Fellow Feature: Elaine Menardi


Elaine Menardi, Colorado Policy Fellow

State and City of Residence:

Denver, CO

Job Description:

Education Program Coordinator, Wings Over The Rockies Air & Space Museum

Why do you work in education? 

I was a kid once. I know what it is to be curious... filled with a sense of wonder and a desire for discovery. I live by the prime directive: To reach the child who hungers for purpose in #PivotTheModel design school learning.

Tell us about something that you have done in education that you feel has made or will make a big difference for your community? 

Together with Policy Fellow, Jess Buller, we proposed HB 17-1201, a STEM High School Diploma Endorsement which was signed into a law in Colorado. This is a great opportunity for students to showcase their hard work and be rewarded for academic excellence. The endorsement will add a mark of distinction for high-achieving students and show employers and colleges they will be successful in their future endeavors.

What’s your favorite part about being an Educator Voice Fellow?

I have enjoyed being a firsthand participant in the policy-making process. Before becoming a fellow, I had no idea how accessible the political system and legislators were. Having initiated a policy project that is going to the Governor's desk to be signed into law is hugely gratifying and exciting.

If you could change just one thing about our current education system, what would it be?

I hope for the day when educators at all levels will focus more intentionally on giving students the awesome secret sauce:

Autonomy + Mastery + Purpose = Drive

If we can inspire students with the passionate drive to excel, we will have done our jobs well.

If a song played every time you walked into a room, what would that song be?

"In my dream, the angel shrugged & said /

if we fail this time /

it will be a failure of imagination /

& then she placed the world gently in the palm of my hand."

Brian Andreas

What’s the best thing a student ever said to you?

Oh! I get it now!

What’s your dream vacation?

A month on the International Space Station or at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

"Failure is not an option." Gene Kranz, Mission Control to Apollo 13 on April 13, 1970.

What is one book every educator must read?

Creative Confidence by David and Tom Kelley AND The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Prior to becoming the Education Program Coordinator at Wings Over The Rockies Air & Space Museum, Elaine Menardi cultivated her math skills with 7th and 8th grade students at Yuma Middle School. She believes in the power of a growth-mindset and knows that the best learning happens when teachers and students see themselves as partners who explore questions and discover new ideas together. Curiosity and perseverance fuel her drive toward all things STEM where she frequently showcases the work of students via online media and video. After graduating from Colorado School of Mines, Elaine began her career as an electrical engineer. Working in Research and Development for the (then) Adolph Coors Company, she is listed among the team of patented inventors for a proprietary machine vision can identification system. Elaine is deeply invested in teaching design thinking to students and educators to strengthen their creative confidence and imagination to ensure a successful future for 21st century learners.



Fellow Feature: Jess Buller

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Jess Buller, Colorado Policy Fellow

State and City of Residence:

Kremmling, Colorado

Job Description:

K-8 Principal

Why do you work in education? 

I seek to bring systemic change to education. Our students deserve better than the current model is capable of providing. High stakes accountability--as far as we currently define it--has created an unhealthy level of distrust between the public and the educators who are in the trenches working hard to create positive change with our kids. As an administrator, I seek to empower teachers to regain lost confidence in knowing that they truly possess the power to make a positive change in the lives of those they serve.

Tell us about something that you have done in education that you feel has made or will make a big difference for your community? 

My colleague and fellow policy fellow, Elaine Menardi, and I co-wrote HB 17-1201: adding a STEM endorsement to the high school diploma. HB 17-1201 outlines a rigorous pathway consisting of test scores and STEM-related coursework, as well as a capstone project created through a partnership between the school and industry. This is of particular value to the students whom I serve in that it offers great post-secondary potential to rural students who might not otherwise be afforded that opportunity. Students who graduate from rural or small rural districts are often overlooked for a variety of reasons; the diploma endorsement will assure colleges and universities as well as potential employers that these students will drive the future.

What’s your favorite part about being an Educator Voice Fellow?

The connections have proven invaluable. America Achieves is a driven group of educators with a common goal: to provide the best for the students we serve. It is humbling to be a part of such a group of like-minded individuals.

If you could change just one thing about our current education system, what would it be?

Systemic change begins with a mindset. Whether it's small or large scale, the need to change must be recognized before there will be traction in the effort. The system of education we operate under currently is not designed for the students it seeks to serve. To prepare students for their future, we must elevate our model from one of Learn-Test-Forget to one of Ask-Think-Solve. In other words, we must design a system that allows students to show what they are capable of doing instead of just what they know.

If a song played every time you walked into a room, what would that song be?

"It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)" - REM

What’s the best thing a student ever said to you?


Anything else you’d like to share?

The choice to become an educator should not be taken lightly. We have the power to change the world - literally. Working in a school is difficult and it comes without proper recognition. Every child who steps through our front doors is hungering for a purpose and it is up to us to nourish it. The broken homes...the past experiences...the troubling circumstances...all of these add challenge to our attempt to educate. But NONE of these should deter us from doing what we are meant to do. Keep fighting the good fight.

Jess Buller is a K-8 principal for West Grand School District 1-JT in Kremmling, Colorado. Prior to acquiring this position, Jess served as a German and English teacher for 11 years (in Nebraska and Colorado) as well as a K-8 principal for the past four years in Yuma, Colorado. Jess earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in German and English from Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, and later went on to earn a Master in Education degree from the University of Nebraska-Kearney, specializing in Principalship. In late Spring 2015, Jess and colleague, Elaine Menardi, founded Never Summer, a company that strives to aid adults in understanding and teaching today's youth. Jess is an avid proponent of pushing the academic envelope in public education. It is his pursuit to pivot the educational conversation into one where student success is truly at heart. It is his position that true 21st century preparation goes far beyond college and career readiness.  



Camden Principal Dr. William Hayes on Building Relationships, School Climate and Teamwork

This blog post was originally published on May 24, 2017 on the blog, Philly's 7th Ward.

Dr. William Hayes, the second-year principal at East Camden Middle, knows it isn’t going to be easy—but it would be hard to tell being around him. Walking around East Camden, now in its second year as a renaissance school (partnerships between charter schools and the Camden City School District), Dr. Hayes walks with a casual ease that might make you think the job of running a school is a breeze.

Much of that is likely due to Dr. Hayes’ upbringing though; he hails from the South after all, born and raised in Hartsville, South Carolina. A hometown with less than 10,000 people where half the town is black and nearly a quarter of the population below the poverty line, it would be easy to see how Dr. Hayes might feel at home here in Camden. So as we walked East Camden Middle, you can see the ways that the school has already taken after the leader’s demeanor: calm, thoughtful and social.

The social part felt particularly present on this visit. As we stopped by classrooms and moved through the hall, our time together went over by 25 minutes because of the number of students and staff that frequently stopped to talk to the principal. It’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be, a revelation that Dr. Hayes knows everyone in the school, but you can tell that it matters to him, largely because it’s clear that relationships have always mattered to him.

Dr. William Hayes attended college at Morehouse College, where he majored in psychology on an academic scholarship. Later, when he enrolled in a graduate program at Harvard to get his Master’s in Risk and Prevention Counseling, he began forming a relationship with a local public school in the nearby Boston Public Schools (BPS) district. Initially this started as a sort of wish fulfillment to work with youth.

“I knew that I wanted to work in programming at the school level,” Hayes shared with me as we sat in an office that he had given up for other staff to use instead (it’s clear by his Nike running shoes and laptop that he prefers a roving office). His internship with the BPS school was working with 20 black and Latino young men who had failed the 9th grade. His job was to get them back on a productive path, which was daunting.

To advocate for these youth, Hayes understood quickly that the path forward would “be through advocating for these kids to the adults in their lives—parents, family members, the principal and teachers” in an effort to meet every kid where they’re at and push their needs, and their story, from there.

Listening to him recount this can be misleading due to the low, cool, confident tone of his voice, but he’s quick to share how challenging it was if you’re listening. “I was overwhelmed,” he shares, “because as I got more ingrained into the school and the community, I was learning how much I just didn’t know about Boston”.

Over time though, that dynamic melted away, and by the time that he left the school—a five year stint as a 12th grade seminar teacher and AP—he was ready to try and serve as a school leader. After getting his principal certification from Northeastern his next stop was Cleveland, Ohio, where he led a pre-K to eighth-grade turnaround school.

After being encouraged to pursue school leadership by mentors, he joined Cleveland Public Schools as a part of a large campaign aimed at getting new leaders into the system. Hayes described his school as “high needs”, a challenge he relished given his specialization from Harvard, and his focus on special education. The school, with over 450 students, was a welcome challenge for the 2-3 years he was there, once again focusing on building relationships: first with the staff he inherited, working hard to try and build their trust; but also with the students and their families.

Once again, Dr. Hayes found himself doing this from the outside, but was similarly undaunted, even as he was routinely humbled by politics, school community and the demands of school leadership.

Now at East Camden Middle, you can see how much those lessons have meant to him before coming to Camden. He chose Camden, New Jersey, after leaving Cleveland because he’s “still committed to public schools and neighborhood schools” and sees the renaissance schools partnerships as a way to blend two school type worlds.

He doesn’t spend much time obsessing over these particular politics though; halfway through our tour he’s talking about the resources that they’ve created for helping their students deal with trauma. On the upper floor of the school there’s a room dedicated for students and staffed with a skilled therapist, and inside the former classroom has been transformed into a sanctuary of peace and tranquility—a respite from the everyday trauma too many of them have been experiencing living in Camden.

The response, and the need, have been both underestimated and overwhelming; the room stays busy throughout the day, and the reverberations of this trauma has even prompted the East Camden Middle leadership team to start extending trauma care and support to the school staff too.

As he’s walking the halls, nodding and stepping into classrooms, playfully teasing students about getting their homework done, or chatting with a staff member about their personal life for a hot minute, all of this is on his mind, and more. Climate is something he’s keenly aware of, and not just in the halls. Dr. Hayes says that at East Camden, he and the staff are working to create a culture that can develop and maintain a high academic bar.

Early results so far show that this is possible too; in their first year the English proficiency scores on PARCC tripled, though Dr. Hayes would be the first to admit that “we (still) have miles to go”, and stresses that developing a positive atmosphere around supporting students doesn’t have to come at the expense of maintaining high academic standards.

He also recognizes that while the buck stops with him as the school leader, this isn’t work that he does alone. He emphasized several times that what East Camden has and will continue to accomplish is the result not of just him, but “a great team of leaders and teachers that support the kids 100 percent.”

Dr. Hayes has come to care a great deal about Camden in his short time too, and so he’s trying to anticipate being at the ready for everything from any impact from Camden High’s renovations to whatever the next season of Camden Enrollment brings to his school, to how to support what’s essentially a two-school model (the lower floors are the middle school; the upper the high school at East Camden).

It’s how you can tell that underneath the cool, Southern-style exterior his mind is still racing—probably even when his running shoes are hung up for the night. There’s still miles to go.

William Hayes William Hayes is the founding principal of Mastery-East Camden Middle School, a first year Renaissance partner school in Camden, New Jersey. Prior to that he was a turnaround principal at Franklin D. Roosevelt Academy Pre-K-8 in Cleveland, OH. Marked by a swift and aggressive rise to school leadership, William spent the majority of his professional career at the high school level as an assistant principal and teacher in Boston before moving to Cleveland in 2012. He received his Master's in Education from Harvard University in 2008 and is a 2007 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Morehouse College. He is currently enrolled in a doctoral program in education leadership and policy at Vanderbilt University.


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Fellow Feature: Sarah Giddings


Sarah Giddings, Michigan Educator Voice Fellow

State and City of Residence:

Michigan - Ypsilanti

Job Description (grade level taught, position, title, etc.):

Teacher Leader & Curriculum Coordinator at a countywide consortium alternative teacher-powered high school for at-risk students. HS hybrid role. SS & ELA all level courses along with the Big History Project

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What brought you to work in education?

I have a strong family background in education. I grew up helping my mom in her preschool & kindergarten classes. My twin sister and I both became teachers, and I married a man who is a math teacher! I thought I would jump right to being a policy work or administration. However it was my mom who brought me down to reality by saying that if I was going to advocate for people in the trenches, I needed to serve in the trenches first. I haven't left the trenches yet! I love working with the most needy students to help them discover strategies for success and empowering teachers to lead.

Tell us about something that you have done in education (either alone or working with a group) that you feel has made or will make a big difference for your community? (What was the problem you were addressing, and what were the outcomes? What do you see that is changing?)

I have done a lot of work to advocate for current teacher involvement in both policy decisions and connecting to preservice educators. Presently, I am working on a project with a local university to bring current teacher leaders to work with preservice teachers on how to connect using social media. We now see a greater connection between current and preservice teachers and steps towards a deeper support system using social media tools. I also worked to add teacher leadership mechanisms to our state's ESSA plan and I hope to see our legislature fund these opportunities.

What’s your favorite part about being an America Achieves Fellow?

I love the professional network that I am so blessed to be a part of. When I first became a Fellow, I realized that all the talented individuals made up such an impactful whole that I knew I had found my educator tribe. I love it when I want to talk educator policy that I can jump on a social media network and usually a Fellow is the first to comment. When I need support for a project, there are always Fellows around to help. I loved my experience so much that I recommended both my husband and twin to join in the next year (and they did!)

If you could change just one thing about our current education system, what would it be?

I would ensure ongoing involvement of teachers in the state education policy decisions and the implementation of policies that affect schools, teachers, and students. Teachers are making changes that are positively affecting students, but too many of these changes are happening in isolation and are not sustainable without funding their creativity!

If a song played every time you walked into a room, what would that song be?

I Would Walk (500 Miles) - The Proclaimers

What is your other favorite thing to do (besides education, or course!)?

Being with my two beautiful girls, my husband, and my identical twin and her family!

Sarah Giddings is a National Board Certified teacher, advisor, and curriculum coordinator for the WAVE Program—a Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium alternative countywide high school she helped develop and is a part of the instructional leadership team. Sarah is a Hope Street Group National Teaching Fellow, an America Achieves Fellow, and a national TeachStrong Ambassador. She has trained and presented to educators, policymakers, and community members from the local level to the USDOE and national level on a multitude of passions including teacher leadership, public education innovations, education policy, assessment literacy, social-emotional learning, and being a connected educator. 

Sarah has written and blogged for Big History Project, National Board, Teach to Lead, and the Michigan Department of Education. Sarah also was an organizer of the inaugural ECET2MI education conference. She spent several years as a teacher-leader at Al Raby High School in Chicago, designing a cutting-edge GIS curriculum. Sarah graduated with a master's in K-12 Education Administration, and holds a professional certificate in Ed Technology, a B.A. in social relations and English minor, all from Michigan State University.

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Balancing Guided Reading and Authentic Discovery

This blog post was originally published by Amber Chandler on May 21, 2017 on MiddleWeb.Com

How much pre-teaching and context-building should we do when we teach novels from earlier cultural eras? How much is too much in a project-driven, discovery based classroom?

In early April I wrote an article for the Getting Smart blog about allowing my eighth grade students the opportunity for authentic discovery. In this case – of a coming-of-age novel. I had just taught The Outsiders for the first time, and I hadn’t done any pre-teaching at all.

We jumped into the book, and as students constructed their own meaning, they were very much relating to the universal aspects of teenage life. They were shocked when I asked, after they had finished, “How does it make you feel to learn that the person who wrote this book was a 16 year old girl named Suzy? S.E. Hinton?”

I was invigorated that my students were experiencing literature in a way that I had so many times. Cold reads, letting the words wash over you, soaking up the nuances of the language and dialogue, tapping into the story as a story, nothing more. No prep. No history lessons.

Fast forward to May

Now, something extraordinary has happened. The year is winding down, and it is time for our Passion Projects. These projects are very individualized and highly independent. Most of my 2017 kiddos, as usual, jumped into the process, eager to explore a topic on their own. (Here are some of  last year’s projects.) This is exactly what I was getting at in my Getting Smart article – more “authentic discovery.”

However, there were some students who I had concerns about. The first part of the project is to read 100 pages of non-fiction on their chosen topic, and when I did my initial checkpoint, I knew that I needed to intervene.

About a dozen students were behind enough that I made the decision to create a “guided project” for them. It isn’t a punishment, and the work is still really engaging and interesting, but it is meant to help students manage their time. Guided projects are nothing new for my project based classroom (you can check out the Guided Giver Project here), so there is no stigma attached.

Anyway, I decided to build on the success of the The Outsiders unit and create a webquest exploring some of the 1960s history and culture that formed the book’s backdrop. The “guided” students would still be doing research, and they would also have the all-important final 10-minute culminating presentation.

A few days after both the independent projects and the webquest were in full swing, an odd thing happened. Class by eighth grade class, some students who were doing the Passion Project – which my students always love! – were asking me if they could do the guided webquest about The Outsiders instead.

A flexible classroom dilemma

This left me in a new situation. I’m all about choice, right? However, the purpose of the Passion Project is to push students from the nest of my room, and see them take off on their own. Should I let them abandon independence for the guided experience?

I asked students why they wanted to switch. A few thought the work would be less, which I assured them was not true. In the end, the defectors from the Passion Project fell into two camps: those who felt the need for more guidance than the Passion Project provides, and those who were really, really interested in all things Outsiders. 

In both cases, I felt comfortable allowing the switch. I loved that students were self-aware enough to recognize their need for a more structured process. Mostly though, I was intrigued by the students who were so interested in The Outsiders that they wanted to learn more.

Had I missed the boat with my authentic discovery strategy? They had seemed genuinely interested in that approach as well, really basking in the universality of the text, not as a story about the 1960’s.

The best of both worlds

As with most things, there’s likely a middle ground. I asked students about this issue, and without exception they thought that next year I should continue to let students “just read” the book and experience it for themselves. But, they said, when next year’s classes are done with the reading, I should then assign the The Outsiders webquest so they can learn more about the historical context of S.E. Hinton’s YA classic.

I then asked them what my future students should be doing as the culminating project or presentation for The Outsiders unit, and I love what one of the novel’s biggest fans suggested.

He said I should assign chapters from the book to our Resource Groups, and each group would create a presentation on the historical aspects of their assigned chapters. The groups would then present in chapter order, allowing the class to be immersed in both the plot and the historical circumstances. Brilliant!

We can always learn from our students

Teaching anything for the first time is daunting. When you have a project based classroom like I do, units aren’t concrete and orderly, but rather productions that take on a life of their own. During the next week or so, I’m going to map out this new plan so that my students can have the best of both worlds next year – the joy of discovery and the deeper historical context that clearly so many of my students found interesting.

I’m more than a little excited by this intriguing turn of events. Learning from my students, and watching them advocate for what they want to learn is certainly an exciting way to end a school year!

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified English Teacher, education blogger for, and frequent contributor to education websites and magazines. She has taught a wide range of students in her 15 years teaching, from AP Literature students to remedial 6th grade. Amber is interested in new teacher training and mentoring; as a part of her recent participation in Teaching is the Core, she was able to train college and graduate students in ways to implement the Common Core as they begin their careers. She is also a trainer for Southtown Teachers Center, offering workshops on topics such as Danielson_s Domains and Differentiation. Amber also brings her experiences as ELA department chair, new teacher mentor, and Director of Frontier Summer School. Amber, her husband, and her two children love road trips, theater, and music.



Engaging and Empowering Teens to Create Sustainable Schools: Rochester Youth Climate Leaders Show the Way

This blog post was originally published by Chris Dolgos on May 18, 2017 on Green Schools National Network.

How do you convince 90 tweens, teens, and their teachers to willingly give up a sunny, spring Sunday to chart a course for more sustainable and climate-friendly schools? You create an event they can’t say no to! On April 9, 2017, the Rochester Youth Climate Leaders sponsored a Youth Climate Summit to raise awareness about climate change and gathered dozens of students from 16 different schools to forge a path to a sustainable future. Inspired by earlier summits held at a local university and The Wild Center’s Youth Climate Summit Toolkit, we decided to take the plunge and have a go at sponsoring our own event.

Rochester Youth Climate Leaders (RYCL) is a youth movement voicing concern for our climate and advocating for a sustainable future. Its members range from middle school students to students attending college as well as teachers and parents. RYCL was created following a 2015 summit hosted by The Harley School where youth leaders saw an opportunity to become advocates for change. RYCL members meet monthly to discuss ways they can have an impact on their schools and community.

The Youth Climate Summit was the group’s most ambitious project. We wanted to provide area youth with a forum to discuss ways to address climate change personally and institutionally at our schools, as well as make it interactive and show through workshops that change can happen through small, deliberate steps. Of course, planning such an event takes time and money – the latter of which we had very little. However, through the generosity of a few donors, local businesses, and the Rochester Museum & Science Center, we secured a venue and provided lunch and programming to our participants.

Planning a summit requires lots of brainstorming, something the RYCL members were eager to take on. From our grand ideas, we identified a few key areas that required follow through. By leveraging our professional education networks, we invited and included schools and participants that reflected our community’s rich diversity. We needed to identify a keynote speaker who was knowledgeable of climate change globally, as well as locally. We also invited local experts to serve on speaker panels and asked local organizations to provide hands-on workshops for participants. Finally, we wanted a planning session that would provide attendees (in their school teams) with a “greenprint” of sorts to take back to their local schools and begin the work of creating sustainable change.

Our workshop offerings were engaging and inspired many students to begin thinking about how to implement sustainability efforts at their own schools. Headwater Food Hub shared the value of local farms and organic food in mitigating climate change through a reduced carbon footprint. Participants prepared a variety of side salads using locally sourced produce for our lunch. Dream Bikes held a bike maintenance clinic and shared ways to establish and sustain a bicycling culture at schools. Community Composting conducted a waste audit with our school’s garbage and spoke about the value of diverting food waste from the landfill stream (all food waste from the summit was composted). The Irondequoit Conservation Board held a rain barrel workshop, which complimented the rain garden projects on the Rochester Museum & Science Center campus.

The buzz of the workshops fed into the participants’ excitement for creating sustainable SMART goals (SMART being an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Relevant, and Time-bound) for their schools. By identifying the bridges and barriers and the allies and assets of their schools, students identified a single focus to begin their efforts. By creating SMART goals, groups could leverage what was already working at their schools and plan to improve systems that would promote sustainable efforts and help mitigate climate change. These goals ranged from banning Styrofoam lunch trays to starting a school garden project to increasing bicycling to school. We are eager to hear how these efforts evolve over time and hope that through the summit, more schools and students will become invested in the RYCL organization.

Although it was a heavy lift to plan and execute the Youth Climate Summit, it is a worthwhile event that local groups across the nation can replicate. Science and nature centers make perfect venues and every city has environmental and climate scientists who would be willing to support workshops and panels. We were fortunate to receive in-kind support from local schools and supermarkets, and letters from passionate students can often help loosen purse strings. The resources available from The Wild Center are helpful if you want to create your own local Youth Climate Summit. Additionally, we found that providing a website with an agenda and resources helped with planning (and it eliminated paper copies!).

Changing mindsets to embrace sustainability and address climate change is no small feat, but as we have found, the power of youth is unbridled and often underestimated. Liam Smith, one of RYCL’s youth leaders, said of the event: “The Climate Summit inspired and motivated my fellow students and me to act for sustainable change. We all left feeling empowered to make our schools more environmentally friendly and eager to implement our green action plans. It was a great experience to work with other students who are concerned for our environment and motivated to implement solutions for climate change.”

Chris Dolgos is an adult advisor to Rochester Youth Climate Leaders and a founding teacher of Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, New York, where he teaches sixth grade. He has been teaching for 20 years and was the recipient of the 2016 EL Education Klingenstein Teacher Award. Chris has taught learning expeditions around climate change and sustainability for several years, and outside of school enjoys exploring the natural world of the Finger Lakes with his family.



Every Day Black and Brown Students Start Their Days Like They Are Criminals

By Sharif El-Mekki

This post was originally published May 14, 2017 on Sharif El-Mekki's personal blog, Philly's 7th Ward.


Adam Stumacher recently wrote an article sharing the seething cauldron of conflicts that many schools represent. He bemoaned his part in claiming to uplift his students of color, only to participate in their dehumanization as well.

I try to tell myself none of this is within my control. I think of our school’s work to design courses around diverse texts, hire teachers who reflect our students’ cultures and connect kids with opportunities like internships — how we welcome all students with the promise that we will not rest until they achieve their potential.

But I see how their body language shifts when they walk through metal detectors, some wrapping their arms around themselves and others throwing their heads back in defiance. I see how they fixate on their phone screens or scarves, anything to avoid meeting my gaze. In that moment, there is no denying I am part of the machine.

He is right in his description of how many of our Black and Brown students enter schools on a daily basis. The fear of a hidden weapon or drugs is pervasive, but not more so than the fear of Black and Brown children. 

How children (and their communities) are welcomed into schools demonstrates how we feel about them and the level of respect we believe they deserve. No one wants a weapon in their school. But, it would be interesting to know, out of all the tragedies that have occurred in schools across the country,  how many white schools have erected green zone bulwarks in their schools, in response. 

School districts that respond with more security are showing students and families that “security” ” is of more value than education, and controlling students is more important than providing counseling. It makes total sense for students to feel like they start their day treated like criminals,and t makes the mindset of the adults ever more transparent.

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter-Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sharif was selected as the Southwest Region School District of Philadelphia Principal of the Year, West Philadelphia Coalition of Neighborhoods & Businesses Education Leader of the Year, and has received a community partnership award at Pennsylvania's House of Representatives' Community Service Awards. Recently, his school's college acceptance rate was 100%. This success was reached by tracking students and backwards mapping?that is, determining the skills necessary for college graduation and infusing those skills into staff?s work with students. For example, the schools now has a College Continuum that allows all staff to see what skills students should have in each grade (7-12) and provides strategies that they can all use on a daily basis to increase their students? strengths. In his spare time, he fosters his love of sports, reading, and languages (Farsi, Arabic, and Spanish).



Fellow Feature: Kelley Cusmano

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Kelley Cusmano, Michigan Educator Voice Fellow

State and City of Residence:

Troy, MI

Job Description: 

HS ELA & Leadership Teacher

Why do you work in education? OR What brought you to work in education?

I work in education because I want to make a difference in children's lives. I know that I have been blessed to have wonderful mentors and support in my life, but not everyone has been so lucky. I want to provide a spark, some love & a passion for reading, writing and leadership to every student who comes into my classroom, regardless of their background or learning style. I love that in education, every day & every student is different and that I am held accountable by 150 teenagers each and every day.

Tell us about something that you have done in education (either alone or working with a group) that you feel has made or will make a big difference for your community? (What was the problem you were addressing, and what were the outcomes? What do you see that is changing?)

I developed Rochester High School's leadership class/student council program from a blow-off elective & club into an award-winning force of nature. When I started teaching leadership, I could see that I had a lot of students who were passionate about doing things for others and had a lot of energy, but needed a place and a purpose. Now, our leadership class does that for many students at Rochester High School. Our class is known throughout our community and we help run activities & community across our school, our elementary & middle schools and with different community organizations. I teach students how to be their own type of leader every day and it is truly a challenge & a joy.

What’s your favorite part about being an America Achieves Fellow?

I love the network of like-minded education world changers the group has brought me into contact with. Before I became a Fellow, I loved talking with other teachers and I had even attended some conferences, but I had no clue that there was a whole group of teachers who felt the same passion towards changing education policy and the education landscape. These are the people that I now collaborate with on projects, engage on social media and get all sorts of advice from. It has been a valuable professional resource for me and my practice.

If you could change just one thing about our current education system, what would it be?

The neglect of teacher voice in education policy decisions. Teachers have expertise, they have experience and they have passion about all of the education changes that have been introduced at the local, state and federal levels. Teacher voice should be an integral part of all those policy conversations and decisions should not be made until a group of teachers has been consulted. I also think that it should be mandatory to have a group of teachers work in conjunction with their state legislators!

Who is your biggest inspiration?

Okay this is going to be cheesy but my identical twin sister Sarah Giddings, who is also an America Achieves Fellow. She is a go-getter and pushes herself to be an amazing leader in education, ed teach and many other innovative teaching practices. I love her enthusiasm for this career and her support of me in everything I do. She inspires me to stay with this often undervalued, incredibly messy world that is teaching and aim to do it better every day. #mytwinrocks

What is one book every educator must read?

Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers who lead but don't leave. Reading this book made me realize that if I want to change education, I don't necessarily have to leave the classroom. I love teaching and engaging with students and it makes me sad that many people feel that they have to step outside the classroom in order to create opportunities for themselves in ed leadership. This book gives you examples and all sorts of ideas for how to create your own path and embark on education leadership opportunities. Inspiring!

Kelley Cusmano has been an English & Leadership teacher at Rochester High School in the Rochester Community School District since 2008. She has a Bachelor's Degree in English, a Master's Degree in Curriculum and Instruction and a pending Administrative Certificate all from Michigan State University. She is the RHS student council adviser and serves on the Michigan Association of Student Councils Advisery Board. Also, she is a high school English Teacher Leader for Rochester Community Schools. This year she will be a Michigan Educator Fellow as well as a member of the Teacher Leadership Initiative. She is married and has two adorable girls, a four year old and a two year old. She is so excited to be a part of the Michigan Educator Voice Fellowship and looks forward to using this opportunity to increase teacher voice and ownership in the education decision making process.



Teaching Has Taught Me… Nothing

By Elissa Smith

This blog post was originally published May 10, 2017 on TeachingChannel.

It doesn’t seem possible that my time in the classroom is over. 

At the start of this school year, I accepted a position as a principal, after spending the last 15 years in the classroom. At some points, those years seemed to zoom by, but there were moments where time seemed to stand still, the daily struggles nearly overwhelming. Thankfully, the fulfilling days far outweighed the tough times.

While I’m enjoying the challenges and rewards afforded by my career shift, I have times where I’m nostalgic for my days in the classroom. As much as I enjoyed being a teacher, I also revel in discovery, and I expect to learn from each of my jobs. In reflecting on my teaching career, I realized that teaching has taught me… nothing.

Nothing gives me more hope than watching students encourage each other.

Nothing can unite a community like overcoming a tragedy together.

Nothing is more motivating than watching a student overcome a serious obstacle.

Nothing hurts students more than telling them they aren’t capable.

Nothing tests your patience more than an aptly timed fire drill.

Nothing shows off what you’re made of like an unannounced observation on the day before a holiday break.

Nothing can crush a student like receiving biting sarcasm from someone he/she looked up to.

Nothing improves performance like asking (and accepting) feedback from students and peers.

Nothing damages a relationship between an adult and a student like an adult who needs the last word.

Nothing feels better than learning one of your students is going to be a teacher.

Nothing makes me smile like getting a thank-you (for changing my life for the better) note from a former student.

Nothing is more emotionally exhausting than truly caring about your students, but…

Nothing is more rewarding than building relationships through truly caring about your students.

And finally,

Nothing will make me happier than to help continue to support educators who work day in and day out to help students discover a love of learning.


Thanks for nothing.

Elissa Good Smith teaches Spanish and communication courses at Lyndonville Central School, where she also serves as an AVID coach and coordinator, mentor teacher and teacher leader. She is a doctoral candidate at Niagara University in the Leadership and Policy Ph.D. program. Elissa began her teaching career as an Elementary Spanish Teacher in 2001, but she has spent the last decade teaching at the 7-12 level. Passionate about rural education and college readiness, Elissa lives in the country with her husband and two boys (ages 4 and 7). Elissa is a New York Educator Voice Fellow with America Achieves.



5 School Culture Lessons From Preschoolers

By Chris DeRemer

This blog post was originally published May 3, 2017 on School Leaders Now.

Every Friday my toddler spends the morning at an ECE program and, as excited as I am to watch him play and grow, I am equally excited to observe how he and his classmates approach learning. It makes me think about the many school culture lessons I could take from his ECE program and bring to Manual High School in Denver, Colorado, where I serve as dean of student culture.

1. School is Joyful

Everyone is happy to be at school—the teacher, the parents, and, especially, the kids. It’s as if everyone in the room cannot wait to see one another. The tone of the entire three hours is positive, energetic, and consistently joyful. There isn’t an undertone of cynicism or a case of the Fridays. It’s simply a joyful and rich experience from when we say hello to when we walk out the door—I think the animal crackers help.

2. Collaboration is Never Forced

When those classic yellow Playdough canisters come out, kids congregate at the table. My son can’t help but elbow his way in and begin working with this stuff. There is no mention of homogenous or heterogeneous groupings or contrived turn-and-talks; kids interact because they are engaged. They feed off the energy of one another.

3. Teacher as Facilitator

There is no teacher talk. There are no instructions and no organized time for the teacher to fill the minds of these young students. The teacher simply creates experiences for kids and then confers with them, celebrates with them, and cares for them. She prepares the next experience before they are bored, not after. She proactively works to engage kids. While the kids are engaged, she is conferencing with parents and considering what next steps her students need. If every teacher altered the term “lesson planning” to “experience planning,” it might completely change the flow of how we approach a classroom.

4. Parents are Part of the Experience

The impact of parents in the educational experience of their children can not be understated. In ECE they walk side-by-side with their kids. While I’m of course not advocating for parents to fill the desks next to their high school students—though I think parents should be in classrooms much more than they are—I am suggesting that parents are the most underutilized piece of this complex educational puzzle. The ECE parents were encouraging, interacting, sharing, apologizing, and supporting the teacher and other parents. The ECE environment is not the same without the parents.

5. Rich, Deep, and Complex Texts

My son’s classroom is filled with books that range from picture books to chapter books. His classroom is only used for ECE, but there are texts far out of the range of development for the kids. Still, the students explore and have teachers help them read words and discuss images. In addition to the text-rich environment, there are tasks and activities at different levels that invite kids to push themselves to use or return to for comfort. There are toys and activities that are too difficult for my son, but he pursues them anyway. When he becomes tired or frustrated, he returns to something more appropriate—but that challenge is available at all times.

It is a remarkable experience to watch my son grow and learn in this environment. He is tired and content when he leaves. We should all pursue an environment so engaging and rich that kids leave tired and content. These five school culture lessons will return to school with me on Monday as I work with kids far older but no less in need of rich and engaging experiences.

Chris DeRemer is the Dean of Students at Manual High School in Denver Colorado and an Educator Voice Fellow with America Achieves.



Here Are Some Must-Reads From Educators Who Are Changing the Conversation

By Charlie Cummings

This blog post was originally published on Education Post on April 25, 2017.

Over the past week, 2017 National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee has been in the media spotlight, sharing the recipe to her success with numerous outlets that have sought her wisdom on behalf of educators and families everywhere. Advocates for public schools want to know what makes Ms. Chaffee excel so that we can replicate her success and put more students on a pathway to college and a fulfilling career.

Fortunately for the field of public education, more and more great teachers are answering the call to share their insights and firsthand experience about what their students need to be successful. Through programs like the Educator Voice FellowshipTeach PlusEducators for ExcellenceHope Street Group and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, teachers are elevating their voices in public forums, on social media and in the news.

For the past four years, I’ve had the incredible privilege of helping great teachers and principals from coast to coast leverage their expertise to influence education policy. The organization I lead, the Educator Voice Fellowship, supports educators to advocate for the policy issues that they believe are most important to their students’ success.

True to our mission, we encourage fellows to elevate their first-hand perspectives authentically, in their own voices. Here are a few recent must-reads, focusing on equity and inclusion, teacher retention, diversity in the teaching workforce and elevating teacher voice.

  •  Bronx teacher Mark Anderson appeared in Ebony Magazine comparing his own school experience to that of his students and suggesting ways that we can tackle the segregation that impacts us at a societal level.
  •  Queens teacher Lexie Woo published a blog at EdLife about teacher retention, sharing her personal story of why she ended up switching schools.
  •  Philly principal Sharif El-Mekki wrote on his blog about the need to hire more Black teachers, writing: “Communities must ask our districts and charter schools to be transparent about their data and the plans to address the need for more diversity in our schools and classrooms.”
  •  Kentucky educator Katrina Boone takes to the The Huffington Post to advocate for teachers to be more involved in education policy decisions.

These educators are working to influence education policy because they want to make a bigger impact for students beyond their schools. The best thing we can do is listen.

Charlie Cummings is the senior director of the America Achieves Fellowship for Teachers and Principals and the founding partner of Educator Voice Strategies. His career began as a fifth-grade teacher in St. Louis, where he started an after-school sports club to teach students how to play popular sports while practicing sportsmanship and teamwork. While in graduate school at the University of Maryland, he co-founded the Do Good Challenge, a campus-wide social impact prize competition. Charlie attended public schools in West Virginia and Indiana and holds a BA in Economics from the University of Notre Dame and an MPP from the University of Maryland. Charlie loves playing sports, exploring the great outdoors, cooking and listening to live music. He volunteers with Higher Achievement and Capital Cause in DC and is on the executive board of New Leaders Council D.C. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Jess.


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Why I Switched Schools: Teacher Leadership as a Tool for Teacher Retention

By Lexie Woo

This blog post was originally published by Lexie Woo on EdLIFE.

I am a statistic.

According to a United Federation of Teachers report, in the 2012-2013 school year, there were “2,144 ‘regular’ resignations of educators who were fully certified, appointed and not eligible to retire.” That’s almost equivalent to the number of teachers who did, indeed, retire that year—2,300. The article states that, “most attrition takes place among teachers in their first through fifth years.” Although I did not leave the teaching profession, I did leave my school. And it was, in fact, after my fifth year. Without realizing it, I had fallen into a group of educators making an exodus from their classrooms.

I spent the first five years of my teaching experience teaching special education at a Title I middle school in Brooklyn. I loved going to school every day. I would anticipate teaching each new lesson, watching students engage in an experiment, a Socratic seminar, or a book club. I loved getting to know all of the unique and beautiful personalities of my students—the shy student, quietly blossoming as the year went on, and the tough guy, trying to seem disinterested, then sneaking me his impeccably-completed homework when his buddies weren’t looking. And I loved collaborating with my colleagues. We would discuss behavior management strategies, projects, and rubrics. We would spend time grading assessments together, planning new units, and—my favorite—coming together after school when our school culture was faltering, and developing a plan for improvement.

So why leave?


Despite having wonderful students and colleagues, and a love for special education, there was not enough support for professional growth. Initiatives, such as the one my colleagues and I planned to improve our school culture, were often not carried out, and there was never a consistent school culture for an extended period of time. We would constantly cycle through plan after plan, but without commitment from the entire staff, and without adequate administrative follow-through, plans continued to fail, and students suffered the consequences. Year after year, I felt frustrated seeing my and my colleagues’ hard efforts being undone by under-qualified educators who had not been adequately prepared for their classroom experience. Each year passed without a consistent expectation for school culture, particularly for student behavior. Eventually, my school became an increasingly dangerous place to work and learn, with students frequently walking out of the classroom and fights breaking out in the hallways.

After admitting to the reality of the grim future of my school community, I became painfully aware that there was no foreseeable career path available for me at my school. Even worse, the hopeful thought of staying brought about fear of the clichéd burnout so characteristic of teachers in settings like mine. At the end of five years, the only way I could envision improvement to my own practice and professional growth was to find a new, more rigorous, and challenging workplace. With a heavy heart, I left.


There is new hope for educators living stories like mine. This year, I had the great opportunity to work alongside teachers with similar stories and concerns. As part of the New York Educator Voice Fellowship, three New York City educators and I came together as Policy Fellows and developed a proposal for the Elevating Effective Educators program. This program targets the highest-needs schools to improve equity and access. The recommendation includes a two-pronged approach:

  1. Recruiting: Provide funding to college- and university-based teacher preparation programs to create or expand residency programs.
  2. Retaining: Provide funding to districts with high-need schools to develop career pathways for effective and highly-effective educators.

It is time to close the opportunity gap. We already have the resources to do this in the form of phenomenal, hard-working educators. Elevating Effective Educators outlines the steps to put this dream into practice. So, let’s take this first step together, and champion for this program, which supports students and educators, and helps pave the road to educational equity.

Kathleen Kanu-Thompson's teacher year began in 1997 with teaching technology at Immaculate Heart of Mary, and she has been in Grand Rapids Public Schools since 1998. During her tenure at Grand Rapids Public she has taught grades 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and served four years as a Michigan Reading First Literacy Coach. A second career educator, she has an undergraduate Bachelors of Science degree from Western Michigan University in Merchandising. She earned her Masters in the Art of Teaching from Aquinas College in 1996. During her tenure in teaching she became a trainer in LETRS, Write From the Beginning and earned a fellowship with the Lake Michigan Writing Project. She has been married for 21 years and has one son. It is her hope that the Michigan Educator Voice Fellowship will provide her opportunities to work in developing educational policy that positively impacts the academic, social and emotional success of all children in the state of Michigan.

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Fellow Feature: Kathleen Kanu-Thompson


Kathleen Kanu-Thopmson, 2015-2017 Michigan Fellow


Rockford, MI

Job Description:

Fourth Grade Teacher

What brought you to work in education?

Education is a second career for me. I initially graduated and worked for 8 years in business. Although I enjoyed all the interactions that are associated with the business world, I ventured out to become a teacher. The impetus of this decision was the birth of a son. My son experienced reading difficulties in his early grades. After continual discussion and cajoling on my part of his urban classroom teachers, they continued to insist there was not a significant problem with his reading. Thankfully my family had the financial ability to move to another district, where he was tested to be 2 years behind in reading. It was this experience that drew me to teaching. I understood the concerns parents may have, and the limits that the teaching system could present. So teaching here I came! My goal was to become part of the solution.   

Tell us about something that you have done in education that you feel has made or will make a big difference for your community?

After working in an urban district for 3 years, I was chosen to be part of the Reading First grant in the State of Michigan. It was through these years that my instructional content grew 10 fold. Thankfully, I was given the opportunity to learn from experts in the field of reading and dyslexia. The learning I received was then shared with the teaching team I worked with. This shared learning help provide the necessary foundational skills to the K-3 teachers I worked with.

After having completed this portion of my career, I then returned to the classroom. Yet my learning never ceased. In the year 2008 I became a fellow the the Lake Michigan Writing Project, part of the National Writing Project. Although my central role was in the classroom, I was able to continue my knowledge sharing around the topic of writing. It was from this experience that I appreciated the ability of the written word to inform and possible persuade others to learn about issues important to the children and teachers in my world.

After growing with experience, I received the opportunity to become a fellow with Michigan Educator's Voice - America Achieves. The year with these colleagues allowed me to expand the written word through social media, blogs, and letters to policy makers. From my work with policy, I have been informing my teaching colleagues about issues that affect our profession. Strategies for following policy through the legislative process and strategies to address phone calls have been shared and practiced. My proudest moment was when I heard colleagues talking about a bill, and their conversation with their legislature.

As my career continues to blossom, I have continued to participate in growth opportunities...Instructional Rounds facilitating from Harvard, participating in the presentation for with Learning Forward to further teacher's voice in their career, and most recently an opportunity to participate in our state's Governor Education Summit all part of my work with Teacher's Champions. These past two decades have been tremendously challenging! I look forward to what more will come my way as I try to influence positive changes in education.

What’s your favorite part about being an America Achieves Fellow?

Several months ago, we had a chance to talk and interview a fellow cohort member. I truly appreciated the opportunity to talk about issues facing them in their districts. What I most appreciate about my work with America Achieves is the chance to discuss educational policy with people outside our realm.  

If you could change just one thing about our current education system, what would it be?

It is essential that educators are brought into the discussion about policy decisions that affect children. We must advocate for the those who cannot advocate for themselves. Equity, not just equality, must be the focus of our decisions.

What’s the best thing a student ever said to you?

Ha!! I've been blessed to have letters written to me over the years, but it's not what they say, but how they behave after they've left my class. Students call my name down the hall to just say hi. Students who take the time to come and say good-bye when they leave the school. Students who return to see you when they visit the school. Most recently, I've had several third graders visit my class (due to sub shortages), one student said, "I don't want you next year." I asked, "Why?" His response, "You're hard core!" I'll take that as a compliment!

Who is your biggest inspiration?

Miriam Wright Edelman

What is one book every educator must read?

The Education of Richard Rodriquez.

What’s your dream vacation?

A beach...a clean beach...a quiet, sunny, clean beach. (Perhaps in Santorini)

What is one fun fact that most people don’t know about you?

I was rescue by helicopter from a backpacking trip in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

What is your other favorite thing to do (besides education, or course!)?

Walk with my dogs.

If a song played every time you walked into a room, what would that song be?

Right now...Where's the Love, Black Eyed Peas

Anything else you’d like to share?

If I were 20 again, I would love to become a dog trainer!

Kathleen Kanu-Thompson has been a teacher for 18 years. Beginning in 1997 with teaching technology at Immaculate Heart of Mary, and In Grand Rapids Public Schools since 1998. During her tenure at Grand Rapids Public she has taught grades 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and served four years as a Michigan Reading First Literacy Coach. A second career educator, she has an undergraduate Bachelors of Science degree from Western Michigan University in Merchandising. She earned her Masters in the Art of Teaching from Aquinas College in 1996. During her tenure in teaching she became a trainer in LETRS, Write From the Beginning and earned a fellowship with the Lake Michigan Writing Project. She has been married for 21 years and has one son. It is her hope that the Michigan Educator Voice Fellowship will provide her opportunities to work in developing educational policy that positively impacts the academic, social and emotional success of all children in the state of Michigan.


Teacher Preparation and Retention


Teacher Preparation and Retention

By Cheri Farrior

On April 11, I had the privilege of attending The Future of Teacher Prep: A Conversation with Educators and Other Experts, which was hosted by our partners at the Center for American Progress and Hope Street Group. The program was held in response to the recent federal bill which eliminated teacher preparation regulations and also to highlight Hope Street Group’s new report, Teaming Up. One of our very own New York Fellows, Amanda Zullo, was featured on the program’s panel!

I believe it is is important that ALL of our students receive an equitable education, which is why it is necessary that we have amazing educators in ALL classrooms. It is important that veteran educators take time to mentor new teachers in order to truly help elevate the teaching profession. It takes a team effort to continue to grow and develop excellent educators and there is so much that can be learned through partnership and collaboration.

I asked some of our Fellows to share their ideas about teacher preparation and retention, by responding to the following questions:

1. What do you think a successful teacher preparation and retention program should look like?

Mentoring new teachers through the transition between student teaching and full time teaching.
— Tammie Schrader, Alumni Fellow (WA)
Highly qualified teachers assigned 1:1 to new teachers through their first THREE years, providing not only support on the art and craft of teaching, but moral support, too. I would love to see more residency style prep programs in place in NYS, and revamp the onerous EdTPA program, so that it is part of the permanent cert process, not initial. Students need more than experience (and exposure) to really be qualified.
— Chris Dolgos, Alumni Fellow (NY)
I feel that we should be moving towards residency programs where pre-teachers really become part of a school from start to finish of a year.
— Heather Gauck, Current Lead Fellow
Teacher preparation programs need to have a year long internship much like a doctor. This needs to be a paid internship where folks can work and live while they are truly learning the craft of teaching.
— Craig Williams, Alumni Fellow (WY)
I believe the first step in creating more effective teacher preparation programming is to start by treating the training more like the first years of teaching. We all know those are the toughest years with the most tears and the most stress for new teachers. Why not create a system where student teaching hours become part of a teacher’s career path? Teacher-training programs require student teaching practice and while there are varied approaches toward that end, student teachers are required to take on many tasks and classroom roles during and outside of school hours. Time that for some is too much of a financial strain. I think it would be a strong incentive to support these “educator internships” with pay or work credit on top of the obvious benefit of real-life experience. There is a movement to support paraprofessionals as they earn credits towards becoming classroom teachers and it makes sense to extend that same support to new members of our profession. In terms of retaining top teachers, there’s not one perfect solution, but in the same mentality of supporting new teachers and classroom assistants, offering professional opportunities that actually elevate veteran teachers and honor our craft makes the most sense. Please don’t confuse that with merit-base pay; the intention is to help teachers find opportunities to shine at what they do best, from writing blogs, books or giving lectures to taking on various roles in the education world, including entering leadership or political positions. The most frequent conversation I have with other teachers is the desire for respect from those who simply don’t understand what we do all day.
— Sara Garro, Current NY Fellow
Teacher preparation needs to operate more like an internship than an extended visit to a school. Pre-service teachers need to experience the highs and lows of teaching before they are the teacher of record. I was in an innovative program that allowed me to spend an entire school year teaching (w/support), and it made me confident that I could handle anything.
— Amber Chandler, Current Lead Fellow
It must involve many different stakeholders. Colleges and universities need strong partnerships with local school districts in order to be able to place their candidates appropriately. I believe that all teacher education programs should have practicums in different environments. All future teachers should have to spend time in a high needs area as well as a suburban one to get a sense of differences and similarities. The more practicum experience required throughout the program, the better.
— Meg Freeman, Current Lead Fellow
Successful teacher preparation and retention are two different forms of programming, but effective teacher preparation can certainly have a byproduct of better retention. Teacher preparation should be started at the collegial level, as early as possible with as much classroom observation and practicum experience that time allows. Student teaching should never be an option, and students should be paired with teachers that have a heart for mentorship. Peer teaching needs to start right away, before the student teaching experience to give the student time to prepare and confidence to grow from peer and teacher criticism. Additionally, videos of best practices in the classroom should be viewed, units should be planned in teams and individually, and real-life situations should be discussed. In my experience, what encourages teachers to leave the profession isn’t necessarily the classroom experience, rather the situations that come up unexpectedly. For example, a mock parent conference, mock teacher-teacher conversation that is heated, or mock teacher-administrator conversation would be incredibly helpful.
— Loryn Windwehen, Current Lead Fellow

2. What resources are needed to implement an effective teacher mentorship program?

Mentor teachers and funding to pay for both the mentor and the mentee for their time.
— Tammie Schrader, Alumni Fellow (WA)
Commitment and release time (and stipends don’t hurt!) for experienced and qualified teachers to work with new hires. Ideally, within a building so the culture of professionalism can be imbued within the relationship. Providing regular meeting, observation, and reflection times is imperative for new teachers to see growth over time.
— Chris Dolgos, Alumni Fellow (NY)
Higher Ed agencies should have programs housed in local schools to build that pipeline of mentorship.
— Heather Gauck, Current Lead Fellow
Money and knowledgeable professionals
— Craig Williams, Alumni Fellow (WY)
I think the best way to achieve effective mentorship programming is to work together from the start. What if teacher training programs were partnered with school districts? New teachers or those changing education careers would have clear support in real schools. Veteran teachers would already know what tools those student teachers were entering the classroom with or at least have more than a paragraph’s worth of information about said program. Veteran teachers would get more mentoring training as well. We would need time to plan and connect with each other, and obviously a source of funding.
— Sara Garro, Current NY Fellow
Teachers must be given time and compensation for mentoring. An effective mentor/mentee relationship can not happen between classes or a 20 min meeting. There should be dedicated time and resources, and a coordinator for each district who is a strong teacher advocate.
— Amber Chandler, Current Lead Fellow
There needs to be support from the state level. One idea that has been discussed in New Jersey is allowing mentor teachers to be exempt from an evaluation and student growth objectives, so that they can use the year to really prepare the teacher that they are working with. These teachers would have to be highly effective in order to mentor a teacher candidate.
— Meg Freeman, Current Lead Fellow
First, you need a mentor that has the desire to do it. In most cases, mentors are assigned based on the notion that “they’d be a good mentor, they’re a good teacher and they’ve done it before,” when administrators might not be aware of personal or professional obligations that prevent them from being defaulted in this role. Mentors should be trained, asked, and given incentives for doing so. By incentives, I mean they should be paid. With this, a short application for mentorship as well as a face to face conversation should be held prior to selection. Trainings of situational roles should be provided in a group setting, and basic classroom management should always be at the forefront of the priorities.
— Loryn Windwehen, Current Lead Fellow


Why Spirit Week Matters to Middle Schoolers


Why Spirit Week Matters to Middle Schoolers

By Amber Chandler

This blog post was originally published on April 23, 2017 on Middleweb.

Falcon Pride Day is my favorite day of the year.

It is an assembly the day before our Easter Break to celebrate the best parts of being a Frontier Middle School student or teacher.

All week is a spirit week, with dress-up days like crazy hair or mismatched socks. The finale of the week is one-part competition, one-part team building, and one-part controlled chaos.

There is some friendly teacher vs. student competition (teachers won!) and team competitions with challenges like wrapping a member in toilet paper to look like a falcon, bottle flipping, and the Falcon Feud.

This year the drama club did a preview of the upcoming Lion King Jr production. The Character Club advisors and club members create an exciting day of recognition for those who have won character awards, and even crown a Mr. and Miss Falcon.

Seriously? Crazy week?

Yes, we “miss” class time. Yes, we get the kiddos all riled up. No, we are not able to control all the students in the auditorium to act exactly as we wish. When we show team videos, kids are going to clap and hoot and holler, even though, (gasp!) we told them to hold their applause. No, this is not on a curriculum map. No, it is not measurable, at least not in the traditional way.

(I’d argue that my team won, in part, because we were able to get the crowd to cheer the loudest. We needed all the help we could get since bottle flipping is normally the bane of my existence, and I actually had to do it for the competition. It’s harder than it looks!)

Changing the middle school dynamic

We complain that students are disinterested. We complain that they don’t have relationships and that they hide behind texting. We complain that school is rote, curriculum confining, and testing a drain on our time and energy.

Yet, when there is a chance to change that dynamic through activities such as pep rallies, spirit games, team pride days, or field days, there are always teachers who complain.

I want to ask them, “What are you doing that is more important than this?” As for me, on the day before a break, I can’t think of a better way to spend our time. This is what middle school is all about.

My own evolution

I have a confession though. I used to be that teacher who complained when my lesson plans were disrupted. I had things to teach, right?

I wanted my students to do well. I wanted to make sure I covered everything I was supposed to, and I wanted to preteach, scaffold, reteach, and push my students to achieve excellence. The problem though was that my head kept me from truly experiencing the power of teaching with heart.

For some reason, the emphasis on teacher preparation – at least as I’ve experienced it – is on classroom management, lesson plan writing, and being able to accurately cite the standards. Though I know these are important factors in a teacher’s success, I’ve come to learn that if teachers are going to love their work and want to stay in the classroom, we must forge relationships with colleagues AND students.

As you all know, middle school students need so much more than a cerebral approach. My journey to a Flexible Classroom really began when I realized that I had to get to know the kids, and I learned to differentiate to meet their individual talents and needs. This approach has been life-altering for me and my students. But sometimes I catch myself looking at teaching from the perspective of a strategist and planner. I’ll do whatever it takes to help students learn, which is certainly a step in the right direction.

But, even after this shift, I’ve had another realization that I’ve been writing about this year. I’ve started to look at how social and emotional needs are at least as important as the academic. This is happening, in part, because I’m experiencing a new aspect of middle school, close up and personal.

Suddenly, a different perspective

My daughter entered middle school this past fall – my school, where I have taught for 15 years – and I suddenly had a completely different lens by which to view day-to-day life at the middle level. Our conversations during our daily commutehave given me a whole new way to look at what’s important to middle school kiddos.

For instance? Here’s a sampling: student council elections, school dances, field trips, Spirit Games, making class t-shirts, her violin and chorus concerts, the art show, and the play.

Also (she says, animatedly) can I believe that if Student Council raises enough money, our principal will have to go Bald for Bucks? Mrs. Johnson, her Home and Careers teacher, dabbed to get the class’s attention. Her study hall teacher is so funny, but not in a lame way. There are annoying people “shipping” her with this boy she can’t stand (like, “relationshipping” by pairing up who would make a cute couple).

This list changes from day to day, and week to week, but the emphasis is always on parts of school that no one person owns – more the way the school feels or the people who impact a particular day. Like it or not, this is the stuff that matters to middle schoolers, not to mention a plethora of home life issues that we often don’t know about.

Entering the kids’ world for fun and learning

I’ve realized that the sooner I meet them in that complicated and chaotic world where they live, the better I’ll be able to make learning ELA memorable and important – something a curriculum map, lesson plan, or test could never do.

Some of the lessons that I’ve tried this year are directed towards getting to know my students on a deeper level. I’d love to hear what you do to connect with students. Send your ideas and links in the comments. I’d love to feature your great ideas on my website!

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified English Teacher, education blogger for, and frequent contributor to education websites and magazines. She has taught a wide range of students in her 15 years teaching, from AP Literature students to remedial 6th grade. Amber is interested in new teacher training and mentoring; as a part of her recent participation in Teaching is the Core, she was able to train college and graduate students in ways to implement the Common Core as they begin their careers. She is also a trainer for Southtown Teachers Center, offering workshops on topics such as Danielson_s Domains and Differentiation. Amber also brings her experiences as ELA department chair, new teacher mentor, and Director of Frontier Summer School. Amber, her husband, and her two children love road trips, theater, and music.



Fellow Feature: Dr. Antoinette Pearson


Antoinette Pearson, National Fellowship, Cohort 3

State and City of Residence:

Canton, Michigan

Job Description:

Lead Consultant

What brought you to work in education?

I have always considered myself an advocate and servant for people, particularly children, who may or may not have someone to advocate for them. Our children are part of situations they didn't choose and why should they be penalized or their future diminished by choices not made by them. Consequently, I personally make it my mission to create equitable and accessible opportunities for learning for every child I encountered.

Moreover, the teachers who are charged to teach and serve our children need to be given just as much nurturing as the children. The challenges they face were not created by them yet they have to navigate through them and be successful. The desire or the will is not lacking; it may be the support and the knowledge on how that has been provided to them.

So, as I continue my journey in education, I focus to educate and empower students and teachers.

Tell us about something that you have done in education that you feel has made or will make a big difference for your community? 

I have recently published a book (January 2017) entitled, Truth Transforms Education: A Framework for New School Leaders. This book was created to provide a framework to individuals beginning their journey as new leaders or educational organization leaders. A new leadership position is daunting and can be overwhelming. This book will help the leader begin thinking about foundational principles necessary to be impactful in this role.

If this book helps provide insight and self reflective thoughts for those in the role or considering the role, and helps ground them with purpose and passion in this work, I will have accomplished my goal.

What’s your favorite part about being an Educator Voice Fellow?

The ability to meet people in different areas of the country and to learn about those areas was one of my favorite parts. It provided me with opportunities to expand my experiences and my knowledge. I always want to keep learning.

If you could change just one thing about our current education system, what would it be?

I think the biggest concern that needs to be addressed but is causing much angst and despair is how we fund schools. Funding schools essentially creates inequitable systems that are barriers for students, particularly children of color or in impoverished areas. The reason why this issue has not been tackled head on is because it shifts the focus of Power and Privilege from those who have held it for years. Changing how schools are funded ask for people to move into the arena beyond their comfort zones. And that makes people uncomfortable, so it is often avoided. But for those areas of the country and districts who have found a way to create a more equitable funding formula (there is no perfect one), the dynamics of achievement has positively change. But there has to be a commitment that I don't think most people are ready for yet.

What’s the best thing a student ever said to you?

Thank you for not giving up on me and teaching me what you did. It helped me be better.

What’s your dream vacation?

To relax on white sand beaches, listen to jazz, enjoy great friends. Time is frozen.

What is one fun fact that most people don’t know about you?

I draw and love art (abstract). I am always attracted to vibrant colors and pictures that exude emotions.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

My biggest inspiration would be my mother. She always thinks beyond the present. She sees what no one else sees. And when she discusses her ideas, you would think she is crazy, but she knows the impact of her vision, and she works to make it a reality, whether she has one person or no one behind her. Why? Because there is a need and she is going to do what is in her power to address it. Failure is not even considered. She gives it her all and doesn't look back.

That's where I am trying to go: be innovative, creative and resilient.  

Anything else you’d like to share?

The only thing we as educators need to consider when making decisions in education is "Are we doing what is best for kids?" If not, move on.

Dr. Antoinette Pearson has experienced every level in the public school system. Antoinette matriculated through Detroit Public Schools, graduated from Renaissance High School in 1992, and became an educator in Detroit for 18 years. Graduating in 1996 with a B.A. in Secondary English Education and a minor in US History from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, Antoinette came back to Detroit with aspirations to work in her community and make an impact on education. Her desire to be a change agent in education motivates her to provide fair and equitable opportunities for learning. From her experience teaching English and Social Studies to increasing attendance during her tenure as principal of Osborn Upper High School, Antoinette has a wealth of experience that reinforces her commitment to not only empower the young scholars in her school but also the parents and community to be lifelong contributors to an environment of support and learning.



Who Cares About Questioning Strategies?

By Maryann Woods-Murphy

This blog post was originally published April 11, 2017 on EdWeek.

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When I was in high school, I asked too many questions. Some teachers brightened when my hand shot up, but others sighed when they heard me ask, "Who decides what justice is?" or "How do we know that we really know anything?"

With questions solidly in my wheelhouse, it makes sense that when I became a teacher, I would see the immense value of inquiry-driven instruction. Questions build intrinsic motivation. They cause us to lean in and look for answers. Now, in my dual role as Gifted and Talented Teacher and Instructional Coach, I find myself continually seeking strategies to help my colleagues teach students to ask their own questions.

A colleague of mine who is also passionate about inquiry driven instruction recently reminded me that though educators talk about "rigor" and create "essential questions" for their classrooms, there is little guidance for educators about how to do this well.  I had an aha moment when I recently discovered The Right Question Institute (RQI), an organization entirely devoted to questioning as a path to democracy. The site supplies abundant and free educator resources, many based on their Question Formulation Technique (QFT) crafted 20 years ago out of a desire to help people ask their own questions and find excellent community-based solutions. The method offers resources for educators yearning for simple, yet powerful ways to engage students in the art of questioning.

I took to QFT with the zeal of convert. The QFT offers teachers a step-by-step approach to teach students to generate meaningful questions that connect to their own interests. Every QFT session starts off reviewing the rules for Question Formulation from Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Rothstein and Santana (2011):

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

When students understand and have discussed these rules, present them with a QFocus, which is a visual, verbal or aural prompt. For my first QFT session, I used a QFocus of a Margaret Meade quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Soon students began scribbling questions like, "What does it mean to be committed?" and "Why does anyone want to change the world?" even "What makes people doubt that they can change the world?"

I get goose bumps seeing what children think and do when we provide them with a space for inquiry. Their questions often provide a springboard to real rigor and deeper learning. Anchor charts and posters filled with engaging student questions cover our walls and stimulated more discussions and even deeper questions.

The French writer Voltaire (1694-1778) reminded us, "Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers." When students learn how to ask their own questions, educators have the chance to trace their thought patterns and present them with paths to original and authentic research projects. Content-loving teachers can then help their students curate resources that will help them find meaningful answers. When students learn to ask their own questions, they soon understand that what they care about most, matters in school.

Maryann Woods-Murphy is a Gifted and Talented Specialist teacher in Nutley Public Schools in New Jersey. Among her awards and honors, Maryann was a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellowship in 2011, a New Jersey Teacher of the Year in 2010, and a Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Language Teacher of the Year in 2010. In 2011-2012, Maryann spent a year Washington, D.C. as a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow. She is currently working on student talent development in 5 elementary schools in Nutley, New Jersey, to help children achieve, foster task commitment and creativity. In Nutley, she is also working as a teacher resource specialist to identify gifted behaviors in all students. Such a stance promotes a school culture where students receive the opportunities, resources and encouragement necessary to succeed. Maryann is keenly interested in seeing Gifted and Talented education as a lever for whole school achievement because the model focuses on student talent, interests and abilities instead of student deficits. Outside of education, she has a passion for writing, including blogs, poetry, and letters and is working on her doctorate in education at Walden University with a focus on teacher leadership.



9 Things Every Educator Needs to Know When Teaching Black Students

By Sharif El-Mekki

This blog post was originally published April 11, 2017 on Sharif El-Mekki's personal blog, Philly's 7th Ward.

Most of my educational experiences as a child were in an all-Black spaces and all of my experiences as an educator have been in schools that serve Black communities. And, although I can’t say I am an expert on everything about educating Black children (despite people’s misconceptions, we are not a monolithic people), there are some experiences that I have had that speak to what Black students need from the educators who profess to serve them. 

It goes without saying that the educational experience should support the development of literacy, numeracy, communication, problem-solving, and personal development skills. Students also need to be equipped with the “non-academic” skills necessary to navigate the real-world. To do that, our children and communities need a certain type of educator. 

To ensure Black students are equipped with the knowledge to navigate real-world situations, they need educators who are deeply reflective, express empathy, are critically conscious, and can guide problem-solving. 

These nine suggestions aren’t just from my experiences, but also from the countless hours of communication with Black families about the aspirations they have for their children and communities. These suggestions are not just for school-based educators. Anyone who touches the education of Black children, either directly or indirectly, should be immersed in efforts towards equity. 

  1. The Right Mindset: If you don’t believe Black children can learn at the same rate as any other child, then you don’t belong in front of them. Honestly, you don’t belong in a classroom full of White children either, because you’ll covertly (and even overtly) reinforce white supremacist philosophy. The right mindset would be one of growth and engages ongoing professional development. Research shows that Black children are particularly impacted by their teachers’ opinion about them. That can be both powerful and dangerous.
  2. Supporting Students in Developing a Positive Racial Identity: Students are bombarded with messages that they are worthless, achieve less, and that only the exceptional Black person can perform at the highest levels. Unfortunately, because of this constant attack on the Black psyche, some students have internalized this. Educators have a crucial role in perpetuating this negative self-image, or being there to ameliorate it. Ensuring that materials share the contributions of Black people on society, both historically and present-day can go a long way. Also, it is crucial that our Black youth see and participate in educators celebrating students’ efforts and achievements beyond athletics and entertainment. 
  3. High Expectations, High Support, Much Love: Too often there is a lack of balance. Some will enact authoritarian demeanor and rules, in the essence of stripping students of their dignity in the name of instilling order. Others tolerate chaos and excuses in the name of love. The answer is in the middle. It isn’t about no excuses or “make all the excuses in the world” schools. It is about helping students develop self-control and self-discipline necessary to be productive leaders in their communities. Hilary Beard describes parenting of Black children as being in quadrants. She describes the style that Black boys respond to the best as “strict authoritarian.” That means holding high expectations and lots of love. 
  4. Establishing Windows and Mirrors: Too often, White children’s positive sense of self is reinforced through media, and in life. White students see an overwhelming number of people in power and, consciously or unconsciously, begin to assume that it is their rightful place in life. Black children see this, too. Often, even when a student has a Black teacher, other positions of power may be overwhelmingly White, so students see that. Helping all students see themselves as contributors to society and leaders within it is vital. 
  5. Serving Holistically: Often, when people describe a holistic education, they’re lamenting the loss of the arts in our schools—it is that plus much more. Our educational strategies should include the arts, health, career-technical education, computer science, etc. It should be grounded in college- and career-readiness and support students with pursuing robust post-secondary options. A holistic education without students learning about character education and social justice is a limited education and doesn’t truly prepare students for their work outside of school. 
  6. Learner of Culture: Educators should be curious, respectful and knowledgeable about Black history and culture while maintaining a high sense of humility and curiosity. Even if you have taught Black children for decades, don’t assume you know the struggles of Black folks better than they do. Too many educators have this outlook.
  7. Skilled in Channeling Anger: Students should be angry. Often, it is impossible to truly teach Black students and help them to see the world as it is and the promise of what society can be at the optimal levels without them becoming angry. I am not speaking of the self-destructive anger, I am speaking about the anger that spurs action towards positive outcomes. Malcolm X said, when people get angry they take action. And, as James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
  8. Communal Outlook: Black culture often demands a marriage with individuality and community. Too often, American society and educators celebrate individualistic goals and place individual accomplishments above community achievements. This is a mistake and leads to disharmony and frustration. There should be a balance and community-based goals should be an integral part of any educational system.
  9. Sense of Purpose: Educators who are working for the liberation of students of color will need to have and maintain a strong sense of purpose. The why and the how they approach the work is crucial—without it being grounded as incubators of dismantling white supremacy in its many forms, it may miss the mark. Conscious and committed educators view our schools as environments that can foster a commitment to our communities. Educators must also do the work and professional development that hones their skills as liberators, not overseers of the existing system. Without a strong sense of purpose, an educator can easily become a perpetrator of the very injustices they initially sought to dismantle.

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter-Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sharif was selected as the Southwest Region School District of Philadelphia Principal of the Year, West Philadelphia Coalition of Neighborhoods & Businesses Education Leader of the Year, and has received a community partnership award at Pennsylvania's House of Representatives' Community Service Awards. Recently, his school's college acceptance rate was 100%. This success was reached by tracking students and backwards mapping?that is, determining the skills necessary for college graduation and infusing those skills into staff?s work with students. For example, the schools now has a College Continuum that allows all staff to see what skills students should have in each grade (7-12) and provides strategies that they can all use on a daily basis to increase their students? strengths. In his spare time, he fosters his love of sports, reading, and languages (Farsi, Arabic, and Spanish).


3 Engaging Treatments for School ‘Spring Fever’


3 Engaging Treatments for School ‘Spring Fever’

by Amber Chandler

This blog post was originally published on April 3, 2017 on MiddleWeb.

Spring Fever. Middle-school-itis. Whatever you want to call it, it’s when the snow melts, the days get longer, the temperatures get warmer, and students and teachers start to get antsy.

Throw in spring break and state assessments and the days start to feel more like marathons than the sprints they were in the fall. Remember trying to “fit it all in” back in September?

Now many of us feel that time is slowing to a standstill. What can we do to make spring more productive and enjoyable while also saving our sanity? After 17 springs, I have a few ideas that might help, but please, by all means, send along your ideas in the comments!

Get outside

April is poetry month, and teachers in every subject can find ways to incorporate some higher order thinking and fresh air into their curriculum. For me, an ELA teacher, this is obviously easy.

I’m going to take my students outside to create sidewalk chalk poetry. I’ll have students read a variety of poems and choose a line or two to quote. In groups of two or three, I’ll have them copy the lines and challenge my artists to add their own personal touch. A good source for poems is the ReadWorks K-12 list.

Science and social studies teachers can dabble with Place-Based-Learning (it’s a thing, really). has an excellent guide called “What is Place Based Learning and Why Does It Matter?” that will help teachers utilize their own specific physical setting.

Many teachers have been using these ideas for years, but it is always nice to be validated! Depending on your locale, mini-field trips, guest lecturers, and community projects can mix things up a bit for the end of the year.

Share gratitude

One of the things I really like to do with my 8th graders is to help them become more reflective. This isn’t easy when they are always living in the uber-present because of their FOMO (fear of missing out) obsession. However, I tap into the tiny bit of sentimentality and nostalgia they have, and students write thank you notes to some of the people who’ve made a difference in their middle school lives.

I help them think about teachers, but also some of the other unsung heroes of school. It is very important to me that students recognize the people who make school “work” for them.

This week I helped my daughter Zoey, a new middle schooler, think about who had helped her the most this year. Her answers are indicative of the middle school experience. She was especially thankful to a special education teacher who is a friend of mine who frequently helped her handle the minor emergencies of life – forgotten gym clothes, stressful tests, etc.

Zoey also included the school guidance counselor/secretary who had helped her with some locker issues. Her Home and Careers teacher taught her how to be organized and introduced her to new foods.

Gratitude and reflection is a powerful combination. Teachers receiving these notes have an added boost, and the students writing them are able to step outside of themselves, even for a minute, and recognize those who help them. shares the benefits of gratitude for students in kid-friendly language, so you can use this resource to introduce the concept, especially for younger students.

Passion Projects

Finally, my own favorite fever-breaker is to assign Passion Projects. I created this concept a few years ago to assuage my own boredom with the end-of-the-year and to help my students stretch themselves.

Passion Projects can be rather simple, or, if you are like me, become ginormous endeavors. The simple version would be to facilitate students’ research on a topic they are interested in and perhaps write a paper or do a presentation.

My version takes up most of the end of the year:

✻ Students must read a non-fiction book of at least 100 pages on a topic of their choice.

✻ They will then write a book review.

✻ Then (passion alert) they design three projects about their topic, complete those, and upload it all to a website they create with Wix.

✻ Finally, they share their website with the class in a 10 minute presentation.

The reason I love this huge project for end of year is because students need autonomy when they are antsy. As soon as they begin these projects, I don’t have the same issues I’d have if we were trying to do a whole class novel (which I do twice, earlier in the year).

By setting students free upon a worthy assignment, one that connects with them on more than an academic level, the quality of learning is exponentially better. I call it adding BAM:

Last year, I had some really incredible Passion Projects. The premise we start with is that they have burning questions – something they really want to find out about their topic. They begin their research there and watch it evolve. For example, last year, Madison wanted to know how to have her own cupcake bakery. For an overview of why Passion Projects work, take a look at this slideshow I created.

When we allow students the opportunity to “show what they know” after an authentic experience of investigating, we can cure (or at least treat) spring fever!

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified English Teacher, education blogger for, and frequent contributor to education websites and magazines. She has taught a wide range of students in her 15 years teaching, from AP Literature students to remedial 6th grade. Amber is interested in new teacher training and mentoring; as a part of her recent participation in Teaching is the Core, she was able to train college and graduate students in ways to implement the Common Core as they begin their careers. She is also a trainer for Southtown Teachers Center, offering workshops on topics such as Danielson's Domains and Differentiation. Amber also brings her experiences as ELA department chair, new teacher mentor, and Director of Frontier Summer School. Amber, her husband, and her two children love road trips, theater, and music.


Creating Powerful Student Learning Experiences with Escape Rooms


Creating Powerful Student Learning Experiences with Escape Rooms

By Amber Chandler

This blog post was originally published on March 31, 2017 on Getting Smart.

Many of you have probably participated in an Escape Room, the latest in experiential entertainment. If not, the premise is simple: you are locked in a room with up to eight people, and you must solve a series of puzzles to unlock clues that will eventually help you “escape.”

There are all kinds of themes; I’ve been in a Nazi invasion, a Zombie apocalypse, and a murder mystery, and we escaped in two out of three of the rooms. I’m pretty hooked on these rooms because I love group dynamics, and it is very interesting to see who leads, who follows, who goes off on their own and who has the type of mind that sees patterns or reads clues well.

Of course, as soon as I completed my first experience I was dying to make one for my own classroom. I’ve yet to pull this off, but I will be doing my first classroom escape room this spring. As I’ve planned, I’ve found amazing resources to make the process seamless (I hope!). Here’s what I’ve learned:

Teach 21st-Century Skills

Before I started planning this spring adventure, I wanted to make sure that I had legitimate reasons for creating an escape room. Of course, the reason could simply be that it is fun and team building, but I knew that there were plenty of 21st-century skills at work too. As I adapted and developed the puzzles, it was clear that students will need critical thinking, persistence, collaborative skills and the ability to multi-task.

To learn more, check out this podcast, and this great article that expand on what having 21st-century skills really means. The article interviews Tony Wagner, who addresses how these skills must complement what is needed in the workplace. Marie Bjerede writes, “In his book, The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner lays out seven “survival skills” that are needed in a modern workplace: Critical thinking and problem solving; collaboration across networks and leading by influence; agility and adaptability; initiative and leadership; effective oral and written communication; accessing and analyzing information; and curiosity and imagination.” The chance to create this level of engagement is exciting and promotes the skills that forward thinking educators are interested in.

Build Real Student Engagement

In some circles, the phrase “student engagement” has started to have a negative connotation. Some are looking at it as compliance, like this piece by author Peter DeWitt. He definitely makes the point that sometimes when students seem engaged–nodding their heads, sitting up straight, and participating–we feel self-congratulatory that our students are engaged. Though I agree with his premise, I think that student engagement is crucial for success in school, even the compliant kind he describes. Students must learn to “do school” with certain mindsets and signs of outward engagement.

However, activities that engage students because of their curiosity and their desire to solve a problem takes engagement to an entirely different, and better, level. If you are starting to wonder about how student engagement can work for you, check out this great comprehensive guide put out by Great Schools Partnerships that details how engagement can be viewed as intellectual, emotional, behavioral, physical, social and cultural. Depending on what type of escape room you use or create, you could be addressing a few of these or even all of them.

Use Existing Resources

As important and timesaving as I know it is, I tend to do everything myself. I’ll look at what other educators are doing, but I just haven’t been able to take someone else’s plan and go with it. That is all about to change!

There are truly amazing, ready-to-go escape room plans that are already aligned to standards, so I’d be crazy to spend hours creating essentially the same experience for my students. Why not utilize what already exists for my first foray into doing an escape room? Then, next time, I can tweak it or elaborate in a different direction.

Jennifer Casa-Todd, an accomplished Canadian educator, has an excellent blog that helps connect the experiences to standards but also includes real-life examples that I am drawing from. This blog by DJ Embry for GoGuardian is helpful because it talks specifically about timing pitfalls, what supplies you need and how to modify the experience for a room full of students. If you have the funding, BreakoutEDU has an excellent array of kits that eliminate the legwork.

The Plan

I’m planning my escape room around the theme of  “Writer’s Block.” The clues will lead them through a circuit that includes brainstorming (they’ll have to come up with something that we don’t list, kind of like the game Taboo), using resources (there will be a computer research component), using figurative language (this will be a section where they have to identify it in a passage and figure out the clue) and finally they’ll need grammar (the escape code will be embedded in a complete sentence) to escape. I’m going to incorporate the tips that I’ve picked up, as well as try to make it my own.

Am I nervous? A little. There are lots of things to think about, but with these resources, I think I’ve got it covered. I have no doubt that my students’ engagement won’t be the compliant kind, but instead an immersive experience that epitomizes why we should work towards student engagement in the first place. We can’t do activities like this every day, of course, but I look at this type of day as a booster shot to ensure a healthy interest as students walk in the room wondering, “What are we up to today?”

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified English Teacher, education blogger for, and frequent contributor to education websites and magazines. She has taught a wide range of students in her 15 years teaching, from AP Literature students to remedial 6th grade. Amber is interested in new teacher training and mentoring; as a part of her recent participation in Teaching is the Core, she was able to train college and graduate students in ways to implement the Common Core as they begin their careers. She is also a trainer for Southtown Teachers Center, offering workshops on topics such as Danielson's Domains and Differentiation. Amber also brings her experiences as ELA department chair, new teacher mentor, and Director of Frontier Summer School. Amber, her husband, and her two children love road trips, theater, and music.