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For 12 years Jennifer Taylor watched kids come into the library at McCaffrey Middle School in Galt, California and struggle: “We’d have rows and rows of books, and they don’t know what to pick.” Students would just wander, she said, sliding out a random spine and, if they found the book’s cover appealing, reading the blurb on the back—usually to their disappointment. After a while, they’d ask her something like, “Where are the scary books?”

Taylor started pulling out her top titles in different categories, making a tabletop display of Mystery books here and Sports there. When she had to box everything up for a remodel anyway, she searched Pinterest and discovered “genrefication,” a movement to organize schools’ libraries by type, like bookstores. Little did Taylor know, she’d stumbled upon a hotbed of controversy in the world of library science.

Under the Dewey Decimal System that revolutionized and standardized book shelving starting in 1876, nonfiction essentially already gets the genrefication treatment with, for example, Music located in the 780s and Paleontology in the 560s. Yet most fiction is shelved in one big clump alphabetized by author’s last name. Under this rubric, a child who liked “The Hunger Games” could find its sequel nearby, but they’d need sophisticated search skills to identify “Divergent” as similar and then find it using a call number.

Many librarians say the “search hurdle” imposed by Dewey classification (a system originally designed for adults) significantly reduces the odds of a child finding something new they’re likely to enjoy. In a genrefied library, on the other hand, a young reader standing near a favorite book need only stick out a hand to find more like it. (It’s a bit like the analog version of Amazon’s recommendation feature: “Customers who bought this item also bought”)

Since genrefication enables one book to serve as a gateway drug to the next, its fans say it encourages literacy—especially for those least likely to effectively scan a book’s summary or master catalog search: struggling readers, students not yet fluent in English, and those with learning disabilities. Illustrated signs demarcating each section and color-coded spine labels provide these kids with visual cues that render them more self-sufficient. Meanwhile, the argument goes, others can still use the catalog to locate favorite authors across genre.

“It used to be when a class would come in,” Taylor said, “I’d have a line of 10 kids that needed to ask me, ‘Where’s this book?’ Or where’s this or that.” After genrefication, she said, “some periods came in, and there wasn’t one kid that needed to ask me anything, and they all found books in half the time.” A child who previously floundered “went right over to the Humor shelf, and it took about 30 seconds,” she added.

Kindergarten teacher Sandra Lampear sorts picture books by subject matter at Rooftop School in San Francisco. (Gail Cornwall)

Genrefication is also said to highlight usage patterns and gaps in inventory, allowing librarians to better tailor their offerings to students’ needs. Taylor was able to purge a third of her collection as she discovered just how many books fell into categories the students didn’t care about; she also realized McCaffrey had far too much Fantasy and not enough Adventure. Blogging on “Beyond the Shelves,” Christy Minton tried to rally other librarians: “Instead of purchasing books that you think your patrons will like, why not start ordering books you know teens will love!” Data-informed curating doesn’t just serve kids better, Minton pointed out; it’s a savvy play in a school climate where budget-cuts rein: “A busy library is a funded library.”

Librarians wield circulation statistics to support their claims of genrefication success. Leigh Collazo, otherwise known as “Mrs. Reader Pants,” reports a 36% increase after she genrefied a middle school library in Fort Worth, Texas in 2011. The team of librarians at New York City’s Ethical Culture Fieldston School also reported “dramatic increases in circulation” in a School Library Journal article entitled “Are Dewey’s Days Numbered?”

Though data on how widespread the practice is aren’t readily available, Tamra Marshall, a certified teacher librarian at Rooftop School in San Francisco*, said the notion that genrefication may be better is “the current thinking in the school librarian world.” But Marshall hasn’t yet tackled the project because, as she put it, “We just do not have the man/woman-power to take on a switch, especially since most schools only get a part-time librarian.” In a popular 2013 article Jocelyn Sams elaborated, “I have a full schedule of classes on most days, and I don’t have an assistant. I can barely get my books shelved in a typical week, let alone redo thousands of labels and change the online catalog.”

Some take advantage of a transition, like Taylor who sorted her collection during a three-week winter break and then completed the project over the following month with help from another staff member and a few students (plus about $500 for new labels). Collazo said she worked on the reorganization alongside an aide and about 10 eighth-grade students a little each day for four months. Others report shortcuts like using books’ copyright pages or Goodreads listings to quickly select a genre. But there’s no question that time and effort stand as barriers to implementation.

Genrefied shelves in the library at McCaffrey Middle School in Galt, California. (Jennifer Taylor)

The Dewey-loyal also oppose genrefication in principle for, interestingly enough, the same reason others support it: self-sufficiency. Sure, they argue, kids might be better able to find a book independently in their school library, but what happens when they go to the public one? When they get to high school? Each library shelving books according to its own system is exactly the problem Dewey set out to fix, and it’s one that’s particularly problematic for high-mobility kids who move from school to school, they say.

That’s why the American Association of School Librarians hasn’t taken an official position on the “white-hot” topic, said its current president Steven Yates, despite “spirited discussion” at the group’s biennial conference and in the “Dewey or Don’t We” issue of its print magazine. “It really comes down to meeting your community’s needs,” he said. In a school with a fixed schedule and generous amount of library time, for example, “there’s time for a lot of library-skills instruction,” and in that setting, he said, “Dewey can be something that can be a lot easier to adopt.”

Even then, the New York City librarians wrote: “Having moved away from an old system of organization that demanded that a significant portion of our teaching time was spent on simply finding books, we’re now able to concentrate on talking with our students about books, as well as teaching them critical thinking and assessment skills.” So the decision could come down to a pragmatic consideration of resource availability and student body composition, but it might also touch the soul of the field: What ought the core mission of a modern school librarian be?

The debate has led to compromise positions. Some leave books for older students in the Dewey arrangement while genrefying for younger ones. Other librarians rearrange middle readers and young adult books but leave picture books shelved by author since it can be unclear how to categorize a story about a duck driving a tractor. (Animals? Transportation? Fantasy? Librarians have gotten creative with multifaceted books such as “Twilight” which qualifies as both Romance and Paranormal. Some report letting students vote at the get-go; others assign a genre and then encourage kids to lobby for a switch.)

Collazo took things in the other direction. She de-Deweyed many of her nonfiction books as well, moving, for example, Parapsychology and Occult to sit alongside scary fiction books: “Students didn’t tend to find the 133 section before, but boy do they find them in the Horror section.” That’s a move others who genrefy say better aligns libraries with the Common Core curriculum.

Back in Galt, Taylor’s new classifications continually evolve. What she initially dubbed Drama morphed “basically into Chick Lit,” and she created a small shelf dedicated to the Holocaust, a focus of school assignments at McCaffrey. Each change is made with one goal in mind, she said: “So they don’t waste a week reading a book that they end up not liking and can’t finish.”

“I really try not to come down on any one side,” AASL’s Yates reiterated, but then added, “I just think that I’ve not seen people that’ve gone to genrefication then go back.”

Note: The author’s children attend Rooftop Elementary and she is a member of the school’s PTA and School Site Council.

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Smartphones and tablets have quickly become a permanent part of students’ daily lives. Kids up to 8 years old spent almost an hour a day on mobile devices, Common Sense Media reported last year.

And the amount of time kids spend with screens only increases as they get older. On average, 13- to 18-year-olds spend about nine hours a day on entertainment media, much of which is on tablets and smart phones.

But mobile devices don’t have to be a distraction. When they are used for project-based learning, research has shown they can improve classroom engagement and student learning across grade levels.

“What you have is an increasing number of schools that are requiring their teachers to receive professional development in technology integration,” says Dee Lanier, a program coordinator for EdTechTeam, an international company that trains educators on how to use technology in the classroom.

When teachers ask Lanier what they should look for in an app, he tells them to keep four values in mind: cost-effective, cross-platform, cloud-based and collaborative. Much like the “four C’s of credit,” he writes, there are “four C’s of app selection.”

Cost-effective means an app should be affordable for students and their families, Lanier says. He encourages teachers and schools to choose free apps that are accessible to everyone.

Even in schools where every student is given a device or can bring their own, not every student has the same access to apps and programs. Because of that, an app should also be “cloud-based” or “cross-platform.” Both phrases mean that an app works on a variety of devices. Cloud-based, or web-based, programs work on desktops and laptops, while cross-platform apps function on mobile devices.

Finally, he says, collaborative apps allow more than one person to interact with an application at the same time. Collaborative apps let students to work together and respond to one another.

Educators use mobile apps for everything from grading homework to communicating with parents. Here are five that our readers say they love.


Kahoot! is a quiz game app. It’s like a customized round of Jeopardy that the whole class can play. Teachers and students make quizzes (called kahoots) which can be used to review material or assigned as homework, but the game is best when played together.

Questions are displayed on a shared screen, like a smart board, so everyone can join in. Each student can answer questions from their own device and they each earn points based on who answers the fastest and most correctly. The person with the most points at the end of the game wins.

“The students like it because it is interactive, fun, fast-paced, and a bit competitive,” says Alyson Solomon, a high school biology teacher in Pennsylvania.

There are other popular quiz apps, such as Quizizz or Quizlet, but with over 70 million users, Kahoot! is one of the most popular. It hits all four C’s and “is great from a review standpoint,” Lanier says.


Another popular app is Remind, a program specifically for school communication. With it, teachers can send messages to an entire class and their parents without exchanging personal information. Users can also send documents and photos, set automatic reminders and create groups.

Remind has been a staple in many classrooms since it came out in 2011, and can now to communicate within an entire school or district.

Liz White, a library media specialist in Tennessee says most of the teachers and staff at her high school use Remind — to talk to each other and to talk to students. The principal uses it as a substitute for intercom announcements, teachers, like White, use it to answer students’ questions, and the college advisers use it to send reminders about FAFSA and college applications.

“Not everyone checks their email on a regular basis but most teachers have their phones nearby and can reply instantly,” she explains. Plus, she says, teachers can talk with parents and students without giving out their personal phone numbers.

G Suite Apps

Formerly known as Google Apps for Education, the G Suite apps are a service many people know well: Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, etc. — all of the programs that make up your Google Drive account.

G Suite for Education comes with the addition of Google Classroom. It allows teachers to distribute, collect and grade assignments online.

Mike Pauldine, a seventh grade math teacher in upstate New York, likes using Google Classroom because it is flexible and accessible, making it easy to integrate technology into his lessons.

He uses it to create quizzes, give feedback, and collaborate with other teachers. Other programs require his students to remember a different password for each class, but Google Classroom creates a central place for their work that can be accessed anywhere, Pauldine says.

Lanier at EdTechTeam is a Google Certified Trainer and Innovator — so he’s well-versed in the G Suite applications. He recommends using Google Slides instead of Google Drawings for accessibility reasons. They have very similar functions, he says, but Slides has a mobile app while Drawings does not.


Think of Padlet as a collaborative, virtual bulletin board. With it, teachers can make a “wall” where students post their responses to a question or assignment. The responses can be text, a drawing, or a video. “That’s why Padlet is beautiful,” Lanier says. “It gives students agency in how they do their work.”

The background, layout and privacy of the board can all be set by the person who creates it. Students can work with people in the same class or from across the world.

Padlet fit all four of Lanier’s criteria for app selection until a paid version was released in April.

Now, Padlet users can have only three free “walls” — if they want any more, they have to pay for them. This can be problematic for middle and high school teachers who teach more than three classes.

Despite hearing mixed reviews from colleagues, Lanier still likes the app.

For teachers looking for an unlimited option without a subscription fee, he recommends Flipgrid. “It’s 100 percent free and you have unlimited grids that you can use, but it’s going to be limited to video responses,” he says.


Seesaw creates a digital journal for every student. They can add pictures, text or video to their profiles. Parents are notified every time a teacher approves a child’s post, and they can see a personalized record of all of their child’s work.

“Seesaw was really early at giving students the ability to give direct responses to assignments,” Lanier says.

While Seesaw is similar to Padlet because it allows for a variety of responses, it doesn’t have the same open collaboration that learners at higher levels need. But Lanier says the app comes highly recommended for younger learners.

Madeline Mendon, a second grade teacher in Oregon, says her class uses Seesaw to make learning more visual. For example, her students record their own math tutorials to show understanding of a skill they learned. Students can see each other’s creations and choose which are posted to their class blog.

What’s the next big thing going to be in this age of rapidly changing technology? Lanier suggests educators keep their eyes on Augmented and Virual Reality (AR/VR).

Many of the apps teachers use serve as digital substitutes for things that used to be done by hand, but AR/VR prompts teachers to think about technology in a whole new way, he says. “What kind of experiences will students be able to have that they never could even imagine?”

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Rates of anxiety and depression among teens in the U.S. have been rising for years. According to one study, nearly one in three adolescents (ages 13-18) now meets the criteria for an anxiety disorder, and in the latest results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 32 percent of teens reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

And there’s more bad news, grown-ups: The authors of two new parenting books believe you’re part of the problem.

“Kids are play-deprived nowadays,” says Katherine Reynolds Lewis, a journalist, parent, parent-educator and the author of one of those two new books, The Good News About Bad Behavior. And by “play” she means play without screens or adults keeping watch.

“Two or three decades ago, children were roaming neighborhoods in mixed-age groups, playing pretty unsupervised,” Lewis says. And this kind of parent-free play helped them develop important skills they’d use for the rest of their lives. “They were able to resolve disputes. They planned their time. They managed their games. They had a lot of autonomy, which also feeds self-esteem and mental health.”

These days, though, free play is on the decline, Lewis says, and so are the social and emotional skills that come with it. Part of the problem, according to Lewis, is parents who worry that unsupervised play is just too risky. But the risk is part of the point — for kids “to have falls and scrapes and tumbles and discover that they’re okay. They can survive being hurt.”

In many families, Lewis says, play has also been crowded out by parents’ increased focus on schoolwork.

William Stixrud is not one of those parents.

“When my kids were in elementary school, I said, ‘You know, I’m happy to look at your report card, but I don’t care that much. I care much more that you work hard to develop yourself,'” says Stixrud, a neuropsychologist and co-author of the other new parenting book, The Self-Driven Child.

He says academics are important, but that, in most cases, kids should be in the driver’s seat, learning to manage their work, their time and, ideally, being able to pursue their own interests. That freedom, Stixrud says, helps them develop internal motivation in a way that rewards and grades just can’t.

Stixrud’s daughter, Jora LaFontaine, who now has a Ph.D. in economics, says she still remembers first grade, when she brought a paper home from school. Her parents were supposed to sign it every day, proving she’d read for fifteen minutes. The first day, though, Jora says her father looked at it, laughed, “signed every single line on it and said that he did not want to turn reading into homework or a chore.”

When she was an A student in high school, Jora attended a talk her dad gave about why parents shouldn’t focus on grades. William Stixrud remembers his daughter pushing back that night in the car.

“Driving home she said, ‘You know, I liked the lecture, but I don’t really believe that you believe that stuff about the grades,” Stixrud remembers.

“Most people I tell this to laugh,” Jora says, laughing herself. “So, I said to my dad, ‘If you don’t get [good] grades, you’re not gonna get into college. Or at least you won’t get into a good college.”

… and if you don’t get into a good college, you won’t get a good job …

“So my dad said, ‘I will give you a hundred dollars if you’re willing to get a C in one of your classes,'” Jora says.

A hundred dollars.

Stixrud says, his daughter already took school seriously, and he wanted her to understand that “one thing that seems like a disaster is just not that big a deal.”

Jora didn’t take her father up on his offer, but she says it meant a lot, knowing that the only person really pushing her to succeed … was her. In that way, she embodies the spirit of both books’ message to parents:

As Lewis writes, “to build self-control, we need to stop controlling children.”

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Tupac Shakur has been dead for over 20 years, and yet his music and lyrics are still popular with young people today. Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade thinks Tupac remains influential all over the world because he writes about some of the essential truths young people still experience. Duncan-Andrade even named the elementary school he helped start Roses in Concrete after the Tupac poem “The Rose That Grew From Concrete.” The rapper’s metaphor for young people in tough neighborhoods trying to grow toward the light, despite a toxic environment, feels exactly like what Duncan-Andrade has seen in Oakland schools throughout his career.

“We see them [students] for their damaged petals instead of their tenacity and will to reach the sun,” said Duncan-Andrade at the final keynote of the 2018 Deeper Learning Conference. In addition to his academic research and writing, Duncan-Andrade still teaches at the Mandela Law and Public Service Academy at Fremont High School in East Oakland. For his students, violence is one of the most persistent toxic stressors. Most of them know someone who has died, often by gunfire. But in Tupac’s metaphor, the concrete isn’t just violence. It’s institutional racism, patriarchy, gentrification, poverty in the face of great wealth — it’s inequality.

“The concrete is real and it’s multilayered and it’s toxic,” Duncan-Andrade said. “If schools are not aware of the concrete and that students are showing up with damaged petals, then we can’t see those roses.”

Duncan-Andrade is the first to admit that students need to learn to read, write, think and do math — he has a doctorate, after all. But he doesn’t think educators can close the opportunity gap if they don’t stop pretending that the conditions students live in, and what happens to them outside of school, isn’t part of being a teacher. Those experiences are a critical part of whether kids are prepared to learn or not.

As with so many things in schools, Duncan-Andrade said this comes back to measuring the things we value. Schools measure numeracy and literacy and truancy, but not less tangible things, like hope. That sends kids the message that teachers care more about reading and math skills than they do about whether their students have eaten or not, if they feel safe, if they have somewhere to sleep at night.

TEDxGoldenGateED - Jeff Duncan-Andrade - Growing Roses in Concrete - YouTube

“There are a lot of other things that we’re not attentive to enough, and that we’re not measuring, to make it important in schools,” Duncan-Andrade said. Educators have known about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for decades, but Duncan-Andrade contends it has to be at the center of everything educators do. He’s found it essential that students believe he cares about them on that basic level before they’ll be willing to learn from him.

Research coming out of the medical field about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) fuels Duncan-Andrade’s argument that inequality has a huge impact on the health and learning of children. Some researchers estimate that one in three residents of urban areas with high rates of violent crimes has post-traumatic stress disorder. But even worse, these young people aren’t “post traumatic” because the trauma they experience is ongoing, around them always. Researchers have come up with a new name for this disorder: complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The symptoms are more complex than what they’re seeing in the military,” Duncan-Andrade said, and schools are not equipping teachers to handle this health crisis. “The best I see in schools is a one-off training on trauma, and now you’re trauma-informed and go help those kids.” That’s nowhere near enough to equip people to show up for kids in the difficult but necessary ways required.


“Hope is the best indicator for the degree to which kids will successfully navigate toxic stress, and the degree to which kids are less likely to engage in self-harming behavior,” Duncan-Andrade told me in another interview. But he warns the hope he’s talking about can’t be a false hope — kids see right through that.

Too often, he said, teachers send the message that if students come to class and study hard they will succeed. The problem is that’s often not true, and kids know that. It’s a type of hope that comes from outside the community, based on assumptions that aren’t rooted in the reality that many of the most struggling students experience. Parroting this message devalues the lived experiences of kids by ignoring them.

Jeff Andrade Duncan on Education "I teach my neighbors' kids" - YouTube

But there’s another kind of hope that’s equally bad — deferred hope. This is when people know better than to blame the kids, so they blame the system instead. “The problem with this is, of course, that their critique never results in a transformative program for the kids,” Duncan-Andrade said in a talk he gave at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Blaming the system defers a solution for the kids in school right now, waiting for a utopian society where inequality, racism and poverty don’t exist. Kids need hope now.

That’s why Duncan-Andrade advocates for something he calls “critical hope.” To achieve critical hope educators have to combine material resources, like great teaching, with fierce love for students demonstrated with actions, not words. This is incredibly hard work, but through all its ups and downs critical hope requires educators to continue believing they can do what they’ve never done before. Duncan-Andrade knows what he’s asking is hard, but he also knows that students are watching the adults.

“Wounded children tell the most truth,” Duncan-Andrade said at the Deeper Learning Conference. “And they tell it in the most raw ways. And it’s painful to hear that.” But when teachers send those wounded children out of class, passing them off to someone else in the building, it sends a message that they’re too difficult to love. He’s clear that fiercely loving students does not mean there is no conflict. Any good parent knows sometimes doing what’s best for kids doesn’t make them like you, but it should always show your love.

“You win the heart to get to the head,” Duncan-Andrade said. “We keep banging on their heads.”

The most “hopeful” teachers for Duncan-Andrade are the ones who see their classrooms as microecosystems. Teachers have no control over the institutional racisms kids face, the families they come from, where they live, or what happened on the way to school that day, but they can control the conditions of their classroom. They can create a new kind of soil for the roses to grow in, soil that isn’t toxic, that allows them to flourish.

“No master gardener blames the seed for not growing,” Duncan-Andrade said. “They know they have to change the soil. You’ve got to license yourself to be audacious.”

Students will make mistakes on this journey; they’ll lose all the progress they’ve made when another destabilizing event happens. And it will be incredibly frustrating to the teachers that love them. But, “We have to learn to love that about kids. And when we learn to love that about kids, we can remain audaciously hopeful,” Duncan-Andrade said.

As a high school teacher, college professor and founder of the Roses in Concrete Community School in Oakland, Duncan-Andrade tries to embody the tenets of effective teaching that he champions. He admits he doesn’t have it all figured out. He has never had a perfect day, but he hopes that approaching teaching as “radical healing” will start to heal the community, too.

He doesn’t want the battered roses growing up in his square of Oakland concrete to get transplanted to a rose garden, never to return. He wants them to go off to institutions of higher education and take advantage of the knowledge, resources, opportunities and access found there before coming back to reinsert themselves into the concrete. Because when the people who “got out” come back, they widen the cracks for the seeds coming up behind them.

“So much of what we teach our young people is that those battered petals are bad, as opposed to that’s what enabled them to reach the sun,” Duncan-Andrade said. He thinks young people still love Tupac because his narrative is about staying connected to the concrete — the parents, community and places of one’s childhood — even when one has become a healthy, thriving rose.

Trauma: Social and Cultural Perspectives - Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade | CTWG UC Berkeley 3/4/17 - YouTube

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Do you remember the day you decided you were no good at math?

Or maybe you had the less common, opposite experience: a moment of math excitement that hooked you for good?

Thousands of studies have been published that touch on the topic of “math anxiety.” Overwhelming fear of math, regardless of one’s actual aptitude, affects students of all ages, from kindergarten to grad school.

This anxiety extends to the daily lives of grown-ups; we put off planning for retirement, avoid trying to understand health risks, try to get out of calculating a tip. And even teachers suffer from math anxiety, which has been shown to hurt their students’ scores, especially when the teachers and the students are both female; the theory is that anxiety interacts with negative stereotypes about women’s abilities.

At Evergreen State College’s Tacoma Program in Washington state, faculty member Paul McCreary assigns students to write a “mini-memoir” of their experiences with math.

He estimates that, on average, 23 students out of a class of 25 enter not liking math. (That’s 92 percent, if you’re keeping track at home. In other words: a lot.)

“In the memoirs, I find: ‘I loved it until sixth grade and after that Mr. Hanrickhan made it impossible,’ ” says McCreary. “So they remember the name of the individual, and sometimes they describe the day that it happened.”

A turning point, that is, where “their interest and love of math fell away.”

Writing it all down helps students put their bad experiences in the past. It also demonstrates, to their instructor and to themselves, that the students have other skills.

“Math has been one of my biggest fears in life,” reads one mini-memoir from a women’s studies student. “I studied in an education system that said science and math are the important factors … and each student was analyzed and measured by their math and science grades.”

A social work student remembered changing schools when she was in fourth grade: “I would say that’s where my trouble in math stemmed from. I was not comfortable in my new school and didn’t feel comfortable speaking up or asking questions when I didn’t understand. I felt as if there were a few students [who] shined and the rest were left to fend for [themselves].”

McCreary, who holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in education from Harvard, says he likes math, but what he loves “deeply” is “how one can actually rise above a feeling of not being able to do it and as a result being an unworthy person, which is how many of the students arrive here.”

His students, who are mainly adults, come from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. The program is specifically designed to serve a diverse population and to offer a rich educational experience while allowing flexibility to work around jobs, parenting and other demands.

What would you write in your math memoir? Email us at NPRed@npr.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Can’t cool off this summer? Heat waves can slow us down in ways we may not realize.

New research suggests heat stress can muddle our thinking, making simple math a little harder to do.

“There’s evidence that our brains are susceptible to temperature abnormalities,” says Joe Allen, co-director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University. And as the climate changes, temperatures spike and heat waves are more frequent.

To learn more about how the heat influences young, healthy adults, Allen and his colleagues studied college students living in dorms during a summer heat wave in Boston.

Half of the students lived in buildings with central AC, where the indoor air temperature averaged 71 degrees. The other half lived in dorms with no AC, where air temperatures averaged almost 80 degrees.

“In the morning, when they woke up, we pushed tests out to their cellphones,” explains Allen. The students took two tests a day for 12 consecutive days.

One test, which included basic addition and subtraction, measured cognitive speed and memory. A second test assessed attention and processing speed.

“We found that the students who were in the non-air-conditioned buildings actually had slower reaction times: 13 percent lower performance on basic arithmetic tests, and nearly a 10 percent reduction in the number of correct responses per minute,” Allen explains.

The results, published in PLOS Medicine, may come as a surprise. “I think it’s a little bit akin to the frog in the boiling water,” Allen says. There’s a “slow, steady — largely imperceptible — rise in temperature, and you don’t realize it’s having an impact on you.”

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that documents the effect of heat on mental performance, both in schools and workplaces.

For instance, a 2006 study from researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab found that when office temperatures rise above the mid-70s, workers’ performance begins to drop off. Researchers reviewed multiple studies that evaluated performance on common office tasks. The study found that worker productivity is highest at about 72 degrees. When temperatures exceeded the mid-80s, worker productivity decreased by about 9 percent.

Another, more recent study compared worker performance in green-certified buildings and typical office buildings. They found a dip in cognitive function linked to conditions in the indoor environment, including higher indoor temperatures and poor lighting.

And, when it comes to performance in the classroom, a study funded by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program finds that taking a standardized test on a very hot day is linked to poorer performance. The study includes an analysis of test scores from students in New York City who take a series of high-school exams called the Regents Exams.

The author, R. Jisung Park, assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, writes that compared with a 72-degree day, “taking an exam on a 90◦F day leads to a 10.9 percent lower likelihood of passing a particular subject (e.g. Algebra), which in turn affects probability of graduation.”

There’s still a lot to learn about how our brains and bodies respond to heat. “We all tend to think we can compensate, we can do just fine” during heat waves says Allen. But he says the “evidence shows that the indoor temperature can have a dramatic impact on our ability to be productive and learn.”

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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By Trevor MacKenzie

Whether it be project-based learning, design thinking or genius hour, it’s easy to get confused by the many education buzzwords floating about. But at their heart these pedagogies are all student-centered and there are commonalities across them that are the key to their success and far more critical than keeping the jargon straight.

Naturally, educators want to understand each of these frameworks in order to make an informed decision as to how to best meet the needs of their students. The “Tree of Inquiry” is a visual guide for educators who are interested in shifting their practice but are unsure where to begin. Inquiry-based learning is the foundation for all of these student-centered strategies — students are asking their own questions, discovering answers and using their teachers as resources and guides. Schools and classrooms where deep inquiry is clearly at work invariably possess four specific characteristics no matter the specific type of inquiry utilized.

1. The learner is actively involved in the construction of understanding

In all of these frameworks, the role of the student is transformed from a passive consumer of facts and content into an active contributor to the learning experience and the exploration of problems, ideas and solutions. It is in this experience that understanding is constructed and rich learning occurs. Voice and choice are at the heart of these settings as the learner helps create the learning conditions and learning outcomes with the teacher.

One powerful example of students taking on a different role in the classroom happens when teachers use the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development as a framework for inquiry. Students explore their passions, interests, and curiosities based on the 17 U.N. goals, identifying learning objectives connected to a particular goal where they’d like to focus. Teachers then co-design standards with learners, standards with language such as gaining a deeper understanding of “x” or inspiring an audience to “do y.”

Students achieve a more genuine ownership over their learning as they grapple with these authentic problems — ones that have troubled global leaders for decades. In these spaces students take on more of the heavy lifting of learning as they are actively involved in the construction of understanding.

Courtesy Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt (Courtesy Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt)

2. The teacher as guide and mentor

Just as the role of the learner has shifted in these classrooms, so too has the role of the teacher. Teachers in these spaces are constantly reflecting and making changes in order to foster a culture of learning. They are highly aware of what’s happening around them; they take the time to stop and listen; and they pick up on the slightest clues and use these to shape next steps. They constantly ask questions of themselves that guide their practice and inform their decisions. Cumulatively they use these reflections to revise their path and better meet the needs of their students.

In all of these classrooms, teachers use a variety of strategies to support their students. It’s a misperception that student-centered classrooms don’t include any lecturing. At times it’s essential the teacher share his or her expertise with the larger group. But teachers in these classrooms also make space for learner-centered discourse such as Socratic Seminars, in which students drive the discussion and the teacher guides and facilitates the collaboration. Or students might lead a lesson with the teacher observing and compiling formative feedback to support reflection, revision and growth.

In the inquiry classroom, students often interview experts in a specific field in order to gain a deeper understanding of their inquiry topic. Teachers support them with direct instruction that introduces the class to what a strong interview entails, and identifies the processes that should be adopted to ensure students will be successful in this task. During this time exemplars are shown and discussed, sample questions are collaboratively created and planning initial steps are accomplished.

Embarking in this learning together as a group, by way of a lecture, makes sense in that all students must gain this broader and more general understanding of interviewing. The teacher then facilitates smaller breakout groups where students can delve more deeply into their individual interviews and begin to personalize the task in a more meaningful and supportive manner. It is in this gradual release of control over learning that the inquiry classroom thrives.

3. The whole child is celebrated and nurtured

Whether it be social-emotional learning, personal awareness and social responsibility, grit and growth mindset, or empathy, the language around learning has shifted in these spaces to focus on nurturing the whole student. Dispositions are at the core of these classrooms where qualities such as creativity, collaboration and communication are explicitly discussed, reflected on and supported.

In all of these classrooms there’s a joint emphasis on the product or summative piece to learning as well as the process of learning. It is in this process that students demonstrate meaningful growth in the characteristics and dispositions of a lifelong learner.

This is evident in inquiry spaces that utilize the design thinking method. This process calls on students to identify a challenge, gather information, generate potential solutions, refine ideas, and test solutions. High school students in one Vancouver classroom designed a solution to bring clean drinking water to rural areas that did not have access to this essential resource in their communities.

Some students prototyped an affordable handheld water purification system, other students designed a community sewage treatment facility, and a third group created a water use plan for the community. It’s worth noting that many students didn’t ultimately achieve a tangible or working solution by the end of the unit. But that wasn’t the goal. More important was the empathy gained during the process. The design-thinking process provided rich opportunities for student reflection and allowed the teacher to see social and emotional skills at work.

4. Structures and frameworks exist but learning isn’t overly prescribed or standardized

In these classrooms, standards do not solely drive the learning and content is not overly standardized. Students are often learning about different things that they have all individually chosen, but each student is operating within a common unified structure. Learner agency is a core component of being student-centered. Teachers can use strategies and routines to help students organize, reflect and revise as they go.

This is evident in high-quality project-based learning classrooms where projects are focused on student learning goals and include essential project design elements such as identifying key understandings, posing a challenging problem, partaking in sustained inquiry, reflection, revision and sharing learning with an authentic audience.

One example of this in action is a classroom where students were learning about positive impact on others. The provocation used by the teacher was an inspiring video titled Project Daniel.

Project Daniel - Not Impossible's 3D Printing Arms for Children of War-Torn Sudan - YouTube

After watching the video the teacher challenged students to “help one, help many” and identify a problem, plan a solution and put this plan into action in order to make a difference in someone else’s life. One group of students 3D-printed fidget spinners for younger students dealing with anxiety. Another group designed a public service announcement campaign encouraging kindness and acceptance in their school community. And another group interviewed senior citizens at a local old-age home to document, archive and share their advice for youth in order to build empathy. Although each group was working on a uniquely personalized project, they all learned from one another throughout the process as they shared their work.

Inquiry is at the heart of many education buzzwords and can be a useful tool for framing ones approach to them. John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Paolo Freire and Jean Piaget planted the roots of inquiry long ago, but every educator can leverage their constructivist example to find a pedagogy that best fits their unique teaching style. Ultimately the goal should always be to empower students to continue wondering and seeking their own answers.

Trevor MacKenzie is an award-winning English teacher at Oak Bay High School in Victoria, BC, Canada, who believes that it is a magical time to be an educator. He is so the co-author of Dive into Inquiry: Amplify Learning and Empower Student Voice, along with Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt.

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This story about social studies instruction is part of a series about innovative practices in the core subjects in the early grades. Read about math, science and reading. It was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — One of the longtime goals of public education is to produce young people capable of participating in the democratic process. Experts say that requires regular and high-quality social studies lessons, starting in kindergarten, to teach kids to be critical thinkers and communicators who know how to take meaningful action.

Yet, as teachers scramble to meet math and reading standards, social studies lessons have been pushed far back on the list of academic priorities, especially in the early grades.

“Without social studies, we lose the civic mission of public schools,” said Stephanie Serriere, a former early-grade teacher who is now an associate professor of social studies education at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus. “Ultimately, we can’t prepare children for living in a rich, diverse democracy if we don’t expose them to the controversial topics inherent in our democracy.”

Time spent teaching social studies has declined in the last two decades, particularly since the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind, which favored a focus on math, reading and accountability as a way of addressing the country’s growing achievement gap between rich and poor children. Social studies in the early grades was especially affected by that legislation: kindergarten through second grade became reading, writing and math crunch time in preparation for the testing that begins in third grade.

“Social studies is like the lima beans on the curricular plate of the elementary student’s day,” said Paul Fitchett, associate professor and director of curriculum and instruction for the doctoral program in education at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Research shows that teachers coming from elementary ed programs feel the least competent in teaching social studies, compared to math, English language arts and even the sciences.” Because social studies isn’t an academic priority in many states, teachers often receive inadequate training from teacher-prep programs on how to teach the subject; once they begin teaching in the classroom, according to the National Council for the Social Studies, teachers need continued professional development to allow them to master the skills of effective social studies instructions. Often, educators say, that training is lacking.

Because social studies teaching continues to be given short shrift, educators sometimes seek instructional help in the form of sessions organized outside of school.

Teachers and administrators get acquainted at a Border Crossers workshop for educators about discussing race and racism in the classroom. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report)

On a rainy Saturday morning this spring, 40 teachers and school administrators sat on folding chairs in the basement of a Brooklyn school for an all-day workshop on how to talk about race in the classroom. Organized by Border Crossers, a nonprofit group that trains teachers, administrators and parents how to explore race and racism, the event was led by trainers Ana Duque and Ben Howort, both former teachers.

“I do this work because, as a former kindergarten through third-grade teacher, and as a parent, I learned that when children have the language to explain race and racism, good things can happen,” Duque told the group. “There’s something about race that’s so fundamentally uncomfortable in our culture — especially when it intercepts with conversations about class and privilege.”

The workshop began with a discussion of racism from both historical and current perspectives, how it shows up in schools and classrooms today, why and how students of color were first denied equal educational opportunities, and how students of color continue to reap unequal opportunity from public education in the United States. After lunch, participants split up into small groups and practiced applying the day’s lessons to various fictional classroom scenarios.

“Racism cannot be solved in a six-hour workshop,” Howort told the group. “But hopefully you’ll leave with a lot more questions, a sense of urgency to catapult yourself into new knowledge.”

When it comes to dealing with sensitive issues like race, class, equity and gender, Duque, who teaches elementary school social studies curriculum development at Hunter College School of Education, said she wants her student-teachers to understand that social studies is not a skill to be practiced but rather an opportunity for inquiry and exploration. “If you, as the teacher, come into the classroom trusting that children have knowledge about the world already, then they can build an understanding of the world with you, the teacher, to guide them,” she said.

Border Crossers trainers Ben Howort and Ana Duque are both former elementary school teachers. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report)

When social studies aren’t part of the early-grade curriculum, she noted, the impact lasts through generations. “I’m finding that children don’t fully understand what’s happening in the world; they’re not given the time or space to process what’s happening because a) no one’s talking about it, and b) no one’s helping them connect what’s happening today to the systems and patterns of the past,” said Duque. “So now I’m seeing student teachers, products of No Child Left Behind, who never experienced rigorous social studies in their schooling either, so they don’t even know how to teach it. When I ask them to take part in inquiry, research or exploration, they don’t know how to do that.”

Experts recommend that, starting in preschool, students receive daily social studies lessons in order to fully develop the skills needed to become engaged citizens who are ready for college and careers. Common Core standards, however, tucked social studies into English Language Arts, relegating it to side-subject status rather than a discipline unto itself. That makes it even harder for teachers in the early grades as they work to meet Common Core standards while getting students test-ready for third grade.

“In kindergarten through second grade, teachers are focused on getting kids to read. Sometimes they’re using social studies as a reader — the word is integration, they’re integrating social studies into reading and language arts — and we’ve seen that done very poorly,” said Serriere, adding that there are some notable exceptions. “Most states either don’t test social studies, or the social studies test doesn’t really count toward adequate yearly progress.”

In an effort to bring social studies back and make it more coherent and challenging, the National Council for Social Studies in 2013 published the C3 Framework, an inquiry-based guide for states to use as a supplement to the Common Core standards. The C3 framework — the three Cs refer to college, career and civic life — includes curriculums in civics, economics, geography and history. Serriere said C3 is being used across the country. Critics say the framework waters down meaningful social studies instruction and fails to adequately inspire students to civic action.

Back at the Border Crossers training, Erica Davis, a workshop participant and assistant principal at a small New York City public elementary school, said she signed up for the workshop because it felt like important work. “But I’m positive that if we did this in my school, there would be blocks,” said Davis, who noted that discussions at her school about race and gender quickly become stiff and closed. And yet, she added, when conversations about race and other sensitive topics aren’t part of everyday classroom teaching, children aren’t prepared to handle difficult subjects. “We don’t have these conversations in our schools. We don’t make it comfortable. For example, we freak out when kids use the N word but we don’t support them to have further conversations about it,” said Davis. “So anyone who’s moved through the American school system just isn’t equipped to handle these issues.”

As teachers and administrators progressed through the day’s work, the two trainers repeated a mantra: “How often are we willing to misstep, to misspeak?” Howort asked the group. “When having conversations about race, you’re going to step in it — it’s just going to happen. It’s a continuous learning process.”

“I’m positive that if we did this in my school, there would be blocks,” said Erica Davis, pictured at the Border Crossers training for educators. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report)

Indeed, as teachers discussed sensitive subjects like the complex power dynamics within schools and classrooms or white teachers teaching students of color, for instance, tempers flared at several points in the day as participants struggled to find the right words to talk about these issues.

Social studies, said Serriere, is the place to incorporate sensitive conversations in the early grades. “If we listen to children and pay attention to what they’re bringing into the classroom, we realize it’s full of issues about race, class, gender, money — all those things,” she said. “So if we have an emergent curriculum in which we’re asking, ‘What’s on your mind? What isn’t fair? What bothers you? What could be improved in society?’ it might start very small, but I am confident, based on my experience in elementary classrooms, that all these issues are present in even the most homogeneous classrooms.”

Folding in difficult conversations about sensitive issues in the early grades is crucial preparation for delving more deeply into various social studies disciplines in the later grades. History, for example, with its accounts of wars, slavery, intrigue and fierce battles for rights is full of social and ethical issues including religion, race relations, gender roles, cultural differences and the merits of different political and economic systems.

As early as kindergarten, when children are at an age at which they like talking about themselves, students may begin discussing identity. “Any opportunity you can give them to talk about themselves [you should use], but in the context of some kind of social identity where you define it, give them some language,” said Duque. “Then they get an awareness of who they are within the context of other people.” First- and second-graders are ready to discuss stereotypes, the ways in which people categorize each other, and they are also able to think about re-categorizing people based on a variety of criteria. “The world categorizes people based on race, and if we never challenge or address it, then kids assume that’s the right way to engage with the world,” said Duque. “Personally, I think all these issues should be part of early-grade curriculums. And it’s important that there is also an active, purposeful relationship with families so they are involved in the conversations.”

At the workshop, Howort wrapped up the day with a bit of advice: Once a teacher decides to take on sensitive issues in the classroom, it’s crucial to have a support system. “You’ve got to have allies as teachers, so when you mess up, you have someone you can discuss it with. Set up your system so you don’t burn out,” Howort told the group.

Social studies remains a low priority in many school districts and will likely remain so until districts or states mandate daily or weekly social studies instructional time, similar to English and math instructional time requirements, said Fitchett of the University of North Carolina. That may be a tough sell, he acknowledged. “Social studies can tend to be a political hot potato,” he said. “It can ruffle a lot of feathers in terms of how it’s being used. But who doesn’t want children to be part of the democratic process? Who doesn’t want young people to be critical consumers of the world around them? Maybe I’m too optimistic here, but I think that — across parties — most people want that.”

This story about social studies instruction is part of a series about innovative practices in the core subjects in the early grades. Read about math, science and reading. It was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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This story about science instruction was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Science could be considered the perfect elementary school subject. It provides real life applications for reading and math and develops critical thinking skills that help students solve problems in other subjects. Plus, it’s interesting. It helps answer all those “why” questions — Why is the sun hot? Why do fish swim? Why are some people tall and other people short? — that 5- to 8-year-old children are so famous for asking.

Young children are “super curious,” said Matt Krehbiel, director of science for Achieve, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students graduate high school ready to start college or to pursue a career. “We want them to be able to harness that curiosity to help them make sense of the world around them.”

But science has long been given short shrift in the first few years of school. Most elementary school teachers have little scientific background and many say they feel unprepared to teach the subject well, according to a national survey of science and mathematics education conducted by a North Carolina research firm in 2012. Just 44 percent of K-2 teachers felt they were “well prepared” to teach science, according to the survey, compared to 86 percent who felt well prepared to teach reading.

Possibly as a result, the average first- through fourth-grade student spent just 2.5 hours per week on science during the 2011-12 school year, the last for which data is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And that could be why just 38 percent fourth grade students performed at or above proficient on the latest National Assessment of Education Progress for science, which was administered in 2015.

That’s a problem because careers in science, engineering and math are some of the fastest growing (and best paid) sectors of the American economy. Such jobs made up 6.2 percent of all U.S. employment in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and that’s not counting healthcare jobs, which make up another 9.1 percent. If today’s grade school children aren’t science literate, they’ll have a much bigger hurdle to overcome when they try to enter those fields in the early 2030s.

Experts say students will understand more about scientific concepts if they participate in hands-on experiments like the one outlined in this Redmond, Oregon classroom. (Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report)

But the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), first released in 2013, could be changing all that. The standards, adopted in full by 19 states and the District of Columbia (another 19 states adopted very similar new standards), are meant to help teachers focus on the importance of learning science by conducting experiments, collecting and recording information and evaluating evidence. Getting schools and teachers to begin effectively teaching to the new learning goals is a multi-year process.

“The reality of implementation is that it ends up being all over the map for a variety of reasons,” Krehbiel said. “Some [states] are moving forward great guns, others not so much.”

A new national science test and a new national survey, both due out in 2019, will show whether science achievement has improved and whether time spent on science has increased; in the meantime, the standards are definitely spurring some to action.

“When there are new standards, there is new attention put on what the standards are asking us to do,” said Cristina Trecha, director of the Oregon Science Project, an organization that provides science education training to rural and semi-rural teachers in Oregon, which adopted the standards in 2014. “NGSS is going to give us a reason to teach science.”

That’s been true for Redmond, Oregon kindergarten teacher Jennifer Callahan.

“We weren’t doing much at all,” Callahan said. “There was a curriculum, but in the time I’d been here, there was no training. It was whatever we came up with ourselves. It didn’t have as much weight as reading, writing and math.”

It does now.

Teacher Jennifer Callahan explains the concept of a gentle force moving an object a short distance to her 21 kindergartners at the Redmond Early Learning Center in Redmond, Oregon. (Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report)

On a Wednesday in May, Callahan’s classroom at the Redmond Early Learning Center, which houses all of the semi-rural district’s 400 kindergartners, was alive with scientific discovery. Callahan’s students were arrayed in a big circle rolling a ball across the rug to various classmates. After each roll, Callahan asked if it had taken a strong force or a gentle force to move the ball. Kids answered with a hand signal — one hand petting the other for gentle, a flexed bicep for strong — then explained their answer to their partner before Callahan called on a student to say what he or she thought.

Next, students matched images of scenes — a toy car being pushed up a ramp or two people tossing a ball, for example — with the correct word identifying the type of force depicted: strong or gentle. After practicing as a class, kids broke into small groups to sort more images.

At one table, four students worked together to quickly place all their image cards under the correct header.

“He didn’t put that much force,” said Lorenzo Glasser, 6, as he placed an image of a boy juggling a soccer ball with his knees under the word “gentle.” How could Lorenzo tell the boy hadn’t used much force? “It made it [the ball] go not that far,” he explained.

Lorenzo’s classmate, Scout Simonsen, also 6, said they were old hands at understanding forces. They’d been working on it “a long time, a few weeks,” she said. She threw her hands up in the air, seeming exasperated. “It feels like 5,000 years!”

Kindergartner Lorenzo Glasser, 6, (Nike shirt) hands out illustrations to his Redmond, Oregon classmates for them to sort into according to whether a strong or gentle force is pictured. (Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report)

Sorting done, the class gathered back on the rug to go through the cards as a group and tell each other how they got their answers. Then it was time to continue their ongoing experiment with forces by taking out their “pinball machines” — open cardboard boxes with elastic bands stretched across, which acted as launchers for tennis balls.

“If you pull the launcher back really far, the ball can go a long distance,” Heidi Variz, 6, reminded the class before they got started with the next step in the experiment. What would happen if they used a shoelace, instead of their finger, to activate the launcher?

Reese Homann, 6, wasn’t sure about this new development. She raised her hand. “I don’t understand why we have to use the shoelace to make it different,” she said. “That’s not what was on the video.”

“Good question,” Callahan said. The video the class had watched before they built their pinball machines “was just the beginning,” she told Reese. “But as we do new things, we learn more.”

Learning more by trying new things is what Callahan loves about the NGSS-inspired science lessons she’s running in her class this year. Today’s lesson on force comes from Amplify Science, a curriculum developed by educators at Amplify, a curriculum vendor, and researchers at the Lawrence Hall of Science, a public science center at the University of California, Berkeley. It’s one of three elementary school science curriculums Callahan is helping to pilot now that her district decided to re-commit to elementary science education.

Kindergarten students in Redmond, Oregon are asked to draw diagrams of their experiments as part of a new focus on science learning in the early grades. (Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report)

Callahan has become a particularly fervent believer in the power of science education in her classroom. In 2016, she was accepted as a trainer for the Oregon Science Project. Along with 200 other Oregon educators, more than half of whom were elementary school teachers, Callahan spent the 2016-17 school year learning best practices for teaching kindergarten science. In the summer of 2017, she passed that training on to 19 of her Redmond colleagues who wanted to learn more about teaching science in their elementary school classrooms.

“I’m thrilled with NGSS because of all the hands-on opportunities,” Callahan said. Her students also learn the value of taking risks, making mistakes and problem solving. “That higher level thinking … I don’t think we were really pushing that before.”

Getting students beyond activities like memorizing the stages of a butterfly’s lifecycle or learning the parts of a plant is just what NGSS is meant to inspire. The standards list scientific concepts and practices students should understand at the end of each grade level, as well as specific ideas they should know.

Compiled by state leaders, the National Research Council, the National Science Teacher Association and others, the standards were warmly received by many educators when they were first released. Not everyone loved them though. Critics complained the standards overemphasize skills while relegating factual scientific knowledge to secondary importance. And some conservatives decried the standards’ references to climate change and evolution as so much political maneuvering.

But Achieve’s Krehbiel, formerly a high school science teacher in Kansas, believes the standards can make a positive difference for students.

“It’s all about kids being able to explain the world around them and being thoughtful about scientific information,” Krehbiel said. “If you teach in this way, kids will show an increased likelihood to pursue a career in science, see science as relevant to their lives and show an increased interest in science.”

Pictured form left to right, Nathaniel Carpoff, 5, Aleigha Moss, 5, and Ladaysha Davis, 6, all kindergartners in Redmond, Oregon, tell each other what they learned from experimenting with their “pinball” machines. (Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report)

Oregon educators are hoping that proves true here. The state, which ranked dead last for time spent on science in elementary school in 2009, is aggressively trying to get better. The Oregon Science Project was initially funded by a grant from the federal government and will continue with funding from the state and from professional development fees charged to districts. The state also published a science and math education strategic plan in 2016. Among other goals, the plan calls for increasing the time spent on science in elementary school to above the national..

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BRONX, N.Y. — The end of third grade is a turning point for young readers; it’s where skilled readers take off, finally able to competently read a variety of texts, and struggling readers teeter off track, often unable to ever catch up. This crucial juncture, and its far-reaching implications for those who don’t meet the mark, is why some educators are focusing their literacy efforts on the school years that come before third grade — hoping through innovation to offset what could be a terrible and lasting deficit in children’s reading skills.

Last year, in tests of the nation’s public school fourth graders, just 23 percent of Hispanic children and 20 percent of African-American children scored ‘proficient’ in reading. Among low-income students in general, just 22 percent of fourth-graders were proficient readers. The repercussions of not learning to read are magnified for poor children: Research shows that low-income children who cannot read at grade level by third grade are six times more likely to become high school dropouts.

Kindergarten teacher Rosy Taveras, pictured left, receives feedback from reading coach, Xiania Foster. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report)

“In this country, we have the ability to get 90 to 95 percent of kids reading successfully — if only we’d implement scientifically based methods,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a think tank that advocates tougher teacher evaluation. “Yet we routinely only prepare between 60 and 70 percent of kids to be successful readers.” Teacher-prep programs, she added, bear a large part of the responsibility here: Many teachers-in-training receive just one course in how to teach reading — a teaching task which experts agree is extremely complex — before heading into the classroom. “It’s a source of deep frustration for a lot of people, including myself, that we fail to adequately prepare teachers to teach reading,” Walsh said. “It’s simply malpractice.”

Children do not come wired to learn how to read: It is an acquired skill. A teacher must be able to synthesize a deep well of research, master a variety of instructional methods and then be able to deploy this knowledge daily to meet each child at his or her own reading ability level.

At P.S. 218 in the Bronx, a high-poverty public bilingual school where nearly 90 percent of the students are Hispanic and 32 percent are English language learners, early-grade teachers have spent the last three years learning how to do a better job of teaching students to read — and they are seeing results.

On a recent spring day, 16 kindergarteners, some sitting on small chairs, others cross-legged on foam mats on the floor, trained their eyes on a large yellow easel pad. Miss T., known outside the classroom as Rosy Taveras, tapped a hand pointer below each word on the pad as, together, they read aloud:

“My New Pet
I wanted a new pet.
A pet that could fly.
So I got out a net
and chased a butterfly.”

Taveras showed flashcards with the words “OUT” and “SO” spelled in large block letters.

“Gimme an O, gimme a U, gimme a T! What’s that spell?” she asked, cheerleader-style.

“OUT!” yelled her students.

“Take a look at these cards,” Taveras said. “Now turn to your neighbor and ask: ‘How did you know it was ‘HOW’ or ‘SO’?’”

The students mumbled to each other for several seconds.

“Now I need a friend to find ‘SO’ and ‘OUT’ in the poem,” Taveras said. Small hands shot up. “Ephraim, you’re up.”

Children do not come wired to learn how to read; it is an acquired skill. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report  )

This is shared reading, a finely-tuned teaching practice that offers Taveras the opportunity to model fluent and expressive reading while her students join in. If the practice is done well, kids will feel like successful readers, and be eager to learn more. Although Taveras is the teacher in charge, she is closely monitored by reading coach Xiania Foster, who provides feedback after each chunk of the daily reading lesson.

Taveras has been a teacher for four years, all of them at P.S. 218. “When I went to college [to study teaching], they tell you: ‘Here, this is the lesson plan for reading, for math, etc.,’ but once you get to the classroom, you realize there’s no way this is going to cover everything,” she said. “You can’t just go black and white. You have to differentiate for each student, and always keep in your mind: what movement can I do for the students who don’t know the language, what visuals can I bring so they have a better understanding of the lesson? These are not things they teach you in college.”

Foster, Taveras’ instructional coach, has been coming to P.S. 218 for three years, part of a partnership between the school and Early Reading Matters (ERM), a teacher-training program. ERM focuses on showing public school teachers who work in New York City’s high-poverty schools how to skillfully get students in the early grades to read at grade level. The program is currently working in 32 schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, with plans to expand to 62 schools by 2021. So far, results are promising. Averaged across 15 schools during the 2016-17 school year, the nonprofit reports an approximately 11 percent boost in the number of students reading at grade level — from 33 percent reading at grade level in the fall, to 44 percent by the beginning of summer. The figures do not include students who missed more than 28 days of class each year.

Rosy Taveras, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 218 in the Bronx, models fluent and expressive reading. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report )

The program is research-based, said Lynette Guastaferro, chief executive officer of ERM’s parent company, Teaching Matters. If teachers hope to create eager readers, especially among kids who struggle to learn the skill, their chances of success will be far greater if key principals of balanced literacy become second nature, an essential part of their teaching practice. These techniques include how to create strong, guided reading instruction, how to select and appropriately use high-quality texts and how to assess each child’s reading level to better target guided and independent reading.

When Sergio Cáceres became principal of P.S. 218 four years ago, he decided to focus on the school’s youngest students. “If you want to have an impact in the later grades, you need to start with K to 2,” he said. “That’s the foundation of learning.”

After an initial assessment, he determined that early reading instruction was one of the school’s glaring weaknesses. “We have very good teachers but they did not know how to teach reading,” Cáceres said. 

In 2014, Cáceres’ first year at the school, just 19 percent of the students tested as proficient on the statewide English Language Arts (ELA) test, compared to 31 percent statewide. “Early literacy is difficult to teach well, especially when it comes to teaching students who are struggling readers, and unfortunately, it’s a skill teachers don’t come prepared with,” said the principal. “Especially so for kindergarten through second grade.”

Without high-quality and targeted support, research shows, many teachers decide to quit. The rate at which teachers leave the profession — generally about 8 percent nationwide — is 50 percent higher at high-poverty schools and 70 percent higher in schools serving primarily students of color. At P.S. 218, almost 40 percent of teachers have less than three years’ teaching experience.

After an initial assessment four years ago, P.S. 218 principal Sergio Cáceres, pictured in the school’s new leveled-books collection, determined that early reading instruction was one of the school’s glaring weaknesses. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report)

When the district superintendent asked P.S. 218 to consider implementing the ERM teaching model, Cáceres didn’t hesitate, even though it would clearly mean extra hours and effort for Cáceres and his already overworked teachers. He appreciated ERM’s research-based approach to teaching reading and he was also swayed by the financials: Normally, hiring a reading coach would cost approximately $1,250 per day, but ERM training and three years of in-school coaching won’t cost the school a penny; it is all funded by grants. In addition to the ERM training, the school received a Universal Literacy Coach, part of New York City’s Universal Literacy Initiative, a citywide effort to get 100 percent of all second-graders reading at grade level by 2026. “So we worked to align Early Reading Matters with the U.Lit coach and, wow, what a powerful combination,” said Cáceres. “It was very rigorous.”

Back in Taveras’ classroom, Foster, the reading coach, checked in with the teacher. “Your timing: It’s getting much better,” Foster said quietly. Taveras nodded, her eyes scanning the room. Her students were split into small groups, each working at prepared stations where they reinforced their reading skills by playing with objects like play dough to shape out letters, multicolored Unifix cubes to form short words, and a word-based memory game on the rug. “We talked about shortening your lesson to 15 minutes and you nailed it,” said Foster.

Taveras headed to her desk where five children were waiting to do small group work. “Pull out your flashcards with the words ‘IS’ and ‘MY’,” she instructed the group. Foster pulled up a chair to observe. The extra attention helps children deepen their grasp of specific letters and sounds.

As one of ERM’s 10 coaches, Foster works in five schools, each at a different stage in its three-year relationship with the program. After an intensive multi-day training session for teachers and principals at ERM’s headquarters, schools receive 30 days of coaching over the first two years. That number decreases to 15 days in the third year. (P.S. 218 purchased another 15 days this year to provide reading instruction training for new hires and to continue strengthening the skills of existing teachers.)

Foster works individually with teachers to develop targeted teaching strategies, help create reading lessons, and train teachers and administrators to assess and monitor growth, of both students and teachers. She often starts with a school’s lead teachers — frequently modeling teaching skills and techniques in the classroom — who then share lessons learned with other teachers in the grade. “Probably the hardest part of my job is changing mindset, because the kids can do a lot, but sometimes teachers and administrators aren’t aware of how much kids — even struggling students — can accomplish.” said Foster, “So part of my work is encouraging teachers to say, okay, I’m going to read this text, even though it’s hard, and the kids can grapple with it.”

Because reading proficiency has such a huge impact on later learning, the challenging task of teaching young children to read must be “job one for elementary teachers,” according to a 2016 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality. Yet just 39 percent of the nation’s 820 teacher-prep programs cover the essential components of effective early reading instruction. “Poor teacher prep for reading has been going on a long time,” said Cáceres, the principal at P.S. 218. “Yet I haven’t met a teacher who can’t master it. But the schools that perform well, they all have high-level coaches. After that, success depends on two things: the quality of the coaching and how open a teacher is to receiving professional input.”

This story about early reading instruction is part of a series about innovative practices in the core subjects in the early grades. Read about math, science and social studies. It was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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