“What’s Your Motivation?”: How I Got Students to Buy Into Innovation

The structure of my pilot at Orr Elementary School this summer is very similar to what I tried in my class after my first trip to California with the Education Innovation Fellowship in January. I was so excited about being in the Fellowship and trying things I was learning, so I started implementing changes right away. My class was also eager to follow my lead, which made it easy to try out new ideas and adjust them as I went.

By the end of the year, I was confident that I had a great structure in place, and I planned to use the exact same strategy with my summer school students. Well, I learned quickly that with each new year and each new set of students, my structure will definitely have to adjust.

On the first day of my summer pilot program (along with my colleague, Kelley Jones), I came in and shared my expectations with my students, talked to them about goal-setting and small groups, and—standing on my soapbox—preached about how important it was to know your data and speak to it! And when I was done and looked out at the blank faces staring back at me, I realized very quickly that my approach with this group was definitely going to have to be different.

Instead of just pointing out how important it was for students to set goals, I realized that this group needed to be engaged and to understand the importance of the math I was asking them to do. So Ms. Jones and I decided to create a culminating project that students would work on together and that would relate directly to their lives. My group from last year was motivated by just being successful in school; this group needed to see why it mattered.

The culminating project that students will complete is about money: Students use money every day and will continue to throughout their lives, so it was an intensely relatable subject. Since our last day together will be a trip to a staking rink, we’ve assigned students to figure out how much the trip will cost and what activities and snacks we will be able to afford on our budget—all the while using decimals (our Unit 1 activity) to do it.

Now that I have students’ minds turning and making connections through this culminating project, I feel their motivation to be successful in our summer pilot increasing. After a week and a half, they are eager to participate in the centers. I can’t wait to see how they do on their first quiz!

Diane Johnson, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Orr Elementary School


A Summer of Innovation, Part 2: Orr Elementary

Benjamin Orr Elementary is a District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) in Southeast Washington, D.C. During the school year, CityBridge Education Innovation Fellows Diane Johnson and Kelley Jones teach mathematics, science, and special education. However, during the summer, these two Fellows are piloting a station rotation-based blended learning model. Since their summer pilot focuses on English Language Arts and mathematics, this dynamic duo is already collaborating with their English Language Arts counterpart—who is new to blended learning—to teach in an open space, comprehensive blended learning environment.

Last week, I visited Diane and Kelley and captured a brief view of their classroom pilot. Below, you’ll find the video and summary of their summer pilot experience.

Diane Johnson (@DJohnsonOrr) & Kelley Jones (@kelleyejones)
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Pedagogically speaking, Diane and Kelley realize that “learning stations” have existed before the terms “blended” or “personalized learning” emerged. Nevertheless, they both recognize the benefit of leveraging educational technology in the classroom to maximize their students’ learning. In this video, you’ll see students completing their assignments at three different “stations,” while Diane and Kelley offer targeted instruction to a small group of students.

As you’ve noticed, one station uses an educational technology tool (like Edmodo), while the other two stations—one independent and one collaborative—use traditional paper-and-pencil methods (hence the term “blended learning”). At first, Diane and Kelley allowed students to choose which learning station—amongst four—they wanted to complete. However, after the first week, they’ve decided to pivot and add “a little more structure” to the design. They now post a “station rotation schedule” that consists of four 20-minute learning stations or “rounds.” Based on specific learning standards or goals, each student reports to an assigned station and works diligently to complete his or her task. Despite being a relatively new pivot, Diane and Kelley have already noticed significant improvements in student learning.

During my visit to their classroom, I noticed how well each student adjusted to this type of learning environment. They all moved around the classroom with purpose. At each learning station, students engaged with the materials and focused on completing their assignments within the allotted time. In addition, each student knew exactly what to do once Ms. Johnson rang her desktop bell: They all began to clean up and report to their next assigned station. As a former teacher, I’m impressed with how well these elementary students transition and work; it’s definitely a well-oiled machine. In fact, there’s not a single doubt in my mind that Orr Elementary School students will benefit from this dynamic duo for several years to come.

I can’t wait to hear more about their pilot experience and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Off for now…

Angel Cintron Jr., Contributing Blogger and 2014 Education Innovation Fellow
Angel cropped

Join the conversation:


Recently, I’ve been reading the book Creative Confidence by brothers Tom and David Kelley. Both men are partners at the global design firm IDEO; the book is designed to help people like me, the non-artistic types, tap into their creativity and solve problems from the user perspective.

In Creative Confidence, there’s an excerpt that reads:

While competitors focused on the never-ending battle surrounding technical specifications (like scanning speed, resolutions, etc.), Doug found a whole new way to improve the lives of patients and their families. In our experience, approaching challenges from a human perspective can yield some of the richest opportunities for change.

While in the process of reading the book, I also visited City Neighbors Charter School in Baltimore with the Education Innovation Fellowship, and the above quote came back to mind. Our tour guide—City Neighbors founder and executive director Bobbi MacDonald—was saying something very similar. I imagined her putting her own spin on it:

While public schools had a laser-like focus on standardized testing and achievement data, I envisioned a different way to transform the lives of students and families. It was my belief that approaching challenges from authentic student and community perspectives would lead to the most substantial lifelong outcomes.

And just like that, the magic happened. All of the work that we’d been doing toward personalized learning in the Education Innovation Fellowship (design thinking, empathy talks, student-centered learning, space configuration, technology, project-based learning, student agency), things that hadn’t really clicked before, made perfect sense. I was SEEING it in this school.

What we saw at City Neighbors was a unique, thoughtfully designed space that had removed many of the physical traits of traditional schools.  Rigid desk and chairs purchased in uniformity had been replaced with well-curated and comfortable mismatching tables, chairs, and sofas. The school had a 1-to-1 laptop ratio, but students could use their own devices to complete assignments as they deemed appropriate. Students were also grouped in pods of 15 (which stayed in place for their four years at the school) to build their social, emotional, community, and academic competencies. In addition, these collaborative pods helped students organize, navigate, and sustain their thinking to fully complete assignments. But the most important aspect of each design decision was trust.

Both organizations, aware that they were designing solutions for a specific group, trusted the perspective of the end user. They were both built from a unique point of view: Solve problems from the inside out. By using empathy and observation, the “designer” approach allows the end user to (unknowingly) guide the design process. The “designer” then uses that information to create a final product or solution.

After having witnessed design thinking in practice in the education space, I’m extremely excited about the possibilities that lie ahead. My Education Innovation Fellowship colleague, Yolanda Johnson (who teaches second and third grade dual language immersion at Cleveland Elementary School), and I are working to dig deeper into how these design principles might be applied in the future. Across the summer, we will highlight key takeaways from City Neighbors and hopefully give an added boost of inspiration, insight, and confidence to creating from the student perspective.

Alex Brown, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Randle Highlands Elementary School


Backwards (Life) Design

The educational world is changing. For the past six months, in the Education Innovation Fellowship, I’ve seen innovation everywhere—from Los Angeles up to Seattle across Chicago and back to D.C. In every school building I entered, innovation seemed to be happening in four places: math class, English class, science class, and history class. I teach physical and health education—two subjects that still seemed to be being taught the same way they always were. So I had to ask: Can innovation happen in PE and health?

I think so. And here’s why.

Even though innovation tends to be heavy on tech and devices that kids can use easily in the core subjects, innovation isn’t actually about tech at all. It’s about design. And I realized that, as teachers, we’ve been taught to design for our entire careers: Every year, before kids arrive at school in the fall, we engage in backwards design—a technique that asks educators to begin with what students are expected to learn and be able to do, then create learning opportunities that achieve the desired goal. So before we teach, we:

  1. Define the desired results
  2. Decide on exactly what is acceptable evidence for these desired results
  3. Design activities to reach the desired results

As I wondered what the place of innovation was in my P.E. and health classes, I started applying backwards design to life beyond school. Our desired result is a long, healthy and fruitful life. Acceptable evidence would include eating well, being active, staying fit, having low blood pressure, avoiding diseases and other health risks, etc. Activities to reach these results could include playing a sport or making healthy eating and habitual exercise a priority. So why don’t we emphasize these tactics more for children? Most people agree that health and wellness is crucial…when they are old.  But why not develop the skills that will sustain a long, fruitful and healthy existence at any early age?

I’m putting these thoughts into practice.  My students live in Washington, D.C.—where we have the third-highest obesity rate in the United States, and about 13% of two-to-four-year-olds from low-income families are already obese (2011). For about one in five 10-to-17-year-olds, obesity is already shortening the long lives that he or she wants to live (2011; source). If our desired results are to live a long, healthy and fruitful life, my students are already playing catch-up. And if their parents, teachers, and administrators are only focused on reading, writing, and math, they will continue to play catch-up.

I’ve created a program where health and wellness have seats at the table. Each student in my 5th grade class works with me to set goals based on the government’s recommendations for a healthy activity level. They wear fitness bands that measure their activity level; when they reach their goals, they receive money toward college in a secure account. And after only 21 days piloting this program, my kids aren’t just meeting their goals—they’re doubling and even tripling them.

Because of this program, my kids know the statistics. My kids are making their health and wellness a priority. They see their results instantly, they learn ways to exercise in all environments, and they learn where to find and how to cook healthy foods. They are learning about healthy eating habits and healthy exercise habits. When they are old, they will be able to say that they lived a long, healthy and fruitful life. My students will not be the one in five.

Please visit our Crowdrise page to support my students on their journeys to long, healthy, and fruitful lives!


David Gesualdi, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
The Walker Jones Education Campus


A Summer of Innovation, Part 1

Are you interested in learning how to leverage educational technology? Do you want to learn how to implement a personalized learning model in your classroom? Are you always searching for opportunities to expand your professional learning network? If you’ve answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, then allow me to borrow a moment of your time. I want to introduce to you a group of talented D.C. public and public charter school educators who, in addition to teaching, are all participating in a unique, yearlong education innovation fellowship.

Alexander-Brown-Web Alison-Gillmeister-Web Diane-Johnson-Web Samantha-Ellerbeck-Web Kelley-Jones-Web Desiree-Smith-Web

Earlier this year, CityBridge Foundation launched its third year of the Education Innovation Fellowship, a program that provides talented D.C. educators with the opportunity to take a deeper dive into understanding and applying blended and personalized learning models. During the first two cohorts, 32 DCPS and public charter school educators successfully completed the Fellowship; there are 22 Fellows in the current cohort.

Earlier this year, these 22 Fellows traveled around the country to observe the most promising innovations in more than a dozen schools. Inspired by these experiences, the Fellows returned to their classrooms and began to redesign their instructional approaches. Of the 22 current Fellows, seven are piloting their own blended learning models during the summer weeks.

The purpose of this blog series is simple: We wish to document this group’s pilot experiences so we can share any, and all, emergent bright spots and lessons learned. So, if you’re someone who likes to leverage social media for professional development purposes, then let me introduce to you some innovative educators worth following:

Meet Alexander Brown | @PerspectiveDC
Alexander Brown, a 5th grade mathematics teacher at Randle Highlands Elementary School, is dedicating his summer to “learning as much about project-based learning as possible.” Alexander is determined to create a rigorous, project-based learning station for his upcoming 5th grade students. In addition, he plans to curate project-based learning resources so he can share them with like-minded educators.

Meet Samantha Ellerbeck
Samantha Ellerbeck, a 4th grade special education teacher at Center City Public Charter School, wants to see her students become “wild readers.” As a result, she’s piloting a flipped classroom model that’s designed to increase student independent reading time, within her classroom, so her students can spend more time “grappling with the text.”

Meet Alison Gillmeister
Alison Gillmeister, a 4th through 8th grade ESOL teacher at Center City Public Charter School, is piloting a station rotation model with rising 4th and 5th graders. Alison will help her students deconstruct project-based task requirements to develop project planning skills; she’s calling this pilot her “pause-to-plan” learning station.

Meet Diane Johnson
Diane Johnson, a 5th grade math and science teacher at Orr Elementary School, is always looking for ways to increase student learning during small group stations and instruction. Diane is co-piloting a blended learning model with another colleague and Education Innovation Fellow, Kelley Jones. Diane plans to combine a station rotation model with student choice—the ability for students to choose their own pathways in the classroom.

Meet Yolanda Johnson | @YoyoTeach2
Yolanda Johnson, a 2nd and 3rd grade dual language English teacher at Cleveland Elementary School, is a twenty year seasoned veteran. Yolanda is piloting a mathematics-based station rotation model with her rising 4th graders during the summer. As an educator, Yolanda’s a true visionary. In fact, she started learning how to incorporate technology in her classroom before blended learning became “a thing.”

Meet Kelley Jones
Kelley Jones, an early childhood and 3rd grade special education teacher at Orr Elementary School, is determined to create a positive learning environment so her students “can learn anywhere.” Together with Diane Johnson, Kelley is piloting an open space, station rotation model that seeks to minimize—even eliminate—the need for whole-group instruction. This duo is so dynamic, they’ve even convinced their ELA counterpart to join the pilot.

Meet Desiree Smith | @MsSmith_Desiree
Desiree Smith, middle school math teacher at Center City Public Charter School, is ready to go beyond discussing the “nuts and bolts” of a station rotation model. In fact, Desiree aims to shift the focus “from rotation to creation” by piloting a unique, inquiry-based learning station. Desiree wants to teach her students how to apply design thinking processes to better analyze current events.

So, whether you’re interested in knowing more about blended or personalized learning or you’re already implementing innovative models in your classroom, we encourage you to follow along and participate in the conversation. As we chronicle and share our Fellows’ pilot experiences, we look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Off for now…

Angel Cintron Jr., Contributing Blogger and 2014 Education Innovation Fellow
Angel cropped

Join the conversation:

My North Star, Part 1: From ROTATION to CREATION


I have a confession to make: To date, my math classroom is still a space where students are unimpressed and performance is unimpressive.

Don’t get me wrong, my kids are awesome: They work hard and have good hearts. But if I were to reflect honestly about transitioning from a traditional “I Do/We Do/You Do” whole-group format to a three-station rotation model, the results are not as compelling as I had hoped. Yes, having students move efficiently between computers, independent work time, and small groups with me has had many benefits:

  • It’s improved the culture of my room, as students have found the variety of learning formats and tasks much more engaging than a traditional model.
  • It’s dramatically decreased behavior issues and discipline, allowing me to deliver more content and less discipline.
  • It’s reduced the teacher-to-student ratio by a third, building differentiation into our classroom.
  • It’s even made us look good: Our transitions are so smooth that we could have been in a teacher how-to video (the Jeopardy song cue gives everyone 30 seconds to get to work at their next station)!

However, all of these gains have still not created an environment that will produce the type of citizens that my students need and deserve to be. My kids deserve to walk into a class where they will be impressed by the relevance of math to their lives. They need to walk out of that same class impressing others by the way they think and talk about the world around them. As it stands, my blended learning model is not pushing students to the point where they are no longer just consumers of content and technology—they are producers as well.


Consequently, I will be using this summer to pilot a Summit Public Schools-inspired model that balances Personal Learning Time (PLT) and Project Time (PT).  The North Star of my pilot will be discovering how to best structure the project-based learning to build grit in my kids and inspire them to be change-makers. I believe that if students understand and love that learning is a lifelong process, they will not be baffled when we expect them to continue learning during the last few days before summer break. If my kids are going to reach their amazing potential, they are going to need to realize that education is a privilege—and that to whom much is given, much is expected. Consequently, their education is not just for them—it is actually a tool for them to better serve their communities.

To me, this Maya Angelou quote embodies the difference between trying to “get” students to understand the purpose of learning versus experiencing the joy and empowerment of self-motivated learning:

Students can hear me tell them that a certain math skill is relevant, and they can even solve (neatly packaged) problems that simulate how people in the “real world” are using math on a daily basis. However, the crux of what all of us teachers are trying to do in the classroom is to combat the misunderstanding that somehow “getting an education” means completing work that is completely irrelevant and uninteresting.

This is why I will be implementing “Creation Time” (thanks for the lingo, West Belden!), where students will use the design process to create prototypes for fixing social issues that the class has chosen as its theme. By using math in the service of current events, students will have more chances to make connections between class and life, access and analyze information for nuances, and form opinions and ideas to impact the world. Instead of hearing that tired exclamation, ”Oh, you’re good at math? You should consider becoming an engineer!,” they will practice and feel what it is like to be a design engineer now.

My students must see that the purpose of education is not to simply give answers to questions, but to find solutions to the world’s problems. If my students can know what it feels like to use education to serve others, my classroom will not just be a space of efficient consumption and practice—it will be one of meaningful creation. #goals

Desiree Smith, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Congress Heights Campus


Welcome to the Real World: An Introduction to Project-Based Learning

Beginning next year, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) will introduce Cornerstone Assignments. These assignments are shared projects across DCPS that are designed to increase equity and expectations for all students. To push the design concept further, I imagine that the Cornerstones will also develop student capacity for 21st-century skills—skills like critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, and communication and collaboration. These skills were all present during a recent three-day, two-night expeditionary learning program hosted by NatureBridge at Prince William Forest Park.

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From the very beginning, camp counselors Danny, Candace, and Isabella did a great job setting expectations.  Students realized quickly that they would be held accountable for every minute and that every experience would be tied to a learning outcome. Punctuality, stewardship, respect, and active participation were highly stressed. And from the onset of our first two-mile hike to Quantico Creek where we learned about aquatic macroinvertebrates, we knew our students had embraced the expectations. They weren’t silent—but they were quiet, thoughtful, and engaged within the group. Complaints were few. The group’s north star had been set, and all of them worked together to reach their goal.  

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After hiking, creek-crossing (a few didn’t make it across without an unexpected dip), and learning about watersheds and macroinvertebrates, students returned to the campsite for dinner. Dinner, of course, was tied to specific learning outcomes as well. How can we reduce food waste? How can we use what remains for composting?  How can we be great stewards of our cafeteria space? (The chef, though, didn’t need much help in regard to food waste—his meals were excellent.) Nevertheless, students still exercised great stewardship in respecting their space, ensuring leftovers were received in their designated bins, and weighing waste to set goals for the next meal.

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Following dinner, students had an hour of free time to rest, shower, organize their cabins, call home, and play with friends. Then, at 7:30, students met in an open field to learn about animal adaptations and nocturnal animals and participate in an activity to learn how bats use echolocation to find food. The group acted as a circle of trees around the “bat” and “moth” (played by students). The “bat” was blindfolded and instructed to say “eek” repeatedly to find the moth, which clapped twice every time the bat said “eek.”  If the bat was in danger of flying into the trees, the students would whisper, “Trees, trees, trees.” After several minutes, if the bat couldn’t find the moth, the circle of trees would come in closer to reflect habitat encroachment. For teachers, the this reflected a response to intervention (RTI): When the extent of the work is too broad, you have to narrow the scope for some students so they can feel successful with less to focus on.

Although the above examples only represent a small snapshot of experiences taken from day one, this 72-hour expeditionary learning workshop provided just as much learning for teachers as it did students. Over the course of three days, we were provided rich opportunities to witness and participate in planning, goal-setting, inquiry-based discussion, data-analysis, whole- and small-group activities, reflection, and presentation—which are actionable takeaways for students, teachers, and schoolwide community practice.

Kudos to Jim Serfass and his staff at NatureBridge for delivering an exemplary experience of what project-based learning can look like in practice.

Alex Brown, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Randle Highlands Elementary School


Beginning My Summer Pilot: Student Success Sheet

As part of the Education Innovation Fellowship, each Fellow designs a summer pilot program that uses personalized and blended learning to solve a specific problem in our classrooms. For my pilot, I wanted to give students and their families better access to the various data points we use to measure student success. Our charter network (KIPP DC) does a great job tracking a lot of different student metrics, but unfortunately, these aren’t always shared with students and families in a way that’s easy for non-educators to understand. So I developed a student data snapshot (Student Success Sheet) to share data in a more accessible way.

One of my biggest opportunities (and points of anxiety) for piloting my Student Success Sheet was that I wouldn’t be physically running it—it would be largely controlled by a lead classroom teacher (I teach a technology class, so I work alongside many teachers). It’s not that I don’t trust my fellow teachers—they are amazing!—but I knew that I had to get it right if I was going to run a program with another teacher’s students.

So, working with an outstanding 2nd grade teacher, Mr. Lewis, we chose the six most important metrics for student success (aside from grades!). Since Mr. Lewis knows his kids best, I got his thoughts on what might be most impactful to track. We thought about which metrics best show a students’ growth over the year and settled on the following:

  • Usage of two reading and math programs (iReady and ST Math)
  • Growth on leveled reading (Fountas and Pinnell)
  • Growth on NWEA’s MAP for fall, winter and spring
  • Absences and tardies for the current term

All of this data, which comes from three different sources, is then compiled into a one-page document for each student. It shows a student’s performance and the class average or year-end goal for 2nd grade. Students also have space to set a goal for the upcoming week, and parents have a section where they can share their goals for their students.

Mr. Lewis’ students were already having an informal weekly check-in during their morning meeting, so we turned that up a few notches to include structured time for students to look at their snapshots and reflect on their progress towards goals. On Mondays, when new reports come out, students write down their goals for the week. The rest of the week, they review those goals and their progress during the previous week, then discuss where they are towards achieving their goals.

We’ve just finished our first week with the pilot. After spending countless hours collaborating with the data specialist from our network’s headquarters, pulling data from our reading and math programs, and fighting with Mail Merge to pull all of this data in, I was proud of how the report looked. But as I observed the first goal-setting meeting, I was most proud of the interactions and thinking I observed students engaging in.

For example, by looking at the different data points, one of our students, Carlos, was able to clearly articulate his bright point for the week (he had beat the class average for tardies and absences) and his opportunity for growth (his time on task for iReady reading was much lower than the class average). Likewise, he developed clear and measurable goals for growth.

As we continue to refine the report and get feedback from families, I am hopeful that our insights will help influence future digital and physical data reports our network creates. We already have the information; we just need to find the best way to communicate it.

My pilot is also a finalist for the Symantec Innovation in Teaching Award, and if it is one of five winners, my school will get a $1500 grant to further this work. I’ll also receive additional professional development! You can vote for my pilot here.

Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
KIPP DC Heights Academy


What If?

“Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going until you get there—but just because you get there doesn’t mean you have to stay there.” —Michael E. Reid

Arusha, Tanzania + San Francisco, CA + Seoul, Korea +  Petersburg, VA = Washington, D.C.

I call the above the “me equation”—a series of experiences that led to an unyielding desire to teach African-American children in high-poverty areas.  Each location represented a different idea: Arusha represented hope. San Francisco represented freedom. Seoul represented discipline. Petersburg, where I’m from, represented urban blight. Washington represented all of them.

My equation, though, isn’t quite equalling out in my classroom. Nor is it in my school, schools across the district, or the nation. Hope, discipline, and urban blight are present in many urban areas like Washington, D.C., but freedom is less so. Responding to the perceived need of urban environments, many schools have created authoritative school cultures where teams of behavioral and academic support specialists are strategically placed to ensure 100% compliance with rules, procedures, and expectations.  But there are many, including myself, who are starting to question the lifelong benefit of this type of rigid and comprehensive support.

During the industrial economy, it’s safe to assume that this kind of heavy focus on procedural fidelity probably generated the needed outcome. But not anymore. In this economy, a knowledge economy, shouldn’t we despise concepts that don’t lead our students to being better self-governing citizens?

On a few recent school visits to LA and Chicago, though, that’s exactly what I saw—and what many people believe is the appropriate prescription for disengaged black students who are at risk for becoming disconnected youth (a term used to describe young people ages 16 to 24 that are neither working nor in school). One particular standout was Urban Prep Academies in Chicago, a growing network of schools that prides itself on having 100% college acceptance rates year over year, accomplished through intentional cultural programming and wraparound services.  But can they (or other educators facing similar challenges) truly make attending college the end goal? I’m not so sure.

The weeks following my return from Chicago, I made a few phone calls to friends and family that either attended, still attend, or work for some of the universities listed on Urban Prep’s brochure.  They all highlighted similar post-secondary struggles for students with like-backgrounds:

  • Sense of community and belonging:
    Our kids who aren’t identifying with fraternities and sororities are creating their own affiliations based on dormitories, hometowns, and interests. Some of these subgroups are adopting gang-like tendencies in relation to territory, protection, recognition, and basic needs survival. One story from a university police officer detailed how last year’s homecoming events were marred by a dispute between members of rival affiliations, which resulted in a second-year student being stabbed in the leg.
  • Preparedness and responsibility:
    Simply put, in many cases, our academic supports and wraparound services act like crutches and wheelchairs. And because these supports haven’t been fully removed prior to high school graduation, many of our kids are facing academic probation and/or suspension in their first year of college. One university employee told me about a program the university had implemented where academic counselors contacted students and professors daily to ensure students went to class and submitted assignments. Another friend,  a recent college graduate, told me how students would threaten teaching assistants and financial aid officers for not taking material after a missed deadline.
  • Thought resourcefulness:
    Much of the secondary learning taking place currently focuses on basic skills acquisition and retention. But it lacks aspects like how to identify the necessary skills to solve a problem, organization of applicable skills, and how to synthesis the skills into one product. Thus, the majority of my conversations highlighted how students are finding themselves unprepared, overwhelmed, and unable to keep pace.

Truthfully, there’s no easy solution to the above problems. And although I do have a few ideas that I would like to propose (which I’ll do in a future post), I would much rather hear from you. Please share your experiences, perspectives, and what-ifs.

I also want to be clear that I’m encouraged by Urban Prep’s current victories and the exhaustive conversations about race and perception that result from their tireless work. Whether you agree or disagree with my point of view, I encourage you to keep the conversation going.

Alex Brown, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Randle Highlands Elementary School



On my first day of school this year, I felt like the room was on fire.

Even though the air conditioner was set to a chilly 68 degrees, I was drenched in sweat. The day had obviously taken its toll. My shirt felt as if it was stuck to my back, and I stared out across my cluttered, disheveled, trashed classroom with a thousand-yard stare usually reserved in movies for war veterans or people who had just survived some sort of apocalyptic natural disaster. I thought to myself, “What am I doing?” “Why am I here?” “Why did I think I could do this?”

I look back on that day now with pride. I am unable to put into words the number of lessons, big and small, that I have learned this year. I am head and shoulders a better teacher than I was before I came to DCPS. My first year at Ballou has been paved with smiles, tears, and reflection. My growth, both professionally and personally, has changed me forever. The learning that takes place in my classroom today is like night and day compared to the beginning of the year. My students learn more at their own pace, receive more feedback, and explore historical topics on their own level and with more depth.

I credit a large amount of this progress to a particular group of people that I met halfway through my first year. My Education Innovation Fellowship partners have helped me through some of the toughest times in my teaching journey. They helped me take the leap into blended learning. They helped me to discover new and fascinating ways to think about education. They also helped me to find the motivation to keep pushing through my toughest moments in my entire career.

Today, I enter a new chapter. Being new to urban education, I feel like I discover something new that I didn’t know existed every week. Yesterday I learned a new word: reconstitution. For the uninformed (like my former self), reconstitution is when a school staff is restructured, causing the majority of the employees to have to reapply to their current school in order to return the following year. It is a drastic measure, used in dire circumstances to help turn around schools that have seen very little growth or are in very poor situations. I am now in the process of reconstitution.

I am choosing to see this new chapter in my career as an opportunity. Last night, as I sat at home, I thought about wildfires and how the soil from the burned forest is actually the most fertile. Ballou High School has some of the most amazing students I have ever had the opportunity to teach. Their perseverance and determination through harsh circumstances has taught me so much. I feel we can use this new challenge as a moment to implement many of the things I have seen on my trips around the country. Blended learning and educational technologies have so much to offer students that we would be crazy to not try them here.

I plan to take a lesson I have learned from my students and push through this tough time. Nothing great in this world has ever been created without sacrifice. No great achievements have been accomplished without stumbles along the way. I would be lying if I said I’m not scared or nervous. But what helps is to look back and think—maybe this is Ballou’s moment of sitting in the classroom, sweat-soaked shirt stuck to its back, and looking out across the seats, putting pen to paper, writing down its plan for the future.

Nick Ford, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Ballou Senior High School