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


California Is Just Different…Or Is It?

MA blog post photos

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


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


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  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


Experiential Design Thinking in the Classroom: “Why? Why? Why?”

It’s only day one, and things are already getting exciting. After spending the afternoon at the Design School ( at Stanford University, I find myself re-motivated to tackle some big problems in my school. The team at Stanford put a huge emphasis on the importance of empathy and the human experience. Through their experiential framework, we learned to apply design thinking to problem solving. We engaged in learning tasks to develop products and experiences to improve life in our setting. Our hosts, Katie and Gabrielle, pointed out that when you ask someone what they need to make their life in their city better, they probably don’t know. However, if you start in a different place—asking them to describe a time they were new to a place—you’re able to dive to the things that are truly important them about how they experience the city. From there, you can determine how create products and experiences to improve their life.

In education communities, we spend a huge amount of time pouring over mountains of data. We pride ourselves on using proven materials and being the most data-driven teachers. Data is important, but somewhere, in the midst of all the spreadsheets, we’re missing something. What if, rather than collecting and analyzing months of data on student progress and engagement, I asked my kids how they experienced my classroom? When do you feel successful in school? Why? What’s the most fun part of school? Why? When do you feel bored? Why? Why? Why?

By engaging my students in conversations and connecting to what’s important to them about their learning, I can more effectively design a classroom to meet their needs.

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


One Day Down, a Lifetime of Innovation to Go!

I am currently sitting in my hotel room overwhelmed by our first day in California.  We started off the morning having Fellows design their ideal schools and identify what their personal and collective learning goals are.  In a short period of time, they were able to deeply articulate the needs of their students, schools, and communities.  They pushed the EIF team by asking challenging questions around implementation and realization.  These questions were so exciting because they illustrated that our Fellows are not here to simply theorize and dream; they are here to change the educational landscape in D.C. in a transformative way, and they want to start NOW!

After spending the morning context setting for the week, we hopped on the bus and rode over to the d.School at Stanford University.  Our hosts, Katie and Gabrielle, walked us through the design process, and by the end of the session, Fellows were already using the design process to address real issues that they are currently facing in their classrooms!  It was incredible to start seeing their mindsets and thinking patterns change on the very first day.

We had some incredible leadership stories interspersed throughout the day.  Emily Hueber, Diane Johnson, Adam Zimmerman, and Alex Brown really set the tone for leadership stories this year.  They were extremely personal, thoughtful, and inspiring.  I felt honored to be in a space where teachers who are just getting to know each other felt so comfortable being vulnerable around their peers and really speaking their truth because they trust that the visions and desires of the group are aligned.

I could really feel the energy today, and I am so pumped that I get to spend a year working closely with these incredible people.  These teachers are top-notch, and the possibilities are limitless for this cohort!  I am feeling reenergized and reminded of why we do this work every day.  Our Fellows are the future of innovative D.C. school models, and I feel blessed that I get to play a small part in that.  The week has only begun, and it just gets better from here!

Arielle Ford, Program Assistant, Education Innovation Portfolio
CityBridge Foundation


And we’re off!

I am currently cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet and am surrounded by strangers, colleagues, and most importantly of all, the 2015 cohort of Education Innovation Fellows.  We are on a mission to be inspired by school leaders, experts, researchers, and students who are leading the charge in the field of personalized and blended learning. Our secondary and equally important mission is to share our experiences with everyone back in D.C.—from family members to school leaders, colleagues, and anyone else who is searching for a way to provide a better learning experience for students.

This group of teachers has signed up for a year of discovery and an opportunity to better meet the needs of their students across all eight wards of Washington, D.C. The first third of our program year (January through April) is focused on exposing the Fellows to what is possible when you reimagine what classrooms can look like. This is why, for the next five days, we will speak with a handful of thought leaders (Gisele Huff of the Jacqueline Hume Foundation, Greg Klein of the Rogers Family Foundation, Shauntel Paulson of NewSchools Venture Fund, and Brian Greenberg of Silicon Schools Fund), demo five edtech products (NewsELA, Engrade, GameDesk, Zaption, and Nearpod), and visit ten schools across the Bay Area and Los Angeles:

Since December, our team has been planning every minute of this trip, from hotel reservations to facilitation guides for speakers to the meals that we will have across the week. You might think that I am already exhausted, but rather, I am more excited than ever! This year, we selected an all-star class of Fellows, and they have already set the bar high. Their thoughtfulness, humility, and passion for their students is tangible and quite contagious. Despite the rockstar lineup that we have for the week, I am most looking forward to connecting with each Fellow so that I can better understand what drives them to teach every day.

It is going to be an exciting and mind-blowing week. We invite you to follow this blog for an intimate view of our lightbulb moments, our frustrations, and our celebrations of success for the duration of the trip and the program year.

Lauren Bryant, Program Manager, Education Innovation Portfolio
CityBridge Foundation