SuperSHEro

As a parent, you develop a mindset of the superhero—or, in my case, superSHEro. When my daughter was born, I automatically began to act in a way that would change the world for her. I started with me, constant trying to be my best self, be more savvy with my money, provide for and shelter this child—because through her, I live forever. I’m her superhero, going above and beyond to save the world (or change the world) for her. I wear that cape for her!

Then I became a teacher and was awarded another cape. I now am a superhero for my students, because through them, I also live forever. The values I hope to instill in them, the drive I pray they develop as a result of the interactions and lessons between them and me. For some, I am actually their mother, friend, lawyer, social worker, and more for the eight to ten hours that they are at school each day. Teachers are superheroes: Through our students, we change the world.

So I wear two capes—sometimes at the same time, and sometimes sacrificing one cape to wear the other. But my constant dilemma is when to take one off to put the other on. I’m the sole provider for my child, so there are some risks I am not willing to take when it comes to job stability. However, I have to think about all of the other children who need someone to take a chance, innovate, and do something radical for them. Which cape bears the most weight? Which cape is the most important? Save the world…or save my girl?

Kelley Jones, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Orr Elementary School

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Are You Willing to be Epic?

In any classroom in the United States, there are common “best practices” that schools employ to provide a rich experience for students. However, we cannot resist the overwhelming data showing that we are failing tremendously to provide high-quality education nationwide.

In my four-day experience in California, I have had the opportunity to visit multiple schools that have introduced blended learning as part of their educational climate. I’ve witnessed multiple models and heard from visionary leaders regarding their new approaches to educating children. I’ll admit that every model looks enticing, which can make it hard to determine what to implement. But one word that has resonated with me is “Epic.”

Epic is a game-based school located in California. Each student has his or her own Avatar, and the goal is to gain points and badges and to unlock levels to access new content and increased freedom. It is a radical and uncomfortable yet exciting model that left me inspired to push my vision for education.

While I am aware that the educational system may never employ this model broadly, I want to push educators to think on an “Epic” level. Imagine that you could create the ultimate classroom or school: How could you make it epic? We as educators have a creative talent that has been lost amidst the pressure to perform high and be in compliance. However, this is the opposite of epic! In writing this post, I want teachers to know that you have talent, vision, and a voice, talent. Your ability to be great is not solely based on the data results, test prep, or a teacher evaluation rubric. Some things are so great that they can’t be quantified! They are epic!

This experience has exposed me to the risk-takers and epic ideas. I have learned many lessons, which I will sum up in three short points:

  • To be epic, you must be unsatisfied with the current system in place.
  • To be epic, you must be willing to get it wrong and be content with mess.
  • To be epic, you must be relentless in your pursuit, despite voices that will cause you to question everything you are doing.

Be an epic educator, not an average teacher!

Brandon Johnson, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Browne Education Campus

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“We Started From the Bottom; Now We’re Here”

As the grip of Old Man Winter pins D.C. in a submission hold, the city of Angles does not disappoint: 73 and sunny with gentle southwesterly winds. As recompense for our jaunt into paradise, EIF 2015 is operating on little sleep, pushing forward with an aggressive schedule that has our heads filled with a lifetime’s worth of school designs. It is that intoxicating mixture of sleep deprivation and heat stroke from which breakthrough ideas are born.

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Aspire Firestone/Gateway

The first stop on our sojourn finds us at Aspire’s Firestone/Gateway campus in the Southgate area of Los Angeles. The school was the embodiment of a “1.0” model done well: There was also personalization insofar as students worked independently from a variety of materials, engaged in pull-outs with their teachers, and moved through the content at different paces, and the school was also very orderly. What was most impressive, however, was that the order seemed to be self-directed. The students did not receive instructions about how to change stations—they did it on their own without any apparent disruption or disengagement. This school wasn’t as fancy as a Summit or an Epic, but it was effective—which, it seems to me, is the underlying goal.

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KIPP Empower

KIPP Empower Academy is one of the best-known blended schools in the country. I visited six classrooms, and in each, instruction was being delivered whole-group style. While there were Google Chromebooks lining the walls of each classroom, I didn’t see any blended learning or personalization taking place, which was surprising given KIPP Empower’s reputation.

There was a heavy emphasis on order and discipline. Like Rocketship, the students were expected to walk through the halls on yellow lines and in silence. There were clear procedures in each classroom about how to ask questions, how to sit at a desk, and so on. Student movement was highly scripted and monitored. In spite of the emphasis on order, discipline seemed to break down when students were not directly monitored—that is to say, there did not seem to be much self-direction.

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Saint Anne School

Saint Anne is a 104-year-old Catholic K-8 school in Santa Monica. For the past several decades, the school has served a student population that is almost exclusively Latino and low-income. 98% of the school’s students graduate from high school on time and go on to college, and how they pull this off is the mystery we were trying to divine.

As is the case with many Catholic schools, Saint Anne’s instructional model is traditional and basic, though the school moved to a fully blended model a year and a half ago. What is particularly interesting is that Saint Anne is producing consistent and remarkable outcomes with a low-income population without a particularly innovative instructional model and with a dilapidated physical plant.

Saint Anne’s school culture is worth noting. During our extensive school tour, we had little contact with adults. In every classroom from first through eighth grades, it was the children who were leading the tours. Additionally, students were free to roam the classrooms and talk in productive tones. There was an extensive emphasis on arts, recreation, and movement, and students spent a good portion of each day engaged in such activities. I found it interesting that our Fellows reacted so positively to the school that had the lowest penetration of technology, spent the least money per student (25% of D.C.’s rate), and was located in the most dilapidated facility.

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“We started from the bottom; now we’re here”
—Drake

It goes without saying that the highlight of the day—nay, the highlight of the trip—was the party hosted at EIF Program Assistant Arielle Ford’s childhood home. Her father—the renowned Dr. Henri Ford—emceed the event in a deep baritone voice that spun homey accounts of his daughter’s childhood hijinks. The gracious Mrs. Ford and her lovely mother made a meal that would make any chef blush. Well-fed and -oiled from a Haitian rum sour punch, the evening began with highbrow conversations about personalized learning and quickly progressed to soul train dance lines. It’s safe to say that Asante’s soulful embrace of the blushing Blair was the denouement of an amazing day.

Steve Bumbaugh, Manager, Breakthrough Schools: D.C.
CityBridge Foundation

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Notes from the Road

Over the last three days, we’ve visited four different charter schools in the Bay Area: ASCEND, Epic, Rocketship Spark, and Summit. At each, I’ve been incredibly impressed with certain elements of the program. At Ascend, teacher and student relationships are strong—you can feel it as soon as you walk in the building. Epic’s quest for student engagement and the amount of freedom given to middle school students was mind-blowing. In its first year, the school staff is so clearly invested in the enormously ambitious task of creating an entirely new type of school—one centered around a game. At Rocketship, school culture and routines were tight. Summit’s content delivery interface was unbelievable, and their deep commitment to ensuring student are college-ready was palpable—every staff member seemed entirely committed to that mission.

What I’ve found myself coming back to over and over again this week is the importance of student engagement and the distinct difference between student engagement and student compliance. As I consider what edtech tools to implement and what instructional approaches to try in my own classroom, I’m becoming obsessed with engagement. In too many schools, “blended learning” is being used to keep kids occupied while adults are busy. The potential of these tools is too great to shortchange kids in that way. Many edtech platforms are fun and encourage deep understanding of material, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that by seeing some kids sitting in front of them. The question is, how do we use elements of choice, goal setting, individual interest, and our relationships with students to have them excited—and I mean really excited—about using them each day? We desperately need to stop the trend of handing kids computers so they can click through and stay quiet. True engagement with edtech is going to be the key to a transformational personalized classroom.

Kate O’Connor, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
E.L. Haynes PCS

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California Is Just Different…Or Is It?

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If you saw 22 grown men and women go down a slide laughing (and maybe shrieking a little), would you turn and look? At GSVlabs, an ed tech incubator in Redwood City, California, there is a large plastic slide from the second floor down to the coffee shop on the ground floor. On a tour of GSVlabs today, our Education Innovation Fellows opted to take the slide over the stairs—and the ten or so entrepreneurs sipping coffee didn’t seem to notice. Which made me wonder, is California just different?

Today was one of those days that might make you think that. We had three stops that highlighted remarkable innovations in education:

#1: Rocketship Spark Academy

We started our day at Rocketship Spark Academy, a Rocketship Education school in its second year of operation. Kylie Alsofrom, a member of the (inaugural) 2013 Education Innovation Fellowship cohort and now the assistant principal at Spark, led us on a 90-minute tour of the school, showing us classrooms, the learning lab, and enrichment classes. The teachers and staff opened their school to us completely. They showed us how a combination of strong school culture, fabulous teachers, and blended learning can have outsized results…and made it look easy. As one Fellow remarked, “If they can expect that of their students, I can expect it of mine.”

#2: EdTech 101

Our next stop was GSVlabs, where General Manager Nancy Lue gave us a wonderful overview of the edtech venture investing landscape. We were then joined by Shauntel Poulson, Principal at NewSchools Venture Fund’s Seed Fund, who led a conversation with Jennifer Coogan, the Chief Content Officer of Newsela, Guido Kovalskys, CEO of Nearpod, and Chris Walsh, CEO of Zaption—about their startup stories and the opportunities and challenges they face. Then we broke into small groups for product demonstrations and discussions.

Many of the Fellows raved about these demos as a highlight of the trip. Why was hearing directly from the entrepreneurs so compelling?  “It was the difference between talking to a child’s aunt and talking to their parent.”

#3: Summit Public Schools

The last big stop of the day was Summit Public Schools. School is not in session this week, and teachers across the Summit network have gathered at the Summit Shasta Campus for four days of professional development. We spent 90 minutes in conversation with members of Summit’s leadership team and a panel of teachers to talk about Summit’s model, vision, and work. In such a simple, complex, obvious, dynamic, clear, and complicated way, Summit is systematically questioning all our assumptions about school, dismantling the current model, and building something new. Their truly innovative approach and practice—made all of us think hard about this work. As on of our Fellows said, “It just clicked. What job do we want schools to do?”

At the end of our third day, we have left the Bay Area behind to head to Los Angeles. We are about to land at LAX, almost 15 hours after we met in the hotel lobby to head out to visit Rocketship Spark, and the Fellows in the seats next to me are still talking about the day. The energy of these D.C. teachers is just different…

Margaret Angell, Director, Education Innovation Portfolio
CityBridge Foundation

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Where Was This Place When I Was Twelve?

Walking into the strange space that was Epic Middle School, I realized instantly that this was not the type of learning I was used to seeing. Having grown up in Virginia—and being a product of the public school system—Epic looked like mass chaos. Students sat at large tables in front of computers, they were often loud and talking to each other, their focus was sometimes seemed questionable, and it was hard to really understand what was going on.

We moved into a small room, where we got to meet some of the staff at Epic and get to know better what was actually going on in this new environment. Epic is a middle school in Oakland, California, that is run by Education for Change, a charter management organization (CMO) that operates six charter schools in the Oakland area.  All of Education for Change’s schools are public and aim to help improve neighborhoods.

What makes Epic different, though, is not the fact that it is a charter school—it’s that the entire school is one big game.

Students are split into “houses” when they first come to the school; then, they are given different ways to progress through the “game” of school. Epic has no traditional grades or traditional methods of deciding where a student is at developmentally—they have replaced grade levels (like sixth, seventh, or eighth) with levels 1–3, and each level requires a different amount of points. Points, in this case, have replaced the A–F grading system, and students receive these points based on mastery of the material.

This game culture is something that I found incredibly appealing. Being a person who appreciates video games, board games, and puzzles, I thought to myself, “Where was this school when I was 12 years old?” I also look at things differently now that I am an educator. Walking into the classrooms, it was unclear what students were supposed to be doing in many cases. Long gone were the traditional elements we’ve come to expect in classrooms (objectives, essential questions, agendas, etc.). Students seemed to completely understand what they were supposed to be doing—and furthermore, they were actively engaged in making that happen.

Leaving Epic, I felt highly conflicted. I was initially hooked by the idea of turning education into a game, but I was then challenged by the way the school asked me to change some fundamental ways that I looked at education. I think Epic as a school asks us to reexamine what is really important about learning. Why do we have grade levels based on age? Why do we make kids take classes at the same time? Most importantly, what is the job that we want schools to do?

Epic is a school that is building problem solvers. From the first day, students are presented with puzzles to help determine something as simple as their daily schedule. Problem solving is built into the school and is how students progress and become successful. In an economy that more and more often is putting a premium on problem solving skills, it seems to be worth asking the question, “Is Epic a school ahead of its time?”

Nick Ford, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Ballou Senior High School

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An “Epic” Second Day

What an incredible second day of the Education Innovation Fellowship (EIF) 2015 California trip!  We had an epic morning, in more than one sense of the word.  We visited two schools run by the Oakland-based CMO Education for ChangeASCEND and (the aptly named) Epic.  ASCEND is a K-8 school with a model that leverages blended learning (and, increasingly, personalized learning), project-based learning, and arts integration.  The school is an impressive example of a smoothly executed blended rotational model with a strong school and staff culture.

The Fellows were highly engaged in the classroom observations, and the ensuing discussion with the principal and CMO leadership was refreshingly frank and thought-provoking.  Central to the conversation was the question of how to sequence a move from blended learning to personalized learning, a challenging exercise in change management.

I think it’s safe to say that Epic is a school unlike anything our Fellows and team had ever seen before.  The model is innovative in numerous ways—it is “gamified” (with its “Hero’s Journey” narrative), it places a substantial focus on “design thinking” and real-world problem solving, and it leans heavily on personalized, student-driven learning.  Student agency pervades the building and manifests in a dynamic—albeit sometimes noisy—school environment that contrasts sharply with the “no excuses” model.  The vision of the school and its implementation playbook are complex, but something that Principal Michael Hatcher said at the end of our discussion made things “click” in my mind:  He explained that each of the non-traditional aspects of the school model (the “gamification,” the “maker space,” the emphasis on student agency, etc.) is in service of Epic’s goal of creating a culture of active problem-solving among its students.

After these school visits, we headed to a conference room at the East Bay Community Foundation for a series of compelling conversations with local thought leaders Greg Klein, Gisele Huff, and Brian Greenberg.  Greg articulated a clear framework for the way the Rogers Family Foundation conceives of the field of blended and personalized learning:  Tech-enabled models are on the far left of the spectrum in the field, personalized learning models are at the far right, and blended learning models are in the center.  Three years into the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) blended learning pilot project, Greg explained that “our north star has shifted from blended learning to personalized learning.”

Gisele Huff, Executive Director of the Hume Foundation, made a remarkably strong case for personalized learning, couching it in the history of the education reform movement since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983.  Gisele has been deeply engaged in the field of blended and personalized learning since its inception and posited an elegant frame on future of the field.  She explained that blended/personalized learning has two big things going for it: it’s non-ideological (in contrast with something like the current Common Core debate), and it’s inevitable (i.e. how long can education be the only American industry not transformed by the digital revolution?).

The Fellows grappled deeply with the issues presented on day two in an hour-long debrief (the first of many!) in their learning teams.  The learning team that I was embedded with embraced the “bias towards action” approach emphasized yesterday at the d.school.  Each Fellow articulated how he or she was planning to tweak his or her classroom model after returning to school on Monday based just on the learnings of the first two days of the trip.

In his characteristically eloquent fashion, Brian Greenberg shared the potential that personalized learning models can unlock in the hands of excellent educators, citing one example after another of what the most promising models look like in practice.  Brian tells the story of “radical innovators” like Summit Public Schools in a clear and empowering way—as a story of thoughtful educators tirelessly testing hypotheses about how to take each one of their students to deeper levels of mastery.

My verdict on day two?  EPIC!

Jon Extein, Director, Research
CityBridge Foundation

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