest benefit of doing the show… is that I’ve been the one who gets to have these conversations with these amazing people. I am patient zero of this show because I get to have conversations that [I would not have gotten to have] if not for my podcast,” said Nesi.

Lepre, whose original mission was inspired by her mentees, never loses sight of this primary reason she took up podcasting. “Knowing that there are so many new teachers that are benefiting from it and sharing it with their fellow teachers makes all the time and cost worth it.”



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The ‘Greta Effect’ On Student Activism and Climate Change


Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg (M) takes her School Strike for Climate Action demonstration to the White House on September 13, 2019. Photo by: Lena Klimkeit/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Once upon a time a courageous 16-year-old girl set out to save her planet from imminent doom from powers seemingly beyond her control. With the support of millions of other young people determined to help their planet survive, the girl sailed across an ocean on a vessel powered by the sun to take on her greatest foe…

It sounds like something out of the Hunger Games or another dystopian YA novel, but It’s the true story of Greta Thunberg, the teen climate activist from Sweden who is holding world leaders accountable for their lack of action on the climate crisis.

On Friday, Thunberg will lead worldwide international climate strikes where legions of students will walk out of their classrooms across the United States, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and South America. In New York City, where Thunberg will march, and in many other areas, districts are allowing students to take part without penalizing them for missing school, but either way, educators can find ways to support their students’ interest in climate change throughout the year.

“We should work hard to ensure that we’re teaching about all the ways we can take action to mitigate the effects of climate change,” says modified language arts educator Jennifer Hall, the Earth Club advisor for West Seattle High School, who will join the student climate strike in Washington, D.C. on Friday. “Help students plant trees, start school-based compost programs and partner with your city or town to collect the food waste to make the compost and expand composting facilities.”

School gardens, Hall says, are more important than ever in mitigating climate change’s impact on food insecurity. “It’s literally a matter of life and death,” she says.

In Africa, where scientists predict climate change will have the most harmful impact on food security, school gardens can teach young people to grow fruits and vegetables in environmentally sustainable ways while helping their families and communities. In many areas of the United States, school gardens have become community hubs that feed families and nourish the community’s relationship to the land.

Unprecedented Environmental Activism

Thunberg’s journey across the sea was rough and long, but purposeful. A flight would have taken hours rather than days but because of jet-engine emissions, she refused to travel by air. Many of her fellow Swedes are also remaining grounded. “Flight shame” has kept more and more Swedes off of planes and onto other modes of travel.

She’s made the world’s most powerful world leaders pause and consider environmental policies, including the United Kingdom’s members of parliament.

“The UK’s active current support of new exploitation of fossil fuels, like for example the UK shale gas fracking industry, the expansion of its North Sea oil and gas fields, the expansion of airports, as well as the planning permission for a brand new coalmine, is beyond absurd,” she told them.

Thunberg has also had a major effect on publishing.

Publishers are churning out new books on everything related to the environment, especially climate change, and sales have doubled in the last year, according to Nielsen Book Research. There’s even a new genre called “cli-fi,” climate fiction dealing with climate change and global warming.

Hall’s current go-to book about climate change is Drawdown, which describes 100 solutions to global warming including their cost and carbon impact. The book is part of the ongoing Project Drawdown, a global research organization that identifies, reviews and analyzes solutions to climate change.

“It’s very approachable and beautifully photographed, and the website that goes with it is invaluable,” Hall says.

As the Earth Club advisor, Hall has seen the Greta Effect inspire unprecedented environmental activism among her students. But she’s also seen the Greta Effect in her work as a special educator and modified language arts instructor.

“This young woman has Asperger’s Syndrome and had selective mutism,” Hall says. “She was always told that she’d find her voice and speak out when she found something to speak out about. Climate change was her motivator and now her voice is heard around the world.”



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Making Movement a Part of Your Classroom Culture


Physical Education (PE) isn’t the only class that should emphasize movement! Whatever the grade or subject area, every teacher can effectively incorporate movement into the school day. Most students take fewer than 5,000 steps during a non-PE school day. (That’s including one recess!) Health experts recommend at least 10,000 steps or 60 minutes of physical activity a day.

Adding physical activity to classrooms will result in more focused, better-behaved students who can accomplish even more throughout the school day.

Physical Activity Improves Academics and Social-Emotional Well-Being

It should go without saying that movement is good for us. Emerging research suggests that more physical education, recess, and physical activity can improve academic achievement (CDC, 2015). Physical activity in the classroom has been shown to increase cognition, memory, and recall.

Increases in daily physical activity are also positively associated with socialemotional aspects of learning such as mood, behavior, and stress level.

A Classroom Culture

Most teachers already implement sensory or movement breaks, which are a great start.

Examples of effective movement breaks can be found at www.GoNoodle.com and www.brain-breaks.com. Once physical activity is woven into the daily routine, it can become part of the classroom culture. Students and teachers will feel the positive effects of being active.

Lead by example! Let students see you enjoy moving in the classroom throughout the day.

Simple Strategies for More Movement in the Classroom

Don’t just sit around: When students need to be seated, consider seating such as physio-balls, balance discs, or ergonomic stools. Standard desks can also be modified for movement by using resistance bands or rubber bands around the legs of the desk to use as a wiggle bar.

Stand up: When convenient, students can use standing desks or stations).The act of standing burns more calories and expends more energy.

It also increases blood flow, oxygen uptake, and muscular fitness.

Walk and talk: When students work in pairs, why not walk and talk? Teachers can encourage movement through walking in the classroom and the school building as space allows.

Keep count: When students arrive at school, keep count of their steps using inexpensive pedometers or phones (for older students). Tracking steps is motivating and can be incorporated into the classroom and reinforced at home. Help students set goals, track steps, crunch numbers, chart progress, and more.

Take it outside: Students enjoy the change of scenery and benefit from fresh air.

Outdoor space allows for plenty of gross motor movement. Physical activity should become an expectation during the school day.

If teachers appreciate the connection between exercise and learning, students will too.

Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch is a professor in the Movement Science, Sport, and Leisure Studies Department at Westfield State University.



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How 3 Teachers Took on the Civics Gap


Sherri Moss (back row, far right) celebrates civic learning with her 5th graders and Justice Teaching volunteer Bruce Blitman (far left). (Photo courtesy of Sherrie Moss)

Florida teacher Sherri Moss clearly recalls the day she realized her fifth graders had not acquired the fundamentals of civics education.

It was the Friday following the 9/11 attacks—a tough week. That day the students and teachers had gathered to watch part of a ceremony honoring those lost. When the gentleman on the TV began reading the Declaration of Independence, Moss was moved to recite it, word for word, right along with him.

“My students’ jaws dropped and they blurted out, ‘How did you know what he was going to say?!?’ And that’s when I realized they had absolutely no familiarity with our founding documents.”

Civic knowledge has been low for decades among all American students. Only 23 percent of the nation’s eighth graders scored proficient on the civics portion of the 2014 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) test, which requires a basic understanding of the Constitution and the branches of government.

Equally disconcerting is the persistent gap in scores between white students, 26 percent of whom scored proficient or above in 2014, and those of black and Hispanic students, less than 10 percent of whom scored proficient.

Our classrooms can be places where our students have more  opportunities to notice inequities and take action on them.” – Stephanie Serriere, Indiana University

Those results reflect the fact that rigorous civics education—where textbook learning is supplemented with guided debates, government simulations, community problem-solving projects, and field trips to see local and state government in action—is far more commonly found in schools that serve the wealthiest communities, in which black and Hispanic families are underrepresented.

“A lot of research shows that schools that serve youth of color or poor youth provide the least innovative and most ineffective forms of civic education,” says Stephanie Serriere, a professor of social studies education in the Indiana University system.

It’s a loss for students of color who aren’t learning to access the levers of power, but it’s also a loss for their more privileged peers, she explains.

“Youth of color have particular knowledge about the unequal implementation of democracy that white youth may not have or recognize,” says Serriere. “But our classrooms can be places where our students have opportunities to notice inequities and take action on them.”

Students like those Sherri Moss teaches, students of color who are economically disadvantaged, are less likely to ever have opportunities to engage deeply in civic learning. Moss set out to change that, at least in her classroom, though some of her colleagues were skeptical.

The student body at Bethune Elementary School of the Arts in Hollywood, Fla., included more low-income and non-English speaking students every year, and their school kept a laser-focus on standardized test prep. How would she fit in civics content? And even if she could, how would she get students interested?

Moss was undeterred. She encouraged the lively debates that arose as students learned more about our system of government. She soon had students creating their own slideshows about the Bill of Rights. She helped them look up the meanings of 18th-century words and figure out unfamiliar phrases.

“How is that not working on important reading skills?” Moss asks enthusiastically. “Pretty soon they were working on memorizing it, too. A lot of people didn’t think my kids could do it, but I knew they have a deep desire to talk about the principles of fairness and justice.”

“Democracy is a lifestyle,” Nathan Bowling tells his students. Below, Bowling rallies his colleagues during the Tacoma teacher’s strike in 2018.

In 2005, her then-principal asked Moss to participate in Justice Teaching, a program of the Florida Bar that pairs a lawyer-volunteer with a class in a low-income school. She jumped at it. For nearly 15 years, Moss and her volunteer, Bruce Blitman, partnered in teaching aspects of law and government through games and projects, and inviting guest speakers who “really connected with the kids,” says Moss.

Judge R. Fred Lewis, the former Florida Supreme Court chief justice who founded the Justice Teaching program, drove seven hours to meet Moss’ students in person. “I wore a dress that day,” Moss recalls. “The kids were freaking out.”

In one Justice Teaching lesson, the children start playing a game, and then the rules change half-way through. It drives home why it is so important that our laws apply to everyone.

Another lesson asks the children to choose five rights from the Bill of Rights that they would want to keep if they were forced to sacrifice the others.

“Speech, religion, and the right to bear arms are usually in the top five,” says Moss. “But then we discuss what happens if you have freedom of religion without the freedom of assembly. Can you go to church?”

The activity shows students how our fundamental rights are inextricably linked, and our democracy would collapse without all of them.

Beyond these specific lessons, Moss and her students discuss how important it is to make good choices, treat everyone with respect even when we disagree, and why the rules apply to everyone—including law enforcement.

“These kids are dealing with a level of violence in their communities, and some of their family members have had negative interactions with police officers,” says Moss. “I want them to know their rights. I want them to know the police can’t just barge into their homes without a warrant.”

“I want them to know that they have good reason to expect fair treatment.”

Keeping It Real

The need for real-life relevance doesn’t wane as students get older according to Nathan Bowling, who has taught civics, government, and geography in Tacoma, Wash., for 13 years.

“What I know about civics instruction is that relevance drives engagement, so when my teaching is most relevant, my students are most engaged,” says Bowling, who was named Washington’s Teacher of the Year in 2016.

Ten years ago, he left his position at one of the district’s wealthiest middle schools to teach at Lincoln High School, a highly diverse, low-income school across town. Conversations about law enforcement and immigration are particularly relevant to his students.

“When we study civil liberties, I don’t avoid talking about search and seizure. I do a really deep dive on how to handle police encounters, because we have situations where officers interact with our students,” Bowling says.

About the only thing that truly surprises them is the potential for corruption in our political system.

civic education public schoolsForgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools
The value of civics goes far beyond politics, and research into this long-neglected corner of the curriculum reveals other surprising misconceptions about civics, and the promise it holds for student achievement.

“When I explain how campaign finance works, with independent expenditures and contribution bundling, students are shocked,” he says.

A South American exchange student in his class two years ago was aghast, saying, “Brazil has a reputation for corruption, but we would never allow this! It’s buying politicians!”

Bowling is cautious though—he wants his students to be skeptical of power structures without becoming cynical. He’s found that lessons on local government are an effective antidote to cynicism, because students can see more clearly how much their participation matters.

“It’s easy to feel outrage about things going on in Washington, D.C., but folks on Capitol Hill aren’t the ones deciding which potholes get filled and why your train stops running at 10 p.m.,” Bowling says. “Those are all local decisions.”

Bowling requires his AP government students to engage in local politics and attend local school board and community meetings.

And anyone who says individual votes don’t really count, in reference to the shortcomings of the electoral college, will be stopped in their tracks if Bowling is within earshot. “I tell them that every election we vote for local officials and legislators who determine a lot of the real outcomes of our lives.”

He asks students to examine how their home state came to have the highest minimum wage in the nation, and how same-sex marriage and marijuana were legalized—all via grassroots-driven ballot initiatives.

Bowling is moving overseas for at least a few years, but he hopes his students remember one of the sayings from his class: “Democracy is a lifestyle.”

In other words, Bowling explains, voting once or twice a year is not going to be enough to protect our democracy.

Time to Act

Jose Flores was recognized by the Obama White House in 2016.

Former civics teacher Jose Flores didn’t let any of his students’ disadvantages prevent them from learning how to advocate for positive change in their rural agricultural community in Imperial County, the poorest county in California.

Brawley Union High School, just 20 minutes from the border with Mexico, is home to many low-income students. Some are the children of migrant workers; some work in the fields themselves, as Flores did in his youth.

“Some of my students struggle to learn English, and some are illiterate in Spanish as well,” says Flores. “It would be a terrible disservice to hand them a textbook and test them on vocabulary and call that their education.”

Instead, Flores set out to show them that what he had to teach is critical to their daily lives. He would teach them to integrate critical thinking with advocacy—but the students would decide what issues they would take on.

If he could help his students understand the levers of power, they would be comfortable enough to speak out before an audience that could actually change things. They didn’t just read about American government; his students went to city council and school board meetings, contacted state assembly members, and ran information campaigns in their neighborhoods.

Students weren’t just passive observers to the political process. Flores showed them how to obtain the city council’s proposed budget document, for example, and analyze revenues and expenditures to figure out where resources were going. Then, when they attended council meetings, they could question why there was so much investment in some areas when they were told there wasn’t enough money to add police officers in their neighborhoods.

“After taking my class, my students knew everyone in their city government, and those individuals knew my students, too,” Flores says.

Adjoining rooms had to be opened at school board meetings to make room for 100 students from Brawley High.

But the most urgent work his students became engaged in was exploring the environmental conditions in their own hometown.

civics gap

Flores’ students acquire gardening skills to counter rampant pesticide use; and see the justice system in action at the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego.

For 20 years, the county has diverted water from the Salton Sea to big cities like Los Angeles. Meanwhile, pesticides and industrial wastewater have poisoned the New River, which flows right through Brawley. As water evaporates, sand covered in toxic chemicals blows in the air.

“We have terrible air and water quality here, and the highest asthma rate in the state,” says Flores.

His students have taken soil and water samples, held press conferences where they discussed their own health issues and those of family members, and conducted letter writing campaigns to state and federal officials.

So far, the 300,000 residents of Imperial County have been outvoted by L.A. and San Diego, and no action has been taken to improve the environmental conditions.

But another important lesson Flores hoped to impart was that “if your side or your candidate loses, you can’t give up.

You have to keep pushing for positive change.”

After 25 years in the classroom and numerous honors for his work in civics education and environmental literacy, Flores had to stop teaching in 2018.

His own health problems, likely connected to the pesticides he has been exposed to his entire life, are getting worse, and his ailing mother needs more help.

But Flores has continued to push for change in how schools understand and implement civics. He served on a state commission on environmental literacy, and is now working with the state university teacher prep program to show how cross-curricular lessons are essential for preparing students to tackle the climate crisis.

Why can’t a language arts teacher also encourage letter writing campaigns? Why shouldn’t a civics teacher encourage students to use data and figure out ratios and percentages to bolster their advocacy?

“We have to stop thinking in silos,” says Flores. “No teacher has to be the expert on everything, we just have to work together and bring in experts who want to help.”

When the journalism program at San Francisco State University offered to do workshops for his students, Flores followed up by making them honorary press passes and asking them to become reporters at school board and city council meetings.

It’s just another skill set that his students can use to fight for their futures.

Students of color whose families are not wealthy are the students who most need educators willing to take risks and teach outside of textbooks, says Flores.

“If we’re doing our job well, we’re helping our students find a voice and use it.”

For more information, including lesson plans, go to nea.org/civicseducation



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Has the Personalized Learning Hype Worn Off?


Many, if not most, public school educators recognize the pattern. A new education buzzword or trend enters the conversation about public education. Proponents say it is nothing less than a “game-changer” that will “revolutionize” student learning. The hype surrounding this new idea is usually borderline messianic, but is backed by enormous amounts of corporate money. Anyone who raises the slightest objection or reservation is often branded a stuffy defender of the status quo.

The idea is embedded in a few school districts and steadily begins to expand. Within a year or two, it’s clear that – oops! –  the promised positive results have yet to materialize. A backlash grows. By this point, tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, time and resources have been wasted, and proven ideas about what really works in the classroom have been marginalized.

Sound familiar? The U.S. public education system has been squeezed by a series of half-baked innovations or “reforms” over the past couple of decades, driven by a “failing schools/bad teacher” narrative. The tireless activism of educators and their allies has, to certain extent, stalled the momentum behind many of these policies, including for-profit charter schools, vouchers, and high-stakes testing.

The latest education trend to find itself in the hot seat is personalized learning.

By now, most educators have heard of personalized learning.  Many have implemented some version of it in their classrooms. No one seems to agree precisely on what personalized learning means and what it entails, beyond a general consensus that it involves tailoring instruction and curriculum to individual students’ needs.

This general idea is hardly new and, behind it all the recent hype and noise, personalized learning can be appealing, says Faith Boninger of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC).

“Many educators are attracted to and enthusiastic about the child-oriented promises held out by various approaches to personalized learning,” explains Boninger. “This is children having more freedom to pursue their own interests and teachers having more time to mentor children individually, to develop a strong relationship with each child and provide each one what he or she needs at any given time.”

So far, so good. But the modern version of personalized learning is tightly hitched to digital technology and data – and the outsized and powerful for-profit corporate interests behind it.

Or as Peter Greene succinctly put it: “Personalized learning smells like money. Lots of money.”

Faulty Assumptions

Boninger, along with Alex Molinar and Christopher Saldaña, examines the alarming direction personalized learning has taken in a new study. The researchers raise red flags that should alarm anyone anxious about the nexus of digital technology, corporate privatization, powerful backers such as Betsy DeVos and Charles Koch, and the lack of oversight that has allowed personalized learning to proliferate in school districts across the country.

Marketed aggressively to districts by tech companies, many programs have been designed around several “false assumptions” about teaching and learning that are central to the agenda advanced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Tech-infused personalized learning is “so carefully and forcefully marketed as satisfying the needs of both children and educators, it sounds like a perfect solution to everyone’s problems.”- Faith Boninger, National Eduction Policy Center

This vision of personalized learning extols continual assessment, record-keeping, and feedback that rely on a steady and endless stream of quantitative data. Perhaps more than any other factor, the resulting concern over threats to student privacy, has undermined personalize learning’s popularity.

And, as Boninger, Molinar and Salda write in the NEPC report, the central assumption behind these programs “narrows pedagogical practices and curriculum because they must be limited to elements that can be both logically structured and measured making them, not coincidentally, technology friendly.”

Once a district buys into this premise, tech companies may appropriate an even greater space in it schools than they had before.

Cynthia Roy, a teacher in New Bedford, Mass. says districts are being made “irresistible offers.”

“It is difficult for schools with tight budgets to turn away technology. Even if we are growing skeptical of the bright and shiny offers pitched by ed tech companies, many of us are still desperate enough to accept them,” Roy explains.

In addition, says Boninger, district leaders often lack the time and expertise to properly evaluate what they’re being sold. “When they’re told that a product will adaptively respond to children’s specific needs, for example, how are they supposed to determine if that’s really true?”

Hyper-Individualized, Industrialized Learning Environment

The research into personalized learning is thin at best. What is available shows little or no substantive improvement in student learning. In January, ChalkBeat reported that Summit Learning, the online platform funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, turned down an offer by the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research to evaluate its program.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calls personalized learning “one of the most promising developments in K-12 education.”(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A team of educators in East Pennsboro, Pa., avoided some of these pitfalls by ensuring that personalize learning was done by them, not to them. Profiled by NEA Today in 2017, the teachers were leaders in both the design and implementation of the program, opting for a hybrid blended learning model that merged technology with project learning – all without relinquishing their role in the classroom.

That wasn’t Paul Emerich’s experience at a private school in Silicon Valley. The educator was initially excited about going deep in a tech-centric personalized learning environment. Emerich quickly became disillusioned by what he called a stressful and isolating (for both teacher and student), “hyper-individualized, industrialized” learning environment fueled by “big data and a playlist.”

The company behind the schools didn’t have the research or the evidence to support its approach, Emerich wrote on his blog, and student results were no better, if not worse, than results at the public school he taught at previously.

“Their primary concern was not the children’s education: their primary concern was monetizing the tools….Hyper-individualization does precisely what the emerging body of research says it does and more: it isolates children, it breeds competition, it assumes that children can learn entirely on their own.”

Emerich details his experiences and lays out his vision for personalized learning in a new book, “Reclaiming Personalized Learning: A Pedagogy for Restoring Equity and Humanity in Our Classroom.”

‘Teachers Don’t Need Apps For This’

Sensing a looming backlash, a couple of companies in 2018 issued a document calling for a personalized learning message makeover. The document instructs like-minded stakeholders to tone down the hyperbole about technology, data, and increased “student agency,” (parents are increasingly nervous about all three) and talk more about how great these programs are for teachers.

“In an effort to generate excitement, we inadvertently scared the public,” the report said.

This should also sound familiar. School privatization advocates have tried to rebrand school vouchers and other schemes to make them more palatable to a skeptical public. As with these initiatives, the problems facing personalized learning need much more than a PR reboot.

personalized learning

Many educators, while supporting the general idea behind personalized learning, believe tech companies have essentially hijacked the concept. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The NEPC report recommends that policymakers and schools take a step back from promoting and implementing these programs “until rigorous review, oversight, and enforcement mechanisms are established.”

The authors also call on states to establish independent entities to establish safeguards to protect student and teacher data, review curriculum and pedagogical approaches, and open all assessment instruments and algorithms associated with personalized learning materials to review by third-party education experts.

While the heightened scrutiny in into these programs is welcome and long overdue, interest in personalized learning remains high.

The problem, says Boninger, is that tech-infused personalized learning is “so carefully and forcefully marketed as satisfying the needs of both children and educators, it sounds like a perfect solution to everyone’s problems.”

Resisting that sales pitch when you’re under considerable pressure to avoid being perceived as failing or resistant to change can be difficult.

“We can transform the public education system so that no district is desperate and vulnerable to these schemes,” says Cynthia Roy. “Fully funding our schools is one answer. Another would be to resist narratives of incompetent educators and failing public schools.”

Teachers know what they are doing and welcome innovation in the classroom, she adds.

“Professional educators are fully capable of merging knowledge domains – technology, content, and pedagogy,” says Roy. “They know how to differentiate instruction to truly personalize learning. Our public school teachers do not need apps for this. They do not need businessmen to tell them how to educate, nurture, and innovate,’ 



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Learning Your Way Toward Wellness


Welcome back to school (BTS)! Maybe by the time you read this, you will already have gone to your BTS breakfast, seen some keynote or other, and set up your classrooms.

Maybe you’ve hung some new posters, or added a new beanbag to your reading nook. Maybe you’ve been given your student rosters, learned about the Individualized Education Program and 504 plan goals, strategized about how to implement the new textbook, translated this year’s parent letter into various home languages, or updated your classroom website with pictures from your summer.

I’m hoping you have returned refreshed and ready to embrace the new family of students that you will be given this school year.

Maybe you spent the summer building your toolbox and learning new strategies, or maybe you did the equally important task of taking care of your own brain’s wellness and needs.

But why stop there? Why carve time out for your own wellness only during the summer? Why not make it a focus for you this school year as well?

Addressing Your Needs Addresses the Needs of the Job

One of the best ways we can take care of ourselves is to continue our own learning. And one of the most effective and successful ways we can teach learning and knowledge acquisition to our students is to model it ourselves. In other words, by continuing our own growth throughout the school year, we not only address our own needs, but the needs of the job itself. I think about Merlin’s quote from T.H. White’s book, The Once and Future King (a quote which hung in my living room growing up):

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff
and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never
fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it.

That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you.”

So as this school year starts, don’t just think about how you are going to teach, but what you are going to learn. Are you going to take a class totally out of your wheelhouse?

Are you going to do one of those wine-and-painting classes with friends or perhaps monthly go to a local museum and walk around with the audio tour? Maybe you’ll just pick up a book about a subject you know nothing about.

Regardless, the goal for this school year is to continue your own learning and nurture your own brain so that you can nurture your students’ as well. Learning keeps us engaged in life and in this difficult profession.

Being the Model Learner in the Classroom

When teachers are engaged, that trickles down to students. When students are engaged, their achievement not only increases, but classroom management issues decrease.

When achievement rises and issues decrease, it is easier for teachers to go deeper into curriculum as well as form relationships with students.

Meaningful curriculum plus meaningful relationships between teachers and students positively impact achievement, and teacher engagement is, of course, triggered again. And so on.

Tell Me About Your Engagement Goals and Ideas

This school year, I really want to focus this column on my fellow teachers and their engagement as learners. After all, as teachers, we are the models in the classroom. And if our primary goal is to help raise generations
of curious learners, then the best way to do that is to nurture our own curiosity and model learning ourselves.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Learning impacts our own wellness so it’s vital that we continue doing it ourselves. We deserve it.

So here’s what I’m going to do this year: I’m going to learn about you and what you find engaging. Then, I’m going to report back. Begin by filling out this survey.

It shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes or so, and I will share the trends in the results in a later post. Please also feel free to share the survey via Twitter or other social media. The survey closes on December 31, 2019.

Continue to check back here for ways to engage both you and your students as lifelong learners. Who knows? Maybe I’ll feature you and your best professional development experience in an upcoming column for our readers to celebrate and learn from. Meanwhile, I hope throughout this school year that I can feed you with advice, humor, and understanding. Let’s make this profession, a darn hard profession, more engaging and effective together.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a teacher at Jefferson Middle
School in San Gabriel, Calif., and the author of Just Ask Us:
Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement.



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The Eight Ps of Parent Engagement


Getting parents more engaged in school is a necessary variable in the equation of student success. In fact, parent engagement can have a direct impact on student engagement itself. Multiple studies prove that students whose parents are actively engaged in their schooling typically show the following:

-Higher grades
-Higher test scores
-Greater social skills
-Better reported behavior
-Easier adaptation to school
-More likely to continue into post-graduate education

It’s only logical that involved parents positively impact student achievement. According to an NEA 2008 report, when schools, parents, and families work in partnership to support students, then those students succeed at a higher level. It’s also important to note that when a school engages more parents, all children benefit, according to a 1995 study called A Generation of Evidence: The Family is Critical to Student Achievement.

That’s great, Heather. You might be saying to yourself. But how? How do we engage parents in our schools when they themselves are busy and stressed and many are just struggling to get their students to school on time?

So I’ve developed what I’m calling The Eight Ps of Parent Engagement. These are meant to help guide a teacher or school or district in making outreach decisions to increase parent engagement.

Of course, it’s easy to know how to increase parent engagement, but it’s not as easy to actualize the steps to make it happen. Don’t worry, however, you don’t have to do it alone. Partner with parents to create a think tank devoted to outreach and dedicated to increasing the numbers of engaged parents. And don’t limit those you partner with to those who are already engaged. Call directly to invite others. Create a shared vision where school is seen as a positive place for all stakeholders, and get ready to launch a campaign to engage more parents than ever.

Your students will thank you for it and they, too, will be more engaged.

parent engagementHeather Wolpert-Gawron is a teacher at Jefferson Middle School in San Gabriel, Calif., and the author of Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement.



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How to Evaluate Tech Tools You’ve Never Used in Less Than Seven Minutes


Ready or not, it’s almost time to go back to school. If you’re like me, you’ve been spending the summer attending webinars, seminars, and conferences. You chatted with colleagues on Twitter and Facebook about learning tools they loved. You collected a long list of highly recommended resources that you can’t wait to try in your classroom. But you could spend hours just previewing one item from that list, and many will turn out to be a waste of effort. How do you find the best of the bunch without running through all of your free time?

Maybe because I’m a technology teacher, I can usually sort through this list pretty quickly. I don’t have a crystal ball that tells me what new web tools, apps, or programs I’ll like, what will engage my students, or what will be more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, I have checklists. Two of them. The first evaluates the big picture. Programs that make the cut move to the second checklist where I judge usefulness in my particular circumstances. In the end, I’ve eliminated everything that wastes time, is confusing, and/or doesn’t fit my needs.

This two-step process doesn’t assure that once I try the program in a real classroom, it’ll perform as promised. Nor does it guarantee the program will survive the onslaught of student use. What it does is help me to waste as little of my time as possible while finding the best fit for my unique situation.

Step One: Qualify (Two Minutes)

I won’t even open the app unless it passes these three questions:

Is it free or a small fee? If you have a school or district license on the app, software, or webtool, skip this one. Trust that your IT folks have already determined it will fit their budget and is a good value for the money.

Will it work with my learning management system (LMS)? This is a big plus. If it will, the roll out and application just became easier. Many classroom learning apps are aligned with LMS applications like Google Classroom, Schoology, and Canvas.

Is it easy to install and set up? If you can’t get the program up and running in about two minutes (not counting time required to register, upload classes, and personalize goals), it’s too complicated. Really. Take it from someone who’s done this for over a decade. If you can’t intuitively set the program up—it doesn’t matter how wonderful it seems—you’ll struggle to use it. I’ll never forget my first experience with Moodle. This amazing web tool is legitimately one of the most versatile class organization tools out there but it is just too darn complicated for most people to use. I took hours (and hours) to setup it up, and then more hours teaching teachers to use it, only to find they still just didn’t get it and wouldn’t use it.

Step Two: Playtime (Five Minutes)

If the program gets past Step One, I test it. Here’s what I look for:

It’s easy to use (after set up and installation). If you spend a lot of time learning the app, you’ll spend too much time helping students figure it out.

It supports the ‘4 C’s’–creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration.

It isn’t distracting or overwhelming in colors, music, or activity.

It offers levels that become increasingly more difficult, providing differentiation for student needs.

It will stand the test of time.

It has none or few ads–and those that are there do not take up a significant portion of the screen.

It is easily applied to a variety of educational environments.

It doesn’t collect personal information other than user credentials or data required to operate the app.

It is rated ‘for everyone’ (or whatever the program’s version of G is).

It has no in-app purchases or billing.

In a nutshell: If it’s not easy to set up, I might walk. If it’s not intuitive to use, I do walk.

There are programs that don’t pass these checklists and are in fact great choices. Most of these perform multiple functions such as assigning homework, planning lessons, collecting work, and grading it. For example, when I first used the LMS Canvas, it took me hours of time and too many mistakes to understand its intricacies.

But it now saves me lots of time on grading, running my classes, assigning work, moderating groups, chatting with students, and so much more.

What’s your secret for evaluating new web tools, apps, or programs?

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K–18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K–12 technology curriculum, K–8 keyboard curriculum, K–8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, contributor to NEA Today and TeachHUB, and author of two tech thrillers. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.



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Inside a Trauma-Informed Classroom – NEA Today


A student models the “cool down” corner in a trauma-informed classroom at Highland Elementary in Newark, Del. (Photo: Luis Gomez)

On a recent morning, Wilmington, Del., school nurse Donna O’Connor was reading the local news online “and saw that one of our fathers had been shot the night before.” She knew it would mean a bad day—week, month, year—for his children, and a new challenge for their educators. And, unfortunately, that kind of trauma isn’t unusual in their community, she says. “What does normal mean? What we consider normal [may not be] normal for them. How many of our students sleep in a bed?”

Scientists tell us that a child’s brain changes when they witness violence at home or in their communities, or experience poverty, eviction, and hunger. It adapts, altering its structure in a way that can be observed in brain scans. As a result, educators of these children will notice frequent “fight, flight, or freeze” responses to stress.

But what educators need to know is that they can adapt too, says Deb Stevens, director of instructional advocacy for the Delaware State Education Association (DSEA).

With professional training, they can reduce the impact of traumatic experiences and help all children learn. “You must believe you can make a difference,” she tells educators.

In 2017, DSEA won a $253,683, three-year NEA Great Public Schools grant for a collaborative project supporting educators at five Wilmington and Newark, Del., schools through frequent after-school and summer trainings, book studies, and more. “This is not another program,” says Stevens. It is a promise by the union, rooted in compassion and science, to change everything.

trauma-informed classroom

Dim The Lights!

Heather Harrison’s second-grade classroom at Highlands Elementary in Newark, Del., is an oasis of tranquility. The ceiling fluorescent lights are off. Natural light filters through sheer, handmade shades, while floor lamps glow in the corners. Wall posters say: “Relax” and “Just Breathe.”

Against the back wall, dozens of yoga mats and bolsters are stacked. “That classroom is a happy place for me!” says Principal Barbara Land. It’s also a trauma-informed space with flexible seating that allows for small movements by students, and a cool-down corner for students who need a break. During a recent math lesson, when a student yawns loudly, Harrison points to her own head and whispers to him: “Mindful! Be mindful of our actions!” Down the hall, in Sabra Lyons’ first-grade classroom, another math lesson is going on: “Last week, our brains were warming up,” she tells her students. “This week our brains are building on.”

Inside the Cool-Down Corner

Predictability and consistency help. But educators can’t always know what might spark fear or anger in a traumatized student. A “cool-down” or quiet corner can help stressed-out students avoid eruptions by taking a break, and almost every trauma-informed classroom has one. These places can be equipped with audio headphones, children’s books (Grumpy Bird is a favorite), or calm-down kits with stress-relieving putty, magic sand, stress balls, etc. “These are not toys,” says Stevens. They’re sensory tools that help students regulate their emotions. Recently Harrison had every one of her second graders visit her cool-down corner to practice their self-soothing skills. When they feel the need, they should be able to freely relocate there—and know what to do to take care of themselves.

At Shortlidge Academy in Wilmington, first grader Taralyn explains it like this: “You play there if you’re mad.”

trauma-informed classroom

Highland Elementary teacher Shayna Moon (Photo: Luis Gomez)

Social and Emotional Learning

“Good morning, Henrietta!” say Highlands Elementary kindergartners to their hedgehog puppet mascot. But it is not a good morning! Henrietta, a character from Highland’s social and emotional learning curriculum, is feeling frustrated and losing her cool. “Boys and girls, what should Henrietta do to calm down to think about her choices?” asks teacher Shayna Moon.

Says kindergartner Serenity: “Do turtle.” Sitting with crossed legs, Moon’s kindergartners demonstrate by tucking their heads against their chests, and getting “in their shells.” They breath deeply, and then “say the problem and how you feel.” These kinds of lessons will help their students in all aspects of their lives, educators believe. Meanwhile, at Shortlidge Academy in Wilmington, kindergartners learn about their brains as engines—if you’re revving too fast, it’s not a safe time to drive! “We teach the same thing,the same language, to our families,” says O’Connor.

Deb Stevens, director of instructional advocacy for
the Delaware State Education Association (DSEA). (Photo: Luis Gomez)

It’s a Good Thing She Loves Her Job…

From early Monday classroom visits to all-day trainings on Saturdays, the trauma project means DSEA’s Stevens is always on the go with bags full of handouts, books, and other resources.

Her recommended reading? Disrupting Poverty: Five Powerful Classroom Practices by Kathleen Budge and William Parrett; Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom by Kirstin Souers and Peter Hall (who came to Delaware this summer to work with DSEA members); and Help for Billy: A Beyond Consequences Approach to Helping Children in the Classroom by Heather Forbes.

Recently, Forbes visited a book study group that Stevens coordinated with interested teachers, where they talked about the importance of making kids feel safe and building community in classrooms.

In the first year of the NEA GPS grant, Stevens focused on steering committee members at each school—doing poverty simulations and brain-architecture maps, and exploring school strategies that can counteract those effects. This past year, compassionate- schools training unfolded to all staff members.



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Immersion Programs Teach Much More Than Another Language


Matthew Bacon-Brenes is a dual language immersion mentor teacher in Portland Public Schools in Portland, Oregon. He teaches Japanese, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Spanish. We spoke to the NEA Foundation Horace Mann Awardee about about language immersion programs and the wide-ranging benefits they bring to all students.

Why is learning a culture as important as learning a language?

It’s a gateway to understanding the multicultural, multi-perspective world in which we all live. My interest in language is deeply rooted in cross cultural communication. We need to understand different cultures and perspectives to fully understand our place in history and our relation to the world.

There is great power in history lessons told in a different language with a different cultural lens. That’s how we learn about narratives and paradigms that don’t exist in one language but do in another.

What lessons have your students learned from cross –cultural studies?

A core Japanese cultural value emphasized, encouraged and honed in my classroom is “thinking of the other.” It is thinking about and honoring the feelings and perspectives of those around you. “The other” can be in the seat next to you or someone on the other side of the globe.

By teaching about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights in Japanese to American students, I can present a more global perspective on what is to be “American” – that it is a unique perspective on what is most valued in our country and that it is not the only way to go about creating a nation of people.

The unit starts with John Locke’s “State of Nature” and “Natural Laws” that are the basis of Thomas Jefferson’s “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”.  Most American students at 8th grade have heard those words and can repeat them when prompted with the fill-in-the-blank “Life, liberty and _______?” A light bulb goes on. A connection to a thread of American culture and value system in which students have been immersed unfolds.

We look at interpretations on this triad of individual rights and dearly-guarded American values to examine events like the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the flying of the Confederate flag, homelessness in Portland, and other contemporary issues. The core question is, “whose rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being violated?” The answers are complicated, involving racism, classism and more.

At some point following this unit on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, I offer students a series of readings on Japanese cultural values, offering another fill-in-the-blank: “Liberty (or freedom) is to Americans, as __________ is to Japanese.

There is no shortage of answers: respect, peace, community, etc. Harmony is one of the highest cultural values in Japan. Collectivism, in contrast to America’s ardent individualism, places greater emphasis on the needs of the group than the individual in Japan. “Ongaeshi” (returning a favor) is also enormously important.  We push students to not just speak the language of Japan, but its culture as well.

Learning all the correct vocabulary and attending well to the grammatical rules is important. But not paying attention to cultural norms when speaking another language leads to “fluent fools” – our students become aware of other perspectives, that the American perspective isn’t the only one and that being a fluent fool is not cool.

What other benefits do language immersion programs have for students?

There is a lot of research that shows the rigor of language acquisition combined with content acquisition has enormous cognitive benefits for native and non-native speakers, raising achievement particularly in language arts and math.

Benefits are seen in every student demographic – affluent, low income, native speakers and English native speakers. Higher level learning skills comes from the power of transferring words and ideas from one language to another, thereby reinforcing them.

It’s a little hard sometimes for parents and educators to get on board with 50-50 immersion programs because there is an initial lag. Some parents wonder how their child, who might already struggle in math, will catch up if he’s learning math in a second language. But they do catch up. In fact statistics show that dual language students not only catch up, they pass up English-only students.

Students participate in a Japan Research Residency, the culminating 8th grade academic experience in Osaka and Hiroshima.

What are the benefits for ELLs in a dual immersion program?

I you want students to understand content, the best way to get them there is in their first language. This is an equity issue. We must move past the historic thinking around ESL as a deficiency model, like they are deficient because they can’t speak English. Instead, we embrace their heritage language skills as Spanish speakers or Vietnamese speakers, for example, and offer English simultaneously. We value their first language and realize that using it is the best way for them to access new content while also teaching them the English language. Again, it’s reinforcing the concepts, words and ideas.

How is the presence of a language immersion program an equity issue?

The dual language immersion department has made a commitment to equity and benefiting all students. Statistically, kids from economically diverse backgrounds make the biggest gains in language immersion programs. We are deeply committed to serving all students and schools, particularly those that have been historically underserved.

Language can be divisive – we’ve seen that around the country with English only laws, but we’ve also seen how language can bring people together and bring about academic rigor more universally. By looking at the immersion program through an equity lens, we see that the best model is 50-50, with half of the student body coming from a targeted language.

Why is the celebration of diversity so important in our current political environment?

The “America First” mentality is based on fear and is totally counterproductive to solving our greatest issues on the globe, from racism and hunger to human rights and environmental disasters. We need to embrace each other to evolve, grow and be a place where we all have an opportunity.

I think language and multicultural learning – embracing all heritages, opening access to opportunities, and offering a sense of belonging to everyone — is a piece of it. When students see their culture and their perspectives as part of our curriculum it counters that destructive idea that fear needs to drive us.

I believe that love needs to drive us, I take that from Martin Luther King, Jr., from Gandhi, and from all of the educators that I work with. That’s what drives educators — the love; getting outside ourselves to embrace the beauty and gifts of the other. Language studies and cross-cultural communication is key to that.



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What Does a Global Arts Classroom Look Like?


Julie Midkiff, an art teacher at Bradley Elementary School in Mount Hope, West Virginia, is an NEA Foundation Global Fellow who studies the connection between global arts and the Appalachian Arts and Crafts Tradition. She is also a contributor to 12 Lessons to Open Classrooms and Minds to the World, which supports students’ need for a globally conscious education.

NEA Today spoke recently to Midkiff about what a global arts classroom looks like.

How does arts education lend itself so well to global education and crossing international lines?

Julie Midkiff: Arts education is one of the core pillars of the Humanities; it helps us to gain a higher understanding of common human experiences.  The visual arts and the arts in general help us tap into this higher understanding of the human experience through the senses, whether it be what we see, hear or feel, or common things we all experience, such as growing up and going through life’s milestones while learning about our culture and the emotions we feel along the way.

Throughout history visual artists have used universal human experiences, feelings, and emotions in their work, and students from many different countries and cultures can easily relate to, for instance, a photograph of a mother cradling a baby, a painting such as Picasso’s Guernica, depicting the ravages of war, or emotions captured in Käthe Kollwitz’s drawings.

What commonalities do students from different parts of the world find in your art and theirs? What traditions are shared?

JM: When students see or experience a painting, sculpture, drawing, or installation, it helps them tap into these core experiences and they start to interpret these works within the framework of what they already know of the world.

It is my goal as an elementary arts educator to use a global lens to help my students expand their world from the familiar and local to include regional, national and international perspectives.  I like to use functional craft as a common example in my elementary Art classroom to help my students find commonalities between traditions and cultures shared around the world.

We use the four global competency domains to not only investigate and analyze artwork, but also as a lens for understanding the history and cultures of the artists we study.” – Julie Midkiff

My students in Appalachia can relate to quilting as an art form. They understand that quilts have been made and passed down from generation to generation and that some are used to keep them warm at night while others have been made to memorialize family members.  I build a regional perspective by helping them compare quilt making in Appalachia to the quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

On a global scale, I’m expanding their understanding of textile arts by introducing my students to artists I met and learned about as an NEA Foundation Global Fellow in southern Africa, including the work of Anthony Bumhira from Zimbabwe who uses blankets, doilies, and painting techniques to explore cultural and contemporary traditions.

I’m also researching the work of Thania Petersen from South Africa whose work taps into her Indonesian heritage and experiences with Islam and uses costume as imagery to explore personas and her own identity.

What does global competency mean for students in your classroom? What about global citizenship?

JM: According to the Asia Society, students can demonstrate global competency in four ways: When they can investigate their world with awareness and curiosity in learning about how it works, recognize their own perspectives and those of others with the understanding that others may not share their perspectives, effectively communicate ideas verbally and non-verbally with diverse audiences, and take action to use their knowledge and skills to make a difference in the world.

My young learners range from Pre-Kindergarten through fifth grade and we use the four global competency domains to not only investigate and analyze artwork, but also as a lens for understanding the history and cultures of the artists we study.

Global citizenship naturally goes hand in hand with global competency. By being engaged in lessons that use the global competency domain framework, my young learners gain the understanding that they are more than citizens of our town, region and country, but that they actually belong to and live within a world that is interconnected and that we all share the responsibility of making our world a more equitable, fair and sustainable place.

Julie Midkiff

How does creating a lesson with a global reach differ from creating other lessons?

JM: Lessons with a global reach dig deeper into the human experience and condition.  These lessons tend to be longer, and often cover a range of topics connected by a common thread of curiosity, gaining perspectives, communicating specific ideas, or taking action to solve a problem.  Giving yourself time to make these connections as an educator will help you be able to facilitate this in-depth learning in your classroom, no matter your content area or specialization and to help students make connections to real world problems, issues, cultures, etc.

How does global competency starting at a young age help tackle major issues of poverty and climate change?

JM: Tackling issues of poverty and climate change at a young age within the framework of global competency is a tall order for young learners.

Developmentally, they are just discovering themselves as individuals and the world immediately around them.  However, if these young learners can learn to make connections to these larger issues and taking action from an early age, we are positioning them on a trajectory where they will be able generate innovate solutions and to be the creative problem solvers of the future.

When possible, I try to partner with other teachers, community groups or organizations to help my students take action and participate in being part of a change or solution.

This year, I facilitated a partnership between my fifth-grade classes and a citizen’s conservation group in the Florida Keys. The group sent my students plastic trap line that is commonly used by commercial and recreational fishermen that had been cleared from the canals and waterway after the marine devastation caused by Hurricane Irma.

My goal is for my students, who live in land locked state, to gain an understanding of why we need to be good stewards of environment and to care about ocean pollution, which is one of the factors contributing to climate change.  My students researched the problems of recycling trap line, the affect of trap line has as marine pollution and its’ affect on local marine life and ecosystems.  They are in the process of building a sea turtle sculpture out of the trapline to be displayed with a QR code to bring awareness to the marine pollution and climate change issues to our local community.

By engaging in the trap line sea turtle sculpture lesson, my students have an increased sense of agency that they too, at a young age, can take action as global citizens and make a difference in the world.



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Sparking Student Inquiry Key to Classroom Engagement


To help spark curiosity, wonder and discovery—the things that
engage us in learning—I encourage educators to provoke more student inquiry. If students are asking more questions, and you work with them as part of a team to discover the answers to their questions together, they will be more engaged in their learning journey.

But I’ll be frank, the word “inquiry” is one of those teacher-ese
terms that sometimes doesn’t resonate in any way, nor provide a way of understanding how it can be implemented. I’m hoping to break it down here in a way that can be easily digested.

We talk about the 4Cs: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication. But the fifth C—curiosity—is just as important. I would also argue that instilling a sense of curiosity in our students is our most vital task. When it’s time for them to leave our care, we want them to take along the desire to continue asking questions and looking for answers.

Don’t worry. I’m not suggesting that students take the reins entirely. As their coach, you control the ultimate destination, and the direction they should take to get there. But allowing them to ask questions creates a more rich—a more curvy, if you will—route.

Opening the door to questions can sometime make it feel like the fast-moving train of content-driven classes is slowing down. I am the first to admit that. But you must trust that you are generating enagement, which will help make your lessons stick.

Way to Trigger Inquiry

The key is to build in spontaneous, in-the-moment instruction that encourages students to ask questions and fumble toward the answers. This “flexible instruction,” as I call it, only appears to be spontaneous. In fact, you plan for and encourage it. In this way, teachers can create a more student-driven environment that still has scaffolds and structure. Here are some concrete ways to trigger ongoing inquiry in a classroom:

At the Beginning of a Unit: After introducing a topic in an engaging way—like using an entry event to launch a unit, for instance—give students the chance to develop a list of questions. At this stage, no question is too “out there.” Then, use this as an opportunity to teach high-level sentence stems and see if students can change those close-ended questions into ones that are of a higher level and more open ended. This initial brainstorm can then be whittled down to the highest quality of questions that can then become a classroom-created list. The resulting questions can guide student research, be used as writing prompts for future formative assessments, and as talking points once students have generated some expertise in the topic.

During Research: Students can generate questions prior to the appearance of a guest speaker. To showcase their prior knowledge of the topic, have students incorporate their research into a sentence stem before launching into questions.

For example, when my middle school students were interviewing a scientist to ask about the physics of their superhero powers for their superhero origin stories, one student developed the question,

“I know that a positive and negative charge is needed to create lightning. If my superhero has one hand that generates one charge and the other hand generates the opposite, and I put them together, could my hero possibly create lightning?”

After an Initial Draft/Prototype: Once a student has created a rough draft or a first prototype, have them develop questions that are designed to elicit the feedback they want to receive. That way, they will get what they need. Also, the questions created during this step will allow you to understand what a student knows about the topic. For instance, after a student writes a first draft in my class, I will look at the question quality in order to formatively assess their knowledge of how to write. If a student poses the question: Is this good?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

I know that this student might be at a loss and is not using this opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned about writing. But if a students asks instead: Does my evidence strongly reflect my thesis statement? I know that kid is thinking even while needing help.

To Set up Assessments: While you’re at it, have students develop some of the questions they might encounter on an assessment. If you’ve spent some time prepping the students in high-quality questions, they can develop some questions that can then be distributed to peers to formatively assess a variety of topics.

By “outsourcing” to the students themselves some of the responsibility of generating curiosity, you will cast yourself as an ally in their learning.

The bottom line is this: Get excited by their curiosity. Don’t panic at the possibility of a lesson being derailed.

See every question as an opportunity to learn deeper and to take them on a more exciting learning journey. And when questions confuse you, well . . . smile at those, too.

You don’t need to know everything. You’ve got curious brains in the room to learn with you. Your responsibility is to give students a safe space in which they can enjoy the confusion and the inevitable learning.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a middle school teacher at Jefferson Middle School in San Gabriel, Calif., and the author of Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement.



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Art (and Art Teachers) Have Power


Allison Richo

“What are you going to do with that?” It’s a question college students and newly minted college graduates often hear from family and friends. For Allison Richo, who finished college in the 1980s, the that” was an art degree.

Today, she holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., and for the last 25 years has helped high school students in Prince Georges County, Md., see the world through artistic eyes.

“It’s been the best thing ever,” says Richo, who once owned an architectural design business with two friends.

When the business folded, Richo started to substitute teach.

“I did so well as an art teacher, I got a call [to return] and that started my career.”

Multiple Hats

It’s been nonstop for Richo, who teaches at Oxon Hill High School. Despite her love of art, and her long list of personal awards and recognitions, her attention is squarely centered on her students. So much so that she takes on a mammoth amount of responsibility: visual arts chairperson, interactive media and production coordinator, and academy and national art society sponsor. She also teaches five prep classes that include AP Drawing Studio, AP 2-D Design Studio, Basic Design, Drawing and Painting, and Art 1. Richo also earned National Board Certified status while battling a health crisis.

From your shoes to your cell phone, everything is connected to the arts.” – Allison Richo, art teacher

“I know it’s a lot, but I’m determined to give my students the best art education I can. If that means taking on more than what I need to, then I’ll do it.”

Richo is unafraid when it comes to looking directly at societal challenges, and bringing them into her classroom. Her students have examined issues like the murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was killed by police in Ferguson Mo., during August of 2014, and the Louisiana communities that were neglected following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The discussions help to fuel installation pieces the students create afterward.

By connecting art with everyday life, Richo helps her students understand art’s relevance. “From your shoes to your cell phone, everything is connected to the arts.”

Otherwise, students think it’s like it’s being in kindergarten, ‘Oh, we’re
just drawing and coloring.’ No. There’s more to it than that.”

The More

Art isn’t just painting a pretty picture and learning fundamental skills, explains Richo. Art builds character and critical thinking skills, and because of the giving that creativity requires, art also teaches empathy.

While Richo wants her students to achieve mastery and evolve in their technique, she also wants them to use their art to give back to their community.

To achieve this sense of selfless generosity, Oxon Hill High School students have participated in The Memory Project, which invites young artists around the world to create portraits as special gifts for children facing challenges in countries like Haiti, Syria, and Madagascar.

“Art teachers have so much power. We have the tools to equip students with the skills they need to go out into the real world and be successful and it’s up to [us] tp help them get there.”



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It Is All About You! Bring Your Personality and Interests Into the Classroom


We all want to make learning more meaningful and authentic, One way to do that is by connecting learning to the world beyond school. The easiest way to do that is by bringing yourself—your personality and your interests—into the classroom.

That’s right. In addition to differentiating our students, it’s also vital that we differentiate ourselves as we work to increase the level of student engagement.

My recent nationwide student engagement survey of sixth through twelfth graders revealed that students are engaged by nine different categories of strategies. One of the most frequently mentioned results was for teachers to “be more human.” This teases apart into different sub-categories:

• Teachers’ enthusiasm for subject area and students;
• A teacher’s ability to share humor and personal stories; and
• The ability to comfortably share personal failures and how the teacher
bounced back.

In a recent study of almost 400 students and their 25 teachers published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the control groups of teachers and students were given information about five similarities they shared.

Merely knowing about those similarities was acknowledged as something that helps to strengthen their relationships, in particular “between teachers and their “underserved” students.” As a result, “This brief intervention appears to close the achievement gap at this school by over 60 percent.” Indeed, an increasing number of studies show a correlation between student achievement and the care educators show toward their students

That’s right: Your interest in gardening, running marathons, your food blog, or—in my case—comic books, can trigger student engagement and ultimately boost student achievement. Your interests—with you as the supplemental material— can defeat what I call, The monstrous “meh.”

That’s the lesson that gets the job done, but doesn’t quite land. It’s the unit that relays the standards, but is still greeted with a yawn.

Battling for student engagement, conquers the monstrous meh.

How To Get There

What are your interests? What was your journey toward education? What makes you … well … you?

Once you’ve identified the things that make you unique, connect them to your subject area. But remember, your personality can’t trump pedagogy. You have to leverage your own geekdom to supplement the curriculum. Because if the kids are moving from classroom to classroom, from period to period, and they know nothing about the diversity of people in those rooms, we are losing a valuable resource to prepare them for the world beyond school.

That’s its own lesson.

How Does This Look in The Classroom?

There are many ways to integrate yourself into your content area.

Stray from the textbook—Bring in examples of your content area from places outside the traditional textbook. Show you’re thinking of the material—and of your enthusiasm for it—by bringing in something you found on your own time.

Create assignments that ask students to mine their own lives for examples. You might find someone bringing in an example of an arch from local architecture, but you also might see an example of a trajectory from a football toss. Celebrating student findings is the ultimate in differentiation strategies and honors their personalities as well.

Help students to share their interests—Students will be more engaged if you are interested in them beyond the scope of academic learning. For instance, you can start a public event calendar, and students can add their own concerts, games, and other activities.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Celebrate uniqueness and passion as an ongoing theme in your classroom—Read A Bad Case of Stripes to your elementary students.

Have your middle schoolers analyze Apple’s “Think Different” ads through a persuasive lens. Bring in biographies of people who thought a little off-center and brought change to the world.

Share the many different personalities being celebrated in the world around them.

Share stories of yourself and your family as examples—Imagine your father won a lottery to drive a race car for a charity event. That story could become part of a lesson about velocity. Why did you select your own children’s names? You could talk about that when naming characters in a narrative. Teaching measurement?

Maybe there was a time your significant other had to try three times to level a shelf before the photo it was supposed to hold wouldn’t just slide away.

Administer a multiple intelligences test … to yourself— Analyze what makes you tick, and then deliberately embed other themes into your references and lesson planning. For me, this means not always referencing Star Wars and superheroes. But being aware of my Marvel-influenced tendencies, means I make sure to offer a few Major League Baseball references too.

Think aloud—This strategy is at the heart of everything. Narrate what you do and why you do it. Keep talking. Let the kids into your thinking process, and you will have shared both your personality and your expertise.

Of course, in the end, the real goal is to model comfort in yourself so that your students will feel comfortable with themselves. Engagement, after all, stems from comfort and comfort builds community.

You want a classroom that honors the interests of everyone. And that begins with talking about the things you like. Create a classroom culture that celebrates geekdom, and you’ll be advancing tolerance, empathy, and—yes—achievement



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What Motivates Educators To Step Into (and Stay) in the Classroom


Jayson Chang

It’s a well-known fact that many public school teachers enter the profession only to leave a short time later. The U.S. Census Bureau says teachers are leaving the profession at a rate that has continued to climb for the past three years.

First-grade teacher Michelle Usher stays. Currently in her eleventh year of teaching, and her second year at Brentfield Elementary School in Dallas, Texas, Usher says she considered the statistics on teachers who leave while attending last summer’s NEA Representative Assembly, and wondered, “Why aren’t we also talking about the people like me who stay?”

Her musings inspired this story about the motivations that encourage Usher and other teachers to stay.

Usher was raised by a mom who this year entered her 39th year as an educator. But it was really her third-grade teacher, Robin Johnson—with whom Usher continues to maintain contact—who inspired her to teach.

While she was a student in Johnson’s class, Usher’s grandmother died. “It was really hard on me,” she says. Johnson assured her they would weather Usher’s grief together.

Johnson’s support led Usher to understand early that teachers provide more than academic instruction. They also provide care—the lesson Usher says she most wants her students to receive: “I’m not just here to teach you something. I really care about you.”

Usher’s first teaching experience was in an Arkansas county where the number of students from families with low incomes was high. In the neighborhood surrounding her current school in Texas homes average $300,000, compared to a state-wide average of $185,000. The only difference between the two sets of students, says Usher, “is what their parents can provide.”

She says students enter school carrying with them an invisible suitcase filled with whatever is going on in their lives, and they can’t set it aside. “Even though I don’t know what’s going on, I can help them unpack their suitcase.” At day’s end, she helps pack it back up, hoping that she has helped to make the contents a bit “fluffier and brighter,” she says.

Michelle Usher (Photo: Hoyoung Lee)

And that’s why she remains. “I stay because I want to make change. Even when I started teaching, there were laws and policy procedures that didn’t fit with what is actually happening in the classroom. I could have left five years ago, but my drive is if I keep teaching in the classroom, [and] keep talking to parents, we can get the votes we need.”

She adds, “I think now, we are seeing what we decided earlier isn’t going to work. If I can impact students every day, teach them how government works, I am impacting what we will see in 20 years.”

Student Success

Jennie Campbell, a special education teacher at Pine Ridge Elementary School in Aurora, Colo., has a similar experience and agrees with Usher’s sentiment about how educators help to shape the future.

“For our kindergarteners today, the world is going to look completely different by the time they’re in twelfth grade,” says Campbell, who adds that educators strive to “help best meet the needs of our kids so that the world is accessible to all of them.”

Campbell is a fifth-generation educator and says teaching runs in her blood. Her mom was a teacher of students with severe needs. Her grandmother was an English teacher whose mother and grandmother were one-room schoolhouse teachers.

Campbell also has aunts and cousins who teach. But when NEA Today asked Campbell why she decided to teach, she, like Usher, credited her third-grade teacher.

“There are always one or two teachers in your life who stand out because they did something to help you or they connected with you on a personal level,” Campbell says. “Ms. Harper was my inspiration [to become] a teacher. There was something about her that made learning fun and magical.”

Jennie Campbell

Campbell has been a special education teacher for 12 years, and has worked with students with severe autism and Down syndrome. Her student caseloads have been, at times, overwhelming. Yet, she remains in the classroom.

“Every kid is like a puzzle and I’m trying to figure out what pieces I can give him or her to make learning a whole picture,” says Campbell, explaining that one of her students at the beginning of the year was reading 31 words a minute at grade level. Today, this student reads 85 words a minute.

“This is tremendous growth for a kiddo to read more fluidly and to more accurately comprehend,” she says. “And, to have the kids have the ability and the skills to be functional citizens within our world—however that may look—is why I’m still in it.”

Not every teacher comes from a family of educators or instantly recalls that one special teacher.

Goodbye Private Sector, Hello Public Education

California’s Jayson Chang, who teaches tenth-grade world history and twelfth-grade government and economics at Santa Teresa High School in San Jose, Calif., held an unfulfilling marketing position for two years before entering the classroom.

He recalls a staff meeting during which his manager explained how it was cheaper for someone in India to buy a TV from their U.S.-based company and have it shipped from their warehouse (also U.S. based) to India, than for the person to buy a TV from China and have it ship from China.

“China and India are right next to each other!” Chang recalls thinking that day. “It makes no sense to ship a TV back and forth across the Pacific. I made a comment about ‘That’s not good for the environment.’ My manager replied, ‘I’m here to sell TVs, not save the world.’ That’s when I knew I had to leave.”

After he resigned, Chang did some soul searching. He reflected on his love of history—how, as a high school student, he often thought of wanting to teach history so other students, like him, would love the subject, too. He thought about his undergraduate studies, which focused on being a global citizen and making human connections. He thought about making a difference in the world.

In 2016, Chang stepped into the classroom recognizing that while all students may not end up loving history, they can at least understand its importance.

“Teaching history, and why it matters—especially now that the country is so divided—is where I can make an impact,” he says. “Students are our future and they can shape it as they see fit. It’s important to teach them about community.”

While he does enjoy his students’ “aha” moments, Chang finds it most rewarding when his graduated students come back to visit.

“It’s these moments that reinforce why I teach. Students share how I made a difference in their lives or how they used the lessons learned from my class in real-world situations,” he explains. “These are the kinds of connections and the type of community experiences that get me pumped and ready to go the next day.”

From Volunteer to School Secretary

For JaTawn Robinson, a secretary at Thomasville Heights Elementary in Atlanta, Ga., the power of community is strong.

Several years ago, Robinson was a frequent volunteer at her children’s school, Slater Elementary. Robinson was a lunch monitor, volunteer reader, and a field trip chaperone.

She made copies and assisted in the office. “Whatever needed to be done, I was there,” says the mother of three sons.

JaTawn Robinson

The seed for JaTawn Robinson’s commitment to her children’s school was planted long ago when Robinson herself was in elementary school.

“My mom volunteered a lot at my school,” she fondly remembers. “Attending PTA meetings was a requirement for us, and I always appreciated the sense of community and family in school when I was a little girl.”

One day, while she was working as a volunteer monitor in the cafeteria of her children’s school, the principal approached Robinson, said, “I need to talk to you in my office,” and then walked away.

“It made me nervous,” Robinson says, “I thought, ‘Did my children do something?’”

The principal had asked Robinson about her background. She explained how she held an associate degree in education and was affiliated with the Georgia Association of Educators and the NEA.

They discussed opportunities within the school, but nothing concrete.
By the end of the school year, Robinson was offered a position as the school’s parent liaison.

Two years later, she became the school secretary. Robinson spent two years in that role, and then moved to Thomasville Heights—the elementary school she attended, and where her mother spent countless hours as a volunteer.

Robinson has been the secretary at Thomasville since 2017. Remembering her time there as a fourth and fifth grade student, she says that while the surrounding community struggled with poverty and drugs, she felt safe when she arrived at school.

“You knew you were loved here. You knew someone was going to care for you. Our babies still battle some of the things we battled when I was in elementary school, and I want to provide that same love and the same sense of safety I felt when I was a student here.”

A Teacher For Life

Erika Navarro-Dix also teaches at the school she once attended. She is a first grade teacher at Carnation Elementary School, in the small, rural town of Carnation, Wash., about 30 minutes east of Seattle.

The reason she continues to teach? “I’ve always enjoyed being around kids,” she says.

Erika Navarro-Dix

Navarro-Dix says her first year of teaching was hard. She she was young and new to the profession, and says she didn’t emerge from her preservice with a developed classroom management style.

Still, she adds, “I knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life..”

Navarro-Dix sought help. She went to her principal and asked for additional classroom observations. She watched other teachers. She looked for mentors.

Ten years later, she is still in the classroom.

“For me, it’s teaching first grade because that’s a really big ‘aha’ year for kids. School starts to make sense and their light bulbs turn on and just geting to see their love for learning has made me want to stay in this profession.”

Navarro-Dix, Usher, Campbell, Chang, and Robinson are hardly alone in their decision to step into—and remain—in the classroom. Nationwide, and day after day, millions of educators step into school settings with a willingness to share love and commitment with their students. And although they use different words to describe why they stay, it all boils down to the determination to make a difference in students’ lives—one that will last a lifetime.



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KonMari Does More Than Just De-Clutter the Classroom


Spring is in the air! Which means, in public schools across the U.S., classroom mess is reaching full bloom.

If you’re an educator who is allergic to disorder, take inspiration from the current master of de-cluttering: the star of the new 2019 Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Like millions of Kondo fans, NEA members are using the KonMari method to put their homes and classrooms in order and focus on what “sparks joy” or engagement or curiosity in their students.

Not only do they end up with less cluttered, more tidy and organized physical spaces, KonMari’s fans say they also gain more mental clarity and purpose.

“When everything is in its place, it feels better—and I think it works for the kids too,” says Courtney Middleton, an Oregon kindergarten teacher who applied the KonMari method to her home and her classroom this year.

“I feel like my mind is clearer and that I can focus better on what is truly important to me,” says Christy Bishop, a Florida third-grade teacher. “Keeping in mind the experience I have had so far with using the KonMari method in my home, I suspect that using this same method in my classroom will force me to define—or redefine—who I am as a teacher now and going forward. I believe that reflection will help me to grow and to be a better teacher.”

What is a KonMari?

Kondo, a Japanese author and self-described “tidy freak,” grew fans a few years ago with a best-selling book, “The Magical Art of Tidying Up.” But the “cult of Marie Kondo,” as The New York Times calls it, hit a peak this year with the New Year’s release of her Netflix series that takes her into American homes. Across the country, donations to thrift stores spiked as Americans re-examined their relationship to their stuff.

A few highlights of the KonMari method are these:

  • First, empty your drawers, closets, boxes—take it all out and make a big pile!
  • Then, hold each object in your hand and ask yourself, does it spark joy?
  • If the answer is no, then thank the item for its service—and toss or donate it. Often art teachers will want your “useless” crayons, magazines, storage boxes, and other detritus!
  • If the answer is yes, then find a correct place for it. Everything should be “easy to see and easy to access without making a mess,” says Bishop.
  • Kondo loves to organize items by size. Categories are important. She also wants you to be able to see the items that you place into storage containers.

Is every aspect of the KonMari method relevant to educators? Well, you can’t toss the students who don’t spark joy….and often there are district policies about retaining paperwork, curriculum, and other classroom items. The decluttering guru’s much-imitated method of folding socks and T-shirts may not have much applicability either.

But the essential (and often mocked) Kondo question—does this thing spark joy—is adaptable to a classroom environment, say Kondo’s educator fans.

“When everything is in its place, it feels better—and I think it works for the kids too,” says Courtney Middleton.

KonMari In Our Classrooms

Middleton started the KonMari process in her kindergarten classroom during a recent teacher workday by taking everything out of her classroom’s storage areas and piling it on the kids’ desks. “I open everything!” she says.

Then, the questions start. “The first year, I asked myself, ‘Is this something I would ever use?’” says Middleton, who has taught kindergarten for three years—and KonMari’ed her classroom each year. “Now I throw away more. It’s easy to say that, if I haven’t used it in the past three years, out it goes. As far as sparking joy, some things aren’t worth it. If it takes a lot of energy or mind space to keep a project organized, I’ll probably try to give it away and replace it with something more organized.

“I like thinking about whether something sparks joy. I think, in a classroom setting, some things do spark joy in my students!”

For Bishop, the question may be modified for an educational setting: “I think many, if not all, good teaching materials do spark joy in children (and teachers, too!) However, I think the guiding question I will use will be something like, ‘Does this spark engagement?’ Or, if ‘engagement’ is too much of a buzzword for some people’s liking, it could be replaced with ‘curiosity,’ ‘excitement,’ ‘interest,’ or whatever seems important to them.”

Examining every classroom resource also will help identify what you don’t have, says Bishop. “I may find a particular area of study for which nothing I have seems to engage students. Going through this process will help me better spot those gaps in my resources and be as prepared as possible for the following school year.”

Something else important happens while you KonMari your stuff, and it’s more powerful than a clean closet, says Bishop. “Really taking the time to ask myself if items bring me happiness or not forces me to define not only who I am right now, but who I want to be going forward. I can’t tell you how many times over the past month and a half I have asked myself, ‘Do you want to be the kind of person who owns and uses this?’ and ‘Why have I kept this so long?’”

Farewell Desks, Here Come the ‘Starbucks Classrooms’
While the idea of modeling a classroom on a Starbucks coffeeshop may elicit skepticism (and even a few groans), the move to more flexible seating is grounded in research that points to real gains in student health and classroom engagement. “Classrooms need to look different from how they did one hundred years ago, but we’re still seeing rows and rows of desks. The skills students need these days – 21st Century skills – can’t really be taught properly in a classroom where you have created islands of desks,” says teacher Kayla Delzer.



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5 Key Trends in the Teacher Workforce


Thanks largely to a nationwide campaign by educators, the country is finally talking about how we can recruit, support and retain teachers. This is an important discussion, says Richard Ingersoll,  professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, because “the teaching force has been transformed over the last 30 years, with significant financial, structural, and educational consequences.” 

Ingersoll recently updated “Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force,” his longitudinal study on the elementary and secondary teaching force that culls data from several comprehensive sources, including the Schools and Staffing Survey.

“Too often, researchers, school leaders, and policymakers are still operating under false assumptions about who goes into teaching and how teaching careers unfold,” Ingersoll said. “If we want to improve student performance, we must understand this new reality.”

Here are Ingersoll’s key  findings:

A Growing Profession

Since 1987, the size of the teaching force, says Ingersoll, has “ballooned.”

Student enrollment and the number of teachers peaked in the 1970s, then leveled off before climbing again in the late ’80s. The teaching force has been on the uptick ever since (except for the period following the Great Recession), even outpacing the rate of increase for students.

From 1987-88 to 2015-16, total K-12 student enrollment in the nation’s public schools went up by 24 percent. During the same period the teacher workforce increased by 65 percent.

Pinpointing one decisive factor to explain the growth of the profession is difficult. Ingersoll cites the demands for more math and science teachers and more special education teachers. In particular, there has been dramatic increase (225 percent since 1987) in the number of bilingual/English-as-a-second language teachers.

Gender Imbalance Wider

Teaching in public schools has aways been a predominantly female occupation. Over the past 30 years, the gender gap has only grown. Both the number of women entering the field and the percentage of female teachers has increased. In 1987, 67 percent of teachers were women. By 2016-17, that number had risen to 76 percent.

Despite the dramatic increase of women employed in the U.S. labor force overall – 36 percent growth between 1988 and 2016 –   the number of women who entered K-12 classrooms increased by 80 percent during the same period.

If the trend continues, soon 8 of 10 public school teachers in the nation will be women, and more students will encounter few, if any, male teachers during their elementary or secondary school careers.

Moreover, Ingersoll wrote, “an increasing proportion of women in teaching may have implications for the stature and status of teaching as an occupation. Traditionally, women’s work has been held in lower esteem and has paid less than male-dominated work. If the feminization of teaching continues, what will it mean for the way this line of work is valued and rewarded?”

Grayer and Greener

Overall, the teaching force is older than it was in 1987 and retirements are increasing. But Ingersoll notes that this trend is coming to an end.  The number of teachers age 50 and over hit a peak in 2008 with 1.74 million. By 2016, the number had declined to 1.13 million.

At the same time, another trend is occurring, which Ingersoll calls the “greening” of the teaching force, driven by a dramatic increase in new hires.

In 1987-88, there were roughly 65,000 first-year public school teachers. 30 years later, there are more than 190,000. In 2007-08, the most common age for a teacher was 55. In 2015-16, the most common age ranged from the mid-30s to mid-40s.

While new teachers can help revitalize a school, the report noted that a large number of beginners also has its downsides.

“A sufficient number of experienced teachers makes a positive difference for beginning teachers,” the report said. “A solid body of empirical research documents that support, including mentoring by veteran teachers, has a positive effect on beginning teachers’ quality of instruction, retention, and capacity to improve their students’ academic achievement.”

Progress on Diversity But How Much?

In what Ingersoll calls “something of an unheralded victory,” the public school teaching force has seen a bump in racial diversity.

Numerically, there are far more minority teachers than ever before. In 1987-88, there were about 305,200 minority public school teachers. Today, there are over 760,000.

Ingersoll says growth in the number of minority teachers over the past several decades outpaced growth in minority students and was about three times the growth rate of white teachers.

Still, a slightly more diverse teaching profession hasn’t done much to close the wide teacher-student racial gap. It’s also worth noting that the increase in teachers of color is primarily due to an uptick in the number of Hispanic teachers – 3 percent to almost 9 percent. The share of African American teachers, on the other hand, has actually declined, from 8.2 percent to 6.7 percent.

Michael Hansen and Diane Quintero of the Brookings Institution project that in the near future, the change in student demographics will evolve at a  higher rate than any expected shift in teacher diversity. “This means the underrepresentation of teachers of color will likely persist or even grow in the coming decades,” he wrote in a report issued last week.

Where Instability is Concentrated

Teachers of color also have particularly high turnover rates, more so than their white counterparts.  This departure rate is increasing and is driven in large part by where they work.

Newer teachers, regardless of their race, have among the highest rates of turnover of any group of teachers.

The teaching professions has always been hampered by a high attrition rate, but, as Ingersoll points out, it’s not spread out evenly. Half of all turnover occurs in 25 percent of public schools, predominantly in high-poverty urban and rural areas.

Indeed, there is an “asymmetrical shuffling of  significant numbers of employed teachers from poor to not-poor schools, from high-minority to low-minority schools, and from urban to suburban schools.”

Ingersoll notes that while demographic characteristics of schools do factor in a teacher’s decision-making process about where to work, later decisions about whether to stay or depart are driven by other issues.

“What does impact their decisions, our analyses show, are school working conditions, in particular the degree of autonomy and discretion teachers are allowed over issues that arise in their classrooms, and the level of collective faculty influence over school-wide decisions that affect teachers’ jobs,” the report said.

What Happens When a Teacher Leaves Mid-Year?
teachers leaving mid-yearU.S. teachers leave the profession at higher rates than other countries, but the debate and discussion over teacher attrition – reflected in research and in the media – focuses on educators exiting the profession before the beginning of a school year, based on the assumption that’s when turnover occurs. Little is known about teachers leaving mid-year.

A Growing Recruitment Strategy for a Diverse Teacher Workforce

grow your own teachers“How do we help those who should be in classrooms working with students who look like them, sound like them, and will connect with them?” asks NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. An answer may rest within grow-your-own programs, which recruit local community members and help them become teachers, creating a workforce that’s reflective of the full diversity of the student population.



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What’s Changed in Lesson Planning?


Technology and the connected world put a fork in the old model of teaching: instructor in front of the class, sage on the stage, students madly taking notes,
textbooks opened, homework as worksheets, and tests regurgitating facts.

Did I miss anything?

This model is outdated not because it didn’t work (many statistics show students ranked higher on global testing years ago than they do now), but because the world changed. Our classrooms are more diverse. Students are digital natives, in the habit of learning via technology. The “college or career” students are preparing
for isn’t that of their parents.

What is slow to adjust is the venerable lesson plan. When I first wrote these teaching maps, they concentrated on aligning with standards and ticking off
required skills. Now, with a clear-eyed focus on where students need to be before graduation, they must build on the habits of mind that allow success not only in
school but life.

Here are sixteen concepts you may not think about—but should–as you prepare lesson plans:

1. About a third of high school graduates go to work rather than college so they must be prepared for what they’ll face in the job market. This includes knowing how to speak and listen to a group, how to think independently, and how to solve problems. Lesson plans must reflect those skills.

2. Lesson plans must be platform-neutral, not a cheerleader for the school’s favorite tool. For example, spreadsheets should teach critical thinking and data analysis, not Excel or Sheets. What students use at school may not be what their future employer requires.

3. Conflate ‘knowing’ with ‘understanding’. Students must understand why their project is better delivered with a slideshow than word processing.

4. Transfer of knowledge is key. What students learn must be applicable to other classes—and life. For example, vocabulary isn’t a list of words to be memorized.
It’s knowing how to decode them using affixes, roots, and context.

5. Collaboration and sharing is treated as a learned skill.

6. Real life allows for do-overs. School should respect the process of review, edit, rewrite, and resubmit by allowing it to happen.

7. Student projects are shared with all, not just the teacher. The entire community of learners can benefit from each student’s work.

8. Self-help is expected, such as using online references and how-to videos. These are available 24/7, empowering students to work at their own pace, to their
own rhythm.

9. Teachers are transparent with all stakeholders. Here, I’m thinking of parents. Let them know what’s going on in class. Welcome their questions and visits. Respond
to their varied time constraints and knowledge levels.

10. Failure is a learning tool. Assessments aren’t about finding perfect. In life, failure happens. Those who thrive know how to recover from failure and continue.

11. Differentiation is the norm. Different methods of showing knowledge are welcomed as long as students stick with the lesson’s Big Idea.

12. The textbook is a resource, supplemented by a panoply of books, online sites, experts, virtual chats, and anything else that supports the topic.

13. Problem solving is integral to learning. It’s not a stressful event, rather a life skill. Students attempt a wide variety of solutions before asking for help.

14. Digital citizenship is taught, modeled and enforced in every lesson, every day, and every class. Just as students learned to survive a physical community of strangers, they must do so in a digital neighborhood.

15. Since keyboarding benefits all classes, all stakeholders—parents included—are partners in ensuring that students can type efficiently, quickly, and without stress.

16. Play is the new teaching though it’s been relabeled ‘gamification’. The power of games makes learning fun. I know—this is a lot. Don’t feel like you have to rework
every lesson plan immediately. Do a few. Prove to yourself this approach works. Then, spread the word to colleagues that lesson planning has changed.

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K–18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K–8 technology curriculum, K–8 keyboard curriculum, and K–8 Digital Citizenship curriculum.



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Thinking About Becoming a Blogger? It’s Never Too Late to Start.


For Gwyneth Jones, one of the best parts about blogging is having an ongoing record of all of the cool things she’s doing as an educator.

“I’m very forgetful!” admits the woman behind “The Daring Librarian,” an award-winning technology and library science blog Jones launched more than 10 years ago. “Now I can remember what the heck I did from one year to the next.”

But beyond offering personal documentation of the goings on in her library and school, it’s also a way for Jones to work through ideas, share them with colleagues, and get valuable feedback from her readers.

Best of all, blogging lets her share her passion for education.

If you’re passionate about your profession (and what educator isn’t?) Jones says to dive right in, the water’s fine! It’s crowded in the blogosphere to be sure, but newbies can carve out their own space with their own unique passions.

“It’s never too late to start,” says Jones. “There is room for all
voices.”

But there are some rules for the road, and as a seasoned traveler Jones fields some common questions from would-be bloggers.

To Blog or Not to Blog

Start a blog because you want to share your passion, never because you think you should share your passion.

You must feel a strong desire to blog. If you’re not 100 percent committed, Jones advises that you don’t bother to start. Who needs that extra stress?

How Often to Post

“I try to post at least once or twice a month,” says Jones. “I’d like to do it once a week, but I usually don’t because I’ve got a life! There are definitely stretches when I do three or four posts a month, then fall back to once a month.”

Jones’ posting schedule follows her inspiration. When she discovers something that inspires her, she posts. It’s hard to predict how often that will happen, but the goal should be to post for yourself—to capture that moment that you want to share and record. Never post because you look at the calendar and think, “Uh-oh.”

“Never start a post by apologizing for not blogging in a while,” she advises. “The world is full of excuses, please don’t make your readers slog through your self-induced guilt!”

If you feel passionate enough to start a blog, you should be confident that you can easily post at least once a month. “Don’t try until you’re ready to do it because you’re just going to stress yourself out,” Jones says.

How Do I Use Social Media?

A great reason to blog is because you want to be helpful by offering your ideas to the world. And a great way to get your ideas out is with social media. For example, join Twitter and log on to live Twitter chats related to your educational topic or passion, whether it’s literacy, STEM, or technology. There are at least 100 different education-related chats a week that you can join to converse with other educators about what you’re passionate about.

“Then in your Twitter profile add a link to your blog, so when other educators hover over your name, your profile pops up and they say, ‘Oh look she has a blog, too!’” Jones says. “Or during the chat, you can say, ‘Hey I blogged about this last week, read more about it on my blog at this or that address.’”

But, she warns, don’t join them just to promote your blog. You need to be contributing to the conversation in a meaningful way and offering good content.

Try Microblogging

Twitter and Instagram are essentially microblogging sites, says Jones. So is Pinterest, for that matter, or Facebook. You can post pictures and a long caption to explain, you can share links, ideas and tips that are short and sweet.

If you don’t feel like having a big blog with a fancy URL, or if being unable to write a couple of paragraphs or bullet points will give you guilt trips, you can just start out small with those platforms.

If that’s the route you decide to take to dip your toe in the water, Jones suggests starting with Instagram and sharing that with your students, their parents, and colleagues.

“That’s where our students are and they are really into it, and their parents can also see the great things that go on in your school,” she says.

Gwyneth Jones

From there try connecting with the community to share with them what fantastic, positive things happen at school.

“So much media focuses on violence, sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying, or other bad things, and they have to be reported, but I like to push out the positivity to balance out the negative,” Jones says. “Every day I see acts of generosity and joy and innovation and brilliance happening right and left.”

An easy, quick example: She Instagrammed one of her student’s silver high tops with the caption, “Cuteness caught in the hallway—shoes that show sparkle.”

Be Useful

When explaining a classroom concept, show visuals, provide tips on how to do something specific with a step-by-step approach, or include a printable.

“Strive to offer something that will help—even if it’s just a worksheet—even in their daily life as a teacher,” she says. “I blogged that I’m giving out chargers to kids so they can charge their devices, and I posted the sign-out sheet I created for the chargers that tons of people then downloaded.”

A passionate promoter of the #weneeddiversebooks movement, Jones posted a curated list of books celebrating diversity on a bookmark that could be downloaded, copied, and shared.

“Promoting and celebrating diversity and being inclusive is part of what I do every day because we’re a multicultural school and I reflect that,” Jones says. “Maybe it would be different if our school was in New Hampshire or Iowa, but we’re right outside of D.C., Baby! I blog my passions, and I am passionate about welcoming and valuing all students.”





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Effective Engagement Focuses on Getting Students to Care


It’s vital that we give purpose to what the students must learn. Let’s face it: Learning something because it’s on a test, or because it’s in the text book, isn’t purpose. But when you connect what they are learning to the world outside of school, you create your “in.”

And engaging students doesn’t require doing a soft-shoe or stand-up comedy in front of a brick wall.

Engaging students isn’t about entertainment. It’s about focusing on how to get students to care. It’s about adding a layer to the content so that they are motivated to understand concepts more independently.

And when they care about the material, they become less likely to need a letter grade to prove their knowledge. That’s right. Student engagement is the key to intrinsic motivation.

In a video for my most recent book, Just Ask Us: Kids Speak out on Student Engagement, a group of middle schoolers agree that engagement isn’t just about fun. One claims that “engagement isn’t always fun. Well, sometimes it is, but it’s also about focusing on what you’re doing and comprehending everything that’s coming into you.”

Engagement is as much about sweat as it is about smiles. Ultimately, engagement is about connecting with the material so much that a student is willing to blast through hurdles to learn more.

What’s the best way to connect students to the material? Ensure learning is meaningful. That’s where the outside world comes in. That said, I’ve long resented the concept of the “real world” and the “school world.”

Our students spend almost their first two decades of life in school, so it’s unfair to disassociate school with the world outside of it. For them, school is the real world. They should expect that the time spent with us is in preparation for the world beyond school.

So how can we align the school day with their eventual adult-aged work day? Here are some strategies to chew on. Use this list as your own launching pad for your own research. Go to conferences and seek out your own professional development by casting your net with these thoughts in mind. Become an expert in ways to give
learning purpose.

Be Transparent With the Purpose of Learning – Why are we learning this? Where does it exist in the world beyond school? What professions use this content knowledge or this skill? Give students examples of how your content area makes an impact in the world. Better yet, have the students bring in examples from their lives outside of school that showcase your content area.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Grant Students More Choice—As adults we get choices. If we want to better align learning with the world they will enter, we must offer more opportunities for students to own their learning. As education author and lecturer Alfie Kohn says,

“Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” Offer choice in everything—from prompts, people to work with, resources and deadlines, to ways they can showcase what they know and topics of study.

Engage Students in Project-Based Learning (PBL)—PBL is the strategy that helps students to solve real-world problems—ones they often choose to tackle themselves. They do this through independent and collaborative research, design, prototyping, pitching, oral presentation, and public products.

PBL is totally grounded in authenticity. To teach using PBL requires some training. But more than anything, it involves a shift in philosophy to ensure that the learning is set in the creation, not regurgitation, of information. As I say in my DIY for PBL series, “PBL isn’t about writing a state report, it’s about creating your own state.” Students want to know how they can use what they’re learning to make an impact in the world around them.

The bottom line is this: Allow students to own their pathway through our educational system. Allow them to bring in evidence that indicates their content areas are valuable. And when students come to a crossroads, allow them to choose their own direction. Most of all, help them understand that they can make an impact on their world any time they want to start putting their training to use.

Show them examples of students who are making an impact—both big and small. Every student can develop a long-range plan in something they are passionate about, and those plans can include proof of literacy, writing, STEM, past history, and current events.

By bringing the students’ choices and interests into the classroom, you will have made your room and the learning that happens inside of it more meaningful. That translates to engagement.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a middle school teacher, a fellow at the National Writing Project and a faculty member of the Buck Institute for Education.

 





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‘Inspiring Children to Walk in Their Own Dreams’


It’s about 4 p.m. in Room 228 at Skyview High School in Billings, Montana, and resource teacher Deb Roesler is explaining her “action plan.” In the coming days, when she returns to her middle school across town, this white, middle-aged, rural Montanan will invite a student who doesn’t look like her to eat lunch together.

“I’ve been in the biggest groups all day. I’ve never been in a small group,” she says, referring to the “identity groups” that have formed and reformed in Room 228 around age, gender, race, religion, income, education, and more. “But I want to reach out, and I’d like to get to know better the students in the small groups,” she says.

Roesler is among the nearly 200 educators who spend time in Room 228 during the Montana Federation of Public Employees’ annual, two-day Educator Conference. The October event, which hosted more than 3,000 educators, offered more than 500 trainings and workshops—including six from NEA’s Center for Social Justice in the areas of social justice, cultural competency, diversity, and support for LGBTQ students.

These are free workshops, provided upon request, by NEA members—for NEA members. Since 2015, the union’s student-centered, research-based tools have been shared with more than 5,000 educators.

“NEA sends us out to do these trainings because the NEA mission and vision is a great public school for every student,” explains trainer Kevin Teeley, a retired teacher from the Seattle area, to the educators assembling in Room 228. “We want every single student to be achieving and successful in our diverse world.”

With Dreamers marking time, the school-to-prison pipeline thriving, and the divide between rich and poor growing, these may be dark days for educators who care about social justice. But the promise of public education, reminds NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, is “to prepare every blessed child to thrive—and succeed—to love living in a diverse and interdependent world.”

That’s why NEA has dedicated itself to erasing institutional racism, to protecting immigrant families, to standing up for LGBTQ students, and more. “The moral arc of the universe is long, and hearts and minds are bending towards justice. But if our institutions—our policies, our programs and practices—don’t change, then the oppressive conditions that people face will stay the same,” says García.

The educators in Room 228 understand this. Says Montana teacher Richard Montoya: “This is more than a job. We’re inspiring children to walk in their own dreams.”

‘We Should Do This!’

It’s 7 a.m. on the first day of the conference when Teeley and co-trainer Alicia Bata, a high school teacher who works along the North Dakota-Canada border, open the door of Room 228. Fifteen minutes later, the first participant enters. Dozens more follow. At 7:57 a.m., Teeley sends a message to conference organizers: More desks, please!

“Am I culturally competent? Perhaps. Do I know everything I need to do? Absolutely not! This is a skill that you need to practice every day,” Bata tells their classroom of 30 educators. “In three hours, we can’t make you culturally competent, but we can make a good beginning… The first step is to learn about yourself.”

Alicia Bata (center) with workshop participants.

Like many places in rural America, Montana lacks racial diversity in its teachers. Ninety six percent are white, according to federal statistics. By comparison, their student population is diverse: 78 percent white, 11 percent American Indian, and 5 percent Hispanic, with small fractions of other racial groups.

“My colleagues have good intentions, but they don’t always have the tools they need [around diversity],” says Billings Education Association officer Theresa Mountains.

It is critical for those teachers to develop “cultural competence,” as NEA calls it, to reach every student, no matter who they are or where they’re from. This depends on educators doing at least four things: valuing diversity, or letting go of the idea that their view of the world is the only one that is normal; being self-aware of their own culture and how it affects their perceptions; understanding how students also are cultural beings; and finally, using what they know to change their classrooms, schools, and districts.

Just by walking into Room 228, these Montana educators are proving they value diversity. Next up is cultural self-awareness. Who are they? At 9 a.m., kindergarten teacher Paige Bealer reads aloud a poem that she has dashed off: “My father’s side is German through and through…my mother is Jewish and Catholic Portuguese. I am of…cabbage rolls, borscht and sauerkraut we stomp ourselves.”

At 10 a.m., Room 228 is talking about culturally competent teaching and curriculum. Allan Audet is a metals manufacturing teacher whose students are working on a life-size, steel and copper, ceremonial Crow headdress, he tells his colleagues. “I just thought, ‘We should do this!’” says Audet, who worked with Billings’ American Indian instructional coach Jacie Jeffers. An hour later, everybody leaves with one idea that they’re willing to implement in their own classrooms.

Kevin Teeley

‘Do It!’

Cultural competency is just one workshop that NEA’s HCR-trained members provide to their colleagues. By lunchtime Bata and Teeley have moved onto social justice, and the educators in Room 228 are taking Post-its and jotting their real-life examples of marginalization, exploitation, cultural imperialism, and other forms of oppression.

There’s the female teacher who was asked by an administrator to attend an IEP meeting for a student—not her student—to be “eye candy” for the student’s father. There’s also the Eurocentric textbooks, the achievement gaps, and more.

“Identify actions at each level—individual, institutional, and societal—to combat these examples of oppression,” says Bata—and they do. For example, the next colleague who casually says, “you don’t look Native” will be challenged, say the educators of Room 28, who also pledge to make it part of their curriculum to celebrate the diversity within Native American groups.

And then it’s onward to “Understanding Diversity,” a two-hour workshop with retired Portland teacher Debra Robinson and California first-grade teacher Laura Ancira. “This is about honoring and understanding our students,” Robinson tells Room 228. It’s followed by two more hours on “Valuing Diversity,” and then an additional four hours with retired Wisconsin teacher Bonnie Augusta and retired Georgia teacher Toni Smith on creating safe spaces for LGBTQ students.

Every time the door opens, educators leave with a written action plan.

“Post it on your fridge, do not forget this. Do it,” urges Bata.

Photos: Mary Ellen Flannery



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The Perils of Sending Report Cards Home


Something many teachers and pediatricians have long suspected to be true is that child abuse incidents increase when report cards go home. They’re right, a University of Florida (UF) research team has found—but only when report cards go home on Fridays.

UF research scientist Melissa Bright, a NEA Higher Ed member, was talking last year with a UF pediatrician whose patients include victims of abuse or neglect. “He said to me, ‘there’s this idea that when the report cards go out, our patient load goes up,’” Bright recalls. “And then I also talked to some teachers who said, ‘oh yeah, we hate sending home report cards. We know some kids are not going to have a good experience.’”

“So I said, ‘Let’s look for data.’” says Bright.

After comparing a year’s worth of Florida child abuse cases to the dates that report cards were sent home with students, the UF team found a correlation—but only on Fridays. In fact, cases of child abuse, verified by the state’s Department of Children and Families, were four times higher on Saturdays following a report card. When report cards were sent home earlier in the week, no increase was found. Their study was published in December in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

A simple answer—maybe too simple—might be to send report cards earlier in the week, says Bright. “If it’s really just something that happens on Fridays because of something about Fridays, then maybe we could move it earlier. But because we don’t know why it’s happening on Friday, it’s possible we might just move the cases to an earlier day.”

Fridays often are pay days, she notes. Fridays also may kick off a weekend of substance abuse. Or it could be the day that some children switch homes, if their parents live apart. Do any of these things matter? Researchers can’t say for certain.

“I think it’s also important to figure out the nature of report cards,” says Bright. “This is speculation—but I don’t think this is just about bad grades. In elementary school, the report cards include grades and also behavior reports. Parents tend to be more punitive about bad behavior. If the card says the kid is acting up, or not paying attention, I think those are the things that upset parents.”

With that in mind, a more sustainable intervention to prevent abuse—but one that requires more work from parents and educators—is increased, more constant communication between school and home. “It’s not that teachers need to keep an eye on parents, or help them do their job better, but everybody should understand that their shared goal is to help the kid succeed,” says Bright.

Some NEA local affiliates have worked to improve communication through teacher-home visits. Others are making sure that parent-teacher conferences are well-planned and effective.

“The idea is to put everybody on the same page,” says Bright.



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Why Social Justice in School Matters


Social justice is about distributing resources fairly and treating all students equitably so that they feel safe and secure—physically and psychologically. Sadly, a look at schools across the nation makes it clear that fair distribution of resources and equitable treatment don’t always happen. Students in poorly-funded schools don’t have the technology, new books, or art and music programs that create a well-rounded education, while students in affluent areas have the latest academic resources, school counselors, librarians, and more to help them succeed. Bringing social justice into schools shines a spotlight on all sorts of important societal issues—from the myriad reasons that lie beneath the deep disparity between the suspension rates of black and white students to how current U.S. immigration policy separates families and violates student rights. Meet five educators who determined to make a difference in the lives of their students and within their profession by ensuring social justice is a topic that is addressed in their schools.

Audrey Murph-Brown
Springfield, Massachusetts

Audrey Murph-Brown is a member of the Springfield Education Association (SEA) in Massachusetts. She has been a school social worker for 26 years. She describes events that happened during the 2017 – 2018 school year as “a perfect storm at the perfect time.”  The storm swirled with nepotism, favoritism, and institutional biases that prevented highly qualified educators of color from becoming lead teachers or being offered lateral promotions. “Rarely were those opportunities given to educators of color,” says Murph-Brown. The Massachusetts Teachers Association offered training that led to the establishment of ALANA (African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American) Educators and Allies, an arm of SEA. The group focused on building a diverse and culturally proficient environment for educators of color, and when the opportunity arose to speak to school board members during a public meeting, they did.

“They’ve never had a collective raised voice before and we were bold,” recalls Murph-Brown, referring to the school committee. Educators and their allies filled a school board meeting with signs that read, “Fair Hiring for Everyone” and “No More Nepotism.” After powerful testimony from Murph-Brown and other educators, the door to communication was cracked open, and efforts have been made to level the playing field. For example, principals must add an applicant’s ethnicity to the hiring application as a way to keep track of who’s applying for teaching positions. The school committee’s human resource department is looking into better practices within its hiring process, too. It’s been slow going, “but it’s more than what’s ever happened before,” says Murph-Brown.

Jesse Hagopian
Seattle, Washington

Jesse Hagopian teaches ethnic studies and is the adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle. Hagopian established the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award after he sued the City of Seattle for being pepper sprayed in the face by a police officer on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2015. Recipients of the award demonstrate exceptional leadership in struggles against racism—especially with an understanding of the intersections between sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, class exploitation, and other forms of oppression—within their school or community. Since 2015, nine Seattle Public Schools students and one youth organization have been honored with the award.

“The bold and courageous work of standing up to racism is hard, and this award gives recognition for those with the courage to do it,” says Hagopian. “I wanted to create a space and an awareness that if you step forward for social justice, you will be lifted up in the community and by mentors who will support your work.”

Activism is at the heart of this award, Hagopian says, and “the examples are breathtaking.”

He points to seven black Seattle high school students who formed “New Generation,” a school activist group that led a walkout at Garfield High School to raise awareness about Charleena Lyles, a pregnant 30-year-old black woman who was fatally shot by two white Seattle police officers at home as her three young children looked on. One student organized a city-wide movement to get free bus passes for students from low-income families.

Another student started an Islamophobia global awareness day. One group got the Seattle School Board to endorse “Black Lives Matters at School,” which included a week of action. The movement has spread to other cities and districts. Another group of students fought for the addition of an Ethnic Studies program that is transforming Seattle’s schools.

“None of this would have been possible without student activism,” says Hagopian. “I wanted to find a way to recognize this critical work of young people who see that they are the changemakers—the ones who will have to bring about the changes they want to see.”

Angie Powers
Olathe, Kansas

Angie Powers, a high school English teacher in Olathe, Kan., says she defines success according to her ability to make school a place where students feel welcome and receive the tools that will help them navigate the complexities of the world with compassion and empathy. That’s why Powers sponsors the Olathe Northwest High School Gender Sexuality Alliance and mentors students in the areas of civic engagement, social justice, and advocacy. The latter draws on her training from the NEA, GLSEN, and the Human Rights Campaign. As co-chair of the Kansas NEA Social Justice Taskforce, and the Olathe NEA Social Justice Cadre, Powers leads her state affiliate’s social justice efforts. She has spoken to pre-service teachers in every college in Kansas about the challenges LGBTQ+ students face and how new educators can create welcoming schools for their future students. Powers also serves on THRIVE, an organization in the Kansas City area that creates LGBTQ+-specific policy recommendations for local districts.

Powers is committed to ensuring that every student has equitable access to a quality public school, and says, “Education and equity are inseparable. One cannot exist without the other. When inequity plagues the educational system, [the system] fails to serve the needs of each child. It is our most important work to battle inequity in each classroom across the nation, [and within] our educational institutions as a whole. Our children are worth this fight.”

Elizabeth Villanueva
Sacramento, California

With that goal in mind, Villanueva began an after-school class for Latina students when she was in her second year as a teacher. The goal of the effort was gang prevention, and most of the students enrolled in the class had some affiliation with gangs. But by the time the second cohort had enrolled, the group changed its name to New Age Latinas—NAL, for short—and focused on leadership skills, college readiness, community service, personal growth, and networking with other Latina college students and professionals.

With today’s uncertainty over immigration policy, NAL participants and many students in Villanueva’s classes share their fears and anxieties about the increase in ICE raids and deportations in their communities. To create a safe haven for her students, Villanueva reached out to the community, colleagues, and other students and started a group called the Luther Burbank High School DREAMers. The group meets weekly and features guest speakers, such as immigration lawyers, who provide “Know Your Rights” workshops, and college counselors, who share information on how to enroll in college and access financial resources.

“Providing good quality, transformative education to the underserved and underrepresented is an essential component of social justice. Every student is part of our collective society, and part of that which makes us all who we are,” says Villanueva. “Each one deserves the dignity, respect, and opportunity that is provided for every other member of our collective society. Education has the power to transform our collective consciousness and improve the well-being of us all.”

Erica Viray Santos
San Leandro, California

About a decade ago, educator and activist Erica Viray Santos drew upon her personal experiences—growing up in a poor working class, immigrant household, where her mother worked multiple jobs and her father turned to substance abuse and was in and out of the criminal justice system—to help develop San Leandro High School’s Social Justice Academy, a cohort that gives students the opportunity to explore their identities and cultural strengths and use them to transform their communities for a more socially just world.

As a teacher and program director for the academy, Viray Santos serves more than a hundred sophomores, juniors, and seniors with a team of teachers. Student projects and actions range from supporting undocumented students to challenging the rape culture. All of the projects, events, pieces of writing, and the curriculum reflect topics that interest and impact the students.

“I think it is essential that we not only give our students content knowledge and hard skills, but we also instill compassion and a sense of accountability to their local and global communities. As educators, we have the responsibility to help young people realize their value and power. It is our responsibility to teach them how to look at the world critically, challenge systems of oppression and discrimination, understand how they can be agents of transformation, and inspire them to take action.”

Last year, students addressed the gun violence in school. Viray Santos explains that they developed a new comprehensive discipline plan based on restorative and transformative justice. The goal was to improve relationships between marginalized students and the wider school community. The plan runs counter to the trend of discipline that punishes and pushes young people out of school. Ultimately, students presented their plan to the San Leandro School Board. “These types of lessons and experiences grant students the ability to navigate a landscape that places underserved youth at a disadvantage within the education system,” Viray Santos says.



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Using Meditation to Mitigate Stress


It’s news to exactly no one that being an educator is stressful. Long
hours are spent in an environment that churns with mental, visual, and emotional stimulation. And when what should be the end of the work day finally arrives, there is still more to do.

For educators, the list of stress and anxiety-inducing triggers is endless—and potentially dangerous to your career and health. Whether you’re nearing burnout’s precipice, or already staring into the abyss, meditation can help. In this first installment of a two-part series about mindfulness, learn what meditation is (and what it isn’t) and how to create a practice.

Why Meditate? In a world filled with inputs, meditation gives your
mind a rest. It also can help you to learn how your mind works. Instead of paying attention to your swirling thoughts— “I’ll never get these papers graded in time.” “I always knew that parent didn’t like me.”—you will attend to your breath and train your mind to bring similar focus to day-to-day life. That’s all “mindfulness” means: It’s having the ability to direct the mind to pay attention to one thing.

Will Meditation Make Me Happy? Nope. But focusing on your breath in meditation helps your mind learn to focus on the present moment. And it’s that ability to keep your mind in the present moment—not ruminating over something in the past, or worrying about something in the future—that lays the groundwork for the calm, happiness, and increased efficiency that often are attributed to meditation.

Where Do I Begin? Insert small pauses into your day. Sit silently in your home or your car before heading into school, or on your bed when you wake up or before you go to sleep.

How Do I Create a Practice? Select a time of day and a location. Sit upright in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands palms down on your legs. You may also sit cross-legged on a floor cushion. You’ll benefit more from a quick two-minute daily practice than a 30-minute practice that only happens once a week. Think of your mind as a muscle and meditation as its gym. Like your body, your mind will respond better to regular sessions.

It’s the ability to return to the breath in meditation that enables us to return to a task, a conversation, or a lesson in everydaylife, and not be totally sidetracked by worries and thoughts.

Now What? Set your timer. Five minutes is a great place to start.
Close your eyes, or cast your gaze toward the floor, and begin to notice your body. If you feel areas of tension—the most common are abdomen and shoulders, where many of us hold stress—imagine directing your breath to those areas and encouraging them to relax. Next—and without losing the sense of relaxation—sit up tall and straight. Many of us also hold tension in our jaws, so relax that area by closing your mouth and keeping your lips and teeth slightly parted.

Do I Breathe in a Special Way? No. Focus on the flow of your natural breath. Take a moment to notice where you feel your breath the most. Is it the air entering your nostrils, or exiting? Your breath may be most noticeable in the rise and fall of your chest, or the movement of your abdomen. Place your attention there.

How Do I Stop Thinking? You won’t. Just as it’s not possible to ask
your skin to stop feeling, you can’t tell your mind to stop making thoughts. That’s its J-O-B. Thoughts will come and go. Just keep your attention on your breath, and when you realize a thought has distracted you, return your attention to your breath. It’s the ability to return to the breath in meditation that enables us to return to a task, a conversation, or a lesson in everyday life, and not be totally sidetracked by worries and thoughts.

What If I Miss A Day? That’s fine. The most important thing to remember is that the reason we meditate is so that we can approach others with patience and compassion. What better place to start than with ourselves?

Lisa Leigh is the editor of NEA Today and NEA Today for NEA-Retired Members. She is a 200-hour registered yoga teacher and a certified meditation instructor.



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Neutrality in the Classroom Shortchanges Students


When teaching about U.S. elections or politics many educators will strive for neutrality. They may insist these discussions have no place in the classroom, while others argue that standardization and a lack of time make them a non-starter. Even if there was an opening, the slightest hint of bias could attract the ire of an administrator or parent. In this hyper-polarized political climate, that’s a line that’s easy to stumble across.

All this neutrality or avoidance may work for the teacher – but what about the student?

Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, believes that a strict adherence to “neutrality” – not expressing your views to students and/or avoiding political topics – is a tactic that can actually marginalize many students.

Neutrality is itself a political choice, Dunn argues, and is one that bolsters the status quo. What results is a classroom that potentially ignores the fears, interests, and concerns of many students.

To be clear, Dunn is not talking about a teacher who stands in front of the class and reads aloud endorsements for local, state and federal political office and then urges students to go home and tell their parents to vote accordingly.

The kind of neutrality that concerns Dunn is, for example, a decision to avoid discussion of  “controversial” issues – racism, inequity, climate change, or gun violence, for example – out of fear of appearing political or partisan.

Education, at it’s core, is inherently political, says Dunn.

“Everything in education—from the textbooks to the curriculum to the policies that govern teachers’ work and students’ learning—is political and ideologically-informed,” she explains. “Both what is taught and how it is taught is shaped by the cultural, social, political, and historical contexts in which a school is situated. We can’t pretend that teachers can leave these contexts at the door.”

Especially after as the election of Donald Trump.

Although political polarization didn’t begin with his candidacy, Trump’s incendiary, crude, and divisive rhetoric about race, religion, gender, and immigration that marked his campaign (and his presidency) has been deeply unsettling to many, if not most, Americans.

“I don’t care what my school administration says. My loyalty is to my students and their lives, . . . not to administrator requests to avoid conversations that are uncomfortable.’’

According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the 2016 presidential campaign had a “profoundly negative effect on children and classrooms…particularly acute in schools with high concentrations of minority children.”

Yet, as Dunn and her colleagues Beth Sondel of the University of Pittsburgh and Hannah Carson Baggett of Auburn University concluded in a recent paper, many teachers continue to feel pressured to remain neutral when discussing Trump and are generally uncomfortable addressing racial and social justice issues in the classroom.

“This pressure (to stay neutral) is reflective of the lack of trust, autonomy and professionalism for teachers in our current climate,” the study, published in the  American Educational Research Journal, concludes.

The researchers surveyed 730 teachers from 43 states to gauge how their pedagogical choices were affected after the election.

Some respondents made it very clear they did not adhere to what they saw as misdirected directives from school or district officials to stay away from anything Trump-related.

One middle school teacher explained that despite the fear many of his students had of deportation and harassment, “my school, tied by a never-ending desire to remain ‘unbiased,’ did nothing and told teachers to limit conversations about the elections because such conversations were not included [in the standards].”

“I don’t care what my school administration says,” the teacher continued.  “My loyalty is to my students and their lives, . . . not to administrator requests to avoid conversations that are uncomfortable.’’

Generally, however, responses from educators were littered with words such as  “fearful,” “anxious,” “unsure,” and “scared,” even as they acknowledged that a more engaged, proactive approach in the classroom may be necessary.

One educator from Massachusetts summed up the dilemma this way:

“Trump unlike any other presidential candidate stands for everything I work to combat: racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. My students fall into categories of people he wants removed or controlled, in his America. I do not know how to talk to my students about this and be neutral (as per country policy).”

According to the study, teaching after the election was most challenging for those who were “ideological outsiders” – Clinton voters in areas where the majority of voters were pro-Trump and vice versa.

“Teachers had to negotiate if and how to talk about their own beliefs knowing that their students’ parents and/or colleagues may disagree with them,” Dunn says.

For example, an elementary teacher from a predominantly White school in Michigan explained,

“I always feel nervous explicitly discussing politics in my classroom due to the variety of views of my students’ parents and my own fear that parents will be upset or complain about me if my own view come up explicitly in classroom lessons/discussions. I know I have students whose parents supported both candidates passionately and I do sort of feel a responsibility to respect their parents’ views (no matter how much I may disagree)”.

It doesn’t help that so much of our discourse is labelled “political” or “partisan,” including discussions about human rights and social justice. Pedagogical choices, the researchers argue, should not be confined by this false construct.

“Making justice-oriented pedagogical choices is not about partisanship or controversy but, rather, is reflective of an overarching commitment to equity,” they write.

Both what is taught and how it is taught is shaped by the cultural, social, political, and historical contexts in which a school is situated. We can’t pretend that teachers can leave these contexts at the door.” – Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Michigan State University

Anchoring discussions to a justice and equity framework can provide educators with a path forward. Still, many of the respondents in the survey did not feel particularly well-prepared to take this on, let alone publicly challenge the presumed virtues of a neutral classroom. The study concludes that teacher training programs need to better prepare educators in adapting their classrooms to help students understand current events and political upheavals. The researchers recommend that current teachers, especially those “ideological outsiders,” seek out networks across schools and districts that can serve as “restorative and supportive communities.”

While Dunn and her colleagues are careful not to downplay the pressures educators face, they emphasize that, ultimately, teachers are charged with preparing their students to work toward a more democratic society.

With 2019 and 2020 shaping up to be just as tumultuous as the previous few years, what are the chances more educators will feel empowered and better prepared to talk politics (for lack of a better word) in their classrooms?

Don’t count on the administration to lead the way, at least not yet. “Districts are still issuing bureaucratic demands on teachers that take their time away from the most important thing they can do in the classroom: create responsive and relevant curriculum for their students,” explains Dunn.

And while too many parents still believe the classroom door should always be shut to any political discussion, they may be “ignoring the reality that such a move is never really possible,” Dunn says.

teaching controversial issuesTeaching the ‘Hard History’ Behind Today’s News
For educators, uncomfortable discussions come with the territory. The challenge is to help students grapple with controversial issues without turning into enemies. The job is also to prepare people with multiple points of view to survive and thrive in self-government.

NEA EdJustice engages and mobilizes activists in the fight for racial, social and economic justice in public education.



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Educators Share their Most Memorable Gifts


From practical and personal to silly and sentimental, the gifts educators receive definitely leave a lasting impression. We asked our Facebook fans to share their most memorable gifts, and, in the spirit of the season, they delivered. Happy Holidays!

A half bottle of used perfume. A fifth grade boy who lost his mom said I reminded him of of her so he wanted me to have her favorite perfume. I wore that perfume every day.
Holly, Bradenton, Florida

A Christmas ornament given to me in June because his locker was such a mess that he “lost” it until the end of the year locker clean out!
Amy, Boyne City, Michigan

It was a hand-written colorful birthday note from a 6th grade student. She wrote about how much she appreciated me not just because of my role in her life, but as a single mother to my own daughter (2nd grade at the time), and how she saw me working hard in that role, as well. It touched my heart and went well beyond her years.
Stacey, Chandler, Arizona

A simple “Thank you” from one of my high schoolers at the end of the year. I said good morning to him every single day that I drove the bus and he never answered, sometimes even scowled. I knew he was going through something deep. On the last day of school, he told me his mother had left the family and he felt lost. He said he felt happy to hear the ‘good morning’ each day.
The best gift ever! It resides in my heart. Marti , Traverse City, Michigan

The students in a club that I sponsored surprised me with a life-sized cardboard cut-out photo of me so that I could be in two places at once. Debi , St. Louis, Missouri

After my dad, a retired science and social studies teacher and park ranger, died, my student bought a tree to be planted in his memory. I got a certificate and everything. My dad planted hundreds of trees in his lifetime, so this was perfect. Emily, Pheonix, Arizona

I taught students from Haiti in a bilingual program. When school was about to be dismissed for Christmas Break they spontaneously got up and begin to run around the room hugging one another, shaking hands, and wishing each other Merry Christmas. Just watching that go on was such a greatest gift! It was heartwarming. Marilyn

When, 15 years after leaving my class, my student, Marco said, “ I became a singer because of you.”
Pam, Oneieda, Wisconsin

After my house was burglarized my third-graders bought me new earrings! Linda, Pensacola, Florida

When I was student teaching a boy gave me a “Favorite Teacher” ornament that he had taken off of another teacher’s tree. You might not see the love in this, but he was very poor, already in a gang, and had never been successful in any class before. It told me I was making a difference in his life…on so many levels. To this day, I don’t care where he got it. Kathleen, Brentwood, California 

I received a hand-painted portrait of my Golden Retriever, done by a second-grade student in a frame made by his Grandfather. Suzanne, Louisville, Kentucky

One of my students made me a traditional Dominican meal which still makes my mouth water when I think about it! Melissa, Hopewell, New Jersey

I worked in a Dual Language school and most of my students were from migrant worker families. Once a young girl gave me a perfume set. I spoke with her mother and expressed my gratitude for the gift. She told me that her daughter worked the fields with them for a month so she could save enough money to buy it. She told me that the gift was her way of showing how proud she was of me for earning my Masters, which I had just done that December. She told me she wanted to be exactly like me and grow up to be a teacher. I still have that empty perfume bottle. My student graduated and is now a teacher and I am honored to have been a small part of her life. Lisa, North Carolina

A seat on a bus. The parents organized a trip to Chicago to see the King Tut exhibit. They paid for all the teachers who wanted to go! Polly, Lebanon, Ohio

My very first student was on the autism spectrum and was primarily nonverbal. Toward the end of the year, I was telling my educational assistant that I had been accepted into the Peace Corps and was going to the Philippines He looked me in the eye and said clearly, “I’ll miss you, Reyna.” Best gift ever and is what got me into the field of special education and autism. Reyna, Nehalem, Oregon

I was pregnant and on bed rest. I went into school the day before break and found a note that said, ”Mrs. Mascaro, I don’t have any money to buy you a gift, so I cleaned your desk. Merry Christmas!” Best Gift Ever.
Kelly, Central Square, New York

A rubbing of my cousin’s name from the Vietnam memorial I received in the mail. A former student was in Washington, D.C. his junior year. I was his third-grade teacher, and always read them “The Wall” on Veterans’ Day, and told them about my cousin. I can’t believe he remembered that! Stephanie

One of my students made a Lord of the Rings cookbook for me. He found the recipes online, and made a leather cover with the Tree of Gondor. I treasure it. Ann, Anchorage, Alaska

After winter break I had a first-grader drag in a Christmas tree he found in the alley to school to give to me. Dolores, El Paso, Texas 



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