Remake Learning Remake Learning is a network of people, projects, and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh region that are empowering children and youth by creating relevant learning opportunities through the compelling use of technology, media, and the arts. Sat, 11 Feb 2017 04:59:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What’s it take to go from ‘Rec Center’ to ‘Tech Center’? Thu, 23 Jun 2016 15:00:17 +0000 As the National Week of Making comes to a close, there’s equal measure of excitement and motivation going around. Excitement for the potential of the maker movement to empower a new generation of creative and capable builders, inventors, and tinkerers ready to overcome today’s most pressing challenges and re-energize the economy. Motivation to determine exactly how such a diffuse and decentralized movement can achieve that lofty vision in a way that is accessible and equitable to all.

A few weeks ago, more than 50 educators and municipal leaders from more than a dozen cities across the country met in Washington, DC to take the first steps toward making hands-on, technology-enhanced learning opportunities not just something that a few children experience at occasional events, but something that cities and towns invest in and support as part of the public, municipal infrastructure.

The idea goes like this: many cities maintain community recreation centers in parks, public housing buildings, libraries, or other neighborhood-based sites and with the right mix of human capital and equipment, many of these recreation centers could be activated anew as makerspaces and tech labs—in other words, going from ‘Rec Center’ to ‘Tech Center.’

Andrew Coy

The meeting was convened by Andrew Coy, Senior Advisor for Making at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Andrew’s experience as the former Executive Director of Digital Harbor Foundation, a nonprofit that led a Rec2Tech conversion project in Baltimore, inspired him to explore opportunities to build a model for similar projects communities across the country, especially in under-resourced communities and communities of color.

Participating cities came from across the U.S., from Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis in the Midwest, to New Orleans in the South and Palo Alto in the West. The size of the cities ranged from major metropolitan centers like Chicago and Los Angeles to small towns like Ithaca, NY and Wenatchee, WA.

Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network was there, represented by staff from the Heinz Endowments, Pittsburgh City Parks, the Maker’s Place, the Remake Learning Council, and The Sprout Fund. The network is working to deepen the impact of local educators and youth workers to provide more young people with hands-on learning experiences that are engaging to their interests and relevant to their future success. The Rec2Tech model is one of several approaches network members are exploring to expand access and equity.

Models to Consider

Two guest speakers shared insights from their experience working to expand access to innovative learning opportunities in partnership with municipal and community spaces.

Shawn Grimes, Executive Director of Digital Harbor Foundation, recalled the history of risk taking, sweat equity, and practical problem solving that went in to the launch of their Rec2Tech conversion in Baltimore. First opened in 2013, Digital Harbor’s Tech Center emerged from a collaboration between Baltimore City Recreation & Parks, Baltimore City Public Schools, and Digital Harbor. Today, they serve 1,300 youth per year with an average engagement of some 40 hours through year-round progressive programs.

Dr. Nichole Pinkard

Dr. Nichole Pinkard, founder of Digital Youth Network, grounded the discussion in the critical issue of equitable access and the changing meaning of literacy in today’s world.

“If a society’s definition of what it means to be literate is tied to the technological innovations of the time,” said Dr. Pinkard, “Then today’s technologies have created a world where computational thinking and making are becoming essential literacies for all.”

To Dr. Pinkard, the Rec2Tech concept has the potential to answer both the equity question and the literacy question: it embeds technology and talent in the communities that children call home and it exposes them to new modes of thinking and the future rewards they can lead to.

Exploring Critical Issues

During the afternoon session, The Sprout Fund led a facilitated discussion about four critical issues related to municipal makerspaces:

  1. Establishing partnerships and collaborations that can support Rec2Tech conversions
  2. Creating high-quality youth programming that is engaging and relevant
  3. Building work readiness skills relevant to careers in high-demand sectors
  4. Identifying best practices regarding space design and technology

Key findings from this discussion will guide ongoing conversations among the emerging national community of practice about municipal makerspaces. You can read the Key Findings and contribute your own thoughts on Medium.

 A Rec2Tech Framework for Pittsburgh

In Pittsburgh, the Remake Learning Network is committed to expanding equitable access to powerful experiences related to making and digital learning.

As announced during the National Week of Making kick off last Friday, the City of Pittsburgh and The Sprout Fund, together with partners from the Remake Learning Network, are working to develop a community-informed plan for Rec2Tech along with site-specific curriculum and demonstration programming for kids at multiple recreation centers across the city. While these efforts are just getting underway, they signal what is possible when educators, youth-serving nonprofits, and municipal leaders come together to make deep investments in community assets for learning.

A Chance to Redefine High School Tue, 21 Jun 2016 12:40:26 +0000 The trajectory of public education today is one of both progress and stagnation.

On the one hand, more schools are discarding stale practices in favor of approaches grounded in new research about how young people learn today. There has been a proliferation of new tools that can make learning and assessment easier and more engaging. We’ve replaced a controversial federal law with one designed to encourage more flexibility and innovation. Makerspaces, community gardens, and career academies are springing up on public school campuses.

Yet only some students get to benefit from these exciting developments. There are still deep divides in the American education system.

Across the country and even within counties, there are wide funding gaps. The highest poverty districts receive 10 percent less in state and local funding than the most affluent districts, according to The Education Trust.

There are still deep divides in the American education system.
Racial minorities are hit the hardest by the disparities. An analysis by the Center for American Progress found that schools with at least 90 percent students of color spend $733 less per student per year than schools with at least 90 percent white students. Whether lack of funding is the cause of worse educational outcomes for students of color or not, CAP says, it certainly doesn’t help close the gaps. High school graduation rates are rising for all students, but black and Hispanic students’ rates are 73 percent and 76 percent, respectively, compared to white students’ 87 percent.

Amid insufficient resources and funding, there is certainly no shortage of ideas for addressing educational inequalities. That is evidenced by the 700 submissions to a contest that asks applicants to redesign public high school to serve all 21st century learners.

Launched in September 2015, the XQ Super Schools Project will award a total of $50 million to at least five schools. Each school will receive $2 million per year over five years. Applicants had to “reimagine” how a typical high school could better prepare all students for the rapidly changing world they will enter when they graduate, whether they go to college or join the workforce. About half of the applicants were selected to advance to the semifinals, and winners will be announced in August.

How would you reimagine high school?

It is no surprise that three of the semifinal “super schools” are in the Pittsburgh area, where educators are constantly reimagining learning. Each submission taps into local industry and innovation to build opportunities for its student body.

Steel Valley School District, serving old steel mill towns, has taken inspiration from its changing surroundings to imagine a changed campus. The redesigned school will hook students into the community, taking advantage of the skills and knowledge of local residents and organizations, and in turn encouraging graduates to stay and become local leaders. The coursework will be experiential and project-based.

At Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh, a team has dreamed up Thinking Lab HS. Students there will become engaged, empathetic members of their communities and of civic society. Activism, research, and experience outside the walls of the school are central, and the curriculum focuses on ecological literacy, culture, and health and well-being. Under the guidance of a mentor, students will work on projects in campus studios and labs.

The third semifinalist, Rivers Cubed Academy, is a college and career program for low-income youth. The school will offer academically rigorous courses as well as technical education, preparing students to follow a pathway to higher education or employment. Transportation is provided, so underserved students from multiple districts can enroll. The proposal is the brainchild of Schools That Can, the Remake Learning Network, and others.

The three Pittsburgh submissions represent different valuable approaches to rethinking learning. Two start from scratch, using the modern world as a jumping off point for setting up students for success. A third bolsters an existing institution, supporting educators and families by taking stock of what the entire community has to offer.

Regardless of who ends up in the final five, the ideas put forth by hundreds of teams across the country demonstrate the kind of out-of-the-box thinking our education system can continue to use—and the chunk of funding demonstrates the kind of support it needs.

The Strengths of Community-Based Makerspaces Tue, 14 Jun 2016 12:00:35 +0000 If you heard that a makerspace was well-resourced, what would you picture?

Maybe a 3D printer. Probably a soldering iron. Ample table space and crafting materials, at least.

But resources encompass more than pricy gadgets and materials. Embracing a broad definition of resourcefulness can promote equity in the maker movement—and is often a necessity in community makerspaces—found researchers from George Mason University.

As we head into a week of exciting maker events, their work provides insight into including everyone in the ongoing celebration of making.

In their paper “Resourceful and Inclusive: Towards Design Principles for Makerspaces,” Kimberly Sheridan, Abigail Konopasky, Asia Williams, and Grace Wingo share their take-aways from studying makerspaces in underserved, mostly African-American communities. They spent time at Game Design through Mentoring and Collaboration, a weekend and summer program run in partnership with George Mason University in Washington; and at Mt. Elliot Makerspace, an all-ages neighborhood spot in a Detroit church basement. Although serving technically “under-resourced” populations, the leaders and participants at both locations epitomize resourcefulness, the researchers found.

Resources encompass more than pricy gadgets and materials.

Asset-mapping is a common practice at the spaces they studied. A popular approach in some community development circles, asset-mapping involves identifying existing strengths and resources and working from there. It’s a reaction to the common process of determining what a community lacks and starting from scratch to fix the problem.

The GMU researchers found that the people at George Mason and in Detroit were constantly thinking about the skill sets and knowledge that community members already possessed. They leveraged their connections with individuals and organizations outside of the makerspace walls.

In the maker movement, the authors write, resourcefulness is too often “celebrated as an individual and self-contained trait—doing it yourself, making it from scratch, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

In the sites they studied, by contrast, a community-oriented resourcefulness built vital bonds with the outside world. Though these “third spaces” created comforting refuges from the norms and power structures in the larger community, they also granted participants access to it. Leaders at George Mason combed the surrounding community to recruit tech experts willing to come teach the youth about their professions. The young people got a window into industries they might not otherwise have considered or felt they could access. The Detroit program had a partnership with Earn-a-Bike, where kids learn to repair and customize bicycles, eventually taking the bike and the skill set home with them.

Leaders at both of the sites had an important understanding that participants themselves were resources.

“The common practice of teaching as soon as you learn is used as a strategy for broadening the resource base,” the authors write.

At George Mason, youth took on the role of mentors. The practice had a dual purpose of empowering the young people and spreading their new skills to other participants. In Detroit, a group of girls developed a popular YouTube channel, broadcasting playful fake newscasts. The project was an important creative outlet for the kids, and through its active follower base drew new participants to the maker program.

These researchers are far from the first to catalog successful practices for designing a makerspace and maker program. The quick traction the maker movement has gained across many learning environments raises the question of what works where.

MakerEd’s Youth Makerspace Playbook is an extensive handbook for starting a maker program from scratch. Written for all kinds of making communities, it also advises readers to do something akin to asset-mapping.

First-timers should “see possibilities in all things, especially the resources they already have,” the authors write. “They should view their community of users as their greatest resource and asset.”

Next week, making will be in the spotlight. The National Maker Faire on June 18 and 19 kicks off the Week of Making, a call from the White House for people across the country to tinker, imagine, and build. Case studies on different communities’ takes on making, like those from George Mason, are good reminders that the call can include everyone.

The research shows that a community-oriented take on resourcefulness is a critical coping strategy for makerspaces lacking the bells and whistles of a well-funded fab-lab. It’s also a great approach for any maker program interested in genuinely empowering and engaging it’s participants and taking advantage of the rich world outside its door.




Forging an Educational Future for Everyone Thu, 09 Jun 2016 12:00:55 +0000 A new report, The Future of Learning in Pittsburgh, adapts KnowledgeWorks’ national learning “forecast” for the Pittsburgh region. The social enterprise organization teamed up with Remake Learning to explore the inevitable changes facing the region—as well as the changes local actors will have to make to ensure an equitable future for all residents.

It is no secret that we are smack in the middle of an era of educational change. Digital advances have brought new tools into learning settings and have prompted big conversations about education innovation. Technology has also been at the center of economic shifts in the Pittsburgh region, with advances in higher education and healthcare industries. Meanwhile, scientific discoveries about young brains have challenged fundamental assumptions about learning.

There is a “growing urgency,” write the authors of the Pittsburgh forecast, to thoughtfully consider the potential impacts of these societal changes on our formal and informal education systems. “Equity is not a given,” they write. The digital innovations could create deeper divides, or be leveraged to engage all learners.

“Equity is not a given.”

Members of the Remake Learning Network have been working to make sure the latter scenario is our reality. But the forecast cautions against satisfaction with current efforts alone. The report pulls out examples of great work in our region— “signals” of both likely and necessary changes. Efforts like these will need to be expanded and emulated as the region forges its educational future.

All education providers “need to prepare learners for new economic realities,” the report says. The contemporary workforce values innovation and collaboration. This means the education system will have to assess and provide opportunities for mastery of real-world skills.

The summer employment program Learn & Earn, for example, places disadvantaged youth in jobs across Pittsburgh. The teenagers work everywhere—corporate offices, urban gardens,—developing a range of marketable skills. Throughout the summer, they earn digital badges, credentials that go in an online portfolio cataloging their experiences and skills.

The forecasters predict that learners and families will become “increasingly conscious consumers and architects of learning, seeking out educational approaches that fit their values and lifestyles.”

They point to programs that already encourage exploration and self-directed learning. At Assemble and MCG Youth and Arts, young visitors can experiment and tinker with tools, figuring out their own creative processes. However, the authors warn, greater choice in education could end up only privileging some families. Regional providers need to make sure all families receive guidance, so that the increasingly flexible learning environment doesn’t empower some and leave out others.

Learners will need to embrace volatility and complexity.

The report also calls for an education system that sets learners up to embrace volatility and complexity. In a rapidly changing world, they could be brought along for the ride or they could learn to become instigators of change themselves.

The program Hear Me helps youth have voices in their communities. It teaches them to use digital media to publish their thoughts on social issues and ideas for community change. Along the same lines, Youth Leading Change empowers young people in Allegheny County to educate people in their communities about education reform and social justice.

After all, the thing about the future is it’s never certain. Even if the weatherman predicts moderate temperatures, you might be surprised by a heat wave or a rainstorm. So people—young and old, students and teachers—have to become agents of change, acting deliberately to include all learners in the future of education.

Can All Teachers Be Students? Tue, 07 Jun 2016 12:30:45 +0000 Today, the role of the teacher is changing. As we rethink how to educate students in our rapidly changing world, teachers in 21st Century classrooms must do much more than transfer information. They must create environments that encourage collaborative, and complex thinking.

Emily Hickman is figuring out how to do just that.

A middle and high school teacher, Hickman has always taken the material she taught seriously. At the same time, she recognized that many of her students were most engaged with the content when it was presented through game-like experiences, such as mock trials.

It was this understanding—and a desire to share best practices with her colleagues—that drew her to TeacherQuest, a professional development program that trains educators to integrate games and game-like learning into their classrooms.

TeacherQuest is among the group of innovative professional development opportunities that have sprung up in Pittsburgh and beyond in recent years, emerging to better prepare teachers like Hickman, working in a new era of education. You won’t find teachers playing board games in all of them. The practices and pedagogies vary, but underlying most is an attempt to replace the dry or insular training experiences of the past with something more meaningful and engaging.

How do you spread and scale up good practices?

These new models are asking important questions. How do you reach diverse audiences and present ideas that are applicable in all learning communities? How do you adapt practices for informal learning settings as well as schools? And how do you spread and scale up good practices beyond the workshop walls?

TeacherQuest, a partnership between the Institute of Play and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Pittsburgh, is based on the teaching practice at Quest to Learn, a school in New York City and Chicago with game design and gameplay at the heart of its pedagogy.

Hickman, now the 21st century research and media specialist at Avonworth Middle and High School, participated in the first summer of TeacherQuest in 2014. It was one of the best professional development experiences of her career.

“It bolstered my confidence,” she said. “It was really well-organized, there was a lot of interaction, and we left with a product”(a game she designed for her class). This year, she will lead the program for other educators. 

Zero-ing in on how teachers and students learn

Educators attend a Project Zero conference at Quaker Valley. Photo/Jeff Evancho

Educators attend a Project Zero conference at Quaker Valley. Photo/Jeff Evancho

TeacherQuest and its ilk are partially reactions to ineffective professional development.

“If you come in with your own expectations and put teachers in a classroom and lecture at them, you’re not going to get a lot out of it,” said Hickman, speaking from experience. “It makes zero sense to me. We know better. We know what works for students.”

She means that teachers, like their own students, thrive in settings that are creative and collaborative, where their ideas are heard and respected.

“Research has shown that teachers find some of the most valuable professional development comes from other teachers,” said Rebecca Rufo-Tepper, TeacherQuest program director. So she gives former participants like Hickman teaching roles.

In many of the new programs, teachers participate in the same learning exercises and processes they will later bring to their students.

That’s the case with the programming from Project Zero, a Harvard University research institute that has done some serious thinking about professional development for a long time.

When Jeff Evancho, an art teacher at Quaker Valley Middle School in Sewickley, Penn., went with his colleagues to Cambridge, Mass., for a Project Zero workshop, he had a “truly transformational” experience. They got a primer in the goals of the Project Zero approach: making thinking “visible” by examining and reflecting on learning processes, and developing “cultures of thinking” where the social and environmental conditions promote learning. The rich blend of theory and practice stuck with the educators in attendance.

"Visible thinking" at Project Zero. Photo/Jeff Evancho

“Visible thinking” at Project Zero. Photo/Jeff Evancho

“It was tied into research and rooted in relevance,” said Evancho, now the Project Zero programming specialist at his district. After their trip to Harvard, Evancho and the Quaker Valley staff ended up replicating their experience at home. With support from the Grable Foundation, the district began hosting conferences for educators throughout the region. They were inspired by the work of Jim Reese, a Project Zero scholar who launched a professional development program in Washington, D.C., and advises on organizing satellite Project Zero conferences.

In the workshops, teachers learn how to make their own thinking visible before introducing the concept to students.

Evancho, who oversees the integration of Project Zero concepts into Quaker Valley’s classrooms and afterschool art program, told a recent success story from a 5th grade math class. When the teacher went to review a student’s assignment, she saw that he had deconstructed a math problem using a routine she had introduced to help students learn by making their thinking visible. Of his own volition, the student had taken extra time to map the purposes and the complexities of the math problem, which also helped his teacher understand his thought processes.

“She got to see inside the mind of a young learner,” Evancho said. The approach benefited teacher and student alike.

Translating ideas for diverse settings

At TeacherQuest, participants start off by articulating a learning goal. They might want to help their students learn to collaborate, for example, or strengthen their multiplication skills.

The activity orients the ensuing experience around individual teachers’ needs and student populations. It’s the kind of practice that makes it possible to hold a professional development workshop for participants from diverse districts.

“Our contexts are very different, but engaged learners are very similar,” Evancho said. Project Zero is “not a canned, packaged thing.” It’s a presentation of ideas that can be adapted to different settings.

Other strong professional development programs might be more grounded in specific applications of ideas, but still take care to address underlying concepts that work under different schools’ circumstances.

At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, participants in the summer Maker Educator Boot Camp attend workshops on maker learning practices. The educators come from schools with wildly different resource levels, so the directors have given thought to “which parts can be adapted and what’s core to a maker experience,” said Rebecca Grabman, MAKESHOP manager.

In many cases what’s “core” are mindsets, not materials.

“What you’re engaging with when you’re doing an activity is not necessarily about hammer and nails,” said Grabman, “but about planning or persistence or collaboration—and those translate well.”

Creating equitable opportunities for professional development

Maker Educator Boot Camp. Photo/Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

Evancho posed the question that all professional development providers should ask: “How do you bring about equity?”

Practices might translate across communities, but only if they reach them. For many programs, it is a challenge to reach beyond familiar faces and scale up.

“Our doors are open but we’re not seeing everyone there,” Evancho said.

Even continuing the conversation among participants after a program ends “can be a real stumbling block,” Hickman said. Some programs develop “communities of practice” with venues, physical or virtual, for educators to bounce ideas and questions off one another. Others, like TeacherQuest, require participants to apply in pairs so they will hold each other accountable and more effectively bring the ideas back to their districts.

Providers say school districts have begun to take the lead on providing professional development opportunities for the whole community, sometimes carving out their niche in the region as the expert on game design or personalized learning. Of course, some are better equipped to do so than others. And the barriers to spread are not unique to the realm of professional development.

“The challenges are the things that plague all schools all the time,” Grabman said. “Time and money are always going to be a problem.”

Groups like the Remake Learning Network aim to reduce resource inequity by connecting a diverse cohort of educators, administrators, librarians, technologists, foundations, and nonprofits who can share practices with each other, formally or informally.

“All of us in Pittsburgh are learning about the power of networks,” Evancho said.

In any community, there are still groups who are likely to be left out of the conversation, or simply miss the memo. But this kind of ecosystem helps ideas get around, as local providers like Grabman and Evancho work to build equitable access to creative teacher training.

A number of innovative professional development opportunities are available in the Pittsburgh area in June and July, including:

In a Rapidly Changing World, What Defines an Educational Innovation? Fri, 03 Jun 2016 17:17:27 +0000 What defines something as an “innovation”? In education, what new ideas or shifts in thinking merit our attention and why? We take a closer look at what constitutes innovative practice in education, and why it matters for the future.

What is Innovation?

Something new. As John Seely Brown, formerly the chief scientist at Xerox said, “Something is innovative because it is outside of the standard.” An innovation can be a method, an idea, or a device, something that creates new value or a shift in thinking.

How does innovation apply to education today? What does it look like in education?

There are many “innovations” in today’s education landscape—teachers making minor, but critical shifts in their instructional practice to better meet the specific needs of their students; partnerships between technology companies and educators to develop instructional technology that change classroom dynamics; or communities coming together to make learning opportunities available not just in school, but in places not traditionally thought of as institutions of learning. In Kentucky, a new “Districts of Innovation” law defines innovation as “a new or creative alternative to existing instructional and administrative practices intended to improve student learning and the performance of all students.”

Driving these innovations is growing conviction that we need to rethink education’s role in a rapidly changing world, where information is at our fingertips and how we learn is more important than what we learn. “In large part,” says Seely Brown in his book, A New Culture of Learning, “the role of the teacher needs to shift from transferring information to shaping, constructing, and overseeing learning environments.” Teachers are also increasingly cultivators. “You don’t teach imagination; you create an environment in which it can take root, grow and flourish.”

Photo by Ben Filio

What innovations—changes in pedagogical practices and shifts in thinking—merit attention?

There are numerous instructional methods and education technologies designed to advance learning innovation. These methods and technologies each have their own unique approaches and specific goals. But three foundational ideas underlie most of today’s innovations in education:

1) Interest-Driven Learning Engages Today’s Students

Kids learn best when they follow their interests. But in traditional pedagogical models, students do work based on what the community or society expects them to know and all students in a given classroom typically learn the same thing. Today some educators are moving away from this “one-sized-fits all approach” and encouraging educators to support students in interest-driven learning.

“When you can connect a passion with peers and a community that supports and motivates you,” said Collective Shift’s Connie Yowell at a recent SXSWedu conference, “and connect that to real opportunities, magic can happen.”

“When you can connect a passion with peers and a community that supports and motivates you, and connect that to real opportunities, magic can happen.”

With support from peers and mentors, and the time and space to create work that they find meaningful, experts like Yowell believe that interest-driven learning can lead to academic achievement, career success, and civic engagement.

For example, teen journalist Nathan Lawyer, whom we profiled in 2013, got his start making his own horror movies, shooting in the hallways of his high school with friends after school.   But after dipping his toe into media production at his school’s broadcast club, and with some guidance from peers and teachers like Kris Hupp, a social studies teacher and 21st Century teaching and learning coach, Lawyer became executive director of his school’s TV channel, producing daily announcements, news, weather and live broadcasting to his peers.

“We were just having fun and goofing around, but then it turned into an actual passion,” Lawyer says.

Lawyer also learned important leadership skills and confidence that he’s taken with him into other projects. For example, he participated in This Day In Pittsburgh History, shooting on location at historical sites and museums in the region. Lawyer also traveled to South Africa over the summer to teach computer skills to local kids and visit national parks, and hopes to work in the non profit field in the future.

Cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito and colleagues have created the Connected Learning model to support passion-driven learning like Nathan’s. It rests on bringing three spheres—peers, interests, and mentors—together to support learning. These experts say that to put all young people on a path that unlocks opportunity, educators should be asking, “What are the supports each learner needs in order to achieve her potential?”

Photo by Ben Filio

2) Learning Can Happen Anywhere, Anytime

With digital media, following one’s interests has seldom been easier. Young people can follow their nose and tap into a wealth of knowledge beyond the school walls. The internet expands access to experts, information, and others’ views, and digital tools, from iPhones to online editing software, lower the barriers to creating. Youth today can learn anywhere, anytime. The innovation lies in building vibrant learning ecosystems in communities so all young people can benefit.

“How do we make visible all the learning opportunities happening in a city 24-7 that kids are already doing?” asked Nichole Pinkard, founder of the Digital Youth Network. “How then do we help kids and their parents link to other learning opportunities they might not know about?”

If learning is now an anywhere, anytime activity that lasts our whole lives long, then the responsibility for educating today’s students needs to extend beyond the school system.

Collaboration is central to these efforts. The Remake Learning Network is part of a growing network of education innovation clusters across the country that aim to foster collaboration between diverse sectors to create more learning opportunities for its young people. Remake Learning Network is made up of, for example, more than 250 organizations, including early learning centers and schools, museums and libraries, afterschool programs and community nonprofits, colleges and universities, ed-tech startups and major employers, philanthropies and civic leaders.

3) Students Must be Able to Solve Complex Problems—to Learn How to Learn

The third shift in thinking that merits attention is a focus on 21st century skill-building.

Teaching students how to learn is as important as teaching them content.

John Dunlosky, professor of psychology at Kent State University in Ohio, in an article published in American Educator, emphasizes that “teaching students how to learn is as important as teaching them content, because acquiring both the right learning strategies and background knowledge is important—if not essential—for promoting lifelong learning.”

Today’s educators understand the need to go beyond helping students retain specific content and help them to become learners and to think like problem-solvers. These skills of critical thinking, “systems thinking,” and collaboration are often collectively referred to as 21st century skills.

Mickey McManus, chairman and principle at MAYA Design, has argued the problems facing the globe today are complex, interconnected issues, from climate change to disease management. To solve them requires a deep understanding of the interconnected nature of complex systems.

Game design is another route to build systems thinking and problem-solving skills in young people. Some educators are using Gamestar Mechanic, for example, a video game that teaches kids how to design video games in classrooms to teach skills such as systems thinking, collaboration, and iterative design.

The maker movement is another way to impart 21st century skills. At makerspaces throughout the Pittsburgh region, kids can build things, tinker and experiment, and learn from their own mistakes, which also builds problem-solving and systems-thinking skills. At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP, for example, kids are free to experiment with wood, circuitry, a needle and thread, or old technology that they can take apart and put back together. Kids get ideas, but things usually don’t go right the first time. They’re freer to say, “Oh this didn’t work out, how can I make it work?” And importantly, they work with their peers to solve the problems.

ORC Maker Faire

ORC Maker Faire

Haven’t educators always focused on these “21st century” skills?

All of these innovative practices are facets of the fundamentals of good teaching and learning. One-hundred years ago, when philosopher John Dewey wrote about the purpose of public education, the world was also changing fast. He saw inquiry—following our interests where they lead us—at the center of education and hands-on learning as the way to experience it. Extending that philosophy to today, Gregg Behr wrote recently at Forbes, “We are now immersed in another era of great change, but our education system has not kept up. Dewey’s ideas ring truer than ever, but how do we adapt what he articulated for the modern world?”

Why act now?

Because today’s problems are more interconnected and challenging than ever, and because youth are too easily becoming disconnected from school.

In 2012, 6.7 million youth ages 16-24 were neither in school nor working. They either had dropped out of school or left with too few skills to find a job, became discouraged and disconnected from society’s twin pillars, school and work.

We are now immersed in another era of great change, but our education system has not kept up.

That drift and disconnection squashes hope and dreams for a future. More than four in ten high school dropouts ages 20-24 in 2011 were unemployed year-round. Far too many end up in the prison system, or start families before they’re ready. Others grow frustrated as door after door is shut for lack of the right credentials. Even when they do graduate, far too many students leave school without the set of skills and competencies that can lead to a good job. A recent IBM survey of more than 1,500 global CEOs revealed that it’s virtually impossible to find workers with the skills they need to do the job—because those skills don’t yet exist. Instead, CEOs are looking for employees who can constantly reinvent themselves and solve for the future.

A generation risks being lost as the demands of the world increase, and as the issues of tomorrow only get more complex. Without innovation, education may become a driver of inequality rather than the great equalizer we intend it to be.

ESSA Provides Opportunities for Innovation Tue, 31 May 2016 12:30:41 +0000 The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is teeming with references to innovation. It encourages innovative assessment models. It promotes innovative approaches to literacy, and even innovative geography instruction.

Significantly, the education reform bill, signed into law in 2015, includes grants for education innovation and research. The funds are available to states, local education agencies, or nonprofits to “create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students.”

Some schools have already been piloting programs that research shows are promising in helping close the achievement gap, and their efforts suggest directions others can take under ESSA in pursuit of innovative practices.

ESSA includes grants for education innovation
Last month we looked at how the 51st State Working Group addresses accountability. Formed last year, the cohort now includes 11 states, all trying out creative educational approaches and sharing best practices. The group’s name references a framework devised by education researchers Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger to consider what education policies a hypothetical 51st state might implement to best prepare students for academic, personal, and professional success.

As we continue to dig into the potentials of ESSA at Remake Learning, we will return to these states’ early efforts. The law doesn’t go into effect until 2017-2018, but these experiments, chronicled in a report by the Learning Policy Institute and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, provide some insight into what it may give rise to.

There are some common themes among the Working Group states’ innovation and flexibility efforts.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning refers to tailoring lessons and learning pathways for students with different skill levels and interests. It is the rejection of a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The underlying goal of personalized learning, which has taken on a few different definitions, is to cater to a student population that is growing more diverse and to close an achievement gap in which students on either end have vastly different needs.

These days, personalized learning is often associated with education technology. For some tech advocates and companies, personalized learning means systematically collecting data on students to track their individual needs and patterns of learning. But the ideas behind personalized learning predate the digital age, and its contemporary implementations may or may not focus on technology.

The Kettle Moraine School System in Wisconsin is celebrated for its personalized learning efforts. The school has created pathways for different kinds of learners, including an advanced manufacturing program, reports EdWeek. The district also encourages students to pick their own way of experiencing a lesson—by watching or reading information, for example.

Kentucky, one of the working group states, has granted several districts the freedom to explore innovative instructional models, so long as they include certain “critical attributes,” including personalized learning. In the state, that means setting goals for individual students’ progress.

Competency-Based Progression

In a traditional school system, students complete a course after spending a specified number of hours in it, and after receiving certain marks on assignments and summative tests. The movement toward competency-based learning progressions suggests students should move through classes and grade levels when they grasp the material—which in practice could take shorter or longer than a predetermined semester.

Students can take the time they need to master content.

Competency-based progression demands new models of assessing competency. In New Hampshire, state-funded professional development trains teachers to develop performance-based assessments that appropriately test the competencies built in their classes.

In other states and districts, competency-based systems allow students to substitute classroom “seat time” with online classes, community college courses, or internships. In Ohio, for example, the state’s Credit Flexibility Plan allows high school students to demonstrate subject-matter competency by taking a class or through a number of alternative experiences.

Financial Support

For the past few years, Oregon has awarded grants to districts with schools engaged in teaching and learning that involves personalized learning, meaningful assessments, and timely and differentiated feedback. The schools must serve as “demonstration sites,” diligently tracking their successes and failures for the benefit of others. While some Working Group states provide funding for innovation, the Learning Policy Institute notes that Oregon is the only one that specifically funds schools that serve disadvantaged populations.

One school that received the grant, the Academy of Arts and Academics in Springfield, uses a unique grading system. Failing grades don’t exist. Instead, students receive an “incomplete” and have an additional year to work with teachers to pass the course. Students are not ruled by the semester system, but can instead take the time they need to master the content.

Oregon’s program, and the other approaches documented here, show promise, and ongoing evaluation will guide other states and schools in developing similar initiatives to support high-needs students. ESSA awards grants to programs at three stages: development and implementation, evaluation, and expansion. Most of the current projects are in nascent stages. But additional support from ESSA will enable programs like these to more thoroughly test and model innovative approaches that reduce the achievement gap.

Challenge, Collaborate, & Create in Chartiers Valley Fri, 27 May 2016 14:03:29 +0000 The latest in our occasional series of guest posts from Remake Learning Network members sharing stories of their work in the field.

Walking past Chartiers Valley sixth grade science classes during the month of May is always an adventure. You’ll hear a lot of buzzing. You’ll see a lot of lights flashing. You may even smell the remnants of a recent spark in the air.

It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s learning in action.

Each year, Chartiers Valley Middle School students take their understanding of circuits to the next level with an engaging hand-on approach. They begin with an introductory unit on the basics of circuits. Then, equipped with a basic understanding of how circuits work, they roll up their sleeves, grab a screw driver and get to work.

Every student has a different toy or electronic. Some are their own personal belongings, while others have been donated to the project. Either way, students are working with something that interests them.

It’s that connection to something personal or of interest that really drives an inquiry based lesson. Students begin the project full of questions. As they dismantle their toy, they explore, research, discuss and reflect until they find the answers to their questions. Or, in most cases, begin to pose even deeper, more scientific questions.

It all began when Ms. Sara Benis, Chartiers Valley Middle School Gifted Coordinator, and her students took a trip to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh where they participated in a workshop that focused on taking things apart in order to get a better understanding of how they work.

“It didn’t take long to realize that we could run a similar project at our school and reach all of our sixth graders, instead of just a handful of students,” said Ms. Benis, who connected with sixth grade science teachers Ms. Allison Machusko and Mr. Ron Moreschi to turn her vision into a reality.

Another bonus to doing the project at Chartiers Valley? More time. The lesson takes place over several weeks instead of one day, which enables students to dig deeper and take ownership of their learning.

“The expectation is that students will really develop their projects,” said. Ms. Benis. “Not only are they learning the inward workings of their childhood toys, they are creatively designing usable products out of recycled parts.”

Dismantling toys is just the beginning. Once students have a collection of parts, they are tasked with creating something new.

“Students are in complete control of the outcome,” explained Ms. Machusko. “From taking apart their childhood toys to designing – and rewiring – something new, students quickly become invested in their learning.”

This year, Chartiers Valley Middle School Art Teacher, Ms. Sharlynn Mavrich, is involved to help take the project to the next level. Ms. Mavrich will give the students a few tips for creating aesthetically pleasing products.

“The world isn’t magical,” said Ms. Benis. “Through this project, students begin to really recognize that basic science is everywhere.”

The main academic learning revolves around understanding simple circuits. However, this project goes so much deeper. Students learn how to motivate themselves. They learn how to collaborate. And they learn how to create.

“I hope the students learn how to challenge themselves through this project,” said Ms. Machusko. “We provide them with basic instruction to circuits and then it’s up to them to take charge of their own learning through hands-on exploration.”

Students are engaged from the moment they walk through the door each day. They come to class armed with new ideas they are eager to try. They work diligently throughout the entire period. Some days the bell will ring at the end of class and nobody moves toward the door. They want to be right here. In class. Learning.

“There is never a dull moment from the start to the completion of this project,” added Ms. Machusko. “But my favorite part is the excitement you can see on their faces when they make the final connection and their new creation works!”

An Age-Old Push for Science Literacy, With New Tools Tue, 24 May 2016 12:00:05 +0000 Back in the 1990s, a group of private and public officials and academics joined forces in support of nationwide science literacy. The benefits of a strong science education were manifold, they said, with important applications in civic life and the workforce.

“In learning science, students describe objects and events, ask questions, acquire knowledge, construct explanations of natural phenomena, test out those explanations in many different ways, and communicate their ideas to others,” wrote the people who eventually developed National Science Education Standards, guidelines for K-12.

The great questions of the future—how to manage and share the world’s natural resources, say—would demand decision-makers with strong scientific training, they said. Even students who weren’t destined for such positions of power would be most successful in any field if they were science-literate.

“The business community needs entry-level workers with the ability to learn, reason, think creatively, make decisions, and solve problems,” the authors wrote.

Sound familiar? Our contemporary calls for learning that breeds innovation and critical thinking echo those of the past.

But in the 21st century, an era of entrepreneurship and global competition, these skills may be even more valuable. For those growing up in an age of melting ice caps and other climate concerns, science education can produce a sense of urgency and curiosity that leads young people to examine their surroundings through a critical lens.

Our contemporary calls for learning that breeds innovation and critical thinking echo those of the past.

A few years ago, an effort similar to the one in the 1990s yielded the Next Generation Science Standards. Sixteen states have adopted the standards, and most others have expressed interest in them. They urge the teaching of classic science concepts, only with a bit more context—an effort to encourage students to pursue careers in the field. That means teaching underlying ideas that span all science subjects, as well as teaching the practices of scientists and engineers.

“Science literacy” is a broad term, but at its core is inquiry. Students who learn science are encouraged to question how the world works, why natural phenomena occur, and what information is trustworthy. Take the scientific method, that step-by-step process most kids learn around fifth grade. At first glance it is a rote process to be memorized. But it trains young learners to devise questions and make observations, eventually putting informed hypotheses to the test through technical experiments.

The fundamental purposes of science education have not changed much in recent decades. What has changed are the tools available to stoke young people’s curiosity and help them search for answers. Bunsen burners and nature documentaries are now supplemented with uncanny visualizations and robotics kits.

Take Maker Camp, soon to be in its fifth summer. The partnership between Google and Make: magazine leverages video-chat technology to give any teenager with an internet connection a sneak peak into the practices of professional scientists and engineers. One year, participants took a virtual field trip to NASA, where they got to watch a telescope being assembled live.

Elizabeth Babcock, public engagement officer and dean of education at the California Academy of Sciences, has explained that digital technology has become part and parcel of her institution’s science literacy programming. A photosynthesis visualization at the academy brings visitors on a virtual journey through the molecules in a redwood tree. In other cases, digital media initiate genuine engagement, giving learners a more active role in their own science education, Babcock told Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning. After learning about the science and dangers of plastics, teenagers in an academy afterschool program launched a social media campaign to educate their peers.

When employed right, digital tools can support critical inquiry and give students immersive access to the vital issues of the day. That’s been the worthy goal of science education since its start, and one that is all the more urgent today.

Anyone who follows national politics knows that there are big barriers to widespread science literacy. Political and religious interest groups have worked to ban climate change curricula in several states and to prohibit officials from speaking about it publicly. A Yale study found that social consequences of caring about climate change, not a lack of scientific understanding, were the main cause of adults’ apathy about the topic.

That’s particular cause for developing science literacy at a young age. Information saturation, political interests, and societal forces are all at play in the adult world. Before they enter it, young learners need the capacity to parse through information, ask thoughtful questions, and act on the answers.


Demystifying Learning Frameworks: Deeper Learning Fri, 20 May 2016 16:21:20 +0000 Check out the original post for the full list.]]> Deeper Learning is a learning framework that aims to give students 21st century skills and train educators in teaching those skills to students. Its development has been supported by the Hewlett Foundation. Digital Promise, a nonprofit looking to encourage learning through technology, and Getting Smart, an education reform organization founded by Tom Vander Ark have been advocating for the implementation of Deeper Learning.

Because Deeper Learning is defined by what it is not, the methods of implementing it tend to be varied. The only commonalities are its six core competencies, the use of technology in education, and an emphasis on encouraging teachers to develop different, more engaging methods of instruction. Though not universal, a typical theme in Deeper Learning the implementation of  micro-credentials for teachers to ensure they are adequately prepared to use the framework.

Overall Goal

Deeper Learning is a framework targeted at schools and teachers with the goal of making sure students understand academic content at a level that prepares them for college or a career. It does not involve drilling and testing students, but instead requires the synthesis of knowledge and skills learned in the classroom. These skills are measured by six core competencies:

  • Mastery of core academic content
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Working collaboratively
  • Communicating effectively
  • Learning how to learn
  • Developing academic mindsets

The Hewlett Foundation detailed these competencies in 2013.

Theoretical basis

This framework begins with the recognition that the world today is driven by innovation, collaboration, and problem-solving. Additionally, this type of work is more technologically-driven today than it has been at any time in the past. Research has shown that learning in an environment with a focus on these types of skills helps students achieve academically and interpersonally.

Deeper Learning competencies reflect the analytic, interpersonal, and creative competencies needed for success in today’s working world. The goal is to build lessons around these competencies so students can have the opportunity to practice transferring knowledge and applying it, much like they will in their careers. According to the Deeper Learning framework, leadership is fundamental to ensuring that Deeper Learning happens in the classroom. A Deeper Learning leader can rally teachers and the community around the prospect of creating learning outcomes that reflect the role of technology and collaboration in modern society.

Competency emphasis

Academic content forms the backbone of Deeper Learning’s competency-based approach. As students learn the academic content, they should be able to think critically about it and solve complex problems related to it. Collaboration and communication are both competency areas as well. Students should learn how to learn, as described in a competency that includes the motivation and ability to make progress through whatever means necessary. A final competency focuses on the development of academic mindsets, reflected in the idea that students feel they belong, that they can be successful, and that their work is valuable. When these competencies come together, they are often reflected in student-driven, project-based lessons for students to help them gain a deeper understanding of that core academic content.

Instructional approach

Though the framework’s writers were somewhat vague about the instructional approach, there is one item that seems essential: blended learning. Technology in the classroom works as both a skill to be mastered and a method of quickly evaluating and giving feedback to students.

However, the framework is pretty straightforward about the need for changing the practices of teachers. Teachers are encouraged to create more engaging lessons that use tools other than drilling and memorizing to help students learn core content. The framework is less specific about what these practices need to be than it is about the need for them. Deeper Learning is often integrated into professional development and the missions of schools and districts in many descriptions of the framework.

Method of assessment

Deeper Learning advocates for a variety of assessments for students, but is not particularly clear beyond that major point. However, teacher assessments are an integral part of the framework, as teachers who can prove they have mastered a competency receive micro-credentials. Many of these micro-credentials are awarded by bodies outside of Schools of Education. Organizations invested in deeper learning suggest that Business Schools and business in general should be active in assessing teachers this way.

Example: Elizabeth Forward

A student shows off some of the photo work she has been doing in the art room housed withen the Dream Factory.

Deeper Learning has contributed in no small part to the successes of Elizabeth Forward School District. Dr. Todd Keruskin, Assistant Superintendent, believes that Deeper Learning has helped his district increase student engagement while pushing the teachers to become better, more reflective planners. “Deeper learning has helped us focus on content that is beyond project-based learning, beyond increased student engagement and beyond real-world application,” he says about the positive changes he has seen in his district since adapting to the Deeper Learning framework. The teachers in the district have embraced a culture of ensuring the students do most of the work while the teacher acts as more of a facilitator. To help students accomplish this work, the  district has invested in 1:1 iPads and a Digital Media Lab. Both of these upgrades have helped teachers create lessons that are designed to give students an experience they will remember decades from when they learn it. “It’s about remembering the content 20 years from now,” says Todd, explaining the motivation behind the projects his school creates.  Much of this has come from a district-wide focus on Deeper Learning and the ways in which both teachers and principals can make it happen in their classroom.

External resources

A list of Deeper Learning competencies

Deeper Learning Micro-Credentials

The Hewlett Foundation and Getting Smart’s Guide to Deeper Learning

Accountability Expands Under ESSA Tue, 17 May 2016 12:00:04 +0000 “Accountability” became a buzzword during the decade-plus reign of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The impetus of the act, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002, was to “turn around” public education, seen as failing children for too long. The sweeping reform mandated annual testing in grades three through eight and once in high school. States that did not demonstrate “Adequate Yearly Progress” faced teacher dismissals and, at the extreme, being shut down.

The problem, said critics, was the narrow definition of success—based almost entirely on standardized test scores. The draconian penalties forced schools to focus their energy and resources on preparing students for testing, leaving no room to consider more thoughtful or innovative approaches to education.

States will now track student progress on a wide range of measures.

With the law behind us, states may have an opportunity to devise more meaningful systems of accountability.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law at the end of 2015, states are required to track schools’ and students’ progress on a wider range of measures. They have some flexibility in selecting the measures, so progress is no longer defined by—and severe consequences are no longer tied to—the narrow Adequate Yearly Progress mark. Like NCLB, states’ new accountability systems must include scores from annual testing in math and reading. But another academic indicator is required, as is the graduation rate for high schools (also required under NCLB), English language learners’ proficiency, and at least one other measure of school quality or student success. States have a variety of options for this last indicator, which could be a measure of school safety, say, or of access to advanced coursework. But the indicators must be well-tested, comparable, and applicable statewide.

Some states are experimenting with more comprehensive accountability systems, modeling practices that others could imitate. Even before the law was on the books, several states received NCLB waivers so they could craft more thorough systems of accountability. Last year, 10 states at the forefront of those efforts formed the 51st State Working Group, a cohort that compares successes and hurdles in redesigning accountability. The group’s name references a framework devised by education researchers Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger to consider what education policies a hypothetical 51st state might implement to best prepare students for academic, personal, and professional success.

In two recent reports, the Learning Policy Institute and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education catalog some of the working groups’ efforts, “data dashboards,” that help track and diagnose areas that need improvement to broader measures of progress. In Kentucky, for example, an accountability system gives the most weight to measures of student success and achievement, but also factors in program reviews and professional growth. There is also an effort to reflect local needs in tailored approaches.

In California, eight school districts are adding measures of improvement and quality to create a more comprehensive accountability system. The resulting school quality report card prioritizes academics but also includes indicators of chronic absenteeism, expulsion rates, and social-emotional skills. However, some teachers’ unions condemned the effort for failing to seek educators’ input, which points to the importance of more inclusive decision-making when revamping accountability systems.

Under NCLB “accountability” took on a stigmatizing definition.

Other states are opting for additional measures of success that better track the development of critical thinking skills, collaboration, and creativity. For example, some states are using waivers to experiment with performance-based assessments designed to measure these skills. Removing the nearly singular significance from math and reading scores affords teachers and districts some flexibility in adopting instructional practices that encourage 21st century-appropriate learning.

If all goes as planned, ESSA will yield systems that comprehensively tackle improvement, responding to shortcomings with thoughtful and productive interventions. ESSA could indeed hold schools and districts accountable—a worthy cause that had taken on a more stigmatizing definition in previous years.

STEM Has Roots in Early Childhood Tue, 10 May 2016 12:30:21 +0000 A child marvels at a butterfly that has emerged from a cocoon in her backyard.

A toddler plays with building blocks, balancing a small one on top of a big one.

A baby learns the concept of cause-and-effect by putting his hands over his eyes.

These young children are all engaging in a rudimentary form of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning. Adults might associate the term with middle school science fairs or technology start-ups, but the truth is the youngest kids are capable of, and naturally inclined toward, STEM-type learning.

“As any parent knows, children are born curious,” said Roberto Rodríguez, deputy assistant to the president for education. “They’re born natural scientists.”

Rodríguez was kicking off the Early STEM Learning Symposium at the White House on April 21. There, officials, educators, researchers, and education technologists gathered to celebrate—and call for more—innovative STEM learning geared toward young children.

Research shows that even the youngest brains are capable of beginning to understand STEM concepts, but only if they are given the opportunity to explore and discover. Patricia Kuhl, University of Washington professor of speech and hearing sciences, has studied how children’s brains grow based on experiences they have starting at seven months.

“To get all the foundations of STEM into the brain early in development, we have to let children’s natural curiosity” blossom, Kuhl said at the White House symposium. “Playing with objects like blocks, playing with water, will feed that brain that wants to tinker with objects, and wants to have an effect on others in the world.”

But why devote a day at the White House to the topic? Because STEM learning can start early, and the STEM achievement gap does too.

A recent study published in Educational Researcher found that girls, as well as children who are racial or ethnic minorities, English language learners, or from low-income homes, demonstrated lower levels of science achievement as early as third grade. These kids typically continued to lag through middle school.

“It’s not a level playing field,” Kuhl said. “You can see, by the age of 5, huge effects of the opportunities to learn.”

Young learners lose out when adults underestimate what they are capable of. With well-paying jobs increasingly demanding a workforce that is well-versed in math and technology, it behooves the public and private sectors to make sure all children have access to STEM education, said leaders at the White House event. That support includes proper compensation and professional development for early learning instructors, said Secretary of Education John King.

Some researchers and companies have created products geared toward developing STEM skills and interest among young children, including those in groups that are underrepresented in the fields.

GoldiBlox is a popular engineering toy designed for girls. The kits, for kids as young as four, include construction pieces and a story that presents the player with a basic engineering challenge. Some of the toys come with action figures—racially diverse girls who carry laptops along with their capes.

Scratch, the free programming language for older kids and teens, has a younger sibling called Scratch Jr. The tool introduces coding concepts to kids ages 5 to 7, who can program games and interactive stories.

In conjunction with the White House event, dozens of organizations made commitments to further STEM opportunities for young learners. The administration also recognized efforts by public and private actors, including a handful in Pittsburgh. The Fred Rogers Company was recognized for its professional development, family resources, and peg + cat,” a TV show that teaches math to preschool-age kids. The Grable Foundation was also recognized for investing in hands-on STEM learning and technology for early childhood educators, and the White House named the Frazier School District in Fayette County, Penn., for overhauling its curriculum and professional development approach to support early STEM learning.

“It’s us rethinking how we’re doing education,” said Frazier Elementary principal Kelly Muic Lombard, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We’re implementing the 21st century slant, which is kids being creative, developing their problem-solving skills, and helping them be better collaborators.”


Demystifying Learning Frameworks: Connected Learning Fri, 06 May 2016 15:18:10 +0000 Check out the original post for the full list.]]> Connected Learning is a student-driven, production-centered, openly networked framework. The theory and practice of Connected Learning is based on more than a decade of research and development, largely funded by the MacArthur Foundation, and real-world application by dozens of organizations. Much of the activities that use Connected Learning take place out of school, but the nature of the framework makes it easily transferable between in-school and out-of-school environments.

Overall Goal

Students learn best when they are pursuing their own interests, so the Connected Learning framework builds environments where students can do just that. These spaces allow students to  use technology as a means of expression as well as a tool for learning. Once there is a suitable environment, students can connect with peers and engage in academically oriented activities through their interests. Through this, they develop the essential skills that help them solve problems and collaborate with others.

Theoretical basis

Connected Learning builds on the idea of learning ecologies. Ecologies are interdependent by nature, and bring together opportunities for students to learn, and people to help them make sense of their learning. This kind of learning is particularly well-suited for the digital era, as today’s students see technology as a system that runs through everything in their lives.

Much of the research that led to Connected Learning reflects the idea that young people learn differently today than they did in the past. The places in which young people now learn are no longer exclusively within the walls of schools, or within walls at all. Instead, technology allows them to learn through their connections and networks of knowledge. These ideas form the backbone of a Connected Learning environment.

The Connected Learning framework is based on a desire to make learning more equitable and accessible. It was designed with the goal of creating easily accessible new opportunities for all students, including students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The knowledge that a student’s environment contributes heavily to his or her success also weighs in the framework, which leads to the connectivity between students, peers, and mentors within communities that can provide the necessary guidance.

Graphic by Connected Learning Alliance

At its core, any Connected Learning environment is peer-supported, fueled by student interests, and academically oriented. It is production-centered, often relying on technology for creation. Participants have a shared purpose and open networks connect students and related groups, whether online or in-person.

There are three design principles

  • Shared Purpose: Social media and the Internet provide a space for students, their peers, and caring adults to come together and work on the same projects and problems.
  • Production-Centered: Learning comes from the act of creating, remixing, and adapting to the work that others do within the same environment.
  • Openly Networked: Environments link the tools for learning with institutions and groups of all types.

and three learning principles that help form a Connected Learning environment.

  • Peer-Supported: All students participate, and learning comes from the interactions and feedback between peers as they produce something.
  • Academically-Oriented: The culture of the environment and the interests of the students are aligned with an area of academic knowledge.
  • Interest-Powered: Students work on projects and inquiries aligned with their passions. This helps them engage in their learning experience and personalize it.

Everyone can participate in these environments, students learn by doing, and there is a constant challenge. Learning in this type of environment is interconnected between students, their work, mentors, and other groups with whom they can share.

Competency emphasis

Connected Learning does not have a list of competencies for individual students to master, largely because it focuses on giving students an opportunity to direct their own creativity or exploration of a topic. However, the success of a Connected Learning environment is measured based on certain principles and core ideas.

Instructional approach

A Connected Learning approach relies on the synthesis of design principles and new media in an environment that encourages children to take part in a production-centered, academically-oriented activity. As long as these ideas are emphasized, a Connected Learning environment can be implemented in any way possible. Quest2Learn Public Schools, YOUmedia at the Harold Washington Library, and The Harry Potter Alliance show the framework as implemented in a classroom, in a single space, and across a web-based network.

Connected Learning leverages peer groups in a way that is uncommon in other frameworks. The support of peer networks for students becomes a key component of a learning environment, and students learn many of the interpersonal skills they need by exchanging feedback with peers and mentors.

Method of assessment

Because Connected Learning uses a production-centered approach, the assessment lies in the creation of something, whether it’s physical or a piece of media.

The extent to which a program uses a Connected Learning approach can be determined based on the presence of the design and learning principles described above. The Connected Learning Alliance leaves it up to the facilitator to decide if their environment fits the framework.

Example: The Labs @ CLP

The Labs has multiple locations including East Liberty.

For teens at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, interests are the key to teamwork and learning experiences. The Labs at CLP have created a space that gives teens the opportunity to dive deeper into audio and video production, art, making, and much more by using Connected Learning principles. Corey Wittig, who runs The Labs’ programs, describes Connected Learning as a way to create connections between caring mentors and a space where youth have access to explore their own interests. In the case of The Labs, the library acts as this space. “The library is for onboarding,” Corey says, because teens will often go there after school. They begin by providing teens with entertainment, and then give them the opportunity to explore different aspects of technology, entertainment production, project-based learning, and making principles. All of the projects are student-driven, and range from a highly successful neighborhood Halloween haunted house to a racial justice documentary. Thanks to Connected Learning, Pittsburgh-area teens were able to engage fully projects like these that, though outside of a traditional curriculum, provided a rich learning experiences in terms of building mindsets, working together, and mastering technology.

External resources

The Connected Learning Alliance

Connected Learning Principles

Aspiring Artist Discovers Digital Expression Fri, 06 May 2016 13:19:14 +0000 Isis Allen, a 7th grade student and aspiring artist, likes that she is able to explore and learn new things after school. Allen is one of a handful of students at Cornell who is developing digital literacy skills as part of Digital Corps.

Last year, middle school students at Cornell stayed after school to remix the web using tools such as Mozilla’s X-Ray Goggles, Thimble, and Webmaker. Students also built and programmed Hummingbird Robots, learned some basic computer programing principles using Scratch, and experimented with MakeyMakeys. Cornell’s Digital Corps program is part of an initiative led by The Sprout Fund to help students develop digital literacy skills.

Sprout’s Digital Corps program recruits educators and professionals and trains them to become digital learning coaches

In both in-school and out-of-school settings, students are paired with Sprout-trained mentors who “…work side by side with youth to demystify robotics, code websites, program mobile apps, investigate online privacy, and empower the next generation of digital innovators,” says Ani Martinez, Program Associate at Sprout and manager of the Digital Corps. “There is an array of other programmatic partnerships that have influenced the Corps’ curriculum and ways of thinking (and vice-versa), including (but not limited to) APOST, the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern PA, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Teen Services Programs, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western PA, Hear Me, and The Pittsburgh Project.”

Students at Cornell have been anxiously awaiting the return of Digital Corps and the district was looking for funding sources to keep the program active. Fortunately in January, Cornell received word that our 21st Century Learning Community grant through the U.S. Department of Education was approved. The grant brought back a wide range of after school activities for our students, including Digital Corps.

Susan Dunning, science teacher, second year Digital Corps mentor and former engineer, was ecstatic by the news. Dunning says, “Digital Corps gives me the opportunity to introduce programming, engineering, design thinking, and robotics to my middle school students.”

The Cornell School District seeks to provide students from Coraopolis and Neville Island with a challenging and rigorous education that prepares them for success. Digital Corps helps fill the void between what students are learning in class and many of the trends in our digital world. It allows our students to explore their interests and become creators of digital content.

Back in 7th grade, Isis is currently modernizing the Grimm’s fairy tale of Rapunzel by building a robotic knight that climbs the princess’ hair. She says, “Digital Corps is fun because you get to try new things and experiment with what you want to do.” She is really looking forward to gaining access to the school’s 3D printer so that she can make a unicorn. Perhaps she will create a robotic unicorn?

Where else is the Digital Corps happening?

Digital Corps lessons and materials are being used by educators and mentors in out-of-school programs throughout the Pittsburgh area, including these neighborhood-based community learning sites:


How can you use Digital Corps lessons in our program?

To help give even more students opportunities to gain the essential digital literacy skills they need to fully participate in today’s world, Sprout’s Ani Martinez and Digital Corps members created resources for youth workers to use to set up their own digital literacy learning sessions.

Check out all of the Digital Corps Teaching Kits including:



The Potency of Peer-to-Peer Learning Tue, 03 May 2016 12:30:30 +0000 Last month, the New York Times Magazine gave some prime real estate—its cover—to a computer game.

Regular readers of this blog might not be surprised to hear that the game was Minecraft. Users of the wildly popular activity design and build complex landscapes out of virtual blocks, avoiding monsters and competition along the way. The level of problem solving and creativity the game demands has earned the admiration of educators as well as parents who might otherwise shun video games.

In his cover story, writer Clive Thompson presents Minecraft as a tool for 21st century learning. It challenges players to tackle any problem that comes their way, employing out-of-the-box ideas and persevering in the face of challenges.

“It’s a world of trial and error and constant discovery,” Thompson writes. The game is so open-ended that players can do something akin to programming it themselves. “Minecraft encourages kids to get under the hood, break things, fix them. … It invites them to tinker.”

Last month we wrote about the potential and perils of putting kids in charge of their own learning. Some iconoclasts claim kids can go it alone so long as they have the right tools, while others see promise in self-directed learning that is guided by adult mentorship.

Minecraft is a testament to what kids can do on their own. Thompson gives us snapshots of an 11-year-old boy who exploits the random movement of a Minecraft-world cow creature in order to booby-trap his friends, and a fifth-grade girl who solves a circuitry problem that was inhibiting her gameplay. (With 40 percent of its players being female, Minecraft has reached an audience that is typically underrepresented in the tech scene.) There are no instructions or “help” sections in Minecraft, Thompson explains, so kids are forced to explore and trouble-shoot themselves. It’s an empowering task most game players aren’t given in an era of sleek, user-friendly tech.

But the complex game has also given rise to a different dynamic. Beyond just teaching themselves, kids are taking the initiative to teach others. The game “offers many opportunities to display expertise, when you uncover a new technique or strategy and share it with peers,” Thompson writes. It is common for young players to record their own tutorial videos, upload them to YouTube, and share them with their friends.

Connected learning,” a new model that capitalizes on a young person’s immersion in digital technology to encourage curiosity, also promotes “peer-to-peer learning.” The theory posits that putting students in the role of the teacher—be it for a single activity or an entire semester—builds confidence and social bonds. It is empowering for a young person to realize they possess knowledge or experience that is valuable to others. And the advent of social media has made it especially easy for young people to share advice and pose questions to their peers.

Putting students in the role of teacher helps build confidence and social bonds.

In an authentic learning environment, young people are given opportunities to pursue their interests, which requires a reevaluation of traditional teaching structures, said cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito in a CLTV webinar in 2013.

“Kids talk about how different it is to get critiqued by someone in a more formal position versus a fellow passionate obsessive about their area of interest,” said Ito, co-founder of Connected Camps, where hundreds of kids play Minecraft together.

In California, high school student Shilpa Yarlagadda found that she best understood a confusing concept when it was explained to her by a friend who had struggled with it as well. The teenager co-founded Club Academia, a site where students could upload their own tutorial videos. (The videos were vetted by teachers before they were published.)

“I really believe that the best people to solve problems are the people who face them,” Yarlagadda told KQED. “In the field of education, those people are students, and I think it’s unfortunate that we’re often left out of the conversation.”

On the CLTV webinar moderated by Ito, educators discussed the challenges of bringing peer-to-peer learning into a classroom. When students have the steering wheel, one teacher said, they tend to drive a bit off the curricular course. Another said educators have to make sure the same students don’t always dominate the lessons.

Regardless of what it looks like, peer-to-peer learning requires some scaffolding from adult mentors, said Paul Oh, then a senior program associate at the National Writing Project. But when it is well-organized, he said, it is a powerful framework.

Most adults have also had the rewarding experience of teaching something to a colleague or friend. Maybe you have to re-teach yourself something first, or recall how it first clicked for you—but in the process of explaining it, you are likely to understand the concept even better yourself, get a confidence boost, and feel good about spreading your knowledge.

For kids, who are rarely in positions of authority, these feelings are magnified.

Demystifying Learning Frameworks: The P21 Framework Fri, 29 Apr 2016 15:11:05 +0000 Check out the original post for the full list.]]> The P21 Framework is a model for incorporating 21st century skills into learning. It was developed by a coalition of the US Department of Education, businesses including Apple, AOL, Microsoft, Cisco, and SAP, and organizations involved in education such as the NEA. Collectively, this coalition is known as the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. It was first published in 2006 and has been continuously updated, most recently in 2015.

Overall Goal

This framework was created to combine a set of competencies that emphasizes 21st Century Skills for students and supports teachers in teaching those skills. It uses core academic subjects as a vehicle for  teaching life and career skills, learning and innovation skills, and information and media skills. These skills allow students to be better-prepared for today’s highly collaborative, innovation-focused workforce. For this reason, student outcomes in this framework are often described in terms of the future impact they will have for students when they seek employment.

P21 has the advantage of being a very general framework. It covers a lot of subjects and many potential strategies to train teachers and influence student outcomes. Its broad base allows it to be easily adaptable for both in-school and out-of-school activities. Details on the components of each of these outcomes are available on the P21 website.

Theoretical Basis

Much of the P21 Framework’s basis comes from a belief that children need the proper opportunities and avenues to gain the skills for careers.The coalition formed in an attempt to better prepare children for the challenges of the modern working world, and this framework is motivated by a desire for college and career-oriented education. The skills that the P21 lists are considered crucial for success in the workplace by all sectors.

The foundation believes that work environments are more complex in today’s society, so students must be able to integrate the traditional academic core with interdisciplinary skills that are more reflective of those complexities. They will gain these skills by integrating core content and interdisciplinary themes, and engaging in activities that promote Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Collaboration–the P21’s research-based 4C’s. Many of these opportunities for integrating core knowledge and critical thinking skills stem from technological literacy and related areas like media literacy. These literacies are translated into a list of competencies that students should master by the time they leave school.

Competency Basis

The core academic subjects include traditional subjects (Language arts, math, science, history, etc.) as well as a cluster of interdisciplinary subjects including  Global Awareness, Financial, Economic, Business, and Entrepreneurial Literacy, Civic Literacy, Health Literacy, and Environmental Literacy. These competencies measure the outcomes of student learning.

P21 recommends that instruction in these subjects incorporate opportunities for students to also gain additional competencies critical for success in the 21st century:

  • Learning and Innovation Skills (the so-called 4Cs) are Creative Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Critical Thinking and Problem Solving. These skills were picked for their use in complex work environments. Many of these skills have a design thinking flavor to them.
  • Information, Media, and Technology Skills are the tools that students will learn to master both digital and non-digital media. Media is used as a creative tool, but also as an object to be evaluated for accuracy, effectiveness, and ethical considerations.
  • Life and Career Skills are the habits and mindsets that students should develop when they learn from this framework. Some of these skills are internal, while others are based on interactions with others. These skills include accepting feedback, working in teams, and adapting well to change.

Instructional Approach

This framework is primarily directed toward in-school interventions, but it can be applied to out-of-school activities as well.

Support systems are the portion of the P21 Framework designed to give teachers the tools to influence student outcomes. They include guidelines for assessments, professional development, and learning environments to ensure teachers are prepared to work within the framework.These systems are designed to encourage teachers to create lessons and assessments based on the key subjects, while involving technology, and inquiry- and problem-based learning in lesson delivery to help students build 21st century skills.

P21 highlights Exemplar Schools who are evaluated based on their implementation of the core content, use of engaging teaching methods, and presence of the following support systems.

  • Standards and Assessments focus on the skills associated with 21st Century content and measure mastery through standardized testing, inquiry- and project-based learning, and portfolio development. Assessments can also be enhanced by technology to provide students with a new medium for creative expression and feedback from the teacher.
  • Curriculum and Instruction teaches 21st Century Skills as both individual competencies and as tools to be used to navigate the core curriculum.
  • Professional Development gives teachers the skills to integrate 21st century themes into core content through projects and inquiries and to support that integration with technology.
  • Learning Environments support teachers who collaborate and create relevant learning experiences for students involving 21st century skills. Well-planned environments encourage group work and provide equitable access to technology.

Method of Assessment

P21 advocates for a variety of assessments, including standardized testing and project and problem-based assessments. Additionally, P21 assesses schools by allowing districts to apply to be considered Exemplars.

Example: Avonworth School District

21st Century Innovation & Collaboration at Avonwroth High School / Photo: Brian Cohen
The P21 Framework awarded Avonworth School District with the title of “Exemplar School” thanks to their effective use of the framework in curriculum design. Tom Ralston, Superintendent, says the framework “has helped our educators to view learning through an important lens that embeds collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication into learning experiences for children.” He saw its adoption as a way to make sure the district’s students are trained as the problem solvers and self-guided learners that are needed in today’s workforce. The district has created experiences that introduce teachers to community members working in fields related to their content area to help them create innovative, relevant lessons. Ralston has helped create an environment where teachers feel they can take risks in their lessons to help students develop the positive characteristics that will help their students succeed. “The acknowledgement that Avonworth High School has been recognized as a P21 Exemplar School is a wonderful affirmation of the educational program that our teachers and administrators facilitate for students,” says Tom. The P21 Exemplar status has been a source of pride for the district, and it has helped them work to prepare students for the future.

External Resources

Educators See Election as Boon for Digital Learning Tue, 26 Apr 2016 12:00:28 +0000 Madeline Fonseca, a senior at Oakland Tech High School, recently filmed a video in which she described her struggles since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported her mom about four years ago for overstaying her visa. She and three other students produced and submitted the video as part of KQED’s “My Backyard Campaign” project, which received more than 100 submissions from young people filming videos on their smartphones about issues like gun control, climate change, education, abortion, and criminal justice.

“I hope by sharing this story, people can see how unequally we’re being treated, how families are being separated, and how much it affects us kids,” she says in another video KQED produced about her work.

Everyday there’s another head-scratching headline about the 2016 election. But if you look past the unprecedented happenings among the campaigns and candidates, there’s something else new: educators and young people like Madeline are using the election to tell their stories with digital media and learn about the political process in new ways.

“My Backyard Campaign” is part of a larger, national project from KQED and the National Writing Project called Letters to the Next President 2.0. In 2008, during the first Letters to the Next President project, teachers across the country guided their students in writing and publishing letters to the future president on an open-to-the-public GoogleDoc—which was brand-new at the time.

This time, the project reflects how times have changed. The issues have shifted, and so have the ways educators are using technology to teach kids about the election process, argumentative writing, and how to create their own media. Educators and young people can chime in to share their work with #2NextPrez, or participate in “annotatathons”—where young people in classes around the country can annotate the candidates’ speeches with gifs or videos. In the late summer, young people will be invited to formally publish their letters, in text and multimedia, to the new L2P 2.0 website.

All elections are tough to teach. But with both new technology and a contentious election, teachers are grappling with how to keep a classroom a safe space for students of all viewpoints.

Young people are using the election to tell their own stories.

“I really, really stress civil discourse,” Sue Witmer, a government teacher at Northeastern High School in Manchester, Pennsylvania, told the local news in a story about teaching the election. “There have been several times I’ve said, ‘Hey, we’ll all be civil while we’re tweeting even if the candidates aren’t.’ ”

Meanwhile, Ellen Shelton, the director of the Mississippi Writing Project and former high school teacher in Tupelo, Mississippi, stressed in a recent Educator Innovator webinar that teaching students to analyze the candidates’ arguments, accuracy, and rhetoric can be more of a learning opportunity for students than simply debating which viewpoint is right or wrong.

“Some students told me their opinions didn’t necessarily match their friends’ and families’ [opinions], so it took courage for them to do so in their own videos,” said Kathy Nichols, an English teacher at Pleasanton Middle School in Pleasanton, California, in an interview with KQED. Her students also submitted videos for KQED’s “My Backyard Campaign” project. “But it was nice for them to hear their own voice, and they were proud of themselves for doing it.”


Connecting Pittsburgh’s Past and Future Through Innovation Mon, 25 Apr 2016 12:00:21 +0000 Just a short walk from their classroom in the Sarah Heinz House, students from Cara Koloshinsky’s science class at the Manchester Academic Charter School (MACS) are digging into Pittsburgh’s past with the Senator John Heinz History Center and adding their voice to topics and themes explored in the center’s exhibit Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation.

Investigating the life stories and major achievements of a dozen Pittsburgh innovators, including global business leader H.J. Heinz, inventor of the bolometer and pioneer of aviation Samuel Langley, optical telescope builder Dr. John Brashear, and astronomer James Keeler, the students are looking for those qualities that are shared by all innovators, regardless of their field.

photo: Ben FilioWorking in collaboration with History Center educators, the students from MACS combined research and creativity to develop video tributes of innovators featured in the exhibit. They conducted research, wrote scripts, and found images to make their tributes engaging and approachable. Using the storytelling app Videolicious, students recorded their narration and put together minute-long videos using the school’s iPads.

“It seemed like a good fit because we are moving toward design-based learning in our school and have an emphasis on technology and innovation,” said Ms. Koloshinsky.

And students agreed. “I like being able to learn new apps on the iPad and to be able to create and edit the videos myself. I also liked that the innovator project was focusing on innovators from Pittsburgh because it shows us local people who have made an impact on history,” said a MACS student.

The History Center has included the student-made videos on its website, where visitors can learn about innovators like George Westinghouse, Rachel Carson, and Dr. Jonas Salk. “Our partnership with Heinz History Center has allowed the students to practice their research and writing skills while learning about history and science through a creative project,” said Ms. Koloshinsky.

photo: Heather MallakIn addition to their video tributes to the innovators featured in the exhibit, students added their own voice through a series of video interviews in which they explored their own creative characteristics, matching their experiences and traits with the qualities they discovered in the innovators they researched.

This collaboration has led to another—the History Center is also working with Pittsburgh Woolslair’s STEAM classes. After seeing the videos that MACS students had created, STEAM teacher Heather Laurent knew she wanted to get her students involved: “This opened the minds of our third through fifth grade students to think about themselves as innovators and to think about what attributes they possess.”

photo: Heather MallakWoolslair students recently piloted museum outreach efforts that take learning out of the textbook and into the environments where these innovators worked and lived. Fifth graders used the same scientific instrument employed by James Keeler to build spectroscopes that detect the rainbow spectrum of natural and artificial light sources. Students then used the same collaborative process used in Jonas Salk’s laboratory to compare healthy and diseased human pathology slides (and they had one tool that Salk never got a chance to use—iPad enabled microscopes). Third and fourth graders learned about the work of George Westinghouse with a design thinking activity that explored systems modification and reasoning.

These programs represent a new approach for Heinz History Center’s Education Department: exploring how the innovation and creativity of people from past has shaped the present while also considering how students can apply an “innovator mindset” to invent their own futures.

De-Mystifying Learning Frameworks Fri, 22 Apr 2016 12:00:30 +0000 Have you found yourself confused by all the new terminology being used to describe learning? Us too. That’s why we embarked on a project to distill the key elements of some of the new learning frameworks we’ve been reading about. Whether you’re an educator looking to demystify some of the buzzwords you keep hearing, or you’re entering the ed-tech startup scene, this series will help you speak the language of education innovation.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll dig into a few of the learning frameworks we’ve seen adopted by educators in the Remake Learning Network, as well as a few others that we’re just beginning to learn about:

  • The P21 Framework prepares students for college and careers with collaborative, creative, and communication skills.
  • Connected Learning facilitates the creation of learning environments where students can explore their interests around peer groups and mentors.
  • Deeper Learning encourages teachers to create project- and problem-based learning experiences with technology to prepare students for college and the workforce.

Though each framework uses different interventions, they all share the goals of improving learning outcomes, enhancing student engagement, and better preparing young people for today’s world. The series will cover these frameworks in more detail and give examples of their implementation in the Pittsburgh region.

We’ll be rolling out a three part series of blog posts detailing each of these frameworks over the coming weeks. But before we get started, we thought it might be helpful to dispatch with a few key definitions of words and phrases you’ll see over and over again.

New methods of teaching and learning require new vocabulary. Many of these words appear frequently in discussions about education, and many of today’s frameworks focus on these ideas. Below, you can find a list of buzzwords that are used often when describing these common learning frameworks.

  • Framework – A way of organizing a complex concept for better understanding and structuring its key elements for better implementation.
  • Competency – The ability to do a task effectively by using skills and applying knowledge.
  • 21st Century Skills – A catch-all term for describing the diverse sets of skills thought to new or particular to learners growing up in the early 21st Century, including mastery of digital technology, capacity for creativity and critical thinking, effective group communication and collaboration, and more.
  • Blended Learning – The combined use of traditional classroom instruction by a teacher and technology to deliver learning content to students.
  • Project- and Problem-based learning – Giving students an extended period of time to learn by working to solve a complex challenge, often collaboratively.
  • College and Career Readiness – A student’s preparedness to gain entry to and succeed in post-secondary education or entry-level employment.
  • Inquiry-Based Learning – A method of instruction that emphasizes the asking of questions and guiding students through a process of discussion, exploration, and reflection.
  • Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge – The combined mastery of technological tools and educational content necessary for an educator to effectively deliver technology-enhanced instruction.
  • Social-Emotional Learning – The process through which learners develop mindsets and skills to manage their emotions, relationships, decision-making, and goals.

Further Reading: Education Reimagined has been doing a long-running series in their online magazine comparing education today and education in the future. It covers some of these ideas while translating the vocabulary of yesterday’s education frameworks to more modern terms, and is worth a read for more information.

Can Kids Truly Be Their Own Best Teachers? Thu, 21 Apr 2016 16:40:34 +0000 Could there be life on Jupiter? What is sarcasm? What happened in Ancient Rome?

If you could ask and research any question, what would it be? How about: Can children teach themselves?

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, answers that question with a resounding “yes.” Starting in 1999, Mitra began what he calls his “Hole in the Wall” experiment. He has placed computers in public spaces in impoverished neighborhoods in India—the first in a hole he drilled in a wall separating his New Delhi office from the neighboring slum—and let children have at them. Many figured out how to use the machines to research their own interests.

Sugata Mitra visits one of his Hole-in-the-Wall sites in India. Photo/TED Conference

Emboldened by the results, Mitra has adapted the process for other settings. As reported last year by PBS NewsHour, some U.S. schools are using his Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) approach. In SOLEs, an adult provides kids with computers and a research question, or helps them come up with a question themselves. The kids organize themselves into groups and spend an allotted time conducting a collaborative investigation.

“SOLEs work anywhere with an Internet connection, with or without teachers,” Mitra, who won a $1 million TED Prize, has said. With access to the right equipment, he added, what students are capable of teaching themselves is “astonishing.”

Mitra’s work is part of a growing movement toward self-directed, interest-driven learning. As we reported last week, approaches like deeper learning and connected learning posit that children are most engaged when they are empowered to use their personal interests, experiences, and skills as a jumping-off point for learning. Listening passively to a teacher’s lecture and later regurgitating the information on a test doesn’t always motivate students to engage with the material.

Mitra’s work, and his belief that children don’t necessarily benefit from adult participation in their education, has engendered both acclaim and anger.

“Thinking that technology alone and kids left to their own devices can educate themselves in the way that we hope and become the types of people they want to be, I think, is ludicrous,” Michael Trucano, senior education and technology policy specialist at the World Bank, told PBS.

Some say it is the job of an adult to introduce children to ideas that might not immediately capture their attention. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this month, social psychologist Christine Ma-Kellams wrote that requiring students to do work that does not interest them or come easily can help them learn important skills like persistence, and also help them discover an aptitude for something new.

In the Hechinger Report, writer Anya Kamenetz praises Mitra’s support for kids’ curiosity but cautions against dismissing all tenets of traditional education, ultimately calling his project a “naive technocratic fantasy” that experiments on underserved students.

“The precise nature of teacher intervention is crucial.”

According to Trucano, Hole in the Wall lacks something critical: “A highly capable, competent, committed teacher there alongside [students] to help guide their learning.”

“What good teachers know is that the precise nature of teacher intervention is crucial,” educator Jeremy Harmer wrote after hearing Mitra speak. “Our job is to keep students on task, help them to focus, help them when they are having problems, find different solutions as problems emerge, be a resource and a prompter, a motivator.”

Critics of Mitra’s approach maintain that a computer is not a proxy for guidance and mentorship. But the Hole in the Wall project is a reminder that kids are capable of more than we give them credit for. Many educators and organizations are taking a page from Mitra’s book, exploring how to promote self-directed learning in and outside classroom settings.

A project at Northwestern University attempts to find the sweet spot between pure exploration and rigid structure. FUSE, an online learning program used in some schools and afterschool programs, guides users through science, technology, engineering, art, and math lessons. Structured like a competitive video game, FUSE is divided into “levels,” each with a flexible “challenge” that has kids building robots or mobile apps.

The Hole in the Wall project is a reminder that kids are capable of more than we give them credit for.

Participants are encouraged to pursue their own creative solutions to problems. In one challenge, students build a model of the fastest roller coaster they can imagine; in another, they design their dream home using a software program. (Once they beat that level, their next challenge is to help a virtual client rehab a building.)

The problems are open-ended, and the kids are encouraged to experiment. But help is there when they need it. There are video tutorials at their disposal, and peer feedback is built into the process. After trying to solve the problem on their own, kids can ask adult “coaches” for guidance. The adults provide necessary scaffolding, presenting challenges and pointing students in helpful directions.

FUSE’s hybrid approach—one part self-directed learning and one part adult mentorship—makes sense. But in an education landscape where only half of American students are engaged in school—becoming decreasingly so each grade level, according to Gallup—it’s no wonder that thinkers like Mitra propose pie-in-the-sky solutions. The Hole in the Wall project doesn’t have the evidence to back it up, but the status quo isn’t working either. So, hang onto healthy skepticism, but bring on the visionaries.

How Digital Promise is Helping Sow Networks of Learning Innovation, One Region at a Time Tue, 19 Apr 2016 13:00:32 +0000

Cricket Fuller

Over the last few years, educators, entrepreneurs, funders, and researchers have been joining forces to spur learning innovation in specific regions of the country and equip young people with the skills they need in a changing economy.

These “education innovation clusters” tend to draw people and resources from at least four regional sectors including education, the private sector, higher education and philanthropy. The Remake Learning Network in Pittsburgh is an example of an education innovation cluster, with more than 250 organizations participating.

More recently, the education nonprofit Digital Promise and the Department of Education have started devoting resources to help the clusters grow.

We spoke with Cricket Fuller, project director for education innovation clusters at Digital Promise. Fuller helps education clusters get off the ground and find ongoing support. She and Digital Promise have identified 30 regions currently developing stronger clusters, and she thinks the field is at a turning point.

“This kind of work has been bubbling for a few years, but we are at a point where we are ready to hit the ‘go’ button,” she said.

In your recent crowdcast with Remake Learning, you mentioned the importance of new education clusters having a “harbor master.” What is a harbor master?

When you’re bringing together a range of stakeholders, we’ve learned it’s really vital to have an organization or an individual who convenes people—a “harbor master.”

For most of these ed cluster regions, that harbor master is still playing an essential role. They are still at the heart of that ecosystem, similar to how the Sprout Fund was in the early years of the Remake Learning Network. We’re now starting to see several clusters that are moving beyond one single leader and giving their network a new name, a new brand, and defining membership or participation criteria. It’s great to be able to point to Pittsburgh and Remake Learning as an example of how a network has evolved  their leadership role as their network grew.

How have clusters evolved or changed recently?

For the past few years, we’ve been talking about very organic, informal, and sometimes one-off partnerships with people in education spaces. Now, Digital Promise and the Department of Education are encouraging more structure. We’re talking about moving away from informal conversations to more formal coalition building.

Digital Promise has identified more than 20 regions currently growing ed clusters. Map/Digital Promise

So, to back up a second, why exactly is formalizing these ed clusters such a step forward in the first place? Why is that better than having informal, organic meetings?

I think that’s a really important question. It’s not better if you don’t have the organic, place-based community collaborations, or an overarching sense of trust or mission. If you don’t have that, a formal structure that feels top-down is going to alienate more people than it ends up bringing to the table.

But the reason people are seeing value in a more formal organization is because without that, you end up spinning your wheels. The region doesn’t come together around an initiative or a particular vision. How do you have a purpose if you’re just a bunch of people talking and occasionally doing a one-off project here or there?

The key is to not lose that broad stakeholder base, and to not become a bureaucracy with a really rigid set of criteria for membership— but to still have some level of structure that supports you and lets you engage stakeholders more effectively toward a goal.

That’s a very nuanced way to look at that. So how do you and Digital Promise support these education clusters?

There are four main ways. First, we’re supporting regions by providing toolkits on things like funding, research, governance, communications, and partnership building. Those will be published by this fall.

We’re also providing technical assistance for six regions over the course of two years.

We’re also going to keep convening clusters on the national level. We’re forming an advisory board, as well as an online directory of all the clusters around the country, what they’re working on, and how they’re organized.

Sectors that typically participate in ed clusters. Graphic/Digital Promise

Lastly, we’re also working on brand recognition for “education clusters.” It’s a very insider term at this point. But we think we can elevate the concept. That will give more credibility to people doing this work and help engage stakeholders. We’re also establishing a formal network with a brand with some basic participation criteria.

Are you also helping clusters measure their impact?

Yes. Measuring networks’ effects is a real challenge. We know ecosystems are having incredible impacts on student learning, but we need to make sure that we have the evidence to capture that in a way that’s compelling to stakeholders.

 We know ecosystems are having incredible impacts on student learning, but we need to make sure that we have the evidence to capture that in a way that’s compelling to stakeholders.

Which education cluster really interests you right now?

There is really exciting work happening in Southeastern Kentucky with the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative. A consortium there has brought together 17 school districts to help revitalize teaching and learning, with a specific eye toward helping students find college and career opportunities that will also diversify the region’s economy.

There’s a tremendous sense of place-based identity and pride in Kentucky, but there is a lack of diverse economic opportunities right now. The best and brightest students tend to leave the region and the region has experienced a population drain. Leaders there want make sure kids have a great K-12 education, but want to see that education more connected to opportunities in the region. Though it’s in the early stages, they are interested in making an innovation hub that would help incubate startups and connect university STEM programs with K-12 students across the districts in their region. 

What’s the biggest mistake you see early education clusters make?

You want to make sure you have the right people at the table, and broaden beyond the traditional, expected stakeholders.

The flip side of that is that you want to start with a small enough core group of people who are willing to work together. We’ve talked to folks who started really broad and nothing moved ahead. There wasn’t a sense of a core group of committed people committed to a single goal.

You’re in Washington now, but you got your masters at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. What do you miss most about the city?

For every weekend for a month, my husband and I used to bike the Great Allegheny Passage. We’d follow the bike path all the way up the river. It was great because you’d see so many areas of Pittsburgh. You see a lot of older, industrial buildings and old train tracks, and you also see an incredibly vibrant skyline and new areas of development.

Simple Steps to Ed Reform are Anything but Simple Thu, 14 Apr 2016 13:00:19 +0000 Last summer, Lory Hough published a piece in Harvard’s Ed. Magazine called “Does It Have to Be So Complicated?” The story outlined a number of simple, streamlined ideas that have been proven to have big impacts for students’ achievement. The ideas are powerful and are often supported by compelling evidence. But actually implementing them, as many educators know, is anything but simple.

 Acknowledging these difficulties, isn’t it still worth promoting evidence-based ideas, even if implementing them is inevitably going to be a long, uneven, uphill climb?

For example, Hough points to the large body of research that finds starting the school day later helps teens focus and decreases drop-out rates, depression, and poor academic performance.

The article also points to the notion of scheduling physical movement during the school day, or using a school’s open house as an opportunity to talk with families about learning. Several anecdotes highlight the powerful impact of helping students access free transportation by paying for public buses.

Another idea was to send personalized text messages to students who are accepted into college to remind them of important dates and tasks they need to complete in order to actually enroll. As many as 40 percent of students who are accepted to a post-secondary institution do not enroll in the fall, and texting these simple “nudges” has been shown to increase matriculation by 4 percentage points.

Meanwhile, over at The Hechinger Report, Corey Drake writes about “four small changes” most schools aren’t using yet that can improve math learning. For example, making time for students to solve problems verbally to help them practice grappling with explaining basic math concepts.

Sounds great, right? Why not implement all these ideas tomorrow?

That’s where the tricky part comes in.

Education reform is complex. Even the best, most proven, ideas are difficult to put into place. Consider changing the time of the school day—how would that affect students who need to work after school, or need to take care of younger siblings? Or the suggestion of asking math students to solve problems verbally—how should teachers make extra time in their classes for that activity? As Hough describes, education “is probably one of the most complex, challenging things we do in our society.”

Part of what adds to the complexity is that schools and educators have been burned before by simple, “straightforward” ideas. Why not put a ton of computers in every classroom? Or give every student in Los Angeles an iPad? Without support for curriculum development or teacher pedagogy, it turns out technology alone does not improve learning.

Acknowledging these difficulties, isn’t it still worth promoting evidence-based ideas, even if implementing them is inevitably going to be a long, uneven, uphill climb?

For years, advocates objected to the dismal level of nutrition in school cafeterias, which about 32 million children eat at every day. After years of demands by researchers, parents, educators, and students, in 2012 the USDA issued new rules for healthier school lunches with less salt and fat, and more vegetables, whole grains, and fruit, for the first time in 15 years. It was small progress on one big idea, but new research shows the new regulations are working and kids are eating a healthier lunch.

“The creation of public school for all children—boys and girls, the rich and the poor—was, in itself, a big idea,” writes Hough. “In order to make some big initiatives yield bigger benefits, educators need to look more often at simple ideas that have proven to help.”

Adding Depth to the Classroom Tue, 12 Apr 2016 12:00:42 +0000 At High Tech Middle in San Diego, sixth-grade students walked into class on their first day expecting a lesson. Instead, their humanities teacher asked them: “What are your questions about the world and about yourself?”

The kids scribbled their queries on Post-it notes, sticking them around the classroom. After a few days, the walls were covered. The humanities teacher and a colleague who taught the same students math and science combed through the questions, uncovering a common theme. The students were curious about the end of the world.

The teachers developed a curriculum that sought to answer the students’ questions. Throughout the year, the students completed projects on the Mayan calendar, tsunamis, famines, and wars—and even wrote a book about what they learned. The lessons met the state standards in all subjects.

High Tech Middle sixth-grade students at work on a robotic project. Photo/Melissa Daniels

High Tech Middle sixth-grade students at work on a robotics project. Photo/Melissa Daniels

San Diego’s High Tech High network practices “deeper learning,” an educational approach with a growing following. Advocates say deeper learning improves equity in and outside the classroom. Using students’ experiences and backgrounds as a springboard, the system engages kids—particularly those who fall through the cracks in traditional schools—and prepares them for success after graduation.

Deeper learning seeks to cultivate the critical-thinking skills and creativity demanded in the real world. Companies like Google have declared test scores “worthless.” Leading colleges and universities, too, are on track to replace standard applications with portfolios that give a fuller picture of a student’s achievements in high school. They are looking for candidates who have more to offer than textbook knowledge.

The term deeper learning came into the lexicon in 2010, when the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation used it to describe an educational approach that encourages problem solving, collaboration, communication, self-directed learning, and a belief in oneself alongside mastery of content. Implementation varies, but at its core deeper learning is student-centered, project-based, and interdisciplinary.

The ideas behind deeper learning are age-old, but new research and applications have given rise to a movement. A Gallup poll found that young workers who reported learning 21st century skills—those promoted through deeper learning—were twice as likely to say they had high work quality. In a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 93 percent of employers said a job candidate’s ability to think critically, communicate, and solve problems was more important than their college major.

New research and applications have given rise to a movement.
 Deeper learning shares values and methods with other contemporary learning-science theories. Connected learning, for example, similarly posits that students’ interests are the ideal launching pad for learning, as well as academic or professional opportunity. Connected learning differs a bit in that it emphasizes technology and digital media creation as tools for empowerment and civic engagement. But advocates of both approaches believe that learning should not be confined to the classroom, and that young people learn best when the material is relevant to their lives.

Educators are quick to explain that deeper learning is not an all-or-nothing system. Replacing one memorization-based lesson with a group project is a step in the right direction. In other cases, entire schools like High Tech High are dedicated to the approach. At IBM’s P-Tech schools, deeper learning permeates every subject. Even the algebra classwork involves writing and presenting. Each student is paired with an adult mentor and completes a paid internship with a chance for a job after graduation.

Experience as entryway

For Megan Cicconi, director of instructional and innovative leadership at Fox Chapel Area School District, it is imperative that educators address how schools are failing at-risk kids. “With underserved populations, there’s a lot going on socially and emotionally that doesn’t afford students the luxury of dedicating cognitive effort to playing the game” of school, she said.

That’s why deeper learning makes a lot of sense to her. “It validates students’ knowledge and experiences,” and makes them realize that school is for them, she said. With project-based learning, a student’s musical skills, or leadership and collaboration skills picked up at an after-school job, become useful in the classroom.

Makerspaces and afterschool programs like the Carnegie Library of Homestead’s provide a “third space” for deeper learning. Photo/Ben Filio

“We focus on what the student is bringing into the classroom as a resource,” said Lara Evangelista, principal of Flushing International High School, at a discussion hosted by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and Jobs for the Future. “Many of them bring in life skills at a young age.” Many of her students are not fluent in English, but they are taught that their native language is an advantage, not a hindrance. A native language project is part of a series of performance tasks required for graduation.

When Rob Riordan, co-founder of High Tech High, taught public school English, he made a habit of never asking students questions to which he knew the answer. A classroom can feel divided when some students are better able to memorize the content of a book than others. But all students can use their own unique background to offer an interpretation of a passage, said Riordan, who gave the keynote address at a recent deeper learning conference at High Tech High.

Administrators at schools that embrace deeper learning say the numbers speak for themselves. High Tech High, whose admissions process is a zip-code-based lottery, sends 96 percent of its graduates to college. A recent study found that attending a school that promotes deeper learning increases a student’s chance of graduating high school in four years by eight percentage points. (However, something about the types of students and teachers who choose these schools could skew the results of the study, which was funded by the Hewlett Foundation.)

“We ask teachers to do what we ask students to do: work together in groups, think deeply.”
Still, skeptics wonder whether student-centered, project-based learning withholds important, if sometimes less interesting, classic content knowledge. “Before they can apply it, they’ve got to learn it,” said education researcher Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, at the LPI event.

Riordan is often asked, “What about the Great Books?” He likes to tell an anecdote about a High Tech High class in response. When a teacher there realized many of the area’s homeless residents were veterans, she partnered with a local veteran’s center and had her students interview the vets about their experiences.

At the same time, Riordan said, the teacher incorporated study of Beowulf into the unit. In the poem, the bard sings the warrior’s story to honor him. Bringing that tradition off the page and into contemporary experience, the students also composed poetry using the veterans’ own words from the interviews.

“That’s deeper learning,” Riordan said. “When we offer students experience, it becomes a platform from which they can explore a whole variety of other texts.”

Teacher as facilitator 

In a deeper learning classroom, the teacher’s role changes. They are no longer the “sage on stage,” Cicconi said. They facilitate the learning rather than control it.

High Tech High students exhibit their science projects. Photo/Alec Patton

High Tech High students exhibit their science projects. Photo/Alec Patton

But the job is every bit as critical. Teachers work to understand and respect each student’s background and strengths, Riordan said. Social-emotional development is vital preparation for the real world, and teachers who know their students well help foster those skills. In many deeper learning schools, students are matched with formal mentors who guide them through the emotional and academic trials of youth.

That’s partly why informal learning spaces—libraries, museums, afterschool programs—and their staffs play an important role in cultivating deeper learning. These “third places” create a continuum of learning between students’ personal and academic lives. The idea is to give youth the opportunity to parlay their passions and skill sets into learning and career preparation. Networks like Remake Learning convene programs—be it makerspace Assemble or Spanish language and culture center El Círculo Juvenil—that make learning relevant to young people.

But none of this happens on its own. What do teachers and administrators need in order to implement deeper learning? In short, a lot of support. The High Tech Middle teachers could never have crafted an entire curriculum around students’ questions had they not had a built-in hour at the beginning of each day to trade ideas with colleagues and prepare lessons.

“You need to look at what needs to change structurally,” Cicconi said. “Maybe it’s team-teaching in a high-capacity way. Maybe it’s block scheduling.”

Deeper learning principles also apply to educators themselves.

What do teachers and administrators need in order to implement deeper learning? In short, a lot of support.
“We ask teachers to do what we ask students to do,” Flushing said. “Work together in groups, think deeply.” At the San Diego conference, educators attended “Deep Dive” sessions, where they put their heads together to discuss challenging topics like emotional support for adolescents, community engagement, and developing curricula at the intersection of mathematics and art.

With that kind of hands-on training, “you experience what it’s like to be a learner engrossed in that deeper learning,” said Cicconi, who was one of hundreds of educators in attendance.

In that sense, deeper learning not only demands but also provides a framework for better professional development. High Tech High has its own graduate school of education program, integrated into the school system.

Schools and districts cannot go it alone, however, said Patricia Gándara of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, at the LPI event. The education researcher called for state and federal investment in professional development. In a Jobs for the Future report funded by the Hewlett Foundation, researchers say deeper learning requires rethinking traditional school credit and assessment systems as well as educator training.

During a break in the San Diego conference, Cicconi wandered the halls of High Tech High. She came upon an electronic Rube Goldberg machine that students had built together out of found materials. It demonstrated the domino effect of U.S. history, showing how one event gave rise to the next.

The fully functional machine could not have simply come out of a traditional history class, nor an art class. Instead, Cicconi said, it exemplified deeper learning’s special confluence of content, creation, and collaboration.

The students who made the machine “have absolutely mastered the different content areas, with different entry points,” she said. “They have created something that can teach others.”

How A Group of Teenagers Taught Me How a Television Show Should Be Made Fri, 08 Apr 2016 13:00:56 +0000 The Reel Teens Premiere Party!]]> First, a confession. I spent most of the 1990s working as a writer/producer on shows for teens at NBC. But this Saturday April 9, 2016 at 9 a.m. on Fox 53, a new show will premiere called “The Reel Teens” which is the show I am proudest of. It is made in front of and behind the camera by seventeen real teenagers from schools around the Pittsburgh region. On the show, these young people go to a Tolin Special Effects and see how monsters are made for movies and TV shows. They visit a musical festival and the studio of a hip hop group to discover how technology has changed the way we make music. They even get rare access to take their cameras inside Google to learn how teamwork and creative problem solving skills that they use when producing the show gives them skills to work at innovative companies like Google in the future.

Along the way, they make us laugh, introduce us to exciting people and places in Pittsburgh, and show us–mistakes and all—how they are learning to make a TV show in a way which is as engaging as most shows you’ll see on television. These students have received mentorship throughout the entire process from teaching artists and industry professionals including myself. But, the truth is we have learned more from them than we ever could have imagined.

Who are The Reel Teens?

The Reel Teens began as part of the Steeltown Entertainment Project’s Youth and Media program which was born right alongside the Remake Learning (then called “Kids & Creativity”). Recognizing that today’s young people, sometimes called “digital natives,” learn differently in a world where they are on screens seven hours a day and hold in their pocket the ability to Google any information in the world they choose. Taking inspiration from Fred Rogers, a Pittsburgh innovator who used the new technology of his day (television) to improve the lives of young people, we set out to empower to use today’s creative technologies to be the makers of content, not just consumers.

For the past two years, some Youth and Media participants have become part of the Teen Film Crew, a team of emerging professionals that has been getting paid to make videos for Pittsburgh non-profits. They come to us from a wide variety of high school including PPS Allderdice and CAPA, Urban Pathways, Propel, Montour, Woodland Hills, and Seneca Valley to name a few. They all have their stories, but they came together each Wednesday afternoon to work together on shared projects.

They’ve made videos for Amachi Pittsburgh which works with kids whose parents are incarnated, Arts for Autism, the “Off The Record” fundraiser for the food bank; the students made a video about the Learn and Earn Summer Youth Employment Initiative with Jerome Bettis where NFL Films filmed our kids filming him. That last video got a shout out on ESPN and was retweeted by the Mayor. And over these past few months, they got the opportunity to make their own TV show.

Teens making their own television show?

As the teens gathered in the conference room that first day, I couldn’t help but smile as they walked past the Fred-A-Saurus, a dinosaur wearing a Fred Rogers sweater outside of the Fred Rogers Company next door to Steeltown on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Even Fred Rogers had worked at NBC for several years before he came back to Pittsburgh to help start public television. And he did his puppets on the Josie Carrey show for years as a floor manager before he got his own show. Oh, and he was an adult.

I should point out that these kids were not alone. We had our teaching artists who have been mentoring them all along, Jordan, Kris, James, and Haji. Haji had been one of our students and now, five years later, is a teacher–pretty impressive and even more so that he was a refugee from Somalia who did not speak English until he was 13. We also brought in, two Emmy Award winning producers, Michael Bartley and Tonia Caruso, who had produced thousands of shows between them, to help mentor the kids.

It seemed like a crazy idea to give teens their own show, but these young people were unafraid. And they had ambitious goals. They wanted to shoot pieces around town that they thought were cool—the Strip Music Festival, a mobile sculpting workshop in the old Carrie Furnace site, a special effects house where a former Teen Film Crew member was now working, oh, and they wanted to go to Google. I tried to explain to them that getting access to the biggest company in the world was probably not feasible as even “real TV journalists” could not get in. The kids shrugged it off, and started talking about skits they wanted to do. I pointed out that even SNL could not get half their skits to work most of the time. They were undeterred.

We brought in top industry professionals to give them tips including cinematographer Mark Knobil who has shot everything from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” to National Geographic specials; sound designer Chris Strollo who has worked on films like “Foxcatcher” and “Perks of Being A Wallflower”; Curtis Fuqua who has been everything from a stunt performer on “Olympus Has Fallen” to a teamster on the upcoming “Fences” HBO movie Denzel Washington is directing; and “Two and a Half Men” and “Mom” director Jamie Widdoes who we Elders all recognize as “Hoover”, the president of the Delta House in “Animal House”—a movie none of our teen film crew have even seen.

“The Elders” is what the Teen Film Crew calls those of us who are helping them to make the show. The only time the cameras were turned off was a meeting early on, when Jordan and Kris, and Brett who have worked with them since the early days of the Teen Film Crew, informed us that the kids wanted to speak with us. At the meeting, the students voiced their concerns about not wanting to be “puppets” as they insisted on not wanting to do anything that was fake and just trying to imitate adults hosting a show.

Had we created a monster? They were still in high school, but their instincts were pretty good. We had presented them with a few titles— “Entertainment Pittsburgh” or “Content Creators” which did not sound quite right. It was the kids who came up with “Reel Teens”—reel as in a film reel. I wondered how they even knew what film was, given the digital world they have grown up in.

So, the kids worked under our tutelage to plan out the first shoot which would be at the Strip Music Festival. They divided into groups and would take turns working camera, sound, lighting, production manager, being hosts, and many of the jobs those not familiar with the industry would not even know existed. Georgia, one of the teens from Montour, knew some members of the band “Nevada Color” who were headlining the festival and so she was able to get them to set up some interviews. Michael and Tonia went over with them beforehand what a typical shoot entailed. There was an equipment check and they were off.

The First Episode

I guess it wasn’t until the first shoot that I realized the difference between this TV show and the ones I had worked on for NBC and other networks. Most of the crew on “The Reel Teens” did not yet have their driver’s licenses, and so the “producers” and “directors” on the episode had to be driven to the Strip or take a bus.

Wanting to give the kids a little space, I waited to meet them at the second location, Klavon’s Ice Cream Shop. I slid into a booth at this old-fashioned ice cream parlor and asked the student producers and directors how the morning went.

Like in some bad sitcom, I got a variety of answers from “good” to “okay” to “we learned a lot.” Uh oh. Exactly what happened? I heard about how they were going to interview the first band in a bar—and well, the bar owner was a little nervous about having them around in the first place as they were all underage. Then, they had plugged in the lights and other equipment. Poof! All the lights went out—for the whole bar. There had been some yelling. They tried to apologize. A band was waiting to go on. So, they just got out of there.

They recovered though, and ended up doing some man on the street interviews and “set ups” which Michael Bartley had taught them. You know, “Hi, I’m Georgia.” “And I’m Alex.” And then chiming in together… “And we are down at the Strip District Music Festival….” Although getting that out on the fly surrounded by throngs at the festival proved harder than they thought.

Eventually, the five members of the next band they were interviewing arrived. This time, everything was set up. They took a deep breath, and Georgia asked— “How has technology affected the music scene?” The band talked to her about how all things are possible nowadays with social media. It’s funny. The Elders were part of a generation, which was shocked when “downloading” killed the music industry in their early part of the millennium. We realized these kids don’t even know what it is like to live in a world without Spotify. We realized that we could tell ourselves that we were teaching them how to make television. But, the truth is most of them have been posted videos on You Tube for half their lives—which was exactly how long YouTube has been in existence.

 The first day’s shoot ended okay, and the second group has now arranged for the whole Teen Film Crew to visit TolinFX. There, they all start to feel like professionals. Steve Tolin tells Josh how he had plans to go to New York or LA after he graduated the Art Institute, but he managed to start get jobs here—working on big movies like “Dark Knight”, “Jack Reacher”, and now “The Outsiders”. Steve talks about his own background when he was a kid, putting together monster masks in his kitchen. The teens interviewed Jazmin about her journey going from Westinghouse as a part of our Youth & Media Program to the Teen Film Crew to now getting paid to do her passion—making things– working as a special effects artist for Tolin Fx.

At the end of the visit, Steve demonstrated his patented Squib FX system which safely allows it to look Josh is being “shot” for the cameras with blood splattering everywhere. The kids loved it. As they called wrap, we noticed that these kids were getting good.

Just as we get a minute to breath, we get word from Google. They are considering the teens request to film there. But first, Patrick, a Global PR team member based in D.C., wants to talk to them via Google Hangout. The following Wednesday, the kids assemble in the conference room. Everyone is beyond nervous. Patrick’s face appears on the screen.

He is a cool guy and explains to the kids that they get these requests from reporters all the time. Before he can get have them come, he needs to know more about the story about why the kids want to go there—what is the story they want to tell. The four kids in the front in the Google group now feel a bit like they are in a firing line.

Sha’Ronda speaks first saying how she has heard about the unique work environment at Google, and thinks it would be a great place to work.

Patrick confirms that they do work hard at that, but asks what else makes them want to visit Google.

Gaige says he has been into computer programming since he was a kid, and it is his life’s dream to work at Google.

Patrick is supportive but moves on to Zabian, the most recent Reel Teen who has joined us from Pittsburgh’s Performing Arts School CAPA.

Z, as we all call her, says what she wants to know is how Google, the biggest company in the world, is giving back to the community. And not just this community, but they live in a global world, and what are they doing for communities around the world.

We all hold our breath, and then Patrick smiles. “You’re in.” He goes on to talk about how Google does see itself as a company that takes the communities they are in—locally and internationally—very seriously. He talks with the kids for a half hour, discussing everything from favorite books to whether Google really has “napping pods” that one of the kids has heard about. In the beginning of the discussion of going to Google, many of the kids felt like Google was only a place where geniuses worked. That it was out of reach for kids like them. But Patrick assures them that the teamwork and creative problem solving skills they are learning doing this TV show, are exactly the type of skills they will need to work at places like Google, and other companies like Google that don’t even exist yet. After all, Google was just being born along the same time that many of these “Reel Teens” were being born. And the problems Google has had to tackle, like how to organize 30 billion items that one could purchase online in a way that is smart for users, are problems, no one else has ever had to solve. As Patrick signs off, The Reel Teens start making their plans to film at Google, and we all wonder what we have gotten ourselves into…

To see all this and more, watch “The Reel Teens” on Fox 53 on Saturday April 9th. Or visit

App Opens New Chapter in Childhood Literacy Tue, 05 Apr 2016 13:00:18 +0000 Think back on your favorite children’s book. “The Rainbow Fish.” “Curious George.” “Green Eggs and Ham.” Reading is a critical part of childhood, but for too many low-income families, children’s books are an expense beyond reach.

That’s why last month the Obama administration announced that it is helping teachers, parents, and children download thousands of ebooks on smartphones or tablets for free. Teachers and librarians in more than 66,000 low-income Title I schools, families on military bases, and special education teachers can now access those books with the new Open eBooks app.

To obtain the books, teachers or librarians sign up online and receive codes for each of their students. Students and their parents take the codes, download the app onto a smartphone or tablet, and select what they want to read. In the first week after launching the app, over 1,000,000 codes were issued to educators, according to the White House.

In addition to partnering with 10 major publishers, including Random House and Penguin, the White House worked with other organizations to create the app, including the New York Public Library, the Digital Public Library of America, and a nonprofit called First Book, which sells deeply discounted books (around $2) to groups serving children. The initiative was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, while the publishers contributed the content.

Unlike the case when borrowing an ebook from a public library, children and families don’t have to wait until the item is available or somebody checks it back in. They can browse titles and download at will.

“As a former teacher in a Title I school, I know an app like Open eBooks would have been a game changer for my students,” Colin Rogister, a who helps to lead the administration’s ConnectED initiative, told EdSurge.

Opening the floodgates to thousands of free books is undeniably a bonus for advocates trying to boost early literacy. Research has found that kids from lower-income families have fewer books in their homes and often start school months or years behind their peers. Meanwhile, being read to and having books at home can be predictive of success in school. And one study found providing children with access to printed materials helped them read more frequently for longer periods and widened their vocabularies.

Media can help literacy, but only if teachers and parents use it intentionally and offer supervision.

Books are only part of the equation. Despite national and local efforts to strengthen reading skills, two out of every three American children are not reading proficiently by fourth grade, and half of children from low-income families do not meet the low level of “basic” on reading tests. Meanwhile, technology (like the tablets and phones kids use to read ebooks) is often treated as a silver bullet or as harmful to children’s literacy.

In their recent book, “Tap, Click, Read,” Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine describe how a third option is needed—one where media and technology support reading and literacy in ways that were never possible. They say media could help literacy, but only if teachers and parents use it intentionally and offer supervision. Examples include Skyping or FaceTiming with a grandparent, watching videos of new animals after a field trip to the zoo, or conducting iPad scavenger hunts where kids take pictures of the words they are learning.

Accessing thousands of ebooks for free is another emerging example of this. About 8 in 10 Americans under age 50 own a smartphone, meaning millions of parents and educators are a few clicks from finding a book on a topic that interests their child.

There are other barriers to using technology to enhance literacy. Ten percent of Americans who own a smartphone lack in-home broadband (which can make downloading faster), in large part because internet connections are too pricey. And for parents who are stressed or overworked, it may be difficult for reading to take priority.

Literacy, like learning as a whole, is a complicated concept. Even if Open eBooks is a single step in the right direction to democratizing books, it remains encouraging to see government and national partners making literacy a priority.