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Integrating Formative Assessment Into School Culture

“Why do I have to take another test?!” Sounds familiar, right? Teachers, too, complain about the number of assessments they are required to design, administer, and grade throughout the school year. 

At Southport Middle School in Port St. Lucie, FL, we knew we needed to do a better job of using assessment data to help teachers target their curriculum and instruction to more successfully meet students’ needs. So, in 2014, we embarked on a journey to integrate formative assessment into our school culture. Since then, we have increased teacher collaboration, enhanced trust and transparency, improved student learning, and raised our school performance grade from a C to a B. 

This overview of our journey provides steps that other schools can take to create a positive culture for formative assessment.

Year One: Creating Common Assessments 

When we began, we knew that our teachers were working diligently to teach our state standards, but we didn’t know if we were assessing the standards in the right way. So, we set out to create common, standards-aligned assessments in each subject area. First, we conducted a summer training session with teachers, which focused on the standards. In each subject and grade level, we examined the intent of the standards and the appropriate level of rigor and cognitive complexity required to assess students’ understanding of the standards. 

Then, we began to build our assessments. During the 2014–15 school year, we set aside time on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for teachers to engage in collaborative planning in each subject area. The principal, assistant principal, and instructional coach each participated as well, and we reviewed the assessments the teachers created to make sure the questions were aligned to the standards and at the appropriate level of cognitive complexity. 

When teachers began administering these assessments, however, we found that many weren’t using the data in a meaningful way. They would simply note the percentage of questions each student answered correctly and move on. So, we decided to break down each question by the standard or standards it covered. We developed an Excel spreadsheet that we used for each assessment, each teacher, and each class period, and we manually entered students’ scores question by question, marking a “1” if they met the standard and a “0” if they didn’t. Having this data was very helpful to our teachers, and we were excited by the progress we were seeing. However, even with three of us—the principal, assistant principal, and coach—working on the spreadsheets, it was a long and cumbersome process to enter the data.

Year Two: Moving the Process Online 

To make the collection and analysis of assessment data easier for us and our teachers, we turned to technology. In 2015–16, at the suggestion of Charles Hatherill, our district’s program manager for formative assessments, we piloted an assessment system at our school called Unify, which is part of the Performance Matters Growth Platform. As we began adding our common assessments—which we wrote in a multiple-choice format—to the online platform, we realized that we could now build online assessments using a variety of question types to mirror our state assessments. As a result, we rewrote many of our common assessments to include different item types, such as drag-and-drop or text entry.

Throughout the year, we continued to provide support to help teachers with the assessment process and with using the new system. This included providing differentiated training for each department and differentiated support based on teacher need.

In addition, we developed a data chat process using the data from the assessment system and a book that our school’s testing coordinator brought us, Using Data to Improve Learning for All by Nancy Love. Every data chat begins with each teacher highlighting the areas of strength shown in their data. After celebrating the strengths, the next step is to address the areas of weakness on the assessment and, consequently, develop a list of actionable steps to readdress the areas that still need additional time. These data chats include the teachers and at least one member of the school leadership team, and typically last about 35 to 40 minutes.

Year Three: Improving Data Chats, Developing Action Plans

As district administrators saw what we were accomplishing, St. Lucie Public Schools moved to create common assessments district-wide. In 2016–17, we began using these assessments in place of our own. However, teachers continued to use questions from our assessments to create quizzes to monitor educational standards. 

Since we no longer had to develop our own common assessments, we were able to spend more time improving the data-chat process. As part of this process, we began regularly using student item analysis reports from our online assessment system to see which standards students were struggling with. Teachers then developed action plans to drive their instruction, which included reteaching specific standards for areas of weakness and administering additional assessments to further guide their instruction. We also followed up with teachers to make sure they completed their action steps.

We continued to support teachers with additional training on topics related to formative assessment and data-driven instruction during professional development days and quarterly planning days. 

Overcoming Barriers

In almost any journey, there are going to be bumps, and this journey was no different. Initially, technology was one of our biggest barriers. In our first year, we had three computer labs available for online testing. To ensure each class had adequate time there, we created a lab schedule, which allowed the instructional coach to easily prioritize who got lab time, when, and for what purpose. As time went on, we put more of our funds toward technology. By the third year, we had eight fully staffed labs. 

Another barrier was time. We decided to include the data chats in our collaborative planning time, since that time was already carved out of our Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Some teams then decided to do their data chats before or after school, but that choice was entirely up to them.

Transparency was another challenge. At first, teachers were reluctant to share their assessment data because they feared they would be judged and that the data would be used against them. To overcome this, we focused on creating collaborative conversations that started with the data. Each time we met, the conversations got easier and became more open. Teachers soon began to see how much they could learn from each other by sharing what was working and what wasn’t. With the online assessment system, it also became much easier to access real-time data so we could have more productive conversations and create more effective action plans.

Achieving Results

Through their work creating quality assessments, our teachers now have a deeper understanding of the standards, and their conversations about instruction are more specific. They feel confident that they can openly discuss their successes and struggles, and they rely on each other to enhance their instructional practices. They see formative assessments as tools that can be utilized to meet students where they are and move them forward. 

As a result of our efforts, our students are making academic gains. We raised our school grade from a C in 2014–15 to a B in 2015–16 and 2016–17.

We are excited about the results we are seeing. Our teachers feel a sense of pride in what we have achieved and want to keep the momentum going. By developing a culture of formative assessment, they see the value in assessment data and the difference it can make in their teaching and their students’ learning.  


Kathleen Manchester is the assistant principal of Southport Middle School in Port St. Lucie, FL, where she previously served as the math coach. Tari Sexton served as assistant principal at Southport Middle School and is now assistant principal at Forest Grove Middle School in Ft. Pierce, FL.


Formative Assessment Do’s and Don’ts

Do:

  • Align the assessment to the state standards.
  • Chunk or divide up material appropriately.
  • Know that an average time to respond to a question is two to three minutes.
  • Have teachers take the assessment before they give it to students.

Don’t:

  • Choose an assessment from a textbook.
  • Take an assessment prior to or in the midst of a unit of instruction when the assessment is meant to measure mastery at the end.

Advocacy Agenda: Career and Tech Ed Increase Rungs on Ladder of Opportunity

Millions of Americans are out of work today and underemployed, yet millions of jobs are unfilled—it’s called the skills gap. This country needs carpenters, plumbers, manufacturers, electricians, programmers, and more. These are well-paying, family-sustaining jobs, but we don’t have enough qualified workers who are able or willing to fill them.

There is a way to close the skills gap, however, and it starts with education. On June 22, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved H.R. 2353, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act. I helped author and introduce this bipartisan bill to increase access to high-quality career and technical education (CTE), opening the door for more Americans to achieve success in today’s workforce. It’s not every day that Republicans and Democrats agree on labor or education issues—in fact, some would call it a rare occasion. However, I am proud to say that lawmakers, educators, and industry leaders have agreed to come together to make our nation more competitive in this cutting-edge, global economy.

As co-chair of the House Career and Technical Education Caucus and senior member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, I have heard from many employers who are currently facing a hiring crisis too serious to ignore. More than 1 million positions remain open in the trade, transportation, and utilities sectors-and 315,000 manufacturing positions are currently unfilled. If we are to embark upon a new era of American manufacturing and improved infrastructure, we must realize the importance of a qualified and well-trained workforce to fill these positions.

Removing Barriers

With 45 million Americans currently living below the poverty line and the average college graduate having $37,000 or more in student loan debt, federal legislation aimed at strengthening and expanding CTE programs is a no-brainer. Not only will this legislation help meet the needs of 21st-century employers, but it will also empower students to make educated decisions about their future and provide them with the tools they need to be competitive in the 21st century.

This bill is crucial to removing barriers to technical education, including the stigma that young people have been subjected to for far too long. Students who feel uninspired in a traditional classroom but thrive in settings where hands-on learning is encouraged have been led to believe that if they do not pursue a four-year degree, they will face challenges in life. This narrative needs to change. We must remove this outdated notion from the national dialogue and recognize that the dynamics of our economy are changing—our workforce must change with them. There is no one-size-fits-all path for students when it comes to education. Obtaining a four-year college degree might not be the right path for everyone, but there are many paths that lead to successful careers.

Reauthorization Bill

With all of this in mind, my colleagues and I took a long look at the existing federal law governing career and technical education, which has not been updated since 2006. We worked in conjunction with dedicated stakeholders to produce a well-engineered reauthorization bill that will help to ensure that the skills and knowledge taught in our high schools and community colleges result in real jobs.

H.R. 2353 will accomplish this by giving states and localities the flexibility to tailor career and technical education to their local economies and the jobs most in demand. To supplement these efforts, the bill authorizes more than $7 billion from FY 2018 through 2023 for U.S. Department of Education (ED) grants to states. In return, states would develop programs of study and submit their plans to ED. These plans would include clear performance goals, such as a summary of workforce development activities, a strategic vision for preparing an educated and skilled workforce that meets the needs of employers, an outline of how the state will support the recruitment and preparation of teachers, and a description of how all the federal funds will be spent.

I was highly encouraged by the broad bipartisan support this legislation received on the House floor and look forward to its consideration in the Senate. As college costs continue to rise and many young people remain at a loss regarding what to do upon graduation, CTE programs can and will serve as a viable path forward. Every student wants to be successful; we must arm them with the tools and knowledge necessary to achieve this success.

We must seize the opportunity to improve not only the lives of students, but also American workers and employers, by making CTE programs a priority. This bill is only the beginning.  


U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson represents Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional District in the House of Representatives. He is a senior member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and the author of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act. He is also co-chair of the House CTE Caucus. 

Globalizing Schools in America: Strategies for Principals

Twenty-first century education is about connections, collaboration, and problem-solving. As we prepare students for their potential beyond the classroom, schools must approach the future within a global context. Whether inside or outside U.S. borders, our students will need to communicate with and understand people of other cultures throughout their education, careers, and travels. We are indeed preparing students to be college, career, and world ready. 

Students in our schools are people of different cultures, experiences, and perspectives. At least 350 languages are spoken in the United States alone. In the “melting pot,” American schools and communities are faced with the challenges—and the opportunities—of multiculturalism. The United States trades with more than 75 countries across the globe, and American commerce and financial stability are closely linked to our relations with other nations. In the future, our students will not only be involved in international trade and business, but also in matters of national security and diplomacy. 

How Education Is Changing

Educational systems around the world are realizing the value in preparing students to have a global perspective. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a measurement that aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. The PISA compares teenagers’ abilities in reading, math, and science. For the first time, this year the survey will also test “global competence.” Now, instead of being assessed only on math puzzles and literacy tests, students will be asked questions on topics such as global warming and racism.

International business leaders have warned that American students may be technically competent, but they are increasingly culturally deprived and linguistically illiterate compared with graduates from other countries. This puts American students at a disadvantage when seeking national or international jobs. We need to prepare our students for global citizenship and the global economy; this includes proficiency in languages other than English and the ability to work with people of other cultures.

The next generations will be part of the solutions to worldwide challenges and, without a doubt, these challenges will need collaborative discussions from different cultures around the world. Engaging our students in rich, relevant, global curriculum will not only be life-changing for them, but it will be crucial in helping students to recognize their personal connection to the world. 

Embracing Multiculturalism 

As we think of all the reasons why we should globalize curriculum in our schools, various questions surface. Questions from our own school and community perspective include: How are we appreciating and celebrating diversity in our schools? How can we best prepare our students for the challenges they will face as they enter the global marketplace? What will they need in order to level the playing field with other job seekers around the world?

Out of respect for families within their community, schools should first strengthen relationships and communication with classmates and their families. Invite new perspectives. Seek additional ways to build relationships by sending communications in multiple languages and hosting cultural events that invite families in to be appreciated, respected, and celebrated. Encourage students to retain—or perhaps even gain proficiency in—their native language and cultural traditions. 

Biliterate Recognition

In other parts of the world, students are learning several languages during their education, beginning at a young age. It’s clear that global jobs will require employees with multilingual capabilities. An employee who is proficient in multiple languages, and in the nuances of various cultures, will undoubtedly be an employer’s choice of hire. 

In more than 30 states so far, students have the opportunity to earn the Seal of Biliteracy, a recognition for students who have studied and attained proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation. This is for all students, regardless of first language. The seal is not only a recognition for biliteracy, but also a great tool to engage families in our school communities, showing appreciation for their contributions to our multicultural society. Additionally, the seal offers support for students who reach proficiency in a language other than English—another reason to begin second-language study early in the elementary years.

The Future in a Global Society

Both urban and rural communities, with or without a broadly diverse population, have the same responsibility to engage their students with the world. And in today’s world, technology is the key. Inviting a global perspective is possible using media to access international webinars, guest speakers, news broadcasts, documentaries, and other classrooms around the world. 

How can we use our class time to prepare students for a global society, along with its benefits and challenges? We must ensure that our school culture and curriculum inspire students to be globally minded and prepared to see challenges from multiple perspectives. All curricula can be globalized; consider these examples.

Globalizing Curriculum

Science. When we are discussing any type of environmental issue, there will always be another perspective. What do the people of Vanuatu or Iceland think of global warming? How has this issue affected their lives? What do these countries believe, and how are they combating this global issue? Or, when discussing scientific research, have students explore where the scientists were from. What was happening at that time in history? What connections can be made with other cultures during that time? 

Social sciences. What do students in other countries learn in school about the world wars? How are those perspectives different from what we are taught in the United States? How has this impacted their current government or the way they perceive other countries?

Health. Research of disease and cures is a global initiative. Nutrition, drugs, and food safety are topics across borders. As curriculum in our schools addresses these topics, why not apply globalized thinking? Which countries’ scientists are looking for a cancer cure? Are prescription drugs abused in other countries? Why are certain pesticides allowed to be used in some countries and not in others?

Food consumption and food/water sustainability are also global issues that will impact generations to come. Why not connect with a school in India to compare their viewpoints on food and water with what U.S. students think?

Math. When analyzing math formulas and the basics of math understanding, discuss the source of this knowledge. Who were the minds behind the theories? Where are they from? Put this in a global context. Or perhaps an algebra class could make a connection with a classroom in China, with students on each side of the world collaborating to come up with solutions. 

Food and nutrition. Discuss what school lunch consists of in the United States versus Germany. Are there different food pyramids? What do they serve for dinner in other countries? How does this compare with family dinner time in America? Which countries around the world are the healthiest? Research and collaborate with a classroom in Greenland to compare data.

Agriculture. How do cultures around the world affect the growth of food sources? Consider collaborating with a classroom in Australia to compare the soil composition in your state with the soil in their region. How sustainable is the soil in different parts of the world?

Physical education. Discuss healthy activity in other countries. What do people in France do to stay physically fit? What is a typical body mass index in their country? Are differences due solely to physical activity, or does diet also factor into the equation?

Global Solutions

Globalizing curriculum does not have to be a cumbersome undertaking. It can be simply a matter of how you look at any topic within the curriculum. Imagine the impact on your school culture and the powerful curriculum options as students witness their multilingual abilities at work, combined with their knowledge of world issues, as they problem-solve across disciplines. Seek out global learning partners or join students around the world with projects such as the NASSP Global Citizenship Initiative (www.makingglobalchange.org). Help your students to think globally and act locally. When we use our curriculum to inspire students to see themselves as a part of the solution to global challenges, that’s powerful stuff.  


SuAnn Schroeder is assistant principal at Medford Area Senior High School in Wisconsin and president of the Wisconsin Association for Language Teachers.


Making It Work

Here’s how to implement globalization at your school:

  • Find ways to celebrate the diversity of cultures and languages within your school. If you don’t have a diverse population, recognize that there are many cultures elsewhere and we are all interconnected.
  • Challenge your staff members to look at their curriculum through a new lens. Global perspectives are everywhere and waiting to be brought into the discussions.
  • Create opportunities and empower students to act as global citizens. Help your students realize that they are all a part of global solutions and that they each impact the world in which we live. 

The NASSP Student Leadership Initiative on Global Citizenship

The NASSP Student Leadership Initiative: Global Citizenship has inspired students from the National Honor Society, National Junior Honor Society, National Elementary Honor Society, and National Student Council to complete more than 450 projects, positively impacting the climate and culture of schools and communities worldwide. In March 2018, NASSP released a report, “Creating Conditions for Success: Supporting Students Making a World of Difference,” which details exemplary student projects, in addition to sharing insights and reflections from the first year of the initiative. The report also features points of engagement for school and community leaders. For more information, visit www.makingglobalchange.org.

Viewpoint: Celebrating Breakfast After the Bell

Breakfast After the Bell is a cornerstone of the school culture at Pepperell High School in Lindale, GA. Students are welcomed by an assortment of breakfast items in a six-foot-tall cart located by the main entrance of the school. The school day begins at 7:50 a.m., and the breakfast cart is available at no cost to all students until 8:30 a.m. This alternative breakfast model ensures that all students have an opportunity to grab a healthy morning meal, so they start their day with the nutrition they need in order to learn.

Students enter the building in a rush to get to first period after socializing with friends in the courtyard. They shuffle into some semblance of a line, pick up a morning meal from the cart, jot down their I.D. numbers, and continue on to their first-period class. “It takes 10 seconds,” says Principal Jamey Alcorn.

In the classroom, students sit and listen attentively as the teacher gives morning announcements. The classroom is quiet—students’ mouths are filled with fruit, cheese, and smoothies. Eating breakfast at school is just another piece of the morning routine; it’s a part of the school culture, and the students expect it.

Offered at No Cost to Students

School principals can be leaders in ensuring their students have the nutrition they need to perform academically. Alcorn puts his students first by supporting his school’s Breakfast After the Bell program, which innovatively helps to remove many of the barriers that students face in accessing school breakfast. Traditional school breakfast—which occurs before the start of the day in the cafeteria—doesn’t work well for many students. Busy morning schedules, late bus arrivals, a desire to socialize with friends instead of going to the cafeteria, and the stigma that school breakfast is only for “poor kids” can prevent students from eating breakfast at school.

However, Breakfast After the Bell becomes an inherent part of the school’s morning activities, akin to taking attendance or handing in homework. This integration allows schools to take a holistic approach to meeting the needs of their students, making it convenient and accessible to eat school breakfast and removing any stigma attached to participating. The approach boosts school breakfast participation, which in turn supports academic performance.

Research on School Breakfast Participation

FRAC’s Breakfast for Learning brief (available at frac.org/wp-content/uploads/breakfastforlearning-1.pdf), provides research on school breakfast participation, including its positive impact on cognitive function, attentiveness, and memory recall. In fact, students who eat a nutritious breakfast closer to test-taking time perform better on standardized tests compared to their counterparts who skip breakfast or eat at home. Furthermore, eating school breakfast has been associated with decreases in tardiness, absenteeism, and behavioral issues.

“The kids know it’s there,” Alcorn says. “It relieves any kind of anxiety or concern about being able to grab a piece of fruit and cheese, or a smoothie on Thursdays and Fridays. It takes food off their mind so they can focus on their academics.”

Since implementing “grab and go” breakfast at Pepperell High School, the school’s College and Career Ready Performance Index—which includes many academic performance indicators—achieved the highest mark in the history of the school. “From a data standpoint, we had a great data year in terms of all of our indicators; it would be hard for me to say that the availability of this ‘grab and go’ breakfast did not tie into the successes we’ve had in the classroom,” Alcorn says.

Recent Survey

FRAC, in partnership with NASSP, surveyed 105 secondary school principals who implemented the Breakfast After the Bell program and found that 87 percent of principals were pleased with their breakfast programs and believed other principals should consider launching a similar model. The positive response among secondary school principals moved FRAC and NASSP to release a Breakfast After the Bell toolkit, which assists principals with launching the program in their schools.

Alcorn believes that if he attempted to remove the “grab and go” breakfast in his school, there would be significant pushback from teachers. At first, he was slightly skeptical of the program, but his superintendent and board of education saw the importance of it. After it was implemented, Alcorn quickly saw the importance as well—in addition to the positive impact on his students.

“After a few days of the program being available at our school, I figured out that this is such a win for our school,” he says. “There has been zero loss of instructional time. Our teachers embrace it, they understand it, they welcome it, and it has become a part of our school culture and community—our parents are involved as well. It gives our parents a sense of contentment that there will be food for their children to eat, every single day. How do you not celebrate that?”

For more information on Breakfast After the Bell, visit www.frac.org or contact Alison Maurice at amaurice@frac.org.


Alison Maurice, MSW, is a child nutrition policy analyst at the Food Research & Action Center in Washington, D.C.


Making It Work

There are several ways schools can implement a Breakfast After the Bell model:

  • “Grab and Go”: Students (particularly older ones) can easily grab the components of their breakfast quickly from carts or kiosks in the hallway or the cafeteria line to eat in their classrooms, just as they do at Pepperell High School.
  • Breakfast in the Classroom: Meals can either be delivered to the classroom or served from the cafeteria or carts in the hallway to be eaten in the classroom at the start of the school day.
  • Second-Chance Breakfast: Students are offered a second chance to eat breakfast after homeroom or first period. Many middle and high school students are not hungry first thing in the morning. Serving them breakfast after first period allows them ample time to arrive to class on time or socialize before school, while still providing them with a nutritious start early in the day.

April 2018 Pop Quiz

Scott Barry Kaufman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a thought leader at the upcoming National Principals Conference in July, is one of the foremost scholars on intelligence and creativity. In this month’s questionnaire, we asked Kaufman about how his views on creativity and intelligence can improve schools; STEM education; The Future Project; and his favorite movie.

How would you redefine intelligence?

I like to think of intelligence as the dynamic interplay of engagement and ability in the pursuit of personal goals. The more we engage in something personally meaningful to us, the more our ability grows, and the more our ability grows, the more we desire to engage in the activity. For too long, theories and measurement of intelligence have left out the whole child.

How can principals utilize the redefinition of intelligence to improve their schools?

I really like The Future Project, an educational organization that has set out to inspire a whole new generation of students. They have created a full-time position in the schools [they work with] called a “Dream Director,” whose job it is to unlock the creative possibilities of every student in the school. Drawing on this model, I think principals can conceptualize themselves as dream directors, and attempt to create an educational culture in which students feel as though their personal passions and goals are encouraged, and their unique personality and minds are accepted unconditionally.*

How can principals improve STEM education?

By incorporating STEM into everything, from music to art to history. The scientific method, and an emphasis on testing things for evidence, is a way of thinking about the world that is so crucial today. This can be incorporated into any curriculum.

What was your favorite subject in high school?

Choir and orchestra—I know, those are two subjects! 

What is the best book you’ve read recently and why?

I really liked The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith. It made me realize all the different ways we can get meaning in our lives, from our relationships to our spiritual engagement to the stories we tell about ourselves.

What is your favorite movie and why?

That’s a tough one! Recently, I really liked “Dunkirk.” It showed what humans are capable of—war and aggression, as well as resiliency, grace, and love. It’s all within us. 

What is your motto?

“Mental health is characterized by the ability to love and create.” — Erich Fromm  


*Editor’s note: NASSP is among The Future Project national partners. NASSP’s 2018 National Principals Conference advisory panel includes future-ready thought leaders: Jason Markey, East Leyden High School, IL; Sheila Evans, Edenton-Chowan Public Schools, NC; Dwight Carter, New Albany High School, OH; and Trevor Greene, Highline Public Schools, WA. All are examples of what’s possible through innovative school programs. 

#EdTech: Creating a Maker Culture at Your School

Every school leader has a culture they are working to create or grow. Many times, building this culture relies on the tangible materials or ideas we emphasize, and the particular attributes we want our learners to reflect.

At South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD, we promote a maker culture based on creativity and innovation. We want to provide multiple opportunities to “make.” One sign associated with Stanford University’s d.school resonates with us: “There’s Only Make.” To facilitate this culture, we created a makerspace in our library. 

What Is a Makerspace?

A makerspace is a combination of tools that allow you to make creations in a designated space. Laura Fleming, who many consider the pioneer of the makerspace movement, says, “A school makerspace is a metaphor for a unique learning environment that encourages tinkering, play, and open-ended exploration for all.” For South MS, it is an opportunity to make a dream or passion come to life. 

Makerspace resources range from technology tools to inexpensive materials. We encourage a lot of collaboration in this space, which is our library. A majority of makerspaces have sprouted in a library/media center. To make this jump in a library setting, you need leaders of this space to embrace noise and, at times, messy learning. We still have books in our library, but there are restructured areas to promote making. 

Starting a Makerspace 

Our makerspace began with humble beginnings with easy-to-use STEM/STEAM tools. I remember Makey Makey, an invention kit, was our first purchase. Over the next few months, we added other tools such as snap circuits, littleBits, and 3-D printers. Then, we added coding tools and robots: Osmo, Spheros, and Ozobots. Learners flocked to the library! They tinkered and experimented with these new STEM materials. They also came before school and stayed after school to continue projects, which they still do today.

Eventually, we realized we needed a designated area for our drones. In the Drone Room, we have a collection featuring driving, jumping, and flying drones from five different companies. The goal is to bring learners to this space to enjoy an experience, and now coding drones has never been easier. Every Wednesday morning at 7:00 a.m., I run a Drone Club meeting. During this 45-minute fly or drive time, learners can operate drones for the first time, obtain a license (an idea from one of our student experts), or compete in challenges. 

If money is on your mind, there are maker tools you can purchase at low cost. Actually, the most-used materials in our makerspace-donated cardboard and PVC pipe-cost us nothing. Our learners love to create prototypes with cardboard. We have also discovered that our kids will use whatever is at their disposal. Keva Planks are popular, along with K’NEX. As I write this, a group of eighth-grade boys just finished an 8-foot wheel made out of K’NEX. Check out my YouTube channel, Darren Ellwein, to see how they moved the structure to place it in a dark room so LED lights could be visible. The possibilities are endless!

Girls are also migrating to this space. We have been intentional with the addition of sewing machines (also donated) to draw them. In general, though, our numbers for female attendance have increased greatly by just having a prototyping cart that allows them to craft and create. And this is not limited to girls—most of our students use the prototyping cart for project creation. 

Building a Makerspace Into the Curriculum

I know what a percentage of school leaders may be saying: Is this a good use of public funds without a correlation to the curriculum? My response is simply, “Yes!” I believe that any time we empower our kids to be passionate, we all win! Maker tools do align with the content being taught; we just need to take time to see the connections. Since we began developing our makerspace, we have been working to find ways to incorporate these materials into the curriculum. I believe the greatest value of these tools is in our learners seeing the connection between the tool and the curricular objective. 

When do staff find the time? I have utilized in-service time to allow staff time to “play” and find connections to their curriculum. The school leader, library-media specialist, and/or technology integrationist need to work side by side with the content teacher to create the maker fit. Be intentional. If you desire a maker culture, you have to be intentional about creating time. Here are some of the results in various content areas:

  • Math: Parrot jumping drones and the Pythagorean Theorem 
  • Spanish: Spheros and explaining directions on a large town map 
  • English/language arts: LittleBits and expository writing
  • Science: Stop Motion With Lego and journey to the center of the Earth

Making It Mobile

It is also possible to have a makerspace that is not static. There are many schools that have made their maker materials mobile because they do not have the room or space for them. Another reason for a mobile makerspace is time—teachers do not want to move students to the space and lose instructional time. If you have a basic cart, the maker materials will move to the teacher. Almost any maker tool can be transported to a classroom. Our most recent example includes our tear-apart station. Kids love to take apart old computers, speaker systems, or towel dispensers. Our maker kids even harvest parts, such as motors, to use with their creations. To explain the steps of a writing process, our maker cart might feature this equipment and drones that need repair. In English/language arts, students will then work on expository writing, explaining the process or steps to take the items apart and put them back together. 

As a school leader, you need to assess your comfort level with this environment. It is important to find staff to embrace a culture of “make.” I recommend you follow Twitter accounts in the makerspace world, along with #makerspace, #makered, and #stem.  


Darren Ellwein is principal of South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD, and a 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year.

Transforming Traditional Student Career Fairs

Technology has transformed much of how we do the business of school. For example, in the current era of teacher shortages, school districts have been forced to become more innovative in their recruitment strategies, virtual interviews are now a norm, and we are at the initial stages of hosting virtual career fairs for educators. However, there are some areas in which we continue to lag behind. Despite our current move toward technology in many aspects of our students’ school day, we continue to limit ourselves to the “tried and true” in areas such as student career exploration days.

For years, elementary, middle, and high schools have held traditional career fairs, most often hosting local community helpers to share their jobs with students. Creedmoor Elementary School of the Arts in the rural district of Granville County Schools, NC, used a “science fair” approach with local presenters (e.g., hairdressers, police officers, and firefighters) positioned at tables throughout the cafeteria, and students visited each table with guidance counselor-prepared questions for 10-minute segments. As the participants reflected on the experience, they realized few questions had been asked, and students did not take away any new learning.

Taking a Risk

This year, the school decided to take a risk, giving itself permission to fail forward on behalf of its students’ needs. As leader of an art-based A+ School that is also a state-designated low-performing school, Principal Nancy Russell decided to better align the career fair with her school’s arts vision. She also determined it was time to expose students to careers beyond their rural boundaries, opening their eyes to opportunities that may not have existed when she was a student and that teachers may not have recognized as possibilities for their students. She realized that this presented an ideal opportunity to utilize technology with her students in a new and innovative way. With the support of their guidance counselor and school transformation coach, Russell took a leap of faith.

After intentionally recruiting individuals with diverse career paths—with an additional focus on cultural diversity in order to assure that presenters were representative of the demographics of the student body—the school presented students with biographies of the career presenters. After reading through them, students then self-selected their career interests via a Google Forms survey, developed targeted questions for their sessions, and were scheduled to attend five 25-minute presentations. Letters were sent to presenters with an agenda and topics they should plan to cover, as well as logistical details. 

Implementing the Vision 

The fair began with virtual interactions. In one classroom, a production manager for King Games presented from his innovative office space in Stockholm. Students enraptured with Candy Crush learned about the game-creation process, the world of competitive game-making, the art and creativity involved in game development, the very real possibilities of working abroad, and the skills they are currently acquiring in school that will support them in the field. The students were thrilled to learn that you can create your own work hours in some jobs. They were also fascinated to learn about the benefits and features of King Games’ unique work environment, which offers alternative office spaces, breakfast, video-game rooms, and nap rooms. 

Simultaneously, a theater teacher in the Chicago area, who is also a former professional dancer and children’s book author, shared her love of the arts and answered questions about writing and publishing. She also talked about the multiple genres of dance and career options in the field, and shared ways students could turn their passions into actual careers. Again, she emphasized the application of the skills and behaviors students are currently learning and how they specifically relate to the arts.

Next door, a member of the women’s World Cup rugby team connected with students from her training center in California. A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, she was able to explain college athletic scholarships and address the values of commitment and drive in both academics and life.

Finding Their True Passion

Across the hall, a music producer in Los Angeles discussed his studio work with Patti LaBelle, T-Pain, and other artists; his international tour with Anthony Hamilton; and his personal obsession with music. A former middle school music teacher and current church musician, he spoke of the path that he selected to get him to his current career, including his educational experience at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He encouraged students to remain true to their passions while they intentionally plan the pathway to get themselves there.

An entrepreneur appeared from Houston, discussing her transition from education to business. When students asked her how much money she made, she returned the question and asked them to calculate her earnings, explaining she charges $175 per hour and has a current client on board for 20 hours. She spoke of her work with multiple clients and posed the question of her earnings should she serve five clients for 20 hours each, demonstrating the financial potential of owning your own business. Students eagerly did the calculations and started declaring themselves future entrepreneurs immediately and brainstorming their options. 

On-site presenters began in the afternoon, and many were focused on their local rural community and outlined more “traditional”—yet important—career options: a chef, a veterinary technician, and a police officer, among others.

The Under Armour Connection

However, the standout on-site presenter introduced students to a career path they were unaware existed. A team sports territory manager for Under Armour immediately engaged students as he discussed how he turned his lifetime obsession with sports into a career he loves, working for a company whose mission he fully supports. Part of his presentation included a demonstration of Under Armour’s storm technology gear. He clothed a volunteer in the sweatshirt and proceeded to pour a cup of water over the student’s head while the class watched in awe as the water beaded off. As he did so, he emphasized the value in showing over telling and his company’s focus on the “why” of their work, which aligned perfectly with the school’s writing curriculum. 

While students asked questions about the products and his work, he was able to share his adolescent fascination with designing and drawing team uniforms, leading them to discussions of additional career opportunities within his company. He shared the extensive hours he puts into his job, his work ethic, as well as the challenges he has encountered along the way. As he talked, the classroom teacher vigorously tried to capture all that he was saying in order to remind the kids of his words in later weeks. After the event, she confided her initial lack of enthusiasm for the event, given the time of year and previous disappointing career fair experiences. She teared up saying that she had goosebumps listening to the day’s speakers and ended the day unexpectedly re-energized.

At the conclusion of the fair, Russell held a reception for on-site presenters. As students were dismissed and headed to their buses and parents, they initiated conversations with each other about the possibility of living in another country, making music, designing video games for a living, writing books, and building their own businesses. Mid-conversation, a group of fourth- and fifth-grade students rushed the Under Armour speaker, asking for his autograph. As one young man headed out the door, he shouted at the same presenter, “I’m going to work harder from now on!” At that moment, the potential power and influence of just 25 minutes of a student’s time was felt by everyone. 

“This experience proved beneficial and extremely informative for youngsters who were exposed,” says Granville County Schools Superintendent Alisa McLean of the pilot career fair. “It is my hope that this work will continue, as it affords a clever way to merge technology and exposure to some really neat individuals.” 

Although this transition to a nontraditional fair was initially overwhelming for staff to consider, their well-planned, blended approach of on-site and virtual presenters allowed them to ease into the new model, making it a huge success students will remember well into their college years.  


Laurie Carr serves as a school/district leadership coach for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s division of Educator Support Services.


Making It Work

Follow these tips for revamping a career fair at your school:

  • Align your career day with your school’s mission, vision, and demographics. For example, if you are a STEAM school, plan to have representatives from a variety of STEAM professions and ensure that your presenters reflect your student body.
  • Engage your community in identifying presenters. Everyone has connections, and with this model, they no longer have to be local.
  • Provide your students options and prepare them. Present bios to students in advance, survey their top choices for scheduling, and provide them time to prepare thoughtful questions in advance.
  • Take it slowly. Assess where you are in order to determine whether to take a blended approach or move to an entirely virtual experience.

Full STEM Ahead

Scott Nielsen was a new middle school principal when STEM was becoming one of the most common acronyms in education. At that time, policymakers were heatedly talking about a gaping hole in schools—the lack of strong programming in critical fields and a matching lack of enthusiasm by all but the most committed students.

“Our administrative team felt we needed something, so we developed some individual tech-based programs—things like robotics and rocketry,” says Nielsen, assistant superintendent of secondary schools in the Poudre School District in Ft. Collins, CO. “That’s how I think a lot of us thought of it then. But I’ve made a transition to seeing it differently; I think we all have.”

Nielsen has gained a reputation for creating innovative STEM programs, and now he wants STEM programs to take the next step. It’s not about equipment or applications, he says, but a fundamental issue with the approach.

“I used to think the key to STEM was having students solve problems. But what we found is that students benefit when we allow them to solve problems that they have found,” he says. “We let them make their world a better place.”

Eric Brinkmann, principal at J.R. Gerritts Middle School in Kimberly, WI, says he believes the school’s focus on STEM requires that it “helps students become better problem-solvers through continuous-improvement thinking.”

While they describe it in different ways, Nielson, Brinkman, and a lot of others with an interest in the now-burgeoning and highly promoted STEM education field believe that STEM programs have to take the next step beyond just student exposure to STEM curriculum. “The learning can’t be in isolation anymore,” Nielson says. “We have to have kids discover their own solutions to real-world projects and let them make a contribution.”

Where STEM Is Headed

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education made recommendations about the future of STEM-based work (see sidebar below). Many of these guidelines are now showing up in STEM programs across the country, but one key concept highlights the idea of working with people in STEM industries to design programs, develop curricula, train staff, provide opportunities for students to try hands-on projects at their school or through internships or visits to the workplace, and even offer instructors.

“We have to move beyond exposure programs and toward engagement,” says David Neils, a former Hewlett-Packard software developer who founded Mentored Pathways, a program that has worked with schools to connect 47,000 students with professional mentors since 1995 so they can experience hands-on projects and develop a sophisticated portfolio and career plan. 

Neils is proud of the widely varied opportunities students have been able to experience, but finds the real-world results most gratifying. He outlines a detailed 10-page career plan that a high-school girl sent to her environmental engineering mentor, as well as an exhaustive explanation a team of students presented for a product that would allow farmers to more easily and safely measure the amount of grain in their storage bins.

“Schools need to work with professionals,” Neils says. “They need to use the knowledge of the people in the field to develop these programs and keep them current, and recognize that students gain so much more when they do authentic work on projects that are meaningful and when they join people doing the real work.”

Nielsen says that often companies in the STEM fields don’t have the capacity to fully meet the needs of a school system for mentors or internships. But sometimes schools can use professionals as teachers or to give presentations, and can have staff get extra training through industry groups or with local people in the field.

Beyond that, experts say, it is critical to give students real-life problems to solve. “The best programs out there engage both the minds and hands of students,” says Eric Klopfer, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Scheller Teacher Education Program in Cambridge, MA.

MIT has an extensive K–12 outreach program that provides material for students and resources for teachers. Klopfer’s program specifically provides a variety of “research-driven games, tools, and curricula.”

Getting Started

Principals hoping to develop a new STEM program or to recharge an existing one should consider what exactly they want to do for students—don’t settle on a particular curriculum first, Klopfer advises. “When looking for STEM programs, start with the goals. This may sound obvious, but in many cases the goals are retrofitted to the technology,” he says. 

Along with providing the subject matter, give careful consideration to the platforms on which it is presented. “Think about ways that the technology can really change both what and how students are learning,” Klopfer says. This may mean seeking out subject-specific technologies that tightly link the subject and the technology. “These often require more professional development to implement successfully, but can provide some of the biggest changes,” he says.

Staffing the program is also key, and Nielsen says it is important to find the right people who can work with others—and can model collaboration for their students, a skill that both colleges and employers value. They must also keep current with changes in the field.

A Broader Reach

The Elizabeth Forward School District in Elizabeth, PA, has won several top awards for its sophisticated tech programs. Assistant superintendent Todd Keruskin says his schools are focusing on makerspace programs, where students get an opportunity to work on real projects, including one in which they are designing products and producing them on 3-D printers. Elementary students, he notes, are using 3-D printers to design and make their own fidget spinners.

Keruskin specifically promotes computational thinking and coding, and believes that while only some students may learn sophisticated computer science concepts, it is important for all students to be savvy about computers and meet certain basic requirements about understanding how they operate. Graduating students must pass a Python assessment about programming.

“We cannot even fathom the ways computers will touch our lives in the future,” Keruskin says. “My kindergartners are going to graduate in about 2030, and if we don’t think the world is going to be different—and plan for it in education—we are doing all our kids a disservice. It is more than just talking about STEM.”

Other schools offer what’s sometimes referred to as “schoolwide STEM,” asking teachers and students to discuss STEM fields in their lessons, but also finding ways that students can explore the technology firsthand in greater detail in each class.

Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Centeron Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C., says she believes that schools should perhaps spend more time on such efforts rather than developing elaborate, specific curricula, which she says tend to “track” students. While she does not believe in following the “college for all” mantra, she thinks there should be equal opportunity for all students—particularly young ones—to explore STEM fields thoroughly and have equal opportunity to follow their chosen path. “We appreciate the need for training our next generation of scientists and programmers, but we’re also concerned about a leaky pipeline where students get this exposure to these fields but leave them before college—while some students never have an opportunity for that exposure,” Smith says.

There are several programs that help schools “code across the curriculum.” Some experts recommend that learning coding should be required in all schools.

Examples of Innovative STEM Programs

Schools across the country are coming up with new and different approaches to STEM education, from sophisticated specialized high school programs where students learn and use cutting-edge augmented reality programs to introductory robotics instruction in a middle school.

  • At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA, students in the prototyping and engineering materials lab (one of the school’s 14 sophisticated research labs) use computer-aided design equipment to fashion a product or prototype. Then, they manufacture it with industry-standard equipment. Classmates in a neuroscience lab consider solutions to complex mental health issues behind behavioral problems, along with the science of opioid receptors. The school also provides a JUMP lab where underclassmen can undertake independent work, often in an extra “eighth period” the school just developed. 
  • At Timberland High School in Wentzville, MO, students connected with mentors in engineering and with local farmers to develop a simpler, safer, and more accurate way for farmers to check the level of product in their grain bins. The prototype they developed was roundly applauded by engineers and farmers who studied it.
  • Schools across the country are taking advantage of MIT’s support of Terrascope Youth Radio, which allows young people to learn communications engineering and also report on critical issues related to science. “It’s radio about scientists trying to figure out how nature works, and also about ordinary people who care about the world around them. It’s radio about us-and radio about you,” one student wrote for a promotional blurb about the program.
  • The Radix Endeavor, supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and MIT, is an online multiplayer game designed to augment math and biology instruction in a “virtual Earth-like world in which students can simulate how a particular species might adapt to environmental changes.” A full set of teacher resources and companion curriculum materials are available.
  • STEM students in western Washington studying aerospace got the chance to chat with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station recently. As part of an extensive effort by NASA to work with schools, NASA offers a host of STEM programs for students and schools.
  • Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, MA, claims to be the first to implement a “coded curriculum” that supplements traditional teaching practices with coding and new technology. Teachers are finding ways to apply coding in courses where it is a traditional fit, but also in the humanities and arts. 
  • IOWA Big—a public high school in Cedar Rapids, IA, that serves as a partnership among three school districts—uses a unique competency model to assess its students, which school officials say “emphasizes passion projects and community rather than a packaged curriculum.” Its students have helped a $300-million company more efficiently handle its process of handpicking inventory, assessed trauma issues in the region (and presented ways to reduce them), and helped document and map historic property and objects in the area and record them with the National Register of Historic Places. Students are also helping to design and build a nature center.
  • High Tech High was developed by a coalition of San Diego civic leaders and educators 18 years ago with 450 students, but it has grown to serve 5,300 students in all grades at 13 facilities. The school offers adult education and teacher credentialing for STEM instruction. Student projects have included one that looks at the anatomy of small animals while considering the ethical questions about using them in experiments: one that is helping protect ornamental fish, and one that’s helping to develop farming space and water reclamation systems in urban areas.
  • The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem in New York heavily promotes its STEM education and has had an excellent history of getting girls from low-​income families into college and STEM fields. 
  • The public John Ball Park Zoo School accepts 60 sixth graders in the Grand Rapids, MI, region for an intensive yearlong program at the John Ball Zoological Garden studying forestry, astronomy, zoology, chemistry, and physics. 
  • P-TECH in New York was launched in 2011 by IBM in cooperation with the city and New York schools to offer a six-year degree in STEM fields. The mostly low-income students who attend receive an associate degree from nearby New York City College of Technology, and many go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree or step right into high-paying jobs. 
  • Students in Rock Hill, SC, schools are using the electronic Science Textbook from Discovery Education, which they can access on any device. It includes deep background about a variety of scientific issues and more than 2,000 hands-on labs and activities, many at challenging levels for students hoping to pursue science careers.
  • AWE is an application allowing high school students to create their own mixed-reality experiences with a simple drag-and-drop interface and no code using a computer, smartphone, or tablet. They can customize the material with their own coding or even develop their own AWE platform.
  • In the Peoria Unified School District in Glendale, AZ, the award-winning career and technology education program is offering an ROTC program in which students create rockets and use drones, a law enforcement program using sophisticated science theory in the study of crime scenes, an engineering program in which students build structures out of recycled material, and a fire-science program with a heavy dose of science.  

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.


Defining Parameters

In a report last year, the U.S. Department of Education used input from people in the field to make recommendations about the future of STEM based on the best work being done in education now. It called for:

  • Engaged and networked communities of practice. Recommending the use of outside resources, the report noted that such collaborative networks “foster the skills and growth mindsets among all students that lead to lifelong learning and opportunities for postsecondary and career success, while expanding access to rigorous STEM courses.”
  • Accessible activities that invite intentional play and risk. At all levels, it suggested that such activities “lower barriers to entry and encourage creative expression of ideas, while still engaging diverse students in complex and difficult content.” The report says they should increase a desire to design and be creative, and work together and think in new ways. “The students see that STEM is everywhere, that they have something to contribute to the field, and they learn to take a team-based approach to tackling real-world problems and challenges.”
  • Experiences that include interdisciplinary approaches.The report recommends programming that discovers and solves problems in the way Nielsen describes. “Tasking children and youth with a ‘grand challenge’ helps them understand the relevance of STEM to their lives,” the report says, “while they address issues important to their communities.”
  • Flexible and inclusive learning spaces. Schools should increasingly allow for flexibility in their materials and spaces. They could be located in the classroom, in the natural world, in makerspaces, and by using virtual and technology-based platforms or real work environments. “Flexible learning spaces are adaptable to the learning activity and invite creativity, collaboration, co-discovery, and experimentation in accessible and unintimidating instructor-guided environments,” the report says.
  • Innovative and accessible measures of learning. The report seeks “fewer, smarter, and better tests” that don’t take up too much classroom time and accurately assess learning, including more formative reviews along with portfolio and project result presentations.

Stages of “Studenting”

What is a principal to do if teachers express concern that their students’ struggles in life are bigger than their struggles with their assignments? How often has a teacher wanted to forgive a student’s missing assignments after becoming aware of the student’s challenges at home? John was suffering from serious grief after his father was killed. He could not talk about it. He could not consistently perform schoolwork, but he kept showing up. For a year he disappeared academically, but he gradually recovered from his grief and eventually rejoined us with academic productivity.

During that year of virtual absence, we had no device for measuring his progress. Our teaching team sensed progress, and we had occasional evidence of academic activity. We lacked, however, a systematic way of measuring his progress toward the ultimate goal of earning enough credit for a diploma. The only tool available to us was the number of credits earned, and for months John was not moving that needle enough for a result.

Working with our counselor and other resources, we found ourselves making comments about “meeting students where they are.” Unfortunately, we had no device—except credit accumulation—for assessing student progress that would allow us to measure incremental growth toward becoming a successful student.

We needed a tool that would allow us to create more precise interventions unique to the student and that were measurable to a standard. Such a device would give us a way to measure growth without drowning a struggling student with expectations beyond reach.

The Meter Stick  

Essentially, Stages of Studenting helps determine an individual student’s level of participation or engagement in the process of education or “doing school.” I devised it for three primary purposes. The first was to create a consistent lexicon for the teaching team to use when assessing how engaged a student is in school. The second purpose was to provide a metric by which to identify a particular student’s level of performance or engagement. The third—and no less important—purpose was to provide a simple structure that allows a student to mark his or her own success. By matching a student’s behavior to a particular stage, the team can better plan an intervention program and appropriate rewards for success.

At each level of engagement, the principal, teachers, and counselors can associate specific behaviors. Because students are human, there will be an inherent imprecision in the measure, but through observation and discussion, a team can make an assessment of what a student’s level of engagement is. The stories we relate below about students will help to reveal, and thus inform, where they can be placed on the Stages of Studenting measuring device.

The Nine Stages of Studenting 

There are nine basic steps in Stages of Studenting that progressively indicate more engagement in the act of being a student.

Stage 0. Not attending school.

Stage 1. Attending school.

Stage 2. Attending classes.

Stage 3. Remaining in classes for the entire period.

Stage 4. Being prepared for learning.

Stage 5. Engaging in class.

Substage 5.1. Listening.

Substage 5.2. Answering questions.

Substage 5.3. Asking questions.

Substage 5.4. Participating in group work.

Stage 6. Producing work.

Substage 6.1. Following the given instructions.

Substage 6.2. Completing classwork.

Substage 6.3. Turning work in.

Substage 6.4. Accepting feedback.

Substage 6.5. Making revisions.

Stage 7. Initiating communication with teachers about progress in classes.

Stage 8. Initiating communication with counselors about graduation and post-high school plans.

Stages of Studenting is not a precise system of assessment. There will be frequent and inconsistent movement from one level to another. It should be noted that Stages of Studenting is not an intervention itself. It is meant to be a way of discussing the struggles that students are having in the context of success at school. Stages of Studenting is a metric that is simply descriptive of “where a student is” in their engagement in learning. With this knowledge, we can better provide needed assistance for the struggling student.

Student Examples

A student, such as Rochelle at Stage 1, is barely making it to school on a regular basis and is usually found in a counselor’s office or in the back of a favorite teacher’s room. When faced with an assignment a teacher expects to be completed, she feels hopeless. To help a student like Rochelle, a teacher can set a goal and a reward for Rochelle to simply attend class or remain in class. Moving up the metric to another level of engagement, Rochelle can register a success in her school life.

Charlie is an active student while in class, but gang associations have interfered with consistent work production. He felt he was a failure at school, which he was by traditional measures. When acknowledged for the successes he was having at Stage 5 (engaging in class), he began to feel like a real student, and eventually, he found the strength to resist some of the gang temptations and become more consistent in his work production (Stage 6).

Another student, Carlos, had to work late nights to help his family with rent. He often slept through class and struggled with being prepared for learning (Stage 4). By working with his struggles “where they were,” Carlos gained perspective on his level of activity and found success in his school life. Obviously, this worked out to be a better solution than disciplinary action for sleeping in class.

Acknowledging Success

Prior to using Stages of Studenting, concerned teachers would come to the principal to report troubles with a student, often expressing frustration and/or a tone of hopelessness. By using the levels of progress in Stages of Studenting, the conversation changed. Teachers began to talk about strategies for acknowledging successes and for moving students through their struggles. Teachers also became more creative, designing incremental steps toward success. The team of principal, teachers, and counselors had more to work with for creating interventions. The focus of interventions shifted to addressing immediate student needs while still working with the ultimate goal of earning credits toward graduation.

Students have all variety of struggles. We see students who are pregnant, students who suffer from the effects of trauma, students with learning challenges, students with family struggles, and students with all sorts of other difficulties. These difficulties uniquely contribute to and interfere with the potential for success.

Our job is to educate. While we have concern for these other issues—and even assist students in finding resources to help address them—our primary focus is on the education of the students. With this focus, we need to have a measuring tool that is flexible enough to identify success while also accommodating the unique struggles of each student in their school performance.

We cannot solely use the crude measure of credit accumulation when working with students who possess such an array of nonschool-related issues. With Stages of Studenting, we can help a student identify where to focus on his or her progress in school, and be honest with students about reasonable expectations. With this metric, educators can more accurately communicate with a student about the expectations in class, in school, and in learning generally.

Stages of Studenting is a brand-new tool that is still in the development phase. Observing my colleagues use this tool in such a wide variety of ways is exhilarating, with the potential still far from being met. In my school, the teachers have the stages displayed prominently in each classroom, and frequently reference them in conversations with students and their parents about success (such as when creating behavior contracts or during parent conferences). Just watching educators become more creative and hopeful has been tremendously rewarding, and I expect more benefits will be realized over time as the device is adjusted and further developed.  


Wade McJacobs is a learning specialist in the Tigard-Tualatin School District in Tigard, OR.

April 2018 Fit to Learn

Fit to Learn: In-School Cycling Instruction for Lacrosse Players—Why Not?

An empty space, enthusiastic cycling instructors, and the willingness of a high school principal all came together to introduce a unique concept to Seton High School in Cincinnati. The students would no longer be required to venture outside the school building to find convenient ways to participate in everyday fitness classes.

The fitness classes would come to the students at the all-girls parochial school, as well as to the community, within a permanent studio space in the school. In August 2016, this unique opportunity was presented to RYDE Cincinnati, the cycling and fitness studio I co-own with Millie Dechat. From our perspective, the opportunity to renovate a vacant space inside Seton High School into a permanent studio was a perfect scenario. 

Not only was the location unique, but the type of cycling bikes we introduced also represented a new concept in fitness. RYDE classes are offered on the RealRyder bikes, which deliver core movement and functional training through leaning and tilting motions. RealRyder cycling classes provide a more effective and efficient total body training experience. In addition, participants can get an incredible cardiovascular and strength workout without ever stressing joints. Thus, the athletes who are constantly “pounding the pavement” or jumping on the court, etc., can achieve a challenging workout without ever touching the ground.

School-Community Partnership 

This was unique—a fitness studio to be permanently located on a high school campus. As studio owners, we saw this as a great opportunity to work with students and athletic teams at the school. The goal is to work in conjunction with the athletic department to offer off-season training to the athletes and even apply for various grants to help support and expand class offerings.

“Seton is proud to be the home of RYDE, and [this] is just one example of how we go beyond the classroom to provide exceptional opportunities for student growth,” says Principal Kathy Ciarla. “We value the importance of healthy living, and giving our students the chance to take classes with RYDE right here at school promotes wellness. In addition, many of our sports teams have taken classes during the off-season to stay in shape and condition for their sport. It is a win-win to have RYDE and their amazing instructors at Seton.”

Renovations for the new cycling and fitness studio began immediately after the project was approved. The buzz and excitement about the new studio quickly spread among the student body and staff. Brand new flooring was installed, and lighting, a stage, and a sound system were added to enhance the class experience. As the studio came together, the students, staff, and community were all eager to see the space and get a chance to be a part of this new experience at Seton High School.

Convenience Counts 

As studio renovations were finished, students, athletes, and coaches expressed curiosity and interest in the RealRyder cycling classes. The student athletes saw the cycling classes as a way to cross-train and maintain their fitness levels during their sports’ off-seasons. Soon, the lacrosse team began training on the bikes one day a week. 

“Some of the girls wanted to get involved in the RYDE program as part of off-season conditioning,” says Seton High School senior and lacrosse player Tricia McHale. McHale says the convenience of having a fitness studio on-site is also beneficial. “It’s a good way to bond with the other lacrosse players as we condition,” she says. Participating in the cycling classes has also offered benefits beyond team bonding. RYDE instructor Kim Kemen incorporates resistance bands and weights into a cycling class to build overall strength, in addition to cardiovascular health. Kemen also includes abdominal exercises to reinforce strength and stability in the core muscles. Injury prevention is a key factor, as every class concludes with full-body stretching. Additionally, RYDE classes can always be modified based on the specific training and fitness goals of the participants.

The uniqueness of RYDE Cincinnati’s studio isn’t limited to its location. RealRyder cycling classes are offered most frequently, but the studio also provides a variety of other group fitness classes such as yoga, women and weights, personal training, and boot camp as well. Additionally, RYDE classes are open to everyone in the community, not just Seton students or athletes.

Operating the RYDE Cincinnati studio within Seton High School has been a positive experience for the business. Seton staff and students have been welcoming and supportive from the beginning. Any time the studio door is open, curious people wander in to see the space and inquire about RYDE classes. The relationship has been beneficial for both parties, as a portion of the proceeds go back to support the girls via the Seton Athletic Club, and RYDE Cincinnati has a new studio with a great deal of potential to grow among the campus population. 

Consider how you can leverage a similar strategy in your school. Find an unused room and pair it with a business that’s seeking opportunity “outside the box.” You never know what will develop.  


Rachael Dotson is co-owner of RYDE Cincinnati in Ohio.