Rethinking Assessment

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The quote above by Eric Mazur really struck me recently when thinking about assessment. Back in 2015, I interviewed 27 thought leaders on the topic of 'Assessing the Learning That Matters Most' (you can read the findings here) and began to build an open source database of emerging practice. Fast forward four years and I am delighted to see the movement to assess what we value in schools gather momentum - and to see it being led by educators.

In the coming months, I will interview several thought leaders and practitioners to get myself up to speed on what has changed since the 2015 report and how the field is evolving. In the meantime, if you would like to learn more about emerging practice, I strongly encourage you to buy Jonathan Martin's new book, Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education: The Mastery Transcript Consortium Model and Beyond, (available September 18th). I interviewed Jonathan for the 2015 report and his insights and depth of experience were invaluable. As he prepares for book launch, I asked Jonathan a few questions about the book: why he wrote it, what he hoped readers would learn from it, and the work that is in his heart to do. You can read his replies below and follow Jonathan on Twitter.

Be sure to watch Eric Mazur's Dudley Herschbach Teacher/Scientist Lecture on assessment being the "silent killer of learning" - and if you have any suggestions of people I might interview on the topic of assessment, I would love to hear from you!

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The Relational Coordination Research Collaborative

Pictured above: Lainie Loveless, Lauren Hajjar  @LaurenHaj , Jody Hoffer Gittell  @jodyhoffergit , AJ Loprete  @northreadinghs , myself and Daniel Downs  @danieldowns

Pictured above: Lainie Loveless, Lauren Hajjar @LaurenHaj, Jody Hoffer Gittell @jodyhoffergit, AJ Loprete @northreadinghs, myself and Daniel Downs @danieldowns

Last week, I had the pleasure of returning to North Reading High School with The Relational Coordination Research Collaborative from Brandeis University. North Reading High School is a catalyst member of MAPLE (the Massachusetts Personalized Learning EdTech consortium) and together we have been exploring how the Relational Coordination framework can support and accelerate personalized learning at the school. Personalized learning shifts the "one-size fits all" and "one to many" model of learning 180 degrees - and it's an opportunity to think and design explicitly from the individual student's perspective - what are the learner's questions? What engages them? How does this impact the school's structures and relationship interdependencies? The work is in its early days and I am excited to see how it unfolds.

If you would like to learn more about the research base behind the RCRC work, click here to view Jody Hoffer Gittell's Dean's Distinguished Lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Education - "Building RC in the Education Sector: Toward Multi-Level System Change."

Free Summer Reading Download


Can you believe June is upon us?! I have a special summer reading (free) download for you below and I'd love to hear your thoughts. Download it here and let me know your questions/thoughts. 

Also, I found this great list recently by Brad Latzke and had to share it with you. It has some fantastic resources for individuals, teams, schools, and communities seeking transformational change and innovation. I'm also honored to have been included on it.


Lastly, have you grabbed your copy of "The Human Side of Changing Education" yet? If not, click here to buy on Amazon now. Bulk copies are available at a discount directly from Corwin Press.

The Human Side of Changing Education Seminar, Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Welcome to March! This month is full of travel and meeting new people - starting with a trip to Northern Ireland. In the next few updates I will share my learning from those adventures, starting with a visit to my alma mater, Queen's University, in Belfast Northern Ireland.


On March 8th I was honored to lead a conversational seminar on The Human Side of Changing Education, co-hosted by Denis Stewart of the International Futures Forum and Tony Gallagher, Acting Dean of Research, Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Queen's. Denis masterfully coordinated the moving parts of the seminar and organized the conversation around three questions:

  1. What's worth learning?

  2. What needs to change?

  3. How can transformative change be enabled?

We had a diverse group of participants – including local and international masters and doctoral students, beginning and veteran teachers, and representatives from local and international government agencies. Although there was significant diversity of background, experience, and professional focus, there was shared agreement with regard to the skills knowledge and habits of mind that are worth learning and the (sometimes overwhelming) nature of the work in facilitating the level of change we need.

Tony summarized the conversation beautifully by highlighting that our capacity to lead the kind of change we need is directly proportional to our individual and collective appetite to embrace uncertainty and risk. A topic we don’t often discuss in education as so much of what we do is grounded in “knowing” – in too many schools, the worst answer you can give to a question is “I don’t know” – for students and adults alike.

We also discussed the power of collaboration. Prior to the seminar I had thought of collaboration as a tool in the change leader’s toolkit, but in Northern Ireland, Tony has been leading work where collaboration is as much the end as the means. For over a decade he has led work in bridging the divide between Catholic and Protestant students through a collaborative model. I encourage you to read his 2016 paper from the Oxford Review on Education on the topic: Shared education in Northern Ireland: school collaboration in divided societies.

Briefly quoted here are the five core elements that emerged from the shared education model:

  • “First, they need to be based on bottom-up, locally tailored solutions, as each school partnership needs to address local circumstances, challenges and opportunities…

  • Second, partnerships are unlikely to be successful unless they involve teacher empowerment…

  • Third, the importance of regular, sustained contact was confirmed…

  • Fourth, the importance of combining economic, education and social goals was also confirmed. Partnerships should seek to enhance social, educational and efficiency gains for the participating schools…

  • Fifth, our experience was that connections between people were crucial to cultural change and sustainability...”

Tony’s work on the collaborative educational model is gathering significant international interest and he is working on associated initiatives in Israel and California. It strikes me that as we become more and more divided as a citizenry, both locally and globally, there is much we can learn from this work, in every neighborhood. Equipping a generation of students to not only value difference, but to transcend its limitations, gives me hope that they can and will bridge the divide that too many have inherited.

3 Change Management Strategies to Lead Transformation

“Our moral obligation is not to stop the future, but to shape it…to channel our destiny in humane directions and to ease the trauma of transition.”


There is no shortage of ideas for transforming the education system. In the past decade or so, we have witnessed a rising tide of consensus that the acquisition of knowledge is the floor of school performance, and we need to lift our sights higher—preparing our children with the habits of mind that will enable them to thrive in an unknowable future. The national conversation is (at last) shifting from, “How do we close the achievement gap?” to the deeper challenge of addressing the complexity of the relevance gap.

A growing number of school and district strategic plans now call for the nurturing of skills such as creativity, systems thinking, collaboration, and critical thinking. They call for a pedagogy that leans more on high-quality interdisciplinary project-based learning than siloed subjects delivered via lecture and assessed via rote memorization. These plans make a great deal of sense and articulate the essential skills necessary to thrive in an uncertain and ambiguous world. Too often though, adult behavioral change is either glossed over or not considered as a pivotal component of the implementation strategy.

In my work helping school leaders lead change, one of the biggest challenges a leader and their team face is the behavioral shift required to build and nurture the human ability to change. If a bold strategic plan stands a chance of being implemented, it is vital that the adult behavioral shifts are discussed, understood, and nurtured—all in service of the transformational vision laid out in the plan.

These are the most common behavioral shifts I have noticed in my work with leaders and teams implementing change in schools:


Does this resonate with your own experience? Are there shifts you would amend or add? I often think of the above as a continuum. Some situations might require us to lean more towards the left-hand column, and some to the right; but for the most part, the cultural norms of the industrial model of education lean heavily towards the left. We need to build our collective capacity to live more in the right-hand column.

At the core of this work of education transformation is adult transformation. The majority of us were raised in the old industrial system of education, and we find ourselves in the dual role of hospice worker to the old way and midwife to the new (Leicester 2013). It involves a shift away from the mental model of “How do I manage change resistance” to “How do I build change resilience?” This shift is critical.

It is highly unlikely that any five-year school strategic plan will be implemented with 100% fidelity and then enjoy a period of status quo once the plan’s goals have been achieved. Ongoing iterative changing—change that is meaningful and sustainable—is required.

One of the biggest obstacles of transforming the industrial model of education is the industrial model of management that underpins it—a model of command and control. Authority and autonomy are consolidated at the top with limited decision-making ability at the point of delivery (i.e. the relationship between teachers and students).

Is Change Management an Oxymoron

The Industrial era model of change management taught us that implementing change was a linear process. A group of senior leaders would gather around a boardroom table for several meetings to explore, discuss, and decide upon the strategic priorities of the organization. These priorities were then shared with the broader community, ideally resources were assigned, a solid communication plan was implemented to ensure that everyone understood the changes, and change would occur as per the timeline in the strategic plan.

There are (very) few circumstances when this linear approach to change works, but if you are leading the shift away from the industrial model of education, it is woefully inadequate to the task at hand. In their 2009 paper, “Building Organizational Change Capacity,” Anthony Buono and Ken Kerber unpack the complexity of change and identify two major factors to consider when leading change: organizational complexity and socio-technical uncertainty.


Organizational Complexity (vertical axis) refers to the intricacy of the system in which the change is to be implemented. Factors include organizational size, the number of services or programs offered, the extent to which different departments depend on each other for resources, and team interdependence to achieve desired results. The degree of complexity increases the more a change cuts across different departments and hierarchical levels, involves high levels of team interdependence, affects a range of services or programs, and requires the buy-in and support of a wide range of internal and external stakeholders.

Socio-Technical Uncertainty (horizontal axis) refers to the quantity and type of information processing and decision making required to implement the change. This is “based on the extent to which the tasks involved are determined, established or exactly known” (Buono and Kerber). If I am working in a traditional school and I want to shift from “Time-Based Learning” to “Mastery-Based Learning,” there is no cookie cutter model for me to pull off the shelf and implement. It involves an iterative cycle of working through what “I don’t know I don’t know” and a considerable amount of outreach, research, mini pilots, and learning by doing.

Read the rest of the article here.

Leading Change: What will you STOP doing in the year ahead?

The summer professional development season is upon us and I have been enjoying working with several schools as they continue the work of translating their pedagogical and curricular vision into reality.

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A key part of this work is deciding on the work to be done - all while holding 'The Way' lightly and with a spirit of iteration. During these conversations, we typically add things to be done - very rarely do we discuss what we might stop doing.

A helpful exercise I often facilitate is called Keep/Stop/Start. Try it with yourself and your team and commit to the changes that emerge :)

Individual Level:

  • What will I, as a leader of change, KEEP doing in the year ahead?
  • What will I, as a leader of change, STOP doing in the year ahead?
  • What will I, as a leader of change, START doing in the year ahead?

School/District Level:

  • What will we, in support of our vision, KEEP doing in the year ahead?
  • What will we, in support of our vision, STOP doing in the year ahead?
  • What will we, in support of our vision, START doing in the year ahead?

At the individual level, this reflection helps reveal your growing edge. At the school or district level, it helps reveal outdated systems, processes and structures that no longer support the vision.

An added benefit to doing this work in groups is that we learn our colleagues’ growing edge, as well as our own. This helps build trust and supports the behavioral changes necessary when leading change.

What will you KEEP/STOP/START doing in the year ahead?


How to Increase Adult Engagement and Motivation


Do you look forward to going to work most days? Do you feel that your work matters? Are you part of the decision-making process in your school or district? Do you use your unique strengths and talents most days?

If you answered, “Yes” to the above questions, it is highly likely you are engaged in, and motivated by, your work. You go the extra mile. You are growing and developing in your role. You know you are contributing in a meaningful way.

Common sense tells us that our ability to engage and motivate children in schools correlates with the engagement and motivation of the adults in those same schools. Observe a school culture where the adults are actively disengaged and unmotivated and you will likely observe disengaged and unmotivated students.

Unfortunately, there is widespread adult disengagement in our nation’s schools. According to research from the Gallup Organization, only 30% of U.S. teachers are engaged in their work;[1] a percentage that matches the national average for all U.S. workers. If our goal is to unleash the potential of all students, we need to focus on unleashing the potential of all adults in the system, in equal measure.

As a school or district leader, you have the opportunity to lead in such a way that increases the engagement and motivation of your faculty and staff. What are some practical ways in which you might do so?

Click here to read the rest of this article at Corwinconnect

Leading Work in Assessment at Two Rivers Public Charter School

I participated recently as part of a panel discussion at the Ideas in Education Festival and shared a few of the themes from the IFL's 'Assessing the Learning that Matters Most' report. It was fun to note that it was at the same event last year where I pitched the idea of an open source database of deeper learning assessment practices and was in the middle of interviews for the report :)

Whilst at the event, I met Jeff Heyck-Williams. Jeff is the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. Jeff told me about the great work that is underway at Two Rivers in assessment. This blog posting is brought to you by Jeff where he describes Two Rivers' pedagogical model and the deep work of the school. I love how Jeff shares the realities and frustrations of assessing these skills - and how he and the teachers are living Expeditionary Learning's pedagogy, i.e. "tackling messy, real world problems that don’t have easy paths to solutions nor do they have one clear right answer" as they pursue their own thorny questions in the messy world of assessment.  Learn more about how Jeff and his team are addressing the challenge of assessing deeper learning in his guest blog posting below. I will follow Jeff's work closely as he and Two Rivers forge this path.


Assessing the Transfer of Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills, by Jeff Heyck-Williams

Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC is a network of EL Education schools serving over 700 students in preschool through 8th grade.  Throughout our twelve-year history, we have continued to champion the importance of embracing a broader definition of student success than what has been handed to us by state and national policy.  While we believe that it is essential for all students to be proficient in math, literacy, and the sciences, we believe that that is not enough.  Students also need a rich set of social and cognitive skills that span beyond any given discipline. 

Furthermore, we believe that we can best teach students these skills through hands-on interdisciplinary project-based learning.  As EL Education schools, our projects are defined as expeditions lasting 10 to 12 weeks in which students tackle messy, real world problems that don’t have easy paths to solutions nor do they have one clear right answer.  Through intentional design of these projects, teachers address the core content and basic skills defined by literacy and content standards; the social skills of collaboration and communication; the intrapersonal skills defined by character; and the broadly applicable cognitive skills of critical thinking and problem solving. 

In the life of our schools, we have seen the powerful way that our students through project-based learning have embraced deeper learning outcomes, and exhibited the habits of effective critical thinking, collaboration, and personal character. However, our evidence that this is working is only found in anecdotes and in the quality of student work.  We have been unable to demonstrate neither the degree to which students are developing these skills within projects nor their ability to transfer the skills beyond the context of the current project.

Focusing just on the dimensions of critical thinking and problem solving, our teachers expressed frustration at not knowing in concrete terms what those cognitive skills looked like when students exhibited them.  Building on our understanding of the essential role that assessment for learning plays in the learning process and the very practical consideration of how we help teachers and students define and work towards developing these skills, we have embarked on a multi-year project to define and assess critical thinking and problem solving.    

Critical thinking and problem solving, as we define it, are the set of non-discipline specific cognitive skills people use to analyze vast amounts of information and creatively solve problems.  We have broken those skills down into these five core components:

  1. Schema Development: The ability to learn vast amounts of information and organize it in ways that are useful for understanding
  2. Metacognition and Evaluation: The ability to think critically about what one is doing and evaluate many potential choices
  3. Effective Reasoning: The ability to create claims and support them with logical evidence
  4. Problem Solving: The ability to identify the key questions in a problem, develop possible paths to a solution, and follow through with a solution
  5. Creativity and Innovation: The ability to formulate new ideas that are useful within a particular context

Our project is working to create learning progressions in each of these core components with accompanying rubrics.  The progressions of learning and rubrics will both help define for students and teachers the skills that all students should be developing as well as function as evaluative tools to provide a picture where each student sits in the development of these skills and what are the next steps for further learning.

However, we believe it is not enough for students to be able to develop these skills within the highly scaffolded context of our expeditions.  If they have truly learned the skills, they should have the ability to transfer them.  With this in mind, we are working to create short content-neutral performance tasks that will give teachers and students valuable information about each of the five core components listed above.  Our hypothesis is that through having students tackle short novel tasks, we will be able to draw clear conclusions about their learning of critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Through the course of this work, we hope that our process will be useful to other educators interested in achieving deeper learning outcomes for their students.  We realize that deeper learning will not become a reality in most schools until teachers and leaders have a clear vision for what it looks like on a day-to-day basis and how we can clearly demonstrate student growth in these essential skills.  We hope that our work will help to inform how to make deeper learning a concrete reality.  It is a work in progress, and we invite you to share your thoughts and follow our progress at our website

This work has been funded by generous grants from CityBridge Foundation and Next Generation Learning Challenge’s (NGLC) Breakthrough Schools: DC, the Center for Innovation in Education (CIE) and NGLC’s Assessment for Learning Project, and New Schools Venture Fund.


This article is brought to you by the fabulous Amy Timmins. Middle school teacher and researcher, Amy, clearly explains the link between the practice of mindfulness and the development of self-regulation skills in middle school students. In her below article, Amy outlines practical strategies for adults to help children learn to relax, check in with themselves and to manage their emotions. Amy wrote this article back in September of last year - a helpful primer as we wind down one academic year and prepare for another :) Amy also recommends a great resource for parents: FamilyNurturance.


These past three weeks were the first days of school for me and many other teachers.  As usual, I went over the classroom rules and procedures with my middle school students.

  • Before you enter the classroom, make sure that you have all your materials with you.
  • Raise your hand before you speak.
  • Take one minute to focus on your breath at the beginning of class.

While the first two classroom procedures listed above may seem fairly typical, the third is not.  Mindfulness in schools has received much positive attention recently with articles published in The Atlantic and The New York Times. However, the consistent exercise of incorporating meditation and mindfulness into the regular routine of the school day is not widespread.

When I first decided several years ago that I wanted to give meditation and mindfulness a try, I was intimidated and quite frankly nervous about adding another thing to do on a to do list that was already infinitely long.  Because of time constraints, I created practice based off common meditation teachings that only takes three minutes to complete.  Once my students have completed their opening activities such as writing down their homework assignment in their agenda books, the sequence I follow is this:

1.  I instruct them to place the students feet firmly on the ground, noticing if they feel their toes and heels on the ground

2.  I direct the students to sit up straight and tall with their heads held high, looking like the important people that they are.

3.  Next the students place their hands on their knees, palms facing up, and close their eyes.    Guiding students to place their hands in this position keeps their hands are free of anything (including the fingers of their other hand) that may distract them during this time.  In addition to that, students seem less selfconscious when meditating with their classmates when their eyes are shut.  Since everyone has their eyes closed, they don’t feel like someone is watching them.

4.  Once the students have gotten in position, we take our first three inhales and exhales together as a class.  I direct the students to concentrate on breathing in through their noses and out through their noses, while their bellies, then rib cages, and chests expand.  They breathe out through their noses.  This exhale will result in a Darth Vadar sound, although many meditation practitioners compare the noise to the sound of the ocean.

5.  After these initial three breaths, I tell the students to follow their own breath the next minute, and if their attention wanders away from their breath to gently direct it back.

6. At the end of the minute, the students and I take the last three breaths of our meditation together as a class, once again I instruct students to follow their breaths as they fill their lower bellies, rib cages and chests and empty them in a likewise fashion.

7. Once we have done this, the students open their eyes, and we begin the lesson/activity for the day.

Given the high stakes testing environment in which we live, one might ask why would a teacher give up fifteen precious minutes of academic time per week to have kids focus on their breath.  What about reading comprehension, writing ability, critical thinking skills, the Common Core Standards?  The reason I offer is the following.  Although meeting the Common Core Standards is necessary and the critical thinking skills found within them are ultimately useful to students, I believe it is also necessary to teach students how to emotionally navigate the world in which they live.  Without a strong personal core, it is difficult for students to use the skills they have developed in school purposefully and effectively.

While many articles published on meditation and mindfulness in schools focus on the good it can do for high poverty schools, I work in a high performing school district where kids continuously push themselves to do well.  That drive comes along with many positives, like a majority of my students complete their homework thoroughly and on time.  However, that drive can also bring kids to demand perfection in everything they do, and if they don’t live up to these unrealistic standards of continuous excellence, some can become quite down on themselves.

Research by Arsenio and Loria (2014) found that students who had higher levels of academic stress were more likely to have a negative academic affect.  In other words, kids who felt more stress around their school work and getting it completed correctly, generally had a worse attitude about completing projects, homework, in class assignments, tests, and quizzes.  Although these researchers could not find a direct link between the level of student stress and their grade point averages, they did find that students with a higher negative academic affect tended to have  lower grade point averages.  When negative academic coping strategies were factored in, the link was even stronger.

As a teacher reading this, I think to myself , “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.  Kids who feel bad about school and avoid their work do worse.”  However, I cite this research to make another connection.  If students can be taught and given opportunities to practice strategies that allow them to manage and decrease their own stress levels, they may be able to bounce back more easily from academic challenges and setbacks.  Research has shown that people who practice meditation on a regular basis (and not just by the Zen Buddhists monks) have lower levels of stress and anxiety.

In addition to helping students relax, the practice of meditation has been linked with increases in self-regulation.  Zimmerman and Kinstas (2006) define self-regulation as processes that people use to activate and maintain thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to attain personal goals.  In many ways, the level of a student’s self regulation determines how well they manage their own stress and potentially negative situations.

For example, a student may be self-regulating in the following scenario:  John gets back a test in his biology class.  When he looks at the paper, he sees that he has gotten a C.  He feels that he studied hard, and he can’t understand why his grade was so low.  John begins to feel very stressed about this and to get upset with himself.  He wonders if this class is just too hard for a kid like him.  However, before his feelings start running away with him, he realizes that feeling bad about himself and getting upset about the low grade isn’t going to get him what he wants, which is an A or A- for the quarter.  Because of this realization, he decides to take a look at his mistakes and make an appointment with his teacher to go over where his thinking was wrong.

In my experience, students who have developed self-regulation skills are considered to be mature.  Like intelligence and academic skills, self-regulation is plastic and develops over time.  (Blair and Raver, 2012).  In a recently published 2015 study entitled “Fostering Self-Regulation Through Curriculum Infusion of Mindful Yoga: A Pilot Study of Efficacy and Feasibility”, Bergen-Cico, Razza, and Timmins found that middle school students who engaged in mindfulness practices, specifically 5 minutes of yoga and meditation approximately four times a week, had significant increases in global and long term self-regulation.  Global self-regulation can be described as one’s overall ability to notice their urges and manage their subsequent actions.  Long-term self–regulation is the ability to do the same in service to a particular goal an individual has set for him/herself.  Both of these types of self regulation are necessary for school and overall life success.

When my students meditate at the beginning of class, they practice how to relax themselves as well as how to check in with themselves and manage their emotions.  I believe that, in turn, these skills will funnel over into other areas of English class.  I know that meditating with my students has not magically changed them into young people who are not ruffled by their mistakes or setbacks that occur to them. However, it is my hope for this practice is the following:  when facing any type of stressful situation, my students will have the ability to pause, assess the situation, problem-solve, and move forward. And I hope that this skill is utilized both within and outside my classroom walls.

Amy Timmins has been teaching since 1997 and is currently a sixth grade English teacher at the Jonas Clarke Middle School in Lexington, MA.  She holds a Masters degree in Elementary Education from Catholic University and another Masters degree in Education with a concentration in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.  She also is a 200 hour Registered Yoga Teacher through Yoga Alliance.  She was trained in Mindfulness Based Stress Reductionand studied mindfulness under Ellen Langer.  Amy strives to support teachers by providing information from research in the areas of child development and psychology to help the classroom become a place where positive mental health is fostered.

MetroHacks - "In a setting like this, brilliant projects coalesce"

This blog posting is brought to you by Abhinav Kurada. Abhinav is the co-founder of MetroHacks - a coding competition for high school students, by high school students. He believes that every high school student should be able to pursue their passion for computer science, especially outside the classroom - and he is putting that belief into action by bringing 200+ high school students to Microsoft’s corporate headquarters in Cambridge for 24 hours of coding, building, and collaborating. The hackathon will take place on May 21-22 at One Cambridge Center and I am honored to be a speaker at the event. Abhinav and I hope you will join us!

From Abhinav:

"Could you imagine what it would be like if over 200 high schoolers were brought together to the same space for 24 hours? Now, imagine these 200 kids are inspiring innovators, serious coders, and dedicated designers - and they are armed with laptops, and unlimited WiFi and amazing food. Some might call it a massive slumber party, but don’t be mistaken. In a setting like this, brilliant projects coalesce. In fact, some of the products and software created during “hackathons” catalyze successful businesses and careers.

MetroHacks is a 24-hour hackathon held at the Microsoft offices in Cambridge, MA. This event will have everything that a successful hackathon requires - WiFi, food, soda, and amazing participants. Of course, MetroHacks can only host so many attendees - just above 200 to be exact. Admissions are competitive, but one does not need to be an accomplished coder to attend. The event team is just looking for people who are dedicated to innovation and creative thinking and can bring their inner fire to the hackathon. 

At the end of the day, however, the beauty of a hackathon lies not in the accomplishments of its participants. One of the goals of the organizing team it to bring together many high schoolers of a similar passion, dedication, and creativity. When one can fit 200 of these future leaders into the same room, something beautiful happens. In this environment, friendships are forged that last for a lifetime. At the end of the day, win or lose, a hackathon is about learning.

One of the biggest problems with Computer Science education in the modern world is that students aren’t taught to make the connection from classroom exercises to industry practices. Hackathons serve as a crash-course to what the actual world of Computer Science is like. Many students get discouraged by their computer science classes. After tracing boring recursive functions, or learning about the specific rules of polymorphism, they become disgruntled with CS. For their whole lives, they’ve heard about how beautiful and exciting the field of CS can be. How is one supposed to tie that supposed dreamland with the rigidness they encounter in school? 

Hackathons are pure computer science education. One learns so much more from jumping into problems in the real world, than spending hours doing the same in a classroom. Sure, students can learn about why polymorphism could be cool in the classroom. At a Hackathon, however, students encounter polymorphism in one of its complex and captivating forms - in the process of creating more enemies for their RPG! When this happens, students are no longer “students” - they have become true followers in the reality of CS.

My fellow founders of MetroHacks share a love for computer science and innovation that takes its root far outside of the classroom setting. It defines their outlook and their motivations. They are accomplished coders, business people, and science enthusiasts holding their own in other hackathons, Olympiads, and other competitions at the national and international levels. However, when some of the founders began to discuss their experiences at past hackathons, a similar philosophy began to emerge. “What if we hosted our own hackathon? What would we do differently?” And at that moment, MetroHacks was born. 

We are ecstatic to bring current and future friends to a city close to our hearts, Cambridge, for what will be one of the greatest 24 hours of our lives, and hopefully yours as well."

Tilton School - Assessing the Learning That Matters Most

In early October I was honored to be invited to Tilton School to discuss assessment.  My friend and colleague, Grant Lichtman, is working with the Tilton board, faculty, administrators and students as they build capacity for long term organizational change. Grant suggested I make a trip north to meet the faculty, share the recent IFL ‘Assessing the Learning That Matters Most’ report, and facilitate a discussion with the team tasked with reimagining assessment.

The team comprises a broad cross-section of Tilton faculty, administrators and students. Our agenda for the afternoon was to deepen the assessment discussion and identify next steps for the team. After I shared the context to the IFL work and a number of key findings from the ‘Assessing the Learning That Matters Most’ report, we built on previous conversations by starting with these questions:

  • What questions do you have regarding assessing the learning that matters most?
  • In your experience, what works when assessing the learning that matters most?
  • What questions do we need to explore today as a group regarding assessing the learning that matters most?

The group responses were uploaded to a Google Doc post session here.

We followed this discussion with a Q&A Skype call with the fabulous Bo Adams, Chief Learning and Innovation Officer at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. Bo shared the progress he and his team are making on assessing the skills, knowledge and habits of mind embedded in the Mount Vernon Continuum and responded to the group’s questions regarding the challenges and opportunities of assessing the learning that matters most. One of my biggest takeaways from Bo’s comments, was his reference to John Kotter’s dual operating system and how schools, districts, and charter management organizations all need that dual operating system to continually innovate.

We concluded the afternoon by inviting the team to imagine it was September 2020 and Tilton was the 'go to' school for faculty and administrators wanting to learn how to embed these assessment practices in their work. Using Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as our frame and call to action, each group brainstormed and presented a compelling story of how we got from here to there.

I always learn so much when I facilitate these team discussions. My biggest takeaways from the Tilton visit were as follows:

  • This is daunting work and nobody has all the answers, but if we can be honest about that and commit to the work, we will succeed over the long term.
  • The work requires humility and faith. Humility at the size of the task before us, and faith that we can do it.
  • Diverse, integrated teams provide the ‘dual operating system’ needed to launch and iterate on this work. There is no finish line.

I would like to extend my thanks to Kate Saunders and Mike Landroche for masterminding such a great afternoon. I will be following Tilton’s work closely and hope to make another trip northward to New Hampshire soon. 

Assessing the Learning That Matters Most

I believe assessment is an exceptionally powerful lever in transforming the traditional factory model of education. Let me explain. 

You may have seen this model before; it is an amended version of Geoffrey Moore’s  ‘Crossing the Chasm’ model from a book by the same title wherein he explains why some technology gets adopted by the masses, while other technology does not.

Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey Moore (amended)

Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey Moore (amended)

This model is often used as a tool to help understand why change initiatives in general succeed or fail, and helps us understand how we might support transformation efforts when wider spread adoption is needed. When I read Moore’s book, it was through the lens of “how might this model help me understand the terrain of education transformation?”. Briefly stated, Moore’s model tells us that the reason why so many change efforts fail is due to the chasm which exists between the early adopters and the early majority. The stark difference between these populations is appetite for risk. Early adopters will adopt whatever the ‘it’ is because their gut is telling them it makes sense to do so. They move on gut instinct and act in absence of proof. The early majority, in stark contrast, requires proof. They require evidence and incontrovertible data that ‘it’ works. Mapping progressive education practices on the model reveals that we are at an exciting juncture in education:

Crossing the Education Chasm, amended by Julie Wilson (source: Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore)

Crossing the Education Chasm, amended by Julie Wilson (source: Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore)

I think of the progressive giants, innovators such as Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, Friedrich Froebel, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget (to name just a few), as the pedagogical innovators. They led the way by observing children and how they learn, and were driven by a model of education which was before their time, a model which promoted creative problem solving, global citizenry, emotional intelligence and self efficacy, all grounded in a ‘whole child’ approach to learning. Standing on the shoulders of these giants is the great work of many modern day exemplar schools and organizations including High Tech High, the New Tech Network, Institute of Play, the Workshop School, the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, and Brightworks - and the list is growing. However, I am convinced that if we do not focus on how to assess the learning, and make that evidence and data available to a broader audience, we will not see widespread adoption of a more progressive pedagogy throughout the public system.

With the chasm as our call to action, what are the bright points of light that are happening right now? Where is great work happening and how might we help grow it?

I wanted to find out the answers to these questions and met a like mind in Jeremias Andersson. Jeremias and I were introduced through a mutual friend a couple of years ago; since that time, Jeremias has been investing money and his considerable brain power in launching an organization called EdGrow. EdGrow reached out to the IFL to offer support and we are partnering on what we call the ‘Assessing the Learning That Matters Most’ Project. The first phase of our work together was to research and inventory current leading practices in assessing the learning that matters most, to identify gaps, and highlight exemplary practices - all with a view to building an open source database of leading assessment practices. We completed the research just last month and are working on next steps to build the database structure and investigate how we might design online tools to assess the learning that matters most. I am thrilled to be working on this.

We want to make as much of our work open source as possible to help grow and participate in the broader field of this transformative work. To that end, the full ‘Assessing the Learning That Matters Most’ report can be downloaded here. Twenty -eight experts in assessment gave generously of their time and shared insights which I hope will help move your own work in this area forward.

What does a Strengths-Based Goal Setting Session Look Like?

Last weekend I had the privilege of facilitating a Strengths-based goal setting session with the Founding Faculty (aka 'Pros') of NEXT High School in beautiful Tennessee.

NEXT High School is a new High School launching in Greenville, South Carolina this Fall. The mission of NEXT is to prepare every graduate for life and this team's goal is to launch and build the most innovative High School in the Southeast. The bar is high and I wanted to be sure I facilitated a session which would support the team well as they set their personal goals to fulfill the school's bold mission.

Ahead of the session everyone read Strengths Based Leadership and submitted their Top 5 Strengths. Many of you know I am a huge fan of the Strengths methodology - a methodology which invites people to identify what they are good at and to do more of it. When I prep for one of these sessions, I love to see the shape of the team strengths begin to take shape as folks forward their Top 5 strengths and I plug them into the team spreadsheet template. Check out the NEXT Pros Team Strengths Profile - this is a rockin' team!

We kicked off the Saturday discussion with a mini 'book group’ style discussion - centering on what resonated in the the Strengths methodology and results and the questions which the reading and results raised. We discussed the team profile and folks were eager to learn about each other’s strengths - and had pegged many of them already :)

With the foundation of Strengths in place, the team took an individual look in the rear view mirror and reflected on their life map and learning journey thus far. Grounding in personal history and strengths, the team then brainstormed goals for the year ahead using this tool.  Many team members reported back that they learned more about themselves and each other in this exercise than in the past several months :) The life map and learning journey is a powerful tool to reflect on what is meaningful to you and what you want to design moving forward.

Team members underscored several takeaways:

  • Goal(s) should be written in English and so important and meaningful to us that we don’t have to refer back on a goals document to remember what they are.
  • We can achieve so much more by focusing on our Strengths - ours and those of our students.
  • The importance of sharing goals with fellow team members and asking for support - and keeping the conversation going throughout the year.
  • Getting clear on what success will look like helps identify quantifiable and qualitative measures.

To ensure the learning is taken forward, Josh Neuer, Professional Student Counselor, will check-in with each of team members and help bring all the goals together in one shared document. In addition, each team member committed to having individual conversations with each other to share respective life maps and goals for the year ahead before the school opens in the Fall.

We have a structure in place where the IFL will be onsite in Greenville in December 2015 and May 2016, with a couple of Google Hangouts in between. This will help mitigate the gravitational pull of ‘drive by professional development’ :) - and help ensure the team is well supported in the year ahead as they work on their goals and leverage their Strengths.

Next step in the process? The talented peeps at NEXT will brainstorm how to mirror this process with the Founding Students (aka 'Peers') - watch this space for an update!

The Realities of Teaching

At the recent Ideas in Education Festival in Potomac, MD, I had the pleasure of meeting Andrew Ezekoye. Andrew is a 4th grade teacher at Springhill Lake Elementary School. During our time at the Festival, Andrew and I talked about his career and his Teach for America experience. He shared his passion for teaching and internal conflict regarding the impact of his role and how he can work towards sustainable change in the education system.

He followed up after our conversation with this email. I was in tears by the end of it. Andrew’s reflections articulate the realities of what it means to teach and the heart and internal struggle of how to make sustainable difference. This is a long posting, but I wanted to leave all of Andrew’s thoughts ‘as-is’. This is the kind of Teach for America story which doesn’t lend itself to a neat soundbite. It’s the kind of teacher story which never reaches the headlines. It should.

Dear Julie,

I hope this email finds you well. This is Andrew Ezekoye, we met at the Ideas Festival at St. Andrews. Please excuse my extreme lateness in emailing you, this week has been a particularly hectic one at school - the kids have been taking the End of the Year PARCC exams.

Mr. Ezekoye's 2014-2015 4th Grade Scholars

Mr. Ezekoye's 2014-2015 4th Grade Scholars

Continuing, I just wanted to shoot you an email and thank you for your incredible and insightful discussion of your ideas; as well as the kind words and great advice you gave me in particular. Like I told you on Saturday, since graduating from Harvard I am currently a Teach for America Corp member working as a 4th Grade Teacher at Springhill Lake Elementary School. So, I wanted to give you some news and updates from my classroom as we head into the last quarter before Summer vacation begins. To sum up my experience thus far: through my training teaching at summer school at Mastery-Harriety in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to now having completed three-quarters of the school year, although I've always believed this, but it has become even more evident that teaching is a really - and I mean really - tough job. I knew that, and in many ways expected and embraced that reality heading into the classroom, but to be honest, it's definitely been more difficult than I could have ever imagined. However, as long as I constantly remind myself that I'm in the classroom for a purpose greater than my own, playing a role in the intellectual and social growth in my scholars has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and it makes makes everything that goes into doing the job effectively worthwhile. I really love this job, and while I'm here I wanna make the biggest difference possible. I'll start with a quick introduction of my class, and then progress to academic updates, and then end with some concluding thoughts about my experience thus far.  

Day 14

Day 14

To start, I teach at 4th Grade at Springhill Lake Elementary, a Title One Elementary School in Greenbelt, Maryland. I am self contained, so I teach all the subjects to my class of 4th Graders (Math, Reading, Science, Social Studies, Health). Although our school population is pretty large, (we are technically overcrowded, with about 930+ kids in grades K-5), we are also a very very transient student body - our student body is comprises many homeless kids, immigrants, transitional families, and the like. I started out with 22 scholars in my class, but 10 of those scholars moved away within at various points in the 1st quarter of school, and now it's just my 12 scholars and me in our temporary classroom/trailer. To be honest, to have 12 students is absolutely mind boggling, as many of my colleagues have upwards of 30, and some even up to 32-33 (technically, the rules say that the max anyone should have in their classroom is 30.. but I'm not sure that one gets enforced as rigorously as some of the other provisions...)


Student of the Week - Chipotle Gift Card :)

Student of the Week - Chipotle Gift Card :)

I have tried to build a culture for learning by facilitating an environment where my scholars developed a sincere belief that they have the ability to lead or make changes for the better in their lives, for their families, and in their communities. I have taken care to ensure that scholars develop a sense of pride in their "space" and allow them to view the classroom as their own safe environment where they are welcomed, valued, and equally in charge - this also comes with setting extremely high expectations and high standards, but relies on constant discussions with the scholars of  "why" those expectations, rules, standards, and objectives are important to them. In short, those "whys" are always tied back to the scholars and their hopes and dreams during the academic year and beyond. With this, scholars are equally invested in their learning and view their learning as more in “their hands” than in “my hands.” This, in conjunction with building relationships with parents, building relationships with students, and sharing my own educational experiences, has promoted a collaborative culture of learning, education, and knowledge in our classroom. Also, because I am a young, new teacher, right out of college, my lack of classroom experience meant that I would have to rely very heavily on being able to connect with my students and their parents on a deeper level, forge these relationships early on, and maintain them throughout the year. There were also positives to my age in conjunction with my life experiences, in the sense that I was able to relate to my students in unique ways. by sincerely finding ways to foster an authentic relationship and partnership with my students’ families, they were able to see that I am a passionate individual who sincerely cares about the success of their children. For all of my scholars (12 out of 12), I am the first male teacher they've ever had. For most of my students, (7 out of 12), I am currently the most constant male figure in their lives. This reality comes with a whole lot of responsibility. With that said, I can definitely say that my students, their families, and I have definitely have formed the right partnerships that have lead to amazing results for my classroom management, buy-in, and overall positive environment in the classroom. 


I spent the first six weeks of school building community in the classroom, and did not even touch the curriculum, because I knew that without the feeling of family and community in the classroom, the curriculum would be meaningless. However, this is not to say that absolutely no learning took place; quite the contrary. I also took time during the first six weeks of school to give my students in depth diagnostic and screening exams in addition to the to the ones mandated by the county. I was able to able to fix instructional outcomes and goals that were suitable for the individual student and tailored to each individual students particular needs. In addition, I assessed my students  "learning styles" through multiple inventories to get an accurate indication of their particular learning style. For instance, when I looked at my students diagnostic scores from the screenings that i gave them or the bench marks that they take, I determine strengths, weaknesses, and possible contributing factors to their current level of mastery or lack thereof. After, I created targeted and specific recommendations on how each individual scholar could  perform better on the next assessment or the next skill based evaluation, in conjunction with the scholars and their families. Those recommendations could be as simple as fostering more writing in conjunction with their reading, to more intensive strategies like a refocus on certain components of literacy (phonemic awareness/phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, decoding, etc) in order to accelerate comprehension ability in reading. 

With all of this data, I was able to craft individualized and high level learning plans for each of my scholars, in every component of literacy.

The 4th Grade Lexile scores for grade level performance are as follows: a Lexile Score below 600 is considered below grade level, a score from 600-900 indicated proficiency, and anything above 900 indicated advanced reading level in the 4th Grade. My MTLD (mentor teacher through Teach for America), Nick Brooks, and I set an ambitious goal of achieving an average of 2 years (Grade Levels) of Reading Growth by the end of the year (June) in my class. Prince George's County Public School District has set a goal of achieving 40Lexile Points increase in reading attainment. I am pleased to say that my class achieved two years of reading growth by January, and the class' Lexile score average increased about 150 points from pre test to post test, with everyone increasing over 100L points, (except one student, who increased 65L). At the January mark, the average growth in my class was already 2.2 years of reading level growth, and almost every single scholar increased by at least a year (except 1, who increase 90% of 1 years growth). My scholars' hard work coupled with my reliance on data and research driven instruction and analysis (coupled, of course, with forming authentic relationships with my students) can best explain this growth.


In the Common Core era, attaining conceptual understanding is an important; albeit difficult, part of Mathematics. I know that it's not enough to have students simply memorize algorithms and apply them without understanding the deeper concepts at play. For me, I found that many times even if students intuitively understood the algorithm and the procedural skills required to a Math Problem, they often were relying too much on procedural skill understanding, and not enough on conceptual knowledge and thus, often times could not apply what they learn to other areas of Math. The first thing emphasized heavily in my Math class is the importance of the connections of vocabulary terms, by not only stressing the precision of its definition (and its application thereof), but also how vocabulary terms connect to each other in a way that joins mathematical concepts together. I learned that vocabulary instruction in the common core era meant that vocabulary instruction should "emerge from experience and discussion aimed at building an intuitive model of the thing to be defined, but eventually students must have a clear, unambiguous basis on which to build further knowledge." So,  i structured my math instruction in a way that allowed students to see the connections first explicitly, and then gradually move towards application armed with the knowledge of the definitions, but also it's implications and connections. 

When it comes to my Math instruction, I have been very analytical in my approach to reflection. All of my reflections are always framed in the context of helping students move towards academic and life success, from using data to differentiate, incorporating cultural responsiveness into lesson plans, utilizing assessments to plan for mastery, and adjusting pacing due to observations. By placing an immediate emphasis on goal setting based on data analysis, I have been able to properly analyze my instruction for the benefit of my scholars.. For instance, one particular week during the multi-digit addition and subtraction unit, I spent about 3 hours going over pretest and post-test data, reviewing footage of myself teaching, and creating a weekly plan based on my analysis. The lessons that I planned really modeled effective teaching, in that it was based on my reflections and analysis from the past week. So, the following week's lessons were were engaging, incorporated gradual release of student responsibility, utilized math tools and manipulatives, student application, and checks for understanding - and these changes are changes I had made based on some advice I was given by other instructors. Then, I used the data to assess the effectiveness of the lesson so that I could start the cycle over.  I have effectively been able to leveraged the teaching and learning cycle of backwards planning, teaching a lesson, assessing the students, and making adjustments based on the data. I think the use of that cycle has been a major factor in my students’ success. 

We set an academic goal that my scholars would increase their pretest math score to post test math score by at least 20% from the pre-assessment to the post-assessment, which was a September to March time frame. While we were close in that effort, we will be (all but 2 scholars), we are definitely on pace to ensure that every single one of my scholars will be entering the 5th grade on at least proficiency Math Level or Advanced Math level for 5th Grade Mathematics. In short, my scholars will be a year ahead in Math skill when they leave my class.

Observations Ratings

I have been observed officially 4 times this year (4 official times because I am an untenured, first year teacher). I have consistently ranked either proficient or distinguished in all of my categories, a feat that is very atypical for a first year teacher. Here is a screenshot of the ratings from just my second out of four observations:

Here's a screenshot, now of my third observation rating: 

One area that I constantly was rated "proficient" as opposed to "distinguished" was in the area of "Student Questioning." Next year, one thing I will definitely try and do differently (or approach differently) is to leverage my great relationships with my students in a way that involves them more in all parts of the instruction, in addition to taking care to account for different processes of understanding. As a new teacher, that was something I had did often -  I tended to pose great questions to my students, but I need to do a better job of posing questions that are more open ended and foster more discussion, rather than analytical-answer seeking (black/white, right/wrong) questions.  My scholars were more than capable of driving the flow of the lesson and I could have easily allowed them to take the reins of the instructional day a bit more when it came to questioning. In terms of communication with families, my Principal has commended me on setting a new standard of what it "means" to be in constant communication with my families, and what it means to build authentic relationships with them as well. However, though, the proficient rating is based on the fact that, much like the Student Questioning, I need to ensure that I have set up a system in which students are interacting with parents about their daily academic lives on a daily basis. I have some ideas on how to accomplish that for next year. 


Academic success is neither a destination nor an end point, but rather a journey. With that, I believe that intrinsically motivated students are indispensable components for effective learning. With each day, intrinsically motivated students learn because they want to satisfy their curiosity and thirst for knowledge and sincerely believe that the acquisition of knowledge is beneficial to help them live the lives that they want to live. It follows, then, that intrinsically motivated students instinctively adhere to the classroom behavior and management protocols, because they seek to take full advantage of their daily academic journey and also because they appreciate the significance of the responsibility of not disrupting the journey for others. I believe, though, that my job as an educator is not (and cannot) be to directly motivate students in such a manner. Instead, I believe that I must construct a classroom in a way that is conducive to fostering and encouraging students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. As an educator, I must be keenly aware to ensure that the intimate dynamics of the classroom social environment, management procedures, instructional methods, feedback mechanisms, and student-teacher relationships, all work together to foster and produce the intrinsic motivation and bring about the best possible environment for effective learning.I believe that in order to create an engaging and effective learning environment for my students, they first need to believe in the journey – namely, they must sincerely believe that each step and every aspect in the journey is meaningful and important, rather than arbitrary and capricious. This includes, but is not limited to, ensuring that I, as their teacher, articulate a clear and direct vision emphasizing the importance and reasoning behind the aforementioned aspects of social environment, management procedures, instructional methods, feedback mechanisms, and student-teacher relationships. Only then will students gain the confidence that these aspects are meaningful to them and connected directly to their own desired accomplishments.  

Accordingly, it is my duty as an educator to take into account the individuality of each and every one of my students. I must recognize and appreciate the diversity and complexity of their needs and make sure I am constantly doing my best to accommodate each one of those needs into each scholar's daily academic journey whenever possible. The use of culturally relevant materials, different modes of engagement, and using multiple forms of assessment are particularly useful in creating an environment in which students can feel like their learning is in their hands and tailored to their needs. With that being said, I have really tried to adopt pragmatic and positive modes of feedback, with the knowledge that it is particularly important to build students’ self-esteem in lower elementary grades. I praise each of my student’s students for high levels of effort and contributions, rather than quality of outcome. This encourages students to continuing working and putting forth a high level of effort–an indispensable part of the academic journey. To be sure, I always take the chance to use strategies such as competition and collaboration, in order to drive students to strive to achieve different goals and successes, whenever appropriate.  

Finally, just as intrinsically motivated students are a necessary component for effective learning – intrinsically motivated teachers are an equally necessary component as well, if not more. For me, my life experiences have inspired me to give back to society, to be a role model for children and young adults, empathize with daily lives of the underprivileged, and instill a sense of hope in others. It is this intrinsic motivation upon which I base my strengths as a teacher. Through my experiences living in poverty since I was young, losing our home and becoming homeless in high school, being able to work hard and ultimately graduate from Harvard was truly special for me. However, I know that my success was not the results of my hard work and efforts alone, but also the hard work and efforts of my teachers and counselors who worked to assist me in any way they could inside and outside of the classroom, as well as my Mother’s absolute interest and participation in my learning experience. I believe that I have brought a sense of hope and resilient passion to the community of Springhill Lake Elementary, but I also know that “it takes a community” – this effort will work best when all partners involved work together.  For my part, I  teach with tremendous compassion, energy and humor. Students must able to trust that I am a “real” person, and must also genuinely believe that I care about them. I personally know that for this to occur depends on my ability to present themselves in a way that resonates with students. Therefore, although my determination to succeed despite poverty and homelessness, or the handling of my academic responsibilities in addition to my two-sport schedule at Harvard, demonstrates that I may be able to handle the work, make the necessary adjustments, learn, and ultimately succeed as a teacher, in reality my greatest strength is demonstrated by how my life experiences have inspired me and will fuel my through that process and allow me to forge the personal relationships with my students necessary for trust, care, and compassion to help foster learning. Furthermore, I have brought to the community of Springhill Lake Elementary a desire to develop my own teaching skills, but specifically through building relationships with colleagues, students, and parents because, in the end we all share in the belief that the most rewarding aspect of education is witnessing the personal, intellectual, and growths of our students. 

I hope that this email was not too long. Thank you for all of your help thus far. I plan on staying in the class room for about 2 years. After those two years, if I don't stick in the classroom, I still plan on heading to law school and policy school, where I will take my experiences in the classroom with me. Hopefully, I can leave law school and policy school armed with a new sense of directions of how I can use legal interventions to achieve policy objectives in the field of education, which is my primary professional goal in life. Until then, I will continue having the time of my life, and the challenge of my life, teaching 4th graders at Springhill Lake Elementary School,

Thanks again,





Building the Tribe @ #2015EdFest

I was thrilled to be part of the Ideas in Education Festival yesterday, hosted by The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St Andrew's Episcopal School. It was a balmy 75 degrees in DC and the blossoms were out - bliss!

The Center’s Director, Glenn Whitman, was explicit about the event being a true ideas festival, not a regular conference. His goals being that existing ideas would be further iterated, new ideas would be born and alliances would be built. I believe his goal was achieved :)

During the event I participated on a panel discussion and two pitch sessions. I was honored to be part of a panel which included Brad Jupp - Senior Program Advisor on Teacher Initiatives, U.S. Department of Education, Eric Westendorf - CEO & Co-Founder, Learnzillon and Lisette Partelo - Senior Policy Analyst, Center for American Progress. Glenn brought together a great mix of perspectives and backgrounds.

Some of you reading this post will be familiar with the ‘IFL Assessment Database’ project. A generous donor has provided seed funding for the initial research phase and I was eager to pitch the idea at the Festival and to hear advice and suggestions from the attendees. Attendee feedback was exceptionally helpful. Here’s the deck I used for the pitch and here are the comments and feedback from the group:

  • What drives assessment at the High School level? SAT scores, not creativity, collaboration, etc. Reach out to Higher Ed and ask what could replace the SAT, seek their input on the design of the assessment database. Could the database be a resource for Higher Ed to think about how they might assess potential students in a fundamentally different way?
  • Parents need to be convinced that other things which are being assessed, e.g. critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, etc. are what is really important for long term success, not SATs. Conduct a parent outreach program alongside database design? World is shifting from the need for individuals to have a generalized set of skills to a a specialized set of skills.
  • Inventory colleges and universities who do not require SAT scores and list these in the database - include in parent outreach strategy.
  • The current tests are meant to measure whether or not you are prepared for college, but are losing credibility.  Need to get admissions counsellors in on this conversation.
  • Which populations are being served by the database? How far behind will public schools lag? How can we transform the idea of what teaching is? "Leveraging Leadership, Driven by Data” - how will the IFL link in with this? - Pedagogy and the theory of learning need to be made explicit.
  • Indian Creek School - all project based - as a teacher I don’t have to teach to the test. Authentic, deep knowledge. Using rubrics to assess projects. The Sierra School also doing great work.
  • Outreach to policy makers needed, begin to build those relationships now as you build the database. Provide brief case study examples by way of demonstration and impact.
  • Take baby steps - the database can be used alongside traditional assessments - run parallel paths.
  • Identify those schools which allow their teachers to take risks, highlight their work. Note the specific location of where great work is happening - I’m more inclined to have the courage to try something if I know another teacher 20 miles up the road from me is doing it.
  • The biggest opportunity for ‘Early Majority’ adoption is public school - this would be huge. Can you identify some of the more progressive public school leaders and approach them directly as partners?
  • Could you start with new teachers (in teacher preparation programs)? Provide downloadable starter packets?
  • Could you conduct an event and bring together 4,000 people? Start a movement - meet and energize!  Teachers meeting teachers who designed these assessments, showcasing work, learning from each other. Being a resource and support to each other.

Bottom line, I came looking for feedback #2015EdFest and left with a MUCH bigger vision of what is possible! Participants confirmed the need for the work and the appetite for an open source database of assessment practices - built by and for educators. Thank you to all of you who shared your feedback during the formal sessions and the breaks.

Will keep you posted on how the IFL Assessment Database project unfolds.  In the meantime, a big shout out to Glenn, Molly, Monique and Maggie and the entire team who organized and executed such a great event!

Guest Posting: Using Yoga and Meditation in the Middle School Classroom, Amy Timmins [2 of 2]

This is the second of two part guest posting by Amy Timmins - Part 1 provides context and rationale of Amy’s work, while Part 2 (below) provides an example of Amy’s work in action. 

Be sure to click on the video to see an example of Amy’s classroom in action.

Using Yoga and Meditation in the Middle School Classroom, by Amy Timmins

Over the course of my career as a middle school English Language Arts teacher, I have had many opportunities to watch students engage in various activities, both academic and social.  In each instance, I have noticed that some students successfully complete particular tasks or navigate social situations with relative ease while other students flounder and oftentimes get stuck. 

For example, when I assign an essay, I usually have several students who work steadily and quickly.   The words seem to pour from their brains to their hands, through the pen, and onto the page.  However, other students struggle. Some bite their nails as they stare at empty pages.  The eyes of others dart around the room, nervously fixing themselves upon classmates who are actively completing their work.

Now, one could attribute these behaviors to a learning disability, ADHD, low socioeconomic status, or simply bad teaching.  However, these common explanations are not appropriate in my experience. I teach in an affluent school system where a vast majority of students live far above the poverty line.  Although some of my students do have learning disabilities or ADHD, most do not. In addition to that, I make sure that I scaffold the instruction, and I provide appropriate models.  Most teachers in my school do that. 

Yet, year after year, I ask myself the same question.  What blocks students from achieving and reaching their potential even when they are supported?  Sometimes, I wonder if  what holds these students back is the fear of being wrong, the fear of taking a risk.

Yet, learning happens when kids go in their risk zones.  They need to be willing to try something new and see what happens. So now the questions are:  How does a teacher help children go from their zone of comfort to their zone of risk without dipping into danger zone?  How does an educator do that when he or she is interacting with 20 to 25 different students each day?  How does a teacher in a secondary education setting accomplish this when he or she may teach anywhere from 80 to 100 students? 

This is a daunting task to even the most seasoned and veteran teacher.   In addition to that, attempting to have control over every aspect of the learning environment that may cause stress to a student can have a negative impact on students. It has been noted that “Adults who analyze every situation in terms of what could go wrong, risk creating anxiety in some children and recklessness in others” (Lindon, 1999 p10).   Because of this, it is necessary to give children the tools to know and regulate their own emotional landscape. 

Having these tools is especially important in this day and age.  The job market wants people who are innovators.  Innovators continuously work in their risk zones.  They play with boundaries.  They live on the edge.  They remain calm and focused when things don’t go the way they expected.  They have the imagination and courage to take an idea that might have been considered a failure to others and turn it into something new.  And if that doesn’t work, they try it again.  And if that doesn’t work, they move on and are not burdened by the fact that their plans did not go the way they anticipated.  The ability to do this requires a person to know herself and have regulation over her emotions. 

I believe that one tool that can foster this self-knowledge and regulation is the use of yoga and meditation.  Here are procedures I use with my students almost every class period that I teach:

1.  My students enter the classroom and write down their homework.  They also have short opening activities to do.  Many of these openers aren’t totally necessary for the kids to have totally done.

2. Once it looks like pretty much all of the students are organized to start the class. I instruct them to stand up and push in their chairs. 

3. Then we do a yoga pose together.  I usually stick with one yoga pose per week.  For example, last week I focused on runner’s lunge.  During this time I talk about noticing where their body is and how it is positioned. 

4.  I give cues for them to check themselves.  For example, last week I reminded them that their knee on their front bent leg needed to be directly over their ankle.  Then I left it to them to readjust themselves.  I usually tell them that this is a lot like what happens in our day to day life.  Living life is about checking in with yourself and making adjustments as needed.  It is all part of the process.  Having the opportunity to notice when something is not quite right and making up your mind to change it is when growth happens.    

The yoga takes about 2 minutes.  

5.  After the yoga, I guide the students through meditation:

I say:

   Please sit down.  

   Place you hands on your knees, palms up.

   Close your eyes.  

   Have your feet flat on the floor or as close to the floor as you can.

   Sit up straight and tall

I then set the timer for one minute. 

For the first three breaths, I instruct students to “Inhale” and “Exhale”.  Then I tell them that they can go at their own pace for what is normally 30 seconds.

During this time I will also remind them if their thoughts drift to something other than their breath, they just need to gently bring their attention back to their breath.

6.  At the end of the minute, I tell the students to open their eyes and then we begin the lesson as usual. 

Equipping children with tools to increase their self-regulation has the potential to be a powerful way to boost learning and foster mental health.  These tools will be useful to the students not only for their time in the classroom but throughout the course of their lives.

Lindon, J (1999) Too Safe for Their Own Good, National Children’s Bureau

Guest Posting: Amy Timmins [1 of 2]

This posting is a guest posting brought to you by  Amy Timmins.  I met Amy recently at the annual HGSE Resumania event where alums give current students advice on their resumes and future career plans.  It was a real treat for me to meet Amy and to learn more about her studies and how she hopes to build on her visionary work post-program.  As you can see from the below posting, Amy’s focuses on deeper learning.  She provides her students not only with the scaffolding to be better writers and critical thinkers, but also the tools for students “to know and regulate their own emotional landscape”.  Daniel Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence in the late 90’s brought evidence-based research to the debate on how it’s not our IQ which determines how we thrive, or don’t, as adults, but rather our EQ, or Emotional Intelligence.  This is the first of two guest postings by Amy - the below posting provides context and rationale for her work, the next posting will provide an example of her work in action. 

The Power of Contemplation in the Classroom, by Amy Timmins

I believe the skills that will give children the tools to ultimately be successful in life are not solely the ones that are tested and reported in the newspaper.  Without a doubt, the ability to read and write clearly, understand mathematical concepts, and think critically are essential to a child’s future success.  However, giving kids the skills to look at their own lives and dedicated time for contemplation is just as important.

Merriam Webster defines contemplation as “the act of looking deeply at something.” For the past fourteen years, I have taught sixth grade English Language Arts. Each year, my students compose personal narratives about various events in their lives. 

I encourage them to choose events in which they had an obstacle they had to overcome, such as finding someone to sit with in the cafeteria, taking a difficult test, scoring the winning goal at the big soccer game, or missing what would have been the winning goal at the big soccer game.

Besides instructing kids to tell the external story of what actually happened, I teach them to tell the internal one.  What were they thinking as these events were taking place? What did they learn from either overcoming their obstacle, or in some instances, not overcoming it? 

This unit, adapted from Columbia University’s Writers Workshop, allows me access to the inner lives of my middle school students.  In several stories, the student author depicts one part of his mind filling their head with negative feedback like  “You can’t do this”, “You are such a baby”, or  “You are so stupid”.  Then the other part of their brain tries to counteract the effects of that critical voice with encouraging messages. 

The assignment teaches kids to craft compelling stories.  By creating meaning from their own experiences, they sharpen their writing and critical thinking skills.  However, this assignment does more.  It helps students become attuned to how their thinking affects them. 

It is necessary to give children the tools to know and regulate their own emotional landscape. The current job market wants people who are innovators.  Innovators continuously work in risk zones and play with boundaries.  They remain calm and focused when things don’t go as expected.  The ability to do this requires a person to know herself and have regulation over her emotions.

However, students do not only write about events that are heavy.  They also write about happy occasions like the day they got a beloved pet.  They write about funny experiences, such as the time they played a joke on a friend.  These situations also provide lessons and help a child to gain insight into what they value, what gives them joy, and the beauty of life. 

These benefits are often overlooked by a content driven curriculum. Giving students techniques to engage in contemplative writing and the opportunity to do so can be extremely powerful.  In fact, this component might be the part of the lesson that will be most valuable to student success in the long run.

Embracing the Future

#fuse14 was the most inspirational event I experienced this year.  What made it so?  Being surrounded by educators, students, administrators and leaders who embrace the messiness, uncertainty and joy of deep learning, was galvanizing.  It upped my game and underscored for me that everything happens in relationship, the importance of finding and connecting with your tribe and that the design of the ‘container’ matters - big time.

I would like to share a brief sketch of just one of the many wonderful people I met at #fuse14, Paul Kim, as well as the broader impact the #fuse14 peeps have made on the IFL’s work.

A 20 year educator, Paul is the Upper School Studies Department Chair and Youth Philanthropy Program Director at Colorado Academy. Paul was part of our design team as we worked the design thinking process on the group’s central question “How might we  reimagine and redesign the role of teacher?”.  We worked the design thinking process and it worked us :) During our design challenge, we talked briefly about Paul’s innovative work in Denver and I connected with him after #fuse14, so I could learn more about his teaching philosophy and dig deeper into his process.  

I had assumed that Paul had been leading this kind of work for the duration of his 20 year career.  I was surprised to learn that he transformed his practice just 3 years ago.  As Paul shared me with his process of reflecting on his career, and mindfully deciding to transform his teaching practice from traditional lecture based to hands-on, inquiry based learning, I was struck by how he leveraged his strengths as a researcher and observer of History to make a thoughtful, courageous choice about his work.  Click on these links to see just a sample of Paul’s work where he adapted Sugata Mitra’s work to design a 5 week unit around Self-Organized Learning (responses to 8 questions you can’t Google) and a sample of project rubrics.

Change is uncomfortable, VERY uncomfortable.  As adults, the inertia of the status quo governs our daily habits.  But I believe if, like Paul, we ground ourselves in where we have been, to make mindful choices about where we want to go, we stand on firmer terrain.  Transitioning from a full-time employee in a large organization to founder of a small non-profit organization calls on my demons on a daily basis.  It is much easier to default to what I ‘know’ than to walk an uncertain path - stumble and fall.  There comes a point though where the fork in the road cannot be ignored and the very real possibility of failure in doing something new, is less scary than the thought of doing the same thing, with predetermined outcome, for the next 10, 15, 20 years.  Paul paused at that fork and made a choice to go far outside of his comfort zone. The IFL exists because of inspirational educators like Paul, like Amanda, like Bo, like Ellen, like Leonard; educators who lead their classrooms and projects every day walking the path of the learner.  They raise the bar of what’s possible - usually quietly and without much fanfare.  They bring their whole selves to work in a system where it less and less encouraged to do so.  I believe the education system, writ large, stands at a fork in the road.  It is my deepest hope that we turn away from the holy grail of the standardized test score to a widespread understanding of the need to support educators and to tap into what we have known for decades about the process of learning and of human development. 

#fuse14 underscored for me the unlimited potential of unleashing this educator talent and has helped shape the IFL mission - we exist to support these educators in the mastery of their craft.  To provide scaffolding, resources, connections and support. To help bring respect, deep appreciation and joy to a profession that has been maligned for too long. We serve teachers like Paul and dedicate ourselves to not only being a resource, but to shining a light on the complexity, joy and heartfelt nature of great teaching practice.  When Rudolph Steiner opened the first Waldorf School in Stuttgart in 1919, he spoke of the importance of “power of thought, depth of feeling and strength of will” as educational outcomes. Steiner’s words strike me as a succinct summation of the core capacities of an educator.  Let’s redesign a system where these capacities are nurtured and developed - for teachers and students alike.

Which specific challenges is your school designed to solve?

Earlier in the Spring I attended SXSWedu - one of the session highlights for me was Will Eden’s team presentation on Alpha Public Schools: designing a Next Gen High School from scratch.  Will sent me an article and case study recently where he and the team detail the successes, failures, and learnings of their design thinking-based high school design process.  You will find the case study here and the article here.

Will and John Glover, the school’s founder, “chose design thinking for its emphasis on:

  • Understanding needs within our unique context: Like all communities, East San Jose is comprised of a distinct set of family circumstances, cultures, beliefs, and experiences. Before designing anything we needed to clearly understand our students’ and families’ (our “users”) needs within this context, not as we interpreted them, but as they did through their experiences. 
  • Community-driven approach: Too often students and parents are removed from  the school design process. Design thinking demands that school designers closely involve students and families throughout the process.
  • Escaping the system: The design thinking process forces school designers to break from structures of the school system that typically confine our solutions. From conventional to crazy, school designers have to consider radically different solutions."

I believe the final bullet point, i.e. escaping the system, is one of the key affordances of design thinking in contrast to traditional strategic planning.  Understanding user needs with the structure of the design thinking process, enables designers to seek solutions several layers below the surface to reveal the complexity of challenges faced and hope and energy in solutions generated.  I look forward to following Alpha's progress!

Baxter Academy - An incredible first year

Baxter Academy student Erin Whitney talks about her team’s engineering project as student Caedan Holdan, left, and engineering teacher Jonathan Amory listen

Baxter Academy student Erin Whitney talks about her team’s engineering project as student Caedan Holdan, left, and engineering teacher Jonathan Amory listen

This blog posting is brought to you courtesy of Jonathan Armory of Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, Maine.  Baxter is “a rigorous, college-preparatory high school promoting student ownership of learning through inquiry and project based curriculum focused specifically on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)” .  I have the privilege of being an advisor to Baxter and this was their first year of operations.  When Jonathan sent me the below update via email, I asked permission to post it in its entirety.  This is a wonderful example of a school built by teachers with inquiry leading the learning.  I look forward to visiting Baxter in the Fall - to check out ‘Flex Friday’, meet the students and teachers, and experience the launch of their second year, first hand!

Here is Jonathan’s update (below) - be sure to check out the 'Flex Friday' proposal template here:

Baxter had a wonderful first year.  Here are some examples:

  • Maine charter commission’s 90-day audit called the school’s academic climate “as good as it gets.” The commission will come out with its year-end audit  later this summer, but the members who recently visited the school told us that they had been blown away by the students’ work and were extremely impressed.  
  • State and local Democratic political leaders strongly opposed Baxter’s opening last year, as did the local newspaper.  After sustained outreach to community leaders, Baxter is building wide support in the broader community - just take a look at the local paper’s glowing front page article @  Members of the state’s Democratic leadership and community leaders have toured the school, recognize the value of its educational model, and accept Baxter as a positive fact on the ground. 
  • Our Flex Friday program - a day dedicated to student projects - has been hugely successful.  Every student takes on a year-long project, mostly working in groups but some solo, and spend every Friday working on them.  Here’s a brief synopsis of the 3 projects on which I was an advisor: 
Wind Blade Results.png
  1. Baxter’s Wind Turbine team (5 freshmen, 1 sophomore) convincingly won the Maine Windblade Challenge, beating 39 teams composed mainly of juniors and seniors; [here] is a graph of the turbine power scores for the top 10 teams.  Their success was due in large part to the Excel model they created to determine optimal blade shape.  To build that model they had to learn how to program macros, generate fourth-order polynomials describing lift and drag coefficients of various airfoils, calculate a motor’s torque requirement, and perform a crude form of numerical integration. They also devised an innovative active pitch mechanism that feathers blades to the correct angle for the relative wind direction over a range of wind speeds, using the blade’s angular momentum to pull the blade out along a curved track on ball bearings.
  2. The Submersible ROV project was a collaboration between my former students at Freeport High (now juniors and seniors) and 3 Baxter students (freshmen and sophomore).  The ROV is designed to meet needs articulated by marine biologists at Bigelow Labs, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and Woods Hole.  It will reach depths of 250’ and speeds in excess of 5 mph; have 5 degrees of freedom, stereoscopic cameras, lights that can produce 10,000 lumens, and an expandable payload bay to house various sensors; and an unique tethering system connecting the ROV to a surface buoy, which allows long term station keeping and remote operation.  You can find their on-line blog documenting their work @
  3. The CNC team (all freshmen) started by building a stand and enclosure for our 4-axis CNC router, and then designed and built a dust collection and misting system.  Once the machine was fully operational, they learned how to generate and program toolpaths with MasterCAM.  They then produced parts for other student projects, including the molds and active pitch parts for the wind turbine and numerous parts for the ROV.  They also designed and build a rocking chair that is impossible to flip over. 

Students love working on these projects, and as the year went on asked for more and more time to work on them.  I know you understand the power of project-based learning, and we saw first-hand how effective it can be when applied across an entire school.  I gave a Tedx talk in Bangor about this educational model, which can found @  We are working on a project template all students will be asked to use, to make them think comprehensively about their projects and develop the beginnings of a business plan; the current draft is @      

  • Baxter has one of the highest percentages of students with IEPs and 504s of any school in the state, as well as many refugee and home-schooled children.  Many, if not most, of the students did not feel engaged at their prior schools, describing themselves as “nerds” or “misfits.”  Baxter’s educational model is working for this diverse community. The school has built an inclusive sense of community, and it has been amazing to see the love students have for the school.    
  • We are a standards-based school, and have created a set of 10 expectations (the Baxpectations) that all students must meet before graduating. They can be found here. All students create a portfolio of their work to demonstrate progress towards the Baxpectations, and use the portfolio to guide student-led parent conferences.  It has been impressive to see how this framework has enabled students to reflect upon their own learning.  By and large, students use their project work to demonstrate progress toward these expectations.

[Here] is the school’s year-end report to the Baxter community, which tells last year’s story well.  Not everything is perfect, but we have a great team, and work to identify problems and devise creative and effective solutions.